Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Eating lotuses ...

I really meant to come to Jersey for a laze. I did. Well, the Festival, of course, but then a laze. But what with one thing and another, and what with the decided reluctance of the northern summer to leave the starting gates, I seem to have been able to fill a blog every couple of days, and eat and drink and eat again, without really eating any lotuses. But since my damp Sunday at Les Landes, the sun has come out properly and I’ve been able to linger in lotus-land at my leisure.

The change was marked by the fact that, with the sun, Bayview powered up its spa bath. Just the thing for the dicky shoulder and frustratingly semi-useful arm and hand. I have profited from it (since its 20 metres from my room) daily! 20 minutes spa, dry off in sun, repeat dose … shower, snooze …

I’ve pampered myself a little too.
You know, when I travelled across the world on my beloved cargo ships, or visited Hoar Cross Hall, I enjoyed immensely having my quiet and comfy little serviced cabin or room, meals on tap, and things like massage to hand. Well, I’ve just realised: I don’t need ship nor spa any more. I have manufactured my own little place right here.
My room is bigger and better equipped than any cabin or ‘hotel’ room, with of course 24 hour-wifi! Monica and Fatima look after my needs wonderfully, I have the Dockyard and Bohemia at hobbling distance, and it’s but a short walk to all sorts of in-betweeny delicacies at Relish and also to the pampering.
I started my pampering at Rio. Officially a ladies’ hairdresser. But I had one of the most agreeable (and reasonable) haircuts of my life. From Gaby (below). One doesn’t really like to ask a lady to snip the intimate hairs which a stroke means a man can no longer reach, but Gaby tidied my ears, nose and eyebrows, and that wretched little bit below the back collar, without flinching.

As a result, I decided to pursue the adventure and get Rio to look after the other bit of me I can’t reach. My feet and toenails. My feet are really good for my age, except for the broken toe that Chris Molloy stomped on in South Pacific and which has, ever since, pointed the wrong way. But they wont stay that way if I don’t look after them. Well, Kerry of Rio lavished such care on my tootsicums for ¾ of an hour that … I shall go barefoot for a week. And she recommended a good masseur…

Pamper for me definitely includes the inner man, and I haven’t reduced my restaurant going. Quite the opposite.

Firstly and foremostly, I returned (with Chris of the Dockyard) to Bohemia. I know I threatened to leap into detailed panegyric about the occasion but I won’t. I looked at the menu, sighed, and ordered exactly what I’d had the previous week. But this time, before I destroyed it, I photographed it. The delicious beetroot dish, the wonderful sea bass with its parsley sauce risotto, the super-delicious assiette of desserts …

OK, we pushed the boat out – why go to the best and not? – and my bill came to nigh on 300 quid (with two good bottles of wine). But it’s something you only do once a .. oh, or twice .. or maybe thrice a month. And each time it has ranked in my top ten of all time food experiences.

I lunched with my pal Barbara at the new Quayside Restaurant: a lovely spot overlooking the marina, where I indulged in an bullish dish of tasty Thai soup (served with a ‘Thai’ spoon which is the devil to handle) and a plate of nice scallops and prawns on lots of greenery. But, oh! when they served Barbara’s coffee it came with paper packets of sugar! So my very pleasant idea of the place dropped just a cran. A shame. Why do something so ‘caff’ in an otherwise nice place. Yes, it matters.

I returned, of course, to the Dockyard, where I fell heavily for Chris’s Surf and Turf (beef carpaccio with scallops .. his best yet!) and last night I returned to my li’l old love, the Roseville bistro. I sampled an interesting spinach risotto with blue cheese, and a light and bright sizzling scallop dish with a bacon sauce and came out quite satisfied with a bill of 21 pounds (including 2 pints).

Restaurants are fun and fine, but there’s nothing like home cooking, when all’s said and done. On Sunday, Jennie picked me up and drove me to Gorey. Ah, Gorey! It was the spot I fell for originally in Jersey, and I see why all over again. It is a charming village, and I can’t believe that some iconoclast is trying to build 50 modern monsters on the site of the old pottery. Jersey has sufficiently ruined itself as a tourist attraction (and a pretty place to live) by defacing St Helier with the infamous four grey towers, the incinerator, and the pre-fab hotel: do they want to destroy Gorey now?

Anyway, I aperitifed with Jennie at her house overlooking the cute village green, and then we proceeded to Charlotte’s house for a family BBQ … I am an honorary member of the family pro tem! Thank you, everyone, especially Kate for driving me home, and pouring me into the Bayview after a homely evening to warm the heart. And the rest of the body.

It is just as well I have decided to come back here for the month of August. Now I’ve got my own personal Spa ticking over so nicely, it will be difficult to leave. But Berlin is calling – loudly, and with multiple voices – so, en avant and à bientôt!

Isn’t it amazing how much one can write about doing … nothing! Much.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Sing neigh, the wind and the rain ...

Summer has not quite happened yet.

Take Sunday. Sunday was Jersey Race Day. I had had a lovely day out, last time, at cliff-top Les Landes race-course, so my pal Charlotte (who is club secretary) organised a repeat. Her mum, Jennie, and Jennie’s lady friends – Prim and Rosemary --, a table in the big white marquee with a very good caterer’s luncheon, half a dozen races (and a couple of pony ones) … The only thing we hadn’t counted on was the weather.

It rained. No, it poured. And the Manchian winds bit holes out of everyone’s umbrellas before unnaturally inverting them. Snuggled under Geoff’s windcheater (did I say, I left mine on the plane!) and Johnny’s teapot-cosy Turkish hat, I and my stick made it from the carpark, across the lush and soggy track to the tent …
Poor Charlotte, striding around in this blizzard in her long coat and woolly beanie, her hair looking as if she was out to understudy Anna Magnani as Medusa, organised drenchedly on. Abandon? not likely!
So we dined, and we warmed, and then Prim and I had the bright idea of popping out to see the hurdle race. 4 maiden hurdlers going round a big wandering mile track. Well, they all got round. I think the odds on favourite won by about 50 lengths in the end. And my snazzy cotton Rangiora pants didn’t dry out till morning. But, between brollies, I got my photo. Of the start..

Racing here is delightfully ‘as it used to be’. There are a limited number of horses on the island, so they all race against each other regularly and you’ld expect there to be a hierarchy established. But no. One odds-on fave, which I saw win two years ago, got thrashed, two non-faves won by large margins … and a good time was had by all. All in the tent, that is. Outside, the public had melted away.

Memory of the day. As I was paying my bill, a damp lady came up to the till. She needed some money, she announced. Her horse had just won and she didn’t have cash to pay the jockey. I told her that in New Zealand, the powers that pay take it out of our winnings. She gave me a Margaret Rutherford look and exclaimed: ‘What a good idea!’

Well, I'll be back for the Derby, and for Ladies' Day ... and we'll hope the wind and rain stay away next time!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Longueville Manor or, out of the water closet

Today was a digestive day. In response to the ludicrous suggestion that there might be, on the island of 
Jersey, a restaurant which could equal or outdo Bohemia in excellence, Alex, Katy and I proceeded, at lunchtime, to Longueville Manor, which had been suggested as a postulant. The Manor really is a Manor House, or was, dating apparently from the 14th century. However, it has been vastly remade, into a grandiose hotel-plus-restaurant. Outside it looks quite normal: inside it has been decorated by a designer who, I felt, had muddled up Louis the somethingth with New Orleans bordello. And a lot of money. We arrived by cab, and were greeted on the drive (!), ushered to the bar and told where we were to sit (!) on a low comfy couch. I suppressed a giggle. In front of us was a glittering bar, run by a small, black barman. Had I slipped into a 1940s movie? Set in Louisiana? 2G&Ts and my pastis were half drunk when we were called to our table. But we were stopped at the bar door. We were not allowed to carry our glasses through. They had to go on a salver and be carried through by the barman. I almost snorted. Someone had peculiar ideas about what was ‘classy’ and they were being carried out ridiculously literally. And this carried on! However, I determined to concentrate on my meal and not be distracted by the circus. Meal first, then I’ll talk about the circus. We were seated at a delightful corner table by a very lovely garden in a room which ought to have been comfortably cosy, but for an enormous mirror, tromping l’oeil, which made it seem double the size. But, food! Seeking something to escape from the eternal round of everybody’s-doing-it starters (do chefs read each others menus on the web, or what?), I settled on an alluring seafood ragoût. It arrived looking very cheerful. The scallops (they are described as ‘hand-dived’!) were perfect, soft and succulent, the coral butter sauce was OK, but I didn’t really know what it was ... and the little red-pink prawnish beasts on top were ... well, maybe they had been hand-dived too, and didn’t like it. I didn’t like them. An equivocal start.

  On to our plats principales. Katy and I went for the Welsh lamb, and Alex for the pork belly. Pork belly seems to have become the new sine qua non. Like chicken wings (ugh!) once did. Upwardly striving food. But Alex had made the winning choice. He declared his pork top class, so I tried a bit and it certainly was very tasty. My lamb? Well, the waiter had made a great point of asking how we wanted it done. Katy said pink. I said ‘red’. Well, as you can see, I got pink. Katy got pale pink. The accompanying beans etcetera would win me any day, and the massive helping of garlic left me pleasantly gasping. Oh, the meat was fine, but given the circus, I would have expected ‘excellent’. Maybe Welsh lamb isn’t as good as New Zealand's? Yes, it is. I’ve had it at .. whisper it .. Bohemia.

Longueville then stepped into top gear. A veritable Simpsons-in-the-Strand cheese trolley. And, yes, with époisses! (I find the place is actually related to Sumas). Katy and Alex had about ten weeny pieces of different delicious cheeses, while I sat wondering ‘what do they do with all that must be left over?’ and waited for dessert. Because I had spied a Bailey’s soufflé on the menu which promised much. And it delivered. Oh, did it. It was a lovely soufflé: better even than the Colombe d’or’s famous grand marnier one. Brilliant.

We finished our meal with a Jersey apple brandy, which I suppose came on a salver but I wasn’t noticing. I’d become immune to the circus. Circus. I won’t go on about it, just give you one example. Our red wine, a plainish red, at 29 pounds, on a wine list which charges 57 pounds for an NZ wine that I find in supermarkets là-bas for less than NZ$20, was delivered with the most extraordinary pantomime. Decanted into a vast decanter which looked as if it should have a genie in it, sipped by the wine waiter, passed in the decanting over a lit candle… a candle, I kid you not! Folk who are impressed with that sort of nonsense, well, nuff said. I sense a heavy directorial hand behind the scenes teaching these comically excessive and would-be-‘classy’ tricks to the nice young men. They do their best with them, but ‘class’, my dear sir or madam, is not pasted on, it is not ‘learned’, it just is. And apeing it is truly ridiculous. So the good bits of our afternoon’s experience (that soufflé!) were somewhat under-shadowed by the funny stage-management. But at 188 pounds for three, I could wear it. Fair value.

There is, however, a postscript. Katy (who is actually a lawyer) made our booking, as I don’t use a phone. Alex has just messaged me to say someone from Longueville Manor had rung her to say we had ‘underpaid’. Oh, no, we didn’t. You presented me with a bill, at my table, which I paid with my credit card, even leaving the circus performers an additional 10% over the top of the ‘service included’. If you made a mistake, it’s your fault, not mine. And, oh boy, don’t the pretences of ‘class’ go right out the window when it comes to cold cash! A class joint would just have covered their employee’s mistake (if there was one), and never admitted it. I’ve never encountered a like faux pas in my half-century restaurantish life. I’ll be dining out on this story for years! But not at Longueville Manor. I came home via a nice bottle of chilled rosé chez my young friends, and had just about reached my early door when … well, I had to duck into the Marina Metro. And since I was there … well, maybe a nightcap … and the chef’s seafood platter passed me by … glistening with pale prawns and swimming oysters ..

And then the boyos came in. The Welsh rugby team which is staying in the hotel came in victorious from their match and sat down at my table. I will not publish the photos I took upstairs later, as the laws of decency forbid, and I leave you with a discreet curtain drawn over the rest of the night, which I somehow ended with a pint of ale in my hand, destroying the goat’s-cheese balls from the menu… And day after tomorrow, its … back to Bohemia! 

 PS Credit where it’s due. Longueville’s gents’ loo is a super loo (yes, this matters!) decorated with some really cute cartoons. I wondered why Alex spent so long away and came back smiling. Then I discovered … Maybe a bit of that relaxed spirit and friendliness should come out of the water closet…

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Jersey: a foodie's delight

Well, I didn’t change my hat for a horsey one after all, I changed it for my foodie one. Natalie… Helen … Matt … Ryan ... Nerole … this is for you!

Jersey, I am discovering, is a rather exceptional place to be, if you like to eat. And I don’t mean eat just as in fill your stomach to stay alive, rather, to enjoy the experience of eating.

I’ve been here for nine days – and nine dinners (well, eight dinners and one 3-hour late lunch) – I’ve eaten in four different places, and everywhere I have had an enjoyable to outstanding meal, at prices ranging from 22 pounds to 100 pounds a head.

The Dockyard I have already told you about. Five nights I’ve dined Chez Rogerio and Chris, across the road, and I see no reason to modify my first impressions. Good, well-made, tasty food that would not be out of place at a much more pretentious establishment. On night four, I told Chris to go for broke, and make me a meal I would like, the way he would like to, and damn the expense. Well, he’d sussed me, all right. But slightly overestimated my capacity. I started with his impeccable cheese-herby soufflé, but had to skip the delicious-looking champagne sorbet … because I knew what was coming next. A de luxe version of his fish stew, dripping with New Zealand-sized prawns. Like! Cost (with, of course, campari and Guinness): 45 pounds.

After the concert on Friday, my friend Alex-the-violin was free from week-day work and rehearsals. So, Saturday, we decided to repeat our world-beating foodie experience of 2010 and re-visit Bohemia (see blog). Was I worried? Of course, I didn’t want my marvellous memories of my best meal for years to be spoiled. So often, love isn’t better the second time around. Well, I am here to report that Bohemia is still Bohemia with cowbells on. Alex, Katie his partner, and I had another wonderful meal ... and I mean Wonderful … and those who know me, and my food (and music) judgements, know I say that once in a decennie …

I should have taken pictures, because the meal has somehow merged into one delicious blur for me but I felt it was tempting fate to take the camera…
After my extra dry sherry (at last!), I began with an extraordinary beetroot salad with goat’s cheese ice cream! I love beetroot, this was the tastiest maroon-and-white beetroot dish ever, and there was olive and something else there too, and, oh, bugger analysis … I hasten on. Main course: sea bass with asparagus. Ordinary? Oh no. The chef had put something ... oh, hell, I was eating in tiny sips and nibbles, I was enjoying that thing that looked like green rice soooooo much. Was it asparagus tip deconstructed? Anyway, it was ‘deevy’ as we used to say in the fifties, and I took an age to delicatesse it.
I’ve utterly forgotten what Alex and Katie had (they started with crab linguini) because I was deep in my plate, sybariting.

They had the cheese, but I didn’t dare, because I knew I was going to have a dessert. Yes! Me! But this is The Dessert of my Planet. A little bit of everything from the menu, from the chef’s famous treacle tart to marvellous things made of ice-cream to a devilish choc brownie. Which required the accompaniment, of course, of a ’91 port.

It was a meal from my dreams – again – and it took us (with a delicious bottle of Janasse) three hours to complete, in the most agreeable surroundings with the most perfect service … can I take the maïtresse de la salle home please!
OK, cost? 280 pounds (of which 100 plus was drinks) for three. A lot? No. I don’t think so at all. Wholly justified and … of course, I’m going again. When I shall write a great deal more – and more coherent -- about the Art of Bohemia, from amid a less joyous haze!

Have I said ‘wonderful’ and ‘marvellous’ too much? Well, so did Cole Porter.

Bohemia is a hard act to follow, but when I gushed my praises to some locals they actually suggested that there was equally good or (pardon my snigger) better on the Island. Well, the challenge is taken up. I have 2 ½ weeks left, and we are going… and if they aren’t as good … those folk can take me back to Bohemia. Twice!

Monday night, Alex and Katie took me out (and I remembered the camera). We went out to lovely Gorey, where my previous eating experiences, along the wharf, had ranged from ghastly to grim. That was about to change. I negotiated the steep stairs (no stick!) to Sumas restaurant, on the other leg of the harbour, and found myself in the prettiest little room: all white tablecloths and yellow tulips. On a nice day, the view would have been lovely, but I soon forgot about the view, as we started to eat.

The starters list looked like a meal in itself (I actually did that at the Dockyard on Friday .. had a ‘light supper’ consisting of all the starters, one after the other), but I went for soup of the day. Asparagus. It was very nice, but I kept thinking, poor delicious asparagus, why make soup out of you? Because it is so nice, suppose.
Main course: well, I hadn’t eaten meat since Sydney, and they offered braised shin – a dish which has (as ‘jarret’) happy, half-century old memories for me. It must be awfully hard to cook in a restaurant: how keep it perfect until someone orders it … well, Mr Suma did it, just fine, and my welcome back to carnivorosity was decidedly delicious. I photographed the photogenic beast, his courgettes, tatie, and trimmings, before I ate him.

But the triumph was to come. Dessert time. Oh no, not again. Cheese, please. And the cheese board included époisses. Once again, my memories were not wrong. This IS the best cheese in the world. And, of course, being a talky chap, I said so. Well, I guess you might say I burst into lyricism …

And then, in an act of restaurant generosity which I have only experienced once before in my life (when the man in Lille put the whole bottle of fine whisky in front of us at the end of his meal), Sumas won a place in my heart forever. The lady brought the packet of êpoisses back, and left us the whole lot. You could go to heaven for less.

Anyway, another wholly successful evening (give or take the weather, which smiled a little, later on) of which I can’t tell you the cost as Alex and Katie paid. But, like the pretensions of Sumas, it would be somewhere between the Dockyard and Bohemia.

And so we come to tonight. Tonight I am eating at the Garden Flat, Bayview. Chez moi. I’m not cooking – don’t be silly, like most critics, I’m ‘do as I say, not as I do’ – I just have my Jersey habits. Arrived in Jersey, one heads for ‘Relish’, the deli in the fish-market. I see it advertises itself as ‘the best deli in Jersey’ now, and I won’t gainsay that. The staff has changed since I first met Relish, but the place’s style and quality has not.
I purchased one piece of Tomme de Savoie, a little chêvre from Romilly du Perche, a saucisse d’Auvergne, a fat slice of pâté de sanglier, some black garlicked olives, a loaf, and a bottle of Amontillado (37 pounds). A nice picnic for my little garden flat?

Its now 5.41pm and I’m afraid I’ve had my dinner. It looked so dying-to-be-eaten when I photographed it, I ate it. Oh, not the lot. But I have to admit the pâté is all gone (9/10, I’d have liked it stronger), as are most of the two cheeses, which were lovely but would have benefitted if I’d been less greedy and left them a while. The olives were a 10/10 and will all go before my early bed. The saucisse, my fault, was too hard for the nowadays me, and much of the bread – perfectly nice – will go to the birds, for the same reason. I must learn to adapt.

And so, tomorrow night? Bohemia (on my own? naaah), Dockyard, picnic … or something else. I wouldn’t like to spoil my average …
well, we’ll see.

PS why has Bohemia only one Michelin star? It makes one – especially after the Hamborough experience – suspicious of the whole starry system.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A distraction in an almost-cathedral

When I attended the concert at St Thomas's, St Helier, this week, I was slightly shall we say 'taken aback' by the building's decorations. I am told that it has recently had a major refurbishment, and there were some very colourful statues poised over my head which clearly didn't date from antiquity. Likewise the main window, which was attractive but distinctly new.
However, what made my eyes pop was a painting which stared at me as I sat in my aisle pew. I am sure it is supposed to be Mr Christ ... but, goodness me, the painter seems to have gone to Raging Stallion for his model ... and Boot's, the chemist, for his style ... what do you think?

"The Festival is over..", or "Will ye no come back again"

The festival is over. Well, nearly. It’s over for me, because of a couple of physically challenging events – climbing Gorey Castle for a concert and sitting on a lawn at Hamptonne for jazz – aren’t quite in my repertoire these days. And the ‘Night with Anton and Erin’ (not just them) which ends affairs is stone cold sold out, so they don’t need me! Things festivalish rose to a furious peak on Friday and Saturday – concerts in the bunker and the church Friday, and at the Opera House (and Gorey) on Saturday. Friday’s concert was the one I was really looking forward to, because it was a largely vocal one, and included a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, about which I have written frequently, but which I had never heard performed. Why had I written about it? Because my current opus in progress, Victorian Vocalists, deals largely with the Sacred Harmonic Society, the greatest of all sacred music choirs in English history, and they included, in the 1850s and 1860s, in their fairly restricted repertoire – alongside The Messiah, Elijah, Israel in Egypt et al -- one Mozart work: this Requiem. Performed often with Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang as a first half. Some of the great singers of the age – Pyne, Sherrington, Birch et al – sang the soprano role, but I noticed, too, that sometimes the ‘B team’ were given the parts when the Requiem was on the programme. I wondered why. Well, tonight I found out. It was certainly because the soloists have, in this piece, comparatively little to sing, solo. Some lovely concerted music, but scarcely a proper aria. The star of the piece is really the choir, who have nearly all the ‘best bits’ of the liturgy. The City Consort of Voices (with local additions, including some of the festival committee), under Daniel Cohen, gave a lusty and loving rendition of the Mass, for which much thanks. The soloists made a grand job of their quartet ‘Benedictus’, and it’s my personal taste only that I like my basses rumbly at the bottom. Mark Stone is more of a baritone. Victoria Simmonds, similarly, was a warm mezzo rather than a kosher contralto. But the sound the four made together was truly .. umm .. English. The Sac Har Soc would have approved! The other two singers gave us more extensive solos in the first half of the programme. James Oxley (tenor) gave the bon-bon ‘Deeper and deeper still’/’Waft her angels’ from Jephtha in an incisive tenor, making the recit grandly dramatic and the aria smooth and sing-y. And then there was the soprano. After the semi-soprano singing that we heard at the opening concert, what a forty-carat joy to hear a voice like that of Sophie Bevan. She favoured us with a solo ‘Gloria’, which may or may not be by Handel, but which gave her every chance to show off the beauty of her rich, glowing soprano in the very grateful accoustic of St Thomas’s church. Her ornamentation was deliciously not ‘in your face’, her execution impeccable, and she both looked and sounded so relaxed ... how can anyone so petite sing such long phrases in one breath? When she finished Handel(?)’s series of roulades and trills, I thought ‘don’t finish yet!’ and my friend Katie confirmed ‘I wanted it to go on for ever’. So, I came to hear a Requiem, and got carried away by a superb soprano singing a bit of dubious Handel! Rather oddly, this oratorical programme was completed by an orchestral adaptation of a piano piece by Szymanowski (I don’t suppose there was a Polish oratorio), but as an extra we got an unannounced interval performance of what I suppose – coming back in when it was half done – was an ‘Ave Maria’ by Gorecki, sung by the Chorale. I base the supposition on the fact that they sang (I think) ‘Maria’ about 150 times. But it was quite pretty.

  The Saturday night found us back with the strings. The first half was the ‘Sacha and Qian show’. Which, as you know, I will go a long way to see. We had the Saint-Saens Rondo Capriccioso from Mr S, and the Chopin no2 Piano Concerto from Mrs S. Two pieces I actually know, two pieces written in the era when composers for piano and violin seemed to vie with each other to see who could put the most part-notes into a bar. They are nothing if not pieces of music for virtuoso performers, and tonight that was certainly what we had. The Saint-Saens skitters and trips through its tuneful measures in a shower of tiny notes, and watching the violinist’s fingers and bow dance around the instrument is quite a task. It was wholly and frothily melodious and enjoyable. The Chopin is a rather stronger work. I wrote last time round about Qian’s ‘gentle’ playing. Well, that adjective wasn’t suitable tonight. Once the pianist starts on this concerto, she is full on for nearly the entire work, and some of it is distinctly well-muscled. Our pianist encompassed the strong and sinewy portions with as much élan and success as the rollingly lyrical pieces, again, amid a positive battery of what I assume were semi- or demi-semi-quavers. The orchestra sort of faded into the background, as she accomplished her very starry performance. Another winner. Part two was Tschaikowsky. A piece I didn’t know called ‘Souvenir de Florence’. But I always like Tschaikowsky. The string group of 15 players were attractively arranged, standing, except for celli and bass, and Matthias Wollong, who did duty as lead violin and conductor when needed, led the group from the front. You know, I can only wonder what Tschaikowsky was remembering about Florence. Apart from a bit that sounded like Respighi, I didn’t hear much that was traditionally Italianate. There was one bit that even sounded like a reminiscence of ‘Swan Lake’. And the work didn’t hold me. I found myself losing concentration and thinking ‘why does the cellist always have the best-looking dress’, ‘the bassist is cute’ or ‘the first violin looks like my niece’. It was all charming, all pretty, all unobjectionable, but it just didn’t grab me. Maybe I was just a bit stringed-out. I needed some wind and brass to vary my diet. To end the Festival with a big flourish. Or ‘God Save ..’ whoever they save in Jersey, sung by Miss Bevan. But the whole festival has been a joy. I knew it would be, which is why I came. And why I will come back (please, fate) next year. My abiding memories? The Sacha and Qian show, in all its manifestations, Miss Bevan and her ‘Gloria’, and guess what … the Gorecki. I don’t pretend to be able to hum it, but that performance will definitely stay with me for a long time. Thank you Liberation Festival, it’s been huge fun listening to your music and meeting old musical friends and a whole lot of new ones. Now, A few days R&R, and then I’ll swap hats and turn back to writing about, guess what? Horse-racing! Postscript: The choir tells me that the unexpected Gorecki is called 'Totus tuus'. Unfortunately they didn't leave an email (mine is so I could write back and says 'thanks'.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Two years ago, when the Jersey Liberation Festival opened with a splendid new brass fanfare, based on the Chanson de Peirson, written for the occasion by Jon Lord, I jubilated that this would undoubtedly become a Jersey classic, repeated each year thereafter. So I was rather surprised, when I arrived this year, to find same band, same occasion … different fanfare. Again, written for the occasion, this time by Surrey composer James Francis Brown, and with reference to this year’s Festival theme, Poland.

Well, I needn’t have worried. The rain ceased just in time, Jersey Premier Brass took their habitual place on the balcony above the Royal Square and, after a warm-up of several brass band classics, we got the new Fanfare and Chorale. And it was a splendid piece. The clarion cries of the opening, in what we traditionally know as a ‘fanfare’, moving into moodier and more solemn tones in the body of the work, and winding up to a triumphant return to the ultimate cries of victory. The whole written in a sufficiently ‘modern’ style to be enjoyable (I hear that academic plink-plonks are doomed anyhow) and really effective. The local lady who was sitting next to me didn’t know whether to be moved or flag-waving.

As before, Premier Brass gave their all, and if a few notes fell under the music-stands or vanished into the damp air, it was still an excellent effort for an amateur group faced with a brand new work.

If this carries on, I can see in a few years a recording of ‘Liberation Festival Fanfares’ hitting the market.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Jersey Remembers


Liberation day 2012 dawned grey and threateningly drizzly in St Helier, but the festivities of the occasion carried enthusiastically on.
I made my way down to the Weighbridge in the main square, mid-morning, to find the place thronged with people, food-stalls, loud-speakers and giant screens, the ‘Beverley sisters’ singing ‘We’ll meet again’ and a colourful marching band, of course, leading a crocodile of what I guess were local dignitaries.

When the Beverley sisters and ‘The Blue of the Night’ were done, what seemed to be a sermon started up. I finally tracked it (as opposed to its broadcast) down by climbing a stand. Well, I guess Thanksgiving is in order on Liberation Day, but I do feel that Religion sometimes gets a bit intrusive.

More to the point were the military men and women, old style and new, who enlivened the feast. I met the newest generation, three fifteen year-old cadets from St David's. All I can say is, if I have to be defended by someone, those lads would be my pick. Real gentlemen!

So on to the Event of the day: the first Festival concert. Sustained by a fish dinner at – of course – the Dockyard, I wobbled through the rain up to the Opera House, for the pre-concert chat at 7pm. Clarinettist Michael Collins and ‘cellist Guy Johnston entertained us for half an hour: if Mr Collins’ embouchure (do clarinettists have those) ever lets him down he undoubtedly has a career on radio and TV as a chatman. Perhaps he already has. He is a born and very amusing raconteur.

At 8pm the music started. The menu for the evening was quintets by Mozart and Dvorak. Both well-known pieces, but not to me.
The Mozart clarinet quintet is a poised and poetic piece. A rather unshowy dialogue between the first fiddle (Alexandra Soumms) and the clarinet, with supporting cast. It was a little bit of a revelation to me, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard a clarinet – live – sound quite so lovely. At some stages, in the legato bits, the instrument had the tones of a deep-voiced flute, and then, in the occasional quick runs, it rippled up the scale like a very French baritone. You felt as if someone were giving you a bath in warm cream. Unusual, but nice.

The Dvorak piano quintet is an entirely different style of piece. Obviously, no clarinet, but that’s not what I mean. Whereas the Mozart glides on its way, this one is all fireworks and jaunty tunes. So much so, that the audience applauded several times in mid-piece. The BBC, who were broadcasting the show, will have to cut that out! It also gives all the instruments nice little showcase moments, so the ‘cello, viola (Phillip Dukes) and piano (Wu Qian) were all featured. However, as much as one can or ought in an ensemble, even an ad hoc one, it was the lead violin which shone. When I saw and heard Sacha Sitkovetsky play in this Festival two years ago, I was hugely taken. All I can say after the repeat dose, last night, is: he is still my favourite among violinists. He makes you feel as if you are taking part in the music, and he makes the fiddle ‘smile’.

Between the two quintets we had a vocal interlude. Arrangements (nice ones) of Irish (‘The Last Rose of summer’, ‘O waly waly) and Welsh (‘Nant gwynant’) songs, sung by soprano Laura Wright, a tall pretty lass in a tall pretty (but rather depressing) grey gown. Miss Wright has had much success (as she unfortunately told us, twice) with a recording of this much-sung material. Alas, either tonight she was singing to the BBC microphone, or she misjudged the house. Her straight, pure tones were mostly so pianissimo as to make no effect, and nary a word could I understand from row K. If Miss Wright is to be the next Moira Anderson, a lot more animation will be needed.

The night ended with a pleasing arrangement of ‘We’ll meet again’. But it went the way of the other songs. A sweet stream of vocal sound which made Vera’s optimistic old song sound like a requiem. I’d liked it a lot better in the square in the morning.

But, hey, its not a perfect world. I had an enjoyable evening, a bath in warm cream (and another in rain), and a fine, lively time – as did everyone else in the house – with Messrs Dvorak, Sitkovetsky and friends. Looking forward to the next helping

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dining at the Dockyard

Some two or three years ago, quite by accident, I started writing about food and restaurants. Well, I enjoy good food, well-made food, very much indeed, and it is enjoyable to relive a fine meal in writing about it. Which is what I do. Write. My enforced layoff of over a year has sadly meant no restaurants … until now, when I’m back, solo, on European soil and living in the kind of flatlets which mean I’ll be eating out most days or nights.
Starting the day before yesterday. And carrying on last night. At the same restaurant. For I seem to have started off my new ‘tour des restos’ with a surprising bang.

The Dockyard Restaurant, Havre du Pas, St Helier, has been open for … four days. Three, on my first visit. It’s right across the road from my lodgings, and hasn’t yet even got a sign outside telling you it is a restaurant. It’s clean-lined, unfussy, modern, comfortable, unpretentious, with an atmospheric view over the narrow promenade to the sea (if you sit with your back to the incinerator), and, best of all, it serves wholly delicious food.

My kind of food. Edibly-sized helpings of bright, clean-looking food, tastily and not eccentrically conceived, attractively presented without being fussily decorated (you eat everything), and cooked just perfectly. Remember, I’m the no lettuce, no chips man. Not that this chef would ever stoop to those. But it’s amazing how many do.
Now I’m going to relive my meals. Normally I’d have taken pictures, as I did during my last triumphant Jersey meal two years ago, at ‘Bohemia’ (my top favourite meal of the last five years), but this was so tasty that I just bowled in and ate it, while the camera sat on my hip. Next time.
Meal one, in brief. The qualifying round, so to speak. Starter: salt and pepper squid. Crisp and tasty, not rubbery and not piled high. Accompaniment a nice wee rocket heap. Not lettuce. Yum. A good preparation for my main event: seared fillet of sea bass. Yes, that’s how it’s described in the menu. No resturantese, no silly adjectives. Straightforward English. Gold star. The accompaniments: celeriac, tomato, and a good grain mustard dressing. By now, I realised I’d fallen into something really good. Pint of Guinness please, because I’m not a desserts man and I’m having cheese. No, not a Simpsons in the Strand-sized trolley-load, but chef’s selection (so much more sensible) a complementary trio of room-temperature pieces: blue, soft and hard, with a very nice spoon of chutney. It appears the English expect biscuits with their cheese. I don’t. Horrid habit. But that’s just me.

As I savoured, I bethought me of another seaside restaurant where, last time round, I struck a similarly delicious ‘me’ meal: the Bay Grill in the Isle of Wight with its young chef, Ryan Burr. Love you, Ryan. Your food, that is. Well, there is evidently something in youth: the Dockyard’s rising star chef is called Chris Matthews. He’s from Newcastle (and sounds like it ☺) and he’s even younger … here he is with his team …

24 hours later I returned, determined to put Chris to a tougher test. Not the table d’hôte (17.50 for 3 courses) tonight, but a la carte. First course – cruelly – a ‘home-made twice-baked cheese soufflé with soft herb cream’. Cruelly? Oh yes: if you go back in this blog, you’ll see the tale of my worldwide star dish of 2010 ... the famous Isle of Wight gallybagger soufflé. Main course? Chris incautiously mentioned bouillabaisse, which was not on the menu. I leaped.
Well, I can only say the ‘test’ was passed summa cum laude. The soufflé was light, without being insubstantial, and thoroughly cheesy, the cream quite superior; the bouillabaisse ... well, it wasn’t one, and he knew that, it was a simply delicious fish stew, rich and light, full of fishy things and prawns and, to my surprise, tomato-ed. Which, in spite of not being a tomato fan, I liked a lot. Guinness, cheese … and, goodness, two sybaritic hours had just slid away … and my beautiful a la carte meal, with 2 aperos, and two Guinnesses, had cost me less than 40 quid.

The Dockyard has the potential to become very, very popular. Especially with good food lovers. I’m going to try to bring all my pals along during the Festival. Oh, sure, on day four there are still things – little things -- to get right. New staff (all five star charming) to hone. Butter dishes. Extra dry sherry at the bar. Maybe, eventually, fabric napkins. Well, these things do make a strange difference. But so, so much is so very right.
Thank you, Rogerio, Chris and all the staff for two grand meals. And I’ll see you tonight, about 6. There are still 8 mains and 7 starters I have to sample…

Monday, May 7, 2012

Liberating Jersey (again) to music...

When I decided I was fit to travel again, and started looking at possible, and neccessarily comfortable, itineraries, one of my first actions was to email Messrs Mews and Hopkin in St Helier and ask … when is the Jersey Festival this year?
Stupid Question. It always starts on Liberation Day. May 9. So May 9-13 became the first fixed date in my European season’s calendar. John booked my BMI Baby ticket and … well to cut a short story even shorter, here I am.
Parenthesis to say, I have had my battles and pouts with BMI Baby in the past, but this time they took the most perfect care of me (and my walking stick). Thank you, above all, Steve, who escorted me across the tarmac.
End of parenthesis.

I arrived here yesterday afternoon, and things (apart from the weather) went on going right! Signature buses (recommended) picked me up punctually at the airport and delivered me neatly to ... where? Of course, to my Jersey ‘home from home’, the Bayview Guest House, Havre du Pas, where Geoff and Carolyn were waiting to greet me with my usual pint of Guinness.
More! this year they have lodged me in the garden room. Well, I’d call it a flat. Last time my room was above it, and I looked enviously down over Jean-Pierre lolling in the garden. Well, this time I’m going to loll. This placing has had one effect though: if I had a wee flat like this, I could happily stay here in Jersey for much of the summer. Hmmmm.

Next, then they took me to their new restaurant for a welcome lunch. Well! Its been open all of three days … I have found a new local. Kurt review after tonight when I try to see if it can possibly be that good two days in a row.

So, it’s 36 hours to go before the Festival starts. It’s a lipsmacking programme: from the well-known (to me) to the unknown (to me, which means most things) … from the Mozart Requiem which I write about, but have never heard, to music by Gorecki (whom I know John likes) and more conventionally, Chopin and Saint-Saens. Sadly, there are only folksongs from the English repertoire, because this year is Poland year. Oh, and there’s another new fanfare. It had better be good: I loved the Jon Lord one. Anyway, I’ll be at every event except a handful: I’m skipping the film The Pianist because I’m not here to see movies and Wu Qian is playing Chopin in the concerts, I’m probably going to have to forego Gorey, because of the climbing, and well we’ll see how things go, but Strictly Come Dancing stars (even though we watch the show) aren’t really my thing. Oh, hang on, is Anton the Kiwi guy? He’s the one who plays ‘sulky’ (so boring) … well, we’ll see..

Today I ventured out to the boat show. Does it sell any boats? Last time, I discovered the Festival by visiting it, this time … well, I was reminded (if I needed reminding) why I love Jersey. They had a group playing Beach Boys music in a tent. Was it a brass band? ... why no. It was a string quartet!! Yay! I’m going to love it here all over again!

Lichfield, why didn't I know about it?


As I write (as I do) my thousands of pages about British music in the nineteenth century, I glibly roll out the names of the cities of England (and sometimes Scotland, Wales and half of Ireland) and their cathedrals, which housed such an important part of professional music-making in those times. But they are just academic words … I , alas, have never been inside most of England’s great cathedrals.
So when brother John suggested, for my pro tem last day at Coalville, that we take a daytrip to Lichfield and its cathedral, I was most enthusiastic. By the time we returned, I was even more enthusiastic. What a lovely town/city is Lichfield. And what a history! It drips with celebs – REAL celebs, not the Poorla Abdul, Princess Matchinsky and Paris Hilton type – at every corner…

Even the drive there, across Leics and Staffs was lovely, and though I got the momentary hump from a very un-user-friendly car-park, overpriced and with machines that charge you 2.70 .. and don’t take notes or cards or give change, as we dove into the streets of old Lichfield I was immediately captured. It’s a very bright and alive town of today – and this was market day too – but at every turn you find beautifully kept or restored ancient buildings, like this one, built in 1510 and refurbished in 1975

I don’t know why the world feels so in awe and enamoured of old buildings. I don’t know why I do. But I certainly do. A 17th century cathedral – and I’m not even a christian – can inspire me to very pleasant emotions, and elderly house with narrow stairs and uneven floors is (as long as one doesn’t have to live in it) is much more attractive than anything 20th century. It just is.
In the main square – where Lichfield’s Dr Johnson watched a heretic or was it a murderer, being burned at the stake – I snapped my first celeb. Who else but Boswell, watching over his friend. And no, that’s not the cathedral behind. That’s St Mary’s, the vast Guild Church.

The Cathedral is few hundred metres away, its triple spire looming as the feature of the city …

Many cathedrals are Just Too Much. Too lush, too decorated, one nobleman or churchman vying with another in buying God’s favour or Man’s remembrance with a monument or gift in a mass of gilded chapels and scrolly tablets and statues, too many garish stained windows, too much of everything. Not this one. It was destroyed by Cromwell’s gang in the C17th, and rebuilt by Charles II (not personally) with the most glorious tact. Pieces of the original mediaeval fabric intertwine with restoration in a fashion that Lichfield seems particularly good at. John had fun spotting the mediaeval bits, I being less knowledgeable, just looked. Our favourite spot was a little chapel which you had to climb many wooden steps to get to …

I came in to my own, however, when we reached what seemed to be ‘Celebs Corner’. I didn’t know that David Garrick was brought up in Lichfield! But there he is, in effigy, donated by his wife.

Lady Mary Wortley is there, not in ashes (she died in London) but in a votive plaque, donated in 1789 by one Henrietta Ince, concerning her promotion of innoculation against small pox

And at last I came upon a pair of stones relevant to my writings. Alas, not one celebrating Samuel Pearsall or other stalwarts of the Lichfield choir in the 19th century, but two slightly earlier vicars choral. I will investigate them immediately. They must have been real long-servers to be commemorated there alongside Garrick and all those military heros and slain aristocratic soldier boys of bygone ages.

It was a lovely cathedral. One of my favourites ever. But one thing nearly spoiled it for me. As we entered, and dropped our mite in the visitors’ box, we were literally leaped upon by a middle-aged lady or three, hectoringly offering us tax advantages in exchange for donations. I was wearing damp turkish baggies and a duffel coat. Did I look like a millionaire in disguise? The bad taste left by this horrid harpy encounter (in a church!) was only wiped away by the sweetness of the elderly volunteer gent overseeing the Treasure, who tried to help me set my camera to ‘no flash’. We did it, and consequently my picture of the Lichfield Angel, the most lovely artefact in the cathedral, didn’t come out.
I had to make do with a picture of my favourite artefact outside: this votive statue to Charles II saying ‘thank you for the restoration’. I’m pretty sure he didn’t look quite as neolithic as this, but it was a nice gesture.

Our biggest Celeb we saved till last. Dr Johnson was born in Lichfield, and lived in a four-storied house on the corner of the main square. The house has been beautifully cared for, and/or restored, tactfully not-too-filled with memorabilia relating to him – oh, to actually be able to hold in one’s hands a volume of the famous dictionary! – the whole thing was splendidly unpretentious and ‘real’. And entered by way of a delicious bookshop which made me wish I still collected Victorian books.
I photographed the not exactly physically attractive Doctor ..

and, on the top floor, I photographed John, in a wig and tricorne, kept I feel for rather younger visitors than us! Didn’t have to be snobby … we were plain enjoying ourselves!

But it was time to leave lovely Lichfield, and hurry home for the FA cup final. Even more fun than a burning heretic. Sometimes. So after a quick visit to the local Bakery for some travelling sustenance, we bade farewell to Dr Johnson and his Boswell, to Garrick, Mary Wortley, Mrs Ince, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of), Samuel Pearsall (he’s there somewhere), King Charles the neolithic and the Lichfield Angel, and headed back through the green green lanes and pretty villages of Staffs and Leics to Wembley-sur-Television …
A grand day out, and I will never write “Lincoln Cathedral” again without remembering it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Twycross Zoo Story

After two days of much travelling, we decided on a smaller jaunt for the first almost sunny day of my time in Coalville: a trip to the zoo! It turned out, in the end, to be our most exercisey day of all: we strolled for two and a half hours amongst the animals (and the empty cages and food outlets) of Twycross Zoo, and I was so enrapt by the creatures that I didn’t even realise I’d left my stick in the small monkey house until ten minutes (and many monkeys) had passed.

I don’t often go to zoos. I’m not fond of animals in cages. But I have to say that the modern generation of ‘zoological parks’ is much more agreeably laid out than the old. I found that out when I visited the delightful Durrell establishment in Jersey a few years ago. Well, Twycross isn’t Durrell, it’s bigger for one thing, but it is built on some of the same lines. And it specialises in primates. A monkey museum. Which unfortunately means that bars and cages have to be well in evidence.

We did over an hour of monkeys. Don’t ask me to remember their names. I wouldn’t know my lemur from my colobus. I can recognise an orang outang, a chimp (thanks to Tetley teabags or was it PG tips?) and a gorilla (thanks to King Kong), but that’s about it. However, they are endearing animals, and you soon get your favourites. Here are mine. Apart from a little golden girl who was behind bars. The lovely ‘old’ feller with his dapper pointed white beard, the bored gorilla and the dazzling little lion monkey. I had to take a dozen snaps of him before he would pose prettily for me: we played chasings for ten minutes, and of course then I left him my walking stick!

There are certain animals which no zoo aiming to attract the public can afford to be without and, in these post-Lion King days, top of the list comes – no, not the lions or the elephants (although four grumpy ones were sulking in a corner) – but the meerkat. Timon and Pumbaa have hoisted the wee animal to the top of nature’s hit parade. A shame they haven’t done the same for the warthog!

Lee Durrell told me that they are the juniors’ top favourite in her zoo, and today you could hear an infant squealing ‘meerkat’ at a display of prairie dogs, before being dragged excitedly to the real thing.

After an hour of primates, it was enjoyable to turn into the ‘open’ exhibits. The usual favourites – the vibrant pink flamingo, the ditsy penguins auditioning for Happy Feet, the sunbathing sea-otters – with the occasional interesting surprise.

I particularly liked the Alice-in-Wonderlandish hornbills, and a pair of tiny tortoises ..

They looked so much more comfortable, natural and attractive than the pair of giant tortoises we had seen earlier. In fact, that comparison went equally for all the creatures. The big fellers looked bored, entrapped, unnatural, whilst their smaller counterparts made much happier visiting and viewing.

The big surprise was our very last creature:

Yes, it looks just like my Minnie de Gerolstein! A little larger, a little more disdainful, but … what is a moggie doing in a zoo? Well, this chap is a special Scottish wild cat, it seems. So maybe Minnie, like me, has a bit of Scotch in her blood!

We couldn’t find our way to the bit labelled ‘Himalaya’. The signs led us to the umpteenth fast-food outlet and yet another children’s playground … one began to have the feeling that, like airports which resemble a shopping mall with incidental airplanes, we were in an amusement-foodpark with incidental animals. But we did find our way to the big new ‘Wetlands’ section. This consists of five or more obviously vastly expensive regulated pools filled with the same sort of reeds we had seen yesterday in Norfolk. I saw three common ducks dipping in one. And that was it. We were told that if you followed the walkway to its end there was a bird-hide, but after 2 ½ hours that wasn’t enough temptation for us. Well, I suppose this curious exhibition is some-rich-body’s heartfelt project: for me, it was boring.

Twycross Zoo clearly attracts many, many people. The car parking and the queue management facilities indicated that usually there are hugely more visitors than there were yesterday (whew!). I found it a bit curate’s eggy. Durrell gives a better appreciation of the world’s nature in a fraction of the space. But the best bits were lovely, and of course one has to remember, it is primarily a primate park. And hey! we spent a whole fast-gone two and a half hours there quite happily. For only 26 pounds (two senior citizen tickets ... and the girl didn’t even ask to see my card! Sob!).