Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Late Thanksgiving (or Perhaps a Practice for Christmas)

So Friday night I had managed to get hold of a turkey, and even though it was late, I cooked a Thanksgiving dinner. Now officially, we celebrate Thanksgiving in October as my heritage is Canadian, but as a British company actually managed to offer whole turkeys around the time of any Thanksgiving at all, I decided it was a really good idea to encourage them by buying one. Not only that, but the last whole turkey I cooked was about a year ago now, and I don’t think it hurts to practice, particularly when you are going to be cooking one for 14 people in less than a month’s time.

One of the best things I have done this year is to start to patronise our local butchers - Green’s of Pangbourne - who incidentally have just been named the best Butcher’s Shop of the Year in the south of England 2009. I can understand why - their meat is really good plus it is ethically sourced and the staff could not be more helpful. I followed their advice and cooked the turkey breast side down for the first half of the cooking time. It worked a treat and the results were delicious. I made the works - mashed potatoes, green beans, broccoli, stuffing, homemade gravy and even pumpkin pie. In fact, I made three pumpkin pies - one for Friday, one to take to my husband’s parents today and one for spare. Not bad for Friday night! Of course my husband did not get home till nearly 8.30pm, so it was a good thing I had pitched dinner a bit late, although the turkey did cook faster than I anticipated so there was a tiny panic at the end, but not much. It was nice to sit down as a family after a frantic week - and even if it really was not Thanksgiving by anyone’s calendar, I felt very thankful indeed.

It has got me to thinking more about Christmas actually, and I have a real urge to decorate this year. I know it is a bit early, but for the first time in over two years I feel like celebrating a bit. Two years ago we had no trees or decorations at all - following my Dad’s death I just did not have the heart to do anything. Last year, it was the first Christmas without my Mom and the second without my Dad and although I did decorate, my heart was still not in it. It was also the first time getting out all the decorations from when I was a kid since they had died and I felt really emotional every time. This year, I know I’m still going to feel sad, but as time has moved on a bit I’m hoping the decorations will bring me comfort - particularly my favourite angel decoration for the top of the tree that my Dad bought for me when I was little. She has always been special. Mom and Dad passed her on to us when our son was little and every year since then we have watched him put it on the tree. From having to be lifted up by someone to reach, to towering over the top of our six foot Christmas tree as he does now, the photos I have taken of him putting her on the tree each year are a visible timeline of him growing up. It’s lovely having something like that.

I’m so glad it is the weekend. My husband was away a lot of this week, and although I am used to that, I still don’t like it. It comforts me that he doesn’t either, and says so, but sometimes it is easier than others. This time of year, so near the time I lost my parents, and with it being so dark most of the time, well, I just hate it. It’s wonderful to have him home. The time just goes too quickly though - there seems to be so much to do most weekends, and so little time to relax - but I know I’m not the only one who finds that to be true :)

Friday, November 27, 2009

London at Christmas

London is a magical place at Christmas. I made my first trip of the season up there on Wednesday night. It was a lovely evening and I had a lot of fun working on my Christmas shopping. I’ve only just scratched the surface in terms of seeing all the lovely decorations though, seeing the lights on Regent Street (top photo) and the windows at Harrods (middle) and Fortnum and Mason (bottom).

All along Regent Street there are “nets” of lights, making it into an absolute fairyland. Regent Street itself is featuring lights celebrating the new animated Disney version of “A Christmas Carol”. Again, this is not my favourite film, having had to watch the very scary 1938 version in school in Grade One and being terrified by it. (The film was already over thirty years old by then; why they showed it to six year olds in the 1970‘s is beyond me!) The lights are really pretty though.

There seems to be a “retro” theme this year, with Harrods choosing to concentrate on on a film originally made some years ago - the 1939 movie “Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland. In celebration of the film’s seventieth anniversary this year, a new digitally remastered DVD has been released and Harrods are promoting it. I have to confess that once again it is not my favourite film; as a child it scared me silly and I’ve never been able to watch it comfortably, even as an adult. But the window designers have done a lovely job, and the results are stunning. They are also other windows featuring some of their products done up for Christmas which are very pretty too. (In fact, I think I prefer them!)

My favourite shop windows so far are the ones in Fortnum and Mason, designed in celebration of Michael Bourne’s production of Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells. As I said earlier though, I’ve only just scratched the surface - the windows at Harvey Nichol’s, Liberty’s and Selfridges are among the many I have still to see. I am definitely planning a return trip within the next week or so.

I do love London. Despite the crowds and bustle, it is like nowhere else on earth. There is so much more to it than meets the eye, and after years of spending time there (living and working there for a number of years at one point), I still discover things to surprise and delight me. This passage, just off Regent Street, has always tickled me -

Sadly its name is far more exotic than the reality of it as it is simply a cut through from Regent Street to Piccadilly via Vine and Swallow Streets (with a slightly chequered history), but every time the sign catches my eye, it makes me smile nonetheless!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Thanksgiving Tradition

It is Thanksgiving in the United States on Thursday. I think having a set day every year to join together in being grateful for all our blessings and to spend time with our families is a wonderful tradition. I come from Canada and we have Thanksgiving there too, only it is celebrated a bit earlier, on the second Monday in October. No matter what is happening in our lives, we all still have things to be grateful for, and it is good to take time out to do that. Even though I have lived in England for over twenty years now, I still make a point of celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with my family. It is not a holiday here, but we still have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, even if it is on a workday! It does not just give my family and I an opportunity to be grateful, it also enables me to celebrate my heritage and instil this tradition in our son, who is, after all, a dual citizen just like me.

For Americans Thanksgiving is said to have begun back in 1621, with a meal shared between the Plymouth Colonists and the Wampanoag Indians. Since 1863 it has been a tradition to repeat this celebration on the fourth Thursday in November with family gatherings, traditional meals and parades. The Macy’s Parade in New York City may be the most famous, but parades are held in many American cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Plymouth, Seattle, Pittsburg and Los Angeles. For Canadians, Thanksgiving stemmed from the historic European tradition of a day of thanksgiving for the harvest and also from a thanksgiving celebration held by Martin Frobisher, a British explorer, on his arrival in Newfoundland in the late 1570’s.

The Canadian Thanksgiving is a much lower-key celebration than in the United States, but just because the celebrations are lower key does not mean Canadians don’t feel Thanksgiving is an important part of their lives and heritage. In fact it is often the holiday tradition those who leave Canada miss the most.

In England where I live, the only harvest-time thanksgiving celebration I know of is that held by the Christian church on the Sunday in September or October consisting of a thanksgiving service during which a collection of food is made for the poor. Sometimes there is a church lunch afterwards, or a harvest supper. It is lovely, but the trouble is, anyone who does not attend church misses out on the opportunity to celebrate their blessings and be thankful. As a result, there is no one corporate reminder here in the UK for secular society of the very important premise of gratitude and how it should figure prominently in our lives.

However, in the case of both the American and Canadian celebrations, Thanksgiving has become much more secular over the years. Although I’m not a tremendous fan of religious celebrations being assimilated into popular culture (and sometimes losing some meaning in the process), in this case I think it is a good thing. You see, the majority of people in North America celebrate Thanksgiving regardless of their faith. Most of us have a lot to be thankful for whatever our circumstances and whatever your faith, being grateful is a positive emotion. It benefits not just the person who is grateful, but also those around them.

When I was a little girl in school, they always used to ask us what we were grateful for at Thanksgiving. It made us stop and think. It is so easy to rush through our lives, getting caught up in the corporate quest for “more” and forgetting that, in most cases, we already have so much. It is not just children who need to be reminded.

Whether you are in a country that celebrates Thanksgiving or not, if you were to celebrate it on Thursday, what would you be grateful for? In other words, what are you grateful for right now? My family, my home and the abundance in our lives are only just a start on my list. And if you are celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday, do enjoy it. It is entirely possible that Great Aunt Martha might drink too much and Uncle Bill will probably say something controversial as usual, but does it really matter? And if the turkey isn’t perfect or someone forgets the green bean casserole, never mind. What you eat isn’t important, eating it with a grateful heart is. It is a privilege to celebrate Thanksgiving - so please do have a happy one!

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Bit of Colour

Regular readers will know that when we moved into our newest home nearly two years ago now, it was a difficult time in our lives. Although we were moving for really wonderful reasons and things were going well for us professionally, I was so sad I felt numb. My Dad had just died and my Mom was dying. We had also lost three other family members in the four previous months. It was an awful time.

Normally when I’m presented with the blank canvas of a new-build home (which has happened twice before) I can’t wait to get going on it, but this time I did only what I had to. Frankly, it was all I could manage. Curtains for every room had to be chosen and we needed to get a new sofa and chairs for our living room because of the way our own furniture had gone into the new house. (I’d used my living room sofa in my lovely new kitchen for starters.) In the end, I mostly chose things I felt pretty safe with. The only step out of my comfort zone that I took was when I chose the new sofa and chairs for our living room. I had seen some lovely red and gold furniture and curtains in my Laura Ashley catalogue and had fallen in love with them. With some trepidation and a lot of encouragement from my husband, I ordered them and a couple of co-ordinating bits of furniture. We were all really pleased with the results.

However, in terms of decoration, that was all I did and our living room, like much of the rest of the house, has a bit of an ‘unfinished’ quality to it. It looks great, but there is just a little something - a sort of “je ne sais quoi” - missing. And not only that, but I have still been struggling to get enthusiastic about actually decorating - you know, painting, wallpaper and that sort of thing. But finally, quite unexpectedly, something changed.

On Friday, when I was running some errands in Pangbourne, the window of a lovely furniture and accessories shop caught my eye. They had decorated it for Christmas and it was just beautiful. As well as baubles and sparkling decorations, they had used lots of lovely red things - including the vase I’ve photographed above - and some charmingly retro Christmas tree-shaped decorations. I had walked past it many times before, but this time, the window display was so pretty it drew me straight inside.

The shop is in a very old building, with incredibly low ceilings and slightly slanting walls. It seemed to be deserted and I wandered round happily for some time. Eventually a salesman, accompanied by a small and clearly very elderly dog, appeared to help me. I purchased both the vase and two of the red Christmas trees.

It was odd, but I left feeling strangely euphoric. As I walked back to my car, I was incredibly eager to see how my purchases looked in situ and my head was suddenly full of decorating ideas for our home. It was the first time since we had moved in that the idea of decorating had made me feel anything other than overwhelmed. Since then I’ve been busily making plans - I’ve even got some paint swatches. Isn’t it strange how a quaint little shop and a red vase can change everything?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Foodie Friday

It’s another Foodie Friday over at Designs by Gollum! As many of you know, I normally post recipes on my Recipe of the Week page or my Food Blog, Recipes from the 21st Century Housewife’s Kitchen, but today I’m posting this one in my blog so I can join in. I’ve also linked up to The Grocery Cart Challenge recipe swap because this recipe is a good one if you are watching your pennies.

If you live in the United States, the last thing you are probably thinking about at the moment is pasta; it’s more likely to be turkey and the Thanksgiving feast. However, this dish is a great one for when you are busy planning something much more complicated, as its simplicity makes it a wonderful dish for those days when you are feeling tired, stressed out and in need of something that is both delicious and easy. So even if you are not planning Thanksgiving, it is a great one to have up your sleeve for busy days.

My husband and son have a real aversion to chunks of tomato in their spaghetti sauce, which can make things kind of challenging when it comes to pasta. The ready-prepared jarred sauces I was using can also be highly spiced and full of salt. I was so pleased when I discovered jars of passata (pureed, sieved tomato). It also comes in those cardboard tetra-pack box thingys. It makes a great base for any tomato-based pasta sauce, saving all the peeling, pureeing and sieving that can be a part of making homemade tomato sauces. Plus it is cheaper than anything ready-made, a boon for these challenging economic times.

As well as the great flavours of ground beef and tomato that are so welcome with pasta, this sauce contains quite a lot of vegetables, so it is a good one from a nutrition standpoint as well. As everything is chopped up – even grated in the case of the carrot – it is quite easy to “hide” things if you have folks in your family who really don’t like anything that might be described as a vegetable. And let’s face it, even most finicky eaters like pasta!

If you have not got any red pepper or it is particularly expensive this week, just substitute a few frozen peas (about half a cupful will do), but don’t add them until just before you mix the sauce with the pasta before putting it in the oven or they will over-cook.

This will serve three to four people generously (more if you are serving children), and can be made in advance, chilled and re-heated.

The 21st Century Housewife’s© Easy Pasta Bake
10 ounces pasta shapes (250 to 300 grams)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 pound ground (minced) beef (450 to 500 grams)
2 garlic cloves, grated or minced
1 carrot, grated
1 red pepper, chopped
3 cups passata (pureed, sieved tomatoes) (roughly 700 ml)
2 tablespoons ready-made basil pesto
2 tablespoons mascarpone cheese, crème fraîche or sour cream (optional)
1/8 teaspoon pepper

Preheat the oven to 350℉ or 175℃.

Heat the oil in a large, fairly deep, frying or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for about five or six minutes. Add the ground beef, breaking up any chunks and cook, stirring frequently, until all the pink has gone.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions.

When the ground beef is browned, add the garlic, carrot and red pepper and sauté together for a couple of minutes. Carefully pour in the passata. Turn the heat up a bit and bring the mixture nearly to the boil, but not quite, stirring constantly.

Now turn the heat back, and stir in the pesto, mascarpone cheese (or the crème fraîche or sour cream) if using and about an eighth of a teaspoon pepper (or to taste). Gently stir and heat the mixture through.

Drain the pasta and return it to the saucepan. Carefully pour the sauce over the pasta and stir gently to mix. Transfer the mixture to a fairly deep casserole big enough to hold the mixture. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in the oven for about 20 to 30 minutes.

Serve with warm bread or rolls.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Masterchef Live at The BBC Good Food Show

On Saturday my husband and I attended the BBC Good Food Show at Olympia, which is now being called “Masterchef Live” but which will always be “The Good Food Show” to me :). We attend the show every year, and I think this year was one of the best.

Small producers, wineries and shops that sell things for the kitchen and home all get together and display their products at their own stands - most offering samples and very good “show deals” if you decide to purchase their wares. Major restaurants - which this year included Launceston Place, Theo Randall at the InterContinental, The Ivy, The Boxwood Cafe and Caprice offer small but exquisitely formed portions of their signature dishes for purchase in the Restaurant Experience. There are also shows, demonstrations and lectures about all things food and drink by some of the larger suppliers and also by groups such as Slow Food. Various celebrity chefs also attend. Masterchef Live showcased some of the talent from previous Masterchef competitions and some brave souls submitted themselves to the invention test. They were given five ingredients (unknown until the actual moment of the competition) and twenty minutes to prepare a dish from them. The results were quite amazing. Although tempted, I did not enter myself. You see, a large part of the Good Food Show is wine and spirit tasting, and as much as I love inventing dishes, I am better doing it when I have not been imbibing!

We visited the stands of some of the producers we already know and love like Honeybuns for their gorgeous cakes and Littleover Apiaries for their wonderful honey. We also discovered some new ones. I was particularly impressed by The Coffee Fairy, a company run by Martina Gruppo. She sources coffee from Miraflor in Nicaragua (actually going there and getting it herself!) and ploughs a portion from the sale of it back into the community there, working to offer educational scholarships to enable the children to go on to secondary school, and also renovating the school there. The coffee tastes amazing; we purchased some at the show and I’m planning on taking out a coffee plan. I was also impressed by the wonderful sauces and chutneys offered by The Good Chutney Company. I bought two jars of their scrumptious Horseradish Mustard along with some other goodies including a yummy Gooseberry Chutney. We also bought lots of wine and port, and may have found a new bespoke wine sourcing service - I’m waiting for our delivery and then I’ll let you know!

Lunch consisted of various dishes at the restaurant experience. The servings are small so you can taste lots of things, and sharing is definitely allowed! We started with lobster soup with brandy and saffron cream served in a cocktail glass from Launceston Place (see photo above), and then I tried The Ivy’s beef and bashed neeps while my husband chose Masterchef winner Steve Wallis’ pan roasted sole with chantrelle mushrooms, oysters and white wine sauce. Everything was delicious. We then went to see the show we were booked in for at Masterchef Live. Later we returned to the Restaurant Experience. This time we shared two dishes from Roast Restaurant - Pork Belly Bridge Roll and Fish finger and tartare sauce cones. Both were fantastic examples of comfort food at its best. By then we were ready for dessert. We shared the vanilla and gingerbread cheesecake with mulled fruit from the Boxwood Cafe which was light and delicious (the mulled fruit had lovely zing), and also the soft chocolate cake from Theo Randall at the InterContinental. His chocolate cake was by far our favourite dish of the day. Served with a soft marscarpone cream, it literally melted in your mouth, and was one of the nicest desserts I have ever eaten.

We stayed at the show until nearly closing time and there were still stands we did not have time to visit. We brought home loads of goodies and have all our Christmas wine and spirits ordered too. It is a wonderful way to spend a day out and I highly recommend it. If you missed Olympia, the next BBC Good Food Show is being held at the NEC in Birmingham November 25th to 29th, or there is a Summer one being held 16th to 20th June 2010. The next BBC Good Food Show at Olympia in London is in November 2010.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Emergency Soup

I really enjoyed the blog parties I attended on Friday, so I decided to attend some more today. I think blog parties are a great idea, and a really good way to get to know about more of the super blogs out there. So whilst I normally post recipes on my Recipe of the Week page or my Food Blog, Recipes from the 21st Century Housewife’s Kitchen, today I’m posting a recipe in my actual blog so I can join in again. I’ve linked this post to Tempt My Tummy Tuesdays at Blessed with Grace, Tasty Tuesday at Balancing Beauty and Bedlam and Tuesdays at the Table at All The Small Stuff. Do go on over and join in the parties!

It’s that time of year again - the time when colds and flu strike and make folks feel really awful, just when they want to be enjoying themselves. Yesterday my son came home from college full of cold and feeling really terrible. All he wanted was a nice hot bowl of soup. The only problem was my favourite soup recipe takes rather a long time to make. I got to thinking that there had to be an easier and quicker way to a hot and comforting bowl of soup - and luckily, I was right. I just started with some chicken stock and went from there. Slicing the scallions thinly and grating the carrot means it all cooks up in no time. Sadly I had no cooked chicken in the fridge, but the soup still tasted really good without it. It would be even better if you did happen to have some though. I made this up in under fifteen minutes, and it made me look like a domestic goddess on a day I was really anything but! Thinking about it, this would be a great way to use up some of the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. You could freeze small portions of it ready to defrost in the microwave for similar emergencies!

To make Emergency Soup for one person you need:

8 to 12 ounces of chicken stock (made from cubes or packaged is fine)
1 “nest” of Chinese egg noodles
3 or 4 scallions (spring onions), very thinly sliced
half of a carrot, peeled and grated

Heat the stock on the stove over low to medium heat. Add the scallions and grated carrot. Put a lid on the pan and simmer for about ten minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles according to package directions. When they are ready, drain them and add to the vegetables and stock. (If you did have some cooked chicken or turkey in the fridge you could add it too at this point.) Heat through and serve.

Instant comfort - whether you have a cold or not!!

Monday, November 16, 2009

"Space - The Final Frontier"

I have just watched the liftoff of the space shuttle Atlantis’ on mission STS-129 to the International Space Station. I’ve been watching rocket and shuttle launches since I was a little girl, and it always gives me a huge thrill. I’m not sure exactly which launch was the first one I watched, but I vividly remember sitting with my Mom and Dad in front of our black and white television counting backwards from 10 to 1. I do have shadowy memories of watching Neil Armstrong step on to the moon - but I was only three years old and it was late at night so I kept falling asleep!

My Dad loved the space programme, and space exploration fascinated him. My Mom enjoyed watching the launches too, even though they used to be very early in the morning and involved us having to eat our breakfast in front of the television. (I loved that part!) I had a big poster of the planets on the wall of my bedroom and dreamed of being an astronaut when I grew up. It was a pretty big dream back then, particularly as I was a girl. Although the Russians sent a woman into space in 1963, it was not until twenty years later that Dr Sally Ride became the first American woman to go. By then I had more than realised that my propensity towards motion sickness meant I was not cut out for space travel - that and the fact I am really not good in small spaces! However, I’ve never lost my fascination with space exploration, and one of the things I missed when I first came to live in England was the avid coverage of space shuttle launches by the press. Thankfully things have moved on and with the internet and the availability of American news broadcasts over here I’m now able to follow the space programme once again.

Today I watched the launch with my son, whose enthusiasm for space exploration reminds me so much of my Dad’s. It was one of those “circle of life” moments that always makes me feel a bit teary. It is coming up to the second anniversary of my parents’ deaths - Dad died on 21st November 2007 and Mom on 6th January 2008 - so I’m particularly susceptible to these at the moment. One of my fondest memories of my parents is a day I spent with them when we went to Kennedy Space Centre back when I was thirteen years old. We were all so excited to be there.

Amongst the items carried on this shuttle flight is a scarf which belonged to the amazing aviator Amelia Earhart, borrowed from the Museum of Women Pilots in Oklahoma City. I wonder what Amelia would have thought about the space programme? She was such a trail blazer and a huge inspiration to women both now and in her own time.

As for me, I’m pretty inspired by the brave men and women who work in the space programme now. While I may have no desire to go into space myself anymore (until they invent an anti-nausea tablet that actually works in zero gravity and slightly more comfortable space vehicles that is), I still find the giant strides being made in space exploration really exciting. I may not be the one “boldly going where no one has gone before” but I sure do like watching the progress of the ones who do :)

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Delicious Twist on Traditional Gravy

There are a lot of blogs out there that have a special place on Fridays for recipes and foodie things, and host link parties so everyone can get together. It seems a great idea, and a really good way to get to know about some of the super blogs out there. So whilst I normally post recipes on my Recipe of the Week page or my Food Blog, Recipes from the 21st Century Housewife’s Kitchen, today I’m posting a recipe in my actual blog so I can join in too. I’ve linked my post up with Foodie Friday on Nicole’s Momtrends Blog and Designs by Gollum, and with Food on Fridays at Ann Roeker’s blog.

Please do visit these blogs, and their link parties. They are a super source of new ideas and a great way to get to know other folks out there in blog land!

Anyway, with Thanksgiving coming up in the US and Christmas on the horizon, I’ve been thinking about all things poultry, and have been doing a lot of experimenting in the kitchen around that theme. I first developed this gravy in an attempt to jazz up some chicken breasts. (It worked!!) It is brilliant with turkey as well, and I have even served it with sausages and mashed potatoes. It’s also a great multi-purpose gravy for everyone. Vegetarians can use vegetable stock instead of meat stock and vegans can do that as well as eliminate the butter and use olive oil instead. It’s delicious every way I’ve made it, and really, really easy. I know that onions are not necessarily a normal part of a Thanksgiving or Christmas gravy, but wow, do they make a delicious addition!

2 tablespoons plus 1 tablespoon butter
2 large onions, red or white, peeled and thinly sliced
2 heaped tablespoons flour
2 to 3 cups of turkey, chicken or vegetable stock
(made from cubes or store bought works just fine)
3 heaping tablespoons cranberry sauce from a jar

Melt the 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Turn the heat back to low and fry the onions gently, stirring occasionally. Frying the onions slowly over low heat makes for a sweeter gravy, so I usually let them cook for ten to fifteen minutes. By this point, the onions should be softened and just beginning to take on a bit of colour.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter, and melt it through the onions. Give it all a stir and then sprinkle the flour over the onions and stir through to coat. Slowly begin to add a bit of the stock at a time, stirring constantly. When the mixture begins to thicken, gradually add more stock, a bit at a time, until you get a nice, thick, pourable gravy. (Keep stirring!) You may need slightly more or less stock, depending on how your mixture cooks up.

When the gravy reaches your desired thickness, add the cranberry sauce and stir to melt through the gravy. Taste, and add a bit of salt and/or pepper if you want to.

That’s it! Happy Thanksgiving to all in the US - and to all those ex-pats celebrating elsewhere in the world :)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lest We Forget

That’s a picture of my Grandpa - Joseph Edward Killingback, a man of whom I am very proud. Like millions of other boys, he headed off to fight for freedom and democracy in 1914. I remember him telling me about the war - leaving out the worst bits, but still conveying a sense of just how terrible it was. His commanding officer was the man who gave him his first razor. The first time he shaved was in a trench in France. He talked about rats, and trench foot, bully beef, and how “sometimes the food wagons didn’t get through”. He was only seventeen when he was wounded on the Somme, near Amiens, but he was lucky. He came home. Millions of boys, men and women never did. .

Sadly, today many service-people are still losing their lives fighting for our freedom. We see their coffins draped in flags on the news, and it somehow seems unreal. But how real, how terrible it must be for those who love them. How awful that anyone has to die and be brought home in a coffin draped in a flag. We owe them so much gratitude and respect, it is indescribable.

Then there are those who do come home alive, but for whom everything is forever changed. The wounded, permanently disabled, and those with mental scars that may never heal. That is before we discuss the families who lost and are losing loved ones and those who wait at home and pray. There are millions of these wonderful souls all over the world, doing something amazing for us every day by “keeping the home fires burning” and being braver than I can ever imagine having to be.

My days can be pretty busy and chaotic, but I know what I will be doing at 11am today. It’s the same thing I have done every year since I can remember - wherever I was, whatever I was doing.

I will stop, and remember the millions of people who fought and are fighting for my freedom. I will remember those who died and those who live - and their families - and I will say a silent thank you.

Because of them my husband and I grew up safe and free. Because of them our son can too. I owe them a far greater debt than I can ever repay. The least I can do is spend two tiny minutes silently paying tribute to them. I hope you will too.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.”

Laurence Binyon 1869-1943

Sunday, November 08, 2009

A Long Weekend in Paris

We had a wonderful stay in Paris. As always, we spent a lot of time in and around the Champs Elysées and the Louvre and we also visited the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower is being lit up for its 250th birthday, so every night there is a beautiful light show - it’s hard to describe but well worth seeing! We also spent a fair amount of time on the Left Bank, shopping and exploring.

On the recommendation of a friend, my husband and I visited the Musee Marmottan for the first time. (My husband was working the majority of the weekend but this was one thing we did do together!) The museum is located in an old home and contains a large number of Monets, as well as paintings by many other impressionists. We saw some beautiful Renoirs and a large number of evocative paintings by Berthe Morisot - one of the few female impressionists. It lacks the rush and bustle of some of the larger museums and is a lovely place to spend a couple of hours. Also it is on the outskirts of Paris (metro La Muette), so for the first time I saw Parisian suburbia. There were families walking in the park and children on the carousels (merry-go-rounds) catching rings on sticks as they go round and round. My husband spent a number of years in Paris when he was growing up and it brought back happy memories for him. It is a super place to visit.

We ate in some of our favourite restaurants and also in some new ones - although I have to confess that it is our favourites we will continue to return to! I do love Ladurée on the Champs Elysées. The lovely green awning welcomes you into a really beautiful restaurant where the food is just wonderful. The desserts and pastries are a particular delight. We ate lunch there three times this visit! Their crab club sandwich is just amazing and as for their macarons - no, not macaroons - I do mean macarons :) - well, they are beyond delicious. They are small meringue-y cakes, crisp on the outside, sandwiched together with a soft creamy middle.

We had a super journey back on Eurotunnel. It’s a great way to travel, particularly if you book their flexi-plus package. It means you can take any train, and there is a little building right before you take your car on the train where they pack you a lovely lunch to eat while you sit in your car going under the English channel. It’s a nice distraction - I’m really not at all sure about all that water overhead! However it really is such a quick and easy way to get across, I do have to recommend it.

The only sad thing is that for the first time I have had to remove a hotel recommendation from my Recommended Hotels page. We stayed at a favourite hotel in Paris - one we have been using for over ten years - The Méridien Etoile. We certainly won’t be going back. You can see my review on TripAdvisor by clicking here if you want the details, but suffice it to say that, despite a refurbishment, it has really gone downhill since last year. Some of the staff are downright officious, and while their executive rooms are of an acceptable standard (not executive though) their “deluxe” rooms are barely of a basic standard.

It was a wonderful break though, and I do have such a soft spot for Paris. It is a shame my husband was working most of the time, but our son and I had a really lovely time, and so enjoyed the time we did get to spend with him. I’m very grateful to have had such a lovely weekend.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Food Lover's City

I find one thing very ironic about Paris - the food is so amazing and yet so many of its women are beautifully thin! And the incredible thing is, if you go to any restaurant in Paris you see lots of thin women in them not just eating, but really enjoying their food and wine. I may not know quite how that is possible, but I do know for sure that Paris is full of food lovers, both tourists and locals, and it is a fantastic place for anyone who likes to eat - but most particularly for those who love to cook.

Although I really do prefer to fly or take the train to Paris, one advantage of driving as we did yesterday is that you can bring things back in your car - and with the Eurozone firmly in place, you are allowed to bring back most foodstuffs for your own personal use. You do need to be careful and check as there are things (like honey and meat) cannot be taken across the English Channel, but most packaged foods and of course wine can be brought back in limited quantities.

Although my son and I did do some touristy things today while my husband was working, including visit the fantastic Musée d’Orsay, walk up the Champs Elysées from the Louvre all the way to the Arc de Triomph, and have a super lunch at the iconic restaurant Ladurée, we also did something else. We stopped in at a couple of lovely little “epiceries” - French grocery stores. I love grocery shopping in France, because even the smallest of shops have some really gorgeous things - things you probably don’t even know you need - but that make a keen cook like me think “wow I could make some amazing things with that”. I can remember shopping with my husband’s mum when his parents used to live in France a number of years ago, and I would always come home with a car absolutely full of foodie things.

There are tons of exotic spices - some much less expensive than at home because what we consider exotic is actually quite commonplace in France. There are also wonderful ingredients like dried shallots (as far removed from the dehydrated onion of my childhood as they could possibly be), different sorts of pasta, mustards and preserves. Cooking oils come in so many varieties it is almost overwhelming - pecan, walnut, hazelnut, almond and even pistachio are common place varieties of oils here, although some are more expensive than others. I did have to restrain myself from buying a bottle of pistachio oil that cost over 16 Euro - as much as I love pistachios that is a step too far even for me. However, pink peppercorns found their way into my basket, as did pecan and almond oils, flavoured mustards and a beautiful looking jar of fig jam. I can hardly wait to get these things home so I can start to cook with them.

No matter where you travel, visiting local grocery stores is a super way of getting a real idea of how people live and cook in other places, and you never know, you might just end up coming home with lots of lovely goodies in your suitcase, just like I do!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Very Clever Idea

This is a picture of the Very Intelligent Pocket by Tintamar. It was designed to make transferring your things from one handbag to another stress free.

I am pretty seriously addicted to handbags and I have quite a collection of them, but I tend to carry the same one for ages and ages. Why? I can’t face transferring everything from one handbag to the other. Well, Tintamar have solved that problem.

I was first introduced to Tintamar on a flight to the US. British Airways were selling the Very Intelligent Pockets (VIPs) in their “tax free” magazine. For some reason I resisted purchasing one, and it was not until our trip to Athens last week - a whole year later - that I finally gave in and bought one. I don’t know why I waited - they are very reasonable, and I know now that they are worth their weight in gold if you like to use multiple handbags.

Basically, their are sections in and on both sides of the VIP that will hold your wallet, phone, sunglasses, makeup and even a zipper section for things like your driving license or passport. When you want to change handbags all you have to do is lift the VIP out of one bag and put it into the other. The photograph above shows how I’ve used mine. (My wallet actually fits in the large pocket but I left it sticking out for the photograph so that you could see how the VIP works.) Yet somehow the VIP manages to be small enough to fit in just about all of my handbags, except a couple of the more oddly shaped ones and of course, it is too big for a small evening bag.

I had a look at the Tintamar website and they make all kinds of these ‘pockets’ - including waterproof ones for the beach, and a very posh one made entirely from leather (which I am sure costs a good deal more but looks very cool). They seem to be quite widely available on the internet, although I am going to start looking for them in stores. They even make a bag for makeup with a small cool pack in it that you can freeze, so your makeup doesn’t melt in the summer or in hotter climes.

This is such a wonderful idea. I really wish I had thought of it, but I sure am glad someone did!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

36 Hours in Athens

Photo © Alex J Harris

I received a letter from a reader yesterday asking me what I would recommend she visit on an upcoming trip to Athens. Krista is from Washington DC, and Athens is part of a holiday where she will be visiting lots of countries in a fairly small space of time. It got me to thinking about the number of folks we have met over the years on visits to Europe who really are trying to fit as much as possible into their two week holiday, often visiting seven or eight countries in that space of time. So I’ve decided to put a new page on the site of my favourite things to do in some of the cities we have visited (thanks for the idea Krista!). That will take a little while to put together, so in the meantime, here is some of the information I sent to Krista about Athens, based on what I would spend my time doing if I had between 24 and 48 hours there.

My first stop would be the Acropolis - easily accessed on the metro by getting off at the ‘Acropoli’ station. It’s best to get a day’s pass for the metro if you are only in Athens for a couple days. It will cost 3 Euro a day but you can get just about anywhere (except the airport, which costs extra). The Acropolis is just around the corner from the metro station, and it isn’t called the Acropolis (“high city” in Greek) for nothing! You do need to pay to climb up, but you can get a ticket for 12 Euro that covers many of the Athens attractions, so that is worth considering. It’s free on Sundays and public holidays. The climb is graduated, going up slowly, with lots of ruins to look at on the way up including the the theatre of Dionysus and lots of temples. At the top, the ruins are awe-inspiring (standing in the shadow of the Pantheon is something I will never forget) and the view over Athens is quite stunning. You can see the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, the ancient agora and across to Lycabettus Hill.

(As you come down from the Acropolis, depending on how much time you have and how agile you are feeling, you could stop at Aeropagus Hill. It’s near the entrance to the Acropolis and offers view over the site of the ancient agora. It is quite a climb though and is definitely not a place for anyone who is not sure footed (although there are some metal steps), so you might want to leave it out. I got a real thrill of standing in the steps of St Paul, who is said to have preached from this hill and converted the first Athenian Christians here in 52AD. (Less lovely is the hill’s other use, as a place of trial.)

A must see near the Acropolis is the New Acropolis Museum at 15 Dionysiou Aeropagitou, Athens 117 42 (visible as you come down from the Acropolis). It recently opened to great acclaim and I have to say it is one of the best museums I have ever visited. As you walk towards the entrance, you proceed over glass panels that cover the excavations below. Beautiful mosaics with some of the original colour are visible, along with quite amazingly complete ruins. As for the museum itself, thousands of treasures are housed in an ultra-modern building constructed of steel and glass with great views of the Acropolis itself. Admission is only 1 Euro.

I have heard that the museum café is very good, and it was always so crowded we were never able to get in, so that bodes well. Another wonderful place to eat nearby is Dionysos Restaurant or their café downstairs. We ate in the restaurant and the food was excellent. The views of the Acropolis from the restaurant are incredible as well so it would be good for either lunch or dinner.

I also recommend a visit to the ancient Agora, which includes a small museum in the Stoa of Attalos. The Stoa itself has been beautifully restored - the sheer size of it is almost overwhelming. You can get to this site by walking from the Acropolis, or taking the metro to Monastiraki station. The site is huge and includes so many ruins it is quite incredible - there are temples, libraries, basically a real insight into Athenian civilisation all those centuries ago. In fact, the stones you walk on are actually full of pieces of pottery and even pot handles. (Of course you are not allowed to remove anything from the site.) This is one of the things included in the 12 Euro ticket I mentioned when talking about the Acropolis. It is well worth a visit. In fact, if you could only visit the Acropolis, the New Acropolis Museum and the ancient Agora, you would still get a fantastic taste of the flavour of this very iconic city.

Another place I loved and that you could just about manage to fit into a 36 to 48 hour visit to Athens is Lycabettus Hill, near Sydagma metro station. Now we climbed the hill, which was very arduous, but we were treated to super views of Athens on the way up. However if you prefer a slightly easier way to the top, there is a funicular railway at Aristippou Street. When you reach the top, you are at the highest point in Athens and actually look down on the Acropolis. There is a small chapel (The Chapel of St George) at the top which is very beautiful and also a restaurant and a café both called Orizontes. The restaurant is very formal, but you can have a coffee and a snack in the café and benefit from the super views as well. It’s a bit pricey, but we had the most amazing baklava up here - my son said he would climb the hill again just for that and I think I would too! It’s very filling though as each serving was the size of a slice of pie and was served with ice cream.

Other than that, I would say that my favourite area of Athens was Kolonaki, and the area round Syndagma metro station. It includes the Parliament Buildings, the beautiful Hotel Grande Bretagne and many museums and embassies. If I only had a short time in Athens, I would spend quite a lot of time there. (I would be sure to stop for a coffee - and possibly a cinnamon macaron - in Zonar’s, a lovely coffee shop under the Attica department store too.)

I took three guide books to Athens and the one I used most was the DK Eyewitness Travel “Top 10 Athens”. It’s small enough to fit in your bag, and has easy to read maps.

So there you have it - a whistle-stop tour of Athens! Thanks for your question Krista - hope you have a wonderful time on your trip!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Around Athens and Back to the Acropolis

We visited the New Acropolis Museum again on Saturday and also the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, where we all got a severe attack of the giggles - much to the chagrin of everyone who saw us. I’m still not exactly sure what we were giggling about - something to do with the rain, my very small flowered umbrella and the massive columns of the temple, one of which had sadly fallen over some years before.

It was very busy on Saturday, and we had one too many up close and personal experiences with complete strangers on the metro, so on Sunday we decided to walk instead. Our sojourns earlier in the week had made us realise that Athens is actually not really all that big after all and a walk on Saturday night to the Milos restaurant in the Hilton just around the corner from our own hotel showed us some of Athen’s nicer residential areas. We felt encouraged by this to do a bit more travelling above ground!

(Incidentally, we had a lovely dinner at Milos, a seafood restaurant with a super reputation. It is apparently very popular with Greek celebrities. I don’t know any Greek celebrities so if they were there I was completely unaware, however it certainly was very luxurious. The food was lovely, although incredibly expensive - and it was certainly an adventure actually choosing the fish we wanted to have cooked, which lay complete on ice, their eyes staring out reproachfully at us. More about that on Recipes from the 21st Century Housewife's© Kitchen when I get round to writing about it! )

Anyway, back to our Sunday morning walk. If you proceed along from the Megaro Mousikis metro stop along Vassilissis Sofias Avenue, you pass the Athens Hilton and can then walk along past (or through) the National Garden to Syntagma metro station. Here you will find the historic Hotel Grande Bretange, the Parliament Buildings and a big shopping area. It is the home of Attica, Athens premier (and perhaps only) department store. I was disappointed in Attica, but it is interesting to see, and there are clean toilets on the second floor which is a fact worth knowing when walking in Athens. Syntagma station is also near to Kolonakai, the “posh” side of Athens, home to the wealthy and a place full of little boutiques, cafés and designer shops. You can also get to Lycabettus Hill from here.

We decided to stop at this point and have a coffee in Zohar’s, a very popular coffee shop in the same building as Attica, but accessed by a separate door. I had a lovely cappuccino, my husband had an Earl Grey tea and our son had a hot chocolate that seemed to be more a cup of pure melted dark chocolate than anything else. Zohar’s have some delicious pastries, but we had already had some of those on Saturday from their separate shop located behind Attica. It’s well worth stopping there to pick up some of their macarons, which are almost as good as those from my favourite, Ladurée in Paris - particularly the cinnamon ones.

After our break, we continued to walk from Syntagma towards the Acropolis. One of the very cool things about walking in Athens is that you literally stumble upon ruins tucked away in places you might never expect. Some of them have been covered by roofs to protect them from the elements, particularly those discovered whilst metro stations were being built.

The finding of these ruins resulted in part of Syntagma metro station being relocated. They are just sitting there in the middle of the sidewalk waiting to be (re) discovered.

We made our way back to the Acropolis via some very interesting little side streets, revisiting the area we discovered on Wednesday night. Although some members of our party (ie. our son) were vocally less than thrilled to be climbing the Acropolis for the third time (which led to yet more giggles), I was really pleased to have another chance to visit this amazing place. Incidentally, there are some very nice toilets at the top of the Acropolis, just around the corner from the Pantheon and down some steps. (Just in case you are ever there and need them; it wasn’t a place I was expecting to find them!)

It’s not that I’m obsessed with toilets or anything; it is just that clean and pleasant toilets in Athens can be hard to find, particularly as in many areas the plumbing does not stand up to toilet paper and you have to put it in a bin instead of in the toilet. Needless to say this means that most public toilets are rather smelly and unpleasant to use, so when you find nice ones, you make a point of remembering them!

We headed down from the Acropolis and across the street to Dionysos, a lovely restaurant with a fantastic view of the Acopolis. There is a café upstairs, but the proper restaurant, with the view, is upstairs. It would be even better at night. The food was lovely - in fact I would say it was the best meal of the trip for me - and we shared a super bottle of wine (again more about that on Recipes from the 21st Century Housewife’s© Kitchen in due course). It was a very pleasant way to while away the afternoon.

Eventually it was time to head back to the hotel and pack up, ready for our flight home. It’s been a wonderful visit to this iconic and multi-faceted city, and a lovely family break.