Thursday, December 31, 2009

Grabbing a great gesture

Picture the scene. Boxing Day, in the Italian area down Lygon Street, where all the gelato shops vie with the fashion shops, the pizza places and espresso stops.

We love it there, not just because we love gelato but because we also enjoy being awash in the sound of Italian, to ask for or answer grazie for your coffee without a raised eyebrow. For James it's a slice of Italy and the memories of his childhood years there: for me, it makes me feel like it's close by, the language and the food I love so much.

But wait -- this was going to be a story about this guy we saw on Lygon Street, not a love poem to Italian food. (In my defense, we went to the Italian supermarket this morning, and since then I have been lying on the sofa under the air conditioner -- it's 40 degrees outside and windy as a blast furnace -- reading Italian cookbooks. MM-mm.)

So, Boxing Day, the street full of people, some of them dressed up for a shopping spree, some of them dressed down for coffee and strolling in the golden light.

We're at a table at a cafe, checking out the scene and sketching, in my case, without obviously sketching the pack of mobster lookalikes at the table next to us.

And there's this guy. Hell, this guy can move. His friend knows she can't compete, but when you're a cute little Italian woman, you can strike a good pose, and hold it with confidence while he takes the stage.

His hands have taken flight in this conversation, and his arms have no choice but to follow. He exclaims: 'Ah!' His shoulders rise dramatically, and fall. 'Oh -- it was benissimo!' - and the hands flutter outwards while the hips give a wiggle. But ah -- disappointment reigns and the hands shoot upwards again as his feet shuffle. The man's a whole-body, one-man-band gesture making machine.

Talking, that's for wimps. But, conversation, on the other hand -- that's a whole aerobic workout.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

60 Years of Lego Part 1

The plastic brick building system Lego was developed 60 years ago in Denmark in 1949. In the first of two parts about this remarkable toy, I was lucky enough to be able to interview Joseph, my local Lego expert, aged nine.

Taccola: What’s your favourite Lego set?
Joseph: The Dino Attack Helicopter.

The Dino Attack Helicopter.

T: How long have you had it?
J: Two or three years.

T: Why is it your favourite?
J: Because it’s big, and I like big sets, and it’s long so it’s easy to carry and it’s not delicate.

Indiana Jones Flying Wing

T: What’s your favourite single piece?
J: The wing from the Indiana Jones Lego Set ‘Fight on the Flying wing’. It’s the biggest piece. I bought this one with my own money.

T: Why is Lego good stuff?
J: Because you build it, and then you can play with it and the characters, or you can break it and build it again.

T: How many Lego sets do you have?
J: Around 30.

T: How old were you when you got your first Lego set, and what was it? J: About six – it was an old style set called ‘Wookie Attack’. I’m nine now.

T: What’s the smallest piece you’ve got?
J: Probably the single round flat piece.

T: What’s the biggest thing you’ve made that is your own design or invention?
J: Dino Attack Base.

T: How did you design it?
J: I broke most of my Dino Attack Lego, and then I got the tracks from the tank and attached them to the base that I built and then I built onto it. I put stuff onto it that I liked like cannons and characters.

T: What is the most important thing about Lego?
J: That it’s not Mega Bloks! It’s bits and pieces – it’s not just one thing.

T: What’s the biggest Lego set in the world?
J: The $1,000 dollar Millennium Falcon limited edition.

T: What’s your favourite type of Lego?
J: Star Wars Lego – not the Clone Wars, the older type.

T: What Lego do you want next?
J: There’s a few; the AT-AT Walker; the Dino Attack jeep thing; the Ahsoka Starfighter and droids and the Hailfire droid.

T: What do you think you’ve learned from using Lego?
T: Everything I know about Star Wars!

Building Bionicles in a couple of minutes. Building Lego much quicker and not needing any help.

T: What don’t you like about Lego?
J: Nothing except the new style the Clone Wars – because they have the worst designs and the characters with big eyes.

T: Would you like to go to Legoland in Denmark?

T: Thank you Joseph!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Harold the Herald

I think he might be a New Year card.

In keeping with the fun so far, this was loosely drawn after a wood cut in History Today magazine. Apparently he's carrying the news of a great victory to do with the Hanseatic League. That's Stockholm in the background next to the ship, can't you tell?

Either way, the original was stiff like this, and coloured and rather oddly fun. Strange cramped proportions (look how small that horse is!)

I started it in thin drawing/marker pen, but it just didn't look right so I went to town with the biggest pen-nib I had and lots of splashy India ink. That's better!

I'm thinking he'd look pretty good screenprinted onto a messenger bag (ho, ho).

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Women & radio wars - the Y Service's 'Corona'

Some aspects of warfare throw up the most bizarre events, even though the sequence leading to it might seem rationally inevitable.

Who would expect a British woman of reducing a German woman to fits of giggles (and to collapse from laughter herself) in the middle of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II?

In the latter part of that war, the night skies over Germany became a new kind of battleground where the aircraft of the RAF's Bomber Command were tackled by the night fighter aeroplanes of the German air force, the Luftwaffe. It was a bloody war with (in some measures) as much attrition on both sides as the Western Front in the Great War of 1914-18.

But this was a new kind of war in other ways.

It was the first war that was invisible, but as hard-fought as hand-to-hand combat; where men, and women, remote from the fighting, strove to give their colleagues an edge or advantage. And those advantages swung back and forth dependant on the newest technology, but also on the most unlikely of skills, and where only words and very quick wits were sometimes as powerful as other weapons. This was the war of the 'specials' -- now called electronic warfare -- but then a secret art known to few.

Radio operators in action in this uncaptioned Imperial War Museum image. (IWM)

These men and women were cramped into tiny rooms in the air or on the ground, staring intently into cathode ray tubes and manipulating dials, while their arena was huge - from Southern Britain to Eastern Germany.

One particular aspect of this was the 'Y service' where German speakers (men and women) were recruited in Britain to sit in cramped quarters and listen in (on captured German aircraft radios, where possible), eavesdropping on German transmissions between the night fighter crews and their ground-based controllers. Initially listening was all they did, using the information to revise counter strategies, but in a unique twist, the British based operators could intervene. The BBC, GPO (Post Office) and the RAF developed 'high power transmitters that bounced signals off the ionosphere deep into Germany.'

The Lancaster I NG128 dropping its load over Duisburg on Oct 14, 1944. The aircraft is carrying Airborne Cigar (ABC) radio jamming equipment, as shown by the two vertical aerials on the fuselage. (RAF Pathfinder Museum)

Another ingredient was an extra man aboard a Lancaster, using very secret radio equipment codenamed 'Airborne Cigar' or ABC. Peggy West, one of the women operators, tells us the story:
Then in October 1943 something quite different was introduced – 'Corona'. At Kingsdown, using those high power transmitters to reach far into enemy country, specially selected men and women began annoying voice interference on the 3–6 megacycle range. Pseudo controllers issued false tuning counts to prevent the Luftwaffe going operational, gave false fog warnings to get aircraft to land, read poetry, or relayed Hitler’s speeches to disrupt and frustrate, and gave direct, contrary orders to cause confusion.
Sam Brooks (on the BBC 'People's War' website) remembers:
The Germans tried all manner of devices to overcome the jamming, including having their instructions sung by Wagnerian sopranos. This was to fool our operators into thinking it was just a civilian channel and not worth jamming.
Back to Peggy:
Corona led to some amusing incidents. A German controller was trying to direct his aircraft to Kassel. Kingsdown’s 'ghost' was trying to stop them and told them not to take any notice of the Englander who was trying to confuse them. After an exchange or two, the German became pretty agitated, lost his temper, and swore. Our 'ghost' replied, “The Englander is now swearing” and was met by an infuriated shriek from Germany: “It's not the *%$#@$ Englander who is swearing, it's *%$#@$ me”!
An 'atmospherically lit' Messerschmitt Bf 110 night fighter, one of the Luftwaffe's main types in the role, in the RAF Museum, Hendon. Author.

The British had an operator aboard a Lancaster jamming (or distracting) German ground transmissions. To 'spoof' them, he might work with a British operator broadcasting in German, from Kingsdown while pretending to be the 'real' German controller. Confusing? Very.
When a 101 Squadron Lancaster with its ABC 'Special' was shot down over Berlin, the Luftwaffe assumed Kingsdown’s 'Corona' voice interference came from that ABC equipment. They reasoned, correctly, that the RAF would not allow women to fly operationally over Germany and switched to women ground controllers. Since we had anticipated that, we did the same.
An uncaptioned photograph of a woman operator - probably radar rather than radio - on the Imperial War Museum website. (IWM)

So the real female German controller had a British based female 'spoof' controller relayed onto her German wavelength to distract and misdirect her and her night fighter crews. The frustration of the previously-mentioned male German controller was encountered by his female successor:
One of our girls got into a similar battle of wills, the only difference being that both women ended up laughing with each other and had to shut down. We all enjoyed the incident very much – but did wonder what happened to the lass over there!
Such moments of bizarre amusement were few in such a terrible war, but who could ever have predicted such an event ever coming to pass?


Peggy West's account of the work of the Y Service can be found here, as part of a 2003 conference on the Air War in Europe at the Australian War Memorial. More on the Y Service on this page from The Secret War's website, and some of the background to the RAF's special aircraft can be found here on 100 Group. More firsthand memories on the excellent BBC People's War Website can be found here, with an ABC Operator and a WAAF Y Service operator.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ghosts of Christmases Past

Lake Okanagan, -25 degrees C (-13 F).

Maryborough, Victoria, Australia. 25 degrees C (77 F) at night.

Montecito, California.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas fruit of the Season

In Australia. There is an upside to the importation of a mid-winter special pleading with the gods festival into the middle of a 40 degree C summer.

This picture is for our poor, snowbound northern neighbours. The cherries taste even better than they look, by the way.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

And for the finishing touch, no make that the start... and the middle...


I've never really made Italian deserts before. When in Italy, I've noticed that the bars and bakeries make and sell beautiful, complex creations. Why would you make them at home? Not for me the concoctions of cream and fruit, glazes and choux pastry. But a little biscotti to go with your coffee, well that might be something to try.

Coffee is obligatory. Don't fight it. Just munch it.

Marcella talked me into it. I've made three batches of her Burano Sugar Biscuits, I Bussolati de Buran. I'm absolutely certain that there will be room for more of these biscuits in my life.

The interesting thing is that I've realised half of the excitement of the biscuits lies in the texture. The first batch was divine. Surprising and delightful. Chewy on the inside and crisp around the edges. The second batch, intended for Christmas gifts, just didn't cut it. I forgot to fully incorporate the two tablespoons of milk (is that all?, you think) -- and I learned that it does indeed make a difference! These ones didn't have the delightful chew. They taste great, but not divine.

I have hopes of the third batch, batter carefully made and sitting in the fridge to get cold. This is one of those simple recipes that has two parts: make the batter (chill the batter), shape and bake the biscuits. Perfect for a busy day when you can go out and do something else in the in-between.

Here's the recipe. The instructions I have short-handed, and for the real thing, grab the book from your library. I'm sure you could manage with this short form, though! It's dead simple.

Burano Sugar Biscuits

225g (8 oz) butter, softened to room temperature
285g (10 oz) caster sugar (but I ran out and used a mixture - fine)
A pinch of salt
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
5 egg yolks (yes, that means egg white omelette for dinner!)
450g (1 lb) plain flour, plus more for rolling
2 tablespoons milk (don't forget!)
A large rectangular cookie sheet or baking tray

1. Put all the ingredients into a food processor and mix. (I use my hand-held cake mixer because I haven't got a food processor. I mix things in gradually and pray I don't bust the motor! The dough gets a bit stiff at the end.)

2. Stick it in a container you can seal tightly and pop in the fridge for 2 hours or so.

3. Turn on the oven to 200 degrees (400F). Smear the baking tin/tray with butter, sprinkle with flour and tap it sharply on the counter to remove the excess.

4. Tip some more flour onto the counter. Pull off a handful of batter, about the size of a large egg. Roll it under your palms to form a cigar. When it's 8 inches long and about 1 inch, or slightly less thick, gently (oh so gently!) curve it around and press the two ends together. (If you're too quick, the dough cracks, and that tastes fine but looks ugly.)

5. Bake them on the tray - leave plenty of space between them as they do puff up. Bake for 10-15 minutes until slightly golden.

Keeps well: in a large air-tight tin for (she says) up to 2 months. Hah, just you try it! They'll be gone in 3 days. Makes about 2 dozen.

Dare I say it? Better than shortbread.... aaaaaahhh, that's sacrilege. But it might be true!

Italian biscuits and bookshops

I've been cooking and reading and thinking. (Oh, and eating, heh heh.)

A very happy place: in a slow food restaurant in Arezzo, Italy, 2008.

Last weekend, James and I went exploring up the hill. Just a few minutes' walk from home, where there were several empty shops, half-hearted kids' clothing boutiques and refurbished fridge sales rooms, now there are... bookshops.

Yes, we know what that means. Divine, glorious, unrelenting temptation. Just ten minutes from home. Almost close enough to warrant the excuse: 'I'm just going out to walk the dog for a few minutes / to the post office /pharmacy / newsagent... oops! And they had this lovely book in the window, so I just popped in....' The dead giveaway is the long walk after which the dog is irritated and not at all tired. ('Here I am, sitting on my tush outside another damn bookshop', thinks the dog... 'Good dog, blah blah blah - where's the park?')

Not being the type to kid ourselves (ahem), we agreed it would be lunch and then bookshop-shopping. There's the remainder bookshop, been there a couple of years, and avidly watched for occasional golden finds in history and fiction. There's a new second hand bookshop, which - oh heavens bless it! - has an amazing cookbook section. And there's a shambolic, traditional second hand bookshop spilling over with piles, heaps, towers of books. We reckon there's the occasional treasure in amongst the worn-out high school biology textbooks. And we were right.

So, off down the street, swinging our bag with the lovely, early-arrived Christmas cheque in it. Can you hear that little Christmas cheque quaking in fear? - Or perhaps in anticipation of fulfilment in nirvana of bookshopness? Delights!

This is what I got, and it's been inspiring much delicious reading:

Now, I've known about this book for a while. Never looked very closely at it, but when I did I was delighted: a proper cookbook that tells me WHY. Not just pretty pictures, artfully styled, and one recipe per page. Marcella talks about market-shopping, selecting fruit, fish and meat, why to use certain cuts, what stirring a risotto is all about, and more, more.

I realise that I'm no longer excited by the presentation cookbooks unless they have something very unusual, enticing, about the recipes. This book has lots of reading in it, and although it's clearly written for the American market, I'm fine with converting and finding equivalent types of fish, cuts of meat, etc. We can deal with that.

But here's the point. I've been realising the Italian cooking is, in many ways, about texture as much as flavour. Of course you use good ingredients and coax out their flavours, but texture, too. Risotto with the creamy outer sauce and a bite to the central kernel in the rice (did you know that a good risotto rice grain -- arborio or carnarola - will be translucent around the edges when you hold it up to the light? The central kernel is hard starch which will hold its toothiness, while the clear white glowing outer shell is softer starch that melts off the grain at a specific temperature when heat and oil and moisture are combined and sustained.) Ah-ha. Well it tastes damn fine, too.

I realise now that I have three cookbooks largely covering cooking from the Emilia-Romagna and Veneto regions, Piedimonte and the North. They are what I turn to when I want to try just a little harder, creating something intended, but simple. They're what I like best.

So we've had some nice risottos (risotti?), there's a slow-cooked stew planned for tonight, and biscuits.

Oh, the biscuits. They deserve a post ALL of their OWN, she says, brushing the crumbs off her shirt.


Saturday, December 19, 2009


Time for an Italian Job - this one's for Greg & Eileen.

Inspired by Eileen's neat painting of the iconic original FIAT Cinquecento (above) on her blog Easelarts (go have a look, it's neat, and an impressive run of artwork) I've dug out some shots we took of the original FIAT 500 in Italy and the modern pastiche supermini.

Original in Rome.

An Italian Job set, with a trio being used as pace cars in the Giro d'Italia bicycle race we ran into the Italian hill-towns.

And parked up with another retro-pastiche, seen in a typical street, this time in Arezzo.

Tragically, according to the Wiki page, this modern car "is available with four different trim levels: Naked, Pop, Lounge, and Sport". Meh.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's for a big cake, officer

Of course if you are an unpatriotic Canadian food hoarder, please will you put these posters up inside your house next to the clearly marked 'Hoarded Food' bags so the nice policeman can use the labels to ease your arrest.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Things editors find funny...

... as opposed to it's and their and you'r, which just aren't cool.

As found in this month's RACV members' magazine.

How about a six-birth holiday van, darling?

I think not.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Local Lizards

We saw these fat boys on our walk the other day. Good news is that Toby decided the second one was 'scary' and ran away. An excellent tactic we wish to see from our dog towards reptiles. (The first one he missed entirely.) The other good news is that where they have decided to live is the most likely place snakes would choose as well (note the pipes behind them) - therefore we hope that's decreased our chances of Toby (or us!) coming across any of their venomous cousins.

These are, it appears, the common Eastern Blue-tongue Lizard - Tiliqua scincoides. We're not entirely sure about the blue tongue. I mean would you go "Say aahhhh!" to check?

More details here.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Granola gets my vote, in the morning at least

Sometimes cooking is exciting, and sometimes it's easy and just satisfying.

I've just finished a breakfast of the satisfying kind: home-made granola, banana and yogourt. Now, granola's not the kind of food to make me go 'ooh' and 'humm' but since finding an old family recipe tucked in the back of my folder, I've become a convert. I like oats, just never eat packaged cereal for the dusty, musty might-have-nuts-in-it flavour I can't stand. But this, Yum!

At first I made a half batch, to see if I liked it. You could, too. Takes 5 minutes to mix and a little while in the oven while you do something else. (Yes, you bake it: who'da thought?)

Granola from Grandpa and Grandma's recipe

9 cups rolled oats
1 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup honey

1/2 cup hot water

dried fruit of your choice
(I use a small handful each of dried cherries and raisins, sometimes dried cranberries)

Turn on the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, stir together the oats, wheat germ and sunflower seeds.

Measure the honey into a pyrex jug or similar. I use a metal 1/2-cup measuring cup for the oil and then the honey, and measure the hot water last which melts out the remains of the honey.

Whisk it with a fork to mix well -- and then stir it into the oat mixture.

Dump the damp granola mixture into a large roasting pan and bake, in the middle of the oven, for about ten minutes. Stir it all up, repeat for another ten minutes, and then add the dried fruit and repeat for another ten minutes. The granola should crisp up and become slightly golden. (I add the fruit near the end to avoid it going black and bitter.)

Let it cool completely before storing in a big airtight container

Monday, December 7, 2009

Time with Hispanofila

The minaret/bell tower of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, by night - Credit: Hispanofila's Blog

We thought that some of our readers might like to pop across to our old friend Max's blog at Hispanofila. This post was a particularly interesting jaunt around the stuff that's going on for her, and the fun of integrating an academic life into 'real' life and airline schedules - themes we know and know are of close interest to several of our regulars!

So feel free to pop over and leave a comment too.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

PS to recent items...

Sometimes you are the zeitgeist. I think. Or something. Glittery stuff calls your attention even when you might want to move on.

Steampunking in the Museum
'Signage going up' - Credit: Museum of the History of Science Steampunk Blog.

Coincidentally to my post on the British Steam record car, I mentioned Steampunk, and a few days later my attention was drawn to an exhibition of Steampunk items at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science. (What place could be better for such a mix of conservative retro and cutting edge brass widgets?) The museum has its blog on the exhibition here, and the exhibition web page here. Make chuffing noises while manipulating your mouse, please.

I tried to ignore it, but via an article on bees (don't ask) I was redirected to a photo review in New Scientist (here) so I give up and mention the thing. It's (apparently) the first exhibition of its kind. How retro-futuristically-timely am I?

New Scientist also carry a review. Anyone who gets to see it - it's a bit far for us, please let us know what you think. Seems to me to be a mix of interesting ideas and someone awaiting the invention of the steam-battery.

Hey - look again at the lumps of gold!
Not the Staffordshire Hoard, just a boring old gold bar.

Meanwhile there was a very interesting article on the 'mis-reporting' of the Staffordshire Hoard in History Today. The author, Justin Pollard, takes one of the issues Bev and I lightly touched on (here) and went to town on it:

...this extraordinary collection was referred to as little more than a lump of bullion – ‘Hoard contains 5kg of gold and 2.5kg of silver’– both of which figures are, for the record, rather exaggerated.

Having studied and written about Anglo-Saxon England for many years, it is sad to see a subject I love reduced to a weight in metal. Certainly there were expert sound bites telling us that this was ‘like finding another Book of Kells’, although no attempt was made to explain what this might actually mean.
The full article is here, and well worth a read (you may have to register - for free - but nothing more than that). A couple of points for those in a hurry:
It is not 5kg of gold; it is a remarkable collection of very high status decorative pieces, nearly all of which seem to have been stripped from military equipment, mainly swords. This is, in itself, very odd.
These might be the war trophies of a successful warrior, stripped from the weapons of vanquished foes; they might be the gleanings from one bloody battlefield or perhaps a lifetime’s acquisitions. As yet we cannot say and, no doubt, arguments will rage for many years, but then that is how our knowledge of the past progresses.
When it was recovered it was no longer bullion, not gold or silver. It was history. A little piece of a long-gone world washed up on a very alien shore. That is what we should be celebrating as the story it may one day tell us will be so much rarer than gold.

Looking to historiography in journalism. It's a thought.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Choose your instrument carefully

...because one day you'll need to catch a bus while carrying it. Wonder if she's wondering why she didn't choose a piccolo!