Saturday, 28 June 2008

In praise of silliness

Norwich is full of elephants.

A whole herd of mini elephants has been let loose on the city, each painted with a different topic. There's one on Quayside with waterweed and sticklebacks. One by the Puppet Theatre with vivid geometrical patterns made in electrical tape. One in the Royal Arcade decorated with mirrors, shining like an elephant shaped shard of glitter.

Someone looking at the Quayside elephant said 'This is delightful silliness,' and smiled.

He's right. There is a real value to honest silliness. There's something disarming about these elephants. They make no huge claims - they admit their silliness  - and you have no choice but to love them.

I can think of other examples of this kind of amusement. The porcellino or little boar in Florence. Bernini's elephant at Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The joke surprise fountains at Versailles.

If we ever forget to be silly, I think we'll forget to be human.

Because silliness confounds fascism. It rebuts totalitarianism. It argues for liberty and  in particular for the freedom of the imagination. It takes on the totalitarians of fashion and peer group. It defies worthiness, and people who know better than you how you ought to be living your life. It asserts spontaneity, originality, and enjoyment.

If you can't be silly, you don't know the meaning of freedom.

So do something silly this weekend.

Not outrageous. Not contrarian. But just silly.  Like painting an elephant.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Tastes of youth

A piece in the Guardian reflects on our taste for foods of our childhood.

It made me remember that little sweet shop at the bottom of Norwich Cathedral Close, by the kissing gate, where you could get coconut mushrooms, nut clusters, what we called 'jazzies' - white chocolate buttons with hundreds-and-thousands on. (The contrast between the meltingly soft chocolate and the crunchiness of the hundreds-and-thousands was made this sweet work.)

I've seen Dutch postgraduate students at Cambridge fighting for the last spoonful of hagelslag (the Dutch version of hundreds-and-thousands).

Childhood tastes are strong and unchangeable. I've grown to love the fig, but I still hate garibaldi biscuits and fig rolls.

And childhood names are often the best ones. Garibaldi biscuits? - Fly-and-spider slice, more like! We also hated frogspawn (tapiocoa pudding).

All these things define an English childhood. What sweets you had (sherbet fountains, anyone?), what puddings were served up, what kind of biscuits you liked or didn't like.

People I know who grew up in Scotland, or in Yorkshire, or the West Country, got different treats. Here in Norwich we had Caley's chocolate (now revived after some enterprising guys bought the brand), which I always thought was better than  Cadbury's  but not as good as Rowntree's.

Of course, we're being invaded by American brands.  Kelloggs has taken over much of Europe - though not
France, where hardly anyone I know eats cereal for breakfast . (The traditional baguette-and-jam still rules.) Marathon got renamed Snickers, though it remains one of my favourites with its mix of  peanuts and toffee.

But I hope we'll retain these little distinctions. Local brands, local sweets, local names for common things - these are all aspects of our life where one region or town distinguishes itself from another. These little differences  give our lives flavour.

And that, I suspect, is why - to answer the Guardian columnist's question - we are so excited about the biscuits of our childhood.

After all, a single snack was enough to make Proust write a multi-volume masterpiece - though that wasn't a biscuit, it was a cake.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Frying tonight!

Amusing news from Belgium. The chip has now got its own museum - the Frietmuseum on Vlamingstraat, in Bruges.

I like the sound of its proprietor, Eddy Van Belle. In the teeth of an obsession, he opened a museum of Lamps called Lumina Domestica. He's also opened a Chocolate museum (Choco-story, Wijnzakstraat 2).

The chip is definitely not in the same league as chocolate or beer as far as Belgium's gifts to the world are concerned. Not in my book, anyway. But it's a huge part of the country's food heritage. Anywhere you go in Belgium, you'll find a frituur (friterie if you're in Wallonia) - a little shack or tiny shop selling these crisp small fries.

Apparently, the Flemings began cooking chips in the eighteenth century. They used to fry small fish, a bit like whitebait (one of my favourite English recipes) - but when severe frosts meant they couldn't break the ice on the rivers, they fried potatoes instead. The habit stuck.

The Belgian chip is double fried, and that accounts for its crispiness. And it's meant to be fried in beef fat, not oil. (Not really suitable for vegetarians, then.)

Now I can guarantee that 98 percent of people adore Belgian friets. But you never can tell what sauce people will like them with - and there's a big national divide here too.

Brits eat their chips with either tomato sauce or Daddie's or HP (brown) sauce. Or with salt and vinegar.

Belgians typically believe chips are best accompanied by mayonnaise.

But there are other choices. One frituur I visited in Ghent had twelve different sauces, including one with bits of red pepper and chili.

But I will still make my first trip in Bruges the Brugs Beertje. Where you can get one of Belgium's other great products - a huge selection of excellent beers - but, perhaps surprisingly, no chips at all. I'll just have the croque monsieur instead - and intriguingly, in a Flemish speaking bar, that particular snack is still named in French.

Truly, Belgium is a land of surprises - linguistic and culinary.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Packing - a different way

I've seen lots of packing lists on the internet. They all do a lovely job of putting down exactly what you need for particular destinations. They're quantitative. They'll help you squash your possessions into a backpack that will get on the plane without extra luggage charges or hassle.

But I'd like to suggest a different way to tackle your packing. Divide your possessions into necessities, and things that will enhance your travel experience.


I'm hard line on this. When I worked as an investment banker in Eastern Europe I would head out for a two-week tour of duty with just a carry-on daypack. I never got held up by baggage delays and since I was often on the move for most of the two weeks, I didn't have to keep packing and unpacking.

First necessity; paperwork. Passport. Driving licence (if you're going to use it). Insurance details. Phone number for banks and credit cards. Money, cheques, credit cards, etc.

Second necessity, clothing. I've managed a week in Istanbul with one pair of trousers, two shirts and five changes of underwear, and I was perfectly presentable. I *did* take an excellent big pashmina though, which was a shawl when I needed warmth and a headcovering when I wanted to go into a mosque. Find clothes that don't need ironing, that dry quickly, and are not going to show the dirt. (A white suit is fine for Martin Bell, but I bet the BBC pays for his dry cleaning.)

Okay, you might want to have the option of lighter and heavier clothes to deal with different temperatures, particularly if you'll be away for a while. But be sensible. Use layers rather than taking two different wardrobes.

Third necessity, toothbrush, toothpaste, SPF 35 cream (I'm very fair, and burn easily) and soap. A tiny square of towel.

Now, let's think about what could enhance my travel experience.

More clothes? No. Just more to carry, more to think about in the morning, more to pack and unpack. (Okay, this would be different if I enjoyed dining out in posh restaurants; I'm much more likely to be drinking a cup of tea with the market porters in a little han near Tahtakale market, or eating a bowl of soup with nuns in a convent on the Camino de Santiago.)

Oh, maybe a swimsuit. There's nothing like a swim for refreshing tired legs. And it doesn't take much space.

A camera? Yes, certainly - since I'm a photographer as well as a writer. In fact, I prefer to carry two - my regular Pentax SLR, and a little compact for situations where I don't have the time, or don't want to get the SLR out with all the attention it might attract. And lots and lots and lots of media (SD cards). Not forgetting the charger.

A notebook. Absolutely vital for me when I'm working, but even when I'm not, I like to be able to scribble down odd thoughts. Recipes for food I've eaten - I collected a lovely recipe for apple tart from a farm where I stayed in the Montagne Noire in France, and I have a good recipe for fasulye, Turkish bean stew. Oh yes, lots of really good pens.

A laptop? Actually, I rarely bother. Pen and ink is more flexible. I might, if I were going on a much longer trip - and I'd probably get a really tiny one.

Business cards - well, these I do travel with. Because when I meet interesting people I'd like to be remembered, and stay in touch, and this is a good way of doing it. I have cards from with my flickr photos on the back, so they're fun and even a nice little present.

And one very important thing that will really enhance my travel:


Because I can guarantee I will see something that I want. Probably not a tourist souvenir. In Turkey, I bought three zurnas; they are beautifully made instruments, and ear-splittingly loud, and I will learn to play them as soon as I can be quite sure my neighbours have gone out. In Bulgaria, I bought a set of bagpipes and one of the nicest, most soulful whistles I have ever played. In Poland, I passed an art exhibition in a gallery near the Bristol Hotel at eleven o'clock at night - the next morning, I was there at the opening and came back with a huge oil painting. It's still on the wall in my study, and I can see it as I'm writing this.

(Not recommended as a souvenir, by the way, is monosodium glutamate. Someone I know bought quite a lot of it in Hong Kong, as it's a common ingredient in Chinese cooking. Nothing wrong with that; I've bought sumac in the Middle East, paprika in Hungary. Trouble is, monosodium glutamate is a fine white powder...)

Apply these guidelines to your packing and you'll soon be able to resist the temptation of adding another sweater, a 'just in case' pair of formal shoes, whatever. And you'll travel the lighter - and the lighter hearted - for your effort.

Pilgrimage books now available

Regular readers of this blog might like to know I have two books available on

The first covers my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Unlike many pilgrims, who walk only the Spanish section, I walked from Le Puy in the centre of France, crossing the Pyrenees in midwinter. Ultreia! The pilgrimage to Santiago is available as a download or printed book.

The second book is a novel, Walsingham Way, loosely based on the history of the Reformation in England and the great medieval pilgrimage to the Holy House at Walsingham, in Norfolk. I did actually walk from Norwich to Walsingham as part of a historical reenactment a while back, sleeping in barns and churches on a straw stuffed mattress, so I feel I have some inside knowledge here. But the novel tells a rather different story, about a loner on the loose in a country subject to violent change, and the way that travel broadens experience, sometimes in ways the traveller would rather not have it broadened...

Food and travel - French markets

The French market is a microcosm of modern France. From the food on display, you can track France's colonial migrations -  and understand its regionalisms.

For instance on our local market in Ezy-sur-Eure, the inner circle of food is from Normandy. Fine cheeses - Camembert,  Pont l'Eveque, Livarot.  (Only Camembert is widely known outside France.) A predominance of beef, horsemeat (there are still two boucheries chevalines), and above all pork. Lamb and mutton are hardly seen at all - whereas in the south, with its sparse, dry limestone landscape, you'd see far more. And while we have goat's cheese, there's no goat meat available (tough if I want to cook a Caribbean curry). Local cream, rich and thick, and local butter, and of course our alcoholic specialities - cider and calvados, and 'eau de vie de cidre', which sounds complicated but is just 'calvados' that comes from producers outside the eponymous d├ępartement.

Then there are the regional specialities. There's a Breton stall selling kouign amann, a caramelised, layered pastry concoction. There's a Corsican stall which sells excellent hams and cheeses, including very fine sheep's and goat's milk cheeses and sausages from the wild boar.

And then there are the stalls serving up food from other nations that came under the sway of France. No West African stalls, alas (you'll find those in Paris), but several which sell North African spices and groceries - couscous, preserved lemons, coriander and cardamom and little tubes of wickedly hot harissa paste. And a Vietnamese traiteur from whom you can buy little dim sum like pastries and noodle dishes.

We Brits often excoriate ourselves for having no national cuisine. We're crap at cooking, we say - that's why Indian and Chinese food have been so successful in England. But the success of Indian food has far more to do with the expansion of the British Empire into India and Pakistan - and the failure of the French to expand from their redoubt at Pondicherry - than it does with a failure of local cuisine.

After all, the French still have a strong culinary tradition of their own. But it hasn't stopped Algerian and Vietnamese cooking becoming well known - as well as Chinese good.