Hi. I'm 49 and busy setting up a vintage china hire and afternoon tea business. I have three grown up children and a baby grandson. I live with my husband and our three dogs in a house we are currently renovating from top to bottom. My dream is to buy a chateau in France and run a guest house.
Me again. The hotly anticipated kitchen inspection happened on Wednesday. I was incredibly nervous and barely slept the night beforehand. A member of the Food Safety team put me through my paces. She was very thorough, and rightly so. She checked all my baking ingredients for unregulated colourings, expiry dates and storage methods. She grilled me on my working methods, how I deal with the dangers of allergens and what I know about preparing food safely. She checked that the cleaning products I use conform with the current standards and she inspected my written records to ensure I have been keeping them up to date. Eventually she awarded me a five rating, the top score you can be given and told me that everything was perfect. I was elated. I have always believed that if I decide to do something I will do it to the best of my ability so only the highest score would have been acceptable.
So, onwards and upwards. I have the green light to get this business off the ground and I am so excited for the upcoming year. Fingers crossed I will get the chance to show people the passion I have for baking and hosting wonderful events.
I am really enjoying Junior Bake Off. It is so much more enjoyable to watch than the adult version for a few reasons.
1. The kids are not only very talented bakers, they are completely transparent by nature. When they are under pressure they show it, when they are confused the audience can almost see the cogs in their brains trying to work it out. When they are voted out they cry. They are not afraid to show their true emotions and that is really endearing. I think this is why Rahul was so popular in the GBBO. His childlike naivety made us all feel protective towards him and so we naturally rooted for his success.
2. Although each child wants to win, their competitive natures are still overridden by their need to help others. When a contestant is struggling the others automatically rally round, comforting the distressed child and reassuring them, while making sure they have something to put up at the end. It restores my faith in humanity. These kids are all striving towards the ultimate prize, winning the coveted trophy, but they drop everything and help out when someone in the group is in trouble. Brilliant.
3. Liam Charles. He’s just a natural around the kids. He offers constructive criticism and sound advice and the delight on his face when he tastes something delicious is wonderful. I also think that he brings out the best in Prue who can sometimes be a little stiff and proper.
4. Harry Hill. Enough said.
Liam and Prue do not go any easier on the contestants because they are children. Some of the technical challenges are fiendishly tricky, and yet the kids seem to come up trumps every time, even if they are trying to make something they have never even heard of. And the showstoppers. The unlimited imaginations of these bakers have inspired me to try and think more like a child when I’m designing my own creations. I don’t generally flap when things go wrong in the kitchen. When I am baking I’m in my comfort zone, I know how to fix things and if I can’t, I start again until I get it right. The kids on Junior Bake Off are amazing resilient too. When Eliza’s Italian meringue buttercream wasn’t coming together quickly enough, she switched to a normal buttercream and got the job done on time. When Tom’s caramel crystallised into one big lump, he scrapped it and started again. These young people are truly amazing. I wish I had been half as talented as them at their age and I just know that they are all going to make inspirational adults. I haven’t finished watching the series yet so I don’t know who won but they are all winners in my eyes.
My certificate arrived in the post. I now have Food Safety and Hygiene Level 2 and I can finally begin to sell my wares to the general public. I know how to store food safely, how to label it properly with the correct allergen information, how to ensure that everything is cooked to the right temperature, chilled to the right temperature. Yes, the course was intensive and so it should be. Baking uses mainly low-risk ingredients but I never want to make a customer, or my family for that matter, ill with food poisoning. This course would actually be a good thing for everyone to do, I was surprised how much I learned.
I feel like I am on the brink of something very exciting, a dream I have held for some time may just come true. To work for myself and make money doing something I am passionate about would be amazing. I have had some preparation to do, my kitchen has been reorganised somewhat into zones, one for preparing raw meat and fish, one for raw fruit and vegetables and one for ready to eat foods. All must be kept scrupulously clean and tidy. I have to keep written records, noting the temperature in the fridge every day, planning a cleaning schedule and making sure my baking supplies are stored in order so that nothing goes out of date. It is a lot of work but I’m hoping that it will all become second nature over time.
The Christmas menu is going up on my website very soon and then I will have to keep my fingers crossed that the orders come in. My business cards have gone into all the local coffee shops, in fact every shop I can talk into displaying them for me, well, you have to be out there don’t you?
I just realised that I haven’t blogged about baking for ages. I have been baking, of course. Since the kitchen was finished I haven’t stopped. I have been testing recipes in order to create a menu which customers can order from. Next week I take a food safety course after which I will be fully ready to open for business. I decided to offer some speciality breads as well as cakes and biscuits for the Halloween and Christmas holidays so I have been kneading for England. Above is a French Couronne, meaning ‘crown’, an enriched dough stuffed with fruits, nuts and marzipan and twisted into a circle. Baked in France for Christmas, it is glazed with a sweet icing and finished with flaked almonds. In my opinion it would make a lovely change from a traditional fruit cake. I also made a Brioche au Nutella, light fluffy bread made with eggs and butter and full of chocolate hazelnut spread. Yesterday I baked some savoury loaves with bacon and cheddar cheese. Thinking about it, maybe that is why I had the nightmare, all that cheese!
I will post separately with some photos of my cakes and let you know how the training course went (and if I passed)!
Last night I had a nightmare. Not just a bad dream, but a proper knicker-wetting, hair-raising terror fest of a nightmare. I don’t have them often, thank goodness, because this one left me gasping for breath and terrified to go back to sleep. Apparently I screamed loud enough to scare Big half to death, not to mention my Frenchie Wilson who was being little spoon in between us as it was a chilly night (and he thinks he is dog royalty and therefore perfectly entitled to sleep in our bed). I vaguely remember being chased relentlessly by some sort of Medieval spectre and I guess I screamed when it finally got me but the details are now mercilessly hazy. As Big, now fully awake, was trying to calm me down I cried and gasped for air, my heart pounding in my chest. I refused to let go of his hand and finally fell back to sleep clutching his fingers in a vice like grip.
This unpleasant nocturnal experience got me thinking about the supernatural. I have been asked more than once if I believe in ghosts. Humans are naturally curious beings and this question is often asked upon meeting someone for the first time in order to spot a kindred spirit. Generally speaking there are two camps, those who believe wholeheartedly in the existence of otherworldly spirits and those who think the idea is a load of tosh. I have always been a sceptic until I experienced something I simply couldn’t explain.
About ten years ago we took the children on a family holiday to Belgium. We rented a big house which sat in acres of countryside and invited Big’s parents, his sister, her husband and their three children to join us. The house was over a hundred and fifty years old but had a large kitchen and a hot tub in the garden. There was a barn full of old bicycles and a home made wooden go cart, much to the delight of the children. One of the out buildings housed a sauna and gym. These modern additions were, I supposed, added to attract holiday makers, but the main house was furnished sympathetically to the style of the period. The children quickly found a huge games room with exposed stone walls. There was a full sized pool table in here and a large tapestry hanging on the wall depicting a gory battle scene. The owner of the property had also shown us a tiny, draughty television room right at the back of the house but had told us that no one ever used it and the reason became apparent when several members of our party, myself included, spent a few minutes in the room and began to feel very strange. My niece, who was ten at the time, declared it too cold and said she felt like someone was watching her. My mother in law refused to set foot over the threshold, rubbing her arms and hurrying away and I spent just a few minutes there before a feeling of impending doom settled over me, forcing me to hurry back to the rest of the family. Upstairs there were four large bedrooms and several bathrooms. The children quickly decided to sleep together in one big room and set about moving beds around to accommodate everyone. My in laws and my sister in law chose rooms at the front of the house next to each other, which left Big and I with the room at the back. It had wooden floorboards with holes in, some large enough to see straight down into the games room below and was underneath the eaves of the roof. There was a vast dark oak wardrobe with musty drawers and on the other side of the room, a double bed. Next to the bed was a door which led to a narrow stone staircase. Unlike the main staircase which came up from the kitchen, this was hidden away, a secret route coming out in the far hidden corner of the spooky television room downstairs. I was more than a little freaked out by this staircase and instructed Big to pile our suitcases up against the little door. I pretended that one of the kids might come through the door in the night, playing a prank on us, but actually I was pretty sure that none of them would be brave enough to use the stairs as they were very dark and scary.
We had a wonderful week, the area was beautiful. We cycled along the banks of the canal, relaxed in the hot tub and sunbathed on several beautiful nearby beaches. On the final night we went to bed, ready for an early start to our journey home the following day. The children had been complaining all week about scratching noises in the walls of their room. We put it down to rodents but they insisted it was keeping them awake. Our son came and woke me up in the early hours. He was frightened and rambling about a “monster” so I took him back to his room and stayed with him until he fell asleep then I returned to bed. I was slowly drifting off when I heard a noise. I looked across and saw the door to the secret staircase moving. The doorknob turned slowly from the outside but our packed cases were up against the door. I froze, totally paralysed by fear as the doorknob continued to turn left to right. It stopped abruptly and I drew in a breath just as a flickering flame appeared from beside the wardrobe. It hovered in mid air next to the window as if someone were carrying a candle. Then it moved slowly toward the bed. The temperature in the room dropped dramatically and my teeth chattered. I felt as if someone was sitting on my chest and all the air was being forced out of my lungs. I tried to speak, to alert Big, but no sound came from my throat no matter how hard I tried and Big, having enjoyed a few beers that evening was snoring loudly, oblivious to my terror. After what seemed like ages but in reality was probably a few minutes the flame disappeared and I stopped shivering as the temperature returned to normal. I was still unable to move and for the next hour or so I lay in bed staring into the darkness, my heart racing. Eventually Big roused and got up to use the bathroom. I told him what I had seen and he put his arm around me, telling me it was all a bad dream but I knew that I wasn’t asleep when it happened.
In the morning I told everyone what had happened. My father-in-law then said that a few days before he had been on the landing and someone had whispered ‘hello’ into his ear from behind him. My brother-in-law admitted that he had been alone in the games room and he had suddenly felt cold like a fridge door had been opened and my son insisted that something had woken him in the night, which of course I knew about. We all agreed that there was something strange about the house in Belgium and it may be a coincidence but the following year it was put up for sale.
Since that night I have been a total believer. I know what I saw and felt. I can’t explain what happened and I don’t try to. I just accept that what I experienced was real and that I was privileged to be allowed a peek into the world of the supernatural.
So. Corsican cuisine. This is a totally unspoilt island so you will not find a fast food restaurant anywhere. No fried chicken or Golden Arches here. Chinese and Indian takeaways do not exist. Vegans would probably starve to death. Eating out on Corsica is divided into two distinct categories, local specialities or pizza. Although technically in France, Corsica has its own identity, language and cuisine. Some meals are typically French. Most locals head to the local boulangerie every morning for croissants and baguettes, often breaking chunks off their loaves and eating them on the way home. The cafe culture is a big part of the social scene. The larger supermarkets have cafes attached serving tasty baked goods, fresh cakes and bread. Our favourite had the best cheese and ham croissants I have ever tasted.
Most villages have at least one traditional restaurant. These are recognisable by the Corsican flag which is displayed outside even though they may look like ordinary houses from the roadside. They can be intimidating for holiday makers with difficult to decipher menus and seemingly hostile staff, however, with a little local knowledge you can eat some wonderful food, just as long as you don’t mind it being a bit “rustic”. Fresh fish is readily available and usually well cooked. Veal is always on the menu. Chicken is not readily available and if it is will often be overcooked. Pasta and pizza is a safe bet for picky eaters. Other local specialties are fritters made from sheeps milk cheese called brocciu, and pastries made with chestnut flour. Chestnuts feature heavily in both sweet and savoury dishes and both are delicious. Although wild boar roam freely on the island and are treated well by the locals they are still eaten readily and boar stew is a favourite local dish. After a meal we were always offered a shot of Myrte, a liquor made from myrtle berries. Deep purple in colour it has a medicinal taste and a lethal alcohol content!
We tried a restaurant in Sotta which was highly recommended in the visitors book called Le Relais one evening. It had a great atmosphere and the staff were really friendly. I ordered a steak cooked medium rare and Big ordered the roast pork. My steak was practically mooing on the plate, it had barely seen the pan and was difficult to eat, my fault for ordering beef in France. Big’s pork was large gnarly pieces of unrecognisable meat with roasted potatoes. He picked at the meat but it was mostly gristle and fat, however, he did enjoy the potatoes especially the whole baby onions among them which turned out to be whole cloves of roasted garlic! Overall the food was not our favourite but watching other diners trying to navigate the glass floor to the toilets was very entertaining.
For those nights when we didn’t feel like venturing far, a pizza van visits several of the villages, parking up for the evening and baking lovely pizzas to order which we took back to the villa to enjoy with a glass or two of local wine. Most of the local restaurants also offer a take out (emporter) pizza menu but the ones from the van were the best. The dessert options were mainly limited to gelato and tiramisu but my favourite is easily the Cafe Gourmand. This is a selection of mini desserts served with an espresso, perfect for a diabetic, it is a taste of something sweet without being too much. Of course we also enjoyed several spectacular bottles of wine although they were costly. All in all, a mixed bag food wise but we certainly didn’t go hungry.
I am planning to do some baking very soon inspired by some of the bread and cakes I have enjoyed in Corsica so keep an eye out for my next blog.
Having just returned from one of many trips to the beautiful island of Corsica I felt the need to write about this little known paradise and all the things that make it one of my favourite places on Earth.
I have been to the northern part of the island, Bastia being its most popular destination with a bustling port and historic ruins, but in my opinion the most spectacular scenery is in the South. This time our villa was in a tiny village called Pruno, just outside Figari, on a prestigious wine estate. The owner of the vineyard had turned several of his outbuildings into private villas, set into the hillside. Ours was a single story building made of stone with a saltwater pool and a garden kitchen.
The flight to Corsica takes less than two hours from London and all was well until we approached Figari airport, when our pilot warned us that there were strong cross winds so it would be a bumpy landing. Our plane was buffeted in the air like one of those toy plastic parachutes with the little soldier suspended on strings. After about five minutes of this the plane suddenly headed upwards and the pilot announced that he had aborted the landing. He cheerfully and calmly explained that they would “have another go” but by this time all the passengers had become very quiet and the atmosphere was tense. A second attempt was also aborted and I could feel a panic attack coming on. Even my husband, who is a frequent flyer, looked worried. We held hands and I concentrated on my breathing to try and stay calm. We flew round again and this time, after a long and very bumpy approach we finally landed. All the passengers broke into applause as we touched down and we all noted the line of emergency vehicles standing ready, lights flashing, on the runway. The airport at Figari is tiny and as we disembarked and walked across to the terminal in silence I was shaking so much I could barely walk.
This rather scary start to our holiday was soon forgotten once we had picked up our car and were on our way through the familiar village of Figari. The landscape here is both wild and lush. It reminds me of the set of a Jurassic Park movie with its gigantic rock formations and dusty roads. Small clusters of mountains loom in the background, sometimes partially hidden by low cloud. The day we arrived though they were in full view and the wind had dropped as we found our villa. The owner had thoughtfully left a bottle of his own wine in the fridge and this was a very welcome sight as well as being delicious!
After a few days of relaxing by the pool and soaking up the sunshine we felt ready to venture further afield. Figari is situated in between two ports, Bonifacio and Porto Vecchio. One main road runs right across the island which makes everything very easy to reach. Bonifacio is my favourite of the two. The marina is always full of huge yachts and interesting people. Above the port sits the walled citadel, perched high on top of white cliffs. At night the walls are lit up in a rainbow of colours. If you want to go up into the citadel you need to have strong legs, the climb is steep and brutal on cobbled stone. During the day a little train runs up and down, winding around the clifftops, taking less able or less inclined passengers to the summit, but the walk is more satisfying, even if you feel like you might actually die half way up. When you get up there it is so worth the aching calves. The citadel is chock full of boutique shops, bars and restaurants. Visitors can also explore the residential area, situated in the old military buildings where there are apartments, parks and even a tiny primary school. From here you can enjoy panoramic views out to sea. There is an ancient flight of steps carved into the side of the cliff called the Dragons Gate. Visitors pay to make the terrifying descent to the tiny beach at the bottom but I’m afraid I’m way too much of a coward, I can’t stomach heights. Away from the citadel there are plenty of fresh fish restaurants around the marina for a spot of lunch or a late dinner. After dinner the Bar au Port is perfect for an espresso or a nightcap. Twice a week they have live music which always draws a crowd, my favourite being a guy who collects for the coastguards charity. His gravelly voice and amazing guitar playing make it hard to tear myself away.
Porto Vecchio has, by comparison, a very different vibe. This marina is more laid back, although the waterfront is lined with smart and expensive restaurants, however, the real action is at altitude in the cliff top citadel. If you can survive the almost vertical climb and the killer mosquitos, the reward is a selection of trendy cocktail bars and overpriced eateries frequented by beautiful people who all look like they’ve stepped straight off a catwalk. There are also a few exclusive designer shops and a stunning art gallery which is worth a look. Up here a simple plate of pasta can set you back twenty euros and cocktail hour could require a second mortgage but for one night only you will feel like a celebrity.
Corsica has something for everyone so if it’s a more organic experience you are after head for the mountains. This is where you will find beautiful beaches tucked away among the rocks and sleepy villages. The roads are quite good by European standards and some of the highest ones even have a little wooden rail to prevent your car from plunging over the edge into the abyss when a French lorry comes hurtling towards you on a hairpin bend. After quite a climb we reached Zonza, a bustling cluster of shops and restaurants which cater for the coach parties of holidaymakers who regularly turn up for lunch. From here there are stunning views of the “fingers”, five digit shaped peaks of grey rock protruding from the top of the tallest mountain. If you have come this far you might as well push on to Solenzara. There is not much there, it is basically a coach park but the atmosphere is quite spiritual and the drive back down via the Col de Bavella is pleasant. It seems to take a long time to reach the bottom but once you do the pretty coastal road takes you all the way back to Porto Vecchio.
Even in September we enjoyed average daily temperatures of 32 degrees and because our villa was so comfortable we spent much of our time by the pool but there really is no shortage of gorgeous places to visit in this area of Corsica.
I am dividing this blog into sections as I have so much to cover. In part two I will be writing about some of the delicious food we enjoyed on the island.