Thursday, June 29

The rain in Spain is also in Amsterdam

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My last post covered our first day in Amsterdam. Let me tell you about our second day. First, the weather (of course, we are in England now and you should always open conversation with a meteorological comment). Our first day was a warm, sunny day, while the second day was marred by very heavy rain late-afternoon.

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We started the day with a leisurely morning. After our 4:00am start on Saturday, a sleep in was always on the cards. We eventually wandered out of our hotel, making our way to La Place for lunch. This was a fantastic venue we'd spotted the previous day. It's effectively a fresh food, indoor market restaurant where you select your preferred menu items, have them cooked in front of you and then fight with hundreds of others for a table in the upstairs food-hall style seating space.

The available menu was astonishing. There was everything from roast pork to stirfried scallops, seared tuna steaks to fresh fruit platters, crusty bread sandwiches to exotic salads. I eventually settled on a chicken quiche and a selection of char-grilled roast vegetables. Garry went for the roast Chicken.

From here we wandered back across the city to the Van Gogh Museum, stopping briefly to watch diamonds being polished at Coster Diamond. Coster's is also famous for successfully polishing the world's smallest diamond, barely half a millimetre wide. I was fasincated by a raw dimond rock on display. It looked like a large chunck of lead or coal with the occassional sparking edge. I would have walked right past it if it had been lying on the ground in Africa. It was about now that the heavens opened up, making it an ideal time to linger indoors.

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The Van Gogh Museum contains more than 200 paintings that span the artist's professional career. Perhaps career is a little generous. Van Gogh, a Dutchman by birth, only sold one painting while he was still alive. The museum's collection includes several famous masterpieces including Sunflowers, Irises and Wheatfield with Crows. I also recognised several self-portraits.

Access to such a large collection gives you a rare glimpse of how an artist's signature style develops over time. Van Gogh's early paintings were dark and somber, a stark contrast to his later, more colourful, short brush stroke technique. Another memorable highlight was the most exquisite marble sculpture of a peasant woman nursing a baby. This wasn't a Van Gogh art piece, but it did capture the essence of rural scenes that dominated his early work.

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We later took advantage of a brief break in the rain to walk across the city to the Amstel river. I was particularly keen to see Magere Brug, a traditional double-leaf Dutch drawbridge. The current bridge is a 20th Century replica of a wooden bridge built in the 17th Century. It's considered one of Amsterdam's more famous landmarks. Unfortunately, we'll remember it more for the torrential rain that started to fall as we neared the entry ramp.

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With such heavy rain falling it was time to head back to our hotel and catch the World Cup knock-out round game between Holland and Portugal. Holland eventually lost 1-0. The following day Australia also bowed out of the competition, losing a 1-0 to Italy thanks to a penalty in the game's final minute.

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One of the more novel sculptures we spotted.

Wednesday, June 28

Anne Frank: not the only hidden secret

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Until this past weekend I'd never spent any time in Amsterdam other than a brief glimpse during a 24-hour business trip last March. This flying visit gave me a brief glimpse of what is a truly beautiful city set along the banks of several dozen picturesque canals. Just before lunchtime on Saturday, Garry and I finally found ourselves in Amsterdam. As you'll had read from our last post, a rather traumatic false start almost had us stuck at home.

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Amsterdam is a compact city. The central district is easily reached on foot from most locations. Each canal and house also has its own character making it easy to spend hours wandering and never notice how many miles have past. The vista is true picture book material. My digital camera barely had time to shut down before being called into action for yet another "Kodak" moment.

The city was founded by herring fishermen in the 13th century. They settled on the shore of the Amstel river, building a dam to protect the town from flooding. The flat location made it easy to carve canals through the city to aid fishing traffic, sanitation and protect the city from attack. In fact the city limits were marked by a moat until 1586 when the city council decided to build wharves along the moat, progressively converting it to a canal.

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This canal, called Singel (originally known as Cingle, meaning belt) was Amsterdam's first concentric canal surrounding the inner city. In the 17th Century, an expansion program saw more horseshoe-shaped canals added, eventually creating the pattern of canals that characterise the city today. This was the Dutch Golden Age when Amsterdam was the world's most important port.

These new canals were popular with the city's wealthy merchant aristocrats. In a 17th Century version of "keeping up with the Jones", these residents built elaborate houses decorated with gables and facades of increasing grandeur. However, each home was built with a comparatively narrow profile as city taxes were levied according to the width of the canal frontage. The narrowest house in Amsterdam (No.7 on the Singel) is barely wider than its front door.

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No.7 Singel

We started our first day wandering from our hotel on the south side of the inner city towards Central Station to the north. At one point we found ourselves in the infamous red light district of Rosse Buurt. This area certainly appears harmless by day as the locals go about their daily lives. At least, all seems normal, until you notice bored looking prostitutes beckoning from velvet framed "shop" windows along the street. Each window acts as a display booth for a vast array of ladies. Clearly, there's a bustling brunch trade for the world's oldest profession.

This wasn't the only example of Amsterdam's liberal approach to life. We also passed numerous "smoking" coffee shops selling sweet smelling marijuana and similarly drug-infused cakes. The city even boasts a Hash museum tracing the history of hashish and the cannabis plant.

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Other more mundane highlights on our wander included Bloemenmarkt, the floating flower market where tulip bulbs in all manner of shapes and sizes were being sold by the bucket. Eventually we found ourselves outside a local market where we stopped for a leisurely coffee and a light lunch. Our coffee arrived after 15 minutes, our sandwich after 50 minutes. The Dutch don't like to rush life.

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Anne Frank statue

One of Amsterdam's most famous residents was Anne Frank. Her diary captures the drama of herself and her Jewish family from hiding the Nazi administration for several years in a secret attic. On this trip we didn't get to see her house, a popular tourist attraction. However, we discovered that Anne's house isn't the only hidden space in Amsterdam.

In 1578 when the city's Catholic city council was replaced by a Protestant leadership, Catholic churches were effectively banned, being forcibly closed across the city. However, the council came to tolerate banned churches in the city provided they weren't visible from the exterior of the building that housed them. In 1661, a wealthy merchant called Jan Hartman built a residence with a shop on the ground floor, private quarters upstairs and; most incredibly, a church with seating for 200 people in the top floor and attic of his building and two others ajoining his own.

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You can still visit this secret church today if you're game to climb a series of steep and narrow stairs from the street below. It's called "Our Dear Lord in the Attic" and is a most incredible venue. The church has its own compact organ, fold-out pulpit and old master paintings decorating the altar.

From here we made our way past the National Monument commemorating victims of World War II, the national Palace and the national church where Dutch royalty are crowned. Everywhere we went there were bicycles! In such a flat, compact city it's the ideal mode of transport. However, it takes a while to remember to look both ways before you cross the pavement as it's often split between pedestrians and cyclists.

After several hours of wandering we decided to take the weight off our feet and catch a canal boat ride back to our hotel. The boat took a good 40 minutes to reach our hotel, affording some splendid views of riverboats, graceful stone arch bridges and the narrow houses lining each canal.

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Dinner on our first evening was spent in Leidseplein, the vibrant nightlife district. The area contained several plazas filled with outdoor tables, cafes, bars, neon lights and plenty of street entertainment. We found a brilliant Thai restaurant, possibly the best such restaurant we'd encountered since dining at Lemongrass in Toronto.

More on our time in Amsterdam tomorrow.

Trains, planes and automobiles

Last weekend Garry and I took advantage of some cheap airfares and flew to Amsterdam. Well, we attempted to fly. We'd booked seats on the last flight out of Heathrow, departing at 8:00pm Friday. Garry cautioned me sternly on Thursday to leave work in plenty of time to get to the airport. However, his counsel was in vain.

To reach Heathrow we generally catch the tube to Baker Street, then change for Paddington. From here we catch the Airport Express train direct to Heathrow. However, this time, the standard 20-minute train journey to Heathrow did not go as planned. Ten minutes out of Paddington our train ground to a halt as a massive signal failure stopped traffic on the line. We found ourselves stranded more than an hour and 45 minutes. By the time we reached the airport, our flight had long since departed for Amsterdam.

We made our way to the First Class service desk (hooray for Platinum Frequent Flyer status) and explained our situation. It seems we weren't the only people with a train delay story. At least four other Heathrow Express trains were held up by the signal failure. British Airways kindly offered to rebook us on an early morning flight at no extra charge.

Four hours after leaving for the airport, we found ourselves walking not into an Amsterdam hotel room, but back into our own home. Our alarm clock was set for 4:00am and a mini-cab booked for a 4:45am pick-up. We hit the hay exhausted. I swear that mere moments passed before our alarm clock signaled the start of a second attempt to get to Heathrow.

This time luck was on our side. We arrived in plenty of time to enjoy a healthy breakfast in the airport lounge before boarding our 6:35am flight to Amsterdam. Shortly after 9:00am local time we finally found ourselves on the ground in Amsterdam. It was here that our second train mishap occurred.

I managed to get us onto the wrong train from Schiphol Airport to the city centre. After several stops when the error became apparent, we retraced our steps and tried a second time to catch a train into town. By the time we reached central Amsterdam another 20-minute train journey had become a journey lasting more than an hour.

Almost 12 hours after our planned arrival we'd finally made it to our hotel. In the process we'd spent more time on trains going nowhere than we'd spent in the air. On reflection, a mini-cab in London was probably our fastest mode of ground transport.

Friday, June 23

World Cup Update

The best thing about living in London is the time zone. We're able to watch World Cup football games live and at a reasonable hour. We've just finished watching Australia hold Croatia to a draw, 2-2 in Stuttgart. The result is enough to take Australia through to the second round for the first time in history.

The game was a nail-biter right to the end. Australia made history by twice coming from behind to earn the point they needed to move into the second round. I'm sure we woke the neighbours cheering for the Socceroos at the most exciting moments. Australia's next game will be against Italy. Perhaps we should warn the neighbours now?

I'm sure they're already confused by a Kiwi in London cheering for Australia. This is nothing compared with the complex loyalties on the pitch tonight. Seven members of the Australian squad were born in Australia but have Croatian roots. Meanwhile, three of the Croatians, were born and raised in Australia, but chose to play for the land where their parents were born.

Monday, June 19

The Cotswolds

West of Oxford lies a picturesque series of hills known as the Cotswolds. The area is characterised by numerous quaint towns and villages built from local Cotswold stone (a yellow-gold limestone). It's an easy day trip from London - less than two hours drive. Today Garry and I decided to join the Summer tourist throng and visit the areas more famous sights.

It's difficult to describe the natural beauty of the Cotswolds. The entire area is criss-crossed by narrow, meandering lanes, framed on either side by waist-high summer grass and dry-stone wall fences. Around each corner another stunning country vista presents itself. Sheep in a meadow. Cows under a tree. Birds in the hedgerow. Ducks and their young in a stream. Haybales resting in a fresh-cut field.

The region grew wealthy on the wool trade between 1400 and 1600. It was this wealth that afforded the building of so many stone villages and manors. However the rise of foreign trade in 1700 sent the area into gradual decline. Many of the buildings and villages were all but abandoned until the late 20th Century when modern gentrification took hold.

We started our day by turning off the A40 to Cheltenham and entering the rustic village of Minster Lowell. This proved to be an ideal place to practice our road navigation skills. The Cotswolds consists of many single country laneways where an occasional small, simple white road sign is the only reference point. Minster Lowell sits on the banks of a gentle stream accessed by crossing a narrow stone arch bridge. Off in the distance we could see the locals playing an afternoon of cricket.

Minster Lowell was certainly pretty, as was the next village, Leafield, with its central village green, and the next village, Shipton-under-Wychwood. In fact, almost every village we came across all day was a perfect calendar scene. From Shipton we traveled south into Burford. The steeply sloping main street of Burford is oft-cited as the perfect shopping precedent for local arts and crafts. When we arrived the street was filled with traffic and parking was in short supply. We decided to continue south to Bibury rather than search for a place to leave the car.

Bibury was magic. William Morris once called it "the most beautiful village in England". It's renown for Arlington Row, a picture-postcard group of weaver cottages near the River Coln (pictured above). The row was originally a timber framed hall for storing the Bishop of Worcester's wool. However, in the 17th Century the hall was converted into cottages. Today, we had cottage row to ourselves with barely a tourist in sight.

While the cottages were stunning, I was more in awe of several sights nearby. It's hard to know what to describe first. For example there was the river filled with ducks and their brood of cheeky ducklings. Across the road, genuine cottage gardens were ablaze with summer flowers. Further upstream, a old stone bridge crossed over to a stone inn covered in verdant summer ivy. Finally, an old mill stood nearby, its stream filled with large, active trout.

We dropped into the mill for lunch, but the chef was having a bad day. "I'm sorry," said the woman behind the counter, " but we're not taking food orders at the moment. The chef has too many other orders to fill." We looked around the small room filled largely with empty tables and wondered just how good the chef really was. We quickly took our leave and drove north to Bourton-on-the-Water seeking a more reliable source of food.

Bourton-on-the-Water is often called the 'Venice of the Cotswolds" after all the little stone bridges that cross the river flowing through town. I'd prefer to call it the 'Disneyland of the Cotswolds'. The village is picture perfect, a little too perfect. While the scene was pretty, everything looked a little too clean and felt as if it had been carefully crafted to resemble the real thing.

Worse still the place was jammed with tourists, children and tour buses. The noise of so many people drowned out natural sounds, a marked contrast to every other Cotswolds village where silence and serenity were the norm. However, Garry was hungry so we stopped at a flower-decked stone pub by the river and ordered a late lunch. A burger for Garry and traditional English Fish and Chips for me.

From Bourton we traveled west to Lower Slaughter, another river-side village, but this time devoid of tourists and gift shops. The name Slaughter comes from the old name for a stream, or Slough, rather than referring to any scene of death and destruction. The river was peaceful with barely a person in sight. St Marys Church and the red-brick mill were exactly as the tourist books describe them. Memorable! Upper Slaughter was next. Yet another quiet, pretty stone village. Likewise, the Swells.

We eventually found ourselves turning off B4077 into Stanway, which sits at the bottom of an escarpment marking the western fringe of the Cotswolds Hills. Stanway was spectacular, with tiny winding laneways that zig-zagged their way through the village. However, nothing prepared us for the next few villages. Stanton was incredible. Narrow streets lined by grass banks and rows of yellow brick homes. Cricket on the lawn. Flowers in every window. A pretty little village green with a local war memorial.

From Stanton we drove on to Broadway. This is a relatively large town, still built from stone. It too had a stunning high street filled with ivy-covered hotels, thatched cottage shops and another memorable church. However, by this time, we'd seen so many stunning villages, the impact was wearing thin. We did spot a grand old hotel, The Lygon Arms, which looks like the perfect place for a long, leisurely weekend in the country. I think we might be back!

Our final stop in the Cotswolds was Broadway Tower, a 55-foot high stone 'folly' tower, that sits atop the escapement looking down over Broadway and its surrounding counties. It sits 1,024 feet above sea-level, marking one of the highest points in the area. It was designed to resemble a mock castle by James Wyatt, and built for Lady Coventry in 1797.

The hill upon which the tower was built was a "beacon" hill, upon which beacons were lit for special occasions. Lady Coventry wondered if a beacon on this hill could be seen from her house in Worcester. As you'd naturally expect, she sponsored the construction of a folly to find out. The beacon could be seen clearly. Today, we saw little more than sheep quietly grazing in its shadow.

From the tower we turned south again, taking the A44 south towards Oxford and then on to London. Our brief Cotswolds tour had covered more than 100 miles, taking us through some of England's most picturesque villages. The only low point was listening on the radio as Australia lost its world cup game against Brazil, 2-0. Otherwise, a truly wonderful day out.

Happy Birthday Ma'am

Since 1748 the sovereign's birthday has been celebrated with a colourful military pageant called Trooping the Colour. The origin of this ceremony can be traced to a time when a regiment's colours, or flags, were used as rally points for the regiment's soldiers in the midst of battle. To help a regiment remember its colours junior officers would frequently walk the colours between the soldiers' ranks in slow pace during military parades. This year the Queen turned 80 so we were expecting something special.

Garry and I decided to watch this year's ceremony, or at least, catch the ceremonial march of troops down the Mall. We rose early to ensure we arrived in plenty of time to grab a prime viewing spot. We found a shaded place close to Buckingham Palace. Thank goodness for trees. The temperature climbed through out the morning, peaking around 29C later in the afternoon. The Mall was decorated with large Union Jack flags and Buckingham Palace balcony was draped with crimson and gold-embroidered banners.

We arrived in time to see the Grenadier Guards line up along the Mall as a guard of honour. The Guards are renown for their large furry black hemets and bright red jackets. You can see them guarding most royal palaces in London, including St James Palace and Buckingham Palace. This year they celebrate their 350th anniversary.

Eventually, the royal procession began. First, divisions of Guards marched up the Mall, each with its own bands playing. The march was quite a spectacle with row after row of bright red and black uniforms passing in unison.

Next came various members of the royal family in a series of open carriages. The first royals I spotted were Beatrice and Eugenie, daughters of Prince Andrew. I didn't spot Andrew, but Garry tells me he was sitting in the same carriage. Prince Edward and Sophie followed next, along with Princess Anne on horseback. Finally, the Queen herself came by, riding in a surprisingly simple black carriage. I stood ready to capture the perfect photo, only to have my autofocus fail me at the last minute. The following fuzzy images are the best I can share.

In a fitting finale, the Life Guards rode past on horseback. These aren't your sun-bronzed Aussie surf lifesavers in Speedos and zinc sunblock. The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment are recognised by their tall, white feathered hats.

As quickly as the march began it was over, leaving nothing but piles of horse manure to show that anything had happened. Garry and I briefly considered watching the rest of the ceremony at the Parade Grounds, but quickly abandoned the idea, as was walked up the Mall through an increasingly dense crowd. Perhaps next year if the weather is a little cooler!

Friday, June 16

Out and about, up and away

Yesterday Airbus announced that the new A380 super-jumbo has slipped behind in its delivery schedule. While the first production aircraft will be delivered to Singapore Airlines late this year, only nine aircraft will be delivered next year instead of the 27 originally planned. The delay will also affect Qantas deliveries scheduled for 2007.

I'm really looking forward to flying this new generation aircraft. I already feel that I've made a contribution to the innugural Qantas flight. Last year I had the misfortune of participating in a Qantas focus group. Ten of us were invited to look at potential entertainment features being planned for the A380.

Online versions of daily newspapers were some of the innovations being considered. Thumbs up for that idea. However we all gave the thumbs down to personal greeting message that flashed on screen when you board. It certainly wasn't my idea of a personal touch. It reminds me of those form letters you get from junk mail companies.

Garry and I get to see our first A380 up close and personal on July 22. We've purchased tickets to the Farnborough International Airshow. I've always wanted to go to this show, or alternatively, the Paris Air Show. The aerobatics and supersonic fly-bys will be worth the cost of the ticket alone. I'm also guaranteed to spend hours in the Space pavilion learning about European Space Agency's latest activities. Garry's bringing a friend to keep him company while I wander the trade halls lost in aeronautic bliss.

We've also bought tickets for the Hampton Court Flower Show on July 9. This will be our first chance to experience both Hampton Court Palace and a genuine British Floral Exhibition. The palace has beautifully kept gardens covering almost 60 acres. They were first designed and landscaped for King Henry VII in 1529. Hampton Court is also the site of a popular hedge maze. Planted in the late-1600s, it contains half a mile (800 m) of paths.

Wednesday, June 14

Go Soceeroos

Australia beat Japan in yesterday's World Cup game, 3-1. Personally I was torn between two camps as I've drawn Japan in the office sweepstake. This was Australia's first win ever in the competition. We had a large plasma TV set up in the boardroom at work for interested parties to watch the game live. I saw the first 20 minutes and later discovered I'd left the room moments before Japan scored the first goal of the match.

We have at least six Australians in the office. Our receptionist is Australian, as are both of our HR support staff and at least one of our IT people. There's also one consultant, Rory, who was working in the Sydney office when I was also there. It's a small world, even half a planet away.

Home sweet home
On a separate note, our new coffee table arrived this morning. You'll recall that we purchased a bargain table a while back that we promptly returned. The replacement looks much better.

Our repaired planter box and dining table also came back today. The planter box looks as good as new, however the table wasn't quite right. The wood colour was much darker on the repaired table top when compared to its legs. The colour difference was very obvious. As a result, the table has gone back to the workshop for another week. I can't help but wonder if this is another home office shelf incident in the making.

What a difference a day makes

Garry and I have sweated through three sleepless nights as the summer weather takes hold. Yesterday was our hottest day yet. Temperatures reached the hottest on record for the date June 12 (a steaming 32C), while humidity climbed to another high. After three straight days of high temperatures I was finally tempted to buy a portable air-conditioning unit. Last night I spent several hours researching options on the web, including units able to filter out pollen and other hayfever triggers. A number of popular sites were already out of stock, or promising delivery in no less than 21 days.

The heat has also affected the tube again. You'll recall that trains were hit by a wave of delays last month when warmer temperatures started warping the tracks. The same problem reoccured yesterday. As a result speed restrictions were in place on several underground lines, including the Jubilee line. My evening commute took longer than usual and was delayed at several stations.

However, this is nothing compared with my morning train ride. Halfway between stations, 20 metres below street level, the power failed. We were left stranded in a hot, stuffy carriage for almost 15 minutes before power was restored. The heat was shocking. I've heard stories of people being trapped for several hours during the height of summer.

What a difference a day makes. Last night it rained and the rain came and went most of the day. As a result, temperatures have fallen to a more comfortable 19C this evening. The pollen counted has also crashed. Temperatures for the rest of the week are predicted to remain around 22-23C. Plans for my latest purchase are now on hold. Perhaps I can survive a few hot days after all.

We're also promised fair weather as well. I hope so. Last month was a very wet month across the majority of the UK, with some areas over England & Wales receiving over double the average May rainfall. The map below compares rainfall last month with the May average between 1961 and 1990. You can see that London had rain up to 75% heavier than average. I'm not sure which extreme I prefer now - rain or heat?

Sunday, June 11

Moonshine, pollen and pepperoni

The weather has been magical today. Temperatures were in the high 20s today and are expected to climb to 28C and remain at that level until Tuesday. The rest of Europe now has temperatures in the 30s. It's almost an Australian summer over here!

With such clear skies we've witnessed some wonderful lingering sunsets this week. This evening we watched the moon rise over the London skyline outside our bedroom window (the sunny nook).

I'm also suffering the worst possible hayfever. I've never experienced anything like it. English trees seem to bloom endlessly, sending streams of pollen into the air day after day. Our street is full of mature trees generating plenty of hayfever allegens. Even poor Garry was sneezing his way down the street this morning. You really do experience a full range of seasons in London!

Football fever
Finally, I have to show you this little fella. He's been starring in television commercials for weeks. Called Fanimal he's a rubber talking pepperoni stick doll, dressed of course in England colours. You give him a whack and he yells one of 13 football insults in the most annoying voice.

The doll is a free gift with pepperoni sticks, supposedly the perfect snack when watching World Cup football. Today, I saw him in the Supermarket and couldn't help myself. I'm now the proud owner of my own Fanimal. I love him. I suspect Garry's already praying for the batteries to flatten.

The many uses of goose fat

The English eat the oddest of foodstuffs. What with wild hares, blood sausages, lambs brains and other earthly delights I often find myself craving fresh, lightly flavoured, Thai dishes.

After seeing large tins of goose fat on sale today I just had to find out what you do with the stuff. Personally, any item of fat (with the exception of butter and cream) gets cut off, drained away or otherwise removed whenever I'm cooking.

Fortunately, Waitose, a premium brand Supermarket, has a handy food glossary online. I can now tell you that goose fat is incredibly versatile, enhancing the flavour of all manner of savoury dishes. It has the consistency of butter and can be used in cooking or as a spread.

Goose fat can also be used to baste roast meats such as goose, chicken or turkey. It can be included in stuffings for poultry such as sage and onion or sausagemeat and apricot. Waitrose also claims that potatoes roasted in goose fat make a delicious accompaniment to any roast meat.

Sorry, I'm not sold on the stuff!

Borough Market

Later this month the Borough Market celebrates 250 years of trading at its current location. The market, located just south of London Bridge, is a short walk from the Jubilee line and the banks of the Thames River. A market has either traded on London Bridge, or close to the southern end of it, since Roman times. The bridge and the riverside docks creating a natural terminus for produce arriving from all corners of the Empire.

In fact London Bridge even owes its location in part to the market. In 43AD Aulus Plautus and his Roman legions found a market already operating at Southwark. The story goes that they stopped to replenish supplies while on their way to sack nearby Londinium. In those days, invasion involved crossing the river by boat. Soon after a call went out for a bridge to provide easier access to the market.

The current market covers several blocks of small Victorian laneways and is housed largely under a series of ornate, Victorian wrought iron stands. The market wholesales a range of fish, meats, produce and gourmet foodstuff. Cider, wine and beers are also sold straight from the barrel. The surrounding streets include cafes, bars and restaurants serving dishes made with produce fresh from the markets. The north side of the market backs on to picturesque Southwark Cathedral. A church has been on this site for at least a thousand years.

Today, Garry and I decided to continue 2000 years of tradition and join the market crowd. We also thought it an ideal day to visit as England was scheduled to play Paraguay at 2:00pm - it's first match of the World Cup (England won 1-0). We enjoyed a wonderful couple of hours sampling every conceivable foodstuff from all corners of Europe.

Highlights includes goose fat (I wasn't game to try this. To be honest, I'm not sure what I'd do with a tin of it anyway. I must do some research!), snails in cream, ducks eggs, fresh venison burgers, diver-hand-collected scallops, Italian cheese wheels, muffins, tarts and strawberries fresh from the field.

By the time we left we'd loaded ourselves with ostrich sausages, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, chorizo (spanish salami), fresh roasted coffee beans, Kent strawberries and large, juicy nectarines. We'll definitely be back, if only to try out the cozy wine and oyster bar we spotted down a shaded brick lane.

Friday, June 9

Contract over

Some disappointing news today. Garry's three-month contract was terminated seven weeks earlier than expected. He'll be back on the market from June 19. Fingers crossed he finds a new contract quickly.

Wednesday, June 7

Flying the flag

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London is in the grip of World Cup fever. The tournament kicks off in Germany on Friday June 9, with the final scheduled a month later on July 9. The build up is every where. McDonalds is giving away tickets to games once every hour. National Geographic magazine published a cover story on the event this month. Every second ad on television has a World Cup connection.

Much like the Melbourne Cup in Australia, my office has organised a sweepstake, and the boardroom is being pre-booked so that staff can watch critical games on the big screen. Garry tells me he's drawn England in his office sweepstake so we're in with chance.

Football is so pervasive I've even had to rework my CEO's forthcoming travel itinerary to avoid schedule clashes. Staff and clients made it clear that they'll be unavailable for meetings on days that their national team is playing. Let me tell that it's no easy task coordinating a tour of five European markets midway through the World Cup.

Perhaps the most visible display of national pride is the increasing number of cars driving around town sporting England flags (otherwise known as the Cross of St George). A simple bumper sticker doesn't cut it in this part of the world. Instead, car owners buy mini flagpoles and stick these to various surfaces so that their England flags can flutter freely. I've seen everything from a Toyota to an Audi fluttering the red and the white as they turn up the street.

I'm starting think it's time I studied the rule for Soccer again. It's going to be a long, hot summer.