Thursday, November 30, 2006

meat substitute products - not just for vegetarians anymore!

So - Lauren, being the wanna-be hippy that she is, has been chipping away at my carnivorous tendencies. I'm sorry to say, it hasn't hurt.

First was the sausages. Did you know that in 'ol Blighty, they have all sorts of sausages named after various places, all with distinct tastes, spices, herbs... It's like beer, but food! Well, the vegos have seen that as a challenge, and stepped up to the plate. Glamorgan was the first one - kind of cheesey and light, I think of it as a breakfast sausage. Then came Linconshire and Cumberland sausages - a bit more body, more "mature"... definitely dinner sausages.

Lauren then started seeding my conscience with comments about some new, futuristic meat substitute: Quorn. The added appeal for Lauren, I think, was the trademarking... For me, it was thoughts of food cubes and food replicator units that piqued my interest (I'm sure this is the future of food - place some non-defined substance into a machine and it will produce the meal of your dreams!). Apparently it is some super-mycoprotein somesuch that a company has developed. They can manipulate it into all sorts of shapes, sizes, textures, tastes... it's scary.

We started with Quornchiladas. They were good. Very good. The item labeled as Quorn "chicken style" pieces. Weird. Tonight, we had Quoritos, using Quorn "mince". It is a bit more beefy, and I guess mincey than the other variety. It's all a bit scary, and exciting at the same time - the future is NOW!

I should probably point out at this point that both the Quornchiladas and Quoritos were made by yours truely - only the raw ingredients were provided by Quorn.

So, while we suspect Marlow Foods[1] has created one of those creatures from Milliways[2]. were not about to look too closely in to it...


[1] creaters, or at least owners of the trademark, of Quorn
[2] refer to The Restaurant at the end of the Universe.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


We'll save an update on the new round of Grant Job Drama for later as hopefully there will be some resolution over the next week or so, and narratively speaking it works better if you're on the edges of your seats for a little bit longer. In the meantime, picture us both in the Pixieflat, hunched over textbooks and arguing over whether it is too hot in or too cold. It is funny how quickly you develop an expectation of wearing nothing but summer clothes indoors when it is freezing out, especially when you don't have to pay extra for heating.

Last weekend, Sarah very kindly hosted us in Birmingham, pearl of the north Midlands. We caught the bus down on Friday evening, which in hindsight wasn't the world's greatest idea as we were in gridlock for more than an hour. However, the bus was quite pleasant as buses go, and Sarah picked us up at the station at the other end for dinner at an Indian - in Chinatown! On Saturday we went to Stratford Upon Avon, where the primary industry is Shakespeare and everything was either built five hundred years ago or yesterday. The place on the right is the entrance to the cottage where Shakespeare was born. Query why they felt that red brick was the way to go in a town otherwise comprised of Tudor everything.

Like Birmingham, Stratford Upon Avon has a healthily developed canal system, although there are some indications that it might not have been the fastest way to travel. By way of comparison, the trip to Birmingham by train takes about half an hour. Lunch was had in a pub built in 1600, which has a continuous liquor licence predating white settlement of Australia by a century or so. Freaky. Also there were the usual hungry swans slash Canada geese. In addition to its 800 year history and its famous son Will, Stratford Upon Avon is notable for catering for pixie folk and making it easier for them to open doors.

In the evening we had the pleasure of a tour of downtown Birmingham and its fabulous German Markets, which come from Frankfurt for a month until Christmas. The markets are awesome, but Saturday night was cold - like, Grant wearing a scarf cold or Loz buying a new improved lined earflap beanie cold (well, let's face it, I'm a sucker for a beanie), like keep the Gluhwein (mulled wine) coming cold. According to some accounts it hit 1 celsius.

The German markets also feature scary Santas, and sausages and pork steaks in scary quantities. I did not partake of same, but diligently applied myself to Gluhwein. I am calling it preparation for the various English mulled wine products that are happily becoming available over Christmas. We liked the markets so much we went back the next day, and learned that chestnuts are most delicious.

Sarah also showed us canals. Lots of them. Birmingham has more canals than Venice, reflecting its heritage as a forerunner of the industrial revolution and for a good long while Britain's largest industrial hub, from which one might like to ship things. Said heritage also reflected in the solid gold statuary and trillion dollar architecture from the city's Victorian heyday, where its captains of industry walked the earth as gods or at least really really rich people. There's a Cadbury factory here too. What more could you ask for?

Boring pictures of locks and other exciting material pertaining to canals are in the Birmingham photo folder for those of you who are mechanically minded. Final shot of Birmingham for those who miss Sarah, also proving that having warm ears makes me damn happy.

It was a wonderful trip - having a local guide really made it fun. The Gluhwwein helped too.

Onto this week - I have been having better luck getting up the quantities of Uni reading. Noone else seems to be bothering but I am a swot as we know. I am also sufficiently experienced in the subject fields to be a total teacher's pet on the basic stuff, and I am duly expecting my comeuppance as we get more technical/European. Also, as the only English first language speaker in more than one of my classes I appear to have been designated a translation service provider which is really great where it's not just a technical legal term but one not reflected in the questioning party's legal system, or better still a medical term, thank you patent law.

While I have no hope of catching Ro at this stage in the cycling kms challenge, I am still commuting to uni for the sheer joy of having a reliable expected arrival time AND saving 12 quid a week for the 3 days' travel. The tube tends to be an expensive disappointment when you are actually in a hurry to get anywhere! The bonus is that the Strand's gridlock has cleared for reasons I cannot divine, and the 50 minute trip with lots of scooting between cars is now more like a 35 minute trip. Still too slow for 10.5 km but better than before, and faster than the tube. The parks I ride through are gorgeous right now with the leaves changing, and it seems rather clear that we are in a different country. I still can't quite believe that I get to ride past two palaces on my way to and from class. City congestion notwithstanding, it really is a dream commute. And of course I get street cred from my fellow students, who are nice folks one and all.

Frustration of this week: Oxford Uni's moot contest on IP is CLOSED TO CURRENT OR PAST PRACTITIONERS! How is that fair? Just because we'd beat the inexperienced kiddies to a bloody pulp? Sigh. Second frustration of the LLM program: two of my courses keep covering the same topics, to the point where every class is an exercise in deja vu of the first order.

Hope all is well at your respective ends.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Dos and Don'ts

DO be awake at the scheduled hour of a phone interview. The nyum nyum nyum of recent awakeness can be off putting

DON'T be in the throws of high-fever head cold when trying to sell yourself to a prospective employer - I can't be certain of what I said, but the hallucinations were great, and he wants me to come in for a face to face this week.

Now, back to bed for me.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Children of the Quorn

We have settled into a somewhat "flexitarian" lifestyle in these parts, due to (a) the pixieflat's habit of retaining cooking smells in ins 3 sq. ft. space; (b) the rather horrific price of dead animal over here; (c) the Will of Loz (amen) and (d) the availability of a really, really wide range of vegetarian fake meat food options. Disconcertingly meaty vegetarian Cumberland sausages? YOU BET!

One such scary product is Quorn (capitalisation intentional - trade mark issues involved). I assume Quorn is available everywhere, but I hadn't seen it before here. It's some freaky stuff, supposedly made out of a fungus or some such. That is their story, but I am not entirely convinced that chicken-style Quorn pieces are not, in fact, chicken. It is one thing to replicate the taste of meat, but its texture? Offputting. Rather unpredictably, Grant is fond of the stuff and we now have 700g (GBP4!) of it in the fridge. Come around to ours for some Quorn (insert name of dish) here!

You can also get mince but I am too scared of that to try it at this stage.

Ironically given the wealth of fake meat products, buying plain firm tofu in Notting Hill and surrounds appears to be impossible.

Londonish stuff this week consisted of two giant weekend walks. On Saturday we walked from here to the Church St markets off Edgware Road. Compared to Portobello Markets, this place is blissfully quiet albeit a little more down-market. Lots of cheap clothes around, and I managed to pick up an OK winter coat for 15 quid, which was timely as it was FREEZING. The coat's only fault besides its slight lack of stylin' is the fact that it reeks of dry cleaning chemicals, which is rather difficult to address when you do not have access to a covered outdoor area for airing. Come around to ours for a bathroom that smells of a dry cleaners! (Kulcha note: it's not "laundrette" over here, it's "laundErette." Fortunately for us, our laundEry is in the kitchen, so we don't have to avail ourselves of the facilities of the laundErette around the corner).

The Church St market has decent street food too, as always. I love how you can get Halal chicken tikka in this country. Beat that for fusion cuisine!

On Sunday we hiked about an hour into town past all the usual landmarks of my uni commute (now including New Zealand war memorial beside Victory arch). There were rather a lot of people and rather a lot of poppies around still from Remembrance Day the day before. It's rather interesting to see how many people wear poppies, etc over here for the occasion - I suppose the memory of war is a lot closer? A woman in a niqab was looking at the giant Royal Artillery war memorial near there and its fake-poppy wreaths with her little boy, and a picture of that might have helped in the middle of the race-hate law disaster of last week rather a lot, I think.

We had a dim sum lunch in Chinatown - rather a taste of home. Chinatown here appears smaller than in Sydney, and the usual form of dim sum is a little different from yum cha and usually involved ordering rather than picking from carts of food, which does take away a bit of the fun. On the plus side, the ordering system meant that you weren't just writing a blank checque to the establishment and did have a fair idea of how much you were spending, and the food was excellent. We will not dwell on how the pleasant waiter asked if we wanted to leave a tip AFTER applying the 10% service charge (uh, that would be a NO).

We are FINALLY deep in Autumn. The trees are changing in the many parks I cycle through to get to and from Uni. It is really something to ride through Hyde Park or Kensington Palace Gardens at twilight with all the colours around. Though it is getting colder, hovering under 10, I can still ride with jeans and a really thin jacket. However, it has effectively killed my desire to ride unless I am riding somewhere in particular. I am getting better at the necessary between-lane scooting along the Strand, and for the rest of the ride traffic flows smoothly or I am in a park and therefore off the road, with only dog and pedestrian dodging to worry about. Which reminds me, re: the rules of traffic, London-style (and I use the term "rules" loosely):
  1. there is little consensus between walking on the left and walking on the right over here, making every cycleway a deathtrap - at least the cars have worked that part out, MOSTLY. Grant is a one man enforcement machine where this is concerned, but I tend to duck out of the way even if it means walking on the right rather than risk grievous bodily harm. One could consider blaming the Americans or the Eurotrash;
  2. the traffic lights turn orange before they turn green as well as before they turn red. They frequently do this while corresponding pedestrian lights are still green. I believe the intended meaning is "get ready to go" but the signal is invariably interpreted along a spectrum between a dropping checkered flag and "faster, pussycat! Kill, kill!". It may be that the system was originally intended to give a sporting chance to slower moving innocents such as pedestrians and cyclists, but if so that has long since been left behind. In caution: before crossing Kensington High Street even if the lights are in your favour, watch out for the crazed Maserati drivers (see: above re Eurotrash);
  3. at an intersection with dedicated lights for a left or right turn, the straight-ahead signal will be a green up arrow, and the turn signals will be plain lights. I could go on about how this ascribes a normative significance to turning rather than going straight ahead, and what this means about the Empire as a whole, but I'm too busy remembering how not to get killed; and
  4. on really special occasions, if you are a cyclist, buses will try to change lanes INSIDE A ROUNDABOUT by turning right into YOUR LANE. They are bigger than you, so there's no point making a fuss. You may have to run a red light to escape death by crushing though. Why the buses didn't think of the potential difficulties BEFORE the roundabout is anyone's guess, but the Strand and Trafalgar Square roundabout are not places for the fainthearted.
Oh, humorous commuting event of last week involved me overtaking two mounted police outside Buckingham Palace. That didn't happen often back home!

Grant's jobhunt has been hotting up - he has an interview today, two tomorrow, one Thursday and one Friday. Cross all available fingers. One of the jobs is pretty much what he was doing back in Oz, so it will be interesting to see what happens. Of course, he also has a giant headcold so you might want to consider crossing toes as well just to be sure.

We are off to visit Birmingham this weekend - German markets for all! - and are very much looking forward to it. I am taking my coat, regardless of the funny smell. $$ tip: you can get to Brum and back for GBP10 by bus or roughly GBP100,000,000 if you catch the train. Witness the free market at work.

UK gripe of the week: WHY DO TEABAGS NOT HAVE STRINGS? WHY? If anyone knows a brand that DOES have a string (and at this point I really don't care what it tastes like), let me know.

Monday, November 13, 2006

It never rains...

Just a quick update on the job hunt progress...

There is one offer on the table at the moment, had a technical test today, meeting a recruiter to discuss a project tomorrow, one face to face and one telephone interview on Wednesday, interview at Basingstoke on Thursday (will probably take out the whole day getting there and back!) and we're off to Birmingham on Friday arvo to spend the weekend with Sarah!

I also found out that some of the certification exams I was planning to do will be retired at the end of this year. There is no self-study material for the replacement tests yet (unless you fork out $$$ to cisco!) so I am going to do some serious cramming to try and get at least 2 of the 4 exams done before the end of the year. I was thinking 3, but considering how busy I have been this last week (without even working!) I think that would be pushing it...

Anyway, will hopefully have some concrete job news by the end of the week!


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Mayo (not the clinic)

We have had a moderately lazy week thus far, Grant's mountain biking adventures and rampant job applicationing (more below) notwithstanding. Perhaps I should say that *I* have had a moderately lazy week thus far! Anyway, our mandatory "English experience" consisted of riding out to Richmond and getting really damned cold on Sunday. We had intended to have lunch in one of the very nice pubs in Richmond on the banks of the Thames. Unfortunately:

(a) the Thames was having a really freaky king tide, which basically ate the entire riverside walk and severely ate into outdoor eating areas (seriously, there were ducks SWIMMING on the footpath - this was at Chiswick, and on the way back home it was obvious the entire road had been covered); and

(b) several hundred thousand rugby fans had had the same idea before heading off to the stadium at Twickenham for NZ vs England (GO ALL BLACKS!).

As a result, we had a somewhat less posh lunch in one of the pubs up the street, which had attained a sudden but short lived absolute waterfront status, hopefully not unruly impacting upon its rent. We did however meet a very nice dog there, Sophie the pink-collared staffy cross rottweiler with the punk owner, who like her owner was a giant sook. She made us miss Queeniedog!

The next part of the plan had been to do a couple of laps of Richmond Park so I could make a few kms on Rohan in the Great Odo Challenge of 2006, but we got really cold and the light was failing, it being 3 IN THE AFTERNOON, so we quit. We probably needn't have chickened out actually, given the rugby traffic had all dissipated by then so the trip home only took about 35 mins or so. At least we now know we can travel the 12km to and from Richmond rather more quickly by bike than by tube - takes about an hour on the tube! We might try to make the park again this weekend.

Over the weekend, yesterday and today Grant has been applicationing up a storm. His record is 16 applications in one day. There has been a pretty good response so far, and he has one or two interviews lined up for tomorrow. Today started with a recruiter calling at 7.30am (!) and another one called while we were having dinner at 8.30pm (!). Clearly they are working corporate lawyer hours. The job market is looking pretty promising so far.

Otherwise we have been living the low key London lifestyle of the unemployed, which involves a lot of veg shopping at markets / cooking at home rather than enjoying the culinary delights of the capital too much. The food is great but it is also reasonably expensive unless you are earning pounds sterling. We are very much looking forward to the gainful employment of a certain member of the household so we can leave the kitchen alone for a few days a la Sydney. This is particularly so as we suffer from a hyperactive smoke alarm which is wired into the mains, so we can't even yank the batteries out to shut it up. Basically, if you turn the oven on, you are up for a chorus of beeping. IT IS UPSETTING MY KITCHEN ART.

The fun thing about coming here has been returning to the kitchen equipment of student days, ie. hardly anything. Cf. Underwood Road, where our kitchen equipment aquisitiveness reached its glorious zenith (Esteele! le Crueset! Mundial! Dualit! and many more!). I have been driven to such extremes as making breadcrumbs by GRATING TOAST. It is just lovely to be cooking with both hands tied behind your back and exactly the implement you need in someone's shed in Oz!

We have not yet had to resort to mashing potatoes with a fork, much as the pilgrims must have done. However, we have addressed some of the horrors of gadget deprivation by buying a stick blender set on ebay which has a chopper attachment as well as the blender (Jan and Paul - a poorer cousin of the great one you have waiting for us back home - tragically cheaper to buy a new one here than have one sent from Oz). And yea, the new stick blender is awesome. Awesome to the extent that Grant made mayonnaise in it this evening. MAYONNAISE. I've never done this before, but seeing as it takes all of 5.3 seconds and is a very cool party trick to boot, I'm not quite sure why I've been buying the crap from the supermarket my whole life. I feel quite cheated actually. It is pretty good stuff fresh.

And I got to make breadcrumbs with the chopper, without grating toast, which for those who haven't had the pleasure is quite a hazardous exercise. And I also discovered why one would want a 400W motor as opposed to our wee old 150W back home, viz: RAW POWER. I fear the 600W monster waiting for us back home.

In other news, the Great Power Shower Incident of 2006 has come to a conclusion with the introduction of a new member of the pixieflat household. Isn't it beautiful? It doesn't have hot water geysering out of it all over the floor at unexpected times or anything. NB: landlord installed it with emergency taps. It's not like he doesn't trust us, but, well...

Back to Uni tomorrow. I don't know how I can be expected to show up for 8 whole hours a week. Oh wait, that's with my optional subject - they actually only expect me to show up for 6. Excellent!


Saturday, November 04, 2006


I finally went mountain biking today. Headed out to Swinley Forest with some guys I met through the London MTB mailing list.

It felt just like home - riding with like minded cycling idiots, crashing in to trees, going over the bars, being extremely cold (well - that was a bit different to home). Veronica will be pleased to know that yes, I did draw blood, but only a little.

I managed to score a lift with a guy who lives conveniently close - just a few blocks away. As with pretty much all decent nearby mountain biking, it is about an hour by car from the city. Public transport should be doable with a short link ride.

Unfortunately I left the camera on the charger, but will definitely go back out there and get some photos.

The trails were... interesting. I guess somewhat similar to Canberra - loamy forest type riding. Plenty of flowing singletrail, switchbacks, smooth trails mostly but with the occasional rooty section. Not any real hills (which suited me fine - not enough riding lately!), and not very technical (which also suited me fine - still getting used to the new bike, and it has no suspension). Body is a bit battered and sore, mostly due to lack of riding, but it felt great to get out there for some proper riding.

I think Loz and I are going to ride out to Richmond tomorrow and loop around Richmond park. Hopefully we will get some distance in - we really need to do some longer rides before the winter scares us off completely. Speaking of winter, I think my clothes are going to be completely inadequate - both normal clothes and cycling clothes. I'm going to have to start taking note of what other people are wearing.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Remember, remember the 5th of November

As everyone knows, the 5th of November is Guy Fawkes' Day aka Firecracker Night, on which the British, with their really twisted sense of humour, celebrate the foiling of the treasonous Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament by...blowing up some fireworks.

They're also supposed to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, because being hung, drawn and quartered for treason isn't enough, clearly - you need to be ritually punished for centuries. LET THAT BE A LESSON TO ANYONE THINKING OF BLOWING UP THE HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT.

Anyway, the 5th of November is clearly more guideline than hard and fast rule, because for more than a week the delightful young people hereabouts have been setting off crackers non-stop in carparks, albeit never after 11pm, bless them and their oddly considerate delinquent ways. (Humorous aside - they were setting off crackers beside the estate's fenced soccer field last week. One of the large and burly soccer players threatened to come out and get them if they threw a cracker on the field, whereupon they said in very offended tones "we would never do that!")

As the Lord Mayor's fireworks show isn't on until tomorrow night, we assumed that the firecracker noises tonight were nothing more than an unusually organised delinquent carpark firecracker display. However, it kept going, and we therefore went around the corner (rugged up in our woollies, because it is FREEZING here) to have a look.

And saw this:

This would be a bonfire of stupendous proportions, for the local Firecracker Night. There were fireworks as well, obviously, given that the noise was what drew us out of the cosy pixieflat in the first place, but we didn't get there in time to get shots of the good ones. No-one seemed to be burning a Guy, but maybe he was all burned up before we got there. There was however a pumpkin on the bonfire, which is what happens when American culture eats everything else I suppose (viz. cranberries in Kew Gardens).

This was all happening in Portobello Green, the so-called "village green" which is a thin park running between Portobello Road and Latimer Road beside the suspended A40 motorway. Which is to say that this freaking huge bonfire and fireworks display were a few metres away from a major arterial road, and I imagine that anyone driving it this evening must have had the living daylights scared out of them.

A few points to note:
* firecrackers are freely available over here, and nobody seems worried about the safety of the 12 year olds playing with them in car parks;
* the above giant bonfire was unfenced and unguarded, and people were just basically hanging around getting singed by it;
* in this country, a sparkler is a perfectly acceptable toy for a toddler.

Basically, we are just now realising that Australia is something of a nanny state, with a hefty "No touching! Ouchies!" approach to anything remotely fun. However, being a citizen of a nanny state makes it very difficult to look at the cute little tradition of Firecracker Night as anything other than an absolute deathtrap. For the same reason I continue to wear my bike helmet whilst cycling, even though I am no longer lawfully obliged to. It does make me wonder though. Do they not have the horrific firecracker accidents over here that we had back home before crackers were banned, or do they just not care provided that everyone remembers the 5th of November? Or is Australia just old fogey land?

Anyway, in future I will have more faith in humanity, and run out to see when I hear firecrackers, instead of swearing quietly at the neighbourhood hoodlums ("chavs"). It felt very English to stand with all the locals and their sparkler-carrying toddlers beside the bonfire, and it was beautifully warm on such a cold night.