Food

Get stuffed

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Pesche ripiene al forno

If there were a time in the culinary calendar when one could stop the clock, now would be a strong contender. For just a few British weeks, there is an abundance of ripe everything – the (imported) melons are still just about holding on, local tomatoes are – briefly – sweet and soft enough to be worth bothering with – and the soft fruit is still plentiful. Strawberries have gone of course; well, no they haven’t, but I’m all for seasonal eating, and strawberries out of season are usually only outdone for blandness by tomatoes…

But perhaps the highlight is the peaches; imported again, of course, but picked at a point when by the time they reach my kitchen, they are perfect. But they go over quickly, and this well-known Piedmontese recipe is a stunning way of rescuing them…

Ingredients:

  • Ripe (or even over-ripe) peaches, one and a half per person, plus a couple extra.
  • Handful of crumbled Amaretti biscuits.
  • Slug of Amaretto liqueur to taste
  • Sprinkle of caster sugar
  • Mascarpone to serve.

Method:

Cut the peaches in half; remove the stone and scoop out most of the flesh, leaving some to maintain the shape. Position the half-peaches open-side up in an shallow oven proof dish.

Remove the flesh from the extra peaches and add to the same. In a bowl or on a board, chop the peach flesh until fairly homogenous, but not just pulp.

Place the peach flesh in a mixing bowl. Crumble the Amaretti biscuits to taste into the chopped peach flesh and add a slug of Amaretto liqueur to taste. Mix briefly, until the biscuits soften just a little.

Fill the scooped-out peaches with the flesh until piled. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar and bake on a fairly high heat (200C) until browned on the top (perhaps 20-30 minutes).

Serve with a dollop of mascarpone.

I have seen a version with grated chocolate added to the mix; not needed in my opinion.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A very British revolution.

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Image: wintonsworld.com

Britain is one of the very few European countries that have not experienced a revolution or other significant national trauma in the recent past – by which I mean the past couple of centuries. France, Spain, Russia and more have all come to a point where the old regime was sufficiently unpopular to endure; radical action was the way forward. Of those who did not experience this, the majority were forced into a fundamental rethink of their raisons d’être by virtue of World War Two. Only in Britain, despite the difficult conditions, was continuity the theme.

Further back in time there was the English Revolution of the second half of the 17th Century – but it was such an uncertain affair that historians cannot even agree on which event is best labelled as such. While it did bring an end to absolute monarchy, the fact that the Restoration took place shortly afterwards might cause one to doubt whether it really constituted a significant new start.

In the meantime, British national identity has come to be defined by two surprisingly short interludes, the first deriving from its economic prowess between around 1850 and the early Twentieth Century, and then the country’s military-political role in the Second World War, neither of which were as unequivocal or unilateral as the national story would have us believe, and certainly neither embedded in popular democracy.  Combined with its insular outlook, it has arguably given this country a self-perception based on past glories which has seen no need to adapt to the immense changes in the world in the meantime.

Events like the Suez Crisis in 1956 perhaps dented the nation’s sense of pre-eminence – but did not destroy it. Deindustrialisation in the 1970s caused the last vestiges of economic dominance to fall away, and is perhaps the source of the country’s schizophrenic superiority-inferiority complex that we see today.

But adapt it could not. As U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said in 1971, “Britain lost an empire and has not yet found a role”. It is still true today – but as it became increasingly impossible to ignore this fact the country simply retreated further and further into the nostalgia that is the root cause of the Brexit decision. Despite having the outward appearance of a modern democracy, this country is still largely run by a small elite, in some cases the descendants of the aristocracy, but supplemented with those who have gained power through money. The old social calendar is still there, albeit largely unseen, for those with the money and connections to access it. Even being charitable, they can have little sense what life is now like for the ordinary people of the country.

The European Union represents a huge threat to these people’s hegemony – for a start it emanates from countries that have known real trauma in a way the British have not – and who have had to rethink their societies from the ground up. Post-war idealism set in place in many of those countries institutions that while by no means perfect, are based on a fundamental assumption of Equality. The E.U. is the greatest expression of that; anyone studying its workings or watching it at first hand (as I have) can be left in no doubt about that, even if the reality is not above criticism.

Such ideas threaten (or are perceived to threaten) the old order that still holds the reins of power in Britain. Principles such as Proportional Representation and consensual politics in general threaten the long-standing hegemony of the British Right, and are therefore to be panned. The E.U. was resisted at every turn when it tried to speak directly to the British People, and its implementation of policy that was not directly beneficial to the British Establishment was rejected or diluted in the form of opt-outs.

It would not be accurate, I suspect, to suggest that everything the British did to resist the E.U. was done for nefarious reasons; some of it is probably the entirely genuine response of an established patriarchy to perceived threats to its existence. But the British Establishment has a view of the world that has changed even less than that of the rest of the nation; it simply cannot get its head round the fact that Britain is no longer the pole around which the world revolves, and it simply does not ‘get’ the fact that the E.U., for all its imperfections, is a body intended to benefit ordinary peoples.

Widely- benign legislation such as workers’ rights, an insistence on democratic institutions in its member-states, and environmental and consumer protection have traditionally been far stronger than the British domestic equivalent. Likewise regional aid, which has to date done far more for Britain’s deprived further regions that Westminster ever has.  Unlike the militaristic British it’s role in the wider world has been conciliatory (though admittedly not always effective). But they threaten the established order; why else would this country ‘need’ so many opt-outs from legislation that for the most part suits 27 similar nations well enough?  Just what is so special about this country – except the privilege retained by and for those who run it?

Recent events, of which Brexit is merely the peak – have finally pushed British delusion to the point that it can no longer be ignored. The failure of neo-liberal economic policies to distribute wealth to more than a small minority, while simultaneously eroding both social infrastructure and welfare support for the rest, the failure to restrain the vested interests that now hamstring this country, and scandals such as M.P.’s expenses have finally shown the British that their domestic system is no less rotten than some of those to which they considered themselves superior by birthright.

But the hegemony of the British establishment is as strong as it is concealed. A sense of powerlessness and apathy exists amongst the ordinary people of this country; it is the inheritance of a nation whose ordinary citizens are in fact not citizens at all, but subjects of the monarch – a monarch in whose name many national institutions still technically operate, and who on theory can still have the last word on the laws of the land. Cow-towing to authority (and raging about it privately later) is the national instinct.

Despite the fine words, there is a tacit but distinct lack of the determination to build and defend a just society such as I have seen in those countries that have known still (just) within living memory what it is to lose it. Most people just shrug; I won’t decry the unwillingness to take the barricades – I don’t know if I would have the courage either.

Such is the ‘respectable’ plausibility of the Establishment that they have succeeded in deflecting the anger of many, towards the E.U. itself. Those people are gullible enough to believe the age-old platitudes about British greatness, dished out by those who have most interest in perpetuating the national myth. I fear that even many who march in favour of the E.U. don’t really know much about it – it’s just where they go on holiday. Where were they over the past decades when those of us who advocated pro-Europeanism met universal indifference – that is when we weren’t being shouted down?

But at least we are beginning to see the real state of things. The rottenness of the British political system is now in plain view – from a Prime Minister who claims to execute the will of the people while wantonly ignoring the wishes of at least half of them (that is not how true democracies work) – to the brazen use of public money to cling to office when the normal route fails.  And now a blatant power-grab as laws are repatriated. People are decrying the loss of democracy – but didn’t they notice, we never really had it? A patriarchal, elective dictatorship (hidden behind that veneer of upper class respectability) was the perceptive phrase.

One of the weaknesses of European Integration is the fact that it still relies on stereotypes between neighbours who are still getting to know one another; the British have hidden behind that veneer of decency that our diplomats exude, concealing the rot going on behind it; the continentals were taken in. Now, their delusions have been well and truly shattered; we no longer have any more credibility than those nations on whom we traditionally look down. It is clear to all from the table-thumping that the British political class – let alone the rest – just don’t ‘get’ the fact that running a continent has to be built on negotiation, consensus and the sharing of risk; why would they? They don’t even run their own country that way.

I don’t expect to see blood on the streets if Britain any time soon – and I won’t suggest that that is a bad thing. But what else is it going to take before the order changes in this country? I suspect that many Britons still don’t realise how potentially serious this schism is – after all, national disasters only happen overseas.

My hope is that the continuing impossibility of the task ahead will eventually turn floating public opinion. Much national credibility will have been lost, and the damage to the social fabric of the country will take a generation to heal. But if that can happen, then we may look back on this period as the time when Britain did finally find a new role for itself. Maybe this trauma is precisely what is needed – a form of velvet revolution – for ordinary Britons finally to notice and understand the importance of the project that has been developing on their doorsteps – and choose to take an active role in it after all.

Opinion & Thought

Perfect?

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Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

William Morris

Matters of opinion are difficult; what can feel like a self-evident truth to one person is nothing more than unsupportable bias to another, and none more so in matters of culture and taste. It doesn’t matter: in one sense we are all alone in this world. No one but us can experience what we experience and so insofar as that is true, it doesn’t unduly matter whether others agree. This blog takes as its premise the belief that an innocent appreciation of the qualities and details of things and experiences can enrich our daily lives, a form of creative mindfulness, the opposite of taking life for granted.

But that in itself is nothing more than an opinion, albeit one borne out by repeated personal experience, not only mine. Day-to-day life would suggest, however, that it is a minority view with anything that makes life instant, easy and undemanding generally commanding far more popularity (and profit). You can live life deeply, or in the shallows; if we accept for a moment the possibility that you get out of life what you put into it, then that raises quite fundamental questions about the world-views and the value attached to life by many of our fellow humans. Too busy to see the wood for the trees?

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researched this issue in depth, through tens of thousands of individual studies across cultural boundaries. He found that people reported their greatest life-satisfaction when having to strive, but not so much that they failed. The complete absorption that people experience under those conditions, he named Flow. I am greatly persuaded by this concept: my secular view is that in the (probable) absence of an afterlife, the best thing we can do with our time is to live to the full and help others to do the same. That is entirely independent of any personal preferences that are implied: the only arbiter need be oneself.

This might sound like the ultimate self-indulgence, but it is not necessarily so: I don’t mean just being hedonistic. True, one can become grossly narcissistic in one’s indulgence, but equally one can simply enjoy for what it is, an uncomplicated appreciation of the more pleasurable aspects of life. Even where status and perceived luxury muddy the waters, this can still cut through. The supposedly finer things can be consumed for the status they are perceived to confer (label on the outside) – but they can equally be appreciated simply for what they are (label on the inside).

Oliver James and others have reported higher life-satisfaction amongst those of the world’s (economically) poorest people who (provided they did not lack the basics) were able to meet their expectations and enjoy simple pleasures, than amongst the ultra-rich whose motive was often competitive ostentation. Things that are done for show or to impress are far less likely to achieve Flow than things done for their intrinsic personal reward, even when the results superficially look the same. There is a lesson for us all in there.

Satisfaction is not only found from big achievements; the appreciation of the niceties of anything can contribute at least as much to the sense of a life well lived: even learning to appreciate the quality of sunlight falling on woollen rug or wooden floor. The concept of mastery is very important to one’s sense of self-efficacy and fulfilment, but it is more about one’s powers of observation as the size of one’s wallet. That is why the notion of sprezzatura is attractive: understood non-judgmentally it implies a refined knowledge of a subject in a way that glories in the detail, without taking itself too seriously. I would also argue that those who revel in the fulfilment of the Mind but neglect their physical worlds miss out on as much as those who do the opposite.

But aiming at perfection brings a problem, and I don’t mean the likelihood that it is unachievable: kept in proportion, precisely therein lies the challenge. More problematic is defining it in the first place. I’m not sure what society at large makes of the matter; common wisdom seems to have decided that it is better to lower your expectations and not to aim at the seemingly-unattainable (except with your credit card), but that very word can only be defined by having tried and failed. I think the secret lies in accepting that one will never entirely succeed before one starts, but still being prepared to value what one can achieve for itself.

Perfection implies the acceptance of a gold-standard, and gold appears to be out of fashion. Fusion food, for instance, relies on blending – some might say bastardising – traditional recipes. One may read this as the worst thing to do if one is aiming for perfection; another may argue that it is the way new forms of perfection are created. The same can be applied to pretty much any creative endeavour, at any level of competence. Who is right?

Personally, I take a gentle pleasure from attempting to appreciate the niceties; a fortunate side-effect of my new, non-employed status is the time to do this, and I am happily making up for lost time. Sometimes that means mastering established forms, though I am not so conservative as to reject everything new. But if there is no accepted standard, there is no way of even attempting to agree on how good something really is, new or old alike.

Many of the benchmarks of perfection are arguably little more than the preferences of those who claimed to know enough to lay down the law. Or is there more to it than that? The only way to know something to try it.

There is pleasure in learning to appreciate the finer points of things – most things – even accepting that judgements are, ultimately, arbitrary. This is why some people embark on personal quests to ‘perfect’ their musical, sporting, linguistic or practical abilities. Part of that is learning the time-honoured practices that have been found to contribute to excellent results; arbitrary perhaps, but validated by longevity and consensus. Even if one then chooses to break the rules, one really needs to know what they were to begin with, otherwise one is simply left with ignorance.

Even when one falls short it permits an appreciation of the expertise of others, that one simply cannot attain if one has never bothered to try.

Floor

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

The White-Knicker argument

 

 

Meet ‘The Trafalgar’ and ‘The Mayfair’. Together with their nostalgically-named counterparts they make up an arcadian-sounding housing development on the outskirts of a large town in eastern England. They are not cheap: even a two-bedroom semi in the Trafalgar costs in excess of ¼ million pounds. And for that money, you get a master bedroom a mere three metres square or so.

Stanway

The picture above was taken this morning of the development under construction. This unmitigated monstrosity is currently being thrown up at a rate of knots – and my reaction to seeing it made me want to do something similar. What was admittedly fairly indifferent open land until a few months ago is rapidly being buried under bricks and asphalt, presumably to stay that way for a century or two – that is assuming these meretricious little hovels last that long. And it’s not only a few houses: in total there are, I should think, several square kilometres of the stuff. The mediocrity is only matched by the romanticised hyperbole with which the development is being promoted. I would suggest this verges on misrepresentation.

I know people need somewhere to live (but would you really trust the building industry to tell you how many new houses are needed?) and I know that not everyone can afford something glamorous – but this is a disgrace. Mass housing is not easy to get right, on account of its sheer volume – but is this really the best we can do?

The white-knicker argument was supposedly used by Marks & Spencer to justify only selling white underwear – because that was all their customers ever bought… The fact that people buy these things is not the reflection of positive choice that the developers would have us believe – while this is all that is provided in people’s price ranges. The U.K. has a record of building shoddy, architecturally catastrophic mass housing, but there have been enough instances of poor construction and soulless non-communities being created that you would have hoped we would have learned by now.

Wellbeing comes in many forms, but the homes we live in have to rate as one of the most significant. Actions speak louder than words, and it is not stretching the point too far to read some very antisocial attitudes into the people who allow these things to be built – namely the opinion that any old rubbish is good enough for ‘ordinary people’.

What is more, having been staggered recently at the complexity of the British planning process, and the near-paralysis it can induce, the fact that these slums of the future are still being built suggests that it is not fit for purpose. When the debates only centre on quantities and locations and virtually neglect the essential qualities that make or break new houses, what on earth is it actually achieving? The answer seems to be the utter bastardisation of this country’s natural environments and architectural heritage.

I have acquaintances ‘inside’ the planning process who overflow with stories of the abuses perpetrated by developers, from the ‘accidental’ destruction of protected trees to the social amenities that were somehow overlooked. Yet they rarely seem to be prosecuted for their failures. Then there is the widespread failure to develop infrastructure to accompany the developments; before I stopped work, my journey was becoming increasingly delayed as more and more housing developments were constructed alongside the main road, clearly on the assumption that the commuter traffic would pour out onto it every morning. Yet nothing was done to upgrade the road; while the developers are no doubt sunning themselves in their Spanish haciendas, the rest of us pay the daily price for their corner-cutting.

There have been numerous reports in the press recently about the shoddy quality of mass-produced homes – hardly surprising when one notes the unseemly haste with which they are constructed –  whereas Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud, who is now venturing into mass home-building of a more enlightened sort, reports overwhelming demand for his products.

HAB
HAB plans for Bristol

 

https://www.habhousing.co.uk/

Much better developments are being built – but they are still in the minority.

CBM
Carrowbreck Meadow, a Passivhaus development near Norwich

 

It is not as though people do not want better than these Disney-esque, quasi-nostalgic theme-parks to live in. It has to be admitted, though, that the British pre-occupation with ‘heritage’ (seemingly even of the fake sort) probably prevents some more innovative, contemporary solutions from getting off the ground.

It makes me extremely angry that it is still apparently acceptable to fob off much of our populace with such shoddy living spaces; experience suggests that it is not the case everywhere in Europe.

Unfortunately, the bottom line of the construction companies is still the dominant factor in determining the environments in which millions of British people live.

Food

La Dolce Vita in a dish

Tiramisu

If it seems as though there is an Italian ‘thing’ going on here, you’re probably right (the title is a bit of a giveaway…). Periodically, I experience severe withdrawal symptoms from that country, and now is one such time. Unfortunately the planned antidote in the form of a visit to Bologna later this month has had to be postponed.

I certainly don’t look to Italy for its reliability or organisation – but if it’s an aesthetic boost you’re in need of, there really is no better inspiration than The Boot. In a sense, it’s the idea of Italy – La Dolce Vita – that is important. Taken at face value, it is languidly, decadently glorious; look too closely and you might find rather dark depths…

Of course, no one who is not Italian will ever be able to do it like the natives, but that’s not the point. We can appreciate the style (without ever fully trusting their delivery times) and adapt to our own needs. That said, there is also an almost perverse pleasure in seeing how close you can get.

One’s best chances are in the kitchen, where language and body shape cease to matter. I have spent frustratingly enjoyable years trying to get close to my conception of perfection with certain Italian dishes. I say conception because there is no one such thing as the objective ideal, of course. However, one learns certain secrets in the process, and the ‘research’ is by no means a hardship…

So here is one such dish, that I have started making again this summer after several years without; I am immediately wondering why I stopped, apart from the impact on the waistline. Tiramisu can be bought in any supermarket, but there is no substitute for making one’s own; so long as you have the means to make decent espresso and think ahead a few hours, it is ridiculously easy.

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

  • Three egg yolks
  • 500 g mascarpone
  • 100ml single cream
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 6 (espresso) cups of cold espresso coffee
  • 4 tbsp coffee liquer such as Kahlua
  • 15 (approx) savoiardi biscuits (ladies/sponge fingers)
  • Cocoa powder for dusting.

Method

Make the coffee and leave to cool.

Beat the egg yolks with the caster sugar and vanilla essence until thick and smooth.

Beat the cream into the mascarpone to loosen it, then carefully fold in the egg mixture.

Spread half the mixture over a shallow dish; briefly dip the savoiardi biscuits in the coffee, and lay over the mascarpone.

Once a complete layer is achieved, spread the rest of the mascarpone mixture on top, to cover completely; chill for some hours.

Before serving, dust the tiramisu generously with cocoa power.

(from Antonio Carluccio’s Complete Italian Food)

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Virginal tiramisu
Arts, Architecture & Design

Happy Birthday Charles

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How must if feel to walk into your office one morning, sit down at your drawing board – and come up with a design classic? I wonder if you get a sense that this is something special, perhaps your best ever work – or whether that comes later, after the acclaim.

I am simplifying, of course: the creation of a significant item is not the work of one day, even though the initial concept can perhaps come remarkably quickly. There is a great deal of research and development, material testing and more that goes into the realisation of a top-quality product.

It is twenty years since Antonio Citterio, the Italian architect-designer did just that with what has since become the iconic piece that made his name around the world: the Charles sofa for renowned furnishing company B&B Italia. It has done the same trick for the company, becoming by far their best-selling piece.

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Inspired by the designs of the Sixties and named after Charles Eames, this has become an icon of contemporary design, the symbol of modernist-minimalism par excellence. Put one of these in a room and it will immediately set the agenda. This is a piece that has been copied a thousand times: If you have ever seen a sofa that is low, deep with spindly metal legs, then the chances are it is a derivative of the original Charles.

Having admired from afar, I first encountered one ‘in the flesh’ at Geoffrey Drayton’s showroom in Hampstead Road, London. My wife and I were at the stage of establishing our first home together, and seating was naturally high on the agenda.

There is something about this piece that is so close to modern perfection that it utterly deserves the recognition it has received. The fifteen-degree angle at which the sides slope is exactly right, as are the proportions of the inverted-L aluminium legs and the slimness of the base. The combination of rich fabric and polished metal, of tightly-tailored base and loose, movable cushions is another sensory feast. The raised base frees-up floor creating a sense of spaciousness, and the reflectivity of the legs creates a floating effect the seat itself. To my eye, this is a piece of design perfection that even Citterio’s other designs don’t get near.

Testing it after walking around half of London was probably not the best move; some British and American commentators have found it too firm for their liking – but firm support is actually our preference, over the traditionally squishy British alternatives. It’s interesting to realise that even notions such as comfort are to some extent culturally-defined.

Charles is a modular concept: there are numerous shapes; it has also spawned an extra-large range (as it if were not big enough already…), a bed, low tables and an outdoor version. It is not something, however, that is easily accommodated in the average tiny British sitting room – it needs space to breathe.

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Unsurprisingly, such pieces do not come cheap; this is best considered a once-in-a-lifetime investment. At least it has more mileage left in it than the average used car… Beneath the slim profile is a welded steel frame, and a high-density moulded foam carcase: they should last forever. The same cannot be said, however about the fabrics, which are more beautiful than durable. At least the covers are removable…

Charles is not a sensible financial investment, but it is certainly an aesthetic one: it creates a stylistic agenda for the rest of the home; in that sense, it is worth cutting corners elsewhere for. It has visual qualities that succeed in numerous different environments and its character and proportions are so perfect that it will lift whatever space it is placed in.

This is one piece of design of which I simply never grow tired.

Antonio Citterio
Antonio Citterio
Arts, Architecture & Design

Ancient & Modern

 

Historically speaking, the U.K. was slow to embrace the tenets of modernism; even when modernist buildings were made in early part of the last century, they often used traditional construction techniques, with rather mixed results. Recently however, Britain has produced some superb contemporary architects and work.

The marriage of the modern with ancient always presents opportunities for intriguing and imaginative work; in my opinion, courageous approaches like the one seen here re-interpret traditional architecture in far superior way to attempting a fake-traditional approach which not only ends up looking pastiche, but often perpetuates many of the inconveniences of old styles.

This renovated farmhouse is situated on Dartmoor, a harsh, stony landscape of surprising bleakness. Minimalism has a perhaps-unexpected sympathy with the very old; the key to both in this case is simplicity. The bareness of the ancient stone contrasts deliciously both inside and out with the simple purity of the modern finishes, and the insertion of a modern space between the two older buildings is an excellent way of uniting them into a spacious whole without detracting from their integrity.

It’s pleasing to see this kind of work being produced in provincial Britain – I just wish that the volume house-builders would take note and provide something more inspiring for the many people who lack the resources needed to undertake this kind of project.

More can be seen at http://freshome.com/sustainable-family-home/ a website that regularly features superb contemporary architecture from around the world.