Thursday, 30 September 2010

An Oasis In Amsterdam

Looking for a nice cafe is almost invariably one of the first things that my husband and I do when we reach a new place. I sometimes think if I could teleport between cities, experiencing coffee and cake in each, I'd be a happy (if chubby) traveller...

So it was that we arrived in Amsterdam and set out, complete with luggage, in search of a nice coffee shop. That is to say, a place where we could have a coffee, not the infamous Amsterdam "coffeeshop" (all one word) specialising in a certain variety of cigarette.

And eventually, just as we were contemplating whether we'd have to turn to Starbucks or McDonalds for our caffeine fix, we found LaPlace.

Even at opening time it was buzzing with activity, but it was also the perfect oasis for contemplating the guidebook (with a little people-watching thrown in).

This isn't really a coffee shop, in any sense of the term. It's much more than that. I suppose "cafeteria" would be the closest term, but that doesn't really do it justice either. Self-service restaurant, perhaps?

Around the edges of the room (and it's a large, somewhat labyrinthine space with many edges) are different areas devoted to different foodstuffs. For instance there's a pizza section, a "grill", a salad bar, a sandwich bar. A coffee area which is where we headed on our first visit, and alongside which is a small patisserie where we were tempted into a slice of delicious apple pie. In the middle there's a large island devoted to fruit: smoothies, juices, and fruit salad.

We came back here four times in two days (though on our second visit, on the Sunday afternoon, it was so packed that we left again without buying anything... which was probably a mistake, but I'm easily overwhelmed by crowds). As well as lots of coffee and cake we had lunch one day: my husband tried a pizza, while I went for the wok option which involved filling a bowl with loads of fresh veggies and getting them fried up with noodles and spices.

What I love about the whole place is that everything is so open. You can see all the ingredients laid out, you can see that the kitchens are clean, and the turnover is so fast that you know it's fresh. All food is cooked to order (except the cakes, and you can see those being prepared through the window of the downstairs kitchen). The portions are huge and the results delicious.

If I ever go back to Amsterdam, I'll be back here in a heartbeat. And if you're ever passing through, I recommend you do likewise.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Amazon's Kindle Reviewed

I'm writing this post in Amsterdam, towards the end of my weekend away. This has been my first 'holiday test' of my new toy, and seemed like an opportune time to write about it.

I can hardly stress too strongly the benefits, to a girl of my limited eyesight, of being able to adjust the font sizes of a book. I've known for a while that an e-book reader would allow me to read much more easily, and I love it for that.

Having a whole library that fits in my pocket is another huge plus: I downloaded a number of free classics before setting out and have yet to make a significant dent in them.

These, though, are surely advantages shared by any modern ereader.

The Kindle itself (version 3, now called the Kindle Keyboard) is surprisingly small and light. It fits in my pocket and takes up rather less space than the average paperback. Navigation isn't entirely intuitive, but it comes with its own user guide pre-loaded, which explains everything.

I was wary about choosing a Kindle because I didn't want to be locked in to Amazon's formats; however it sounded like the best option considering my eyesight. The fonts go up to a very large size indeed and there's also a text-to-speech option (the same voice as Adobe Reader, so far as I can tell) which also works on the menus. (It doesn't work on 100% of books, though; some publishers have switched off the text-to-speech feature.)

The screen is much closer to the experience of reading on paper, compared to a laptop screen. And although the screen flashes when you change page (this seems to be a feature of all ebook readers), I stopped noticing the flashes after a couple of hours.

British and American English dictionaries are built in, and navigating to any word will bring up a definition on screen. You can add highlights and bookmarks for future reference, which I think will be invaluable if I use this for academic work, and you can also choose to see commonly-highlighted passages.

You can also make margin notes - a feature I know I'll love when I come to editing my next novel.

It's terrifyingly easy to spend money via the Kindle store, a section of Amazon which allows you to buy books with a single click, and then delivers them wirelessly. You can go from browsing to reading in seconds flat. And there are regular sales with some significant discounts.

My Kindle also has the internet via 3G. I'm typing these words on the minute keyboard, which is hardly ideal, but that must be weighed against the convenience of free internet access overseas (in some subset of countries, the limits of which I've yet to investigate; England and Holland I can vouch for). Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that one slip of the keys caused this post to publish, incomplete, as I was writing it - a sign of how awkward the browser is to use. Navigating within websites without a mouse is hard work - but it's handy for consulting wikipedia or updating Twitter. Considering it only cost me a few extra pounds to have the 3G version, it's definitely worth it for me and the amount of travelling I do.

Amazon claim that the battery can last for "up to" a month with the wifi connectivity switched off. Based on my experience so far, I can say that it's survived five days of heavy reading-and-internet use on trains and ferries, and still shows around 20% charge. That puts it head and shoulders above my phone, which is flat after a couple of hours of browsing.

I'm sure I'll have more to say as I use it more, but for now, I'm a very happy geek with a new toy.

This review was not compensated, and I bought my own Kindle. However, if you buy your own Kindle via this link, I'll get a small percentage via the Amazon Affiliate scheme.

Friday, 24 September 2010

In Holland

I'm in the Netherlands!

We've had a fantastic day today exploring Utrecht - details and photos to follow when we get home. Meanwhile, a quick note on the journey, because it was fabulous.

I've always said that the Eurostar is more civilized than flying (less time checking in, less security malarkey, etc). But the Eurostar to the Netherlands was rather expensive, so I found another train-based route. Yesterday we took the train to London, thence to Harwich... and then an overnight ferry. This morning, more trains, as the ticket includes travel to any Dutch station.

You know how much I love boats so it's a bonus that we can do this, with the benefit of overnight journies in both directions, and still end up spending half of what the Eurostar would have cost us. The ship itself was lovely - we spent most of our time asleep in really comfy beds, but there were also several cafes and restaurant areas, as well as a free internet cafe. And the check-in procedure was even simpler and quicker than the Eurostar: simply turn up, show passports and tickets, and then meander along the gangway.

I hope to be back with some exciting stories shortly...

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Reading And Writing

It seems I can't read and write at the same time. And I don't just mean in a literal, physical sense.

If I'm in the middle of reading a good book then my mind will be dwelling, in quiet moments, on those characters and situations. Those are the same quiet moments I really need fill with musings about my own novel, if I'm to sort out my plot holes.

Nothing has brought this to light more clearly than recently reading through the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. Most of them are short stories (concise enough that I can pick one up in bed and finish it before I fall asleep), but there are also a small number of novels. And on the days when I was part way through reading a novel, my brain was occupied with trying to follow the threads of the the mystery to some kind of solution.

I've often said that writing uses the same part of my brain as reading does (the "living in a fantasy world" part...) and this is another example. It seems that if I want to write novels, I can now only read short stories. Thankfully this doesn't seem to apply when I'm in the "editing" phase, so it will only affect about half of my life!

Does anyone have any recommendations for good short stories, now I've run out of Holmes?

Monday, 20 September 2010

Lemon Drizzle Cake

A few days ago I asked my husband what he wanted me to bake this weekend, and he requested lemon drizzle cake - something we've been enjoying in tearooms across the country this summer.

Quite by chance, a friend happened to bake one during the week, and when I mentioned to her that I was planning to do likewise she offered me both her recipe and her spare lemon. I was very happy to accept, though I adapted her recipe slightly (I'm too lazy to sift flour...).

The main trick with lemon drizzle cake is how to get it "drizzled" without losing more icing than you use, particularly since you want to do the drizzling while the cake is still hot. I balanced the cooling tray on top of a plate to catch any drips - and then, once the cake was cool, I put the cake on the same plate to soak them up. That way nothing gets wasted.

Another handy hint for lemon cakes in general is to make "lemon sugar" in advance: if you've got your lemon a day or two ahead of when you plan to bake, pop the lemon and the sugar in a glass bowl together, and cover with a plate. The oils from the lemon will gradually seep into the sugar, meaning the lemon flavour will end up more evenly distributed through the cake. You can then go on to zest and juice the lemon as usual.

lemon drizzle cake

Lemon Drizzle Cake

6oz sugar
4oz butter
2 eggs
6oz self-raising flour
zest of 1 lemon

For the topping:
2oz icing sugar
juice of 1 lemon
2tsp granulated sugar

  1. Preheat the oven to 165°C (or a little higher if you don't have a fan oven) and grease a medium-sized loaf tin.

  2. Cream the butter and sugar together with a spoon. Break two eggs into the bowl and stir until the mixture is smooth.

  3. Fold in the flour and lemon zest.

  4. Spoon the cake mixture into the tin, smooth with a spatula, and bake for 50 minutes.

  5. When the cake is about 10 minutes away from done, it's time to make the topping. Combine the icing sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan, and simmer gently to reduce.

  6. Take the cake out of the oven - the crust should be golden-brown, and a skewer should come out clean - and remove from the tin onto a cooling tray.

  7. Prick the top of the cake in several places, then gently spoon the lemon mixture over the top of the cake (before it has chance to cool down). Sprinkle on a little extra granulated sugar on top for added crunch.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Embracing Autumn

Autumn has always been a bit of a non-event for me - that damp patch between summer sun and crisp winter air has never been my favourite time of year, ever since I stopped being little enough to jump into piles of leaves. But a couple of years ago I decided I was probably missing out, and should be putting more effort into embracing autumn rather than just wishing it away.

Last year, I tried to create what I thought would be a particularly autumnal pasta dish - and subsequently ended up eating it all through the year, so that didn't really work! And I also made so much apple chutney that we're still eating our way through it.

This year, since we're fortunate to have another fabulous apple harvest, we've been making apple juice. We first had to buy a juicer: it's an industrial beast that will live on our kitchen counter until we run out of apples! The apples themselves are a mysterious variety with red skin and pink flesh, and the resulting juice is a glorious pink. It takes about twenty minutes to make a couple of litres of juice with this machine, which is enough to keep the two of us going for about a week. Shop-bought apple juice will never be the same again! And if autumn is the only time that I can pick my drinks straight from the tree, then I certainly have a reason to love this season.

apple juice

Look at all the apple-pulp mess in the juicer:

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Between Coast And Countryside

The leaves are beginning to turn. We have a healthy apple harvest, there's a certain chill in the air, and a 'brr' at the end of the month. Yes, it's autumn, and that can only mean one thing: the summer's crowds have desserted the west country, leaving Cornwall in its out-of-season glory for the rest of us to enjoy.

I didn't come to Cornwall as a child - growing up in Lancashire, the Lake District was closer. So I'm still discovering new and magical corners of the Cornish coastline.

Standing on Loe Bar at the weekend, I felt like I'd found a spot that encapsulates some of the best landscapes in England. To my right was the open sea, with waves breaking against the beach, while to my left, a sandy-shored lake nestled between gentle rolling hills. A sentence full of cliches, for which I'd apologise if only they weren't so very accurate in this case. I've never before had such a feeling of standing between two landscapes.

I was talking to a friend who assures me that this is also a genuinely unusual spot. There aren't so many places where fresh water and salt are separated by so thin a strip of land.

I can't quite explain the magic, and I don't think the photos do it justice: it was a fairly grey day. Suffice it to say that I'll be going back... again and again.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Playing With The Boys

Girl Guiding UK has been in the news recently after publishing the results of a survey revealing - amongst other things - that girls feel pressured to be sexy. This probably doesn't come as a great surprise.

Regular readers may remember that I help out with the Brownies in my village. The new term has just started up again, and a few of our girls have gone up into Guides - leaving us with a small pack and prompting the oft-recurring discussion about how many girls we never see because they go into Cubs/Beavers/Scouts instead. Parents can't necessarily afford to send their girls to both groups.

These two things came together in my mind - and it struck me that if you're running around climbing trees and getting muddy with the boys, you probably aren't worrying too much about whether they think you're sexy.

I do think there's space for a girls-only movement like the Guides, but I also think there are benefits to girls and boys spending more time together running around and having fun. Some girls seem to reach adulthood without ever having had male friends who weren't boyfriends - and at that stage, it's almost too late to break down the "mystery," leaving a raft of women who think men belong to a different species. I'm guessing this doesn't happen to girls who take part in Scouts - and speaking personally, I certainly benefitted from other hobbies which put me in regular contact with boys, at the age where we weren't expected to be friends in school. Maybe if Scouts and Guides had historically spent more time on joint events and activities, we could have had these benefits while also preserving some time for boys to be boys, and girls to be girls.

Did you have friends of the opposite sex, as a child / teenager? Do you think it helped to demystify them?

Sunday, 12 September 2010

5 Travel Surprises (That Shouldn't Have Surprised Me)

You all know I'm addicted to travel, and of course every trip brings its own array of little surprises - but a few times I've been sideswiped by things that have later seemed all too obvious. Here are some of the surprises that, with hindsight, should not have surprised me:

1. Camping above the Arctic circle sounds like a cold experience, even in summer - but we camped far enough north that the sun never came close to touching the horizon in June. As a result we had more trouble with the tent being too hot, melting our emergency chocolate rations and making it hard to sleep without the door open.

2. Landing in Denver was a surprisingly comfortable experience... because with its mile-high runway, there's hardly any difference in pressure between cabin pressure and the ground outside. My ears didn't pop until the return flight!

3. Eating out in Cuba was harder than you might imagine: outside of Havana, you often needed to book meals in the morning so the restaurant could buy enough food to feed you in the evening. Looking for an authentic experience, we asked a local couple where they would go to eat - only to be told that they didn't eat out.

4. Public transport in Rome lacks the complex metro system you'd find in most European capitals. Why? The density of archaeological remains in the city makes it complicated and expensive to dig underground tunnels.

5. As a westerner in Mongolia, my carefully-developed habit of keeping my map and guidebook in my handbag out of sight was simply a waste of time: it was my first experience travelling to a country where I was marked out as a tourist on purely ethnic grounds.

Have you ever been surprised by something that should have been obvious?

Friday, 10 September 2010

Teabags At Dawn! The Mint Review

Peppermint tea is my staple drink. I'm utterly addicted to coffee, but I can't drink it all day - I need something caffeine-free to fill in the gaps. Since I drink so much mint tea every day, I decided it was about time to compare and contrast the different brands that are available (no free samples, no compensation, just a personal interest experiment). I prefer to eat and drink organic as far as possible, so I went out and bought every kind of organic peppermint tea which is stocked in my local shops...

Twinings: Organic Peppermint

This was the baseline for the experiment: it's the brand I've always bought before, it's stocked everywhere, and it's fairly cheap. It's okay... but I was getting a bit bored, and I often found that there was a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Good Earth: Organic Cool Mint

Buying one box of this tea on special offer was the event that started this test. It was a revelation: I hadn't expected it to be anything special, but it was just so much more flavoursome than I was used to. You can really taste the spearmint along with the peppermint, and there's a tiny amount of nutmeg which adds another layer of flavour. At full price it's about twice the price of the Twinings, but it's more than twice as tasty. Every teabag is sealed in its own little foil pouch; I have reservations about this from an environmental standpoint, but since I like to buy things in bulk, it's probably good for me. It also means I can stick a teabag or two in my handbag for emergencies (because, you know, everyone should be prepared for tea-based emergencies...).

Pukka Herbs: Organic Three Mint

This is the most expensive brand in the test. It looks like it should be nice, has appealing ingredients, and good organic credentials - but I was disappointed. I found it pretty flavourless, and I definitely couldn't tell that there were three different kinds of mint in there. This was my least favourite of the bunch, and I'm not looking forwards to having to finish the rest of the box. Like Good Earth, each teabag comes in its own sealed pouch.

Waitrose: Organic Peppermint

I thought I'd finished my tea-tasting experiments when we happened to go into Waitrose, and discovered that they have their own brand of organic peppermint. This was a simple teabag - 100% pure peppermint - but with a very pleasant, smooth taste. It doesn't have as much depth as the Good Earth tea, however, there's a point when I'm just waking up when I prefer to have something really simple to drink. This was also the cheapest in the test.


I'll be buying both the Good Earth and the Waitrose teabags regularly - Waitrose for that first cup of tea in the morning, and the Good Earth for the rest of the day. And I'll never again make the mistake of assuming that all teas are created equal!

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Queen Anne vs Sally Anne

Did you know that you can take a walking tour of Bath - for free? On almost any day of the year, you can simply turn up at the appointed time, and a volunteer guide will take you around the city.

My mother-in-law lives in Bath, so we visit fairly often, but we still enjoy taking this tour every now and then. Different guides have their own style, so you can take the tour several times and get a different experience - there's always something new to learn.

Bath's original architecture was designed almost entirely by one man: John Wood. And you'd struggle to visit Bath without admiring several of his impressive set pieces, like the Royal Crescent and the Circus.

What I find interesting is that he drew up these plans and then subcontracted the building work to a number of different local builders. As long as the front of the buildings matched his design, the builders had a free hand to complete the backs of these grand houses however they saw fit. The guide on our most recent tour gave us a name for this discrepancy: Queen Anne (the grand, uniform frontages) versus Sally Anne (the higgledy-piggledy, unplanned, backs).

This means that, while the fronts are impressive, the alleys which run along behind the terraces are (in my opinion) far more characterful and interesting.

Which side do you prefer?

Monday, 6 September 2010

Arctic Tanning

I always thought I was the girl who couldn't tan.

My skin has always been very pale, and I typically don't even burn - I just get so uncomfortably hot, and start suffering from dehydration headaches, such that I hide from the sun before it comes close to affecting my skin.

So it came as some surprise to come home from Iceland and discover that I had strong tan lines on my feet from where I'd been wearing the same sandals for six weeks. Six weeks of rain and overcast skies, mostly, but we'd been outside a lot and somehow the sun had got through. And I had the same thing on my face, with tan lines caused by the straps of my cycle helmet.

Greenland seems to have had a similar effect - I was wearing long-sleeved shirts all the time to ward off the mosquitoes, but my hands were exposed to the arctic sun, and ended up a few shades darker than my arms.

But the most notable feature about this arctic tan seems to be its persistance. The colour still shows on my hands, and it's now two months since I got home from Greenland. And I could still pick out the tan lines on my feet six months after returning from Iceland. I don't have enough experience with tanning to know whether that's normal... it seemed like a long time to me!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Enchilada Experiment

I can't be the only person who finds having friends for dinner to be the perfect excuse to experiment. And enchiladas have been in the back of my mind for a while, ever since I learnt how easy it is to make yummy quesadillas.

So, with no more recipe than what I could remember from eating in Mexican restaurants, I set out to try and recreate some enchiladas in my kitchen.

I have no idea how authentic these really were, but they were absolutely delicious - which is enough to prompt me to share the recipe! Maybe one of you who lives nearer to Mexico (that would be most of you...) can tell me whether I got close?


Veggie Enchiladas
Serves 4

8 tortilla wraps
2 red onions
2 red peppers
1 courgette
1 tin red kidney beans
1 tin black eyed beans
mexican spice mix
150g cheese (I used cheddar, but any hard cheese would do)

for the sauce:
1 medium red onion
1 green chilli
2 cloves garlic
2 tins chopped tomatoes
1 vegetable stock cube
black pepper
dried chilli flakes

to garnish:
more grated cheese
3 spring onions
  1. Make the sauce: chop the onions, chilli (discard the seeds) and garlic, and fry until soft. Add the tomatoes, crumble in the stock cube, and add pepper and chilli flakes to taste. Leave over a low heat while you make the enchilada filling.

  2. Slice the onions,and peppers into strips, and cut the courgette into small chunks. Fry the vegetables in a little oil until soft.

  3. Drain and wash the beans, and add to the vegetables. Season with generous quantities of Mexican spice mix (I got mine from a market stall so I don't have ingredients to know what spices are in there).

  4. Divide the filling between the eight tortillas. Grate the cheese and add a handful to each filling.

  5. Roll the tortillas around the filling, and fold the ends over to stop filling from escaping.

  6. Find some appropriate, deep baking containers. Grease them - I forgot to do this, thinking the bread wouldn't stick, and I was wrong! Arrange the rolled tortillas in the dishes.

  7. Top with tomato sauce, and extra cheese.

  8. Bake at 180°C for 30 minutes.

  9. Slice the spring onions thinly, and sprinkle on each enchilada before serving.
Visit my recipe index page for more recipes.... 

    Thursday, 2 September 2010

    September Inspiration & Social Media Link-Up

    This month I need to start by thanking Yenta Mary of Food Floozie and Joanna of Mommy in Suburbia for kindly passing awards in my direction. Thanks, ladies, I really appreciate it.

    Joanna also tagged me with some questions - this post could get rather long if I tried to answer all of them, but the first question was about anonymity (or not), and I don't think I've really talked about that before. Of course, you can tell that I blog under my real name - I didn't really know there was an alternative, when I started out, but I'm glad I did it this way. I know too many people who've been stung by writing what they thought were anonymous posts, and later being "found out" by family/friends/colleagues. I think that having my name in big letters at the top of the page reminds me that I'm accountable for everything I say here, which can only help to keep me honest and fair. How about you? If you blog "anonymously" how hard would it be to figure out, if I knew you in real life?

    And now for a couple of blog inspiration badges:

    Rachel at Me, Myself & Pie is experimenting with a variety of different recipes, and takes beautiful pictures of her results. Reading her blog always makes me hungry!
    On the boundary between installation art and handicrafts, my friend Kirsty blogs at A Night of a Thousand Cranes and is busy preparing for her first origami installation. She's also done some other great origami events along the way - a truly inspiring read.

    Recipients are under no obligations, but if you'd like to display the badge, please right-click to save a copy. And if you'd like to pass it along, you're very welcome to do that, too.

    If you missed previous months' recommendations, you can find them all in one place.

    Now let's do a quick social media exchange. I love to keep in touch with my favourite blogs on Facebook and Twitter - if you use either, please add your links here, and take a look through the list to make some new friends:

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