If it pleases your Lordship...

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

I’ll start by admitting this is a huge topic, which is part of the reason for the delay in service this week. Then again, the only reason I know it’s a huge topic is because the aforementioned London Yoda has been bombarding me with additional sites and side stories since our already over-programmed outing a few weeks ago. We have concluded he suffers from a severe and debilitating Sub-category of Fear Of Missing Out which we’ve dubbed FOOMO (Fear Of Others Missing Out). I have pared things down unmercifully for this post, to the point where he may never speak to me again, but such are the sacrifices I make for the blog. Whatever the case, today we dip a toe lightly into the very deep waters of Legal London.

London Yoda loves a theme, so when he was planning our recent outing and mentioned the possibility of visiting the Inns of Court, I jumped at that idea. This is mostly because I’d just finished reading “The Best of Rumpole”. Horace Rumpole is a much-loved fictional barrister created by John Mortimer and appearing in a series of short stories. He's perhaps better known as Rumpole of the Bailey, portrayed by the late and much loved Leo McKern in a long-running BBC TV show of the same name. Both the books and the show are worth a look, being ripping yarns and a nice time capsule of 1970s and 80s British fashion. They're also a good introduction to a few of the interesting aspects of the legal system in the UK. For instance, Rumpole himself is a barrister, as distinct from a solicitor. Solicitors mainly advise clients, undertake negotiations and draft legal documents, whereas barristers are given the details of a case by a solicitor and are the ones who wear wigs and gowns and stand up in court to plead the case in front of a judge. Barristers are often self employed and work "in chambers” - an office space shared with other barristers. Rumpole’s celebrated speciality was criminal law, especially as tried in the most famous and highest criminal court in the UK the Central Criminal Court, better known as The Old Bailey, more on which later.

Rumpole of the Bailey, as portrayed by Leo McKern, sporting a proper horsehair wig

Those chambers barristers inhabit bring us back to the Inns of Court I mentioned earlier. The Inns of Court are the professional associations for barristers in England and Wales. Every barrister must belong to one of the four Inns called Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn. Historically there were more than just four inns, and, unsurprisingly, they started life as exactly that: inns. They were places where lawyers lodged, dined and congregated. Gradually they also began to practice and teach at these inns, and eventually Inns came to be places where lawyers were trained. Confined to a geographically small area of central London, the Inns no longer take much part in the training of lawyers, but do retain the sole right to call students to the bar. (“Called to the bar” being the term to indicate that one is permitted to argue in court on behalf of another party. Basically, it means you’re an officially proper grown-up barrister.)

Inside the grounds of the Middle and Inner Temple, which share a plum bit of land stretching between the Thames and Fleet Street, granted to them in 1608 by King James I and now worth ninety-four squillion pounds.

Every law student applies to one of the four Inns, though apparently it makes no difference in which one you settle. The Inns are organised roughly along the lines of an Oxbridge college, with residences, a chapel, dining hall and the aforementioned chambers.

The sign outside 5 Pump Court Chambers, listing many of the barristers who practice there.

So we’ve got barristers and solicitors, but there’s another term that pops up a lot when dealing with the lawyers in England (including in Rumpole, naturally). QC, or Queen’s Council is an honorific title granted to senior or distinguished barristers, appointed by the Queen to be one of "Her Majesty's Counsel learned in the law.” They are often referred to as “silks”, after the silk robes they wear, so becoming a QC is sometimes referred to as “taking silk”. And for the record, the first woman to take silk was 1934 - then King’s Council, as it was during the reign of George V. She was Helen Kinnear, and the ground-breaking event occurred in Canada! Lots of Commonwealth countries retain the practice of appointing QCs, though some have abolished the designation or changed to the infinitely less melodious “Senior Council” (SC) (Yawn.) Rumpole was never made a QC, and frequently referred to the rank as “Queer Customer”.

So let’s review. Every barrister in England and Wales - from the lowliest newbie to the silks and judges - must be a member of one of the Inns of Court, but it doesn’t matter which one and they may actually never go to their Inn. On the other hand they might go often, attend services at the chapel, dine in the dining hall, attend lectures there and spend their working days in chambers on the grounds. In any case, the Inns themselves are quite lovely and offer a quiet respite from the busy London streets around them. They’re mostly low stone buildings, sunny gardens, and medieval chapels, much of which is open to the public though off course some areas are off limits (including one lovely lawn that was open only to residents and “resident dogs”).

Sunny gardens

So where does this "temple" business come from? Middle Temple? Inner Temple? For that we have to reach all the way back to 12th century and the founding of the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar (more accurately called the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, but often just called the Templars) were a Catholic military order most famous for fighting in the Crusades and developing a surprisingly sophisticated financial infrastructure sometimes credited as being the precursor to modern banking. For at time they were one of the most powerful of the church’s orders but more importantly for us, they built the Temple Church, a lovely medieval building in the heart of Temple. In fact, pretty much anywhere with Temple in the name can be traced back to the Templars.

Inside Temple Church. The subject of the Templars is one that people devote lifetimes of study to so if it seems to you that I’ve glossed over basically everything, you are completely correct.

The Temple Church is architecturally interesting because the nave is circular, a defining feature of Templar churches. It was part of that grant of land in 1608, the Templars having been officially disbanded in 1312. What happened between 1312 and 1608 is opaque to my halfhearted googling efforts, so I rely on London Yoda to pipe up in the comments section and enlighten us. The church itself (having been in the care of fat-walletted lawyers for hundreds years) is in really good condition, though it did have to be rebuilt substantially after bombings in WWII. Importantly for us, the Temple Church styles itself as “the mother church of English common law”, mostly because of its links to Magna Carta. (Special thanks to London Yoda for that link, which you should not ignore because it is most definitely not just another Wikipedia page.) William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke (just another Wikipedia page), who mediated between King John and the barons, is buried in the Church. And of course while the actual content of the Magna Carta is mostly about the rights of Barons v. the King, it’s widely considered to have become the basis of common law and a symbol of justice and human rights. So that all ties in nicely with our legal theme.

The tomb of the Earl himself, which is in that circular nave. Popular wisdom is that a knight depicted with his legs crossed dies while on crusade, but it's not actually true. Plus it kind of makes them look like the died while searching for a toilet.

Further to that theme, let’s talk about another great institution I alluded to earlier. Rumpole’s favourite legal venue, and probably the most famous court in England - The Old Bailey. The Old Bailey is the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales (as distinct from the Royal Courts of Justice - London’s high court for civil matters). Located near the location of the old Newgate Prison, the Old Bailey has been the site of some of the most notorious cases in history, including that of the Yorkshire Ripper and the Kray Twins. In order to get a real feel for the place, I took a tour conducted by a former journalist who covered trials at the Old Bailey for decades before giving it all up for the glamorous life of a tour guide.

We started at a pub. This was auspicious, especially when they brought out the strong coffee and warm croissants to counteract the earliness of the hour. Happily, the pub itself - the Viaduct - is a gorgeous and historic old gin palace as well as being a home to a few of the old cells from the notorious Newgate Prison. Newgate was the site of a prison for more than 700 years, starting in 1188 and significantly rebuilt in 1402 by the legendary London Lord Mayor Dick Whittington. Conditions were generally appalling in the prison, though could be greatly improved with the universal cure-all: money. In fact, wealthier inmates were able to bring in their own food, furniture, servants, and even wives. One notable resident raised 6 children while incarcerated at Newgate for 40 years. For most though, a stretch in prison was a miserable, overcrowded, cold, hungry and disease-ridden business, as evidenced by the cells in the basement of the Viaduct.

The space was too tiny to get a decent picture, but would have housed 10-15 prisoners.

The hole in the ceiling is how food was passed down. It was all exceptionally dank and drippy.

The cells under the Viaduct were once linked by a tunnel to the Old Bailey, just across Newgate Street. There’s been some form of a court on the site since the 16th century, but the current building dates from 1902, with a new addition added in the 1970s.

Here’s the famous building, including the statue of the Lady Justice with her scales on top of the dome. You can’t see it in this photo, but the pans of the scales each have a small drainage holes drilled in them. Apparently they were added after a senior judge entering through the main doors was drenched by a panful of water caught in the wind and promptly dispatched a pair of workmen and a sturdy ladder to rectify the situation.

For the most part the viewing galleries in the courtrooms are open to the public on the principal that justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done. Most of the building, though, is off limits to the public, including the domed Grand Hall. I decided to visit the 1970s-era building first, mostly because everyone else on the tour went to the old building, and I didn’t fancy the queue. However even though the viewing galleries are open, getting in is a serious matter. If you think airport security is tight, the Old Bailey trumps them by a long way. In an airport you might have to surrender your phone and computer to the x-ray machine, but you get them back soon enough. At the Old Bailey no phones, computers, tablets, cameras or anything of the sort are allowed. At all. Period. No exceptions. Luckily, part of the tour service provided at the Viaduct included storage of bags and phones while visiting the court, but I did have to trek back to deposit my Apple Watch after failing on my first attempt. The security guards are unfailingly polite but unflinching. Apparently there’s a travel agent’s office nearby who will hold your electronics for £5 after you’re turned away. They must do a roaring trade.

Here’s a picture of the Grand Hall, which I did not see of course. Thanks Google Images!

Once I finally gained access I found the only courtroom open, where closing arguments were underway. I was allowed in by another guard with strict instructions that I must remain quiet and stay for at least half a hour before leaving to minimise the distraction to the participants. There was even a sign on the wall instructing spectators to “refrain from speaking or moving”. This turned out to be a bit difficult, as the barrister in the case was, er, really quite boring. Of course I entered in the middle of his address and with no knowledge of the case, but regardless it was not exactly Rumpole-level stuff. He spent a lot of time stuttering and hesitating and fiddling with his wig, though in fairness having a carpet of horsehair on your head would rather invite that I suppose. And the 1970s courtroom was all blonde wood and perspex and green leather and felt like it might have come from an Ikea catalogue. Still, there was a jury and a judge and an appropriate scattering of other wigged and robed types, and I managed to pass the requisite 30 minutes without being ejected for sneezing or moving or breathing too loudly.

I was much more interested to the see 1902 building, so I went there next only to find out that there really wasn’t anything to see. The guards at the door were polite and apologetic but it really seemed that I was going to be out of luck. However, I must have hung around just long enough, with just the right disappointed but unthreatening expression that one of the guards took pity on me and escorted me up to the only courtroom that was sitting hearing sentencing arguments. That room was much more satisfying - small, but covered in dark wood panelling and elaborate plasterwork. I was the only person in the gallery so I concentrated on making myself as small as possible and just listened to the defence attorney and the judge argue about a guy from my old neighbourhood in Lambeth. And just as I was thinking that I’d pretty much seen what I wanted to see and really fancied a bit of lunch, the judge banged his gavel and rose and I was able to slip out, thank the security guards profusely, and make my exit.

Inside the famous Old Bailey Courtroom One, again thanks for Google Images.

So with the help of Yoda and a decent tour guide and some friendly security I managed to get a pretty good look at some of London’s legal past and present without getting nicked for the felony misdemeanour of Blinking While in Her Majesty’s Courtroom. In other news... wow is there ever other news. In a few days I'm off for a new big job on the other side of the world, so stay tuned for details about that. In the mean time, please refrain from speaking or moving.

GRUB!: Fish Pie

Sunday, February 11, 2018

I had a densely packed day of proper off-the-track hidden London kind of stuff last week, led by my Barbican-dwelling friend Piran. He’s like some kind of London-savant. I'm convinced I could walk  him down any street in Central London and he’d come up with at least three interesting facts about the history, or architecture or some other random London ephemera related to or prompted by the area. I like to think I’ve learned a few off-beat things about London since I’ve been here, but truly Piran is London Yoda to my Luke Skywalker. So having spent a whole day wandering around a geographically tiny but Londonically hyper-dense area of the city with him, it’s going to take me perhaps six months to distill things into a blog or two or ten.

While that all percolates I’ve fallen back on a good old-fashioned GRUB! post. Because it’s been cold and grey and rainy all day and nothing helps warm up the boat and the boater more than getting something hot and filling and lovely in the oven. Something like Fish Pie!

This is a day that cries out for something involving pre-heating the oven. Preferably for about eleven hours.

Fish Pie falls into that category of not-actually-pie occupied by Shepherd’s Pie and Cottage Pie, being a protein-packed stew-ish base topped with mashed potatoes and baked. Perhaps that’s why it’s sometimes called Fisherman’s Pie. Note that this category is separate and distinct from Real Pie, which must be completely enclosed in pastry on top, bottom and sides. Or at the very very very least covered with a shortcrust pastry that completely seals the top of the dish, like chicken pot pie (but actually even that is seriously borderline). And don’t even get me started on pubs that serve a dish of stew topped with a disc of puff pastry. I have no compunctions at all about grilling restaurant staff unmercifully and pointedly about what appears on the menu as “pie”.  Also note that traditional fish pie is nothing to do with Stargazy Pie, even though that particular dish is, in fact, a more real fish pie than, er, fish pie. Also Stargazy Pie is super instragrammable - check it out:

Stargazy pie
Stargazy Pie - a traditional Cornish dish served on Dec. 23. As you can see, it’s a proper pie with pastry, though perhaps you didn’t notice that because you were distracted by the whole pilchards with their heads and tails sticking out of the top.

So… fish pie. The base is a mixture of different fish, cut in generous chunks and poached in milk. The milk then goes on to become a white sauce, often with a few other goodies thrown in as well. The topping is creamy mash, which can also be jazzed up in various ways. Because fish pie is quite a traditional dish, some big supermarkets sell packs of fish pie mix so you don’t have to faff about buying a bunch of different kinds of fish. Cod plus something smoked (usually haddock) are most traditional, though the mixes I’ve seen also usually include salmon. And I think it’s nice to mix in some prawns too, for a little extra luxury.

Tesco’s fish pie mix including cod (left), salmon (centre) and smoked haddock (right), with luxury prawns featuring far right. The eggs feature later in the story.

You probably noticed that the smoked haddock pictured above has a distinctly yellow tint to it. Smoking is, of course, a traditional way of preserving fish. Other notable smoked fish over here include smoked mackerel, the ever-popular kipper (smoked herring), and the famed Abroath Smokie (also haddock, but treated differently). Originally, haddock was salt cured and then smoked over oak. The combination of the natural colour of the fish and the smoke gave it a yellowish colour. When more industrial smoking methods were introduced, some of the colour was lost and it became usual to add it back in with yellow dye - sometimes artificial, and sometimes more natural (based on onion skins or turmeric). Amusingly, when doing the in-depth research that I always undertake for the blog (Note: for “in-depth” read: no less than five concentrated minutes of googling, with breaks for watching tiny house videos on YouTube), I encountered websites that claim the undyed article was traditional, with the garish yellow colour of dyed haddock being emblematic of the worst sort of Un-Britishness. And I also found at least one online fishmonger offering “traditional yellow dyed” smoked haddock for people who grew up with the bright yellow stuff.

And so back to the fish pie. I have to admit this is a bit of a production, with many different processes and resulting in quite a few dirty pots and pans and baking dishes. Normally I don’t go in for that sort of thing, but it was a good excuse to avoid doing anything else on that cold and rainy Saturday, so here’s how it went:


4 large red-skinned potatoes, boiled and mashed
2 hard boiled eggs
Butter, milk and salt for the mash
About 450 grams of assorted fish
About 100 grams of prawns
1 large onion, peeled and halved
1 token bay leaf
2 cups milk
More butter
3 tbsp white flour
1 tbsp grainy mustard
1 cup frozen peas
1 tbsp capers
Chopped fresh parsley
Chopped fresh dill
Lemon zest
Yet more butter
(Note: as usual, all of these amounts are a bit approximate. Deal with it. It’s not like any of us in on Masterchef.)

First, cook and mash the spuds in whatever way you normally make mash. Naturally, this should include a generous amount of butter and milk and salt and pepper to taste. I added some fresh chopped parsley, which I think gives a festive touch. I’ve sometimes made fish pie with a mix of white and sweet potatoes, which is also nice. You could even add garlic, or grated cheese, or both, if you’re feeling particularly wild. For my fish pie I used red-skinned potatoes and left the skin on because it’s good for you and rustic and life is too short to peel potatoes. And to add to the rustic nature, my mash was pleasantly uneven. This is mostly because I was halfway through cooking the potatoes before I realised, for the first time, that I don’t seem to own a potato masher. Happily it turns out that a slotted spoon + fork combination is perfectly adequate for optimally rusticated mash.

One non-standard thing you’ll want to do when cooking the potatoes is to add a couple of whole eggs to the pot in the last 6 or 7 minutes of cooking, hard-boiled eggs being a traditional addition to the filling of fish pie. (Grated hard cooked eggs are also part of Stargazy Pie. Go figure.) Note it’s advisable to removed the cooked eggs from the pot before mashing.

With the mash safely mashed and cooling in the pot, it’s time for the fish. Peel the onion and chop it in half and then make a cut in one half of the onion and insert the token bay leaf. (I did not do this because my bay leaves are apparently stored in the same place as my potato masher. Also I’m not a fan of tokenism, but several recipes I looked at called for this touch, so I include it here, despite the fact that I’m not convinced this onion bit, and especially the accompanying bay leaf, actually bring much to the party.) Place the token onion/bay leaf in a large pan and add the milk and the uncooked fish (if you’re using prawns do not include them here). Bring the milk almost to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer gently, poaching the fish in the milk. Once the fish is barely cooked, remove it from the milk and set it aside in another dish. (I used the eventual baking dish for this rather than adding to the growing pile of dirty crockery.)

Mash and poaching fish

Meanwhile, prepare to dirty a third pan by finely chopping the remaining onion and sautéing in butter and olive oil. Once the onion is cooked, gradually add the flour, and continue sautéing until the flour has cooked down. Then start slowly spooning in the poaching liquid, creating a white sauce. I eventually dumped the onion/flour/milk back into the poaching pan, which was bigger, and stirred it all together. Salt and pepper are good here, and I added a nice dollop of mustard to give a bit of zing.

Once the sauce is done gently stir in the cooked fish, prawns, frozen peas, capers and chopped dill. This is also where you’ll add the hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut into quarters. I say “you’ll add” because I, in fact, did not add the eggs at this stage. I studiously ignored the lovingly boiled eggs until the entire edifice was tucked into the oven and enough debris was cleared for me to notice them lurking on the spoon rest. Do not make this embarrassing error.

The incomplete filling, sadly lacking in eggy goodness

Spoon the filling into a deep baking dish and top with chopped parsley and lemon zest and then dot on the cooled mash. Keep the top of the mash craggy and uneven, and top with more butter before popping in the oven at 190C / 375F / Gas Mark 5 / 464 Kelvin for about 30 minutes, or until it’s warmed through, golden brown and delicious. Lots of recipes add grated cheese on top of the mash, which would of course be very very nice.

Top Tip! Put the dish on a layer of tinfoil loosely shaped like a bathtub to catch the inevitable gooey spillover.

Once the pie is in the oven, your kitchen may look a bit like a bomb has dropped.

I was a bit surprised at how much mess this made, though I was gratified that it didn’t take long for me to clean it up. Perhaps this is due to my unique genetic makeup which combines my mother’s cooking instinct, free-form approach to recipes and amounts, and ability to dirty every pot in the kitchen with my father’s need to wash the dishes in between supper and dessert.

Done before the pie was out of the oven!

So I sat down to my supper of fish pie with relatively clean kitchen and a glass of cold Pinot Grigio, and a few cherry tomatoes to add to the veg-count.

As mentioned above, we're not on Masterchef here, so presentation was limited to a mostly unsuccessful effort to arrange the tomatoes. 

So that's fish pie. A nice alternative to similar meaty dishes and good if you need to warm yourself and your environment and dust off an unusual number of pots and pans. Especially recommended if you have a dishwasher.

Next time on Grub!: Devilled Eggs...