The Weasel

At Weasel Villas, we have made a speciality of whipping up home- made soups at lightning speed. Police have to hold back the crowds who flock to my Cream of Celeriac with Pesto
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Coming from a company which specialises in cartons of upmarket potages, a prominent quotation at the start of the New Covent Garden Soup Company's Book of Soups (Boxtree, pounds 12.99) seems, at first sight, a trifle rash: "Anyone who can cut up a vegetable can make a soup in a little more time than it takes to open a tin of soup and heat it up." I don't know if it occurred to the New Covent Garden Soup Co, but what applies to tins of soup is equally true of cartons, particularly if they cost pounds l.49 per pint. In my experience, this quantity is not quite sufficient for two people, while rather over-ample for one.

At Weasel Villas, we have made a speciality of whipping up home-made soups at lightning speed. Mrs Weasel's Vichyssoise has become a legend in south London, while police have to hold back the crowds who flock to my Cream of Celeriac with Pesto. I reckon that by cheating (using one of those rather fancy stock cubes which are now available), it is possible to produce a most palatable plateful in 20 minutes or so. In this country, however, we tend to have a very superior attitude about stock cubes - though I caught Robert Carrier using one on TV the other day - and they are, of course, quite out of the question for New Covent Garden Co soup recipes. Starting from scratch (making the stock), its Tomato and Tarragon Soup takes around three hours and Cream of Fennel Soup requires another 20 minutes on top of that. Game and Chestnut Soup demands four hours and 10 minutes, while Lamb and Irish Guinness Soup will occupy the hob for no less than six-and-a-half hours.

You also have to take into account the time spent locating the recipe you want amid the somewhat metaphysical taxonomy utilised by the Book of Soups. There is no attempt to gather together vegetarian, fish and meat soups or even thick and thin. Instead, soups are categorised under such supremely opaque chapter headings as "Wonderful", "Seasonal", "Reviving" and, most uninformative of all, "Warming". Somehow, I think that the New Covent Garden Soup Co's stirring success will not be too radically affected by the secrets revealed in this book.

Having just missed the train at our suburban station the other day, I had half an hour to observe an eight-strong "hit-squad" of ticket inspectors tackle homeward-bound passengers during the evening rush-hour. For those inner-city sophisticates and rural hay-seeds who are unfamiliar with London's overground network, I should explain that the sight of ticket inspectors in the suburbs is an extreme rarity these days. Perhaps once or twice a month they descend en masse on our station, wearing more gold braid than an armada of admirals, in order to ensure that the commuting hordes resist any temptation towards hobo-style fare-dodging.

Fanning out to cover all exits, the inspectors - mostly lean, whippet- faced young men - bellowed conversationally across the tracks: "Keep an eye round the back. There's a hole in the fence." The first train to arrive provided only a meagre trawl of miscreants, a pair of red-faced girls aged about 14. The poor things were unable to pay the pounds l0 fine which is imposed on such occasions. Names and addresses were noted down. Mobile phones were used to check the veracity of this information. Surrounded by a quartet of stern gauleiters, the girls began to snuffle into fragments of paper tissue.

This on-off, lackadaisical approach to ticket inspection seems deeply unBritish. We feel uneasy at the ambiguity of it all. I mean, do we need to buy a ticket or don't we? I feel annoyed when I see a gang of youths blatantly fare-dodging, but I suspect the only reason I don't do it myself is from a deep-rooted fear of embarrassment, rather than any high-flown Johnsonian sense of morality. Given the irregularity of checks and the fact that I almost always travel at unusual times, I'm sure I would gain financially by never paying my ticket but coughing up for the occasional pounds l0 fine. Still, I'll never do it. Anyone old enough to remember the radio philosopher Professor CEM Joad will recall he was famous for two things: firstly, saying "it all depends what you mean by..." on The Brain's Trust; secondly, being caught without a ticket on a train.

Just because most of us play fair with the rail authorities does not mean that they will play fair with us. Some Belgian friends fell foul of London Transport when heading for Heathrow the other day. Unfamiliar with the capital's Byzantine system of travel zones, they quite reasonably believed that the Four Zone Travelcard, which they purchased at our local station, would permit them to travel to the airport. When their tickets were rejected by the turnstile machines at Heathrow, they discovered that they should have purchased a Six Zone Travelcard. Their offer to pay the difference was brusquely swept aside by an LT official: "That will be pounds 10 each." Since every ticket is checked at Heathrow, I imagine that a tidy sum will accumulate every day via this mulcting of unsuspecting visitors. What a charming send-off from Britain.

I love the place, though I quite understand why some people fulminate at the very mention of America. So elephantine, so tacky, so self-important. I still shudder at Bill Clinton's vainglorious boast during his inauguration: "I thank God I was born an American." Even more emetic was Hilary's doggy- like gaze of adoration. Yet, it is impossible to substantiate a full-blown detestation of what Washingtonians refer to as the SRS (Sole Remaining Superpower). The country is so multifarious that for every defect, there is a countervailing asset. For example, anyone who advances the commonplace view that Americans lack irony, cannot have seen five minutes of the delectable Frasier.

Personally, I find the American obsession with self-improvement to be among the most irritating of their traits (I was once given a US diary which included a section headed "Goals" sub-divided into "Personal", "Physical", "Family" and "Spiritual"). But, as always in this vast land, there is also someone who says the whole idea is baloney. The author Kurt Vonnegut recently made his feelings known in a US magazine called Inc Technology: "I tell you, we are on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different." This congenial perception is only slightly undermined by the fact that Mr Vonnegut currently has 15 titles in print.

Our sad, mad obsession with the National Lottery prompted extensive coverage of Spain's Christmas draw known as El Gordo (the Fat One). The pounds l54-million jackpot was shared by more than 100 residents of Valencia, capital of the Costa Blanca. Their well-publicised windfall reminded me of a curious experience I had when touring the Picos de Europa a few years ago. This lonely mountain range in northern Spain is the last area in western Europe where wolves still roam. In numerous isolated communities, in-breeding is sadly commonplace. It was surprising to come across one of these picturesque little villages, which though in a good state of repair, was virtually deserted. Perhaps some economic disaster had killed off the community? In fact, the reverse was true. The reason was explained to me in two words: "El Gordo". Having scooped millions, the villagers wasted no time in deserting the "real Spain" for the tourist traps of the south. Leaving behind a handful of simpletons, the entire populace upped sticks for, you guessed it, the Costa Blanca.

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