Thursday, 24 November 2011

Quinces fight back

Last quinces on the tree on 24th November
Ever since Giles Coren (now he really is funny) recently described quinces (and medlars) as "semi-extinct Medieval fruit", quinces up and down the land have been planning their revenge.  Yes, I know, he wasn't really talking about the fruit, but trying to remember the name of a restaurant which AA Gill (why isn't he on twitter?) had recommended - which was Quince, or was it Medlar?  As I'm too frugal to subscribe to the newspaper he was writing in, I can't give you the link...

Part of the main quince harvest in October

As for the medlars, I'm with him... we'll return to them for their one good point later, but for now it's the turn of the quinces
"We're agreed that Giles Coren is a semi-extinct food critic"
First to clear up some confusion.  I'm talking about the big pear-shaped yellow fruits with furry down  on them which grow on trees, not the "quinces" which grow on prickly bushes with white, pink or red flowers.  It's a different thing altogether, but its greeny yellow fruits are also edible and people do make them into jelly (and rave about how a bowl of them will scent a room - if that's the sort of thing you like)

Flowers and fruits of Japanese quince or Chaenomeles japonica

Okay, back to the real quinces.  My quince tree is very vigorous - its response to any type of pruning, even brutal (yes, that's you I'm talking about, Gordon), is to promptly double in size- it doesn't have any pollination issues, it flowers quite late so it doesn't have any frost issues (you know, where fruits which have just formed are damaged, sometimes resulting in no crop at all that year) and it usually produces an overwhelmingly enormous crop of fruit.  If there's a dry spell followed by a lot of rain the fruit may swell up too quickly and split and start to go bad, but in a consistently wet (or dry) summer this doesn't happen much.

Mould caused by cracking
Now, what to do with these quinces?  You do see quite a few recipes in magazines at this time of year for "pork chops with quince" or that type of thing, but they usually turn out to use only one quince "peeled and diced" or "peeled, cored and sliced neatly" per quarter pig - not much use when you're looking at about 200 quinces.  Also, have you ever tried to core or neatly slice a quince?  They are incredibly hard - it's difficult even to cut them in half, yet alone do anything fancy.

Nigella Lawson has a good but strange-sounding recipe in "How to Eat" for baked quinces where you peel and core them (Nigella does warn that "these fruits are rock-hard and coring and quartering  takes strength") then bung everything - including the trimmings -in the dish with a good slosh of muscat sweet wine.    But this is good in the end and the quinces take on that wonderful rich ruby colour (or "glorious burnished terracotta" to Nigella) which foodies rave about.  Also baked quinces with pomegranate seeds in "Feast", equally delicious

What I usually do is cut the quinces into halves (or quarters if I'm feeling strong), cook them in the pressure cooker for about 15 mins (or in a normal pan for a lot longer - maybe an hour) then make either quince jelly or jam or quince cheese or membrillo (as they call it in Spain).
Cooked quince put through a mouli ready for the next stage of membrillo making
This is beginning to sound a bit Medieval - pressure cookers (they've been around a while, haven't they?), moulis.  It gets worse though because once you've added vast amounts of sugar to this pulp you have to cook it for ages, stirring to stop it sticking to the pan and burning, and it behaves like lava, spitting hot jam high into the air.  A welder's glove on the stirring hand is a sensible precaution, as well as covering all nearby surfaces with newspaper.  Last year I was just congratulating myself on my uncharacteristically careful approach when I noticed that the ceiling above the cooker was liberally splattered with orange sticky blobs.

But we haven't finished yet - when "you can see the bottom of the pan as you draw the wooden spoon through the mixture" (as the books say) or you're bored with the whole process or your hand is burnt with molten jam, you can either put the mixture into small jars or (more authentically but with a risk of future mould spots) pour it into trays lined with greaseproof paper and dry it off further.  Then cut it into squares and dust with sugar, pack in boxes.  Jane Grigson in her learned "Fruit Book" says the cooking can take seven hours! 

Or you could just pile them up attractively

Or leave them on neighbours' doorsteps under cover of dark

Or wait for me to give you a pot of jelly or jam or membrillo.  Don't worry - I always scrape any visible mould off first

Or make quince vodka

Or make quince chutney

If you've only read this far to hear the medlars' redeeming feature, it's that their uncannily visually accurate nickname is "dogs' bottoms".  Even Jane Grigson in "Fruit" again admits that "the medlar has long been the happy target of  jokes in much of Europe".  How do we know the medlar was that happy about it though?

"Go on then, laugh at us, see if we care"

Friday, 11 November 2011

Brent Libraries Latest - the Appeal

 photo by Martin Francis from his Wembley Matters blog

Just back from court 63 where Lord Justices Pill, Richards and Davis have spent the last two days hearing the appeal against Mr Justice Ouseley's decision in favour of Brent Council on 13th October.

After a slightly surreal start with the usher announcing a case involving the "London Borough of Trent", conjuring up unlikely images of Ann John as Maid Marion, he corrected himself, and the hearing began.  We have a new barrister - Dinah Rose - and she was very impressive.  She opened the case yesterday with the complicated indirect discrimination point - but she explained it so well that I think all 50 or so supporters - (the court was packed and folding chairs had to be brought it!) may now be able to explain it to someone else.

Well, here goes... the point is that armed with the knowledge (from the last census in 2001) that 28% of the population of Brent is Asian, and that 46% of active borrowers were Asian (from Brent's own figures), the Council should have been alerted to the possibility that closing Barham Park, Tokyngton and Preston Road, three of the four libraries in the most densely Asian wards (leaving only Ealing Road library open- already the second busiest library in Brent, with 261,000 visits in 2009/10 according to Brent's figures) might have amounted to indirect discrimination against Asians.  Having identified that risk, Brent should have considered it in its Equalities Impact Assessment.

Ms Rose recognised the very real economic difficulties faced by local authorities and the fact that hard choices have to be made by them but subject to their statutory duties - in this case Brent's duties under section 149 of the Equalities Act 2010 and under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.  She stressed that the merits of the decision were not being examined (that's going on elsewhere - across the borough wherever there's an activist, library user or defender of places to study and read), purely the process by which it was reached.

The fact that only 21% of the questionnaire responses were from Asians should also have alerted Brent ("the red flag should have gone up" as Ms Rose put it) to the fact that they were under-represented in the consultation.

Brent should therefore have realised that any proposal to close libraries was likely to affect the Asian population disproportionately and they should have considered why this was (ie the cultural, social and economic reasons).  Brent conceded that it wasn't considered at all, but argued that giving no regard to it could nevertheless amount to "due regard" under the legislation.  Ms Rose's argument is that having wrongly concluded that there was no risk of discrimination against Asians the council (wrong again) didn't go on to properly consider it and therefore failed to fulfill their obligations under the legislation.

A witness statement by Sue Harper (Director of Environment and Neighbourhood Services) showed that Brent had concluded that the only disadvantage would relate to mobility (ie difficulties in travelling to other libraries) and that only the elderly, young or disabled would be adversely affected.  They failed to consider whether a racial group could be disadvantaged.

In fact the Asian community have been disproportionately affected because a new witness statement showed that Ealing Road library is now overcrowded, with children (mostly Asian) sitting on the floor to do their homework and great pressure on the computers.

Incidentally children have been sitting on the stairs at Willesden Green library doing homework!  So much for the transformation of the libraries by digital and outreach services (well, I know, we never believed that anyway).

Ms Rose handed up demographic maps (a graphic representation is always a good idea) taken from Brent's website showing the density of the Borough's Asian population with the locations of the 12 original and 6 remaining libraries superimposed.  Miss Laing, on behalf of Brent, did not accept that this detailed ward information was before the Executive when they reached their decision to which Ms Rose riposted "well it should have been: we got it from the council's website".  With a good barrister you really can hear the punctuation- that colon was as clear as anything - but back to the issues.

Ms Rose went on to assert that the judgment contains errors of law relating to indirect discrimination as Mr Justice Ouseley found that Brent did a proper Equality Impact Assessment (which she says they did not)

One of their lordships seemed surprised that councils were required to carry out this exercise every time they wanted, for example, to close a swimming pool.  As Ms Rose explained "these practices have been carried out by local authorities since the legislation came in.  They may be novel to your lordship but they're not novel to local authorities: Brent have a form to help them make these decisions"

Dinah Rose also argued that Brent paid no regard to the impact of its policy until the 11th hour of 11th of April 2011- by which time it was far too late because it had already decided to close 6 libraries and had already set the budget.

A third point was that Brent was in breach of its duty under the Public Museums and Libraries Act, and the fourth point that it had engaged in procedural unfairness by not revealing the "seven secret criteria".  The judge below said they were obvious.  Dinah Rose said they were not.

An interesting factual point which Ms Rose highlighted is that Brent did not simply close the six libraries with the lowest usage figures - Kilburn Library (which has lower usage figures than Neasden - now closed) was reprieved because of the special characteristics of some of the users.  This means that Brent feared that there might be indirect discrimination against certain groups who use Kilburn if it was closed, but they failed to carry out the same exercise in relation to the Asian population's usage of Barham Park, Preston Road and Tokyngton.

I'm afraid I missed the afternoon and following morning during which Ms Rose concluded her application and Miss Laing replied, asserted in essence that Brent used the correct procedure and that the judgment below should be upheld.  But I was back for Ms Rose's response on Friday afternoon.  She dealt with Miss Laing's assertion that the amount of regard which a council had to have under the Equalities legislation was a question of degree by pointing out that "it was a major policy decision which on any view would have very significant effects on the lives and opportunities of those who live in Brent".

 Ms Rose described one part of Miss Laing's argument on indirect discrimination as "completely nuts", a phrase which is unlikely to find its way into the judgment (however appropriate it might be), but which cheered us up at the back of the court.

The final point was about the "seven secret criteria".  Ms Rose dealt with the daft suggestion on behalf of Brent that engaging fully with the  groups who had put forward proposals would amount to re-opening the whole consultation by pointing out there were only ten of them!

Tara Brady has written an excellent piece about the first day and the indirect discrimination point on the Kilburn Times website which is well worth reading.

So has Martin Francis, with great photos (see below), on his excellent Wembley Matters blog.

photo by Martin Francis from his Wembley Matters blog

Our solicitor, John Halford of Bindmans, again helpfully stayed behind to answer any questions after the hearing.  He thought it could be about a month before the Judgment is delivered.  It's impossible to predict how it might go, but Dinah Rose put the case very strongly and persuasively for us, and all three Lord Justices were taking a keen interest and asking plenty of questions to test the strength of both sides' arguments. John felt that no further steps should be taken by Brent in the meantime- no more stock should be removed from libraries or from where it's being stored.

So, fingers crossed, and keep supporting the various events - the next is the fabulous sounding Disco Dance Fundraiser next Saturday 19th November in the Preson Mall Community Centre -more details

Which has given me a good idea to end with - Dance the Night Away by the Mavericks.  Just imagine that the "she" who "has gone away and can't do a thing to me" is someone senior in Brent council and you'll enjoy it even more than you usually do.
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