Christmas food trial #1

It’s the first of December here in New Zealand! That is crazy. Having been away for so long I am mentally two months behind which means I am actually two months behind in Christmas preparation.

However I have been doing a bit of experimenting with Christmas dessert ideas this week to try and get myself back into the swing of things and I was rather pleased with these. This isn’t so much a recipe as a guide for assembling. What I liked about them is you can make as much or as little of them from scratch – depending on time, patience, confidence, inclination or stress level.

Mini lemon and chocolate tarts

You will need:

Mini pastry cases. I made mine in mini muffin tins using a polenta pastry, but you could make any sweet pastry, use store bought, or use ready-made cases.

Lemon curd. Either home-made from your favourite recipe, or from a jar you bought at the supermarket…either is fine. I had some in the fridge that I made last week as we have a surfeit of lemons. Lime curd would also be delicious.

Ganache. Ganache is so quick and easy to make that I would recommend making this rather than buying it. Make it at the beginning so it can cool down in the fridge.

Ganache is basically equal proportions of good quality dark chocolate and cream.  I used 250gms of each. Heat cream until nearly boiling, place roughly chopped chocolate into the cream and wait a few minute. Stir together until smooth. Cool in fridge until firm. If you want to use some later as an icing or chocolate sauce just gently reheat. It will keep in the fridge for at least several weeks.

Toppings: Strawberries, mint leaves, pistachio nuts chopped finely, whipped cream and raspberry powder (optional). Chop a few strawberries finely, add a few drops of balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon of caster sugar and a few chopped mint leaves. Obviously you can add or change these toppings. It’s a great way to use up Christmas ingredients that may be languishing in the fridge or pantry.

To assemble:Fill half the cases with curd and half with ganache. Top with cream and fresh raspberries (and freeze-dried raspberry powder if you have some); and the other half with cream, chopped pistachios and the strawberry mixture.

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An antidote to my London yearning

Sometimes you need to see or do something completely different to get yourself back to normal.

After posting just over a week ago about my yearning to go back to London and finding it hard to settle back in,  I decided to spend a few days down at my favourite spot in New Zealand – Waihi Beach. Our daughter, her delightful baby and two dogs joined me. I’m going to let the photos speak for themselves.

This is my home country at its very best.

 

 

What’s the opposite of home-sick?

We have been home for about three weeks and I can’t settle back into my normal routine. My usual tendency is to enjoy and appreciate the ordinariness of everyday life but I haven’t quite got back into that rhythm yet.

I wasn’t expecting to feel this. I was expecting to have a definite sense of ‘there’s no place like home.’ I was talking yesterday to a well-travelled friend I bumped into at the mall about this feeling and she described it as a yearning. Yearning – ‘a strong feeling of wishing for something, especially something that you cannot have or get easily’ – that’s a pretty good summation.

I know that visiting is not the same as living there. But experiencing the almost physical weight of history and culture for an extended period of time seems to have had a profound effect on me, and  I was overcome by the beauty of so many of the places we visited. Maybe its because we never did the big OE when we were younger so the impact is so much greater now.

I miss so many of the places we visited, especially in the UK. I miss London especially with an ache that I can’t put into words.

I miss the museums, the theatres, the art galleries, the masses of people, so vibrant in their diversity. I miss the Thames winding its dirty way through the city. I miss the Underground (believe it or not!). I miss the pubs with their beautiful hanging baskets. I miss the red double-deckers. I miss the majestic parks. I miss the historic buildings. I miss the sense of tradition, the sense of place.

But I am now home and I have so much to be thankful for now we are home. I need to remind myself of some of these things.

Firstly that I am so fortunate to live in New Zealand. What used to be called the tyranny of distance now looks like an advantage as we watch the news, especially during this eventful US election cycle. Having to fly longer to get anywhere now seems a small price to pay.

Our food and wine culture is as good as anything we experienced overseas (well maybe with the exception of Heston’s restaurant). We have access to amazing fresh, organic produce. I can walk to a farmers’ market in the weekend. Fantastic!

I can hang out with  with my friends who I value dearly.

I get to see our grandchildren whenever I want now I am home. The cliches about them growing too fast are all true.  I wouldn’t want to be away all the time!

Our family  will  be together for Christmas. It will be lovely, loud and messy.

Summer is just around the corner. Christmas decorations are in the shops, BBQs are being cleaned and people, including us, are planning their  annual summer escape to the beach.

My vegetable garden is back under control after 9 weeks of neglect (check out that rhubarb below).

OK, that’s a good list to start with and has helped  actually with the yearning a lot. Home is actually a pretty good place to be!

 

 

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And so it ends…

And so to the final week of our journey. Still behind in my writings as we are now home. I think I have  a theory that if I don’t blog about it, we will still be there somehow. However that is an avoidance technique that is not very helpful so here is our last week of the trip.

A whole week in London! Taking as long to Uber to our apartment by the Tower as it did to drive from Cambridge to the hire car drop-off at Heathrow was a somewhat frustrating experience, but finally we checked into our very cute space late afternoon. What a fantastic spot. Right next to the bustling tourist spot of the Tower and its surrounds, super close to the tube. Perfect.

Quick Wagamama to fill those empty tummies. Then off to the Hammersmith Apollo to see Josh Widdicombe. Formerly the Hammersmith Odeon, this stunning Art Deco theatre has seen so many famous musical names perform, but we were here instead to watch a comedian Josh was filming his DVD which made the night feel a bit special. His gentle Millennial humour gave us a perfect feel-good night out.

Next day we did a mix of touristy stuff. Churchill’s War Rooms –  a long wait to get in but a fascinating look at a space that basically was left as it was the day the war ended. hearing Churchill’s speech while we were down in the bunker gave us a small sense of the hope  and vision of that he carried.

I then spent a very happy hour wandering round St James Park. I am going to miss these stately parks in the middle of such huge cities like London and New York. Despite all our green open spaces, ironically we don’t have a big park in the middle of Auckland.

Wayne went off on a wee adventure by himself for the weekend, a BBC history weekend in Winchester. This meant I could do a sneaky trip to Harrods (just as gloriously tacky and over the top as I remembered it!). Then dinner with the young ones and one of my most anticipated events – Les Miserables at the West End. I have seen this show several times but was not disappointed by seeing it at the theatre where it all started. And it was Les Mis’s 31st birthday and the Queen’s Theatre’s 109th birthday. A really special night to attend.

Hillsong London in the morning – what a great church! Then time to finally say good-bye to Christian (although only for a couple of months) and Sophie (sadly for about a year).It felt really weird and sad walking away, but  I’m so glad they have each other while they are in the UK. And London is much closer to Cambridge than Cornwall so they will have a slightly more normal/less long-distance relationship from here on in. Cute couple xx!

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The last few days went by in a blur – Victoria and Albert, re-visiting our favourite bits of the British Museum, checking out the Borough Markets and Shakespeare at the Globe – what a privilege to get to see this (even with our seat at the back of the upper gallery).

Then it was our final night and we had decided well before we started the trip that we wanted to do something very special on our last night so had booked at Dinner – Heston Blumenthal’s London restaurant. Perfect food, wine and service made this a night to remember.

And then before we knew it, we were checking in at the airport, and then settling down for the double leg 24 hour journey back. I love Air NZ, especially when I am flying home – there’s something about hearing the Kiwi accent from the pilots and stewards that makes me smile.

On the flight I had the most amazing opportunity to photograph some mountains that were poking through the clouds. I think we were flying over Greenland. I have never seen anything quite like them while flying before.

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It’s going to take a very long time to process all of our experiences. I have come back changed by what I have seen and learnt about the richness of our shared history and the beauty of our world. But working all that out will have to wait. For now it’s about catching up with the rest of the family (especially the grand-children), handing out lots of presents and boring them with photos and anecdotes.

My  blog will revert back to its more eclectic range of topics from here on!

 

Nearly on the home stretch

After reluctantly farewelling Ireland we took the car ferry to Cairnryan we spent a very pleasant evening in a delightful B and B just a few minute from the car ferry. My first (and probably last) time ever staying somewhere with a  TV set into the bathroom wall, water-proof remote even!

Then a fairly long drive to North Dockenbush to spend a very quick day in York. We weren’t planning on making York a highlight, but we probably should have with the stunning York Minster and fascinating Shambles.

York Minster, one of the largest churches of its kind in Northern Europe, towers over the city. We were there on Sunday so its bells and those of the  also beautiful St Wilfred’s were pealing with joyous enthusiasm.

I had vaguely heard that The Shambles was worth visiting without really knowing what it was, so we dutifully Googled Mapped our way there and spent a very enjoyable hour wandering this crowded street with houses dating back as early as the 14th century. While now packed with tourists, the jostle and noise probably has some similarity to when it was a bustling market street.

 

Then on to Cambridge where we had a chance to spend four days with Christian, see his ‘dungeon’ digs for the year and be thoroughly entertained by the inrush of freshers for freshers’ week. Watching teenagers who had obviously never ridden a bike before negotiating the narrow streets, often with shopping dangling precariously from their handle bars (with I suspect with a beverage or two already consumed) was both entertaining and downright dangerous for the pedestrian spectator!

I love Cambridge. I love the fact that everyone cycles or walks. I love that the city is intertwined with the university. I love the individuality and beauty of all the colleges.  I love seeing that much maligned species “the youth of today” passionate and excited to learn. Observing  and listening to these young adults gives me great optimism for their generation.

For us it has been a huge sacrifice making the decision to let Christian follow his dream and study here but Im pretty sure its worth it. Already after a year here he has a world view  and experience that he wouldn’t have got if he stayed in NZ and he’s also making the most of every opportunity that comes his way. (Still sounds like a Kiwi though!)

We did a couple of days trips while here; firstly to yet another cathedral, this time at Ely. What a gorgeous town! We climbed the tower (vertigo alert!) which may not have been a good idea for me as by the time we got to the top of the last tiny flight of stone stairs I was fairly traumatised, but I got back down safely so  that was a good thing!

Then a visit to the delightful Audley End House, a (mainly) 17th century estate. With a fully working organic garden and the house beautifully restored to looking how it did at its heyday it was an excellent afternoon’s expedition. We had the added bonus of seeing the ‘Normans’ ride in as part of their journey to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.

Our trip now racing to its end, we headed down to London, dropping off our trusty and now very dirty hire car and keen to spend a week in that great city. We were still not really ready to go home!

 

 

 

Beautiful beautiful Ireland

We only had a week in Ireland so were determined to pack a lot in.

We cruised over on the car ferry, which was a rather nice way to while away a couple of hours. After a night in a cute BnB in Rosslare we headed into Dublin. It rained a lot in the two days we were there!

Obligatory beef and  Guinness pie eating proved very successful, and there was sampling of said Guinness, as well an entertaining visit to the Guinness Storehouse where I got to pour my own pint (I think mine is the one in the middle). Most satisfying.

A more sobering visit to the Kilmainham jail gave us an in-depth look at Ireland’s struggle for freedom and the people who sacrificed their lives to obtain it. There is a heart-breaking letter on display from an 18 year old who was executed for being part of the Easter uprising. The letter was written the night before his death – all he wanted was to see his mum. So very very sad. It made Alcatraz look very tame to be honest.

We also managed to fit in a visit to Dublin Castle with its beautiful staterooms and Trinity College Dublin. The Book of Kells and the old library were well worth the long queue to get in. Incredible to see such an old and precious book, even if it was just a couple of pages open for viewing. (No photos of the book allowed sorry!)

 

Our next two days were spent driving cross country to the beautiful areas of Glasson and Ballina. On the way we saw a sign for a waterfall so headed down the tiny road and were rewarded with seeing a small but gorgeous torrent of water, and finding a place that did excellent tea!

Both  our hotels for these couple of days were by the water, firstly a beautiful lake  and then a river. Very quiet and a nice change of pace from the hectic pace of Dublin. Wayne played golf and I had a massage – bliss.

We then drove to Belfast for a trip highlight – a Game of Thrones tour! Entertained and informed by our crazy guide Brian, a seasoned extra on the show, we saw many of the places where iconic scenes were filmed and got lots of insider information on how things were filmed. Mandatory and  much fun was getting dressed up as Iron Islanders and having a go at fighting  with (very heavy and realistic )swords. Our kids were a bit worried that I was having too much fun fighting their dad!

Along the way we got  to cross the famed Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge (why do I agree to these things?) This was the biggest test for my vertigo ever. Several of our group decided not to risk it as it was a windy day but I knew I would be annoyed with myself if I didn’t attempt it. Suffice to say that it was one of the scariest things I have ever done! I had Wayne behind me, encouraging me to take bigger steps, or at least keep moving. I think I shook for an hour afterwards. I’m not sure that continually forcing myself to confront these situations is good for me but I am learning a lot about what I can to do if I have to, and it turns out it’s quite a lot. The Giant’s Causeway was much easier!

We finished our week with a walking tour of the ‘Troubles’ era in Belfast history. The other side of the fight for autonomy with devastating results that still scar the city emotionally of not physically today.Our guide had grown up through all the bombings and was a professional mediator with both sides of the conflict – could have listened to him all day. We wished we could stay longer in Ireland but the car ferry was booked, so we said our goodbyes and farewelled this wonderful country.

We loved Ireland, so dramatic, such sweeping vistas, delicious food  and friendly people. Another country to put on our ‘let’s go back’ list!

 

Tintagel to St David’s Cathedral

 

On our way out of Cornwall we visited Tintagel Castle (legendary birthplace of King Arthur). Windswept and grim, I again had to clutch onto a railing for dear life as we climbed up stairs carved out of the very steep rock face. Well worth the terror as we gazed out on the isolated landscape, read about the ancient castle built precariously on the clifftops and marvelled at the mountain goats skipping their way down the scary slopes.

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I rewarded myself with a very delicious cornish pasty and we continued onto Bath. We only had a very short stay here but Wayne here made good on his promise to buy me a decent camera as a belated birthday present, so we left with me clutching my new baby very excitedly.

We spent a couple of days in the Welsh countryside and took the camera for its first outing in St Davids. This little place is officially a city as it contains a beautiful cathedral. We spent the morning exploring that and the ruins of the neighbouring Bishop’s Palace. I really liked this peaceful place. There has been a Christian presence here since the 6th century and St David is the patron saint of Wales. Like so many other cathedrals, this was the heart of a vibrant faith community rather than a museum and monument to the past and I could feel the life and spirit inside as I walked through. I love this sense of being connected to the on-going narrative of my faith in so many different places.

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And then off to attempt a small stretch of the Pembrokeshire Coastal walkway. This of corse meant more cliffs . I managed to get a fair way along until the drops became too steep despite the distraction of the new camera and I decided that it was time to turn back. We did encounter wild ponies, hawks and seals so again worth the terror I think!

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In all a wonderful and refreshing couple of days – very different to Italy, but just as beautiful.