Sunday, June 15, 2014

BUYING A LOAF TIN

One of the many strange things that foreigners notice about shopping in the USA is just how willing shops are to exchange goods.  One can buy something and take it back a few days, or sometimes even weeks, later and get a full refund.  There is no need to give any reason, and the clerk will never even raise an eyebrow.  I find this even more surprising when I am shopping after New Year or an High Scholl prom. and see the number of dresses being returned often with imaginatively created excuses just to try and add some credibility to a patent scam.

As a Brit I still find it rather hard to exchange things even with a legitimate excuse, like missing part or failure to work, after all shouldn’t I have checked it first?

Anyway, there is no such difficulty here in Atyrau.  I remain intriguingly perplexed by the process of buying hardware.  I only really bought food (and the eggs are checked) and the occasional glass or bowl, which are also carefully checked.  Until a few weeks ago I had not made an electrical purchase, and when I did I was surprised to find that there was a special “check product” desk to go to before the “check out” desk.  Here the goods are carefully unpacked and plugged in and put through the paces.  I have only bought a blender and a coffee grinder so this was quite straight forward, except putting the items back in the box so the fit seemed to be as impossible as doing Rubric’s Cube and took just as long.  

I have seen the attendants struggling with large screen TVs and other large appliances, and am still wondering if it is worth buying a lawn mower to see how that works!


Anyway, today would be simple.  I was going to buy a loaf tin and I needed one small enough to fit my egg and pork pie filling in. More of that maybe later.  I had no luck at the first store which sold household goods, including pots and pans but not loaf tins.  So I headed to the electronics store as I seemed to recall seeing non-electric household wares there.  Bingo! A choice of three loaf tins. 

I chose one and headed to the checkout, except it wasn’t the checkout.  There was a counter and a girl and a till, but she looked at me as if I was offering her a wet fish.  Then I realized that I was at the quality checking counter not the pay desk, and the was not much electrical inspection to do for a loaf tin.  I made a quick recovery, spotted and headed to the cashier and place the tin on her counter.  But before I could even blink it was whisked away by another attendant who took it away to another place and another desk.  But he was clearly a critical part of the process because he had a small printed slip of paper and was recording serial numbers and the like on it in a neat hand written script.  I was then presented with the slip and directed back to the cashier.  No loaf tin yet.  After paying the cashier he arrived with the tin and it was placed in a bag and handed to me with the receipt.  I put the receipt in the bag and took the two steps to the exit door.  There I was stopped by another assistant, who was sitting on a chair by the door and who had been watching this whole saga.  He needed my receipt, so I gave it to him and he proceeded to give it a very official looking stamp, before sending me off…the proud owner of a new $16 loaf tin.
Oh! And just for the record it was a perfect size for my pie.


Friday, May 30, 2014

UPDATE FROM ATYRAU: End OF MAY 2014

It has almost been a week since I returned to Atyrau from San Francisco.  Although the fastest route is to fly from SFO to Amsterdam and then after a quick connection in Amsterdam fly on to Atyrau, I take different routes, principally to avoid the ridiculously high prices on the Amsterdam Atyrau leg.  Though I have to say, in all fairness, the prices are coming down to a level where this route is becoming competitive.  Nonetheless, this time I came in via Frankfurt and Almaty, which meant the journey began on Wednesday at 9am and ended on Friday at 5am, making it a long 33 hours, instead of about half that on the Amsterdam route.  However the saving was substantial, enough to buy a couple of iPads, so I wasn’t short of reading material, movies, crosswords, soduko, music and all the other things these funny little gadgets do to keep us amused.

When I arrived in Atyrau the first thing I noticed was the Airport Hotel, The Abukkhayir  Khana Prospekt, a couple of minutes walk from the terminal.  This will be useful for people transiting overnight but right now I am having a hard time understanding why people wouldn’t take a 5 minute taxi ride into town and stay in a place closer to their business and all the other facilities that Atyrau has to offer.  Of course if congestion becomes really bad, it will be useful to stay at the airport before flying out on that early morning plane, but the authorities are planning for that.

Right now the airport road is closed for a couple of months as it is being developed into a new four lane highway, ready for the rush.

Actually, I think that the work is associated with the rumoured impending visit of Presidents Putin and Nazarbayev. This snippet from a local newspaper...

"We arrived to Atyrau together with Said Zabitov, the General Consul of Russia located in Uralsk, to look how the preparations for the forthcoming forum of interregional cooperation of Kazakhstan and Russia is going. The forum will take place in your city in the fall of this year. The exact date of this meeting is under discussion. Similar meetings of the presidents, the members of the governments and heads of regions of our countries have been held before and they showed their efficiency"

In any event there is the start of a grand new building appearing on the airport road. I was told that this is where the meeting will take place.  It is suitably convenient for the airport, about 4KM along the soon-to-be expanded road.

Yes, the road improvements are continuing rapidly here.  I was only away for two months and I can report that the concrete curbs along Satpayeva have now all been replaced with granite, and the program is being extended into Azattyk Avenue.



Work is also going on re-laying the walkways and upgrading their curbs too.  I was surprised to see piles of bricks all over the Park Oblakymata.

There are also some new traffic lights, the most effective probably being those at the Dostyk Junction, scene of many interesting but not serious accidents. 

There are also new pedestrian crossings, with lights counting down the crossing time, and many of the pedestrian crossings, which I would call Zebra crossings except they are red and white, have already been repainted. Some, like the one below, have not yet been painted and show the wear and tear that a Kazakh winter has on a bit of road paint.

The planting season is also upon us. The concrete urns along Satpayeva have been planted.  As have many of the roundabouts and road islands.

There are also pots hanging on the lamppost with flowers in them, though Sandra tells me that these are not real. 

I also note that that much maligned watering and dining institution, TGI Fridays is no longer in the Marriot and there is a new American Bar and Grill for us to try.  As it is a “grill” I expect it might have steaks, but I will bet that there will also be pasta and pizza, the signature dishes of all fine international restaurants in Atyrau.  I’ll report back later.

Here in Zheti Kazyna winter has ended with a flurry of activity too.  Planting has started, maintenance of winter worn facilities is going on, and work is, today, underway on some new construction by the gate house.  

My money is on some sort of bike park with cover, as we all (or at least, those with better bikes) take them indoors to protect them from the weather.

And here in the apartment Sandra has had the sitting room wall repainted as it had been damaged.  She was told the new colour wouldn’t be an exact match with the old one, and was somewhat startled that the slight variation in color was from moss green to bright orange.  Anyway, there is nothing to do about it now except face the other way.

This city really is changing all the time.  It is mostly getting better, significantly better.  The living accommodation is much better than a few years ago and the produce in the stores is much better too.  But it still requires a little “adjusting”.  

On Sunday the weather was nice, it’s been nice all week between 25C and 30C and sunny, if a bit windy, anyway we thought we would walk out to the river, but just as we started to leave there was rain.  It was a brief but effective 15 minute squall which left the dusty ground with a thin mud layer on top. In winter with boots one might decide to walk it but in summer with light shoes it is disastrous, so we had to get a taxi to the nearest sidewalk, about half a mile away.  Then we had a nice walk!

Sandra has had a different sort of week with out of town visitors and workshops, so I have not been going in to meet her at lunchtime with our “picnic” to eat in the Riverside Office canteen/lunchroom.  Instead I have been walking to Rahat each day to visit Luda, the famous vegetable lady and getting back in the groove of Atyrau shopping.

My walk to Asia (I like to say that, it sounds suitably dramatic) is a circuitous route around the back of the Zheti Kazyna compound and along the irrigation canal to connect with the paved roads and sidewalks.  One day as I was walking along the top of the dyke I spotted something on the ground ahead. 


You can see it in the middle of the above picture, at the bottom.  And if you have good eye sight you will even notice that it is indeed a fish!


I have no idea how it got there or why it hadn't been eaten by birds or other scavengers.  There is no fishing done in the dyke, and I dont even know if there are fish in it.  Just another one of those odd things that we come to expect.

I mention that apropos nothing in particular, but I wanted to have it on record, and get the evidence on line!

On Wednesday night we hosted a simple dinner for the workshop participants, 15 were able to make it and although we were a little thrown by suddenly and for the first time, being told by Kheti Kazyna management that there not enough tables and chairs to supply us, some of our guests were less than surprised and more than willing to bring their own chairs.  But this is a lesson well learnt here, just because you are told that it will be done, don’t expect that it will be done.  In this case it was a minimal inconvenience.  

A couple of years ago when we went top our poultry lady in the market to get the Thanksgiving turkey that had been ordered weeks ahead and that we were assured would be supplied….well you know the rest, and what is wrong with Thanksgiving duck anyway?

This trip I brought back a few basic tools, as I always do, which makes life a little easier.









However these simple luxuries are as nothing compared to our new toy...

Yes. a second fridge, which acts as the summer substitute for our winter fridge (that being, outside on the kitchen balcony). Our existing fridge was packed to the gunnels so this will make life a lot easier and I can start stock piling frozen meals for Sandra to eat when I am away.



Friday, February 21, 2014

BACK FOR WINTER

I arrived back in Atyrau four weeks ago today.  It was a long journey, almost 36 hours door to door with about 24 of those on planes, but I arrived in the flight in from Astana at 6.15 Friday morning, just in time to see Sandra off to work and get on with a day’s shopping and cooking. In fact I had to get prepared for 

Saturday night as we had planned to have a surprise birthday party for Jon, who was going to be 60 years old.  His good wife had schemed with us and he thought he was coming over for a quiet dinner.  In fact we had a crowd of nearly 30 people hiding round the corner from the front door, to surprise him when he came in.  It worked! And he managed to take it well within his stride. 


I had been up at 3am after 4 hours sleep (that’s jet lag for you!) and cooked all day until 7pm, with just an hour for lunch.  We only had easy-to-eat finger food, but it is a fiddly task making little pies, little quiches, little pizzas, little samosas etc for that many people.  It was a lot of fun, i enjoyed it.




Then we had a week of very mixed weather.  

There are two short seasons in Atyrau, Autumn and Spring.  They are the brief and sudden transitional seasons between cold winters and hot summers.  Freezing winters and baking summers are fine, with little precipitation (this is a desert) I find the dry cold and heat very much better than winter damp and summer monsoons of other countries.  But the in-betweeny-bits are often a bit wet and very muddy.  They don’t last long but we had a brief taster that week…and then the temperatures dropped down to almost -50C with wind chill, or so they said.  It was pretty cold, my tough Canadian neighbor thought it too cold to come out walking, and I admit that I needed to wear my fur hat with the flaps down…a sartorial no-no in my book, but one which expedience overcame. 

Between the shopping and the cooking, walking and eating, I did make daily trips to meet Sandra for lunch.  We have rather changed our routine.  I think that maybe after a few years of business lunches the novelty might be wearing off.  As exciting as it sometimes is to see what appears and how it compares to the menu description, there comes a time when some predictability is a relief.  So I have been taking food in to the office and Sandra and I usually eat there, often begging colleagues to help us finish what we cannot eat.  I have started making use of the thermos flask to take in soups and sauces  (so far…pumpkin, leek and potato, spicy lentil and mushroom soups, bolognaise and chili, lamb stew and beef curry); this has been most valuable since the second microwave was purloined by the caterers and the rush hour queues make using the microwave for five minutes

We have been going out about once a week, but our dining satisfaction is not improving with that.  Last Friday I made the mistake of suggesting we go out to eat lunch (last day of the week, getting lazy and Valentine’s day too). We went to Winter Garden, one of our regular lunch spots that is not frequented by expats at lunchtime.  I broke my golden rule of not ordering European food in a Kazakh restaurant!  Well, it was pizza which is hardly European in Atyrau since it is as ubiquitous as pasta thanks to Atyrau’s long Italian heritage.  And the picture in the menu looked like a pizza that I had eaten before (Sandra pointed out that it was the same picture in many restaurant menus!).  


Anyway, in short it was a reasonable pizza except for some of the topping.  The fresh chopped tomato on the topping was fine, and the peppers were fine except I don’t like them on my pizzas, which meant the cheese and the salami were below par.  In fact to be blunt the salami wasn’t salami but thick slices of some kind of Kazakh frankfurter sausage thing, and the cheese was not cheese but some sort or processed chees stuff a bit like Cheez Wiz, the squirty cheesy stuff that only specially trained North Americans can eat.  I ate the edge and.  This is a picture of the pizza (after I had finished with it…ie missing a bite and an edge).

The next weekend was Sandra’s birthday party.  She graciously decided to have a smaller party of female friends and, if available, spouses.  This meant the cooking was more manageable, and as she chose to have Indian food I was able to cook a curry a day through the week and keep them in the fridge.  Many curries improve over a couple of days in the fridge so this made life very easy.  On the Saturday of the party all I had to do was make chapattis, papadums and a last minute quickly cooked cabbage dish. 



By my second week I was starting to sleep past 4am and recover from the jet lag.  This meant that it was time to experiment with my new toy…  Sandra had bought me a meat grinder from the Netherlands (220V).  Of course you can buy grinders here, there are many, many to choose from in shops like Technodom.  The trouble is knowing or finding out which ones are any good.  By getting a model that was reviewed on the internet I new what it would deliver.  If this sounds to you like a paranoid expat writing (and I probably am) last week I bought a blender at a local store and can only conclude QED!


So having come to Atyrau this time with a supply of hog gut I was ready to make sausages.  We have missed having English Bangers with our occasional weekend breakfasts, toad-in-the-hole for supper and a good sausage and mustard sandwich, but I intended to rectify this. 


I visited our “pork lady” in Rahat, locals will know the specially segregated “pork-room” at the back where we can find some things porky like very smoky ham,  Kazakh “salami” and pork loins and chops.  She was rather perplexed that I was looking for pieces with a good percentage of fat on them as the local think that Americans (and we can put the British in the same pot) have an irrational fear of fat in all shapes and forms.  I found something suitable and went home and made sausages.  They were not too bad!  

I also experimented with some chicken, apple and onion sausages which I produced in a cumberland style and will cook as a dish for four people if I can find two guinea pigs willing to join us.

Less successful were my attempt at beef sausages. As the beef is all so lean and I cannot buy pork fat alone I decided to make Frankfurter style sausages which use lean meat.  The problem was producing a smooth enough meat puree that wasnt too liquidy.  This is where my new blender failed me, and I don't have a food processor.  The mix was too wet and resulted in a sausage that was not firm enough.  I do not have sheep guts with me so I tried to use hog guts but not tightly stuffed to make some thinner sausages and this further compounded the texture problem. The sausages were poached after cooking and then cooled in the freezer (it may look like a balcony to you but at -20C it is a freezer to me!).


But at the end of the day it was all about breakfast...

And something else that I didn't really realised I had missed having until I started to think about it,  pork sausage rolls fresh from the oven...

The third weekend back was the social event of the year, Burn's Night.  This is my third blog about Burn's Night so I will not repeat myself.  In fact my comments about previous Burn's Nights could just be repeated.  Except this time we had a table right next to the doorway to the kitchen (always the best seats!) and so I could actually see what was coming back from the tables. And I can confirm that my observations about the food are corroborated by the evidence of uneaten meals on the plates.  I would estimate that from our table less than 25% of the main course was eaten.  The beef Wellington was again inedible, The beef was so overcooked I couldn't even cut it, and the use of liver instead of a good duxelle or a pate/duxelle mix is far too strong.  It is such a shame to see good food wasted because of overly ambitious cooking.  This is not a recipe for mass catering, but I the Renaissance cooks wont learn.  They probably think the food comes back because people have had sufficient, but the desserts get eaten! But to end on a positive note, once again the haggis was the highlight of the meal, even if the tatties and neeps were actually tatties and something else!  Could it have been sweet potatoes, or were carrots mixed with something, perhaps it was swede...but lovely haggis!  We do enjoy Burn's Nights but it is important to remember that it is all done, with generous donations from the business communities too, for local charity.

Last weekend was the start of Spring!  That is not an official start, but a start signalled by the weather.  The temperature crept to around zero and snow started to disappear.  On Sunday we went for a walk with our friend, Phil, to have lunch at Venezia and introduce him to Rahat.  We walked across the river and discovered a new phenomenon.  

This year the river ice has some fairly significant cracks in it.  They have refrozen so there is no danger.  I have been told that this is because the water level beneath the ice increased due to the winds across the Caspian forcing water upstream and so causing cracking and subsequent falling and cracking of the ice on the river.  Whatever happened there are cracks and water is now seeping on top of the ice at the edges of the river by the banks.  In the cold period this water just froze, but last weekend it was only frozen on its surface.  So when we got to the edge of the river we suddenly felt the ice cracking beneath our feet and we went through into the water and onto the thick layer of ice underneath.  It was rather disconcerting as we didnt realise what was happening.  Today I noticed fishermen walking through ice and water at the river edge to get to the middle to begin fishing.  The view from the bridge shows the difference in the ice down the edge.