Friday, 19 April 2013

Food Diary

The last week or so has been a culinary roller coaster. If this had been a food diary for a school homework project, I would be bringing home a letter to my parents suggesting gastric bands and strict five-a-day regimes.

We celebrated Mrs A’s birthday with my Dad and Bruv in Pickering. The White Swan in the Market Place is far and away the best place to eat in the town. Indeed it may be the only decent place. For a pretty enough market town on the edge of the Moors hosting the terminus to one of the most popular heritage steam railways in the country, Pickering can seem remarkably unambitious. Shops close early and don’t open on tourist Sundays; most of the pubs are trapped in a patterned carpet 80’s time warp and the restaurants are left behind by more inspiring eateries in nearby towns and country pubs.

But the White Swan always comes up trumps. Tasteful décor, unpretentious service and fabulous food.  Little Bruv’s seared pigeon breast looked amazing, deep brown and sticky on the outside, but claret purple and soft on the inside. The best possible use for the pestilent garden wood pigeon. Dad’s pork belly, crowned by a chunky slice of bubbly crackling was a masterpiece. Helen’s sea bass was subtle and satisfying and the girls rattled through a beer battered Whitby haddock each. I made the only mistake of the evening with a bland ham hock terrine starter, but the deep flavoured slab of rib-eye beef that followed easily made up for it.

Earlier in the day, we had watched the Grand National. As usual, Mrs A had skipped quickly over the market principals to instead cast her eye over the horses priced up at 50-1 and greater. This is as much a household tradition on National day as bucks fizz is on Christmas morning. Oscar Time was to be the beast of burden on this occasion, lumbered with her £2 stake. I pleaded for the bet to be each-way, but as ever, this was a doomed request. Deaf ears. Betfair, of course, offered far more attractive prices at that end of the market and 143-1 was secured. Over a late breakfast (toast, bacon, cereal, juice, coffee, mini samosas and pork pies) Bruv had put the finishing touches to the family sweepstake. Six horses each meant that four would be left over. We decided to doctor the pack and take out four we thought had no chance. Oscar Time was one of them.

I sometimes used to lay off these ridiculous bets of my better half. But not any more.  In 2010, Mrs A plumped for Conna Castle at 100-1 in the shops but more like 250-1 on Betfair. The price crashed in (I’m not sure that’s quite the most accurate expression) to something like 130-1. I did the decent thing and laid it off to get a few shekels back. The bloody thing was leading for the entire first circuit and jumping with zeal. I couldn’t tell Mrs A during the race that she was getting over excited about a bet with a potential return of about £4. I was convinced that the animal would fade, and despite my rising blood pressure, it did. But not until Becher’s 2nd time round. When I confessed after the race about my sharp practice, I was informed in no uncertain terms that I would have been expected to pay up the full £500. Tsk. For better, for worse, I say. 

This year, the race was a true spectacle. Safe jumping, no casualties, changing leaders and a close finish. There was a cacophony of noise down Westgate as  Oscar Time led them round at a merry clip, with my punt Across The Bay in tow. And like the previous occasion, I fully expected Mrs A’s horse to fade. It didn’t. On the final circuit, she was imploring the horse for more. With two fences to jump, he still looked like the winner. “I’m going to win £300 pounds!”, she excitedly shouted to the girls. “Come on Oscar!”. Amazing scenes. She sounded like… well… me!

It was not to be though. Teaforthree ranged up and looked all over the winner and then Ryan Mania urged Auroras Encore from a mile back to present a deserving win to Sue Smith. Cappa Bleu stayed on for 2nd and relegated Oscar Time to 4th.  I pointed out the folly of eschewing the place element, but Mrs A was clearly more than satisfied with the excitement of a near miss for her £2. She did however clear up on the Family Sweepstake. Swings and roundabouts.  

Back home, on Wednesday night, Mrs A hosted a Book Club meeting. Six mothers and attendant teenage daughters round our gaff. So my e-mail went out early on Monday morning to the lads. “Help. Anyone around on Wednesday…?” Ben replied, “Dave, are they discussing Mug Punting”. I don’t think that would have taken long.  

The boys didn’t let me down. It was a long night though. I was hammered by the time I left the Barley Mow. I was all set to leave and then Tim engaged me in discourse about his betting strategy. A single malt beckoned from the dusty top shelf behind the bar. I left some while shortly after silly o’clock still trying to understand Tim’s complicated value punting system. It appears to be based on a series of 5p each way bets from four different accounts across all 75 (plus) races on a Saturday afternoon. “It’s worth doing an each way combination on every opening race at all the cards on Saturday as they are usually some impossible conditional hurdle or division one of a novice hurdle. Great fun.” And he makes it pay. Quality extreme value punting. 

Getting home became a bad joke when we ground to a halt behind a failed goods train outside Watford. The stationary minutes ticked by, putting increasing pressure on the one working toilet. By the time I gave in to the inevitable, the environment in there was not pleasant, this being a late train out of Euston full of beered-up office workers.

And I also recognised that all junk food options in the High Street would be closed. Instead, at home I found and devoured the remnants of Mrs A’s Book Club provisions: a few smelly French cheeses, exotically flavoured gourmet crisps, some crusts of rustic bread and aromatically stuffed peppers and olives.  Not the feast I had in mind, but perfectly pleasant nonetheless.

The next night was a session at The Oval cricket nets. About twenty minutes into our vigorous workout, a white haired, pock-faced, stubbly chinned bloke wearing cricket slacks held up over a protruding belly by a pair of stained grey braces, poked his head around the curtain and said, “This must be the youth academy net is it?” I look at him quizzically, “Er, pardon?” “Yeah, yeah, youth academy. We’ve got our eye on this net”. Then he grins “Nice to see some old lags down here alongside these lithe young whippersnappers! We got to keep doing it ain’t we?” Cheeky sod. Was that irony or sarcasm? Or both? But I could see where he was coming from. “Oh, ha, ha. Yeah. We are keeping it real!” Nick strolled up with his ‘Love Rugby - I’ll be first in the scrum at the bar’ t-shirt, I stroked my red, holey AC/DC top and Will conceded that sharing boxes, using gloves with the rubber protectors missing, and wielding taped-up second-hand bats probably didn’t put us in the Surrey Colts league.

Beardy-braces man chuckled and took up a place in the adjacent net with his own old lags. I looked down the line and recognised the wisdom of his backhanded compliment. The other four nets were occupied by athletes screaming the ball down at 90 mph and defended by technically correct batsmen kitted with helmets, thigh pads and chest protectors. We saw Ramps down here once, coaching a youngster. I had to ask him to move off my run up (I was on the full eight paces that night). He obliged and also autographed Ed’s broken bat for his girlfriend who was a massive fan of Strictly. A true gent.

Over a few beers in the pub after nets, Col, Nick, Will and I came up with what we thought was a piece of classic comedy for a potential spoof Celebrity Masterchef sketch. This would centre on the close ups of a few apprehensive fizzogs from soap operas and reality TV b-lists as Greg whips off a table cloth to reveal their ingredients for the taste test: six different flavoured pot noodles nestling around a gleaming silver kettle. “Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this!”, utters the salivating, twinkly eyed former greengrocer. How we howled with creative laughter, supping off another couple of pints and adding the odd comic flourish or humorous twist to perfect the sketch. All it needed was a well-placed pitch to Richard Curtis or Lenny Henry and there is the centrepiece for the next Comic relief appeal. Later I enthusiastically described this sketch to Mrs A.  I noted that her reaction was closer to a polite chuckle rather than uncontrollable mirth-driven rocking or spasms of laughter prompting struggles for air. Maybe it needs more work. 

More train misery. All the passengers were chucked off at Euston because the driver had not turned up. In its wisdom, London Midland waited until the later stopping service had departed before kicking us off. Just to ensure maximum delay.  

Clambering aboard the next available train, my fellow commuters and I stoically shared some pithy words of indignation. I hoped the delay hadn’t cost me the chance of a kebab at the unreliable outlet in Berko. Finally underway, I soon became fidgety and uncomfortable. Hot feet were to blame. I tried closing my eyes and sinking into my ipod, but my legs would involuntarily twitch or I would have to shuffle and wriggle.

Eventually I saw no alternative but to free the gummy metatarsals from their sweaty incarceration. The freshening effect was as immediate as sticking your head out of the open window of a moving car or plunging your hands into icy water. The reaction from my fellow travellers was only slightly less immediate. Gone was the camaraderie of our earlier railing against the incompetant train company. Instead, each of the four passengers in my six-berth seating arrangement, got up, variously tutted, stared or winced and then moved away. Never had the carriage at the wrong end of the train for the exits approaching sleepy Apsley seen so much activity. I must have presented a wonderful aspect: dense, moist air rising from my humming feet and fruity beer mingling with stale sweat reeking from every exposed pore on my body.

And after train misery came the kebab misery. New Crystal Kebabs only had chicken doners left. Regular readers of this blog will know of my love of good and hatred of shoddy doners. This particular establishment is way down the list of decent fast food emporia at the best of times. But I would have settled for a proper lamb doner. Not that scraggy, fatty, pale and lumpy pile of chicken offcuts and render apologetically gathered at the base of the burners that the tetchy server was now pointing to using a fat and scrap encrusted palette knife.  “Just chicken mate. No lamb”. I scowled. “I don’t want that stuff,”  I murmured, and stalked out. Of all the products you would expect a kebab house to sell, a proper doner is an absolute essential. New Crystal Kebabs has plumbed an unnavigable low.

I ended up in the New Akash curry house, talking cricket to one of the waiters. (Not the same guy to whom I blathered once, when in a state of extreme intoxication, about playing cricket so much that he thought I was asking to join his team. Next morning I found his number in my phone address book filed under Asif Wristy.) So I ordered a jalfrezi, pilau and keema nan. I got it home and played with it on the plate, eating only a few mouthfuls. The moment had gone.

Next morning I texted Nick to summarise my despair on the junk food front. “I had Pot Noodle” he replied. Practising for Masterchef I bet.

Julie’s birthday bash rounded off a culinary diverse week with a touch of class. She had booked the private room at The Old Mill in Berko for her 50th. Most of the guests were from up the road in Cheddington, Julie’s village, where there was a champagne reception first. So we drove over, toasted Julie’s successfully completed years in Bollinger and ate home made canapés before boarding a specially commissioned coach to take us to the restaurant. Fantastic! A charabanc through the Chilterns. I was forbidden from mooning out of the window and had to content myself with waving to everyone we knew en route.  Rude rugby songs could be heard wafting from the back seats. It was a full-blooded evening of thick steaks, spiced lamb, strong reds and smoky whites, accompanied by much song. Mainly ‘Happy Birthday Tooo Yoooo’ everytime someone walked into the room. We are still awaiting Julie’s speech.

Time for a lie down and a trial of the 5-2 fasting diet, I think. Purge, baby, purge.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Self publicity

A couple of people have kindly asked if it is possible to get hold of physical copies of my photos anywhere.

So after looking round at various options, I've uploaded a few albums to a Photobox gallery here.

And whilst we are on the subject, Mug Punting - Short Tales About Long Odds, a book of racing stories from the early days that inspired this blog, is now available in paperback through Info page here.

The kindle version is available from the Amazon store - click the book cover in the right hand panel. Free to borrow for Amazon Prime customers.

OK, advert over.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Easter Parade

Easter has provided a welcome break between Cheltenham and Aintree this year. A timely religious Festival to temper the experiences of one equine Festival before the start of another.

Once again, Granny played the Easter Bunny for a family gathering that involved a giant egg hunt in the back garden. This year the chocolate prizes were both hidden and retrieved in record time, spurred on by a biting easterly and steel grey skies. Not like a few years ago when my niece found one of her Easter offerings in July, tucked down the back of the hedge, still wrapped in its yellow tissue paper. The hunt is, of course, colour co-ordinated. Uncle Chris gets always gets blue paper because he supports Chelsea.We have sometimes holidayed with Auntie Sue over Easter. However, an egg hunt in 25 degree heat offers an altogether different challenge to its British counterpart.  One needs to be speedy and focused if a messy, liquefied celebration of chocolate is to be avoided.

Sue supports Chelsea as well. The fact that two out of three of Granny’s offspring, together with three of her five grandchildren are in the Chelsea way is significant. It means that Granny is too. By dint of family. I don’t think she knew too much about football when she left Dublin for these shores in the ‘50’s. I’m not really convinced that she knows too much more now... But ever since her son became intoxicated with The Blues as a child. Granny has been swept along. Even Mrs A, who mostly resisted the Stamford Bridge tidal wave in her Old Stratford home can still name the starting line up of the Chelsea Cup winners from 1970. “Bonnetti, Webb, Harris, Hollins …”
Despite all this, it came as a surprise to my girls that their Granny got so involved in a Chelsea football match. The FA Cup Quarter final replay was on the box: Chelsea v Man Utd. Chris has gone to the game, needless to say. Granny was distractedly watching the game, not really able to watch, until Ba stretched every muscle in his extended right leg to volley home from inside the box. At that point, Granny started counting down the minutes. What she lacks in technical analysis she makes up for in determined enthusiasm.

“Go on Chelsea. Get it! Get it. Kick it! Oh no. No-no-no….has that clock stopped? There can’t be all that time left”
The girls stopped munching their way through Cadbury’s Caramel eggs to look up at Granny and make sure she was alright.

“Hurry up. Don’t let that man have it. Hang on to it!” And then almost under her breath, “….Oh, that was just a replay.”
Daughters by now were wide-eyed and grinning. Granny was oblivious, rocking forwards and backwards or crouching and squinting in response to every dink and ricochet of the ball.

“Oh no, here it comes. Oh no. Good gracious. Ohohohohoh. Kick it!
By the time the final whistle blew and Chelsea had held on, we were all exhausted and a little relieved. Granny was delighted. I’m not too sure she was aware what they had won or what would come next. But she knew Chris and Sue and Joe and Fiona and Robyn would be ecstatic. Reflected glory in the best way. I think this responsibility is part of the Mammy/Granny job description.

We will be up at my Dad’s for the Grand National. Therein lies a whole other set of Grandparent fun and games. I’ll save the mobile phone saga for another time.
Aintree is like the ‘Highway To Hell’ of the season: a tight, sharp, athletic workout with emphasis on big hitters and no fillers. Cheltenham is more akin to the undulating ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’ with unnecessary ramblings and awkward diversions amongst the many high points.

We are set for a high class meeting this week. Sometimes the calendar works in Aintree’s favour. A three-week break since Cheltenham means many of those combatants will line up here too. And plenty of good horses that didn’t go to Prestbury Park for reasons of injury or preference will be ready for Liverpool instead. On the down side the Irish challenge tends to be less intense, given the proximity of the massive Punchestown Festival at the end of the month. After their carve up job at Cheltenham, this can only be a good thing for British trainers. That said, the list of probable Irish runners this week indicates a hefty enough presence.

Moving the Aintree Hurdle to the opening day is a positive act. This is always one of the best races of the meeting and slipping it away from the suffocating build up to the Grand National on Saturday will see it flourish. The season’s foremost 2 ½ hurdle race has more than a look of the Champion Hurdle about it. Zarkandar (fell in this last year when favourite), Grandouet, Countrywide Flame and Raya Star are all unproven at 2 ½ miles. Prospect Wells is cast from granite and never knows when he’s beaten, but has been exposed at the top level too many times. Last season’s 1st and 2nd re-oppose here. I can’t fancy Thousand Stars on current form, but the 11-2 about Oscar Whisky is attractive if his World Hurdle flop is ignored. The race is given some eye watering zest by the inclusion of The New One, winner in some style of the Neptune at the Festival. His trainer, Twiston-Davies is never one to shirk a challenge and this is a typically bold*/rash* [* delete as appropriate after the race] play. Love it.

The Manifesto Novices Chase, a Grade 1 over an intermediate trip looks weak for the billing. Plenty of these are on recovery missions. Captain Conan should go much better than in the Jewson that won’t expose his flaky stamina as much. Fago can’t be backed with any confidence after his last two runs although his French form suggests the trip will be no problem. Maybe Changing Times is the one, if he shows up here, after the new hold up tactics saw him make the frame behind Benefficient at 100-1 three weeks ago.

The Bowl should be a match between Silviniaco Conti and First Lieutenant. The former should prevail on a nice flat track if the fall in the Gold Cup (Dang! Don’t remind me!) hasn’t shaken him up too much. 

In the Juvenile Hurdle, I’ll probably back Ruacana at 12-1, given that his 3rd behind the electric Our Conor at Leopardstown looks bloody good now, even if his 7th in the Fred Winter is less appealing. A flatter track and better going will help. Irish Saint who has been kept fresh for this and Rolling Star both look too short based on what we now know of the juvenile form.
Friday’s stand out race is the Melling Chase. Sprinter Sacre stepped up to 2 ½ miles against Ireland’s best chaser at this trip, a fully recovered (we hope) Flemenstar. He is a poor traveller, apparently, so let’s hope he’s dosed up on the Quells. Cue Card has now proved himself the best 2 ½ miler in Britain, despite Joe Tizzard booting him in to every fence on the circuit, and will ensure a true test. Finian’s Rainbow might have been a threat on last season’s form but has plenty to prove here. Sprinter at a canter then, but a very different test nonetheless, and credit to connections for taking it now rather than at a lower key event in the Autumn.

The day kicks off with the Top Novices Hurdle where My Tent Or Yours will no doubt confirm his class whether he pulls McCoy’s arms out or not. There is no Champagne Fever in this field to deny him. Though Forgotten Voice and Melodic Rendezvous will go well, having missed the Festival. I’ll be on the latter and Dodging Bullets assuming they line up for this instead of the 2 ½ mile novice hurdle.

Dynaste won’t get his favoured soft ground this week, but surely will be routed to the Mildmay over 3 miles this time rather than 2 ½. Vino Griego - remarkably still a novice - is fascinating (if lining up here rather than humping top weight in a handicap) now that connections have stumbled on the hold-up tactics that seem to suit him so well.

Winners of the Grade 1 Sefton Novice Hurdle over 3 miles don’t exactly roll off the tongue. Iris’s Gift is the only recent winner to have troubled the judges at the very top level subsequently. A couple here could change all that. At Fishers Cross, if taking to better ground, could be special. Ballycasey, forced to miss Cheltenham, comes with a very tall reputation. I may stick with Our Vinnie who was brought down before the going got serious in the Albert Bartlett.  

Saturday’s card is difficult to assess at this distance because of multiple declarations. I’ll be looking to get after the progressive Many Clouds if he runs in the Mersey Novices Hurdle and Donald McCain’s Up And Go must have a chance too. The Maghull Novices Chase might cut up, leaving Overturn facing only a few rivals. Alderwood, if he is one of them, looks the business and comes with the best form after a scintillating win in a top class Grand Annual. I’m a big fan of the willing Sire De Grugy, but he has only place claims at best.

The Liverpool Hurdle will be a small stakes bet on the day. After being spoilt with Big Buck’s, Iris’s Gift, Inglis Drever and Baracouda, the World Hurdle felt like a return to the bad old days of ageing, slow two-milers stepping up in trip to clean up weak staying hurdles. Solwhit and Celestial Gold filling the first two places doesn’t say much for the strength in depth of this division.

And so to the Grand National, with a tweaked start and soft core fences. Here’s hoping for a safe, controversy-free renewal.  I’m already tooled up with potential pot-winning Chicago Grey in our local Ten To Follow comp and a share of Join Together with the boys using the remnants of the whip money from Gold Cup Day. Surely that’s enough for the biggest lottery of the year? Probably not.  At fancy prices 50-1 and up, Across The Bay (an improver who goes well on the track and will get the trip) and Lost Glory (a Jonjo quietly campaigned type with the right credentials) both caught my eye. Who is to say how many more might do the same before the jostling at the tapes begins.

Plenty of time too for Granny to call and ask for her pair of £2 each-way bets to be placed on “anything Irish, or an Irish-sounding name or with green in the colours”. That sounds like a sure fire route to success to me. Stick with the Celts.