Tuesday 14 August 2012

Coxless Four

I didn't think I was going to enjoy the Olympics.  The dire logo and the oddly disturbing mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, inspired little confidence.  Costs rose, and glaring examples of incompetence arose.  Desultory football matches began to pop up in front of empty stadia.

Then there was that marvelous opening ceremony, and the mood changed.  I was swept up int all, and spent a wonderful two weeks taking it all in on TV as I went through a particularly difficult spell with my M E. The BBC had really got its act together on the coverage.  Their choices of personnel to front the coverage was a mixed bag, though.  The male football-based section of the commentariat was frankly dire.  Partial and ungracious, with Lineker making a point of deriding our German guests for a lack of early success, the male commentators on hockey, rowing and many other sports sounded old, tired, ill-informed.  In contrast, the quartet of Claire Balding, Hazel Irvine, Jill Douglas and Denise Lewis played a blinder.  Inclusive, welcoming, enthusiastic, the girls played a blinder.

Claire Balding is a sports fan, whether it's her first love of equestianism, or her new love of Rugby League, and she communicates it so well to the viewers.  She's warm and wonderful. A star - if you listen to her you learn lots.

Jill Douglas loves her cycling, and I loved her interviews, be it with a tearful Victoria Pendleton, or a successful but slightly stunned Laura Trott.  The GB cyclists clearly see her as part of the team, and her great relationship with these profoundly successful athletes gave us all an insight into how excellence is achieved.

Hazel Irvine has the cool rationality you'd expect of a St Andrews graduate, and is also a well-informed enthusiastic, and engaged presenter.  Like Claire, she's obviously a fan, and a great communicator.  All those conversations in the lulls in snooker matches obviously stand her in good stead.

Denise Lewis was a revelation to me.  I knew her only as a dedicated and phenomenal athlete, whilst not having failed to note her beauty.  During the games, however, she emerged as a thoughtful, intelligent and committed fan of her sport.  Her support ranged from well-considered comments in discussions to energetic jumping up and down and shouting support to those performing on the track. I'd still give her the Gold Medal for most beautiful female athlete ever, but there's a lot more to this impressive, assertive and intelligent person than a pretty face.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Something to talk about

Time has been passing in my ME way.  Foggy days, blurry vision, lost threads of thought.  Then, in the way of ME, a period of being relatively better appears, and it's time to think things through.  Then, a nudge from an unlikely source, the Mark Wright chat prog on Channel 5.  I'd never heard of this entertainment until he caused a furor in Scotland with what were seen as callous, if not border-line racist, comments about a murder in Lewis.

Mr Wright redeemed himself with a recent discussion of ME, in which he appeared to be genuinely shocked to learn how debilitating our condition is.  Callers to the programme gave factual accounts of the devastation ME causes to lives, and both the programme's participants and the audience were clearly appalled by what they learned. 

Here's a link: http://www.channel5.com/shows/the-wright-stuff/episodes/episode-239-15

It's well worth a look.

Monday 1 August 2011

Happy Yorkshire Day!

Have a great day, Tykes everywhere!

Yorkshire Day

Thursday 14 July 2011

Hens, Zen, Yorkshire Puddings and Tradition

Regular readers will know that I think everyone who can should keep chickens. A world full of poultry keepers would be a less stressed, more caring, more insightful and more compassionate one. Hens teach responsibility, they reward care with their gifts of eggs, their lives are a demonstration of the virtues of societal living. Every visitor to my home is enchanted by my little flock, everyone feels the tug towards a way of a life that is more simple and comprehensible. The routine tasks of caring for the birds provide an opportunity to meditate. The weeds from the garden go to the hens. The hens consume them. I collect eggs, then take the litter from the hen run to use on my vegetable garden. Surplus vegetables go to the hens, more eggs, more nourishment for my garden comes from them. A circle is established, I have my place, the hens have theirs, the garden its. We live in sybiosis, in a circle - Zen symbol. Repititious simple work, deeply symbolic, highly productive is the key. Fulfillment comes from a basket of eggs, a bowl of home grown salad, a vase of freshly cut flowers, a healthy happy flock of hens, bright of eye, shiny-feathered, red-combed. Hens alone cannot be Zen, they are fully occupied in being hens. But we can participate in, observe and learn from the system that contains them and so become Zen ourselves.

Those who keep hens become wise in the ways of egg-based cuisine. One of the nobler uses of an egg is what I call a batter pudding, but those not fortunate enough to be from Yorkshire call a Yorkhire pudding. Like all true Tykes, I learnt the art of creating this handy, delicious and nutritious food at my mother's knee. I realised with slight suprise today that YP making is the last thing I still do in Imperial Units, not metric, following the family tradition and recipe. 4 oz plain flour, 1/2 a UK pint of milk, a teaspoon of salt, a good big egg. Two tricks - make your batter at least an hour before you need it in the oven. Beat it up every 15 mins, keep it in the fridge. Result - no lumps. Secondly, you need your oven as hot as the deepest depths of Hell - turn it all the way up. Preheat your tin with oil in it until it is smoking, Pour the batter in, get it in the oven with the door shut ASAP, and reckon on 45 mins cooking time, though it might vary a little. The new silicon bakeware is great for YPs, but its's floppy, and potentially dangerous, so stand your silicon ware in/on a metal tray to make it stable.

Eat your puds with roast meat and gravy, or whatever takes your fancy. They should be light and fluffy - keep practicing.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Going on the record with depression.

I have a lot of respect for Marcus Trescothick, the one-time England international cricketer whose career was so affected by his depression.

I have three chronic conditions. I am a Type 2 diabetic. However, with medication and no more attention to my way of life than any man my age should bear in mind, the condition is managed. I have ME, which is a damnable condition that has reduced the scope of my abilities to a frustratingly low level. However, with care, I can just about steer a course around it. Then there is depression. Being clinically depressed is indescribably awful. Dread, fear, suicidal imagery are constantly there, life loses all its joy and colour. It cripples and intimidates. It is the condition I have that genuinely frightens me, and I know I am more than a little obsessive about monitoring my moods.

So, I'm in awe of Marcus Trescothick's ability to open up on the topic.

Here's an article in the Guardian about him. Trescothick has written a book giving an account of his experience. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't read it yet, but I plan to put that right soon. It would seem to cumpulsory reading for anyone with, or with an interest in, clinical depression. Important stuff - this is an illness that kills and causes misery for far too many.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Hobbies and People with ME - Brewing

I started brewing my own beer in the 1970's. Like many others, I started with the kits then popular, producing a highly alcoholic, almost tasteless gassy liquid reminiscent of beer, rather than actually BEING beer.

I went through the halfway house of adding some grain malt and real hops to the concoction, and was rewarded with results more closely resembling proper beer. However, the partial success of these endeavours led to an inevitable conclusion. Proper beer comes from proper ingredients - grain malt, good hops, quality yeast, and a small but well considered palette of other adjuncts. Much as in all other endeavours, rubbish in = rubbish out.

Full grain brewing ia a craft, an art and a science, By comparison, wine making is simplicity itself. 'Collect fruit, crush fruit, add yeast, maybe sugar, wait, bottle.'

In brewing, there are many more variables. The main ingredient is (usually) malted barley. Malting is the process of steeping barley grains in water, encouraging them to start sprouting into young plants. The maltster intervenes to stop this process just before the infant shoot emerges from the seed by heating the grains. By this point the starchy content of the grain is ready to be converted by enzymes produced in the grain into sugars to fuel the developing plant, and it it these sugars that provide the fermentable content of the beer later in the process. The grains of malt may be just heated enough to stop growth, and will be a pale colour almost indistinguisable for the original barley. At the other extreme, they might be roasted until almost black, when they will be used to provide the dark colour and bitter taste of a stout. There are many intermediate types also. Already the brewer is confronted with a huge range of decisions. What type or types of malt to use? In what amounts, and in what combinations. How strong is the beer to be? Is it to have a pronounced malty flavour or different characteristics? What colour is it to be? What strength is required?

The malt is steeped in water at about 65 C, a temperature that facilitates the starch to sugar conversion. Altering the temperature alters the nature of the final beer made. Cooler mashing leaves more unfermentable elements, and so the beer will taste sweeter and fuller, but will contain less alcohol than a brew mashed at a higher temperature that will be more dry. 65 C provides a good balance. Again, more variables to consider in creating a style of beer, before we even consider the addition of sugars and/or unmalted grains in order to add different flavours and characteristics.

Hops are the next usual ingredient to consider. They impart a bitter flavour, and have preservative properties. Furthermore, thare are hops selected for their aroma that are responsible for the summery, soporific scent of a hoppy beer. The brewer is selecting hops with two main objectives - balancing the sweet flavour of the malt with hop bitterness, and adding aroma. Often two or more types of hop are used in brew, a bittering hop added early to the boiling beer 'wort', and a hop for arome added later. Again, there are many choices and decisions to make here, and we all have our own ideas.

Water is a key component. Hard waters suit lighter beers, softer water suits mild, porters and the like. Small amounts of salt will alter the mouth feel of the beer. I tend not to tinker too much as I am lucky to have a good quality supply of water for brewing, but again the brewer can alter the water to suit a purpose.

Yeast, known 'Godisgood' to our forebears, is the magic elelment that binds everything together. Once you have prepared our solution of malt and hop products by steeping and boiling, you leave the results to cool and add the yeast to staret fermentation. You can use cheap dried yeasts, you can buy liquid yeast cultures of known provenance, you can scrounge a jarful from a friendly brewer. The last is often the best idea, a local yeast strain will suit local conditions. A favourite yeast strain can be carried forward from brew to brew, given a degree of care.

Beer is a living, natural product when made this way. You're left with waste in the form of 'brewers spent grains', loved by my chickens, and spent hops, that mulch a garden flower bed well. With anything like luck, you will also have a few gallons of beer of a quality that leaves any beer you have ever bought looking very ordinary indeed. Home brewed beer made from grain malt, given fresh ingredients, and attention to detail, cleanliness, etc, is the best beer you will ever drink. This is beyond debate. Additionally, you had the fun of making it, it provides food and amusement for your poultry and it stops your flower beds getting weedy. Furthermore, it will be the cheapest beer available anywhere. You can give the money you save to the cause of your choice, instead of giving it to the Government in the form of Excise Duty to waste on your behalf.

The budding all-grain mash brewer needs three books to read. I've put links to Amazon UK in with the descriptions:

The Big Book of Brewing - David Line

This is the book that informed my early brewing days back in the 1970's. The sections on equipment are a little dated now, the variety of malts, hops, etc now available has grown mightily since the book was written, and mentions of Fahrenheit temperatures seem quaint to modern readers (Google is your friend for conversions to Celsius). However, on basics and technique, Mr Line remains spot on.

CAMRA's Complete Home Brewing - Graham Wheeler

Effectively the sucessor to David Line's book, published in the 1980's. Another very sound book, packed with information and recipes. Note that 3rd edition is due out in September 2011. This is probably the book to buy first. If you do everything the Wheeler way, you'll not go far wrong.

Radical Brewing: Tales and World-Altering Meditations in a Glass - Randy Mosher

Once you have made a few brews from the Gospels according to either Line or Wheeler, if not both, you might be looking to develop your style and craft as a brewer. Look no further than this book. It is not for the complete beginner, but it is a joy to read, bursting with ideas, inspiration and novelty. This should not be the first book on brewing you buy, but it might well be the second, and definitely should be the next you buy after Line and Wheeler.

Recommended Supplier: BrewUK.co.uk

A useful forum here.

Monday 30 May 2011

I Want To Be Straight [Official Video]

A work of genius....