Still currently waylaid in middle-Englandshire, patiently wilting like peeling wallpaper in many other purgatorial bureaucratic waiting rooms amidst other miserable grockles, I find myself reflecting on places once often frequented. Belgium, it turns out, is the most depressing country in the entire world. Navigating the pedestrian thoroughfares with their dirty, rather flavescent art deco buildings is like wading through a deeply depressing passage in the King James bible. The general population are rather remontado to say the very least. Those, astoundingly gliriform in appearance, still able to walk upright for more than a few moments, are usually to be seen wearing a grand multitude of havelocks, tricornes and a vast array of 1970's discount-store jeans. A turf of hair atop a bald wart strewn pate, mildy cynocephalous, infested with intestinal worms and the ability to grow a fully waxed 'Hercule' moustache, seems to be the norm amongst a community deprived for so long of bohemian culture. The men are just as bad. It could well be that Bob Dylan fathered many more children of the corn than was first thought during his first European tour.
Tractors and hay-bailing machines litter the sides of the main street, jostling for position between odious pumpkin sellers and dour tourists busy slurping thin turnip broth from the shells of such animals as a turtle or an armadillo. Beneath damp moss covered arches, effeminate men beckon you ever closer to sample garish baroque vaudeville tomfoolery. Oodles of drunken cypripareuniaphile Thracians, Dacians and ill-read Illyrians hawk phlegm onto the chewing gum clad pavements whilst pondering an incestuous desire for their own platyopic sisters. Elsewhere, otherwise innocent god-fearing canines fail miserably to find a clean place on which to deposit their early evening constitutional shite. Why, Charles Dickens himself would have redacted many a tale if he had been forced to tread these very steps in his quest for fine literature back in the day. What say you Mr Pip? In Belgium, it feels as though it is a wet Monday every day of the week.
Located at the dank and dire crossroads between Germanic and Latin Europe, Belgium, began life as a country with nothing. It still has most of what it started out with. It is seemingly distributed like a fly-spattered turd in the filthiness of many grubby cobbled courtyards known locally as 'flea markets'. Quite apt I thought. The national dish served daily appears to be any vegetation felled from the rear of a trotters cart, pickled in aspic, covered in porcine vomit garnished lightly with a sticky nasal bovine froth. A typical menu ominously featured baklava, sauerkraut, rotted figs and something called ajvar. Ajvar, a grim mushy looking substance, that reminded me of a babies first poo, it is served between two toasted buns and smothered in garlic butter, uncooked onions and something closely resembling a corpses teeth. I didn't fight my way to the top of the food chain only to become a vegetarian. I passed on lunch needless to say. It also passed me several times as it attempted to escape from the filthy serving tray attached to the street sellers carts.
To while away the time we found our attention drawn towards a rather lively music hall bar that seemingly resembled a bank. Unable to get close enough to the bar to buy a drink or make a withdrawal, we looked on as refugees from the cold war bumped and grunted their genitalia to the sound of a wind-driven organ while whooping and frothing in time to the off-key cries of pain from the instrument being tortured. Considering this is a country where its people still consider kiwi fruit to be exotic and sleeveless cardigans to be risque and somewhat decadent, I was somewhat taken aback to find that the hideously prostrated ladies of the night that gathered herd-like by the entrance to the grim reaper of all train stations had managed to decorate themselves with many fishnet garments. I doubt that it was fishing the ladies had in mind during the purchase, although there was a rather strange odour of mackerel that permeated the air. On endless occasions I saw associates of Looby's latest sullen house-guest peddling an endless array of home-grown plants wrapped in foil.
Unable to find food, sustenance and a bed for the night in Antwerp that did not involve holding a young lady's cigarette while she waxed lyrically about a happy ending, we moved on a few miles towards the small suburb of Walloon. There we secured fine cuisine and clean, comfortable lodgings in a rather nice setting. I was informed that Brussels is the stopping off point for many of the murderous asylum seekers from eastern Europe before they enter into Britain. That at least explained the undoubtedly batrachophagous menu and the clothing that reminded me of numerous jaded and jaculiferous old men. Anything to ease the forthcoming transition into the ambiance of downtown Manchester, eh? I managed two large portions in homage to our hosts very own recipe of Minced lamb and golden tattie pie, of which the waiter served up before me with shaking hands for some unknown reason. I had clearly not concealed a hatchet beneath my waistcoat on this occasion. I do seem to have the same effect when people first see me. However, with so many hideously deformed faces of Gargoyles that litter the city walls on constant view, I'd have thought that mine would have fitted right in. Och well...
Minced Lamb & Golden Tattie Hot-Pot
600g lean minced lamb
2 white onions, sliced
1 plump carrot
1 fresh stick of celery
5 large Irish potatoes
25g melted butter
1 tbsp plain flour
350 ml of lamb or beef stock
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper to taste
Heat a good quality oil in a large iron skillet over a medium heat. Saute the onions until soft and deep golden in colour. Remove from the skillet and set aside. Add the lamb mince and brown it in batches until rich chestnut brown in colour. 12 to 15 minutes should do. Drain the excess fat and reserve.
For the love of the blessed Mary herself, at this point do not forget to preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) or the timing of your meal will be all to cock.
Spread half of the sliced tatties and veg in the bottom of a large metal baking dish. Season to taste. Place the browned mince and onions on top, then sprinkle with thyme and season again if required. Cover with the remaining tatties and dot with butter. Pour the stock in and add the flour, cover the mince with the liquid, add a wee drop of Guinness or brown ale, cover with foil and cook for 2 hours. Remove the foil to brown the tatties during the last half an hour.
Serve with any choice of veg apart from brussels of course, a good bottle or three of dry white wine (red if you must) followed by a decent cheese board.
After having assumed the role of unwilling necroponent for a recently departed aunt in deepest darkest middle England, I was now more than ready to hasten a return to the sunshine of my hideaway. In a blizzard of hitherto ignorance and naivety, I took on the unenviable feat of arranging a green burial. We visited the 300 acre site in the brochure, of what was once prime porkery-piggery grazing land. In its place, a radically heaped slurry pile of shite of which the eco-trumpeters will unreservedly wring their hands in dismay. Couple this with the savage removal of not only the many marbled orange butterflies that once dive bombed your picnic, covered the chrome grill of your car in gore with their unequivocal lack of flight guidance, but also homeless ostrich plumed hornets and an entire array of recently murdered, native singing bullfrogs. These alone will have them baying for the blood of innocent farmers who gave up their land to the government for a subsidy grant and a 70" widescreen TV fitted between the front seats of their already bulging Range Rovers.
My point of contact was an hirsute little man complete with obligatory dreadlocks, wearing a colourful Himalayan mountain hat, who smelled strongly of cabbage-based flatulence. He had teeth the shape and colour of African Ju-Ju beads and by the look of his clothing had been up all night hugging trees. His office, a four berth sun-seeker caravanette, reminded me of a nightclub fire back in Glasgow where the cloying stench of stinking carpet had permeated my new overcoat when I was making a hasty retreat. The only time you should be in a Glasgow nightclub after 3am and past the age of forty is when you are buying it or burning it for a friend. Adjoining the green burial area was a surprisingly situated, coned off area, steeped in fresh tarmac and shiny metal, awaiting the arrival of several billion litres of carbon-monoxide belching motor cars queueing to take advantage of Oxfordshire's latest attempt at park-and-ride. Not so much green then, more a darkish, greying smudge of black.
Amongst a sea of namaste muttering, baggy-breasted, non bra-wearing, oily skinned, mantra chanting, Stonehenge dwelling miscreants, I picked out what was seemingly a quiet spot overlooking more green fields, (if you ignored the M40 motorway in the background) a smallish willow tree which hung depressingly over a wide stream full of plastic bags, supermarket-associated detritus and a fading billboard advertising lojbanised household appliances at discount prices. Having dug a few midnight holes in the countryside in my time, I soon realised that the water table would float the wicker-built casket underground long before the arrival of the next winter flood. It's never nice when you go for a ramble in the English countryside, only to come across the remains of someones aunty popping up as you bend down to sip the cool clear waters of a hidden spring.
The service was to be a shining example of multi-faith, radical green speeches on Mother Earth reclaiming her richness in the onward journey of the dearly departed. For our part, we was there to ensure that the skirl of an Irish bagpipe was heard during the final lowering of what looked like a neatly clipped hedge containing my dear aunt. Into an abyss of stinging nettles she would go, helped along by mosquito's and some enticingly tasty green appendage that would be rather fitting when mixed with a fresh garlic and pasta dish. There was to be no marker stone other than the often dropped souffle of fresh cow pats from the wandering herds of dissipated cattle as they chewed lackadaisically at great clumps of shite-covered tufts of green grass as they urinated and defecated upon not only Mother Earth, but also our dear aunty.
As I turned my rental car back towards the direction of the airport, I couldn't help but plan methodically the final resting place of myself. I had often longed to be scattered to rest beneath the single tree that stands on guard at the shore of Firkin Point next to the very picturesque Trossach waters. To drift lazily upon the summer current and become as one with Scotland and its many natural beauties. However, after seeing the evolution of our world as it turns ever quicker into a tarmac prison of eternal dystopia, I had decided to revert back to being cremated, placed into a Tupperware container upon my old friends mantel shelf at his home in Limerick. I may well end up having bits of me sucked up off of the carpet every Saturday morning, scooped into a Hoover bag and scattered amongst the tattie peelings, but at least I won't be dissolved in ancient pig-shite and left to rest smelling of cow pish.
Middle England Soup
10 oz cured pork sausage, removed from casing.
1 white onion, diced
1 cup fennel, diced
1 free range carrot, diced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp black cracked pepper
1/2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp freshly smashed and minced wild garlic
1 tsp sea salt
1 plump red tomato
4 oz fresh tomato juice
8 cups of homemade chicken stock
2 cups of brown lentils, rinsed for the love of all things holy, rinsed!
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
sour cream for the garnish
In a large copper pot, saute the sausage over a medium heat, break it down with a wooden spoon and cook it for 3 minutes. Add the onion, fennel and carrot. Continue cooking for a few more minutes until the sausage is fully cooked and the veg is soft. Put in the cinnamon, pepper, paprika, thyme, bay leaves, garlic and salt. Cook for a further 1 minute. Add the tomato and the juice, chicken stock and lentils. Bring it to a boil and simmer for 35 minutes. Finally, add the spuds and cook for 10 more minutes until they are tender. Remove the bay leaves, add salt to taste and serve with warm crusty rustic bread.
Experience the rustic charm of dining under the stars. Soak in the beauty and grace of an exotic starlight dance in the lap of nature. Observe the process of the evening sky as it projects a thousand different glistening diamonds into the very heart of the warm Mediterranean waters. Smile as you drink in the company of good friends. Bond with your neighbours over a luxuriously chilled, flinty Chablis in tall glasses and accompany it with a sumptuous lemon fresh, char grilled fish supper. Act pleasantly surprised when you are quietly informed that the defecalgesiophobia suffering couple from down the hill (yes, the ones you didn't invite, the ones nobody likes) are at the door awaiting entry. Choose your moment, excuse yourself with a polite wave of the hand, watch as your wife flashes you a 'please do not embarrass me again smile' and slip away discreetly to discover the source of your irritation. Ah yes, the little cockalorum from further down the hill is making a point. The very same balatrons who stood drintling about a barking dog that we do not have. A charming couple who between themselves are to civility what a typewriter is to the digital age. They have all the warmth and charm of the snake pit at Edinburgh zoo. Rumour has it that during a recent sabbatical to the wonderfully historic pyramids in Zawyet el'Aryan, instead of joining the tourist group admiring the wonderful pictograms and hieroglyphics depicting the history of the Pharaoh Nebka, they remained on the coach composing an email of complaint to the tour company in regard to the lack of air conditioning inside of the tomb. They even refused to be impressed by the one-legged urimancy fakir propped awkwardly upon a rock outside of the tomb who very kindly offered to divine their immediate future using equine urine, chickens entrails and the devils own hecatomb beneath the night sky. Some people, eh?
Already, you are probably drawing a comparison of your own in regard to another loathsome hebetudinous couple of your own choosing whom you have come into contact with in the past, am I right?
Regardless of some peoples perception of me, particularly in the drier, dustier, older, southerly parts of Belgium, and ignoring my somewhat spirited cacodaemonomanian youth, the simpering wee tales that get dribbled on to the interbox every few years or so are simply twaddle. I am actually quite Apollonian of nature, preferring these days to rise above any oncoming shit-storm by merely turning the other cheek. Not at all the uneducated, murdering, Glaswegian cattle rustling, brachiation practising clod from the Lowlands that some would have you believe. Okay, admittedly there was that one incident at the very entertaining leather market last month, very popular with holidaymakers it would seem, where a rather large Somali, hip-gyrating brigand in a pair of cut-off tracksuit bottoms and a decidedly grubby pair of feet, tried to relieve my good lady of her purse as she stooped to put honestly earned coinage into his upturned hat. It is quite by coincidence that his severed hands now adorn the spiked railings that run adjacent to the docks in Ports de Balears rather deserted area. I have heard talk of terrible things that can happen in the shadows of the docks at night. Thankfully, being a devout and staurolatry man, I am always at home (with several witnesses, one of them being a lawyer) by sundown every evening, studiously concentrating the mathematical magnitude of my scrabble board with a chilled glass of scuppernong and playing a decent role of being a proud ampherotokus man (112 points if you hit a treble word score) and could not possibly comment on any such supposition.
Considering that my pleasant soigné evening was in full swing, I purposely relented from greeting my arriving guests with anything less than a spot of recumbentibus eventfulness, I remained melliloquent. Normally at this point, many of you would await the crux of the tale knowing that I am about to reveal a cliché, a somewhat well-meaning life lesson, a poignant, but decisive point, the pivotal moment if you will. No, this morning I will simply end on a obmutescent note without a hidden twist. You may decide for yourselves what actually happened. Answers on a post card please. The person nearest to the actual outcome will be rewarded with a bottle of something rather nice accompanied by much callithumpian.
Speaking of something rather nice...
Chef's Vanilla Ice Cream
2 freshly laid free range eggs
1 cup of sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
2-1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 cups fresh skimmed cream
Seeds from 1 vanilla pod
In a heavy saucepan, combine the first five ingredients. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat a metal spoon and reaches at least 160°. Remove from the heat; cool quickly by setting pan in ice and stirring the mixture. Cover and refrigerate overnight or freeze immediately. When ready to freeze, pour custard and vanilla into the cylinder of an ice cream freezer. Freeze according to the manufacturer's directions.
I cannot emphasis strongly enough... this is a Scottish recipe. It is vanilla ice cream, buttery, creamy, smooth and tastes entirely of vanilla. As friendly as I am with our enormously enjoyable, yet somewhat explaterate cousins from Amerikay, please do not let me discover that you have perverted a perfectly good old fashioned Scottish ice cream with any of the following: Marshmallows, Peanut M&M's, Fudge, Cookie dough, Chocolate sprinkles, Coffee, Coca-bloody-Cola or any other edible trinket, bonnyclabber or geegaw you can sadly find lurking in aisle three at the supermarket.
Do enjoy... meanwhile, I shall be sitting here drinking a fine blend of breakfast tea and composing a sumptuous proposal of bigamous marriage to the rather delightful Lady Patricia of Somerset in Englandshire.
The small wooden tram approached us on ancient rusted rails, fuscoferuginous and ginglyform through overuse, they protruded dangerously from the rain-slicked cobbles like strangely coruscant snakes. Clithridiate in all the wrong places, a thousand centuries of rain had not improved the road that held the gnarled iron above potholes large enough to ingest a small bovine creature. A tangible order of boarding was clearly not to be. Around me, supermarket jeans, garish faux leather zip-up jackets and the obligatory shapka-ushanka dictated the dress code. A strange odour of liquorice hung in the fetid air inside the closed carriage. A large woman draped in a mans overcoat with an elongated liripip, oozing viraginity beneath her mullet-shaped head, stared knowingly at the twisted remains of savagery that forever hangs from the corner of my mouth. It was an under-lidded gaze that finally alerted me to the fact that her left pupil was in fact constructed of a replica porcelain and dead to all but the touch. I took in the re-used and crumpled brown paper sack upon her knees. One corner had ripped to expose a parsimonious bag of blackened oranges and an elasticated wrap of scallions edging towards the last few remaining hours before the inevitable vegetable slime set in. The ersatz coffee, jentacular of course, from the hotel lobby, had begun to work its way perilously close to my exit door. With every groan, creak and substantial twist of the bogey wheels, my lower intestine, brontide and borborygmus to the extreme, made many an orchestral tuning noise deep within my bowel.
The uniformed man, pyknic, very adept in the art of grapholagnia, yclept Ernest, according to the faded brocade name tag on his breast, quite notably a dedicated autotonsorialist, sat audaciously puffed up within the confines of an overtly prominent metal cage. Green in fabrication, thickly coated with decades of obligatory municipal paint. The dull doubled eagle insignia adorned the very apex of the structure. A symbol which appeared on everything from gable ends on tall buildings down to official looking uniforms that littered the Slavic market area as frequently as the drab weather-worn statues of Radegast. Beneath his low brow protruded a nose so perfect in curvature that it ended with a ski-slope flourish as curtly as it had begun. Its symmetry took into account the lank curl of his damp, grey hair that gingerly refused to lean itself upon the frayed collar of his shirt giving him a cartoon-esque appearance. His predilection for nidorosity enough to make a corpse boak. Before me sat a man who had reached the very summit of nothingness. I proffered a handful of brown coinage in the centre of my palm towards him. My eyes told him that he could take advantage of my monetary offering. His eyes told me that I was beneath him with my western lack of currency as he slowly extracted the exact amount and placed it into a compartmental tin with very few paper monies in evidence. He placed a quarter roll of thin shiny lavatory paper before me as he used his foot to click access to the worn brass turnstile that guarded the entrance to the public conveniences. His eyes followed me as I rounded the iron corridor and gazed upon row after row of doorless stalls as other men squatted nonchalantly about their daily business.
The heels of her shoes sloped at alarming opposite angles as my eyes followed her rotund behind as it rolled and bucked its way across the dark wooden floor of the restaurant towards the kitchens. Just before she reached the double doors she reached up and removed what appeared to be the plastic plate that held her two front teeth in place to hide the indignity of her prematurely sagging face. I wondered if domestic violence or the malnutrition of a cabbage based diet had so vociferously dislodged her from her youth to face the world as it now saw her. Alphamegamia, the eternal curse of all vulnerable women, a common practise amongst so many broad-jawed of her ancestors. Maritodespotism, I pondered if an invisible husband beat her on a regular basis or just the ravages of such an impoverished backdrop was rapidly taking its toll and speeding her towards the somewhat familiar look of most Croatian females east of Bohemia. I noticed that she had an opened book by J. Rostafinski at her tall pedestal desk situated by the entrance to the dining hall. A probable sharp brain inside her sadly sack-like body promptly reminded me that we are each as we are and not at all like the image we project to others. I found myself distracted by her total lack of attractiveness to the male gender and reflected on the brass ring that adorned her finger by way of a wedding band. LSD, frottage and 60s images of naked women permeated my mind until I closed it before further flashbacks could turn me from my soup. I doubted that she had ever experienced the pleasure of removing the agraffe to the roar of cachinnation of friends. Batrachophagous quidnuncs were her only audience behind the tightly pulled curtains that held her captive when the swill-room was closed. Ennui, seeking life, her only pleasure the long forgotten dusty books, lambent amongst the scullery shelves she sat.
The curtain closed ceremoniously after the second act and a short interval was to take place while hired hands hurriedly changed the poorly constructed wooden props that hid thinly behind a lick of paint that had once advertised the Esso company and its oil based products. It had taken me several minutes during the first act to decide that the white light of the overhead rigs badly reflected the fact that history overlooked the apparent relevance between the tragedy of operatic performances and the significance of topping up your engine oil in between services. My thoughts were interrupted by the barman, a displeasing osculator of patrons, saprostomous, jumentous, he handed me what he very proudly described as 'genuine Scotch whisky'. The fact that the over-used word ' Scotch' only really exists in American movie writers minds did not curb my enthusiasm for the taste of something deliciously strong. I did not have the heart to tell him that the liquid he had served me should never be taken with ice or any type of mixer. Unless, of course, you are somewhere where the locals still wear paper train drivers hats and leather pantaloons to go about there weekly shopping. I removed the ice and again rebuffed his attempt to pour soda water into my glass. An assuage of drunken patrons, stentorian and severely lacking in zeitgeist pertaining to the role. I watched as he discreetly consumed the contents of a local liquor used as a preposterous apotropaic. I returned to my seat for the final act, my throat dry and raw while his offering of whisky continued to remain untouched.
As the blackest of rain beat hard upon the windscreen of the battered taxi and continued to retard my onward journey, my eyes glimpsed towards the faded sign that barely spelled the word airport. My thoughts turned once more towards food. Tarantism, visions of deliciously smooth chilled Guinness, warmed rum and the piping hot mutton stew with plump carrots at the long wooden table in the welcoming home of my old mumpsimus, usually capernoited friend in Limerick was again calling me home.
Mutton Máirtín Stew
several large scrubbed spuds
fresh organically grown plump carrots cut into small chunks
1 large white onion, chopped
3lbs boneless Scottish leg of lamb
fresh sprigs of thyme
a builders handful of flat-leaved parsley
4 cloves of garlic, smashed, not chopped
3 tablespoons of olive oil
pinch of salt
pinch of ground black pepper
a dozen bottles of Guinness (for the love of all things holy, never use cans) 12 ounces to be used in the cooking process, the rest for your table.
2 cups of homemade chicken stock
a handful of decent closed cup mushrooms
a cupful of garden peas. Frozen can be used, but hang your head in shame while you slip them out of the freezer.
Preheat your oven.
Layer the spuds, then the carrots and onions into a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Remove the string or netting from the lamb, open up the roast and place it, cut side down, on top of the vegetables. Rub the olive oil into the meat by hand and season. Combine the rosemary, thyme and parsley into a small bundle and tie with kitchen string. Tuck it under the lamb for the best results. Sprinkle the lemon zest and garlic over the lamb. Pour the Guinness and chicken stock over the the veg.
Use feeling when adding the glorious essences of the stout. It must be done with grace and as delicately as a virgin gently weeing into a spring mountain stream on a cold morning. Be advised that those of you pouring from a great height or with a certain fluster will swim in the pools of an imaginary hell for all eternity should you get this important procedure wrong.
Finally, cover and allow to simmer for three hours before adding the mushrooms. Remove from the oven after thirty minutes and add the peas, cover and allow to stand for five more minutes. Use forks to pull apart the tender plump meat before serving into medium-deep white dishes. Sadly, if you do not have the appropriate colour crockery you must not partake of this dish. We must adhere to standards of a traditional nature. This isn't Las Vegas. Cover with the veg and tasty gravy, add the remainder of the parsley and serve with crusty bread slathered in rich butter and sprinkled with white pepper. Pour the Guinness into chilled glasses and enjoy with good friends.