Sunday, 26 August 2012


In southern Africa man's early legacy has the lightest touch, wistful hunting scenes painted in ochre on the furthest walls of inaccessible caves. Not so here in Britain, where the mighty Stonehenge still dominates the landscape, proclaiming man's soul to the heavens. Much later, the Romans. Apart from their compulsion to conquer the world, they were absolute sticklers for the straight line. Many roads here are still as straight as the Romans laid them two millennia ago. The ancient site of Silbury Hill, near the mysterious Avebury, was only dated as pre-Roman after someone climbed to the top, and noticed that the Roman road made a detour around it. Grandiose, the Romans certainly were, but you've got to hand it to them. Annoyed with the marauding Picts to the north, Hadrian built a monumental wall straight across the country.

We took an early summer walk along the Wall this year. Dodging the incessant rain, we managed a few dry days in the desolate rolling hills of Northumberland. There is of course a national trail running the whole length of the Wall, and desolate only works if you look away from it.  The path is dotted with bright anoraks all the way. Naturally this being England, everyone has a polite greeting as you pass. But it becomes more competitive if you're heading the same way. The last thing you want is to stare into someone else's backpack for miles, so stopping at viewpoints and for lunch becomes finely timed. But it was good-humoured none-the-less, with friendly exchanges all beginning with "east or west?"
The vast blue hills north still feel untamed, with the shrilly whistling sky lark high over the hills. Also curlew, its call much like an excited puppy. While below, wild early purple orchid, their velvety clusters spiking the valley floors. 
The wall is solid still, surviving eons of plunder. We passed huge farmhouses built from the quarried limestone, plus the odd church. It skirts the highest parts of the countryside, and goes on and on periodically studded with forts and garrisons. Below, not as desolate as you'd like, the dead straight B6318 still bustles with traffic. It was invigorating, long, and very thought-provoking. The huge settlements with mountains of sophisticated artifacts leaves you under no illusion that these were a primitive people, and it's hard not to to get a mystical feel for the thousands of legionnaires and the slaves who walked and fought, and built and lived in this rare place.
One thing about walking all day is the treat of stopping for food. We carried packed lunches, but I also brought slices of my special Energy Cake. This is a fruit and nut cake that tastes different every time I bake it. It has a wonderful quality, much like a Roman Wall, I'd like to think, that it gets better with age. So here it is:
Whisk together 3/4 cup flour, !/4 Tsps of baking soda and baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt. Then stir in 3/4 cup of light brown sugar, and 3 cups of chopped walnuts or any mixed nuts, 1/2 cup of dried cherries or cranberries (although I use glace cherries and cut down on the sugar), 2 cups of chopped dates and figs (I use more) and 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots. Mix well. In a separate bowl whisk 3 large eggs and 1 tsp of vanilla extract till creamy and thick. Add the egg to the fruit and nut mixture, and mix till everything is covered. Spread into a well-buttered loaf tin (9"x5") and bake for an hour or 75 minutes at 150deg. Best after a few of days, it will keep easily for two weeks, two months in the fridge - longer, even.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Elephant and Fortune

The wind blew like a hairdryer.  It was hot. Too hot.  Our party stopped yet again and sank to the ground to drink from our water bottles.  Red-faced, the English girls looked at me gratefully because I was the first to call a halt.  Fortune, our leader was sanguine.  Stop any time you like, it's your call. We were in the iMfolozi Game Reserve in Zululand, originally King Shaka's hunting grounds. It was here in the 60s that the white rhino was saved from extinction. Three days of wilderness walking through baking pristine bushveld, and we had only been going for about an hour.  It was obvious the weather was going to break, and we were all worried about the river we'd had to ford to get here.  If the rains came, that river was going to become impassable.  It turned out the least of our worries, but that sums up the excitement of the bush. You never know what is going to happen.

That first night we were all strangers.  We sat around a large table and were given our first talk about walking in the wild. Whatever you do, said Fortune, keep an eye on me.  If I gesture like this, and he waved his hand behind, you must stop immediately.  There are elephant and rhino everywhere, and if we surprise them and leave them with no escape route, they are likely to charge. Then we're in trouble. But if we are downwind, we will be safe, and we can view them up close. Remember these are wild animals, you never know what they might do, and silence is vital. We listened intently, feeling nervous. The three English girls, a young German couple, me and two childhood friends were about to get to know each other well. 

That night, we slept in our little cabins next to the wide river.  We had been warned to watch out for nocturnal hippo in the camp.  I lay awake most of the night listening to the chomping outside my window.  Need to sleep, I thought.  Many kilometres to cover tomorrow, I'll need my strength. But the sound of hippo grazing five feet away from my ear was seriously unnerving  I blearily woke up and complained to my room-mate, my new friend, about lying awake.  Me too, she said.  We all had. The incessant chomping, it tuned out, was a bushbuck.

As we set off, we saw a second group leaving.  They were heading in the other direction, and were on a tougher, more rustic walk with a different camp every night.  They were going much further into the bush, and sleeping under a single shelter.  We were headed to a camp with two-man tents, and a bush kitchen, and now it was time to get across the river. Fortune was always at the head of our little line, Thandu at the rear, with Richard their assistant keeping vigil wherever he was needed.  Each Zulu had a 458-calibre rifle cocked over his shoulder, ready to shoot if things got scary. This was serious. We gingerly waded through the river up to our knees.

The going was hot, but we got used to it.  The bush was screaming with cicadas and bush shrike and a million other sounds all melding into one soothing hum that sang African bush. Fortune led us at our own pace, giving us interesting facts, like a tree still damp with mud rubbed off by a very recent rhino, or explaining the undulating yellow landscape, studded with thorny acacia trees. The next river was much shallower and the colour of coffee.  By then we were so hot, we lay down on the bank, cooling our heads in the sweet muddy water. Shampoo and set courtesy the Black Umfolozi river.

Finally the camp, tents around a campfire, and a fresh-cooked meal, our backpacks already there, carried ahead by gentle donkeys. Behind some bush, the camp shower. This was a 5 gallon drum, pierced with holes, filled with warm water and operated by string, well obscured from the camp, but wide open the rest of the way round. It was an interesting experience in trust, but oh so blissful. Below us lay the wide lazy river with wide sandy banks.

Early next morning, as we emerged from our tents we met the German. A keen photographer, he was wild-eyed with excitement. There are lions down there, I just saw three cubs playing by the river. Indeed the sand showed the heavy little pug marks all over the place. Yes, nodded our ranger, they are probably sleeping over there below our camp.  We'd spent the night cuddled up next to a pride of lions. Another hot thirsty and powerfully spiritual day, we trekked through the vast bushveld. In a particularly lush valley we came across a herd of elephant.  Huge and black, with ears waving furiously in the heat, we crept up slowly, our eyes stuck on Fortune to get a breathtaking view of these magnificent animals. The trees were swaying as branches were pulled off for their green foliage.  This was up close and it felt like we were staring into their eyes.  Eventually Fortune gestured us back, and silently we retreated, hearts pounding.

Back in our camp, the river looked very inviting.  Can we swim safely here, Fortune?  No problem, Richard will come down with you.  We waded in and Richard, rifle permanently cocked, stood near as we frolicked in the smooth running water.  Chatting to Richard, the rifle it turned out, was to shoot crocodiles. We didn't stay in too long. At dusk, I was amazed the English girls braved the shower knowing there were lions around.  I kept mine till morning.  That night, around the campfire, we got to know our hosts a bit better.  Fortune as the leader of the group, held the floor. A Durban boy, like us, he entertained us with stories of charging elephant, and being caught in cross fire during an armed robbery at a garage. He lifted his khaki shirt and showed us the scar where a bullet had got him. Also about the group of rogue elephant that were causing trouble in the reserve.  They were angry because some bush camps were slap bang in the middle of their age-old paths. Fortune obviously was a man in tune with the wild. Only 27, his father was a high-ranking government official and he could have reached any heights, but he chose to be a ranger in the bush. Our lives depended on him, and we became very fond of him.

Our final day and we headed off in single file. The weather was about to break, and Fortune was worried about the river flooding.  There was no other way back, so we kept a good speed.  Coming to a wide clearing, our hoods well up against the pounding rain, I looked across to see a black bus just 50 yards away.  It was so incongruous, it took a few seconds before we realized Thandu was running straight for it shouting and waving his rifle.  It was a huge white rhino, and startled, it turned and ran away. A very close call. We marched on, getting to the rapidly swelling river just in time to cross. And then we were home. That night, spirits were high and some wine was produced for the final evening. 

Then the other group returned.  They looked shocked and strained. They had a frightening story to tell.  On their final night in the bush, rogue elephants had attacked their camp.  They trampled through the tents, ripping everything down, and the whole group fled into the bush where they spent a terrifying night.  When they finally ventured out next morning, they found that after the elephant had wrecked the place, they had dragged all their belongings and cameras out of the shelter and had dumped them in the fire.

Exactly 12 months later, Fortune Mkize was leading the exact same trail with a small group.  They came upon an angry rheumy-eyed male elephant.  Fortune froze and signaled everyone's retreat, then faced the animal, his rifle cocked.  Slowly he tried to manoeuvre away. But the elephant charged. Fortune tripped on some branches, and in a second, the giant creature trampled him, knelt and hooked his tusks under his body, then using his trunk, tossed his body away.  He was heard to shout in Zulu,  "Ngafa mina kaBaba" - "I, my father's beloved one, am dying".  And that was it.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Tarantula Walk Part 2

The wolf spider is found all over the world.  It does not build any kind of web because it is a hunting spider.  It has fangs and speed to hunt down and kill its prey. It has hairy legs and it is two inches from my slip-ons.  Last night I’d had to fumble in the dark for my shoes.  I swallow hard and try not to shudder.

The spider remains frozen too, rearing up. Its eight eyes holding my two. Its poisonous fangs are poised and ready to strike. No one dared blink. The spider is mesmerised, and while I hold the teeny little beam rock steady, at least he is immobile.  What you do not want is a very fast furry spider hiding under your bed, or maybe jumping onto your flimsy summer pyjamas. The minutes pass and my mind is racing. I HAVE to deal with this. I could escape the room: and spend the night outside on the hammock with every other nocturnal creature in the Central Belizean forest – no. This is my room.  Could I frighten it out - it had the upper hand on that one.  Shout for help?  Maybe the nice young American would hear me.  But I didn’t think that would go down too well.

It was him or me. Holding both my torch and my breath very, very steady, I painstakingly inch my way down the bed to reach my brand new walking boots. This was a battle of nerve.  One false move and he’ll disappear who know where. Our gaze did not break for one second.  Gingerly, I felt for my boot.  Please, please let there be no more spiders hanging around.  Don't think. Just feel.  Finally in the dark, managing not to fall off the bed, a shoelace. Carefully I gather it around my fingers, and gently, gently, pull it back up onto the bed.  I held my breath, I held him, and in slow motion I raised the boot into the dark behind my head as high as it would go.  I knew there was no second chance. With rising revulsion and sinking heart, I slammed it down as hard as I possibly could. 

It’s perfectly possible to shudder for three or four hours after even a very mild incident with a spider, but I couldn’t indulge. My little torch was now my only friend. Ice cold, I agonizingly tip-toed up the stony little path avoiding all tarantulas.  Finally, the tiny guiding courtesy glow at the very top.  Choosing between two little wooden doors, I reached out to open the simple wooden latch on the jungle latrine.  Yet again I froze. Oh God. Sitting parallel on the handle,  hard and shiny, tail reared up and ready to strike, I was within whisker of twisting open a black scorpion.  

Nerve completely gone, my five-octave scream echoed down the valley and melted into the impenetrable blackness. No one came, and in truth I didn't need saving.  The worst was over and I can't really remember much more than eventually I was back in bed.  A 6-inch stick insect was lurching purposefully towards me as I turned off the torch.  The new me shrugged and fell asleep. 

Stuffed pumpkin: This has been my new rave lately, stuffed veggies. Red pepper, tomatoes, but best of all, pumpkins. This one has been stuffed with puy lentils, but brown rice is good too.  Cut the top off a small pumpkin, and scrape out the seeds.  Fill the pumpkin with a nice tasty lentil mix.  For this I fried up chopped bacon, plenty onions, garlic, stock. Add a large cup of lentils, curry paste would be good too. Then of course any vegetables like chopped de-seeded tomatoes, or red pepper. Cover well with water and cook gently for 30 minutes or so. 

Put the top back onto the pumpkin and bake for a good hour. The pumpkin must be well cooked and in a state of collapse. Like it's just seen a wolf spider, say.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Doing the Tarantula Walk

It’s been a long day.  The bus finally pulls in to San Ignacio.  Hot and thirsty, I tumble out to be met by my taxi.  He’s expecting me. He looks dodgy, but then all the taxi drivers do and I’m ushered into another unlikely piece of machinery –  there are no shiny cars here. By this time I want to kick the dogs that plague your every step, skeletal or not.  We head for the hills.

I have arrived in Belize - my very first holiday all alone. Why Belize? It's got rain forests and ancient ruins, and they all speak English. After I'd booked my ticket for two whole weeks, someone asked me where Belize was, so I looked it up.

I'm here now, driving 10K on a bumpy dirt road right up into Mountain Pine Ridge, a tropical forest reserve right on the Guatemalan border overlooking the broad Macal River, The camp is exquisitely rustic. Little wooden casitas charmingly hidden in the jungle, with multi-coloured keel-billed toucans casually swooping between the trees.

I’m the only guest at the Chaa Creek Jungle Camp, but there's a swish spa complex out of sight over the headland - a sanctuary for rich Americans.  This afternoon Dossia, my local host, has coaxed a nocturnal tarantula out of its hole near the path with a stick.  Fat with downy legs, it’s almost charming, all sleepy and shy.  But now it’s midnight and I’m in the depths of the darkest jungle night.  Your eyes don't get used to it, it is solid black ink.  The camp is crawling with by now very wide-awake tarantulas.....and I need to pee.

The gas-lamp is out and there are no matches. A slow dread begins to envelop me. With a jolt I remember something.  I am arachnaphobic.  With no lights and only the vaguest memory of the path back up, I know I have to busk it. Nearly breaking my neck on the steps, I gingerly feel my way, and I just go next to my hut.  I leap back into my camp bed, my heart pounding. It’s my first night away  - and I’ve got the horrors.

Next day, bravado restored, I befriend an American honeymoon couple. They come from Oregon and invite me to visit. When there’s nobody else, it’s just so easy to make friends!  We eat and chat through the warm evening in the open-sided palapa.  It feels benign as gheckos scuttle around the rafters in the lamp light; a frog even lands on my foot - but I’m not spooked.  I’m relaxed, I’m with Americans.  I’m a cool independent English traveller.  We swap stories and Dossia chuckles as he remembers being stung by a black scorpion in the woodpile and had to be rushed to hospital. Hearing I don’t have a torch, the friendly American kindly gives me his little penlight.

Night two: I wake up again, and now I’m not entirely alone in the depths of the darkest jungle night.  My new friends are in the hut right next door. There's no way out. I am going to have to do the tarantuala walk.  

My shoes are next to the bed, so I feel for the penlight and shine my way. My insides turn to stone as the narrow silvery light catches a solitary leather glove in the middle of the floor, the size of a man' hand. Eight fat fingers and poised as if to strike.  It’s no glove. It’s a Wolf Spider. 

Time has stopped - this moment suspended forever in the tiny shaft of light. A discordant chord slowly fades in my consciousness. I'm paralysed and I can’t breathe.......

I need a break.  I'll finish this story next time. Let's talk food.  For a country that seems on the breadline, the food in Belize is really very good.  In every restaurant, on every single table there is a bottle of Marie Sharp's Chilli Sauce.  Eaten with everything it is a signature of Belize, and their habanero chillies.  There are a couple of recipes around, all more or less the same, except for the amount of chillies you put in.  Known in this country as scotch bonnet, they are very, very, very hot. After trying seven different shops, I finally found some. Bright shiny red, I bought two little bags, and set about. Some of us used gloves to de-seed, some of us didn't.

First tranche used 10 chillies, as one recipe suggested.  Easy and fun, but after a teeny taste, I very quickly made another lot using just 4. This I recommend, and also the gloves - even though I avoided the seeds, it was days before I could get my lenses anywhere near my eyes.

So here it is:  Belizean Hot chilli sauce:
Fry a finely chopped white onion in some oil.  Add 2 cloves of chopped garlic, and two or three chopped carrots.  Then some water, say a half cup and 3 Tbs of white wine vinegar plus the chopped chillies  Boil gently till carrots are tender.  Add 3 Tbs of lime juice, a tsp of salt - and whizz till very smooth.  Add a little more water if it is a bit thick. Pour into sterilized bottles or jars, and keep in the fridge.  Sheesh!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Almond butter

Almond butter.  What an joy.  This has got to be the easiest thing to make.  500g almonds, toasted very lightly in the oven, then whizzed in a (brand new) blender along with about a teaspoon of sea salt and added groundnut oil.  It's worth adding the oil really slowly, it doesn't need too much.  Just enough to make into an irresistible pale caramel cream.   As you can see from the only pic I managed, it is irresistible. It was so delicious, I immediately decided to make some more, plenty more, this treat needs to be shared. Also, an experiment with cashews. The nuts covered in a little oil and sprinkled with a teaspoon of hot pimenton, mixed and roasted lightly. Spicy cashew butter. A snip.  What could go wrong.  Into the shiny blender - blend.

I say brand new, but the six months I have had this Magimix has been inspiring.  After too many years using the clunky old one I inherited from my son's student house, suddenly it was soups, pates and purees, and why not. I put all the delicious-smelling cashews into the tall glass jar and started my magic.  Bit of oil...a bit more.... a bit more.... didn't seem to be taking.  More and more, till the nuts finally came together in a thick creamy gloop.  It looked good, but the blender did seem to struggle. Now for the sterilized little jars.  I picked the heavy square jar off the base and froze in horror as the bottom fell off. Slowly the whole jar of cashew butter slid inexorably all over the base, and gracefully pooled onto the counter.  The base for some inexplicable reason had come loose, got looser, gave up.  With hands covered in an oily sticky mess, we eventually got the giggles as we tried to retrieve what we could. 

It says something for the nut butter that some of us ended up licking excess off the machine before scrubbing..  With all the excess oil in a giant pool behind, it was a serious clean up job.  And with that, the huge tray of almonds which were gently toasting, became well, over-toasted.

Into in the blender, no backing out now.  But it didn't want to know.  It whizzed a bit, slowed down, then gave up. The oil and nuts had done their worst.  A Kg of almond butter, too dark, and far too chunky. Still sublimely edible for all that, I'm jolly well handing it out anyway.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Puree and simple

I never thought I'd ever say this again, but I have just loved winter. The last time I said that it was years ago in the time of skiing, when we discovered the new world of wonder, speed and, it has to be said, fear.

The last ski trip I did was with a junior school.  And let me say right now: whatever you do, do not go skiing with a bunch of little boys. Even though I hadn't skied for a while, I started the week full of confidence. But despite the breathtaking setting of the Italian Dolomites, things didn't go my way. First, even if you elect to start again at beginner's level, the boys are fearless.  They zoom past with a manic will, and you can never keep up.  They also use you, an adult, as their brakes.  Aah, I'm going too fast, I'll just crash into that grown up there....  And down you go, while they hoot, and slide away again. They think nothing of skiing straight over your skis if you're queuing, and again, bang! over you go.  And if you've finally got a decent shuss down a narrow little run, one of them will be lying sprawled in your path.  A choice:  kill the little beggar, or avoid! avoid! bang! 

We also chose a year of El Nino, a weather system that melts all the snow, so as well as sharing the slopes with over-excited mini human torpedos, the slush was deep and terrifying.  And so it was, on my third miserable afternoon, that I dragged myself, defeated, bruised, silently sobbing with shame, into the noisy restaurant, only to find all the expert skiing mums sitting around two bottles of wine. Darling, we can't ski in this, they all cried. I wasn't alone, and a certain camaraderie was formed.

One of our group, a dad, was a film-maker, and a few weeks later, after the video had done the rounds at school, it was my turn. It was the usual hotch potch, most of which I had forgotten. I smiled at some of the happy memories.  Then the final scene of the movie. The camera was set up to capture the last run of every single one of the party for the finale. Skier after skier whizzed past, jumps, twists, shrieks, and the cavalier waving of hands. And then a long, long pause.  Finally the last of our number came into view.  Shaky, bent double, her skis in a giant snowplough edging excruciatingly slowly over the crest. Yes. It was me. A broken woman. That was the last time I skied.

But now I love winter again.  True, it has been very mild, so running through the woods behind our house has been something of a crystal-clear joy.  But also walking on the Anglesey coastal path in what really was quite chilly weather.  We arrived in Wales just missing the snow that brought the M40 to a standstill.  It was sleeting as we left the motorway, and despite all the warnings, hundreds of our fellow motorists were caught for seven hours in the storm.   

In the rain, though, Wales is quite mournful.  The whole place is built out of local grey stone, and truth is, it all looks quite doom-laded and miserable.  A teensy bit like the Welsh themselves, really. In fact when a very cheery waitress served us full of smiles, surely she came from Liverpool. We told her she didn't seem Welsh. Everyone says that, she laughed, as if accepting a compliment.   

The rain stopped, the stars came out, it all turned into something quite spiritual. The mists, the birds, the subtle colours; ochre, pink or marroon.  The fulmars, with their white necks, nesting early on the cliffs in contented pairs. With the sunshine breaking through to illuminate emerald fields, the grim stone houses take on a charming air. And one night, a barn owl hooted straight into my face from the trees outside our open window.

Anglesey was the island home of the ancient Druids, who were annihilated by the Romans in 60AD for their spiritual beliefs.  Dotted with holy wells and bronze age forts, it is a strange mix of the sombre and the magical.

And of course, what they are really proud of in Wales, their lamb.  We stocked up of course, but regret not buying the whole shop. Excellent meat. And it goes very well with my latest rave, puree.

Influenced by the cheffy programmes I am addicted to, I started pureeing my veggies, and it really adds something different.  Puree a cauliflower, and the sweetness is intoxicating. It seems to bring out the very essence of the vegetable. It's the only way to eat celeriac, and works wonders with turnips, root artichokes or swede. Here, in case you need it, is the recipe:

Steam cauliflower till tender.  Place with butter, milk, salt and pepper in the blender.  Whizz till smooth, then reheat gently.  They all go something like that.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Fun Fare

Food, food food.  You know when the weather is so cold for Christmas week, and you just stay in and cook, well the weather was balmy, still I stayed in and cooked.  It was an especially feastive week.  Almost by accident, really.

For a change, I ordered a haunch of wild boar for Christmas lunch.  It arrived in time, but it was the wrong order. Instead of a small haunch, we had a huge leg of wild boar.  Not only that, a wild boar rib as well.  The supplier wouldn't accept my offer to pay the difference. "Don't be silly", said Keiran, in his disarming Irish accent.  So for four of us, we had a roast that would feed about 20.  Marinaded in cider and slow-roasted, it was very tasty, quite strong, and went wonderfully with the turkey and bread sauce.  A winner. But cold, it was the turkey that got gobbled up with lettuce and mayonnaise, the boar not quite tender enough, a little too tasty.  It sat in the fridge accusingly.  Eventually I cracked, and started again.  The boar was cut up into big chunks. Then it was the usual drill:  lardons, onions, garlic, two tins of cannellini beans, cup of red wine, stock cube - I think I used beef.  And then bubbled gently for an hour.  I wouldn't go on about left-overs, except it was possibly the best meal of the week!  Melting and divine we had enough left over to freeze for another blow-out.  I say possibly the best meal, because it didn't stop there.

Chestnuts.  They were fat and fresh at our local shop, shiny next to the mistletoe. We roasted them, peeled them rather laboriously, and made a chestnut soup. Oh dear heaven. It was heaven. The chestnuts were maybe a little too toasted with dark edges - most recipes recommend getting 400g of chestnuts vacuum packed, all uniform and creamy in colour. Sweet and nutty, we struggled not to eat them all up. It's made in just the usual soup way, onions, carrot and celery fried in a bit of butter, then chopped and peeled potato and the chestnuts, boiled in a litre of stock for 30 minutes, then swizzed till a cream. Then served with a swirl of real cream (it being a Christmas larder) on top. Good enough to well, eat and eat and eat.  No need for a second course.

We've had a single lobster in the freezer ever since out trip to the Isle of Wight in the summer.  I saw my first ever red squirrel there - squashed in the road.  But for all that, it's a lovely olde worlde place, the Isle of Wight, with fresh crab and lobster on every cobbled street corner. Lobster Newburg is a simple recipe with lots of cream, sherry, brandy, and paprika, all reduced, then stirred into the cooked lobster and served on rice.  A rare treat.  My most favourite ever lobster, though, was eaten years ago at a crumbling little ferry port in Nova Scotia in a rickety wooden caff.  With the wild Bay of Fundy and roaring gales outside, here they served Lobster Newburg up like a snack, on toast. Unforgettable.

And for New Year's Eve, also up there, a humble chicken. Not all that humble, though. It was Jamie's Empire Chicken.  This took quite a bit of preparing, marinading, then roasting on a rack, and it was great fun.  The marinade goes like this:  garlic, ginger, chilli, all crushed together, lemon, yoghurt, masala, cumin, coriander and turmeric, oh god, the whole bang shoot. Slash the legs to the bone then smother the whole chicken in it, inside and out. Then overnight in the fridge, I think I would turn it over a couple of times - the chilli seemed to settle at the bottom of the bird.  Put the boiled lemon from the potatoes inside, and in for a slow-roast (I deviated just a bit there) on a low rack in the oven with the roasting pan below.  The roasting pan has the gravy and theoretically, the juices drip from the chicken.  You chop three onions, and fry them up with cinnamon and cloves in the pan, add vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, stir in some flour and half a litre of chicken stock. And that makes the gravy, theoretically, as I say. At the end of cooking you just strain into a jug. Mine ended up a rather aromatic black tar which took two days soaking to get off.

It didn't need the gravy.  It barely needed anything else. But we soldiered on and did it with Jamie's Bombay potatoes. These you boil up with lemon till just cooked, then roast them in a fry-up of cumin, turmeric, garlic, black mustard seeds, de-seeded chilli, tomatoes and (whew, I did all this?) oil and butter. I may not bother with the potatoes again, but the next time I want to impress, this chicken is exactly what I will do.

Can't wait.