Saturday, 21 September 2013

Paradise Found

I know I have been absent from my blog for a while now, however I recently had an experience that has galvanised me back to the keyboard! What, I hear you ask, has brought this about? Well, get the cuppa sorted, sit back and get ready to be immersed in a tale of discovery, friendship, adventure and overwhelming love, all happening with the backdrop of one of the most beautiful islands I have ever visited!

My brother-in-law had the good sense to propose to a Greek girl. I say good sense because it meant the chances were very high that they would be married in Greece, and who has ever heard of a day trip to Greece? Excellent, that was this year's holiday sorted! Far more importantly, the jolly good sense because his bride to be couldn't be more fairy tale if the Brothers Grimm had written the wedding vows themselves! The stage was set for recreating that most classic of all fairy tales, and my personal favourite, The Princess Bride. Inconceivable, I hear you scream, but wait and by the end of my tale you will understand. 

As with all weddings, the run up was fraught, not least because of the venue. The island of Patmos in the Dodeconese was, until a few weeks ago, a small pink splodge to the right of mainland Greece in my atlas. It was somewhere that was going to take a plane, an overnight stay and a ferry trip to get to. Not the most convenient place to go to for a wedding but sometimes these things need to be done and there was certainly some fun being planned, not to mention a wedding, so I knew it would be worth it. Today however, to me, Patmos is Nirvana, a magical place where one can imagine a marble fountain gently spewing forth the elixir of youth. Surely odes have been written about the place, the beauty of the mountains, the serenity of the beaches, the clarity of the water, the personality of the people? When they first got engaged David and Josephine told us all how idyllic Patmos is and, to their credit, that's where they left it. I like to think that they both knew that to oversell the place would be to take something away. Some experiences in life need to be journeys into the unknown, the mysteries and surprises need to be unravelled and experienced in person and in place, not on a chintz sofa thousands of miles away, with expectations hitting the stratosphere.
Only half of any experience is the place, the other half is the people who inhabit said place, and the Patmian people complement their surroundings in the same way that day compliments night. One just cannot exist without the other. One thing that our old Colonial ways have left behind is the worldwide exceptence of the English language. Mind you, as was proved by my five year old son and his new Greek BFF Koko, you don't need to speak the same language to communicate and never is this truer than in Greece. The locals on Patmos open their island, homes and hearts every season to the influx of tourists and even at the end of August, as things are winding down, the smiles were still in place, as genuine and inviting as any I've ever encountered. Everyone on the island seemed to know English on some level, always enough to greet us warmly, ask after our health with true interest and tell us how much the bar bill was! Others were able to converse for hours on end, telling us of the family they have in England, the joy we would experience on Patmos and how the island was experiencing the best weather ever for the time of year. Genuinely some of the nicest people I have ever met, nothing was too much trouble and their personalities shone through.

The seven days that we had, as with as only the very best holidays, seemed to go in a whirlwind, a mix of exploring, swimming, family time and a healthy dose of grown up revelry which included superb food and unmeasured measures of spirit! The local tavernas excel in simply prepared, locally sourced fare that actually tasted as it was meant to. I have found the world over that these establishments concentrate all their energy on providing a great time in a great atmosphere, they leave the pretensions and stuffiness to the glossy mags and five star hotels. No better an example of this was George's Place on Kambos Beach where we spent a great deal of time and where the reception after the wedding took place. George is a wonderful character who seemed to know everyone and everything (although he would no doubt deny all of it if the wrong person asked!). He sat on his bar stool, cigarette habitually hanging from the corner of his mouth, a smile never too far away, and directed his fiefdom with military precision. There was a permanent buzz about the place, the smell of freshly cooked food lingering like a blanket of morning mist, wafting over the beach beds, enticing people to sample the delights to be found inside. This is the quintessential beach bar, inhabited with all the characters that you would expect to find, the aging rocker, as brown as mahogany, festooned with beads and shark's teeth, the once bright but now faded bandana keeping the long hair out of his ouzo; the stressed city types, unwinding and re-learning the art of relaxation and yet still unable to resist the allure of the iPhone; the young gap-year types, thigh muscles formed on the rugby pitch only just being contained in the Vilbrequin shorts, unsubtly eyeing up the pretty, bronzed goddesses that are always present wherever there is sun and sand, wearing not much more than dental floss and an alluring smile; the excitable and high pitched tones of children, let loose on the beach on their own out of their parents desire to have some "us time". There was something for everyone and everyone was enjoying it! 

The day of the wedding dawned, bathed in the ever present sunshine of the island and the last minute rush began to ensure flowers were ready, clothes were pressed from the flight, speeches written (or at least started!), people knew where they had to be and when, the rings were present, the groom was groomed, and jolly smart he looked too, and this was just his list! The bride's day was no doubt equally frantic but when she walked into the square in Hora, on the arm of the proudest of all proud Fathers, she looked as though her biggest concern of the day had been what to have for lunch. She was the very picture of calm radiance, dressed in the most heavenly and stunning dress and shoes, as she made her way over the cobbles to the groom, best man, master of ceremonies and her future. The bridesmaids and pageboys were impeccable throughout, keeping quiet at the right moments and providing just the right amount of amusement during the photos! What followed was the most special service, full of laughs, emotion, family, friends and two huge bursts of song, with only a very few duff notes sung by the enthusiastic congregation! After the happy couple drove off in a vintage Willis Jeep to huge applause and a shower of rice and confetti, we made our way to the reception as the sun was just dipping below the horizon. The mood had been set and everyone was ready for a night of locally inspired entertainment and frivolity. No one was disappointed!

A long double row of candles lit the boardwalk to George's Place along the beach where the most amazing spread awaited us, but first were the speeches. They were all fantastic, saying all the right things in all the right places, however the stand out one for me was the one I couldn't understand! The Father of the Bride stood tall and proud and, facing Josephine, spoke just a few sentences in Greek and despite the fact that the majority of the room couldn't speak a word of Greek, the emotion and love in those words were clear for all and barely a dry eye was to be found. Things really got going when the dancing started and we all joined arms and circled around the dance floor to Zorba the Greek and other great classics. Seeing grown men slapping the floor and keeping an Ouzo delicately balanced on their heads got everyone cheering and chatting and when the Groom tried his hand at it, the roof was raised! The dancing never stopped and seeing my 8 year old daughter bopping away with the bride at 4.00am caused mixed emotions, pride that she was still going after such a long night and utter fear that if she was still going this late aged eight, what will she be like aged eighteen!?

After finally getting home at about 5.00am, excitement levels were still through the roof and both children, who had been up and involved all night, were chattering away, getting into pyjamas, doing teeth and denying fatigue until, in perfect unison, their heads hit the pillows and they fell asleep mid-sentence. Sleep was elusive as Tors and I went over ever detail of the day again. All we knew as the lights went out and the sun came up, was that it was going to take some doing to surpass that night.

Sunday, when it eventually started, was spent in a haze on the beach, reliving the day before, debating as to just which particular moment was the best but agreeing that the sum of all the parts made for the most incredible memory. As the day went on, more and more people ventured into the sunlight, shades on and, rather surprisingly, a good number with pina coladas! The was a very real danger that the party was going to get going again and, as the heat of the day began to ease and the children began to flag, we left before the allure of happy hour could gain the advantage over us. We headed back to the hotel to get a good night's sleep before venturing on a boat trip for our last day en masse, desperate as we all were to keep the fantastic atmosphere going, living in total denial that somewhere out there, in the vast blueness, was reality and it was beginning to beckon!

There is nothing better that a good boat trip, and Monday definitely fitted into that category. A dedicated group of 50 or so met at a cafĂ© on the waterfront and, armed with lotion, goggles and a sense of adventure, headed out to sea to unknown destinations. We headed for the furthest point first, a few of the company turning delicate shades of green as the wind got up and, after an hour or so, reached Aspronisi or The White Island. The waters were absolutely crystal clear and the rocks gleamed in the sunlight. Yet again the Master of Ceremonies, Yanni, was on hand to explain about the island (I understand a "Yanni for Mayor" campaign is imminent!). It is now a heritage site and as such the stone is protected as it used to be harvested to build beautiful houses on nearby islands. We were, he informed us in a tone not to be ignored, not take any stones with us, however we could partake in a local custom. The stone, being soft, had turned to dust in many areas and tradition dictates that once you have swum across, you cover yourself in the dust, leave it on for fifteen minutes and as you swim back to the boat, the dust washes off, leaving you feeling refreshed, revitalised and re-energised. Where was this stuff on Sunday morning!

Our next stop was Makronisi, not one for the faint hearted as we were there to jump off a perfectly safe cliff, a cliff that you could only access by swimming through an underwater tunnel into a stunning lagoon and then a quick walk to the top. I decided not to spend too long looking over the abyss and just went for it and managed a leap that I hope didn't resemble a sack of spuds being thrown from the back of a lorry! Most just jumped, however there one or two who decided that a dive would be the correct form and showed everyone else how it should be done.

By this time, the day was getting on and we set course for Marathi and lunch. Copious starters were ordered, tucked into and polished off before the main course arrived, two rather large fish that were taken around the tables before being set upon and devoured. There was plenty to go around, but to the horror of a few, the Greeks in the party set about tearing into the heads and were sucking flesh off cheeks and ably dissecting them to make the most of what the fish had to offer! Sitting as we were under the trees on two long tables, conversation flowing as readily as the wine, the atmosphere was building to the inevitable. The unmistakable sounds of a bouzouki flowed from the speakers and the Greek dancing began. Inhibitions had been well and truly discarded now that all knew each other and we all tried our hand at it. What we all lacked in style and grace was more than made up for with enthusiasm and the lack of any form of dignity! After our efforts, we were firmly put in our places with a faultless demonstration by the Greeks, dancing with obvious pride and joy, accompanied by clapping and cheering that reached such a crescendo that we must have been heard back on Patmos!

Unfortunately there was no more prolonging the inevitable and once we got back the evening was spent packing and getting ready to ready to leave the next day. We had had the most amazing week and would be going home with a great many knew friends and fantastic memories. As we gathered for the ferry the following day, the farewells were emotional and the promises to keep in touch resounded across the water as the catamaran steamed off into the blue.

Roald Dahl said "those who don't believe in magic will never find it". We clearly do because we all found it in bucket and spadeful's on Patmos and I know, that like us, every other guest at the wedding will be dreaming of the day they can return. David and Josephine, when are you renewing your vows?

Thursday, 13 December 2012

2012, the Year that was

It has been almost six months since I last put finger tips to keyboard and posted on my blog. I thought that I would review the year, well the year as I saw it anyway!

What a year we have had! Great Britain stood tall, sucked in its stomach, warmed up the voice and let rip! And boy, how the world listened.

This year we witnessed the triumphant re-birth of National Pride. I am not talking about the watered down version that gets wheeled out every time our "amazing" football team trips on its coiffured bootlaces halfway up the steps to the world stage. I am talking about the sort of pride that was last so widely seen when we plucky Brits waved swords and bibles around each of the four corners of the world, shouted "Huzzah!" and said "I may be some time!"
Firstly was the Queen's Jubilee. 4 days of street parties, pageantry, rock concerts, parades, flotillas and, of course, the obligatory rain! I have always been a proud fan of the Royal Family and what they stand for. They do wonders for these islands of ours, promoting us and our wares. Clearly, the addition of young Catherine last year and the hopeful appearance of the future monarch, be they male or female, next year has given the Firm a popularity boost not seen since current Queen's Coronation. I predict a bright future for the House of Windsor. This was the pride born from 1000 years of Royals. The Queen is ours and always will be. She has been ruling over us for 60 years and we celebrated as only we Brits can. Lots of flag waving, pomp and ceremony and braving of the elements. I hope she makes it to 70 years on the throne, what a party that will be!

The second type of pride we saw this year was for the Olympics. Seven years ago there was an engagement. The future Bride, Great Britain, blushing because this was her third go, aware that she needed many a nip and tuck and a lorry load of good humour before allowing the guests to see her. The groom, Lord Coe, eagerly anticipating the work he would need to put in and the number of people he would ask to help before his weary fiance could walk down the aisle. The best man, Boris, standing in the wings, ready to help in his own charismatic way, as diplomatic as Genghis Khan and as loyal and patriotic as St. George himself.

What happened over the next six and a half years is a matter of record. There were many highs and lows, moments that I am sure LOCOG would rather forget, the tickets and security to mention but two areas to be improved for the next time. The structure and fabric of the Games was put in place on time. We were ready in principle, however the one thing that cannot be made, bought, built or borrowed is atmosphere. There were many, many doubters of the Games, a large percentage of the population in fact, people who thought our little island could never pull it off, people who thought we should keep away from such a flashy and showy spectacle, people who thought the money would be wasted and that no one would come to the party. It was upon the shoulders of these people that the success of the games rested. If enough of them could be won over, the world would see that Great Britain was not a place divided, that we could come together behind one common objective and put on the best display of sportsmanship, in the best venues possible, helped by the best kind of person and give everyone a party to end all parties.

Six months before the games, a wave of Olympic spirit started to grow. This was Olympic Year. We all saw and finally realised that actually this could be done, we could and would, with the true spirit of grit and determination that the Empire was built on, conquer the world again and show the rest of them that this plucky little island can make the world sit up and take notice. From the moment Sir David Beckham (surely not long to wait now) took the Olympic flame and for the next 70 days that it was paraded around all four countries that make Great Britain and all points between, Olympic fever took hold, but in the end it was not the organisers or the athletes, the sponsors or the celebrities that made it work, it was the ordinary people, the Games Makers in their scarlet and purple and the blessed Armed Forces who really shone, it was their games. Admittedly the Games Makers had all volunteered and the Army was pulled in at the last minute, but how many grumpy servicemen and women did you see? None! They were proud to be there and to be a part of it as were we all. This is the pride that comes when everyone stands together in the face of international doubt and overcomes the odds to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat! Huzzah I say, nay thrice huzzah I shout! Not since Rourke's Drift have so few defied the odds and show the many just how to do it properly!

I admit that I was behind the whole event pretty much from the start, hugely helped by the fact that we had tickets, so the four of us, painted to the n'th degree, waving our flags and with excitement glistening in our eyes, went to the Olympic Stadium and watched with the world as the Opening Ceremony unfolded. You can't quantify the pride. I couldn't sing the National Anthem as the best Bond girl ever made her appearance. Far too choked with emotion, but by gad, I gave it my best shot!

For once, bad weather on holiday was no issue. In fact, had the sun been shining I would have missed some amazing action and atmosphere in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The dedication and hard work had paid off for them all. I just don't know how anyone will be able to decide who will carry off the BBC Sports Personality trophy this year!

We all read the stories, stories about overcoming injury and desperation, hardship and personal loss, but what has stayed with me most are those amazing souls who until fairly recently would have been watching the action on television but through circumstance have been suddenly backed into a corner, found huge amounts of courage and become Paralympians and created the action. Why can't that spirit be in all sports, at all levels? I don't think breaking an eyelash on a football pitch really warrants all the tantrums and wailing that we see from some of the multi-million pound salaried sportsmen nowadays, but hey, what do I know?

2012 also saw my fortieth birthday. I had a very long weekend of celebrations, culminating in dinner with my very closest chums, being looked after by the best staff in one the best places in London. I wrote a post about my dream day and a friend translated it into a fantastic picture that now hangs in pride of place and reminds me every time I see it of a great day and celebration.

We also visited Italy, a place I have always wanted to see. We spent a fantastic week in Tuscany, eating and drinking far too much, seeing the sights and generally unwinding. My child like amusement at purile humour was satisfied as I watched my four year old son gasp in amazement and wonder at the number of willies and breasts on display in Florence!! I could giggle to my heart's content without a stern word or look from the more mature and sensible in our party! I also discovered what seriously good ice cream tastes like. It actually tastes so good that I almost boycotted the English stuff, almost, but not quite!! I have quite simply fallen in love all over again, not in a "this is a great film, I love it" kind of way, but more in a right up there with my wife and children kind of way. I would move there in a flash if the opputrtunity arose.

I have now nearly reached my goal of losing 6 stone. It has been an agonising time, nearly 16 months now. The first five stone went in as many months and the next stone has taken the rest of the time, but not long to go now. I have had to completely change the way I cook and what I eat. It was all been worth while, even if it means a wardrobe's worth of new clothes have made their way it to our home this year!

Even though I say so myself, I am a man of very few weaknesses or negative points, however I will admit to one; I am addicted to X-Factor! I know, I know, how can this be I hear you all scream. A man of my culture and learning, tuning in twice a week for months with an almost religous fervour! I think it is the wish to see how dire and hopeless some people are at the same time as believing in their own ability to sing like an angel. This year's batch of wannabes produced some wonderful moments and characters and, although he filled my nightmares with his out of tune crooning, Rylan Clarke was definately this year's high or low point, depending on your point of view! I spent may a happy hour ranting on Facebook to anyone who cared to listen! I will have to find something else to fill my weekend viewing schedule until next year's offering come round again. I find it rather like the dentist, no one likes it but you sit through the pain because you just have to. Well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!

I usually like to end my posts with a recipe. As it is Christmas, I thought I would share a recipe that has become a staple in our house over recent years, mincemeat pinwheels. They are so easy to make, keep well in an airtight tin and taste great dunked in some brandy cream.

There are no hard and fast quantities. You will need some puff pastry, the shop bought, ready rolled stuff is best for ease, and a couple of jars of mincemeat.

Lay out the pastry sheet, spread with the mincemeat, roll in to a large sausage roll and seal the edge with some water.

Cut into half inch slices and arrange on a baking sheet with plenty of space around each one. With the heel of your hand, gently flatten each one.

Cook in the oven at 180 for 10 - 15 minutes until nice and crispy. Allow to cool a bit before getting stuck in.

These are such an easy alternative to mince pies and look great as the are a tad different to the norm.

I hope you all have a fantastic Christmas and New Year and that you get all that your heart desires this festive season.

See you all next year.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Another year passes!

I am confused! If you had asked me last year about my family situation, I would have replied that I have a three year old daughter, a baby on the way and a lovely, recently moved into house. Ask me the same question today and I have a seven and a half year old daughter, a four and a half year old wrecking crew, a house with peeling wall paper and a reality gap of nearly five years!

C'mon Big school!
Where does time go. Fenella and Freddie are about to break up. In September one moves into Year Three and the other starts Big School. He can't wait. Tors and I are in two minds. He needs a longer day, a more formal structure to it, with concentrated learning. That said, I did find it strange, almost emotional, when I was shopping for his new uniform. I only bought two pairs of grey shorts, but at that moment, they became a sign of childhood lost, of innocence passing. My little boy is growing up. Big school beckons and I know that he won't look back. He will grab every moment and get so much out of it. He probably won't even turn around as he walks in to his classroom for the first time. It will finish me off, but at least Tors will support me. Who will support her is another matter!

We now have the prospect of a long summer holiday, normally the last week of term would be a wonderful time, planning all the lovely things we would do in the glorious sunshine. I think I need to enlist the help of anyone from Cherrapunjee, India. On average they have 498 inches of rainfall a year! England suddenly doesn't feel quite so bad. But, leaving the poor Cherrapunjee's out of it, we are still in for a wet old summer. Maybe the seasons will reverse themselves and I can barbecue the turkey this year!

The family jewellery box!!
We have decided to stay in England this year. We are going to spend a few days in Cornwall and a few in London, I know, I know, mad with the Olympics going on, however I am hoping the fortnight between the two games will be just bonkers rather than insane in London. It is time to inject some culture into my children and show them museums, galleries and the sights. We may well even take in the Tower of London. Any suggestions would be welcomed.

You win, again.
No doubt during the prolonged periods of guessing which raindrop will get to the bottom of the window first, we will be doing lots and lots of cooking. I will let you all know how it goes once it has gone!

Have a great week, summer and break.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Basics

I was recently reading the latest news and recipes from Hong Kong, courtesy of my good chum Lucy. She is in the process of preparing Number One Son for living out of Halls of Residence in September and, remembering my own days living with students, (I was working then, having failed to get the qualifications needed to go to uni and spend three years drinking!) thought I would give three basic recipes that should be easy enough to follow.

As a starter, have cheesy mushrooms. Buy a large box of value mushrooms, they may need the ends of the stalks trimming and a quick wipe to get rid of any earth. Cook in some butter with some garlic, salt and pepper. Once cooked, add a big spoonful of cream cheese. You could leave out the fresh garlic and get garlic and herb cheese. Stir it in until melted, serve in small bowls with hunks of crusty bread.

Everyone should know how to produce a pasta bake. They are so easy to make, can be done ahead of time, are filling and can be very cheap, depending on what you throw in. This recipe does not even have quantities, just rely on instinct young grasshopper!

This should produce enough for four very hungry rugger players lining their stomachs before a good night out or six people just wanting some supper.

Chop two onions, some garlic and a pack of bacon. Streaky works best. Put in a pan with a dollop of oil or butter, on a medium heat to stop it catching. If you have the budget pop in some diced chicken thigh, it is cheaper than breast and won't dry out in the same way. One thigh per person should be fine.

At this point you can also add peppers, frozen veg, courgettes etc to bulk it all up.

Add a splash of wine, don't tell me students don't have wine, and two tins of tomatoes. Check the seasoning and add any herbs and spices that take your fancy.

Cook until the veg is soft. Turn off the heat. Don't worry if there is a lot of liquid, the pasta will soak it up in the oven.

Add two to three double handfuls of what ever pasta you have to a pan of boiling, salted water. Once cooked, drain and throw into the pan with the sauce. Give it a really good stir and put the whole lot in an oven proof dish. Sprinkle with cheese and pop in the oven. If you are leaving it until later, leave off the cheese until you put it the oven. The bake will be ready when the cheese is golden and the sauce is bubbling.

Garlic bread will be great with this. Take a pack of butter out of the fridge in the morning. Finely chop 4 cloves of garlic and a handful of fresh parsley. Don't worry if you don't have the herbs, butter and garlic will be fine. Slice a baguette three quarters of the way through. Each slice should be about an inch and a half apart. Fill each cut with the butter, wrap in foil and pop in the oven for 20 minutes. A bowl full of salad would add some crispness and cut through the garlic and heavy pasta if needed.

An easy pud to follow is Eton Mess. Buy some ready made meringue shells and break into bitesize pieces. Stiffly whip half a pint of double cream and stir in the same amount of greek yoghurt. Chop loads of strawberries and add to the cream with the meringue pieces. Bung the whole lot in a bowl and serve. You could drizzle strawberry sauce over the whole thing for added colour! Tinned strawberries are not nearly as nice to look at as fresh, but as the are all mixed together and broken up, they will be fine in this.

There you go, a cheap, reasonably easy to produce, three course meal, suitable for people on a budget, those who are hesitant in the kitchen and those wishing to line their stomachs!!


Friday, 15 June 2012


There was so much to watch and read about the Queen during the recent Jubilee celebrations that our DVD recorder was working overtime and I still have a pile of supplements to wade through. Last night we watched All the Queen's Horses, a fantastic show, combining music and dancing and horses and dancing horses from all over the world. Interspersed throughout each act was a huge amount of footage of the Queen in various countries throughout her reign. Seeing some of the footage of her in Australia and the subsequent display by the Queensland Mounted Police reminded me of my first ever career discussion. I was to be a mounted policeman when I grew up.

I was about six and living in Melbourne when this mammoth choice about my future was made. I would sit proudly atop my magnificent steed, meting out justice to the criminal types and protecting the honour of fair maidens, whether in distress or otherwise. The fact that asthma prevented me from going within half a mile of a horse conveniently did not feature in any conversations about my choice. Clearly I was being humoured, however I am thankful for that. I think that fantasies should be allowed and even indulged in the young. It encourages a certain imagination and freedom of spirit that can be so lacking nowadays. Both Freddie and Fenella have settled on being teachers. I think Freddie's sudden u-turn from piracy revolved around wanting to be like his older sister. Fortunately her days of being a ballerina were over long before this adoration started!*

I have told myself repeatedly that whatever they both end up doing will be fine with me, as long as they love what they do and it makes them happy. I only hope that I can keep my promise to myself when stuntman, shark wrestler or lap dancer appears on their business cards!

In the intervening years between law abiding superhero and puberty, I can only recall one other choice and that was being a duck billed platypus. The less said about that the better!! When the time came for serious career discussion, my school at the time had invested in rather a smart computer programme that, after inputting serious answers to serious questions, came out with very silly choices, well at least for me. My father was somewhat distressed that such an investment into my education could produce refuse collector as a career choice. I found it rather amusing at the time, however with the benefit of hindsight and the added responsibility of being a parent myself, I can now see the error of my way!

I had always been interested in cooking, did a bit at school and at home and enjoyed the appreciative murmurs from around the table when my food was had. I went to the local sixth form college to do cooking with the ambition of turning into the next Marco Pierre White. There was something about him in his youth, the wild hair, crazy hair and the cigarettes always on the go, that made him somehow god-like to a fresh faced wanna be chef. Two years later, I left college with a distinction (the only one of my career) and an unshakable desire to never set foot in an industrial kitchen again. I have the utmost respect for chefs, the hours, the heat, the pressure that they endure everyday can be hell. What I did leave college with was an understanding of ingredients and the work that goes in to turning them into a first class dish. I love working the front of house, I need the constantly changing faces and relish the challenges of finding solutions to the myriad of problems that can trip you up.

I have worked in a number of different places around the world and have loved pretty well all of them, my gap year did produce some shockers, and I continue to be amazed at what chefs can produce. It is a definite form of alchemy, a kind of wizardly ability to turn the mundane into the glorious. I recently went to Galvin at Windows on the 28th floor of the London Hilton to say good bye to a long term colleague and very close friend. The meal was out of this world and one of the highlights was a banana milkshake. I know, I know, it doesn't sound much, but the flavours and textures in one small glass were phenomenal. I don't know what, other than banana, had gone into it and I don't want to, as to analyse it too much would be to remove the shroud of mystery that surrounds this kind of thing. It needs to appreciated, not questioned.

I adore cooking and do as much as I can at home. I love just creating out of a cupboard and fridge full of bits. I tend to only use recipes for puddings, preferring to create from scratch suppers, lunches and snacks. Most of the time I am successful, however I have fallen down as well. Tors I don't think will ever forget my homemade pesto. I blended up pine nuts, basil, olive oil and garlic, added a load of grated Parmesan and mixed it into the cooked pasta. She was brilliant, pretended that it was wonderful and soldiered on through a couple of mouthfuls. I had never eaten pesto before and thought it was a might overpowering but stuck with it. After a couple of minutes Tors gave up. "Have you cooked this?" "No" "So, raw garlic." "Yes" "How much" "A whole head" "And how much of the pesto is left?" "None" I realised then that half a head of raw garlic on a handful of pasta might be overdoing it a tad! We still laugh about it, well I do, Tors usually just shudders! I now buy jars, it is safer that way. But making mistakes is what enables us to learn and grow. I am not saying that I encourage mistakes, more that they should not be punished, as long as they are learnt from and not repeated.

I shall leave recipes until my next blog, it has been one of those weeks and have lost the will to be creative, so I am sorry to say that it is just my musings this week. I hope they have not sent you all to sleep?

Have a great weekend.

*Freddie announced this morning that he now wants to be an ambulanceman, fireman and policeman all rolled into one. Teaching is apparently only for sisters. He has also told me that at weekends he will be a pirate called Blackbeard, but with a red beard! I am sure he will change his mind again before I actually press the submit button on this post! 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Ready, steady, rant!!!

I am not usually one to get wound up, however there are three things that are guaranteed to get me going. Just like a battery toy, push the button and let me go!! I shall take you through them one at a time and you can make your own mind up if I am being highly over dramatic or not.

I do get upset when basic manners go missing. I consider myself to be polite and even a little chivalrous. I will open doors for pretty much every one, stand aside for the elderly, pregnant ladies, prams and wheelchairs and even walk on the road side of the pavement in case a rogue car should jump the curb. For anyone taking notes, I should point out that in certain large cities you should actually walk on the inside of the pavement, it being thought more likely that you will be mugged from a doorway than run over by a car!

I am not perfect by any means and I certainly do not expect the rest of the country to open doors for each other (if they did, who would be left to actually walk through them?) but what I do expect is some common courtesy. If you walk through a door that I am holding open, say thank you. It is not my job, and even if it was, why should you not say thank you? Do we not say please and thank you when asking for something in a shop, when paying in or taking out money in the bank, when buying a ticket for the cinema, bus or train? I am encouraging my children to use the magic words at every opportunity and get cross when they don't. Tragically, I fear I may be in a minority.

The Jones's suddenly felt out of their depth in Oxford Street
I read a blog recently about most and least favourite words. It was a wonderful mixture of the weird and wonderful, offensive and cuddly, cringe making and soothing. I added my thoughts on the subject, was abused for my troubles, I mean honestly, what's wrong with rumpy-pumpy (sorry Amanda!) and I now find myself thinking that maybe I should have included please and thank you. Politeness and courtesy costs nothing, it is free so I implore all the Neanderthals out there, in this day and age of austerity and general gloom embrace that which costs nothing and be nice. You, after all, would be the first to plant a fist in my face if I let a door swing in to yours.

Fun, what do mean you're having fun!?
Another thing that does tend to get me going is other people's problems. I have a sympathetic ear and regularly have it open to listen to friends' woes and can often be found actually trying to offer help and support. However uninvited conversations are just wrong and often totally mis-judged by the narrator. We recently enjoyed a day out at Legoland. Being in the hospitality trade I can have the unfortunate habit of judging people and places with the same standards that I have used throughout my career, a tad unfair perhaps to judge Legoland by Michelin standards, however there are some basic rules that apply across the spectrum. Leave your troubles at home, don't bore the customers and most importantly, don't slag off your employer, however aggrieved or pissed off you may be! We were coming to the end of the day, waiting for one of the many attractions and happened to be at the front of the queue. The rather jolly girl asked if we had had a good day, a reasonable question to which the answer was most definitely yes. I then asked her if she too had had a good day. I was expecting a happy yes in reply. How abso-bloody-lutely stupid and naive of me! What followed was five minutes of her troubles, why Legoland wasn't all it was cracked up to be and, don't ask me how this one came in to the conversation, why she sometimes turned to her partner, whilst in bed, and told him to sit down and get in line!! Why, oh why, did I need to know that, more to the point, why did my children need to know that? Fortunately the children had switched off by this point. I have never wanted a ride to start so badly as I did then, however it wasn't going to because the man at the other end hadn't pushed the button and isn't it always the man's fault! If she hadn't told me she was leaving at the end of the season I might have seriously considered never returning to Legoland!

The last point I shall bang on about is a general state of happiness that seems to be devoid in a number of places. If you can't be arsed to smile at work, I can't be arsed to to be nice, polite, jolly or even, indeed, to return to your place of work and put more money in the tills, thus ensuring your continued employment. Smile or you could become redundant!! Now, there's a slogan for a tee-shirt if ever I saw one. I also get very wound up by cashiers who not only have been born without the happy gene, but the speech one seems to be absent as well. I tend to get very silly when a supermarket cashier expects me to hand over money without telling me how much I owe. I am expected to read the display, give my money and get change and a receipt all without a word passing between us. I will ask them how much I owe, some will tell me but some will either just point at the register display or, if I'm really lucky, grunt that the total is displayed for my viewing pleasure! When I ask what is meant by "every little helps" I only get a blank stare. Clearly sarcasm and irony is also missing from their lives!

All I ask is that people smile and remember (or maybe learn) to be polite. It's not rocket science!

Now that my rant is over, I shall concentrate on the true message of my blog. Food. In all the excitement of the Jubilee I failed to enjoy and appreciate our fleeting Summer properly. Now that Autumn has arrived I feel obliged to share one of my favourite sandwiches in the whole wide world. It warms and fills the tummy as well as being damn good comfort food.

Get the following ready.

Two slices of thick and crusty white bread.
Plenty of sliced cheddar. Don't use grated, it goes everywhere.
Sliced tomatoes.
Beaten eggs with a dash of water or milk, salt and pepper and finely chopped parsley. One egg per sandwich.
Butter and vegetable oil for frying.

Put the sandwich together, layered like this, bread, cheese, ham, tomato, cheese, bread. You don't need to butter the bread.

When the sandwich is assembled, pour the egg mixture into a flat dish or tray. Put the sandwich in and let the bottom slice of bread soak up a good amount. You can either flip the sandwich over or just spoon the rest of the egg mix on the top slice.

Whilst the bread is soaking up the egg, put a pan on a high heat, put some butter and a small amount of oil in to melt and heat up.

With a great deal of care, lift the sandwich from the tray and put in the pan. Let it get hot enough on each side to melt the cheese and go a nice golden brown. When cooked to your liking, pop on a plate, slice in two and serve with a salad for a great lunch or just have a bag of your favourite crisps instead!

I recently made rather a good smoothie which I think would make a healthy addition to the not so healthy (but very tasty) sandwich. The great thing about a smoothie is that there is not hard and fast recipe, just throw in what you have lying around. I used a banana, loads of strawberries and raspberries and a good glug of tropical juice, one with pineapple, mango, orange and passion fruit. The whole lot tasted wonderful and was not too thick, although with more or less banana, you can easily adjust the consistency to one the suits. My personal preference is to stay away from blueberries. I am not keen on them at the best of times, but when they are blended up they somehow manage to make the resulting drink look like one of those bug smoothies celebrities have to consume in the jungle! This also has no points value for Weight Watchers, but manages to fill you up, so the holy grail of diet foods!

I hope you all have a good week and manage to stay dry! 

Friday, 8 June 2012

Red, white and blue.

I am feeling very patriotic. I am sure I am not the only one. The mood across the country is encouraging 17th and 18th century feelings. If it wasn't already on Google Earth I would be sorely tempted to don a sola topee, pack a jar of Shipham's paste and a small, yet practical knife and go forth to claim vast swathes of undiscovered land in the name of Queen and country. Huzzah!

You could barely move in supermarkets without seeing a Union Jack. They were on everything from biscuits and bread to washing powder and a certain yeast product that shall remain nameless! I even saw Union Jack loo paper, although wiping ones backside on the national flag might not be quite the message that being conveyed last weekend!!

I went into the weekend feeling very prepared. Oodles of red, white and blue. Shoes are all three, I have shorts in each colour, shirts as well, a jolly three toned belt and a can of hairspray in each colour. I wore a different outfit every day of the long weekend and still stay true to Blighty's colours!
I love the fact that the country has reacted in this way. This sort of show of nationalism is usually reserved for large football tournaments and normally goes very quiet and disappears once we have been reminded (yet again) that we can't actually play the game very well on the world stage. Just wait until Euro 2012 and tell me that I am wrong! The Diamond Jubilee was a chance for all of us, not just the sporty ones, to get inflated with national pride and to get behind one person. One of the joys is that it is not a competition, at no stage was the Queen out done by anyone. It was her weekend, her year, her chance to get showered with adoration. God save The Queen! If I am doing anything other than sitting in a armchair, blanket over my knees and drooling at her age I shall declare the occurrence of a miracle!

On Saturday we did all the mis en place for the rest of the weekend.

Having spent the week looking at the weather forecast, I knew Sunday was not looking too promising, but we Brits are nothing if not resilient! The programme for the fun day advised that one could get wet on the obstacle course so my Union Jack shower hat will be very handy should the heavens open!! My heart went out to all the people taking part in the Thames pageant in open boats. The sheer scale, splendour and reason behind the weekend kept the spirits up even if the weather kept the brollies up!

This is soooo good and very easy to make!
We spent the day partaking of the local village fun day with my parents. I prepared a picnic, including a recipe from the wonderful ladies at Crumbs for a fantastic sounding picnic pie, slightly adapted to include quail's eggs. I also made a vat of Coronation chicken, I wonder how many tons of it were consumed over the weekend? There was also a very jolly cupcake competition that I, somewhat rashly, decided to enter. I was somewhat hesitant as I am no baker, however recently discovered a fantastic cake recipe that translates very well in to cupcakes and even I can manage. The cupcakes were to be judged on taste, texture and decoration. The first two were whatever they happened to be as my skills are no where near being able to alter those. The third, however is where I hoped to triumph. I produced Union Jack cases, silver balls to go on the top and crowns made from tuile paste in red, white and blue. Surely victory must be mine!! Oh, the enthusiasm of youth. I walked in the tent and before I had even set the plate down, I knew in my heart of pessimistic hearts that I was doomed! The results an hour later confirmed it. I shall not give up. I shall continue baking, continue to be laughed at and with luck, improve, well I cannot get any worse!

On Monday we went to Tors' parents and spent a most enjoyable day in the almost sun at a street party. I have never sat in the middle of a street eating and drinking, well maybe I have in my youth, but certainly not without car horns blaring. It was rather a nice change.

I hope that we will still see the odd Union Jack still flying now that the Jubilee celebrations are over. I fear that once the excitement of the weekend is over we will forget the National identity that we have become so proud of in recent weeks. I adore the Queen and the Royal Family, the monarchy in general, however I love England just as much and maybe we should celebrate our country as well as the Monarch.

Having eaten more than my fair share of not very diet friendly food, I have to get back on track. I recently discovered Philadelphia with Cadbury's Diary Milk. Lord have mercy, not since bread and butter have two things meant to be together more than these two. An inspired combination! And relatively low in naughtiness! So, being creative in the kitchen area I have thought up the following recipe.

Mix 150g Cadbury's Phily with 150g low fat fromage frais. This should do for four people.
Toast some nuts, any will do, in a dry frying pan and when browned add a couple of teaspoons of caster sugar, let it melt and pour out on to greaseproof paper and allow to cool. 
Pop a spoon of choc mix in the bottom of a glass, then a spoon of fromage frais and continue until you have a pretty layered pud.

Chuck some raspberries and toasted nuts on top and tuck in.

A nice glass of something sticky will match very splendidly indeed!

Have a great weekend!