Cirque de Navacelles – strange coincidence

Last night I opened a bottle of wine for dinner.

Cirque de Navacelles bottle

I like a nice bottle, who doesn’t, but I don’t actually put a lot of time or effort into choosing what I drink. I send £15 a month on payday to Virgin Wine Bank, they top it up with interest and two or three times a year I have enough to pay for a crate of bottles. I drink them as I feel like it or use them as last minute hostess gifts. I try to get a huge 16 bottle box, which is always delivered by a tiny woman who can heft it to my doorstep far more easily than I can move it around the house. I can be sure that each of the bottles that arrives will be interesting and delicious, but it’s fairly random what turns up.

(If you want a referral to Virgin Wine drop me a line as there’s a friend-get-friend scheme.)

Last night’s bottle had a really irritating typographic design, with all of those letters jumbled up, unclear where the words begin and end, so I insta’d a pic and left it there. There was a bonus opportunity to make a weak, limp, rude bilingual pun, because if you work really hard you can see cir que  as cire queue which are the French words for wax and dick, although of course for it to make sense as a French phrase it would have to be a queue de cire.

A helpful friend who presumably wasn’t up to her eyes in an oven full of classic British Saturday night fare  (we had baked potatoes, Lincolnshire sausages, corn on the cob, carrots and a gravy made with fried onions, mushrooms and a spoon of caramelised red onions from a jar, which barely left any room for an oaty walnutty crumble filled with jumbo apples from the kind neighbours) deduced the phrase in full and posted a link to Cirque de Navacelles which jogged a memory.

I’ve actually been there!

I have also wondered over the years, reviewing the pictures of the awesome six-week round France trip I did after working on the successful campaign to re-elect Paul Holmes in 2005, if I was ever going to work out again where that strange, heart-shaped hollow was.  Somewhere in the south of France, somewhere on my journey from campsites near Canne and Perpignon, I followed a brown sign to something interesting to tourists and found myself overlooking a giant hole in the ground which I photographed and then got back in my car. Places to go, tents to erect, dinner to cook before dark.

Now I know!

Cirque de Navacelles

12 years later and it’s about time for another holiday of a lifetime.

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Summer reading report

It all started what feels like a lifetime ago in a tent in Derbyshire, hours after the last bell of July had rung…

I started The Murder Room (P D James) but it felt a little silly and I didn’t get far with it. I came back to it and finished it later in the holidays, but I wasn’t in the right mood to start with. The very long exposition at the start is the problem – two thirds of the book are over before anyone dies!

So instead I switched to Total Recall (Paretsky / Warshawski), and was ambushed by a detailed holocaust story spliced into the action of the novel. At the end of my degree, which is almost twenty years ago, I told myself I had had enough of holocaust survivor texts, having read so many in French and German. I felt slightly ambushed to find one in a much-loved detective series. However, it fit well, and really helped round out the characters of some of Vic’s old friends.

Both James and Paretsky are engaging, interesting reads, but they are not exactly light and fluffy, so I have a few series on standby now that are less taxing on the eye and mind. I read Kickback (Nick Boyd) for a little light relief which continued much in the same vein as the previous two in the Nick Dixon series. Our diabetic hero with his girlfriend subordinate went through a similar set of baffling detections to work out whodunnit, and it filled an hour or two.

Ken McClure tackles difficult scientific and medical topics, but he does so in short thrilling books that are well explained, so this series also counts as light relief. His hero is another one who seems to do baffling well with the ladies in record time, but Dr Steven Dunbar has at least been on the same girlfriend for the last few novels. In Lost Causes, I was thrilled to feel it was bang up to date, with references to coalition government, a female home secretary who loves her shoes, and the deputy prime minister chairing COBRA meetings! Clegg in a McClure novel! Then I realised that actually the start of the coalition is now a long time behind us. Lost Causes is a fun romp about an evil right wing conspiracy with some germ warfare thrown in, and the sequel to that, The Secret, touches on the death of Bin Laden, polio eradication and more large scale conspiracies. Published in 2013, The Secret seems to be the last of the Dr Steven Dunbar novels for now, and I’m almost sad to put the series behind me.

Just before I flew off to Madeira for a family holiday, a parcel arrived with birthday books from a dear old friend who a) knows exactly what I like and b) is a bit of a crime novel expert, so can choose very well indeed. This year’s parcel included two novels set in the former GDR which I reserved for the airport. A five hour flight and a two hour wait at a departure gate go so much quicker with a good book – and I do prefer an actual paperback, because there’s no threat of being told to turn it off once you’re on the tarmac.

David Young’s Stasi Child introduces us to Karin Müller in a story totally unafraid to sprinkle krautisms like Oberleutnant, Jugendwerkhof and Kriminalpolizei through a story with a shocking conclusion. Who knew that the people running the institutions of a communist state sometimes didn’t have the citizen’s best interests at heart?  The second, Stasi Wolf, a jolly good romp, lots of lovely period detail about building and allocating the GDR’s housing, but the plot more than a little bonkers. Not quite sure where I put these books, but I definitely must share them around the languages department at school, where there’s more than one Stasi fan.

Madeira 2017

So my week in the sun was book-ended with Germans but whilst I was actually on my sunlounger (private on villa terrace; had to be moved out of sun so I didn’t fry; also very convenient for stargazing; srsly considering a chaise longue for the lounge, it was so comfy for reading…) I read two more VI Warshawski books, Hardball and Fire Sale, both good. More than two thirds through the series now, the end is in sight.

I also read the third book from the crime novel parcel, Land of Shadows (Rachel Hall Howzer). First in a as-yet short series fronted by a black female police detective, Elouise Norton. You’ll never guess what – she has  a dark and troubling history that’s directly relevant to the case she’s starting to investigate. #shocker.

And finally to Y is for  Yesterday (Sue Grafton). I pre-ordered it from Amazon, set myself a reminder on my phone to check my Kindle at midnight, and started reading it pretty much as soon as I could. It’s a doorstop of a novel and I didn’t finish it in a single sitting, but it was a great story with an ending I didn’t see coming until it was right upon me. Although all of the Kinsey books are set in the 1980s, this is themed around a story of teenagers getting into trouble for filming something inappropriate, a theme which is incredibly contemporary, as anyone working in a school can tell you.

11 books in six weeks? Not bad; better than last year or the year before.

Afternoon tea

Getting the tea set out is something that’s on the list of things I should do more often, so I invited my lovely friends to come over for the bank holiday weekend.

Normal people in this sitch would take photos of the people, I think, but I took photos of the food.

We ate:

Salads you can make with the grating disk in the food processor

  • carottes râpées (I grate carrots, mix with something crunchy, pine nuts or pumpkin seeds, sultanas, and then make a dressing out of the juice of half a lemon, olive oil and seasoning)
  • coleslaw (quarter of a cabbage, a carrot and an apple grated, with mayo from a jar, and a spoonful of wholegrain mustard)

Sandwiches

Two loaves from Aldi with a variety of fillings. 3 rounds of sandwiches quartered to make 12 sarnies for 8 guests. V non-u, but I left the crusts on!

  • caramelised onion hummus and grated carrot (reserved some carrot from the salad above) (whole pot of hummus)
  • egg mayonnaise and chives  (5 hardboiled eggs) (I feared these would be unpopular but they went just fine.  Bought a pot of chives and will plant into garden to see if they live!)
  • goat’s cheese and onion jam  (the caramelised red onion jam is one of those jars at the back of the cupboard that was probably left there by ex as I have no recollection of it and it is ahem approaching its sell by, but these sarnies were delicious, and will definitely make again and/or put in packed lunches.  Leave the cheese out for an hour before attempting to spread and I also loosened it a little by beating the cheese with a couple of spoons of mayo)

Cakes

So my aim is something showstoppery for the cake stand, and a variety of nice things for the two tiered plates.  Completely lacking in the time and inspiration for a show stopper (OMG did you even see bake off this week!?) I threw together another of my regular blender cakes and set it atop the cake stand. Oh well.

A few days before I had seen (and eaten!) some beautiful coconut macaroons, topped with cherries with even, chocolate decorations drizzled across – I thought those would be lovely to make and would look great topping a tier, so asked for the recipe and did my best from the resulting photo.  Only… I don’t have a mixer, or working scales at the moment… So I forked out 20 quid in Aldi for something that’s a bit like a mixer  (aargh, it says don’t put in dishwasher!!) to breach the gap and estimated the quantities by googling cup equivalents for the sugar and estimating from the packages – eg 200 grams of desecrated coconut is half the bag…

I think I didn’t beat the eggs enough. I’ve never really got along with meringues, and will have to practise a lot more to see if it’s possible to make in my new mixer or whether it’s just me… But instead of lovely pillowy domes, I got flat discs.

Afternoon tea(chers)

In the end, I decided to drizzle the chocolate on anyway and brazen it out. As it was, they were delicious.

Afternoon tea(chers)

I also wanted to make Portuguese custard tarts, having just returned from (Portuguese) Madeira where they were everywhere!

I went with this Not Quite Nigella recipe to start with except when reading it through I realised half the instructions were just “make custard” and that’s something I’ve been practising a lot lately as a way of using up egg gluts. The instruction for rolling the pastry seemed properly weird, and I was worried

Both the macaroons and the custard tarts were made the night before – and that ended up with the tarts being slightly too soft by the time they were served. Some of them poked out of their cases a bit much, but lots of them looked good and tasted good too.

Afternoon tea(chers)

Afternoon tea(chers)

I got some lovely gifts from my gracious guests – two fab boxes of chocs which did not last long, and two separate people turned up with sunflowers, which I turned into a huge bouquet which looks absolutely super! Both guests were concerned about showing up at a man’s house with flowers. People rarely bring me flowers, but I love it and was delighted to receive them. They’d both separately thought that sunflowers were sufficiently manly to hand them over.

Afternoon tea(chers)

Here are a couple of other posts about times I’ve used the tea set – as a farewell party for councillors and last year with a vegan twist.

And here’s more photos on flickr.

A crazy week of reading

For some reason last Monday I felt the urge to read a book, something I’ve barely done at all since the last summer holidays.

It’s mostly Kindle these days. In bits and dabs I have finished the John Milton series I wrote about last summer and as I came to the end, Amazon started recommending other similar stuff. Every now and again there’s a special offer and I pay a couple of quid to download a whole series of something, then lose it somewhere on the Kindle as the user interface is not brilliant at reminding you of what is where and when.

So last Monday I started reading a really short novel that I had bought the year before in a sale by Damien Boyd, an author with no wikipedia page but a series of novels on Amazon. I started As the Crow Flies, a police procedural lead by DI Nick Dixon focusing on climbing and taking us down (or up, I suppose) some unusual paths. It had a well signposted denouement that turned out to be rather satisfying. That I finished in a night, so I moved on to the next one.

(I love a good series, me – and it’s nearly time for Sue Grafton’s penultimate novel, Y is for Yesterday)

Head in the Sand is the punning second in the series. Its title is literal not figurative, as the book opens with a severed head in a golf bunker and moves on from there. It was rather satisfyingly guessable and I was slightly ahead of the plot all the way through. I have a whole series ahead of me

Knowing I was away camping for the weekend, I stocked up on the next ones in a few series I am reading rather than rely too much on the Amazon sale spectaculars.

So over the weekend, I read Dust to Dust in the Dr Dunbar series – again, rather satisfyingly, I guessed a major plot twist in the first few pages, although the book has a rather spectacular McGuffin that kept us guessing to the end as well. There is tense drama in the middle and it certainly got my heart racing to turn pages.

I kept going in the Sara Paretsky / Warshawski series and read Hard Time with an extended women’s prison section as suggested by the title. I am still enjoying these books very much, but it is taking me years to read them all, and there are some very obvious plot manoeuvres that happen every time. Our protagonist always gets beaten half to death, usually more than once in a novel. If there is any mention of files, or the location of files, or whether the files are in her office or in her apartment, then you know there’s going to be a break-in and the files will be stolen. And this novel features at least the third time Warshawski ends up looking after a small child who has spectacularly fallen out with its parents…

I bought a few more P D James / Dalgliesh novels too, haven’t got around to those yet, because whilst I was spending money I don’t have on Amazon, the site kindly pointed out to me the very latest in the Janet Evanovich number series, so have been finishing that over the last few days. Turbo Twenty-three is still in hardback so the Kindle edition was three times the cost of anything else I bought.

Now if you’ll excuse me, this post has prompted me to go digging through my Kindle account and I have only just realised I pre-ordered the latest Mary Roach book, Grunt, it got downloaded last September, and I’ve not even looked at it!

Bring back ma girls!

New additions for the hen house – Tallulah and Attila the Hen – who come to me from the British Hen Welfare Trust, who rehome chickens from battery farms when they come to the end of commercial viability.

BHWT are very well organised – you sign up online, phone them to have a quick chat, and book into pick up some hens.  I needed two – the minimum you can have – to add to my existing lone hen, Perry. There’s masses of information on their website and it’s well worth having a read through all of it at an early stage.

On the day, pickup was fast and competent. They gave a guideline arrival time by surname within a whole afternoon, had people on the road to tell me where to park and checked my pet carrier was suitable on my way in. They guided me to sign in, sent me around the corner, and I was back in my car with my new birds in… literally under two minutes.

Tallulah and Attila

The girls are not in best condition. They have a lot of feathers missing and nasty floppy pale combs on top of their head. They are supposed to be red and a lot tighter. They are a heat dissipation method for the birds, and they grow large in their cages where they are kept warm.

Tallulah and Attila

The feathers are either missing or sparse in large chunks – the birds look almost skeletal!

But apparently both the combs and the feathers will start to sort themselves out reasonably quickly and the girls will be almost normal within a few months.

I had great plans for segregating the coop and finding ways of keeping the new hens separate. I have a large 2m cubed walk in run, an Eglu Classic hen house and half of an Eglu run which is covered from rain.  My plan had been to fence off a portion of the run using Omlet fence/netting, and let the new birds live in there for a while, sleeping in the cat carrier they came home in.

This plan lasted about an hour. Perry, the existing chicken, at first was just curious at the new girls, but when I went back later, she had managed to tunnel in under the fence but get stuck inside the fenced off area. The new girls were stuck in a corner at the opposite end.  So I lifted the fence to let Perry out, secured the bottom of it more with tent pegs, and went away to give them a further bit of time.

There was lots of shouting from all sides, without any actual pecking…

Tallulah and Attila

Interestingly, in their minimally feathered state, you can see their tails move in sync with their throats when they are shouting and crowing.

The next hour I went back to find Perry roosting on a perch over the fenced off area – she’d managed to fly over the fence – and one of Tallulah or Attila had flown out of the fenced area to perch on a rod.  That was a surprise – I didn’t realise they had enough feathers to be able to fly.

Perry perching

At that point I had to give up. The fence was more of a danger than a help! I removed it for bedtime and let the girls get on the best they could.

When I went down this morning, the new girls had found the chicken house and were in there. Not sure if cowering or sleeping – but I am pretty certain that Perry was keeping them in there and chasing them back in if they tried to come out and feed.

So I’ve had another go at separating them. This time the new girls get the real chicken house and I’ve fenced off the end of the tunnel. Perry gets the entire run and can sleep where she pleases – on a perch or in the cat box. She hasn’t got much rainproofing though. We’ll see how this continues and it will be interesting to see where she lays.

And on that, this morning, the first morning with the new girls, there have been three eggs, so despite the upheaval and the trauma of a new flock, everyone is laying…

More photos: album on Flickr

Did anyone else read Nicholas Fisk?

Last night we went to see Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell. It was visually pretty but was definitely retreading the steps of sci fi movies we’ve seen before. Nothing in the plot was a surprise.

It put me in mind of young adult sci fi I read as a young adult in the late 1980s, and in particular the Nicholas Fisk novel A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair, the title, I know now, a quote from a Kipling poem. It’s a story of a family who have been resurrected from remains found in a graveyard, set in the future, but the family were killed in the second world war and their clones are also given a 1940s house and environment to live in. The story explores whether people from the past can be cloned to live in the future and there’s a clever twist in the end.

Twists in the end is a feature of Fisk’s writing and my strongest memory is of reading Grinny. It’s a fantastic YA novel and possibly I was reading it when I was too young, almost certainly pre-teen, having exhausted the library’s supply of Famous Five and Secret Seven. The story ramps up the tension throughout, with the children of a family realising their elderly aunt who lives with them is actually an alien, and then having to take matters into their own hands when unable to convince their parents there’s a problem. The ending really shocked me and upset me because I didn’t see it coming at all and it’s much more violent than earlier parts of the book. It ended up with a Serious Talk in the Middle of the Night with my parents about how to deal with books that are scary but also prepared the way for voracious teenage reading of Stephen King.

His Wikipedia page shows there were many more books than I realised – I think I only really ever read about five. Trillions is good and so is You Remember Me, the sequel to Grinny. I vaguely remember the title Antigrav  but nothing else about it.

Two puddings and a three course meal

A few things I have been cooking in recent weeks.

Poached pears in all sorts of ways – not a new thing in my repertoir (poached pear trifle | poached pear chocolate tart | poached pears) but not something I’ve made in a while.

Here’s some thoughts.  Red or white wine is fine – but different effects.  A fortnight ago I poached some pears ahead of time for a diner à deux and then accidentally left them on the kitchen counter for four days, so they were not useable. So I tried again with rosé and that was fab too.

With white wine, lemongrass and ginger are great flavours; with red you can throw the whole spice rack at it, especially cloves, star anise, cardamom and cinnamon.

You can also use white or dark sugar – you get a great hit from the caramellyness of muscovado.

Poach the pears whole, peeled and with their bottoms cut off so they stand up on the eventual plate, or more quickly quartered or halved, depending on where they are ending up. A whole pear is spectacular, but the most recent outing was intended as a topping for some leftover puff pastry, so they could be done in halves. Push a toothpick through them to test for readiness.

Poached pear tart

I’m a huge fan of vanilla mascarpone as an accompaniment, but this time, inspired by Jamie Oliver, I made a walnut cream by blitzing and combining equal quantities of walnuts and  mascarpone and sweetening slightly with icing sugar.

One final tip – the trad thing to do at the end is boil the poaching liquor down to make a syrup to serve. If you’re doing this, there’s no need to boil ALL of the poaching liquor down. Reserve maybe a cupful (for 2) or pint (for 4-6) and boil that down for a much quicker approach. It can be tricky to boil enough or too much, so remember you can drop a teaspoonful on a cold plate to see what the consistency will be when it has cooled.

Chocolate pots

I do love the Guardian’s “how to make the perfect…”series. I read Felicity Cloake’s treatise on chocolate pots in which she scampered through a range of different recipes, but in the end plumped for making something rather simpler.

My version still looked sensational, but was really ever so simple. The only tricky part is the time, but it barely takes an hour for each layer to set enough for the next. It would have looked even better if I could just learn to be a neater cook and not drip chocolate all down the outside of everything.

Layered chocolate ganache

I made the ramekins for my pudding club friends and the shot glasses for my friends at work, many of whom are dieting. Same ingredients.  A ganache is basically equal quantities ml for g of chocolate and double cream. Heat the cream, drop in the chocolate, stir until it melts, pour, refrigerate. Flavour if you wish with any strongly flavoured liquid, boozy or otherwise – cointreau, coffee, vanilla essence. Go for quality chocolate or a medium level supermarket own brand, but steer clear of the baking chocolate from the cake decorating aisle.

My five ramekin and four shot glasses were made from 150 grams each of dark, milk and white chocolate, unflavoured. My colleagues told me a shot glass was enough; I managed a shot glass AND a ramekin in one day; my friends ate half a pot and reserved the remainder for the following day.

Saturday’s dinner

The brief was “I’m feeling a little delicate so lots of fruit and veg” so I made…

Dinner 11/3/17

A hearty tomato and lentil soup that will also see me through the week – chopped carrots, onions, celery and garlic fired in olive oil, a spoonful of cumin and random dried herbs stirred through (I think it was oregano), veggie stock cubes and tinned and puréed tomatoes.

Whenever I now use my little stick blender I think of the ones in Nisbets the size of a pneumatic drill!

Mains were a salade niçoise of sorts

Dinner 11/3/17

A crunchy salad of lettuce, cuke, red pepper and black olives that match my fingernails, dressed in EVOO and sherry vinegar, with toppings of green beans, hard boiled egg and tuna mayonnaise.

For a dessert I had another go at Raymond Blanc’s pineapple three ways. I made this four years ago after it had just been on his TV programme. Then the recipe disappeared from the Beeb website. Now it is available again at Blanc’s own site. I don’t have the mandolin which makes the sliced / candied step too hard to do, and the roasting and basting every 15 minutes is a faff,  but still delicious.

The sorbet, however, is amazing – so simple and so delicious, and vaguely even healthy! I didn’t macerate, or measure sugar too carefully, just pineapple prepped and cored into the nutribullet with the juice of a lime and a slug of sugar, the resultant foam frozen in a Chinese takeaway box. Without the benefit of churning, this then needs to come out of the freezer half an hour before serving otherwise you will be chipping away at a pineapple iceberg.

Dinner 11/3/17

The roasted pineapple I served with a shot glass of the caramel basting liquid to mixed success. It set very hard and was quite hard but not impossible to eat. The butter separated out again as it cooled and was not nice. I had used the remainder citrus sugar to start the caramel and had worried the zest bits would burn, but they didn’t seem to…

Dinner 11/3/17