IMELDA, BANQUETS AND LAMPSHADES…

and a tale of early “upcycling”

Regular readers of these pages will know that my wife Dido’s first career was as a professional ballerina, mostly, as a member of the touring arm of the London’s Royal Ballet; The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (since renamed and relocated as the Birmingham Royal Ballet). Being the premier national touring company, the main remit of the Sadler’s Wells was to bring top-class classical ballet to all corners of the British Isles, otherwise starved of such elite spectacle. However, during foreign tours (which occurred about every two years), the company had the additional role of being artistic, cultural ambassadors for the United Kingdom. More often than not, when meeting the great and the good of other nations, this responsibility could seem like a perk, but on occasion, it was more of a burden, when the handshakes and smiles were purely diplomatic.

Perhaps the starkest (not to mention most surreal) example of the latter occurrence in Dido’s Sadler’s Wells career happened during the 1980 tour of the Far East (to South Korea, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong), during the company’s visit to The Philippines when they were hosted by the infamous Ferdinand Marcos, and – most especially – by his wife Imelda.

The self-proclaimed ex-diva and lover of the arts took a personal interest in the visit of the company, setting up their performances at her newly built Cultural Centre (part of the complex built for the visit of Pope John Paul to Manilla the previous year). She also attended all of their shows (including two matinees, they typically performed 7 times a week), and lavished the company with ostentatious hospitality. This included the dubious privilege, following the company’s final performance in The Philippines, of being invited to the Malacañang Palace for a banquet being held to honour another well-known visitor to Manilla, David Rockefeller.

The main banquet, with a full-service supper was held in the Heroes’ Hall, after which Imelda took the company upstairs, where she had laid on a disco, and more food – an enormous buffet – before the highlight of the evening, a tour of her shoe collection.

The first lady’s parting gesture, was to give every member of the company (over 60 dancers, management and crew all-told) goody bags, stuffed with an eclectic selection of gifts. While the audio-cassette of Imelda singing her “greatest hits” was merely an acquired taste, the set of teak salad bowls and servers were actually tasteful and useful (we use Dido’s to this day); but things like shell-decorated flowerpots (with accompanying plant), mahogany and shell-decorated light shades, were not only garish, but constituted a serious logistical problem for the already overladen company.

Ultimately, it was as much as people could manage, to schlep the unwanted extra luggage to the company’s next port of call, Singapore, where they were staying at the Mandarin Hotel. Thus, at the end of their stay there, rather than lug the goody bags to Thailand and beyond, all 63 company members left the pot covers and light shades in their rooms.

Two years later, the Sadler’s Wells returned to Singapore, and the Mandarin Hotel, where they were housed on the same two floors as on the earlier visit. To their collective astonishment, they found that all the rooms had been redecorated, and refurbished with Imelda’s light shades and flower pots! Who knew that the queen of shoes was also a pioneer of high-end upcycling – albeit, unwittingly – and as for her “greatest hits” cassettes, nobody knows what happened to them?

This was the menu for the main sit-down dinner and it’s worth bearing in mind that the meal started at midnight, following the company’s final performance immediately before. And all this on top of a matinee earlier in the day! The dinner took hours, including half-a-dozen speeches given by the hosts and the guests, all of zero interest to a bunch of exhausted dancers. Fortunately this was a Saturday night with Sunday off…
…Following the formal supper, Imelda took the company upstairs to her own private palace disco (she loved dancing) where she had also laid on this ginormous “after-dinner” buffet. While it’s true that dancers are generally ravenous after shows, this was all too much, even for them…
The first lady boogying with one of the company members. The disco (including a break for a tour of her shoe collection) lasted until almost daybreak…
…Waiting at the airport in Manilla to board the plane for Singapore, together with their goody bags…
Gisselle was one of the main ballets of the tour, and here is my lovely Dido in her costume, on stage at Manilla.

ULTIMATE PORKY COMFORT (delicious, bangers and mash with onion gravy and mushy peas)

For the no doubt many of you who for whom egg-sucking and grandmothers comes to mind when seeing this recipe, my sincere apologies. My excuse for publishing what must seem such a basic and obvious recipe is simply the mounting number of quite awful plates of food purporting to be bangers and mash I have been obliged to eat in recent times – mostly due to the treble scourge of fruit “enhanced” sausages non-pork sausages and non-mushy crushed garden peas.

Regular readers of this blog will probably have seen my fairly recent post on cottage and shepherds pies. The other two standard “British classics” currently finding favour across the globe are fish and chips and bangers and mash. The steady advance of the latter dish is aided by the fact that British and Irish pork sausages (at least the massed produced varieties) are becoming increasingly available, especially (but not exclusively) in those lands with significant British and Irish diasporas. Subsequently, and unlike with shepherds and cottage pie, it’s quite possible to get authentic bangers and mash anywhere from Singapore to Santiago de Chile.

Talking of all things “authentic”, my followers will know that in culinary matters I am something of a stickler – not say a pedant when it comes to authenticity.  And so far as bangers and mash is concerned there can only be one type of banger; the traditional British Isle pork sausage.

This is not to say that there is not a fair range of sausage types within that definition – from high-end handmade Cumberland coils and Lincolnshire links to the humble massed produced so-called “butchers” sausages produced by firms like Walls, Richmond and the big supermarkets – and they all have their merits, mostly depending what mood you and your fellow diners are in. Speaking for myself, if I’m feeling like a meaty, herby sausage I’ll cook up a batch of Lincolnshire sausages made by my pucker local butcher, with a 90% plus meat content and little-if-any filler or rusk. On other days however, I’m just as likely to have a hankering for the type of unctuous sausage I fell in love with in the canteen of my first art college, with as little as 50% pork content and loads of rusk.

The only constant I insist upon, in either a posh or the factory-produced sausage, is that it is basically plain, seasoned pork, with perhaps, just a touch of herbs such as sage or thyme.

Pork sausages with exotic inclusions such as onions, apples and even berries have no place in a classic bangers and mash, and as for sausages made from alternative meats, or even no meat at all!! Culinary blasphemy!

Beef, venison, wild boar, chicken or even Quorn sausages and mashed potatoes might be perfectly pleasant dishes (although I have my doubts), but they do not a classic “bangers n’ mash” make. Venison and boar in particular, lack the fat content essential for the production of a lush, juicy banger.

In any event, here is my take on the British and Irish classic, made with posh sausages on this occasion, plain creamy, buttery mashed spuds, and with their equally crucial accompaniments of rich onion gravy and mushy peas• (the current cheffy trend for minted, crushed fresh peas and  / or parsley-infused mash are other culinary evils to avoid)…

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Ingredients (for 2 people):

  • 1 tbsp of plain oil
  • 4 – 6 pork sausages
  • 1 large onion roughly sliced
  • 1 tspn plain flour
  • 1 tspn made up English mustard
  • 1 tspn Worcester Sauce
  • ½ litre / 1 pint of heated rich meat stock
  • 1½ lbs floury potatoes – peeled and cut up into medium dice for boiling
  • 2 oz unsalted butter
  • 5 fl oz single cream or full fat milk
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 can of mushy peas

Illustrated recipe

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1) Preheat oven to 190° c (170° c fan). 2) Bring the potatoes to the boil and then simmer until soft. 3) Heat the can of mushy peas on a very low light in a non-stick pan, stirring often and never allowing to boil. 4) Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan on a low heat…
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5) Gently fry the sausages on a low light for about 20 minutes until nearly cooked…
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6) Remove the partially cooked sausages from the pan and place them on a wire griddle in a small roasting tin and put in the oven for about 15 minutes…
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7) Meanwhile, raise the heat under the pan to medium-high, put in the sliced onion and fry until soft and starting to go brown at the edges. 8) Add the flour to the onion, stir in thoroughly and cook for a further 2 minutes…
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8) Add the stock to the onions, together with the mustard, Worcester Sauce, stir well, making sure to thoroughly deglaze the pan. Test for seasoning and adjust if required with salt and pepper. 9) Make the mash.
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9) Remove the cooked sausages from the oven – their skins should be lightly caramelised and crisp.
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10) Plate up and eat accompanied by a big red, a pint of ale or a large mug of strong English tea.

∗It’s possible to make one’s own mushy peas using dried marrow-fat peas, but they never come out as well as the canned varieties.

Hell! Is that Elle?

Essentially, photography is a form of visual, space-time distillation and isolation, especially when the subject matter is a person and / or people.

Painters such as Vermeer and Hopper achieved a similar effect in paint; that magical isolation of an instant and framing it for posterity.

Here is a small selection of my enhanced photographic examples of the “effect” from all over the place – but mainly Australia. And talking of Oz, is that Elle Macpherson, or her doppelganger I caught having a sneaky ciggy in Melbourne?