29 July 2008

smita's wedding

On Friday we travelled up to Harrogate for my friend Smita's wedding to Ron. I lived with Smita at university which was where Ron and Smita met. She has been a great friend to me and it was lovely to see her marry her sweetheart. After a traditional Hindu ceremony, and lunch, we popped to Valley Gardens for an ice cream and a snooze in the sweltering temperatures. Then it was back to the hotel for some amazing food and a great party.

The bride entersThe ceremonyMehndi hands

21 July 2008

We've just had one of those weekends where you need another weekend to recover. Luckily, we don't have them very often.

Friday night we were at a surprise stag do for a work colleague who apparently, has been told by his wife-to-be that he's not allowed one. The night was disguised as someone else's birthday celebration and then when the stag went to the bar we all donned t-shirts, and gave him a big cheer on return, then dressed him up with a pink wig and got him terribly drunk so that he had to be taken home (no doubt to his very angry fiance).

For some reason, I had roped myself in to making the t-shirts. The challenge being to make them as cheap as possible in case no-one gave me the money back. Most printing companies wanted at least £5 per t-shirt, but I managed to make these for less than £2 each.

How? I bought 22 t-shirts in the sale at Matalan for £1.50 each and two fabric aerosol spray paints for £5.50 a bottle. I traced a template made in word with a bit of free clip art onto a piece of acetate and cut out with a craft knife, then sprayed each t-shirt through the stencil, protecting the edges with pieces of newspaper.

They worked brilliantly if I do say so myself.

The t-shirts in productionThe stagSaturday we went with friends to Chai's Garden, a Thai restaurant in Brockley and stuffed ourselves silly with lovely food and lots of beer, then Sunday we went to the Dartford Festival in Central Park to watch a Queen tribute and Chas 'n' Dave. I'd no idea how big and nice the park was. More beers and a curry later, we were exhausted.

Chas 'n' DaveCentral Park flowers

17 July 2008

italy - food critique

Out of all the reasons we chose Italy for our honeymoon, the cuisine was top of the list. We love the cheese, the garlic, the pasta, the olives, the wine, the antipasti, the oil – everything. Not only is it my favourite food to eat, but my favourite food to cook. I consider myself quite the master at creating new pasta sauces, and love experimenting with new recipes from the River Café and Jamie Oliver in particular. I was really looking forward to being wowed and inspired by real Italian food.

How disappointed I was.

This post is a quick run down of our experience of buying produce and eating out in Italy.

Venice
Generally, it was difficult to find restaurants that didn’t cater to tourists. On our first evening we steered clear of the Rialto Bridge area and ate at a small osteria on the Strada Nova. The house speciality was gnocchi, so I had it with a ragu sauce and Dom had with a duck. Both were subtle, some might say bland flavours.

For main course I had hare casserole. It was tough. Dom had pork shin, which was tender and tasty, but nothing special. I was a little disappointed but put it down to bad luck on the first night.

On our second evening we headed to tourist-ville and sat by the canal at the Rialto. I had caprese and Dom had carpaccio to start, then I had mixed fried fish and Dom had saltimbocca. We were pleased with the setting, the service and the dishes, but they were overpriced for what they were. It was nothing we hadn’t tasted before and it wasn’t the wonderful Italian cuisine we were expecting.

Mixed fried fishFlorence
Supposedly famous for bistecca alla fiorentina (basically grilled T-bone steak), this dish was quite hard to find. On our first evening we ended up at a faceless tourist place on the walk down to the river Arno called La Borsa, chosen out of hunger and desperation. We settled for a pizza and the service sucked, but went back there two nights in a row because we couldn’t find a good value, authentic restaurant anywhere. On the second night we were worried we were being ignored because we hadn’t tipped the previous evening, but I wasn’t going to let them win and waited about 30 minutes at the table to even be acknowledged. We tried their version of bistecca (overcooked) but we suffered all of this on account of their wine. It was nothing fancy, just table wine, but it was so dark, fruity and almost fizzing fresh from the barrel we couldn’t get enough.

Bistecca alla fiorentinaTuscany
All our woes would be rectified in Tuscany we thought. We stayed in the small village of Radicondoli away from tourists, and home to restaurants where the locals eat.

One place, La Pergola, was a real gem and we went back a few times. It is a family run bar and restaurant with a really welcoming, community feel, and out the back, under the pergola are tables with the most amazing views of sunsets over the Tuscan hills. The owner gave us a run down of the menu on our first visit, and would always bring a complimentary homemade limoncello liqueur to finish - the best in the whole of Italy (we asked him for the recipe, but he wouldn’t give it!).

Some of the more unusual items on the menu were ravioli stuffed with nettles, and a sort of tripe ragu. The antipasti was delicious, and the pannacottas were heavenly.

Nettle ravioliTripeOther nights we cooked for ourselves pasta, salad, risotto, with produce from the general store, the butchers and the bakers. The cost of food in these shops we found expensive compared with the UK, but it was nice to see freshly baked bread, locally grown, in-season fruit and veg on the shelves, still dirty with the earth that nurtured them.

When we travelled outside of Radicondoli we didn’t find anything decent. Note our bad experience of lunch in Siena.

The ice cream was good though. The ice cream was good everywhere!

Rome
We expected disappointment in Rome, but it was a mixed bag. The service was better, and we were lucky to find Enoteca Antica (Via della Croce) which served an amazing array of antipasti and lovely tender meat courses. The desserts left something to be desired though. Eating their pannacotta was like cutting through a pencil eraser with your spoon and it was covered in strawberry sauce like you get from the ice cream van as a kid.

Sorrento
There is only one restaurant worth mentioning in Sorrento, but it is really worth mentioning: Pizzeria Franco (265 Corso Italia).

We found it after a sorrowful experience of trawling back streets looking for somewhere half-decent and then ending up making our own food to eat in the hotel room.

Making our own salad with meats and cheese in the hotel roomYou sit on benches, use plastic plates, plastic cups, plastic knives and forks, get yourself a beer, nibble on the local cheese (and on some days, complementary pieces of pie) and wait patiently for the best pizza you will ever taste in your life. The queue of locals wanting takeaway is often out the door.

Pizza at Franco's
If you find anywhere else to eat in Sorrento that isn’t ripping off pale British holidaymakers who think this place is better than the Costa Brava, or isn’t cashing in on Americans please let me know.

Greenhithe
Oh, sorry, Greenhithe isn’t in Italy, but I tell you what, a few days after we got back from Italy we went to Carluccios in Bluewater for dinner and realised that we can get everything we had in Italy right on our doorstep. I’m not saying Carluccios is great by any means, it’s a chain, and the never-changing menu is getting boring now, but what I am saying is that Italy is no better than Carluccios. In going to Italy you will not find anything better than what you can find in your own local Italian restaurant, or in all the wonderful selection of restaurants that London has to offer.

We’d never felt so grateful to be living in the UK.

For a while I thought I was the only one who felt like this about Italy, but then someone told me about this article that Giles Coren wrote for The Times last week. He describes our feelings perfectly.

Food in Italy is just not that great. If you are a food snob, like me, I think you will be disappointed.

14 July 2008

fence repairs

Our back fence has been on its last legs for a while and although we did a repair of the side panels about a year ago, the wood warped because the wrong fixings were used. So the first few weekends after we got back from honeymoon it was time to re-do the side length and also replace the one at the bottom.

With the bottom fence, we needed to use something stronger than gravel boards to contain the soil because it backs onto a path that is lower than the soil. We toyed with the idea of building a wall (too much work), then thought about railway sleepers (too thick), then spotted some thick stair boards used for decking at the garden centre - perfect.

So, the first weekend after we were back from honeymoon we set about rebuilding the bottom fence. On Saturday we pulled down the old one, dug away the soil, dug out deep holes for the posts (very difficult job), put each post in level, fixed one stair board in place, stabilised with props, filled the holes with dry concrete, watered the concrete mix and left to set over night.

Posts inStabilise with propsOn Sunday Dom put the stair boards in, one on top of the other,

Dom screws the stair boards in with strong bracketsthen attached the arris rails,

Arris rails fixed horizontallythen screwed on the individual feathered edge boards. Sunday night it was done, all bar the paint job.

Dom admires his finished fence with a KronieThe next weekend we only had a day free and worked on the side fence. My job was to take each individual feathered edge board off with a crowbar and take out the nails with the back of the hammer. There were about 70 of these to do. Dom screwed them back on, then I touched up the paint. I also painted the back fence.

The final weekend was for building a trellis for three of the panels on the side fence. Dom built, I painted, and Dom attached. We had to build them ourselves rather than buy them because the posts were set a bit further apart than the length of the trellis you can buy. Anyway, homemade is more sturdy.

It looks good!

Finished side fence (with trellis)

10 July 2008

growing tomatoes

I once had a school teacher who loved tomatoes so much he would send two volunteers down to the village fruit and veg shop every lunch time to get him a pound or two. What was both bizarre and befitting was that not only did he have red hair and incredibly red looking skin (and us kids would joke that it was because he ate so many tomatoes), not only that, but his first name was Redgrave, or Red for short.

Tomatoes are a real favourite of mine and I have many happy memories of picking them from my Grandad's and my Dad's greenhouses, from walking in there and smelling the unmistakable tomato plant smell.

So, I was most pleased to smell that smell from the mere wisps of seedlings that I had planted far too late for them to have much chance of bearing fruit.

2 weeks oldNevertheless, I have persisted and planted them on into grow bags. I am hoping that they will flourish over the late summer and I may get a late crop in September - October.

5 weeks oldThis is really my first foray into growing fruit and veg. I would like to grow more, not just because it's become trendy lately, but because it is what I grew up with. It's not going to be very practical with the garden layout we have now though, because the back garden is north facing, and just about everything struggles to survive in the chalky soil. I will see how I go with pots and growbags this year and in the coming years we may consider building some raised beds.

09 July 2008

watching lewis win at silverstone

My dad's 60th birthday present from the family was a three day ticket for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. He has followed Formula One every year since I can remember, but this would be his first time at a race.

We arrived at Hamilton Fields campsite on Thursday night, which is about a half hour walk from the track and thankfully it was dry and sunny so we could get the tent up and have a barbie.

BBQ in Hamilton FieldsFriday was practice - it was lovely weather so we were able to walk all the way round the track, take a picnic lunch and soak up the atmosphere. There were loads of other races going on: GP2 and Formula BMW, as well as air displays, but nothing compared to the first time we heard the roar of the F1 engines. With our roving tickets we could sit anywhere for practice and qually, so today we tried out the Pit Straight. There you really got an idea of the speed these cars can do.

Friday, practice, walking down Hangar StraightBack at the campsite we had a few drinks, more outdoor eating and then a big sing and dance in the beer tent, where a local Irish band were playing. Great fun - reminded us of Dublin.

Qualifiying on Saturday was a little colder and there was the odd shower. Lewis only made 4th on the grid, but knowing that the McClarens were fast left us positive about the race. We sat in the Pit Straight again, but this time with a better view into the pit garages.

Saturday qualifying, Lewis gets fourth on the gridSurprisingly I still managed to sleep that night in the tent through strong winds and rain, and woke up on Sunday morning excited for the race. It was pouring though, so we decked ourselves in everything we could find to keep us warm and dry, including plastic bags on feet and made our way to the track.

Plastic bags on feetGetting wet in front row of Luffield BWe watched the drivers' parade, which was about an hour before the race, and although we had reserved covered seats in the Luffield B stand, we were in the front row so the wind was blowing the rain horizontally into our faces and laps and I was soon wet and shivering. I went for a walk around to warm up and came back for the national anthem. Luckily after this the rain and wind eased off, and we could enjoy all the thrills and spills that were about to take place.

Wet drivers' paradeI cannot tell you how exciting it was - loud, fast and unpredictable - so many drivers spun off at the corner where we were sat.

At the start Lewis made it up from 4th on the grid to second behind Kovalainen, and after Kovalainen spun, Raikkonen came up to second place in his Ferrari. For a while we thought he was going to catch Lewis, but then they both pitted together and Lewis got out ahead of Raikkonen by a hair's breadth and because Lewis had changed tyres but Raikkonen had not, Lewis started making headway at an incredible 4 seconds a lap. Rakkonen dropped back so far that Kovalainen in 3rd place was able to try and overtake him right in front of us at Luffield, but in the tustle, both Kovalainen and Nik Heidfeld in the BMW passed Raikonnen! It was AMAZING!

Lewis and Raikkonen, dropping behind in his FerrariWe saw Jenson Button do a fantastic 360 spin without slowing and speed off again, and everyone in the crowd took a deep breath and exhale as they watched Lewis narrowly miss Massa in his Ferrari who span and stopped right in the middle of the track.

In the spray the drivers can be almost blind to the cars in front, and the skill required to stay on the track, never mind drive competitively is incredible.

Looking left into the Pit Straight - check out the spray!Lewis drove excellently and increased his lead to over a minute. He held on and went on to win. The time passed so quickly, and I didn't want it to end. Being there to see Lewis win was absolutely fantastic and quite emotional.

Final result:
1. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)
2. Nik Heidfeld (BMW)
3. Rubens Barrichello (Honda)

Well done Lewis! And now for the championship!!!

03 July 2008

make your own cheap wedding cake

There was no way I was going to spend £400 on a cake. So, I looked at different ideas to reduce the cost, while keeping it personal and special. Making a cake from scratch was going to be too impractical as I was planning the wedding long distance, so I came up with an ingenious cheat that I am very proud of. This is my secret top tip for having a lovely wedding cake at a real bargain price.

You will need:

  • a cupcake stand I bought a 7 tier Perspex one from Exhibitz, but only used 5 tiers (£49 inc delivery, or cheaper if you win an auction)
  • 8 packs of Asda Smart Price fairy cakes 12 per pack gives 96 cupcakes @ £0.48 per pack, this includes extras in case of mistakes (£3.84)
  • 2 packs icing sugar (approx £1.50)
  • sugar flowers in your wedding colours 90 small for the cupcakes, approx 4 large for the top (approx £35). Cake Craft Shop have a great selection for all budgets. Browse around for more colours and toppers as desired. Simple is more effective in my opinion.
  • medium iced celebration cake (Asda, M&S, Waitrose, Tesco) approx £10
  • water (free)
  • 2-3 metres of ribbon (approx £1.50)
total cost: approximately £100 ! ! !

How to make

1. Assemble the stand
2. Make firm icing according to instructions, adding water drop by drop
3. Rope in Husband to Be and Father of the Bride to ice cakes, gently pushing the icing neatly to the sides of each cake wrapping using the back of a wet teaspoon dipped in water. With three of us it took about 3 hours.

Dad and Dom icingMake them neat4. Stick a sugar flower on top of each cake

Icing the cakes5. Assemble larger sugar flowers on the top cake
6. Tie ribbon around top cake so that it drapes all the tiers
7. Take cakes to venue in tin
8. Get nice staff to arrange the cakes on the stand

Looks beautifulNobody knows my secret!
9. Cut
10. Eat!
PoseCutOnly the cupcakes need to be served on the day. The top cake can be saved if you buy fruit.

No-body clocked that I could have made this myself, it looked professional, did the job, those who knew my secret were very impressed and I was very proud of my efforts. If anyone tries this, I hope you have the same success. Good luck!

01 July 2008

honeymoon part six: sorrento

I was always a little dubious about this place. The guide books had nothing good to say about it but I figured it would be a good base for exploring the Amalfi Coast.

Apart from wanting to kill the loud, unruly child banging about in the next carriage, the train from Rome to Naples was fine: quick and comfortable.

The journey from Naples to Sorrento on the local trains, however, was a different matter. The platform at Naples station was dark and grotty and the train itself was packed. I suppose it’s not much different from the London Underground though, so I tried to hold back the criticism. We stood the whole 50 minutes to Sorrento, trying avoid making eye contact with the young crack addict swaying about in the vestibule, and noticing how each town we passed through looked more tumble-down than the last. It was raining, which didn’t help.

We took a taxi from the station, (where I clocked the hundreds of people queuing for the SITA buses that do the Amalfi Coast run), to the Hotel Cristina.

The hotel was lovely and smart, the room was spacious with an amazing view (or so we assumed, as right now, we couldn’t see a damn thing for the thick storm clouds).

Bad dayGood dayNot wanting to leave the hotel in that weather, we ate in the hotel restaurant. I won’t mention how shockingly un-Italian it was, and how we were the only people in the restaurant under 60 years old. At least we knew we’d be eating out the rest of the time.

We woke up the next day to, guess what? MORE BAD WEATHER.

We were so frustrated and disappointed by now, but it was out of our control.

So, to Pompeii.

Following on from our enjoyment of an Italian style breakfast in Rome, (two cappuccinos and two pastries at Paticceria D’Angelo for the sensible price of £3) we walked into a bar on the way to the train station and asked for the same. However, the cappuccinos that came out were not your normal Italian sized ones, they were more like Starbucks' and they tasted as weak as piss. The pastries weren’t dainty freshly baked cornetti, they were big fat jam doughnuts. What the hell was this place? I reeled in horror as, from inside the bar, I slowly decoded the back-to-front writing on the awnings outside “T-O-U-R-I-S-T B-A-R”. Noooooooooooooo!

Then came the bill: £10. You shysters!

Now seriously disgruntled, and looking at the world through anger tinted specs, we took the same graffiti-covered local train as yesterday and followed the hoards of other tourists to the ruined city of Pompeii. I hadn’t realised how huge it was – absolutely massive. However, it wasn’t as well attended to as I would have hoped. I didn’t see any official guides anywhere to help people around the site (just thieving con-artist unofficial guides) and I noticed building materials lying around, mosaics covered in dirt and leaves etc. Why weren’t they taking pride in this national treasure? Taking tourism for granted perhaps? The attitude in the canteen was shocking. The staff didn’t even look us in the eye when they handed us our roast pork slops. Where was the delicious Italian food from this nation of cooks? It was sad, very sad, that a country should feel it has to dumb itself down for its foreign visitors. I was hoping the Italians would be the sort to say eat our food or starve.

PompeiiPompeii touristsBack in Sorrento we wandered round looking for restaurants that a) weren’t serving low grade spag bol or lasagne or b) weren’t charging the earth. It started to absolutely pour with rain, but we persisted trekking the streets with our Jack-in-the-Packs working overtime. We couldn’t believe how difficult it was to find a simple, local, Italian restaurant with reasonable prices. It was impossible. I was fed up with the Italians for mercilessly ripping off tourists, fed up with the tourists for being there, and fed up with the incessant bad weather! Tired and wet, we gave in to two cappuccinos and two cakes for a £15 and planned that night’s dinner. We’d give ourselves the standard of food we expect, but for the price we’d expect - we’d make it ourselves. We’d get what we needed from the deli at the supermarket and eat in our room. And so we did.

Forced smiles in the rainOf course, sods law, on our way back to the hotel laden with self catering produce, we did find what looked like a great local pizza restaurant. We noted it for tomorrow night.

Next morning, with only three days left of our Italian tour, we walked down to the Marina Grande. The sun started to come out and the whole place looked and felt a lot better. Clearly the bad weather had been having a big effect on our enjoyment.

We took a picnic lunch but suffered the continual nagging of restaurant touts as we wandered back and forth trying to find a spot to sit and eat. When we did, we soon attracted the company of a smelly tramp asking for a cigarette. Brilliant.

Marina GrandeAt Marina Piccolo the tourist ferries to the isle of Capri were standing room only, packed like sardines with fat Americans off the cruise ships. It didn’t look like an experience we would enjoy.

Perhaps we could hire our own boat. We looked into it, made a few phone calls and the next day we were out on the water as captains of our own motorised duck making our own way to Capri. Luckily the sun was out, the sky was blue and it was great fun. We took a picnic lunch made by our new best friend who worked in the supermarket deli and spent the whole day out there. We docked at Capri and left the boat with one of the harbour workers (for a few euro of course), then made our way around the coast of the island and anchored for lunch at our own private cove. It was absolutely brilliant. This was the sort of thing we liked, away from others, doing our own thing, independent, interesting, explorative.

Captain VicThe cove, CapriThe cove, CapriCaptain DomBack on dry land and burnt to a crisp we re-hydrated with a couple of beers and then went for dinner at the one and only restaurant that met with our approval in Sorrento: Pizzeria Franco.

Our last day in Italy began with hot weather and a dilemma. Now that we finally had some sunshine, should we spend the day by the pool relaxing, or should we climb Mount Vesuvius?

PoolAfter some serious deliberation, Vesuvius it was. That meant back on the train to Pompeii - un-pleasant, but at least we had a seat.

We bought our tickets for the public bus to vesuvius train ticket window in Pompeii and were told to get the bus from “the square”. So we walked to the square, but no bus stop in sight. Who could we ask? Every Italian was a rip-off merchant, they’d only try and send us to the other dodgy private bus companies. I chose the most innocent looking person I could find: a man selling orange juice. We went where he told us, but there was no sign, no indication that it was a bus stop. I turned around and noticed a bit of paper stuck to a door that said “Tourist Information”. Curiouser and curiouser. Where would this white rabbit lead us? Well, he confirmed the bus stop, but sent us on a real wild goose chase for a cash machine, which, to cut a long story short ended up with us missing the bus and having to wait an hour for the next one.

We were in New Pompeii now, so we decided to eat lunch, but three weeks in this country had left us scarred with lessons learnt about where we should and shouldn’t eat and we couldn’t settle on anywhere. Lesson 1: don’t eat around squares, they will be selling at a premium and you will get ripped off. Lesson 2: don’t eat near tourist areas, you will get ripped off. Lesson 3: don’t eat from a place where nothing is priced, you will get ripped off.

What do you do when lessons 1, 2 and 3 leave you with nowhere to eat? Go to McDonalds.

Yes, the Golden Arches just appeared out of the blue and saved us from our torment. Now, I hate McDonalds and everything it stands for, so believe me, choosing McDonalds in Italy, supposedly the food capital of Europe, was a serious low point. I, of course, blamed the Italians for bringing me to this. On the last day of our three week trip, they had finally beaten us. Even in Japan, supposedly the most expensive place in the world, I never had such problems.

Cut now to the bus journey. Higher and higher we go up Vesuvius. The views get better at every turn, we are nearly there, we can see the summit, and then… hang on… we’re going down, what’s this?

So, the bus stops in a car park with one shop. The driver gets off and a woman gets on, and in a dodgy accent she tells us, “My father who is very ill is inside the shop and he will give you the information you need and the tickets you need for the trip to the top.”

Oh, whatever love, give us a break. Everyone on the bus knew it was a con and no-one moved. Then she told us that we might as well get off because the bus was going to park here for 20 minutes. So we got off, and while others were hounded into buying bottles of water and the like, Dom and I steered well clear and moaned some more about the cheek of these people – and this was a public bus too!

Thirty five minutes later and we were all back on the bus waiting impatiently to leave, but the driver was still outside smoking a fag and talking on his phone. One of the Americans decided to do something about it and cajoled the driver back on the bus (not without objection I might add). The cheeky f*ck!

It was literally about 30 seconds more drive to the top of the mountain where we did our climb, saw the crater, marvelled at the views over the Bay of Naples and came back down for a beer. Despite everything, it was worth it.

Climbing VesuviusOf course, it wasn’t over yet.

We got down in time for the 15:00 bus, and at 15.20 a bus turned up but we were told this was the 16.30 bus. We were totally unconvinced, but the driver just hurled abuse at us in Italian and went off to get himself an ice cream. We were proved right, when at 16.05 the 16.30 bus turned up and our driver told that driver to go back down again. They were clearly working it so they didn’t have to do all the timetabled trips in a day, spanning out the drive at their little side line café on the way up. For me, this was the final nail in the coffin for Italy.

I know you can’t generalise, but it seems like Italians from bin men to bus drivers, café owners and taxi drivers are as corrupt as they come. No wonder the Italian mafia are so successful – it’s in the genes!

We drove back through the outskirts of Naples, catching sight of the stinking, rat infested piles of rubbish that have been building up here over the last year and recalled the good and the bad sides of Italian life. Molto interessante.

Venice and Rome were amazing, Florence and Sorrento were not. Tuscany was somewhere in between. Maybe we should have done Italy in short bursts, maybe we should have avoided such tourist-filled areas, shoulda, woulda, coulda...

We have certainly learnt that we like backpacking adventure holidays, honeymoon or not, and we like some feeling of independence away from the crowds and we didn’t achieve that with Italy.

Arrivederci.

Read a very similar experience of the area by Pauline on Slow Travel

Arrivederci