Saturday, 17 February 2018

Slightly ripped off

I think restaurants and gastro-pubs everywhere need to pause and rethink what they are presently offering to customers. I eat out a fair bit, at least twice a week, and I'm definitely noticing a trend away from giving good value. Either you pay an awful lot, or get small portions, or both. I will exempt Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants from this general complaint: thank goodness, you can still get a full tummy for a very reasonable amount at such eateries, unless they have pretentions. I'm mainly talking about the kind of place found in the centre of Brighton, but also in other trendy spots, that aim to impress you with their ambience. All over the country. I noticed quite a few of them last summer in Newcastle, on the north bank of the Tyne, near the Sage and the Baltic.

Last night at the Côte Brasserie in Brighton, for instance. An upmarket exterior; staff everywhere, buzzing to and fro; comprehensive menus, catering for various needs (one of our party needed gluten-free food: there was a special menu ready for her); generally a classy experience.

We had an £80 voucher to spend (Côte had cancelled a pre-Christmas booking at the last moment - a kitchen problem - and the voucher was recompense) but nobody went mad on what they ordered. Each had a starter, a main, and either a dessert or a coffee. I myself had a smoked salmon starter, a lamb shank main, and a black coffee instead of a dessert, accompanied by one large glass of house white wine, and some water. I drank less wine than three of the others - who shared two bottles of house red - but otherwise my food and drink selection wasn't very different in cost or quantity from what the others ordered. How much then? There were five of us, and the bill (before deducting that £80) came to £196, with a 12.5% service charge automatically included. £39 each. That wasn't a cheap meal.

Here's a shot of my smoked salmon starter, with capers, on a medium-sized plate.

Eaten with a small amount of toast, it was very nice, but scarcely a tummy-tightener.

This was my main. A diddy lamb shank on some mashed potatoes with mustard in it, and a pleasant jus. No green vegetables - those would have been extra, and I overlooked ordering any.

It was very good; cooked just right; but there wasn't a lot of it.

Add in one glass of white wine (nothing extra special), a tumbler or two of tap water out of a china bottle, and an ordinary Americano coffee.

Was it all really worth almost £40? I don't think so.

I'm not singling out Côte as an arch perpetrator of poor value. As a social occasion, it was great. The service was friendly and attentive, if a little too inclined to suggest we bought more drinks. But I do say that I expected more to eat for the cash.

Earlier that day, at lunchtime, I was at village friend Jo's, and she had whipped up a spicy soup...

...and a vegetable quiche with new potatoes, pasta, and a salad to follow...

...accompanied by somewhat more than one glass of white wine (I provided the bottle), water, and a nice cup of tea. Oh, I forgot the yummy yoghurt, summer fruits and blueberry dessert (I could have had a that on a meringue nest, but I turned the nest down, wanting to be as Slimming-World compliant as possible).

The bottle of wine cost me £7.95, and I drank £3-worth of it, another bottle coming into play. (There were four of us: Jo, Jackie, myself, and Jo's husband Clive, who joined us from a morning's golf) And that was an attractive, satisfying meal, which Jo described as 'light' but was actually rather filling and threatened my appetite for feasting at Côte later the same day. What might it have cost overall? Let's say £15 for the foodstuffs consumed, plus another £15 for the two bottles of wine we opened: £30 for the four of us. £7 a head, give or take a bit.

My point is, what you cook up at home, and what it costs, is a world away from what you get at a restaurant in town, and what that costs. It was of course always thus, but recently I think the difference has become more marked. Nowadays, eating out at gastro-pubs and brasseries, let alone places with more stellar reputations, seems to involve real pain in the purse department. Pain not mollified by enjoying a meal to remember.

What has gone wrong? I suspect that over the last ten years popular TV cookery programmes like Masterchef, and the way a bunch of celebrity chefs have become household names, have all created an aspiration for 'fine dining', and a public liking for places to eat that offer a special experience. It's been goodbye to traditional pub grub, hello to new twists on old recipes, quirky menus, and fussy service - anything to make the food on the plate look 'different' and full of 'added value'. But whether you get adequate nutrition for the money is another matter. Attempts at finesse and refinement generally mean not much on the plate. Personally, I wouldn't mind if the food were tipped onto the plate anyhow, so long as it was tasty, and I had enough to eat. I don't greatly care about artistic presentation. It's nice, but hardly essential. I'm certainly not impressed if a tiny pot of jus is dribbled for me over a single shaped carrot, or speck of meat, as the chef's signature flourish.

I mean, look at this chock-full plate of food I cooked up at home recently, just for myself one evening.

Or this.

Or this.

No art here. Just a neat arrangement on the plate. But these meals were delicious, filling, and - gravy and mint sauce excepted - Slimming-World compliant too. The ingredients were good-quality (mostly from Waitrose, or a local butcher) but didn't really cost all that much.

Why can't I get hearty meals like this at places like Côte? I appreciate that I must pay a premium for their doing the cooking, and I clearly understand that they need to cover their overheads and make a decent profit. But I still want a well-covered plate for my money!

A vain hope. All that attentive, friendly, service  comes at a price. And a whole generation of young chefs have been taken on, and expect to be paid well. So to cover these staff costs, you get less food, and pay through the nose for it. And in many places it feels like a rip-off.

I still think that a wonderful meal out is one of life's great pleasures. But I think the experience is getting rarer. Either the meal has been big on theatre but small on hunger-satisfying potential, or the cost has been so much that after paying I've wanted to forget it all, as if it had been a rash and embarrassing mistake that I'd rather not admit to. Especially when I can prepare a fabulous meal for myself for so much less cash.

I hear that many restaurants are getting worried about profitability in the year ahead. Customers have been led to expect more, but are feeling the pinch and are looking for ways to eat out for less. Or indeed eat in. Some restaurants are bound to go under. It won't be enough to pile on peripheral things like a posher ambience. People want, above all, delicious food and plenty of it.

So I say: less pretension, please, and better value. Or we will all stay away.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Better healing

I had arranged for one of the podiatry team - Victoria - to look at my toe and tell me why it wasn't healing up as it was supposed to. Where was I going wrong, with my daily ministrations at home?

She took off the latest dressing and assured me straight away that it wasn't infected. It was a healthy wound. That was very good news. But a proper scab had formed only in the front corners of the old nail bed. The rest was soft and pink and still weeping.

She asked me about the saline baths I ought to be giving the foot before each redressing. I told her that I had stuck to the printed notes: ten minutes every time. Every day for the last five weeks. Ah! That was the reason for the delayed healing - at this stage, the wound now needed to be kept as dry as possible, so that a protective scab - or better, the new protective hard skin - had a chance to develop, finally stopping the constant weeping.

So, the saline baths need not be daily any more. And in case they shouldn't be more than a quick dip, just enough to clean the foot. And when showering, I must devise a method of keeping the foot, or at least the toe, completely dry. I promised to comply at once.

So it was as simple as letting the wound dry out, not just for a few hours at a time, but all the time. This wasn't made clear in the printed notes I'd been given. I felt now that those notes ought to include a sentence like 'After the first few days, keep the nail bed as dry as possible - make the saline baths brief, just sufficient to clean the foot, and not in any way a prolonged soak.' Because of not doing that I was probably two or three weeks behind in the normal healing process.

Victoria didn't think that I would have compromised healing capabilities, simply because I was in my sixties. Gratifying.

Well, that was all two days ago. Any immediate effects? Yes indeed. The toe looks different. It is still weeping a clear fluid, but a kind of crust has formed over the former nail bed, and it's dark red, not pink. Surely a good sign of progress.

But - again contrary to the printed notes - I may not get full healing for a long time to come. Victoria explained that the timescales in the notes were average, and, regardless of their age, people varied very widely in the time it took to heal up. In my case, I should not be surprised if it took as much as twelve weeks.  On that basis, it was still early days. Provided I kept the wound sterile and dry, and didn't stress it with unsuitable footwear or too much activity, I would eventually have a great outcome. But I had to give it time.

There you are. It looks as if I will be going down to the West Country in March with the toe still bandaged up! And there won't be any dipping my feet in the sea at Bude or Woolacombe, Exmouth or Sidmouth, sunny day or not. But a careful walk on Dartmoor or Exmoor may be all right. A short one, anyway.       

Thursday, 15 February 2018

No Orchids for Miss Melford

It was of course St Valentine's Day yesterday. No welter of Valentine cards fell through my front door. I certainly wasn't expecting any, and would have been shocked if there had been even one of them. My days as the object of love-messages - or the sender of them - are long over!

And never to return. I have made my mind up about that. No more attempts to find love, nor any attempts to secure a special relationship involving a yearning for one person in particular, and exclusive commitment to them.

I've tried doing it. I've had some short-lived relationships, and two long-term ones. Both the long-lasting relationships ended sourly, with dire consequences for my self-confidence and self-valuation. Indeed every relationship I've ever had, brief or longer-lasting, has ended badly or at least discreditably, leaving me with the feeling that I could have done a lot better if the will had been there. But if you really don't possess all the qualities necessary for making a relationship work, or you can't cope with the ordinary demands of a worthwhile relationship, or you find that a relationship has turned out to be a prison, rendering you powerless and unappreciated, or simply bored, then it's time to get out. And stay out.

Staying out also means avoiding romantic love, what St Valentine's Day is all about. Yet for the sake of self-preservation, I am happy to do that. I don't think it will warp my nature. But who knows?

But I will never be able to pass St Valentine's Day by without noticing it. For I got married on that day in 1983. It was my idea, my own romantic gesture. And my marriage began reasonably well. But was not so good after 1987, and separation followed in 1991. Then divorce in 1996.

There was never a proper inquest as to why it failed. There were definitely shortcomings on both sides, though not misbehaviour. In retrospect, from the distance of thirty-odd years, I would say that if I'd had more experience, more insight into human nature, more understanding of what it really takes to live with someone long-term, then I'd have backed away from the entire affair and - whatever the inconvenience to others - stopped the show. I don't see now how it could ever have worked. Neither of us was unkind, disloyal or mean-spirited, but we were not kindred spirits. It fell apart because of insufficient glue. We hadn't bonded properly. And yet the relationship that eventually followed this one seemed to be full of bonds, and it lasted much longer, yet it too melted in the end.

Some people no doubt said that I could have fought for my marriage, that it failed because I let it go without trying hard to save it. Or that I should have given more, and more again, and not stop until I had no more to give. In other words, not admit the thing had passed the point of no return, and seek martyrdom instead. Rightly or wrongly, my temperament did not allow that to happen.

I don't believe that any amount of shared interests, attitudes, standards and jokes are enough to ensure success. I think it must - tritely - all be a matter of 'chemistry'. Whatever makes it satisfying, interesting, and exciting to be with another person. It's not reducible to box-ticking. You need the ability to feel, and to reach out, and to think as much of somebody else's needs as your own. And there must be a longing that only another person can fulfil. I'm much too self-contained, much too independent, to have that kind of longing. I'm very fortunate in being content with this, for wanting to walk the world alone. So many single people are not at all content, and suffer accordingly.

Still, I have mixed feelings about missing out on enjoying a candlelit Valentine dinner, whether at home or out. It's a ritual, of course. But I remember it meaning something very important in years long past. It was a mutual reassurance that the relationship was still alive and kicking, the flowers and cards a re-avowal of romance. That we had made it through one more year. That we were still 'in love'. If the divorce hadn't taken place, yesterday would have been an important wedding anniversary - the thirty-fifth. We would have shared a particularly love-soaked occasion, or would have tried to.

I never had a family of my own. That might have been a big factor in the collapse of my two main relationships. It's surely an important thing for older couples to ponder, as they sip their wine in the candlelight, that the natural result of love is a family. A joint achievement. It's glue.

Ah well. For me, it's a face into the wind, and eyes on the far horizon. 'Stay alive, stay free'. My personal motto. Life unhindered, life unfenced. But life without love.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Holiday plans pruned

Although my financial state in 2018 is really no different than in 2017, last month I booked up caravan holidays for the entire period to early November, carefully taking into account all other known appointments and commitments, and (so far as possible) friends' birthday celebrations, but ignoring the effect on my savings account balance. I thought it would all come out fine.

The total number of nights away in my caravan was quite impressive: 107 nights; fifteen weeks. Not far short of one third of the year on the road. Now that's travelling. OK, it would all be on the UK mainland, and nowhere exotic by many people's standards. But to me, a Sussex resident, the West and the North are exotic, and I always look forward to seeing them again. This year would include visits to the far west of Wales (Pembrokeshire), the best of the middle Pennines, the Peak District, and Suffolk. Places not seen for years.

It felt so good to get all that booked up.

It was, frankly, a defiant gesture against necessary but irksome financial restraint. I'm quite tired now of being short of money through having to repay the bank loans taken out from late 2015 so that Fiona could have a new automatic gearbox (I'd worn the old one out with the demands of caravanning) and then, one year later, a new rear differential unit (itself a kind of automatic gearbox, all to do with traction control, and also worn out with caravanning). I was over halfway through the repayment schedule, and the outstanding balance had dropped dramatically, but the relentless need to make monthly repayments was squeezing my ability to spend. That's why I was getting fed up with owing money to the bank and having to repay it. Never again, if I could help it. Next time - when the house needed a new boiler, say - I'd cover the cost with cash from savings. The loans had squeezed me for all of 2016 and all of 2017. No wonder I felt rebellious and badly wanted to be on holiday more. Long-term prisoners must get like this. Stir crazy. So booking 107 nights away felt sweet.

But a niggling voice in my mind said 'You'd be sensible to extend your income/expenditure/savings spreadsheet into the next few months, and be absolutely certain that you can afford all this holidaying.' I am a sensible person. I listened to that voice. I worked out how things would go in the months ahead. It was going to be a year of heavy expenses: new tyres, front brake discs and pads for Fiona (possibly a new exhaust too); new specs and a dental filling for me. And I discovered, to my chagrin, that my savings account would go into the red in the early summer - an impossible situation. Damn.

So the grand 2018 holiday plans had to be pruned. I couldn't possibly forego my usual trips to the West Country in spring and autumn, nor to south Wales. And the basic integrity of the Northern Tour I'd planned had to be preserved. But I saw ways to cut away days and destinations, and whittled it all down to 88 nights away. I have sacrificed Pembrokeshire, the mid-Pennines, the Peak District and Suffolk. The Northern Tour is now more correctly a North Eastern Tour. No commitment to meet up with friends is affected. It's still a good programme. And while my savings account sinks low for half a month, it doesn't go into minus figures, and it recovers nicely.

All the rejigging took hours, and it gave me a mild headache. But I think my meaner, leaner holiday plans match this year's financial resources much better. By August 2019 those pesky loan repayments - and some other cash-draining items - will be gone. Finished, or greatly reduced. From then on I can genuinely afford to travel about much more. I just have accept that no really ambitious trip will be feasible before August 2019. That moment seems a long way off, but the months will of course fly by fast enough.

And 88 nights away in 2018 isn't by any means starving myself of holiday time. It's twelve and a half weeks. Well, I know people who can't get away for even two weeks. I'm lucky, and should keep that thought in mind.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Harry the lizard

If you like watching BBC1's police-detective series set in the Caribbean, Death in Paradise, then you must have noticed that a small creature regularly makes an appearance at The Shack, which is the beach residence of the current Detective Inspector of the tiny police force on the island of Saint Marie. This creature is Harry, the resident lizard at The Shack.

He's perky and green, and seems to enjoy the company of his 'owners', who have all taken him on in succession, and made sure that he is fed and watered. The Inspector in Series One and Two (and episode one of Series Three), Richard Poole (played by Ben Miller) took that duty very seriously, and actually kept a book - secretly - on how to care for a pet lizard in his work desk. His successor for Series Three to Six, Humphrey Goodman (Kris Marshall) also had a great relationship with Harry, and liked talking to him, though he sometimes had reason to deliver an admonishment. For instance, for unsympathetically munching a juicy moth while Humphrey soliloquised about his agonised love-life; for attempting to eat vital forensic evidence (a Martinique cockroach); and for scaring his visiting father as he slept.

The latest DI for a bit of Series Six, and all of Series Seven, Jack Mooney (Ardal O'Hanlon), has developed a really soft spot for Harry. He is terribly concerned when the little fellow falls ill in a recent episode. All is well by the end, though, with Harry restored and duly grateful, but keen to leap off into the rafters in search of insects. Here he is, back from the vet and getting a fuss from Jack and his DS, Florence Cassel:

In earlier series of the programme, Harry didn't always look quite so uniformly bright green. Perhaps lizards change colour with age! Here he is back in Series Three and Four:

Mind you, there really are Caribbean lizards, and some of them are bright green like this. The programme-makers did their homework. Such a lizard is found in the Eastern Caribbean (where Saint Marie is supposed to be - it's actually filmed on Guadeloupe), and is called the Guadeloupean anole, or Leopard anole - anolis maramoratus. Here's a Wikipedia link: If he remains well looked-after, and doesn't get murdered (as so many do on Saint Marie: the slaughter is awful, and I'm surprised there is any tourist industry there at all), Harry might easily live for fourteen years. So when Death in Paradise finally comes to its natural end, there may be a spin-off series about Harry in later life, by then a TV legend.

Harry isn't a real lizard, given to clever acting right on cue. This YouTube video explains his true nature: But it's so well done, I find Harry entirely believable as a character, and in his own way very endearing. 

I've always had a fond regard for little lizards, but that's another story, about three weeks in a farmhouse in France during the mid 1990s...

Frustratingly slow healing

Well, here I am, thirty-three days after my toe surgery, and the nail bed has still not healed up. I have daily given it the prescribed saline bath, and redressed it in these fancy dressings, which cost 20p each at Boots:

The dressing seals the wound in, and prevents infection. (I've taken on board that avoiding infection is vital)

But thirty-three days - over four weeks - without a definite sign that the wound is approaching the end of its healing period! Long enough, surely?

To help things along, I was asked to let the wound dry out a bit, with my foot up and the dressing off, to encourage the formation of a scab. I spent many an afternoon doing just that, in a recliner, next to a radiator, with a garden view to contemplate. Many an afternoon when I could have been doing something else (one reason for the lack of recent posts). But even if the wound did seem to dry up, as in this picture, taken only yesterday... would eventually start to weep a clear fluid at the edges. And once encased again in a fresh dressing, the red crust you can see in the picture would tend to soften up and dissolve into a kind of mush - as I would discover when it was time to take off the dressing next day, and give the wound another saline bath.

The dressing was clearly keeping the wound in a moist state. The printed NHS notes given to me didn't mention that.

This is what the notes said about what should happen:

For each person the time it takes for the wound to heal following the procedure is different. On average it takes 6 to 8 weeks to heal completely. To aid healing avoid tight socks, shoes and heavy bedclothes. Avoid sport and strenuous activity. The toe may appear slightly red and puffy for about 10 days. This is normal. The wound may weep slightly but will begin to dry out after 2-4 weeks and a scab will form. Do not remove the scab.

It's now past the four-week mark. Why is the wound still leaking fluid, and why is a hard scab not forming?

I have lately studied what Wikipedia (and other sources) have to say about wounds and their treatment. The current consensus is that the best way of ensuring really rapid healing of wounds is to keep them continually moist. But this must also mean that a hard scab cannot form. That's not what the printed notes tell me. Nevertheless, the existing daily routine appears to be the right one, and I just have to be patient.

It would be nice to make sure of all this. I am minded to make another appointment at the Haywards Heath Health Centre, with the lady who took the nail off, and ask her to check that all is well. Am I being too fussy? I just don't know. I am not used to getting wounded and watching flesh heal. 

One thing I read on the Internet was that in the case of older people - and I am sixty-six in July - healing can be slow. That may then be an important factor here - although I would have thought that a retired person on a nourishing, well-balanced diet - whose domestic situation is restful, warm, comfortable and unstressful - would enjoy the healing capabilities of someone rather younger.