Walesward Ho!

We are off to Wales this morning.

We are half packed. The house is in disarray. The washing machine is still whirring inexorably on.

The cat is sulking and spending half her time eating the sofa as if to say: ‘This is your leg I’m attacking really’, and the rest of the time chasing her tail.

I do not have to worry about the tortoise. She went to chokey yesterday.

I do have to worry about lists, lists, endless lists, and whether everything will fit into the car as we attempt to squish everything we cannot live without – which seems to be half the house – into a small VW Polo.

Happy days.

This is my retreat week. The weather promises to be bleak, but we have underfloor heating, access to delicious food, and a dry wood pile so we can light endless roaring fires.

This is the same location we turned up at two years ago only to find that all my clothes had been left behind.

It isn’t going to happen this time, but I’m sure there will be something we forget.

There always is.

I may or may not blog, depending on whether the WiFi works and how I feel. I promise to eat splendid food, read splendid books, and crack on with my knitting.

I will regale you anon.

Happy Birthday Oscar – You are Eight. (Almost)

Dearest Oscar,

Last week, when we were discussing your birthday you said:

‘Mama. I really don’t want to be eight.’

I asked you why.

You said:

‘Because seven has been such an excellent year that it seems a shame to leave it.’

That seemed fair, so we compromised and agreed that as there would have to be some kind of celebration in order to justify excessive cake consumption and presents, we would say you were seven and three quarters instead.’

So, my lovely, lovely, boy – happy seven and three quarters birthday.

You are growing so fast. This year in particular has seen you face up to a new school, and found you moving away from your best friend, and all kinds of things that have really pushed you to the limits of your ever wobbling bravery. You very much remind me of Piglet sometimes:

“It is hard to be brave,” said Piglet, sniffling slightly, “when you’re only a Very Small Animal.”

And you still are a very small animal lots of the time. But my word, you have proved yourself this year, small or not. And the bravery of the smallest and wobbliest is the bravest of all.

I am so proud of you, and I am so delighted to watch you blossoming in your new school, with new friends, and new challenges that you are delighting in meeting. You are rising to those challenge in every way.

I love sharing the walk to school and back with you every day. I cherish those moments when we walk along, talking and looking and thinking about stuff together. I am thrilled that we can still share secrets, and talk about very important stuff, and the ever present threat of zombie invasion, naturally. You would not be you if we didn’t have to discuss that.

I am utterly amazed and grateful that you still want to hold my hand, even if, instead of a kiss in the playground these days I get a sort of goatish, bashful, head bash in the sternum. It is the best sort of head bash a woman could want.

Sometimes, I know you worry that you might have to leave us, and you don’t want that (not yet). You are adamant that you will live with us until you are a crazy, middle aged man in a snorkel parka with a penchant for making scale models of Sydney Opera House out of matches, and alphabetising your shoe collection.

That’s fine with me.

You must know, boy of my heart, that you will never, ever leave us. Not ever. Not even when I am a handful of dust. You will always, always be with me and I will love you to infinity and beyond.

Happy Birthday bestest of boys.

My Indulgence

One of the reasons for my frantic rushing about this week, trying to get all my chores done at super light speed, was entirely selfish. I ran away to that there London yesterday to spend the day with some friends.

Very lovely it was too.

I drove up after the school run, abandoned the car in Brent Cross, after having sobbed my way down the M1 listening to Woman’s Hour, and then making myself laugh thinking what the other drivers must think of me as I drove in tear stained grimness, sobbing and hiccuping. I suspect with the laughter and the crying combined they probably decided to steer well clear of me, frankly.

The weather had perked up mightily by the time I arrived in London and I had to abandon coat and cardigan on the walk to the tube station.

A few chapters of my book later I was at Oxford Circus. I was meeting my friends in Liberty. They had already breakfasted and were going about the serious business of shopping. Even though we were having afternoon tea later, I was starving, and treated myself to elevenses in the very nice restaurant.

I note, by the way, that the restaurant is situated on the same floor as ladies clothing. This seems mad to me, as after having wolfed down a rather delicious tarte au citron bedecked with fresh raspberries, the last thing I was prepared to do was strip down to my smalls and try to shovel my lumps and bumps into a bandage dress.

Just saying.

After refuelling I just had time to hurtle upstairs, poke all the Christmas ornaments and buy a Rory Dobner tile. I have been coveting a piece of Rory Dobner for years now, and as there was 10% off everything in store yesterday it seemed rude not to.

We tootled off to the Covent Garden Hotel on Monmouth Street in Seven Dials for two o’clock tea. Early I know, but there were lots of us coming from all over the UK, and if we had left it to tea time, tea time, some of us wouldn’t have made it home before dawn.

The tea was splendid. There were several versions on offer. I had the Covent Garden tea, which consisted of, smoked salmon bagels, cheese and pickle and ham and mustard sandwiches (crusts cut off, naturally), and flatbreads with poached chicken and mayo. These were cut into handy, bite sized pieces, and the obliging staff were happy to fill the plate as often as you waved a crumb bestrewn finger in the air.

There were also fruit and plain scones, still warm, served with raspberry and strawberry jam and clotted cream. Again, these were endlessly on tap as desired.

The cake selection was splendid; involving a kind of Austrian confection of layered chocolate sponge and raspberry cream, with a glazed chocolate top like a Sacher torte, and fresh raspberries on top; profiteroles piped with praline cream and topped with caramel sugared icing; shot glasses of blackberry mousse with chocolate glazed topping and apple caramel meringue pies; meringue nests piped with whipped cream and fruit.

You also got tea, hot chocolate or coffee of your choice. I had a never ending pot of Jasmine tea, which was delicious.

The whole thing was fantastic, frankly and I would recommend you go there. For £28 it was a wonderful experience, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

We managed a sneaky trip to Fortnums on the way back, where I wished I had £150 to spend on a life sized Mexican sugar skull made out of chocolate for Mrs Jones, and about four million pounds I could waste on fripperies for the children.

By the time I got back to Brent Cross I was tired and hungry (I know. I was only slightly ashamed), and had a more frugal dinner in Leon before heading home.

It was a splendid day.

And today I am running to beat the band to pay for it. Anjum Anand’s spiced meatballs with spiced tomatoes and eggs is bubbling away in the slow cooker, from her book, Anjum’s Quick and Easy Indian. I have baked chocolate brownies, chocolate cookies and pomegranate molasses cookies from Liberty London Girl’s cook book, Friends, Food, Family. I have also made the now traditional, Jo Wheatley chocolate Malteser birthday cake from her book, A Passion for Baking. It is Oscar’s birthday, and he was sad and anxious this morning when he went to school, as we didn’t really have time to celebrate with him at breakfast. I am hoping this makes up for it somewhat.

It should do.

Do as I say, not as I do.

Yesterday I was on the ball, I was all over the ball. I was underneath the bloody ball. I shifted mountains of paperwork and did things that I had long been dreading and putting to the bottom of the pile whilst shouting: ‘La la la, I can’t hear you,’ with fingers in my ears.

I even rang the Tax Office.

Oh yeah.

And. When I found out that the form that they needed me to fill in was difficult, difficult, lemon difficult, I didn’t shove it to the bottom of the new pile I had created out of the remains of the old pile and leave it for three months to marinade in tears of panic dropped gently into a soup of studied indifference. No. I actually knuckled down and filled the sodding thing in.

By the time bedtime rolled around I felt like a special efficiency ninja. I decided I would have a hat with a feather in, and a badge, and maybe an umbrella I could parade around with, brandishing it in the face of lesser mortals. All signs of my total brilliance in the face of chores.

I thought to myself, I thought: ‘Blimey, missis. If the week continues like this you will be totally prepared for all eventualities and that huge to do list might actually get done, you top banana, you.’

And then there was this morning.

This morning where I have mooched about the house, desultorily flicking a duster, wandering off to the computer and eating digestive biscuits as if they’re going out of fashion.

Trailing crumbs as I go.

If I had managed to get that hat with a feather in it, it would totally be drooping now. Probably into some soup, and ending up all matted and bedraggled and what not.

It seems I am unable to sustain core efficiency levels when it comes to jobs. I either do ‘all’ the jobs, or ‘none’ of the jobs. There is nothing in between.

Why? Why do I do this to myself? Why can I not be reasonably organised at a kind of medium level at all times, instead of either a Stepford Wife or a sloth with moss growing in its fur?

What is wrong with me?

I am always banging on to the children about how it is important to pace yourself, and do things little and often rather than all in one go, and yet it seems I am psychologically incapable of following my own advice. Including the bit about biscuits not being an acceptable breakfast.

Gah.

Just a few things going on

This is my last catch up post before I have to go forth and do untold acres of paperwork.

We left British soil on Tuesday lunch time, and touched back down again on Friday lunch time. In essence we were away for two full days. The amount of things I’ve had to do/catch up with, since returning makes me feel that I’ve actually been away for about a month at least.

On Friday we made it home with half an hour to spare before having to head out to see Oscar’s Tudor extravaganza show at school. He looked very splendid indeed, and the whole costume came together beautifully. He was very sad he had forgotten to take his sword. We weren’t, and I expect his teacher wasn’t too distressed about it either. Seven year olds with swords in a built up environment are never good news.

When we got home it was straight into homework, and singing lessons and cooking dinner before Jason went to pick Nanna up from the railway station. She is over from Canada for a few weeks, and was visiting with us for the weekend.

I am very proud that I actually managed to get a hot dinner on the table in the right order by the time she arrived. It was a herculean effort.

Saturday involved a lovely breakfast out followed by a morning of errands and dropping Oscar for a play date with a friend from school.  The afternoon involved more homework, more cooking and more jobs that needed doing round the house.

Sunday was going to be a day out day, until we looked at the weather, which was grim and blowy. It ended up as a day of more (bloody hellfire) homework, because a day isn’t complete until you’ve thought about words ending in -le, and what the universe would be like if elephants were in charge, We also squeezed in lots of baking and I managed to produce another edible dinner, which made a hat trick, and meant I could retire forever.

Or something.

In the evening we hooked up with Andrea, and Nanna, Tilly and I went to see the NTLive encore of Helen McCrory’s Medea.

Monday morning was a rush. Jason started his new job. Tallulah actually had a cookery lesson that involved both cooking, and having to take ingredients to school. She also had PE, so there were tons of things to remember to take. Oscar had various bags and articles festooned about his person which we dutifully trotted over to school with, only realising in the playground that he had forgotten his lunch box.

I headed home, dropped Nanna at the railway station, and then went off to do errands, having to stop at four different green grocers before I found the right sort of lettuce for the tortoise (curse her), and being thoroughly sodden en route, as it continued to piddle it down all morning. I very kindly dropped Oscar’s lunch box into school, although the temptation to make him starve was immense.

The afternoon was considerably brighter as I managed to sneak away and go for lunch with my mum, before getting back into the saddle of chores, errands, jobs, chores, laundry, errands, jobs.

My car got booked in for its MOT before we go away on Saturday for half term, which is good. I organised all my paper work. I sent Jason’s papers to the accountant and remembered to get them signed for (go me). I helped Oscar come up with ideas for his competition entry for ‘draw the inside of Shakespeare’s head.’ which he is determined to win and being very artsy hysterical about. It’s like living with Picasso, but with less reward.

I have started road testing the recipes from the so far wonderful; ‘Friends, Food, Family’ by my friend Liberty London Girl (Sasha Wilkins). So far everything we have made has been delicious. I will post in more detail about this as the week progresses and we tuck a few more recipes (and pounds) under our belt.

I have finished reading the children Percy Jackson and the House of Hades by Rick Riordan, which we have been steadily working through since the summer. We started the last and latest book: ‘The Blood of Olympus’ last night, much to everyone’s pleasure.

I am making preparations for Thursday, when I am pinching a day to go to London to have afternoon tea with my lovely friends. I am making further preparation for Friday when it is Oscar’s birthday, and I am also trying to be organised for Saturday when we are off to North Wales for a week, hopefully with my luggage this year.

Hardly anything to do at all, really.

The Great British Bake Off 2014 – The Final

This is not a proper Bake Off post, for which I am sorry.

The truth is that I actually managed to watch it real time thanks to Jason and internet trickery and and iPad, but didn’t have time to blog about it until now.

And the moment has passed, and the excitement has waned, and now I am in the dark melancholy of a post Bake Off world, with nothing to console me because I am busy hating what Stephen Moffat is doing to Dr. Who and nobody is designing Danish wonders on Grand Designs.

It is a bleak place, televisually speaking.

I feel like if I do my usual reportage style blogging of the final, I will be somehow picking over the bones of the corpse while others have moved on to feast elsewhere.

It will have to be a summary:

The finalists, as we know, were Richard, hotly tipped to be the winner, Luis of the maverick yet hospital corners design led baking, and Nancy, who is way better at all this malarkey than she lets on, despite having a choppy relationship with Paul Hollywood.

Understandably.

The signature round that week was to create two types of Viennoiserie. This is posh speak for Danish pastry.  I know this because you may be aware that I have just been to Denmark, and am therefore an expert on all things pastry and Denmark related. In summary: Nancy played it safe and pulled it off by executing deliciousness. Richard played it safe and didn’t pull it off so well, and Luis didn’t play it safe and came a bit of a cropper.

The technical round was the killer this time. Nothing complicated; just twelve scones, twelve tarte au citron and twelve miniature Victoria sponges in two hours. It is at this point I would have laid myself down by the waters of Babylon and wept. It was dizzying the speed with which they were required to execute everything, and achieve perfection every time. I am never good at beautiful bakes, and this would have required such slapdash speed I might as well have just thrown my sponge mix up the tent wall and gone home there and then.

As it was they soldiered manfully on, although poor Luis looked on the verge of tears, and Richard’s pencil drooped exceedingly. Nancy triumphed by being incredibly matter of fact and just knuckling down. I believe she has three million grand children who she bakes for, which explains her ability to bake vast quantities under pressure, and it did her sterling service while Richard’s tarte au citron turned to scrambled egg and Luis didn’t fare much better.

You knew, by this stage, that the writing was on the wall for Richard. He is a bit like the girl with the curl, either exceedingly good, or exceedingly horrid, and once his nerve has gone, that’s it. The show stopper would have had to have been so dizzyingly amazing at this point for him to have come back from it, that it was never going to happen. And it didn’t.

The show stopper was to create a piece montee. Basically it’s a ruddy big cake in the shape of something awe inspiring, made with as many kinds of technical trickery bakery you can shove into it. Winged monkeys made of fondant (home made – obvs) balancing on choux pastry clouds, pelting onlookers with profiteroles made to look like pooh, on a bed of Genoese sponge in the shape of Wiltshire. That sort of thing.

Despite Luis’ herculean efforts to recreate his home town and the industrial revolution in baking form, and Richard’s windmill, it was Nancy’s Moulin Rouge inspired cake/project that won the day, and ultimately the crown of Great British Baker 2014.

And you know what? She deserved it.

A Day in Copenhagen

Now to Copenhagen itself.

A gorgeous, gorgeous city in my opinion, and there is so much to see. If you’re nosy, like me, and you like architecture and design, you don’t really have to go anywhere in particular to find stuff to delight you. You just need to look up at the glorious spires, and onion domes, and towers, or down at the man hole covers, each etched in different designs, or just anywhere really.

Jason was baffled as to my love of domes, but they really are brilliant. They had gold ones, pointy ones, ones that were made of giant twisted lizard monsters (really, truly), and everything in between. I fell in love with the man hole covers when I saw one etched all over with elephants. There are beautiful verdigris copper roofs, and splendid gutters, wonderful arched windows, glorious brick work and just stonkingly good design everywhere you look.

That’s before you get to the parks, palaces, museums and galleries which litter the city.

On our only full day in the city we started by walking from the Central Station to the houses of parliament (Borgen). They take up one half of a beautiful castle, which also has the highest tower in Copenhagen which is free to go up. We didn’t go up the tower because there were a lot of school trips on the day we went, and we didn’t really fancy being stuck in a tower with lots of children when we had managed to wangle several days child free.

The castle is available to visit all year round. The parliament is open to visit some  of the time. Jason really wanted to go, but we had picked a day when there were no tours. In the summer, you can go every day, but from the beginning of October the dates are more sporadic.

In the middle courtyard of the castle, is the horse guards, with a huge menage for the horses, which were being exercised when we wandered by. It was very beautiful. It reminded me of Paris, by the Tuileries.

We walked through a stunning public garden through to the people’s museum which had an exhibition of the experience of the Danish Jews in WWII. I wanted to see it, but it wasn’t open until later that afternoon, and we had other plans.

From there we crossed the road to the National Library of Denmark which has had a new extension called The Black Diamond. It is a stunning black glass cube right on the water front, with a glass walk way that links the old library to the new. It even has a huge disco glitter ball in it. That’s how cool it is. There are art exhibitions, pop up performances, a cafe, concerts and all manner of things going on there that the general public can see and do, as well as the reading rooms and the actual library itself. We spent about an hour, poking about and enthusing.

Outside, on the quay near the river we found a geodesic dome structure with a house inside it. It seemed to be being used as part of a conference, but after we had wandered around it very nosily for about five minutes, the chap who was in charge came out and invited us in to go and have a proper look around, which was very decent of him. It was amazing. They were using it as a living space as well as a super greenhouse, growing eucalyptus and all sorts of wonderful plants. It’s part of an ongoing project and study into sustainable living, and will be there until April 15 if you want to see if you can blag your way in.

We walked down the quay towards Nyhavn, stopping to take pictures of more spires, and yarn bombed iron rings in the quayside floor, and trampolines sunk into the floor for joggers and fitness fanatics to have a boing on, and other quirky things that grabbed my attention, stopping at Almanak for lunch. The day had started hideously rainy and cold, but by the time we were ready for lunch the sun had come out and it was beginning to get warm, so we sat outside and ate, watching the tall ships coming in and out of harbour, and the construction workers building a new bridge across the river about 500 yards from where we sat.

After a splendid lunch we walked around Nyhavn, threading through the streets, poking in antique shops and art galleries and visiting the Tesla car show room (thanks Mrs. Jones – J was in his element!). We took in the Catholic Cathedral which we thought was rather disappointing and not half bling enough, and were very sad that the Russian Orthodox church was closed, because we knew that would be bling central. We went to the Design Museum where I spent a glorious hour snuffling around chair design exhibitions, and a whole exhibition of cupboards (I have a thing about cupboards), and looking at stunning Art Nouveau Georg Jensen jewellery and beautiful Loetz glass and generally just wishing I was Danish.

If you are a fan of Danish design I also highly recommend visiting Illum Bodhuis on Stroget, which is the main shopping street in Copenhagen (rather like Oxford Street but with nicer fountains). Illum is the Danish equivalent of Liberty, and has four floors full of the most needful items for your home you could ever possibly imagine. I spent more time in there than I did in the Design Museum.

We wandered through the park with the star shaped fortress and strange military headquarters in it, not far from the statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which we didn’t see because I hate his stories. Sorry Danes.

After that we got slightly lost in an area called Osterport, which is home to the American embassy, which was hands down the ugliest piece of architecture I saw during my whole visit. Osterport in general is rather nice. Lots of little boutiques and cafes, and leafy lined streets, and it was while getting lost there that we came across a shop that sold Orc related costumes and which was peopled with Danish chaps who, like Jason, like to go out on weekends pretending to be pixies and wizards and hacking each other to bits with latex swords. Jason had a marvellous chat with them while I wandered about being amazed at the universal nature of wizardry in general.

By the time the orcs had finished bonding it was getting late and we were footsore and hungry, so we headed for our hotel and dinner in a nearby hostelry served by an incredibly friendly young lady who apparently spent the first six years of her life living in Reading. She seemed unharmed by the experience and remarkably chipper – which just goes to show you.