Extera

My mum sounds like Rihanna. Alas not in the singing department, or I'd be blowing my share of the family fortune sniffing a hundredweight of jazz salt off the curvier parts of a lady of easy virtue in a preposterously tariffed hotel rather than writing a blog at 7.25 on a Sunday night while wishing I hadn't finished off that bar of Green and Blacks Butterscotch earlier this afternoon.



The one similarity they share is that they say 'umbrella' with four syllables. A sneaky addition slides in between the b and the r. Alas I haven't a recording of my mum, but here's Rihanna.

Maybe they are both trying to make up for the seemingly shortchanged 'parliament', February' and 'Wednesday' which having had the good grace to provide us with a certain arrangement of letters are rewarded by us routinely skipping past a syllable for the fun of it.



I have, as it goes, something of a fascination for umbrellas. I think it started with the rather spooky story of Georgi Markov. As a young kid I was very much into James Bond and the idea of spies - there was Masterspy on the box and Double Agents in the sweetshop. All was well. But the idea that someone who had defected here from Bulgaria might be killed on the streets of London by having a poison pellet fired into his leg from an umbrella....an umbrella! How marvellous. I didn't make it to 'How awful' for some years.

I never forgot his name, but that may be less to do with umbrellas and more to do with my ludicrously contrary brain - at that time I would absorb any slightly unusual name to be retained for life, whereas these days I have trouble remembering my own middle name. Or perhaps it was that everyone on the news then seemed to have a novel name - Ndabaningi Sithole, and Canaan Banana to name but two.



As with all sensible children, the least likely, most convoluted yet interesting explanation was always the real one. Conspiracies were happily taken on board wholesale, paranormal happenings and other worldly experiences accepted. The very first night a friend and I went UFO watching from his window we stopped after only 3/4 of an hour as we'd already seen a hundred. They were pretty common back then let me tell you. Of the many conspiracies that took my fancy, it seemed pretty obvious even to the very young me that JFKs assassination was mighty fishy. The angle he moved when the first bullet hit, then the second the other way meant it had to be two or more assassins...all the documentaries said so. Then I read an article somewhere about a man with an umbrella and how he must've been involved. This was music to my ears. A dry sunny day, JFKs motorcade sliding slowly through the streets of Dallas, people waving and all that. On this glorious day, captured on film, a detail missed by most eyes, a single man holding up an open umbrella. So peculiar, so strange on this sunniest of days, it must have something to do with the events that unfolded. Hiding his face perhaps, and some speculated that perhaps the umbrella itself had a gun concealed within it, the bullet fired threw the fabric.

The truth is not much less ridiculous. Fascinating. Do watch the lovely film.

And then of course there's Steve McClaren, the once England football manager, who after a particularly dull performance which he watched from the sidelines from under an umbrella, was sacked - many of the papers carrying the rather easy headline of The Wally With the Brolly. Although in his favour you have to say his command of foreign languages is second to known.

Why am I thinking so obsessively about umbrellas you may well ask. Other than the fact that my mum is saying 'umbrella' with a touch more frequency than normal given the almost daily downpours, it is because next week I will be spending each day in the vineyard pruning the vines and I need to find a way to keep my head dry. This is conundrum visits my dim brain regularly.



Much as I like hats, they leave me with a weird after-feeling. I blogged about it years ago. If you can't be arsed to read it, essentially when I come in after wearing a hat, I take it off and for hours afterwards I keep reaching for the hat, to take it off - it still feels like it's there. In the American Civil War those who'd lost a leg or arm had the sense that the missing limb was still there, even experiencing pain from it. This became known as Phantom Limb Syndrome. Unfortunately my own Phantom Hat Syndrome makes me reluctant to wear a hat for too long. I'm not a fan of hoods - I like to be 'in' where I am, and anything that impairs my hearing is most unwelcome. An umbrella would solve all, but it would take up a hand. Unless....I bought one of these.

Clearly this would be preposterous. Although I suspect that all preposterousness is, certainly for the male of the species, simply a matter of time. I bought a very marvellous walking jacket a couple of months ago which served me very well when debuted on a two day walk with Big Stu in the most ridiculous coastal walking weather...



Warm, wind proof, light, deeply unfashionable - it ticked all the boxes. I wear it more days than not at the moment simply because it keeps me warm, even though I look ridiculous. What has become of me. Clearly this is no kind of look for someone so influential*.

And what next, Clarks Movers?



* That noise you can hear is me putting my shoehorn back in the drawer.

The Fall Principle

I planted four Devon sorbs a few years ago and they've been mightily unencouraging. Slow to grow and reluctant to fruit is about the best I have been able to say in their favour. Other than they're not overly common which, if you're minded that way, affords it's own nerdy caché.



This year, at long last, they came good. If not an ugly duckling turned siren, then certainly a plain Jane turned foxy - beautiful leaves, a gorgeous shape and colour and (most gratifyingly) fruit. Not the most obviously appealing fruit, but luckily our forefathers didn't have the internet and could be expected to spend their shallow empty lives trialing ways of turning unpromising foodstuffs into deliciousness. This (thanks to John Peel) has become known (at least in my house) as The Fall Principle.



I saw The Fall a few times, firstly in 1988 when they were at the peak of their powers. The floor in front of the stage collapsed (almost certainly due to the weight of snakebite and black ingested by those watching): cue much standing around and looking into the abyss while The Fall carried on. They played for 40 minutes. Including the encore. Which was the first two songs of their set played again. They were very fine indeed.

John Peel once said that if The Fall brought out an album that he didn't like he would presume that he just didn't know how it was good yet. What a fine way to look at music, life and indeed food. This I have christened The Fall Principle. And thankfully one of our ancestors must've applied this principle in whittling their way through proto pie, crumble, smoothie, brûlée*, fool and trifle recipes before the eureka moment: sorb jelly. I bet the cave campfire was a pretty rockin' place to be that night.



Half an hour with wife and daughter in the orchard relieved the trees of their load - maybe half a basket's worth. There are as many experts in sorb harvesting as there are in camel yodelling, but one thing I have managed to glean from the few corners of the internet dedicated to the topic is that, like medlars, sorbs are best when picked past their visual peak, when they've started to soften (or blet) a little. But, and it's a big but, fruit needs cold to properly blet and there has been precious little of that this year - two frosts to speak of and here we are in the middle of January. The feet thick snow of last winter as seemingly distant as the nation's fascination with Darius. So that half basketful had some soft but mostly still firm sorbs.



Why does it matter? It matters because the soft fruit give up their substance readily whereas the harder fruit give you more pectin. This fine substance has the desireable trait of encouraging, nay compelling, your jams, jellies and other confections to set rather than slop around forever like so much Slime.

Washed, destalked and deleaved, I just covered the sorbs in water in a preserving pan and after bringing slowly up to the boil, I simmered them for an hour. They were still as hard as grandad's bunions. Another hour and some discernable softening. The potato masher was employed and a further half hour of simmering resulted in the required mush.

Mush into muslin, suspended from the legs of an upturned chair, dripping into a large bowl overnight. Don't squeeze the mush through the muslin as this makes the liquid cloudy - just let it drip.

To every 600ml of this liquid you should add 450g of caster sugar. Then boil the living arse out of it. Test for the setting point in your preferred way. If you're me this involves thinking you have reached it, pouring the molten lava into jars, then decanting when it doesn't quite set to boil some more. See these jars?



They were decanted and boiled some more giving a grand total of 2.4 jars of the most amazing coloured jelly.

All that anticipation for such a small reward...but my word it's incredible stuff. The perfect balance of sweet with an edge of something that will go beautifully with blue cheese and that ruddy great goose I have in the freezer.

So after a three spoons of tasting that's now two jars. Or rather one jar as at the few-jars-not-quite-realising-I'd-have-to-boil-it-some-more stage I promised Alys Fowler a jar.

Which leaves one jar.

One jar, which from the The Fall Principle No.2 (derived in memory of that first gig) states that a little of something truly marvellous can give an awful lot of pleasure.





* Go on then, if you're so clever, YOU find those crazy letters on a Mac.

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D