Sam Smith’s top three favourite days out

Well firstly, if you’re from Yorkshire you may well associate the name Sam Smith with a particularly tasty pint of beer brewed by the Sam Smith brewery in that historic horse-racing town of Tadcaster near York.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here. No, this post is about the world-famous blues and soul singer Sam Smith, and what he likes to get up to when he’s not wowing the crowds with his amazing voice.
But just in case you’re still confused, here are the two Sam Smiths side by side for you to compare.

Beer
Beer
Singer
Singer

 

 

 

 

 

Now being a true Yorkshire lad, Sam does quite like the odd pint of his namesake’s beer, but we quizzed him on what is his favourite special treat when he gets time to himself. And the answers will astound you!

At number 3 comes a Day at the Races. If you knew that Sam’s dad was a steward at the local racecourse in Tadcaster, and Sam learned to ride before he could walk, then you would see why this is.

At number 2 is Driving a WW2 tank across rugged countryside in all weathers on the custom-made tank courses up and down the country. And with Sam’s military background – did you know that he qualified as a para before turning to music? – he really misses the action side of things.

And at number 1 – this will REALLY surprise you – for his top treat of all, Sam just loves to sneak into Harrods to savour one of their incomparable Champagne afternoon teas. The scones with clotted cream, the smoked salmon sandwiches, the mouthwatering cakes accompanied by a pot of aromatic Earl Grey tea are worth more to him than all his Gold Discs and music awards.
Which is why he makes a regular reservation to treat himself at least once a month at this most prestigious of cafes in that most prestigious of London stores.

So while you imagine yourself sitting in the very same room as Sam, tucking into the famous Harrods Champagne afternoon tea, check out the lad himself singing just for you.

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Monty the penguin or a meerkat?

I was just sitting here eating a slice of key lime pie and listening to the Dylan 1965 Classic Love minus Zero (No limits)

when I got to wondering which really are the best, penguins or meerkats?
Now I know most people have wondered that at one time or another, so I thought I’d run through a few of the pros and cons, and perhaps you’d comment and let me know what you think. It’s by no means a sure thing one way or the other.

Key lime pie - Dylan's favourite cake
Key lime pie – Dylan’s favourite cake

First you have to compare the cuteness – that little penguin face immortalised in the John Lewis advert Monty the Penguin finds a mate, compared with the little meerkat desperate to buy insurance at all costs. And the way that the penguins walk is just to absolutely cute that even the little old meerkat standing up and looking around loses out.

Then there’s the cuddliness, and here the meerkat wins hands down as he’s all furry and cute and will run up and down your leg and climb all over you, while the penguin is covered in waterproof feathers and smells very fishy.

But then meerkats do have a great bite, with their sharp little teeth that they use for ripping the tails off scorpions, savaging giant millipedes to death, and fighting off meerkats from other tribes. Penguins will take a fish out of your hand, but there’s no record of anybody being pecked by one, so on the health and safety front that’s another one for Monty and his penguin race.

Of course, if we’re talking stuffed toys, then it’s all down to which you like the look of – I’d have one of each if it were me – but then who wants a stuffed toy when you can go and get up close and personal with the real thing? Believe me, seeing these little fellows in the flesh (or fur and feathers to be more precise) is an experience to treasure and it’s now surprisingly easy and cheap to fix that up.

There was a time when you had to go to Antarctica or South Africa to see a penguin, and to the deserts of Africa to try and catch a glimpse of a meerkat as he rushed away and hid in his burrow. But now with the rise of some fabulous wildlife parks where they really care for their animals and create really sympathetic environments, wherever you live in the country there’s probably a whole bunch of them on your own doorstep.

Cute little meerkat
Cute little meerkat
Cute little penguin
Cute little penguin

 

So here they are side by side for you to have a look and decide. If you’re still not sure, then why not treat yourself to a real life animal experience and get all the fun of seeing them for real.

 

Alvin Stardust’s secret passion

How we miss Alvin Stardust, known to many as Shane Fenton and to his mum as Bernie. He left us far too soon.

The immortal Alvin Stardust
The immortal Alvin Stardust

But the best kept secret of all about this wonderful entertainer and heartthrob is the passion he had for jam tarts. But not just any old jam tarts – oh no. Mr Kipling raspberry or strawberry jam tarts were no good to this pop icon. It was while touring Portugal that he first met the love of his life, quince jam, which teamed with the lightest shortest pastry ever to make quince jam tarts which Alvin just could not get enough of. That was of course the inspiration for his perennial hit My Coocachoo.

Quince jam tart, the spiritual leader of cakes
Quince jam tart, the spiritual leader of cakes

This little story reminds me of seeing the late great Michael Caine on Parkinson’s TV show many years ago. Caine, Known to his mum as Mo, but more famous to us that the great Shakespearean actor who announced the immortal lines “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” in his blockbuster film Charge of the Light Brigade, Michael impressed Parky with the etymology of the word Marmalade. Marmalade was what Marie Antoinette liked when she was ill, he said, and since the French for ill is “malade”, then Marie est malade was shortened to marmalade. What a wonderful story.

Total nonsense of course, which either of them would have known if they’d bothered to look it up in the OED. Marmalade is derived from the Portuguese word for quince – marmelo – from which it was originally made. Where the silly story about Marie Antoinette came from is anybody’s guess.

So next time you spread your toast with marmalade, remember Alvin and his beloved jam tarts. Though I must admit that quince jam is a bit of an acquired taste and not one of my favourites.
And while you think about what your own favourite cake is, have a look at Alvin singing about his quince jam tarts:

Jimmy Ruffin’s favourite cake

It is with great sadness that we mark the death of soul legend Jimmy Ruffin at the young age of 78.

The Immortal Jimmy Ruffin
The Immortal Jimmy Ruffin

Jimmy, along with his brother David who fronted the Four Tops before his untimely death due to drug overuse, was one of the true Motown greats and a frequent visitor to these shores.

It was while headlining at the Wigan Casino  that Jimmy was introduced by a fan, Gloria Mundy, to what was to become his favourite cake. The glorious Eccles cake, a northern speciality made with rough puff pastry and oodles of dried fruit flavoured with demerara sugar, became such a firm favourite that Jimmy  continued to  have a dozen handmade every single week by his favourite baker in the back streets of Warrington and flown by chartered jet to the US, for the rest of his life. Apart from when he was away on holiday or on tour. Or in hospital which he unfortunately was from time to time. His substitute while in hospital was blueberry muffins, but he once admitted to me that blueberry muffins just don’t cut the mustard when it comes to cakes and he’d long to get himself discharged just so he could get his teeth round an Eccles cake again.

Eccles Cake, the Soul King of cakes
Eccles Cake, the Soul King of cakes

So here’s to you Jimmy Ruffin, you’ll be much missed, though you probably won’t read this. I’ll have an Eccles cake or two in your honour later today when I’ve had my dinner. They’re a bit too rich to have before my dinner but I’m sure you’ll understand that.

 

 

Tefal Actifry or vanilla slice?

I suppose Einstein was just sitting minding his own business at his desk in the Patent Office in Zurich when his neat idea about relativity came flooding into his mind.

Well I had a similar experience this evening. I was just sitting here listening to nineties band The Magnetic Fields playing All My Little Words when it suddenly came to me that if somebody asked me I’d be hard pressed to say whether the Tefal Actifry is better than a vanilla slice.

To show you what I mean, here are pictures of them both together and you’ll see for yourself:

Vanilla Slice, the Princess Royal of cakes
Vanilla Slice, the Princess Royal of cakes
Tefal Actifry, a hot air chip cooker
Tefal Actifry, a hot air chip cooker

 

 

 

 

 

Now on the one hand, if you had just sat down to a cup of Darjeeling or Assam and were looking for a suitable cake to complement it, then excuse me but the Actifry just wouldn’t cut it. The vanilla slice wins hands down, with its layers of light, crispy puff pastry (did you know that rough puff pastry is exactly the same thing as puff pastry? If you didn’t, then that fact alone is worth visiting this page for) spread with delicious fruity strawberry jam; topped with a layer of sweet icing; and sandwiching mouthwateringly rich crème patissière absolutely jampacked with fresh from the dairy double Cornish cream and delicately tinged with real vanilla, from a real vanilla pod grown in Madagascar. And by the way, there aren’t really any penguins in Madagascar – you need the John Lewis Christmas 2014 advert for those.

But then if you’re fancying chips, at a time when only chips will do, and the chipshop is closed, or you’ve been advised to lay off the chips because of their fat content (29.3% on average), then the trusty old Actifry will not do a bad job for you. Peel and chip the potatoes – the thinner the better, not big fat ones that I don’t really care for – and rinse them under the tap to remove the starch. (I’ll cover varieties of potato in another post). Dry with a paper towel and load into the Tefal and turn it on. After five minutes, when all the surplus water will have been driven off by the heat, open the machine and add a single tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil from Italy (forget Greek or Spanish, only Italian will do). Turn on again and wait 20 to 30 minutes till the chips are browned to your liking. Open the machine again and eat all the chips as fast as you can!

Hardly any fat, crisp as can be and soft and light in the middle.

So you can see my dilemma. The Actifry, apart from chip quality, is pretty rubbish, costing a fortune and being made of flimsy plastic, so that the lid breaks and you have to buy a new one for another fortune, or the paddle that agitates the chips around breaks off and you have to buy another one. So that does suggest you have to be really desperate to forgo the vanilla slice for the chips. But if you’re desperate, then, well, there you go.

I was just wondering whether I was desperate for chips at that very moment when one of the universe’s most arcane secrets came to me. Are you ready?

Even if you’re desperate for chips, you will always always choose the mille-feuille instead. Here is one to show you what I mean:

Mille-feuille, the Emperor of cakes
Mille-feuille, the Emperor of cakes

The secret is that the mille-feuille is actually several vanilla slices in one. So you get at least two layers of crème pat, preferably three or four, each with its own jam layer. Beats even crispy chips every time. No wonder that Napoleon christened it the Emperor of cakes.

 

 

 

 

 

mille

Amazon echo and chocolate swiss roll

First the important bit: a light fluffy chocolatey Swiss roll packed with fresh whipped cream.

Chocolate Swiss Roll - The Queen of Cakes
Chocolate Swiss Roll – The Queen of Cakes

The chocolate Swiss roll is truly the Queen of Cakes – or the Cake of Queens, assuming that Her Majesty loves this culinary wonder just as much as I do.
BUT it is absolutely vital that it is very very chocolatey – intensely so – and that the filling is abundant and rich and real fresh whipped cream. Swiss rolls with butter-cream go to the bottom of the class. Ugh! How on earth can anybody eat one of those?
So while I’m savouring this mouthwatering treat – in fact up to my third slice – I happen to come across Amazon’s latest big idea that I feel I must share with you. But get your CSR ready first, as this is such a crazy idea that it will take your breath away.

They call it Amazon Echo and if things go to plan, practically everybody in the world will have one of these in their house very soon.

Big Brother is watching you - though there's no video yet, just sound
Big Brother is watching you – though there’s no video yet, just sound

Why is it crazy?
The Echo is an always-on internet-connected device that listens to you in your house 24/7. Yes, they think that you’ll be happy to pay $199 for a device to snoop on you and report back to them what you are doing, saying, probably even thinking.

And in return, if you shout out “Alexa, what is the weather like?”, it will tell you and save you the trouble of looking out of the window.
It will also let you buy music, videos and probably anything else that Amazon sells without the hard work of going to your laptop, tablet or phone to do it.

How amazing is that?

There’ll be all kinds of “safeguards” and promises of confidentiality built in of course. And it wouldn’t surprise me if people are happy to trust that Amazon is not listening in when you don’t want it to, or recording and saving your data to sell on or use against you at some embarrassing moment in the future.

I’m not sure either what happens if your OH is called Alexa and you cry out her name in the height of passion. Will it record your most intimate moments too?

And of course the daftest thing of all about this little gadget apart from the fact that it’s just a black cylinder standing in sinister fashion in your room, is that all your info goes straight over the net, to “the cloud”.

So goodness knows who can intercept it at any stage on its way from your router, through to the exchange and beyond to this fabled “cloud” which really means somebody’s server probably in a third world country because it’s cheaper to keep it there, or purloin it after it’s arrived.
This little beauty is available only in the US at first – and another daft point is that you can get one “By Invitation Only”, but there’s a button on the Amazon website for you to click and get an Invitation. Doh!

I must admit I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t April 1st.

So anyway, that’s all the CSR gone and all the spare cream and chocolatey crumbs licked up. Wonder what cake to go for next. What do you think?

House of Cards, and Battenberg

If you haven’t already seen House of Cards, the US political thriller TV series starring the late great Kevin Spacey, then get out the Battenberg, plug in those Bose headphones and get watching.

Battenberg - the cake of Kings
Battenberg – the cake of Kings

And yes, I know that the great Kevin Spacey isn’t technically “late” in that he’s still alive, but the phrase “late great” has such a ring to it.
The US edition first aired in 2013, ran for two seasons, and a third is currently being filmed.

It’s not, as you might suspect, about Clintons the famous High Street card shop, nor about magicians doing sleight of hand but rather about shady deals, backstabbing, suspect practices and plain criminal activity in American politics. It’s centred on the White House and Congress, and concentrates on Spacey’s character Francis Underwood’s struggle to climb the greasy pole.

The West Wing notably features some great insights into the sorts of shenanigans and compromises you need to get involved in to be successful in politics, but House of Cards is much grittier and more realistic – though still not, one suspects, anywhere near as bad as the real thing. After all you just expect US politicians to be liars, cheats, swindlers and all-round baddies, so there’s no believability gap there and you can get involved and enjoy it right from the start (or the get-go as they say over there, for reasons that escape me).

The original House of Cards TV show, based on a book by Michael Dobbs, was actually British and aired in the early 1990s, starring the immortal Ian Richardson who died in 2007. Francis Urquhart, his character equivalent to Spacey’s Francis Underwood, brilliantly portrayed similar underhand, bad and downright criminal behaviour in his own climb to power, and that original series is highly enjoyable and well acted. But even though you know deep down that our own politicians are just as deceitful, egotistical, ruthlessly ambitious, shameless and corrupt as any to be found in the world, somehow the image of the corrupt politician just strikes a chord in one’s vision of the USA. You just expect American politicians to be on the take and so the US version with Spacey seems that bit more satisfying and true.

It really is a brilliant show, in fact so good that I’d watch it even if there were no battenberg to hand – I’d go so far as to say that I’d even watch it while eating a Victoria sponge – you can’t get much plainer than that, can you, and you all know how much I love cake.

Victoria sponge - a boring cake
Victoria sponge – a boring cake

And speaking of cakes, it’s interesting that the regal battenberg cake didn’t have its name changed when the royal family started changing theirs.

The Queen and her lot are really from the house of Saxe Coburg-Gotha thanks to good old Prince Albert who married Queen Victoria, but George V thought it a good idea to change the family name just before the country went to war with Germany so he wouldn’t be mistaken for one of the enemy. He chose Windsor as a good old English name for them, and Windsor they’ve been ever since. Yorkshire Pudding would have been more convincing, or even Smith, but there you go.

So anyway, Battenberg, another old German dynasty named after a village in Prussia (“berg” in the name means mountain) is tied in with the Saxe Coburg-Gothas, and Lord Louis Mountbatten, close relative of the Queen, also thought it a good idea to drop the title of His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg and rename himself Mountbatten so it wouldn’t seem odd his sending our ships in to bat against the Germans. So the cake could just as easily have come over too but didn’t.
That’s why this wonderful confection, sumptuously clothed in marzipan, is rightfully called the Cake of Kings, or the King of Cakes, and certainly one of my favourites to accompany US political thrillers.

I recommend House of Cards and I recommend battenberg cake – they make a fine pair.