Little things

An ongoing list of small intentions I have for 2016.

  • Taste more, drink less. I have a comfort zone. One I am very happy occupying, whether it’s with a glass of Italian red wine, a well crafted Manhattan or a Spanish gin. This year as part of my ongoing education I want to try more things, confound my expectations and generally expand my tastes. And I want to do all this whilst cutting back on that habitual glass of wine that inevitably turns into two or three on a Monday evening.
  • Learn. I want to invest in myself both personally and professionally by pushing myself to learn more both in terms of gaining knowledge and new skills. In career terms this will begin in February when I embark on my next qualification (eek!) and personally I hope to attend workshops and courses to keep my mind and hands nimble.
  • Get out more. I have a natural inclination towards hibernation. Not just in winter, but all year round! As a result I unintentionally forget to make time for friends, and suddenly a year has gone past and I’ve only been out and about a dozen times. This year I want that to change. I will make sure I see not only more people, but more exhibitions, concerts and other such interesting things.
  • Make meals not fuel. My new work hours threw us for a loop last year. I get home much later than I ever have before, work more weekends etc. and have found it hard to motivate myself to cook when I get home. This year I want to figure out how to make the most of my days off, plan and cook ahead more and generally be prepared for that 8.45pm hangry desperation before it hits.
  • Switch off. I am beginning to come to the realisation that I am not very good at relaxing unless forced to. My “weekends” often fall mid-week due to my work schedule, and yet if I’m home during the week I feel as if I should be doing a million things because I still have it ingrained in me that a Monday or a Wednesday is a “work”day. Last year that left me feeling burnt out and resentful. I am not going to allow myself to be that person in 2016. I will take proper time off off and indulge.
  • Switch off. Literally. I recently read a blog post (I’m sorry, I forgot where) about a family who have a “no technology” evening one day a week. No phones, no television, no laptops. When we go away we always stay in places with no tv or wifi and fill our time with music, books and board games. It makes us more relaxed so it’s time to bring that habit home with us.
  • Write. As evidenced by this space which remained blank for months last year, I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like. I want to get back into the habit of popping in and jotting down my thoughts and experiences. I also want to write more letters. I often write postcards or cards, but a letter is a wonderful thing. My husband gave me a beautiful set of writing paper for our anniversary last year. It’s about time I used. it.

Work in progress

Almost halfway through the month and I’ve suddenly realised that I was supposed to have made resolutions, goals, objectives for the year ahead. Oops!

Last year I made two rather large goals. The first, to cut myself some slack, the second was to spend some time figuring stuff out. Well, 2015 certainly stepped up to greet my challenge. It was definitely a “game of two halves” as the saying goes. In the first six months I had three different jobs, the first I left due to choice, the second due to redundancy. Fortunately I’m still in the third and it’s been a total game changer.

When I was made redundant (the second time around for me), I decided it was time for some serious regime change. I needed to do the two things I’d promised myself in January. Cut myself some slack about the situation, and then really, seriously sit down and consider what I wanted. Not just in the next few months, but long term. I spent over a week just in thought about what was next, and more importantly, why it would be next. Taking that time was one of the best things I did last year. As a result I’m now in a job that I genuinely love and am working toward the future I want both professionally and personally. Like I said, game changer.

When I saw this post by Tracy I was struck by the third photo in particular, as it sums up so well how this year and last year fit together. Last year I had expectations, and this year I’m going to continue to build the foundations. As a result all my “intentions” for this year will be small. Little things that fit together to be the building blocks to solidify the bigger picture.

All I have to do now is figure out what those things will be!

66, 42 and 1.

If my grandparents were still alive they’ve have celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary this week.

Last month my parents marked 42 years together in their usual understated wonderful way.

This weekend we’re enjoying a well earned break from work and the 1st anniversary of our wedding.

Pictures from the Wedding of Rebecca and Nathan in Montepulciano, Tuscany

This last 12 months has certainly put us through our paces. It’s shown us plenty of what life can throw, but also how as a team we’re pretty good at catching. I’ve come to understand the importance of an institution I was never entirely convinced I needed. Married life agrees with me. I just hope my husband would say the same thing!.

Peaks and troughs

I don’t often talk about work on here, (unless it’s to commiserate about having once again found myself out of a job!) but I had a day last week which I found rather amusing, and thought would illustrate a bit of truth about working in the wine industry.

I should have know that this day would be unlike any other as it started with an hour of in-depth cigar training. Not something I ever thought my career would give me, and not something I have any experience off, except a brief visit to a cigar museum whilst in Cuba when I was actually counting down the minutes until we could start drinking rum in their bar, rather than paying attention to the different sizes, strengths and smoke lengths. IMG_3908

As we were packing up from this session a colleague rocked up proudly toting four bottles that he had enjoyed the previous evening. Very kindly he’d saved a small portion of each bottle for us to try and I was incredibly excited. Tasting wine never gets old for me, and working in an industry that is constantly changing and evolving you can never know everything. So it’s taste, taste, taste to learn, learn, learn. Your palate is a muscle and it needs practice to be at its best. Already I’m discovering that my palate is vastly improved from when I started out, but that it has a long way to go. Which is why I’ll never turn down the opportunity for a taste of something new. (Perhaps one day I’ll talk about the difference between tasting and drinking, there is a difference, honest!).

I sipped and sloshed, and spat my way through the four wines, desperately trying to commit them to my sense memory and fighting to pick out the nuances of each. It’s not everyday that you get to try such exclusive and expensive wines. It was a wonderful start to the day.

But it was all downhill from there!

It’s not all cigar training and tasting impressive wine. I continued my morning by washing up around 100 tasting glasses from the weekend. Whilst I rinsed and polished my way through a mountain of ISOs, another colleague unearthed a selection of samples that had been conveniently forgotten about. IMG_3906

These were the antithesis of our mornings offering. Foil-topped plastic glasses with detachable stems in “white” “rose” and “red”. Just peeling back the tops made us nervous despite the rep having assured us that they were “actually very good” (the “actually” says it all I think.) Duty bound we poured a small amount of the white into tasting glasses, and begin the swirl. We soon stopped as the smell wafted towards us. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a collection of wine professionals spit so quickly.  Although the red did elicit the high praise of “well, that’s borderline below average” I can say with certainty that these particular wines won’t be on offer to our customers.

And so my glamourous wine life is revealed. Whilst those hundred pound bottles do appear from time to time, it’s mostly washing glasses, shifting boxes and tasting things that are “borderline below average.” When I got my new job I went out and bought three new dresses to bring some glitz to my everyday life. So far I’ve only worn one and I very nearly ruined it when a colleague smashed a bottle of rosé in my vicinity! The reality is that you need comfortable smart casual clothing, shoes that won’t hurt your feet after 12 hours of standing, and a sense of humour for when you’re shown the plastic glasses with foil lids!

Making the best of it.

It’s been wet and gloomy here the last couple of days. The rain is desperately needed with soil and water butts alike dry and dusty. However the warmth and moisture has lured all the slimey munching beasties above ground and I live in fear of my crops that last week were looking thirsty but intact, and this week may end up quenched and gobbled.

IMG_3774All of which is making me even more smug about having had the forethought to frantically pick our soft fruit and preserve it. From mid-summer often until late November I spend most of my free time ferrying  between the garden and kitchen furiously trying to make the most of the harvests we’ve been patiently tending since January. This time of year is an odd one, with some plants giving up their bounty almost too readily, whilst others seem painfully far away from giving us anything at all.

Whilst I try to keep my eyes from the cucumbers (a watched cucurbit never crops) and pretend I don’t care about tomatoes, the loganberry is at it’s showy best. Having been established now for almost two years and growing at an alarming rate it is producing berries left, right and centre. We’re three harvests into it’s year and have had over 4kg of fruit already with plenty more on the plant. As a result we’ve not only eaten mounds of them slathered in whipped cream and sweetened with chunks of meringue, but also had enough to make my favourite summer preserve, loganberry jam.

IMG_3781Loganberry jam is easy to make and produces the most beautiful, rich, wine-coloured preserve that intensifies the complex flavour of the berry that is a hybrid of a blackberry and raspberry. I make mine with as little sugar as I can get away with, and it keeps us going until well into the winter providing a well needed splash of colour on toast, in yoghurt and even between a sponge cake.

Loganberry jam – makes approx 6 x 240g (1/2 lb) jars

1kg loganberries

500g sugar

Juice of one lemon

Preheat the oven to 140C (280F) and rinse your jars in hot water and place on a baking tray on a middle shelf whilst you make the jam to sterilise. Place the caps in bowl and pour boiling water over then to do the same. Place a small plate in the freezer for testing set.

Rinse the loganberries well and place in a large wide saucepan. Cook gently, stirring occasionally until soft and they’ve released all their juices. The add the lemon juice and sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved. The bring up to a roiling boil and watch as over around 7 minutes the bubbles change from small and liquid to large and glassy. Try not to stir if possible as this lower the temperature and means it will take longer to set. Remove the jam from the heat and place a small amount on the plate from the freezer, place into the fridge for a couple of minutes to cool. Push your finger into the pool of jam and if it wrinkles it’s set, if not re-boil for a couple of minutes and repeat.

Pot into hot jars and seal immediately. Jam should keep for around 6 months in a cool dark place, and once opened needs to be placed in the fridge and eaten within a month.

Dark corners and damp wool

It’s the first of July. and the heat has finally arrived. I was beginning to think that a proper summer was going to allude us, I seem to forget year after year that it’s not really summer until after the last weekend in June. Why? Because that last weekend is home to Woolfest, a place of all things sheepy, yarny and almost without exception, rain!

IMG_3711I think this is my fourth year of visiting Woolfest. What started out as a trip to my parents which happened to coincide with the festival has now become a sacred annual tradition, in the diary without negotiation. The thing I love about Woolfest is that it isn’t simply a knitting event. Instead more of the focus is on where the yarn actually comes from, with almost as much space devoted to sheep, aplaca, goats and rabbits as there is to yarn. They have a “fleece creche” where spinners can park their wears until the end of the show, and it’s held at the Livestock Centre rather than a fancy hall. All of which adds to the rustic and somewhat chilly charm of the place (being a Livestock Centre means the entire rear of the space is open to the elements). It almost always rains and with a profusion of both sheep and knitwear the smell of damp wool pervades. An aroma that I find remarkably comforting.

IMG_3702This year, instead of being armed with the usual three page list of “must haves”, I had only one essential, some mustard yarn from EasyKnits to match what I’d bought the previous year. I’d enjoyed knitting with it so much that I got carried away and ran out of yardage before reaching the sleeves. I dashed to their stall armed with my final length of wool wound around my wrist for comparison. Not an exact match, but as they pointed out I could always alternate skeins or lurk in dark corners.

After visiting them and my other favourite, Ripples Crafts (who’s new yarn base has a hint of yak blended with wool and silk, making it squishy with a beautiful sheen that shows off dye perfectly), we hot-footed it to the main ring to watch a sheep shearing demonstration. I’ve long wanted to see a shearer (or in this case shearess) in action and was awed by the the skill and speed of the work. One person, shearing a sheep in a mere two minutes, talking the crowd through it and moving the hogget around with ease. Not only fascinating, but the perfect pause in our yarn buying extravaganza to see the product in it’s raw state. IMG_3721

Four hours later we staggered back to the car laden with all things woolly, already talking about the trip next year and dreaming of what we will be making with our new stash. 

For the night is dark and full of bitters

Whilst in New York last month I had one absolute deal breaker. We had to go to Death & Co. and have a cocktail. I didn’t care how far we had to walk, how long we had to wait, how much a drink cost, I was going to make the pilgrimage.

Then I made the discovery that the apartment we were staying in was only four blocks away, and on our first night in the city, having been off the plane for less than three hours I somehow managed to persuade my ever-suffering husband to “just swing past to check it out.” This inevitably lead to us enquiring about the wait, lingering in the area for the required time, then being ushered through the thick black curtains behind the hefty wooden door. From that moment, as our eyes adjusted to the almost ridiculously dark room and I took in the vast array of bottles, bitters and bar tools, I knew that a dangerous precedent had been set. Before even the slightest sip of spirit had passed my lips I knew I was head over heels in love and would have to spend as much time as possible in this small dark cocktail haven.IMG_3223

As it happened we managed to frequent Death & Co three times during our five night stay, and it meant we were able to experience not only some of their ingenious concoctions, (Their current menu demonstrates just how varied their talents are) but also sample how they approach our favourite classics.  We had Manhattans made by two different bartenders, both delicious, both subtly different. It really demonstrated how nuanced cocktails can be, and how the same drink made by different people can taste so distinct.IMG_3232

Whilst there my husband learned of his love for the Old Fashioned, and I finally grasped why such a simple drink works so well. I’d always been fairly dismissive of the Old Fashioned. I didn’t really understand why anyone would choose it as a cocktail rather than just having a straight glass of Bourbon or Rye. Then I had a sip of one made properly and an epiphany occurred. It was so much more than the sum of it’s parts, far more complex than I imagined a drink with such basic construction could be. As a result I returned home with the resolve to learn how to make one that would meet Mr L’s exacting standards. Below is the result, and despite the warm weather it has continued to be our late-night favourite. I hope you enjoy it too.IMG_3042

Old Fashioned – Makes 1 drink.

To make a rich syrup, heat two parts brown sugar with one part water in a small pan until the sugar dissolves, then cool before using. It will keep well so I always have a small jar in the fridge.

I serve my Old Fashioned on the rocks, using one large piece of ice, but you can use whatever you have or serve it up if that’s your preference.

2oz Bourbon

1 tsp rich syrup

2 dashes orange bitters

1 dash Fee Brothers whiskey barrel aged bitters

Strip of orange peel for garnish.

Place the ingredients (except the peel) in a shaker or mixing glass over ice and stir for a minute to achieve dilution, strain into a large rocks glass and add the orange peel.

I have two variations on this recipe that we also drink, one using maple syrup in place of the rich syrup, the other using Rye instead (which is actually my version of choice).

Refresh, refresh, refresh.

I’ve spent the last week frantically refreshing my emails every time I pick up my phone or walk past my computer, hoping for that magic reply offering an interview or opportunity.

On Friday I realised this was an unsustainable situation as it was driving me (and the cats) mad, and so decided to find something to distract me. Having come to the conclusion that a cocktail at 8.23 am, whilst tasty, would probably not be a wise choice, I opted for my second favourite past time; baking. I’d scored some fabulous flat peaches at the market the previous day, which although still slightly firm were proving fragrant and juicy. A rifle through my cupboards produced a packet of pistachios and a brainwave. Peach and pistachio cake.

IMG_3487Within moments I had the oven pre-heating, a pan greased and the scales out. I whiled away the next hour happily chopping, weighing and mixing and then the following hour and ten minutes wallowing in the scent of butter, sugar and nuts whilst casting on my new knitting project and ignoring the washing up. IMG_3492

As a result I spent more than two blissful hours taken out of myself no longer preoccupied with my inbox. I can completely understand why people are suggesting baking as therapy for those with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  The act of concentrating on measuring and stirring and then the pride when you take the result from the oven definitely soothes my mind and soul.

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Even if you don’t need a few hours of stress relief, it’s worth setting some time aside to make this cake while the peaches are so perfumed. I know it’s supposedly “bathing suit season” but quite frankly I’d rather eat cake than wear any form of swimwear, and with that many peaches I’m sure a slice counts as one of your “five a day”. I’d originally envisaged this cake topped with a fluffy cloud of swiss meringue buttercream, but opted not to as I don’t think it needs any more than a dusting of icing sugar.

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Peach and Pistachio Cake – Serves 8 – 10.

175g softened butter

175g caster sugar

250g peaches (chopped weight, but no need to peel)

2 large eggs

175g self raising flour

100g ground pistachios

2 tablespoons milk

2 drops almond essence

Icing sugar for dusting.

Preheat the oven to 180C and line the base of a 20cm loose based cake tin.

Cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy, then add two drops of almond essence. Whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside three tablespoons. Add the eggs to the butter and sugar one at a time mixing thoroughly between each one. If it looks as though the mixture is curdling add a small amount of flour. Add the milk to thin the batter slightly. Toss the chopped peaches with the set-aside flour and then gently mix into the batter.

Place the batter into the tin and smooth the top. Bake for 1hr and 10 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick comes out with small crumbs on it rather than batter. Leave to cool slightly before turning out of the pan. Dust with icing sugar and serve every so slightly warm.

The cake will keep (wrapped well) for three days.

I’m fed up with all this citrus.

Where do we get the phrase “when life gives you lemons…”? It seems a little unfair to the yellow citrus if you ask me. Sure, they’re sharp and sour, but that makes them perfect for all sorts of delicious things, like lemon drizzle cake, spritzing up a dull sauce or salad that needs a lift and of course the ideal garnish for a martini.

Why am I thinking of all this? Because yet again life has hefted me a whole load of citrus. For the second time in two years I’ve been made redundant from the day job and am back to re-vamping the CV and casting my eyes about for something new. Not the news I was hoping to kick start the month with. However, it has inspired me to get out the cake pans and martini glasses and to make something positive from the news, if only in booze and food form!

It’s fine to have cake and a martini for lunch, right?IMG_3113

Gin Martini – Makes one.

2.5 oz gin

.5 oz dry vermouth

2 dashes orange bitters

one olive.

Curl of lemon peel, preferable organic, always unwaxed.

In a shaker or large glass add several large ice cubes. Then add the gin, vermouth and bitters. Still for at least 30seconds. Pour into a coupe glass, and garnish with an olive and strip of lemon peel Drink and repeat.

Hi, my name’s Dave, I’m with the band…

Last week my husband and I saw Dave Holland play at the Blue Note. I’m still having a hard time getting to grips with that sentence, it’s not one I ever thought I’d be able to say, but it turns out that getting a reservation at the Blue Note is as easy as giving them your details online (no need to pay in advance), choosing “bar” or “table” and turning up at your allotted time. As for the Dave Holland part? A pure stroke of luck. On the plane to New York my husband happened to be reading the newest issue of The New Yorker and there, tucked away on the “what’s showing” pages was mention of Dave Holland’s band Prism and their brief residency while we were visiting. We just assumed that we’d no hope of seeing them, and so didn’t even try for tickets straight away. Then on a whim we checked the website and suddenly we were going.IMG_3254

It was a wonderful evening, and a privilege to see a jazz legend in such a renowned venue. It wasn’t without it’s hilarity however, partly thanks to “Jeff” of the table next to us, who arrived late, insisted on talking to everyone around his table, including the German couple who clearly wanted neither their dinner or jazz interrupted by a crazed American salesman, and refused to pull his chair into the table therefore almost crippling my poor husband who was suffering in the little space behind him.

And yet, the most striking moment of the evening was one I actually missed by a poorly timed trip to the bathroom. After the set we dashed upstairs to the shop to buy the CD, having been blown away by what we’d heard. I thought this would be ideal time to dash to the loo before the walk home. I returned from my sojourn to see a smug and slightly dazed Mr L awaiting me. When I questioned his state he told me that while I’d been away Dave Holland had popped upstairs to the kitchen (opposite the shop) and poked his head through the pass and said; “hi, my name’s Dave, I’m with the band, I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich. I just wondered if you got that order? We’re between sets and I just wanted to get something to eat quickly if that would be okay?” The stunned chef couldn’t believe his eyes and muttered “Yes, Mr Holland we’ll have that for you right away.” IMG_3270

Can you believe that? No name drop, no demanding, just politely asking for his sandwich. He’s not just in the band, he is the band! We spent the rest of the trip, whilst waiting for food or drinks grinning at each other and muttering “hi, my name’s Dave, I’m with the band.” I shall forever remember, when being a bit too big for my boots, that if even Mr Dave Holland, doesn’t feel like he needs to drop names, then neither do I.