Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What Expats bring to Atyrau

When most of us travel we try to take what we need with us.  But if you are like me you take some comfort in the knowledge that if you forget something, a brush, a swimsuit or a pair of shoes say, then one can buy it at ones destination.  In Atyrau it is not that easy.  Whilst most things are available they are sometimes very hard to find, of questionable quality or extremely expensive.  This is sometimes good because looking for something you need can take a great deal of time, and most of us are looking for things to do to fill our spare time!  


I am currently looking for an open topped water tight container which can hold  25 to 35 litres of water to use as a warm water bath for 'sous vide' cooking.  We were told of a new household supply shop and went to check it out yesterday.  The walk of about 4 Km was not particularly pleasant underfoot with mud and ice and no sidewalks for a fair bit of the way.  The store, Evim, is in the centre of the collage.  The lower level was a lighting shop, so now we know where to buy a lamplight (about USD700) should we need one.  The household supply shop upstairs did not have what I wanted, but that was no big surprise.  
Likewise, I am sure that there are all kinds of clothes available, but Sandra who is fairly short and whilst far from fat is not skinny (I hope I get away with that!) finds it extremely hard to find any clothes that fit her.  The Kazakh girls (remember, that is the polite terminology) tend to be tall and thin, and the older Kazakh ladies are of indeterminable size and shape, not typically being qualified enough for professional office work, and so only seen on the streets or in shops, where they are usually wrapped in some type of massive fur coat.  You do not need to bring your fur coats with you, they can be bought here! 


So here is my list of things that a visitor might consider bringing, with various comments and thoughts.




CLOTHING


It can get to -40C with wind chill, and +40C in the shade.  However, indoors is usually very warm in winter, and cooled but far from cold in summer.  I was taught to dress with layers of clothes for the cold, so one can remove clothes gradually to reach the required temperature!  Yesterday, in about -10C (walking above) I wore a short sleeved shirt and a thick down jacket.  Inside it is warm enough for just a shirt and jeans, outside a down jacket does the trick.  


It was not windy, but if it had been my jacket has a hood.  You need hats or hoods if you want to keep your ears!  These can be bought here, and fur hats are popular.


You are unlikely to be out much in the rain so a waterproof coat is not an essential if you use an umbrella.  However when it does rain or when the snow melts the drainage system is taxed. The picture below are from an earlier blog.
The mud is thick and sticky and will quickly spoil nice shoes.  Boots are essential, and warm ones too.  Good warm Wellington boots or other rubberised boots are not a bad idea if you are not too fashion conscious. Make sure they have grippy soles as the side walks and parking lots are often worse than ice rinks.


Outside public buildings and offices there are trays of water and long handled brushes.  These are for removing the mud from your shoes or boots before going indoors.  Shoes have an hard life here in winter, so a good cleaning kit is useful.  It is possible to buy all that here but it helps to read Russian so you know what you are getting, and how to apply it, a safer bet is to bring a preferred product with you.


Here I am back from a walk on a cold day.
Gloves are essential as you cannot walk around with your hands in your pockets.  You have to be ready to break your fall when you slip.  On stairs or slopes (like the bridge) you have to hold the railings or be ready to, because the material of choice for steps seems to be polished granite, which is virtually frictionless when covered with a paper thin layer of ice.


Some employers provide their staff with studded grips to pull over their shoes so that they grip on the ice.  These work very well....on ice, unfortunately on stone or a polished floor it is like walking on ball bearings, so they are not a good idea when walking across varied terrain, as one usually has to.


A medium weight coat or jacket is necessary for the spring and fall when it is neither very hot nor very cold.





ELECTRICAL AND ELECTRONIC EQUIPMENT

220 volts is fine for many but not North Americans.  You may want to bring a step up transformer if you plan to bring 110 volt appliances.

There are stores like Techno Dom which have a complete range of household appliances and computer equipment. In fact the range of brands that they have on display is astonishing.  I counted over 55 irons, 56 wand blenders, 10 bread machines and it is the same for the food processors, electric razors, hair driers etc. The major brands are available though the styling and design is different to that which we see in Europe and the US. It may be that the products are those sold in the Asian markets.  Still it is not a problem.  What is more likely to be a problem is the instructions which may not be in English and the warranty, which may not be...at all.  It is common for a vendor to remove an item from its packaging and test it in the store to make sure it works.  If it fails after you get it home I am not sure what happens, and I don't plan on finding out.




FOOD

Specialist equipment may not be widely available.  We brought in an induction cooker and a sous vide heater/pump from Polyscience, neither of which have I seen here.  Many people bring bread machines (not an availability issue, but an instruction one) though fairly good bread is now widely available.  We bring flour, as white and rye is common, but whole wheat is not.  Some people bring ice cream machines.  Baskin Robbins has a kiosk store in Mall Atyrau, next to Ardagar, and Ramstore had M√∂venpick ice cream for the first time this weekend.

The problem with making ones own ice cream is that there is only UHT milk available and no cream.  In fact there is rumoured to be real milk in the local market, but it may not be pasteurised, and I have never seen it, so we rely on milk made from milk powder.  Milk powder can be bought in the supermarkets, but it is in bulk (like the sugar and salt) so has no labels.  It may or may not be skimmed, and the mixing ratio is not clear.  When I have used it I have not had very good yoghurt.  We bring in dried milk powder.

Fruit yoghurt is widely available with various fat content. Plain non-fat plain yoghurt is available, but sometimes hard to find, so I make large batches using a yoghurt culture that we bring in.

In the past two years the markets and supermarkets have transformed their fruit and vegetable shelves.  
RamStore: They do not allow picture taking so these have been "sneaked"
A wide range of vegetables is available though most are expensive by western standards.  The quality is not always very good though and one often has to go to several stores to find what is required, though this is changing fast.  There are also frozen and canned vegetables, but again, the quality can disappoint.  Canned sweetcorn turned out to be far from sweet and we through the chowder out.  The one think (in the 'normal' vegetable category) that we have not yet found is fresh green beans (we bring them in). 
Picture taken in Rahat Market
The other range of ingredients that is hard or impossible to find are herbs and spices.  Fresh herbs, coriander, parsley, basil and chives can be found in summer.  In winter they are sometimes available.  It is the dried herbs and spices that are harder to locate.  Some are available such as caraway seeds, ground cloves and cinnamon, but Indian spices like tumeric, cardamom and cumin seeds (and similarly Mexican and other SE Asian spices) I have not yet managed to discover.  We have brought a complete herb and spice cabinet with us. Mixed herbs are actually on the supermarket shelves, but they are typically blend designed for a particular dish, and instructions and details are in Kazakh, Russian or maybe Turkish non of which are edifying for me.  Along the same lines you may want to bring baking powder and/or cream of tartar and bicarbonate of soda.

It is possible to buy an increasing number of western European and US foods and ingredients, olive oil, balsamic (and other) vinegars, pasta of many types, breakfast cereals, canned fish, bouillon/stock cubes, crackers/biscuits etc, but there may be very little variety or choice.  So if you are particular, it is a good idea to bring your favourite brand with you. 

It is fresh food that people mostly tend to bring in when they return from an R&R trip out of country.  We used to bring a suitcase full of produce but more than a couple of lost luggage incidents have put us off this!  A vacuum packet ham that has spent three days in transit in summer is not very appealing.  So now we bring what we can in hand luggage.  Even though Kazakhstan is a Moslem country we can get pork and even a version of bacon and ham.  But if you are serious about pig, then bring some in with you.  You can buy beef, lamb, mutton and horse, though the cuts are not always familiar and translations not very illuminating (yesterday I pondered over a chunk of meat called "front foot of cow", being sure of only one thing, it was not a foot).  So, people do bring in meat that they can use for a special occasion.  Turkey is a good example, as it is available but the birds are small and scrawny and very expensive.  Sandra was offered a 6 lb turkey for over 100 Euros at Christmas 2010.  Last year when we went to collect the turkey for our Thanksgiving dinner (over 20 people) the supplier simply said "Nyet" but it would be there for Christmas!  Supply is often unreliable, and or expensive.

But the most important "import" for us is cheese.  Local traditional cheese is very hard and salty.  There are lots of flavoured President brand cheese spreads.  There is even President brand packaged cheese, Roquefort and Emmental, Parmasan and Rondele, Brie and Camembert.  There is Edam and some other similar cheeses, but there are no really good artisan style cheeses.  We therefore bring in really good Parmigiano Reggiano, sharp Cheddar, Aged Jack and Gouda, soft Chevre, Stilton and the like.  We also bring our favourite crackers and salami and pate (in a jar).  This makes casual feasting possible.

Whilst on the cheese topic, I referred earlier to yoghurt making.  I sometimes mixe it with fruit for Sandra's breakfast, but more usually I strain it through a cheese cloth and make the thick labneh eaten in the Middle East.  This with Apricot jam, is a breakfast favourite, and we can now buy the jam.  A year ago I had to make it from dried apricots.




ENTERTAINING


Some people like to entertain their friends and colleagues by inviting them for lunch or dinner.  This is also a good way to share special produce that you have just imported.  If you are fortunate enough to live in an house or large apartment you will possibly have a largish kitchen.  Marriott, Ardager and Renco only have smaller kitchens, and this makes organisation more important.  But a bigger issue is that whilst the apartments are adequately stocked for (typically) six people for a full meal there this is the limit.  In fact it is almost over the limit if you want to sit around a table and eat family style.  We have brought in extra sets of plates, bowls, wine and water glasses, serving and cooking dishes, cutlery/silverware, baking tins and pans, food storage jars and cooking utensils to supplement what is supplied.  Some we needed in Ardager, but are supplied in Marriott, so supply is varied.


It is also advisable to bring good knives, food thermometer, oven thermometer, food scales*, cup measures (Americans!) and a good can opener and cork screw.


The equipment supplied is generally robust and functional, but you may prefer to have better quality, and more than a six place three course meal setting.  Of course everyone fully understands the situation and asking people to bring their own or borrowing from friends is not treated with the dismay that you may have at home. 
"Come for dinner."
"What can I bring."
"A chair and knife and fork."


The apartments usually only have 4 dining room chairs, and maybe a desk chair or two.  We bought an extra folding table and two folding chairs here in Atyrau.


*Your residence may or may not have bathroom scales.  


MEDICATION, MAKE-UP ETC


There are lots and lots of pharmacies, so I presume there is ample medication for routine ailments.  If you have to visit a doctor then the medication is prescribed and this is not a problem.  It is the simple OTC drugs which pose difficulties.  When you have a heavy cold, headache, aching muscles and sinus congestion you are not in the best mood to try to communicate with a Russian speaking pharmacist about your need for medication.  But should you be successful you then face the challenge of translating the dosage instructions.  It is best to bring a small medicine cabinet with you containing the basics, especially if you have children.


I am reliably informed that there is fair availability of recognised brands of women's cosmetics.  However I am usually requested to bring in some particular brand of hair product or shade of eye make-up.  So, ladies (and gentlemen, I suppose)  if you have favourite products get someone reliable to tell you whether they are available.


One thing that it is prudent to bring is moisturising lotion.  It is very very dry in Atyrau.  It is a good idea to bring an humidifier or two to make your home air more comfortable, but your skin will still dry out, crack and itch.  Having had similar problems in Canada, and consulted a dermatologist, I was informed that not all moisturisers are suitable.  For North Americans, Cetaphil Moisturising Lotion is a good choice.  In Europe Balneum Plus Cream is available and works well.  I am sure there are many others, but get advice on what is suitable for a cold climate, some creams penetrate the skin and then freeze, and this does not help.


ACTIVITIES

Golfers in Atyrau play indoors in a gymnasium. They chip wiffle balls into empty children's paddling pools, and drive them towards targets.  A full set of clubs is unlikely to be necessary for this but a putter might be useful!

There is also an informal cycling club which meets when the weather permits. In summer they go out a couple of evenings a week and Saturday mornings.  Most of the time they go into the dessert. It is not hilly but rough and dusty. A mountain bike is necessary, but it does not need to be an high end trail basher.  You wont be stump jumping! 
The bikers keep going out until it gets too cold, so some cold weather clothing (see above) is a good idea if you plan to join them.

An ice rink on the Ural
Cold weather clothing and ice skates will be necessary if you want to get out on the improvised ice rink on the Ural in front of River Club Residence.  

This year there has been three times as much snow as normal so there have been cross country (langlauf) skiers on the snow covered river ice.  However this is not a guaranteed activity. 
If you are out skiing or skating on the river be alert for holes in the ice where the ice fisherman have drilled through to the running river.  I don't know any expats who have been ice fishing, but fishing from the banks in summer is done. You will need a licence, but they are supposed to be free.
It is also possible to boat on the Ural.  For expats this means kayaking or canoeing and some people have brought their kayaks with them.
  Ownership of power boats is restricted to locals, or at least very difficult.  But in any event access to the Caspian is prohibited, so activity is limited to the river, and local knowledge is necessary as there are underwater obstacles (sunken ships?).


You can swim in the Ural but most expats prefer not to as it is supposed to be polluted with heavy metals.  There are swimming pools for the public, and there are also pools at the Renaissance and Renco.  
Of course some people are content to just to get their workout in the gym.  There are clubs with gyms (eg at the Renaissance), and some residences, like Marriott have gyms.  Some people have shipped out their exercise machines.  You can also buy this equipment here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Getting Back in the Swing...or not.

Saturday seemed to be all about getting set up for the evening, Sunday was time to get back into a routine.  Unfortunately with it below 20C outside one is not keen to go and frolic outside.  I decided to make cabbage rolls as I had bought some ground meat at Ramstore.  I had to improvise the recipe as my large can of tomatoes turned out to be tomato paste.  I had forgotten about this little peculiarity of the supermarket shelve, aisles of cans of tomato paste, some as big as beer barrels (well, small beer barrels) but no canned tomatoes.  I have not been able to find anyone who can explain where all the paste goes.  It is not overly used in the cooking, at least in restaurants, but there must be an explanation.  When canned tomatoes appear as they occasionally do, there is an expat. scramble, text messages everywhere, and in a couple of hours they are gone.


Anyway, back to the cabbage rolls, they were horrid.  Sandra had a couple on Sunday and wasn't very complimentary.  We tried them again on Monday, cooked a bit longer as she thought them tough, and they were very strongly meaty, to the extent that all the other stuffing ingredients were tasteless.  I had made a lot as I planned to freeze them.  Instead I dispatched them in shifts down the toilet (no waste disposal unit here, and only a small bin!).  


My conclusion is that the meat was horse.  I have had a similar meat before that I used in Spaghetti sauce (now there is a use for tomato paste!) and it was alright but a bit "different".  I am going to carry a list of useful words when I go shopping, and "horse" is going to be at the top.


Today I had to buy flour.  Yesterday I made bread to the exact same recipe that I used in November.  It didn't rise properly and had all the texture of a crumbly brick.  I have just finished feeding that down the "waste disposal unit" as well.


So I went to get flour and was completely baffled by what to buy.  I knew the one with pictures of bread on the bag was probably bread flour, but what about the picture of a lady tossing pancakes (I have never seen pancakes here)?  I chose one with a picture of a bowl and a whisk because that seemed more "cake" friendly and I needed cake flour for banana bread.  
I also bought bread flour to have another go at a loaf.
When I got home I used my iPad translation App. to try a couple of words on the bag of flour.  The first was "scones" which didn't mean much.  It is not exactly as if the Kazakh nomad are know for their scones with jam and clotted cream.  The second word I translated meant "self raising" which was rather more informative.


Unfortunately, that is not what I wanted , but needs must.  I made two batches of banana bread, a loaf made with self raising flour and brown sugar, and muffins made with bread flour and added sultanas and pine nuts lightly toasted (Sandra had finished all the walnuts and I was not going out again in that cold!).  The results were fine.  We have enough banana bread for about four weeks.  Sandra takes a slice or a muffin to work each day.
I also made a loaf of bread, but took the dough out of the bread maker and raised it in a warn oven as I think the bread-making machine may have a faulty rising-stage heater, which is my latest untested theory explaining my "bread brick".  It baked reasonably well back in the machine, and tastes better than bought bread.




It is Valentines Day so we planned on dinner at home.  I had made a very simple leek and potato soup this morning whilst I bade Sandra's breakfast.  Equal parts, about 175g, potato and leek  (yes, I found a leek, hence the soup) in chicken stock, salt and pepper and a couple or so of tea spoonfuls of dried milk powder, simmered till tender and blitzed till very smooth. When seasoned with salt and white pepper it was quite good.


Rahat market had Brussel sprouts, small and carefully bagged, enough for three portions for about $5!  I bought a nice looking piece of beef which should  have been fillet, for about $10 and some potatoes.  I made a mushroom and red wine sauce using my Californian sourced dried mushrooms (special occasion).  The sprouts were tasty,mashed potatoes buttery, sauce good and meat so tough one could hardly chew it!  That's how the cookie crumbles... nothing is predictable.  We left the beef, I will think how to recycle it later and find a more tenderising way to cook it.  The problem is that it probably has probably not been aged...at all.  It was tasteless too, very tasteless in fact, which is why we suspect this.  


No photos!  No points!





Monday, February 13, 2012

Back in Atyrau jit for Burns Night

I am sitting at my desk once again looking out over the Ural River and the Asian side of Aryrau.  It is a bright sunny day, and I have just come back from a "business lunch" with Sandra at the Pizza Club.  We have now decided that this restaurant is off our list forever, I am starving as I only ate about 4 mouth-fulls and half a bowl of chicken soup (the stock) from 4 courses.  I could have photographed it but why make you ill as well?



As you see from the photograph we, like a lot of Europe have had some heavy snow, the largest snow fall for several years.

Of course it falls on frozen ground, it was about -25C, and doesn't melt.  There are only a few snow ploughs so only main roads get any attention, so the snow gets packed down by cars into thick ice.  Now the temperature is up to -12C so it is reasonable to walk outside, but the snow is not melting.  The road workers who are sweeping up the dust from the roads in summer with their home made brushes of a bunch of twigs are now shovelling snow with home made shovels (a piece of plywood about 2 feet square screwed to a broom handle!).  They shovel it to the side of the road, and later seem to put it into trucks to be taken into the desert and dumped.  


You can see that there are big chunks of solid ice in the piles of snow.  These are chipped off the roads and side walks but I don't know what equipment they use, certainly not those shovels. 


I started the long journey back to Kazakhstan on the 8th of February. My ride to SFO in the Marin Door to Door minivan took two hours and I boarded a flight to Amsterdam at 2pm.  My journey this time was SFO to AMS (a 1.5hr connection) and then a flight to Istanbul, where I had booked to stay in the same funny little hotel.  It is ironic that this route id so much cheaper (and about 3 hours longer flying time) than getting on the direct Air Astana flight to Atyrau which would have got me there 24 hours earlier.  Air Astana has a monopoly on these routes and knows that the business travellers are all on the Amsterdam route so the prices are much higher there than on the Istanbul route.


As you can see below a flight from SFO to IST going via AMS costs GBP621, but on the screen shot below that the flight from SFO to AMS (in the same plane) costs GBP1,086.  So the extra 3.5 hour flight from AMS to IST actually costs an additional MINUS GBP465! 


And you will see below that the IST to GUW flight costs Euro1,542 but the IST to GUW costs Euro621, a further saving of Euro921.  Such is the absurdity of air fare structures.  So those of you who ask how I pass my time now have another insight into what occupies me....finding cheap air fares!

The total saving or $1,954 was quite enough for a $60 hotel room in Istanbul and a $10 plate of fresh fried sardines with a salad and a diet coke!  Istanbul was covered with a thin blanket of snow which was not expected.  Fortunately this was not a problem as I was dressed for Atyrau! The hotel owner wanted me to put on my jacket as I waited for my airport taxi, and looked aghast when I said it was too hot.
View from the Istanbul hotel window
I arrived in Atyrau on Friday evening.  It was the usual bun-fight at the airport in arrivals.  The one conveyor of baggage and the one x-ray machine through which every arriving piece of baggage must pass as they screen for illegal imports.  There is a queuing system which is only partially successful as the concept of forming a line is not widely accepted.  I got through with no problems, having had my bag of wholemeal flour x-rayed twice in SFO (vacuum packed it looks "just like explosives"!) and my sous vide heater and pump x-rayed twice in AMS.  More of that item later!  Sandra met me and we had a happy reunion.


Saturday was a big day.  It was the night of the Annual Burns Night party.  The Atyrau Burns Society, which has been in existence for some 12 years, is a testimony to the number of Scots employed in the oil business.  They do a lot of charitable work, and the Burns Night dinner is the big fund raiser.  The fly in a Scottish band, a Piper, the Haggis and goodness knows what else.  Sponsorship by the hotel, Air Astana as well as many other oil related businesses helps with the costs. Sandra had bought a ball gown (yes, here in Atyrau!) for the occasion.  I had had to bring my dinner jacket/tuxedo from California.  We walked to the dress shop to collect the gown.  It was my first time walking across the Ural, not the bridge, the ice.  It is about 18 inches thick now, and covered with about 18 inches of snow.

















Various pictures of us on the river.  As you see there are some well trodden paths which go between the steps on either bank.


The picture below is looking up stream.  The large building on the right is the new NCPOC office building which Sandra and others are due to move into sometime in March. On the left are apartments.                                           


The snow is very dry and powdery.  It will not stick together in snow balls.  The crystals are as big as I have ever seen in snow and they reflect the sunlight beautifully.  In fact the snow looks like the artificial snow that is used in Santa's Grotto in the Mall (the good stuff, not the cotton wool!) or in movie sets.  It is quite lovely, and makes most of the city look lovely and clean.  


As some of you will know if you have read earlier postings, most buildings in Atyrau are heated by hot water that is pumped around the city in (mostly) overground pipes of all shapes and sizes.  These pipes sometimes go over roads but are more usually buried under major roads.  This means that where they go underground the earth is heated and the snow melts.  


The little picture (left) shows how the snow actually makes the dusty summer streets, which become horribly muddy when it rains, all look quite attractive.  But I am sure that like me, you are thinking, what will it be like when it melts.  I just hope it stays frozen for the next six weeks!

We collected the ball gown and I bought some beef ribs at the Ideal supermarket in Rahat.  The ribs are to be my first sous vide cooking experiment in Atyrau.  On Saturday afternoon I got them started, pictures below.
Trimmed beef ribs
Put into a Ziplock bag






And then immerse in a water bath at 135F for 72 hours, covered with cling film to stop evap- oration.  The water pressure forces the air out of the partially closed Ziplock bag, so it can then be closed  in a weak vacuum (sous vide = vacvuum). They are still sitting there, so more on this experiment later.  I will place more details on my other blog about my cooking experiments.

I did this while Sandra was off at the hairdresser getting prepared for the big night.  When she came back she had hair like this....







So here we are, all dressed up in our best bib and tucker, ready for the bash.
 This works out pretty well in our apartment, but we have to get to the Renaissance Hotel for the party and it is 20C below freezing and very snowy outside.  A couple of feet of ball gown trailing through the snow is not a great way to start an evening, but I grabbed Sandra's shoe bag, shawl and purse, and she hitched up the skirts and climbed up into the land cruiser taxi.  It wasn't very elegant but it worked.  We made it in good shape.


I hope someone will share more photos of the actual event with me, but here is a little collage.
Thank you Jon, he shared many more pictures and I have added some below.  But before that, what of the evening?


We begun at 7pm with drinks and canapes outside the main dining room on the first floor or the Renaissance Hotel.  Although the dress code was formal they were flexible as some people were passing through (eg contractors) and didn't have their gear with them.  The hard core Scots were of course in dress tartan and kilts.  But it was a bit of a dress mishmash.


At 7.40 we were piped into the dining hall to find our tables.  As late entrants, we had to take where we were assigned a cancellation, but we were next to a couple we know.  The first course was Scotch broth, which was pretty much a Kazakh chicken soup with pearl barley in it!  Not a great start. 


Then the Haggis was piped in with all formality.  The piper lead it round the tables as people clapped.  Finally it reached the podium where with all due ceremony and drama the haggis was "addressed" and cut.  For those unfamiliar with all this, follow the haggis link above.


The haggis was served with neeps (turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes).  It was one of the best haggises (shouldn't that be haggi from the Latin?) that I have ever had, quite spicy.  Unfortunately it was all served on cold plates so  the vegetables were not worth eating.  Plus the neeps seemed to be carrots!
Between courses there was a fair bit of activity, speeches, poems, live music, a wee lassie dancing, and stuff.


The main course was individual Beef Wellingtons.  It must be called Beef Wellington because it smells and cuts like one.  Unfortunately a good bit of beef had been wrapped in a very strong liver mix (supposedly pate?) and cooked to death under a pastry shroud.  I tasted the liver, and cut into the meat and gave up.  Sandra didn't do much better.  Some people actually ate theirs which just shows how tough life (and beef) is here.


Dessert was supposedly cranachan, a strange choice in a place where you can't buy fresh whipping cream.  The substitute seemed to contain cheese, and could have been mascarpone.  It had oats in it but not fresh toasted, rather old porridge.  So that got a miss too.  


All in all a good evening only spoilt by the food! A great deal of whisky was consumed as people were encouraged to bring their own special favourite bottles.  I managed to resist all but two glasses at the end (my defences were down and Sandra's boss was pouring for all and sundry!)