Comment: The Weasel

Disappointed by Prince Charles's lemon curd and my compatriots' oyster-eating habits, I find solace in my passion for gasometers
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The Independent Culture
THE DECKLE-EDGED invite might conceivably have been lost in the post, but I guess we have to bite the bullet. Inexplicably, the Weasels have been omitted from the guest list of a certain wing-ding taking place tonight at Highgrove House. A shame, really, because I had prepared some excellent jokes about my fellow guests. Q: What is the leguminous link between Rowan Atkinson and Mrs Drue Heinz? A: Mr Bean. I'm sure that such genial joshing would have evoked a good-natured chuckle from King Harald of Norway. Instead, Mrs W and self may be forced to watch the glittering tribute shown on ITV tonight, A Royal Celebration, starring such irresistible funsters as Roger Moore and Sir George Martin (you might recall that the Beatles used to refer to the starchy record producer behind his back as "the Duke of Edinburgh").

Still, there's no reason why those of us who have been excluded from the Highgrove high jinks should not enjoy the same culinary delights. I think it's a safe bet that the comestibles on offer will include items from Prince Charles's Duchy Originals brand, available to all through the snootier sort of outlet. Doubtless, Camilla will be dishing out Duchy Originals gingered biscuits with a free hand ("Go on, stick one behind your ear for later") as the evening wears on. Nor is it wholly beyond the bounds of possibility to imagine Stephen Fry tucking into a spot of regal lemon curd in the course of the festivities. At a recent degustation in Weasel Villas both items were judged to be most toothsome, though the biscuits were not exactly a snip at pounds 1.99 for 14.

The only thing that puzzles me is the name Duchy Originals. It is hard to see how the lemon curd could be original in any way. This is odd, since the Prince of Wales is a notorious stickler for correct use of English. Jonathan Dimbleby's long-winded hagiography quotes HRH exploding in 1990: "All the people in my office, they can't speak English properly. They can't write English properly... And that is because English is taught so bloody badly." Of course, I didn't really expect the lemon curd to have been stirred by the Prince's own hand, but I thought this "original" confection might have been the work of one of his peons down in Cornwall. Instead, the small print on the label reveals it to have been "manufactured under licence by Crabtree & Evelyn Ltd, London W8".

A spokesperson for this Malaysian-owned outfit revealed: "We work closely with Duchy Originals to develop specific recipes they're happy with." The resulting elixir is produced at C&E's jam works in Somerset. Despite his disappointing lack of personal involvement, I'd hazard that a parenthetic instruction on the label bears the distinctively quirky touch of Prince Chas: "Delicious in pies, puddings and on toast (or by the spoonful straight from the jar)."

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IT IS always reassuring to discover that others share your secret passion. For years now, Mrs Weasel has refused to let me display a number of rather unusual photographs: "Horrible things. You're not putting those up." But now I discover I'm not alone. The Museum of London has mounted an exhibition of paintings on the same theme, though it admits they may not be to everyone's taste ("an unlikely symbol of London"). They are by Mark Cazalet, who was commissioned by a fellow enthusiast, the late Marcus Samuelson, to paint a cycle of eight works depicting London's splendid gasholders.

The Cathedrals of Industry exhibition begins with a diptych devoted to the celebrated cluster of five gasometers that loom behind King's Cross station. Beside the oleaginous waters of Regent's Park canal, their filigreed ironwork mirrors the Gothic spires of St Pancras station. A second diptych features the familiar chunk of Victorian ironmongery, often mentioned in the commentaries of the late Brian Johnston, that overlooks the Oval cricket ground. But most striking is one of four studies of the behemoth at Kensal Rise, chummily known as "the Colonel" to locals. Cazalet's depiction of this titanic crown is wonderfully creepy. The soaring grid is eerily illuminated by a full moon, while a row of sodium lights casts a hellish orange glow on the vast riser below. A stray whiff of gas is almost palpable.

Should Mr Cazalet choose to explore this theme further, there is a towering example at Battersea (called "Jumbo" by Victorians) and a tremendous empty holder, with a metal ladder zigzagging up the iron grid, behind Habitat in Croydon. Best of all is the East Greenwich holder, where once I took Mrs W during our courting days (she has never quite recovered). A near neighbour of the Millennium Dome, it is being repainted in dark brown and beige for the festivities. "It is not going to be hidden," a spokesman for English Partnership, the government agency that owns the site, assured me. "In fact, many visitors have been more impressed by the gasholder than the Millennium Dome." Quite right too.

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THOUGH I now pitch my tent among the heavyweights of the comment pages, I still keep an avuncular eye on my erstwhile colleagues at the Indy magazine. Last week, I cheered Simon Hopkinson's view about the bizarre English way with oysters. "One thing that I cannot bear is to see them cut from their shells and then flipped over," he thundered. "The juices trickle off the shell and, anyway, it looks so much prettier and natural when presented the right way up." Though I rarely patronise the louche oyster bars of the West End, I encounter this distressing practice on the Scarborough seafront. However much I object, my oysters are still presented "easy over". I suppose it is an attempt to placate those who agree with Dr Johnson - "He was a brave man who first ate an oyster". But, following Hopkinson's rebuke, England's shuckers will surely observe the magisterial injunction of Larry Sanders: "No flipping!"

While on the topic, I have a beef of my own concerning the parsimonious quantities of oysters offered in restaurants. I recall that Marco Pierre White's "signature dish" of oysters in champagne sauce with spaghetti consisted of just three shellfish. You'd no sooner sniffed it, then - puff! - it was gone. The same stinginess is apparent in the new Livebait Cookbook (Hodder, pounds 20), which remarks of a recipe for oysters with caramelised leeks: "At Livebait we serve three shells, which makes a good portion." Not at Weasel Villas, it doesn't. I'd like to remind Britain's gastronomic Gauleiters of Brillat-Savarin's approving recollection of an acquaintance in 1798 who consumed 32 dozen oysters as an hors d'oeuvre and then went on to tackle a large dinner "with the vigour and bearing of a man only starting to eat".

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