Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lord of the Pies

Open any newspaper or magazine at the 'Lifestyle' page, and there'll inevitably some article about diet. It'll go on and on about healthy eating, explaining how to avoid those excruciatingly addictive chocolates, cream buns, doughnuts and Coca-Cola. Apparently it's impossible only to have one chocolate. "Just say no," the mantra goes in its attempt to steer the yoof away from addictive substances, or you'll clear the shelves of Dairy Milk, Ferrero Rocher or Quality Street.

Now I enjoy a chocolate as much as the next Goat, but I personally can't see a good reason for troughing an entire box of Black Magic - both layers, and even the Coffee Cremes - while watching the telly.

My weakness, for we all have at least one, is savouries. Pasties, flans, quiche and best of all: Pies.

Keefieboy is a fan of steak and kidney pies, and I'm pretty much in agreement with him. A 'proper' pie consists of a lower layer of pastry, a delicious moist meaty filling and a pastry crust on top. So-called cottage pie doesn't really count because there's no bottom pastry at all and the top is mashed potato. What use is a pie that you can't pick up in your hand if necessary? I think those individual hot, ready-to-eat pies from Spinneys et al are excellent. Wrapped in alumininium foil and perched somewhere in the engine bay, after a couple of hours of desert driving a hot steak and kidney pie is a gastronomic delight.

Fruit pies are a little different. I feel that a shallow pastry-lined dish full of fruit is more of a flan, or even a tart. However, I still refer to one of these full of cherries and covered with a pastry lattice a pie. By my definition, I suppose Beef Wellington (one of my favourite things, along with raindrops on roses and bright copper kettles) is a sort of pie. Check out The Fat Expat for a recipe.

Although they fit my description, I feel that fish pie is some curious travesty. I'm biased because I'm allergic to seafood, but cracking open a pastry crust to reveal a piscatorial filling makes me feel as if some great blasphemy has been committed. The Stargazey Pie, in which herring heads poke out of the rim, is nevertheless a Cornish tradition.

And this provides a slick segue into the Cornish Pasty. It's not made in a dish or tin, but nevertheless fits my rather arbitrary definition of a proper pie. Nanny Goat was born and bred Oop North, or at least in the English Midlands just north o't'River Trent and should in theory not be able to produce a decent pasty. But she learned how from her mother-in-law who was dyed-in-the-wool authentic Cornish. Until at last, imagining a kind of Cornish Yoda: "Arrr! Maaarrster the Apprentice has become."

Nanny Goat has now left the Land of the Sand for the more temperate Mundane Kingdom. Evidence of her visit remains: a freezer full of pastiferous delights.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dodgy geezers

When you see some of the ludicrous prices charged for designer goods, it's small wonder that poor-quality copies get knocked off in some sweatshop and offloaded on to the public at a fraction of the price. Dubai is full of them. I defy anyone, especially a westerner, to wander around the shops in Karama and not be constantly pestered by gentlemen offering "Copy Rolex. Handbag sir? (!) Gucci..." At least they're not being peddled as the real thing. No-one would believe a genuine Louis Vuitton bag for Dh50 anyway.

Now most fakes are dead easy to spot. Mutant spellings on the Goach handbags, for example. The small print on the sleeve of a dodgy DVD can be downright hilarious. And if you compare a real Rolex against a dodgy one the difference in quality is often glaringly obvious. So I'm told. I own neither a real nor a fake Rolex. It’s like getting behind the wheel of a Bentley after driving a Fiat Panda. Counterfeit goods are par for the course in downtown Karama. Shop there only with a dose of caveat emptor (Catering size).

Regrettably it's also par for the course in the Gold Souq. Here, dozens of blingmongers peddle high-value goods of precious metals and rare gems. Eighteen, or even twenty-two karat gold is commonplace. And it's all real. So, unfortunately, is the "copy watches" brigade.

While exploiting the recent drop in the gold price, I became utterly fed up with dodgy geezers offering equally dodgy merchandise out of suitcases in alleys next to Dubai's world-famous Gold Souq. "No thank you" fails to have the desired effect, and when I become rather more forthright I get a glare from Mr Fake Rolex as if I just kicked his puppy. Not that this puts him or his colleagues off trying again a few minutes later.

Why are fakes such a problem in the Gold Souq? Everyone in Dubai realises that the shops there sell pukka goods at appropriate and alarming prices, and only the back-alley bling-in-a-suitcase merchants will rip you off with counterfeits. But visitors to Dubai may well find themselves thinking that if fakes are on sale outside, they might also be on sale for high prices in the shops. And this is potentially harmful to genuine retailers, and to Dubai's reputation as a whole. Even news articles trumpeting that 291 tonnes of illegal products were destroyed seem to have little effect on the feculent flow of fakes.

Something ought be done. Dubai should clean up the Gold Souq. Alas, one of the news articles points out that the dodgy geezers melt away if the authorities show up. So it's futile trying to control the street vendors with inspectors who look exactly like inspectors.

What is needed is an army of Mystery Shoppers. The Police should perhaps commission deputies - Store Detectives, if you will - westerners who look exactly like tourists but who are in fact part of the constabulary.

"Fake watches, perfume, handbags, madam-sir?"

"Do you have Breitling or Rolex? Chanel? How about Louis Vuitton?"

"I have Rolex sir. Is very nice. Two hundred dirhams."

"One hundred only."

"OK. One-fifty last price."

"You're nicked, me old China! You have the right to remain silent. You have the right not to fall down the stairs on the way to the cells, You have the right to..."

Exeunt omnes, the Accused wearing jewellery by Peerless.

More selected references:

Rising tide of counterfeits.

PS: There is a reference to Dragon Mart in the above hyperlink. This rerminded me of the "Huan Qi" radio-controlled helicopter I saw on sale yesterday. Top quality, eh? It made me chuckle.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

All Greek to me

Beloved Wife and I are now back from a week in the birthplace of Aphrodite. After a pleasant and uneventful Gulf Air trip to Cyprus via Bahrain, we picked up the rental car and headed off down the motorway from Larnaca towards Limassol. We both tried to get used to bilingual road signs in Greek capitals. A very popular destination is ΕΞΟΔΟΣ. By a staggering series of fortunate guesses, plus having checked the location on Google Earth and selected the correct εξοδος, I drove pretty much straight to the hotel, We checked in before showering and heading into town in search of pork and beer.

The two-star hotel was fully booked, so it was futile to complain about the air conditioning in our room. Unfortunately all the A/C's efforts were going into making itself sound like a small, unsilenced motorcycle instead of having any meaningful cooling effect. We also had to ask that the mattress be changed, as the original had all the support and texture of a marshmallow. Still, the hotel did have a reasonable swimming pool. It was not permitted to cut through the dining room to the pool, so everyone had to parade out of the hotel front door and down the street in their Speedos and thongs if they wanted to go swimming.

Aphrodite's birthplace, at least according to local legend

It rapidly became apparent that, apart from us and a Bangladeshi waiter, the entire staff and guests of the hotel were Russian. Yet I'd booked the hotel on line, using a UK-based website. No matter; there was somewhere to sleep, somewhere to have our disappointingly Spartan breakfasts, and even somewhere in the shade to park the car.

Ah yes, the car. Ian The Dog had tipped me off that especially up in the mountains we might encounter unmade tracks. I upgraded the rental car to a small 4x4 in an attempt to get more ground clearance and to minimise the likelihood of chassis damage. The Daihatsu Terios was apparently powered by a sewing machine engine. Perusing the manual, I was forced to conclude that it must have been the 1300cc version. The relative powerhouse of ponies, the 1500cc 100BHP version, was clearly not in evidence. It was of course relatively easy to wind the vehicle up to the maximum legal 100kph speed limit on the motorway, but the poor thing had enormous trouble with anything resembling a hill. Commonplace gradients of 8% to 12% and an asthmatic Shetland pony under the bonnet do not match well with an automatic gearbox either. This minuscule car was however easy to park, and its equally minuscule engine returned around thirty miles per Imperial gallon. This was just as well, given the rather frightening €1.12 per litre (Dh29 per gallon).

It appears that Cypriot petrol stations have a 24-hour system for automated dispensing of fuel. You select the pump, insert cash or credit card, and then pump gas. After filling up, you go back to the money machine and re-insert your credit card. The computer recognises the card as the one that just paid for petrol to, say, Pump No.2 and spits out a paper receipt. All instructions, including the ones to get the machine to display instructions in English, are in Greek. Rather alarmingly there is at no point any requirement to enter a PIN. This is probably just as well as I couldn't remember my VISA card PIN, but it does mean that nefarious types could potentially gas up with anyone's card.

We both rather like Cyprus. After many consecutive months in the Land of the Sand, it was refreshing to see that, despite no rain for 14 months, there was still some greenery around. We were repeatedly told that it was usually a lot greener than this, and also sorry about the appalling heat and humidity. Frankly, after August in Dubai, 30°C was surprisingly refreshing. Up in the hills, above about 500m the temperature was a couple of degrees cooler. On the coast it was even possible to sit outside (in the shade) without impersonating the Wicked Witch of the West. So of course Beloved Wife and I both accidentally overdid it at the hotel pool one day. Whoops.

English is widely spoken in Cyprus, although bilingual signs become scarcer the further one ventures into the boondocks. There is definitely a need to read Greek, and some ability to speak it would also be good. At this point it's worth quite emphatically pointing out that the indigenous Greek Cypriots are not Greek, even if that's the language they speak.

The village of Laneia

On our travels around the said boondocks we looked at various plots of land and even some houses for sale. There are developments all over the island, but Beloved Wife is allergic to living on a postage stamp in a housing estate. We found some massive plots of cheap agricultural land on which it would be possible to put a single house on typically 6% of the total plot area. But these were invariably miles and miles up mountain switchbacks and several kilometres from the nearest power and water supplies and civilisation. Certainly not the same as living on a housing estate.

The tower of Omodhos monastery

Given that we ultimately want an ecologically sensitive house, the concrete-and-blockwork-with-not-a-scrap-of-insulation buildings generally on offer in Cyprus, and indeed Dubai, do not interest us. The Crumbling Villa costs a fortune to keep cool during the summer. The A/Cs pump the heat out and more radiates in through the walls. It's like pumping the bilges of a sieve.

Most Cyprus homes seem to have solar panels for water heating, but it's becoming possible to get electrical power from the sun. We're advised that it's even possible to flog unused electricity back to the power authority. And grey-water recycling - using shower waste to flush the loo - is also becoming such a popular water saver that the Cyprus government offers grants to build it into houses. These systems are difficult to retro-fit into existing buildings, meaning that we're starting to look at a self-build house with lots of insulation too. By the way, this is sooo much not yoghurt-knitting bunny-hugging, and sooo much keeping the household bills to an absolute minimum without having to live in a shoe box in t'middle o't'road.

Some of the older property that we visited dates back many centuries. I've never seen proper, authentic ancient classical ruins before. Beloved Wife used to live in Naples so has seen Pompeii and Rome, and has also visited Athens. So she was mildly surprised at my enthusiasm for a very small archaeological site near Limassol.

The remains of a Byzantine church at Kourion

Amphitheatre at Kourion. Bring your own cushion

The House of Theseus. He of the Minotaur, the labyrinth and the ball of wool

I must admit that the ruins and mosaics on display at Pafos and at Kourion were much better. The mosaics even gave me an opportunity to demonstrate my somewhat haphazard ability to transliterate ancient Greek text. For all the sites, we left our visits to the late afternoon in order to avoid the seething mass of οι πολλοι. And with the sun lower in the sky, shadows make photographs more interesting, and the temperature's a bit lower too.

The journey back was mostly without incident. Mostly? Well, on the Bahrain to Dubai sector the aircraft got clearance to take off, the pilot went balls to the wall and there was an immediate horrendous series of mechanical clangs from somewhere beneath the wings. We stopped, turned off the main runway and sat in the dark while presumably someone got out and looked at the undercarriage or leaned out of the door with a mirror on a stick. Our Captain declared that all was well and the Airbus still possessed the requisite number of wings, wheels and engines, so we trundled around to the end of the runway and had another go. Same mechanical clanging, but this time we got into the air. Obviously, we also landed safely in Dubai. Perhaps the noise was someone's luggage rolling around in the hold.

It snows up here on Mount Olympus, although not in August

As for return visits, we've been advised that February is the coldest month, so a visit then will reveal Cyprus' other temperature extreme. I spotted a ski resort 1900 metres up in the Troodos mountains, so it presumably gets seriously chilly. I wonder if I can get the leave?


Monday, August 18, 2008

Computer says, "No."

Nanny Goat is in town for a fortnight.

In keeping with Tradition, although she arrived on Friday morning, her luggage was still languishing in Heathrow. It was eventually delivered to the Crumbling Villa on Saturday night.

Apparently, the baggage-handling computer at Heathrow's Terminal 3 went wrong on Thursday, and no bags were loaded on to any airline. Nanny Goat's suitcase was eventually loaded on to Virgin Atlantic on Friday night, and arrived in Dubai on Saturday morning.

Bearing in mind what happened in mid August 2007, I'm astonished at the coincidence. Of course, no blame is attached to Virgin on this occasion. Indeed, delivering three hundred miscellaneous bags to the Emirates-wide diaspora of Virgin passengers is no mean feat - especially when it's done in a fleet of Nissan Sunnys. Load a bag, deliver it, return to the airport, load a bag... repeat 300 times.

But given the coincidental luggage issues, I wonder how much Sir Richard would be willing to pay the Goat and his immediate family not to fly Virgin Atlantic in August?


Monday, August 04, 2008


My pocket digital camera went on the blink last weekend. On the eve of a dive trip I was very cross and annoyed to discover that the display of my ancient Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-T1 had suddenly ceased to be sensible, and instead resembled a very bad acid trip. So I'm told, m'lud. Removing and refixing the battery and memory card had no effect. Neither did poking the 'Reset' button with a small object such as a paper clip. Curiously, the 'Adjust time and date' screen was not similarly afflicted.

So it must be the image sensor then, the CCD, I thought. Bummer, that'll be expensive, if spares are available at all. Maybe I'll have to buy a new camera, which will doubtless be better in all respects than a four-year-old DSC-T1. And I'll also need a new underwater housing. Buggrit, more expense. I felt all hard done by. It wasn't as if I'd abused the machine. If I'd clumsily dropped it in the bath I'd have c'ested la vie and eventually gone out and bought a new one.

I spent Thursday on a camera-less dive, and then on Friday morning I whiled away a couple of hours surfing the Interweb, trying to find out what was wrong with my camera. Until at last I found a couple of forums that referred to a Known Fault with the DSC-T1. Apparently the CCD goes wrong on occasion, especially in a hot and/or humid environment (such as a Dubai summer, perchance?), and Sony will effect a warranty repair no matter how old the camera is. Oh Happy Day!

Ah, but would I get such a warranty service in Dubai? Figuring that the only chance I had would be at the Jumbo Electronics main shop in Bur Dubai, I headed into town, only to discover a building site where the car park used to be, and a 'Closed until 4pm' sign on Jumbo's door. So it was off to the Mall of the Emirates. At least there, a car park is known to exist and the shop would be open.

The Sony rep was intrigued when I produced my old T1. Intrigued, in the way that the expert on Antiques Roadshow is intrigued when someone produces a Tudor candlestick. "What's wrong with this?" I asked her without firing up the camera.

"The CCD has gone wrong and the images are all wobbly," she replied without batting an eyelid, "But Sony will fix it under warranty."

So I dropped the camera off, having been told it'd take at least ten days, possibly more if spare parts weren't in stock. (For a four-year-old, obsolete piece of electronica? Yeah, right. I won't be holding my breath...)

Imagine my surprise and delight when, on Monday afternoon, I got a phone call from Jumbo. "Your camera is fixed, Mr Goat, and is ready for you to collect."

That's a turnaround time of 72 hours. I am well impressed. Full marks to Sony and to Jumbo Electronics.


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