Sunday, 9 April 2017

Holiday cake and old friends

Chocolate cake.

Most of us who bake probably have a favourite chocolate cake recipe - the one that always works; that forgives being made in a rush or once without eggs (added to the cake tin five minutes after it was initially placed in the oven ... even I didn't think I'd get away with that one); that tolerates the fickle heat of different ovens and different tins and without fail, at first sniff of it baking, brings back delicious memories of old friends and old holidays. And picnics and sand between toes and laughter and blustery walks and holding hands and eating too much and wind in your hair and squinting in the sun and dancing in the rain and dragonflies hitching a ride and castles and hill-tops and freezing cold lochs and a long walk with a black and white cat.

This is my favourite chocolate cake recipe. Written by the dearest of old friends, on this scrap of paper, over twenty years ago. (Annotated by he who should have known better and me. He was right about the 3 eggs though, especially if those available are a medium size.)

It is a recipe I have baked often at home. And often on holiday.

Because it's very good and it's very easy.

Only one pan gets dirty.

It tolerates being made by a distracted new-baby-headed mother (the missing eggs episode, many years ago) and copes with being lactose-free, made with lactose-free butter. I've experimented with adding a tablespoon of marmalade to the mixture and the one below had some raspberry jam in it. Sometimes, I use pale brown sugar, sometimes dark and occasionally a mixture of dark and molasses sugars - this latter version makes it incredibly rich. Delicious: the smell is divine.

This week, I burnt it slightly ... in my defence, my Aga at home has no fan and the oven on holiday did. So my timing was a bit squiffy. And the cake a bit dark. 

Cook as a conventional cake with nothing sticking to a skewer at the end of cooking time, or slightly undercook it, if you want it for pudding. 

As a pudding, it surpasses most chocolate brownie recipes. I serve it with a mix of raspberries, blackberries and strawberries, piled next to a small slice that has been drenched in cointreau and topped with good vanilla ice-cream. Warm with custard is almost as good. I imagine a sprinkling of Baileys and some coffee ice-cream served with a hot espresso would be pretty outstanding. Even those who profess to not being pudding people (not a sentiment I understand!) have been known to succumb to this cake.

Wrapped in foil, the cake version is light enough to carry up a mountain and enjoy at the summit.

This is Littlest, at the top of Ben Venue, on Friday.

Try it.

To all old friends and chocolate-cake-lovers out there, Happy Holidays and Happy Easter.

And to my dearest old friend, thank you.


A chief Twit again; National parks; the wrong dog and a chance to be economical with the truth.

Warning: skip the next eight paragraphs or so - see ** below - if you just want to read about dogs and parks and truths and avoid an inner ear-wagging about a Twit. Your blood pressure will thank you. The Earth may not.

'Taking with one hand and giving back with the other': is that a definition of smarmy?

Especially when 'the other' hand is a smaller and substantially more smug hand.

Take for example, the Twit who, while recalibrating the boundaries of smugness, reverses years of research and reason with an ill-conceived raid on the funding of environmental protection projects. Then attempts to appease for his plundering by donating some of his own money - his own salary no less - to a project that was directly and adversely affected by his earlier fiscal thievery.
Or did the Twit simply not know that the two were connected?

Or is this all fake news? Again.

The Twit's reported raid on domestic environmental protection funding is just the start. But things are warming up ... in more ways than one.
His crusade against climate change sciences, though in its infancy, and his threat to rescind his country's support for international policies including the Paris agreement, will take his march way beyond domestic, creating an unstoppable tsunami of wrong-thinking that could imperil the entire globe.

He policies risk destroying not only the domestic renewable energy industry, but ... time to start counting the dominoes that will fall ... the fishing, forestry, agriculture and tourism industries, all at the cost of supporting the dying embers of a fossil fuel industry.
Doesn't he know that the fossil fuel industry currently employs a fraction of the workers working in renewables? Doesn't he have an eye on approval ratings and mid-term elections? Or a conscience, even? He will create fewer jobs than he slays.

And what are his plans when the coal runs out? And the mining industry collapses. Again. And rivers are left polluted. Again. And land is left scarred by surface mining. Again. The rest of the world will by then have romped ahead on clean energy. He'll have no choice but to import all the expertise, infrastructure, hardware and associated services that he decimates now. Imagine that! ... Imports!

Only, of course the 'he' by then won't be him. He'll have skipped away over the horizon of a golf-course long before the rotten fruits of his blusters return to haunt him. The rest of the world will be left to clear up the mess left by his petulant Twit-toddler behaviour that played with our futures and threw all the best toys out of the pram he inherited from his predecessor.

I hope there's an army of Erin Brokoviches, rolling up their sleeves, waiting to pounce on the first river poisoning, land pollution, particulate inhalation related deaths that will - yes ... very probably will ... occur. Because those are the very disasters that environmental protection protects against. Just watch Mr Smarmy-Twit squirm and attempt to blame it all on someone else. Or comment on the skirts worn by the Erins.

Why am I bothering - again! - to get heated about this?
Because it matters.
It matters almost more than anything else.

Yes, I could write about the Twit being a vaccination-denier (actually, that makes me want to scream ...) and a denier of many, many other things, but ... but, but, but ... climate change affects us all. And it's consequences are truly terrifying.
Rising sea levels, crippling droughts, fires, floods, land slides, crop failures. With famine, poverty, disease, dislocation, surging refugee numbers, and inevitably wars, the result.
Ultimately, if climate change is not curbed, the lights will go out.
We risk going full circle back to scattered populations of hunter-gathering survivors, eking a living from what land is left. I don't jest. I don't mean to sound biblical. It's just science.

I will return to this subject, I'm afraid. I feel I have to. We all have to. But for now this procrasti-rant is nearing an end. Petering out. Dying down. And walking slowly in the restorative air of a dry-ish and occasionally sunny-ish Scotland.

** this is where you can safely start to read if you have your head stuck in the sand ...

For the past week, I have been enjoying the countryside and nature and national parks here at home.

Like this one - Ben A’an. 

Or Am Beinnyun before Walter Scott got his wordsmithery on it and anglicised the name.

... phew - breathe. Concentrate on one step in front of the other ...

... take it slow ... remember to breathe ... rant over.

While the walks of my Scottish childhood were scrambles through tick-infested heather and up tumbling banks of scree, nowadays footpaths snake up mountains. Soil erosion is thus sorted. Landowners are happy. Wild-life is less disturbed. Habitats are preserved. It's a win-win situation. 
The only slight - and it is very slight - misgiving I have about the plethora of paths creeping like fingers of ivy up the hillsides, is when a steep walk becomes a flight of stairs ... 

...with steps so higgledy piggledy and differing in size and tilt and depth that within a hundred yards your thighs are screaming for a rest. 

And then someone - channeling the sure footedness of his inner mountain goat - runs past you ... yes, runs ... with a baby on his back. And you think, 'He'll be at the summit before I've climbed another hundred yards. Oh, to be so fit ....'

Beautiful, eh?

Yes. But beautiful only because it's protected. In this case by the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. And thinking back to my rant at the beginning ... no, I'm not starting again ... National Parks were created with the twin aims of conservation and sustainability in mind. To protect the ecology, biodiversity, habitats and native species of the countryside. 

In the Trossachs, the 'Wild Park 2020 plan' targets red squirrels, black grouse and mountain bogs. All under threat from invasion of thuggish non-native species and destruction of their habitats. The red squirrel with its tufty ears is a gentler creature than its grey cousin. Greys were introduced in the 1870s from North America and have almost wiped out the reds. The parapoxvirus is endemic in Greys but they are relatively resistant to its effects - the Reds however have no resistance and die; in huge numbers.
Tackling invasive non-native species is in a nutshell all about isolationism - in the case of the red squirrel - or sharing - in the case of the rhododendron. Rhododendrons were introduced to Scotland by the Victorians; they who introduced the grey squirrel, too. Yes, stunning displays in gardens but with a habit of leaping over garden walls. And the problem, then? - Rhododendrons are very good at blocking out light and like all good biology students should know, plants need light to grow: no light equals no growth. No growth equals death of native tree saplings. Native saplings die and native forests recede. Native forests recede and squirrels have no-where to live. One way of looking at this would be to compare rhododendrons, obliterating and taking over swathes of countryside, to heaps of surface mining overspill creeping outwards like toxic foam from epicentres of the fossil fuel industry. Both wrecking habitats and wiping out communities. The only difference is the thuggish Rhododendron has very beautiful flowers. 
Oops, apologies - I guess - to any ostriches who avoided reading the beginning of this. 

Ho hum ...

On my walk up Ben A'an, I reflected on what a bad dog-owner I am - it was in the Scottish Borders on our drive north last week that I suddenly realised I had not said good-bye to Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins. Four-legged-friend had done his usual, sad-headed, hopeful lie down on the ground behind the car with Bertie Baggins standing over him looking either a little puzzled as in why-are-you-doing-this or a more impatient you-know-they're-going-to-leave-anyway-so-what's-the-point ... I'm never sure which it is. I did say goodbye to the other family members who we left at home doing dog-sitting duties and revision and work. But not to the dogs. I still feel guilty even as I write this now over a week later.

A walk without dogs is not as much fun as a walk with dogs.

On Ben A'an I was on my own (Go Ape with vertigo was not an appealing alternative). 

On my own that is until ...

... and her older four legged friend. 
I have labs. I love my labs (even if I forget to say good bye to them) but for sheer exuberance I have always admired spaniels. And collies. This little spaniel didn't stop still, long enough, to permit a good photograph. If she wasn't haring up and down the path, she was attacking sticks or tossing stones in the air to catch and toss again or finding a fallen tree branch three times her length to pick up and run with, until it collided with a tree stump and she somersaulted over it.

Labs are plodders with occasional bursts of energy. Which, on reflection, is rather well matched to my own energy levels.

The spaniel's owner wasn't the first to answer my question about owning spaniels with "Have you owned a spaniel before?" I knew what was coming next. Tales of dogs who need a six mile walk TWICE a day. Who if left for more than a couple of hours get restless and chew everything in sight. 
Maybe we'll stick with labs. And admire spaniels from afar - probably in the distance, across many fields.

Talking to a stranger releases you from the constraints of normal chatter. You give away snippets of the good things in your life. There isn't time to dwell on the hassles and niggles that get you down. This isn't dishonest. It's being economical with the truth, if you like, but not in a bad way.
Here is someone you will probably never meet again. You start by discussing dogs. Then - inevitably - the weather. Then the litter that ... I can't think what to call them other than idiots!, leave lying on the mountainside and the sealed bags of dog poo tucked beneath stones but not out of sight. Who does that?!!! Then somehow we get on to mountain biking - probably because of the tell-tale ruts running alongside the path and how meeting a cyclist descending something this steep would be truly terrifying. Then you stray onto walking in general and countryside and children and the chap who ran past you both earlier and weirdly, the internet ... and eventually, the Twit across the pond. Which needs another serene picture ... to prevent a re-rant

and another

Unwittingly, in writing and in walking, I travel full circle: 

The National Parks in America were funded by the EPA which the Twit has just punished by slashing its budget by many millions of dollars. In the UK, our National Parks are funded by government. A government that is signed up to the Paris Agreement and believes in climate protection. After Brexit though ...