Fish Of The Week (2)

Another new year, another new record price for a giant Pacific bluefin tuna.

One of the reasons I don’t attend auctions is that I’m scared I will get a bit carried away. And with good reason, if I consider the tale of sushi boss, Kiyoshi Kimura, the so-called Tuna King. For the seventh year out the last eight he has been the highest bidder at the traditional Tokyo New Year fish auction, held this year for the first time in the new fish market on the site of what was a former gas site in Toyosu.

But this year Kiyoshi surpassed himself by paying some $3.1m for a 278kg fish, smashing his previous record of $1.4m which he set in 2013.

“I may have got a bit carried away” he told reporters but consoled himself by remarking “I bought a good tuna.” He then went on to add, “I hope our customers will eat this excellent tuna.” It would all be a bit of a waste if they didn’t.

I wonder just how much the fisherman got but that’s another story.


Restaurant Of The Week (2)

What’s in a name?

If you are opening a new restaurant in these recessionary times, you need to have a great product. And what better way to grab the attention of prospective punters than by coming up with a catchy name.

This was presumably what Isabelle Jolie, the owner of a soon to be opened Vietnamese restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire, thought.

Playing on the name of a favourite soup of mine from the region and the name of the town, she came up with Pho Keene Great restaurant. Rather good, I thought.

But an almighty stushie has broken out.

The Keene city manager, the aptly named Elizabeth Dragon, claimed that it sounded like a profanity and, in any case, Jolie hadn’t asked permission to erect her sign.

Bowing to pressure, Jolie has removed the sign and the two sides are due to meet to resolve the spat, perhaps over a bowl of pho.

Still, every cloud has a silver lining and Jolie is selling Pho Keene Great tee-shirts on-line ,yours for $24.99.

Next thing we know, she will have added Gordon Ramsay to the mix.

What Is The Origin Of (213)?…

Three sheets to the wind

Now that the holiday season is well and truly behind us, some of us, no doubt, can recall that we over-indulged a little bit and may even, on occasion, have been three sheets to the wind. By this we mean very drunk but where did this phrase come from?

It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that it is nautical but what is fascinating is that the sheets referred to are not sails, as I had assumed, but ropes or chains, fixed to the lower corners of sails and used to fasten them in place. Technically, there is only one sheet to a sail, any other ropes fastened to it used for adjusting it to take account of wind direction being known as lines. Strictly, therefore, the expression would describe a three-masted ship where all its sails were loosely tied. The consequence of loose sails blowing about in the wind is that the sails would flap and make the vessel lurch around, rather like an inebriated matelot.

The next surprise, to me at least, is that the original phrase seems to have been three sheets in the wind. One of the very earliest examples in print appeared in Niles’ Weekly Register of 2nd May 1812 and recorded Englishman Thomas Ashe’s experiences in Kentucky where the hospitality was generous and the liquor strong. He noted, “it must not be wondered at that the poor, untutored, savage Kentuckyan got more than two-thirds drunk, that is, as the sailors term it, three sheets in the wind and the fourth shivering, before the dinner was ended.

From this citation we can perhaps deduce two things; first, that it was a phrase that peppered the language of many a salty sea dog and that there was a gradation of sheets to describe the varying states of inebriation. That the latter may be the case is illustrated by an observation from the Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury, published in 1815, for the 26th September 1813 when the worthy gentleman found himself in Kentucky too; “the tavern keepers were kind and polite, as Southern folks should be and as Southern folks ought not to be: they were sometimes two sheets in the wind. O, that liquid fire!

And providing further evidence is this passage from Catherine Ward’s novel, The Fisher’s Daughter, published in 1824; “Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure.” And Robert Louis Stevenson has the one sheet variant in Treasure Island (1883), Long John Silver saying, “Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind’s eye. But I’ll tell you I was sober; “

Another early example, again American, appeared in the edition of the Genius of Liberty for 26th August 1817; “he was about three sheets in the wind, that is to say a little intoxicated and began to talk loud and swear.”  The gloss perhaps suggests the phrase was not so well known in Virginia. It was not until 1821 that the phrase appeared this side of the Atlantic in Pierce Egan’s Real Life of London; “Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind.” That the earliest examples are American by origin doesn’t necessarily mean the phrase was an Americanism. Ashe and Astbury were English by origin and the phrase was part of nautical argot.

By 1823 the phrase was sufficiently well established to earn an entry in a lexicon, John Bee’s Slang, A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-ton and the Varieties of Life. There he defines it as “naval, but naturalized ashore, and means drunk, but capable of going along – like a ship which has three sheets braced – main, mizzen, and foresail.” Interestingly, he makes the mistake of confusing sheet for a sail.

To the wind didn’t appear in print until 1894 in the New Year’s Day edition of the Pennsylvania State University Free Lance; “..he espied two old friends approaching, one of them three sheets to the wind and the other piloting him..” Why the change is unclear aand from a nautical perspective, they are opposite ways of proceeding. Whatever the reason, this is the version that has stuck.

After all that, I need a drink. Perhaps I will soon be one sheet in the wind!

Gin O’Clock – Part Fifty Six

Well, Father Christmas didn’t disappoint me on the gin stakes. The first bottle I unwrapped was a rather splendid affair, a rather squat, hexagonal shaped bottle, whose label, printed on Japanese washi paper, told me that it was Roku Gin.

Marketing is everything, at least when it comes to gin in order to get an edge in the crowded market spawned by the ginaissance. Roku is Japanese for six and the spirit uses six botanicals which are representative of the Land of the Rising Sun. But the name is a tad misleading as there are another eight botanicals which go into the mix. Perhaps it should be called Ju Yon, not as catchy perhaps, but more representative of what is actually in the drink.

The label has an elegant and distinctive design featuring the number six in Kanji script. The hexagon bottle is rather sensual to the touch, it oozes elegance and class, and each facet of the bottle features one of the traditional Japanese botanicals.

What might be described as the rhythm section of the gin is made up of eight botanicals which this writer, at least, is delighted to find in the mix – the old favourites, juniper, coriander seed, angelica root and seed, cardamom, cinnamon, bitter orange and lemon peel. The base spirit is neutral grain-based, rather than anything fancy like sake.

And now to the Japanese botanicals.

I suppose most occidentals’ stereotypical view of Japan is a land of cherry blossom and this gin does nothing to recalibrate conceptions. Roku takes the flower and the leaf of the Sakura, that beautiful and rather delicate ornamental cherry which are a delight to even Western gardens. They bloom in late winter and early spring and represent renewal, rebirth, the start of another cycle of life.

Another traditional image of Japan is a land of elaborate tea ceremonies and two forms of green tea are added to the hooch. We have sencha which means new tea and, as its name suggests, is the first crop of the year and considered to be the most tasty. It is supposed to have health-giving properties. We will see. The other variant of green tea in the mix is gyokuro which appears later in the year and is grown under shade rather than the full sun.

The next flavour of the Orient added to the mix is Sansho pepper. They consist of little green, unripened pods from the Japanese prickly ash and have a citrus taste with a bit of a fierce peppery kick. To complete the sextet we have yuzu peel form, unsurprisingly, a fruit called yuzu which is a cross between a grapefruit and a mandarin. The peel is used particularly in miso soup.

So, what is it like?

The scewcap top releases an exotic aroma infused with cherry and green tea. To the taste the spirit is rich and oily, it louched when I added tonic, with the traditional gin notes soon giving way, briefly, to the cherry blossom, before the tea with its tannic overtones takes over. It becomes quite bitter and peppery with hints of citrus in the aftertaste.

At 43% ABV, the Roku for the Japanese domestic market weighs in at 47%, it struck me as an elegant, well-balanced and interesting gin, one to savour and a welcome addition to my groaning gin shelf. Suntory, who launched the gin internationally in 2017, have come up with a winner here.

Book Corner – January 2019 (2)

Any Human Heart – William Boyd

How well do we really know someone? Henry James opined “never say you know the last word about any human heart” and as well as giving Boyd the title for this 2002 novel, he may well be right. The construct of Boyd’s novel is that it is a compilation of diaries or, as the French more elegantly put it, journaux intimes, detailing the life and times of the protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, with short bridging sections as we move from one phase to another. As a result we are intended to get a deeper insight into what made the character tick. But do we and do we really care?

It was an easy read written in an engaging style and offers some interesting perspectives on human existence that resonate more with me as I move inexorably towards that point when I shuffle off this mortal coil. “Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary – it is the respective proportion of those two categories that make that life appear interesting or humdrum”, Boyd writes and “life does this to you sometimes – leads you up a path and then drops you in the shit, to mix a metaphor.”  Mountstuart’s life is certainly an extraordinary aggregation of good and bad luck, triumphs interspersed with moments of disaster and tragedy.

I enjoyed the early parts of the book, where Mountstuart starts out on his journey through the 20th century as a rather precocious, priggish and, doubtless, very annoying public schoolboy, picking up two life-long friends, Peter Scabius and Ben Leeping, along the way. It is then on to Oxford (natch), and afterwards to London where he establishes himself as a writer.

After war service as a naval intelligence officer and a return to a much-changed post-war London and then to New York as an art dealer courtesy of Leeping, his career becomes more preposterous, teaching in Nigeria just in time to witness the Biafran war, and then back to London where he falls on bad times and gets mixed up with a Bader Meinhoff cell, and then skips to France to enjoy a modest retirement.

I may have lived a sheltered life but this seems much too much excitement to pack into a life. During this odyssey, we are asked to believe that Mountstuart rubbed shoulders and spent time with many of the literary and artistic celebs of the 20th century. The pages are littered with scenes involving the likes of James Joyce, Ian Fleming, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, not forgetting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It all gets a bit wearing at times. At least, Anthony Powell, who appears in the book as an affable chap, had the grace to hide Nick Jenkins’ celeb mates under the cloak of pseudonymity.

Ironically, it is the fictional characters who seem to come to life for me, not least Mountstuart’s grand and haughty mother who slowly and inexorably falls into what were termed reduced circumstances, thanks to unwise investments ahead of the Wall Street crash (natch) – it is that sort of book – even having to resort to taking in lodgers.

I found Mountstuart hard to warm to and even when he hits his lowest point, subsisting on dog food at a time when Scabius, whose literary merits he had derided, was riding the crest of a wave, it is hard to have too much sympathy for him.

Boyd’s book is ambitious book, bestriding the 20th century and some of its significant literary and historical events, but for me it falls a little short.

The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Two

Half Moon Street, W1

Running from Curzon Street in the north to Piccadilly in the south, Half Moon Street is a thoroughfare associated with London’s literary life and has more than a little whiff of scandal about it.

Built from around 1730, the street took its name from the pub which stood on the corner with Piccadilly and one can easily imagine, given its location, that it was a lively and thriving place, the Gazetteer recording on September 6th 1758 the death on the previous Friday of “Mrs Winter, who many years kept the Half Moon Ale-house, in Piccadilly, in which it is Said she acquired near 8,000:, which she has left to her poorest relations.

The Public Advertiser for March 11th 1768 announced that “yesterday, James Boswell Esq, arrived from Scotland at his lodgings in Half Moon Street,” where he entertained, amongst others, his old mucker, Samuel Johnson. One of the capital’s great actors at the turn of the 19th century, Mr Pope, lived at No 5, which is where his first wife and actress, the former Miss Young, died at the age of 26. The celebrated physician, Samuel Merriman, was to be found at No 26 from 1813 to 1825, arriving rather too late to help the unfortunate Mrs Pope.

Percy Bysshe Shelley lived on the street, and according to a description of him by his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, in his biography of the poet, published in 1858, he cut a dash sitting by a window “book in hand, with lively gestures and bright eyes; so that Mrs N said he wanted only a pan  of clear water and a fresh turf to look like some young lady’s lark hanging outside for air and song.

Much of the street was taken up by private houses and what were termed in the 19th century as bachelor’s chambers where young single male tenants, who had come to the metropolis to seek their fame and fortune, could obtain accommodation. Among the many illuminati who found accommodation in these establishments over the years were the dress designer, Raoul de Veulle, the novelist Hugh Walpole, Aubrey Beardsley, Osbert Sitwell and the poet, Wilfred Owen.

A rather larger than life resident in the 1840s was Lola Montez. Irish born, although she claimed to be Spanish, she was a dancer whose lack of technique was more than made up by enthusiasm. Her piece de resistance was the Tarantula, in which she searched for an imaginary spider in her clothing. Lola was arrested at the street in 1849 on a charge of bigamy and had a string of lovers, including Franz Liszt and Ludwig, King of Bavaria.

But the street is particularly associated with Oscar Wilde and in its day it was the acknowledged epicentre of London’s bohemian and theatrical quarter. Wilde places one of the principal characters of The Importance of being Ernest, Algernon Moncrieff, in bachelors’ chambers with “luxurious furnishings.” in the street. Wilde’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment saw the arty set move further east to Soho.

And who can forget that PG Wodehouse’s wonderful creations, Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, lived in Half Moon Street? Another fictional figure, Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, lived at 60a.

But back to reality. The street is home to Fleming Hotel, founded by the eponymous Robert Fleming, former valet to the First Marquis of Anglesey, in 1851. The hotel’s founding is commemorated in a rather splendid stained-glass window depicting the Great Exhibition of that year.

The street, now a run of expensive hotels and even more expensive properties, has a fascinating history.

Toilet Of The Week (19)

When I have a blockage, I swear by Mr Muscle.

But not Dominique Heath from Nailsea in Somerset. On finding her carsey blocked by an excessive amount of toilet paper and a toy, thoughtfully deposited by her children, she set about clearing it by pouring three litres of bleach cleaner and another, unnamed, liquid down the pan.

Imagine her surprise when there was a chemical reaction, emitting a cloud of poisonous chlorine gas, the sort of weapon that would fall foul of the modern-day Geneva Convention. Unable to disperse the fumes and, by now, experiencing a burning sensation in her eyes and throat, Dominique range 999.

The Fire Brigade told her to evacuate her house and on arrival, cordoned off part of her street, before donning gas masks to resolve the situation.

Red faces all round. Stick to Mr Muscle, I say.