Archive for December, 2011

It’s good to talk

December 24, 2011

I was sauntering back from Mercadona this evening with an ecoligical bag full of last minute veg for Christmas, before stopping off at Consum for a couple of bottles of their pretty well-priced Rueda. To be honest, the veg weren’t particularly for Christmas, it was just that I wanted something to go alongside the chicken I’d roasted earlier today (with shaved ginger and slivers of garlic slid under the skin, in case you want to know).

It was a blow when they closed Marks and Spencer in Valencia about four years ago, and I lost the only place within walking distance I could buy a Christmas pudding for one. Laugh if you will, but that meant a lot to me, the good old M&S Christmas pudding for one. I’ve had a cardboard carton of Birds Custard Powder in the cupboard for years, which gets spooned out now and again when I serve up a – usually – burnt apple crumble. Yes, I know, it’s almost impossible to bugger up a crumble, but take it from me, my oven can, and does regularly.

Anyway, we’re not here to talk about puddings.

I was taking a detour around a bulky old granny when her phone rings. I hold up my hands, it still strikes me as strange when I see an old biddy take out a slim-Jim telling-bone and chat into it as naturally as if she were jawing over the wall with a neighbour. I’m a throw-back – I admit it.

So there I was, skirting the old dear with her shiny patent leather handbag and iphone, when I hear her say,

“Hijo, ¡que pasa! No te preocupes, estoy en la calle muy cerca de tu casa y…….”

She thinks it’s her son, wondering where she is. Not that far away, apparently. And she continues yammering on.

“Dos minutos, nada mas, y tengo un botillo de vino para la comido y…..”


“¡Padre! Lo siento muchísimo.” It’s the vicar, not her son at all.

“Es un miraglo. Tu voz tiene lo mismo sonido de mi hijo.” The fact that the vicar and her son have a similar sounding voice seems to be something of a miracle to her. It may well be, but she gets stuck in and tells him how lovely it is to hear from him, but she can’t chat for long because she’s late for pre-Christmas lunch with the son and family, and she thought that was him on the phone wanting to know where she was, even though she was only a few minutes late, and you’d expect that wouldn’t you because the queues at Mercadona when she popped in for a bottle of tinto were terrible, but you’d expect that, wouldn’t you because it was Christmas Eve day and everyone was getting the last few bits in for the family dinner tonight and her and Javier and his family had decided to make it a family lunch instead of dinner, what with her Miguel having passed on last year but one, and to be honest, she couldn’t take the late nights like she used to so……..

I didn’t find out what the vicar called for, and I suspect neither did she. But it was a lovely little moment, nonetheless; an old dearie, done up to the nines, on the way to her family for lunch, and she gets a call from God’s local rep, just before his son’s birthday.

It’s more than I bloody get!

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, Derek Workman, and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.


Thursdays Child – A stroll around the Bab el Khemis market.

December 23, 2011

When painter and writer Danny Moynihan, friend of avant-garde (or simply weird) artist Damien Hirst, and author of Boogie Woogie, a novel that dished the dirt on the New York art world, decided to restore a riad in Marrakech’s medina, he and his wife, actress, film-maker and former showgirl Katrine Boorman – daughter of film director John Boorman – trawled the markets and souks of Marrakesh for fabrics, a well-known dealer for 20th century furniture …. and the Bab el Khemis flea market for “almost everything else”.

Of the twelve gates in the 12 km-long, rose-pink 12th-century wall that wraps around the ancient city, Bab el Khemis is one of the oldest. It takes its name from the Thursday market where once camels, horses, mules and asses were sold, and, at least according to Arthur Leared, who travelled the country in 1872, “On the sale of each animal a guarantee that it has not been stolen, verified by a notary, is required”. How anyone could guarantee the provenance of a rag-tag assembly of worn out critters, (and you could probably use the same term for the dealers), many of which had walked hundreds of kilometres across sand and mountain to end up as camel meat on the tables in the open-air restaurants of the Jmaa el Fnaa, remains a mystery.  Jmaa el Fnaa itself was the scene of the Friday market that sold horned cattle, and near the Souk el Ghezel, slaves from the Sudan and Sus were sold on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays during the hour before sunset. While it’s unlikely that any of the commodities sold at this market would end up on a butcher’s slab, the life of many of them wouldn’t have been a whole lot better than the pack animals auctioned off at the Bab el Khemis.

It’s Thursday, and as the Thursday market has been on my ‘must-do’ list for ages, and I haven’t yet got around to doing it, I saunter off to see what somewhere that has been described as ‘one of world’s greatest mixes of junk and treasures’ has to offer on this fine day. I’m secretly hoping that I might find a decent second-hand Brooks bike saddle at a bargain price, as I do at every flea-market I go to. I haven’t as yet, but it doesn’t stop me secretly hoping.

When I get to the gate I’m slightly disappointed not to see the hordes of hustlers and cascading bric-à-tat that I’d imagined from the various descriptions I’ve read about the Khemis Thursday market. Mainly what I see is a lot of young men selling mobile phones and their accoutrement. Some are as carefully displayed in small glass cases as the sparklers Audrey Hepburn saw in the window of Tiffany’s when she was on her way to breakfast; others are simply tumbled in a ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ early Tesco fashion, but there’s plenty of action going on. I’m impressed by the chap who has brought a full home gym to sell, and wonder if he brings it every week or simply anchors it to a post until the next Thursday. I hope for the sake of the poor donkeys that he brought it by van, because I’ve got one of them at home, left by a previous tenant and carefully avoid by me, so I know how much they weigh. I tried to move it once so I could decorate the spare bedroom where it lives. I bought a bed-settee for the living room instead. Respect, man.

I was equally intrigued by the detailed inspection a tall gangling chap was giving a dentist’s chair, circa 1950, (the chair, not the chap, although by the look of him it could have been getting its final coat of paint around the same time he was getting his first nappy changed). Excellent piece of kit it was, and in fine condition. In fact there were two of them, so the erstwhile punter would be stuck for choice if he only wanted one. Perhaps he was considering opening his own clinic and was looking to bulk buy, and even a pair of chairs nearing pensionable age were a damned site preferable to most of those you see used by peripatetic ‘dentists’ in the souks, something rescued from the kitchen, where they simply plonk the agonised patient down before delving into the dentures with a pair of ancient pliers.

It turns out I’ve got the wrong gate. I’m not at the Bab Khemis, that’s a much grander entrance around the corner. I’m at a side entrance, but I’ve been sufficiently entertained by what I’ve seen so far that I decide to dive into the souk and come out by the main gate later, to see if I’m missing anything. Needless to say, I get lost in the skinny alleyways and don’t find the right gate until a taxi driver points it out to me a couple of days later.

I stroll in through an archway that draws me into a clattering, banging, screeching, grinding, shower-of-sparks-flying pandemonium. But it’s only pandemonium to my ears and eyes; to everyone else it’s just the daily noise of the metal-workers souk. Whether it’s something that involves metal in its construction – mopeds, bicycles, ancient sewing machines – or it is something that will be made entirely from metal – window grills, decorative arches, tables and chairs – there’s someone here who can fix it or make. Scattered everywhere are large sheets of metal, long strips of steel two fingers wide, pencil-thin rolled rods that are bent and twisted to create intricate designs. Sparks shoot from angle grinders like spinning Catherine wheels as young men with no protection other than a pair of sunglasses and a cloth wrapped around their face – and sometimes neither of those – cut, burnish and smooth. Everything is covered by a fine black powder, but this is Morocco, and the dusty monotone is alleviated by the brightly coloured djellabas of passers-by.

Work stops in one tiny workshop when their machine literally grinds to a halt. The intermittently spinning blade indicates that the carbon brushes that drive the motor are worn out. They are awkward devils to replace at the best of times, but with the make-do-and-mend temperament that you find in most third-world countries, the worker simply strips the case off, packs a bit of cardboard into the spring on the brush housing so that it can’t be forced back, re-assembles the machine, and within a couple of minutes is back at work, the machine still spluttering and kicking, but at least it’s okay for a few more hours yet. It makes me smile; I remember doing the same when I was an antique restorer many years ago in the Lake District; make-do-and-mend was sometimes the only option.

I watch a group of four men working on different parts of an ornate arch, just over two metres high and slightly less wide. The main structure is finished, and a young man draws the curlicue design in chalk on the concrete floor of the workshop that will be created by the thin metal rods at his side. When he is satisfied with the design he measures the first section, a shallow curve, and cuts a piece of the required length from the five-metre rod. With a lump hammer and his cold chisel he slowly curves the metal until it reproduces perfectly the design he has drawn on the concrete. Everything cut, bent, curved and twisted by hand, and each piece slotting perfectly in place. I’m fascinated and could watch him for hours, but I’m dying for a coffee.

Turning away from the street of the metal workers I wander down a cluttered alleyway of wonderful ancient doors, rolls of antique rugs, Lloyd-loom chairs, exquisitely painted tables, worn and patinated with age, a 50s pram, plastic garden recliners – and yes, I do even see the kitchen sink, as well as one for the bathroom, along with its bath, toilet and bidet, all in the chunky cut-corner style of art deco. I also pass men and women squatting on the ground behind a pile of odds and ends that can have no conceivable value other than to someone who has nothing of value at all; a Kodak cartridge camera, a pair of stiletto-heeled shoes with one stiletto, an alarm clock with no hands, odd socks, seven-year old magazines in Spanish – the same detritus you see on every flea-market in the world. It used to sadden me as I walked to work at the Marche aux Puce at Clignancourt in Paris many years ago, to think that this was all these people had, and would pack up at the end of the day exactly what they had laid out at the beginning. It still does.

I hear the Koran being sung, the beautiful a cappella coming from a tinny-sounding loudspeaker hung outside a café at an alley junction bustling with second-hand clothes vendors. Anticipating a hot coffee, the sound draws me towards a table like the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Parking myself in one of those plastic garden chairs that succumb to too much time in the sun and bend when you lean backwards, I wave at a passing waiter and ask for a café au lait. It could well be my accent, or he may not speak French, but he casts a bemused look around the other clients, obviously not having understood any of the three words I’ve just spoken“Mint tea,” a voice says in English, but I’ve no idea which table it came from. Obviously coffee’s off the menu.

“Bien,” I say, and the waiter goes off to get it. He comes back a couple of minutes later with a glass of something that looks as if it has been sitting around for a while, probably at the bottom of a u-bend of a kitchen sink. I reach into my pocket for some money.

“One dirham,” a different voice says.

“One dirham!” Ten centimos, cheap in any currency, about one-tenth what you would pay elsewhere. I hand the coin over – never look a gift glass in the mouth.

A mange,” says the chap with the grey stubble and wool bobble hat at the next table. They may not be big conversationalists, but they all helpfully want to get in on the act.

I suddenly realise that I’m sat at a workers caff, and everyone else is getting stuck-in to bowls of bean soup or something made from bits of innards whose origin I’d really rather not know. But it’s cheap and fortifying and obviously pretty popular. (I try some another day. The stock was good, but I had to close my eyes when I dipped the spoon into the bowl.)

No-one objects that I’m taking up a table with only a cup of mint sludge, so I sit for a while and watch the second-hand clothes salesman hawking their wares. I haunt the ‘pre-used’ clothes stalls at my local Monday market in Valencia, and think I’m pretty well turned out in my two-euro shirts and three-euro jumpers (I once bought a cracking Stasi-style leather jacket for twenty euros, and it’s still going strong), but they are nothing compared to what’s on offer here. If Ryanair weren’t so parsimonious with their baggage allowance, I’d be elbow deep in the piles of check shirts, corduroy trousers (when was the last time you saw corduroy trousers?), sweaters – I’ll pass on the tartan one but I definitely fancy the hooded jacket with the toggle fastenings. I haven’t seen toggle fastenings since my green duffle coat when I was seventeen.

Pulling myself away from kitting out a new wardrobe, I wander into an enclosed part of the furniture makers souk, piled to the ceiling with beds, tables, fat mattresses and, it has to be said, some painfully ugly mogernised pieces, (that’s not a typo, it’s a derogatory word a friend invented to cover all the ugliest aspects of modern design), that are similar in quality design concept to the little gold bear that waves its arm up and down that you see in tatty Chinese shops everywhere. Who could conceivably want one?

One of the things that always amazes me is that in Europe, and most probably in the US and elsewhere, so much of the furniture is made from composites; plywood, block-board, chip-board, MDF – in other words, sawdust, wood shavings and a lot of glue – but in Morocco they make their furniture out of proper wood, the stuff that actually comes direct from the trees. Okay, some of it might look as if it has been rescued from pallets, but it’s still wood.

A stooped ancient lady came toward me, supporting herself by a crutch on her right side, her left hand held out, hoping for a coin to be dropped in it. I put my hand in my pocket, randomly pick a coin drop it in her palm as we pass, one of those automatic actions that neither acknowledge. She’s not a happy bunny, though, and obviously the coin wasn’t of grand enough value, because a few seconds later I hear the tinkling of it hitting the cobbles, and look down to see it skittering past me – she’s thrown it back! A few others hear it and look around, but no-one spots it. I’m tempted to pick it up, but if it’s not enough for her to keep it’s probably not enough for me to shame myself by bending down to pick it up in front of everyone, so I leave it and walk on. Maybe someone will find it who believes in the dictum, ‘see a coin and pick it up and all that day you’ll have good luck’.

As I continue my walk through the furniture souk, I pass a young lad in his teens carving intricate scroll work in the top of a small table. His curved chisels are almost worn to nothing, from generations of grinding and sharpening. He uses a squared-off length of wood with one end roughly round as a handle as he carefully taps the chisel, turning his hand slowly to create a curve in the scroll, all the while chatting to his friend whose busy planeing the sixty degree angle of one of the joints that will form the traditional hexagonal table. Once again, I’m back at my workshop in the Lake District thirty years ago, choosing a length of wood from my scrap box to use as a mallet to carve the finer points of a design, my usual rounded mallet being too weighty for fine work. I’m suddenly brought back to reality when I look further into the workshop and see a large band saw where, beneath as sign that tells you without any subtlety, ATTENZIONE ALLE MANI! – watch your hands in any language – a worker is cutting a fine curve in a piece of wood without any guard on the blade. I shiver at the thought that there’s someone could easily lose one of his mani if he doesn’t pay enough attenzione.

In the wider alleyways you can hear the rattling sounds of mopeds and small vans long enough ahead in time to get out of the way and let them pass. It’s not the same with the donkeys and carts, though. The carts usually have rubber tyres, although nine times out of ten, worn down to the webbing, and the donkeys don’t exactly make the coconut clacking sound of horses galloping, given their docility and sedate pace. The first thing you know that you are stopping someone in pursuance of their livelihood is when you hear someone shouting, “Balec, balec,” which guide books will tell you means, “Make way, make way,” but is usually said in a tone that more realistically says, “Oi, you, shift your arse!” You turn around to see the doleful stare of a donkey looking at the design on your T-shirt, not that it’s really interested in knowing that you ‘heart’ Agadir, but because that’s how tall he is, and frankly, he doesn’t care whether you move or not.

I find myself back at the door I came into the souk by, more by chance than design. I didn’t find my Brooks saddle, but there again, I refrained from being tempted by the toggle jacket. Still, tomorrow’s another day, as they say, or as far as the Bab Khemis flea-market is concerned, next Thursday is.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, Derek Workman, and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.

Pick up a Penguin

December 22, 2011


Years ago I was walking down Market Street in Manchester, around about the time they put the metro tram lines in. In the distance I could hear someone playing the bagpipes, but not the swirling, skirling, into-battle-we-go-mon sort of stuff, this was rockaboogie, someone really giving it stick.

As I got closer, through a space in the crowd that was going about their business doing their Saturday shop at the likes of Next and Mothercare, I caught a glimpse of a young chap in a doorway, with tumbling curly hair, a sweatshirt with the logo of a local brewery on it, and baggy Indonesian tie-dye pants, giving his all on the pipes, stomping his feet as if he were at a highland ceilidh, but one given for country-funk rockers rather than the Gay Gordon brigade.

I’ve read the phrase, ‘his heart jumped into his mouth’, but always thought it was a load of old Victorian tosh – until that moment. Two thoughts collided, “He’s the spitting image of Jim,” (my youngest son) and, “What the fuck’s a young lad like him doing wasting his time on the freaking bagpipes for!”

Shame! Shame! He’s having a great time. Blowing, stomping and giving everyone a bloody good time! And he was having the best time of all!

So what brought back this rambling memory? I was wandering around Youtube and came across Penguin Café Orchestra, one of my favourite bands, playing Salty Bean Fumble. Wonderful, absolutely wonderful! Top flight classical musicians having a whale of a time. Would that I bloody well could! (I loved the way the chap on the triangle just keeps going around and around – if that’s what you actually do with a triangle – to keep the beat; take it away from all the other instruments and you’d really notice its absence.) I spent a delirious half-hour re-living a time when, at least for me, nothing musically got labelled, it was just damned good to listen to, especially because those were the days when the big names now were hustling for a venue. Elvis Costello and Ian Drury at a tiny theatre in Rochdale; Little Feet supported by Tower of Power at the Free Trade Hall as part of the Warner Brothers Tour in 1975, with TP upstaging the headliners when the brass section sashayed off the stage and did a jazzed promenade through the aisles as Lenny Williams belted out, “Giddyap, giddyap, Hiyo silver, Giddyap, giddyap hiyo yeah…” in one of the best Motown voices of the era. It was the first time I smoked a joint in my life…first time I smoked tobacco, come to think of it, and it made me feel so bloody awful that I never touched either again. But, joder, the music was fucking awesome!

I slowly came back to the twenty-first century by way of Air à Danser, one of my favourite Penguin pieces.

So what happened? I was there when Louden Wainwright gigged at the Academy, before he became known just as the dad of Rufus and the husband of Kate McGarrigle, who, with her sister, Anna, were real biggies on the folk-rock scene at the time. I saw Hugh Masekela long before Paul Simon got on the South African gig and recorded him for the Graceland album; Ali Farka Touré, who took The New Embassy by storm (which rose from the ashes of The Embassy – most of the best gigs ran out of money), and was still living in squats with friends as he tried to get his Malian music known, and non-events like The Smiths, The Buzzcocks and Duritti Column had yet to raise their heads, although the rock poet John Cooper Clarke, he of the welded-on sun glasses, and The Salford Jets, were packing the crowds in?

 I got old. That’s all. I simply got old.

 If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, , and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.

Seduced by a shimmering fire hazard

December 17, 2011


When we finished the bike ride in the High Atlas, as a celebration of a ride well done, the final night was to be dinner at Le Comptoir Darna, a chi-chi establishment made doubly enticing by the promise by Andy of a bevy of beautiful belly dancers. While I hate sounding like the T-shirt – been there, seen it, ticked it off – I’ve seen the dance a few times before and didn’t find it particularly enthralling. In fact, I once won a belly dancing competition at an country fair in Pennsylvania, which, to be perfectly truthful, was more belly than dancing, and only three of us took part so I had an odds-on chance anyway. By the time the show at Le Comptoir was supposed to start I’d usually be tucked up under the duvet, but it was a celebration, and what the hell, a bit of swirly-girly never did anyone any harm.

Le Coptoir is dark and decadent, wonderful in its sparkling exoticness, although I couldn’t help feeling that, like so many of this sort of night-haunted places, the ambiance is a bit different when the cleaners come in in the morning to do the carpets. Ever a pedant, I’m afraid.

The meal was wonderful; the service I can’t tell you about as I was distracted by the voluptuous waitress who glided around in tight black outfits with brightly coloured pouch bags shimmering with gilded tassels.  But I experienced something that made an old man very happy, and will stay with me as one of those moments….you know the ones, they happen, linger briefly, and pass, to reward you with a smile years down the line when the mind isn’t concentrating on the realities of life.

Needing to relieve the strains of too much excellent Moroccan white wine, I wandered up the sweep of the elegant main staircase and found myself on a richly carpeted hall that would have made a pasha proud. In front of me an enormous pair of mirrored doors reflected back a bemused chap nervously looking for the sign that said either gents or had a stick figure of a body with two rigid legs spread astride, showing me where to go. Oh good Lord no! Nothing so banal – and besides, they speak French and Arabic in Morocco, so I would have looked in vain for the ‘gents’.

The huge door mirrored door opened up in front of me like the secret cave of the Forty Thieves when Ali Baba struck the rock, although in this case it was more an Ali Barbara.

Round at all the points the good Lord decreed that provocative roundness should appear on a lustrous young lady’s form; curves to defeat the best geometrical designs of a luxury hand-built boat-maker, lips as rouged and full as one of Raphael’s cherubim, dark cascading locks framing a face of delicious plumpness set in which were two deep brown incandescent pools masquerading as eyes. As I approached, those entrancing pools sparkled, her rose red lips seductively bid me, “Bonsoir, Monsieur,” as she gracefully opened the door to which she was guardian. Never in my life, from the far flung Indies to the high-falutin’ gambling soirees of Paris, have I encountered a toilet door opener of such beauty. That was her job, to open the door to the toilet at just that perfect moment of arrival…and, by some magical device, probably known these days as a video camera, to repeat the action on departure.

It occurred to me later to wonder how far into the gents’ urinals did the camera focus? Did they cover only as far as the sinks, to make sure we actually washed our hands before taking the ten dirham coin from our pocket to give as a tip, or as far inward to focus on the ritual shaking and zipping that we all, each in our own way, perform? It mattered not, the smile was as welcoming on departure as on arrival. I was tempted to feign a case of prostatic hyperplasia (look it up) to keep going back, but I think she may have noticed a bald old degenerate making repeat journeys. I consoled myself with the thought that all of us, even if our job is only to open toilet doors, can do it with the greatest aplomb we can muster, because it may just raise a smile for an aging juvenile who can drift back for a few moments to the time when his smile was one of love and longing, when it didn’t just cover a shell of skin and bone, now lost between desire and capability, looking for nothing more than a cheery sidelong glance, the sort we knew about so many years ago. And this gift the little darling, who I will most likely never see again in my life, bestowed upon me.

Lights lower, vibrant music, four tall men in white robes and turbans descend the stairs with a palanquin shouldered between them. On the small platform a curved figure is sheeted in white, behind which sway two women in shimmering floor-length dresses; on their heads are balanced silver trays, glistening with lighted candles. As they shimmy down the stairs the candle flames perform their own iridescent sparkling dance.

A burst of music, and a flurry of red and white butterflies in slit-sided silk pantaloons clasped at the ankle, twirl and swirl diaphanous shawls; broad sparklingly embroidered waistbands paired with lustrously beaded and shimmering bra tops; the belly dancers, the luscious ladies of the raqs sharqi, enter the room with a fanfare and sensual exuberance. They weave between the tables, their hips gyrating and flicking in a staccato rhythm. It is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold.

Kohl outlined eyes, seductive finger, wrist and pelvic gyrations, with tiny toe-to-heel steps they sashay around the room. As they pass tables, men slip one hundred dirham notes into their waist belt or tops, but this, in a slight way, seems to diminish the beautiful sinuous dancing to the bar-top ‘exotic’ dancers in the sleazy bars of Queens in New York City.

Most of the attention is focussed on the young beauties, but I’m captivated by the two older ladies balancing the trays of candles on their heads. Broader of beam and stouter of girth, their movements, nonetheless, have refrains of a more mature sensuality. Were they the belly dancers of twenty years ago?

I watch their dominance of the restricted floor space. When a svelte young ingénue parades her comehitherance as she passes too closely to a candle dancer, the latter extends her arm in what appears to be part of her dance routine, and carefully but surely moves the belly dance aside. She is, after all, carrying a potential fire hazard on her head, whereas the young girl is merely exhibiting a strategically sexy control over her hips.

As a table of seven men, one of whom has tucked a fair few dirhams into the lingerie of various young ladies, we eventually share the spotlight of which the dancer is the sparkling star. Glasses and plates on our table are moved aside and a gorgeous young thing with flaxen hair, abundant cleavage and a mock-leopard-skin outfit is assisted onto the table by one of the waitresses. After some eye-raising shimmying she bends over backwards and executes a perfect arch, her well-filled top directly in front of the Moroccan with the an equally well-padded bill-fold. Under the gaze of everyone who can get close enough to the table, he ostentatiously folds a 200 dirham note under each strap of her leopard-skin top.

I’m sitting directly opposite the centre of attention, and my view is of a pair of beautifully formed feet with toenails painted in a devilish shade of crimson. I may not have had the best view in the house, but it consoles me to think that there will be an awful lot of photos of a beautiful upside-down Moroccan darling with bank notes sticking out of her costume, with face of a tired old man in the background, wondering if it’s time to go home yet.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, , and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.

The Wonderful British Pud

December 17, 2011


The English cuisine has always been laughed at by its European neighbours, but is this necessarily fair? The Italians eat nothing but spaghetti, the gastronomy of Spain is based solely on paella, don’t tell the Germans that a frankfurter tastes like mushy wet paper or the French that frogs legs are nothing to get excited over. Suddenly, the roast beef of old England  doesn’t seem so bad.  But whatever our European neighbours might say about British food, not one of them can measure up to the Great British Pudding. The variety is endless, and even the French were forced to admit British superiority when Misson de Valbourg said, after a visit to England in 1690, “Ah what an excellent thing is an English pudding!” (And despite its French sounding name, crème brulee, the creamy dish with the burnt sugar topping, was actually created in Cambridge in the early 19th century.)

But when is a pudding a pudding – or not, as the case may be? Yorkshire pudding isn’t a pudding, it is a savoury pastry case than can be filled with vegetables or served, full of gravy, with that other English staple, roast beef. And neither is black pudding, that’s a sausage of boiled pig’s blood in a length of intestine, usually bound with cereal and with cubes of fat added, and which sometimes goes under the more realistic name of blood pudding. In the reverse, ask for mince in the UK and you will be served with ground beef, but that Christmas delight, mince pies, are actually filled with a paste of dried fruits. Confusing!

Most British puddings are rich and sweet (‘sweet’ is actually another name for pudding) with the recipes often going back hundreds of years. The quintessential English pudding incorporates the fruits that are grown in England, the apples, the redcurrants and raspberries, bright red rhubarb, a plant that seems to be unknown elsewhere in Europe, (a childhood treat was to be given a long stick of it and a cone made of newspaper into which sugar was poured for you to dip the rhubarb in), or gooseberries, which, apart from being a small green, slightly bitter, hairy fruit, is the name given to someone who goes out with a couple on a date without a partner for the evening himself.

Pies, tarts and trifles, rich with cream, eggs and butter; spices, dried fruit, rum and rich dark brown sugar, first brought into England through the port of Whitehaven in Cumbria, items of such high value that the lord of the house would keep them locked away in his bedroom, portioning them out to the cook on a daily basis. The port had an equally dark history of supplying slaves for the plantations of the West Indies in exchange for the rich harvests of the islands, and was where the last invasion of the English mainland was attempted, in 1772, during the American War of Independence, when John Paul Jones, the father of the American Navy, raided the town but failed in his efforts.

Just the names of some puds cause them to stick in the mind. ‘Spotted Dick’, a hefty steamed pudding with butter, eggs and dried fruit folded into its heavy pastry, had a gigglesome name for generations of schoolboys (‘dick’ being a naughty word for ‘penis’), and so strong is this childhood memory that hospital managers in Gloucestershire, in the west of England, changed the name to ‘Spotted Richard’ when they put it on hospital menus, thinking that patients would be too embarrassed to ask for it by its original name. The truth is that no-one actually has any idea where the name came from, other than that the currants traditionally used gave the pudding a ‘spotted’ appearance. And a gooseberry fool isn’t an idiot whose friends don’t want to have him around, it is a deliciously creamy summer pudding.

An inescapable addition to any British pudding, especially the steamed ones, is custard; rich, golden and runny, which is poured hot over a steamy bowl of treacle pudding, apple crumble, plum duff or any other delicious pud hot from the oven. But another complication; ask for ‘a custard’ in a British bakery and you will be given a small pastry with a thick, creamy filling, which you would eat cold. Pudding custard is a flowing nectar made from egg yolk, milk, sugar and vanilla pods and the thought of licking the bowl after your mum had made it fresh must linger in the top five of every Brit’s favourite childhood memories.

But above all, the Christmas pudding reigns supreme, the highlight of the Christmas dinner when, if you were very lucky, you would be served the portion with the lucky sixpenny piece in it.

Copious quantities of currants, candied fruit, orange peel, lemon peel, eggs and beef suet to bind it all together. Then go in the spices, cloves and cinnamon; brandy if you want it and a good slug of sherry. It’s then steamed for an hour, maybe two hours, it depends on the size of the pudding.

But it isn’t just the wonderfully rich pudding that is important, it’s how it is served. You warm yet more brandy and then light it, pouring it over the hot Christmas pudding moments before it is carried to the table. If served when the room light is low, the blue flames dance and sparkle around the traditional sprig of berried holly stuck into the top of the pudding.

So, you may laugh at our fish ‘n’ chips, make rude comments about our drinking warm beer, or call us a nation of tea drinkers, but you will never, never – even in your wildest gastronomical dreams – be able to match the rich, calorie defying British Pud!

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