Friday, 14 October 2011

This summer

I've finally got round to writing about our trip to Panama this summer, so here goes!
We started out in Panama City – and it was nothing like I expected: towering skyscrapers, fancy cars and malls bigger than anything I've seen in the UK. This contrasted sharply with the poverty and tumble-down houses seen in less-priviledged parts of the city. The most interesting part of the capital for me was the ‘casco ‘viejo’ or the old part of town which is being done up and experiencing something of a cultural revival, with a mix of little boutiques, European-style cafes and prettily painted and flower decked colonial houses.

From PC we made a trip to ‘La Chorerra’ where D’s grandparents live – it was so nice to see him reunited with them and to see that they were so lively and in such good shape. Than, we drove across Panama (an-oh-so-slightly terrifying experience!), stopping off with D’s uncle on the way before settling in the highlands of Boquete for a few days. Here we relaxed in the gorgeous Rancho de Caldera, went on coffee tours and cloud-forest safaris and saw a Quetzal (apparently the 2nd rarest bird in the world - no idea what the 1st is?!). Here's the view from our 'rancho'...

Next stop – the Caribbean! What surprised me about Bocas de Toro wasn’t so much the pristine palm fringed beaches, but the sheer amount of wildlife, which I just wasn’t expecting. Dolphins, sloths, colourful frogs, toucans, parrots, starfish, monkeys and more surrounded us. And perhaps the most memorable part of our days in Bocas was when we got to see giant sea turtles laying their eggs one night and then help recently-hatched baby sea turtles make their way to sea. The next photo is of the secluded beach just steps from our room.

From Bocas we drove back east through Panama and bid farewel to los abuelos. 2 weeks really wasn't enough to sample all that Panama has to offer - but here is my list of 5 unmissable things to do in Panama:

1. Eat, eat, eat: sancocho - a traditional type of chicken soup is delicious as are the fried plantains - patacones, ceviche made with Panama's national fish 'corvina' is yummy too. Also try the raspados from a roadside trolley - watch the seller grate fresh ice into your cup and top it off with a tropical juice of your choice – Passion fruit was a favourite of mine.

 Lobster on the Amador peninsula near Panama City (Los Bucaneros restaurant)

Ceviche at Amador

Raspados in the Casco Viejo

2. Buy a Mola - an indigenous indian embroidered panel that can be used as a wall hanging or sewn into a cushions, bag etc.

3. Climb Mount Baru and see both the Pacific and the Caribbean sea from the same vantage point. I'm sorry to say we didn't do this due to the poor visibility at this time of the year, but I'm told it's well worth the climb (which can be done partially in car).

4. Get up close and personal with the wildlife
Red frog (the hand is mine)

5. The Panama Canal - lunch at the Miraflores Lock Visitor Centre while you watch the boats go  by is an unforgettable experience - the huge ships look like whole apartment blocks floating by and the food is excellent.

As we're saving these days I don't think I'll be going on any exotic trips for a while, but I have a weekend in Merida coming up and another in Galicia so I can't complain :-)

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Panama preview

The reason I haven’t written in so long is that we’ve been in Panama on holiday! We had a wonderful time – the scenery, nature, food and people were just lovely. It’s my first day at work today so I haven’t managed to post as yet but will write about the trip and post photos at the weekend. In the meantime here’s a preview snap and hope you had a lovely summer :-)

Panama City Skyline

Monday, 1 August 2011

30+ Warning a mega-post

This morning, and with my 34th birthday just 2 days away I finally got round to writing this post – one that I’ve been meaning to do since I turned 30 but that somehow I never found the right words for.

Let me start off by saying that my 30th birthday in itself was a wonderful experience – I spent it in Florence with close friends – I was in a very, shall we say, ‘busy’ place emotionally but at the same time was having the time of my life – having being recently liberated from the constraints of an unhappy relationship and an unfulfilling job. Life felt full of opportunities, I felt like a child again. In a way I was going through such a turbulent time (in both good ways and bad) that celebrating (or bemoaning) having lived 30 years wasn’t really a big deal. For me, that is. A far cry from my nonchalance, I felt those around me (not my close friends, I must add) wanted to make a big deal of this landmark – 30? (insert frown) Oooh. How do you feel? Hmmm, I remember turning 30 that’s a tough one… The big 3-0 (insert raising of eyebrows). I just didn’t get it – for me it didn’t seem tough. If my concern was meant to be about looking older I didn’t understand as grey hairs or lines hadn’t creeped in. If it was about child-bearing, I had several family members with successful births in their early 40s. About being ‘closer’ to death? People of all ages get run over by buses. I couldn’t really work out what they were getting at.

But then over the next couple of years it dawned on me. Here are some excerpts from conversations I was witness to soon after my 30th birthday – sex of person in (brackets):

‘Women are really past their best over 30 (M)/After 30 the tables turn, instead of men chasing women, the women start doing the chasing – of course by then they’re desperate (M)/Women over 30 shouldn’t wear mini skirts (F)…’ I could go on here, but I don’t think it’s productive! It seemed regardless of my physical, biological and psychological state people were only concerned with the number.

This was usually followed by a polite ‘of course, that doesn’t apply to you because… [add appropriate excuse here]’

It was almost as if you were meant to feel bad about was, after all, just another birthday. It was as if 30 was a sort of cut-off point where all things good ended and you were supposed to mourn that fact. At the other extreme were the deniers (nothing to do with tights, and don’t even know if I’ve spelt it right) – ‘People think my daughter and me are sisters - which I don’t think is a healthy attitude either as it’s simply not realistic and just sets you up for a fall.

So having gone through this experience, here are a few humble words of advice for those who are temerous at the prospect of turning 30. Of course, I admit I’m not qualified to comment on turning 40, or, 50 or 60, and I’m sure my comments will come across as naïve to those who have. But still, I hope that some of these thoughts are also applicable to future milestone birthdays. I also apologize in advance for my somewhat female-slanted view on this matter.

Every year is a gift. To start off on a morbid note, we all know people who have tragically died too young, and while we may not embrace the passing of years and the physical effects of this, if we enjoy living we need to be grateful for every year we get through relatively unscathed. We are the lucky ones. There, I said it.

You’re a long time old(er). We ALL get older, and it’s important not to place too much value on a period of life (youth) that is so short. We spend most of our lives at an age we don’t really want to be at – up until about 16 most of us want to be older and then from about 27(!!) we start to want to be younger – if the ‘interesting’ bit of our life were just 10 years long then it really wouldn’t be worth living (which is obviously not the case). Try to embrace the joys of every stage of life.

Contrary to popular belief you can look better as you get older. Ok, I’m not stupid enough to think I’m going to look better at 80 than at 20, but 40 vs. 20, why not? I know living non-famous examples as evidence. So many times I hear people bemoaning the fact that they don’t have the same butt they had when they were a teenager, and I feel like asking them to get out those old photos, and having taken in that 80’s perm, bad clothes and blotchy skin, ask themselves ‘did I really look that good?’. Chances are, you now have a much better idea about what clothes, hair and colours suit you, and yes it might take a bit more effort, but I firmly believe that every lady can look fabulous at any age if she is a bit clever with her styling.

Don’t make comparisons. I say this, but know how damn hard it is to do. Half of the discontent we associate with clocking up the years is to do with not having ‘reached a certain place’ by that age. We have to remember ‘we’ are not ‘them’, people get married, divorced, have babies, get great jobs, lose great jobs all the time. If on my 30th birthday someone had told me my life would be a million times worse at 32, then a million times better at 34, no way would I have believed them, but it happens. Luck comes into play, but effort is also a huge factor.

Move to a country that isn’t age-obsessed. Ok, this is totally tongue in cheek but there is a note of truth here. My visits to the UK confirm that society seems to try to condemn 30-plus women to a life of emptyness and the press is rampant with stories of 29 year olds emplying the services of sperm banks because they left it 'too late'. Bridget Jones exists there, and is almost forced to exist, as if she has to in order to make everyone else feel good about themselves. Living in Spain – as well as trips to France and Italy and conversations with women of all ages– has made me see that while youth has great allure you don’t suddenly become invisible at 30, 35, 40, 45…and so on. The type and number of ‘suitors’ (for want of a better word) may vary, but you don’t stop being a woman. And here I move onto the somewhat Mediterranean phenomenon of the señora. Far from being invisible, in Spain it’s easy to find groups of formidable, loudly chattering 50+ señoras, dressed up to the nines in almost any corner of the city. I think we would do well to learn from these ladies (apart from their queue-jumping skills that is :P)

Related to the above, Single? ¿Y que..? I have come to the (perhaps quite obvious) realisation that not all ‘older’ single women want or need to be in a relationship and that there are many different types of relationship model. The strong women around me have shown me that one woman’s husband+semi-detached+kids, is another’s single who loves to spend their disposable income on travel, is another’s trendy 40-something couple who don’t want kids or choose to adopt. There is no ‘right’ way.

What really matters? I think even the most superficial of us, knows deep down that for the majority of us what really matters in life are the quality of your relationships with those that are close to you and being good - to both yourself and others. Treat yourself like a beloved child; lots of understanding, occasional splurges, a good education (and I don't mean in the academic sense). Find out what really matters to you (and let's hope that isn't being 21 forever) and work towards it, do things you love. This is a timeless quality.

And to finish off, here is one age-related anecdote. Before D and I were living together, one day he picked me up after work and I happened to have gone extra casual in jeans and a puffer jacket. His first comment was ‘you take about six years off with those clothes, sometimes your work clothes make you look older than you are!!’ Bless him, he was just speaking his mind, and when I was younger I may have been foolishly tempted to gradually adapt my dress-style based on this throw-away utterance. But what I instead said is that I want to dress like a 30-something woman, I’ve earnt the posh handbags and other ‘finery’ and don’t want to look like a student again, no matter how many years that takes of me and the fact that you think I can ‘get away with it. All this may sound a bit defensive but of course, what I was really saying was not that I had earnt expensive frocks, but that at 33, I had finally earnt a good dose of self-respect.

P.s. now he loves my suits or at least wouldn't dare say otherwise :p

Thursday, 28 July 2011

House hunting in Madrid

Hello! Is anybody still in Madrid this far into summer? I am, though you wouldn’t know it from my lack of posting (after summer resolution: to post more). All is very well indeed with me - busy, but in a good way :-) Have just come back from a week of work meetings in Coruña, where we were stuffed with empanada (a type of Galician savoury pasty), yummy scallops, octopus and plenty of chilled Albariño to wash it all down with. All of this made a somewhat tense week of meetings much more bearable! And was such a relief to get away from the heat of Madrid in summer.

And now that the worst of the working year is over for both David and I, we’re busy house hunting. Tired of our cute but short term place in the sticks of ‘Glamabanchel’, we are looking for somewhere more central, and what we’re finding is frankly horrible. So here’s my tongue in cheek guide to would-be Madrileño sellers on what NOT to do if you really want to sell that house online.

• Please tidy up. Just a little bit. Or at least, do not take a photo of the mess and upload it on Idealista.

• Do not call something a ‘loft’ (in the New York sense) when what you want to say is a freezing-in-winter-boiling-in-summer, attic-cum-laundry-room with a corrugated tin roof and a ceiling so low you can’t even stand up in it.

• A flat with a built-in adult bunk-bed in the living room is not a ‘duplex’ – and you can’t consider the square metre-age of said bunk-bed an addition to that of the apartment. E.g. 65m flat+4m of bunk beddage=69m. NO!

• If you are referring to your flat as ‘designer’ it probably isn’t, and no you can’t add a 10k premium to your pad just because you have an imitation Eames chair (that you are taking with you in any case). Meeeeowww.

• Do not try to throw in your granny’s brown 3x3m formica mueble as part of the deal – we don’t want it. Take it to the junk yard, or leave it on the street the assigned day of the month for the local council to pick it up.

• Do take wide-angle photos of the rooms and NOT close-ups of clusters of your porcelain miniatures or your bathroom shelf toiletries. The idea is to sell your house and not tell us what good taste in pottery you have!

In Madrid, with none of those annoying but enjoyable programmes like House Doctor, people seemed not to have cottoned on to all the usual tricks of making your home more saleable – painting in neutral colours, taking photos during the day, de-cluttering, freshly brewed coffee (ok, you can’t really show that in a photo). On the other hand, I am a sucker for taking on awful spaces and trying to make them habitable – and when yesterday we finally found a beautifully designed centrally located home at almost the right price, I turned up my nose, saying ‘but I want to make it pretty, I don’t want to buy it pretty’. There’s no pleasing some people.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Laziness vs the urge to nest

I have to admit, I haven't been the most social of creatures lately. Work, moving away from the city centre, and being (please feel free to cringe) loved up have all kept me away from that place known as 'outside' for several months now. I keep promising to go out more, but come the weekend I'm so tired and life is so messy that often I just want to stay in and nest (aka tidy up). Trouble is, we don't stay in and nest, we stay in and watch films, take siestas, organize trips, make pancakes, drink wine, read, look at silly videos on Youtube and all other kinds of pretty unproductive but enjoyable pastimes.

Yet I fantasize about nesting, about all those homely, domestic-goddess type tasks that I promise I'll get round to as soon as we finish the next episode of Game of Thrones. I'm just reading over what I've written here and see, that without realising it I've become a Dinky 'Double Income No Kids' - not quite sure if I'm meant to be pleased about that, but I admit that for the moment, and for the first time, it does give me the 'luxury' of time-rich weekends but without all the strapped-for-cash issues of my 20s (and erm, a year ago). I must clarify that I didn't suddenly get rich or find a sugar daddy, just that money is thankfully no longer a big problem.

So here goes, my nesting projects for summer-autumn 2011 (I promise to stop using the N word from here on and while I’m at it I promise that I will never refer to myself as a yummy mummy no matter how smug and earth-motherly I become):

Making home-made cleaning products. But you HATE cleaning! Yes, but I also hate the idea of using toxic nasties. I did a trawl of the various sites offering tips on ‘natural’ cleaning products and the verdict is that it’s better for the environment, better for health and better for my pocket. Just need to see if they work. As ever, I have trouble getting the right ingredients here - the recipes called for ingredients like white vinegar, castile soap and borax which you can get - but not from my local droguería who were aghast at the fact I wanted to buy food (vinegar) from a drug store. I figure out that for the moment Marseille soap and apple vinegar will have to do. Here are some recipe pages, one in Spanish and one in English – will let you know how I get on scrubbing the bath with half a lemon filled with bicarb!

Cook something from one of my recipe books once a week. I don’t know when I stopped buying recipe books and just searched for recipes on the internet instead? But over the past few years, what was a bi-yearly shopping spree on Amazon has dwindled to nothing. However, I still have my shelves groaning with Nigellas, Nigels and Jamies waiting to be made proper use of. Surely even I can manage to delve into them once a week and try something new? I love this project an American couple set up to make use of their bulging food magazine collection.

Buy a sewing machine and make stuff. I have always loved to sew and am not bad at it – it suits my quick-fix nature much better than knitting which I love the idea of but find painfully slow to get good at. I have this book by Amy Butler with loads of easy projects that can be speedily stitched and I love the fact that you can rustle up cloth napkin rings, cushion covers, and whatnot in less than an hour and avoid the neo-chintz ugliness that is the El Corte Inglés home department. And with Christmas 6 months away, do I have time to stingily but lovingly make all my presents?

A meditation corner (or any peaceful little corner to call my own). I know you can meditate anywhere, but this is just a little luxury I’d love to have, space permitting. I don’t even meditate properly, but since last summer in Bali dedicating little bits of time to myself in the form of quiet contemplation or ‘just being’ have become quite important to me. Our home is a quite colourful due to the fact that we have the sum of 2 lives in one place, but this corner would be white, with my little white Buddha as a centerpiece – I imagine lots of whites and off-whites but different textures – velvet cushions, a plaster-framed mirror, a rag rug, scented candles, a notebook and pen, orchids… completely whimsical I know. I have a couple of examples that I’ve seen online (below) but none of them really capture what I have in mind - I'll have to do a post on furniture and accessories for a meditation corner.

Happy N******!

Monday, 23 May 2011

The best exhibition I've seen in ages

If you like modern architecture to the point of being slightly geeky about it then get yourself down to Domusae - in the old Museo del Ejercito on Calle de Méndez Núñez 1 (nearish to the Prado) before 16th June 2011 when the exhibition is gone forever! It's a stunningly exhibited selection of cultural buildings (libraries, museums, public archives) from around the country. All of the projects are gorgeous and are either new or older buildings that have been rehabilitated with a modern edge. Models of the buildings and in-depth interviews with the architects are presented beautifully in the old Salon de Reinos - picture below. It made me realise that often when visiting famous Spanish cities I made a beeline straight for the old classics missing out on many modern gems. Definitely worth a couple of hours of your time.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

3 beauty bummers and what I do about them

I have a dear friend who loves to rifle through the make-up bags of her best chums, trying out tubes of lipstick - ooing and asking where you got certain products and what they are for. I can totally relate to this sentiment. The things I learn about cosmetics, lotions and potions (and trust me, I don't know that much) I always tend to pick up from friends and peers and hardly every from glossy magazines which I can't help but feel are encouraged to gush over new products by PR people. Websites like my old favourite Make-up Alley with its hundreds of reviews - mean that the group of 'peers' with whom to share knowledge is bigger than ever, and I won't splash out on expensive slap without consulting there first. So, in the spirit of 'sharing' I thought I'd post on my own beauty problem areas and how I address them - little things that are part of my routine, help me look and feel a bit nicer and might work for others out there that have the same issues.

1. The frizzies. This is going to sound PATHETIC but buying a professional hairdryer has changed my life! I have hair that manages to be both straight and frizzy at the same time and so porously dry that soaks up all the water and takes fooorrevvveer to dry. That was until I splashed out on a professional high-wattage Valera hairdryer. It saves me 15 minutes in the morning on hairwash days and makes my hair so much shinier and more manageable. On a recent work trip I had to take my old travel hairdryer and it was like a sparrow was blowing on my hair.. took forever and looked crap. I'm afraid next time the biggie is going to have to come with me - even if that means chucking out a pair of shoes. The only disadvantage is that I have to be more careful about drying my hair out - I always make sure I use a good serum and do a hair mask once a week.

2. Teenage breakouts in my 30s! Some people suit cream cleansers, I don't. Although they leave my skin lovely the first week in time they give me breakouts. On the other extreme I find gels and soaps can be a bit harsh and drying. My halfway house is what the beauty gurus seem to be calling 'hot cloth cleansing'  - in other words using a flannel good old-fashiones style. I slather on a lightweight cream cleanser - I like Avene's Gentle Cleanser - then wipe it off with a hot damp cloth or flannel. The trick is to use a clean face-cloth every day to avoid breakouts and nasty bacterial transference. This may sound a bit extravagent, but what I have are 7 identical super-cheapy flannels from Tiger - I use the same one morning and night (turning it over) and chuck them in the wash with the 2 loads of washing we do per week at home. Skin feels lovely and clean and you get a daily exfoliation too. I'm told Liz Earle has a hot muslin cloth system that's very nice - also for more see Sali Hughes video in the Guardian - as she says, no wasteful cotton wool involved.

3. Yucky morning face. You know those days when you wake up and look pasty, dully and pretty much poo? Well late nights and frequent travel mean I have them more often than not! I think all women who use cosmetics probably have their own particular make-up tricks for these days, and here are mine. Firstly, hot-cloth cleanse and give your skin a good massage with warm water to help smooth out any puffiness or lines - now for the cover-up job: 1. I swap foundation for tinted moisturiser which doesn't sit in 'cracks' - for me this just means mixing my MAC Studiofix foundation with a bit of moisturiser. 2. Concealer - possibly the most important step - I get scary dark circles, but find Bobbi Brown's Creamy Concealer covers the worst of them. I dab it into the shadows and also onto the upper eyelid to even out the colour. Finally I take a shimmery ivory coloured shadow and lightly dab it into the inner corners of my eyes and just a hint under the brows - really opens the eyes up. 3. Cheeks - a bit of Guerlain's Terracota bronzer follwed by a touch of pink blush - just a little to avoid ther Aunt Sally look - gives a look that's somewhere between sunkissed and rosy-cheeked healthyness. I also pop a bit of bronzer on my chin and the bridge of my nose. 4. Eyes, with a sharpened eye liner I draw a very very thin line next to my upper lashes from the outer corner to the centre of the eye and blend with a brush, depending on my mood I'll repeat for lower lids too. Mascara - 2 thin coats. 5. Lips - I line them with a pencil the same as my natural lip colour and blend in with my fingers - I then add a tinted lip balm by Korres or MAC or fill in with a pale baby pink Clarins Rouge Prodige lipstick + blot.

All this might sound a lot, but it takes only 5 ninutes and very little colour is used as less is more on a tired face - a spritz of something that smells lovely and I'm ready to face the day!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

5 things I loved about Paris

We've just come back from my first time in Paris. Needless to say I'm in love with the city, there was so much I liked that it's hard to know where to begin but here are 5 favourites to start with...

1. Staying in a cute Parisian apartment. One thing I’ve learnt on my travels is that if I can’t stay in a lovely hotel I’ll stay in a rented apartment and live like a local! I can’t begin to describe how much more pleasant it was to pick up croissants and pan aux chocolat from the bakery below rather than the hotel buffet.

2. A cliché but… the Eiffel Tower. Not on top of it – 1.5 hours is just too long to queue for lazy old moi. However, we passed a happy hour or so sat on a grassy verge (unexplicably free of other people – I guess they were all queueing) gazing at the lit up tower by night. At 11pm the sparkly light show began, and I couldn’t help but shed a little tear – then a storm brewed up and we had to run off into a little café for shelter just like in the movies!

3. The supermarkets. Sorry to say it but Spain’s supermarkets can be somewhat limited (unless you go to the Corte Inglés)… We had a field day browsing the aisles of goodies both French and stuff that I miss from back home… rillete, maple syrup, buttery biscuits, stinky stinky cheeses, smoked mackerel, North African spices, red wine… and best of all the beauty counter – not for fancy international names like Dior (which you can easily pick up here) but the cheaper local brands that feel and smell divine but won’t break the bank balance (Le Petit Olivier's fair trade shea butter body lotion was a particular favourite). Also, check out this Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site for her tips on French pharmacy brands. Wanting to extend our Paris experience beyond the 5 day break we brought along an extra case to fill with cheeses to take home – said suitcase is still on the balcony being aired – as despite double wrapping all the munsters and camamberts the smell still steeped through – just glad we didn’t put any clothes in there!

4. Montmartre. A hilly district in the north of Paris with a slightly boho villagey feel – little lanes and streets full of boutiques, delicatessens, pavement cafes and the setting for the film Amelie – need I say more :-) See fruit stall above)

5. Seeking out the best views – here are the best we found (apart from Sacre Coeur in Montmartre) in no particular order: 1) On top of the Galeries Lafayette department store – I was also stunned by the amazing stained glass cupola seen from inside (photo below). 2) On top of the slightly posher Printemps department store next door. 3) On top of the Pompidou centre (above) – if you want to go up without going into the gallery at the front of the building to the left you’ll see a security guy sat by a lift – tell him you’re going to the café and he’ll unlock it for you – go up to the 6th floor to enjoy the view.

5 days really wasn’t enough to even begin to scratch the surface of Paris, but as it’s next door there’s really no excuse not to go back soon - a driving tour round France next summer perhaps?!

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Paris preview

We just got back from a lovely, sunny Easter in Paris - my first time! Photos and anecdotes to follow soon :-)

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Another weekend away

This weekend to celebrate, among other things, our anniversary and my new (now old) job I prepared a surprise trip – I wanted somewhere no more than 2 hours from Madrid (for practical reasons) and something very rural but with a bit of style. A few hours of googling and somewhat disappointed with the amount of casas rurales with dusty vases of dried flowers and flammable bedspreads I stumbled upon Hotel Nabia in the Sierra de Gredos at the foot of Almanzor mountain and with views over the picturesque Valle del Tietar. The hotel is gorgeous -  see photo of room 14 below where we stayed - breakfast is also yummy serving all kinds of local goodies. In the vicinity you can go to nearby village Candeleda which is quite pretty (see bottom photo) and eat roast lamb/goat and there are plenty of stunning walking routes if your inclined to hiking. But to be honest, it's worth the journey (2.20 hours from Madrid) just to wake up to such gorgeous views of the valley.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Cream of Spinach soup

As seems to happen with me every few months, once again I'm mildly aneamic. Instead of resorting to iron pills which don't agree with me all that well I'm taking a more natural route - starting off yesterday evening with some homemade spinach soup - absolutely delicious even if I do say so myself. Here's the recipe which is a mixture of stuff I've seen online and a bit of my own inspiration (I measured out amounts pretty much guessing as I went along, but if you taste as I go I think it's quite hard to go wrong with this one).

Ingredients (will serve 4 'normal' people or 2-3 greedy guts like us):
1 huge bunch of spinach (stalks trimmed)
Good vegetable stock (I used Aneto - all natural, no additives) - around a third of a litre.
Around 1/4 litre of milk
A largish onion finely chopped
Big chunk of butter
Flour a desertspoon or a bit more
2 slices of cured sheep's cheese - though given the choice I would have used a Kraft cheese slice here (something that is normally inedible but comes into its own when used in green vegetable soups)
Cream - a good dash and extra to serve
White pepper

In a big pot melt the butter and add the onion, fry gently until transparent. Sprinkle flour over the top and blend in to make a thick paste/roux type mixture. Gradually blend in the milk- when dissolved add the stock and bring to the boil - I've been pretty inexact about the quantities of stock and milk but basically they should be 50:50 an reach up to about 2.5 inches above the base of the pot. Add the spinach and cook on a medium heat until wilted and soft. Remove from the heat and blend with a hand blender until smooth. Crumble the cheese into the soup and whizz with blender. Whizz in a little flour if it's too runny. Check seasoning, adding white pepper and salt. Serve with a swish of cream and crusty bread. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

A thought for Japan

These days Japan is on my mind, I can’t really think what to write about this horrible tragedy. I remind myself of how lucky I am that my loved ones are safe, to make the most of every day and smile at the little things in life. Thinking of everyone out there.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

A knight in Siguenza

Last weekend, and in celebration of David's tenureship, we spent the night in the Parador at Siguenza. The hotel is a medieval castle from the 12th century and a makes a really atmospheric getaway for a wintry weekend; suits of armour and stone fireplaces aplenty. One of the best places to eat in the town also happens to be the parador where we had roast suckling pig (cochinillo) and migas which are, er...breadcrumbs...though so much tastier than they sound - chunky breadcrumbs fried with a fatty paprika rich sausage known as chistorra and served in this case with a variety of acompaniments: fried egg, baby green peppers, bacon, gammon, cheese, preserved red peppers and grapes. The idea is that you roughly chop the runny egg and greasy chistorra into the crumbs then eat with the rest of the garnishes. Sounds yucky but tastes yummy. Prior to this I had only ever stayed at Paradores when travelling with work - basically they are state owned hotels, almost always in historic buildings and usually 4 star. Also it worked out to be great value as we managed to get an escapada joven (youth getaway) which is about 40euros less than the normal pruice - funny how in Spain joven is up to 35 -  funny in a good way of course, but surprising compared to the UK where your 'young persons rail card' is no longer valid at the 'ancient' age of 26... and I only have a couple more years of escapadas joven to go so I'd better get my skates on ;-)

Here are some photos of the weekend plus an example of what migas look like.
Siguenza Parador

This second photo is taken in a castle in Jadraque that is closed to the public but seeing as some local youths had already broken down the fencing we sneaked in :-)

Migas with accompaniments - source
Views of the deserted castle


Sunday, 6 March 2011

Bling coveting

Boy is it scary blogging when you haven't done it in a while. I feel expectant, like the words should just flow like they used to, and they don't... at least not yet. So to ease myself in, here's a light and airy little list of some stuff I like, jewellery to be specific - a bit odd for me as I barely even wear jewellery, but over the years there have been a few pieces that have caught my eye and that I thought I'd post here.

Swatch Bijoux Love Explosion ring. I think this one of the first pieces Swatch came out with years back when it launched its Bijoux jewellery collection and it's been a best-seller ever since, apparently even Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston bought them for each other back in the day. So whimsical and pretty.

A cute mother's day present would be this pendant from jcjewelry design on Etsy. Personalised with the names of of you and your siblings and adorned with a freshwater pearl, this is a lovely gift. There is also the option of birthstones instead of pearls.

Also on my love list (after seeing one on the wrist of one my glamourous colleagues) is the Links of London friendship bracelet. The photos don't do these justice at all - in real life they are so pretty.

Something cute by Thomas Sabo, like this charm carrier bracelet. I'm not a fan of charms when it looks like you've got most of the monuments in western Eurpe hanging off your arm, but something a little subtler I'm all for. And how about this little olive green flower or hand of Fatima charm to go with it?

Cartier Love bracelet. Would I look like a gangster's moll wearing it? Maybe, But I like it. And the romantic in me (or perhaps the prison warden in me :p)loves the idea of your adored one 'locking' it onto your wrist.

Well it's Sunday evening now and I'm going to get off to bed as have a long day tomorrow, but this post has got me wondering why I'm happy to spend money on clothes and cosmetics but not jewellery? Maybe it's time for a little gift from me to me :-)

Have a nice week!

Monday, 17 January 2011

Winter in Madrid and a recipe to share

This winter in Madrid is proving to be particularly enjoyable; not too cold this time round, plenty of home-cooking and good wine, browsing art galleries, day trips (Aranjuez in the photo) and staying in and watching Caprica (and no, I don’t normally like SciFi but this is one of those series that doesn’t include characters that wear spandex jumpsuits or have bony knobbled foreheads or pointy ears, so I’m actually not averse to it!). I just wanted to share a little side dish that I cooked the other day as it was perhaps the first time that I cooked fennel and it turned out just right. Normally I cut it into lengths then braise it with white wine and butter, and while it’s tasty it’s not ‘come back for seconds’ tasty… but the other day D did roast lamb and I decided that I’d do a side to accompany – a quick Google and voilá (Sp?) – fennel with pine nuts and raisins (a mix of various recipes found online). I’m sorry that as usual I don’t have a photo but promise this is delicious and easy peasy!

Ingredients (for 2-3 people as a side)
1 bulb of fennel
Tablespoon of butter
Slug of olive oil
Small handful of raisins/sultanas
Small handful of pine nuts
Salt and pepper to taste

Chop the fennel into more or less 1.5 cm cubes, meanwhile heat up the butter and oil in a pan. Add the fennel and cook for around 5 minutes on a medium heat, add the pine nuts and raisins, cook until the fennel is done – about 10 more minutes in my case. You might want to partially cover the pan if you find the pine nuts and fennel are getting too dark. Add salt and pepper to taste. Goes beautifully with lamb. Enjoy!

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Happy New Year!

Well, it wasn't actually that happy as it was spent arguing with money-grabbing pen-pushers in Khartoum airport, but I feel quietly optimistic about what the year ahead might bring :-) Looking back to last New Years, I think this post reveals that I knew certain aspects of my life were not going well and were about to come to a sad end. I'm happy to say that this year things seem to be looking a lot brighter and that the old saying that time is a great healer is at least a little bit true (other stuff like good food and great people also help)

This Christmas/New Years break has been a little unusual to say the least - there was no turkey, no crackers, no carols and no presents. My brother got married on the 27th December in Sudan (of all places) and so yuletide festivities were cancelled this year and replaced by the mayhem that is a Sudanese wedding - think 1000 guests, tribal bridal dances (go to minute 1.57), fertility ceremonies, intensive ululation and enough food to make you explode. There's a preview of Sudan photos below but I'll post more soon. As for Christmas, D and I plan to do our own Christmas and New Year in one here in Madrid on Reyes (Epiphany, 7th? January)

I feel surprisingly relaxed at the start of this new year, none of the intensive 'I must improve' lists of resolutions - I feel reasonably fit, work-wise and relationship-wise things are going great and my big bro just got married :-) Perhaps more than looking to the future (there are a few exciting trips and events in the pipeline that I hope to be able to share here soon :-)) I'll reflect on what I've learnt this year - it's not much I'm afraid and perhaps very obvious but I feel I ought to record it nevertheless:

1. Know when to give in and ask for help - I've really had to swallow my pride and do that this year - and funnily enough sometimes those closest to you are not the people to get advice from.
2. Don't be afraid to travel alone - I did it for the first time this year (Marrakech and Bali) and it was possibly one of the most enriching experiences of my life - I met great people, had a wonderful time and forgot my woes in a big way.
3. When you want something (a better job and a happy relationship in my case) just keep gnawing away until you get it. That probably sounds awful doesn't it? At the start of this year both of these were looking truly and utterly dire with no light at the end of the tunnel - but I have to say that perseverance, direct communication (i.e. letting people know clearly what I want) and coming at the problem from different angles paid off despite often feeling that I was getting nowhere.

Hope you all had a lovely Christmas and New Year and that 2011 turns out great for all of us!
My sisters and I at my brothers wedding
Henna time
Where the blue and white nile converge before travelling north (and on to Egypt)

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