Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Xmas dinners

This year I went for easy and traditional for my three Xmas dinners rather than last year's cream based fest. Xmas Eve for me is lamb and I did a lamb stew with dumplings. For pud a treacle tart with ice cream. Accompanied by red wine and Carols from Kings this was all in good. Xmas Day was chicken (cos I don't like turkey and find game birds tricky to time right) with home-made sage and onion stuffing, bread sauce and roast spuds. Pud was Xmas pud with custard. Accompanied by red wine and Doctor Who Xmas Special as is traditional. Boxing Day will be starter of melon with parma ham, roast beef with horseradish and spuds and parsnips. Pud is chocolate log with ice-cream which will provide survivors for the Wii'n'Tea session tomorrow. I always buy and make too much over Xmas, but then again who doesn't?!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Thoughts on Vintage/Charity Shop shopping.

On left, me in 1930s crepe and lace dress.

I really got into vintage/second hand from going to church jumble sales when I was a kid. Later on I think my wardrobe when growing up was always slightly off beat with lots of hand knitted and handmade items and groovy 70s stuff. Now I find fashion a bit tacky, boring and expensive so I love to shop second hand. Also this is a great way to try out new and different looks when all the stuff in the shops is the same. My top tips would be to explore different periods or themes to find something that suits your mood...I watch loads of old films and TV programmes and often see fantastic outfits on them. Do you perhaps love the 60s look in The Avengers or The Saint, the gothic romance of costume dramas or the glamour of the 30s? If a whole look is too challenging, channel it with some retro shoes or a handbag or some costume jewellery. Sadly I am far from my vintage nirvana; Armstrongs in Edinburgh but I recommend their ebay site Ebay is scary for buying but just remember to measure yourself carefully as dress sizes have totally changed over the years and try to get stuff you can put through the washing machine as some items may be fusty. My current irrational desires run to wool capes, tailored dresses, anything cashmere and big cocktail rings.

Monday, 30 November 2009

More Paris

Another anniversary visit to Paris later and more recommends and non-recommends. Good Places to visit: Musee des Arts et Metiers (Science Museum), immortalised in the novel Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco it houses said pendulum along with a weird and wonderful array of science equipment, vehicles, gadgets housed in amazing buildings including an old church. Any churches, you can just nip in and there are some amazing gothic, baroque, romanesque, you name it, interiors to ogle. Rodin Museum, lovely if decrepit mansion of gorgeous figure sculptures set in formal gardens. Watch out for sociopathic pigeons by cafe though. Bad places: The Louvre, amazing collections set in some fantastic rooms but a frankly insane and panic inducing quantity of people. The Pantheon, weird church/republican shrine with creepy catacomb and hilariously awful triumphalist paintings. Also had not heard of most of the famous people in there anyway. Go see Tomb of Napoleon in Les Invalides instead, that is fantastic. Good places to eat: Cojean Cafe on small square east of Louvre (never eat in the Louvre) serves interesting sandwiches and salads. La Greuze on Rue Soufflot near the Sorbonne has Belgian food, great steaks and a mind-boggling selection of beer. Brasserie Balzar on Rue des Ecoles in the same area for classic French food in an original 30s interior and waiters with big aprons and 'taches.

Monday, 14 September 2009

See Leeds

For the second stop-off of the holiday we went to Leeds. We stayed in the Malmaison Hotel which was really great, even if it was just down from the gay village. Highlights of Leeds include The Royal Armouries (spend a whole day, as well as amazing collections they have fascinating talks, re-enactors, jousting, falconry etc etc). Shopping is a must in Leeds with beautiful covered arcades housing seriously designer shops and nifty eateries to many vintage and alternative outlets. We liked OK Comics (great selection with a relaxing sofa area for reading) and Rose & Co with gorgeous historic shop interior, amazing toiletries (Zam-Buk!) and retro dresses and undies downstairs including Stop Staring, in the girliest shop imaginable. Also huge Borders with many many amazing books (although half price Art of Dior book was too heavy to carry, sadly.) The Leeds Market is the original home of M&S and now houses fantastic butchers, bakers, cafes and market stalls selling Everything at great prices.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Rediscovered authors

I'm not sure how this was sparked off but I am currently re-enjoying (is that a word?) some of my favourite books and authors from my younger years. Alice in Wonderland is more a work of philosphical genius so is always worth going back to. Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series is still fantastic, but best of all is Diana Wynne Jones. I'm currently enjoying The Ogre Downstairs which is, inexplicably, out of print at the moment and just finished Charmed Life and Howl's Moving Castle. HMC is also an amazing animated film which is highly recommended, apparently Castle in the Sky (ditto) is also one of Diana's but I haven't read that yet. I used to read a lot of fantasy when I was younger, a genre I still really like when I can find anything entertaining.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Natural Beauty

Avoid chemical overload (and before anyone complains I know everything is made of chemicals...) but I mean petrochemicals, preservatives etc. You don't want that stuff soaking into your skin and hair do you? Natural beauty products can be a bit hit and miss but these are my fave lines. Lush, for fun bathproducts especially the famous bath bombs, totally non-allergic creams with wonderful floral scents. Burts Bees, which my Mum introduced me to, are fantastic and more reliable in terms of textures and results. Dead Sea by Yarden has minerals from the Dead Sea in which help exzema and skin problems, they do a great facewash and bath products including a scarily vigorous body scrub and amazing frankincense scented bath salt with floaty petals.

Friday, 7 August 2009

TV is like Buses

All the good programmes come at once! Currently I am enjoying The Proms, Coast series 2, Desperate Romantics with the gorgeous Aidan Turner, What to Eat Now and Economy Gastronomy. Better Half is loving The Sky at Night. We also have a great programme about the history of the Open University on the HDD Recorder. (Along with many films I feel I ought to see but always end up watching Alias on DVD instead, possibly my favourite programme of all time. Mostly I watch it while Better Half plays World of Warcraft, to drown out the shouts of Kill the Orc!) Really I feel good TV should be saved for the long Aberdonian winters when I hibernate with stodge for months, but thanks anyway to the BBC.

Sunday, 19 July 2009


As I am an unlucky person with no garden (btw why do people with gardens always moan about what hard work they are, so tactless...) my growing energy is channelled into my houseplants. I have eighteen currently in a small flat. If you are worried about growing plants do just give it a go as most are pretty forgiving really. Most interesting are... venus flytrap (carnivorous plant, I am very fascinated by these) cycad (dinosaur era fern, grows new leaves in a big batch annually) and aloe vera (a new one, sap from leaves heals sunburn).I rescue plants from work and from the 'almost dead' section in B&Q. Sadly in Aberdeen the long dark winters kill many of my herb plants including all my attempts to grow indoor chillies.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Bruges Report I

Places we visited......
Stadhuis, town hall dating back to 1375
Basilica of the Holy Blood, with actual blood from Jesus
Church of our Lady, tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgandy, Michaelangelo sculpture
Gruuthuse Museum, 1400s house with lovely interiors and old chapel
Hans Memling Museum, interesting medieval hospital with amazing altarpiece by Hans Memling
St Salvator Cathedral, huge church from 1100s on
Groeninge Museum, art and applied arts from early Renaissance
Folk Museum, in old almshouses
St Anna's Church, amazing baroque interior in black, white and gold

Bruges is a great city for walking, crammed with tiny old streets and interesting shops.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Food culture

Had interesting cooking session with my Stepmum today. In Chinese culture, noodles are for welcoming and dumplings are given when you leave. I always wondered why weird dumplings were forced on me often as I was legging it towards the car! The Chinese have symbolic foods for just about every occasion, as do we if you think about it. She showed me how to make boiled dumplings which are a bit like stuffed pastas. A mix of pork mince, prawns, cabbage, spring onion, ginger, garlic bound with egg is placed on a dough round held in the hand. This is then pinched and folded together to make a parcel which is boiled. They are dipped in Chiangking vinegar as you eat. This is a traditional dish from northern China.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Great Food Magazines.

For me there is only one great food magazine; Gourmet (US publication). Which I first discovered at my bros house in St Louis. Try it, you'll like it. From hence this summer dessert triumph. EASY. One sweet pastry case. One big tub marscapone cheese (mixed with 1tspn each vanilla and lemon juice if you can be bothered) Strawberries or possibly raspberries. Bit of syrup made with booze (port preferably)or fruit juice and sugar. Put cream cheese in pastry case. Top with fruit. Top with drizzle of syrup. Like cheesecake but easier. No accompaniment needed, it's all in there. Gorge down not worrying about fatty cream cheese and concentrating on healthy fresh fruit part.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Stew in a Jar

I am currently experimenting with stews in jars from our nice local French deli. When I had horrible flu Alistair bought the cassoulet in a jar which was fantastic. Cassoulet has a bit of, sausage, white beans in a yummy, gloopy and I fear fatty base. This week I got the Coq au Vin in a jar which I am currently heating on the hob. Should I progress to try tins? I have a fear of tins but perhaps worth it if I can find anything interesting in a tinned format? From my childhood I fondly remember tinned foods....Fray Bentos pies, ravioli, spaghetti rings, corned beef and condensed milk. Is the tin a victim of food snobbery perhaps?

Sunday, 10 May 2009

French cookery bender

To try and expunge the horror of my gruesome First Aid Training from my head, this weekend is devoted to a French Cookery Bender. Sat dinner: lettuce with french dressing and walnuts, steak with bearnaise sauce and chips, pears in butterscotch sauce. Apart from spraying bearnaise sauce over myself as I stirred crazily on the hob and waking up in the night trying to remember how much butter I'd eaten in it, totally excellent. Today: pistachio macaroons, chocolate pots, chicken in cider. Chocolate pots is the easiest ever. Melt dark choc in same amount double cream, put in ramekins, put in fridge. This one had orange in and tastes (surprise?) like Terry's chocolate orange. Which is basically good. I don't know how the French stay thin though, it's not the healthiest food in the world......

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Feed blokes and get them to cook...

This may seem a bit un-PC but seeing as I'm married and all that. The thorny question...what do blokes like to eat and how can you get them to make stuff? Answer 1: red meat. Steaks with frites and any French food seems to go down well. Any pudding involving custard, preferably the kind with real cream and eggs. A big no from my bloke to veggie food, vegetables generally and anything low-cal (unless stealthily presented). Answer 2: Buy him The Len Deighton Action Cookbook. It's by a thriller writer, it has a gun on the cover (on my edition although the others are also seriously kitsch retro-cool), features top advice on wine, parties, cigars and how to make proper French food. I gained interest in it btw after seeing Michael Caine's famous shopping and cooking scene in The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton. You could also try the excellent Hairy Bikers cookbooks for the more adventurous...

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Spices Online

Just a quick post to big up this great website for 'The Spice Shop'
If like me you live in a small and not very cosmopolitan city this is fantastic! Also much cheaper and better than supermarkets. Only problem is I always buy tons of weird and interesting things and then don't use them. But then I also shy away from weird and interesting recipes cos I don't have the stuff. Note to self: plan more...

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Make-up phobic

A brave first for me today. Ready for the wedding attendance on Sat I went to the Clinique counter in Boots and got advice on foundation. I usually go goth pale due to a fear of David Dickinson style orange but the girl helped me get something more natural. And apparently you use a brush not a sponge to put it on with now? I feel about 100. Speaking of as you hit your 30s normal skin becomes blotchy, creasy, hangover shadowy skin all the time. But as I don't always want to look like I've been on an all-nighter action had to be taken.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Party Food

OK, so I was going to keep my dinner party menu a surprise but Someone blabbed. Cooking for friends can be tricky as there are so many likes/dislikes. First up is cocktails with homemade cheese straws (puff pastry, spread with parmesan and other things such as chilli/mustard/anchovy paste etc.) This is a Victorian recipe and they loved strong flavours and little savouries. Then chicken tagine with apricots and couscous. An easy, as I am out all day and better half will have to make it (no offense). The a Paris-style finale from Nigella Domestic Goddess, choc meringue with choc custard layers. Very excited about this having just licked out the custard pan. I bought a girly cakestand to put it on this morning.
Top tips for dinners: avoid weird foods (and fish, shellfish, rare meat). Have lots of drink in. Nibbles buy you time. Cook as much as possible in advance.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Pineapple and Renaissance

Firstly, I'd like to big up the Landmark Trust who rent out as holiday homes the most amazingly fab historic buildings in random rural locations. The Pineapple in Dunmore is a pineapple shaped pavilion flanked by 2 gardeners cottages. There's an open fire and view of the Ochil hills and there aint a phone, TV or computer so you can relax from the information overload.
The holiday also turned out to be a bit of a renaissance fest as we went to Falkland Palace, Stirling Castle and Linlithgow Palace, all favoured haunts of James IV-VI. The tapestry weavers at Stirling were amazing, you can see them making a series of huge unicorn tapestries in a little workshop.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Mrs Beeton menu

Mrs Beeton still delivers the goods! Today I cooked a three course dinner (she recommends eight...) from my 1920s Mrs Beeton's Household Management. I thought the food would be bland and stodgy but it was tasty and very approachable. Starter was puff pastry cheese twists with anchovy paste, then chicken wrapped in bacon with tartare sauce and finally chocolate blancmange. I loved blancmange as a kid and this was both dead easy and tasted just like Cadbury's Dairy Milk. To make...heat 1 pint whole milk in a pan, melt in 100g dark choc, then melt in 7 leaves gelatine, add 1oz sugar and splash vanilla. Put in a bowl and set in fridge for a few hours.
Only difficulty with Mrs Beeton is adjusting to old measurements (a gill?) and instructions like 'over a clear fire'. But with over 1000 pages, I'll be back for more...

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Coffee Cake Crisis

The lemon loaf cake from my Dan Lepard cookbook was a great success (if rather small) but the coffee cake is a b****r. First time it was overcooked, flat and biscuit like. This time after reducing temperature and time it seemed Ok texturally but rose up in the oven then collapsed, still in the oven, 5 mins later. I think it must be the tricky mix with the veg oil and whisked egg. Do I keep making it obsessively until I crack it or should I move on? I FOLLOWED THE INSTRUCTIONS TO THE LETTER BOTH TIMES! I will fill the dents with buttercream and hope no-one notices...

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Cold cure

An infallible and delicious cold cure is the traditional Scottish Hot Toddy.
Dissolve 1 teaspoon of honey in a mug of hot water. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of whisky, a clove and put in a cinnamon stick for stirring. Better than Lemsip. It worked for me.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Vintage Blatherings

A two part post. Firstly to say, should you ever be in Belfast, do nip into BestVintage. A great little shop just off the town square and Very Cheap (almost a miracle in most vintage shops now). I got a fab little black cropped wool jacket for only £7. Great stock of dresses and footwear, menswear. There is also a fab
Secondly, if ironing linen drives you Crrrazy, use spray starch on it. I was given mine at my hen-do to use on my better half 'on the wedding night'. If you can't imagine what for you have led a rather sheltered life....

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Surreal Heston

The chocolate marble cake was good, if I say so myself.
Strongly recommended for cooking enthusiasts is Heston Blumenthal's new Series 'Feast' on Channel 4. The first was a Victorian feast based on Alice in Wonderland, which is one of my favourite books. Heston is a crazed genius and the food was beautiful, beyond weird and very bizzare. The sequence with the jelly and the sex shop was one of the funniest things I've seen for years...I would love to meet Heston and eat his food as I feel we have a similar odd sense of humour.
The first episode is available on

Monday, 2 March 2009

New cookbook!

Triggered by my enthusiasm for the Guardian Baking Guide (excellent, if now crusted and stained) I just got 'Exceptional Cakes' by Dan Lepard. It is a fantastic baking book with lots of detailed instructions, chemistry and explanations and glossy pics and only £5.99 bargain. My first project is chocolate marble cake, tomorrow on my day off, and will work up to the tricky stuff like choux pastry with any luck. I like cookbooks with pics and lots of blerb otherwise I can't tell if the things have worked out right. Will report back on progress.......

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Fast Flat Food

Are you in a rush to cook when you get back from work...........Now fast food is flat food. Get your chicken breast, pork loin chop etc, put it on a board, cover with clingfilm and bash flat with a rolling pin. It's great. Stress relief and speedy frying in one! Plus it looks nice too. (don't do this with bony things, apparently they do in China but it gets splintery.)

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Stuffed Animals

Or sporting trophies or taxidermy or whatever. I was bothered at the NTS training course that so many people regard preserved animal specimens as simply morbid, unhygenic or sick. I have always enjoyed them, firstly at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham which had an amazing collection, including a huge giraffe in the hall, at one of my favourite museums, the Natural History Museum and now in Paris (although the osteology or skeleton hall is rather frightening.)
I now look after quite a few at the castle too, including stuffed dogs. These specimens form a valuable record both of the natural world (especially the extinct) and of the art and interests of the time. If you want to find out more I really recommend 'Dry Storeroom 1' by Richard Fortey about the Natural History Museum collections and 'Finders Keepers: Eight Collectors' by Stephen Jay Gould (although the anatomical items on some of the pictures are VERY DISTURBING, don't complain, I did warn you.) Best taxidermy moment was the wrapped civet cat, a roll of tissue with a furry tail sticking out........

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Osterley etc

This year, I was lucky enough to be the only Scottish (or working in Scotland anyway) person on the National Trust housekeeping course at Osterley Park in London. If you haven't been to OP yet, do try and go, it is an amazing house. I never really liked classical architecture and design for a long time, being stuck in gothic, but it is so beautiful there I am converted.
Highlights included......handling gold leaf, getting lost in creepy downstairs corridors, being up close and personal with genuine Adam furniture, touring the gardens in the frosty sunshine, finding a fantastic little bookshop nearby with amazing architecture books, the ceiling with the plaster grapevines, finally understanding what an octavo was, the lovely man with the passion for clocks, apple crumble in the tearoom, the OP cleaning lady who was informed and hilarious, meeting so many other people who are also totally obsessed by saving our wonderful historic buildings and collections........

Sunday, 18 January 2009

More Elizabethan Food

Today on Sunday is History Night I made Lamb with a spiced red wine and orange sauce. It was very good and I served it with root veg as no potatoes then. Pudding was a bread and butter pudding which has not changed at all.
Last weeks chicken with gooseberry and parsley sauce was rather odd. The almond tart was nice, I thought, but work colleagues hated the rosewater flavour which was a common ingredient of the time.


Saw a really interesting programme last night on the archaeology of WW2 British defences. There are pillboxes, tank traps etc all over Britain ready for the German invasion. I have even seen them around Aberdeenshire. There is a fine pillbox near Tillyfourie, one at Fyvie and I know I've seen another further north. These were part of a stop-line where we would confront and hold the invaders. Has anyone else seen any?
The programme is on Channel 4 player at

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Food in History

Inspired by the fantastic new BBC TV series 'Victorian Farm'
I am starting some historical cooking.
My 1920s Mrs Beeton is a bit daunting and some of the food is just awful (Calf's head, turtles, parrots, blackbirds........) so I am starting with Elizabethan food from Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book.
Tonight chicken with gooseberry and herb sauce and an almond and date custard tart.
Might have to buy some more historical cookbooks too.....Eliza Acton is often bandied about.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Vintage is a vice

With the return of life comes the return of some bad habits.....frenziedly browsing (?) ebay again for vintage clothes. I like Victorian, Edwardian, 1930s and 1950s. My dream find is a New Look 1950s Dior suit or an Edwardian riding habit. My local vintage shops are not great, mostly 70s even 80s stuff, although I did get a fantastic black crepe 30s evening dress once. Problem was it was so elegantly understated no-one noticed how gorgeous it was! I like Monsoon for retro-ish stuff too and when I shop I tend to view everything in eras...'ooh very twenties'. My favourite charity shop (Sue Ryder on Holborn Street) has stopped doing clothes but was an ace source for old ladyish suits, coats etc from the 60s. Anyway wish me luck as I bid on a burgandy velvet coat possibly 1930s.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Life Returns

Life returns and I return to work. And to a big list of things you need at a large castle open to the public...enormous tablecloth, heraldic flag, rug underlay, kick stool for small staff struggling with huge doors, umbrella stands...
And to over 1000 items all requiring dusting, polishing, cataloguing, photographing etc etc
And to our resident pets/pests, the mice which come in through the shot holes and the bats that drop down the chimneys.
And to the sweeping park, romantic and frozen in the winter sun.
It's good to be back.