Saturday, 30 June 2012

Saturday Snapshot: Eben Emael

Just a little light relief today, dear reader. Some people live in villas, others live in hovels. And then there are those who live in a fantasy world all of their own. This picture is of an old tower at a stone's throw from the famous fortress of Eben-Emael in Belgium. Decades ago an artist moved in and transformed it into... Well... Something special, let's say.

I guess the fellow never needed to give his guests detailed directions as to how to get to his doorstep...

Thursday, 28 June 2012

How to sink Spain for its sin

The man who understood nothing of such matters

Winston Churchill once wrote that to tax yourself into prosperity is like standing in a bucket and trying to lift yourself by pulling the handle. Ah, if only he had used the word ‘growth’ instead of ‘prosperity’, then his wise dictum might have applied to today’s situation in Spain.

Now it will be obvious to all that it doesn’t; which must be one of the reasons why the unholy coalition of the EU Commission from Brussels and the Spanish Government in Madrid have decided, in fine mutual agreement, to tax the country into growth. 

You probably expect me now to tell you of an awful tax-hike on the wealthy which the Spanish government is planning. After all it is they who are largely responsible for the Spanish housing bubble and the miserable banking practices. But no: that is not the idea. The wealthy, more particularly the tax-evading wealthy, have already received special treatment. They were slapped with a scandalous 10 % surtax over all the black money which they have kept hidden from the Treasury for the last few decades, which neat little sums thereby get whitewashed forever more. Never mind that they owed the Treasury ten times that sum. Crime pays in times of crisis.

No, the solution is to tax the poor and the average working middle classes. The Rajoy government, back against the wall, sabre point into its stomach, is going to raise the low VAT rate of 8 %, levied over essentials like food, drink, rent, heating etc., to the high rate of 18 %. Never mind that retail sales have been dropping for 23 consecutive months already. Never mind that they are dropping with some 5 % a month this spring (in comparison with the same month last year). Never mind either that this is a dagger in the back of the ONLY sector of the economy which was still performing properly over the last few years, namely tourism (the unrest in yesteryears popular holiday destinations like Greece, Egypt and Tunisia is a godsend for the sunny land).

Raise taxes, lower salaries, cut benefits without a thought for the sick, the elderly, the unemployed, the under-educated children, or the 20 % of the Spanish population which (according to the UN) live below the poverty line. Behold the recipe for struggling out of the present European crisis. And the worst of it is that it shows no signs of actually working… In fact, it must be obvious to all those willing to look at the situation with no ideological glasses on their pinched noses that it is making matters worse.

What in the world is wrong with our leaders, one wonders? Are they really so stupid? Are they really that evil? One or two may be. But it is inconceivable that all of them are. Something else must be at work. And perhaps the following quote from a biography of old Winston – to end with him as well - gives us a minor clue into the deeper nature of the trouble:

In any crisis of this nature the historian, however well equipped with information, is at a disadvantage. Any crisis generates its own momentum and its own personality. The stress of events; fragmentary information; the characters of the individual ministers; physical tiredness; sheer chance; all these play their part, and contribute to the character and development of the crisis to an extent of which even the participants are often unaware. And thus it is that follies are committed and a sense of proporti­on is lost for reasons which are impossible to specify with any exactness. Thus, however complete the documentation may be, the true causes are usually absent. [Robert Rhodes James, Churchill: a study in failure 1900-1939, Part IV.]

This weekend yet another Eurotop to stop all Eurotops, dear reader. Spain’s 10-year interest rate stands at 7 % again ten days after its magnificent banking bail out. Italy’s is getting close to 6.5 %. Cyprus has just become the 5th country to be put into receivership. Unemployment in Germany is on the rise. The medicine is working splendidly…

The Eurotop (Rompuy and Barroso on the lower right)

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Velvet Poetry from our Iron President

‘Haiku Herman’ van Rompuy, our Europresident, did it again! The man is amazing! Even in that shady collective of Eurogues and Beurocrats who often are as shameless as they are overpaid and fault prone, he stands out as a veritable champion, a Lancelot, a Cid...

The other day, in an interview with a German newspaper, Mr van Rompuy proposed that Europe be granted a greater influence over the pension plans of the EU member states. The commission, he said, ought to be able – listen closely now, dear reader! – ‘to make economic recommendations of an obligatory nature’!

Recommendations of an Obligatory Nature! Aaah, what a phrase! A boozing novelist on peyote couldn’t make it up! Now of course I know you are a poet, Mr van Rompuy. Your haikus are legendary throughout the Union. So I grant you that coining new phrases is your privilege. But I, sir, am a poet too (you may wish to take a look at volume xvii of my ‘Collected Works of Alfred B. Mittington’, particularly pp. 343-357 for my 1958 cycle of haikus on the Sputnik launch). So, from one fine poet to another, I ask you: would you not agree that the best word to employ is usually the shortest one that does the job? And there is already a brief and crystal-clear word for ‘recommendations of an obligatory nature,’ sir.

To wit: Diktat! And I suggest you use that in the future, instead of this wordy, lame-brained euphemism which will hide your true intentions from no one.

But was this merely a slip of Mr van Rompuy’s double-pronged tongue? No, not all the way, by the looks of it. Rather, it is policy, a new verbal approach of our European Commissars, preparing the citizens for what comes next. For what did Mr Joaquin Almunia (the Spanish Eurocommisar for Competition, and yet another example of a national politician who moved to a splendid career in Brussels after losing every election he ever tried to win) tell his own countrymen yesterday in the context of their Bank bail out? He said, and watch the wording, now: ‘las recomendaciones de Bruselas son obligaciones para España’, i.e. ‘the recommendations of Brussels are Obligations for Spain’. What a most remarkable coincidence of terms! Did we not know better, we might think that some coordination had taken place between Supherman and his buddy Don Joaquin…

Brace yourselves, you Europeans! For the pretence is over. The colours are hoisted and the true intent revealed. The shameless Brussels Beurocrats, unelected by anyone, controlled by no parliament, embarrassed by no moral qualms, are making sure not to let this fine crisis go to waste. They are aiming for autocratic power the like of which not even Bismarck ever enjoyed!

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Cookbook: Chicken Alfredo Landa

Time for an earnest chat. Regular readers of this cookblog may have noticed that the Inimitable Mittington Cookbook has been strangely silent on the subject of meat. There is a good reason for that. To wit: meat is the best of fares and the worst of fares.

On the one hand meat is marvellous. It is by far the most interesting, multi-faceted, and gratifying victual, equalled by very few ingredients from the floral kingdom. But, on the other hand, there are many things deeply wrong and disturbing about meat. The animal suffering involved in growing and reaping it; the scandalous waste of precious resources while there is starvation in the world (seven kilos of vegetable proteins being required to produce one kilo of animal protein); the shocking pollution produced by the factory farms, particularly pig stables; the most detrimental health effects caused by overconsumption of animal products; its price…! All of it adds up to a screaming J’Accuse against the Sins of the Meat.

I have no doubt that all you readers of taste, sophistication and integrity (no other people read Metis Meets Mittington!) have struggled with this dilemma at some time or other. A few of you will have turned vegetarian and liberated yourselves of the moral burden the hard way. Others will have decided just to go ahead and care no more, covering up their shame with a verbal fig leaf such as ‘Life is Hard On All Of Us’ or ‘Can’t save the entire world by myself now, can I?’ Ah yes: we all wriggle around in the moral mire and, being only mortal, we merely do the best we can…

My own solution is rather more pragmatic; or cowardly and wishy-washy if you will. It comes down to this: do eat meat, but reduce the quantity to the utmost. Chose recipes which require only a minimum of meat for a maximum of flavour. And if you do make a meat dish – like steak – don’t be Texan or Argentinian, but stick to a modest piece. It is better for your health, for the environment, for the Third World, for animal welfare, and – not to forget – for your wallet! What more can you ask in exchange for a minor sacrifice?

So there you have the reason why, so far, the Mittington Cookbook has offered you only vegetarian recipes or low-meat dishes. And why I will continue to do so in the future. But… not today. Today we are going to indulge just a little, with the simple but delicious

Chicken Alfredo Landa

Chicken Alfredo Landa is a fine, everyday dish to get away from the eternal Fried Chicken, Grilled Chicken, Baked Chicken, Broiled Chicken and Sautéed Chicken. It consists essentially of slices of white meat in a yummy sauce. It would take a little too long to explain why I baptised this recipe with the name of the famous Spanish actor (movie-lovers among you surely remember the fellow: he’s the one that sniffed out pheasants in Los Santos Inocentes). But it had to do with both of them pretending to be something which they are not (the chicken masquerading as Chinese duck; Mr Landa pretending to be a far worse actor than he really is, so as to find his niche in the dismal movie industry of the Franco era), and both having to do with breasts (chicken breasts in the recipe; young lady’s chests popping out of polka-dot bikinis and itsy-bitsy baby-dolls in the dismal Franco-era movies…)

Alfredo Landa in one of those roles...

What do we need for this recipe? Well, very few things, really. Only this:

Chicken breast (a.k.a. ‘white meat’ as opposed to legs, ‘dark meat’)
Ginger powder
Cumin powder
1 litre of orange juice
A small glove of garlic
A dash of soy sauce (preferably the sweet kind)
A spoonful of red hot pepper sauce of any kind (optional)
Parsley (optional, mainly for decoration)

First things first. And what I absolutely must impress upon you all is this: don’t even THINK of making Chicken Alfredo Landa if you do not have any Maizena ready at hand (Maizena being finely ground corn flour). This is not some cookbook snobbery of the sort that intones, in ever so mellow banker’s wife’s staccato: ‘Oh, you couldn’t possibly make an acceptable Cordone Azzurro unless you employ that very special truffle-flavoured virgin first pressing olive oil sold by our dear friend Giovanni Barbieri in his family delicatessen on the Rienzi square right behind the Verona Opera Amphitheatre…’ No, it is much more straightforward than that, dear reader. If you have no Maizena available, this dish will turn out absolutely awful. Practically uneatable. Tart, greasy and unpleasant. A waste of good meat, time, effort and your reputation as a cook (not to mention mine).

Then Second Things: how much meat? Well, the reasonable minimum, as I explained above. And the rule here is pretty simple. The white meat, or ‘double breast’ of one reasonably sized chicken ought to feed three people. Do, however, remember that the best chicken meat comes from free range chicken, which is considerably more expensive, but has a much richer flavour, and is a lot better for your karma since you will not have been instrumental in the torture of a bird during its preposterously short life. Consequently, IF you do the right thing and buy free range, you are justified in calculating One Chicken to Two Diners.

All that said, we can get to work. Take the chicken breasts and slice them lengthwise into thick filés, that is to say: the white meat of one entire chicken ought to result in four or six slices. Arrange these on a plate. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, some cumin and abundant ginger powder. If you like your food hot, then daub the meat with hot sauce or paste (red or green Tabasco, Sambal, Mexican chilly pepper paste, etc.)

Now get a deep frying pan. Fry the clove of garlic in olive oil. Then fry the chicken filés quickly on both sides. Once the meat is seared closed, pour in as much orange juice as needed to cover the meat. Also pour in some soy sauce, but don’t overdo. Lower the fire and let it simmer nicely for about 15 minutes.

Once you figure the meat is done but not dried out, put two or three spoonfuls of Maizena into a cup, mix with a little water until you have a liquid paste. Pour this into the pan and stir well, moving the pieces of meat around with a fork. The sauce will now thicken, and the cornstarch absorbs and transforms the greasy taste of the frying oil, bringing to the fore the sugars in the orange juice. Let it simmer for three minutes. Sprinkle chopped parsley on top of the meat, either in the pan, which can then go to the table, or on the plates, if you prefer to give each diner his allotted portion.

Since this is a sweet-sour dish, you may want to accompany with something salty, like French fries, and perhaps a green salad without vinegar. 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Reading Tip

Now here is a savvy fellow writing wise words! Except that he needs a complicated introduction about international finance. Those of you who do not like such stuff: just scroll down to where it says ‘Mr Barroso went on to say’, and read the rest.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Twilight of Eutopia

Yesterday my South African correspondent, Ms Azra Alli from Joburg, asked the following clear-cut question: ‘Is there no end to this European crisis? Is there even an ultimate solution?’

An ultimate solution to this pretty mess? Ay, if only I knew, I could become the third president of the European Union (i.e. the one in charge of solving the continent’s problems).

Unfortunately, I don’t think one can speak of solutions in this case, only of outcomes. One possible outcome is that the wealthy northern nations accept the harsh reality that they will have to pay through the nose to bail out the less efficient and productive southern countries, and not just now but until doomsday. Call it the Florida scenario: a socio-political union of constant money transfers southward. It is the price the Germans, Dutch and Fins would have to pay for a getting a U.S.E.

Yet I cannot really see this happen. The northern electorates are very fed up with being milked and will not stand for more inescapable obligation; so it can only be realized through despotic means. Brussels is indeed trying to pull off this covert revolution the Paper Way (think Eurobonds, banking union, Power To The People’s Commissars, etc), under the slogan that the bureaucratic pen is considerably mightier than the policeman’s sword. But such tactics only go so far. Not even today’s Europeans, sheepish, pleasure-seeking dunces that they have become, will all be fooled all of the time.

The other outcome, which I fear is far more likely, is that the Eurozone goes bust. In which case southern countries would return to national currencies, the north will probably stick to a single Euro-Lite or D-Mark-Plus, and we will all pass through two years of chaos and penury. The fact is that nobody really knows what this period of transition will look like or how it will run out. But one thing is certain: any conversion to a new currency will turn out to be yet another along-the-line looting of citizen’s savings, just as the introduction of the Euro itself – in hindsight – was revealed to be the largest collective wage-reduction in history. There will be an Argentinian-style ‘corralito’ of people’s bank accounts, followed by an ‘internal’ exchange rate which skims 10 or 20 or perhaps even 30 % off the purchasing power of private assets. This in the name of a return to competitiveness. Unthinkable, you say? Well, do not underestimate the ruthlessness of our political leadership in times of crisis. They know from their history books and from the recent Argentinian example, that popular fury can be held in control by the thin blue line for a week or two, and that it then abates.

A final scenario, which frankly has my preference, is that one morning we wake up to discover that the Swiss have descended from their mountains and radiated out into every nook and corner of the continent, occupying Europe for the good of all. Cheese fondue will be the mandatory meal on Sunday afternoon; cuckoo clocks will replace crucifixes and royal portraits in all schools and public buildings, and the Euro will be firmly pegged against the Swiss Frank. Town Hall Meetings will be called in which all men (sorry, ye well-prepared upwardly mobile young ladies…), properly girded with their virile sabres, will decide by ballot whether or not The Third Man shall be banned from the village cinemas. Tax evasion becomes a folkloristic sport, which gains the winner medals rather than prison terms and a bad reputation, and everyone in Europe will become as rich as he becomes boring. In short: Bern will bring the Prosperity and Democracy that Brussels promised but could not deliver, on the point of Swiss fondue-forks. As I said: this has my preference, but I am uncertain of its feasibility.

Swiss Weapons of Mass Construction

But enough cheerful nonsense. Let’s get back to reality. The fact is that the introduction of the single currency was a mad experiment of the Dr Frankenstein type, which should never have been undertaken, least of all so fast and eagerly by people so blinded by their own ideology and self-importance. But – as the Romans, Montesquieu, Jefferson, Stuart Mill, Hobbes and who not might have told you – such frolicking hubris is what you inevitably get, if you hand over sovereign power to people who are not subjected to checks, balances and electoral correction.

Today, our Brussels boys and girls are presenting themselves as the promoters of Eutopia. The day after tomorrow, the history books will reveal them for what they are and always have been: architects of Mafra, the megalomaniac palace that bankrupted the Portuguese Empire into oblivion.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Mayonnaise Label Collection: Greek Appel (Gr1)

So there we have it. The same old mafia that ran Greece grossly into the ground will stay on in power to return the nation to its rightful status of Third World country on European soil. 

I guess it is all for the best. Had the Greeks shown the audacity to vote with their heart rather than on their knees, Brussels and its Troika hangmen would have sunk her like a stone, ‘pour encourager les autres.’ So much for the vaunted ‘family of European nations’ that march forward on the road to Prosperity and Democracy like a single loving body. You either obey or you go under. 

A sovereign nation, dear reader, has been shown its place. It’s an example to us all. It is what awaits the rest of us. How sad that Northern Europeans do not see through this charade, and blame Mediterranean laziness for their plight (click here to see the ever sharp-tongued Professor Krugman on that little trick). Just as the Southern Europeans blame heartless German egoism. Ah yes, Hetzes work wonderfully, especially when backed up by tons of ready cash, a rubber stamp parliament full of well-paid Europutados, and a supra-national anthem which mockingly proclaims that ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder.

Anyway, we are all tired of the matter. So I shall let it rest for a while, until the next unforeseen, unexpected, a-typical and completely inconceivable catastrophe comes knocking on the door (by the end of the week I guess (1)) and a new cohort of the poor may be brought to the chopping block of Criminal Austerity.

Yesterday I received some grumblings from a regular reader, who complained about the lack of a coockbook (sic) post last Friday (2), and for some weird reason demanded a recipe involving apples (was he thinking perhaps of the sour apple that all of us Europeans must bite through to obey the Brussels serpent that seduces us?) Concurrently, this is a day to remember Greece in more pleasant fashion. Ecco: to show you what true old-fashioned Anglo-French efficiency in the Mittington mode looks like, I will put a culinary post together with a Greek memorial and a much belated Mayonnaise Label Collection entry, and offer you here today my take on

Gr1. Appel Delikatess. Athens, August 1987. 
Drachmas [unknown] for 240 grams

Well, Greece may be the cradle of refined perspective Art as it is the cradle of Democracy, but that does not imply that refined perspective art goes into every design it creates. Take this awful Mayonnaise label from 25 years ago. A veritable eyesore. Yes, there is a faint attempt at including a classic Greek arch, and I guess that the combination of red, green and gold is also a wink at certain post-Minoan colour schemes. But the result belongs rather more to the realm of the Amusing than to the dominion of the Muses.

Might it be that Appel Delikatess has not changed the design of its label since 1879, the year of its company’s founding? If so, that was one big mistake, for the customer and the aficionado of the Golden Sauce have progressed, my dear dunderheads. And they no longer understand with their esthetical sense what their eyes behold with a fearful shudder. What, for instance, is that funny oval shape on the lower left supposed to be? A spotted pear on three leaves of lettuce? Or perhaps the X-ray of an olive on its branch? Or might it be the portrait of the egg-head in charge of the company marketing, painted by the incomparable Karel Appel of Cobra fame? A mystery if ever I saw one.

Now, some bottled brands of Mayo that come clad in cheap or badly drafted labels get fully redeemed by the splendid flavour of the sauce itself. Sadly, this was not the case of Appel Delikatess. Taste-wise, it turned out to be straig­ht, Mediterranean, weak and bland. The kind of pap one gets served in the tilting cafeteria of the steamer from Brindisi to Patras on top of an olive-shaped egg or an egg-shaped olive. In short: in Greece do as the Greek do, and eat Tarama or Tzatziki instead of this worthless, useless variety of sauce.

(1) POSTSCRIPT Monday morning 11.00 am. A digital newspaper just tells me that the interest rate on Spanish and Italian bonds, which came down jollily in the wake of the Greek relief, is already on the rise again… The Spanish interest rate stands at 7.11 %. A neat little figure (most economists agree that 6 % is untenable). How long before we will need a bail-out of the Spanish government on top of the bail-out of the Spanish banks…?

(2) I’m sorry about that, dear reader, but I had to teach a class in Egyptology at a local college, and my thorough preparations left me no time to write down a dignified recipe.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Greek Elections: With a little help from my friends...


A wise man once wrote: Show me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are. That is one true saying.

Tomorrow, Sunday the 17th of June, there will be all-important elections in Greece. Elections that will decide no little in the future of the European Union and of the nations that live under its iron, pitiless sway. And in those elections, who are the Friends of Brussels?

You couldn’t make it up.

The grim fact is that Brussels is putting all its hope on the two old traditional parties: the ‘socialist’ PASOK and the conservative New Democracy. These are the same two parties who used to divide Greece between them. Who hated each other’s guts and gladly drank each other’s blood for decades, until they found a common cause in Brussels’ courting. Who cooked the books and lied to their European partners so as to be allowed to join the Eurozone. Who mismanaged the Greek economy on such a bizarre scale that it nudged the country to the brink of the abyss. Who hid their deficits, their inflation, the scarlet of their balance sheets, and the brittleness of their banks. Who borrowed excessively so as to toss gifts and sinecures to their voters and party cronies. Who allowed, and dabbled in, corruption of unspeakable extent and quantity. Who are a complete political mafia of the most scandalous sort. Who cheated, lied, stole, squandered, pillaged, defrauded, embezzled, abused and bloodsucked everybody. Including Brussels itself.

These then are the two great Greek friends of our European leadership. These are their heroes. It is they who Brussels is happy to deal with, with whom they hope to deal after the elections. The very same old utterly corrupt and inept parties who cheated them on many occasions. The ones whom they are sometimes covertly and sometimes openly summoning the Greeks to vote for. The ones they tell the Greek people to return to power, OR ELSE

In short: Brussels sets its hopes on scoundrels. They hope for a victory of rogues. They want the corrupt back into office, because the corrupt are their faithful friends. The corrupt, the dishonest, the unscrupulous, are the ones who will do Brussels’ bidding. Who will bow over forward for ‘special treatment’ which will save the Divine Euro. Which today, in June 2012, has become the end instead of the means.

We have come a long, long, long, long way, dear readers, from the virtues which made this our continent great. The virtues for whose survival some 20 million people died only 70 years ago.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Jesse James Reversed

Jesse James was a lad who saved many a land
He robbed the gravy train
He stole from the poor and he gave to the rich
He’d a claw and a jaw and a brain

[Freely after the folk balled ‘Jesse James’]

Alright: now that yet another country has been put into receivership… Oh, no, forgive me! I am so stupid that I think a 100 billion Euros in alms might come with strings attached, and according to every Spanish bigwig involved, this is not at all the case. The 100 billion are – in the words of the Spanish minister of economics – only ‘financial assistance’ with just some mild overseeing by the IMF. Strangely, the German minister of finance Wolfgang Schäuble is just as stupid as I am. He spoke of strict supervision of the entire Spanish performance – i.e. both banks and government - by the whole of the Abominable Troika. These Gerries! They can never get it right, can they?

Okay then: now that Spain has been lent a gentle helping hand to weather the storm – which, incidentally, is quickly subsiding never again to return - without any detrimental effects, naturally, to the wellbeing of their poor, sick, young, elderly, unemployed, homeless and hopeless, it is perhaps a good moment to take a look at the splendid people to whom we owe present state of our continent. They who gave us the Divine Euro, the Democracy and Prosperity, the Peace and Stability, the Growth and Employment for all, which we enjoy today…

For instance Mr Karel de Gucht, the Belgian Eurocommissar for Trade in the Barroso Politburo. A man who stands for fairness, equity and accountability. For openness, transparency and principle. For morality, good governance and thrift…

Today we learned the news (click here for an English version, and here for the French) that the Belgian revenue service has formally accused Mr de Gucht of failing to declare 1.2 million Euros profits on the sale of a stock portfolio a number of years ago. The revenue service discovered this when they put his income next to his expenditure, one item of which happened to be a country estate in Toscana. Mr de Gucht denies these allegations. It is all a political conspiracy to damage his reputation (tax men are famous for abusing their powers so as to damage the reputations of unelected politicians…). There was a sale of stocks, he admits, but no taxes were due over the profits. And just to be on the safe side, Mr de Gucht points out that whatever may have happened – and it was not fraud! – has legally prescribed after 7 years.

Fairness. Accountability. Transparency.


Of course, any Politburo may turn out to contain an uncharacteristic rotten apple. Such things happen in all human affairs. Except that it is perhaps less of a rarity than we often think? Check out this harangue from Nigel Farage, a few years back at the time of the installation of the Barroso Administration…

Oh, and remember: these are the very same people who so gladly drive home the Hetze that if children starve in Greece, it is all the fault of their parents for evading taxes…