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19.10.14

Canadian pie



Last weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving (which is more a celebration of the harvest than its American equivalent), and in accordance with tradition we had some relatives over for a turkey dinner followed by pumpkin pie.

Allison had to specially order a turkey breast from the butcher – it’s not something they usually sell in October, although as we’ve ordered from the same butcher for several years now, they are well aware that any order for turkey at this time of year will probably come from Canadians! I made the pie.

The recipe I used was originally clipped from one of Allison’s Canadian cookery magazines – from an advert for Robin Hood flour to be precise. This meant that the recipe for the crust simply called for Robin Hood Flaky Pie Crust Mix; without this to hand, I just used the short crust pastry recipe from my Mum’s old lemon meringue pie recipe. This meant that I was seriously mixing my weights and measures, as the pie crust recipe (being a British recipe) calls for the ingredients to be measured by weight, while the rest of the pumpkin pie recipe (being Canadian) has the measurements by volume (even for the butter). As I have learned from previous recipes, a cup in Canadian baking terms is a specific measurement (250 ml) – you can’t just use any mug to measure things out. This is a mistake most people only make once.

I also found that I didn’t have to blind-bake the pie crust (as I would’ve done for the lemon meringue pie), as the filling itself needs to get baked before the topping is added.

Ah, the filling. Just about everyone who makes pumpkin pie uses tinned pumpkin purée, mainly for the sake of convenience (apparently it takes many hours to render the raw ingredient down to the required consistency). However, there are two types of tinned pumpkin in Canadian supermarkets, pumpkin pie filler and pumpkin purée. Filler is the ready-made stuff that you pour straight from the tin onto the pie crust and bake, while purée is the one you have to mix with other things to make the pie filling.

I’ve been told that no self-respecting Canadian uses the pre-mixed filler, so I combined the puree with a few extra ingredients – brown sugar, evaporated milk, eggs, vanilla extract, cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg and salt – before pouring it over the crust and sticking it in the oven (15 minutes at 220°C, then 45 minutes at 180).







The topping, which also needed to be mixed, was a combination of oats, brown sugar, chopped pecan nuts, flour, cinnamon and melted butter. With the topping added, the pie is baked for a further 20 minutes. 


We served it up with whipped cream that had had some icing sugar mixed in.

Pumpkin pie: our annual autumnal treat!

18.10.14

England, England...



Last week I went to Wembley – not for the first time, but this was my first full England international.

I have been to games at Old Wembley (most memorably, Watford’s 1999 play-off triumph) and this wasn’t even my first experience of New Wembley (I’ve seen Saracens play there a couple of times). In terms of England, I’d previously seen schoolboy and under-21 internationals, and I have of course seen the England cricket team in action many times. But the full, senior-level England football team? This was a first.

The opposition was the not-so-mighty San Marino, a minnow side ranked joint 208th (ie. joint last) in the FIFA rankings. England, by the way, are 18th. The domestic equivalent (based on league positions at the time of the match) would be Newcastle United playing Harpenden Town. The final result could not possibly be in doubt; just about everyone going to the game did not merely expect that England would win, they knew it (an unusual experience for me to say the least; you just don’t get this sort of feeling on the way to Watford games).

The question, therefore, was not would England win but by how many goals, and whether San Marino might manage to defy expectations and get a consolation one for themselves. This, after all, has happened before – back in 1993, they scored after just eight seconds; what everyone forgets is the seven England went on to score, not that any of it mattered as we failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

Not that qualification for the 2016 European Championship is going to be problematic, for the tournament has expanded to 24 places, presumably to ensure that none of the big teams can ever fail to qualify. England have been given the easiest of groups, from which qualification would be nigh-on impossible to screw up – even for a side that did as badly as England did in the World Cup this summer. In other words, my first England experience would be the most predictable game in a predictable qualification group.

On the international stage, minnow teams like San Marino seem to serve no discernible purpose other than to remind people of the variety of countries that exist in this crazy world (FIFA, by the way, has more members than the United Nations). Also, they can form the basis for humorous travelogues like Charlie Connelly’s Stamping Grounds and Tony Hawks’s Playing the Moldovans at Tennis (quite why no-one’s done this with San Marino yet is a mystery to me). It must, though, be pretty cool to be Sanmarinese, if only because (as I mused in the pub before the game), the country has such a small population that any man between the ages of 16 and 40 who’s half-decent at football would be in with a shout of playing for the national team. This is the sort of national team that is an argument in favour of some sort of pre-qualifying round for the Euros and the World Cup.

Alighting at Wembley Park station, there were a few desultory England chants, many kids excited at being taken to see England (despite the following day being a school day) and the odd sight of people draped in the light blue and white flag of the opposition. Among the usual array of items on sale along Wembley Way – scarves, badges, poorly-printed tee-shirts – were half-scarves. These are scarves in the colours of both teams playing; half in the white and navy (and red trim) of England, half in the blue and white of San Marino. They also carried such important information as the venue (“Wembley – The Home of Football”) and the date of the encounter. Something of a one-off souvenir, then. They were, from what I could hear from the retailers, going for £10 each.

I don’t get half-scarves. Why would anyone at a football match want to wear something that includes the opposition’s colours? When, exactly, did they become a feature of big games? And who buys them – neutrals who can’t decide which team to support (unlikely), or people who want a souvenir of that particular game? Is this the sort of thing that gets given to the people in the corporate boxes along with the complimentary programme? Do people collect half-scarves from the matches they’ve been to in the same way that people collect programmes?

Getting into the ground itself – a vast improvement on the crumbling old edifice it replaced, it must be said – the atmosphere felt strangely flat, and that wasn’t just because the bars in the stadium were not serving alcohol due to a UEFA rule of some sort.

That’s right – there was no beer.

Usually, for football matches in England there is a ruling about the sale of alcoholic beverages which would strike many attendees of other spectator sports (or of football matches in other countries) as odd. This rule states that you cannot consume your booze within view of the pitch – you have to consume it while standing in the crowd by the bar, which isn’t great (I have on occasions flouted this rule by bringing a hip-flask with me, which also breaks the rule about smuggling booze into the ground). Also, it is a proven fact that beer sold inside sports venues is hideously over-priced. Even so, not serving beer at all strikes me as somehow wrong.

This being 2014, I complained about this on Twitter. To my surprise, someone I’ve never met ‘favourited’ my tweet. Note to self: Using hashtags on Twitter really does work.

Rather surprisingly, the ground itself was more than half-full; a total of 55,900 people had come to see the match. It didn’t feel like that, though. I cannot help but think that this was the sort of game that would have been better held at a smaller venue; there are, of course, numerous arguments for having England games at various venues throughout the country, and I think that would be a very good idea, but this notion is of course trumped by the fact that the FA is still paying off the money it blew on rebuilding Wembley. Money comes first.

Being behind one of the goals, I and my fellow-England fans each had a small, plain white banner tied to our seats with an elastic band. These, we were informed, were to be held up when the band (one of the Guards regiments, no less) played the National Anthem so that our end of the ground would look like a giant Cross of St George. This would inspire the team and look good on the telly. It might’ve worked, too, had the band not played a setting of the National Anthem that was almost unrecognisable. We in the stands didn’t even realise they were playing God Save the Queen until about half-way through!

The atmosphere struggled to get going as England made a few desultory efforts against San Marino’s defence-heavy outfit (this is a team that, having only scored 19 goals in their 24-year existence, has largely forsaken attack in favour of as many defenders as possible; a legacy of their having to play every game against teams hoping to score seven or eight times). Down to our right, a middle-aged bald man shed his shirt and tried his best to gee everyone up with a couple of repetitive chants. Some joined in, others made adverse comments about the size of his beergut. Still, his rendition of God Save the Queen was more in tune than that of the Guards band.

The deadlock was finally broken after 25 minutes, and from thereon it really was a question of how many goals would England score (five, in the end). That said, one (the first) was scored after their goalie got bundled over (I’ve seen goals disallowed for less), another was a penalty and one of the ones in the second half was an own goal. England, of course, dominated play but I reckoned the best player out there was the busiest; the San Marino goalie, an accountant called Aldo Simoncini. But for him, they goal tally could’ve been in double figures.

Maybe it was the predictability of the encounter, but I found it hard to motivate myself to cheer on the team. I could understand why some supporters opted to ironically cheer the rare San Marino expedition into England’s half of the pitch, and cheer loudly whenever Joe Hart got the ball (he, apparently, won the online vote for man of the match, receiving 63% of the vote; Jack Wilshere, who was declared man of the match by the ITV commentators, got 11% in the same poll, in which one presumably could not vote for opposition players). At one point there was more interest in the obligatory Mexican wave (which went round the ground three times) than in the events on the pitch. A few blokes even stood up to applaud when a Sanmarinese player got substituted late in the game; I don’t recall that happening with the England substitutions.

Despite the large crowd (not large by Wembley standards, of course, but at 55,990 it was still more than the capacity of most Premier League grounds), the atmosphere felt flat. We’d expected England to win, and we’d got that. But I couldn’t help but think that there was something missing. Evidently, I prefer football matches where I can’t comfortably predict the outcome in advance.

As I queued for some post-match chips on Wembley Way while everyone else streamed towards the Tube station, I heard the guys selling the half-scarves trying to flog them at half-price. There were few takers.

2.10.14

Swimming with a loon

The air was warm, the sky blue, the water refreshingly cold. Not the coldest Canadian lake I’ve swum in, but my third of the summer. We were at Lake Rosseau on a glorious autumnal day with, interspersed among the evergreens, The Colours running riot – glorious riot; thousands of maple leaves turning yellow, then amber, then as red as the one on the Canadian flag – by the shoreline. This is the heart of Cottage Country, and we were staying with Allison’s aunt and uncle who own a cottage mere yards from the shore of the lake. Before we’d headed north, I’d declared that I would swim in every lake we stayed by, and by diving into Lake Rosseau I’d made it three out of a possible three.


I swam out from the dock with a powerful front-crawl, which quickly turned into a leisurely front-crawl as my generally sedentary lifestyle kicked in. I switched to back-stroke, my strongest stroke, and then the breast-stroke, my weakest. I tried to see how long I could hold my breath under water, and lasted around five seconds at a generous estimate. I was on holiday – swimming in a lake somewhere in Ontario, without a care in the world.

As I made my way back to the dock, I could vaguely make out the shapes of Allison and Uncle Bill standing on the dock. I assumed that they were watching me, the only one who’d wanted to swim in the lake in late September. I was wrong.

Allison called out: “Nick, there’s a loon!”

I know, I thought. We’d seen two of them, one in striking summer plumage with black head, striped neck and chequered back, the other in drab winter dark grey and white. Probably a pair, given that, like swans, loons mate for life. They were a hundred or so yards away from us as I’d taken a running dive off the dock. It may have been autumn, but these summer visitors were going nowhere fast; loons are among the last birds to fly south for the winter. “There’s two loons out on the lake,” Uncle Bill had quipped, “and a third one’s about to join them.”

While I tried to splutter a response, Allison called out again: “He’s right behind you!”

Eh?

Turning around, I beheld through my myopia a dark-coloured, duck-like object heading straight for me. As it came closer, its dagger-like beak and large head identified itself to me as one of the loons; the winter-plumaged one, who’d evidently decided to see who else was swimming in the lake.



There I was. Getting very close to nature – just a few feet from one of the great symbols of the Canadian wilderness. Swimming alongside a bird for whom swimming is a way of life.




It didn’t end there. As I got out of the lake, the loon continued along by the side of the dock. Mike, Uncle Bill’s neighbour, caught sight of him as he sauntered over to wish us good morning. He too was taken aback.

“What’s this? You got a pet loon now, Bill?”

His surprise was understandable. Most birds, and this includes loons, have a healthy wariness of people, an ancestral memory that even from a distance these are predators, to be avoided at all costs. This loon, however, didn’t seem that bothered. He (or she) continued to swim around in the shallows for a few minutes before doing the unthinkable. It got out of the water.


Collectively, we gasped.
                                                                                                                                    
Unless they’re nesting (and even then they’re very close to the water’s edge), the only time loons get out of the water is when they’re taking off. They don’t wander onto the land – their legs are so far back that they can only walk with difficulty; indeed, the bird’s very name is a reference to this fact. Yet here was a loon getting out of the water, and in very close proximity to four people. Two of whom have spent many summers by the shores of Canadian lakes and seen countless loons, but never out of the water.

We concluded that it had to be ill, but close-up it looked fairly alert, shuffling itself around so it could face the water as the rest of the family came out to have a look while Uncle Bill went to report a sick loon to the animal protection people.



The loon, who in close proximity appeared to be going through the moulting process, was still there, not minding the cars whizzing past on the nearby road, when we went out for a boat-ride several hours later. When we came back, though, it had gone – according to Mike, the animal protection people had not showed up, so it must have simply swum away.



PS: This blog-post was subsequently re-posted on the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s ‘Land Lines’ blog, which has some incredible stories about the natural world in Canada.