Sunday, 25 November 2007

All in a day's work

I was on a plane to Belize, on my way to an author workshop, reading an in-flight magazine article about some high-flying London investment banker. Reading it made me think that when I grow up I should don black court shoes and expensive corporate couture and earn tons of money for brandishing something mysterious called power. Of course, I shouldn't. And here's why.

I'm here in Belize working with a team of teachers. That's one of the things I do for money (there are several): get teachers together and coax publishable textbooks out of them. It's sometimes fun, and occasionally it takes me to out-of the way places like Belize. (Map below for those of you that think I'm talking about somewhere in France.) But that's not why I shouldn't become a corporate ballbuster like Nicola Horlick.

Thing is, I heard today that one of my authors won't be able to complete the job. "There are serious problems at his school," said one of the others. The others looked up, with grim expressions, nodded and shook their heads with the kind of concern that tells you this is something a touch more serious than petty thievery or bullying or cheating on tests. In South Africa that expression means that the school is having issues with heroin or tik. In the US it means that a kid came to school armed with an automatic rifle. In Belize, however, we weren't talking drugs or homicide. We were talking...

"Demon possession."
I look carefully at the faces around me to check whether they're having me on. But no.
"Several of the children at the school have been possessed," I am told. "The demon seems to be near to the pit latrine," he adds helpfully.

He's not kidding. The school has been closed for several days, entire community in an uproar. It made national news. (For the article, click here.) Children have been hospitalised. A high-profile exorcist has been brought in at great expense (8000 dollars, I am told); the money has been raised from the concerned Belizean public. After all, what can one do when your community has been stricken with a nasty demon? Collect some cash and pay to get it taken out, that's what. The exorcist reportedly found a box containing - surprise, surprise - some dolls with pins stuck in them, and some sand with "a very particular odour". To prove that she wasn't "a mock", as my source called it, she led some representatives from the school to a graveyard, where she showed them some sand with a similar odour (although, being older, it obviously had a different colour).

Of the ten Belizeans in the room, not one had any degree of scepticism about the story. I wondered whether mine was written all over my face. Or whether they could see the other thought: you just don't get that in boardrooms in London, man. You just don't get that good voodoo shit up there on the 47th floor.

(the tiny country between Mexico, Guatamala and Honduras)

Friday, 23 November 2007

Chocolate brownies: three takes

OK, up til now I've resisted writing blog posts about cooking. Partly because I had an idea of devoting a whole blog to the activity of bread-making. But let's face it, I'm just not conscientious enough a blogger to get another whole blog off the ground given that I keep forgetting to write on this one. And, to steal a turn of phrase from Padma Lakshmi (who I'd never heard of til I flicked through Vanity Fair this morning in an airport) - I am too the kinda girl that starts thinking about what to make for dinner more or less when I'm eating lunch.

So. Chocolate brownies. I've made a lot of these this year, in a variety of ways. The revelation about chocolate brownies was a thing I read by Nigel Slater, who points out that if you stick a skewer (or knife or whatever) in your brownies and it comes out clean, you have screwed it up. Really truly. Just start again. I mean, the thing in the pan might taste quite nice and chocolatey, but it will not have the magical squishiness of a true brownie, ok? Yes, you can redeem it with ice cream, but in the long run you'll have to make more because the first lot won't have fulfilled that special brownie thing you were after.

So in this post I'll give you three brownie recipes, starting with the muddiest and richest, and ending with the lightest (though there's nothing really light about any of these).
1. Nigel Slater's recipe - the richest, darkest heaviest brownies imaginable. Closer to pudding than to anything like a chewy cookie.
2. A slightly cakier brownie - still rich and squishy, but closer to something you'd keep in a cookie jar (as opposed to the fridge).
3. Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Fudge brownies - a classic, that strikes a heavenly balance between lightly cakey and slightly chewy.

Nigel Slater's brownies
(I can recommend Mr Slater's fabulous article about these.)

300g golden caster sugar
250g butter
250g chocolate (70 per cent cocoa solids)
3 large eggs plus 1 extra egg yolk, beaten lightly
60g flour
60g finest quality cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder

You will need a baking tin, about 23cm x 23cm, preferably non-stick, or a small roasting tin.

Set the oven at 180°C/Gas 4. Line the bottom of the baking tin with baking parchment. Cream the sugar and butter well til it's very, very white and fluffy.

Meanwhile, break the chocolate into pieces, set 50g of it aside and melt the rest. As soon as the chocolate has melted, remove it from the heat and let it cool a bit. Chop the remaining 50g into gravel-sized pieces.

Sift together the flour, cocoa and baking powder and mix in a pinch of salt.
With the food mixer running slowly, introduce the beaten egg a little at a time, speeding up in between additions.
Mix in the melted and the chopped chocolate with a large metal spoon.
Lastly, fold in the flour and cocoa, gently and firmly, without knocking any of the air out.
Scrape the mixture into the prepared cake tin, smooth the top and bake for 30 minutes. The top will have risen slightly and the cake will appear slightly softer in the middle than around the edges.Pierce the centre of the cake with a fork - it should come out sticky, but not with raw mixture attached to it. If it does, then return the brownie to the oven for three more minutes. It is worth remembering that it will solidify a little on cooling, so if it appears a bit wet, don't worry.

The second take is a fraction less like chocolate pudding. When I say a fraction I mean a very small fraction.

Brownie recipe #2

340 g dark chocolate
250 g butter
3 eggs
250 g dark brown sugar
110 g flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 170°C and line a baking tray with baking parchment. Grease well.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
In a small bowl or jug (or double boiler) melt the chocolate and butter together.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and slowly beat in the sugar. Beat in the flour mixture and lastly fold in the chocolate mixture. Scrape it all into the pan, and bake it for about 17 minutes, then keep checking every 3 minutes til it's done just well enough to be midway between gooey and cakey. But not liquid.
Take it out and leave it to cool before cutting.

The last lot is Mollie Katzen's recipe, taken from her lovely classic, "The Moosewood Cookbook". She has a lovely blog which you can find here. I've been making these since I was 12 and I LURVE them. I've put the metric measures in though the original recipe is in non-standard and imperial measures.
Moosewood Fudge Brownies

Let soften: 1/2 lb. (250 g) butter (don't melt it)

Melt: 5 oz. (150 g) bittersweet chocolate. Let cool.

Cream the butter with 1 3/4 packed cups (about 200 g) light brown sugar and 5 eggs. Add 1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract. Beat in the melted, cooled chocolate and 1 cup flour.

Spread into a buttered 9 x 13"(23 x 33 cm) baking pan. Bake 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees (180).

Optional: chopped nuts, or 1 tablespoon instant coffee, or 1 teaspoon grated fresh orange or lemon rind, or 1/2 teaspoon allspice or cinnamon, or a mashed over-ripe banana, or none of the above.

Yet another option: instead of uniformly blending in the chocolate, you can marble it. Add chocolate last, after the flour is completely blended in and only partially blend in the chocolate. It looks real nice.

I hope you like these. I know I also have a recipe for vegan (!!) brownies somewhere at home in Cape Town - I will dredge it out and link it into this post soon.

The quest for the best yogurt in the land

Life in the UK has its upshots. Like yogurt. My current favourites are Onken, followed closely by Yeo Valley. More suggestions welcome, as the little one seems to have a thing for yogurt. But hopefully Onken will take note of my nice letter and broaden the range. We live in hope.

Dear nice Onken people

I recently moved over to the UK from South Africa. I did it for love: I fell in love with someone that lives in London, and realised that come what may, we had to be together. I hadn't really thought I would leave sunny, beautiful, friendly Africa for soggy, cold Britain. But here I am, gradually finding my feet in this city and discovering little unexpected and pleasing things about this initially strange place.

One of my happiest discoveries was your yogurt. Specifically your Wholegrain Biopot yogurt. I didn't used to be so crazy about yogurt, but a couple of months ago, my partner and I discovered that we're expecting a little one early next year, and pregnancy has done peculiar things to my appetite. Put me off chocolate, for one thing. Given me an enormous daily desire for fresh fruit and yogurt. So I sampled a lot of different kinds. Not all of them, mind you, but quite a few. And kept coming back to yours.

Now, there's only one problem. For an enthusistic yogurt eater like me, your range of flavours is *just too small*!! The wholegrain range (which I admit is my favourite) only seems to come in three flavours - and of these, I can only usually find the strawberry one at most supermarkets. And the fruit range seems to come in a few more flavours (according to your website), but again, only a few of them only seem to be stocked at my local Sainsburys (and believe me, I've looked at both the nearest branches - Woolwich and Eltham!).

My suggestion to you is: how about broadening your range? Here are a few suggestions:

- apricot
- apple
- passion fruit
- lemon (as a mild variation on vanilla... though I've never seen your vanilla in a supermarket, I would happily buy it)
- stewed fruit
- muesli
- hazelnut
You might even branch out into sweeter flavours like caramel and chocolate.

I hope you like these ideas. Because I really like your yogurt.

Best wishes
Lisa Greenstein
5 Hurricane House, Gunyard Mews
SE18 4GE

PS. I would be more than happy to sample new flavours in process of research and development!

Friday, 16 November 2007

Africa is not one country

The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it - George Kimble, geographer, b1912.

I took a screenwriting course last year. We were told: In Hollywood movies, you don't specify that your characters are black, unless there is a Reason - in the plot or character - that makes them need to be black. White is neutral. Black carries meaning. Black implies underdog, underprivileged, marginalised. Black cannot be neutral. Hollywood, I thought. Americans, I thought. And then I came to Britain, and discovered that a similar set of assumptions apply.

Last night, I was asked what road safety is like in South Africa. And when I’d said that I thought it had improved in recent years with stricter laws around drunken driving and speeding, the next comment was: “But there can’t be much traffic, can there? I mean, most Africans can’t afford a car.”

It’s not the only comment I’ve had like this. My partner tells me repeatedly that the most valuable thing he’ll ever give me (aside from his undying love and devotion) is a British passport. “Africa is fucked,” he likes to say; “HIV and Aids are decimating your workforce, which is going to screw up the economy. Your crime rates are off the scale. And if that doesn’t finish Africa off, global warming will do the job.”

It’s as though “Africa” (the world’s 2nd largest continent, by the way, at 30,065,000 sq km) – all 54 countries of it – is actually one homogenous problem that can be summed up in the image of a single, starving, disease-riddled child. It inspires a mixture of pity and resignation in the British, who love solving the problems of others, but can’t come up with a solution. Do we feed, clothe and treat Africa? Or do we leave it to die? Whatever we do, we don’t take a closer look at the fact that the “Africa” brought to our TV sets and newspapers is NOT the one experienced daily by most of the people on the African continent. I’m not denying that Africa is home to a lot of suffering. I’m just saying that’s not all there is.

Moreover, what the British seem to find difficult to grasp is the fact that South Africa has been – and continues to be – a country of continuous, if gradual, change. The government currently in power may have many flaws (their embarrassing views on HIV prevention; their refusal to take a stand against Robert Mugabe), but there is no denying that they have brought substantial improvements to the lives of millions of South Africans over the last 13 years.

So here, for the uninitiated, are some of the facts and figures of my country. I'm not seeking to answer big questions here, just to give a few basic facts, the ones I'm afraid I can't quote offhand without checking online databases. I can't help thinking that the information below tells you very, very little. Much less than a photo essay or film might. There are a lot of people living here. A lot of different people. The figures will tell you a little, but meeting some of the people would tell you a whole lot more.

Population: almost 48 million
Race demographics: Black African 79.6% (38 million); White 9.1% (4.3 million); Coloured 8.9% (4.2 million); Indian/Asian 2.5% (1.2 million)

Don’t be fooled by the homogenous appearance of that pale purple section of the graph. Within that black African population, there are distinct linguistic and cultural groupings. If we look at the population in terms of language groupings, it looks like this

("Coloured" is a contentious term still used for people of mixed race descended from slaves brought in from East and central Africa, the indigenous Khoisan who lived in the Cape at the time, indigenous Africans and whites. The majority speak Afrikaans.)

Facts in brief about South Africa at November 2007

SA has about 12 million learners, 366 000 teachers and around 28 000 schools, including 390 special needs schools and 1000 registered private schools. The government has allocated 5.4% of its 2007/8 budget to education.
Total adult literacy rate (2000-2004) 82
Net primary school enrolment/attendance (2000-2005): 89
Phones per 100 people (2002-2004): 47
Internet users per 100 population (2002-2004): 8

% of infants with low birthweight (1998-2005): 15
% of under-5s suffereing from underweight, moderate and severe: 12
% of under-5s suffering from underweight, severe: 2
% of under-5s suffering from wasting, moderate and severe: 3

Life expectancy at birth (2005): 46
% of population using improved drinking water sources, total (2004): 88 [99% of urban populations; 73% of rural populations]
% of population using adequate sanitation facilities (2004, total): 64 (79% of urban populations; 46% of rural populations)
% of routine EPI vaccines financed by government, 2005, total: 100
% of 1-year-old children immunized against (2005): TB 97%; DPT 98%; Polio 94%; Measles 82%; HepB 94%
Estimated adult HIV prevalence rate (15+ years), end 2005: 18.8%
Mother-to-child transmission, estimated number of people, all ages, living with HIV, 2005 estimate 5 500 000

Economic growth, as measured by GDP, has increased from around 3.3% (1999-2004) to around 5% per annum.
Employment has risen by about 2.7% per year since 2001. By March 2007, the estimated unemployment rate was down to 25.5% (from 28% in 2004)
The number of South Africans living in poverty has dropped steadily from 52.1% in 1999 to 47% in 2004 to 43.2% bby March 2007.
The government has built more than 2 million homes and electrified more than 3 million homes. More than 16 million people have been provided with first-time access clean water.
Free basic municipal services are now provided to more than 70% of South Africa’s population
The Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, Medium Term Budget Policy Statement, October 2007

Information in this posting taken from: