January 8, 2021

Cosy January

Let me just tell you right now, I have no truck with Dry January, nor with Veganuary, nor with any other faddish means of making this dreariest month in such uncertain times any worse than it already is. What, I ask myself under my breath, is the matter with people who think that this martyrish self-denial is in any way improving, when we’ve all got to get through weeks or months of darkness and doubt, before the sun truly comes back and we can all get vaccinations without losing any loved ones. Is this a time to deny yourself cheese? It is not. Are these icy mornings the moment to step outside in nothing but your skimpy running tights and no gloves on? They are not.

The best of the weather is crisp, blue-skied, and bitterly cold; but most of the time it is overcast and the streets are mucky with salt and grime. Even the birds are holed up somewhere more hygge, and won’t be lured out by anyone’s fat balls. I intend to take a tip from my feathered erstwhile companions, and sing for no-one who doesn’t offer me chocolate and a hot water bottle, or a pot of delicous tea.

I posit that denying oneself pleasure in January was an invention of the Victorians, known for covering up the legs of their chairs lest some lightweight of a gentleman should become excited by their delicately turned ankles, and other utter batshit nonsense. Times were hard, but they didn’t have online ordering, so perhaps should not be judged by the standards of today. If you’ve been reading Uborka for any portion of the last 17 years (bloody hell 17 years?) then you know I generally tend towards resisting rampant consumerism, and yet am hypocrite enough to order from Amazon if I really, really want it. I declare January in itself to be entirely enough excuse to buy stuff, to eat stuff, to wear stuff, and not to bother too much about vitamin D. There’s none of it out there anyway.

Let me tell you who I’ll be buying from; some of these already tried and tested by Casa Uborka, and some recommendations from the larger readership, who are getting larger still as they sit on their arses reading this and eating chocolate – to which I say, well done you people.

Tea will be acquired from Suki Tea of Belfast, and Imperial Teas of Lincoln, whence came this morning a parcel of delicious teas for which nobody will take credit. Thank you mysterious benefactor of tea, unexpected tea is truly the greatest delight.

Chocolate could come from many places, but I’ve got my eye particularly on Artisan du Chocolat, whose salted caramels featured in the hamper Pete got from his employer, and might be one of the nicest chocolate-based items I have ever eaten. Even after they had gone, we both independently and secretly spent time inhaling the packaging. I can also recommend Chocolates & Truffles in Skipton, who provide exactly what it says on the tin.

Non-booze is supplied by Square Root Soda and my own home-made gingerbeer. I’m also quite partial to Aldi’s Ultra-Low Alcohol Rhubarb and Ginger Spirit. Listen, I’m not doing Dry January, I thought I had already made that point. We just don’t drink much these days and are happy that way. There is real gin in the cupboard, and I’m not above mixing that with any of the above.

Cheese is one of life’s essentials, and I anticipate with sadness the day I’m told my cholesterol is high and I shouldn’t eat so much of it. Best not to know, perhaps. Best Christmas Present Ever was a massive box from The Courtyard Dairy, somewhere in Yorkshire. I’ve cancelled my monthly cheese box from Abel & Cole, to allow me freedom to sample cheese from other places, which will also include Northumberland Cheese.

To go with all the cheese, we will naturally need pickles, and intend to try out Gingerbeard Preserves, courtesy of Tim. My mouth waters just browsing the website, and I keep finding myself adding more pickled eggs to the basket. Soon I shall progress to the checkout, and then we’ll know.

We only ever eat cake by accident, but we have often deliberately eaten Grasmere Gingerbread, which is not only delicious, but also so evocative of my favourite place in the world. Their postage fees are high, so you have to order it in huge quantities. Shame.

Edited to add: Sausages are another important food group, and we’ll be continuing to order from Mountain’s Boston Sausage, who also provided our christmas dinner this year. Their Boston Chipolatas are a thing of beauty. We’re also going back to the Rural Pie Co, who are local to us, and kept us supplied with pie through Lockdown 1.0, before they stopped delivering. I’m about to go and investigate whether the delivery service might have restarted.

We shall be enjoying all of this with the heating on, in our pyjamas, and with the christmas lights still up. We shall do this for as long as is necessary, and not allow ourselves to feel shame or guilt or like we’re wasting our lives writing self-indulgent blogposts instead of that essay that occasionally reminds us of its only partial existence.

January 5, 2021

Lockdown Lunches

In this family, lunch used to be a clearly delineated concept, presenting little in the way of mental or emotional challenges. Pete took his box of sandwiches, crisps and fruit to work; Bernard bought a snack from the kiosk at school; I hoovered up whatever was lying around the fridge, or if I was travelling, grabbed something noodley from somewhere stationy. I sometimes forgot that I had to provide us all with lunch at the weekends, but we coped.

In Lockdown 1.0, in the emotional tizzy of furlough, and with everyone at home all the time, everything changed. Life became a relentless treadmill of producing food and food-based treats to get us through the day. Eggs and pasta, which were my weekend go-to lunches, became tricky to come by. And I just got fed up of the labour of figuring out what we would eat and where we would get it, and then producing it. n.b. Food production falls within my skillset and therefore within my general household role. Not saying Pete puts the bins out or anything, but we all play to our strengths. Also, everyone else works more hours than me. We finally agreed on a system where we took turns to figure out and prepare lunch between the three of us, which meant cup noodles every third day.

Once Bernard was back in school, and I only had me and Pete to cater for, I could relax a bit. He would be as happy with last night’s leftovers as with a quiche from the nice cafe in town. If he came downstairs at lunchtime and I was still on a call, he’d just figure it out. He’s good like that.

But now in Lockdown 3.0, we’re all home again, but this time Bernard has a mere 20 minutes for lunch, which do at least coincide with the start of Pete’s mandatory lunchbreak. Mentally and emotionally, I’m in a much better place than I was the first time around, and currently am perfectly happy to do lunches, and might throw in a bit of baking on Friday when I have my day off, though there has been an endless stream of mince pies and gingerbread over the last few weeks, rendering unnecessary any extra effort on my part. I have, however, started making a proper plan for lunch when I do the week’s menu. What? You all do weekly menus, don’t you? In case you are struggling, I will share a few of the main themes.

Things involving wraps
Things involving wraps are very popular around here. We buy them in frozen bulk from a catering supplier, and use them for enchiladas, burritos etc at dinnertime. Wrapped lunches might be falafel, hummus and green stuff; or sweet chilli chicken and green stuff; or cheese and ham and green stuff; or whatever there is in the fridge. More wrap-content ideas much appreciated. Pete is the best at forming the wrap so that it doesn’t immediately collapse, so he often does the important folding part of this meal. Bernard only ever eats green stuff if it’s hidden in a wrap.

Wraps can also be used for quesadillas, which may be simple cheese and ham, or refried beans and jalapeños on an exciting day. I also did one with black beans, avocado and lime at one point, but it didn’t adhere to itself very well. This filling would work better as a burrito.

The other use for wraps is egg rolls. I think this might be a real thing, that I’ve reinvented badly. What I usually do is saute some mushrooms and ham, pour over a beaten egg, maybe grate in a bit of cheese, then slap the wrap on top of all that before the egg is fully cooked. Invert it onto a plate, roll, and there’s yer egg roll. Is that an egg roll? Who knows. Other egg things you might make are omelettes and scrambled eggs, or poached egg on an english muffin.

Pizza toppings on stuff
So obviously you know what pizza toppings are: usually a tomato sauce (there’s always an open carton of passata in the fridge), grated cheese, and whatever there is in the fridge. Chorizo and goats cheese if you’re lucky. You can apply this topping to an actual pizza base (the cheapo margherita pizza from the supermarket would do); or half a baguette, sliced lengthways; or – get this – a square of rolled out puff pastry. I buy this and cut it into squares, then freeze half of them for another day. You could even apply your toppings to toast, and call it fancy cheese on toast. Or just do cheese on toast, there’s always cheese, right? And if there’s only cheese, then eat it with crackers.

Once you’ve made a quiche yourself, you’ll never go back to over-chilled, under-flavoured shop-bought quiche again (except the ones from that really nice cafe in town). Early in lockdown, Dr Pockless discovered a quiche tin in the cupboard of his rented flat, and started sharing photos of his amazing quiches on the family whatsapp. Not to be outdone, I found a quiche tin of my own, and stole his recipe. We had a quiche-off for a few weeks, then he moved on to sourdough. You should probably eat this with a salad.

Obviously feeding your family is never cheating, and just as obviously, you don’t have to roll up your sleeves and cook from scratch every day. Pasta with jarsauce is perfectly alright, so is toast and pate, shop-bought spanish omelette, hummus and breadsticks, tinned soup or even good old cup noodles. You can make a sandwich. You can toast the bread to make it feel like a fancy sandwich. You could invest in a sandwich toasting machine, if you have space in your kitchen. You’re surviving this weird, weird time in all of our lives, and you know that cheese makes everything better.

January 3, 2021

2020 Books of the Year

I read 43 books last year. Most years I read 50-60 books, and with four months of summer furlough, you would think I could have managed a few more, but my focus was shot to bits by the whole experience and I spent a lot of that time fretting about the future, and doing yoga as though my life depended on it. I suspect I am not alone in this. I was going to mention that it’s been years since I did you a Books of the Year post, but a quick glance at the archives says it’s been just over 12 months. No photo for you this year, though.

  1. The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker
    I absolutely loved this. I was very into classics as a kid, and somewhat wish I’d pursued them academically, partly because I’ve got a bit of a crush on Natalie Haynes. Over the last couple of years there has been a rash of feminist retelling of the ancient stories, and this one was an absolute belter. I think I had it in my bag as I travelled to those last few pre-pandemic meetings and study days, maybe before we’d started elbow-touching, but after I was carrying hand sanitiser everywhere, and disinfecting hotel TV remotes.
    Pat Barker retells The Iliad through the perspective of Achilles’ slave Briseis. With Homer as its skeleton, she clothes the epic tale with the stories of the women; and often of the men as seen by the women: more shaded, more human, than Homer’s heroes, and with their brutality seen for its impact on families and communities, not glorified.
    It was a powerful story even before the world started to look at how we had written down all of history from the victors’ points of view, but 2020 has made me ask, what if women re-examined how we remember all the wars?
    I’m currently reading A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes, which retells the story once again. Haynes is amazing, but not the writer that Pat Barker is, however I’m appreciating the fact that I already know these women.
  2. Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield
    One of the things I found myself doing in lockdown was randomly buying books just because twitter told me they were on sale on Amazon. That’s how I acquired this book, knowing nothing about it at the time. I read it in October, in an icy-cold tipi on the banks of the Thames, just across the river from the pub in which most of the story was set. Reading the opening paragraph and realising that I was located in precisely the spot being described was quite something. The story is like the river: sometimes light and skittery, sometimes deep and slow, with meandering loops, but a clear sense of purpose. It is quite the gothic mystery, starting with a corpse that comes to life, and unravelling events in both directions of the timeline, both upriver and down. The Guardian says that Setterfield’s first novel was better, but having acquired over 50 books for christmas, I’m not sure I can bring myself….
  3. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
    I heard this discussed on a podcast, or maybe on Radio 4, and thought the device of a story about slavery where the underground railroad had real trains was a bit silly; so I’m not sure what made me wishlist it anyway, but the good Dr Pockless, whose gifts have received previous acclaim on this blog, gave me it at some point either for birthday or last Christmas, it’s not important when. And I was more than pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and have since pressed it on to other people who ought to read it too.
    Despite unfortunately being a man, Whitehead does tell the tale from the point of Cora, a teenage slave who runs away. Obviously, since it’s based on the fictitious idea of real trains, Whitehead is playing fast and loose with reality; and yet writes with almost painful detail about life on the plantation, and the terrors of escaping it. Much of this novel is difficult to read, in that rather like The Handmaid’s Tale none of it is far from the truth; and simultaneously impossible to put down.
  4. The Bricks that built the House, by Kate/Kae Tempest
    I know Kae Tempest as a spoken-word poet, and was intrigued by the novel, quite possibly another gift from His Pocklessness. There is a lot of poetry in the writing, almost a crafted stream of consciousness in places, but also a clear plan. This is one of those novels where characters come at you one after the other to the point at which you can’t remember the earlier ones, but then start to clarify and crystallise, and gradually make sense as their interconnectedness is revealed.
  5. Nothing But Grass, by Will Cohu
    As you will know, Pete is a Lincolnshire lad, and his Lincolnshire dad passed this book to us. It is, if you can believe such a thing exists, a love song to the flatlands and its small towns and its smalltown people. There is a little bit of the gothic about this, although the mystery never quite gets going, and the twists are as visible as a church on the far side of the fens. Few of the female characters get to do much other than send text messages to the more sharply drawn men, but the real central character here is the countryside. Who knew it could be made to seem so fascinating?
  6. The Duke and I, by Julia Quinn
    This is the dishonourable mention, a book I thought I was going to dislike, and very much did. To be fair, I am not the target audience for the Sweet Dreams imprint, and have long grown out of having any interest in the formulaic boy meets girl, girl and boy instantly dislike each other, incidents ensue during which time each secretly falls for the other, the sex is amazing beyond credibility, a crisis happens, and then they all live happily ever after. This has now been televised as the acclaimed Bridgerton series, but I cannot bring myself to watch it however many of my friends tell me it’s worth my time. Just nope.
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  • What a swizz, you said there'd be 2020 Books, and there's only six! - Lyle
January 2, 2021

The Godfather (1972)

Until yesterday, I had never watched The Godfather. This is clearly unacceptable and needed urgent attention. And we’ve decided, while we’re at it, to make a bit of a project, similar to the MCU Project that we did back in 2019. Each week we will watch a film and take turns to review it. This project does not yet have a name, but it does have a purpose, which is to introduce Bernard (and occasionally Karen and/or me too) to the greatest movies of all time. If you have suggestions for films to include, or indeed a name for the project, please leave them in the comments below. The only requirements we are putting on the films that we watch are:

  1. It can’t be something that Bernard has seen before. Obviously I don’t expect you to know which films he has and hasn’t seen, so I won’t berate you if you make a suggestion that violates this. Unless you specifically like being berated, in which case you need to add that as a special note on your order.
  2. It has to be age appropriate – a “15” certificate or lower.
  3. It can’t be something too recent. Not that I’ve got anything against recent films, but if it only came out last week and you’re already praising it as the greatest film of all time, then maybe you should chill the fuck out and wait to see how it stands the test of time before making any such grandiose declarations.

And on, to the first review of the project!

The Godfather

The film opens with a scene at Vito Corleone’s daughter’s wedding. While much partying, drinking and merriment goes on outside, the Don is in his cool, shady office, attending one visitor at a time. Already I can relate to him, as I know that that’s also my preferred way to party. He strokes a playful pussycat on his knee, and I find it hard to keep up with the dialogue as I’m so fixated on the cat. Gradually it’s established that pretty much everyone at the party owes the Don a favour, which he will collect upon when he needs it – everyone, that is, except his son Michael, who is there with his girlfriend, Kay. She’s shocked to discover that Michael’s dad is a mob boss, but he reassures her that “that’s my family. It’s not me.”

At this point I should mention that I’m usually really good at the game of “recognising actors when they were younger” but this film utterly stumped me, and I was gobsmacked when I consulted IMDB halfway through and discovered that Michael and Kay were played by Al Pacino and Diane Keaton respectively. And there were other further examples throughout the film of actors that I felt, in hindsight, I should have been able to recognise. I was clearly not on form that day.

After the fairly leisurely initial wedding scene, the film picks up pace quite considerably, and the plot gallops along thick and fast. You get to watch Michael’s steady inch-by-inch decline into the mob lifestyle, starting out just doing what he needs to do to protect his family, but with every incremental act a piece of his soul is lost, making the next step that little bit easier. By the end of the film, you realise that your not-unreasonable assumption that Vito Corleone was the titular “Godfather” turned out to be misguided.

When watching the film, you can generally tell when something bad is about to happen. The plot twists are not exactly telegraphed, but as a general rule if someone looks too happy then you know that something awful is about to happen to them. There was one curious Chekov’s Gun that was not unfired exactly, rather it turned out to be a cap gun –  the case of the undertaker Bonasera. At the very start of the film he is seen asking Don Corleone for a favour, and you then spend the whole film waiting to see what the Don asks for in return, your expectation being that it will be something substantial. When that moment finally comes, it’s startlingly underwhelming, in a disappointing yet deeply touching manner.

What’s Next?

Unlike the MCU Project, there is no rules on what comes next. The Shawshank Redemption is the top rated film on IMDB of all time, so that might be a logical next step, but then perhaps we should save the big guns for later on?

December 28, 2020

Alcohol-Free Beers (Part Sixteen)

(View previous instalments here)

This post seems to have come around a bit quicker than the last one, and the next one will be quite soon too. Read on, to find out why.

Solo Pale Ale (West Berkshire Brewery)

Another beer that’s from the West Berkshire Brewery, though plays that detail close to its chest. This one smells very tangy and hoppy, and the flavour does follow through on the promise, to deliver a really robust drink. That said, it’s a very very fizzy beer, and the sheer overwhelming onslaught of fizziness does serve to block those good flavours from coming through.

The Low Down (Hop Foundry)

This beer is from Aldi, and this is the review that I was expecting to write, and indeed had already started composing in my head.

The packaging on this beer is reminiscent of Brewdog Nanny State, and so I think what we’re looking at here is an attempt to produce a “clone” of Nanny State. The new budget supermarkets pride themselves on producing clones of big-label products which equal, or even exceed, the quality of the original. And indeed that’s what’s happened here – I am absolutely unable to distinguish this from Nanny State. More refined palates than mine might find differences, but for the average consumer, it’s immaterial.

You can imagine my disappointment when, after cracking open the can and breathing deeply of the fruity mango aroma, I took a sip only to be confronted by something fizzy and metallic and not dissimilar to damp cardboard in flavour, though to be fair, not in texture. In a blind taste test, not only would you consider this inferior to Nanny State, you might not even recognise it as a beer at all.

Low Profile (Hop Foundry)

Another Aldi beer, with packaging that is this time highly reminiscent of Brewdog’s Punk AF. It pours with a small head which had disappeared in the few seconds that it took to get my camera readied. It’s got a nice smooth aroma with a hint of something creamy and banana-ish, but the flavour was a little underwhelming. It wasn’t bad, there just wasn’t enough of it. The smell had led me to expect something a little more bold. Again, in a blind taste test against the beer that it is (I assume) trying to mimick, I can’t see this scoring any points. But then I’m aware of the fact that I have come to this review with a lot of preconceptions – there’s a strong media narrative about Aldi and Lidl’s copycat products surpassing the originals, and so this has now meant that, in my mind at least, I have very high expectations for them. Maybe these last two beers aren’t so bad really, they’re just failing to meet my overinflated wishes. What I’m doing here is not science, though I think you’d figured that out already.
Here ends today’s reviews. But one last piece of news – I have received, from the lovely Karen, a fantastic Christmas present, which is a monthly subscription from Wise Bartender which will mean that every month I receive 8 alcohol-free beers through the post! Now, naturally some of these I will have tried before, but in the first box there are 6 new ones, which means that I will likely be writing these reviews at a pace I’ve never hit before. I might need to find a new spot for taking photos, one which is not so much at the mercy of the size of the washing up pile!

December 24, 2020

Tea Advent Day 24

The final tea in the box is simply called Advent, and frankly I am a little nervous that it will be heavily spiced and nasty. One thing we can be sure of after this month of tea is that tea should NOT be mucked about with, in the adding of unnecessary whole cloves or indeed making it taste of cola.

You can see why I might be worried: two lots of ginger. Orange. And both are discernible flavours in the brew, neither in a subtle way, and yet it is a pleasantly drinkable, albeit unashamedly novelty tea. Noveltea. Luckily I am a huge fan of ginger, and I’m rather enjoying this in a one-off sort of way.

I saved the festive mug for Christmas Eve. It has no interesting back story whatsoever; turns out I only have 23 mugs that I can find something to say about. I almost feel I should ditch the remaining unstoried mugs from the crate in the garage; what have they done to deserve their storage space? And even if I was to go back to face-to-face evening classes, I’d be inclined to invite people to bring their own mugs.

It only remains for me to thank you for tolerating my wittering about tea and trying to amuse you with the excessive number of meaningful mugs owned by a family of three, one of whom rarely drinks hot drinks, and one of whom uses the exact same mug every single time. And of course to wish you some sort of festive joy, peace on earth and so on, who am I kidding? As for the Happy New Year part of things, I am pretty sure the 31st December is an arbitrary point in time, rather than a tipping point from a bad set of 366 days to a good set of 365, so good luck with that. Just make sure you’ve got enough tea.

  • Comments: 1
  • As a non-tea-drinker, I've found it to be a really interesting set of posts, so thank you! - Lyle
December 23, 2020

Tea Advent Day 23

I am fussy about cherries. I very much like a sour cherry flavour, and I loathe bakewell tart. I can eat fresh cherries by the crate. This penultimate advent tea is one sneaky final green tea flavoured with Sencha Wild Cherry. A delicate pretty leaf, decorated with rose petals, and a strong aroma of cherry before water is even added to it, and I’ve made enough of it for Pete to have a cup as well, because it’s always good to have a second opinion.

The tea is golden yellow and tastes just as the smell indicates that it is going to – which if you’ve ever made a fruit or herbal tea from a teabag you will know is quite a special thing. The flavour is delicate and fresh enough that while it does remind me of the bakewell tart, it’s still pleasant to drink. Perhaps not one I would rush back to, but certainly a brief moment of sakura in wintry Wokingham.

Your penultimate advent mug celebrates Kettlewell Village Hall. Kettlewell is a village in the Yorkshire Dales, to which I have no attachment and of which I have very little knowledge. Pete’s mum presented the mug to Pete as though there it told some important story, so it’s kind of sad that I don’t really know what that story is. Perhaps he should have written the post today. What I do like about Kettlewell Village Hall is that it looks like exactly the kind of place you would book to run an antenatal class, and its cupboards are probably full of these mugs, so that the local antenatal teacher doesn’t have to store a plastic box of them in her garage.

  • Comments: 1
  • Kettlewell was one of the places we regularly stayed in when we went on holidays to the Da... - Pete
December 22, 2020

Tea Advent Day 22

And so the box is nearly empty, and our time together in the context of advent tea will soon come to an end. I have had a crazy busy morning, and before I embark on a similarly jam-packed afternoon, I’m taking a few minutes to sit down and sip a cup of Yunnan Imperial. I have high hopes for this tea, with a name like that. It’s a good strong name for a tea.

Much is made of the geographical origins of this tea, on the high, misty plateau, in the red soil of the Lancang River etc, making me long to leave town, leave the country, and lay my eyes on mountains and lakes once more. This is a tea of daydreams amid the busy humdrum of winter lockdown and/or the frantic festive preparation that includes me making a yule log, and Pete making balloon animals.

The tea is fabulous, smooth and complex, with flavours beyond my comprehension. I’m sad it’s over, along with my window of peace. Today I struggled to find you an interesting mug, and settled for the “World’s Greatest 30 Year Old,” which is a good 20 years out of date for me, and in fact was a birthday gift to Pete a mere ten years ago, from his colleagues on the occasion of his 30th birthday. Still a spring chicken, it says. Good looking and youthful. It’s all true.