The Weasel:

Spotting the steaming ladle poised in her hand, I deemed it wise to avoid any criticism
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
In recent weeks, the kitchen at Weasel Villas has resembled the "goods inwards" section of a large cash and carry. Sugar has arrived by the palletload. Seville oranges by the sackful. Flailing her Sabatier like a scimitar, Mrs Weasel embarked on an epic session of slicing, squeezing and simmering. Hovering over her seething cauldrons, her frenetic figure all but obscured by clouds of pungent vapour, she bore a passing likeness to that blacksmith chap who gives the anvil a tough time in Wagner's whatjamacallit. Every so often, I was called into this increasingly sticky sanctum to sample a splodge congealing in a saucer. Spotting the steaming ladle dangerously poised in her hand, I deemed it wise to avoid any hint of criticism: "Mmm, I don't think 'paradisiacal' would be overstating the case, darling."

For her first stab at marmalade-making, my spouse appropriated a recipe in a leaflet kindly provided by our local Waitrose. Oddly enough, it turned out that the formulation for this quintessentially British conserve came from Raymond Blanc. I, for one, would never have guessed that the chef- patron of Aux Quat' Saisons enjoys nothing better than a spoonful of Olde English, sorry, Vieille Francaise, with his breakfast croissant. Judging by Mrs W's first batch, the French certainly like their marmalade on the chewy side. Though the jelly element of the spread was bittersweet perfection, the peel offered a distinct hazard to my imperilled gnashers. It's the first preserve I've ever encountered that had to be gnawed. Fortunately, we still have the recipe as proof or Dr Jack Cunningham's bone police would be down on us like a T of Bs.

Though her second and third attempts - Mrs W is nothing if not a stickler - corrected this slight flaw, it remains a moot point if we will actually get round to consuming the motley armada of jars. While I enjoy the odd nibble of this orangey elixir, Mrs W never touches it at all. Yet, possibly resulting from an excessive indulgence in Country Living, she feels the occasional atavistic urge to start simmering. Three summers ago, she went on a jam-making binge. Most of the resulting pots have yet to be broached. Despite the labels ("Raspberry and Redcurrant, July 1995, Mrs Weasel"), the shrunken contents are uniformly bituminous in appearance. Still, they add a nicely bucolic touch to Weasel Villas, as they sit alongside my own essay in preserved fruit - three huge jars of cherries in alcohol. Of a similar vintage to the jam, they, too, have remained virtually untouched, since a couple of cherries are approximately equivalent to a double vodka. If you consume even a small plateful, it's not just the fruit that's pickled.

Has there ever been a more disparate exhibition than the one that currently occupies the Barbican Art Gallery? The lower floor is occupied by "The Art of the Harley", not a reference to the genteel watercolours which enliven the waiting-rooms in London's medical district, but a collection of extravagantly garish Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Each one has been stretched, augmented, air-brushed and generally bastardised to within an inch of its life. Upstairs, there is "Shaker: The Art of Craftsmanship", a display of the sect's furniture, which is so modest, so puritanically unshowy, that you have to look pretty hard to realise that it's there at all. Unlike Harley owners, the Shakers believed "superfluous ornament was an impediment to the spiritual life". It is ironic that these testaments to frugal practicality are now much in demand among well-heeled Americans (Oprah Winfrey is a big fan).

Perhaps because of the lack of overlap in the audiences for these ill- assorted bedfellows, the exhibition attracted over 15,000 spectators in the first two weeks. I was intrigued to note that many of those exploring the Shaker section were tempted to glance down at the lush curves of the cosseted ironmongery in the Harley show, rather like prim churchgoers sneaking a speculative glance at a nearby house of ill-repute. Yet despite the yawning gulf between, say, Cupboard with Drawers (1850) and HogZZilla (1996), certain points of similarity emerged from the two shows.

Obviously, both are the products of utter dedication by people who have withdrawn from the mainstream. The ZZ Top-style beard sported by a Shaker believer in a photograph from 1888 would not look out of place at a Harley- Davidson rally (though he had no tattoos to speak of). But perhaps the most unexpected link is in the field of calligraphy. While the Shaker show stresses that "their handwritings show the care and precision with which penmanship must have been practised in Shaker schools", you can also buy a Harley-Davidson fountain pen (an unlikely sideline of the motorcycle company) in the gallery shop for pounds 29.50. Come to think of it, anything written on the back of a roaring Harley would have more than a touch of the Shakers.

Who says that chocolate-makers are a stick-in-the-mud bunch who care nought for the finer feelings of the younger generation? The latest news from Thorntons Chocolates tells a different story. Having ditched the somewhat Hansel-and-Gretelish image of its chocolate Kabins a few years ago, Thorntons now claims to be "breaking the mould of the traditional high street confectioner". The Sheffield-based company ("chocolate heaven since 1911") lays great stress on still being a family concern. Nevertheless, innovation has always played an important role in ensuring a hard sell for the soft centres. From the company Fact File, we learn, for example, that it was "one of the first companies to enter the field of TV advertising with a feature on the The Doris Rogers Show!"

Continuing this illustrious tradition, the company has just launched "one of the most exciting product developments ever, which proves Thorntons' commitment to today's children". Research into this landmark in the annals of confection started "by brainstorming (with the help of an Indian story-teller) what the children really want". The results gave them plenty to chew on: "Thorntons realised that today's kids are ... cynical but also ethical, increasingly interested in ecology and recycling and many of them choose not to eat meat." What revolutionary confection could address this gallimaufry of precocious concerns?

After having a number of possibilities nixed by a children's panel, the company's backroom boffins finally hit the bull's eye with some choccy dinosaurs. These include "a marbled milk-and-white brachlosauras egg" and a "truly fearsome T-Rex with fiery orange eyes, scaly skin and vicious talons". A chocolate carnivore may seem a strange choice for the new generation of veggies, but Thorntons insists that, "unlike his prehistoric counterpart, the T-Rex is entirely suitable for plant-eaters and vegetarians". I suppose the same applies to another range of animal-themed chocolate bars called the "Natural World Collection", which includes "Chocolate Baaa!" (a lamb) and "Muddy Pig". How far it is possible to impute ethical qualities to these products is a question probably best left to philosophers - but I think we can safely say they are cynical enough