Games People Play: Cricket (Part Two)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Now that you're all experts in the distinctions between silly mid off and square leg, and can recite the lbw rules by heart, let's spend some time looking at the culture of the game.  It's particularly appropriate that I should be blogging about cricket right now, because we are currently two glorious games into the most famous grudge match in cricket - The Ashes, an approximately biennial series of test matches played between England and Australia which is one the greatest sporting rivalries in the world.  (No really.  More famous even than the Montreal Canadiens vs. the Boston Bruins).  The story of the Ashes is a good one; let's let Wikipedia give us the highlights:
The series is the result of a satirical obituary published in a British newspaper, The Sporting Times, in 1882 after a match at the Oval in which Australia beat England on an English ground for the first time. The obituary stated that English cricket had died, and the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.  The English media dubbed the next English tour to Australia (1882–83) as the quest to regain the Ashes.  
The Obit
The famous obituary

It's difficult to overstate the importance of The Ashes to English and Australian cricket fans. Perhaps an imperfect analogy will illustrate the point: imagine that during the 1972 Summit Series, Russia had unexpectedly won the final and deciding game on Canadian ice.  And then suppose they got really snotty about it and proclaimed the "death of Canadian hockey" and burned a hockey stick and put it into a little urn.  And then suppose that urn full of "The Ashes" had been fought over every two years since, with the rivalry growing more bitter with every passing series.  See what I mean?  Important.  Actually, more important than that even, because the rivalry between England and Australia is something that really has no analogy for Canadians.  There's a bitterness about the struggle between the upstart antipodean colonials and their former masters that just never materialised in Canada.  This is likely because the Aussies are generally consummately successful at almost any sport they try, and because the English were kind of rubbish for a long time, and because the Aussies are maybe not the most sporting winners, and the English are used to being moaning losers and… well it's complicated.  I'll just say it again, The Ashes are IMPORTANT.

The Urn
In the beginning there were no actual ashes, but shortly after a tiny urn containing the cremated remains of a bail became the focus of the contest.  And when I say tiny, I do mean TINY, as you can see from this picture of England bowler James Anderson and Tim Bresnan after winning the Ashes 2011.  After a long time in the sporting wilderness, England are having a bit of a heyday.  They've won the last two Ashes series, had a cracking good Olympics, chalked up two consecutive wins in the Tour de France and finally (FINALLY) a British born player has won Wimbeldon.  Heady days indeed.  Add in unseasonably hot sunny weather and a new royal baby and people here are a bit giddy.

The Ashes is traditionally is series of five test matches, each of which can last for up to five days.  Taking into account rests between matches, this means an Ashes series is rather a marathon.  This year the first test started on July 10 and the fifth day of the fifth match is scheduled for August 25.  And as I write this England are in very good shape indeed.  They've won the first two matches, the second of which was nothing short of a complete disaster for the Aussies, with England winning by 347 runs, a rather crushing margin.

There's been a bit of controversy this year too.  Cricket is seen very much as a gentleman's game.  Players are meant to be gracious winners and good losers.  The laws of the game even include a preamble about "The Spirit of Cricket", which is seen as a crucial part of the game.  In fact, the phrase "it's just not cricket" is used to describe anything (not just in sport) that's unfair or unsportsmanlike.  Recently one unwritten law of cricket etiquette - "walking" - has been in the news.  In cricket terms a players is said to "walk" if he leaves the pitch voluntarily after apparently being dismissed, without waiting for the umpire to confirm the dismissal.  The idea is that the player knows he's out, and honourably leaves the game without having to be told.  In recent years, more and more players have started to hang about on the off-chance that the umpire's decision might go their way which is seen by many as, well, just not cricket.  The issue was in the news after the first Ashes test match when Stuart Broad, a prominent English player, refused to walk after he was caught out on ball that hit the edge of his bat.  Untold acres of forest were milled into newsprint so that everyone in the country could hear every opinion, for and against, about Broad's refusal to walk.

The infamous moment
The infamous moment

Cricket has also given us a few good turns of phrase beside "it's not cricket".  For instance when we say "I'm stumped" that comes from cricket.  And when an older person dies instead of saying, "Well he had a long life" you might hear, "He had a good innings."  And what about "sticky wicket"  and "bowled over"?  Thanks, cricket!

Of course like any other major sport, cricket has a pantheon of famous players stretching back through the ages.  Perhaps the most famous was the Australian Sir Donald Bradman, who is widely regarded as the greatest batsman ever, retiring with an astonishing average of 99.94 for test cricket.  Scoring 100 points in a single game is called a "century" and many cricketers never manage it once, let alone achieving an average of close to that.  When I heard about that statistic I asked my housemate Jools about his last at bat and posited that, considering everyone knew he was about to retire and he was so close to averaging 100 for his career, would the English bowler perhaps not have tossed him an easy one?  Jools was aghast and said, in her most offended voice, "It was TEST CRICKET Pam.  Against AUSTRALIA!" (So you see what I mean about England vs. Australia?)  Bradman's dominance was so complete that many consider him the greatest sportsman of all time, across all sports, though to counter this I would humbly submit the stats of Wayne Gretzky. (In fact, someone has, and has determined that Gretzky was bascially as great as Bradman. So there!)

As for bowling - it's definitely a black art.  The action itself is different than baseball pitching. The bowler takes a long run up and bowls the ball overhand with an almost straight arm, and usually the ball bounces once in front of the batsman before it's hit.  A lot of the art of bowling is in making the ball ping off in an odd direction after it bounces, making it harder for the batsman to hit.  This is helped by the fact that a cricket ball has a wide, heavy seam running all the way around the ball, which affects the trajectory of the ball through the air and when it bounces.  Fast bowlers fling the thing at great speeds (85-95 mph).  Spin bowlers twist the ball when releasing to impart spin, which mean their deliveries are slower but can be remarkably tricky.

A bowler about to release the ball

The condition of the ball also plays a big part in how it reacts, meaning that tampering with ball is a big no-no.  And unlike baseball, if the ball is hit into the crowd it gets returned to play.  A new ball is only allowed into the game under a few specific circumstances (if it's been lost or tampered with, or in test cricket, at the start of a new innings, and after 80 overs).

New cricket ball on grass.
A shiny new cricket ball.  It's made of cork covered in leather.

The other absolutely vital bit of English cricket culture I need to address is Test Match Special. TMS is the BBC radio coverage of professional cricket, which provides coverage and colour commentary on most matches involving the English national team.  One might think that ball by ball coverage of the 45 hours of regulation play in an international test match could, just possibly, be a dull affair, and you would not be alone in that opinion.  There is a percentage of the population that would rather listen to a dentist's drill.  But for cricket fans Test Match Special, and its iconic theme tune are sacrosanct (think: Hockey Night in Canada).  It's particularly noted for its commentators, who, as you might imagine, have a lot of time to talk about things other than cricket, since the game tends to unfold at what might charitably be called a leisurely pace.  Henry Blofeld is particularly known for this, commenting on "things like construction cranes or numbers of pink shirts in the crowd; as well as pigeons, buses, aeroplanes and helicopters that happen to be passing by."

I tuned in to Test Match Special during the first test of this year's Ashes and it is a bit hypnotic.  And I felt that I'd just heard what must be the most particularly English few seconds of radio when Test Match Special cut away to the Shipping Forecast.  It really doesn't get more English than that.  Plus I got to write down this actual quote, which happened after two wickets had fallen in relatively quick succession (and by this I mean in less than half a day). Clearly agitated by the pace of the game the announcer said, with no trace of irony:
"It's just drama.  Every half an hour something happens."
And that, dear friends, is cricket.

Games people play: Cricket (Part One)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Hold onto your hats kids, the time has come to dive into that most English of past times… cricket!  I've been waiting to report on cricket until I had the chance to go to an actual English cricket match with and actual English cricket fan, and the opportunity final came this week when I succeeded in browbeating my lovely friend and Olympics colleague Ted into visiting the Oval on an uncharacteristically hot, dry and gorgeous Monday evening.  Ted is a proper lifelong cricket fan, so I was particularly touched that he got the train all the way in to London for a trifling evening game.  Thanks Ted!

Here's the Oval, with a lovely sunset in the background.

Cricket is a huge subject and one that I find quite interesting, so I'm going to break things up into a couple of posts so that I can cover what I want to, and so your coffee doesn't get cold while you're reading.  Settle in.

First, let's review the fundamentals of the game.  Cricket is a ball-and-bat game played by teams of eleven players on a large grassy, field.  The teams take turns batting and fielding, with the batting team trying to score runs and the fielding team trying to dismiss the batters. In the middle of the field, which interestingly has no official size or shape, but is generally a big oval, there's a rectangular 3 x10 metre area called the pitch where most of the action takes place.  At either end of the pitch is a set of stumps - three stout stakes driven into the ground, side by side.  Resting on the stumps but - critically - not attached to them are two round wooden peg sort of things called bails.  The team that's batting fields two batsmen (not, heaven forfend "batters") at a time, who stand at opposite ends of the pitch.  During play, the fielding team's bowler will throw the ball towards one of the stumps (or "wickets") and the opposing team's batsman will attempt to hit it away to stop it from striking the stumps.  If the ball hits the stumps and one or both bails is dislodged, the batsman is dismissed.  Simple.  

In order to score runs the batsman and his partner run back and forth between the stumps after the ball is hit.  Each time the batsmen change places, one run is scored.  If the fielding team catch a batted ball before it hits the ground, the batsman who hit it is dismissed. (And despite the ball being as hard as a baseball, the players do not wear gloves.)  If the ball bounces before it's caught, the fielders attempt to retrieve it as quickly as possible and throw it back towards the stumps.  If a ball thrown back at the stumps hits them and dislodges a bail, the batsman is out.  Or if the ball is returned and caught by a player who then knocks the bails off himself while holding the ball, the batsman is similarly dismissed.  

A closer look at one end of the wicket

In addition to scoring runs a few at a time by running back and forth between the wickets, a batsman can score four points at once if he hits the ball far enough that it rolls up to and hits a low boundary marker around the edge of the field.  If he hits a ball clear over the boundary - like a home run - that's worth six points.  These scoring plays are known, not surprisingly, as "boundaries".

Every time six balls are bowled (a division of the game called an "over"), the direction of bowling changes.  This means that depending on where the batsmen end up at the end of an over the same batsman may continue batting, or the other guy may end up "on strike" (not a labour disruption, but the term used to indicate that he's the guy being bowled to.)  And that's pretty much it.  Whoever has the most runs at the end wins, though getting to the end can be quite a marathon, as we shall soon see.  And of course there are approximately 11,436 other rules that I've left out for clarity, like the six other ways a batsman can be dismissed (five of which are exceedingly rare and one that's quite common, the often controversial lbw - "leg before wicket")

There are several forms of cricket currently played professionally.  Traditionally, each team bats for two complete innings (a word used, disconcertingly, for the singular as well as the plural.  As in "England had an excellent innings yesterday.  We'll see if the Australian innings can top it today.")  To complete an innings one team bats until 10 of the 11 batsman have been dismissed, leaving one man "not out".  Because two batsman are required to play, a team with ten men out cannot continue batting and their innings is over.  Then the other team bats until ten wickets have fallen, after which the other team has their second innings, and so on.  As you can imagine this process takes some time, but there is a limit.  For instance, an international "test match" (the highest level of professional play) is normally limited to five days, though it can end sooner if all four innings are completed.  If the innings are not complete by the end of play on the 5th day, the match is declared a draw.  It's important to note here that a draw is very different than a tie.  A tie would occur if the score was even at the end of the last innings, which is quite rare.  On the other hand, playing for a draw can be a legitimate strategy for an underdog team but it does make it possible for a game of cricket to last for five days and still end up with no winner.  It's just one of the many confounding but charming things about the game.

(Aside: There have been experiments with "timeless test matches" - ones with no time limit where play continues until four complete innings are played.  The trouble with this is that when a batsman hits the ball he's not actually required to run; he'll only run if he feels there's a good chance of scoring safely.  Therefore it's possible for a batsman to play very defensively, and bat almost forever.  The last timeless test match was played in 1939 between England and South Africa when the game "was abandoned as a draw after nine days of play spread over twelve days, otherwise the England team would have missed the boat for home.")

In the 1960s quicker forms of the game appeared with a shorter time limit or fixed number of overs, in order to speed up play.  There are popular one-day matches, which are usually limited to 50 overs (300 balls bowled).  The newest and quickest form of the game is called Twenty20, introduced in 2003.  In a Twenty20 game, each team only bowls 20 overs (120 balls) and the game is usually finished in about 3 hours, meaning it can be played in an evening.  It's a very different sort of thing to a test match, often with more hitting and potentially more excitment.  That's the kind of game Ted and I went to on Monday night, despite Ted's protests that it's not really proper cricket at all.  (Think of it like the difference between a real NHL hockey game with the potential for unlimited overtime, and a ten minute game of 3-on-3.  Not really the same at all is it?)

People who play cricket are called cricketers, and cricketers are usually divided into batsmen, bowlers and all-rounders.  Though a player may specialise as a batsman or bowler, that doesn't mean that's all he does.  Everyone bats, though bowlers often appear late in the batting order because they're often, but not always, kind of crap batsmen (again, like baseball).  Several bowlers are used in any game but unlike pitchers in baseball they don't just lounge around on the sidelines when they're not pitching.  There are only eleven players on the team so if a bowler's not bowling, he'll be fielding somewhere.  It's a large field to cover with not many men, so the players move around a lot depending on who's batting, and what direction the batsman is facing, and whether the batsman is right or left handed.  The captain of the team is the one who decides which player fields from where, and he's constantly directing them to adjust their positions to gain the best tactical advantage.  And the names for the fielding positions are just fantastic: Square leg, Third man, Mid-wicket, Fine leg, Long off, Silly mid-on… lovely.  These names are made more confusing because they're all related to the position of the batsman, so when the batsmen switches ends, the names of the positions move around.  It's highly confusing, though I did manage to correctly identify a Fine Leg at one point, which Ted was appropriately impressed with.

No wonder I was confused

Of the mainstream sports in England (footballrugby, and cricket), cricket is the second most popular, and, I think, the first most posh (not polo-and-fox-hunting-posh, but still...).  After all, any game where you stop in the middle of the afternoon for tea would have trouble purporting to be a rough and tumble sort of a past time.  In fact, during a day's play it's normal to stop after two hours for lunch, then after another two hours for afternoon tea. Perhaps this constant stopping to eat and drink is why in times gone by cricketers were not known for their physical prowess.  Apparently even professionals used to be rather heavy and slow, though now they're all proper athletes with training regimes and, you know, abs.  Ted claims that it's far more common now than when he was a boy to see a fielder run a player out by hitting the wicket with a ball thrown from deep in the field.  It's quite a feat, really. The stumps are only 9 inches wide head on, and from an angle they're much narrower.  Also, these days deep fielders are much more likely to chase down a batted ball heading for the boundary in order to stop it hitting for four points.  In the old days, a player might have to put his drink down in order to make a play like that.

Ricky Ponting being run out.  Look at that bail fly!  Ricky Ponting is a famous Australian batsman.  As captain of the Australian team he was once bowled out in an Ashes test match against England (more on the Ashes next week) by a substitute local player who'd been brought in to field because one of England's players was injured.  It's a famous moment in the history of the game.  Interestingly, Ponting is now playing for the Surrey Cricket Club, one of the teams that I watched on Monday night, so I got to see him bat. 

Similar to baseball / softball in North America, there are many levels of play in cricket starting at the highest, International Test Cricket, played by the best players in the country, through professional county leagues similar to AAA baseball and on to the cricket equivalent of slo-pitch beer leagues and even down to pick-up games similar to street hockey.  Also like its cousin baseball, cricket is mad for statistics.  Being a game that unfolds slowly, and with a mostly fixed number of outcomes for each ball, it lends itself to that obsessive sort of record-keeping that involves knowing, for instance, how many boundaries a particular batsman has scored against left-handed bowlers after tea break in the fourth day of a test match when playing south of the equator and batting into the sun, and so on.

A cricket scorecard, which allows one to record the result of every ball bowled.

Watching a quick Twenty20 match at the Oval reminded me a lot of going to a Winnipeg Goldeyes game.  It was a warm evening, and the crowd was happy, and there's beer and junk food to eat, and the game unfolds at the same generally leisurely pace that means you can still have a nice conversation and learn about the intricacies of the lbw rules or go stand in line for another beer without missing much.  Interestingly, the announcer doesn't butt in nearly as much, perhaps because there usually isn't a parade of new batters to announce regularly.  Unlike outs in baseball, which happen pretty regularly, the fall of a wicket is a quite momentous thing.

As for the cricket grounds, the Oval is not as famous a cricket ground as Lord's, which is the other large cricket ground in London and is often called the Home of Cricket.  Still, the Oval has a certain gritty urban charm, and is conveniently situated a scant 20 minute bus ride from home, so it's ok in my book.

The Pavillion at the Oval.  That black screen is there so the batsman can see the ball against it as it's bowled.  The screen moves back and forth because the position of the wickets on the field is not fixed.  Groundskeepers move it around between matches so it doesn't get all worn out in the middle of the field. Weird, but oddly sensible too.

Despite the presence of a world class player like Ponting, Surrey were crushed by the visiting team from Essex.  Surrey scored 148 runs in their innings, which was a bit weedy.  Essex went on to match that number after losing only two wickets and when they got their 149th run, the game was over.  (Full scorecard here.)  This is just like the way a baseball game ends.  Regardless of how may men are out, when the home team (batting last, of course) score one more run than the other team it's all over.  Ted declared it may have been the least interesting Twenty20 match he'd ever seen, though he's not a fan of Twenty20 anyways, so I have no idea how resounding a condemnation that really is.  I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.  

Ted looking oddly crazed and me looking out of focus.

And that's my best crack at giving you an overview of cricket.  Next week, we'll look more at the culture of the game, including talking about The Ashes, and Test Match Special and maybe some famous players and whatever else pops into my head.  I bet you can't wait.

GRUB!: Sticky Toffee Pudding

Sunday, July 14, 2013

It's about time, really.  About time that I got around to blogging about Sticky Toffee Pudding, which is absolutely one of my most favourite things in the world.  It's really not the right time of year for this at all.  London is basking in unusually warm and sunny weather (finally!) with the temperature is predicted to top 30 degrees this weekend, whereas Sticky Toffee Pudding is best left to colder months, since that's when this stodgy wonder is at its best.  But my recent trip to the Lake District sent me home with a Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding, and since then I've been a bit sticky-toffee-obsessed.

A packet of Cartmel STP

Simply put, sticky toffee pudding is a dessert of spiced sponge cake tarted up with chopped dates and smothered in thick toffee sauce.  It's often served with ice cream or clotted cream, which is a definite bonus.  Done properly its incredibly moist, with a deep, rich taste and sweet, buttery sauce on top.  I think it may be the dates that add the depth of  flavour. (Aside: Sticky toffee pudding is perhaps the best possible thing one could do with a date.  And by date I mean the dried brown middle eastern fruit, not the romantic rendez-vous.  Though sticky toffee pudding is an excellent thing to do not just WITH a date but also ON a date.  If a guy took me on a date for sticky toffee pudding he'd get some serious points.  On the other hand the brown middle eastern fruit, in its non-sticky toffee form, is a bit too much like a cross between a giant raisin and a hairball for my tastes.  Sweet, but far too furry.  But in a sticky toffee pudding they play a critical supporting role, hence when I rule the world dates can stick around, but only if they keep to themselves and stop popping up in date squares and pressed into those creepy shrink-wrapped bricks with tiny plastic forks.)  Sticky toffee pudding is considered an iconic British pudding alongside favourites like bread and butter pudding, summer pudding, and Eton Mess.  The Brits may not do patisserie like the French, but damn they can do a proper, solid pudding.

A traditional sticky toffee pudding is steamed on the stovetop, as befits the "pudding" moniker (very much like steak and kidney pudding), but most of the recipes I've encountered now simply bake in the oven, which seems a bit of a cheat.  It's been a bit of a quest of mine to find the best sticky toffee pudding I can, but I admit I was skeptical about the pre-fab Cartmel pudding.  I couldn't believe that something that came out of a cardboard sleeve could really live up to the towering reputation of a proper sticky toffee pudding.  There were hurdles, to be sure.  The presentation in a pressed foil tin, the fact that the pudding is baked not steamed and, perhaps the greatest sin: no separate toffee sauce!  It seemed unlikely that a really satisfying sticky toffee experience could be had.  Nevertheless, even a substandard sticky toffee is likely to be better than no pudding at all, so I peeled off the lid to be confronted with a congealed layer of something I assumed to be proto-toffee and popped it into the oven for the requisite 15 minutes. 

Full disclosure: this is actually a photo of a sticky CHOCOLATE pudding also from Cartmel.  What can I say?  It seemed silly to go all that way and come back with one lousy pudding.  

Straight out of the oven.  It doesn't look like much when it comes out, but that proto-toffee layer clearly melted into the top of the pud, so maybe things wouldn't be all bad... 
(Another aside: "pud" is the diminutive form of pudding and is pronounced to rhyme with should, could and good.  As in: "Should we have pud?" "Of course we should!  That's if we could, it would be good."  Continue ad infinitum a la Dr Seuss.)

As I said, I was skeptical.  But I dished up a generous portion and dug in, despite the lack of sauce or cream or other accompaniment.  And how was it?  Simply: amazing.  Sublime. Perfect.  It was incredibly moist and rich and buttery.  The toffee sauce had clearly infused through the pudding in cooking, so the whole thing was properly sticky but also magically light.  And did I mention rich and buttery?  I think that sauce is made from about 75% pure butter, with a dash of crack cocaine.  The package is supposed to be portioned for 2-3 people but it was all I could do not to scoff the entire thing down in one sitting.  I did force myself to spoon the remainder into a container for later consumption, but that didn't stop me from literally turning the foil tin inside-out so I could lick it clean.

It still doesn't look like much, but trust me... Sooooo good.

As a follow up to the Cartmel experience, I thought I should seek out a good sticky toffee in a restaurant in town to compare, so I fired up Google and headed for Brown's in Covent Garden, which had a few good reviews. Maybe I should have just turned around when I arrived at the restaurant and the staff were busily attending to a elderly man who was clearly in some kind of distress and actually ended up being treated by paramedics while the lunch service went on around him.  Thankfully, he was fine and rejoined his table a short time later. Clearly it was not a good omen, but I went ahead and ordered the sticky toffee pudding and a cup of coffee and waited, filling the time with the crossword.  When the pudding arrive, it certainly looked the part.

Brown's sticky toffee pudding.  It's got the requisite sauce, and some added clotted cream and the mandatory arty dusting of icing sugar.  So far so good.

I dug in with great anticipation and… meh.  Where the Cartmel pudding was light but rich, the Brown's offering was heavy and bitter.  It may well have been steamed, because whereas a good steamed pudding is moist and lovely, a bad steamed pudding can be gluey and horrid. Brown's sticky toffee was sticky alright - it stuck to the roof of my mouth with alarming tenacity and no puddle of toffee sauce or blob of clotted cream could rescue it from the depths of mediocrity.  I finished it off of course, because I didn't want to be rude, but it was deeply disappointing.  Perhaps that's what happened to the nice old gentleman at Brown's. He was served this sticky toffee pudding, took one bite, and muttered to his companions, "This is a bloody disgrace!  By God, I didn't give Adolf six of the best at El Alamein just to end up eating a dish of black wallpaper paste masquerading as sticky toffee pudding!  This is a crime against Queen and country!  I shall write a letter to the Times!  I shall… oh my… I feel ever so slightly… errrr… don't want to make a scene but... (THUD)"

And so the search for the perfect sticky toffee pudding continues.  Rumours circulate that there's an excellent offering at a place called Abingdon's in Kensington.  And Andrew Edmond's in Soho gets rave reviews.  Happily, this is a quest I could continue more or less infinitely, 

In the mean time, here's a Guardian recipe that purports to be "perfect", though I haven't tried it.  Judge for yourselves.
Perfect sticky toffee pudding
Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

A good sticky toffee pudding should be more than simple sugar hit – add nuts, for texture, and cloves, for a hint of spice, and this is one transatlantic migrant which will have no problem getting its visa renewed. Serves 6

175g medjool dates, stoned and roughly chopped
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
300ml (1-1/4 cups) boiling water
50g (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
80g (1/3-1/2 cup) golden caster sugar
80g (1/3-1/2 cup) dark muscovado sugar
2 eggs, beaten
175g (1-1/2 cups) flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of ground cloves
75g (1 cup) walnuts

For the sauce:
115g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
75g (1/3-1/2 cup) golden caster sugar
40g (1/4 cup) dark muscovado sugar
140ml (1/2 cup) double cream
(Pam's note: I'm inclined to think that a pinch of salt would elevate this sauce in a salted caramel kind of way…)

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C (350F). Butter a baking dish approximately 24cm x 24cm (9"x9")
2. Make the sauce by putting all the ingredients into a pan with a pinch of salt and heating slowly until the butter has melted, then turn up the heat and bring to the boil. Boil for about 4 minutes, until the sauce has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Pour half the sauce into the base of the dish and then put it in the freezer while you make the rest of the pudding.
3. Put the dates and bicarbonate of soda in a heatproof dish and cover with the boiling water. Leave to soften while you prepare the rest of the pudding.
4. Beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy, and then beat in the eggs, a little at a time. Stir in the flour, baking powder, cloves and a pinch of salt until well combined, and then add the dates and their soaking water, and the walnuts, and mix well.
5. Take the dish out of the freezer and pour the batter on top of the toffee sauce. Put into the oven for 30 minutes, until firm to the touch, and then take out of the oven.
6. Heat the grill (broiler) to medium, and poke a few small holes evenly over the surface with a skewer or fork, and then pour over the rest of the sauce. Put briefly under the grill (broiler), keeping an eye on it as it can easily burn. Serve with vanilla ice cream (optional).

Brief update about non-sticky-toffee-related matters: I have a Russian visa!  I'm still waiting for them to send me a plane ticket and get me out to Moscow, but things are looking up. Realistically, I suspect I won't go until the end of July, but that's just more time to eat sticky toffee pudding and attempt to acquire more of that devilish language.  Stay tuned.

Off the tourist track: Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I had one of those excellent London moments a few weeks ago.  On a grey Sunday morning I went for a quick bike ride up Crystal Palace Hill to the big park there.  I'd done the climb before, past the last remaining toll gate in London, in operation since 1789.  Cars and trucks pay £1 to pass.  Bikes get through for free!

Toll Road
The tollbooth.

Toll Road
And the almost hidden sign

Once I made it up the hill (one of the highest points in London, hence the two large transmitting towers up there) I cycled aimlessly around Crystal Palace Park for a bit.  The park is named after the now-destroyed Crystal Palace, which was an enormous glass and iron building first designed and erected for the Great Exhibition of 1851.  The building was such a success that in 1854 it was moved from its original site at Hyde Park to an area at Sydenham Hill, the area which is now known mostly as Crystal Palace.  The palace, which was enlarged when it was moved, was destroyed by fire in 1936 (though quite how a building that's all iron and glass - not traditionally highly flammable materials - succumbs to fire is not a topic Wikipedia addresses).  Nevertheless, the park itself is one of London's largest, and still retains a lot of the architecture and features that were added when it was a popular attraction for Victorian Londoners.

London, Crystal Palace, vintage photo of the reconstruction of the earlier building erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition in 1851
The Crystal Palace in its heyday.  The wide stairs and arches you can see at the base of the building are still there, looking sort of run down and sad, as if their reason for being is gone.  Which of course it is.

These sphinx stairs, for instance, go from a lovely patch of gravel up to a row of trees.

I cycled happily through the park, which is bigger than I first thought, until I came across one of those things that makes me glad I live here... a series of statues of huge prehistoric Irish Elk.

Hello?  What's all this?

It turns out that, alongside the Crystal Palace itself, the park was also home to the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, a series of concrete sculptures of fifteen dinosaur and early mammal species that opened to the public in 1854.  They're the first dinosaur sculptures IN THE WORLD, even predating Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" by six years.  And I'd just stumbled across them on a Sunday morning bike ride.  I've said it before, but I think it bears repeating: I love this city.

I've done a bit of reading about the dinosaurs since discovering the park, but there's not a lot out there.  For instance, it's not clear where the idea for creating massive concrete sculptures of never-before-imagined creatures came from.  What is clear is that the newly-minted science of paleontology was a fascination for the Victorians.  It's also clear that the two men credited with creating the attraction are celebrated biologist and palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen, and the sculptor and natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.  Owen is the one who actually coined the term "dinosaur" and was the scientific brains behind the operation.  He was noted for his ability to interpret fossils though, as we'll learn, he got it wrong in many ways.  Nevertheless, with Owen providing the overall instruction and Hawkins sculpting and filling in the gaps by comparing Owen's ideas with the anatomy of modern animals, they managed to create a remarkable series of sculptures that were hugely popular with the Victorian public.

The iguanodons, one of the more popular and less accurate depictions.  That horn on the nose is actually an incorrectly placed thumb spike.  This notion of the creature as a heavy limbed sort of elephant-like quadruped has gone through a few revisions in the last 150 years.  

Though many of the statues are quite wrong by moderns standards, they're now listed monuments and are more valuable for their insight into the Victorian notions of paleontology than they are as accurate models.  The sculptures were arranged on a series of islands roughly correlating with major prehistoric time periods.  Originally, the water level in the artificial lakes surrounding the islands rose and fell to simulate the tides, powered by massive water towers in the park.

Palaeozoic Island
The biggest island, representing the Paleozoic era.

And here's the other fantastic thing about the current state of the park - there's a free audio tour you can listen to on a smartphone by going to a website and streaming the audio as you stand there.  I did the entire tour that Sunday morning - ten stops in all - and then listened to them all again when I went back to take proper photos a week or two later.  You lucky GSWPL readers can listen to it too, though it won't be as much fun as if you're standing there. (However, paired with my Flickr set of photos, it might be a reasonable substitute for those not within striking distance of Crystal Palace.  I've made some notes on the photos so they sort of correspond to the audio tour points.  And here's a PDF map of the area so you can follow along.  GSWPL goes multimedia!)

The audio tour reveals a lot of fun details about the creation of the park.  For instance, because they're so large (they're all in the correct scale) the statues had to be created in position.  Hawkins had a workshop on site and even famously hosted a dinner party of wealthy patrons inside one of the iguanodon moulds on New Year's Eve 1853.  Hawkins also took pains to site each model on the correct type of rock and surround it with the right sort of vegetation.  He even built concrete cycads to go with his iguanodons since the modern variety of cycad wouldn't grow in the English climate.  And where the fossil record was so incomplete that even the combined efforts of Owen, Hawkins and a healthy dose of good old Victorian ill-founded assumption couldn't come up with enough information to go on, they found ways of getting around things.  For instance, the mososaurus is posed partially submerged because they had no notion of what the back end should look like.  And they had no record of the hylaeosaurus head, so that one is simply positioned with its head away from the viewer.


As I mentioned, the dinosaurs were a big hit with the public.  Darwin himself had a season's ticket to the display and though the admission price was a shockingly high one guineau more than two million people visited per year.  (As near as I can discover, that's about £60 in today's money which is about the cost of a one day ticket to Disneyland, so not really out of the ballpark I suppose.)  The dinosaur park was also the first to branch out into merchandising, with posters and sets of small models of the dinosaurs on offer for £30 (for educational purposes).

The park even incorporated a few living models, though obviously not of dinosaurs.  They imported a group of Derbyshire lead miners who worked at "mining" a cave built into a stratified cliffside and paying visitors could walk inside the cave.

The stratified cliffside.  No Derbyshire (or Any-shire) miners in evidence

A total of fifteen species are represented in the park, though others were planned, including the woolly mammoth and dodo.  Sadly, as is the way of these things, the budgets overran and the work was stopped when costs reached about £14,000.  The park itself gradually fell into disarray following the destruction of the Crystal Palace, and was mostly closed to the public by the end of the 20th century.  Happily, in 2002 a major restoration took place and it's now leafy and lovely (though there are still large sections of crumbly architecture up where the Crystal Palace used to be).  Foliage surrounding the statues was cut back and the dinosaurs themselves were extensively rehabilitated, with some being completely remade in fibreglass.  With the addition of the audio tour, it's a thoroughly satisfying diversion, especially since it's completely free (now).  It's also very close to Crystal Palace rail station, which is linked to the recently completed "Ginger Line" of the London Overground system.  Crystal Palace Station is also quite nice - I suspect that's a hangover from the heyday of the Palace and Park.  And there's now a perfectly lovely little cafe inside the station that does a very credible flat white coffee in big mugs, and a sort of chewy caramel slice thing that was exactly perfect.

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were an excellent find - all the more so because they were so totally unexpected, which is one of my favourite things about London.  The proliferation of random excellent things coupled with the likelihood of finding a really good cafĂ© within close proximity is an unbeatable combination, and one that London has pretty much aced.  I'm going to miss that when I get to Moscow*, but leaving will make it that much sweeter to come back.

Me and few dicynodons in the background.

* Brief update: My visa is now being processed!  No flight yet, but at least I'm making progress.