I never imagined I’d see the day when supermarket shelves were bare. To be honest I thought friends were exaggerating, but no! The world’s gone raving mad!
A flu virus (labelled Covid-19), like no other virus (apparently), which began in China (allegedly), has now stopped the world and its economies from functioning, and in the process sent folks insane. Our government has pleaded with the population not to bulk buy — to no avail. It’s every person for themselves. There is a massive shortage of food in the supermarkets and it’s caused by shoppers queing to get through the doors at 6am. By 7:30am there is not a crumb of bread in sight or a droplet of milk left. Not a grain of rice, nor a dusting of flour to grace the shelves. Neither a jar of coffee nor a packet of tea is safe from the marching marauders. Trolleys are piled high before the sun rises, and if you can find a toilet roll (yes, I kid you not!) or even kitchen wipes, well you just won’t!
But the worst of all by far is the absence of medicine. Got a headache? Tough! There are no pain killers to be had. Cold and flu remedies? No, nothing. And if you ask for any at the pharmacy you’ll be treated as if you’re an undesirable and you’ve just asked for heroin. How females go on with their personal requirements, I’ve no idea. There are people I know who have been on the receiving end of both physical and verbal assault. “Please don’t panic buy!” is the order of every day. “There’s enough to go round”, falls on deaf ears. For this is war. It’s the end of the world. We’re all going to hell in a handcart. Fight for survival and may the fittest win, and the loser will die.
I detest and deplore these survivalist cretins for all the damage they are doing, both to other desperate shoppers and, of course, to the suffering ill and infirm. These barking mad nutcases sprint around the aisles raiding everything of any use, take it home and stack it high in garages and living rooms. And the fresh food that goes off is presumably dumped.
The humble cold and flu treatments, including paracetamol, are now appearing on ebay at 3+ times their original value. I have witnessed one pack of well-known branded cold and flu treatment, that cost £3.99 3 weeks ago, is now on ebay for £170.00. I’m not joking! Check it out yourself, unless it has already been sold. But even the supermarkets and High Street drug chains seem to be getting in on the act. The price hike on some products has become obscene. Bet you those prices won’t go down after Coronavirus is but a distant nightmare. Like any past wars and famines, there are always those who are raking it in. You can bet your bottom dollar that record profits will be recorded to history by the food chains and wholesale suppliers soon. Make mine a double.
And the biggest mystery of all is why, oh, why have fuel prices risen? Does anyone know? There is a massive glut of oil on the world market that has recently driven the price down. Covid-19 comes along, and 3 week’s later fuel is hiked up by 10 per cent. Will that ever come down again? Flying pigs and all that.
So, buy and supply food for those elderly and infirm (there isn’t any, probably of either as things are going!), use sanitiser on your hands (there isn’t any), wash your hands with soap (there isn’t any), and keep away from others who might have the virus (so don’t leave your house). If you’re over 70, well, according to the government, you’ve had it anyway so what’s the point.
So what’s the answer to our present predicament? It’s what we have to do. See you at 4am in the morning outside Wallmart or Tesco’s armed with baseball bats and anger issues. I’m going for 2 trolley loads of toilet rolls myself. It’s going to be a fight to the finish, and may the best man win. Good luck, everybody.
So, Cirque du Soleil is a circus that began in France, has a truly international cast, and performs throughout the world. Roughly it translates to Circus of the Sun (don’t ask, you know how deep and abstract the French are!). The company never rests on its laurels and is always looking for new ways to present and to perform. For the first time ever, we decided to go and watch them in Sheffield, UK, at the ice arena. Yes, it was circus on ice, and titled Crystal.
Ask me on any normal day whether dancing on ice does anything for me personally and you’ll get a resounding NO! But we thought we’d give it a go anyway, even if I whinged all the following day.
Beginning at eight o’clock the greatest challenge for them was going to be to entertain me. So bring it on, Cirque du Soleil.
The booming voiceover of Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Crystal’ opened the show. The narrator speaks of a world that the main protagonist, Crystal, knows but just can’t understand the world that is familiar to her – but tilted in a surreal, disorienting way. Are you with me still? Well, as I said, it is French.
Crystal has her head in the clouds. She doesn’t fit in, whether it’s work or play. So she takes to the ice (?), does a dance only to fall through it (not literally!) into a very different world that is both extravagant and bizarre. She begins to feel empowered. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? And after this beautiful tameness, this monster of a physically exhausting show starts.
In a word it can only be described as fabulous. The annoyingly talented skaters are all Olympic standard, or experts in some way on the ice. Triple axles and butterfly jumps are mere childs play in this arena. Crazy physical ice hockey players, snowballing clowns and freestyle aggressive speedskaters mix suicidally with tap dancing skaters and a live skating band. Yes, it’s live music, and it’s out-of-this-world brilliant music. Anything from ethnic eastern European street music with clarinet, accordian, acoustic guitar and violin, to amazing classical grand piano, and from Irish jigs to heavy rock that just about blows your socks off. At times there are romantic interludes where Crystal dances and does her delicate ‘moves’, and there are other times when a cast of 50+ lunatic skaters are zooming around, floating on high wires, and leaping from the fantastically high scenery that is both death defying and spectacular. Did I mention the high wire acts and trapeze? No, not ordinary acts but scary, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat stuff that defies gravity and belief. A truly amazing lighting set flashes and dazzles, with lasers and intricatley projected patternation that adds to the magic.
Crystal’s story moves through several acts, each one centered around a different theme and features skating, acrobatics, choreography (they even tap dance on skates) and more — the show never wavers in its dazzling quality. Just as you begin to wonder how on earth Cirque du Soleil managed to find someone who can catch an icehockey stick 20ft in midair while skating full speed up and down two skateboard ramps in time to music, you’ve realized that they’ve found not one, but 10 people who can do it. And all can do backflips, 360s and leap high boxes, on skates.
But that’s not everything. This is a circus after all. Cirque du Soleil is obsessed with outdoing itself. Acrobats effortlessly scale enormous poles swinging from the ceiling, and then leap from one pole to another, swinging several feet away, and then catching themselves using only their legs. But this was never enough for the Cirque du Soleil team — the performers wouldn’t go home until the audience burst into an uproarious cheer after two acrobats climbed onto swinging poles, backflipped off them 30ft into the air and landed on their bladed feet onto a small mattress that had been placed only milliseconds before.
And if doing a handstand off the legs of a chair vertically stacked on top of four other chairs wasn’t already a hairy experience to watch, Cirque du Soleil pushes the envelope, bumping it up to eight chairs – on ice! During suspenseful moments such as these, you can hear a pin drop. It’s likely that audiences were especially nervous at times, considering recent news on tragic deaths related to Cirque du Soleil acrobats’ tragic deaths while performing new stunts.
The same aspects that make a Cirque du Soleil show so mesmerizing also make it difficult to critique. After all, there’s simply nothing else in the world to compare it to, except other outrageous Cirque du Soleil shows.
Was it any good?
The first thing was the easy access from the motorway and the clear road signage. Even I nearly didn’t get lost. Car parking is always a worry to me, especially in a city centre, but it was just problem free. Ok, a tad expensive, but so convenient. It was obviously a staggered arrival for the audience and a thousand or two vehicles were already there when we arrived. So a mass exit when the show had finished was bound to cause problems? Lo and behold, come ‘home time’ we pretty much left without a hitch. How good was that? It was stress free.
The Ice Arena is staffed by the friendliest of people and we had no problems at any time. The show itself is (as I’ve tried my best to describe it), worth every penny, and I thoroughly recommend catching Cirque du Soleil – Crystal, before it’s too late.
Well, seemed like a good idea! One rainy afternoon we noticed an advert online for free audience places to Britain’s Got Talent at the Lowry Theatre in Manchester. So for those who don’t know, substitute the word ‘Britain’s’ for anywhere in the world i.e Thailand’s; America’s; Ethiopia’s; Stewart Island’s et al, and you should get the drift.
It’s all about finding talented entertainers and placing them in a competition environment, and someone has to ‘win’.
…………’s Got Talent is a televised talent spotting competition, and part of a huge global franchise created by the ubiquitous Simon Cowell. Now, some people love and revere the megalomaniac music mogul. However, many people in the music industry loathe the guy for reinventing, even dumbing down, karaoke pop music with a whole array of charisma-challenged individual celeb ‘stars’ and local hopefuls, and changing the face of pop culture forever. It could be said that so-called Super Groups, creative artists and bands of old have had their day with their magical performances; the whole concept now retro-transformed into one singer backed by lights and dancers – and loads of dollars for all. Whatever, it’s here to stay. However, although primarily a singing contest, it has to be said that there is also a variety of performing dogs, jugglers and comedians, with the usual pretentious child acts pushed onstage by forceful, hopeful and desperate parents.
So, what’s it like to be in a TV audience? What do Simon, Amanda, Alesha and David look like? And what about Ant and Dec? What are they like in real life?
‘AntonDec’ arrived by water taxi, to be faced by hysterical fans outside the theatre. What a miserable pair they were too. I’m not sure which is which but one had a face like thunder and the other managed to crack a bit of a smile and agreed to a few selfies, as security teams pushed their way through adoring crowds and on into the Lowry. All of us mere cattle were then made to wait for, as it happened, Amanda Holden and Alesha Dixon. Finally their Aston Martin rolled up and both women, tiny in stature, popped out. A chorus of screams and shouts serenaded them both, begging for the usual selfies. I found myself staring more at the over-rection of fans confronted by their heroes, than at these stars. They then made their way in through the theatre doors and presumably straight into dressing rooms where they would be sprayed with liquid porcelaine and wax. No idea where David Walliams and Simon Cowell were, but we were informed that they were running late. So we missed them close up.
We took our seats, and the warm-up comedian immediately began instructing us on how to react to the judges and the acts, to cheer very loud, never to boo, and stand up and clap enthusiastically. But mainly to whoop, whistle and yell, jump up and down, and laugh out loud, just to show our appreciation. On no account were we to sit in silence. Therefore, to make lots of hysterical noise at all times. To be honest it was all just so fake!
I think we saw ‘Antondec’ for maybe a minute. That was our lot. Simon turned around and adressed us occasionally, but mainly the four judges sat with their backs to us in silence. An act appeared, consisting of a team of little girls who danced around in perfect timing, and we all dutifully leapt up, clapped, whooped and cheered as the judges voted with their buzzers, leaving us to spend the next five minutes after the act had departed, reflecting on how boring it had really been. We then waited for ten minutes while teams of make-up staff titivated and preened the judges. Each individual celebrity hair was tweeked and prodded into place, and the stage was reset for the next act. This consisted of a none-too-skilled magician. Again the audience reacted as though they had just witnessed the second coming of Christ, but it really wasn’t. It was poor. And after every similarly monotonous act, the judges, with their backs to us, had their hair combed and patted, pouting lips glossed and doll-like faces powdered for 10 minutes. We sat in silence. The stage was reset by an army of stagehands, and on trooped another tedious and desperate act accompanied by rapturous applause. My clapping became mooted and the whole affair seemed somewhat disjointed. Half way through I could not be bothered to even stand up. But still the main body of the audience leapt up in raptures, like trained circus seals, doing just as they had been told to.
What were the audience like? My personal observation was that the vast majority were between seventeen and very early twenties. Anybody over thirty stood out like a sore thumb. Most wore clothing more suited to gardening, bought fake tan in bulk and enjoyed dining at Greggs. Most needed to purchase shampoo. Most were noisy, shouty, and had no self-awareness whatsoever.
Conclusion? TheLowry Theatre was amazing. The treatment of the audience by theatre staff before we took our seats was just excellent. The celebrity judges were OK but distant and aloof, and no personal interaction with the audience. All eight acts were average. It was an experience. It was just OK.
But mainly we, the audience, were used by the TV company. What appears on your television after the film has been edited and polished, is mostly fake (in case you didn’t already know). I’ve got to say that personally we were fully aware of that. Initially at least, we participated willingly in this fakery. Yet a good number of the audience seemed naivly oblivious, or maybe just desperate for the chance to appear for one millisecond on TV. All in all, the majority seemed to enjoy it.
So, be warned, the world of television and film is all smoked glass and mirrors created by highly-skilled technicians, and where the chosen few shamelessly make fortunes.
Did we enjoy it? In a nutshell, despite my whinges, yes. It was an experience that ticked a few of life’s boxes. Would I go again? Probably not, is the answer to that. And if you think that this is a slightly cynical and jaundiced review and not fair on Simon Cowell and friends, then you are probably between 18 and 25, watch Love Island or have £40,000000 in the bank.
We thought we would broaden our horizons, and for no apparent reason, decided on a visit to Poland. So, why there?
Kraków, a city in Southern Poland. near the border with the Czech Republic, is known for its well-preserved medieval core and Jewish quarter. Its old town – ringed by Planty Park and remnants of the city’s medieval walls – is centered on the stately, expansive Rynek Glówny (market square). This plaza is the site of the Cloth Hall with its underground museum, a Renaissance-era trading outpost, and St. Mary’s Basilica, a stately 14th-century Gothic church.
Expecting snow, we thought it might be a romantic picture postcard setting and relief from our incessant wind, rain and the grey skies in our part of the country. With the overall cost of the hotel and airfare being quite reasonable and it only being 5 hours door to door, food, trips and drinks quite cheap, we were more than pleasantly surprised with our choice.
How do you pronounce Krakow? I’ve still no idea. Google (which is NEVER wrong… is it!?) suggests it is pronounced as it is spelt – ending in ‘cow’. Locals often pronounce it with an ‘ov’ sound at the end. To further complicate matters, there are at least 5 different spellings of the name. So you choose.
What to do there
The biggest draw has to be the city itself. With its magnificent central square, fantastic restaurants, fairy tale castle and river views, beautiful walks, shop till you drop, the exhibitions, the wonderful architecture, and not forgetting the hospitable English-speaking locals, it’s hard to pick out a favourite. We took a trip under the central Cloth Hall to explore the underground museum taking us back to Krakow seven hundred years ago. The Cloth Hall itself is still home to market stalls selling everything you never thought you needed, such as chess sets, furry hats, local amber jewellery and other souvenirs.
If you’re into churches, museums and living history, you can’t go wrong. Go for a leisurely coach ride from the square or a city sightseeing tour by ‘tuk tuk’ to the Jewish Quarter. Or, just a ten minute walk away is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wawel Royal Castle, one of the largest in Poland, and representing nearly all European architectural styles. Further afield the salt mine is well worth a visit. A word of warning though – the mine has two lots of downward steps totalling around 800 and even though you only walk one percent of the 150 km of tunnels its still a lot of walking so you need to be reasonably fit to venture down. There is an underground cafe there so for us Brits a nice cup of tea was beckoning, however the tour didn’t factor in time for one and we didn’t want to miss the lift that carries you back to the top.
Images of the history and associated atrocities of WW2 are around every corner in the city and a stark reminder of how the Poles and the Jewish community suffered. Take a walk into the Jewish quarter and check out the architecture and streets that never change, and behind every facade and street corner there are echoes of a much darker time that must never be repeated. Which brings me round to the prickly mention of the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau right on Krakow’s doorstep. This is a major destination and a must-see. Whatever your thoughts are on the subject, just go, and please don’t ask me why you should. The guide will show you around buildings, still hauntingly intact, and echoing with the unimaginable horrors of the holocaust. You’ll learn of man’s inhumanity to man committed within these sombre concrete walls and miles of cruel barbed wire. Close your eyes for a minute in the silence and try to imagine how it must have been, and you too will experience the prevailing sadness, despair and bitter anger. Leave there, get back on the coach you will ask yourself why it all happened, and why you went to visit. Tough questions you won’t be able to answer.
As this is principally a food blog by nature, what is traditional Polish food, I hear you ask? Poles boast that their two basic products are bread and sausages. And the most typical ingredients used in Polish cuisine are sauerkraut, beetroot, cucumbers (gherkins), sour cream, kohlrabi, mushrooms, sausages and smoked sausage. Pork is very popular in all its forms. A meal owes its taste to the herbs and spices used; such as marjoram, dill, caraway seeds, parsley, or pepper. The most popular desserts are cakes and pastries. A shot of vodka is an appropriate addition to meals and help you to digest the food. The main square and all roads leading to it are lined with fabulous traditional restaurants specialising in Polish cooking, as well as restaurants serving Italian, French and Asian foods, vegetarian and vegan bars. And on every corner you’ll find a bagel stand.
Lots of fish served here that includes Pike-perch, salmon, trout and cod. Go down to the Jewish Quarter for the finest fish dishes on offer.
Here are a few Polish specialities.
Traditionally a winter dish, Bigos is a hearty stew . Though there is no standard recipe, ingredients usually include lots of fresh and pickled cabbage, leftover meat parts and sausage, onion, mushrooms, garlic and whatever else is on hand. In fact, metaphorically Bigos translates to ‘big mess’ in Polish.
Translating to ‘little pigeons,’ this favourite dish consists of boiled cabbage leaves stuffed with beef, onion and rice before being baked and served in a tomato or mushroom sauce.
Pork knuckle or hock, as in pig’s thigh – boiled, braised, or generally roasted and put before you on a plate. A true Polish delicacy, the meat should slip right off the bone, be served with horseradish, and washed down with beer. Not my favourite but…
Probably the most popular lunch in Poland is the almighty ‘schabowy’ with mashed potatoes and pickled cabbage, and you can walk into almost restaurant in the country and they’ll have some form of it. Essentially a breaded and fried pork chop, ‘kotlet schabowy’ is quite similar to Viennese schnitzel.
Doughy dumplings traditionally filled with potato, sweet cheese, meat, mushrooms and cabbage, strawberries or plums, and if you nose around you will find plenty of different fillings like broccoli, chocolate or liver as the possibilities are truly limitless and they are served almost everywhere in the city. A great Polish favourite.
Poland has three signature soups: barszcz, żurek and flaki. A nourishing beetroot soup, barszcz may be served with potatoes and veggies tossed in, with a croquette or miniature pierogi floating in it, or simply as broth in a mug expressly for drinking (‘barszcz solo’). A recommended alternative to other beverages with any winter meal, we’d be surprised if you can find a bad cup of barszcz anywhere in Kraków. It doesn’t get any more Polish than żurek – a unique sour rye soup with sausage, potatoes and occasionally with egg, and often served in a bread bowl. If you’re of strong constitution and feeling truly adventurous, try flaki – beef tripe soup enriched with veggies, herbs and spices.
Poland’s culture has always integrated elements from its neighbours, and there are also many recipes of Jewish origin. Nowadays the Polish menu is still changing, being influenced by various, sometimes exotic tastes.
For the less adventurous there is also delicious steak, sushi bars, fabulous chicken dishes, many vege and vegan restaurants, bagels on street corners AND, don’t forget, the ubiquitous KFC and Macdonalds. It’s all here, and at very reasonable, and sometimes unbelievable, prices. Visit the Cyrano De Bergerac restaurant for a fine dining experience at a price that won’t break the bank. But venture off the beaten track for some pleasant surprises.
A few of our travel tips:
The temperature. Just remember, in the height of summer it can be 30 plus degrees, and in the winter it can easily drop to minus 20. Wear layers in the winter.
Poland is a mainly a Catholic country, and Catholics enjoy large families. The plane ride there and back can be like sitting in an infant school classroom with no teachers. The sound of incessant crying and screaming from tired and grizzly children will accompany you on your flight, both ways, whether you like it or not.
You need to be quite mobile and have a good level of fitness to be able to access some of the attractions here. There is little warning. Best to pack comfortable walking shoes.
Book up your visits in the many tourist information offices around the centre. It’s far cheaper than hotel prices and very good service.
You are expected to tip. However, some places take advantage of the tourists. You pay for a meal/drink in notes and there is often no intention of bringing you any change.
Worth a visit? A resounding ‘Yes’ to that. And it makes a change for us Brits to see our pound go so far. That’s not to say it’s cheap in Krakow, but it is noticeably cheaper. Don’t spend your time in the main square. Go round the nearest corner and enjoy great food, fabulous wine, and still have change for cake and a vodka. Recommended.
King’s Day? What’s that then? Well, according to the internet, it’s party weekend in Holland, and the centre of entertainment is Amsterdam. Yes, but what’s it all about, I hear you ask? And the answer is, I’m still not sure. I find it weird because the Dutch actually celebrate their royal family. Here in the UK our royal family are viewed with mixed feelings; seen by the under 50’s as tourism necessities sponging off the state, to a much respected institution representing the older establishment and traditions. Oh, yes, and our cousins in the US of A seem to love them, even occasionally marry them, for some inexplicable reason.
Anyway, King’s Day is a national holiday where, in Amsterdam especially, the whole of the city centre is closed to vehicles and public transport, where the canals come alive to barges packed sardine-like with cheering young people, and did I mention the orange? Orange everywhere. Balloons, flowers and painted faces. Bunting, paint and young men attired in smart suits. All in bright orange, I kid you not! While we are on the subject of the colour orange, why did the Dutch adopt it as their national colour and an integral part of their culture?
Simply put, (and it’s very complicated), Orange at the time was a small town in southern France over which the Dutch Republic resided, and William of Nassau-Dillenburg inherited the title William I of Orange and founded the house of Orange-Nassau. In England he was known to us as William the Silent. And orange became the adopted colour of the Dutch. It wasn’t because King Billy had a penchant for marmalade.
The Dutch have celebrated since 1885, and at the moment are actually celebrating King Willem-Alexander. It used to be Queen’s Day. Now it isn’t, so there. Just why they are celebrating him is a mystery to me, but, hey, any excuse for a party, as I see it.
So we ordered our bright orange t-shirts, booked a hotel early in the year, knowing that Amsterdam would be packed, and plumped to stay out of town and a short tram journey away. We arrived Friday and our room overlooked a canal. By 10:00am on the Friday a flotilla of small boats and barges, packed to the gunnels with cheering, shouting teenagers, serenaded with the gentle rhythms of Trap and Hip Hop booming from mega bass speakers became noticeable. This being the home of the Heineken Brewery, drinking from the signature half-litre cans was evident. By lunchtime the young were in a raucous mood, and the small cans and and bellowing young teenagers were a precursor for the two nights of partying to come.
So, was it good? Not sure, really. The entire Friday and Saturday was given over to hundreds of thousands of young people who spent their time drinking copiously and standing in the streets listening to the booms of shouting DJs on their open air stages and the occasional live band. Every few metres there was another ‘famous’ DJ, doing what they do best. And it became increasingly obvious that we were literally wading through the omnipresent half-litre Heineken cans, crushed underfoot by the roaming herds of youth. I couldn’t help but reflect, had such an event happened in the UK in the streets of London, Birmingham or Manchester there would have been stabbings, racial tensions and drugs, and lots of intimidation. Here it just felt safe, and the Dutch were their usual friendly selves.
On the whole it was a pretty subdued affair it seemed to me. Girls nervously doing a few sways and shaking to the beat, and then stopping self-consciously, drunken middle-aged Brit women doing ‘granny dancing’, and drinking heavily. The occasional window was broken and lots of young men shouting and swearing, but apart from that not a lot went on. The ever-present police force seemed to have been demoted to directing lost tourists.
I expected flower-bedecked floats, much more street food, TV, entertainment, fireworks and the like. One thing we can do in the UK is put on a proper party (OK, violence and shootings apart!), and one thing the Dutch don’t seem to know how to do is put on a spectacle. What it was was an orange coloured drinking festival. People were happy and Amsterdam seemed happy, but to me it was a bit of a let down. And anyway I’m too long in the tooth to drink 10 pints of Heineken, stare drunkenly at a live street band – and then stumble home . ‘Partying’ has certainly gone downhill since I was young!
We scraped and waded our way through a sea of green Heineken drinks cans and half-eaten burgers back to our hotel in the early hours of the morning. Was it good? It was an experience I suppose, but thank goodness for the rest of the delights of this city, which I do thoroughly recommend. Amsterdam is a neat, tidy city of diversity, and something for everyone. Can’t wait for my next visit, but personally I’ll give King’s Day a miss next year.
Another weekend and another different food experience. This time we headed off to Lincoln’s historic Norman Castle for the UK’s biggest food festival; Chow Down, where for a £3 per adult entrance fee into the castle grounds, we could purchase and enjoy independent street food, drinks, music and family-friendly activities.
I’m sure the stall holders were thankful for the beautiful spring weather which, along with the soul music and the inviting aromas, helped to create a relaxed holiday atmosphere.
A varied selection of converted trailers and vans housed an equally varied selection of food vendors. There really was something for everyone with so many different cultural food represented. From meat and fish to vegan specialities, not to mention Champagne, gin and crafted beers, and ice cream and waffles for afters. Wandering around the stalls it was difficult not to visit every vendor. One thing worth mentioning was that there was little if any plastic to be seen. Wooden fork/spoons and general recyclable packaging was noticeably used by all the stall holders. What a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.
Was it all healthy food? Well, I had some coleslaw on my fries if that counts. To be honest, the TV health fascists would have had a heart attack just looking at some of this stuff. But was the food good? Did it make you feel good? Was it food for the soul? Did we feel guilty? I think you should have asked the happy crowds. Mine was superb, though I shouldn’t have been tempted by the waffle. It was a one-off day followed by a week of healthy eating for us but we will hopefully check out this event again when it returns in the summer. You should too. A well organised day.
Having looked for something different to do on a beautiful Easter weekend we decided on a visit to Belvoir Castle near Grantham, Lincolnshire. Traditionally pronounced ‘Beaver’ Castle, since the reluctant locals from the nearby ancient village of Bever refused to use the french word Belvoir, bestowed on it by the victorious French William centuries ago (1066 and all that). The Castle proudly stands atop the only hill for miles around and grandly overlooks Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. Four castles have stood here since 1067 when the land was a gifted from William the Conqueror to Robert de Todeni, ancestor to the current Duke of Rutland and William’s Standard Bearer in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Anyway, that’s enough learning!
So having paid our 20 English pounds each entrance fee we took a quick look around the castle gardens before venturing inside for our guided tour. The knowledgeable and long serving guide took us through the halls and history of the castle adding in personal anecdotes along the way. Mostly interesting and sometimes entertaining if a little long winded, a few visitors fell by the wayside. Portraits of the family from past to present adorn the walls along with those of visiting royals including that of Henry VIII with his ‘dancing feet’ (they appear to move depending on where you stand), purportedly by Hans Holbein. It’s a must see, and a favourite of school trips.
Having said goodbye to the guide we decided to search out the tea room. Obviously very busy on a bank holiday weekend, we still found a grandly table-clothed nook and placed our order with a very friendly waitress for; two teas, one salmon sandwich and one scone with jam and cream. And the winner for the most expensive cup of tea award goes to…. you’ve guessed it!
For £48 you can have the full Afternoon Tea experience. Having enjoyed an afternoon tea at a Michelin starred restaurant for less we decided Belvoir Castle’s prices, like the walk up the hill, were a bit steep. You decide.
Having said that we still enjoyed the day. If you enjoy beautiful manicured gardens there is plenty to explore here, including one of Capability Brown’s gardens, and if you enjoy history, there is, as you might expect, plenty of that here too. But if you just want tea and cake then don’t forget your wallet.
Hidden amongst memories of Hull’s maritime past, up a twisting staircase inside a converted Victorian warehouse and overlooking the marina, is a little bit of Italy. Upon entering an unassuming portal, reaching the top floor, and opening a substantial door you are suddenly faced and embraced with the sights and smells of traditional yet contemporary Italian cuisine. Light and airy, quite spacious and with a relaxing atmosphere, welcome to Al Porto.
And what a very warm and friendly welcome we received on a very chilly Tuesday evening.
An important point for us was that the dining table was actually big enough for our party of four and that there was enough space around the table to serve. OK, it’s not the most important thing about dining, but it is part of the experience when sometimes restaurants nowadays pack tables in and compromise customer comfort for customer capacity. Trying to leave your table without having to climb over the folks behind, and negotiating a pathway through the seated mass of other diners, is an art in itself. But not an issue here.
Our drinks order was taken promptly and a nice touch was the complementary warm focaccia with olive oil and balsamic vinegar while we waited for the starters.
We started with choices of Freddi (cold starters) or the warm stuff. I had mussels in a white wine creamy sauce; the sauce was absolutely delicious. Thankfully there was crusty bread to dip into it.
Other guests chose:
Frittelle di Pesce ; a trio of Fish Bon Bon, made with crab, salmon, and sea bass in a pea and mint purée.
And Fegato D’oca, a duck liver pate served on toasted bread with orange and red onion chutney. All of which disappeared very quickly as they were so delicious.
Then it was time for the mains. There was something for everybody. Meat, fish, pasta and vegetarian options. We chose:
Gamberetti – baby prawns with courgettes and cherry tomatoes in a creamy sauce
Ravioli all’aragosta – lobster ravioli with baby prawns, cherry tomatoes, garlic and onions in a saffron creamy sauce, very tasty.
and Filetto alla griglia – steak in a sauce of your choice. This was a little disappointing as it should have been cooked to ‘medium’ and was actually ‘well done’. Also for the price we think potatoes should have been included instead of being an ‘additional side’.
Mine was a strange choice from the ‘Specials’ board, namely Duck Stroganoff. OK, a tad Russian, but I just fancied something different. I have to say, it was delicious with every mouthful savoured.
Could we manage a sweet? It was a challenge but we decided to go for it. Well, wouldn’t you?
One issue, rather trivial, yet important enough to mention – ‘TURN THE MUSIC DOWN A BIT!’, and a warning to those who may struggle with stairs; the restaurant is very much upstairs.
Was it expensive? Well, with a modest amount of drinks the bill for 4 persons came to around £160, so it wasn’t cheap. But if you enjoy Italian cuisine and you have a special occasion or want to treat yourself then we would thoroughly recommend it. The eating experience was excellent. The service was cheerful, friendly and helpful. Modern Italy in the heart of Hull.
Take chicken, for instance! What came first, the chicken or the egg? Well the chicken story starts by deciding which batch will become egg-layers, and which batch will become broilers, in other words, meat. So, let’s start with the egg layer. These are specially bred chickens which are ‘designed’ to pump out eggs at an alarming rate; normally around 320 in its very short life.
And the broiler? The broiler eggs are all laid out in neat rows on a conveyor belt, roll under a robot with a set of needles where each egg is punctured by syringes. Then a mix of antibiotics and various vaccines (some are closely guarded secrets) are pumped into the unborn chick. Three days later they will all hatch.
Then the gruesome part starts, and which is often disputed as to how much and how often it takes place. It tends to be seen as the dark side of chicken farming, which is the injection of hormones including steroids. They soon resemble little weight lifters with pumped up thighs and breasts. Fact: in 1957 the average growth period from egg to plate was 63 days, which is not a lot. By the 1990’s the number of growth days had been reduced to 38 days (6 weeks!) and the amount of feed reduced by half. Have we now stopped messing with chicken now that they’re on the slab? No, not quite!
There’s the highly contentious issue of chlorine washing of chickens in the good ol’ US of A. Still frowned upon here, it is an issue that may raise its ugly head when Brexit takes place.
Next comes ‘plumping’. This is about visually ‘enhancing’ the carcass by injection. What poultry producers actually plump them with is, again, often a dark secret, but generally it’s saltwater, chicken stock and even seaweed extract. Why? So that the chicken actually tastes of, er, chicken, and that it looks fat and juicy on the supermarket shelves.
Just as an addition to the subject, experts are warning that the overuse of antibiotics in poultry farms around the world is creating a generation of superbugs that are resistant to treatment by virtually every drug in the medical establishment’s armoury.
So, broilers don’t eat properly, develop properly, exist properly, and are Frankenstein-esque babies when we consume them. No wonder they have no taste, only texture.
So, am I personally a vegetarian? No, I’m not, and I don’t aim to be. But it makes you think, doesn’t it? It would be an easy choice!
Is it just me or does anyone out there think the same about our food in the UK? In my opinion it is mostly tasteless. Why do all these TV chefs insist on food that is heavily seasoned? Think about it! And the answer is, much of our food doesn’t taste of anything. One person described salad in the UK as being, ‘just crunchy water’. I’ve recently bought strawberries that looked like strawberries, were the same colour as strawberries, had the same texture as strawberries, but they tasted of nothing at all.
If you ever travel to or through Italy, Greece, France, Spain etc. you’ll find that fruit & veg in these places tastes amazing! So much flavour, and individually tasty in their own right. Why? Perhaps it is because much of their food is grown locally to the market or supermarket, and not transported to one end of the country and back, and is therefore likely to be both fresher and tastier. They also have a reliable climate that guarantees natural warmth, sunlight and the required nutrients from the soil. The problem, as I see it, is when consumers in the UK demand these products all year round. You could also suggest that UK supermarket fruits and vegetables are from varieties grown to have tough skins (so they don’t damage in transit), have a long shelf life (so they can be transported long distances and won’t go off in the shop), and don’t easily bruise / spoil. You also need to factor in supermarket processing costs (it’s easier and cheaper for them to deal with produce exactly the same size and consistency i.e. peppers, plums, apples etc.) and the packaging, so that you can neither taste nor smell the goods.
Another factor is the demise of the local greengrocer. In place of wonky carrots and ‘dirty’ potatoes we now have uniform shapes, colours and sizes. And why have the supermarkets seized the monopoly on fruit and veg? Because the public demand cheap food, that’s why. So, in my opinion, it’s both our faults. But that’s not enough info. Why is it that I buy what are described as ‘sweet’ oranges, I peel one, and it’s so sour it takes the enamel off my teeth. You could use the juice from supermarket plums to remove paint, and the grapes can give you mouth ulcers. But that’s how supermarkets want to sell it. From picking, days of shipment, packing and finally storing, by the time it appears on the shelves it has to look exactly the same as when it dropped off the tree.
It’s what happens to the fruit and veg when it’s stored that is interesting. They go into what’s called Controlled Atmosphere Storage all year. This consists of regulating concentrations of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, as well as the temperature and humidity of a storage room. Both dry commodities and fresh fruit and vegetables can be stored in controlled atmospheres. So, for instance, this means that apples are harvested at a certain time of the year, are put into CAS, and abracadabra, apples are on the shelves throughout the year looking and tasting exactly the same as the day they were picked – and before they’ve ripened!
UK consumers (at least according to supermarkets) care more about cosmetic appearance than their continental counterparts who appear to care more about taste, and UK supermarkets care more about consistency of product (size, weight, appearance, availability). Consistency of availability also means UK supermarkets are less likely to stock a great product that is only available for two weeks of the year (there is a cost to setting up the supply chain). In essence, supermarkets stock what sells, and what sells is often tasteless but resilient fruit and veg. It tastes less good, and spoils quickly once it’s out of its packaging.
But we still buy it because the general consumer has little or no choice. And as a closing point, nobody under a certain age will have a clue what I’m talking about, having been raised on supermarket fruit and veg for their entire lives. Pass the salt and pepper!
Three quick tips:
When buying imported fruits (and vegetables); keep them outside of the fridge as much as possible, and if planning to eat soon, place them on the window sill for a little while, and the flavours should improve.
Try visiting a thriving market with colourful fruit and veg stalls where you are cordially invited to taste the produce by the stall holder and purchase free from packaging. And it’s often cheaper.