GRUB!: Biscuits

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Most of my time these days is taken up with work things and boat things.  I’ve been trying to spend two or three nights a week on the boat, partly because it just feels cool and fun, and partly because I think the more time I spend there the more I can learn about what works and what doesn’t and just generally get used to things.  Like, for instance, the finite amount of electrical power available on a boat.  Right now I’ve got just two batteries powering everything that’s NOT the starter motor, and they’re kept topped up by the alternator and a single 100w solar panel.  On a sunny day that’s not bad.  On a cloudy day like today, after an evening when I did a bit of recreational soldering and then left a little 12v cooler of leftovers plugged in overnight, the power situation is on a knife edge.  I can charge a phone or an iPad and run the water pump and things like that, but I can’t use the inverter that gives me 240v AC power.  So my plans to fire up the soldering iron again were foiled and I’ve decamped to a local cafe that has free wifi and where electricity comes pouring out the wall like magic, regardless of how much soldering you might be doing.  It’s certainly a new perspective.

On to today’s topic.  I’m wary of spending too much time blogging about the boat, mindful of the fact that not everyone will find it as endlessly fascinating as I do. (Steve G, you’re obviously exempt front his comment.)  So I trawled through my list of potential blog topics, thinking it might be about time for a GRUB! post and hit on the idea of reviewing a few classic English biscuits.  This is partly because biscuits are just inherently a Good Thing, and also partly because I’m presently captivated by the current series of The Great British Bake Off. Those of you outside the UK may not be aware of the show; it’s a sort of extremely polite and English version of “Survivor” with yeast and pastry instead of bug-eating and obstacle courses.  (UK readers: I’m rooting for Richard.)  It really makes you want to bust out the mixing bowls and whip up a batch of just about anything.

First, let’s talk about biscuits vs. cookies.  Some would say they’re different words for the same thing, but I think that doesn’t really cover the subtlety of it, because the word cookie is also used here,  meaning that the whole category of foodstuff that we in North America call cookies, is here divided in two.  A UK biscuit will alway be crisp and crumbly; a UK cookie is the more North American large soft, cake-ish, chewy sort of affair that will often have chocolate chips or raisins or such.  In fact, a biscuit that has gone soft is considered stale, an argument that astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember was advanced in the Great Jaffa Cake debate about whether Jaffas are cakes or biscuits.  (Wherein Jaffas were determined to be cakes, because they go hard and dry when stale, where as biscuits go soft. Which makes on wonder if, in fact, Jaffa Cakes might actually be cookies…)

We start our review with Rich Tea biscuits, which have appeared in the blog before.  In that post I had no hesitation in declaring that these must be most inappropriately named biscuits in the English Biscuit Pantheon.  I stand behind that judgement to this day and in reviewing the previous post I find that I can’t really top it, so I’m excerpting it here in its entirety:
Rich Tea biscuits present a real paradox.  They are, in fact, the dullest biscuits imaginable, so how did they ever end up being described them as "rich"?  They don't exactly set the biscuit world on fire with their indulgent deliciousness.

I could go on and on about rich tea biscuits, but I think I'll leave that to the experts. Here's an excerpt from the now-defunct blog A Nice Cup Of Tea And A Sit Down, which was dedicated to all things biscuit.
The Rich Tea presents us straight away with a paradox. If these are 'Rich' tea, where are 'Poor' tea biscuits and what on earth do they taste like? Well they would have to be fairly ropey old affairs because the Rich Tea itself is not exactly a self contained one biscuit flavour festival. What flavour it does manage to achieve comes from the various sugars in the recipe, sucrose, maltose and some glucose plus a little bit of salt...

There are attempts at turning Rich Teas into something more palatable, covering them in chocolate or sticking some sort of cream up the middle, but it's all a bit hopeless really. So what are they good for? Dunking of course. The Rich tea can drive even the staunchest anti-dunker to dunk. The Rich Tea then comes into its own, convincing you that you have done the right thing by giving the eater the reward of sloppy hot Rich Tea, which is actually better than what you started with.

What else are Rich teas for? Humility. Through Rich Tea biscuits we learn that not all biscuits have been blessed with a fantastic taste, and that there is space in this world for dry bland biscuits that you can dunk in tea.
In fairness, I performed my Rich Tea Biscuit Rant for my friend Dan once and he leapt to the defence of the (I thought) indefensible biscuit claiming that he does indeed like dunking RTs in his tea, which I suppose is appropriate.  Apparently, there’s a sort of biscuit brinkmanship that takes place with Dan and his Rich Tea biscuits wherein he tries to keep them dunked for as long as possible, removing them milliseconds before they dissolve completely.  Edgey.

Moving on slightly from the Rich Tea we encounter the classic Digestive biscuit.  Digestives are just a few grams of fibre away from Rich Tea biscuits, being identical in shape and size and almost indistinguishable from the RT except there’s obviously a lot more roughage in the Digestive.

Clearly the digestive is much earthier than the Rich Tea.  Also, how charming is it that the English label their biscuits so emphatically?  I especially like that the Rich Teas are noted as “round”.

Digestive biscuits occupy much the same place here as Graham Crackers do in North America.  They date back at least to 1876, and Wikipedia says "The term "digestive" is derived from the belief that they had antacid properties due to the use of sodium bicarbonate when they were first developed.”  Certainly they are an improvement on the Rich Tea, though they really come into their own in the Chocolate Digestive, a chocolate-topped version (available in milk, dark and a few other fleeting brand extensions that come and go).  The dark chocolate covered digestive biscuit is almost as good as a chocolate covered Hobnob.

Hobnobs are a further extension of the large diameter biscuit category.  It Rich Tea biscuits are smooth and featureless, and Digestives add a tantalising bit of fibre to the mix, Hobnobs are the next step on the continuum that probably ends with a nosebag of raw oats or a small shrub.  Hobnobs are excellent nobbly, oaty, crunchy, and generally superior in every way. They too are available in chocolate topped versions, and the dark chocolate covered Hobnob is, I think, the apotheosis of the large diameter plain biscuit form.

The Large Diameter Biscuit Lineup.  (Nosebag not pictured.)

Moving into the more exotic, let’s have a quick look at a real oddball of the biscuit world, the Garibaldi.  Named, for some unknown reason, after the Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi (no, really), Garibaldi biscuits consist of a layer of squashed currants baked between two layers of a very plain biscuit dough.  My friend Ted (and generations of English school boys before and after him) call them “squashed fly biscuits” because that’s what they look like, as you can see.


Garibaldis have a nice shiny, lightly browned appearance, and a slightly toothy texture. They’re rectangular and come out of the package stuck together in strips of five and have to be broken apart to portion them out.  Currants, of course, are generally inferior to raisins in every way, but here make a reasonable filling and result in an oddly satisfying biscuit that feels a bit indulgent (because of the fruitiness) and yet also quite plain and virtuous (because the biscuit part is really almost completely devoid of sweetness).

Now that we’re firmly in the sandwich-biscuit category, we can address the Jammie Dodger. Purportedly the nation’s most popular biscuit among children, the Jammie Dodger is made up of vanilla shortbread sandwiching a sugary, sticky layer of raspberry jam.  Jammie Dodgers have a distinctive heart-shaped opening on top to show off the jammy bit, and a sort of modernist splat pattern around that, making what I think is an odd juxtaposition.

Like Garibaldis, Jammie Dodgers are toothsome, and the jammie filling can be quite dentally challenging if your JDs are edging towards their Sell By Date.

Having started at the sad depths of biscuitry inhabited by the Rich Tea and moved through the various levels of biscuity goodness, we now reach the giddy heights of my favourite English biscuit the Bourbon Cream (though I must allow that dark chocolate covered Hobnobs are a very strong contender).  Bourbons are a rectangular sandwich made of two chocolate biscuits with chocolate cream between.  Manufactured by Peek Frean, I encountered these biscuits growing up in Canada, where they could only found as part of a Peek Freans assortment alongside other inferior biscuits like Arrowroots and those sort of Jammie Dodger-ish ones where you nibble the cookie away from the outside until you’re left with a circle of red sugar coated jelly-like substance, a layer of cream, and a tiny bit of the bottom biscuit (Fruit Cremes, if anyone cares).  Imagine my infinite delight when I first arrived in England and discovered you could by whole packs composed entirely of Bourbon Creams!  Adding to their charm, the originators of Bourbons (and Garibaldis), the aforementioned Peek Freans, are located in London, where both biscuits were invented.

A Jenga stack of Bourbon Creams, exhibiting the proud label and the regulation 10 holes.  These are a particularly cheap versions (Tesco Value Brand, about 45p for a pack of more than 30) so they don’t show much of the usual sprinkling of sugar on the top.

And now I’m back on my little boat, where I’m having a nice cup of tea and some biscuits. (Because there are now enough biscuits on the boat that I have to evenly distribute them between port and starboard for storage, so they don’t cause the boat to start listing.)  And I’m having my tea in a mug I only unpacked a few weeks ago.  Before I came to London in 2010, I left a carefully curated series of boxes behind filled with the kind of things I thought I’d want if I ended up staying and setting myself up in a flat.  At the time I envisioned myself on my own in a tiny place that I’d have to equip completely so I packed a lot of favourite kitchen items that I knew would make a place feel like mine.  Then I promptly moved into a shared house that was bursting with saucepans and teaspoons and can openers and such, meaning that my kitchen boxes gathered dust in the attic for four years.  But now, finally, I’ve got a kitchen again, and I recently rooted through boxes uttering little cries of delight and then laboriously trudging things out to the boat.  And what elicited the greatest squeal of happiness?  The mug.

Up until five years ago, when I threw my life up in the air, I had my morning coffee in this mug every day.  And I’d forgotten it!

This is the kind of thing that makes me disproportionately happy these days: being able to have MY things, in MY space.  Tea towels from Russia (with the days of the week in Cyrillic!), a spoon rest from New York, a small mechanical boat clock I bought years ago only to have it end up on a different boat I never could have foreseen owning, my last box of Kraft Dinner, and a chest full of small tools I actually get to use again.  Happy days.

And now if you’e excuse me I think it’s time for another twenty three biscuits.

Go Stay Work Play... Float!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Apologies for the break in blogging, but I’ve really had my hands full for the last few weeks. Remember when I talked about messing about in boats?  Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember that near the end of that post I mused somewhat idly about how living on a narrowboat on a canal might be a interesting option for an itinerant London-dweller itching for a place of her own but without the lottery winnings or generous inheritance to afford a place on dry land.  It seems those musings were not as idle as you (or, in fact, I) might have thought.  Why do I say that?  Because… this:

Er, this is my boat.

Yeah… I bought a narrowboat.  It’s a bit sudden, I’ll grant you that.  But there were circumstances.  And I think it’s fair to say the boat was a good deal.  Value for money, I think, though it’s definitely what a real estate agent would call a “fixer-upper”.  It’s functional right now, but it’s not going to win any beauty contests.  Unless they have beauty contests for “Boat that looks most like someone’s lakeside cottage from the 1970s” in which case I would probably clean up.  But like I said… value for money.  The main reason that the boat was such a good deal is that it takes a fair bit of imagination to see past the wood panelling and custom cabinet-work of the previous owners.

No extra charge for the high-end fittings

Without going into details, I think it’s safe to say that even if I spend more than the original purchase price on improvements - enough to upgrade pretty much all of the systems and get it looking more like an Ikea catalogue and less like the Unabomber's shack, I’ll struggle to spend even as much as a down payment on a studio flat in London.  And I already own it outright - no mortgage, and no rent.

I did think about it, you know.  And I talked to quite a few people too, people at home in Canada and friends here in London.  And every time I expected someone to say, “What?  A boat?  Are you crazy?”  Instead I heard things like, “Oh, yeah I can see you doing that” and “That’s totally you.”  Friends in London almost invariably said, “Oh, yeah I have a friend/ cousin/ former student/ hairdresser/ chimney sweep who lives on a boat” as if it were the most normal and acceptable thing possible.  You’re all enablers.  Every one of you.  So I took the proverbial plunge (though I hasten to add that I have not yet actually taken any literal plunges).

The other reason this particular boat was a deal was priced as it was is  because it was located in Cheshire.  Remember the Grand Day Out when I saw Iron Bridge and failed to find the Secret Bunker?  Well the real reason for that trip was to go see this boat, which was moored at a marina near Nantwich.  And the friend I brought along - Nes - was there because he lived on a boat for a year and is also a certified guy-who-knows-about-engines-and-electricalish-stuff and could look at the diesel engine and see something other than a large noisy lump of metal emitting trippy fumes and looking rather greasy.  So we went to see the boat on a Wednesday, and I made an offer on it Thursday morning when the office opened.  I might have pondered a bit longer, but as we were leaving the marina there was a couple waiting to go look at the same boat, so I figured it was carpe diem time.  Also Nes was hopelessly incorrigible and egged me on relentlessly.  (Nes: This is basically all your fault. You know that, right?)

Here’s me when holding the keys to my boat, on Day One.

Adding to the urgency was the fact that Nes was planning to move back to SOUTH AMERICA in just a few weeks, so if I was going to buy a boat I wanted to do it in soon, to maximise the amount of boat-related knowledge and experience I could squeeze out of the poor guy before he fled the country.  There followed a sort of frenzied period when we made a second trip to Cheshire to drive the boat from the marina where I bought it to a marina where they would take it out of the water, put it on a flat bed truck, and drive it to another marina in suburban London.  And then there was the time it took to get it from that marina, which is on the Thames, into the canal system (Shepperton to Brentford, for those in the know) and up to its current mooring spot in far-flung Uxbridge, all the while trying to remember that the tiller steers sort of backwards and you should really turn the engine pre-heater off once it’s started and that the grease on lock gears stains permanently, while simultaneously vomiting out large sums of cash about every 4 hours on everything from alternator belts and ropes and floating keychains to dish rags and generous lashings of gin and tonic.

And so that’s the big news… I bought a boat.  In fact, I’m on the boat now, as I write this.  I woke up on board this morning, had a nice productive day of puttering around dismantling some of the more heinous Unabomber-y bits and generally knocking the place into shape (including ejecting several pieces of really foul carpet that were basically a Level 4 biohazard), made dinner, and watched two episodes of House of Cards.  All while floating.  It’s been quite agreeable.

So, the details:  The boat is a 45’ long narrowboat, meaning that it’s roughly 7’ wide.  (45’ is small for a narrowboat - some get up just over 70’ long, which means that the bow and stern are basically two different time zones.)  It’s got a 1.5 litre BMC diesel engine.  The stern is what’s called a “Cruiser” style, which means that it’s got a generously sized deck instead of the Traditional and Semi-Traditional styles.  The deck is a great feature - it’s like having a balcony in an apartment.

Breakfast on the deck.

Entering from the back deck (or stern, as we boat-people would say) there’s a kitchen with a sink with running water, gas cooker (stove and oven) and a pretty generous amount of counter space, shelving and drawers.  No refrigerator yet, but that’s coming. For now there’s a 12 volt cooler that I rarely use.  There’s also no hot running water because the gas heater is disconnected, another thing that will be sorted while I’m away.


It's LITERALLY a galley kitchen!

Moving along, there’s a wood stove, which pumps out quite a remarkable amount of heat, but will likely be used merely for ambience/ emergencies since I’m also having a forced hot air system put in.  And there’s a built in couch that will eventually convert into a second (sorta-almost) double bed, and I’ve just sorted out a table and chair in the living area.  The bathroom needs a lot of work, thought it’s functional right now.  There’s a chemical toilet (not bad at all, really), sink, and shower (which I haven’t tried because, as I mentioned, no hot water).

The current heating system

Living / Dining / Home Office / Guest Room

At the front of the boat is a separate bedroom, which was another important feature for me. The cabin of this boat is quite a small living space - about 200 square feet in total - but one of the things that makes it feel like a proper home is that the bed doesn’t have to fold out of the ceiling or pop up from underneath the dining table and then be stowed away again before you can actually move.  That was non-negotiable.

The Coke bedspread is temporary

Water comes from a tank under the bow deck that’s filled at various water points on the canals.  Gas for the stove and (eventually) hot water comes from large propane cylinders in special lockers at the stern.  Electricity is from batteries which are charged either by the alternator (when the engine is running) or by a small solar panel on the roof.

And that’s it.  It’s a home.  Outdoor deck, kitchen, living/dining, bathroom, bedroom.  All that, with a guaranteed water view, 24/7.

There is a lot of work to do, but while I’m in Azerbaijan (remember that?) I’m leaving the boat with a mechanic who’s going to do a bunch of mechanical and other upgrades while I’m away. Gas-fired fridge, new hot water heater, engine tune-up, scraping and re-painting the hull, scraping and priming the exterior so I can give it a sexy new colour scheme… the list goes on. When I get back, the plan is to move onto it full time and start renovating the interior.  In the mean time, I’m spending a few nights a week onboard, getting a feel for how things might work, measuring up and making drawings, and generally just trying to figure out this new lifestyle.  I’m sad at the thought of leaving the big, friendly house in Brixton, but it was starting to feel like it was time for that move anyway.  And with me doing more work internationally and leaving the UK for months at a stretch, it’s hugely appealing to think that I can simply drive my house to a marina where they’ll pluck it out of the water and stick it on a shelf until I get back.  It all just kind of makes sense.  And I can’t deny it, it feels cool.  Really, really cool.

One last thing… the name of the boat right now is “Dragonfly”.  Despite imprecations from relatives with a fondness for dragonflies, I’m going to change the name.  And don’t give me that malarky about it being bad luck to change a boat’s name because this boat started life as “Lisa Jane” before it was “Dragonfly”, so it’s my turn. I’ve got a few ideas, but haven’t made a decision yet, and this is where you come in.  I’m thinking about doing a Canadian-ish paint scheme - dark red, cream, maybe some black, so I thought something with a Canadian or prairie sound would be nice.  Or maybe it needs a Russian twist, since it was Russian roubles that bought it.  Suggestions are welcome; click on the bottom left where it says “Post a Comment” and give me your best.

And THAT’S why I haven’t been blogging much.

Me at the tiller, looking and feeling pretty insufferably smug.  Wouldn't you?