Off the Rails: Why would you want a wooden steam locomotive?

Okay. It’s not really a locomotive, it’s a stage prop. From Cumbria.

Train derailment at Woodhead, from Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Ben Brooksbank.
This is not the train you’re looking for. Move along.

A friend drew my attention to this ITV local news article… Wanted: new home for a life-size replica of a train

The spokesperson for the theatre involved really hasn’t got a clue – offering to donate it to a museum or railway preservationists – but at the same time saying that “Gordon needs to be kept indoors as he’s made of wood”.

Most museums wouldn’t want “Gordon”, because it doesn’t represent anything, because it’s just a wooden stage prop – however painstakingly detailed.

As for railway preservationists, they have enough problems finding enough space to keep real trains, made of metal, that can actually pull coaches and make money, under cover to keep the worst of the elements at bay. The majority of preserved railway sites have either no covered accommodation at all, or a desperate shortage.

What was the production thinking?

I suggest that “Gordon” would be more at home and appreciated in a kiddies play centre.

A railway prophet…

I’d been watching a transport documentary (on one of my pet hobby horses of rail privatisation) which had been uploaded to YouTube, when one of the “recommended” videos caught my eye.

It was a British TV documentary from 1991, following the colourful characters who worked on the London-Leeds train service at the time. I’d lived in Leeds for a spell around that time, and so some of the faces in the programme were familiar to me, as I’d encountered them as I’d used the trains in the area.

It was gutsy for the time (long before the boom of reality tv) that the BR publicity people let the TV crew have such direct and unfettered access to front line staff, who were allowed to freely express themselves to the cameras, especially as producers were fortunate during the period they were filming to catch British Rail suffering one of it’s most embarrassing moments – the Wrong Kind of Snow, which crippled many services for over a week.

They got to experience delays, breakdowns, and the sight of a driver climbing into a plastic bag to protect his lower body from draughts and leaks as the planned state-of-the-art loco was replaced with an older engine from the 1960s!

Toward the end (at 47 minutes), a time-served Conductor glumly predicted that 20 years from now, we’d be sat here wishing that we’d invested heavily in improved railway infrastructure.

(I’ve embedded the programme in full, or you can use the link above just to see the “prophesy” – haven’t got a clue why the embedded video won’t start at the 47 minute mark. Answers on a postcard…)

21 years on, as we battle to keep our railway infrastructure up to date and able to cope, it’s pretty damned obvious he was right that we should have spent the money back then, rather than delaying and delaying.

So many of the railwaymen in that programme were older and approaching retirement. I know that Trains Inspector Peter Kirton only passed away last year, for instance – he was an interesting bloke and published a few books during his retirement about his railway experiences.

I wonder how many of these characters are still with us, and might say “Told you so…”?

“A Grandmother dies after feeding her daughters pets”: or the importance of punctuation

Just getting food together this evening, and from the kitchen, this was the headline I heard on the 6.30pm BBC London News:

“A Grandmother dies after feeding her daughters pets”

The Mk1 ear picked this up, for my (admittedly random) brain to parse it as “A Grandmother has died, having fed pets to her daughters”.

Actually, what’s happened is a woman has died having been mauled by her daughter’s dogs in South London.

Maybe it’s just Halloween that’s making me think of this sentence as a one-line plot synopsis for an episode of Tales of the Unexpected – a woman covertly feeds her pets to her daughters, and meets some sticky end with a twist in the tail.

Sorry to go all Eats Shoots and Leaves on you… but the apostrophe that gave this statement the proper meaning vanished once it had become the spoken word.

I’m sorry. I didn’t quite understand that. Please state “Yes” or “No”

There’s a perfect tv programme, just up my street, airing next week…

Maybe it’s just the grumpy old man in me, but I don’t enjoy dealing with call-centre systems that have complex menu trees, repetitive announcements, auto-attendants, IVRs, and being told that my “business-is-important-thankyouforholding”.

Why can’t a person just pick up the phone and speak to me?

There is a cynical thing going on in some cases – a shady need for the company you’re phoning to keep you on the phone for a while – Call Revenue Sharing. This is where the destination of the phone number recieves a portion of the call termination revenue from the phone company. If the call isn’t long enough, the revenue share is negligible. The cynic in me, saying “yes” or pressing “1” for the umpteenth time, thinking this IVR or menu tree is designed to make the call sufficiently long enough to bring money into the organisation.

I’m therefore looking forward to Channel 4’s Richard Wilson On Hold which is broadcast at 8pm on Monday 16th January. I wonder if they will touch on Revenue Sharing, or just concentrate on the grumpy annoyance factor.

Ash Mair – Masterchef Pro 2011’s worthy Champion

Lo, the judgely tastebuds have had their say, and Ash Mair was revealed as Professional Masterchef 2011, as many expected.

He also did it in style, with another round of exquisite yet somehow hearty food that showcased the ingredients as much as it showcased his own skill. Merging often delicate Michelin star standard cooking and presentation with a plate of serious substance seems to be an elusive skill, yet Ash manages to pull it off time and time again.

I’m told that look on his face isn’t angst, it’s concentration and grim determination to pull it off.

But, I think it was a close call, as all three finalists pulled the stops out to make an amazing three courses.

I loved the look of Claire‘s smoked pigeon – getting the cooking and smokiness just right must have taken some serious timing and judgement. It’s something I’d have happily ordered in a restaurant. Great looking chocolate and coffee marquise for dessert as well, that would have tied with Ash’s “Spanish pain perdu”. Even though choc and cherries are a classic combo, Claire is clearly clueful when it comes to what works with pastry – just think of that lime cheesecake and bitter chocolate sorbet she did! Sadly, I wouldn’t have touched the oysters – they just aren’t my cup of tea, unadventurous prole that I am.

Steve‘s starter of confit salmon was right up my street, and the duck with braised chicory got my mouth watering. But his dessert – an abstracted peach melba – looked a lot on the plate, a bit too cluttered.

If I’d have walked into a restaurant and been presented with a menu composed of the dishes from all three finalists, I’d have had a tough time choosing – especially for main course!

Ash has been commenting on Twitter about the whirlwind which he now finds swirling around him, and it’s not just the howling south-westerlies we’ve been having earlier this week: He was on BBC Breakfast with Michel Roux Jr this morning, and I don’t know if it was just his laid-back Aussie style, but he still seemed almost stunned!

While Ash is the worthy Champion, the other two are still winners: Hopefully Steve is now on the road to his ambition of a small country house hotel with fantastic food, and as for Claire, I think the world’s her oyster. Just as long as I don’t have to eat any.

Update – 24th Jan 2012:

A lot of the searches which hit this page are wondering where to find Ash so you can go and eat his food. From this recent tweet it seems like he’s off to Barcelona to consult for a restaurant there. So, it may be a bit longer. There is a basque restaurant opening up in London, but so far, Ash doesn’t seem to be associated with it.

The other frequent search term landing here is for Claire’s chocolate sorbet. Sadly, it looks like that recipe is a secret known only to Claire, and now Michel Roux Jr. But, a selection of Claire’s recipes from Masterchef (including the rather good looking chocolate moelleux) can be found on the BBC Food recipe database, along with selected dishes from the other finalists.

Masterchef – The Professionals 2011: Everyone’s a winner…

Another diversion from the usual tech and travel diet, to something which might mean you need to go on a diet…

It’s the big final tonight of Masterchef – The Professionals, and we have three deserving finalists, angsty Aussie Ash Mair who battled on in an heroic-stylee despite getting hot fat splashed in the eye to produce an amazing main course last night, “Spiky” Steve Barringer making delightful desserts from disaster-zone-looking messy workspaces, and clever Brummie Claire Hutchings, who has made some amazing food during the series with brave flavour combinations, all the more astonishing considering she was 22 at the time they made the programme.

So, who’s going to nail it tonight?

Despite wanting Claire to win, my money is now on Ash. He’s consistent in so many ways – quality of the cooking, the high standard of presentation, and after a shaky start being criticised over weak or bland flavours, he’s learned something, now packing a real punch with his seasoning and sauces. He’s even consistent at looking totally embattled and under siege, yet still manages to bring it all together and plate up on time.

While Claire’s scallop sashimi for the chefs’ table last night was definitely brave and innovative, it wasn’t a plate I’d have wanted to eat. It felt like a step too far. Sometimes simple is good, less is more. It just might have been her undoing. It’s a shame, because throughout the series, Claire has just “got it”, time and time again.

But, they all have learned something along the way – Ash with flavours, Claire with preparation, timing and organisation during plateing up, and Steve with keeping it simple and keeping everything cleaned down – which is why they are here in the final.

While there can only be one champion, all three are winners, and deserve to go on to great things.

The final of Masterchef: The Professionals 2011 is on BBC Two tonight at 8pm.

The Return of “Scary Monica”

I don’t normally blog on things like TV programmes, but this week marked a highlight in the Autumn TV calendar for me: The return of Masterchef: The Professionals. Maybe it’s because I love good food. But maybe it’s because it appeals to my sense of schadenfreude.

The format is different to “vanilla” Masterchef: the eager amateur cooks are replaced by earnest chefs, ready to take their cooking up a gear; and while cuddly Gregg Wallace and his sweet tooth still front up the show, co-judge John Torode is replaced by Michelin-starred Michel Roux Jr with his classical French cooking, perfectionist presentation, demanding palate and seemingly boundless enthusiasm for good food – you just watch the smile on his face as he plates up a demonstration dish.

Just what *are* you doing to that octopus?
Just what *are* you doing to that octopus?

However, if cooking for a member of the Roux kitchen dynasty isn’t enough to make you want to raise your game, Michel Jr has a (not so secret) weapon up his sleeve – his fearsome sous chef, Monica Galetti, who seems to have a reputation for perfection and ruling the kitchens of Le Gavroche with her amazing set of facial expressions. One look from Monica, and you know whether you’ve got it right, or whether you’re in serious trouble and need to start bailing.

It’s right there on Monica’s face. The expressions say it all, you know almost exactly what she’s thinking.

I’ve never seen anyone quite have the same effect on men hardened by working in a commercial kitchen. Cooking for Monica seems to reduce the most competent of people to timid, quivering, shaking wrecks quicker than you can reduce a red wine jus on full gas. They are quaking in their boots before they even pick a knife up.

One test is that they make the chefs perform a 10-15 minute technical challenge, set by Monica, to demonstrate certain basic kitchen skills and the ability to work under time pressure, e.g. make an Italian meringue, decorate these desserts with spun sugar, make a crab salad using only meat from inside the shell, make a steak tartare, that sort of thing. To increase the pressure further, Monica demonstrates to camera first and makes it look effortless, then the chefs are brought in one-by-one to complete the challenge, receiving Gregg and Monica’s undivided attention. They are often shaking so much that I’m amazed no-one has sliced their fingers off yet.

Monica surely can’t be all scary, though? The good news is that the widened eyes, cutting critique and looks of incredulity as the hapless masscare yet another innocent scallop are rapidly replaced by warm smiles and compliments all round when there are shows of genuine kitchen prowess.

But, if you want to see grown men, some with tattooed forearms, cry, look no further.

Masterchef: The Professionals is on BBC Two Monday-Thursday evenings for the next few weeks – times vary from day to day.