Thursday, 26 November 2009

Mud and pomegranates II

(continued from I)

When the sun was well on its way, and nature around them was wide awake, they slowly got up and headed back inside the orchard. They made their way through the fruit trees to the edge of the orchard and started walking back, clapping their hands and throwing the odd pebble here and there, trying to drive the birds out of the orchard and towards the grove where they'd set their sticks. At the same time, they kept an eye open for anything they could shoot with their slings. Angelís spotted a blackcap on an olive tree branch. He aimed his sling and shot at it but missed. He spat another mouthful of lead shot into the pouch of his sling and carried on with scaring the birds.

When they came to the end of the orchard, they again sat against the carob tree and opened their bags. "I hope you brought some of your mum's halloumi" Paráskos". "Of course, never without some". Angelís brought out a bag with olives, some cucumbers and tomatoes and some fresh bread which his grandmother had baked the day before, all carefully wrapped in a cloth. They laid it all on a rock, and had breakfast lying against the carob trunk and looking at the aerial activity. A kourkoutás was watching them curiously from a hole in the carob trunk. They spotted a flock of starlings in the sky, flying south. They'd love to catch a couple of them, they were beautiful and their song was glorious. But they had other things to catch.

They finished their breakfast, wrapped up their things and started walking carefully towards the olive grove. They could see some birds were already caught, but treaded slowly so as not to scare away any more that could still be around. Paráskos spotted a thrush caught on one of his sticks, and quickly climbed the tree to collect it before it managed to break off. They climbed all their trees and quickly collected their harvest: blackcaps, robins, chiffchaffs, finches. Angelís put all the seed-eating birds in his cage: a couple of goldfinches, a chaffinch and a couple of greenfinches. Birds which ate seeds were kept as pets, and some, such as goldfinches, were particularly loved. They killed the other birds-those would end up on the dinner table as a delicacy.

They went back to their carob tree to rest, leaving the cage with the captured birds in the grove to attract more with their chirping. They sat around for a while, but they soon got bored waiting. Paráskos picked up an empty, rusty can and put it on the ground against the carob tree. Angelís didn't take long to figure out what he was trying to do. They both stood a few meters away from the can and started aiming for it, using pebbles instead of shot. After two or three attempts, Angelís hit the can, the pebble bouncing off it, leaving a hollow metallic sound. They stood it up and started all over again, everything was a competition.

After a while, it was time to check on their trees again. They started walking towards the grove, but their cautious approach was interrupted by Paráskos' loud shouting: "run! There's a blackbird!" Angelís dropped all he was carrying and started running as fast as he could, stumbling and falling in the freshly-ploughed field. He quickly climbed the olive tree and made it to the branch where the blackbird was caught. He grabbed it carefully with his right hand, holding the lime stick with the left as he carefully released the bird without damaging its feathers. He held it as if it was the most fragile piece of porcelan ever. He could feel the bird's tiny heart beating fast. He slowly climbed down, holding the bird with great care. They loved blackbirds and valued them greatly. It was rare they ever caught one, but when they did it filled them with pride.

He put the bird gently in the cage. It was time to gather their sticks and go home as the birds in the cage needed to be cared for. So they started again, in reverse to what they'd done before dawn. They gathered their lime sticks, rolling them together into bunches and placing them in the koukkourká. As Paráskos was on his second tree, he heard a heavy flapping near him. He looked up and spotted a falcon making for the grove at great speed. Angelís had seen it too. They both started shouting to scare it off, but to no avail. The falcon swooped and landed on a lime stick on one of the trees where a chiffchaff had been caught. It grabbed the small bird, and flew off taking the lime stick with it.

They gathered all their things, except for Paráskos' lost stick, and prepared to walk back home. It was just after noon and they were getting quite hungry. Paráskos mused: "I guess Mr Falcon deserved his harvest as much as we did." "Yes, no grudges", replied Angelís. He had as much right to the sky's harvest, if not more. Walking out of the grove and through the fruit orchard, the boys stopped and picked themselves some pomegranates. They sat under their carob tree once more, cutting the pomegranates open and feasting on their juicy insides. They tasted better than anything in the world.

They'd caught about a dozen each

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Mud and pomegranates

It wasn't even half past three when Angelís woke up. He'd set up the alarm clock for four but his excitement couldn't wait. Sundays were the best, there was no school and he could do whatever he liked with his time-usually hunting or playing football. He got up, pulled on his dad's old military fatigues, an old woollen jumper with holes, thick socks. He had a quick glass of milk, looking out of the window. It was still pitch-dark. He put on his coat and wellies, grabbed his bag, turned the key in the door and found himself outside in the crispy cold.

He headed for the shed and soon emerged with his koukkourká* and a small cage. He threw the koukkourká over his shoulder and walked to the far end of the neighbourhood where he was to meet up with Paráskos. Paráskos was not there yet-he was probably running on time rather than jump out of bed early like him. He looked around. The neighbourhood was still, motionless, like a freight ship waiting in the distance at night before docking in the morning. Most lights were off, apart from one or two, where the unlucky ones had to get up very early to go to work. He took it all in: the crisp October chill, the last of the starry night, the sweet scent of jasmine. He loved that time of year, when summer still held on but the winter had started to move in, like a tenant eager to occupy the premises for a few months.

Paráskos' voice made him jump. He'd been lost in his thoughts when his friend called him as he approached. "What are you doing there Angelís? Dreaming again? We'll never catch anything like this". "I've been waiting ages!", protested Angelís, in an attempt to snap out of his thoughts and into reality. Paráskos was also carrying his own koukkourká, all ready and in good spirits. They left the road towards a path which led to the fields. The darkness swallowed them but they knew very well where they were headed; this was a path they'd taken many times before and knew with eyes closed. They went on teasing each other for a while but their games gradually faded into the darkness, leaving them in their own, individual and shared contemplation. It was a beautiful morning, the air was sweet and mild and they were happy to be there.

They slowly walked through the muddy paths to the edge of the village where they usually did their hunting. They usually set their lime sticks in specific trees and even specific branches in an old olive grove. The grove was one of those which weren't producing many olives any more. The trees were ancient, their trunks hollowed out, the size of small rooms. These occasionally doubled as hideouts or tree-houses during various phases of afternoons full of games. The grove belonged to old man Kongolís who hadn't even bothered fencing it as he didn't mind the children playing in it. He sometimes tied his mule on one of the trees and Angelís and his friends had endless fun with it.

There was neither mule nor Kongolís that morning. The boys moved as swiftly as the red soil mud would allow them to. They picked their trees carefully in advance and they had each taken his share of the spots in the grove. Angelís pulled out a bunch of his lime sticks and placed it on a branch on the first of 'his' trees. He climbed it with some difficulty, as his muddy wellies slipped against the ancient trunk. When he was up and secure, he picked up the bunch of lime sticks, all glued together, and with great skill he picked one out, held the tip with his mouth and cut it out of the bunch with his knife moving outwards and away from his body. He placed it across an opening in the branches, ready for the birds to rest on. He placed them all, one by one, with great care and attention. When he finished the first tree, he moved on to the next one, and then the next one, until he had placed all six of his lime stick bunches. He put his fingers to his lips and threw a swift whistle in the direction of Paráskos, who whistled back in acknowledgement. Paráskos was slower and was still setting up on the fourth tree. Angelís gave him a helping hand, and together they emptied Paráskos' koukkourká in no time.

They picked up all their things and started walking fast away from the grove towards an orchard a few hundred meters away. They had to be done and away from the grove before the break of dawn, and they could already see the rosy horizon in the east breaking into two. They sat down and rested their backs against the trunk of a carob tree. All they could do was sit and wait, so they leaned and waited, dozing off but waking up from the cold. The first birds started singing as the dawn chorus started rehearsing the day's performance.
(to be continued)

*custom-made reed basket for lime sticks

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Rigatoni with roasted peppers and fetta

I found these lovely peppers at the vegetable stall the other day and thought of a nice recipe (after talking about it with Billy).

Ingredients (serves 4)
500 gr rigatoni pasta (or whichever type you like)
3-4 long, red peppers
1 pack of fetta cheese
1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
chopped fresh parsley
some mushrooms, chopped
Chilli flakes
Olive oil

Grill the peppers in your grill for about 25 minutes, turning them once halfway through, so that both sides are almost charred (but not). In a frying pan lightly fry the garlic in olive oil and add the chopped onion and chilli flakes. When the onion is nice and translucent, add the mushrooms and stir them gently until they're cooked. Turn it off and set it aside.

Boil the pasta in salted water for as long as your pack suggests (or until you're happy with it). While that is boiling, take out the peppers from the grill, take them gently and put them on a flat surface (a plate is good). Gently pull out the stem and grab the skin and peel them slowly. You'll find that the skin comes off very easily. Cut up the peeled peppers and keep them in the plate with their juices.

Drain the pasta and return it to the saucepan or a large bowl. Add the mushroom/onion mix with all its juices. Add the peppers with their juices, the chopped parsley and, finally, crumble the fetta in as well and give it a good stir so that the fetta pretty much melts in the pasta. As the fetta may be salty, taste it before adding any more salt. Lovely.

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Thursday, 19 November 2009


He had to jump in order to get to the long ball Javier sent from right back. With great effort, he chested it down onto the muddy pitch on the left flank. He saw the defender approach with the corner of his eye. He'd been kicking lumps out of him all evening and was certainly coming back for more. Claudio flicked the ball down the sideline and managed to jump out of the defender's way. He looked up and saw Diego and Gabriel advancing from midfield, waiting for the ball. He paused. The rain was lashing down, and the floodlights seemed to give it an almost supernatural quality, as if it was pounding down on him, heavier than ever before. Ever since the coach called him to the national team he had been trying hard to prove himself. He knew he was only in the squad because of others' injuries, and he'd only made tonight's starting line-up because Juan got injured in training just that morning. He knew this match was his last chance to show them what he could do.
Time seemed to slow down, almost pause. He could hear this fan a few meters away, screaming at him to cross the ball. What did he know? What did anyone know? He turned and looked at the coach, out of his dugout, pointing at something and yelling. He only just spotted the defender recover, making his way towards him again at great speed.

He remembered his childhood in La Plata, playing in the street with that flat football they'd found one day with his brother Alberto. They impersonated the greats of the day: Kempes, Ardiles, Tarantini, Luque. They always played these endless matches against the children from the calle San Lorenzo, a couple of blocks away across the avenida. Nobody ever knew the final score. The matches, scrappy affairs played in a cloud of dust, always ended in a fight which the Lorenzitos always won as they were a bit older. They could only retreat throwing rocks back at them. Once they crossed the avenida back into their own turf, they could taunt their opponents with swearing and gestures. The Lorenzitos would never dare to cross, they would be too far from home.

He poked the ball with the outside of his right boot, past the charging defender, jumping to avoid the tackle. He cut in, approaching the corner of the penalty box. There were three defenders, plus the one he'd just skinned who would surely be back on his feet any moment and approaching again. Jorge was taking a position near the penalty spot, while Diego and Gabriel were not far behind. He could also see Javier moving in fast from right back, towards the far post. He had a number of options and a number of obstacles. As the ball was getting stuck in the mud, he again slowed down to decide what to do.

He was only 13 when he lost his brother in the Malvinas War. He remembers his mother crying in the evenings for months, his father sitting in silence. That pointless war changed everything. Some of his friends were also conscripts and fought there, while his cousin Jose was on board the Belgrano, lost in the cold Atlantic waters. There was a shadow in his family and in the neighbourhood ever since, as if his childhood had come to an abrupt end. He carried on with his football, playing for a local club before signing forms for Gimnasia, one of the local big clubs.

He advanced with the ball, always keeping an eye out for the defender behind him. One of the two center-halves came towards him, slowly and cautiously. He saw Gabriel pointing to the space behind the center-half and beginning his run to space. He looked further and saw Diego stand off a bit, as if to shape to receive the ball and shoot. He had to act fast.

His childhood friend Matias had signed forms with Gimnasia's hated rivals, Estudiantes. Although they still met occasionally, the hatred between the two clubs was so great they gradually drifted apart. Whenever they met on the pitch, he sensed that Matias had grown arrogant and treated him with more than a hint of sarcasm. He tried to take his own back, but all he could manage was two sendings-off in three encounters. His coaches had already labelled him a rogue, a loose cannon who couldn't be relied upon when the going got tough. Against all odds, he managed to establish himself in the first team. But as he saw his friends advance and move to Boca, River or even Barcelona and Madrid, he stayed as his reputation as a bad boy preceded him, somewhat unfairly. His chance had come and gone.

The national team coach would never have called him had it not been for the misfortunes of other, more popular, and probably better, players. But here he was, striped in sky blue and white, with the crest on the chest, playing in the world cup final.

He knocked the ball forward, going past the first centre-half. He chose to ignore Gabriel and Diego; instead, he sweetly moved the ball to the left, finding himself with the other centre-half just off his right shoulder, but he was at too sharp an angle to take a shot at goal. He anticipated the defender's move. As the defender tried to shield the goal from a potential shot, he put his right foot under the ball and flicked it over the defender's left foot and into space. He didn't have to look. He knew perfectly well where the goal was. Where it always was, in the dusty streets of La Plata, in the training ground. It didn't matter if it was a Lorenzito in goal or a world class goalkeeper. It felt like a lifetime passed in a few split-seconds. He hit the ball firmly but with accuracy, making contact with the outside of his left boot. It curled and swerved away from the goalkeeper, landing just inside the far post and resting inside the net.

He can't quite remember what happened. He ran towards the fans, behind the goal. In the daze of it all he felt his team mates jumping on him, exploding with joy. It was all a mixture of rain, floodlights, mud and noise. Tears and laughter. Although he'd just given a whole continent a huge moment of joy, he could only weep. He wept the bitterest tears he ever had, as if the sweet embrace the net had reserved for his shot had released him from years of frustration. He'd done it. He'd won it. For himself, for Alberto, for his crying mother, and every crying mother. For that bastard Matias. He'd won it.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

How the fight against fascism became fascist

fas·cism n.

a. A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.

b. A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government.

From the Free Dictionary

I was teaching yesterday morning, 11-12. When I got into work I found an email from Central Bot saying that the Institution would be observing a 2-minute silence for Armistice Day. This immediately put me in a weird position: I have never observed the two-minute silence in my private life for a number of reasons. To begin with, as a general rule, I do feel that it is a tragedy that millions have given their lives for god, country, and whoever thought of sending them out to die to start with. This is a constant belief of mine. War is never right, the loss of life can never be truly justified, and this applies to all wars, ancient and modern, the Balkans, The Somme and of course Afghanistan. They are all wrong, violence as a means of solving tensions has never worked. It just creates more.

In addition, I always felt somehow excluded and threatened by the 'poppy' culture. I was always fascinated and at the same time mortified by the nation's obsession with war. In this country there are 'War Lanes', football stands named after battles, no 'Peace streets', something I haven't experienced anywhere else. War and fighting, and their terminology permeates everything else. On top of that, I always thought that the significance of the poppy became a celebration of 'Britishness', something like flags on top of cars during any sporting event. You either belong in this or you don't. If you don't, you'd better watch out.

But when faced with the institutional directive to observe the silence, I was at a dilemma. I live and work in a country where this is important. Moreover, in my function as teacher, I am to respect the culture and observe the silence. However, isn't my role as anacademic to also questiondirectives and authority? Isn't academic freedomimmune from phenomena of mass control? Apparently not. To my shame, I asked the students to observe the silence, and looking out the window, I saw everyone else, whether they believed in it or not, whether they knew what Armistice Day was about or not, stand in silence, in public, for 2 minutes.

When one ideology becomes dominant to the extent it imposes itself oneveryone's life and activity, surely it is too close to fascism for comfort. OK, we don't have the blackshirts with poppies going around bashing everyone to death. Not yet at least. But the public ridicule and aggression towards anyone who contravenes this, based on personal beliefs (such as John Snow), shows that this surely is fascism. Perhaps we should be allowed to remember the war dead in private if we choose to, but not be forced to do so in public to show our respect.

I will not make the same mistake again. If anything, next November 11th I will do things differently. For now, I am ashamed.

Claude in Hagley Road to Ladywood also comments on the poppy-bashers....

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Chickpea & butternut squash soup

Chickpea & butternut squash soup

250 gr dried chickpeas (soaked in water overnight)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 can of chopped tomatoes (or some nice fresh, ripe ones if you have them)
Coriander seeds, finely crushed
Cumin seeds, finely crushed
Olive oil
Chilli flakes
Salt & pepper
Fresh parsley, chopped

In a pressure cooker, add the chickpeas and cook for about 30 minutes. After 30 minutes check them, if they're not cooked to your satisfaction, cook for about 10 minutes longer. In the meantime...

Boil the diced squash and let it rest to one side. In a frying pan shallow fry the garlic, onion and the crushed coriander and cumin seeds. Add the chilli flakes.
Open the pressure cooker, bring to the boil again without the lid and add the (drained) squash, along with the tomatoes and the onion/seeds mix. Let it cook together for about 15 minutes. Serve with a handful of fresh parsley.

P.S. In the original recipe it said to put everything in the blender. I like my soups with some texture so I ignored that.