‘From Alsace to Yorkshire’ – learning to cook at Cooks at Carlton

This week I enjoyed the most inspiring, fun, hands-on day I’ve had in a while. My mother and I travelled over to the magnificent Carlton Towers, near Selby, North Yorkshire for a day of French cookery with Lionel Strub, of The Clarendon Hotel, Hebden. Here, we learnt how to make the most incredible French food that looked amazing and would be easy to replicate back home.


First up, a word about Cooks at Carlton. This cookery school has a very special feel, as it is housed in the former kitchens of the 17th century and absolutely glorious Carlton Towers. The servants quarters were quite literally shut up after the Second World War; the key was turned in the lock and there was no looking back. Carlton Towers was sad, isolated and uninhabited for years, until Lord Gerald Fitzalan Howard returned in 1990 and breathed a new lease of life into the building. His dream was to create a top quality, popular cookery school, and that’s just what has happened. When the quarters were ‘rediscovered’, there were still coals in the grate and the massive rooms were stuffed full of treasures and memories. Rather than sweep all of these aside, however, the rooms are sympathetic to their original use and features. The lovely thing is how passionate the Cooks team are about this too. They genuinely love to talk about the building’s past and this new chapter in its history. I loved how the original China was stored in a pantry cupboard, and how the room where we ate lunch – the Duchess’s Dining Room, was furnished with original pieces. I felt like I’d stepped back in time, and felt completely at home.


On to the course. A day’s learning at Cooks is an experience. On arrival, you draw up to the most beautiful building, then take the servants entrance under the grand stone staircase into a long, echoing stone corridor. You can see where the footsteps of hundreds of cooks, maids and footmen have worn away the flagstones over time. The atmosphere is warm, welcoming and conducive to exploring. After tea, coffee and chat with the other course students in the Housekeeper’s Sitting Room room, the school’s Development Director Elaine Lemm told us about the history of the building and the school. There followed a wonderful tour of the kitchens. Each room in the kitchen is now being used as close as possible to it original purpose; game and butchery classes are held in the game larder, the cool dairy is used for cheese making and pastry, and the Duchess’s Dining Room is used for lunch. Even better, the outbuildings are being out to fantastic use. A micro-brewery has been installed, and there are plans for a vineyard in the former kitchen garden.

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The kitchen at Cooks

Our course was led by Lionel Strub, who moved over to England from Alsace in 1987. A classically trained chef, he is an energetic, enthusiastic and personable teacher. The kitchen at Cooks has been thoughtfully designed to fit in with all of the original features but thoroughly modern and fit for purpose. It holds up to 12 students, but our class had only seven – a comfortable number which allowed us all to get individual attention. At Cooks, all of the equipment, ingredients and recipes are laid out ready to use, so the focus and time are spent on cooking and learning, rather than weighing and prepping.

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Beetroot bread

We started with beetroot bread. I had no idea how easy it would be to make. Forget the ten minutes of kneading – Lionel was happy with two! After smelling the delicious fresh yeast and crumbling it into s mixture of flours and salt, we grated in fresh beetroot – as much or as little as we wished. I wanted to make pink bread, so I added a lot. After a quick knead, it was left to prove whilst we got on with our chicken ballotine. Lionel whipped up a quick, easy Pommes Dauphinoise, then demonstrated how to make the ballotine stuffing. We fried bacon, garlic, shallot, mushroom and seasoning, then mixed this into sausage meat. The tricky part came next. I don’t usually eat or buy chicken thighs so was nervous when we were presented with some large joints of meat. It looked quite a complex procedure, but Lionel showed us twice and then left us to it. Breaking down the process into smaller sections helped, and I was rather pleased when I managed to get the leg joint out and end up with a reasonably neat looking piece of meat. The stuffing went in next, before the whole thing was wrapped up in cling film and popped into a Water bath of stock.  A quick coffee break, and we moved onto shaping the bread. Again, such a quick process! We knocked out all of the air, then shaped into whatever shape we wanted. I went for a plait –  channelling my inner Mary Berry I think.

Time to make our starter. Lionel had bought some home-smoked trout, which he showed us how to prepare into a divine tian with horseradish, cream cheese, seasoning, lemon and chives. Then it was time for a bit of restaurant-standard presentation. Thinly-sliced cucumber, moulded trout pâté, lemon, chive and a sliver of avocado all made this the most beautiful starter I’ve ever made. It was so easy to do, and I learnt a few tricks I’ll be using back home.

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Smoked trout tian with chives, avocado and cucumber

By this time, chicken, potatoes and bread were all done and it was time to eat! The Duchess’s Dining Room table was laid beautifully and we all gathered around to enjoy our cooking. The bread and terrine were a particular favourite, and the Pommes Dauphiniose was delightful. My chicken was good too but I found the stuffing a little heavy. I think I might use more vegetables and add in some soft cheese next time. I love how it was cooked though; the chicken was so moist and tender.

It was great to sit down with the other course students and continue the friendly, social atmosphere of the day.

Rest over, it was back to the kitchen to make the final dish of the day; Tarte aux Pommes. We made a basic shortcrust pastry, enriched with icing sugar, then lined some individual tins in the traditional French manner, crimping the edges so they stood proud of the tin. We then prepared sharp Bramley apples and a quick custard base – simply eggs, cream and sugar. It was refreshing that Lionel was so easygoing about measurements, just going with what he thought right. The filled tarts went straight into the oven, whilst Elaine took us on a tour of the house.

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Tartes aux pommes

It really is magnificent. Everything about it is on an impressive scale, yet it manages to retain a homely, welcoming feel. I loved that we had time to soak up the atmosphere and just enjoy being in the hoise. Rather than being a stately home, this has such a lived in feel, with personal bits and bobs dotted about. I just which we had been allowed to go up the ‘wibbly wobbly staircase’.

Sadly it was time to go home, armed with our recipes, beautiful Tartes aux Pommes and leftover pastry. Thank you Lionel, Elaine and all of the staff at Cooks at Carlton for a wonderful day. I can’t wait to try to out the dishes again at home.

New Year, new Pilates

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So here it is, 2016. And with it, a new challenge. You might remember my blog post about pursuing a happier, healthier lifestyle and I’m so pleased to say that I’ve found something for which I’m passionate and excited. In February, I’m going to be starting an intensive course to become an accredited Pilates teacher, and I can’t wait.

Last May, and again in September, I was lucky enough to enjoy a fantastic week of yoga, Pilates and various other healthy pursuits on the glorious island of Lefkada, Greece. It really inspired me to actually do something about my lifestyle. I admired one teacher in particular, did some research and the result is that I’ve enrolled at Body Control Pilates in London and will start the course in a few weeks’ time.

I’m excited, apprehensive and cannot wait to be learning again. But in the meantime, I’m on a mission to become stronger and more flexible. Wish me luck!

book-bible

 

Time out in Cornwall; top ten things to do in the winter

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Cornwall. Sea, cliffs, cream tea, time away from it all.

Last year I spent a wonderful September week in Cornwall. We were blessed with the most beautiful weather; the temperature hovered at around 25 degrees every day, winds were warm and light, and the sea was calm with waves gently lapping up on the  beaches. When we left, I physically yearned for the landscape and the way of life, so I was delighted to return this November. I firmly believe that if you like a place in November, you’ll like it all year around.

 

Looking out onto the Helford estuary  from Trebah beach, Cornwall
The stunning Helford estuary from Trebah beach
The Helford river from Mawnan Smith
Green fields roll down to the Helford estuary
Cornish sun near the Helford estuary
Enjoying the Cornish sun and wind near Mawnan Smith

Despite having wet, windy weather I loved it. And here are my top ten things to do to pass a short winter day in the Mawnan Smith and Falmouth area.

1. Spend an afternoon at Trebah Garden. These sub-tropical gardens, just 20 minutes’ drive from Falmouth, reach down a sheltered garden to the south coast of Cornwall. November isn’t known for its stunning plants, but even at this time of the year there was plenty to keep my interest. From a forest of gunnera, sheltering under their own cut leaves from the colder weather, to passage-ways of succulent, fresh green bamboo, the walk down to the beach is full of different areas to explore. And the hydrangeas are still in bloom. I loved the zig-zag walk and really wanted to know why the various areas are so whimsically named – Alice’s seat and Petry’s path. If you’re a history enthusiast, you can’t fail to be interested in the garden’s previous owners – ranging from the Donald Healey, racing driver and car designer, the Healey of Austin Healey cars (who built a special road using stone from the beach to build Healey’s Hill – to zip down to the beach on in his car), to Major Tony Hibbert, a prominent hero of Arnhem. And from the beach, American troops embarked for the D-Day landings at Omaha.

Gunnera at Trebah
Gunnera bed down for the winter at Trebah
Helford from Trebah
Waves lap onto Trebah beach
Fuschia at Trebah
A splash of pink fuschia at Trebah

 

2. Sunset-spotting at Porthleven. At this time of year, a visit at around 4pm will offer you the most fantastic sunsets over the harbour. The wind was up, so the waves coming over the harbour wall were spectacular and the strong breeze was refreshing and invigorating. After an energizing  tramp along the sea wall, you can treat yourselves to some word-class food courtesy of Kota (get there early to take advantage of the set menu deal). Oh, and the owners are perhaps the friendliest restaurateurs you could hope to meet.

Sunset at sea. at Porthleven
Sunset out to sea at Porthleven
Stormy seas at sunset at Porthleven
Stormy seas hitting the beach at Porthleven
Coast at Porthleven
Open sea and menacing sky at Porthleven

 

3. Jogging along the south west coast path. Hopping out of bed and pulling on running gear on a cool winter morning may not be at the top of your list, but can you resist an early morning jog along the deserted coastal path to set you up for the day? As well as working up an appetite for Cornwall’s local food, you’ll be able to get unbeatable views across the Helford estuary, spot some late blackberries and sloes and glimpse the beautiful gardens of Glendurgan and Trebah.

Trerose estate, Cornwall
Sunny skies after a morning run

 

Coastal path, Cornwall
Jogging towards the coastal path

 

4. Cream tea at Meudon Hotel. It’s not in many places where your afternoon tea hosts will join you for a chat as you sip tea and eat scones, jam and cream. At the Meudon Hotel, choose to sit in the garden (it’s a sun-trap so even in November a sun-drenched spot is comfortably warm) or on the Deck to enjoy the well-maintained garden which leads down to the sea. The cream comes from the Rodda’s dairies – and the milk comes from the cows in the surrounding fields. Scones are warm and freshly-made, and the waiters are full of local knowledge and happy to tell you all about the history of the massive estates in the area.

Cream tea at Meudon Hotel, Cornwall
The epic cream tea at Meudon Hotel
The garden at Meudon Hotel, Cornwall
The garden at Meudon – beautiful even in November
Rodda's clotted cream
Rodda’s clotted cream – so thick and delicious

5. Wave-dodging at Mullion Cove. It’s windy, wild, and breath-taking. Look one way, and you’ll see a quaint English harbour; look the other, and you’ll see cliffs and rocks emerging from a turbulent sea, waves crashing around them in a violent, awe-inspiring way. Unmissable (but wrap up warm).

Stormy seas at Mullion Cove
Sea crashing at Mullion Cove
Sea at Mullion Cove
Mullion harbour
Mullion harbour
The sound of the waves at Mullion was deafening

 

6. Dawdling around Padstow. It may be small and full of Rick Stein’s restaurants, but Padstow has everything; a well-maintained coastal path for walking, local gift shops and fudge parlours, a working harbour full of trawlers, clothes shopping, the best local tea-room serving Tregothnan tea (the first UK tea produced) AND a cottage called Cwtch Cottage – tr. ‘hug’ cottage.

Padstow harbour
Padstow’s picturesque harbour
Padstow harbour
Colourful boats in Padstow’s working harbour
Seagull in Padstow
Hello Mr Seagull
Cwtch cottage in Padstow, Cornwall
Fancy a cwtch?

 

7. A day in St Ives. Park at Lelant Saltings and you can enjoy the most picturesque train journey in Britain, hugging the southern coastline. In St Ives, take time to explore the RNLI lifeboat station, then take a walk to the other side of town to watch the surfers push their own boundaries and brave the sea.

St Ives
View of St Ives from the train station
Sea at St Ives
Look closely and you can see surfers
RNLI lifeboat at St Ives
The lifeboat ready for launching
Gingerbread biscuits in St Ives
Gingerbread family at St Ives

8. St Michael’s Mount. Exposed, glorious, magnificent. You can just absorb the view from the mainland, or walk across the causeway to explore the tiny town.

9. Sit. And watch the sea rolling in. Spectacular in the winter storms, soothing in calmer weather. It will soothe your soul.

Gentle waves
Calming

10. And finally… fill your tum with some top-quality fish and chips (they do kale too if you ask) in Falmouth then head up onto the cliffs near Mawnan Smith for some star-spotting. In a place so dark, the sky appears deep velvety blue and the stars shine bright.

Logs carved into seats, Trerose
Take a seat and we’ll start the story
Trees at Trerose
The most inspiring tree-scape
Trerose viee
The view to wake up to

 

Slow down for sloe gin

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It’s dark. It’s cold. The clocks have gone back. We have five months of gloomy nights and chilly days ahead. But wait! What’s that dusky blue berry scattered over the hedgerows? It’s the sloe berry. And within its bloomed skin lies the secret to the purple, gloriously rich syrupy nectar otherwise known as sloe gin. Despite its dry, sour, tongue-drying taste, the berry imparts the richest of flavours to acerbic gin. Making your own is the perfect way to while away a sunny autumn afternoon. Knowing that a bottle of sloe gin is hidden away, slowly maturing in time for Christmas drinking, makes Autumn a lot more palatable. Try this, and see if you agree.

Sloe berries
Sloe berries

Ingredients
Fresh sloe berries
50g caster sugar
70 cl good quality gin
1 litre gin bottle

Equipment
Small bottles
Muslim cloth
Ribbon
Brown luggage tags
Silver pen

Method
Get outside and gather an empty icecream tub or two takeaway containers of sloe berries. You’ll find these on wild blackthorn trees.
Carefully rinse the berries and spread out to dry. Prick each berry several times with a clean pin.
Sterilise the empty 1 litre bottles, then half fill with the berries.
Top it up with gin and add the sugar.
Seal tightly and shake well.
Put it in a dark cupboard and shake it well every other day.
After 6 weeks, strain through a muslin cloth.
Sterilise the small gift bottles and decant the gin into them.
Label with the luggage tags and give as gifts.

Social cold turkey: lessons learnt from three weeks without social media

Three weeks. No 3G. No 4G. Limited Wi-Fi. No Facebook. No Twitter. To a digital marketer, used to being connected 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the prospect of going cold turkey might consume one with fear and panic. A recent tour of China forced me to give up social media for three weeks. And you know what, the time and headspace away from constant social media has given me much needed perspective.

Here are a few things I realized.

1. #Nofilter.
Social media allows us to create an online persona, to self-edit our language, pause before we hit ‘go’, craft our words and images to portray an pre-planned character. With an absence of social media, and complete reliance on the spoken word and body language, I felt more ‘me’. I had to think on my feet to make my point clear, my emotions and needs were more real, I could not retreat into an alternative ‘social me’. In short, I lived. If social media is your job, learn to get a balance.

2. The chance to reconnect face to face.
So often we forget the distance between marketer and audience created by modern technology; the screen which simultaneously connects us with new, larger audiences yet acts as a barrier. A faceless person in front of a screen writes for a faceless audience, crafting content for what we *think* our audience is interested in. But can anything compare with actually talking to people and getting to know them thoroughly? Don’t forget to take time away from the screen, get on the ground and meet the consumer.

2. Time to think.
Noise, noise, noise. There is no escape. With 4G, Wi-Fi on the tube and now Apple Watch, when can we switch off and take some much-needed time to think, to be, to live fully in the moment? With time away from social media and the Internet, we get time to process our thoughts and emotions, returning refreshed and more able to be creative, to work in an inspired and efficient way.

3. Messages become more powerful.
With a return to social comes the need to find out what has appended in one’s absence. Thousands and thousands of tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram posts and WhatsApp and we chat moments. Who has the time or energy to digest three weeks’ worth of data? This is the time to notice what brands leap out, what grabs your attention and what messages you remember. Notice, and apply these nuggets in your next campaign.

4. Better interpersonal relationships.
It’s common now for dinner parties, social gatherings and coffee dates to be accompanied by tablets and devices. Is a person ever completely concentrating on their friends and family anymore? Are they planning to document it on various social channels, and are they listening out for the familiar ping of their phone? With no internet access, I found that I gave my companions the attention they deserved, and that I could appreciate the moment so much more. Surely social media should enhance, not eclipse, an experience.

To sum up, there is a time and a place for social media. Sure, I missed keeping up with my friends, taking part in discussions about current affairs, and easing boredom on long train journeys and sleepless nights. Yet the flip side of the coin is that I was present in the moment, I re-learnt proper face-to-face communication, and realized how much it is possible to create an alternative self on social media. One word – balance.

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Adventure #1 Greece

Vasiliki bay

A summer holiday in Greece with the girls… do these eight words evoke visions of sun, sea, and sisterly escapades? Well, we got all that and much, much more.

When I planned my itinerary for the months after leaving a (more than) full-time job, I’d hoped to round my travels off with a week of relaxation and absorbing the sun’s heat before the cold and dark of an English winter. Practicalities and the commitments of my holiday companions, however, meant that my Lefkada trip came at the beginning of the tour. And in retrospect, what a sensible and serendipitous arrangement this was. Here-forth, let us refer to my Grecian trip as Adventure #1.

Back in May I spent a week on a Healthy Options holiday close to a small town called Vasiliki on the Southern coast of Lefkada. I’d looked at the holiday the year before, but the attitude of the booking staff in England had put me off and I’d taken part in a yoga retreat in Cyprus instead. I digress. The trip in May, the people I met and the experiences I’d had kick-started this massive cycle of change in my life. I’d found the courage (I didn’t recognise it as courage to start with – more an indescribable emotion propelling me to DO SOMETHING as I was no longer content with the status quo) to resign from a good job in London that I’d simultaneously loved and loathed, realised that life is for living, and opened my eyes to a way of life far from the accepted routine. I’d also been incredibly lucky to have made friends with a group of like-minded girls, all with different backgrounds, all with their own goals, all exceedingly strong. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you vow to meet up or go away together again? Does it ever happen? No? Well it did, and I am so thankful.

Over the summer I’d kept in touch with the girls over email, but various events in all of our lives meant that we all needed a (delete as appropriate) reprieve/healing holiday/escape to look forward to. Suddenly, dreaming about a return to Vasiliki developed into a viable option, and between us we started to discuss dates and prices. Now, we hadn’t seen each other since saying a hurried goodbye at Gatwick airport. But I had no nerves, no doubts about getting together again. Indeed, I was more concerned that Michelle, who I would be room-sharing with to reduce costs, would get fed up with my chatter and company.

So I ended my job with some intense days of work in London, followed by a fantastic day catching up with a university house mate who had given birth to three children in the eight years since we had last met, a finishing-off day working from home, a whistle stop to Lincoln, doctor’s appointments, and visiting a friend locally for courgette-cake baking, chatting, Great British Bake Off watching and staying over. I also squeezed in a walk in the beach and lunch with my mum. This was actually super important to do.

I’m the kind of person who loves looking forward to things. I like to plan, make lists, and find such joy and excitement in this anticipation. I’ve felt so stressed and busy though that I find myself ricocheting between tasks, trips, life. I feel like a hamster in a wheel, unable to stop and take time out in the fear that the wheel will run away without me and I’ll be unable to catch up. Despite the sensible part of my brain saying I needed a couple of plan-free days to enjoy being at home, spending time with my family and sorting myself out, I managed to fill my time with friends, the gym, dashing to and fro. Don’t get me wrong; I love seeing people and keeping busy, but the overactive FOMO part of me squished every thing that had occurred to me into the time available. And this was precisely in opposition to the drive to have some time out from work. Was it habit? Fear of not being busy? A need to convince myself that I am superwoman and can do everything? I don’t know.

Back to Greece. Meeting everyone at the airport felt naturally, easy, as if I was picking up a conversation with friends. Hurrah!

Now, Healthy Options. This holiday is a unique mix of exercise, activity, yoga, Pilates, socialising, self-discovery, time-out, water sports tasters. The company started as Wildwind, specialising in sailing and windsurfing holidays. The bay is renowned for its superb cross-shore winds and the holidays soon became extremely popular. It was soon realised that a lot of the sailors coming here bring their wives and partners with them, who might not be as keen on water-sports as them. Healthy Options was born: to provide a variety of activities on a ‘do as much or as little as you want’ basis during the day, with opportunity to socialise and relax in the evening. At first the holidays were booked up by those linked to Wildwind sailing, but soon they became exceedingly popular with independent individuals looking for an active escape. I loved the range on offer, that I could do whatever I wanted, chill out if I wished, and take part in the sailing activities too. What struck me most was how sociable and group-minded everyone was, and how easy and anxiety-free it was to fall into conversation. Going away by yourself can be daunting, but the inclusion of some optional meals and meetings made it easy to get involved, or not.

Our return to Greece was every bit as good as I hoped it would be. As the accommodation is split between 3 small, family-run hotels, we were delighted that Afrodite and Vicky recognised us when we walked through the Sunwaves hotel doors, as did the Healthy Options and Wildwind staff. Within a matter of hours I could feel my shoulders lowering, my spine lengthening, and my head raising. It’s always hard to return somewhere, so of course I made comparisons. I think though that acknowledging that people and situations would undoubtedly be different helped me to accept changes and enjoy them just as much. Michelle and I were so lucky. We had chosen a basic first floor room but we’re delighted to be upgraded to a room with a balcony and the most beautiful view of the sea. I had to keep looking out to imprint it in my mind, and to enjoy and appreciate how the sea and beach changed throughout the day. First thing in the morning the sea was calm, just a few ripples disturbing its surface. The air felt fresh and clean, and the hotel garden was receiving its daily drink from a network of sprinklers. And on the sea, a few paddle boarders could be seen gently floating along, joggers would beat the heat of the day, and wet-suited swimmers would notch up lengths up and down the bay. The gentle sound of water, the cool air, and the anticipation of an activity and relaxation filled day were the perfect way to wake up. And depending on the atmosphere, the neighbouring islands would show themselves crisp and sharp, just a stone’s throw from the shore, or misty and mysterious, inviting us to discover them with the their layers of blue and grey undulations. Later in the day, the beach would fill with people, the water’s edge was a hive of activity with sailors and surfers preparing for the day ahead, and the smell of fresh bread would drift upwards as the sea darkened and a gentle breeze whipped up its surface. A lull in sailing action at lunchtime created an increase in the number of people strolling along the ‘promenade’ (I use the word loosely but back in May it was part gravel, part stone, part sand, part grass, and walking into town was an intrepid trip of dodging the waves to jump over streams, picking our way through grass and sand, and periodically stopping to empty our shoes and sandals of stones and gravel. What luxury then, to discover a newly-concreted pavement which reduced our regular walks from a game of risk to more sedate stroll). In the afternoon, the wind would suddenly pick up, riggings would jangle in the gusts and windsurfers would whip up and down, seemingly with nerves of steel. Toward evening, groups of people gathered on the terraces by the sea, meeting friends, catching up on the day’s events over a beer or ‘kilo’ of wine whilst the sea smoothed itself out and the hills and bay became bathed in the warm, golden light of sunset.

Enough about the view. Daily life in Vas is a delightful mix of heart-healthy early morning exercise, combined with a gentle programme of yoga and Pilates, soul-soothing stand-up paddle boarding, adrenalin highs from catamaran sailing, joy-riding, cycling and windsurfing, and a wind-down with daily Yoga Nidra, dressing up for the evenings for leisurely dinners and drinks, or the more entertaining barbecue and cocktail nights. Hanging out with the girls was easy. We knew what each other liked, so I was happy and grateful for others to take the lead and make the decisions – ordering drinks and food (our regular orders were pita, tzatziki, taramasalata, squid, fresh fish and probably a bit too much local wine) and deciding where to eat. Perhaps what happens in Vas Stays in Vas. But barbecue night, cocktail night and our final night out gave us all the opportunity to relax, have fun and live in the moment, in a way in which I am unaccustomed back home. It goes to show that all you need is good company, good wine and a place to go.

Nights out were balanced by intense activity. Every day stayed with some kind of cardio boost. Morning runs along the beach and through the olive groves, insanity circuits with Amy, revitalising sessions out in the paddle board on the sea, or challenging bike rides pushing myself beyond what I thought I could do, let me enjoy myself and relax around daily rules and reassured myself with the knowledge that I CAN achieve and do it and feel proud. Getting involved with Swiss ball, body sculpt and Pilates helped me to appreciate my body for what it can do and reconnected body and mind. I’m not the type that can lie by the pool all day relaxing without intense guilt and feeling that I need to earn it. I acknowledge that I’ve described a balance and that I needed to work hard to deserve the chill out time and fun nights out. But I think that even recognising this is a step in the right direction; I don’t need to have slogged to earn downtime. I should be able to allow myself to relax and enjoy the moment without crediting the ‘theoretical bank of activity’.

Here’s to the girls. Michelle – your strength, stableness, clear-sightedness and hilarious sleepwalking made you the perfect roommate. Vicky, when I first met you I was in awe of you and slightly scared. I didn’t feel worthy of your attention! But underneath your chipper exterior you have a wicked sense of humour and so much warmth and kindness. Julie, plain-speaking, no-nonsense and so comfortable in yourself. Your dedication to your job and your ability to be you are inspirational.

I came home from this week feeling balanced, stronger, energised, buoyed up by the weather, fun and people, happier for having made a distinct contrast from the work life immediately preceding it, tired in a good way and in a good frame of mind for Adventure #2: America.

Late summer fruit picking

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A blustery day. Windy, noisy, autumnal. But evocative of a French day in that the wind was warm, the air smelt earthy and natural, and wandering around in shorts and t-shirt at all hours was comfortable.

When the breeze dropped, albeit slightly, we took the chance to drive a couple of miles up the road to our local fruit farm. With such an abundance of fruit; blackberries, blackcurrents, gooseberries, blueberries, blueberries, raspberries, pickings should have been easy. 

However, a sunny Sunday afternoon lent itself to lingering and enjoying the fields and atmosphere.

Yet looking on the raspberry canes, over the fields of wheat and at the tractors harvesting, my appreciation was tinged with sadness. At this time of year, the summer is drawing to a close and the months of promise are almost over. What happened to all those plans of things I intended to do, people I intended to see? I guess life got in the way.

   
  
   

  

The ultimate chocolate polenta cake

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This isn’t meant to be a recipe or baking site (take a look at Elegant Rose Cakes for all things wedding cake related) but I had to share this recipe. Sad though it might sound, it really made my weekend as it was the first time I’ve cooked using polenta and the cake was incredibly delicious. 

The cake itself is a delightful combination of lightness and moistness, with the icing adding a decadent finish. It’s perfect served with tart, fresh raspberries and a blob of sharp natural yoghurt. Enjoy in the sun with a glass of sparkling elderflower cordial.

Chocolate polenta cake

Ingredients

Cake

240g butter

250g caster sugar

30g cocoa powder (100% cocoa is best)

225g ground almonds

120g fine polenta

1tsp baking powder

3 eggs

75ml milk

1tsp almond essence

Icing

100g softened butter

200g icing sugar

30g cocoa powder

  1. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees fan. Grease and line a deep 9 inch square cake tin with a loose base
  2. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy
  3. Beat in the cocoa powder, baking powder, ground almonds and polenta
  4. Stir in the eggs until thoroughly combined
  5. Fold in the milk and almond essence
  6. Pour into the tin and spread evenly
  7. Bake for 35-40 minutes until you can hear no ‘popping’
  8. Leave to cool for ten minutes then turn out onto a rack
  9. Cream the icing sugar, butter and cocoa powder with a tablespoon of boiled water until fluffy
  10. When the cake is completely cold, spread the icing on in swirls
  11. Slice into 12 fingers and serve with fresh raspberries and a spoonful of natural yoghurt

  

  

A journey towards health and happiness

The past few years have seen me go from an energetic, bubbly, darting girl to a shadow who now prioritises recovering on the sofa over getting out there and living life. As well as causing my family and friends distress and worry, this state of affairs has been an ongoing twist of concern in my brain. Countless nights of discomfort in my bed, bursting into tears on my friends in the middle of the street, an overwhelming sense of being in freefall with no ‘plan’ juxtaposed with a fear of feeling trapped in within my own head, with a life that is somehow stuck yet passing by. Sounds confused? yep, that’s right. Things had to change. Which is why, instead of continually wondering ‘what if…’, ‘I would love to…’ and ‘can I’, ‘am I good enough’, I’ve decided to make some changes.

Scary stuff. Or perhaps not. First things first, I blame ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. On the third time of reading, I acknowledged that the aching yearn in my heart (ok, let’s get dramatic) to travel and see the world, facing up to my mind and working through stuff, just like the author, could be a reality. But how to make it happen? And do I want to up sticks and leave for a year? What about my friends and family and godchildren?

It took a while to realise that there was no need to go away for so long. Why not do a short bit of travelling and take some time out? That is, not work for a while. Not bury my head in the sand – which for me is work – and then letting myself get even more stressed out than already by the sand/work. Not tell myself ‘I’ll deal with this later’ and in fact procrastinate from facing my issues head on, working with them and learning from them to live a healthier and happier life. Not kid myself that things will get better, with no real idea of how on earth this would happen without a concerted and conscious effort on my part. To sum up, I’m going to give myself the time and headspace to be. To be grumpy, to be happy, to be myself, to challenge the self-destructive behaviours and habits I’ve formed and to re-learn them and not run away because it is too hard and painful.  It sounds so easy to write it down, but this is the result of YEARS of conversation and help from a sound group of friends and loving family.

With the seed planted in my mind, then came the self-doubt and anxiety about what everyone else would think. Now I have no idea where this need to please and fulfil what other people think of me come from. Heaven knows, I don’t even know what they think of me. So I’m trying to fulfil my own idea of what I think they expect of me, and to please them, rather than pleasing myself. But is that selfish. In a word, and it’s taken me a long time to get to this and blimey I wish I’d given myself permission to do this sooner, NO.

So here starts my journey. Who knows how long it will take? I’ve learnt that I can’t apply a fixed time-span. And I’m fine with that. And I’m excited.

August lavender

Evoking memories of Provençal holidays, acres of ripe wheat and sunflowers turning to greet the sun, swathes of lavender always make me bend down, inhale deeply and feel a sense of calm.