Archive for September, 2007

The Blue Peter cat

MarkThompsonBlofeldThe admission of the new examples of fakery was made by BBC director general Mark Thompson this week as he provided an update to the BBC Trust. He outlined two breaches involving online voting. The first was a vote used to determine the name of a new Blue Peter kitten. The name Cookie was selected by online voters but was overruled by part of the production team in favour of Socks which was deemed to be a “more suitable” name for the kitten.An apology is to be broadcast to Blue Peter viewers in the first edition of the new series on 25 September and the show is to introduce a new kitten next week, who will be given the name Cookie as voted for by viewers. Socks will also remain on the show. From Broadcast

More suitable! What’s wrong with Cookie? Memo to Blue Peter production team, Hitler is an unsuitable name for a cat, Cookie is a fine name. Perhaps they whipped themselves into a frenzy fearing the Daily Mail headlines ‘Cookie linked to Childhood obesity’. That’s the only reason I can think that they’d ‘overrule’ it. Imagine the BP team in a stuffy room at TVC arguing to and fro like the cast of 12 Angry Men, over the name of a cat.

Ratatouille – The movie and the dish.

On Tuesday evening I went to a special private screening of Ratatouille, the lasted animated offering from Pixar/Disney. The event was organised by Silverbrow (he of GFW blog talk I attended) who managed to wangle a screening for some foodie bloggers from Wired, the UK publicity company promoting the film.

In the pre-screening drinks and nibbles I got chatting to the author of cheese and biscuits, as well as a sprightly seven year old called Bee, the only child there, with whom I had a lengthy chat about the collective works of Mr Rohl Dahl, both of us engaged in a ‘favourite bits’ arms race around his writings. We both agreed that the relationship antics of Mr and Mrs Twit were indeed very funny. I mention this because Dahl understood the minds of children very well. when you’re young, you see the world differently, for example the bendy sofa on which Bee, Bee’s mother and I were sat had a small gap behind it, and Bee remarked ‘you could hide behind there… Or store things’. I love this sort of abstract mental leaps.

And there’s something of the child’s eye viewpoint in Brad Bird, Director of Ratatouille. It’s as if he has one adult eye and one childs eye. There’s been lots of press about Ratatouille when in was released in America. (in July!) Most critics and commentators seeking to attach current moral issues to it, ranging from childhood obesity to the cooling of Franco-American relations in light of the Iraq war, so I won’t repeat those here. I just think the Pixar chaps have once again turned out a cracking bit of story telling done through top class animation, animation that is to Toy Story what OS X is to Windows 3.1. It’s the little stuff, stuff you have to actually snap out of the narrative to see and take in, like the fur and the bubbles and the grace of movement. It’s amazing. The way all the rats move for example is spot on.

But I’m sure Bird et al would be the first to tell you that without a cracking script the CGI ain’t worth squat. And while the plot is conventional, as in a seven year old can follow it, the script, the actions, the slap stick and the dialogue is as complex as they can allow.

For example. They actually got to call it Ratatouille. There’s a bit in Douglas Copeland’s Mircoserfs where the lead character, Dan, says ‘American’s can only absorb one or two foreign words per year, Hagen Daz etc…’ This is a kids movie with a French food word as a title, yes they’ve had to put the phonetics ‘rat-a-too-ee’ underneath on the webpage, but isn’t this how kids learn to say words? Your child now knows a foreign word and how to say it… from a movie title, that’s a good thing right? You know in the blandness of Corporate America ™ this could so easy have been called ‘The little rat that could’ or ‘Rat chef’ or something. Also, job descriptions and the words and phrases of the kitchen are maintained, the chefs tall hats are rightly referred to as toques, the chef’s positions as chef, sou-chef, chef de partie, plonge etc. This lets kids figure stuff out and learn. I remember as a child learning the names of dinosaurs just so I could say what I thought were big complex words. It’s why a baddie race in the last series of Doctor Who was called Raxacoricofallapatorious. Kids love all that tongue twister stuff.

For me what really hit home as too why Pixar have pitched it perfectly was that after the 20 adults in the room had stopped chuckling as a particular gag, there was Bee down the front still laughing for a further 15 seconds. Look out for the bit where Linguini is asleep but being ‘driven’ by Remy, and how, with his shades on, they’ve captured French aloof coolness. Also a bit near the start where two lovers are quarrelling, and one shoots the ceiling, only then to start passionately kissing.

The food. Bird spent some time with top chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, who also created the signature dish (recipe) of the title that Remy cooks for Anton Ego (voiced splendidly by Peter O’Tool) when Ego reviews the restaurant at the end. There’s a wonderful bit where Ego, the bitter cynical vampiric critic pops the first mouth full into his mouth and…. Wooosh.. is transported back to his childhood, and his mum’s home cooked ratatouille. The animation used to express how things taste is also novel, Skinner mini version of Chief Inspector Dreyfuss skulking around trying to find the rat is also spot on. It’s sheer class from start to finish, and a great piece of family entertainment that restores your faith in story telling and animation, but then it’s Pixar, they’ve never had a dud.

However… If there must be a fly in this otherwise excellent soup, it’s the distributors (Disney) launching schedule. And this applies to lots of content these days from everyone.. Out in the US in July, but not here till October?! Come on guys, this would have been a fantastic summer holiday release here in the UK where it rained all summer, maybe it was to keep it away from Harry Potter?

(More on what I think about this here (soon)…. as it’s sort of grown into a new post.)

Sushi Masterclass at Billingsgate Fish Market

beep beep beep…it’s 4:45am and my alarm’s chirping loudly, am I up this early because I’m going on holiday? Nope, I’m going to Billingsgate Fish Market for their Sushi and Sashimi masterclass with Emi Kazuko. I’m in my battered Toyota and driving through the streets of London by 5am and it’s like a scene out of 28 days later, with nothing but me and the odd mini cab taking home all nighters. The sun comes up as I cross Tower Bridge. After a few wrong turns and three circuits of the roundabout underneath Canary Wharf, I eventually find the entrance to the Market. The car park’s packed and hordes of people are coming out carrying large bin liners full of fish. There’s a lot of Oriental restauranteurs who I presume like to see their fish banging fresh and from the wholesaler before buying rather than rely on a third party supplier.
Restaurant owners and members of the publicI ask two City of London Market Constables the way to the Fish School, and they direct me upstairs to the first floor where I’m greeted by one of the representatives of the Market who along with his two colleagues are also the on site Environmental Health officers. Due to the hideous time of the morning I forget to remember his name. Other delegates arrive and we all shuffle about yawning and watching the market in full swing below, it’s amazing to watch.

About 6:15 we kick off with a short talk and introduction to the market, before heading downstairs. We’re warned about the choice language of the porters, who have a reputation for swearing like…. fish porters. In olden times Billingsgate became a byword for crude or vulgar language. However I’m with Billy Connolly who said there are no bad words, only words used badly. Then we’re down the stairs and exploring the market. The market’s also open to the public, though you probably have to buy a decent amount, it’s not like Borough put it that way. Personally I thought the porters and sellers were a great bunch of guys, laughing and joking with each other, shouting ‘mind your legs’ and half haggling half flirting with the Chinese Ladies buying fish for their restaurants. One even whistled a sort of ‘beep-boop’ as he moves, sounding like the noise large vehicles like buses make when reversing. All of them knew about their products, their sources, their cost, and how to use them. I got the sense that everyone there was a professional, it’s hard work and unsocial hours, and that must keep out a lot of chancers more than other industries.

Our guide (what’s his name?! …Let’s call him Dave as it was something English and Biblical), Dave explained how the porter system worked. It’s heavily unionised, and only porters or the managing directors of the Companies can move fish. Porters get paid 14p and pound (I think) for moving fish, which doesn’t sound much, but Billingsgate, unlike any other fish market in Western Europe is a sample market, where fish isn’t bought by auction. And everything displayed is a sample or representation of what the wholesaler has in bulk in the back. And the porters are dealing in bulk orders and so moving large amounts of fish. Dave said that a porter can earn over £500 a week for 4 hours work a day. All porters working in the Market are licensed by the City of London, and it’s a long standing and noble trade. Michael Cain’s dad was a Porter in Billingsgate when Cain was born and there’s some nice recollections from Ted Lewis who was a porter for 50 years here.

Bluetooth headset and Straw hatDover SoleThe market starts endingTop Chaps

Everyone we spoke to seemed interested in talking to us and didn’t mind us being there, I guess because the more we see of this fascinating world, the more we get to understand it and protect it. Billingsgate is right next to Canary Wharf, on land that developers must get wet dreams over. Remember Covent Garden used to be a working vegetable market, now it’s out at Vauxhall and hardly a top tourist destination. Since 2005 there’s been a review of all London’s markets, and talk about moving or consolidating them and rehousing them, probably further out of Central London. I think we need these markets accessible to remind us where food comes from and what it actual is.

Other things I noticed about the market was how 80s it was. built in 1982 when it moved from the historical ward of Billingsgate, it had that hexagonal red brick 80s feel. Also all the phones the dealers still used were bright yellow industrial BT models straight from the Maureen Lipman ‘ology’ era that still rang with a bell sound, worked fine though. One stall holder summed up the changing times, sporting a straw boater, a fine moustache and a bluetooth phone ear piece. Dave talked us through some examples, first up Lobster. On the left is a young Canadian male, on the right an older native Scottish female. Lobsters take 7 or 8 years to reach catching age, the female one on the right could have been nearly 30 years old. They’re hard to farm because of their aggressive territorial nature. You can tell the difference as North American ones have a small horn on their noses, where as natives slope down to nothing.

Canadian Lobster (left) and scottish (right)Dregged scallopThe market starts endingTurbot (left) and Brill (right)
Next we look at razor clams and scallops. Dave opens a dredged scallop. These retail for about £1.50 a dozen, where as hand dived can cost £2 each. The difference is that a: hand dived don’t rip the sea bed to pieces, and b: they aren’t full of mud and grit, as the dredger pushes it all in the ‘minding it’s own business feeding mouth open’ scollop before scooping it up. Hand caught can be fresher too, as they come ashore quicker. So don’t scrimp on the scallops man.
Next we look at range of other fish, Brill and Turbot, similar looking, but for some reason Brill costs more. The way to tell is that Brill’s skin is smooth when you run your fingers over in both directions, where as Turbot is rough like a cats tongue when rubbed head to tail. Hake, isn’t given half the respect it deserves, Dover Sole is one of the few fishes that you need to keep for a few days to enable removing the skin.

We move round some other parts of the market, but by 7ish the main business of the day is done and dusted and everyone’s finalising and clearing up. At 7:30am (a time I’m normally just opening one sleepy bloodshot eye) we head upstairs back to the class room for a traditional Japanese breakfast cooked by Emi and her faithful assistant Kiko.
It consists of smoked kippers, rice, pickles and an omelette roll, I have to say that eating a hot whole fish with chop sticks at half seven in the morning while looking at the ‘go getters’ in the gym in the basement of the Barclay’s building across the creek in Canary Wharf certainly ranks as an new experience. A good one mind.
BreakfastExplaining the Fish we'll be usingHead off a Sea BassGutting a Mackerel

After breakfast and a coffee we settle down to a lecture on the fish we’d be using during the day from the other expert there, Esme, in the cold room. She talks us through what to look for in a fish, freshness, usage, where it comes from etc. If you see a Mackerel with a damaged jaw, that’s a good sign, as it means it was line caught rather than net caught. Then we suit up with aprons on top of our white overalls and select a mackerel to fillet.

This is great fun, then we move through filleting squid, Dover sole and opening oysters. We’re up against the clock now and sadly don’t get time to take apart the sea bass, as we have to move on to Emi’s Japanese cooking section.
Billingsgatemaking makiwatching in the mirrorThree Sashimi dishes
Emi explains who she is and her history, she then runs through some basic dishes, Tempura prawns and Teriyaki salmon,we all try some. She then shows us to salads, one with western salad leaves like rocket and lettuce and one with sea vegetables. For the first one we use our previously filleted Dover sole, blanched in boiling water for 20 seconds. For the sea vegetable one we use the raw mackerel. The dressing on the sea vegetables is made from dashi. We also make a pressed sea bass sashimi hakata style. which is a sea bass fillet, halved, then you place long strips of cucumber and ginger along one half, before placing the other half on and pressing for a while. We go back to the demonstration area and try some oysters with a traditional Japanese dressing and how to cook bonito. I’ve got the recipes for everything we did on the day, but am too lazy to type them out, so if you want a copy, either contact me or buy Emi’s book.

By now it’s after lunchtime, and we move on to maki or rolled sushi, as well as nigiri and uramaki or California rolls. We learn about the shiso, which is a herb that tastes like a mix of basil and mint, and is often used in sushi. You also see plastic ones in those sushi sets. Emi recommends never putting sushi in the fridge, as this can make the rice go hard. Ideally it should always be made fresh and eaten within a few hours. So all that sushi you see in Marks and Spencer’s and Pret was probably made a 48 hours ago and has to be chilled – hence the rice can be a little chewy and gooey. I’ve tried a couple of times to make maki, and know how hard it is. My friends Xuan showed my how to make them, she says it’s easy, but then she’s been making them for ages. I find that though I can now make one, I’ve yet to get the filling bang in the centre every time. But like anything it takes practice. There’s a touch of the Generation game now as most of the group overload their nori sheets with rice which is a common mistake. Still, everyone has a go and at least gets something edible and half decent. with that a we have a few more beers and divvy up the fish that’s left over.

left over fish call cooked up with Bread and Rocket Salad
On the way home I’m thinking about what to do with all these bits of left over fish, I’ve got a mackerel fillet, some squid, some salmon, some tuna, some Dover sole and some sea bass. I thought about a bouillabaisse, but that’s a fair bit of effort and I’m knackered. Thai fish curry? Could do, but again, fair bit of effort as I’d want to do it properly, and we’ve no coriander in, also it’d sort of mask the taste of the fish. In the end I decide to keep it simple, and griddle cook the oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel) and lightly poach the sea bass and sole in a stock of half water, half white wine, parsley, pepper corns and half a lemon. I serve all this up on a large chopping board with a simple salad of rocket and parsley and slices of toasted bread. And yes I am drinking red wine with it, a crime for which James Bond kills a man in From Russia with Love, but as new Bond said in Casino Royale ‘Do I look like a give a damn‘.

I had a great time at the market, it was fascinating to see a side of London life few people ever see. On the one hand you want people to eat more fish as it’s healthy and good for you. On the other there’s the whole question of sustainability, as today’s Times points out, one expert thinks Fish will vanish from British waters in 20 years. At Billingsgate there’s fish from all over the world, and a lot of it is flown in. Dave told us that they can get fish from Florida as quickly as from Scotland these days, but at what cost? It looks like we’re going to have to face some tough decisions about where and how we source our food in the years to come, but it sure is tasty.

PS. Hello all the people I met on the course! Please leave a comment underneath on what you thought of the day too. Here’s a link to the best pictures that I took on the day on Flickr. If they’re just for your personal use feel free to download them. If any of you or Emi or anyone from the school want to use them in a commercial way, please ask first, you can email me at eyedropper -at- mac -dot- com Thanks.

D-Construct 2007

D-Construct 2007

Friday saw me hop down to Brighton for the D-Construct User Expeience conference. The day got off to a bad start when I didn’t get my morning coffee until 10am. Then it got worst… Jared Spool was the first speaker. On he comes… loud… talking about MP3 players. He then goes on for 20 mins about the iPod. . . about how easy it is to use, about what a great experience it is. I look around at all the attendee’s and over 80% are typing what he’s saying on Apple Macs. Listening to him go through the numbers of how many iPods have been sold since 2001 is possible the dullest thing I think I’ve ever seen at a conference ever.

He then goes on to talk about Netflix vs Blockbusters DVD postal rental service. fails to mention or any UK version. He says two things towards the end that I bother to write down. 1. ‘You’ve got to know what you’re doing’ and 2. ‘Don’t underestimate the cultural differences’. I think he failed on both those points. After eating into the first coffee break time with a stupid magic trick I meet some of the other delegates outside for a quick chat. A girl from is equally livid. ‘that’ she says ‘was Conference spam’. I’m incline to agree. I’d never been to a Mac Keynote… until today, I’ve never wanted to heckle and a geek conference, until today. I meet Matt Jones who’s a little nicer, he says ‘that’s the presentation he gives to CEO of large multi-nationals’. Personally I think he’s totally mis-judged the audience.

Up next, is Peter Merholz who starts brightly looking at the early history of Kodak (which I knew all ready) but then throws up a slide about products being ‘cool’ and my blood chills. And sure enough he’s off talking about the iPod. He then talks about Tivo, another product/service which we’re all familiar with and yet isn’t available in the UK. My brain switches off till lunch.

Leisa Reichelt takes the stage and talks about hwo to organise projects, it’s all the standard things ‘small groups’, ‘quick iterations’ ‘washing machines are good’, etc. Only as well all know projects just don’t happen like that, do they BBC iPlayer folks? Anyway, I quick like her hand-drawn post-it note slides.

A swift pint and a sandwich at the Pub next door and I’m expecting much better stuff from the afternoon. Up comes Cameron Moll, interaction design from the LDS Church (Mormon) in Salt Lake City – where’s this going I wonder? Alas he also mentions the iPod, but at least finds time to look at a Dyson advert as another example of ‘good design’.

It’s not until after 3pm that anyone British takes the stage. George and Denise do a nice relaxed sofa chat about the early histories of B3ta and Flickr. Denise has a nice phrase of turn ‘we did what’s now called viral marketing but back then was just called fucking about’. Neither of them mention the iPod.

Quick break and I’m expecting great things from ex-beebers Matt Webb, up next, and Tom Coats. Matt runs through the A-Z of the experience stack, though I’ve seen his ‘ windows 3.1 buttons / antelope’s belly’ story back in 2005 when I was at the BBC. But he’s delivering good ideas statements and observations in quick and relevant matter.

Tom Coats takes the stage, and declares his talk to be 100% iPod free, and is his usual animated self, his main thesis is ‘you’re product is not your website. It’s everywhere it touches the network’. Which is true.

Then it’s to pub, where I’m in the food queue next to one of the organisers who asks me what I thought of it.

Far too much focus on the iPod as the only example of good design which is too lazy, there’s like a billion others, the wheel, the brick, the bic biro, and I say this as a ipod and MBP user. Difference in style: the American’s gave us preeesentations the Brits either chatted or gave us a lecture. By that I mean that I found the American’s to slow and lacking substance, that room was full of the UK’s Alpha geeks, folks who can absorb information at quite a high bit rate. I wanted zipped-up concentrated information I’ll still be thinking about days later, that’s what conferences are, some of the speakers were operating on 56k. Mid way through Jared’s talk I wanted to shout out ‘please tell me something I don’t know!’. And it’s not like I’m a tech conference whore too, I don’t eTech or Future of Web App’s, I maybe take in a couple a year.

Finally he asked me if ‘had I paid for it myself (£100) would I be disappointed?’ And I’m afraid I answered ‘yes, slightly’. Still, rather that just moan about it on here, I said I’d be delighted to feed into next years conference. We shall see.

Note: I rather liked Brighton, 50 mins to Victoria… living by the sea. tempting.

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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
September 2007
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