Sunday, 21 October 2018

chinese soup

The Chinese are renowned for some exotic soups, notably shark’s fin and bird’s nest. These are only likely to be served in large restaurants—I’ve only ever had either when attending a wedding banquet—but both share one characteristic. They may have lots of expensive ingredients, but they are what my friend Barry calls ‘watery soup’. In other words, the liquid part of the soup is just a broth.

This description also fits the kind of soup that you’re likely to be served in a street cafe or dai pai dong. I make it myself (it’s easy enough). I have a soup pan that comfortably holds eight portions, for which I buy one catty (20 ounces) of sai see kwat, a cut of pork from around the base of the spine that comes apart when cooked. All other cuts of pork go hard when subjected to the same treatment. The other major ingredient is a carrot. What? Just one? You can forget the tasteless baby carrots you can buy in the UK. The carrot I buy has a wide end that is 8–9cm in diameter. And the flavour is unbelievable. Paula reckons that it develops incrementally over the four days that it takes to finish a pan.

However, I make another soup that I rather facetiously call ‘Chinese soup’. I should explain the reason for the name: all the ingredients, apart from the water, pepper and salt, are Chinese ingredients, yet I would be astonished if anything remotely similar is being offered in any Cantonese restaurant anywhere in the world. This must sound like an empty assertion, so I should explain the reason for my confidence.

The principal ingredient in my Chinese soup is dried split green beans, the same beans that are used to produce bean sprouts. However, the only way I’ve seen this ingredient being used is as a dessert. It is boiled in water, sugar is added, and it is reduced to a paste, a dollop of which is inserted into a small ball of rice-flour dough. This is then steamed. The Cantonese also do something similar with red beans: boil them up in a soup (hung tau sa) and add sugar.

Contrast this with English cuisine, where peas and beans are invariably served as part of a savoury course. My mother used to add lentils to her pans of soup, which also included ham, carrots and onions. It also automatically thickened the liquid, and boiling up split green beans has the same effect. This is why I introduced this account by pointing out that Chinese soups tend to be ‘watery’. My Chinese soup isn’t.

It is particularly efficacious in cold weather, and the thickness of the liquid means that a single bowl is very filling. So what are my other ingredients? There are two main ones: dried scallops (conpoy) and dried Chinese mushrooms. Dried scallops are so expensive that you can expect to pay around £60 for a pound of large, unbroken ones—these are also a regular feature of wedding banquets—but for soup, broken pieces are fine, and far, far cheaper. I’ve been using baby scallops recently, which are also reasonably cheap.

I should point out here that dried foods such as these have much more intense flavours when rehydrated than the fresh equivalents—my son Siegfried once chided me for using fresh Chinese mushrooms in a dish that I’d made several times previously with dried mushrooms. The fresh ones had hardly any taste.

When I’m in Hong Kong, I always have a pan of soup on the go, either my Chinese soup or the broth that I described earlier, but when I’m in Penrith, I make only the occasional pan of the former. However, I’ve just been preparing a new pan, and I thought that you might like to learn how it’s made.

The split green beans should be soaked overnight in cold water:

The photo also includes an unopened packet.

The conpoy and mushrooms should be steeped in boiling water and left for a couple of hours:

…after which the individual strands of conpoy can be teased apart by rubbing, and the mushrooms chopped into small pieces:

Once the split green beans have been soaked, the water becomes cloudy because of all the fine powder. It is therefore necessary to wash the beans several times. If you don’t, the soup will froth up uncontrollably when heated. The water used to soak the conpoy and the mushrooms goes in the soup:

The reddish brown blob in the middle of the pan is a generous teaspoonful of XO sauce; the other ingredients are a moderately heaped teaspoon of sea salt and half a level teaspoon of white pepper. The photo shows my soup pan just before I add boiling water, after which I bring it to the boil:

This photo shows the soup just before I put the lid on and place the pan in its thermal container. All I need to do is leave it for a few hours, during which the split green beans completely disintegrate. And this is the result:

I don’t know whether it’s possible to buy the split green beans in the UK—there are two major supermarket chains in Hong Kong, ParknShop and Wellcome, but only the latter stocks this product, from which I conjecture that there isn’t that much demand. I bring half a dozen packs over from Hong Kong every year, although you can get a similar result using channa dal, which is split yellow peas. However, the pieces are larger, so it is necessary to boil the soup for 15–20 minutes before placing the pan in the thermal jacket.

As I suggested earlier, this soup is unlikely to be on the menu of a typical Chinese restaurant, but if by some unlikely coincidence a Chinese chef happens to be reading this, please try it. You have my permission to call it ‘gweilo soup’.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

the wall

A friend showed me something interesting—and unexpected—a few weeks ago: a brick wall! He’s taken leave of his senses, you might conclude at this point. But see for yourself:

It does seem unremarkable, but look more closely:

Notice that the bricks are all different sizes, and the edges are irregular, from which I conclude that these bricks were moulded by hand. Notice too that for every five brick courses there is a narrow sandstone course. Given that this is a boundary wall, not part of a building, it would seem unlikely that this was done for decorative effect. Perhaps the sandstone courses were inserted to stabilize the structure, given the irregular brick shapes, although this is the conjecture of someone who knows very little about masonry or bricklaying. Whatever is the truth, the wall’s foundations seem to have been inadequate; as you can see, the brick and stone courses are no longer horizontal. And I can say that the masonry courses are not Penrith sandstone, which has a distinctive reddish brown colour.

I have no idea how old this structure is, but it could be one of the oldest in Penrith. I would be very surprised if there is another wall like this one in the town. It should be preserved.

If you want to see the wall for yourself, it separates the local government offices car park off De Whelpdale Lane from the backyards of houses on Sandgate. And if you can shed any light on the age of this wall, please leave a comment.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

penrith strategic disaster plan

Penrith is currently being roiled by a document put out by the local council under the title ‘The Penrith Strategic Masterplan’. I haven’t spoken to anyone who is in favour of this ludicrous proposal, and there is already organized opposition. So there should be! This preposterous ‘plan’ involves building more than 5,000 new houses in the most environmentally sensitive area of the town. The map below, taken from the glossy booklet that was published by Eden District Council last month, outlines the plan.

The three orange areas will be ‘new villages’, and the broken red line will be a major new road through the area. The broken blue lines are labelled ‘improvements to existing roads’. The problem is that between these developments and the rest of Penrith there is a low sandstone hill. The natural vegetation here would have been heathland (heather and bilberry), but for all my lifetime there has been a commercial forest (the green area southwest of the centre of the map). In fact, the hill has been exploited for timber since the nineteenth century, as the following photo indicates:

And this is what it looks like now, as viewed from Castle Park:

The hill is known locally as ‘Penrith Beacon’, ‘Beacon Pike’ or simply ‘the Beacon’. The name derives from the centuries-old practice of lighting a bonfire on the top of the hill to warn the locals that another raiding party of cattle rustlers and sundry other scoundrels was on its way from southern Scotland to pillage the area. This practice, in turn, is now commemorated by the Beacon Tower, built in 1719:

The tower used to stand proud years ago, but it isn’t easy to spot now that the trees have matured (I added a red arrow on the photo above to indicate its position). When I first moved away from Penrith to work, I used to look out for the Beacon and its tower from the train window every time I came back. It was a comfortable reassurance that I was ‘almost home’. I suspect that I would not be alone in this feeling.

And the area around the summit of the hill has always been openly accessible. When I was growing up, ‘going up the Beacon’ was an adventure. And when the season was right, we used to go there to pick bleaberries, as I imagine thousands of others have done over the years. I still remember that it seemed to take thousands of these tiny berries to make a full-size pasty. I did wonder whether children still see the Beacon in this way, given the myriad distractions afforded by modern technology, but I attended a rally yesterday organized by a newly formed pressure group, Friends of Penrith Beacon. A 14-year-old girl told the assembled crowd of several hundred about her encounters with deer and other wildlife, building a den and other things that I recall from my own childhood.

Here are some photographs that I took during the rally:

There were five separate rallying points, from where protesters would converge on the churchyard of the local parish church. The first photo shows the arrival of the contingent that set off from the start of the access path up the Beacon; the second shows Mr Iain Dawson, chairman of Friends of Penrith Beacon, who spoke eloquently of the many flaws in the plan; and the third is a general view of the crowd.

I don’t propose to analyse the masterplan in minute detail, but I will point out some obvious causes for concern. The first is the effect on wildlife. Most of the area around Penrith is farmland, which is a hostile environment for most wildlife, but the Beacon is much more biodiverse. In addition to roe deer, there are foxes, badgers and squirrels, not to mention snakes and lizards. This plan will not merely be disruptive; the present ecosystem will be almost totally destroyed.

My next concern is that with all the new development, there will be a huge increase in paved areas and thus more run-off in wet weather. I hear that the intention is for both drainage and sewage to be piped through the town’s existing systems, which will not be able to cope—they are already close to capacity—so the risk of flooding in the centre of Penrith is likely to increase.

Not mentioned at all in the current plan is the likely fate of Cowraik Quarry, another adventure playground for local children, which is located to the east of the Beacon itself. Cowraik is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) because of the excellent examples of dune bedding—Penrith sandstone is a desert sandstone—that are visible in some of the quarried faces.

It wasn’t until I looked closely at the map that I noticed two ‘roads’ through the forest that have been earmarked for ‘improvements’. These are not roads; they are forestry tracks! Improvements here will merely provide access to the most objectionable part of the proposed development, which I discuss next.

However, without doubt the most egregious proposal in the plan is indicated by the light green area on the map in the middle of the currently forested area. In the legend, this is identified as
Proposed Low Density Mixed Use Development Set Within Woodland Framework
In case you didn’t spot the verbal legerdemain being deployed here, this is simply code for ‘houses for rich people’. Presumably anything developed here will not be visible from Castle Park, but you won’t be able to avoid seeing whatever is built here if you go up the Beacon in the future. In fact, this development appears likely to encroach on what is and always has been (in my lifetime) a community resource: the open area around Beacon Tower.

I should say that having a strategic plan for the future is intrinsically a good idea. The booklet points out the steady decline in Penrith’s working-age population, which the council clearly hopes the masterplan will address. The booklet talks optimistically about attracting higher-paid jobs to Penrith but doesn’t say how this will be achieved. In fact, it may be impossible. There will always be opportunities for professionals—accountants, doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc.—but Penrith has and always has had a service economy. The masterplan discusses promoting Penrith as a regional distribution centre because of its transport links, but this doesn’t translate into ‘higher-paid jobs’. There are no high-tech industries here that might want to employ graduates. In fact, the only thing Penrith actually produces is scores of well-educated adolescents each year who go off to college or university and don’t come back. Of all the people who left Penrith to go to university from the local grammar school the same year I did, only two came back (I was able to work out a way to come back in 1989 after more than 20 years working in various places around the world). This is one of the reasons for the decline in the town’s working-age population, the other being that Penrith has become a popular location for people from other areas to retire to.

Quite apart from my rejection of this utterly crass plan on the grounds that I’ve outlined above, I foresee possibly decades of disruption in and around Penrith once construction begins in earnest. It must never be allowed to happen.

And I’ve avoided asking the most obvious question:

Who benefits?

Or, as Woodward and Bernstein were advised, follow the money.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

brief encounter

I’ve been feeling rather deflated lately. I bought a new bike at the beginning of July—I acquired my old one in Penrith in 1998—and I have to say that it is a delight to ride. I was able to get out regularly in that first month, when everyone was making comparisons with 1976, which I missed because I was working in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, while the heatwave continued for several weeks in the south of England, summer was unofficially over in Penrith by early August.

There hasn’t been a lot of rain, but I’ve been surprised by how often I’ve experienced mizzle in and around Penrith during the past two months. Mizzle is a weather phenomenon that is most frequently experienced on the local mountain tops, and if you haven’t already guessed, it is a portmanteau word combining ‘mist’ and ‘drizzle’. And for the past few weeks, it has been unseasonally cold (ground frost on a couple of mornings recently!), and I’m beginning to suspect that I may not get out on my new bike again until I come back from Hong Kong next summer. You can see my frustration.

However, rather than dwell on the frustrations, I prefer to cast my mind back to positive experiences from the past, especially ones of extremely short duration that left me smiling to myself, like the one I’m about to relate.

*  *  *

I never used to do any cycling on Sundays, because the network of official cycle tracks in the New Territories is clogged with idiots who have hired bikes for the day and haven’t a clue what they’re doing. However, the area northeast of Fanling, which had been part of the so-called ‘frontier closed area’, was opened to the public in 2016, and it is far enough away from the popular cycling areas that a degree of skill is required to get there. Naturally, I wanted to see what it was like (I described that exploration in The Final Frontier).

The village of Ping Yeung—the largest in the area—was never part of the closed area, but it was certainly part of an area I hadn’t yet explored. And although it is connected to the main road network, I wasn’t going to leave by the road if I could avoid it. And avoid it I did! I found a series of paths that led to the main road that runs through the area at the same point that the road from the village reaches it.

One Sunday, I had just left the village on the first of these paths when I spotted an old lady a short distance ahead. Judging from her posture, her gait and the speed at which she was walking, she would certainly have been more than eighty years old.

“How am I going to get past her?” I thought to myself.

You can see the problem from this video still (Paula wasn’t with me on the occasion I’m describing):

As you can see, the path is very narrow, and although not dangerous, there is a drop off the edge, so expecting the old lady to squeeze to one side while I passed was not an option. However, I was already familiar with this path and knew that there was a short wider section around the next corner, opposite the traditional Chinese house you can see in the picture. I therefore slowed right down, timing it so that I would come up behind the old lady just as she reached that wider section. I didn’t ring my bell.

Che che m’goi [excuse me please],” I said quietly.

The old lady stepped to her left and continued walking.

M’goi sai [thank you very much],” I said as I passed her.

M’sai m’goi [thank you not necessary],” she replied.

I think that this is a story that I’m likely to tell again from time to time. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.