Writing Portfolio


Thoughts on the Big Garden Birdwatch

As a loyal RSPB member I took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch last weekend. As our flat does not come with a garden, I took myself down to the park (Cherry Tree Wood) for an hour’s birdwatching on a sunny but windy Sunday morning. As well as many pigeons and three black-headed gulls (thanks to the recent weather, the ground is sodden; last summer, ducks were sighted), I saw some redwings, tits of the great and blue varieties and even a goldfinch, which I didn’t recall having seen in Cherry Tree Wood before.

Being a committed birdwatcher (or should that be ‘birder’? I am currently reading Bill Oddie’s Little Black Bird Book and he thinks that the term ‘bird-watcher’ is old hat), I keep a record of the birds I see, and after writing up my sightings I was able to compare them with what I saw in Cherry Tree Wood the week before (when it was snowing) and what I saw in Cherry Tree Wood when I did the Big Garden Birdwatch last year. I was a little disappointed that the goldcrest, the long-tailed tits and the singing wren didn’t make an appearance this time around, but I can note with satisfaction that I saw the same number of species (eleven) as I did last year.

My records also show that I have seen a goldfinch in Cherry Tree Wood before – on 10th January 2010 to be precise. How could I have forgotten? In my defence, it was one bird three years ago and to paraphrase from one of my all-time favourite movies, I wrote it down so I wouldn’t have to remember it.


Thanks, CMJ

Among the plaudits for the late Tony Grieg, and there were many, was a sombre comment which described his heart attack as a ‘merciful release’ from the cancer with which he had been diagnosed months earlier. The man who wrote that was Christopher Martin-Jenkins, and he knew what he was talking about, having himself been diagnosed with cancer in January 2012. Poignantly, the piece he wrote about Grieg’s death was his last, for Christopher Martin-Jenkins died on New Year’s Day. He was 67.

CMJ, as he was widely known by followers of the English game, did not play for England or even at first-class level – the closest he got was being twelfth man in the Varsity match and making a single appearance for the Sussex 2nd XI (which, let’s face it, is closer than most of us can ever dream of). He was a cricket journalist, and in a crowded and distinguished field – cricket has always inspired better reporting than most other sports – he was one of the best that England has ever produced.

In his long career, he was at various times the cricket correspondent for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and the Times, as well as editor of The Cricketer and a long-standing fixture on Test Match Special, the radio commentary that is still a cricketing lifeline for those of us who don’t have Sky TV. On TMS he wasn’t as easily distracted as Henry Blofeld, he didn’t have the schoolboy humour of Brian Johnston and Jonathan Agnew and he wasn’t a blinkered old sod like Freddie Truman. What we got with CMJ was an expert who had retained the enthusiasm of the fan and who knew that his duty to us fellow-fans was to give a clear and accurate description of every ball bowled and every shot played.

The fan-expert won high honours within the game, including the MCC Presidency – a rare honour for a journalist. To this day he is the only career journalist to have delivered the annual MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s. In a modern world where being an ex-player is often a pre-requisite for becoming a commentator (sometimes, it would seem, regardless of actual commentating ability), CMJ’s knowledge and expertise stood out.

His writings on the game informed, entertained and inspired many, myself included. His Complete Who’s Who of Test Cricketers – a mammoth undertaking if ever there was one – was an essential guide for me when I started to get into cricket and wanted to find out more about the great players of the past (there was a reference copy in Edgware Library, this being in the days before the Internet), and as a student in the mid-to-late 1990s I started reading the Daily Telegraph purely on the grounds that CMJ happened to be its cricket correspondent at the time.

Many of the obituaries about him have focussed on his eccentricities, and a character he most certainly was, but to me he was simply the man who helped to explain it all – and for that, I am truly grateful.

Thanks, CMJ.


As seen in the woods

Serious birdwatchers would appear to have a New Year’s Day ritual of sorts whereby they go out as soon as it’s light and see how many birds they can see on the first day of the year. I am a bit more casual than them, and until today my birding activities of 2013 have been limited to reading the latest edition of Birds magazine and making sure that there was plenty of food out for the birds in the cold weather. The pork rind proved to be very popular with a couple of passing magpies and a female blackbird.

It wasn’t until late morning today that I ventured out into the snow and walked down to Cherry Tree Wood for my first hour or so of semi-serious birding in 2013. I took a camera and so was able to record some of my sightings.

I always seem to see a few carrion crows when I go birdwatching but I don’t usually pay them much attention; like pigeons, they’re just there. But perhaps they’re more worthy of my attention – after all, they are clever and adaptable birds which can survive in almost any habitat. Maybe we just take them for granted – just like the proliferation of house sparrows used to be taken for granted.

But I have always preferred looking for smaller birds – you have to look harder but it’s definitely worth the effort. There were long-tailed tits high in the trees, and British birds don’t get much smaller than a wren that flew across my path. A robin perched himself on a branch long enough for me to get a decent photo. Further into the wood, I saw a great tit and a blue tit, both of which (like the wren) were too quick for my camera. A male blackbird doing a spot of foraging was not.

Then came the interesting part. Last time I went birdwatching in Cherry Tree Wood, back in December, I was lucky enough to see a goldcrest, a bird I also managed to spot in the City back in September. This time, I got to see not one but two of these wonderful little birds, looking for something to eat on the trunk of a large tree. A good start to my birdwatching year, I think!


Salt and pepper squid

When we order Chinese, one of my favourite dishes is the salt and pepper squid. This is usually deep-fried, but can you make a version that is both healthier and does not have the potential to start a fire? More to the point, could I?

Well, a Rick Stein recipe on the BBC Food website looked fairly straightforward. I rather like Rick Stein– when he did his Christmas special last month he admitted at the start that he was filming it at the height of summer, and his fish and chip shop in Padstow serves the joint-best fish and chips I have ever tasted (the other one can be found in Hastings; with all due respect to Poseidon in East Finchley, fish and chips always taste better when you can smell the sea). So I trusted his salt and pepper squid recipe. Which had the virtue of having not many ingredients; less is more!

I acquired the squid from our wonderful local fishmonger on the High Road. The guy even cleaned it for me, which was just as well as I’d’ve had no idea how to go about that.

The recipe called for two types of pepper – regular black pepper and sichuan/szechwan pepper; luckily we have both in our flat! The peppercorns had to be dry-fried and crushed with a mortar and pestle (which one is which?) before the salt was added.

Each squid ‘pouch’ had to be opened out flat and scored, with any remaining entrail-like bits being scraped off before I cut it into squares. 

Frying the squid in a small amount of oil rather than half a pan of the stuff was quick, and it was a matter of minutes before the salt-and-pepper mixture was added. Then it was just a question of throwing in the spring onions and the chilli, stirring everything together and serving.

Quick, easy and delicious, even if I do say so myself!


What happened when I made a pork pie

One of the questions that arose from my butchery course was the seemingly obvious one of what to do with all of the meat I ended up with. Roasting joints, sausages and chops are all very well but what about the trotters? I have tried pig’s foot before at a restaurant in Paris (specifically, the one that’s called Au Pied de Cochon, is located in the Les Halles district and is open 24 hours a day) and I can’t say that I liked it that much.

However, trotters are a vital component of the jelly that makes up a pork pie. Now I’ve seen pork pies being made on the telly before but I’d never thought to make one myself – as an aficionado of the pork pie, I’d rather buy a decent one. Mrs King’s happens to be my favourite.

But, seeing as I had a vital ingredient, why not make one myself?

The first step was to find a pork pie recipe. I turned to Google, which supplied me with a recipe by Nigel Slater. He’s not my favourite TV cookery person but he has the virtue of being known for uncomplicated recipes so I figured that he would be an ideal guide for this first-time pork pie maker.

For the stock, I put the trotters in a large pan with an onion, a carrot, some parsley stalks, a stick of celery and half-a-dozen peppercorns and covered the lot with water. Slater’s recipe called for two trotters plus pork bones; as I didn’t bring back any bones, I just used all three of my trotters. This was boiled, strained, cooled, had the fat taken of the top and then reduced. The reducing took a while as I had well over a litre of stock that needed to be boiled down to around 400 millilitres.

The chopping of the pork didn’t take as long as the stock but it was at least more hands-on. As there was well over a kilo of it and the recipe called for it to be cut into small cubes, it took well over an hour.

The pastry for a traditional pork pie is of the hot water crust variety, made by boiling water with lard and mixing it with flour. I’ve never had to buy lard before, and it turns out that this is not something that’s stocked by my local greengrocer. I had to go to Budgens instead.  

Perhaps the hardest part of making the pie was getting the pastry into the cake tin. It was greasy to the touch – well, it did contain around 200 grams of lard – and the cake tin I used is a deep one. That, by the way, is why the pie I made cannot be classified as a Melton Mowbray pork pie; it wasn’t free-standing. That and the fact that it was not made in the geographical area as designated by the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association.

And then it went in the oven while the stock continued to reduce.
When the pie emerged, the last act could begin. This was the pouring of the stock into the pie. This was actually easier said than done – some of it leaked out of the bottom of the tin. Was this because of a gap in the pastry? I would have to wait until I served it up before I found out.

Which I did on New Year’s Day. Getting the pie out of the tin proved surprisingly difficult (now I know why the Melton Mowbray people insist on their pies being free-standing). There wasn’t enough jelly at the top (it had leaked out) but other than that it was delicious.

And so there we are – the first East Finchley pork pie. I think I might make a number of smaller ones next time rather than the one big pie! Although I do like the idea of making one that has a boiled egg in it. But I’d need to get hold of some more trotters first.