Friday, 28 March 2014

Rhubarb Upside Down Cake

When I read other people's food blogs and see what they are coping with in terms of food allergies and intolerances, I have to say that I thank my lucky stars and reach for the peanut butter. To have to think every time you go into the kitchen - or to the shops - about whether something is going to harm someone you love - it must be difficult. I know that people adapt, and often demonstrate a flair for invention in their cookery that those of us not challenged in the same way can lack. I admire that - so what if I/he/she can't eat eggs/milk/nuts/tomatoes - I will make sure I/he/she eats something even more delicious - and I'd like to think that I'd be one of those people, but it must be hard - especially that underlying fear that get it wrong, have a lapse in concentration, and it could all go very badly wrong very 


The only allergy I am aware of in the RJ flock is one that Blue revealed when he was being treated for leukaemia. One of the more stressful administrations was of a drug that had to be injected directly into his muscle rather than via the Hickman line that he had fitted (to avoid the need for canulas and the like everytime he needed a blood test, a transfusion, or drugs). The drug concerned was a known allergen and as a result every one who received it was required to remain on the hospital ward for an hour after it had been injected.

The second time he received the injection (with a lot of tears and indignation), we waited our allotted hour and made our way downstairs (the children's oncology ward, the wonderful Piam Brown Ward is on the 8th floor of Southampton General Hospital). We'd been in hospital for a long time, and I was desperate to get home, some 45 minutes away up the M3. Blue was fussing a bit in his pushchair, but I assumed he was just tired and feeling ratty from the cocktail of drugs he'd received over the course of the preceding few hours. He started to ask for a drink. My instinct was to just get in the car and drive, but something stopped me, and I went and bought a bottle of water at a vastly inflated price.

I crouched down to give him the bottle with a certain amount of bad grace. Don't judge me - it was exhausting the whole caring for a sick child thing, and while I would do it again in a flash should either one of them become ill again (although that's not an invitation), I spent a lot of time feeling irritable, emotional, and grouchy, especially when we'd spent a day in hospital. And do bear in mind that I was 8 months' pregnant at this stage.

So I was crouching down and helping him with the bottle - he was only 2 and a bit - when I noticed the tiniest, wierd red mark in the corner of his mouth. This time my instincts took over - while me head kept telling me to just get to the car and get home, my heart said "Just go and get it checked - you're in hospital anyway".

I headed back to the lift, getting quicker as Blue became more and more restless. Waited for the lift, back up the 8 floors, hurtled down the corrider, pressed the buzzer to be let into the ward. As I flung the double doors opened and burst into the reception area, Blue did a spectacular projectile vomit and came out in the most massive rash. It was terrifying. And just thank God that I hadn't got in the car and driven off...

Fortunately, the nurses came rushing, drugs were administered and 2 days later we went home. The immediate upshot was that the required waiting time after the injection changed from an hour to an hour and 15 minutes, so sorry about that if it affects you, and for Blue, instead of having one injection of that particular drug every time he needed it, he had to have 6 injections (every other day over 2 weeks) of a variant of the same drug which he didn't react to. My how we laughed...

So I do understand about allergies and how terrifying an allergic reaction can be. 

My children's previous school banned nuts entirely. There were children with allergies, and when I challenged, I was advised that there were cases of children going into anaphalactic shock as a result of a parent coming in and kissing them having consumed some peanuts in the pub earlier. Now I don't want anyone to die or have the same kind of terrifying experience that we went through, but I cook a lot with nuts - especially cake, and the ban meant that the kids were unable to take these treats in to school in their packed lunches. And if they don't take things to school they sit in the cupboard or fridge calling to me...

So the new school. The first couple of weeks they had school dinners. A revelation - proper portions, and leftovers distributed to those who wanted. I kid you not, my gannets have been able to have thirds on occasion... But wanting to balance things out, we've moved back to having some packed lunches as before, and so the issue of nuts arose. I couldn't find any information on the school website or in any of the paperwork I'd received so I made enquiries and was told that nuts were allowed - there was a child with allergies, but as long as food wasn't shared, well that was OK.

Now, I don't know if there was a reason why the previous school couldn't take this approach - and I don't want to downplay the seriousness of nut allergies - I know they can be very serious indeed - and it's probably because I had a few other issues with their old school - but it felt like the voice of common sense washing over me. It also meant that they've been able to take slices of this lush cake to school with them this week.

I'm not shy in my adoration of the pink sticks that are rhubarb, and as we had left a prolific patch behind, I was very excited to see a patch in the garden of the house we are renting. Rhubarb and almond is one of my favourite combinations, and this cake just hit the spot last weekend.

Rhubarb Upside Down Cake 

40g light muscovado sugar
40g butter
grated zest of a clementine
350g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 5 cm slices
85g unsalted butter
120g caster sugar
2 large eggs
70g plain flour
2/3 tsp baking powder
50g ground almonds

pinch salt
splash of milk
toasted flaked almonds

You'll also need a 20 cm frying pan which can go in the oven.

Pre heat the oven to to 180C.

Put the sugar and butter in the pan and melt together.

Sprinkle over the grated zest, remove the pan from the heat and arrange the rhubarb pieces over the top.

Cream together the butter and caster sugar.

Add the eggs one at a time, still beating. Sift in the flour and baking powder, and then add in the ground almonds, and fold in to the mixture.

Add in the milk - just a splash - then spread the batter over the rhubarb and pop in the oven.

Bake for about 30 mins till the mixture is firm to the touch.

Leave to cool for 20 minutes or so in the pan, then loosen round the edges and turn the cake out onto a plate so that the rhubarb is upper most.

Sprinkle over the toasted almonds and serve.


Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Hunger Games - and Chocolate Digestives

One of my favourite things to do is to curl up with a good book, a cup of tea, and a packet of biscuit. I'm a sucker for a book and a biscuit, but the combination rarely arises. For a start, I'm not a fan of eating biscuits in bed (sorry, I just can't do crumbs in bed. Too itchy.) and bed is where I tend to do most of my reading, cramming as many pages in before unconsciousness engulfs me.

I'm happy to read pretty much anything apart from proper horror, although I tend to the modern fiction (apparently - that's what someone told me once, faced with my 'books I had read recently list' that I was asked to provide on a job application form - although I had to explain that the way I chose books was pretty much on cover alone) and I've usually got a few books on the go. At the moment, I'm reading John Sargeant's autobiography, The Tent the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy (again - in preparation for the camping season - it's hilarious) The Red House by Mark Haddon, and 'The Welsh Learner's Dictionary' (!) but there's always room for more books in my life - just never enough time.

Blue recently started to ask me if he could read 'The Hunger Games'. Now, this hasn't been completely off my radar, but with both children at primary school, and my understanding that this was 'teen fiction', it hasn't been anything I've paid much attention to - I've paid so little attention to it that initially I assumed it was some kind of Sweet Valley High (anyone else remember them?) teen trash about Valley girls and their competitive eating disorders. How wrong can you be?

By the time he asked if he could read them, I was aware that there was a little bit more to it than that - the posters for the films suggested that if nothing else, and just before we moved, I had a conversation with a couple of other mums whose kids are the same age as Blue, and who were reading them. I'm all for the children reading as much and as widely as possible, but in the same way that I want to know what they are watching on TV, when a book comes along that I'm not too sure about, I want to make sure I'm not setting off to read something that's completely unsuitable. My mum helps a lot - she seems to spend hours rooting out good books for him: most recently she introduced him to the Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz. Totally fantastic. Blue has devoured them, both on his own and with us reading them to him, and I've been hooked too.

The Hunger Games hasn't cropped up on Mum's reading list yet, so I was on my own. Fortune found us the trilogy very cheaply in The Works (I meant to get it from the library, but we haven't sorted out library membership yet) and I started reading the first book in the trilogy - the eponymous 'Hunger Games') on Friday night.

Well I was utterly gripped from the start. If you haven't read it, it is certainly not teen valley trash. It's a very gripping adventure novel, and although an adult version might include more complexity, as far as I'm concerned,  it was pretty much perfect. I knew I was going to have to give in and read, hang the ironing and everything else that needed doing yesterday afternoon - I'd already walked the dog and made a chilli for dinner and we had no other plans.

The fire was blazing, and I was all set, but then, disaster! No biscuits!! In our old life, I might have just popped up to the Co-Op, 2 minutes round the corner on foot, but popping to the shops here involves a 6 mile round trip.

Still, with nothing more pressing to do than read my book, a bit of light baking was perfectly acceptable. The original recipe was a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall one in River Cottage Everyday, but although I had oats, I had no oatmeal, and only muscovado sugar - but even if I'd made the round trip to the shops, I wasn't convinced I'd find what I needed, so I improvised (although in writing this post, I see that Hugh also improvises the same way when he repeats his recipe 5 years later...)

I've made these digestives once before - I mean who doesn't like a digestive biscuit? Especially a chocolate one. What I had forgotten though is that I've only made them once because the dough is of the crumbly and tricky type, so clear the area if you have a propensity for bad language when baking doesn't go your way...

The last time I made them, I didn't add the chocolate - the recipe I used didn't even suggest it. I was idly wondering how to achieve the chocolatey-ness, then I found this fantastic idea on another blog called I'd Much Rather Bake than... . Well, exactly. 

Chocolate Digestives

250g wholemeal self raising flour
250g unsalted butter, cut into cubes and at room temperature
250g rolled oats, whizzed up in a food processor to resemble oatmeal
100g light muscovado sugar
2 tsp fine salt
1 tsp baking powder
1-2 tbsp milk
squares of dark chocolate - this makes about 25-30 biscuits depending on the size of cutter you use, so you need one per biscuit. 

Process the flour and butter together (or rub together as you would for a crumble) till they look like fine breadcrumbs. 

Mix in the oats, sugar, salt and baking powder taking care that there are no lumps of the sugar, and add the milk a little at a time till you have a slightly sticky dough.

Form the dough into a flat disc, wrap in clingfilm, and leave in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Depending on how long the dough has been in the fridge you may want to get it out for a little before you attempt to roll it out (to reduce the likelihood of language). It's also a good idea to roll this out between 2 sheets of greaseproof or clingfilm. Am I putting you off yet?

Anyway, pre-heat the oven to 180C, line some baking trays with greaseproof, roll out the dough however which way you want, and cut out with an appropriate cutter. I used the open end of a pint glass which was about 8 cm, so I got fewer, bigger biscuits.

Pop the biscuits on the lined baking sheets and bake for around 10 minutes, then whip out the tray, pop a square of chocolate on each biscuit and pop back in the oven for 30 seconds or so till the choc starts to melt.

Get the trays back out of the oven then use a knife to spread the chocolate round. Leave the biscuits to cool on the tray for a few minutes before using a palette knife to put them on to a cooling rack.

You'll see that mine aren't the most beautifully chocolated biscuits ever - that's because I didn't have enough chocolate, so I used half a square on each biscuit rather than a whole one. Also, I had a book to read. You can take more time making them beautiful.
Make a cup of tea, get your book, a plate of biscuits and settle down for a good read.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

What to do with 'leftover' pancakes

Now I do appreciate that the concept of leftover pancakes is a rather strange one, and that blogging about pancakes at all, a good 2 weeks after Shrove Tuesday, is a little odd, but each to her own, as they say. And the IDEA for this was born around Shrove Tuesday, when, as it always does, the act of making pancakes brought to mind the possibility for savoury stuffed pancakes - if only there were enough left over.

The idea hung about this year - I've made pancakes ('French' pancakes, as Pink likes to call them, to distinguish them from the American ones they've hitherto enjoyed as weekend breakfast fodder) a few times, so the stuffed pancake idea has been fixed firmly in my mind.

On Shrove Tuesday, we had a pancake-fest at tea time, but a strictly sweet affair: lemon & sugar, syrup, that kind of thing. I wasn't expecting to have any leftovers, and I was right. Then a few days later I made a big batch of batter up expecting the gannets to eat a few but to leave me enough to use another time.

Wrong again. They kept on eating them, and as I hadn't made it clear that I had an ulterior motive, they expressed a certain amount of outrage when I tried to limit consumption. I was left with 3 which I put in the fridge rather hopefully thinking that I'd knock up some more batter to make enough for what I had planned, but I didn't. As a slight digression, I did use them to make a rather great, if improvised pudding, making the most of some leftover tinned caramel (I've been making flapjacks again) and some pineapple. I put a large non-stick frying pan on a medium heat, spread the caramel over one side of one of the pancakes, and put it caramel side up, into the pan, covered it with pineapple pieces, then continued with the caramel spreading/pancake layering. I let it all heat through, managed, rather precariously, to turn the whole confection over, heated for a couple more minutes then gave the kids half each on the promise that I could have a mouthful. If was rather delicious, and has a number of possibilities - I'm definitely thinking banana would work...

But, as I already said, I digress. I had the last bits of chicken from a roast, some cooked ham and some chorizo in the fridge all needing to be eaten up, so this morning, I cooked the kids pancakes but on the strict understanding that they could have 3 each and I needed the rest. Once they'd satisfactorily established that I wasn't going to stand there and eat all the rest of them myself in some kind of pancake frenzy, they were happy.

Stuffed pancakes is something I remember very much from my childhood. I'm not great at eating up leftover meat if it's been reheated, but somehow, chopped up finely with other goodies in a sauce, and rolled into pancakes, it's OK. And this is very much a guide - you can put anything in. Cooked spinach is a great addition, for example, especially if you've got some bacon you can add in. Chicken and mushroom is also good. Tonight, for us, it was an eclectic mix of the meat in the fridge, some leeks and a load of parsely and chives that needed eating.

Stuffed pancakes

8-9 pancakes
25g butter
2 leeks, trimmed, washed and finely chopped
1 heaped dessert spoon plain flour
200ml milk
250g cold cooked meat (chicken, chorizo and ham worked well) chopped into quite small pieces
a big handful of appropriate herbs, finely chopped

In a medium sized pan, melt the butter over a gentle heat, then add the leeks and cook gently for 10 minutes or so till softened.

Stir in the flour, cook for a minute or so, then slowly stir in the milk a little at a time till you have a smooth sauce (well, smooth apart from the leeks). Cook for a few minutes, till thickened and add fresh ground salt and pepper if necessary, then set aside to cool down a little.

Pre-heat the oven to 180-200C.

Once the sauce is cooled, stir in the cold meat and the finely chopped herbs. You want the sauce to be quite thick, but if you think it needs it, do thin it down a little with some more milk.

Place a heaped dessert spoon on one side of the first pancake (or in the middle - as you like) and spread it lengthwise into a sausage shape, then roll the pancake up around the filling and place in an appropriate oven proof dish. 

Repeat with all the pancakes, and cover the dish with foil, then cook for 20 -30 minutes till hot.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

So the broadband is back... what have I been cooking?

Well, this is almost too exciting for words, and yes, I will probably jinx it all, but I appear to be blogging using my very own internet connection.

Not mobile data

Not hooked up to my iPhone's frankly dodgy personal hotspot (the mobile signal is crap round here - may be I should start on them next)

Not parked in a lay by on the B3444, half a mile from the house, balancing my laptop on the steering wheel, watching the curtains twitch on the other side of the road..

Not drinking cups of coffee in Ty Croeso or The 25 Mile....

And much as the search for wifi added a little frisson to my day to day, and much as I enjoyed drinking cups of coffee, I cannot tell you how good it is to be here in the comfort of my kitchen using the internet.

And seeing how I am supposed to use the internet AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE in the first few days, to get the service established, I thought I'd knock up a quick post of all the stuff I haven't blogged, but wanted to, mostly because I was on the phone to BT...

Good Food has come up trumps recently. I haven't had much time to think about what to cook, and the last couple of issues has covered most things off quite nicely. From the March 2014 issue, I made a lush Beef Potato and Banana Curry - although for the 4 of us I reduced it all by half because there seemed to be an excessive quantity in the recipe, and I left out the potatoes. I was nearly stymied by the need for tamarind paste - oh to be back in the hallowed land of Hampshire where tamarind paste comes 10 a penny alongside wasabi, miso and anything else relatively exotic. Fortunately, one of my new friends pointed me in the direction of Go Mango in Cardigan, where I managed to nab the last sachet, and very glad I was too - the alternative appears to have been a trip to Fishguard... You might think banana in curry would be a bit yuck, and I was waiting for the protests or at the very least an "Is there [dramatic pause] BANANA in this?" but it didn't come and the curry and the cashew rice, plus some dahl disappeared gratifyingly quickly. 

 I've made the Maryland Chicken with creamed corn & bacon which went down reasonably well (although it was all a bit sweet). As an aside, the left over creamed corn made a very nice chowder for lunch. 

I've also made the chocolate sponge with hot chocolate custard, and a version of the mango and coconut sponge, although I used pineapple...

We've been eating more fish recently, and we had trout on Friday - pan fried with bacon almonds and beetroot - utterly lush and washed down very nicely with the prosecco the Husband bought home. I recommend husbands who bring bottles of prosecco home. They are, as they say, worth their weight... And for something a little less showy, the pizza baked potatoes are good to have up your sleeve.

The February 2014 issue was also pretty good. Chilli beef with black beans and avocado salad went down well (I've made chilli hundreds of times, but it's always good to try a new way), and Ed Kimber's bagels were utterly brilliant  dead easy and came out of the oven soft and chewy enough. Delicious with smoked salmon, and also with pastrami (we broke out one of the Husband's precious jars of home pickled gherkins for the occasion).

Herby chicken and butter bean soup  went down well with the kids after school - the school lunches here have been a big hit not only from a taste perspective but also in terms of amount. Not one fairly insubstantial portion, but platefuls, and seconds too. As a result, on school dinner days, they don't need a huge amount for tea. For a pudding, healthy apple tart (which doesn't appear to be on the website - check out p60 of Feb 2014 Good Food if you've got it) which didn't quite have it as far as 'mouth appeal' goes, but was still pretty good.

Finally, the Battenberg. What can I say? It was blimmin' gorgeous, but 'easiest ever'? I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a faff. Not the cake part, but the bit where you have to divide up your 20cm square cake tin, before you even think about the cake. It does say in the recipe that you can get a special tin at Lakeland (of course), but (of course) I chose the tried and tested silver foil, greaseproof paper and clothes pegs approach. Heath Robinson would have approved, but who cares, because everyone approved of the finished cake, even if it was a little wonky.

So there we go, I feel restored, and all up to date. Now, what's everyone else been cooking?

Monday, 17 March 2014

Why not getting fishfingers for tea is nothing like trying to get Broadband out of BT

Poor customer service. It’s one of the disappointments of life. And something that I try and avoid at all costs – providing poor service. Whether I receive poor customer service is pretty much out of my hands, although I always try and act in a polite and courteous way to ensure that if I am on the receiving end of the worst the customer care sector has to offer me, well, that I don’t stoop to their level.

Sometimes, in my aim to provide great customer service, I’ll admit, I get it wrong. I don’t live up to expectations. However, I always try my best to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.
Take the other day. The kids had an INSET day I was in an all day meet and greet with my key customers, facilitated by the learning establishment they are usually attached to. After TV watching viewing some motivational video clips, we played some games and read some stories did some bonding exercises, tidied the house used teamwork to tackle a seemingly impossible task, took the dog for a walk reminded ourselves of the importance of fresh air in the working day, and then went to the supermarket enjoyed a visit to another supplier. While we were with the other supplier, I had to try and remember what we needed because I forgot the shopping list I had to wing it slightly so we had a brief discussion about the aims and objectives of the final session of the day of the day, before returning to conclude. 

And you see it was here that my customer service fell down – by failing to be prepared during the third party supplier meeting, for glossing over a couple of pertinent questions raised by my customers during the trip, I nearly lost the contract.

“But I thought you said we were having FISHFINGERS for tea, mummy, not TROUT. You said trout IN FISH FINGERS.”

“No, I said we were having trout and it would be a bit like fishfingers” (ahem).

“But YOU SAID it was fishfingers!”

“No, I didn’t, I merely suggested that we could have trout and it would be a bit like fishfingers”

“So what else can I have?”

“Well the potatoes and salad that I’m making to go with it. There’s bacon in the salad”

“OH-KAY [huff, huff]. I’ll eat it”

I mean, admittedly, I might have used the phrase ‘fishfingers’ in the same breath as ‘trout’ to get them on board with the idea, but did I promise something I had no intention of delivering? No, I did not.

And in the end, she ate it all up and pronounced it delicious, so you see, the bitter pill of what she might have perceived as bad customer service (heaven forbid that she ever does, I’d prefer her to just chalk it up to experience and having a slightly flaky mother) had a positive outcome. AND there were yoghurts of the type I don’t normally buy for pudding.

Bearing that in mind, let’s look at another scenario, then, shall we, one where there is no surprisingly satisfactory outcome in the way that Pink was blessed with on Friday.
British Telecom.

If ever there was an example of UTTERLY SHOCKING customer service, I think I have it here. I wasn’t going to name names. I was going to maintain a polite silence, try and retain the moral high ground, but I am so seething with the service I have received (well, actually, NOT received) that I am chucking my principles out of the window.
We moved house on 17th February.

2 weeks before that (2 WEEKS) I contacted BT, our phone & broadband supplier, and asked them to transfer the service. They said that the earliest appointment for an engineer (and apparently an engineer was required) would be 7th March. 5 weeks later, 3 weeks after we would have moved.

Despite me explaining that I wouldn’t be living at my previous address after 17th February, they insisted that they could continue to provide me with a service there until 7th March, when the services would then be transferred over. No use to me – did they expect me to change my moving plans to suit them? Perhaps. Anyway, I could live with it.
I made arrangements to cover my broadband & telephone needs for the first 3 weeks in our new home. Where we’re living, the mobile signal is patchy, so mobile data hasn’t really been a reliable option, and we live in a truly rural area so the oh so helpful ‘BT wifi hitspot’ service doesn’t help a huge amount. There was one lay by that gave good signal, but the owners of the house opposite started to get suspicious about what we were doing… 

7th March arrived – I was almost beside myself with excitement. The engineer arrived but couldn’t complete the job. A sorry tale of a broken cable, the need for a hoist to fix it, and all the hoists being in Port Talbot. He took my number and left. He’d tried to call me before the appointment but had an ‘01256’ number. “Where is that?” he asked. “Hampshire.” I said.”Where we used to live.” I said. BT had obviously assumed that I would postpone the move until they could provide their services to us…

I called BT. A nice helpful chap, Michael, I believe his name was, apologised, said they would generate a new appointment on Monday, someone would contact me and it would be assigned to a ‘chase’ team who would be in touch on Tuesday. Things would be expedited, he assured me. He apologised. I believed him.

Monday came and went and by 4.30 in the afternoon I had no call, so I called, and had an appointment arranged for Thursday that week (the 13th). I specifically asked whether the cable issue was fixed, I was assured that it had been, and that everything would be fine on Thursday 13th. It didn’t feel very expedited, but what could I do?

No one from the chase team followed up on Tuesday, but I received a text confirming my appointment for Thursday 13th March.

Then I got another text confirming my appointment on Friday 14th March. Errr??

I called them. Apparently the cable fault WASN’T fixed, but it would all be done on Friday. Between 8 and 1. My kids’ INSET day. Marvellous.

So Friday morning, we stayed in. We watched TV, we played games and read stories. The dog crossed his legs (he hates poo-ing in the garden). The BT man (or woman) didn’t come.

I called.

I didn’t actually cry, but it was close. Apparently the fault hadn’t been fixed but it would be fixed by the end of the day. The person I spoke to said he could book me in an appointment for the following Wednesday (yes, the 19th!!) and once the fault was confirmed as fixed, they could sort me out an expedited appointment earlier. I raged. I nearly swore. I told him how terribly inconvenient this all was, how I had stayed in for 5 whole hours with my children waiting for someone and why couldn’t THEY HAVE RUNG ME????

He was very polite and apologised, but I was steaming, so I did the worst thing I could think of. I asked to speak to a supervisor. Apparently he could not put me through to a supervisor, but he could schedule a call back. Yes please, I said (still polite, you’ll notice, although I won’t deny that there was a definite tone to my voice). Between 5 and 6, I said. Yes, the call back was confirmed, the ever so polite adviser assured me.

We went to walk the dog (oh the relief) and to the supermarket so that the kids could hatch their long overdue Dragonvale eggs (it’s not just me that’s suffering).

At this point, @BTCare were involved. While we were at the supermarket making free with the wifi, I tweeted to ask if they could help me as I was worried I wouldn’t make it back to a sane environment before the scheduled call back. Turns out they couldn’t – I didn’t have my account details with me, to complete their online form, and once I got home the GPRS signal didn’t support it. #btdontcare as one of my twitter buddies styled it.

Anyway, I needn’t have worried, because the call back never came.

I called BT AGAIN. This now at 6 o’clock on a Friday night, when frankly no one wants to be dealing with this.

I spoke to another very lovely customer care assistant. She was sympathetic, she apologised. She said “Well, if I were you I’d be upset, too”.

She checked the notes and saw that my call back hadn’t been requested after all. She rang BT Open Reach – the cowboy outfit who were supposed to be fixing the underlying fault. The fault was fixed. She booked me a new appointment for Monday 17th March 8-1. She filled out (she said) a feedback form about the call back that never came. She called me ‘Lovey’ and made me feel like this time, I might just get a resolution…

Then the Husband came home bearing flowers and Prosecco (he’d been away all week) and life improved significantly.

We got an email confirming the new appointment. Then I got a text saying “Your phone line engineer will visit on 19 Mar 2014 arriving 8-1. If you can’t make this appointment, you can change it at “ 

Well, no I can’t actually, because I can’t get online, and anyway, MY APPOINTMENT IS FOR MONDAY 17TH MARCH.


So instead of making sure that my kids had everything they needed for school, I was on the phone to BT YET AGAIN.

More apologies, more time spent holding while my notes were read YET AGAIN. More of me screeching instructions to the kids to get their shoes on so we wouldn’t miss the school bus.
But no, my appointment was definitely still for this morning. 8-1 He said he would send me another text to confirm.

I stuck notices on the front and back door, explaining to the BT Engineer, should he come, that I would be out for 15 minutes taking the kids up the road to get the bus, and please, PLEASE could he wait. It shouldn’t have been a problem anyway as I’d updated my contact details so they should have had my mobile number to call me 15 minutes or so before he would arrive, and no call had come as I left the house.

About 9.15 I get a call from school saying my daughter should have taken her PE kit in to school. She needs it this afternoon. “When?” I ask. “1.15” is the reply. “Oh well that’s fine – I’m waiting in for BT but they should be here before 1, so I will bring it up straight away once they have been.”

Except BT didn’t come, they didn’t call, they didn’t do anything.

At 12:52, my doorbell rang. I girded myself, after all, 8 minutes is still within the time slot. But no. It wasn’t BT, it was some shirts the Husband had ordered. Well, a delivery man with some shirts.

And no BT man.

And then. Praise be! At 12:58, the doorbell. I see a fluorescent jacket outside the glass. It is the BT engineer. Well, actually, a subcontractor.

I’ll just check your phone line but then I’ll come back. The hoist isn’t here yet. It won’t be here till later this afternoon, I just checked.

Err, excuse me? So the fault isn’t fixed after all? And I’ve waited in ALL MORNING, not walked the dog, not taken my daughter her PE kit which she forgot while I was on the phone this morning to BT trying to confirm whether my slot had been moved to 19th March as per the unsolicited text…

And then there’s the parents evenings that I am scheduled to attend this afternoon. 

Will it be fixed today?” I ask. “I have to go out now and take my daughter her PE kit, and walk the dog, and then go to parent’s evening. I may not be back till about 5.

Oh yes, we can do it from outside once the hoist is here – we’ll probably be here when you get back later”.

The dog refuses to come back in the house. I explain to the engineer that he HASN’T HAD A PROPER WALK BECAUSE I WAS WAITING IN.

Oh, do you want me to take him out?”. I know he doesn’t mean it.

Yes, that would be great”.

He doesn’t. He gets in his van and goes back to Carmarthen, some 40 minutes away, to do a couple of other jobs, before coming back, leaving me to drive off to deliver a PE kit…

I should probably wait before posting this to see if I actually have a phone line and broadband service by the end of the day, but I’m not going to.

I am fuming. Spitting. Incandescent with impotent rage.

I am paying BT for a service I cannot use and they seem reluctant to provide me with. And I can’t seem to get any satisfaction. I try to speak to a supervisor and this isn’t followed through. Everyone I do speak to comes across as helpful and apologetic but the bottom line is that not only do I not have my broadband, I am being right royally messed about.

I have now waited in on 2 mornings for nothing, and no one has had the courtesy to call me to explain why the engineer has not made the appointment. I have had to call them and chase them on every occasion and I feel like screaming. I do not call turning up with 2 minutes to go to tell me he’ll be coming back later a proper fulfilment of an ‘8-1 appointment’, but what do I know? There’s probably something in the small print…

I can live without broadband – I am resourceful, I have made arrangements. Not long term, but for the short term, it’s just about liveable with. It makes my life far more complicated, but there we go.

What pisses me off is the lying and the missed appointments. I mean, I suppose, may be it's not lying, may be it's just UTTER INCOMPETENCE, with one organisation (BT) not knowing what the other (BT Open reach) is doing, but it feels like lying to me. And should you lie to your customers? Well I suppose I've told the kids the odd lie - father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy, that sort of thing - but not real significant lies...

And the wasted time. The time I have wasted on phone calls, on sitting around when I could have been doing something else. Time that I can’t work properly, and the knock on this has had on the rest of my life for the last couple of week. Time I’ve spent on the phone instead of playing with the kids after school, time I haven’t walked the dog…

I think this is probably the WORST customer experience I have EVER had in all my 42 years. Yes, that bad. Even worse than the last time I moved house. And, oh yes, that was BT too…

So what shall I do? Well, apart from make more fruitless calls to BT demanding a refund of my bill, I'll do the only 2 things I can think of. Write this post, and believe me, when the BT engineer comes back, with his hoist, they may get a cup of tea, but there'll be no home made Battenburg cake for them, I can tell you... 

And when I get a good enough internet connection, I'll be posting a picture of the cake. You see, i can play dirty too, BT...

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Another day, another cup of coffee...

I'd say we're almost completely sorted after the move, except we still don't have broadband at home.

This is sorry tale involving much wailing and gnashing of teeth at a certain service provider, better known by its initials, but at this stage, I won't descend to public name calling. I'll just hope that on Thursday, normal service will be resumed.

In the meantime, I have been spending plenty of time in local cafes drinking lots of coffee, and making free with their wifi. Fortunately, there is plenty of wifi love round here. People know. They know what it's like to feel like you've lost a limb because you can't find out where the nearest, well ANYTHING is. You can't get in touch with people that you thought you were in touch with all the time. Giving up Facebook for Lent has been a it of a non-starter to be honest - I can't even get on it!

On the plus side, the weather is glorious, and the beaches are plentiful.

I'm discovering fantastic cafes and delis, gorgeous local producers - market gardens where you can get a massive haul of veggies for £6 (the PSB & bag of coriander alone would have cost that in Hampshire), utterly wonderful cheese, fish so fresh it's practically flapping, meat to die for (well, someone died for it)... the list is endless. And it will all end up here soon, I promise.

So don't go away (or not too far, anyway).

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Why slow cookers are like the Mersey Tunnel. And the joy of Dumplings

From the age of 4, until I was 14, we lived on the Merseyside coast, north of Liverpool. Not quite as far as Southport, and certainly not as posh as Formby, where all the footballers live nowadays (so I hear). I remember the first time I was invited to go to the other side of the Mersey with some friends who had a cottage on Anglesey. Notwithstanding a trip away to a little cottage on my own without my parents, the real excitement was the prospect of going under the River Mersey. I was soooo excited, but a little apprehensive. Excited because I’d see all the fish swimming around – but nervous because the friends had a jeep type vehicle and I was sure that one of the features was a flap in the dashboard which opened up. What happened if the water came in?

Of course, no one had taken it upon themselves to explain that I would be going under the Mersey IN A TUNNEL. 

There I was, considering a drive that was almost beyond imagination: I could see us in their mustard yellow Diahatsu, a vehicle that must have been purchased solely for the purpose of driving across the sea bed, fearlessly traversing the sandy bottom of the Mersey over to the Wirral. Much influenced no doubt by watching ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’, I did not allow the reality of what I knew of the Mersey from frequent dog walks along the Waterloo/Crosby shoreline (where severed feet still in boots – I kid you not – , foul-smelling rotting cuttlefish, and used condoms and hypodermic needles were more likely to be washed up from the grey and murky waters) to sully the mental picture that became more and more vivid each day as the trip approached. I anticipated ‘bobbing along’ while many brightly coloured and interesting fish swam passed me; perhaps a shipwreck or two would be there to divert attention and may be even (I am fairly sure I was not quite in double figures) a mermaid…

Imagine my disappointment.

We descended into the mouth of the tunnel. I held my breath in anticipation, hardly daring to look. But where was the water? The fish? The mermaids?

Hidden behind a wall of concrete. Damn those tunnel builders who didn’t have the imagination even to make their tunnel out of reinforced glass. Still, I got over it pretty quickly - I had the 'holding your breath over the Menai Bridge' competition, and chips at Conwy castle, to look forward to...

This happens to me a lot. My imagination runs wild, and then I have to not be disappointed by reality. Take slow cookers.

We were given a slow cooker when we got married. It was one of those weird presents that we weren’t really sure about, and it looked as if it might in fact have been a ‘regifting’. Not that I mind about re-gifting, in fact, I do quite a lot of it myself these days, but we were younger then, and it was our wedding...

I didn’t use it for ages, the Husband went off on an operational tour straight after we got hitched and I stayed in London, but 6 months later, moved out into Army land with a ridiculous commute back to work, I read something about how it was the miracle kitchen gadget, reducing time and effort spent in the kitchen, meaning you could come home to a casserole or curry after a hard day at work. 

“Oh how good is that?" I thought. "I must give it a go”. 

At the time, we were eating a lot of Egg Surprise, cooked mainly by the Husband who had a much less arduous commute (when he wasn’t in a war zone), so the possibility of being a good little wife and producing a delicious dinner as well as doing a hard day’s lawyering up in ‘town’ – well, it was irresistible. 

But just as no one told me about the tunnel, no one told me that I’d still have to do all the prep. I couldn’t just chuck in onions, mushrooms, meat, a stock cube into the crock pot, flick a switch and disappear, to come back at the end of the day and find a casserole. Oh no. I still had to peel the onions; brown the meat; make up the stock...

So the slow cooker went back in the cupboard – I was already getting up at 6 to catch the train. I was damned if I was getting up even earlier to get the dinner on.

Time passes, however, and while it took me quite a long time to throw off that particular disappointment (longer than getting over not driving across the actual bottom of the Mersey) and realise the benefits of the slow cooker I am now a total fan (even if you do have to peel the onions and brown the meat first).

Less time in the kitchen means more time on the beach for him...
Even more so now that we’ve moved. There is so much lovely countryside and coast out here; so many markets and farm shops to visit. Spending 20 minutes in the morning getting the slow cooker on repays itself many times over. Yes, you have to put the effort in early on, but then you are free, free as a bird (well, sort of), for the rest of the day. Of course, having children puts paid to lazy mornings in bed, I’m no longer engaged in some dreadful commute to work, and really, to some extent, it’s all a ‘smoke and mirrors’ psychological trick, that makes you THINK it’s much less effort. But the fact that you can leave the food and it won’t burn the house down does work in it’s favour. You know what I mean.

The versatility of the slow cooker has become more apparent to me too since we moved. Not just main courses, but I made a delicious gammon ‘chowder’ the other day for lunch, and in something more akin to the witchcraft I was originally anticipating, the Husband has, in recent weeks, produced a steamed pudding of much gloriousness – sticky glazed banana gingerbread no less – from the humble depths of the of the crock pot. I cannot tell you how good it was.

Versatility aside, my main thing to cook recently in the slow cooker has been beef casserole. Do the prep, chuck it all in early, spend the day walking the coast path, throwing stones in the sea for the dog or mooch round a market, before returning home, dinner done. And in the quest for easy carbohydrate, I have discovered that 45 minutes before you want to eat, you can knock up some dumpling dough, pop the dumplings in the top of the crock pot, and leave them to cook and bingo. 

Easy Slow Cooker Beef Casserole & Dumplings

Serves 4

Plain flour

Salt & freshly ground pepper

A bunch of fresh thyme, leaves only

400g stewing steak

Rapeseed oil

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 rashers of bacon (not essential, but a tasty addition), de-rinded and chopped

2 medium-large carrots, peeled if necessary and diced

½ a swede (use your judgment – you’re looking for about the same quantity as of carrots) peeled and diced

150g chestnut mushrooms, quartered

100ml of Guiness or a glass of red wine if you have

350-500 ml beef stock

½ tbsp cornflour

150g self raising flour

75g vegetable suet

2 tsp Dijon mustard

Some fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped if necessary

Salt & freshly ground pepper

5-7 tbsp water

Heat your slow cooker on the low setting.

Put about 4 tbsp plain flour into a bowl and add some salt & pepper and the thyme leaves. Stir together, then add the cubed meat, coating in the flour.

Gently sweat the onion and garlic in a  frying pan, in a tablespoon of oil for 10 mins or so, then scrape into the slow cooker. 

Add a little more oil if necessary to the frying pan and gently fry the bacon for a couple of minutes till starting to colour, then add in the carrots and swede and cook for 5 minutes before adding to the crockpot, then cooking the mushrooms in the same way.

Brown the meat in batches in the frying pan, using a little more oil if necessary and adding to the crockpot as you go.

If using Guiness or red wine, tip this into the frying pan and scrape up any crusty bits, add in the stock and bring everything up to the boil before tipping in to the crock pot till the meat and veg is just covered.

Put the lid on and go off to enjoy your day…

45 minutes before you want to eat, flick the slow cooker setting to high.

Mix the cornflour with the same amount of cold water till smooth, then stir into the casserole. Replace the lid while you make the dumplings.

Mix together the flour, suet, mustard, thyme and salt & pepper, then add the water slowly to combine to a soft (but not sticky) dough.

Divide the dough into 8 and shape into balls.

Take the lid off again and pop the dumplings on top of the casserole, before replacing the lid and leaving to cook for 45 minutes. 

The real genius of this of course is that there’s so much veg in the casserole that with the dumplings to provide carbohydrate you need to no more (although I won't complain if you add in some steamed PSB as a flourish at the end). So the only disappointment is that if the slow cooker has already got the casserole in it, where’s the steamed pudding going to come from?