Saunter through a wide buff coloured courtyard until you happen upon an eye catching salt and pepper brick wall just past the panaderìa, with its marbled counter tops and glorious cinnamon aromas. Mid-morning and mostly still tourist free, the centuries old courtyard, is finished to a high standard, not usually to be found in the sleepy backwaters of Galacian Spain. The skilled labour that went into the perfectly natural, but seamless angles, took less than a few decades to perfect. An ex Celtic brick-smith, tall, virtually carefree, upright and somewhat tanned, occasionally takes time out to admire the Moorish clay bricks as a preparation for the delightful juxtaposition to be discovered nearby. To the right of an oaken entrance door leading off the courtyard awaits the well dressed, but casual barman, who, if finding you simpatico, will reward you with a genuine smile and a wave into the inner sanctum of a cool, fragrant, hop heaven world. Through a brightly lit doorway, a glass four leaf clover is projected using natural sunlight against a shadowed wall. It shows perfectly the entrance to a dark, cavernous stone flagged cafe. Exposed plumbing, more bare brick and recessed retro lamps highlight the well stocked array of whisky and fine wines shimmering on seemingly floating glass shelves. Here, Colombian beans are ground by hand to excite even the most ardent of coffee loving patrons in the midst of many expectant exotic tea lovers from around the world.
I'd noticed the knee length socks and the khaki safari jacket for probably the best part of two weeks before his face truly registered with me. It wasn't that he was necessarily insignificant, bland or even as uninteresting as some of the other lost tourists venturing off the trail during the early afternoon lull. Occasionally the thrill seekers looking to purge their curiosity in regard to their 4th generation Celtic roots would wander in seeking grand wall hung kilts, great roaring fires and Claymore swords and tales of vociferous clans to titillate and enhance their holiday stories for those ignorant of Gaelic history somewhere back home, wherever that may be. That evening he favoured a stool closer to the broken glass vowels of neat Glaswegian and the aromatic fug of hand rolled cigars, smoked using the correct etiquette without the crass makers band that Hollywood still attaches to its own misguided theory on class. It enticed him. His curiosity was pricked. He nodded briefly in our direction, sat a respectful distance and made the international sign for a large whisky. His heathen request for Jack Daniels and ice had been rebuffed with the raising of an eyebrow by the normally amiable host on his first visit to the cafe. He had learnt quite quickly after that. His new tipple of choice was now a decent Scottish malt. Needless to say it came without the addition of ice to pollute its smokey essence and confuse and disseminate the provocative liquid to the palate.
His name was H, an unfortunate parental choice and one that had obviously been shadowed by mockery since the commencement of many early school yard encounters. His business had been in aluminium, a word of which took us nearly an hour to convince him that it was widely mispronounced by only one country in the entire world. It broke the ice, but sadly not in his drink, some habits are increasingly hard to break it would seem. He joined us on our morning walk most days along the deep blue of the backdrop and declared his mastery in perfecting the ultimate steak, char-grilled, basted with tequila, tossed in fresh marjoram and dusted with a natural unsalted garlic butter. Many barbecue recipes were discussed, chided and chuckled over in the months that were to follow. H joined us on many an evening at our table and even took a turn behind the stainless steel of my man-be-cue out on the sun deck. His humour and grace appealed to my usually suspicious radar, a crucial piece of equipment that well, too be honest, undoubtedly kept me alive during darker times in my former business pursuits in Glasgow.
It was probably a full three months before H finally admitted that he had approached me initially purely on my looks to hopefully encapsulate my interest by way of monetary fees and entice me, by greed, to carry out what I'll discreetly describe as an act of (illegal) justice upon someone who had beaten the justice system in Spain. Not difficult to understand for those people living in this particular European climate. If I'm honest here, I was more than a little put out. I'm still not 100% sure as to my outrage being due to a perfect stranger stereotyping me by either my physical appearance, or worse, my seeming lack of intelligence. What I do know for sure is that as stringent as I am about my true identity, my careful approach to keeping people outside of my immediate circle at arms length, was proven correct the very first time I allowed my personal barrier to be lowered. It goes without saying that I asked H to leave and that he did so on the full understanding that he would not be welcome at my door, no further contact, and of course do not attempt to cross my path for the foreseeable future. In the space of fifteen minutes I said goodbye to a jovial character, a dinner guest, a fellow 'home-skilled' chef, but most of all, trust in human nature. The old adage is true it would seem. Never trust another man with your wife or your precious man-be-cue. It's painful letting either one of them go.
I would have to say that her somewhat plebicolar demeanour appealed to me immediately as she leaned back in a contented pose opposite and nibbled nonchalantly on a rosewood toothpick. Not for the first time I felt the soft gentleness of her smooth toes as they left their demure position encased in an expensive high heel and played a mischievous pizzicato upon my leg. I hesitated briefly before ordering another bottle of the sumptuous house red and gestured to the florid waiter to wrap my second T- bone without even the slightest glimmer of shame. He gave me a knowing smile. I gave him a large tip.
"Shall we go home?", she said.
I'm pretty sure that if I trawled back through the still cloudy tumbled gardeviance of my thoughts at the dinner table that evening, I would no doubt have realised that she meant the five kilometres back to our hilltop nidifice. However, never really being a huge devotee of the aquabib fraternity, the clouds that were normally white were more fluffy and opalescent than usual, undoubtedly due to the stiffness of the local grape.
Thirty-six hours later we found ourselves seated at our favourite table in the small backwaters of Gartocharn, the hurriedly packed suitcases still languishing on the back seat of the car. The pitiful foppotee at the door had been quietly, but quickly informed that we were long-standing regulars and no, the small table by the window would not suffice. Before the second complimentary bottle had been uncorked, the delicious waft of roasted grass fed beef fluttered gently across the low beamed room and filled my senses with fond cuisine memories of home. In the corner sat Michael O'Shea, excutient with the rain still sliding from his auld coat. He brought out his ancient fiddle, winked in our direction and began a melody that only a true Glaswegian could ever understand. Somewhere in the background I heard the oaken clock groan and shudder as the hour of eight came and went.
"Tis the sun you have about you this very day sir", said the young waitress as she created a delicious moat of thick fragrant red shallot gravy around the heaped mound of fresh garlic mash. "Are you in yourselves for a quick visit to the west coast of Scotland, or do you think you might want to stay on and see the sights some more?"
I looked across the table at Siobhan and smiled. It went without saying the answer to that particular question.
News of my death have been grossly exaggerated it would seem. Stories of languid Belgian walking holidays involving poached egg poisoning and even hospitalisation due to an alcoholic dependency big enough to bring down a camel are abound. All stuff and nonsense, nihilistic hogwash of seemingly cotard delusion, brandished around like cheap supermarket butter on other social media sites of stale bread. Monochromatic reports that I have recently been sighted rowing merrily in an organic cardboard coracle somewhere east of Kilimanjaro amused me muchly, especially as even the haters are aware just how much salt water plays terrible havoc with my sinus. Perhaps the most bizarre story of all was the supposed botched assassination attempt on my life by the Chechen farmyard animals in cheap business suits that tend to frequent the less salubrious parts of the city of Glasgow. Honestly, who would have thought that polyester and gun oil would ever make such a huge comeback amongst the great unwashed? Most of it is simply not true. In reality, I have been kept busy engaged in the frenetic toil of filling endless sandbags for the increasingly beautiful Patricia against the ever rising river that borders her stately home down there in Swanage. Outside toilet facilities, wandering hands and lukewarm tea in ceramic mugs have hindered my progress somewhat.
At times, as Pat and I gazed across the immense social divide towards the poorer part of town, it felt as though the ghost of our dear friend Scarlet had again arisen to haunt me for my impure thoughts in her direction. Obviously in her pre-ginger years and before she moved to her new static caravan home in Parkdeane Sands in the council quarter of Cornwall of course. That much goes without saying. The ebb and flow of her flat-spotted Dunlop's as the water lapped so rhythmically against the septic tank kept both Patricia and myself amused long into the evening as we sipped a decent port up there in the safety of the front balcony overlooking the drenched hyacinths and humble climbing roses. Who can ever forget the hangdog look about her deliciously saline eyes as she thumbed through page after page of home truths and poured her heart out to me about her previous acting career. All water gushing harmlessly over the beleaguered bridge as far as so many incredulous scandals are concerned. Oh how she once lived. The rumours of Errol Flynn did not once disappoint.
However, reality forces me to speak the truth, so in all honesty the above, well some of it, is a fish riding a bicycle lie. I have merely returned for a brief period of utter tranquillity to the more sunnier climes of our distinctly quiet hacienda in the sun. Apart from the odd furry caterpillar, sun drenched lizard and mysteriously convex frying pans that awaited me, time had stood still, as have I. Pure bliss. I shall return as soon as I tire of being at peace with the world. Do help yourself to a wee nibble, I may be some time.
During the great flooding of Drumchapel in the 70's, Noel Duggan came for me at the back of eleven one wintry night, his grand long beard all awry with the stress of it all. It would seem that his ninety-three year auld grandmother, who lived in a small basement apartment below the music shop in Pitmilly Road, had fallen foul of the dreadful weather and had seen herself flooded halfway up to the gunnel's. As we battled hard at taking out her oaken front door with our bare hands, an almighty swoosh was to be heard and Granny Duggan gleefully floated out on top of a large wooden cello. It was music to our ears alright, but nothing could beat the magical moment when enquiring about her husband, she told us that not to be outdone, he had soon followed suit and accompanied her on the old piano. There was always music in her, people would say. It was nearly five years since she had passed before we found out that the organ player from St. Patricks had been rumping her religiously every Sunday behind the closed curtains of the vestry. God bless her soul, the dirty wee mare.
Come on all you people of Scotland, what is wrong with the picture here? Have the damply limp English mob brainwashed you into being as soft as their sorry lot? For the love of all things holy, when I was a wee nipper and the snow fell, the rain pished and the wind howled, we went out, built grand looking snowmen, splashed in rather wet puddles the size of Loch Ness and flew homemade kites made out of bible pages and gnarled twigs from Ma Kelly's thatched roof. The only reports of people going missing back then was a certain fella in Provanmill who fell down a storm cellar after a night on the lash, the other being a young girl by the name of Dorothy and her wee pooch from Kansas, who allegedly blew away in a storm. Or did they? I never did quite get the gist of that rather strange movie. Lions looking for courage, little old men hiding behind curtains, not to mention a walking oil can that was the very first homosexualist ever seen on Christmas TV. My father refused to have the television on in the room for years afterwards whenever he was alone in case he became corrupted and began walking with a lisp and talking with a limp. I was twenty-seven years of age before my phobias surrounding scarecrows relaxed enough for me to be able to enter a field to relieve myself during the long nights walking home from McGillicuddy's all night bar and grill.
There is no particular moral to any of this other than let us not allow the weather girls on the telly to overplay their part. They were lucky to get a couple of minutes after the news and before the test card back in the days when we had real weather. Now they get fifteen minutes, every hour, on the hour, live from somewhere beyond the car park at the BBC in some anonymous monstrosity of a sky tower, where the wind whips through even at the height of Summer. With exaggerated hand gestures, tight bodices and the fluttering of heavily made-up eyelashes, they point randomly at satellite pictures of a low pressure system somewhere out there in the darker side of the world. Possibly Belgium, where it is always grim. Holy Mary herself, they were more believable back in 1979, when wee Hamish McFutter, aged three and three quarters, sent in his hand paintings of his mammy with a crayoned umbrella chasing a damp looking cat beneath puffy white clouds and a smiling sun. These new showbiz antics actively promote people ringing in advance to their work, possibly next Thursday, cancelling hair appointments in favour of sandbagging the front garden against the incoming tsunami that in all reality is little more than a few drops of acid rain. Possibly, they might be swept away by a monsoon, even though the enforced hosepipe ban back in 1983 has never officially been rescinded.
Cold Weather Cottage Pie
1lb of minced leg of lamb
1 tbsp good olive oil
2 medium red onions, peeled and chopped
3 oz of carrot, chopped very small
3 oz turnip, again, chopped very small
1/2 level tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 tsp fresh parsley
1 level tbsp plain flour
10 fl oz fresh lamb stock
1 level tbsp tomato puree
pinch sea salt and milled black pepper
2 oz mature Scottish or Irish cheddar, coarsely grated
2 medium sized leeks cut into bite size pieces
2lb of King Edward tatties
2 oz fresh Irish butter
Begin by taking the frying pan to an open flame, gently heat the olive oil. Fry off the onions in the oil until they are tinged brown at the edges. Add the chopped carrot and turnip and cook for 5 minutes or so, then remove the veggies and put to one side. Turn the heat up and brown the meat in batches, tossing it around to get it evenly browned. As always, a wooden utensil must be used if you are to break up the mince without tainting the flavour.
Give the meat a good seasoning of salt and pepper, then add the veg, cinnamon, thyme and parsley. Next, stir in the flour, which will soak up the juice, then gradually add the stock to the meat mixture until it is all incorporated. Finally, stir in the puree. Turn down the heat, put the lid on the pan and let it cook gently for about 40 minutes. While the meat is cooking, make the topping.
Peel the tatties and boil them up. Drain, cover with a clean tea cloth to absorb the steam and leave for 5 minutes. Then, add the butter and salt, but never milk for the sake of his holiness the Pope fella himself, When the meat is ready, spoon over the mashed tatties, sprinkle the leaks, scatter the cheese and bake for 25 minutes until the top is golden and crusty. Serve piping hot with fresh green beans and a chilled glass or two of white wine. Put it on the windows edge to cool if you must, but do keep one eye on the weather. It looks possibly like it might rain.
At best, it can most probably be accurately described as one of those more avoidable moments where politeness and etiquette collide with the same startling 'wump' of an English woman's backside connecting with a smooth wooden chair. Much ado about nothing really. Of course, the incessant, clackety-clack clackety-clack, of his somewhat garish supermarket brogues, as he tapped out what one can only imagine was some sort of nonsensical, if not downright preposterous, eastern-bloc melody, began to annoy long before the 10:15 from Manchester rounded the bend at Carlisle. Steaming merrily away from the delirium of such a vibrant city at a fair rate of knots, the journey up until that point had been good natured and quiet. The door opened abruptly. He reached into his musty tracksuit pocket and deposited the contents onto the carriage floor in front of us with a Lemony-Snicket sneer. I counted twenty-three salt sachets, two of which had been opened, an old Renault car key, chiselled and worn at the nub. A grizzled chunk of Hungarian salami, the inexpensive kind that contains the husks of cracked black pepper, bread crumbs and insidious lumps of bold gristle. A large serrated edge bread knife and something that looked like it had fallen from an ill dogs nose. Siobhan gripped my hand tightly, more out of displeasure than of fear. The quite unmistakable stench of three-day old garlic and urine assaulted my senses as he shifted his weight in order to excavate his other track-suited bottom pockets. An indolent, pimple faced youth seated nearby, pale of face, scrawny of build, most certainly art studenty of nature, sniffed loudly with disdain. His Adam's apple bobbing furiously in mechanical angst. The rotund lady from Enniskillen sitting opposite, the only character in the carriage without those white musical thingies stuffed in her ears, leaned forward, pointed at the mess on the carpeted floor and waited for a response. It came without warning. A large globule of silvery flecked saliva, twisting, changing its spherical shape several times en route, before exploding into a visceral multi-patterned spatter on the rather inviting looking herringbone pattern of her jacket. A veritable rainbow offering of disease cascaded in tiny drips, encapsulating perfectly her clasped hands brooch and all that is wrong with the current influx of steadily arriving detritus, adding hourly to the current displeasurable quagmire at every port.
In battle, the immediate scacchic surroundings are chloroformed into a cyclonic whoosh of testosterone and supplementary pain, both given and received, not forgetting an oozing blast of intoxicating adrenaline that beguiles those nearest to the windmill of body parts whirling ferociously at all and sundry if interrupted. Our track-suited friend soon found himself laying face down on the floor, the rather angry, spat-upon lady now positioning his arm, severely bent, in a seemingly rakish angle. Her very Irish eyes were noticeably not smiling at the time. The pimpled student, arisen and eager to act, his size three foot firmly positioned in an area close to the groin. The spitter, his eyes, by this point bulging and without question registering shock, disillusionment and what must have been a considerable amount of pain. My head turned slightly between the upturned beer can that dripped its contents from his jacket pocket and his apparent lack of winter socks in such inclement weather. Three rows along, a small man, receding hairline, with a Peter Stuyvesant umbrella, carrying a largish parcel bound up in old fashioned brown paper and string, notably blanched at the activity most uncommon in a first class carriage. His portly companion bravely ducked his head back into the large pages of his upside down newspaper and found a vivid interest in the nonsensical crossword he had previously completed. It was left to me to assist my fellow passengers and free them from the troublesome bother of dealing with the now loudly profane assailant heaped somewhat unceremoniously on the floor. Keeping in mind that my attire was more appropriate for our evenings attendance at the opera of course. One does not purposely stride forth with the shit on the shoe of life in plain view for all to observe. Further up the British Rail procession, the driver, a collector of picture postcards and small wooden toys, slowed the train by a deft instep on the brake pedal and the engine began to wind down as it made its way into the intermittent concrete banking of the approaching station ahead.
As we alighted at the small village of nondescriptville, a middle-aged man, notably with an unmistakable penchant for caravan holidays and a garden shed full of daffodil bulbs, made a fuss about the possibility of an elongated delay to his onward journey to Edinburgh. His rather comical middle England accent saw much derision ensue from the semblance of passengers now grouped somewhat animated in the rain. Overhead, grey clouds of puffy cotton wool began to weep as if in in sympathy for the restrained 'spitter' with the supermarket shoes. A somewhat non scholastic peeler made his way to the noisy stramash now spilling out onto the damp asphalt and immediately began to assert his full 5ft 6"of authority. Along the platform I heard the distinguishable pitter patter of the rain as it fell softly upon the receding man and his stringed brown paper parcel. Camera phones containing irrefutable moments of vilipend footage of the spitting man's beleaguered journey through sedate second class carriages were now proffered in evidence to the ruddy cheeked enforcer as his initial thoughts threatened to stall due to the momentum of the crowd now bunched before him. As usual, his glassy eyes fell upon my not insubstantial features. Cogs stuttered, unique metal pins fell slowly into place as he took in my broken nose and overheard my Glasgow accent. Like cheap plastic leaping frogs in a 70s board game, he jumped unquestionably backwards towards a conclusion. His gnarled hand hesitated between his pepper spray and his constantly squawking radio latched by Velcro to his body armour. It was at that precise moment that my phone pinged with a message wishing me a very Happy New Year, wherever I was. Further up the platform, the brown paper parcel had finally split to reveal a large haunch of unsalted fresh gammon. I heard the station masters black Labrador whimper in barely concealed excitement.
Happy Hogmanay, to each and all....
The need for a well deserved stroll now that the Christmas day celebration is finally over, has me plodding gently on a warming whisky fug and the sobering winters breeze, towards our nearest retail outlet just up the road in still rainy Balquhidder. Siobhan's mother has been tearfully waved off, clutching several large tins of leftover sausage rolls, three bottles of sherry and a pair of my French Rococo silver sugar tongs. For the sake of ruining a good day I pretended not to notice. Besides, the tongs were the older ones I used to clear the clinkers away from Siobhan's pet goats rear end when she last had worms. The goat that is, not Siobhan. Our secret though, eh? Distributing a discreet, but all too familiar brussel odour in the back of the little singing fella's car, she leaves us all with happy memories and her bottom set still wedged in the U-bend of the guest bathroom. A good time to clear my head of recent thoughts. The exasperated women in my household infrequently send me on a mission these days to retrieve household supplies from the local outlets. The valetudinarian element amongst them tell me that with the overcompensation of the onset of my imminent brain fog, I endeavour to become far too philosophical about the many purchases that I am requested to return. I would of course respond if I wasn't so busy redacting the nonsense previously recorded on nuclear physics and the translation of Galileo's theory, from the original Latin, into a more readable derivative of Chinese Mandarin and its correct haruspication using only the third and fifth symbology of the Ho Jiangxi provincial syntax. But then, you already knew that. Hence the reason why only the extreme intelligencia amongst you will understand why I have chosen to continue this manifest written strictly in a Sanskrit/Tamil Brahmi language. The mere ordinary IQ's out there will by now have refreshed, then activated the Google English Translation service in order to continue. Either that or I may just be a wee bit more muddled than first thought.
Anyway, after the festive feast and during the previous evenings gentlemen and brandy only discussion in the library, the need for planet greenery was raised by me as I feel it is pulling me ever closer as I ponder the needs of the many. In these advanced, heady days of the scientific world, we assign far too much of our time, worrying, disguising, camouflaging our human traits, even to the point of scenting our toilet paper and decorating it with flowers before offending it in the worst possible way prior to discarding it into a ever descending bottomless pit. If only my posterior could sigh, I'm sure it truly would. As civilised a race as we like to think we are, the Scots are not a people who like to wash their bottoms after the more private of moments. European culture does not cross the border easily here. Most modern day ideologies are robbed, beaten and handed limply back to the muddied and impoverished English from a height of fifteen or more feet from the parapet walls of civilisation. We are hardened, dyed in the wool, dedicated wipers. For generations we have put ourselves into a certain position of cleanliness with whatever was closest to hand. Even the latest government quango cannot save us as a nation. We wipe, therefore we are wipers, forever destined to wipe away our seemingly smeared history. Scrunched or folded, we continue our misguided rituals with a dedication not seen since the global banning order of the noble, but far to slippery, pages of the qur'an. Soft, fluffy, even luxurious air filled pockets of absorbent paper loveliness is something we all prefer to reach out for when the motion beckons us ever southward.
Serious discussions of the topic are frowned upon as being strictly taboo in more polite circles within Glasgow and rarely raises its ugly head within our own quasi protocol and ever conforming cultures. Instead, asking whether or not the archaic ritual of wiping has failed us, we prefer to think of it only in private mute thoughts and point the stained finger of shame in other directions. Who can ever forget the humiliation of the small ginger child with the soiled knickers in the school changing room of which we all witnessed, yet said nothing? Was it not our very own historical, yet strangely mythical biblical leader who requested us to step forward and cast the first stone at those who sat at the windows edge and let down their golden hair from the tall brick tower and rebuff the spiritual requirement to wipe? I will admit to being slightly unsure on this subject. Try as I might, I still maintain that Harry Potter's involvement in writing the bible tends to merge towards the grey after only an hour or more. However, with that cast aside, the thought of overcoming our lack of complete and utter compulsion with cleanliness is still somewhat seemingly dirty. Lavatorial moments are hard to digest. It's that old, dark fear of what lies beneath. We have a penchant for hiding our own excreta, just as Jack the Ripper had a liking for hiding bloodied kidney's beneath his pillow. It is indeed a paradox. We Scots still view the wide porcelain bidet as something of a hurdle, a strange object of which we just cannot get over, however it is time that the winds of change blew through our nations bathrooms. Therefore, the glossy abundance of leaflets I have returned with in favour of installing a bidet will not, I fear, go very far to assist them in their quest for the desired requirements in bathroom hygiene. Way too slippery for a start! As feared, our ethos of conquest and environmental destruction has distracted us from nature and our own bodies. If only I could remember what they originally dispatched me to retrieve. They may well be angry. Och well, as they say in the more informal parts of Glasgow, shit happens...
Chefs Fail Safe Hangover Cure
1 large glass
1 bottle Remy Martin XO
1 Cuban Havana cigar
1 bowl of tepid water
1 cheese grater
Place feet in to bowl of warmish water. Use cheese grater (my Christmas gift from Ms Scarlet last year) to remove hard skin and stimulate blood flow back into feet when nicely soaked. Pour a quarter of a glass of brandy. Dip cigar into glass, sip, puff contentedly, savour and repeat several times until bottle is completely empty. Repeat until hangover has completely disappeared or your wife has gone to her sisters in a huff. Important note: Place cheese grater back in kitchen draw immediately after use.
Striding deftly past the noteworthy, if not somewhat especial, contributions of unparallelled kitschmas decorations that adorned the raised stone walls of my nearest neighbours abode this very morning. One could do little but admire the religious significance of the arrangement of roughly moulded plastic meerkats, complete with hand-painted robes and carefully pinked claws, in the rather curious semicircle presence of the baby Jesus. Quite what the meerkats and a small Jewish boy have in common is beyond even my seemingly stretched imagination when it comes to all things sacred. What is it about religion and animals? There was of course that small paragraph in the holy babble, the one about loving an ass and buggering an ox, but I skipped that section and went straight on to the Gomorrah parts, just in case it had any mucky pictures as a reference guide. I was an impressionable boy of eleven, I had much to be inquisitive about, let us not pretend that you didn't do it as well. Still, today's wall art is thankfully not as bad as last years display. I vividly recall being so deliciously regaled at the sight of the Muppet nativity scene upon the very same walls. The scale of which was shadowed only by the smallest of bright orange traffic cones. It's not as if Mr & Mrs Anonymous up at the great house are short of a penny or two. No. It's more to do with the fact that they are driven forever onwards by their lack of taste. They are from Norway you see. Apparently it is still very much 1976 over there, good taste, sensible pullovers and a penchant for cooked meat has still to arrive. The rumour in the village is that Mr Anonymous once mistakenly ate nuclear radioactive snow, was forced to leave his home town of Brekstad and now resides, hideously deformed, here in Scotland behind the stone walls of Meerkat Palace. Me? I'm still of the firm belief that he is definitely from Belgium.
With the advent of Stressmas so nearly upon us, I again took up my position beside my beloved, cramped and hunkered onto small plastic chairs not designed for anyone over 5.3, we sat for yet another laborious two hours in the village hall, watching other peoples childer curdle the words to 'away in a manger'. Why is it that they continuously insist upon putting the ugliest ones at the front? Perhaps to keep the priests at bay? It's not that I am impartial to the angelic innocence of those so young enjoying themselves. No indeed. It is more to do with the fact that nativity plays are great when you are observing your own little angels, but not somebody else's little darlings. I have many happy memories of my own weans when they were bearded, fully robed and visiting the little lord Jaysus as he lay stiffly in a doll-like trance upon polymer straw way back when. However, clapping and smiling is now strictly reserved for those newer parents quite happily festooned with digital recording equipment, if not a desire to see their own wee treasures embark in a career as a budding actor on stage somewhere near Broadway. Politeness dictates that Siobhan and I never refuse an offer to appreciate the hard work of so many kiddies as they put in a heart-warming rendition of the back end of Joseph's illustrious, if not somewhat moth-eaten donkey. Even when it does fall off the stage for the second time in less than 5 minutes. The whole concept of Joseph and Mary as kids scenario is mildly disturbing, particularly in light of rampant infantalisation of teenagers in our culture and the ever dropping age of puberty, though I'm sure that is not what the creators of this evenings donkey debacle quite had in mind. But then again, being of catholic origin, one can never tell.
With this festive cheer firmly ensconced in your minds, it only leaves me to wish each of you who travel here from afar to worship at the blog alter of the worst possible taste, a merry Christmas, regardless of your own chosen faith. Merry Christmas to all.
Being absolutely useless at twiddling with twinkly bits of tinsel finery, bright shiny baubles and the tedious arrangement of the last minute plastic vulgarity that passes for festive lighting these days, I took myself off with some old friends for a few days away of uninterrupted golf. Typically enough, the monochromatic weather conditions delayed our connecting flight and forced us to seek refuge in the airport bar. All was well until the inevitable moment arrived and I was seemingly faced with the incomprehensible thought of going to the rather nice marble lavatory without having anything decent to hand by way of reading material. I'm not talking about any of the greats here, 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles', Far from the Madding Crowd', or even The Hound of the Baskervilles, for example. Somehow, the posters on the inside of the stall door invoking ideas in regard to the 101 ways to ensure that the rapidly spreading threat of infection is avoided by choosing the longer flush, then washing my hands, wasn't all that inspiring as it turned out. In fact, it was only less inspiring than the rather grey 'Columbo' box set given to me last year as a Chrissie present. In fairness to my cousin Moira, who presented me with said gift, I managed to watch nearly a full eleven minutes before I teetered on the brink of losing the will to live. One needs to stimulate the brain by logging in with interesting information, especially when one is sat in a quite presentable enclosure, busily logging out. It was at that precise moment that my phone rang with bad news. The announcement of death is always later replayed in our minds perfectly encapsulating the surroundings of which the news was initially first received. A trigger if you will. Unfortunately, it would seem, I shall now always have fond memories of my recently passed Aunt Gertrude, whenever I smell the deeply obnoxious gases of other men's bowel emissions. Mind you, she did have rather an unpleasant penchant for boiled cabbage most of her married life, so perhaps a fitting epitaph after all then?
Being in close proximity to ones friends for anything longer than a 24 hour period can of course have its drawbacks. Don't get me wrong, I am extremely fond, in a bearish, manly, non-sexual (in any way, shape or form) kind of way, to my good friend and long suffering companion, the little singing fella. He is to me what Donkey was to Shrek. The Laurel to ones own Hardy, the perfect Costello to a very weary Mr Abbot. A proverbial wart on the great buttocks of life if you like, a seemingly second hidden hump on the great Quasimodian moments of my life so far. He is however, very entertaining in an embarrassingly best friend kind of way. If you are unlucky enough to be billeted with him, one soon notices the little idiosyncratic points that will eventually drive you barking mad. It isn't so much the lumpen garish Christmas sweaters, depicting a very naughty Rudolph pulling something entirely different to the usual festive sleigh. Neither was it the very surreal moment when he complained bitterly to a rather bemused chef that he could not find chicken on the menu... in an oyster bar. It isn't even the fact that he is very far removed from dynamism, materialism, or his continued confusion in regard to his own paralian inaccuracy. It isn't even the fact that he pees, constantly in the shower, sometimes when the water is running, other times not. Nor is it that he is equipped with garlands of strangely monkeyish Neanderthal chest hair, on his back, that isn't entirely normal, or human come to that. It could be that he constantly breaks into song at the drop of the perfunctory hat. Not always a welcome trait, the memory of him being asked to leave the church at a poignant moment during the wedding of a colleague's wife still smarts whenever I hear the chorus of 'Come on Eileen', one moment that will continue to linger rather painfully on. And for the love of all things holy, NEVER ask him to carry a drinks tray laden with the finest whisky money can ever buy.
A rather awkward moment is to occur during this years Christmas dinner event. Sitting in close proximity to both my good lady and myself will be a friend and colleague of Siobhan, a doctor no less. Not only is she a doctor, but also a specialist in a certain field. Proctology. Yes, you already know where this is leading. Down a very dark hole indeed. Since my retirement, I have taken advice from Siobhan and had numerous health checks in order to ensure that I live out the remainder of our time together, without wondering at every ache, pain and strain am I going to pop my clogs prematurely. Admittedly the news wasn't all good, however by then I shall be happy dribbling down my bib and colouring in the pretty wallpaper flowers that decorate my bed in the sectioned wing. Only time will tell. Visiting a proctologist is always an uncomfortable position for a man to be in. Not just the fact that my knees were tucked underneath my chin in a rather awkward foetal position, but also with clothes removed. My back end exposed, peeking through the gaping minuscule cloth that they seemingly describe as an 'observation robe'. Our first meeting, as patient and doctor, did not fare well. Something to do with the squeaky sound of rubber gloves being applied, before the ominous squelch of lubrication being applied to said rubber gloves. Our conversation was somewhat stilted. "Brace yourself Mr Files", is not normally a line that most women would use with me. However, her next line was slightly more disconcerting. "I'm going to bring in a student doctor to observe the examination, Mr Files". In comes what I can only describe as a very attractive young lady of perfect proportions. Probably the best way to explain what happened to my body next is if I ask you to picture a tiny button mushroom in your mind. Enough said. I have since discovered, to my horror, that the good doctor and Siobhan are old friends, hence the Christmas luncheon invite. At least the ice will be broken, none of those awkward silences or
Chefs Christmas Appetisers
Buffalo mozzarella, torn roughly into bite size measures
Red chili, de-seeded and washed
Extra virgin olive oil
Cracked black pepper
Tear the mozzarella, spread onto the olive oil drizzled toasted crostini. Sprinkle the chili, add the basil and pepper. Serve with chilled white wine, preferably as a starter.
It's all seemingly gone a bit mad at the moment. Angry business suits abound, corduroy clad, torn cardigans and placard waving hotheads are roaming the western world looking to decapitate clandestine statues and loudly liberate the garish historical symbolism from its concrete shackle. Thanks to satellite broadcasting and the subsequent projectile vomiting of the Internet, every man and his dog now appear to have become one of those rather poorly dressed Muslim martyrs, burning flags, reclaiming parliamentary procedure and recycling old shopping carts to make into hideous objet d'art for general sale on eBay. For the love of your very own imaginary Ghod, just when we thought that the world was dying on its rather prominent behind and couldn't possibly get any worse, conversing in text speak, evolving blasphemous acronyms involving incomprehensible Fibonacci sequences, and overuse of that dreadful complex youth word of today, "whatever". I open my newspaper this morning, only to find, the extremely insolent puppies who hunker over nuclear buttons and drink ersatz coffee from waxen cups, have gone and outlawed the use of the humble necktie within our own Scottish parliament, Let me tell you, this rather annoying Gothic angularity has got to stop. It is playing havoc with my poker mornings over at Sammy the barbers on a Wednesday. However, what really gets my goat is the devilishly clever fiends who travel up from the nations capital, currently on their 3rd Aston Martin Vanquish, who entice the so-called downtrodden untermensch to throw stones at police horses, spray paint glass windows and generally cause mayhem and uproar in the name of political ambition.
I blame everything on the decline in standards in regard to our wardrobes. Everything in the world was just peachy until some awful, scruffy little troll (no doubt from the worlds anus - Belgium) decreed that a gentleman must no longer tuck in his good button-down collar shirts. Instead, as the new doctrine now dictates, all shirts are to flap languidly at the waist, square-jawed chins will remain unshaven, whilst expensive brown leather brogues, a true gentleman's uniform of distinction, will no longer be tolerated in favour of sports footwear, complete with untied and trailing laces. Where are standards I ask myself? A gentleman does not stop momentarily to pick his good lady a bouquet of fresh flora wearing Adidas tracksuits and Ubbly Bubbly designer plimsolls. One cannot possibly comprehend enjoying the delights of Cosi fan tutte, Soave sia il vento in particular, whilst reclining in a slouched position, adorned carelessly in a Slazenger pullover. As for this modernistic, if somewhat hedonistic approach to drinking an alcoholic beverage from a bottle whilst NOT at an outdoor barbecue event, I just won't do it I tell you.
No recipes today, the kitchen is temporarily closed for its pre-Christmas makeover. Instead, help yourselves to a nice spot of tea and a smashingly sticky bun.
And so, once more to the veritable seating arrangement for the forthcoming, long awaited, cornucopia that is Christmas lunch. Never an enviable task when one is born into a soap opera menagerie, all of which will make up the bones of the annual gathering here at the ancestral home of the Files. To the left, we have the inherited relations, 'Ceux dont nous devons si tristement divertir'. Some of which we would not necessarily wish to have mingling amongst us if choice was an option. Sadly, missing persons and accidental gunshot wounds are investigated more thoroughly these days, whilst digging holes in the frozen ground can be a bit of a bugger in the cold wind up there in the Highlands. Unlike friends, a man cannot choose his relations. Man is born of woman and all that malarkey. To the right, my DNA family, 'Les goûts de qui doivent continuer à être supporté comme un mal nécessaire'. The good, the bad, none of us that are too ugly, well, apart from the odd few from our extended Donegal connections that is. It was four hours once before I had even realised that the invited friend of cousin Hugh was in fact a large Mouflon, of which had just happened to board the aeroplane while the pilot was sobering himself up in the washroom. Uncle Hugh befriending him whilst they were both being frisked by the customs Gestapo at the duty-free. The Mouflon that is, not the pilot. He seemingly smuggled his own through in his British Airways flight bag.
My promised missive is still to be completed. I took a small meat pie, a pot of mustard and a small peck of radishes, along with a medium sized bottle of something spiritual, up to my study and began to compile. As well as a rabid indifference to making lists, I also cannot abide the aftermath of the harsh, but necessary seating arrangement cull each festive season. Last year for instance, I had three extra birds to de-feather, pluck and stuff, all before I could even begin to sit down with a pre-dinner minuscule sherry and half a mince pie. You have no idea the strain this puts on the Duke of Argyle's private stock when I, and a few secretive, balaclaved friends, look to replenish our freezers in the earlier hours of Spring. All because my good lady could not abide the very thought of the unprepared flotsam delving into fast fooderies and a cold, unwelcoming, unlit log fire down there in the remainder of the forsaken land that isn't actually Scottish. Two of my visiting spinster aunties from darkest Lockerbie, are regularly delighted with the upstairs lavatories, slightly disagreeable of course at the vulgar additions of the matching his and hers bathtubs, but nevertheless still cock-a-hoop with the free offerings of fragrant gardenia nosegay, triple ply toilet paper, not to mention a good chuckle at the soft-closing seats.
Honestly though, the gall of some people. Raise the land taxes from the sanctuary of their London offices, ridicule our guttural accents, football teams, weather, politics and religion, before bemoaning our continued success and popularity with the rest of the world. Then they have the cheek to sit, coy like at my table, draped in musty kilts that first saw the light of day way back before the Pictish invasion in 1503, helping themselves to my best roasted parsnips, cranberry sauce and elegant multi-stuffed birds and decrying the English, of which they have notably already become! Breaking wind discreetly in the library after the meal with a large whisky, amidst cigar and pipe fumes and a voluminous amount of coughing to mask the volatile retaliation of the brussel sprouts. They sit quite merrily in their doublets, with creamy frothing java snubbits, and quaintly expensive gingerish biscuits accompanying the big chunky mugs of eggnog and tumblers of single malt served up by yours truly. I try hard every year not to notice my great uncle Murdo, as he engineers yet another cunning plan to pilfer my silver cruet wedding set. His planned exodus with the goods usually ends when the white pepper from the acquired set cause him to sneeze violently several times, whilst breaking wind to the accompaniment of my brothers merry skirl on the bagpipes. Hence beginning an hour long saga featuring a major debate and then the subsequent retrieval of his top set from beneath the extremities of my snug-fit sideboard using a variety of wire coat hangers and hastily fetched snooker cues.
Last year, if it hadn't been for yet another well-timed repeat of 'The Wizard of Oz' summoning the elderly, flatulent and belching, tipsy cauliflowers back to the sitting room, I would quite happily have been reaching for my dusty, but ever trusty, side-by-side that rests above the fireplace in the library. Every year, an endless gaggle of family misfits file nefariously in to our cosy corner of leather and rather damned expensively wooded cockaigne Arcadia. Amongst the black jacketed fat men, hungover actors, lavender smelling retirees, hard-line politicians in comical cartoon T-shirts, come familiar people with fuzzy beards and half unwrapped crampons. Deft, city-type real estate brokers that are ironically on the cusp of going broke and looking for a fiscal hand-out in the new year, and those elderly relations amongst us who for some reason clap inadvertently along to oompah music. Add to the mix the odd homosexualist in motorcycle boots, bedraggled pre-nightclub revellers, one gentleman with a single ski, and of course the obligatory stranger that nobody can ever recognise. Even my faithful pooch, Milo, a fear of dread in his one good eye, has taught Siobhan's pet goat how to extricate himself from his bed in the corner of the kitchen and escape across the fields whenever the first set of car headlights appears at the driveway gates in December. One year he never actually returned until the second week in January.
My children still recall amongst themselves a familiar, rather portly, largely overdressed aunty on my wife's side, extrovert in every possible consideration, even down to her exquisitely carved fake string of pearls. She paused elegantly, halfway through her blended caramel frappuccino as a bookish second cousin posed next to her whilst being snapped for an ultimate book of faces moment. In her hand was a freshly rolled cigarette of dubious quantities, whilst peeking from her handbag was the garish packaging of a well known pre-emptive prophylactic. The aunty in question must be seventy, if she is a day. It was several minutes beneath her inquisitive gaze before I returned her stare. She smiled sympathetically, ran a delicate finger down her face between her left ear and lower jaw, silently mouthing "Bio-oil" at me, as if she was a mystical illusionist harbouring a secret unction that would magically repair and enhance my male beauty. I nodded courteously, and by way of return, in the true spirit of Christmas, ran my own fingers across each eyebrow and silently murmured; "tweezers", right back at her. She hesitated only momentarily in disdain before her dignified exit into the scullery was slightly hampered by the confusion pulling the push only door. Admittedly, the bunched trouser material which had sought refuse in her plump buttocks cleft did not help matters. Being a gentleman, I pretended not to notice the cheapness and the over sized fit of her underwear as she puckered, dug it out immediately with a deft tug, turned dangerously fast on her well-heeled slingbacks and hurried ever onwards towards another large brandy.
Yes, it is the season of goodwill to all men, of that I will agree, but to all of their relatives and subsequent hangers-on as well? Even my patience, if not my larder, has its limits. Christmas time, mistletoe and wine, children singing Christian rhyme... Pah humbug!
Porchetta Pork Loin with White Beans
3 fresh garlic cloves, crushed
Grated zest of 2 Spanish oranges
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp fresh chopped rosemary
1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
salt and cracked black pepper to taste
1 pork loin, still with a modest layer of fat still attached.
1 tin of cannellini beans, drained well
juice of one lemon
On a cutting board, combine the garlic, zest and seeds. Add 1 tbsp of the rosemary and chop the mix until it forms a paste. Scoop into a small dish and add the oil. Season the pork with salt and pepper, rub it well with the paste. Marinate the loin for 3 hours in the fridge. When ready, place the loin in a roasting pan and bake for 30 minutes. Check the centre with a thermometer inserted cleanly in the middle. It should read 160 degrees. Take the meat out and allow to rest for 10 minutes. In a saucepan, heat the beans, lemon juice and remaining rosemary until warmed through. Add a small amount of chicken stock to assist the natural jus. Pour around pork, sprinkle the remainder of the fennel seeds, add the white beans, garnish with freshly plucked watercress and serve piping hot.