Wednesday, October 20, 2010

High-Speed Train from Germany Rolls into London

A high-speed ICE train from Deutsche Bahn rolled into St. Pancras station in London on Tuesday.

For the first time, an ICE high-speed train operated by German rail rolled into London on Tuesday. Deutsche Bahn hopes the test run is a sign of things to come, but France is unhappy.

The goal is still a ways in the distance. By the end of 2013, Germany's rail company Deutsche Bahn wants to include the Cologne-London route in its regular offerings. From that point onwards, high-speed ICE trains will rocket through the French countryside at 300 kilometers an hour before travelling -- slightly slower -- under the English Channel to London.

Preparations for that date, however, are well underway -- and on Tuesday, the first ICE pulled into St. Pancras Station in London following a test run. The train was received by the head of Deutsche Bahn RĂ¼diger Grube and German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer. The successful test run comes after a series of safety checks over the weekend which "went well," according to Eurotunnel spokesman John Keefe on Tuesday.

Beyond merely extending the reach of Germany's flashy ICE trains, Deutsche Bahn's effort to open up the route has implications for both Eurostar, the rail operator that has thus far had a monopoly on trains through the Channel Tunnel, and for the state-owned train manufacturer Alstom.

In anticipation of the ICE trains passing ongoing safety inspections, Eurostar announced earlier this month that it plans to switch from trains built by Alstom to those built by German firm Siemens. The new trains will be very similar to the newest ICE models, known as ICE-3, which Deutsche Bahn plans to use for the Channel Tunnel routes. In addition to having 20 percent more seats than the older Eurostar models, the Siemens trains also have a top speed of 320 kilometers per hour instead of 300.

In Time for the Olympics?

Last week, French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau threatened to block the Eurostar contract with Siemens -- 55 percent of Eurostar is owned by the French government. It is likely an empty threat, however. Any French veto would contravene European Union law and most observers say that an official French complaint about the contract tender would have little chance with the European Commission.

During the weekend, a Deutsche Bahn ICE-3 underwent numerous evaluations inside the tunnel, including an evacuation test. Last week, the train passed other safety checks. The Channel Tunnel Safety Authority, an Anglo-French body, has the final say as to whether the ICE will be permitted in the tunnel. The CEO of Eurotunnel, Jacques Gounon, for his part, seems confident that the German trains will get the go ahead -- and says they may even start running before the 2012 Olympic Games in London.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Gripe Gives Bad Service Some Bad Publicity

Have you ever been stumped by bad service at a hotel, a restaurant, a car rental agency, or your local dry cleaner? A new website called Gripe, at the trick url, lets you instantly badmouth businesses for free to everyone who follows you on Facebook and Twitter, in hopes the company will make amends to you.

Gripe’s method is simple. To post a gripe about a business, you either use Gripe’s Web interface, or one of its apps for iPhone and Android phones. (A BlackBerry app is in the works.) You log into it with your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Gripe lets you create an entry on its Web site that identifies the business by name and location, details your complaint, and lets you upload photos to back up your claim. It then posts the URL for the gripe in a status update to your Facebook and Twitter followers, using your own accounts there. Gripe encourages them to retweet the gripe and repost it on their own Facebook pages. It’s a safe bet that if you post a gripe, a lot of people you know will see it.

The idea is to embarrass businesses into appeasing an unhappy customer by showing them that hundreds or thousands of people have read the customer’s gripe. Unlike a blog post or message board entry, a gripe is a high-profile complaint because it goes out on Facebook and Twitter, rather than waiting to be found. To turn up the heat, Gripe employees actually call and e-mail businesses to let them know they’ve been griped about. Gripe plans to make money by charging these companies for an account with which to track and manage customer feedback.

But Gripe offers businesses a carrot as well as a stick. When a disgruntled customer fills out a gripe, they’re asked to state what the business could do to make them happy. If the business makes good on the customer’s demand, Gripe asks that the customer change the status of their complaint from a red gripe to a green “cheer” for the company, which will be seen by anyone who follows the old link. A high number of cheers send the message to Gripe visitors that the cheered-about company takes care of its customers.

You might think opportunistic customers would use Gripe to make steep demands on hotel chains and restaurants. But as it turns out, the most common customer request on the site is more modest — most users just want an apology.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

A gastronomic guide to traditional Britain

From pork pies to jellied eels, Simon Majumdar documents the endangered flavours of his homeland

At the end of last year I finished a journey that took me to nearly every corner of Britain. My aim was to meet as many as possible of the people who grow, prepare and sell the food we eat, to construct the perfect ''Best of British'' menu.

Along the way I met farmers, chefs, butchers, brewers, cheesemakers, distillers, restaurateurs, hunters and anglers who all took time to share their lives and food with me. It was a journey that was filled with privileged experiences: I imbibed whisky costing £10,000 ($16,250) a bottle and sipped exquisite tea from delicate china cups at Brown's Hotel in London's Mayfair.

It was also a journey blighted with occasional sadness as I witnessed the seemingly terminal decline of some of Britain's most traditional foods. Whether you love them or loathe them, London's pie-and-mash shops and jellied-eel stalls will probably be little more than a memory in less than a generation's time.

There were some experiences that gave cause for concern (hang your head in shame, those who think that chicken tikka lasagne is a good idea). Despite this, I returned from my adventure convinced that British food is on the up.

The Midlands

Staffordshire oatcakes

A regional British treasure, the oatcake, or ''oat flannel'' as it is sometimes known as, fuelled generations of workers in the Potteries. Quite different from its crisp Scottish cousin, the Staffordshire oatcake is more like a dense pancake made from batter containing three types of flour and oats. As the ceramics factories have disappeared, so, too, have the bakeries that provided their workers with this sustaining breakfast. However, there remain a dozen or so producers and between them they still make 350,000 oatcakes a year, nearly all eaten within the boundaries of Stoke-on-Trent. At the Oatcake Kitchen, former ceramics worker Chris Bates expertly griddles up to 1000 oatcakes a day. Try one the local way, stuffed with cheese. Eat in, or take away as the workers would have done as they rushed to the factory. Delicious.


Melton Mowbray pork pies

If I were stranded on a deserted island, I would dream of Melton Mowbray pork pies. The hand-raised, hot-water pastry; the fresh, seasoned pork; and the jelly from trotters make the most perfect combination. Last year the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association (see finally attained European PGI (protected geographical indication) status after more than a decade of trying. The name and recipe are now protected. If you want to see the fine art of hand-raising a pork pie for yourself, head to Dickinson & Morris in the town of Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. It is one of the oldest pie shops and gives demonstrations.


Fish and chips

Like so much of the best of British food, fish and chips is a product of immigration. Portuguese-Jewish refugees brought their skills in the fish-frying department and collided with their Belgian and French counterparts who knew about frying potatoes. The dish was one of the few not to be rationed during World War II, so detrimental would it have been to the nation's morale. I tried examples in dozens of places but my favourite was in the unlikely surroundings of a Birmingham shopping centre. Great British Eatery was created in 2007 by two Brummies, Conrad Brunton and Andrew Insley. They fry their fish and chips in beef dripping and the smell as you walk through the door of their takeaway goes a long way to explaining why the place is a huge hit. See

Northern England

Lancashire hotpot

Few sights are more appealing than that of a hotpot being taken from the oven, its meaty lamb juices bubbling through the golden potato crust. Yet so few people have actually tried a real one. It is a slow-cooked reminder of hard-working times and deserves to be treasured, particularly when made as well as it is by a terrific young chef, Warrick Dodds, of Hastings in Lytham St Annes. Order it with a side dish of pickled red cabbage and a pint of local ale and follow it with an Eccles cake. See


Jellied eels

People either love them or loathe them. Unfortunately for the few remaining jellied-eel stalls in London, the latter seems more common. This is a shame because eels, cooked with water, salt and parsley, then set in the gelatine they release, are delicious. Tubby Isaacs's family has been selling eels on Goulston Street, near Petticoat Lane in London's East End, since 1919. This is the perfect place to learn the art of eating jellied eel. You might not like them as much as I do but you'll be sampling a piece of history. See

Potted shrimps

Brown shrimps with clarified butter and a hit of mace have been a staple of British cuisine since the late-Victorian era. Nowhere is this made with more care than at London's oldest restaurant, Rules, in Covent Garden. The shrimp is sauteed, set in butter and lobster oil and served with lemon and a slice of brown toast. See


Arbroath smokies

Arbroath smokies are cleaned and brined haddock that have been hot-smoked over oak chips until their skin is golden and the flesh beautifully white. Iain R. Spink and his mobile smoking set-up are a regular sight at the farmers' markets of Fife and he is well worth seeking out for one of the finest tastes of my whole trip. The markets are on Saturdays, rotating between Kirkcaldy, St Andrews, Dunfermline and Cupar. It is worth getting here early to see Spink and his enthusiastic crew at work and to buy a hot smokie straight from the fire, with its juices still bubbling under the skin. See;


The haggis by veteran Edinburgh butcher George Bower in Stockbridge are made with the whole ''pluck'' - lamb's heart, lung and liver - simmered in game stock and then minced twice with fresh onions, pinhead oatmeal and spices. The offally end result might not be to everyone's taste but there is no doubting that it is the real deal. See

Chicken tikka masala

The owner of the Shish Mahal curry house in Glasgow, Ali Ahmed Aslam, has a strong claim to be the inventor of chicken tikka masala. He created the dish in the mid-1970s using a tin of tomato soup to make a spicy gravy when a customer complained that his meal was dry. The rest is history. So much so that last year a Glasgow member of parliament tabled a motion to apply for protected status and to have the dish renamed the Glasgow Tikka Masala. That might be a rather silly notion but a sizzling bowl of tender spiced chicken, cooked in the tandoor then coated with a fiery, tomato-based sauce, is a British treasure. Ali Aslam and his two sons can still be found at the Shish Mahal, carrying plates of their most famous dish to hungry Glaswegians. See

Northern Ireland

The Ulster fry

The great British breakfast can be a thing of beauty but is all too often a plate of stodge floating in grease. Not so at Georgian House in Comber, south of Belfast. Unassuming chef Peter McKonkey has three decades of experience in Ireland's best kitchens and has one of the best ''frys'' in the country. The whopping plateful includes organic eggs, dense meaty sausages, thick smoked bacon, local black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms and - just to make sure you wobble out the door - the best soda bread and potato farls I have tasted. Georgian House, phone +44 28 9187 1818.

Yellowman sweets

A treat for sweet-toothed Belfast boys and girls for generations, yellowman was originally created by Peggy Devlin and sold at the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle. As the name suggests, it is a lurid yellow candy made from caramelised sugar frothed with bicarbonate of soda and allowed to set before being broken into jagged shards. The best-known source for yellowman is now Aunt Sandra's candy shop in Belfast. David, the nephew of the original owner, still makes most of the sweets the shop sells and gives regular demonstrations. See


Faggots and peas

They might not have the most appealing name (it comes from the Welsh for ''little bundle'') or be made from the most tempting ingredients but these cricket ball-sized parcels of minced pork lung, liver and belly wrapped in bacon or caul (the lining of the stomach) are delicious. N.S. James family butchers has made award-winning versions since the shop opened in 1959. Local restaurants such as the Beaufort Arms ( have them on their specials menu but I think there is no better way of eating them than straight from the butcher's oven as a takeaway, doused with vinegar and a hit of white pepper. See

Welsh cakes

The chance to join Pat Maddocks as she prepared a batch of 1000 Welsh cakes in the small kitchen of her Gower home allowed me to relive a slice of my childhood. The smell and taste of her flat, fruit-laden griddled cakes (like small scones to look at but more delicious), taken hot from the stove and spread with butter, transported me back to the days when my own grandmother prepared them. Pat and her husband, Anthony, have recently opened a tearoom where you can sample Wales's finest baked goods, including cakes made with a shot of Penderyn Welsh whisky. See


Thursday, October 7, 2010


With a marvellous tale at the end that reveals the quality of the man

Yesterday in my St James’s Street club (a gentleman never says which), a suspiciously new-looking bowler hat was hanging from one of the solid, Victorian brass coat-hooks polished daily by our devoted family of servants.

To test the hat, I gave the crown a good thump. It caved in, leaving an embarrassing dent, which I hastily bashed out from the inside while no one was looking.

I wondered whether this was one of the bowlers that Austin Reed, out­fitters to all and sundry, have just announced they are introducing as part of their range of Cool Britannia fashion accessories for the man about town. I hoped not. For this was not a proper bowler.

It was in the Seventies that I started wearing a bowler, when I was a ­­newspaper reporter in Leeds. They were a common sight among ­businessmen in the wool trade.

And as the last man in London to wear one regularly, I know the crown should be hardened so that the wearer will come to no harm if he falls off his thoroughbred hunter in the field.

I wear my bowler more often when bicycling than when hunting. It has saved my life more than once.

The wife of the Greater London Council’s leader once opened her car door in front of me as I was cycling along Whitehall to Downing Street, where I worked in the policy unit, to write a speech for ­Margaret Thatcher.

The front wheel of the bike was stove in, but when my head struck the kerb-stones, the hat hit them first and neither it nor I was dented. The Prime Minister got her speech.

One day I was mugged by a thief in Covent Garden, but his cosh, aimed at my head and wielded with enough strength to knock out the wearer of a lesser hat, bounced harmlessly off my hardened bowler. The tea-leaf ran off looking puzzled and I walked away dazed but unhurt.

It is intriguing, but not surprising, that what some had sneeringly but wrongly regarded as a symbol of upper-class twittery is back, and that I am once again at the cutting edge of ­fashion. Jude Law, Tito Jackson, ­Madness — all are following where Monckton has long led.

And, it is the bowler’s new-found ­popularity that has encouraged Austin Reed to stock it for the first time in 12 years.

These days, the ladies are ­wearing the bowler, too. Britney Spears, Peaches Geldof, Mischa Barton, Miley Cyrus — I am in ­glittering company.

Perhaps Lady Gaga will soon be seen in a bowler ­surmounting a dress made entirely of butchers’ tax returns sewn together with red tape. You heard it here first.

Why does the bowler work? It’s all in the design. In the 1840s, Edward Coke, the brother of the second Earl of Leicester, had a problem. His gamekeeper’s head had to be protected from low-hanging branches when he rode around the estate catching poachers.

Coke gave Lock’s, the hatters of St James’s Street in London, a clear design brief. The hat must be rounded, so that it would stay on even in a gale. It must fit the wearer’s head exactly, so that it would not be dislodged in a fall. It must be black, so that it would not make the wearer too ­visible on horseback. It must be stylish. And it must be affordable.

Lock’s passed on the brief to the hatmakers William and Thomas Bowler. And the rest is history. From the Earl of Leicester’s estate in ­Norfolk, the bowler spread throughout Britain, and then the world.

It was worn by everyone from Prime Ministers via Cambridge College servants to Billingsgate fish-porters. Within decades of its invention, the bowler was the most popular men’s hat in America in the 19th century, worn by sheriffs, station masters and outlaws like Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy.

Overseas, the bowler has always been popular. I recently saw ­bowlers being worn with pride in southern India. The native women of the Andes also wear the bowler.

A distant relative of mine was described by her biographer as being ‘famous from the Indies to the Andes for her undies’. The bowler now enjoys the same fame.

When everyone wore bowlers, they cost just 25p each. Today, though, Lock’s charge £295. But, whatever the cost, they’re worth every penny — and not just because my bowler saved my life.

A lot of trouble goes into making a good bowler. The first step is to visit Lock’s to have one’s bonce measured up. One sits in a ­creaking, Victorian chair and an instrument of torture — the conformateur — is lowered on to the head.

Needles at temple height point inward in an alarming, tightly-packed circle. The hatter then murmurs the most terrifying words in the English language: ‘This won’t hurt a bit.’ Then the needles are pressed inward from all directions, taking a precise profile of the head at the point where the hat-band will be.

Actually, it doesn’t hurt. Next, ­off-stage, there is much banging and hammering and hissing, and a slightly steaming bowler hat is brought in and tried on for size.

After any necessary adjustments, the hatter — in my case, Janet ­Taylor, who has been with Lock’s for 19 years, says: ‘All done now, sir: but we must wait for the shellac to harden.’ (Shellac, a resin secreted by Asian insects, is the key ­ingredient — it dries as hard as nails and a good bowler should withstand your weight if you stand on it.)

One of the many advantages of the bowler is that it ­conveys an instant air of superiority — but only if you have the right face for it. Jude Law, for instance, will never look convincing in a bowler. It really doesn’t work for him.

I often wear my bowler on overseas trips. Once, on a journey to what was then East Germany with a parliamentary group, I was ­wearing my bowler and was flanked by two other members of the ­group as we strode along Potsdam High Street.

A Soviet general coming the other way with his two minders immediately mistook me for a high-ranking Kommissar and gave me a ­spectacular, medal-clanking salute.

Just across the road from Lock’s the Hatters is St James’s Palace. Walk past it wearing a bowler and carrying a furled umbrella and the sentries on duty will crisply stand to attention and salute, just in case you are an officer.

The bowler shares one priceless advantage with every other titfer. Doffing one’s hat is the only way to make a polite gesture at a distance. Rude gestures are easy, hat or no hat. But nothing indicates a polite and friendly greeting more clearly or more stylishly than raising one’s hat. The ladies love it.

I once forestalled a riot in Whitehall by doffing my hat at just the right moment. During the miners’ strike of 1982-3, Arthur Scargill decreed that the miners should descend on Parliament Square in force to lobby members of the House of Commons. At the time I was working at my desk in No 10.

Oliver Letwin, now a Tory MP and Cabinet Office minister but who was then in the Downing Street policy unit and would go on to invent the poll tax, came dashing into my room with a look of terror on his face.

‘The miners are rioting in Parliament Square,’ he cried. ‘They’re pressing against the barriers at the end of Downing Street and the police are looking nervous. What do we do if they invade the ­building? It’s so unEnglish!’

‘Nonsense,’ I said (for I have always had a soft spot for the ­miners, the heroes of labour). ‘This is what they do every Friday night when the pubs tip out in Leeds or Barnsley. I’ll go and talk to them.’ And I reached for my hat. ‘B-b-but you’re not going to wear that silly Charlie Chaplin/­Laurel-and-Hardy hat, are you? You’ll be lynched!’

‘Fear not,’ I said. ‘These people have bad leaders, but they are good men.’ And I went out through the big black door into Downing Street.

At the sight of a chinless, pinstripe-suited fop emerging from the Prime Minister’s house, the miners jeered. I had expected that. As I walked towards them, I raised my hat to them and smiled. The ­jeering instantly turned to cheering — loud, long and happy.

Remembering my St John Ambulance training about how to calm crowds, I stopped 10ft from the miners, looked one of them in the eye and said (very quietly, so that they all had to listen): ‘You have something to say to the Prime ­Minister. I’ll pass on whatever you say to me. You’ve come a long way, so would you like a drink in the pub across the road?’

They would. Like schoolchildren with their teacher, they filed ­amiably across Whitehall to the pub, where I bought them pints of ale and made a careful note of what they said. The riot was over — and all thanks to Edward Coke and his gamekeeper.


Friday, October 1, 2010

Britain in contact with Europe in the Bronze Age

New research indicates that Stonehenge may have been an ancient tourist destination, attracting visitors from across Europe.

Studies of the skeleton of an adolescent boy from some 3,500 years ago found near the site suggest that he traveled all the way from the Mediterranean -- potentially Italy, Spain or southern France -- to the southwest of England.

Another body found near the famous stone complex has been identified as coming from the German Alpine foothills some 800 years earlier.

"The find adds considerable weight to the idea that people traveled long distances to visit Stonehenge, which must therefore have had a big reputation as a cult center," Timothy Darvill, professor of archeology at Bournemouth University, told The Associated Press. "Long-distance travel was certainly more common at this time than we generally think."

Researchers from the British Geological Survey analyzed isotopes in the travelers' teeth to pinpoint where they were raised.

Drinking water in different climates contains different ratios of heavy oxygen and light oxygen. Stones in different parts of Europe also contain different ratios of isotopes of the element strontium.

These two substances build up in children's teeth and remain there throughout adulthood, providing clues as to where the person grew up.

One thing they share is that both seem to have borne some kind of illness. The boy was buried at the age of 14 or 15, suggesting he may have died prematurely, The Independent reported. The German seems to have suffered from a painful leg condition. It may be that Stonehenge was a center of healing, drawing people from across Europe in search of cures, The Independent said.

Stonehenge has long mystified scientists. The site was first worked upon about 5,000 years ago. A thousand years later, massive stones were added to the site, according to

The stones, which weigh as much as 4 tons each, were taken more than 200 miles from Wales to the remote location in southwest England.

Nobody is quite sure what the site was used for. It could have been a religious site built by sun worshipers, since the axis that runs through the center of the stone circle aligns with the midsummer sunrise.

Today, the site is a favorite with both tourists and pagans, who celebrate religious festivals there.

Whatever drew these ancient travelers to the location, they certainly weren't budget travelers. The boy was found with a 90-piece amber necklace, while the German had copper daggers and gold hair clasps.

"People who can get these rare and exotic materials are people of some importance," Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archeology told BBC News.