Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Downsizing the MIL (3)

The bank holiday weekend was spent in Scotland clearing out May's garage and beautifying her new abode with hanging baskets and bedding plants in pots.

We flew out of city airport for a change. We thought we would give it a try as it is quicker to get to than Heathrow. Very successful - we will use it again.

We landed in glorious sunshine which caused much consternation amongst our fellow passengers. They were not used to this big yellow sphere in the sky!

We cleared a load of stuff out of the garage and shed to the tip and did several garden centre trips. Also I did a bit of loft boarding as May's new place lacks any storage. That gave her somewhere to put items like empty boxes and suitcases.

We flew back Sunday so we could have the Monday at home "relaxing". Mary went into work and I did stuff around the house.

Now to work for a short week as we are off to Italy on Thursday for a six day, very long weekend. The weather has to be better there. I am a fair weather cyclist and today I am on the train as it is grey and raining.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The one eyed man is king

or in my case two separate one eyed men. Another unintended consequence of the cataract operation and opting for the myopia correction. As previously blogged I cannot use glasses alone to correct my vision as the prescriptions in the two eyes are too dissimilar.

Varifocal hard contact lenses was an option but I am still too squeamish about eyes. Mary has worn hard lenses for twenty plus years. I may be too old a dog and watching her trying to retrieve them when they go wandering off into the corner of her eye is more than I can bear to watch let alone contemplate doing it in my own eyes.

Instead, at the optician's suggestion, I am trialling a weird solution using soft daily disposable lenses: long distance in my dominant right eye and reading strength in my left. He assures me that the brain automatically adjusts and uses the relevant image. This is mostly true but feels a bit weird. I can always see both near and far but there is always an out of focus component from the other eye. I feel oddly spacey most of the time but (I hope) that will pass.

I did notice the mono-vision at the cinema the other night watching the excellent Star Trek. You try watching an entire movie with one eye half closed and that will give you a feel for what it is like.

Other side effects are simply those of switching from glasses to lenses such as I do not steam up when I open the door of the oven or dishwasher. Also I miss not being able to take off my glasses to do really close fiddly work.

Another side effect is that my stereo vision may not be as good for judging distances. Safe for normal everyday use - I have not bumped onto anything yet - but not much point in going to the IMAX to see a film in 3D then :-(

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Planet of the Grapes tasting: The wines of Domaine Faiveley

Another fine wine tasting at Planet of the Grapes: The wines of Domaine Faiveley presented by Vincent Avenal.

As usual my notes were scrappy but such tastings to enable me to calibrate my palate and say "these are fine wines but I cannot tell enough difference to make it worth paying the extra".

Vincent is the export director of Faiveley and presented the wines against a backdrop of jovial barracking. Faiveley produce about 100 appellations of which around 80 are their own estate wines and the remainder they act as negociants.

These are my own notes and as my palate is poor this is mostly a load of b*ll*cks but if I do not write something down how will I learn to articulate what it is I detect in the mouth? I do not care if is bears no resemblance to perceived authority at least I am prepared to make a fool of myself in public. That is my story and I am sticking to it.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

1. Mercurey Clos Rochette Blanc 2005 @ £17.50
A: Smokey, mineral; P: slight unctuousness, hint of putty on re-tasting

2. Meursault 1er cru "Blagny" 2006 @ £50.00
A: floral, melon; P: big mouthful, sweeter, hint of pineapple drops. Passes the "Trudy test" - all the components are in balance. Their own label not acting as negotiant - they have changed the label design to make clear they own the land and control the viniculture.

3. Corton Charlemagne 2006 @ £140
Good vintage for whites. A: smokey, dusty, "good" oak; P: yellow. Only 10 cases allocated to UK (that is only 120 bottles).

4. Mercurey Rouge 2002 @ £14.50
Exceptional vintage for both red and white. A: strawberry, hint of plum; P:light, bright.

5. Blagny 1er cru "la Piece sous le Bois" 2003 @ £25
Very warm vintage. A: Chocolate / morello; P: tart grip but not acid, warm / sweet. Drink :-)

6. Benne 1er cru "Clos de L'Ecu" 2005 @ £40.00
Historic long lasting vintage for reds. Not for drink < 10 years. A: velvet / paint / cheese; P: grip, low fruit still some aging potential. Keep!

7. Latriciers Chambertin Grand Cru 1999 £100.00
Fabulous vintage. V: orange rim; A: musty strawberry, I don't get much tertiary notes; P: better, shows 'esprit du clocher', light fruits.

8. Corton "Clos des Cortons" Grand Cru 1990 @ £175.00
Correct for drinking now - at peak. Only 600 bottles produced.

A few days later a group of us friends met at their latest venture: a wine bar in Leadenhall Market which is not so much a wine bar as a wine shop with tables. There is no wine list, you choose your bottle of the shelves and there is a set £10 corkage regardless of the price of the wine. They also do a select range of cheese and meat platters. A very handy location for meeting up with friends who work in the square mile.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

NOLA '09 - Restaurants

Re-reading these before I hit "post" makes it seem that I am focussing on the negatives so I should say that in all cases the food was fine and in some cases superb. Go to New Orleans and dine out - you will not be disappointed.

Thursday 16: Crescent city brewhouse http://www.crescentcitybrewhouse.com/
We have been here many times over our three trips. They brew a range of beers on the premises and do a taster menu of 4 or 5 beers. They have live music and the balcony has a view towards the river.

Friday 17: Montrel's Bistro. [Review on Trip Advisor]
Ate there late and it was basic. Plus no website, maybe I got the name wrong.

Saturday 18: Stella! http://www.restaurantstella.com/
Excellent taster menu in atmospheric surroundings. Pity the bar is next to the kitchen door for the pre-dinner cocktail. And the restaurant was bloody freezing. As it was 28°C all day I did not expect to have to wear my thermal long johns to go out for a meal.

Sunday 19: Feelings cafe (fauberg maurigny) http://www.feelingscafe.com/
We walked 10 blocks there and back which would be a recipe for muggings if you listen to the locals but we survived unscathed. Very interesting building. Only downside was sitting next to a table featuring a loud talking American very full of himself. So bad that as soon as we had finished our meal I moved our wine glasses to the courtyard to un-tense my shoulders.

Monday 20: Dante's kitchen http://www.danteskitchen.com/
It was meant to be a street car ride up Charles Avenue but we just missed one and had to get a cab. Very enjoyable one of our better meals out. But I do not know what they would make of southern Italian eating habits. They were putting chairs on tables at 10 o'clock when our local Locorotondo restaurant would just be filling up.

Tuesday 21: Gumbo shop http://www.gumboshop.com/
Does what it says on the tin. You know what you are getting. Busy, popular, full of tourists, good New Orleans cuisine, nice old building and courtyard. I realised that I had last been there over 20 years ago; I had not been there with Mary on either of our previous visits but with a previous companion way back when.

Wednesday 22: Orleans Grapevine http://www.orleansgrapevine.com/
We started off with a glass of wine on a pavement table and then, as we had no other plans, moved inside. Another icily air-conditioned venue; when quizzed on why the waitress hinted that it was much as for the benefit of the staff because it stopped the customers getting too hot and smelly. We both had the same dish, tuna, one rare, one medium-rare and they got it spot on for both plates - impressive.

Thursday 23: NOLA http://www.emerils.com/
One of New Orleans's (Louisiana's) top restaurants but I would not go back there again. Food was excellent but the room was icy cold, the other customers incredibly noisy all shouting their conversation and the waiters rushed not glided. Go for the buzz but not for a relaxed intimate, hand-holding dinner.

Friday 24: Eat http://www.eatnola.com/
A local BYO only one block from our apartment and in the French Quarter one block only means a couple of hundred yards. Short, simple, fresh menu and much frequented by the locals. We went in to book and "No booking" so I was glad we walked 30 min from the festival rather than queue for the shuttle bus. We rushed back to the apartment, showered and back to the restaurant in double quick time then had a very pleasant meal.

Saturday 25: G W Fins http://www.gwfins.com/
A complete contrast to NOLA. An excellent corner table (all of which were were well spaced out), a friendly maitre d', plenty of staff so they could glide in an unhurried manner. Quality food of course.

Sunday 26: K.Paul's http://www.kpauls.com/
Class act, attentive waiter, good food but I have trouble remembering more than that which maybe says something.

Monday 27: The Alpine Bistro http://www.thealpinebistro.com/
A very late lunch as we were going to the Rock'n'Bowl in the evening for a Snooks Eaglin tribute concert. I think the chef was on his lunch break as well but the food was OK when it eventually arrived.

No wonder I came back from New Orleans weighing an all time personal best(?). Diet starts Monday :-(

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

NOLA '09 - Jazz and Heritage Festival

New Orleans is a fantastic city and we had a wonderful time at the Jazz Fest - or the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival to give its full title. There was some concern that it might not live up to my rose-tinted memories but in the event it matched or even exceeded them. The weather was a ruler straight 28°C and sunshine the entire time, the music was great, the food was delicious and the people were friendly.

So many times as soon as I opened my English mouth the person next to me would say "You're not from here. Where are you from?". "London, England" I would reply. "Welcome" was the invariable response often followed up by a friendly conversation.

Mardi Gras Indians at The Jazz Fest
Mardi Gras Indians at The Jazz Fest

We saw many great acts. The Jazz Fest is held at the race track. Once inside you can wander all day from stage to stage with a huge array of food (and drink) stalls for grazing on some of the best cajun and creole food. Just a fantastic time.

Crowd Scene at the Acura Stage The Jazz Fest
Crowd Scene at the Acura Stage

We bought a couple of folding picnic chairs, as did many, many others, and would carry them until a particular stage caught our eye where we would set our pitch and watch several acts, with occasional forays elsewhere - there were just so many acts to see.

The whole atmosphere is so relaxed it was a joy to be there. NOLA is my favourite American city by a long way.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

NOLA '09 - Hurricane Katrina

Between the FQF and the Jazz Fest we moved from Le Richelieu to an apartment, also in the French Quarter, and had a few days to relax.

Our Apartment in the French Quarter
Our Apartment in the French Quarter

This, of course, does not involve sitting with a glass of wine and reading a book. Instead it went like this:
  • Monday: did a Katrina tour with Tours by Isabella http://www.toursbyisabelle.com/ to visit the devastated areas
  • Tuesday: hired bikes and cycled for 4 hours along the levee
  • Wednesday: cycled up to Lake Pontratrain and back and forth along its shore - another 4 hours. Then Wednesday at the Square - another free concert in the Central business district http://www.wednesdayatthesquare.com/index.html
  • Thursday: helping out at the Community centre St Bernard Parish http://www.ccstb.org/ hearing more first-hand tales of trauma and survival and rebuilding
M & M relax outside the Orleans Grapevine
M & M relax outside the Orleans Grapevine

We were a bit in two minds about the Katrina tour, a bit ghoulish perhaps, but were glad we did. Our guide Jenny is a native of NOLA and tour guide for many years, She gave us a first hand account of the devastation, the incompetence of FEMA, the venality of the insurance companies and the traumas of living through it all. And people are still living through it. It will take decades to repair the damage and some things will never be fixed.

Books have been written so I will focus on my main impressions:

Much of the devastation was man-made: design flaws in the levees (built on sand) and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal (aka "Mr GO") which caused erosion of protective wetlands and increased storm surge. The Corps of Engineers are not popular with many of the people of New Orleans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_River_Gulf_Outlet

Many people died because they would not leave their pets behind. The authorities refused to take animals. Many pets became homeless, ownerless and in need of rescue. Jenny was actively involved in Animal Rescue New Orleans which has rescued and re-homed thousands of animals. Emergency plans now include contingency plans for evacuation of companion animals. http://www.animalrescueneworleans.org/

The inaccuracies and bias in the media. The exaggeration of the situation in the Superdome, the focus on the Lower Ninth Ward when other blue collar areas were more devastated. And white collar, professional areas were hit too. It doesn't matter if you had a well paid job and a nice home it is still devastating to lose everything, and I do mean everything. To be left with nothing but the clothes you stand up in.

We still had opportunity to continue the corporate mission of "Eat, Drink and Have a Good Time" with many fine restaurants and coffee at the Cafe du Monde. One of my favourite tweets was that Beignets are not iPhone-friendly. All that icing sugar makes the touch screen very tacky.

Coffee and Beignets at Cafe du Monde
Coffee and Beignets at Cafe du Monde

Full set of photos:

Monday, May 11, 2009

NOLA '09 - French Quarter Festival

This year was our third visit to New Orleans for the French Quarter Festival (http://www.fqfi.org/) and the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (http://www.nojazzfest.com/). The Jazz Fest has fixed dates and the FQF moves about. Every now and then they are contiguous and we go visit. This happened in 1998, 2001 and now 2009.

Dancing to Tom McDermott and the Jazz Hellions on Royal Street
Dancing to Tom McDermott and the Jazz Hellions on Royal Street

The FQF is a much smaller, more intimate festival attracting a local crowd. It is held on the streets of the FQ and along the waterfront. And it is free! It is paid for by sponsors and the proceeds from the food and drink stalls. So to help keep it free all we have to to is drink Abita beer and eat gumbo and crawfish :-)

Lunch at the Old Mint - Crawfish and Stuffed Artichoke
Lunch at the Old Mint - Crawfish and Stuffed Artichoke

For more photos see http://www.flickr.com/photos/8179454@N02/sets/72157617976619024/detail/

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Rick Wakeman: The Six Wives of Henry VIII at Hampton Court

Well as historic, once in a lifetime, musical events go this was one of them.

BIL George is a big Yes fan but SIL Sandra is not, so I got to go with George to see one of Prog rock's icons do something he has *never* done before: play all six wives in the same concert (see article in The Times)

rick wakeman concert at Hampton Court 1
The stage in front of The King Henry Gate

I heard a fascinating Radio 4 interview with Rick giving the full back story to the album and this concert. The transcript of which then turned up, more or less verbatim, in the souvenir programme notes which was nice. He first asked to perform at Hampton Court back in 1973 and was refused permission. Then last year the palace approached him to which his answer was to the effect of "Yes" and "About time! It has only taken you 36 years to give permission!"

rick wakeman concert at Hampton Court 2
Rick and the English Rock Ensemble

The full concert was a set from The English Chamber Choir, followed by The Acoustic Strawbs then the concert proper: Rick and the English Rock Ensemble supported by the choir and The Orchestra Europa.

The original album was planned to have a seventh track for Henry - "Defender of the Faith" - but the engineer said Rick couldn't record it because they had filled up both sides of a 12" vinyl, such is the limitation of that medium. So Rick reinstated it for this concert plus added extra instrumental solos to fill up a full two hours.

That did include narration from Brian Blessed who hammed it up something rotton. One amusing incident was when, in response to a good natured heckler, he gave us a hearty rendition of "Gordon's alive!"

rick wakeman concert at Hampton Court 3
Rick Wakeman on Keyboards

The icing on the cake was that http://www.concertlive.co.uk/ did an instant CD of that very concert. Only 10 minutes after the concert ended the CD's were spitting out of the machine. A limited edition 3 disc: 2 for the concert and one of photos. How is that for a souvenir! If they have not sold all 1000 you can still order online.

Only two nights, only 5000 seats per night, never to be repeated. It was a privilege to be there. Thank you George and thank you Rick!

[The Times review], [FT review]

Pictures courtesy of http://www.concertlive.co.uk/.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

After effects of cataract operation

Unintended consequences of the cataract operation are various.

I went back to the surgeon on the eve of our New Orleans trip for my four week check up. I was relieved to learn that the eye had healed perfectly and the discomfort was due to an irritation easily cured with a steroidal eye-drops for a few days and not terrible scarring or some such (did I mention I have fevered imagination).

Anyhow several unexpected corollaries follow on from the operation:

1) I was offered the option of correcting my lifetime's short-sightedness by having a powered lens inserted which I opted for. Unfortunately the human body is a natural product and variations will occur - there is an art to guessing the right corrective power.

Instead of perfect driving vision I had a far point of about six foot. As the eye healed this halved to about three foot. Fine for the dinner table but not good for driving or general outdoor life. So I will still need some optical correction - glasses or contact lenses.

2) I cannot correct my vision by glasses alone. The prescription difference between the two eyes is so great that the brain cannot accommodate for the differing images. I either have to go for contact lenses in both eyes or one contact (to even them up) and a pair of glasses on top.

3) There is a visible colour difference in what I see between the clear right eye, whites are white, and the left natural eye in which the whites have a subtle hint of yellow.

4) I have a strange glint in my eye. Every now and the Mary catches an odd reflection in the eye with the lens implant. It is now official - I am a cyborg.