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Back then

Back ‘when I were a girl’ (said in a Yorkshire accent) I used to travel a lot with my parents.  Commercial air travel was still relatively new and I clearly remember how when we’d see air crew walking through the airport their heads were held high with pride, and everyone looked admiringly at them.  Have you seen the film ‘Catch me if you can’?  Well, if you weren’t around in the 1960s to see what I’m talking about for yourself, that film shows you pretty much what it was like to be air crew then.  It was the coolest job – seriously, those people were mini gods.  I remember having ambitions as a little girl to be an air hostess. I  have to tell you, however, that every time I said so to my mother that she would quickly retort: ‘You want to be a trolly dolly?  Really?  Ooh no, I don’t think so!’ (I did secretly keep on dreaming though).

A couple of months back an ad  for Virgin Airways was released on TV and it plays on this nostalgia because they are currently celebrating 25 years as an airline.  When we fly anywhere long distance nowadays I am of course swayed not only by price but by the convenience of the destination airport for us, plus those all important airmiles.  Still, I  have to say I have a tremendous soft spot for Virgin and will use them whenever I can.  This is partly because I have huge admiration for Richard Branson but mostly because Virgin were once incredibly generous with us.  You see we took the girls over to the States one year on an ‘all in’ Virgin holiday and to cut a long story short, our holiday fell short of expectations.  Nothing totally horrendous, just really not what we had expected.  When we got back I wrote to the company to say how disappointed we’d been, not thinking that I’d ever hear anything back from them.  Well, far from it.  A short while later I received a letter of apology and – here’s the thing –  a full refund for the holiday.  I was, and still am, blown away by this generous attitude, so is it any wonder that Richard Branson (already a business hero of mine) rocketed right up in my estimation?  It was probably also a clever business move on their part because over the years I’ve missed absolutely no opportunity to extoll the many virtues of Virgin.  There is no better advertisement than a totally smitten customer.

Here’s that wonderful ad … and they really couldn’t have picked a better piece of music because it’s one of my all time favourites ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. ‘ Ah them were the days’ (she said, back in her Yorkshire accent).

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The Yin and Yang balance

YinYangThere is a yin and yang balance to life, if you choose to look for it.  Just lately I’ve been in pain – a finger joint on my left hand has finally succumbed to arthritis.  It’s been on the move for the last year or more, the joint slowly swelling, but in the last week has begun to painfully throb. 

Under the weather

Under the weather

Do you have arthritis?  If not, count yourself lucky.  Rather unfairly at my age, I think, I now have two points in my body that are affected: in my left foot – the searing arthritic pain of which is currently on several years’ sabbatical, thank the Lord (but the effect of which has left me with a misshapen foot), and now my left hand.  What is particularly frustratring me is that it would be my left hand, wouldn’t it?  That’s my fully functioning hand.  If it was my right hand it would rarely be used and so the swollen joint wouldn’t be accidentally and continually knocked, and I wouldn’t be noticing how it now hurts every time I even bend my fingers (which, in the case of my left hand is, not surprisingly, very often). 

Still, I count myself lucky that it’s merely a finger joint and not a hip or an entire arm that is in arthritic agony (that would be a real stinker).  

I’d just managed to again painfully bash my hand against the furniture while cleaning yesterday when the phone rang.  The caller purported to be from the company that I tend to buy my shoes from.   (I say ‘purported’ because I don’t see Shoe shoppinga scam here but you never can tell nowadays) . They said that as a subscriber to their newsletter my name had been entered into a competition to win shoes for the next year and that my name had been drawn as the winner. Winging its’ way to me shortly via Recorded Delivery will be hundreds of Pounds worth of vouchers to cover shoes for every season – from January through to December.  How cool is that?  Of course I am not a shoe fettishist like other members of my family, and it just so happens that I have only just bought enough shoes to last me for the next year (at least) but, hey, I’m not complaining!  I’m on the winning side!  I was seriously thinking that this year would be marked only by one ‘money out’ situation after another yet the other day I won £25 on the Premium Bonds [woohoo] and now I’ve won a whole load of shoe vouchers.  Could this be a turn in the financial tide?  That would be nice.

So there.  The yin and the yang balance at work:  I am in physical pain but at least I’ll have plenty of pretty new shoes to distract me and with my current winning streak, who knows?  Perhaps I’m in line for a big lottery win!

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National addiction

FrustrationI think I may be actually addicted to tea.  How do I know this?  Every time I go on holiday outside the UK I get ratty and distracted by the damned awful versions of my national drink that are marketed and sold as ‘tea’.  In France, which as one of our closest neighbours tends to be a regular haunt of mine… oh have mercy….in France they are more used to delicate ’tisanes’ – herbal teas that are merely politely introduced to very hot water for a nano-second and the anaemic result is what you are supposed to drink, and presumably enjoy.  France, and I can say this as basically a half-French woman, is a lost cause.  In the world of general cuisine I will concede that they are amongst the front runners.  For making a good cuppa?  Forget it.  Order tea at your peril.  What you will get will be gnats’ pee.

I’ve singled out France but really the story will be the same for most of Europe.  There is one exception – Ireland.  You want tea? You’ll get a proper brew, one that you could stand your spoon in.  I once stayed in a hotel in central London and was served what I can only describe as dishwater, cheekily passing itself off as tea.  As I’d noticed a good southern Irish lilt in my waitresses’ voice, I asked if it was possible to have a stronger pot of tea, to which she replied ‘yes, of course, we only give out this rubbish because the tourists like it’.  Do they?  Do they really?  Nations who are coffee addicts make properly brewed versions of the stuff for visitors because that’s what they themselves drink.  They wouldn’t dream of handing out the weaker instant coffee version because they assume that ‘the tourists like it’.

Freshly plucked tea leavesI have to say that one of my biggest frustrations is when I travel to the U.S. because this nation understands their own addiction to the coffee bean only too well.  In fact, Americans are so rabid about their own national drink that it features in popular culture, it is the birthplace of the ubiquitous Starbucks, Americans are seen everywhere clutching ‘half-gallon’ canisters like bottles of formula, and coffee percolators (not instant coffee sachets) are available in fairly mundande hotel rooms to allow for that early morning fix.  The national addiction to coffee is so recognised, and so ingrained, that if you visit any restaurant or diner before lunch time the waitress will come to the table already armed with a steaming hot pot of the drink and be pouring it out before you have even glanced at the menu – before you have had time to say whether you even want it.  And herein lies my frustration.  The Americans fully understand this addiction to the bean.  They know that consumers get ratty without their caffeine fix and so they anticipate and pre-empt any troubles by offering it up before any conversation takes place.  However, woe betide you if you don’t drink the stuff, if in fact your morning fix is from the rather more gentle, but still caffeine laden tea leaf. 

In even expensive hotels I have been advised to use the coffee pot/percolator to heat water for my morning cuppa.  cuppaHave you any idea how much coffee taints the flavour of the water in those coffee makers?  No?  Well try to imagine if I told you to make your morning coffee in the pot normally reserved for onion soup.  Yes.  It’s about as pleasant as that.  Even after flushing it through several times with plain water, you can still taste the coffee so that what you are left with is weird ‘co~tea’ in the a.m. and, trust me, it’s naaasty.  When I’ve asked for boiling water to make my tea it comes in a coffee pot which, in case you hadn’t twigged yet STILL TASTES OF COFFEE!

When I’ve ordered tea in a restaurant, I have to wait for tea-like paraphernalia to appear, as though I wish to perform my own version of the Japanese tea ceremony.  Do I want lemon?  Do I want silk tea bags?  Do I want to rifle through and pick from this entire 50-strong tray of tea bags, including mint, chamomile, lemon verbena….?    No, fer cryin’ out loud!  I want tea!  The brown stuff that comes out of generic bags from makers like Typhoo, Tetley and PG Tips!  I don’t want silk, I don’t want herbs, I don’t want lemon and trays and pots and pans and, by the way, I don’t even want ferkin’  Twinings which, in case you didn’t know, is barely drunk in Britain because it’s strictly for Wishy Washy Wimps!  I want TEA!!!  The caramel golden nectar which keeps the fabled British Army marching ever onwards!  That glorious brew that stains your teeth brown, you can stand your spoon up in it and it makes you feel like you’ve had a great big enveloping hug from your ever-loving Mummy who adores you like no other.   T. E. A.  I want tea.  Please.

You can read a few interesting facts about my favourite drink over at my other site here.

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There are plenty of fine teas out there but what I’m referring to above is the bog standard ‘cuppa’ as consumed by millions of Brits every day.  Snobs will tell you that these blends are the ‘sweepings off the floor’ but that’s them just trying to prove that they’re a cut above the rest of us and, frankly, they’re talking rubbish.  Millions of us can’t be wrong and, in fact, I read recently that the Chinese are now starting to import English bog standard blends, of the type mentioned below, because they too have realised what a little gem we have.

Therefore…To make a delicious, bog standard cuppa, as drunk by all good Brits:

Look in the ‘English’ section of your supermarket if there is one.   (I know, for instance, that such things exist in Florida).  The tea brands to look for are Tetley, PG Tips, Yorkshire Blend and, our favourite, Typhoo.

Put one tea bag in a [preferably] china cup or mug.  It is true that tea tastes better in china rather than plain pottery because china holds the water at a better temperature … and by the way, there’s no need to be snobby with this tea, serving it in mimsy little cups, unless you want to impress your guests.  I’m a ‘mug’ person myself.  

Pour on a little cold milk (about a tablespoon, no more).  Boil a kettle and pour freshly boiled water over the milk and tea bag.  Colour will immediately start to flood out.  Use a teaspoon to ‘mash’ the bag until you have the desired colour.  ‘Serious’ tea drinkers will want their tea a golden caramel colour.

Beginners might want to add sugar, although ‘serious students’ (myself included) know that totally swamps the flavour of the tea.

Sit down and enjoy. 

Good in the afternoon with plain biscuits dunked in it (another joyous English custom designed to pile on the pounds because once you develop the technique of a perfectly dunked biscuit, you cannot stop). 

By the way, there’s a quirky little site about tea, biscuits and our national drink called a Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down that you might like to visit.

0135, Daily Dose

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Sleep, Rest and Recoup

tired

Tips for a restful night’s sleep

If you’re reading this, logic tells me that you are concerned about lack of sleep.  First of all, it’s important to say that  while 8 hours is the accepted norm for a good night’s sleep, you needn’t necessarily feel bad because you routinely sleep for less than this.  Some people actually only need 4 hours (Margaret Thatcher being a famous example), while others are out for the count for a full 12 (just about every teenager on the planet).  

However, sleep deprivation, when your body is telling you that you need more rest (!),  can be both debilitating and depressing and no one really wants to resort to potentially addictive chemicals to solve the problem. There are so many possible causes, cures and herbal remedies that I thought it might be helpful to put together a whole list of them.  I hope you’ll find something here to help. 

Herbal Help

Lavender has been known for centuries to induce relaxation and can be used in a number of ways: a couple of drops of essential oil sprinkled on the corner of your pillow will help, as will  lavender oil in a cold diffuser placed in the lavender-1bedroom.

A warm bath, at the optimum time of two hours before bed, helps to regulate body temperature to an ideal level and is particularly helpful when combined with lavender products like bubble bath and body lotion.

Herbal teas can also prove useful – chamomile and valerian (which is often combined with hops) are both well-known for aiding relaxation and sleep.  While both will help with insomnia, I’ve read recently that valerian, especially when combined with ‘chaste tree’ may help with sleep maintenance. 

Extra help and accepted wisdom

Even 20 minutes of gentle exercise during the day can help to stop stress hormones from interfering with sleep.

Try to avoid heavy meals just before bed – a minimum two hour gap between meal and bed is a good idea.

art-deco-girl-11Avoid caffeine drinks like regular tea, coffee and cola in the evening.

Is your actual bed ‘up to muster’?  The lifespan of a bed depends largely upon quality but as a rule of thumb, if your bed is ten to twelve years old you should probably replace it.  (Here’s a tip: If you suffer from backache, it may just be your bed)!

Equally, do you need new pillows?  There are a huge variety of pillows out there – foam, feather, down – and it may just be that a change of pillow would help you get a restful night’s sleep.

Try to avoid sheets with a high synthetic content.  Sheets with a high cotton content allow your skin to breathe, which in turn makes the bed feel more comfortable.  (I tend to buy sheets with a maximum cotton / minimum polyester content, simply because I’ve found some pure cotton sheets can be an absolute swine to launder).

Environment

Try to ensure that your bedroom is furnished fairly simply and is clutter free.  Psychologically, a clutter free bedroom makes for a calmer and more relaxing atmosphere.

Look at using colours for walls, carpets and soft furnishings that you personally find relaxing.  Traditionally shades of blue and green evoke feelings of calm and relaxation in many people but you may have something else in mind.  (For example, I always seem to opt for gentle creams). 

Try not to watch TV or work in bed.  Your bedroom should become associated in your mind with your own haven of peace and utter relaxation.

off-to-bed1The best temperature for a relaxed sleep is surprisingly cool, i.e. 68 degrees.  Fit individual thermostats to radiators if you can so that you can keep your bedroom at this temperature (and save money)!

It goes without saying that minimising noise and light will also help – it’s strange but true that even though you are asleep you will become aware of increasing light levels in a room where the curtains / blinds allow the morning light to percolate through.

If you live in a quiet area and it is safe to do so, leaving a ‘top light’ /small window slightly ajar to let in some fresh air is a good idea.  Good sleep doesn’t happen easily in a stuffy, ‘sealed’ room with stale air.

Less obvious but worth mentioning anyway:

Airing the room each day, allowing a fresh supply of oxygen to flow through your room will keep it smelling sweet and welcoming.

Toss back the covers each morning to allow cool air to permeate the bed covers.  Even half an hour of this while you shower will keep the bed smelling fresh (not to mention keeping any mites at bay)!

Make the bed each day – an un-made bed doesn’t exactly call you to its gentle embrace, now does it?

Change the bed sheets each week (hopefully you knew that one already)!

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I really, really hope something here will be of help.  Let me know how you get on and…

Remember if this is an on-going problem and you feel at all concerned you should still talk to your doctor.

sleep-soundly

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Sausages with salami and lentils

Le CreusetThis is a hearty, comforting and full-of-flavour rustic meal – perfect for cold winter nights.  Easy to make, and the ingredients won’t burn a hole in your pocket.  What more could you ask?

Sausages with salami and lentils

Serves 4  / Prep: 20 mins  / Cooking time: 45 mins

Ingredients:

2 onions – peel, cut in half then cut each half into four or five pieces, cutting from root to tip

2 tbsp olive oil

2 garlic cloves

200g salami (or chorizo), in one piece

8 fat sausages (about 1 kg)

500g chopped / crushed tomatoes or tomato passata

150g green or brown lentils

500ml water

3 sprigs of fresh rosemary (= about a tablespoon of fresh leaves or a teaspoon of dried)***

Crushed black pepper

***Rosemary is a herb that I love and goes very well with pork so I tend to put in a little more than this.  The amount I’ve noted above is a suggestion that won’t be overpowering – add more next time if, like me, you feel you’d prefer it.

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Method:

Put the oil in a heavy-based casserole and brown the sausages.  You want them to colour on the outside; they will do most of their cooking once they are in the sauce.  Remove and set aside.

Add the onion slices to the pan and let them cook over a moderate heat until tender.

Meanwhile, peel the garlic, slice it thinly and add it to the onions.  You’ll need to stir them regularly so that the garlic doesn’t burn.

Peel the thin skin from the salami and cut the inside into fat matchsticks.  Add this to the softening onions and leave for a couple of minutes, during which time the salami will darken slightly.

Tip the crushed tomatoes (or passata) into the onions, add the washed lentils and stir in 500ml water.  Bring to the boil.  Tuck the sausages into the casserole, together with the sprigs of rosemary.

Cover the pot with a lid and leave to simmer gently for about half an hour, until the lentils are tender.  Stir the lentils and seaso0n with black pepper.  You may find it needs little or no salt.

(This is one of those very forgiving dishes where timing is not crucial.  You can leave this very gently bubbling on the stove for a little longer – just keep the pot covered and keep an eye on it to be sure that it isn’t drying out).

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Ham cooked in Coca Cola (yes, seriously)!

Nigella LawsonIf you think this will be utterly revolting, think again!  I first tried this recipe a few years ago now, trusting to blind faith that the lovely Nigella would not be lying to me.  Now, as far as I and my family are concerned, there is no other way to cook a ham.  Don’t pre-judge – just try it, and you too will be a convert.

The recipe is in two stages: the initial simmering of the ham in Coke to cook it, then finishing off in the oven to give it a pretty and no doubt tasty glaze.  The truth?  I’ve never gone on to do the glaze because my family and I are gannets and happy to devour the delicious meat after the first stage of cooking!

Ham in Coca Cola

Ingredients for the ham

2kg / 4lbs 4 oz  mild-cure gammon

1 onion, peeled and cut in half

2 litre bottle of Coke (as Nigella says: ‘the full-fat version’, forget the diet stuff)

Ingredients for the glaze

Handful of cloves

1 heaped tablespoon black treacle

2 teaspoons English mustard powder

2 tablespoons demerera sugar

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Mild-cure gammon probably doesn’t need soaking nowadays.  If you’re unsure however, ask your butcher.  If you know that you’re dealing with a salty piece, put it in a pan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil then tip into a colander over the sink and start from this point.

Otherwise, start by getting the meat out of the fridge about an hour before you intend to start.  (This helps bring it up to to room temperature.  If using straight from the fridge, you should add on an extra 15 minutes or so to the cooking time).  

Put the gammon in a large saucepan, skin side down, add the onion and pour over the Coke.  Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer.  Put the lid loosely on your pan and allow to simmer for just under 2-1/2 hours.  (For other weights of meat, work on the basis of an hour per kilo (2lbs 2oz), bearing in mind that it will get a quick blast in the oven at the end).

Once the simmering time is over, remove from the heat and drain. BUT, (Nigella says) don’t throw away the precious liquid as this can be used for Black Bean Soup.   (Having tried her recipe for this this soup recently I can say that this is definitely not a recipe or taste that worked for me but you may feel differently). 

Leave the ham to cool a bit for ease of handling. 

***This stage can be completed later when the ham has completely cooled***. 

Pre-heat the oven to 240C / 475F /  gas mark 9.

Remove the skin, leaving a thin layer of fat.  Score the fat with a knife to make a criss-cross of large diamond shapes and stud each diamond with a clove.  Spread treacle over the skin, being careful not to dislodge the cloves, then pat mustard and finally sugar onto the sticky coating.  Cook in a foil-lined roasting tin for 10 minutes or until the glaze is burnished and bubby. 

***If you had let the ham cool completely after stage one you will need to give it 30-40 minutes from room temperature at 180C / 350F /  gas mark 4.

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Recipe from: Nigella Bites by Nigella Lawson, pub. Chatto & Windus, ISBN 0 7011 7287 8

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