Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Awww!

I am not really one for cutesy things. Although my blog is pink I'm not really a fluffy person. I'm usually a bit too dishevelled to carry off anything twee. However I will make an exception for the following.

There is a luscious flower shop called Honeysuckle which I pass on the way to and from work. It is always fronted by an abundance of extravagant bouquets, artfully put together, which cheers me every time I pass. It never just has buckets of tired daffodils or crysanths on show. If it does have bouquets of single flowers, it's always things like  giant sunflowers, blowsy peony blooms or lilac hydrangea flowers.   It's the sort of florist you wish your husband would buy you flowers from (hint hint!).

Last week I was trudging to work and enjoying the sight and scent of the floral display as usual. On this occasion, there was a little something extra to enjoy.


If there's one thing I enjoy looking at more than flowers, it's cute dogs. And this one is very cute.


She (surely a she!) is the definitive poodle. Dainty, pretty and perfectly accessorized in pink. She must be called Princess or Precious or something. You can just get a glimpse of her pink and diamante collar. Do you think you can have her delivered by Interflora?



I can vouch for the fact that she enjoys being stroked and petted. Ahem. Sad sight of middle aged woman fussing dog outside flower shop, then taking photos of it. Oh dear. Next thing you know, I'll be buying calendars with pictures of kittens in baskets.

UPDATE: Thanks to a nice e-mail from Honeysuckle, I now know the dog is called Tiara. Perfect.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The sea, the sea

I'm not really a sea person. I don't dislike the coast but I'm not one of these people who seeks it out or needs periods gazing out across the waves for the good of my soul. I quite like being landlocked. I like lakes and rivers and dales and hills. I like trees and dry stone walls and hedgerows. I like the scope for travel and exploration that the land offers. When we lived in East Yorkshire, near Hull, on the East coast,  I felt stuck out on the edge of things and I didn't like it at all. The sea feels like a barrier for me, a dead end. I've never sailed, and suffer from seasickness, so maybe it's just that I don't feel as if I can get about easily on the sea. On land, I know I can walk, or drive to get where I want to go. C says I always need an escape route, psychological and geographical. Maybe he's right.

C loves the sea of course. Another thing we are at odds about! C's brother used to live in the Outer Hebrides and C just loves it there. I know, would love to spend the rest of his days digging peat in the drizzle on an isolated croft on North Uist.  On the odd occasion we've gone there together, I've felt really trapped, stuck on an island that you could drive around in a day. C feels the exact opposite. For him the sea is a liberating expanse of space. Oh well, they do say opposites attract.

Odd then that our recent jaunt to the seaside was instigated by me. I felt an unfamiliar desire to escape to the sea. I'd had in mind something quite wild and isolated (also unlike me) but in the end, the restrictions of time meant that we only got as far as Stonehaven, not exactly off the beaten track (in Scottish terms at least). Stonehaven is about 15 miles south of Aberdeen. It's been a fishing village since the iron age into the late 19th century. Presumably it benefited from the arrival of the railway in the 19th century, developing as a seaside resort. It's not exactly Blackpool, but it does have an outdoor heated seawater swimming pool, which the town is very proud of. It also boasts an amusement arcade and a Pitch and Putt course - surely the core requirements for a British seaside resort. Unfortunately, the sea front by the beach is a bit uninspiring, with fairly ordinary modern housing all along it. However, it does have a beautiful old harbour ringed by sturdy, 18th century stone buildings, which are now being done up. The presence of seafood restaurants is a sure sign that gentrification is well underway.


Stonehaven Harbour, at dawn (yes, really!)

Stonehaven Harbour, still at dawn.
The reflection of the buildings and boats in the shallow water shows how sheltered it is.
We stayed at one of the two pub hotels along the waterfront. I am not going to recommend it. The one good thing I could say about our room was that the fixtures and fittings were good quality and new, the hotel having been recently refurbished. However, the room was at the back of the hotel and to access it you had to go through hotel laundry room/chamber maid store, stepping round the cleaning equipment. Rather than being woken at dawn by the soothing splash of the waves, we awoke to the thrum of the washing machine. The room was so small that we had to take it in turns to edge around the bed sideways to get about. And for this we paid £85. Maybe I'm just out of touch, but that seemed a bit steep. We were in Stonehaven for goodness sake! I really think accommodation in the UK is ridiculously expensive and bad value.

Anyway, before I get stuck in ranting mode, let me tell you about the highlights in Stonehaven, apart from the beautiful harbour. We had a fantastic meal at the Marine Inn on the harbourfront. Great atmosphere as well, with quirky driftwood and fishing industry inspired art on the walls, a big open fire ready for the winter and unusual fruit beers on tap. Should have stayed there!

A short, invigorating cliff top walk South brings you to Dunnottar Castle. Surely one of the most impressively situated castles in Scotland (apart from Eilean Donan). The castle is quite ruined, but not to the extent that you can't get a sense of the scale and grandeur of the place.

Dunottar Castle
by Jjhake on http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DUNNOTTAR_CASTLE_Large.JPG
The castle has played a significant role in Scottish history because of the strategic value of its location in allowing control of access north/south by sea and land. The site itself has been settled since Pictish times, in the early centuries AD, although no-one knows exactly when. The first Scottish King, Domnal II died there in 900 AD. The present castle was once the seat of a powerful family, the Earls Marischal of Scotland, until an awkward episode of treason as part of the Jacobite rising of 1715 meant the castle was confiscated by the crown. In 1651, the Scottish crown jewels were taken there for safe-keeping and defended against Cromwell's army.  In the 13th century, whilst occupied by an English batallion, it was beseiged and taken by William Wallace. It's most famous for the story of the 170 Covenanters, men and women, imprisoned in a dungeon in the half ruined castle for 2 months in 1685. Few survived the brutal conditions, and those that did, were deported as slave labour to the West Indies. All of which reminds me how ignorant I am about Scottish history, and how useful Wikipedia is! Of course Mary Queen of Scots stayed there as well - inevitably. That woman really got around. There isn't a historic house in Scotland that doesn't boast  a bedroom where Mary Queen of Scots reputedly bunked up.
Walk across the cliff tops
from Stonehaven to Dunnottar Castle


First view of Dunnottar Castle
Scottish thistles!


But it wasn't all brisk walks and historic sites. There was time for hedonism as well. More soon ...!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Displacement activities

There are times when I am faced with the undeniable truth that that I have my priorities all wrong. A quick survey of my current circumstances reveals panic-inducing numbers of tasks and chores that urgently need my attention. Inevitably, there’s the vast quantity of regular household chores being ignored. There's the ironing. There’s always the ironing. At the moment, I’m relying on the ‘iron-on-demand’ system. Similar to the ‘just-in-time’ production management approach developed by Japanese car manufacturers in the 1980s this means that a) I struggle to find something to wear to work without hurtling around the house first thing in the morning looking for the ironing board or b) I’m wearing the same forgiving crease-free trousers all the time.

There’s the oven, which is so filthy at the moment that I could incubate funghi in the bottom of it. We have visitors arriving at the weekend and as I can’t assume everyone has the same lax attitudes to housework as I do, I really need to clean the oven. I think back longingly to the decrepit, solid fuel Rayburn we had in Cumbria.  On the outside, it was always covered by a particularly noxious mix of coal dust and grease, because it was old and the flue was a little loose, allowing clouds of soot to escape towards the cooking plate. But Rayburn ovens never need cleaning. You just let the dirt in the oven carbonise in the constant heat and brush out a few innocuous piles of black charcoal flakes now and then. There’s also inevitably a certain amount of remedial dusting, hoovering and bathroom cleaning to be addressed before the arrival of visitors. Plus, relaxing in the sitting room yesterday I idly glanced across to the window and was reminded that the curtains we hung ‘temporarily’ 6 months ago, still have a foot of lining dangling beneath them. It’s chastening just how blind you can be to the half-finished, messed-up things lurking in your home. It’s only with the prospect of visitors that you start seeing everything that needs to be done just to maintain the pretence of being civilised people.

On top of this, we are still in the thick of the agonisingly slow and painstaking process of sifting through boxes of belongings in an attempt, finally, to match the amount of stuff we have to the amount of space available in our flat. This process seems to have been going on for years and consists mainly of taking bubble-wrapped objects out of boxes, unwrapping them, saying ‘oh, I’d forgotten all about that’, then wrapping them up again and putting them into a different box. Although I know we have disposed of lots of stuff, I can’t see any evidence of this in the number of crates and boxes stacked up around the flat. Many of these boxes are in our guest room, so there’s some sense of urgency. At present, I actually have a heavy-duty lawnmower in my study, waiting for us to put it on Ebay. Unfortunately, before we do that, we have to take it down 3 flights of stairs to the communal back garden to make sure it still works, as it sat in a storage unit for 2 years. But in order to check that it works, we need some petrol, which means remembering to go out to a garage with an empty petrol can. You can imagine. The damn thing has been sitting there for 3 months. We were supposed to be selling it at the beginning of the summer, when most people think about buying lawnmowers. Sometimes when I can’t stand having it in my study any longer, it gets trundled out into the hall for a few hours for a change of scene then trundled back into my study again. It’s starting to feel like a silent, mechanical pet.

Who needs a puppy when you have a lawnmower!

On top of household demands, there are the inevitable half-finished craft projects sitting around mewling for my attention like neglected, half-starved children. The length of fabric bought about four months ago to create some curtains to hide some shelves in the kitchen, bought to tide us over until we got the kitchen ‘done’properly. I have a pair of navy linen trousers I ‘ran up’ for my holidays, but didn’t get finished in time. To be wearable, they need hemming and pressing. By the time they’re finished a) it will be winter and too cold or b) it will be next summer and I will probably have put on more weight and won’t be able to get into them.

So as you can see, there are plenty of important things I could be doing. And what do I spend my time doing? I made my own baguettes.

I can come up with no reasonable justification for this absurd use of my time. I supposed I was trying to recreate the relaxed feeling of being on holiday in France earlier in the summer. There has been a disappointing contrast between the baguettes we ate on holiday - crusty, soft but chewy crumb, tangy yeast taste - and the baguettes we’ve bought since then - fluffy, tasteless cotton wool. I suspect the main reason I decided I just had to bake my own baguettes was as a displacement activity, so I could avoid the scary list of stuff I am supposed to be getting on with.


On a positive note, I must say the baguettes were amazing! Better than anything we’ve bought in the UK. Crusty, with a soft firm crumb, and full of flavour. They weren’t difficult to make. The significant factor is that you make a ‘poolish’ – a porridgy mash of water, yeast and flour, and leave that to sit overnight. I had a rather romantic idea that I would get up promptly and have fresh baguettes ready for breakfast time. However I misread the recipe slightly. I hadn't noticed that after the instruction: ‘let the dough rise for 30 minutes and then knock back the dough to 2/3 its risen size’ it stated: ‘repeat 3 more times’. Oh well. We had them for lunch instead. I followed the recipe exactly (amazingly for me!) but I did use a 50:50 mix of strong and plain white flour. I’d read somewhere on the internet that this was a good approximation of French bread flour. Anyway, the results were great and I was left with 2 baguettes to stash in the freezer.

Definitely a 'ta da!' moment

As an absurd way of spending my time, the ‘making my own baguettes’ episode ranks alongside this summer’s violet macarons debacle. This was my attempt at a show-stopping contribution to a chakra themed lunch - don’t ask – it was a Wild Women weekend in a yurt. I had been allocated the violet chakra. 7 hours in the kitchen, during a plumbing disaster which meant in order to empty the kitchen sink, I had to put a bucket under the u-bend and throw the contents down the loo. It took 2 attempts to make the macarons. The first batch of unmanageably friable, puny, flat discs were chucked in the bin. Out of the second batch I managed to salvage enough to cobble together a dozen sad little crumbly macarons of varying sizes. Never again and definitely not worthy of a photo. The sort of thing your 8 year old might bring home from school cookery classes.

Last week, I found myself making my own vanilla essence! Admittedly, this doesn't take a lot of effort: vodka, vanilla essence, vanilla beans, glass jar, shake then leave for 6 weeks. But nevertheless. Do I really have the time to make my own vanilla essence? Is that really a priority? However, if you are similarly at a loose end, by which I mean, so overwhelmed with things you should be doing that you need a displacement activity, the instructions are on Traveller's Lunchbox  here.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Oeuf nue a cheval

In France, a fried egg on top of things like hamburgers or pizzas is rather charmingly called 'oeuf a cheval' - egg on horseback. At one cafe, we came across what might be called an 'oeuf nue a cheval' -  a naked egg on horseback. A Godiva egg? Also known, as poor C was to discover, as a recipe for salmonella poisoning.


It was Pasta Carbonara. The idea being that you mixed the raw egg in with the hot pasta yourself to create a really fresh pasta sauce. Nice idea, except that it became clear from poor C's very violent reaction later that afternoon, that the pasta couldn't have been that hot and he'd basically eaten raw egg. Yuk. I'd stuck with yet more duck, and was fine!

Friday, 6 August 2010

Food with a view

View from Maisonneuve, Lalinde.
 We had blissful fortnight at the beginning of July, staying in Lalinde, a little 'bastide' town on the Dordogne, near Bergerac.

Inevitably, on a holiday in France, food is big feature. We ate fairly plain fare for most of the holiday. Plain but delicious. The Dordogne is a region of many medieval villages. Each of these small villages has at least one, if not two markets every week, rich with local produce. My idea of holiday heaven is a good market, and I have the holiday snaps to prove it! Just how many photos of nicely arranged vegetables does one woman need?

Purple Cauliflowers: Villefranche de Perigord market
So most of the time we bought food from markets in the area and spent most of the holiday eating home cooked (or rather home assembled!) meals in the beautiful garden of our holiday home. Baguettes, pain de campagne, cheese and tomatoes and fruit. This most simple of meals was transformed into something quite exquisite, simply because French produce is just so good. Washed down with plenty of local rose wine of course!

Market day: Lalinde
We also discovered the fantastic 'marches nocturnes' in the area. Literally 'night markets', where you can  buy freshly cooked food from stalls  - freshly barbecued steaks, moules frites, crepes, salads, goats cheeses - and of course wine - and sit at trestle tables in the centre of the market square alongside locals and other tourists, eating, drinking, chatting in broken French and generally feeling pretty damn good about life. 


Marche nocturne: Paunat
The most memorable meal we had on holiday was an accident. A very happy accident. We'd turned up at the pretty, historic village of Tremolat, hoping for a 'marche nocturne' but we'd got the dates mixed up; the place was deserted. We asked the staff at the tourist information office to recommend a local restaurant: we were directed to the nearby 'Ferme Auberge du Belvedere'. These 'farm restaurants' are apparently a feature of rural france. Simple restaurants which open during the summer and serve food based on produce from the farm.

This one offered 4 set menus: €15 / €19 / €23 / €27. In some kind of joint madness, we went for the €19 menu, according to the well worn 'how to choose the wine' rule, i.e. second cheapest on the menu. Somehow in this decision making process, we lost sight of the fact that this meant 7 courses. 7 courses!

Ferme Auberge du Belvedere
The first thing that happened was that a 2 litre bottle of red wine was plonked onto the table. No label. Presumably just filled from the barrel. This was included in the set menu. I was still cursing the fact that it was my turn to drive when a jug of ‘kir’ was presented to us. Would we like an aperitif? Well why not?

The first course was soup. This arrived at the table in a large tureen. The tureen was left with us, so we could help ourselves. This alone would have done about 8 people for lunch, rather than serving as a starter for 4. We drew on our scarce resources of self-discipline and were very sparing with our portions, knowing the culinary mountain still to climb. Then we had the 'starter'. Apparently the soup wasn't the starter. The starter was Foie Gras de Canard - i.e. duck fois gras.  This area of France is very big on foie gras – goose and duck. It's not something I have ever eaten, nor wanted to eat, because of the cruelty involved in its production. However, as this was a set menu: when in Rome. Not eating foie gras could hardly be described as a big sacrifice to date on my part, because I've never really fancied it. I imagined it would be a bit fatty and too rich. Oh. My. God. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, even with its garnish of animal welfare guilt. I am trying to forget this experience, so I'm not tempted to eat it in future.

Then came the ‘hot starter’. Apparently, we needed soup then a cold starter, then a hot starter. The hot starter was 'Cous de canard farcis': the less than appealing sounding 'stuffed duck neck'. This wasn’t as grim as you might imagine. It's a kind of duck meat terrine, but stuffed into the skin of a duck's neck, as if it were a sausage casing (which I didn’t eat!). We were slowing down a bit by now, having eating about a full day's worth of food already in this meal. My dining companions were able to wash everything down with the vat of red wine we'd been given. I was limited to my single glass of wine, eked out by glasses of water. You will have also noticed a food theme emerging. It will come as no suprise that the main course was, you've guessed it, duck. I don't know if you've ever eaten 'confit de canard'. It's basically duck legs preserved in copious quantitutes of ...duck fat, then roasted, presumably with some additional duck fat. Doesn't sound great does it? And probably slightly hard on the arteries.  It was, inevitably, delicious. Served with garlicky fried potatoes. Presumably fried in ... duck fat. Also, I'm almost ashamed to say, delicious.

Then came the salad - the first green veg of the meal. Even my salad hating husband was driven to munch on some lettuce as an antidote to the duck meat/duck fat overload. At this point, knowing we still had cheese and dessert to come and fearing hospitalisation, we suggested to the lovely, friendly waitress - the "farmer's wife" - that we might just have a small portion of cheese, simply to taste it. She looked heartbroken. Didn't we want cheese? It was all made on the farm. I swear her bottom lip quivered.  What could we do? The cheese was fabulous.

And finally came the pudding – warm apricot sponge cake. When faced with this generous slice of cake,  I felt like lying down on the floor and whimpering defeat. I only tasted it out of politeness (after the episode with the cheese).  It says a lot for the quality of the food after taking one mouthful, we were all wolfing it down. The combination of fragrant, perfectly ripe fruit with vanilla scented sponge was exquisite. Almost perfumed.

Then we were on the home straight – coffee. But were weren't quite finished. When we tried to pay, we were told that we couldn’t leave until we’d had our ‘digestif’. The farmer/chef emerged from the kitchen to serve us a glass of his home-made prune eau de vie! He looked as if he'd enjoyed a few glasses himself, but it hadn't affected his culinary skills. It is only after a meal of such gargantuan proportions and richness that you finally understand the purpose of 'digestifs'. They may taste like parafin and have the alcoholic kick of moonshine, but they clear the head and the gut like nothing else. 

This then, was our version of La Grande Bouffe. In the telling it probably just sounds like nausea inducing quantities of rich food. But that's because you aren't tasting it. Everything was intensely delicious. I wouldn’t want to eat like this every week, or every month – but it was a magical experience. 

The icing on the cake – or the apricot sponge – was that the farm was situated high up on a hill, overlooking a sharp bend in the river Dordogne and the broad flood plain enclosed. The clue is in the name - Belvedere. You could see for miles – and half way through the evening, as night fell, the most amazing electrical storm played out infront of us, across the whole breadth of the valley.  I've never seen lightening like it. If it had been on a film, you'd have assumed it was CGI overkill.

What an evening. I don't know why it felt so special. The food certainly. The setting was stupendous. The light show, courtesy of mother nature. Mostly it was because we only discovered the place by chance. We speculated that if we went back the following night, there would be no trace of the place, and it was a kind of restaurant Brigadoon. But it's not. Here's the website. If you are ever in the area, I would recommend it 100%. But fast for the previous day. Or go for the €15 menu.
View of the Dordogne, near Tremolat, from the Ferme Auberge du Belvedere.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The blessings of the blog

Sunflowers - Dordogne, June 2010

Well, this was nearly a very 'half-finished' blog. Or rather, a 'finished' blog (an ex-blog as John Cleese might say).

I wish I could say that some great crisis or excitement has prevented me from posting. Alas no. I didn't break both arms in a fluke shopping accident. I haven't been away for four months sailing across the Atlantic single handed. I just got out of the habit of blogging. Then, I'd stopped for so long, I didn't know how to start again. The longer I left it, the more the blog took on the guilt-inducing characteristic of a postponed chore, rather than a creative activity. It was in danger of becoming one more half-finished project in my life, the shortcut on my laptop desktop a constant reminder of yet another example of my fecklessness/ laziness/ lack of self-discipline/ lack of staying power etc. It joined the long list of activities taken on over the years and then abandoned through inertia and procrastination, the knowlege of which gradually chips away at the self-esteem: the oft started but never completed Italian evening classes; the neglected gym memberships;  the 'vintage' garden chairs awaiting renovation; the yoghurt maker; the loom (I'll tell you about the loom one day!); the handweights, now lugged on 3 house moves, in pristine condition. Ho hum.

But I've missed the blog. I've missed it because of what it brought into my life. Looking back at my first post I remember that I started blogging in order to 'taste the strawberries' - notice and appreciate the good things in my life. That's what I've missed. There's no doubt that we see what we are in the habit of noticing. The desire to write a blog fuelled a habit of looking out for good things to share, to photograph, to describe. Without the motivation of the blog, I think I've been noticing and appreciating the good things a little less.

In his book Authentic Happiness,  Martin Seligman reports on research done to measure the positive impact on depressed people of a simple exercise in noticing the good things. Participants in this research were asked to write down 'three blessings' every night before they went to sleep. These 'blessings' were simply required to be good things about their day. Not achievements, not major events, just good things - seeing some pretty flowers, watching a good film, having a chat with a close friend, completing a suduko puzzle, seeing a rainbow, getting kissed - whatever they had enjoyed about their day. They were to do this for a month. At the end of the month, the levels of 'depression' were measured and found to be decreased in all participants.This in itself is interesting, but what is really significant is that 6 months after the exercise, even though those involved were  not asked to continue with the blessings, levels of depression were still lowered.  (If I were a proper academic, I would have the actual statistics to hand, but I'm not. However you can read more in this report here and Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness website).


Maybe this blog is my 'blessing' exercise? In any case, I'm having another go at this blogging lark.

So what are your three blessings today?