Monday, May 31, 2010

Drink It In

I used to enjoy exercise.

No, really.

Until the arrival of some time-sapping pseudoparasites* I was keen on squash, a regular gym bunny and could often be seen cycling hither and yon, sometimes via thither.

Then, things of a procreative nature occurred*.

Suddenly your gym membership lapses and you don't renew it, your cobwebbed bike gets put in the garage and gradually retreats further behind the mower and miscellaneous boxes of gardening and DIY detritus, and Ol' Thunder the squash racquet gets mounted on red velvet in a glass case and hung above the ornate fireplace in the main hall, alongside the swords of your ancestors, the blood-stained notches on it's handle the only clue to your past conquests.

And you get porky.

Despite your being permanently tired, parenthood comes with the irritating side effect of apparently using up no calories whatsoever.

I am now usually awake for about 18 hours in every twenty-four, so one might presume I'd have time to get super productive. Time not just to clean, feed and entertain tiny humans*, but also to enjoy myself, maybe play a bit of sport, socialise with people so they don't forget who I am, maybe finish my spoon.

But no.

Those long hours of wakefulness are like the most volatile of substances, sublimating into the ether like dry ice in a pop video from 1985. The minutes gurgle rapidly and unstoppably down the temporal plughole of reality whilst the tadpole of life swims against the current of fate in the bath of futility, desperately hoping to avoid the dragonfly larva of destiny.

You have to schedule in a poo and a cup of tea three days ahead.

Regular exercise is not an option at the moment, which leads to the dilemma of how does one lose some of that excess chunk?

The ugly spectre of Dieting rears it's skeletal head and winks a sunken eyelid at me.

Which is a shame because I like food even more than I like exercise.

So, if I must, how to go about it? Do I want to join Weight Watchers? No, because it sounds like a specialist porn site for chubby chasers. Do I want to count calories? No, because that sounds more boring than the history of plywood. Do I want to be organised about it? No, because that would involve being organised about it.

Food would be more easy to avoid if it looked like evil sci-fi characters. One dunk of a Dorito in some guacamole and Shazam! :

Jabba the Dip stares at you accusingly, as if telling you that this was how he started.

In general, I just need to cut down on some stuff. Be a bit more aware of unhealthy things I'm choffing and not choff them quite so much. With this in mind I poured myself a lager, sat down and had a think about what to give up.

Chocolate? I eat a couple of bars a week. Dips like Jabba up there? More of an occasional treat than a bad habit. Puddings? Not that many. Takeaways? Had my first curry in three and a half weeks a few days ago, so not much help there. I took a swig of Kronenburg to help me concentrate.

Ah . . .

Lager is quite calorific. My favourite beer is currently Poacher's Choice, which sends both my taste buds and my liver into little shivery tremors of joy. I presume the liver tremors are joy anyway. This beer is fairly hefty both in terms of booze content and calories.

I suppose I could . . . cut . . . down . . .

Oof! No no no. Let's not go down such avenues of desperation, I thought. Draining my glass, I decided it was time to get some help, and referred the subject on to the wife, who is wise in the way of food. She was in her cushion room, making fans and doilies, possibly.

"No exercises. Too fat. Make better." I explained.

She nodded, always approving of brevity in explanations. She got the gist, realising that I might conceivably benefit from losing weight, but without doing exercise, so what could I possibly give up to facilitate such a transformation.

Don't say beer, I thought at her.

"Well," she said, looking at a small cheese and tomato sandwich I was predating for my lunch. "You do actually eat fairly healthily."

"I do." I agreed, thinking don't say beer, don't say beer.

"So we need to look at something you maybe do have a bit too much of, don't we?"

"S'pose." I concurred magnanimously. Don't say beer. Do NOT say beer. Beer in this context is not what I want to hear.

"You could perhaps cut down on . . ."

Doritos? Mars bars? Lettuce. Oh sweet baby Moses let it be lettuce.

"B . . ."

Burgers? Boursin? Bite sized Shredded Wheat?

." . .Be . . ."

Beans? Benecol? Beastiality? Wait, none of them are fattening.

" . . . Bee . . ."

Beetroot? Bee vomit? That's honey? I could give up honey I suppose. As long as it's not . . .

" . . . Beer?"

Oh cock.

I gave her my most vitriolic of glares, and she asked if I needed some Preparation H, so I flounced off as she retreated back into the cushion room, shaking her head.

The trouble is, she's right.

So, the iron rod of reason smacks down onto the simpleton's forehead of resistance, ensuring the contra-coup injury of realisation results in the persistent vegetative state of acquiescence.

I have to cut down on beer.

There is no sad faced emoticon sad faced enough to depict how sad faced the emoticon I want to put here is but, take my word for it, it's pretty sad faced.

I reluctantly agree and come to the conclusion that, if beer's not there, I probably won't drink it, so I'm not buying any for the house.

The beer cupboard can go back to being called the fridge.

Despite my sacrifices and my general spurning of all things hedonisitc, I am not, as many people have wondered, an ascetic monk. Beer has been with me for a long time. It stands to reason that I'm going to need something to reduce the separation anxiety. With this firmly in mind, I went to the supermarket and examined alternatives.

Happily, they had exactly the thing to take my mind off beer:


As long as I have a decent bottle of single malt in the house, I shall not want for more calorific beverages, so this is practically a new diet plan all on it's own.

I might market it and call it the Proprietary Innovative Sure Slim Ethanolic Diversionary technique for weight loss.

It has a catchy acronym so I should make a killing.

* Children.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

River cottaging

Once again, life other than the reality that is the internet has forced me to neglect The Gravel Farm, but I do have reasons.

I have been doing stuff. Mainly stuff involving work and nappies, but stuff nevertheless.

I've also been away!

Last week, as a sort of well done for not eschewing my responsibilities by being there for some children I allegedly fathered, I got to escape for a couple of nights down to East Devon to spend some time with the denizens of River Cottage.

For those of you not familiar with
River Cottage, it is essentially a telly programme where a tousle-haired single-minded chap called Hugh guilts people into killing animals and eating every last part of them, only nicely and in such a way that the animals die with smiles on their faces, happily whispering "This is how I dreamed of going" as they expire.

Not only is it a form of entertainment, but it is also a working concern, a smallholding that developed into a business which concentrates on farming and cooking, with particular emphasis on growing their own ingredients and local sourcing of sustainable foodstuffs. And it's set in a pretty corner of Devon:

As a christmas present, I had been given a day out with John Wright, who is the River Cottage seashore and mushroom foraging expert. He has a

I've been a fan of Mr Wright's since having been given a copy of his superbly written book Edible Seashore, which is both entertaining and informative, tricking you into learning things by being fun to read. Sneaky really.

I was quite excited at the prospect of seeing which natural habitat we would be taken to, which remote corner of the wild we would visit to glean the secrets of potentially edible vegetable species.

Straight away, we had a look round a car park.

Er . . .

John explained that car parks were often full of interesting plants, possibly due to the "edge effect" of management, where spaces are created (presumably for cars) which allow varieties of vegetation to grow that might otherwise be shaded out by other, more dominant species.

For a moment, I became concerned that the day out was to be one of convenience for the coach driver, and we would spend the entire time scouting the car park like vegetarian doggers, but John explained this was just the start and, from then on, the shore line beckoned!

We listened eagerly for advice on what we could safely snaffle.

The first plant he took great delight in describing to us was Water Hemlock:

Now, forget your deadly mushrooms with suitably terrifying names like Destroying Angel, Death Cap, Fly Agaric and Nasty Colin (possibly). Although they can turn your liver and kidneys into little more than interesting purple lumps for the coroner to identify after 3 days, water hemlock makes the toxins in these fungi look like Maltesers by comparison.

Even if eaten in relatively small amounts (e.g. a bite) it can cause a bit of a tremor, a bit of a seizure, and then a substantial amount of death in just a couple of hours.

A. Couple. Of. Hours.

And this stuff grows all over the place.

That's okay, I thought. Nature provides. It will no doubt be brightly coloured and vivid, like poison arrow frogs and various species of snake that let you know eating them is likely to be both bad for you and them, so why not come to a mutually beneficial arrangement and steer clear of each other, thank you very much.

Yep, show us this strange deadly plant, I thought, and I will commit it's dazzling foliage and obvious warning signs to memory.

So John showed us some:

And it looks like parsley.

Death Parsley.

Water Hemlock is obviously more of the "eat me and I'll teach you a lesson that neither of us will be around to learn from" school of natural wonders. It might not survive an attack by the committed or suicidal vegetarian, but this egregious salad ingredient will damn well take you with it.

After showing us what not to eat, John then moved on to more comestible sorts of plant life, including one of which no bad can ever be said of it; wild hops:

We momentarily bowed our heads in respect to this awesome plant, giving silent thanks to the glorious gift bestowed on us by its more domesticated descendants; beer.

As promised, we then made our way to the beach so John could tell us what things were good to eat and what weren't.

To tell the truth, there's not much in the way of poisonous seaweeds, and most things are probably edible on the seashore if you're adventurous enough and haven't got a sense of smell. Or taste. Or touch. John was there to show us the more appetising things we could get our teeth into however.

Like gutweed:

That's right, gutweed.

It's the green stuff on the rock that looks like Shrek sneezed on it.

Apparently, that is the source of genuine crispy seaweed, not the shaved cabbage or spinach usually offered by chinese restaurants. We collected some and had it prepared for us later that day, and it really was very good.

Seaweed is marvellous stuff, and there are lots of edible types other than just lava bread. One type we tried straight from the rock was called pepper dulse, and it really tasted like peppery mustard, or mustardy pepper maybe. Whatever, this unassuming little plant paid for its tastiness as we kept nibbling at it for the rest of the day.

Another useful seaweed is carrageen, valued for it's use as a setting agent in puddings, like a sort of vegetarian gelatin. I was given the post of Officer In Charge Of Carrageen Acquisition and the appropriate accoutrement (a big white bucket). An hour or so later and I examined our haul:

Mmmm . . . tasty.

Okay, so it looked more like Tina Turner's wig than a viable foodstuff, but when it had been boiled up (or down, or out, or something) and used to make our pudding later that day, none could complain when it appeared in a delicious panna cotta:

The day was not all about plants, for they are restricted in their ambulatory ability and therefore of limited challenge to the skilled huntsmen and dedicated forager.

For this reason we moved on to the big game, and went hunting animals:

The bucket on the left contains numerous brown shrimp we caught by swishing a shrimp net through the sands in thigh deep water, and the bucket on the other left (your right, as the crow flies) contains a couple of shore crabs and a velvet swimming crab.

Now, I've been fishing for these critters since I was a child, and became adept at using a crab line loaded with bacon rind, hauling them up and comparing size and numbers with other like minded children before declaring myself the winner (invariably) and releasing them back into the sea, happily full of pig fat and half trained to get caught again the following day.

It's a good job I didn't realise just how palatable these poor buggers were, because if I had I wouldn't have let many of them go, I can tell you. They would've all ended up the way these ones did:

The crabs have a decent amount of meat on them, considering their size, and the shrimps, although tiny, are extremely tasty. Because they're small, you can forego the peeling and just eat them whole, but I felt it better to peel their faces off in order to remove that accusing look common to most crustaceans after they've been boiled.

You know the look.

We retired back to River Cottage HQ for a cookery demonstration (which I didn't need because I live near a supermarket and have a microwave), a superb dinner, punctuated by samples of our own collected ingredients only cooked by proper chefs who really knew their way around the Very Hot Cupboards that all kitchens seem to have.

Apparently I've even got one in mine.

The day was hugely enjoyable, and shared with lots of people genuinely interested in flora and fauna of the seaside, as well as how to eat it for free. The staff were knowledgeable and attentive, and seemed to genuinely enjoy having us around, which might just demonstrate an astute grasp of customer service but was appreciated nonetheless.

An agreeable conclusion was finishing the day off with a beer made specifically for River Cottage by one of my favourite
breweries. Stinger is crafted from nettles and leaves a slightly disconcerting but nevertheless pleasing tingling sensation on the tongue:

More importantly than that though, is the fact that it's beer.

That evening, I did a spot of fossil hunting in Charmouth, had a bath at my B&B, took my book and walked into Lyme Regis, found a small quiet pub and wallowed in what can only be described as the splendour of solitude.

These sorts of days don't come along very often, so it pays to make the most of them.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Roast host posts ghost post

I am extraordinarily honoured to be the subject of Eddie Bluelights interview over at Clouds and Silvery Linings.

Eddie has taken on the mantle of interviewing bloggers about why they do that thing that they do, and future interviewees are chosen at the condemnation commendation of previous victims honoured guests.

For this reason, the subjects tend to be of stratospheric ability, and so it seems apt that levels should be taken down a peg or two.

Hence my effort.

Due to extra-blogospheric commitments, my current posting rate is lower than a moles bumhole, which I'm hoping to rectify when social services step in to help me look after my kids. Should be any day now.

Despite this weeks dubious choice, I urge you to visit Eddie's blog because of its charm and quality.

I recommended queen of post titles Madame DeFarge and king of a sizeable percentage of Glesga Jimmy Questionable Parentage as my two choices for future interviews, but the marvellous Madame was interviewed just last week, and one of her recommendations was said Jimmy. This demonstrates my ability to be behind the times in every media, not just fashion and cuisine.

Many thanks to Mr London Street for his kind words during his interview.

Right, I've got to go. I've just spilled some prawn cocktail on my kipper tie.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Early Selling Centre

Having small children, we made what seems to be a compulsory visit to Early Learning Centre.

Actually, the name is quite clever, because I almost typed "THE Early Learning Centre" which makes it sound like an officially sanctioned educational establishment, rather than a shop.

So there we were, looking to get educated with plastic ovens, plastic lawnmowers, plastic animals, plastic cars, plastic computers and plastic synchotrons, all of which, almost without exception, went beep.

Oh man, the beeping.

So many toys in Early Learning Centre beep like a censored Chubby Brown clip. I think it's supposed to be "stimulating" for a child's brain. That's the buzzword for toys, used when something can't really be described as educational but the manufacturers want to express the dubious benefits of their device.

A seizure inducing salve to the hyperactive child is just stimulating.

Also, the words "encourages hand-eye coordination" were prevalent on many boxes, which seems to be the ultimate catchphrase for making parents think a bright orange toy with pictures of animals that go "SQUEEEEEEE AK AK AK!" is in fact improving their child's motor control.

Well, so does picking your nose, if you're a kid, and nasal excavation has the added incentive that ham-fistedness often results in exciting haemorrhage.

Blood almost always results in a lesson learned somewhere along the line.

Before beeps led to madness and madness led to rage which would inevitably drive me to do something unspeakable in a toy shop, I dragged my boy over to a quieter aisle, where tableau's of frozen figures looked down on us and demanded a child use their imagination to bring them to life, rather than a supply of electrons.

Mind you, for a shop that pertains to supply to the younger version of human, there were some surprisingly odd thematic choices:

You're never too young to learn about a screaming witch holding a tormented human skull whilst a snarling wraith curls around bones behind her. Age 3-8.

Dubious, I looked for something more . . . realistic.


Kids love dinosaurs, and they are approaching educational, although we all know that, when they are played with, they will almost certainly be hunting baddies by shooting lasers out of their eyes.

*nods in appreciative reverie*

I picked up a stegosaurus, which seemed anatomically accurate and was a simple, nicely coloured slab of resin with no batteries, no flashing lights and a distinct lack of screaming beeps:

Just as I was about to hand it to my son in order to gauge his reaction, a warning label caught my eye:

A choking hazard?

I'm not sure what sort of child could choke down a stegosaurus the size of fist, but I am sure I never want to meet such a child. I deferred to caution and put it back next to an 18 inch high pachycephalosaurus with a sign warning you it might get stuck under your contact lens.

My son pointed excitedly at a Makka Pakka.

You know. A Makka Pakka.

For those ignorant in the Tolkien-esque pseudo-legends of In The Night Garden, Makka Pakka is a . . .

Actually, I haven't got a fucking clue.

It's some sort of fat, stone collecting monkey:

Obviously, one must turn the head so it's pointing backwards for maximum hilarity.

We left The Academy Of Early Learning without buying anything, although I must say I did learn a few things.

On our way home, we went to our local supermarket where I noted that they are still selling terrifying man-hunting equipment only marketing it using even scarier kids, if anything:

Of course, I'm not going to buy anything that gives my offspring a tactical advantage, particularly at night.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Postal vote

Well, we've had an election.

Choices for us in England:

Labour Party: Currently running the country, and have been doing for 13 years so should have acheived some sort of Utopia by now, with an unelected leader who is serious, fairly unpopular for ambiguous reasons based on stuff all politicians do, and according to my Mum looks like the Gruffalo. Used to represent the "working classes" but now somewhere slightly left of right.

Conservatives: Smarmy, rich-representing group who believe they have the natural in-bred (often literally) right to rule, but led by a charismatic geezer called Dave who my Mum says looks like Data off of Star Trek only made all out of Silly Putty. Trying to appear somewhere in the political middle ground in order to get the serfs to vote for them, they are in reality just waiting for an opportunity to make the rich richer and to suck the very life-juices from the still warm corpses of the majority of the populace. And that's not opinion, that's scientific fact that is.

Liberal Democrats: Not likely to win as they said they would have to raise taxes slightly to improve the country's plight, and there's no room for truth in politics so, despite a recent surge in popularity on telly, they're as likely to get in as a clone of Chairman Mao dressed up as Hitler and singing "La Marseillaise".

Others: Mad, bad, deluded, optimistic, pessimistic, fascist, socialist, religious, single-issue, and unlikely to get a seat anywhere except in the viewing gallery at the House of Commons. Shame really.

As I've yet to set up my Anarchist Hedonism Party due to red tape and my own inflexibly comprehensive set of rules, I did my dutiful thing and went to the polling station to put my X in the box.

With a pencil.

Now, I'm no expert in vote fraud, but I've heard that it is in fact now possible to REMOVE pencil marks and replace them with a facsimile that is almost indistinguishable from the original. Terrifying thought.

Happily, concerns about possible vote-fixing will be mollified because there is an observer in force at the village hall, in the form of a chap called Martin. He is supremely qualified for the position of election security enforcement because he has a beard and once worked at the local dairy, so has experience of herding.

Anyway, I made my way to the voting booth, which was a shallow wooden box not unlike an upright coffin, told a confused elderly chap next to me who to vote for (he was very grateful) and then put my ballot paper in the high-tech storage device (a wooden box with a slot in the top sitting on a paste table).

Then, in a weak moment of post-voting indecision, I suffered a bout of political angst and tried to get my ballot paper out of the box to change it, before being thrown out by Martin and threatened with a damn good milking if I ever tried that sort of thing again.

I tend to have a policy of voting for the least likely party to get in.

This means that, this time next year when whoever is attempting to lead the country suddenly finds that they can't actually keep the absurd promises they made to get our vote find that, actually, in the harsh light of day and COMPLETELY due to the mismanagement of the previous incumbents, they're either going to continue along exactly as their predecessors did or actually make things a bit worse, I can say "Well, I didn't vote for them" and smile smugly as I queue in line for free soup.


P.s. Looks like the conservatives have got in, so we're a classless society again apparently. Not enough of a majority to win outright so, for the first time since 1974 it's going to be a hung parliament.

Four years of being run by a huge committee.

Ooh dear . . .