Just 134 more things….

At the end of last year I did something rather whimsical. Or at least I thought it was.

I’ve had my eye on the Vinitaly International Academy certification course. It’s basically the most intensive, complex and thus prestigious course you can take if you want to specialise in Italian wines. It’s five days of lectures and tasting that culminates in an exam which if you pass allows you to call yourself an Italian Wine Ambassador. Ever since I first heard about it I’ve wanted to apply, but I missed the deadline last year by a few weeks and having just started my diploma figured I’d dodged a bullet.

During the Christmas break I discovered that applications were being accepted again and I thought “why not?!” Then I realised they only take around 50 candidates a year. Which actually made me feel better. I could apply, with no pressure as there’s no way I’d be selected, get feedback on my application ahead of next year and not have to worry about adding another really serious pressure to my WSET diploma and full-time job filled life. So on December 27th whilst my husband was washing up, I put together my application, sent it off, and then for a month I sort of forgot about it. I mean, not really, I still manically refreshed my email, but in the “waiting for confirmation of my rejection” sort of way.

Then on Monday January 30th I received the email. Congratulating me on my acceptance to the course. Ah….

This means that in April I’m flying to Verona to learn about 134 key grape varieties in Italy. Two months before my diploma finals. What could possibly go wrong? I’m hoping that you’ll join me in this space along the way to find out.

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. 

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.

The Great Paris Yarn Crawl of 2015

Everybody talks about the food in Paris, the wine, the cafe culture, the stunning museums and architecture, the lazy picnics by the Seine and the fashion. I talk about the yarn stores.

IMG_2696I adore the yarn stores of Paris, they are all so different, full of character, yarn and in some cases wine. I have two favourite stores that over the past five years I’ve been visiting every November. One convinently has a cafe within it which serves excellent food, especially brunch, and the other is a five minute walk from one of our favourite bars. Both of these things are factors in my ability to return as they offer a respite for the bored husband during my inevitable yarn fondling and indecision. At the first he can hide in the corner with a coffee and a book while I dash about, at the second he holes up in the bar with a Negroni whilst awaiting my yarn-loaded and newly cash-strapped return.

However our recent trip was a little different. We were visiting the city with the family in tow and this presented an ideal situation, the lure of a fellow knitting-addict, enabler and partner-in-crime who would happily spend hours if not days in the pursuit of yarn stores. Thus the Great Paris Yarn Crawl of 2015 was born. An entire day exploring not only the stores I know and love, but new-to-me boutiques all over the city. Whilst my Mum and I hot-footed (or rather damp-footed, it was quite the rainy day unfortunately) around the city in search of skeins Mr L was able to browse the cities comic stores at his leisure. A win-win situation for us both.

IMG_2693I thought you might be interested in our itinerary for the day. I’m afraid I don’t have many images as I was too busy fondling yarn or dodging raindrops. Below I’ve edited our exploration to include only the stores where we actually purchased yarn and found them to be worth the visit. I’m sure the others would have things of interest to other knitters, but these three were our favourites not only as a result of yarn selection, but also the reception we received whilst there and their general approach to all things knitting and notions.

L’Oisive Thé: This quirky teashop also doubles as a yarn store. The shelves on one side are crammed with tins of unusual teas, and on the other two sides hang skeins of yarn from lots of independent dyers. I find it impossible to walk out without buying at least something (and this time we came away with more than 12 skeins between us, oops!) They are also well known for their food and baked goods, so this is the perfect stop for either lunch or a little something, We had lunch and a lovely glass of rosé and spent almost two hours there chatting about knitting and yarn. I’m super excited that they are opening a bigger store this year and can’t wait to return to see it. vscocam-photo-3

Metro: Corvisart or Place d’Italie, 10 rue de la Butte aux Cailles &
1 rue Jean-Marie Jégo

Les Tricoteurs Volants: A new-to-me store that I found because they have a good Instagram account. They not only have a good range of yarn but also a nice selection of buttons and interesting notions. The owner was sitting happily knitting and chatted to us and helped us make decisions. Here I found a wonderful combed yak yarn I’d never seen before as well as gorgeous matte black darning needles. 

Metro: Gare l’est, 22 rue de la Fidélitévscocam-photo-1

Lil Weasel:  It’s rare that I actually buy yarn here, and yet I have such a soft spot for this store. Their collection tends to be quite “standard” French yarns with only one or two more interesting dyers that are mostly things I can get in England. However they have recently started stocking The Plucky Knitter, a dyer that I’m really fond of, which when they have new stock is very dangerous for me indeed! The other bonus of this shop? They’ve expanded across the passage and how have a dedicated fabric store, and I always end up buying from their extensive collection of beautiful fabric and patterns. 

 Metro: Etienne-Marcel, 1 passage du Grand Cerf

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I hope this guide is useful, and if you have any tips about crafting in Paris let me know in the comments so I can include them in future trips!

Drinking my way around Paris.

There are two things that are absolutely certain when we visit Paris. Firstly that despite all my protestations, denial and good intentions I will buy yarn. I don’t need more, my stash is overflowing with pillows of colourful skeins, and yet I will be powerless to resist when faced with bundles of new potential in the stunning yarn stores of Paris (more on this later).

The second absolute is that there will be wine. I mean, it would be rude not to partake in what the city of light has to offer on that score. Now, although we didn’t actually make it to any of the new wine bars that are on my ever-growing list of “must visits” in the city, we did frequent some old favourites and branch out with the wine we enjoyed whilst dining and as a result I came home not only armed with a list of tasting notes, but also with four bottles of wine to enjoy in the upcoming weeks. IMG_1535

I won’t bore you with ever sip I took (at an average of three wines a day over six days I did a lot of sipping and a far too much glugging!), but I did want to share three highlights from the trip, including a complete wildcard that blew me away.

First up is a spicy little number we had at what is fast becoming one of my favourite restaurants not only in Paris, but possibly the world, Les Papilles. Tucked away on an otherwise unremarkable main street in the south of the Luxumbourg area of Paris, this is a wine bar restaurant that never fails to impress. They do a set menu that changes daily. Four courses, usually a soup, main, cheese and dessert, and for the wine you can either take the recommendation of the burly rugby-obsessed owner, or pick your own choice off the shelves that surround you. They are arranged by region, priced to buy and take away with a €9 corkage fee if you’re enjoying it with your meal. On previous visits we’ve bowed to suggestion as it was lunchtime and we really wanted to get it right. This time, with four of us dining in the evening we knew we’d get through more than one, so picked our own to start and took a suggestion to finish.

IMG_2733My pick was Les Laquets 2010, Domaine Cosse Maisonneuve. A Cahors wine, and therefore a Malbec, with a bit of ageing under it’s belt which I was hoping would have rounded out the tannins just a touch. I wasn’t disappointed, this was a stonkingly good wine, especially with the rich and creamy cauliflower soup starter, and the braised beef cheek that followed. It is a rich deep wine as you’d expect from a Malbec, with high tannins that had indeed been softened ever-so-slightly thanks to the vintage. It was spicy with dark fruit,  a slight tobacco note and a long finish. It was cold that night and this wine couldn’t have been more suited to a hearty meal with good company. Definitely my favourite of the reds enjoyed on the trip.

IMG_1574Next up is a sparkling wine that we picked up from our favourite wine merchant. We’ve become regulars at his little spot on Ile St Louis. L’Etiquette is a tiny cave a vin that specialises in natural biodynamic wines from independent producers. It’s proprietor Hervé is generous with his tastings, dismissive of any wine not on his shelves and has the wonderful catch phrase of labelling wines as “top of the pops!” Each time we visit we leave laden with just one more bottle and this trip was no exception. With a birthday celebration that evening we slipped a bottle of sparkling into our selection.

Le Naturel Vouvray, non-vintage from Sebastien Brunet. A delightful natural Chenin Blanc from the Loire, this really surprised us. It has a gentle sparkle and a soft mouthfeel, a little heavier than Prosecco, almost creamy, yet without the yeasty biscuit notes you get from Champagne. There was a hint of sweetness, but only a touch which made this slightly pear-droppy wine a real winner. Into the bag it went, then the fridge and then it was gone before it really touched the sides and I’m wishing we’d stashed a second bottle in our case.

IMG_2763Finally I want to talk about my wildcard entry to this trips degustation. A sweet white Bordeaux. Whilst finishing off dinner at Josephine Chez Dumonet we asked the waiter to recommend a dessert wine for the table and he brought over one that none of us had heard of. Chateau Le Guyonnets, Sainte-Croix-Du-Mont white Bordeaux blend. I was blown away. I’ve never been much of a fan of sweet wine, but I think that’s because I’d never really indulged properly or taken the time to get to know them. My parents-in-law like a good Sauternes, but I’ve never been fussed and am more likely to move straight to the Calvados. Not anymore! This was a fabulous wine, rich mouthfeel yet somehow light, full of complexity, and not cloyingly sweet. It had the perfect balance and everyone at the table agreed that it was the ideal end to the meal. If you can get your hands on some (I haven’t managed to yet), firstly let me know, then snatch it up before I beat you to it! IMG_2766

So there you go, my three stand-out wines from the trip. We also had some nice Cotes Du Rhone, and some lovely Crozes-Hermitage, but these three were my top picks and if you get the chance to try them I heartily recommend it.

What (Parisian things) I learnt this week.

There are so many things to share from our recent trip to Paris, from what we drank, to what and where we ate, and of course a tour of all the best Paris knitting shops. But I’m afraid I’m smack bang in the middle of a series of ten hour shifts at the day-job and need a little time to collate all my notes, and so in the meantime I thought I’d do a Paris-themed “what I learnt this week” to highlight some of the funnier moments.

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset1. Paris has a lot of stairs. A LOT of stairs. Somehow when we packed the bags we blanked out the part where we booked the apartment on the 5th floor. It seems we also forgot this when buying all the heavy things. That first trip up with the suitcases, and the last trip down with them were like an endurance event.

2. The English tour at Maxim’s starts at 14.00. Proper military time. At two o’clock on the dot the door is unlocked, you are ushered in and then the door is locked behind you. Be late at your peril!

3. Always check whether the room is occupied before opening a toilet door.  Awkward.

vscocam-photo-24. Lockwood (my favourite place for a cocktail in Paris) doesn’t actually open it’s bar until 6pm, which is incredibly disappointing when you’ve traipsed all around Paris and want to quench your thirst. Fortunately it turns out they do the most wonderfully rich and fragrant filter coffee, and sweet/salty chocolate chip cookies, which are huge, and yet not big enough. Almost a win-win. Except a Negroni and a cookie might have been win-win-win.

IMG_27385. Trying to get a French waiter or waitress to understand the word “Perrier” without having the exact pronunciation and inflection in the rolling of the rrrrrrs is both an hilarious and infuriating exercise. As a result I recommending skipping the water and heading straight for the coffee or cognac.

IMG_27876. Waking up early and sneaking out into the sunshine before anyone else is awake to buy the pastries for breakfast is one of the most wonderful feelings. I need to remind myself to do it more, if only for the morning light, empty streets and smell of butter wafting across the Latin Quarter.

Bon fete!

Bonjour mes petit pois!

I think it’s fair to say that mes Francais leaves much to be desired. Fortunately my in-laws live En France and so the husband has picked up the obligatory smattering of the language over the years. This is most welcome as Paris is fast becoming one of our favourite retreats.

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The Eurostar sale is our friend and whenever we can we take advantage of cheap tickets and a short train ride under the channel on a Friday evening, arriving in the City of Light for a digestif and with a weekend ahead of vin, pain, et chocolat. (And yarn of course!)

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This weekend has been no exception. A birthday trip with the whole family (his and mine) culminating in a typical hearty French meal this evening.

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Although we arrived tired from work and were greeted with drizzle and the traditional pokey Parisian apartment, the weather has perked up over the past few days and we are ending our trip in spring sunshine and with white wine rather than grog au rhum to keep the cold at bay.

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More details about where we ate and,
perhaps more importantly, what we drank, once we’re back home and with better internet. In the meantime heres a snapshot of our highly non-traditional Easter weekend.

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The cats are sulking.

On Friday afternoon I watched my husband get into a taxi with a rather large suitcase and head off to the airport. Since then I have spent my time trying to placate the cats for the terrible injustice I have inflicted on them. I haven’t hoovered as much as I would usually, there has been lots of sneaky time in the bedroom and I’m spending as much time as possible in the evenings on the sofa with an available lap.

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetYet despite all this Monte still seems to be hunting for Mr L around the house. He’s checked under the bed, in the cupboard under the stairs and even behind the shower curtain. He’s yet to be found and as a result, despite all my efforts of appeasement I have been subjected to late night whining, a generally shunning and at one point they even went out and got take away (which was very much still alive) in order to demonstrate how unimpressed they are.

Mr L isn’t back until Sunday. It’s going to be a very long week indeed.

How to travel like a Mixologist

I’ve become one of those people who simply cannot pack lightly. Gone are the days of throwing a few pairs of pants and a t-shirt in a bag and heading out of the door to wherever adventure takes me. Now I am more likely to have a separate suitcase for the “essentials” I cannot leave behind; knives and spare knitting needles, stashes of favourite herbs and salt, six different lip balms and two hand creams, enough hair grips to hold together the Eiffel tower and don’t forget the cast iron griddle pan. Want a perfectly cooked steak on the move, I’m your gal. Just don’t ask to brush your teeth afterwards as I’m still capable of leaving the house, travelling thousands of miles and only then realising I haven’t packed the toothpaste.

Which brings me to this little collection of things that has recently been added to my weekend-getaway repertoire. My mixology kit.

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This weekend we’re off to a boutique hotel nearby for a bit of respite from the everyday thanks to friends of ours who rather than choose a conventional wedding gift guessed rightly that the thing we would need most in the first winter of our marriage would be a break from housework and the mundane. Now I’m pretty sure that this hotel has lots of luxury built in, and I know there is a pub with excellent food within staggering distance, and yet tomorrow night whilst getting ready nothing will go down better than a perfectly mixed Manhattan (and we all know how I feel about those!)

As a result I’ve devised a kit to guarantee an impeccable aperitif. Not pictured is my house-blend vermouth (which I’ll talk about another time), or the rye whiskey. However, I have decanted a small amount of brandied cherries, made sure we have bitters, glass stirrers – because frankly if you’re going to pack a cocktail kit you might as well go the whole hog – and the ounce measure. Even I drew the line at popping the digital scales in. I may live to regret that of course.

So, we’re set up for the perfect weekend away.

It’s just occurred to me that it’s quite possible that despite my careful preparations we could be sipping our libations from little plastic hotel cups. A posh hotel wouldn’t do that to a girl would they?

….

I’m just going to grab those glasses…