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Doodlecat's Homepage

Picture of Doodle - a 
black cat

Welcome to Doodlecat, where we enjoy the pleasures of life (with a slight bias towards the outdoors). This page is regularly updated with news and views plus information about any additions or changes to the various parts of the site. It acts as Doodlecat’s Blog too, so the odd rant considered opinion may pop up from time to time.

I would love to be able to say that Doodlecat is all my own work, but it isn’t. Much of the outdoors content is courtesy of the splendid people who participate in the annual TGO Challenge (there is a section entirely devoted to this unique event) and many others.

To help in tracking down that elusive morsel on Doodlecat, the search facility under the title bar above is tailored to help you find it, either on this home page (Doodlecat's Blog) all the rest of the site (Main Site) or – if all else fails - the internet!

So have a rummage around the old cat basket and enjoy your time with us!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ethnic Cuisine

'Ethnic' as used in this country generally means 'not british', and 'ethnic cuisine' has become just another way of saying 'foreign food'.

But why? Do we have no ethnicity?

Industrial Landscape by LowryPerhaps it was the industrial revolution that began the process of killing off our food heritage. As the first industrialised nation, the british, and in particular the english, suffered a divorce  from their regional dishes and food culture as the vast industrial conurbations sucked in labour from the countryside, and farming became increasingly mechanised to produce basic foodstuffs to feed the new towns. Industrialised food processing followed, and by the mid 20th century mass produced 'bread', canned and frozen foodstuffs gradually became the mainstay of the british diet.

Still from Lives of a Bengal LancerThe Empire too played its part. Returning emigres and new immigrants brought us new foods and flavours eventually leading to the ubiquitous indian and chinese restaurants, and many more exotic tastes. But as well as exploring these new flavours, something was lost. Whilst sampling peasant cookery from across the world, we forgot our own heritage. Whilst other countries slowly absorbed new foods into their own cuisine, we replaced ours. Now the simple pizza has spread across the world; Pan Haggerty languishes in obscurity.

In my own neck of the woods local East Anglian dishes include the scrumptious Huntingdon Fidget Pie and the rather curious Bedfordshire Clanger (a suet pudding with savoury meat & onions at one end, fruit or jam at the other; it made an easily transportable meal for a man in the fields). It also gave us the expression "drop a clanger". If the child carrying them "dropped a clanger" this would be a disaster, as someone would go hungry.

I like a well prepared curry as much as the next man, and chinese, thai and japanese food is great, as is west indian and a whole host of imported dishes. I love a good french restaurant, and even here in the depths of Suffolk we have 'Maison Bleue' in Bury St Edmunds.

But wouldn't it be nice if our own cooking was as celebrated as much as that of starving french peasants reduced to grubbing around for snails? When did you last set out to an english restaurant? No, I mean a really English restaurant, without pretensions to be french, italian, greek or 'serbo croat fusion' or whatever. Mmmmmmm. Thought not.

hare and game birdYears ago, when we first moved to Suffolk, Maison Bleue used to be Mortimer's Fish Bar - a restaurant serving the very freshest of fresh fish from the coast, cooked on the premises (right in front of you if you sat at the eponymous bar). In Abbeygate street we had a butcher, fishmonger and game shop where you could even buy a hare and its blood to make a jugged hare (when did you last see that on a menu? Wymondham 1973 in my case).

And it's not just the absence of good game dealers and so on. English cuisine remains in decline, thanks in part to the ghastly trend of overstating the merits of foreign dishes that began after WW2 with Elizabeth David, despite a few brave chefs trying to stem the tide. Now my local shops sell yams, papayas, parrot fish, cous cous and and strawberries - in December. From May to November the finest celery in the world is grown in the fens around Ely, just up the road. Where do our shops get theirs? Spain. SPAIN!

Of course, there are some things we have to import such as spices and wines - for all the efforts of our Suffolk vineyards, I don't think the chatelains of the Medoc will be quaking in their bottes, although, to be fair, there are a few decent whites around these days. Good beers, though, are our real tour de force, with a range of character, strength and flavours to accompany all the best english fare.

OK, so where is this leading? This winter I have decided to explore traditional english cuisine, our own 'ethnic dishes', and try a few recipes suited to the season with local ingredients. And here's one for Boxing day to join the cold collation. It's an interesting variation on the traditional Pork Pie, and it is much closer to the Elizabethan and mediaeval pies of old, which usually contained fruit (apples, raisins and the like) along with the meat. Indeed, as most people know, the traditional mince pies that we eat at Christmas originally contained real minced meat (mutton or tongue, plus the suet of course) along with the fruit, alcohol and spices, making a pie that kept well, as well as tasting great. Now we just have the suet, and sadly that has become so-called 'vegetable suet', a vile concoction of palm oil, rice flour and starch - I mean, really, what's the point?

Anyway, I had a trial run with my Boxing day pie. It hails from the Midlands, Leicestershire to be precise, and I got the recipe from my mum last week. We all know Melton Mowbray, home of the Melton Mowbray pork pie (and also Pedigree Petfoods!). This one comes from twenty miles or so south of Melton, and the only cheat is with the stock - I didn't make the jellied stock from pork bones as a butcher would, because you only need cupful. I used a bit of home made chicken stock from the freezer, but any chicken or pork stock will do, with a bit of gelatine.

So, here we go - Market Harborough Pie (serves 8) - vegetarians, look away now.

For the hot water crust pastry

The finished pie
450g / 1lb plain flour
5ml / 1tsp salt
1 medium egg yolk
175g / 6oz lard
150ml / 5 fl oz water
Beaten egg for glazing

For the filling


1kg / 21/4 lb coarsley minced pork
450g / 1lb cooking apples, peeled, cored & chopped
2 medium sized onions finely chopped
50g / 2oz caster sugar
21/2 ml / 1/2 tsp dried sage
5ml / 1tsp salt
21/2 ml / 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper


For the jellied stock


5ml / 1tsp gelatine
150 ml / 5 fl oz strong chicken stock

  1. To make the pastry, sift the flour and salt into a bowl & make a well in the centre. Drop in the egg yolk and cover with a liitle of the flour. Cut the lard into chunks and place in a pan with the water. Heat gently until the fat has melted, then bring to the boil and pour quickly into the dry ingredients, mixing with a wooden spoon until the dough is cool enough to handle.
  2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead it until smooth & soft and no traces of egg remain. Return it to the warm mixing bowl & cover with a plate. Leave in a warm place for 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, mix together the filling ingredients, and grease a 15cm / 6" loose bottomed cake tin
  4. Take three quarters of the warm pastry and roll it out into a 25cm / 10" round. Fold and lift it into the tin and mould it carefully and evenly to the shape, raising the sides with your fingers until a little above the top of the tin. The pastry should be about 5mm / 1/4" thick. Leave it to set slightly, then pack in the filling, mounding it slightly in the middle.
  5. Heat the oven to 230C / 450F / Gas 8. Brush the pastry edges with beaten egg & roll out the rermainin pastry to make a lid. Place it on the pie and seal the edges and trim neatly. Brush the top with beaten egg and cut a small hole in the centre to let steam escape. Use the pastry trimmings to make 'leaves' to decorate, position them on the pie and brush with more of the beaten egg.
  6. Bake the pie in the hot oven for twnty minutes. Cover the top with foil, lower the heat to 170C / 325F and bake for a further three hours. Remove and allow the pie to cool in the tin.
  7. When the pie is almost cold, warm the stock and dissolve the powdered gelatine in it. Allow it to cool. When the stock has become syrupy, pour it into the pie through the hole in the lid, using a small funnel. Refrigerate the pie for a couple of hours until cold. Pop it onto a mug or other support & slide off the cake tin ring then gently ease it off the base & onto a plate. Refrigerate for a further 8 - 10 hours. Serve cold.
The finished result - deeeeelicious!

 I have been sampling this pie with a variety of real ales - all in the interests of research, of course ;-)

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chanson d'Automne

The end of Autumn is often seen as a sad time of year - summer now long gone, the trees naked and the nights longer and darker.

I've never seen it that way, and I look forward to the autumn days, first with delicious fruits and fungi, then the amazing colours of the turning leaves and finally, at last, the first hints of winter and the excuse to close the door and draw the curtains against the weather and enjoy a spot of hibernation.

No "saglots longs des violons" here - no sir.

A bright cool day in autumn shows Suffolk at its best, and a little venture into the hinterland uncovers the amazing variety of lifestyles hidden away in the countryside. One small cottage had a handwritten sign outside that simply said "Llama products", and sure enough in the adjacent field were llamas and ponies being attended to by a couple of very small children and a large gambolling tabby cat. We wondered what the llama products might be.

"Sausages?" I ventured.
"Don't be silly - it'll be knitted stuff"
"Llamas can't knit, surely? Their hooves won't hold the needles"
"Idiot"

Picture of black pigA turn in the lane and over a stile, and the footpath went through a small wood by another cottage - with yet more domestic animals. This time half a dozen sheep and a huge black pig.

"Sausages?" I ventured. More certain of my ground here ;-)

Miss W was busy making friends with the porker, scratching his nose to a chorus of grunts & snuffles (the latter from the pig, not Miss W).

"No! How could anyone make sausages out of such a cuddly creature?"

"Well, woolly hats seem out of the question - the sheep have got that market cornered"

The pig gave a sort of squeaky squeal, which Miss W interpreted as my 'upsetting it', so off we went back to Lavenham, passing small stands outside houses with fresh eggs (including duck eggs), pickles and preserves, vegetables and fruit. Each ramshackle table simply had the produce on it together with a jar or a tin for customers to leave the money. Presumably nothing gets stolen, and everyone pays, or this just wouldn't work. It made me feel that I'd had a day strolling through an H E Bates novel - "The Darling Buds of May" perhaps. Made me feel quite jolly to know that life can be this way.

Sloes in hedgerowAnd to make the day quite 'perfick', we came across a superb crop of sloes in the hedgerow, and gathered enough to top up the sloe gin supply. Just in time - we're down to the last bottle. Our recipe, by the way, can be found in this post.

That was a week ago. Over this past weekend I enjoyed a very different couple of autumn days in Derbyshire with my brother in law, David (my walking partner on the 2004 TGO Challenge). David had planned a walk for Saturday, and I was to plan one for Sunday. Having gained a place on next years Challenge with the redoubtable Alan Sloman, part of the objective was to get a bit of ascent into a walk, and reassure myself that after the past years health alarms, I am at last pretty fit.

David's walk was exceptionally well timed. We set off from Cambridge at 7.30 and were walking in the Goyt Valley by 10.30 am, for a 17k canter with 650m of ascent. David reckoned this would take about 5 - 6 hours with a stop for lunch. That would get us back to the car by dusk.

I packed a head torch ... just in case.

David at the old ruinsAnd it's a fine walk. From the Errwood reservoir we went up to the oddly 'restored ruins' of Errwood hall (looking very spooky in the wind and rain, but no doubt a great picnic spot on a summer's day) and on up the valley to find a shrine built by the owners of the old house (the Grimshawes) in 1899. It was built to commemorate a favourite nanny, Senorita Dolores de Bergria. It's quite strange, being very small (you have to crouch to get through the door) and completely dark inside. But with the aid of the camera flash I got the picture opposite. A cold windswept hillside 400m up on the Derbyshire moors seems a sad & remote place to commemorate someone from the warm climate of Spain, but maybe in the driving rain and wind some of the charm of the location was lost on me!

Shrine interior
The shrine exteriorThen on & up to 'The Street' and Pym's Chair (great views through the gaps in the cloud) and the long, windy ridge walk south to Shining Tor. From there we returned south eastish to the Goyt Valley again, over the river and up Berry Clough to Burbage Edge. The lights were coming on here and there in Buxton far below us - and very cosy it looked too! But onwards we went, eventually descending via Wildmoorstone Brook to return to the car park at 16.15 - not bad going, given the wet & windy conditions. It was good to get to our B&B in Tideswell, the excellent Merman Barn, where we were welcomed with tea & biscuits and had a great room with, joy of joys, an absolutely first class shower.

We slept late after a night at the Star, and breakfasted at 8.30. The day had started bright but windy, and there was a minor dispute between two technologies. David's IPhone displayed an optimistic weather forecast from the BBC, whereas my Nike watch  - an altimeter thingy - showed a black cloud with rain when switched to weather mode, with a declining pressure graph. By the end of breakfast the sun had disappeared and the cloud was building - as was the wind. We ditched the BBC and went with the watch, and chose a realtively low level route.

Weir and Sluice at Cressbrook MillIt was a delight! Starting with an easy trundle down Tideswell Dale to Litton Mill, then across the river and up & over to the track above High Dale to Brushfield and on to Monsal Head where, by good timing, we arrived at the Stable Bar of the Monsal Head Hotel at bang on 12 noon. This excellent timing was assisted by the slight delay caused by David's attempt to gain entry to the railway tunnel at the end of the viaduct.

A glorious lunch accompanied by pints of the Monsal Head special brew, and we were sufficiently refreshed to brave the elements once more, and pushed off back over the viaduct and up past Arkwright's Mill at Cressbrook, up Cressbrook Dale, over the stepping stones to Tansley Dale and eventually back to the car at an impressively early hour for the journey home - delayed slightly as David had to risk life & limb on the B6049 to retrieve the map that I had foolishly left on the car roof.

All in all, some great autumn walking. Well - it is my favourite time of the year. Ah well, winter round the corner. Time to draw the curtains and  Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

stepping stones in Cressbrook Dale

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Chasing Charlie

That was a pretty wet holiday - but if you go to the North West of Scotland, you generally don't go for the sunshine - just as well!

Holly Tree near ArisaigWhat possessed the young pretender to abandon a luxurious and debauched exile in Rome for these rain soaked shores? Mind you, by all accounts his training on the continent stood him in good stead for withstanding the rigours of the climate, as his capacity for brandy well outstripped that of his hosts, seemingly unaffected whilst those about him slid decorously beneath the royal table. With that capacity for alcohol, and his ability to stravaig all over the rough country of  Moidart,  he would have been a great TGO challenger.

And the '45 was probably a closer run thing than many history books allow - King George and the Hanoverian court were packing their bags as he reached Derby. Had Charlie carried the day when debated with his advisers in Derby, and evaded engagement en route to London ... ah, but the whole enterprise is littered with 'what ifs'. Ultimately it led to the barren moor at Culloden and the destruction of the highland way of life.

Miss W in GlenfinnanWe had an excellent holiday in the cradle of the '45, and we enjoyed several stravaigs in the prince's footsteps but (sorry Iain) failed in one of our objectives - to find the engraved stone that allegedly marks the actual spot where the Stuart standard was raised above Glenfinnan. It was just too wet & misty! We also failed to locate the gold bullion sent from France to assist the rebels It arrived too late and was allegedly buried near Arisaig. Ho hum ... back to doing the lottery.

We enjoyed our expeditions though, and got in some good rough walking. The new Rab waterproof trews proved their worth too. Not the most elegant, but with super articulated knees and a generous cut they are supremely comfortable, even when scrambling up some unexpectedly steep inclines (I'm not a great scrambler).

 In Corryhully Bothy - note electric lights!
My TGO Challenge with Alan next May will start off at Lochailort, so plenty of opportunities to do a bit more 'chasing Charlie' (that's the pretender, not the white powder, Al).

This is a great area to explore, but beware. There are few circular walks (OK, the Corryhully horseshoe might count in good weather and longer daylight) and the ridges are rough, alternately boggy and craggy as you proceed. That said, the views are to die for, and the satisfaction after a day on the hill here is absolute. But most of all, it's the coast that captivates as much as the hills. Inlets, lochs, islets. Hidden forts and long abandoned fishing villages and crofts, plus, unusual in many parts of Scotland, some quite fantastic woodland too.

And we did get some sunshine - and here are a few holiday snaps to prove it.

Loch Morar
Loch Morar

Fort William and Ben Nevis at night
Fort William & Ben Nevis at dusk

Glenfinnan monument at night
Glenfinnan at night - very atmospheric

The Glenfinnan monument is very atmospheric, but my attention was caught by a new addition to the shoreline at Arisaig since we were last here.

A draped parachute is sculpted over a polished granite pylon with the lines from the folded 'chute etched down the flanks of polished stone. This is the new memorial to the Czech agents of the SOE who were billeted in this area at several of the large houses. Other nations were at Inverailort Castle and Morar Lodge. They trained at Arisaig House and in the surrounding countryside before being parachuted into occupied territory to 'set Europe ablaze'.

The memorial is by sculptor Josef Vajce, and the foundation stone for the memorial was blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.We looked at it and thought of the men who left this place to parachute into the freezing night air during WWII. Very brave men, and a fitting tribute to their memory.

Czech SOE memorial at Arisaig

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