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Friday, May 01, 2009

Pack the break!


There is, I have discovered, a correct way of eating Crema Catalana.

Lunch today was a fairly sophisticated affair as befits the first lunch on a sadly short ‘holiday.’ After a dull, rainy start – which of course either proves or disproves the existence of god, depending on your philosophically sophist standpoint – to yet another Bank Holiday Weekend, I felt that a little culinary self-indulgence was called for.

The meal with its variety of small starters and its delicious duck filled crispy pancake main course culminated in the traditional Catalan dish of what is effectively cold custard with melted sugar. That downbeat description does not really do justice to the flavour of a well prepared Crema Catalana – and this one was well prepared with the brown of the melted sugar complimenting the darker brown of the circular dish in which it is traditionally served.

The problem, of course, lies in the sugar.

My approach is to use the side of the spoon to break the sugar toffee surface as it has the dual effect of producing an intensely satisfying crunchy breaking sound and also it reduces the circular disc of sugar to more delicately edible proportions.

Once in the mouth it is essential that the sugar is not chomped; this merely compacts the toffee into the contours of the teeth and produces, if you are not careful, a most effective bond between the two sets of molars. The trick is to encourage the sugar to disintegrate by moving the sets of teeth in a glancingly lateral movement rather than a direct closure which effectively sticks the teeth together.

A final cafe con leche should ensure that all remaining sugary debris is swilled away and teeth survive to deal with the next meal. And it was a decent little half bottle of Rioja too.

The gloom of the morning encouraged me to settle down and indulge myself by a prolonged bout of reading.

‘Airman’ by Eoin Colfer (the author of the Artemis Fowl books) is, as the Guardian critic noted “Swashbuckling high adventure” and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Set in Victorian times and mostly on the islands that make up the independent kingdom of the western Irish islands of Saltee, it concerns a young hero who is consumed by the idea of flight.

This novel is a mixture of fantasy, history, political thriller and fairy story. The hero, young Conor Brockhart, hold our attention from his birth in a hot-air balloon through his savage times in the diamond mine on Little Saltee to the more than satisfactory conclusion. Colfer is an assured writer whose grasp of narrative flow is exemplified in this fast paced story where our assurance that everything will turn out well is convincingly stymied by well placed and enjoyably frustrating difficulties that our hero has to meet and overcome.

Although I do not think that there is much chance of my using any part of the story for the kids that I teach it does encourage me to look out for more of his work and try to find another of the Artemis Fowl novels to luxuriate in.

Anthony Horowitz has an almost unassailable reputation and Colfer’s Conor Broekhart would mix well with Horowitz’ Alex Rider™ another resourceful young man whose adventures have brought Horowitz fame in novels like ‘Stormbreaker.’ The book that I read wasn’t one of those however.

‘Three of Diamonds’ a collection of three stories written by Nick Diamond the younger brother of Tim Diamond ‘the world’s most defective detective.’ The stories are ‘The French Confection,’ ‘I Know What You Did Last Wednesday’ and ‘The Blurred Man.’ As the titles suggest they are derivative stories which are written in a groan inducingly punning style which you probably either love or loathe. The pace is fast and often descends to the level of written slapstick. To me they seemed little more than pot boilers and irritating ones at that.

‘Spy Dog’ by Andrew Cope had big writing, beguiling drawings and a super hero in Lara (aka GM451 to the British Secret Service) who may be a black and white mongrel with a black sticky-up ear but is also a dancing, whistling, black belt karate, newspaper reading super spy!

This is a delightful book, picaresque and heart warming. I loved it – and it can be used with the kids in school!

I was reminded of a film with Max Von Sydow where he plays a diabolical character who runs a shop called, as I remember, “Needful Things” which offers its customers exactly what they want in return for nasty ‘services’ which eventually produce mayhem in the little community. Good eventually triumphs and Max is apparently incinerated only to appear walking through the flames to his Rolls Royce and going off through the smoke to find another bunch of gullible, corruptible folk. E E Richardson’s ‘Soul Trader’ has much the same idea though the scene is set in Britain and there are a few nice touches of contemporary life.

The story starts with a boy’s search for a birthday present (apt for me at the moment as the next week or so sees at least three birthdays looming and no ideas for presents!) and the fortuitous happenstance of finding a strange shop with what appear to be a miraculous number of crystal balls which contain amazing pictures. The price of one of these balls is where the title of the book comes in and the tag line on the cover emphasises the idea with its question, ‘How much are you willing to pay?’

The story is an effective mixture of contemporary life-style situation; ancient clash of religion and magic and moralistic fable. The writing is effective and the narrative taut – and the ending is conclusive and suggestively open ended. An easy read.

The book that I am enjoying most is ‘The Amulet of Samarkand’ by Jonathan Stroud, the first in the Bartimaeus Trilogy. I have recently read the second volume, The Golem’s Eye’ and reading backwards you can see that the relationship between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus is the real strength of this series. The Resistance which is barely mentioned in the first volume becomes much more important in the second and complicates and lessens the excitement of the relationship, but the dynamic of Nathaniel and Bartimaeus in the volume I am reading now is deeply enjoyable.

So I’ll carry on with the reading!
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