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Thursday, 28 March 2013

Caernarfon Castle



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You know how much I love castles, don't you?

Caernarfon castle isn't just a great example of a Welsh fortress (though it is that). For me, it's one of the castles of my childhood. Growing up, the holidays I most remember were to Scotland (plenty of castles there!), the Lake District (which has a less violent history, so fewer ruins), and north Wales. My parents always indulged my passion for running along battlements, sneaking through secret passageways, and scrambling up precipitous spiral staircases (which I hated to come down).

Nothing has really changed. I still love the cold stone walls which are a blank canvas ready to be coloured with a little imagination - whether I dream of times gone by, or of fantasy battles and sorcerers. And I still hate coming down spiral stairs.

Fortunately, my membership of English Heritage also gives me access to Cadw properties in Wales, so it didn't even cost anything for us to drop in on Caernarfon castle when we were visiting Snowdonia earlier this month. With several intact towers, and an extensive walking route around the walls, it's definitely a sight worth seeing if you're ever in the vicinity.

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Monday, 25 March 2013

Quick Ciabatta Pizza



I'm funny about tomatoes. I like the taste, I like tomato sauces, but fresh tomato doesn't really do anything for me, which means I tend not to buy them. That means when I do want to throw a couple of whole tomatoes in to a sauce, I don't usually have any in the fridge, so when I saw that Sacla' (my long-time favourite brand of pesto) make a tomato sauce with whole cherry tomatoes in, that seemed like it might be a pretty good compromise to keep in the pantry.

Anyway, I was browsing their site for a bit more info, and it turns out they have a whole page of Italian food inspired by Sacla' sauces... including pizza. For some reason it had never occurred to me before to use pasta sauce on a pizza. A couple of days later, and I wanted an easy supper, and this idea was still floating around in my head. As was the idea that I could make a pizza base from ciabatta bread mix.

The result was a very quick and tasty pizza, made entirely from ingredients I happened to have in the cupboard/fridge. The ciabatta dough rises to make quite a thick, soft base, and the pasta-sauce-as-pizza-sauce worked really well (much better than my usual standby of tomato puree).

Ciabatta pizza

Quick Ciabatta Pizza
Serves 4

1 packet ciabatta bread mix (I used Wright's)
175g tomato sauce (I used 1/2 jar Sacla' whole cherry tomato & chilli sauce)
1/2 courgette (zucchini)
1 red pepper
6-8 chestnut mushrooms
1/2 cup (or a large handful) sweetcorn
100g grated cheese (mozarella / medium cheddar)
  1. Make up the ciabatta mix according to the packet instructions. Roll out the dough to about 1cm thick, on a large floured baking sheet. Leave to rest for half an hour.
  2. While the dough is resting, slice the vegetables and grate the cheese.
  3. Knock back the dough, prick the surface with a fork, and spread the tomato sauce evenly.
  4. Arrange the vegetables on top of the sauce. Sprinkle cheese over the vegetables.
  5. Cook for 15 minutes in a 210°C oven (for a fan oven - conventional ovens may need a higher temperature) and serve fresh from the oven.


Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Star Bistro at Ullenwood



I'd heard good things about the Star Bistro from a friend, and always vaguely intended to go along and try it out for myself. But it was only when I heard Rob Rees talking about the project that I understood there was more to it than just another great restaurant: the Star Bistro is also a model of accessibility at work, providing all the necessary adjustments to allow disabled staff to work both in the kitchen and front-of-house roles. It immediately jumped to the very top of my list of places to try.

The bistro is located at the National Star College, which specialises in providing education for students with disabilities, and is a collaborative venture between the college and the Wiggly Worm charity. Upon arrival, parking is in the regular college car park, and a small sign directs bistro patrons to follow the signs for Reception. It always feels a bit strange to be wandering into a college campus for lunch, though I've eaten at enough student restaurants to be familiar with the experience.

The building itself is modern, and once you're inside the bistro is light and very spacious, meaning it felt a little empty when we arrived - although once it got busier, I was glad of the space between tables. But it doesn't take long to realise that the choice of table spacing is not primarily for the comfort of the guests. Some of the staff are in wheelchairs, and Rachel, the young lady who brought our food, uses a wheeled trolley to mitigate her disability.

The bistro has only been open for just over a year, so everything still feels very new. I loved the open design of the kitchen, meaning you can peek behind the scenes and watch your meal being prepared.

Star Bistro, Ullenwood

Star Bistro, Ullenwood

For my main course, I had Parisian gnocchi with spinach and wild mushrooms. There was only one vegetarian main (on a menu of just four items), and if I could change one thing it'd be to have more veggie choices, but the whole menu changes monthly which is frequent enough to mean we can go back and expect to eat something totally different. The gnocchi were fluffy, the spinach was freshly wilted, and there was a great selection of different mushrooms meaning that every mouthful was a different experience.

Star Bistro, Ullenwood

We shared two desserts between us. The chocolate pithivier, served with whipped cream and coffee crème anglaise, consisted of deliciously light pastry filled with a thick, warm, chocolate cream. It would be hard to over-state how much I loved this dish, and I really want to learn to make it (which is probably the highest compliment I can offer). Our second pud was treacle tart, a subtle and delicate dish served with creamy ginger ice-cream.

Star Bistro, Ullenwood

Star Bistro, Ullenwood

I would definitely recommend a visit to the Star Bistro if you're ever in the Cheltenham area. The food was consistently excellent (you certainly wouldn't know you were in a college restaurant, if not for walking in past Reception), the staff were charming, and it's impossible to fault the two-pronged mission of building up the disabled staff's skills & self-confidence while exposing the eating public to a positive, empowered view of disability. When we mentioned to Rob that the second purpose would be even better served by a cafe on the High Street, he hinted that plans were in train for a more central location, so watch this space!

Meanwhile, if you're interested in hearing Rob talk more about the food charities he's involved in, while he waves a large fish around, you'll certainly want to watch his excellent TEDxCheltenham talk:



Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Chablis Takeaway Challenge



Chablis takeaway challenge

When a French wine board offered me two bottles of Chablis and the chance to win a holiday to the region, if I could only find a great food pairing from a local takeaway... well, you can imagine that I didn't have to think for very long about my decision.

The two bottles I received were both 2011 wines, from different appelations: Chablis (Laroche) and Petit Chablis (Louis Michel & Fils). All Chablis wines are made from the chardonnay grape, but the bottles don't exactly announce it - possibly due to chardonnay's somewhat mixed reputation, or more likely because they just assume you already know.

Chablis takeaway challenge

I tasted the Petit Chablis first, because the Petit appelation has a reputation for being lighter. The flavour was crisp and bright with lemony notes; dry but very drinkable. It would be perfect for a summer afternoon.

The Laroche Chablis was a much richer, deeper, warmer wine, although still very dry and acidic. The bottle claimed apple and pear, but if I could persuade myself there was any apple, it was of a green, under-ripe variety. I did think there was a hint of honey - not sweetness, but the kind of taste you get with dry mead.

I do tend to have an affinity for lighter wines, and true to form, my personal preference between these two would be for the Petit Chablis, although I enjoyed both. But so much for the wine - what about the food?

If I'm thinking of ordering a takeaway, my thoughts almost invariably turn to Bengal Balti, a small place in Stroud which has a separate vegetarian menu (always an encouraging sign) and a vast range of truly inspired Indian and Bangladeshi dishes. I don't usually drink wine with Indian food, but it's the best takeaway in town, and I'm always up for a challenge. So having sipped both the wines, I examined the menu with an eye for flavours that might complement the drinks.

My first pick was shobji mali, mixed vegetables with honey, cashew nuts, and homemade yoghurt. I thought the honey would go well with the Laroche Chablis, and that the acidity of both wines would cut through a creamy sauce.

My husband voted for shobji jalahle, a vegetable dish described as being flavoured with imported Bangladeshi herbs & spices, chilli, tomato, and orange zest. I readily agreed, because I'd also been looking at a couple of citrus options.

Finally, we also ordered labra, which is my most common order: aubergine, okra, spinach, and lentils, with light spices. I added this to the list not so much because it seemed perfect for Chablis, as because I know it's perfect for Rachel, and the other dishes were things we'd never tried before.

Chablis takeaway challenge
Left to right: labra, shobji jalahle, shobji mali.

Before sitting down to eat, I tasted all three dishes, with both wines. The winning combination was definitely the shobji jalahle accompanied by the Petit Chablis. Either wine helps the slight orange aftertaste of the sauce to really come to the fore, and the brighter, lighter flavour of the Petit was a great contrast to the heat of the strong chilli. But the wine drank well with all three dishes, and I'll certainly be more alert in looking for unexpected food and wine pairings in future.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Discovery Space Shuttle



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One of the best exhibits at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center (an outpost of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, just outside Dulles airport) was the Discovery space shuttle.

I'd always imagined a space shuttle like this - which I'd seen only on TV, and always attached to the much larger launch rockets - as a little capsule just big enough for half a dozen astronauts to squeeze into. But this thing... it's big. It's really, really big. A single landing wheel is easily the height of a child.

Aside from just the massive, incredible scale of the shuttle, perhaps the most intriguing thing to me was its panel construction. The panels were an irregular bunch, not giving the impression of precision engineering one usually associates with rocket science. Around the nose these were small patches of metal. Towards the back, though, larger panels looked like fabric quilts plastered on to the hull in papier-mache style. In places, the panels bore printed instructions on how to cut the shuttle apart in case of an emergency.

Just being in the same room as this magnificent giant made me feel like a gnat, while providing a very physical reminder of what other little gnats like me have achieved by way of science and technology. I do hope that something comes of all the recent talk of a Mars mission (whether publicly or privately funded), because I think the excitement of space travel can only help get more kids studying scientific subjects. But while we're waiting for that, it was certainly fun to wander around the hangar and reflect on past glories.

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Monday, 11 March 2013

Speaking at TEDxCheltenham



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Photo Credit: Spencer McPherson and Phil Stevens at All In The Image

I've been a fan of TED talks for years. So when I heard about the TEDxCheltenham event, happening only a few miles away from where I live, I obviously put my name on the waiting list for tickets. A little while later, I heard they were looking for someone to blog the event - I put myself forwards for this and somehow, in conversation with the organiser, I ended up being invited to speak about my PhD work instead.

I said I'd think about it.

So I thought. I paced up and down, wondering what narrative I could possibly weave, on the subject of research that isn't even completed yet. I thought more, paced more, went over every possible reason to say no: My experiments aren't finished yet. I get nervous around public speaking. No-one would care about my work. I'm simply not good enough.

But ultimately, saying no to an opportunity like this just isn't in my make-up. I just don't say no to exciting and cool and mind-blowing experiences, even when they're terrifying.

I said yes.

That wasn't the end of the pacing, of course, and the panic only increased. What on earth had I done? Why was I putting myself through this crazy process? But as well as pacing and panicking, I planned. On buses and trains, on post-its and the backs of envelopes (but mostly on my phone), I made notes and sketched outlines and drew links between ideas.

By the time the day came around, I had a structure and a story. I was assigned to the slot just before lunch, shared with a genuine local celebrity in the form of chef Rob Rees. Several friends were in the audience, and others I knew were watching the live webcast from home.

My previous public speaking experience has come in two forms: scientific talks at technical conferences, and travel narratives for social clubs. TEDx is a somewhat different venue.

I was prepared for some of the differences, not least that I'd be presenting a technical topic to a general (and potentially worldwide) audience. What I didn't predict was the blindingly bright lights, which made it impossible to see the audience I was addressing, and left me feeling like a rabbit quite literally caught in the headlights. And the heat output was amazing - a couple of the other speakers had been visibly dripping, and if I avoided the same fate, it was only by giving a slightly shorter talk.

This isn't the story of one of those videos that goes instantly viral, with it's universal message and slick presentation: I wasn't perfect. I wasn't even the best I could be. The nerves I thought I'd dismissed came back full force as I stepped onto the stage and started to address the invisible, silent crowd (well, they were silent until I made them laugh - that at least was feedback). I started to speak, I hesitated, I lost my place and skipped a (probably crucial) part of the context as I struggled to rediscover the thread of my narrative.

But you know what? It wasn't an unmitigated disaster, either. People sought me out afterwards to tell me how my words had affected them, and to feed in their own stories. They wanted to tell me their anecdotes of previously-inexplicable behaviour, which my talk had somehow explained for them. I hadn't performed at my best, but my imperfect speech had still resonated.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, yes! It was a baptism of fire, certainly, but it's important to challenge yourself with the things that scare you. Five or six years ago I wouldn't have been able to get a word out - I wouldn't have dared to accept - and I would have missed a tremendous experience.

I'd also encourage anyone who has chance, to attend one of the many TEDx events around the world. The other talks were entertaining, there was a ton of food to keep us all nourished, and plenty of break-out time for informal conversations with speakers and audience members alike. Plus, the tickets for TEDx events are much more reasonable than the thousands (which most of us will never be able to afford) to attend a full TED conference!

My video is embedded below, if you're interested, or you can find all TEDx talks on their YouTube channel.

TEDxCheltenham Group Photo
Photo Credit: Spencer McPherson and Phil Stevens at All In The Image

TEDxCheltenham

TEDxCheltenham

TEDxCheltenham



Thursday, 7 March 2013

Scenic Snowdonia



We were fortunate enough to have some unseasonally beautiful weather on our recent visit to Snowdonia. While it wasn't exactly warm, the skies were clear blue and the sun sparkled on the water.

Although we didn't walk up Snowdon itself, we did enjoy taking in the amazing scenery of the area. From rugged mountains to rolling dales, mirror-like lakes to dramatic gorges, there's plenty of variety in the Welsh landscape - and that's without considering the nearby coast.

We had only a short weekend to enjoy it; soon I hope we'll come back for longer.

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Monday, 4 March 2013

Veggie Dim Sum at Jade Dynasty, Vancouver



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As we wandered through Vancouver's chinatown one (typically grey and misty) morning, my attention was caught by Jade Dynasty's sign declaring its twin specialities of dim sum  and vegetarian dishes. I love Chinese food, and especially dumplings and wontons, but I've never found a decent veggie dim sum offering. Returning there for lunch was almost inevitable.

We ordered vegetable dumplings, mushroom pancakes, tofu wraps (also filled with mushrooms), and a sweet & sour chicken dish for Andy. The dumplings were my favourite, packed with bright and fresh veggies. The fillings of the two mushroom dishes were pretty similar, and if I'd realised from the menu descriptions, I might have plumped for something else, but they were tasty so I'm not really complaining. I had a slight preference for the soft, soy-sauce-soaked pancakes over the slightly crispy tofu wrappers. There were a few other things on the menu that I might have liked to try, had we had the chance.

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