Mastication Advice Of The Week

Ever since I was a small child, I had it drummed into me that I should eat with my mouth closed and, indeed, there is nothing more off-putting at the dining table than seeing someone move a bolus around their mouth. However, according to a team of researchers at Oxford University led by Charles Spence, in being sensitive to the sensibilities of others we have been depriving ourselves of some of the pleasures to be derived from our meal.  

Chewing with your mouth open, he claims, allows the volatile organic compounds that create aromas and contribute to the taste of the food to reach the back of the nose which stimulates cells responsible for our sense of smell. An enhanced flavour profile adds to our enjoyment of our food as does improving its sound profile. The satisfying crunch of an apple can be enhanced by eating with our mouths open and attacking food with our hands also allows us to appreciate the tactile qualities of foods and to heighten our anticipation of what they will sound and taste like, Spence claims.

There may be something in it, but, as far as I am concerned, it is advice to be followed when dining solo. I wonder just how many dinner invitations Spence has lost since the report came out.

Trip Of The Week (3)

It seems to be increasingly difficult to get anywhere these days what with long queues at ports, a Brexit dividend, cancellations, strikes, and transport infrastructures unable to cope with excessive temperatures. However, perhaps the most bizarre recent travel experience was that endured by Jim Metcalfe and his fellow passengers who boarded the Caledonian Sleeper on the night of 19th July in the expectation that by the time they woke up the following morning they would be in London.

Metcalfe, who has used the service for 15 years and struggles to get to sleep when the train is moving, boarded early and was sound asleep by 11.00pm. At 5.00am he was woken up by a steward who presented him with a roll, a sausage, a cup of coffee and the astonishing news that they were still in Glasgow as the service had been cancelled due to a fault on the line. As the platform on which the train had been sitting was now needed to run other services, Jim and his fellow passengers had to troop off the train.   

Managing Director for Caledonian Sleeper, Kathryn Darbandi, explained “we made all efforts to support guests impacted, including providing overnight accommodation on board and options for travel on alternative rail services the next day. All guests will receive a full refund”.

Her choice of terminology is fascinating and, presumably, intended. A passenger has the expectation of going from A to B while a guest just anticipates using static facilities. At least Jim had a good sleep and was not disturbed by the movement of the train.

I think I will just stay at home.

Thirty-Seven Of The Gang

According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, to see the elephant was to see something out to its conclusion. This colourful phrase owes its origin to the world of the circus where the final and most thrilling act, designed to send the spectators home happy and begging for more, involved an elephant.

Rail travel boomed in the mid-19th century and new lines and stations sprang up, especially around the metropolis. One such was Walworth Road Station on the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway which opened in May 1863, originally as Camberwell Gate but changed its name in in January 1865. It was built on a viaduct over three roads.

Even by 1868 it had earned a bad reputation, known as Shoot because of the immense number of persons “shot” out there”. Its poor reputation persisted through the years. The South London Press in November 1882 wrote, “a recent writer on the condition of Italy adduces the wretched character of most of the railway stations as evidence of the poverty of the country. I would give something to know his opinion of Walworth, as evidenced by the condition of the Shoot!” The station closed for good on April 3, 1916, and nothing remains of it today.

As a station, Walworth Road may have said to have shot into the brown, a figurative expression for failure. It came from rifle practice, a poor shot missing the black and white target altogether and landing in the brown butt, the earth.

Gin D’Azur

A discernible trend spawned by the ginaissance is the entry of long-established spirits producers, who see the burgeoning popularity of gin as an opportunity to extend their product range with something takes less time to produce and bring to market than their traditional products. Another is for distillers to attempt to capture the spirit and essence of a region through the gin they produce and, particularly, through the botanicals they choose. Gin d’Azur, launched in 2019, encapsulates both trends.

The French family-run Distillerie Merlot et Fil, based in Saint-Sauvant in the south-west of the country, which has been operating since 1850, is famous for the quality of their cognacs. Gin d’Azur is the new filly in their stable and, they claim, draws its inspiration from the sunsets over Gigaro Beach in La Croix Valmer in St Tropez. It is the moment when the sand and sea take on a golden glow, the perfect time for a cocktail or three, their blurb states.  

To paint this alluring picture, the distillers have selected botanicals which come from and are typical of Provence, including thyme, rosemary, lavender, marjoram, mountain savory, star anise, and Menton lemon peel. Each is harvested at the optimal moment to ensure that they are at peak ripeness and at their aromatic best. The production process sees each of the principal botanicals distilled separately in an alembic pot still over an open flame to maximise their flavour. before being mixed with the juniper to the distiller’s recipe and enhanced with a touch of Camargue salt.

The result is a fresh, vibrant gin with an ABV of 43%, intensely aromatic on the nose, a complex melange of juniper, thyme, lemon, and lavender in the mouth, before finishing off with a hint of liquorice and a slightly salty trace on the lips. Adding a good quality tonic enhances the floral notes, drawing out the natural oils and causing the spirit to louche slightly.

The bottle, too, provides a welcome splash of sun and cheer, bold and vibrant, to match the spirit inside. It is cylindrical in shape with the glass slightly tinted to give a pale blue, maritime feel, has a wide, flat shoulder, and a moderately sized neck leading on to an artificial stopper. The imagery on the bottle is bright and bold with a golden sun nestling just above the brilliant blue sea, illuminating the headland and its vivid green botanicals.

I am always sceptical about claims made by distillers that they can recreate the essence of a place or an area with their spirit, and not having been to St Tropez, I cannot confirm that it meets its self-proclaimed brief. What I can say, though, is that it is an impressively classy and complex gin which is a delight as well as refreshing to drink.

Until the next time, cheers!

The Case Of The Missing Minutes

A review of The Case of the Missing Minutes by Christopher Bush

There is a distinct change of mood in this, the sixteenth in Bush’s Ludovic Travers series, originally published in 1937 and now reissued by Dean Street Press. It has rather dark undertones, tackling a difficult issue which is as relevant today as it was at the time Bush wrote the book, and paints a more human picture of the amateur sleuth who, hitherto, had been a bit of a cold fish. Whilst it has all the elements of a classic murder mystery, Bush is more interested in the motivation behind the crime than the whodunit.

The murder victim is Quentin Trowte, an old man who lives in a big house with a child, his young ward, Jeanne. At the behest of his sister, Helen, Travers looks into the mysterious goings on at the Trowte household. Her former maid and her husband are now employed there but have to leave the premises before eight o’clock in the evening. On occasions during the evening and night, they hear shrieks. Travers is about to confront Trowte but when he gets there at eight minutes to eight, the door is ajar and he finds the master of the house slumped on the floor, having been stabbed in the back.

The likely suspects all have cast-iron alibis for the time of the murder, and it looks as though it is going to be one of those stories where much time and effort is spent in examining and dissecting the movements of all involved. At one level it is, the clue being in the book’s title, although Bush is not above playing a trick on the reader by introducing another favourite trope of alibi-based mysteries, the sound of music being heard coming from the window of one of the suspects at the key moment. The resolution of the mystery of the missing minutes is not revealed until the end and is almost a throwaway, its importance overtaken by the horror of the situation.

Child neglect and abuse are grim subjects, and it emerges that Trowte has been subjecting Jeanne to a reign of terror. Travers and Helen are touched by the girl’s plight and arrange for her to be taken to a safe haven. Travers discovers that the rooms have been bugged, that the electrics have been arranged so that lights in the child’s bedroom can be turned on and off remotely to heighten her sense of terror, and that he has a viewing gallery to watch her every movement. He even went to the trouble of buying a snake and a rodent. It is little wonder that the child was emotionally scarred and was prone to shrieking during the night.

As the truth is revealed and the girl’s backstory emerges, Travers is less and less concerned to get to the bottom of who killed Trowte, believing, as the reader does, that the evil man deserved what he got. Despite the best efforts of “The General”, Wharton of the Yard, who appears towards the end of the story, to see that the letter of the law is adhered to and Trowte’s killer dances the hemp jig, Travers is never going to let this happen. By the letter of the law, Travers may have obstructed the course of justice, but in this instance natural justice is a more noble thing.  

I was surprised by this book. Bush had always struck me as a writer who operated within the constraints of the genre of murder mystery, producing complex, well-clued mysteries that both baffle and entertain the reader. What is missing in this book in terms of complexity of plot is more than made up for the humanity and warmth of feeling that pervades the narrative. For all his foibles, Travers has a heart, and he behaves in this case as we would all wish to, given the circumstances. There is no better endorsement.