Home-made vermouth part 2 – gin!

A few weeks ago I had a go at making my own vermouth by infusing some herbs and spices in a small amount of vodka and adding it to some wine. I bottled it last week and the results are pretty good!

Now I’m having a go at making my own gin-like drink. No idea if this is going to work, but the plan is this: I filled a small jar with vodka and added the ingredients listed below. It already smells like gin! I’m hoping that the longer I leave it, the more intense the flavours will be and hence the more I will be able to dilute the resulting ‘tea’ with plain vodka to make it go further.

Here’s what’s in the jar:

  • Handful of juniper berries – this is essential!
  • 3 petals of star anise
  • about 10 coriander seeds
  • a sage leaf from the garden
  • some cucumber peel
  • tiny amount of dried thyme
  • a cardamom pod and its seeds, crushed
  • a sliver of nutmeg
  • a few rosemary leaves
  • a kaffir lime leaf
  • a few fennel seeds
  • small amount of cinnamon
  • some lemon peel, thinly-sliced
  • fresh ginger, small amount, thinly-sliced


I’ll post an update in a week or two when I’ll see if it’s ready for sipping!

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Home-made Vermouth – part 1

I love vermouth. I like a vodka martini, a regular one and more than both of those things I love the smell of dry white vermouth hitting the risotto pan and evaporating straight into my nostrils.

In recent years the price of Noilly Prat has forced me into the arms of supermarket own-brand vermouths, which are generally fine, but the other day I got wondering how hard it could be to make your own. I had a vague idea vermouth was made by putting wine in a barrel with herbs and spices and leaving it to bake in the Mediterranean sun for months. Not having access to the sun, I did some quick research and found a heap of recipes for making your own vermouth. I even discovered that vermouth is actually named after one of its ingredients, wormwood, the same bitter herb used to make absinthe. And absinthe, as we know, makes the heart grow fonder.

There seem to be two main methods for rolling your own vermouth: quick and hot and slow and cold. The former involves heating the wine with your botanicals (herbs and spices) and then mixing the cooled liquid with some form of caramel and possibly a stronger alcohol. The latter method, slow and cold, involves steeping your botanicals for up to two weeks in a spirit (vodka or eau de vie) and then mixing with the wine. I’m going for slow and cold because that’s the kind of mood I’m in.

I don’t have and am not about to acquire any wormwood – I’ll add a dash of absinthe if I think it’s not bitter enough – but I did have a few herbs & spices lying around. I half-filled a jam jar with vodka and added:

  • 1 clove
  • a tiny sliver of fresh ginger
  • 3 petals of star anise
  • a sliver of lemon peel
  • a few coriander seeds
  • a fresh sage leaf from my garden
  • a small amount of dried thyme
  • a few juniper berries (who knew gin was available in fruit form?)
  • the seeds of 1 cardamom pod
  • about 1cm of a vanilla pod
  • about a dozen rosemary leaves
  • a sliver of nutmeg

The amazing thing is that after just an hour this already smells like vermouth!

I’ll report back in 2 weeks when I mix this up with some dry white wine and possibly that absinthe.

Soupy twist!

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Nim and the Sinclair Cambridge Programmable calculator

The game of Nim comes in many forms, but the idea is same: players take turns to remove objects from a pile and the player left taking the last object loses. Or wins. You can play it so you win if you take the last piece, but I think it’s usually last piece loses, which apparently makes it a misère game. (Apparently they play Nim in Last Year at Marienbad, so I probably ought to get round to watching that one day.)

I taught Nim in my first ever year 3 class, and I was reminded of it when students from Queen Mary University of London were showing the Dr Nim game at Science Museum Lates (thank you Alan O’Donohoe!). This is a plastic game with marbles about the size and colour of an etch-a-sketch that is designed to win at Nim. It’s basically an ingenious, plastic computer:

I was convinced that Nim was one of the first computer games I ever played, probably on my brother’s Kim-1. But I can’t find anything about a Kim Nim so I now think the first version I really played was on the Sinclair Cambridge Scientific Programmable Calculator which came out in 1977. This was quite an amazing machine. The same elder brother had an eyewateringly-expensive HP programmable calculator that stored programs on magnetic strips. But the Sinclair was a machine cheap enough for me, a schoolboy, to own.

I think it’s fair to say I never used any from volumes 2, 3 or 4 such as ‘Inverse Hyperbolic Functions’ (volume 2), ‘Doppler effect (non-relativistic)’ (volume 3) or ‘Operating point of transistor in base-potential divider and emitter resistor bias’ (volume 4). Playing Nim and spelling rude words was probably, age 12, more my thing.

In the table below is the program for the ‘matchstick game’ from volume 1 (‘General/Finance/Statistics’) of the four volume boxed set of programs that came with the Sinclair Cambridge Programmable. It’s a simple version of Nim where you have 1 pile, you type in how many matchsticks you want to start with and you and the calculator take it in turns to take 1, 2 or 3 sticks from the pile. Whoever is left with the last stick is the loser.

I cannot decypher how this code works, and would love some help, because eventually got it to stay on long enough to enter and run the program for the matchstick game. And work it does! I cannot beat it, and it must be using a strategy to divide the pile into groups of 4 to ensure the human player is always left with 4 sticks in their penultimate move (see Dr Nim video above for more on this strategy for winning 1-pile Nim). It seems like an ingenious algorithm that uses less than 36 instructions to play this, and with such a ridiculously limited instruction set.

Here’s what I’ve worked out about what it does, although apart from possibly repeatedly subtracting 4 I cannot figure out precisely how it works. ‘sto’ means store a number in memory. ‘rcl’ means recall a number from memory. You can ignore the hash/pound sign # as that just means the next digit is a number not an instruction and you can also ignore ▼ which tells the calculator that the next instruction needs a shift, it’s a ‘lower case’ instruction found underneath that key’s label. The pleasing command ‘gin’ is nothing to do with drink, but means ‘go if negative’, which I think is the only conditional branching instruction the Cambridge Programmable has. I assume the following two digits are the address the program branches to if the number being considered is indeed negative.

If you can draw me a flowchart or write pseudocode for precisely how this program works (and who was the author!?) I shall be hugely grateful…

instruction step
sto 00
- 01
( 02
rcl 03
+ 04
# 05
3 06
- 07
# 08
4 09
- 10
- 11
gin 13
0 14
7 15
+ 16
gin 18
2 19
4 20
# 21
5 22
- 23
# 24
4 25
= 26
) 27
- 28
stop 29
= 30
stop 31
= 32
= 33
= 35
= 36

To play the game, you enter the program and enter the number of sticks you you want to play with then press RUN. The machine plays. Then you enter 1, 2 or 3 depending on how many sticks you are taking and press RUN again. Then press RUN to get the machine to play, and repeat until you have 1 stick left, you loser…

I seem to have lost the actual manual for the calculator, although it’s not massively helpful it does explain a few things like brackets.
You can find out more about winning Nim strategies here and here.

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Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

another b-type

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald (1980). 4th Estate Books, £8.99

It’s hard not think that I was destined to read, and indeed love, this book. Andy Miller recommended it to me saying he thought it would be right up my street – what with with my fondness for women writers and having worked myself for many years as a sound engineer in BBC radio, how could I not love this novel set in Broadcasting House (BH) in World War II with a finely-described view of the corporation’s jargon, technical details and beautifully humorous and observed human frailties? He tweeted a page in which two characters return from an absurd field trip recording sound effects of church doors with hours of material: ‘the quality’s superb, particularly on the last fifty-three bands or so’…

‘The engineer who had gone with them said nothing. He went straight away to have a drink.’

Just as I started reading the book for myself, something in Hermione Lee’s introduction seemed oddly familiar. Penelope Fitzgerald had lived in poverty on a boat on the Thames. This rang a bell. I quickly googled her life and a conversation I had some two years ago came back to me: she had taught English at the same girls’ school in South Kensington where I taught for two years recently. A Computer Science teacher, I was an interloper in the tiny, cramped English department office and it was the then head of English at Queen’s Gate, Jim Denchfield, who had recommended Penelope Fitzgerald to me. (I liked to think that my English degree allowed me passage into their world, and indeed I loved listening to them discussing books and the pupils’ responses to them. I did not envy them their marking, however.)

Fitzgerald’s name had fallen out of my head instantly (yes, you at the back there, nominal aphasia bugged me my entire teaching career until I decided not to worry about it any more) but I carried with me the idea that I had taught at the same school as a somewhat eccentric and neglected novelist, albeit one, I now realise, who won the Booker Prize.

A Queen’s Gate pupil remembers “her mild high voice often straying off into silence, and with a surprisingly sweet, warm smile”. Another pupil’s diary recorded:

“January 22 1965. Morning, treble English. To the lighthouse. Suzanne Judy & me drawing talking. Please I mean I am so sorry but honestly if you don’t like it please try to understand you see. Write about something like making the tea no please I mean I expect you don’t do such low things as that . . . . Mrs Fitzgerald double First Oxon.”

A N Wilson reviewing Hermione Lee’s bigoraphy of Penelope Fitzgerald in the TLS.

Hermione Lee describes how Penelope Fitzgerald started writing in the Queen’s Gate staff room:

“during my free periods as a teacher in a small, noisy staff room, full of undercurrents of exhaustion, worry and reproach.”

although I have to say that the English office I inhabited had major overcurrents of laughter and the most supportive colleagues I have ever worked with.

Human Voices is a short book, but not a slight one. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote with great economy but creates memorable scenes and characters that immerse you in a well-rounded world without exposition or needless description. I was amazed how familiar the world of BH in WWII was to me, really not so very different from Bush House (home of the BBC World Service) I joined in 1991 – the photo at the top of this page of me in the early 90s shows how even some of the studio equipment looked like it was of wartime vintage. Some of the jargon was the also same – assistants working on programmes were still called RPAs as they were in the 1940s.

The book outlines a battle for supremacy between live and pre-recorded programmes and how pre-recorded sound was regarded with some suspicion – to be ‘true’ it had to be live, and how this is the origin of, when it is not silenced for repairs, always using a live feed of the chimes of Big Ben, something I faded up and down in transmissions all my BBC career, from World Service programmes in dozens of different languages to The Westminster Hour on Sunday nights on Radio 4 right at the end of my BBC days.

The temporary dormitories in BH feature prominently in the story, and there were still dorms for shift workers in Bush House in the 90s and they afforded me just as much sleep as they seem to have done in wartime (i.e. none at all). A producer is informed he cannot fade the Marseillaise early for fear of causing offence, just as I was instructed never to fade our own national anthem before the end. Fitzgerald describes how some staffers are chosen to be placed on the ‘Indispensable Emergency Personnel List’ who, in the event of an invasion, would barricade themselves inside the basement of BH with hand grenades and, indeed, similar lists existed in the BBC I worked for – though I was, of course, never indispensable and never received the secret instructions myself.

Penelope Fitzgerald was famously a ‘late starter’, publishing her first book when she was 59, further endearing her to me. Still time, you see, still time to write that book. I am also a late starter reading her books, but I will now put that right as soon as I can and devour as many of her others as I can get my hands on.

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10 things I have learned since becoming a teacher

As I lurch into my last three weeks of my teaching career (for a while at least) I thought I’d make a list of what my short but eventful teaching career has taught me. Most of these are teaching-specific but some may have resonances in the wider world.

The first two are the most important so if it’s all a bit TL/DR, just read those. They both came from the same person, Georgina Harland, who is as practical as she is wise.

1) Never under-estimate what you can achieve in 10 minutes. An excellent transferable life-skill. The classroom teacher is so busy that every second counts and where previously I may have thought it’s not worth starting a task in such a short amount of available time, now I know better. Do that bit of filing, make that resource, plan that lesson. 10 minutes. It’s longer than you think.

2) Life’s too short to laminate. Controversial one this, and I do sometimes laminate resources that are designed to be handled by children and re-used. But displays? Nah. Slap the childrens’ work up. Don’t mount it, don’t double-back it, don’t laminate it.

3) Confidence. I’m a naturally shy person, teaching is all about performing and has given me much greater confidence in life in general. I would not, for example, have been able to address a packed funeral before I had trained as a teacher.

4) Adults and children are quite similar. I think they learn the same ways, the lessons we learn from how to teach children should apply to teaching adults too. I sat through many 30-slide parroted PowerPoint presentations in which I was instructed that teaching should not be didactic. Now that, Alanis, is ironic.

5) Don’t print PowerPoint slides. Just take notes if you must. I have binders full of PowerPoint presentations from teacher training and CPD which I have never ever revisited. And almost certainly never will.

6) Every teacher should supply teach for a bit. I hated supply teaching but I learned so much. I discovered teachers were (at least in London) in much greater demand than I had realised (a couple of times I was offered a job before I even took my coat off), that I could have shopped around much more when looking for my first teaching post, that every school is totally different, that there are some very odd people running schools. In the space of six months I had more experience of different ways of doing things than some teachers (senior leaders even) manage in entire careers.

7) 95% of planning is wasted. I’ve probably been doing it all wrong but even when I had to make detailed lesson plans I would invariably forget things, and the lesson would take a different turn. I think good teachers adapt and are flexible within lessons; if a child says or does something unexpected but brilliant, I run with it, that can become the focus of the lesson. That has to be better than sticking rigidly to a script. I have been lucky in recent years to work in schools where I have been given the freedom to do this and did not have to submit next week’s detailed lesson plans by 7pm on Sunday into a folder that, it later transpired, no-one ever looked at (yes, that really happened to me).

8) Related to point 7 above, children are your best creative resource. They can’t, I admit, do your planning for you but they do constantly amaze with their creativity. I had a Year 1 girl go off-piste and make unexpectedly beautiful patterns in Scratch so that became the focus of our next lesson. My Code Club was wonderfully hijacked by another girl whose extraordinary Scratch animations and games entertained and transfixed everyone including me.

9) Fads and factionalism – no thanks. Even in my short (5 year) teaching career I have seen things come and go out of favour. Learning styles, mindfulness, multiple intelligences, growth mindsets, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Cheese (I’m pretty sure it was cheese), I’ve been taught them then been told they don’t even exist. There’s probably a grain of truth in most of these things: good lessons should stimulate many of the senses but let’s not turn every teaching point into a song made out of differently-textured smells differentiated 30 ways to accommodate each child’s ‘learning style’. Life’s too short.

Edu-twitter spats depress me beyond words, and the viscousness with which I see members of ‘the greatest profession’ ripping each other to shreds over things I just don’t understand makes me feel like I’m doing an extra playground duty rather than relaxing after hours. What would you say to children at school behaving like that? Children and adults. Much the same, see?

10) I don’t know how you do it. Class teachers in state primary schools, I’m talking to you. The job is insanely difficult, and no-one, but no-one who has not done this job (or possibly lived with someone who does it) can begin to understand how extraordinarily demanding (and damaging) the job can be. You need to have the patience of a saint, the wisdom of Solomon, time-management skills unheard of in any other industry, a bladder the size of Texas, a conviction that this is the only job that will make you happy, boundless enthusiasm, creativity, plus a severe lack of friends, family or social life in term time would be an advantage.

I could go on. I started teaching late in life because I thought I had time for ‘one more adventure’. It’s been quite a trip, but apparently I still have time for another adventure…

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