You may recall my previous references to our rent-free lodger. Mrs W remains a firm believer that Weasel Villas is Spook Central. She has been supported by various visitors, mostly female, who have sensed a chill current eddying down from the top floor (not so unusual, I'd have thought, in an Edwardian house where not a single window closes properly).
My sole experience was 18 months ago, when I saw a cup swinging on its hook in a closed cupboard. After I wrote about it, an engineering reader dismissed the oscillating crockery as a case of "ground-transmitted vibration". But Mrs W stuck to her spiritual guns. My discovery that our spectre enjoys a spot of Val Doonican-style relaxation was a long awaited vindication. "I knew there was something up there," she squeaked.
"But I haven't finished my story," I interjected sternly, and returned to my tale of ghostly rockings in the loft. During my spell on the exercise bike, I kept a beady eye out for further movement. Of course, the chair did not budge. But as I was crossing the room on my way back to the stairs, it started rocking again. When I took my foot off a particular floorboard, it stopped. "Ground-transmitted vibration," I explained airily to a crestfallen Mrs W. "It often misleads the credulous." Mrs W claims it wasn't her who muttered "pompous sod", but I don't think the supernatural can be blamed.
IT'S PAINFUL to accept, but that wearisome American import, Trick-or- Treat, has become as ineradicable a part of British life as Coca-Cola and the Big Mac. The sole consolation I can offer is that bullying of the adult population by snotty-nosed homunculi has long been a feature of Hallowe'en. As Ronald Hutton reminds us in his history of the ritual year, The Stations of the Sun, 31 October was traditionally Mischief Night, when urchins inflicted tricks without offering the option of being bought off with a treat. In my Yorkshire youth, I recall hearing braver contemporaries make elaborate plans for Mischief Night - usually complicated booby traps involving door-knockers and dustbin lids. (I suspect I was too busy building a particle accelerator to spare time to knot bits of string together on a chilly autumn night.)
Professor Hutton reveals that traditional Mischief Night pranks included "blowing the smoke of burning cabbage stalks through keyholes" and "stopping up the tops of chimneys with turves". It is indicative of the lassitude of modern youth that such japes are simply too much effort these days, despite the easy availability of cultivated turf through Yellow Pages. Though virtually every youngster you see on the street seems to be smoking some vegetable substance, it would probably be terminally uncool to puff away at a smouldering cabbage stalk.
In one respect, however, the American Hallowe'en has a distinct advantage over indigenous celebrations. Though turnips or mangel-wurzels were used for vegetable lanterns, the switch to pumpkins is to be applauded. These handsome golden globes are the Carrara marble of the vegetable kingdom, as far as carving is concerned. The sculptural off-cuts can also be used to make zuppa di zucca (River Cafe Cook Book, page 30). It's certainly got the edge on zuppa di mangel-wurzel.
ONE DANGER with a column of this nature is that the writer can easily succumb to a pet obsession or idee fixe. Forgive me if I return for the umpteenth time to the vexed issue of the TV chef Michael Barry and moules a la creme. A few years ago, I ruined a perfectly good pan of mussels by following his advice to cook them with apple juice and cream. This result tasted like a fishy apple pie.
Thankfully, Mr Barry's slot on the unspeakable Food and Drink Programme is now occupied by the helium-voiced Antony Worrall Thompson. But such is the public appetite for the soi-disant crafty cook that he still pops up from France to offer his unique insight into buggering up the world's greatest cuisine.
Learning that Mr Barry was going to tackle moules mariniere on last week's show, I was intrigued to find out if my repeated rantings had borne fruit. The answer came when he sloshed a flask of golden liquid over the inoffensive shellfish. With a terrible inevitability, the bearded one pontificated: "You can use wine or cider, but I prefer clear apple- juice."
Apparently, this deviation from a recipe which satisfied generations of French cooks stems from Mr Barry's avoidance of alcohol for religious reasons. So you may wonder how he negotiated the problem presented by crepes Suzette, which he essayed a few weeks ago. Easy-peasy. Instead of basting the pancakes in flaming Cointreau, he added a generous dollop of marmalade. "But remember," stressed this stickler for authenticity, "it has to be Golden Shred."
WHAT DO the following have in common: the PG Tips chimps having a tea- party, the Andrex puppy getting tangled in bog-roll, Richard Branson pretending to be an aeroplane? These droll characters all crop up in a glossy new volume called Superbrands (pounds 30), which features 65 favourite products.
According to market research carried out for the book, "all Superbrands were felt to be more caring, trustworthy and reliable than the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Royal Family". This means that we prefer Walkers Crisps to William Hague, Tampax to Tony Blair and Haagen-Dazs to Her Majesty.
Though containing a host of invaluable information about the 65 exalted brands - the National Lottery balls weigh 80 grams and are made of solid rubber, the first self-service Tesco opened in St Albans in 1948 - there remain some curious gaps. For example, we are informed that Perrier "attracts enormous goodwill and commands universal support", but the book does not mention that sales plummeted when traces of benzene were discovered in 1990. Similarly, the entry for Gordon's gin tells us that "at its heart is a recipe that hasn't changed since 1761", but, through an oversight, omits the fact that its alcoholic strength was recently lowered from 40 per cent to 37.5 per cent. It must be true love if we carry on buying such watery stuff.Reuse content