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.
It’s been a few weeks since my last post so I thought I would update you all on what I have been up to.
Where was I? Oh yes, the faulty dishwasher turned out to be unrepairable. Cue several weeks of going backwards and forwards between the manufacturer and the supplier trying to get a replacement. In the end we decided to pay a bit extra and upgrade to a Neff appliance. The supplier agreed to cover the costs of disconnecting the old one, installing the new one and putting the kitchen back together. Finally I have a working dishwasher and normality has returned to our household.
I had been commissioned to make a special cake for a 30th anniversary. The client wanted two different flavoured sponges spliced together to form a figure of eight and covered in buttercream roses. She pretty much left the rest up to me so I decided on strawberry and Prosecco for one of the cakes and chocolate for the other. I also decided to try and make Italian meringue buttercream for the roses as this would give a better finish. This is complicated and requires a lot of ingredients so I was anxious to get it right. You have to whisk egg whites and sugar together whilst cooking a sugar syrup to exactly 235 degrees. Once it hits that magic number you have to swiftly but carefully drizzle it into the egg whites, whisking all the time until it becomes thick and glossy. If the syrup is not hot enough it won’t cook the egg whites and the meringue won’t work. Too hot and the mixture will seize up. You then need to continue whisking the meringue until the bowl is cooled right down. Now you switch to a paddle and beat the mixture whilst adding in butter, a shedload of butter, one small cube at a time until the buttercream is smooth and light. This is where I made a rookie error. I used salted butter instead of unsalted and although the mixture looked right, because it contained half a kilo of butter it was far too salty to use on the cake.
This was the point at which I had a mini breakdown as I realised that I would have to repeat the whole process again, so I pulled up my big girls pants, jumped into my car and drove to the supermarket for fresh supplies of butter. Once home I started again, weighing everything out beforehand to make things easier and this time it tasted delicious! Finally I was able to finish the cake in Barbie pink and cream roses, finished with pearl lustre powder as it was for a pearl anniversary.
The client came to pick up the cake the following morning and she was blown away by it. She went away happy and I started work on preparations for an afternoon tea party I had been asked to host by the winner of my Facebook competition. She wanted to donate her prize of a cream tea to her former colleagues who were all nurses at a local hospice. These wonderful ladies took care of my beloved godmother Pam as she battled cancer, making the final days of her life as dignified as possible so I was delighted to be able to give them a special treat. The homemade scones with clotted cream and jam, freshly baked cupcakes and strawberries were well received as was my beautiful vintage china and everything looked so pretty.
I spent today, my Silver wedding anniversary washing and sorting the china I had used and running errands. My husband is unfortunately away with work but my mum and my sister didn’t want to let such an important day go unnoticed so they came over for dinner and we had a lovely, relaxed, girlie evening. I’m glad I don’t have to get up early tomorrow as I’m very tired!
This weekend Big and I fly off to Corsica for a holiday so I will be taking a break from baking for a few weeks but I have plenty of work lined up for when we return so I will fill you in on my plans then.
Finally. After eight weeks I have a fully functioning, glossy new kitchen. The first four weeks went fairly smoothly, the old kitchen came out within a few days. The ceiling and walls were re-plastered and much excitement ensued as the new units went in. Sadly, things ground to a halt when some of the doors were found to be the wrong size. When the appliances arrived our fitter refused the dishwasher as it was badly dented and eventually a replacement materialised. Once the kitchen was almost finished the builder and his carpenter went away on holiday. The tiling and electrics were completed but unfortunately during that time the oven housing was damaged in several places and unsurprisingly no one knew how it had been done. I was absolutely gutted but our builder was pragmatic about it and in the seventh week the ovens and the whole unit came out so that the damaged panels could be replaced. It is such a relief to be able to cook proper meals again. I made a lovely chicken and leek pie to celebrate my new oven.
The final setback came when I tried to use the dishwasher for the first time. Half way through the cycle it began to make a continuous beeping noise and eventually I switched it off as the noise was driving us mad. The plumber came to check that everything had been installed correctly and as he took the plinth off water spilled onto the floor from a leak somewhere within the appliance. Consequently I am waiting for an engineer to come and look at it, I suspect it will need replacing which will mean more dismantling as it is integrated into the units but I am trying not to stress too much about it. We also had a water softener installed which should really help with the terrible limescale problems we have in this area.
I designed the new kitchen specifically to suit my baking business so everything is organised to make it easy for me to bake efficiently. I’m hoping that the local council will give me a good hygiene rating when they come to inspect as bookings are beginning to trickle in. This week I baked a special cake for a fundraiser my son had organised at his work. They were collecting for Marie Curie so my cake was decorated with their daffodil logo and tiny yellow flowers. It was very well received and I am anticipating getting a few jobs as a result of people tasting my cake. Right now I am working on a charity event to be held early in September where I will be supplying afternoon tea for the staff at a local hospice. They were the winners of my Facebook competition so I will be going all out to give them a memorable afternoon. All in all, things are looking up for Teacups and Sugar Lumps. Let’s hope I can secure some bookings so that I can invest in more stock and maybe some advertising!
When I was eleven years old my mum gave me a bottle of Oil of Ulay, as it was called back then. She told me to apply it twice a day every day to keep my skin soft and protect against wrinkles. It was the only skincare product I ever saw her use and at the time I thought I had been inducted into a secret club just for women. I treasured this little glass bottle of delicate pink lotion and used it religiously. I had always been interested in hair and beauty, spending hours putting rollers into my Girl’s Worlds’ disembodied head and applying make up to her face. I began to worry about the ageing process and read countless teenage magazines and self-help books, scouring the pages for skincare tips. I found an article about facial exercises and practised them in the mirror each night as my younger sister, with whom I shared a room, sniggered at me patting under my chin and mouthing exaggerated vowel sounds to my reflection. She still laughs about it now and if we go away together I have to lock myself in the bathroom so that I can do my routine in private, otherwise she collapses into hysterics.
My first job was as a clerical officer with the Department of Ministry, Agriculture and Food. I was the only girl on my floor, surrounded by mostly middle-aged men in the days long before sexual harassment was a thing. They thought nothing of patting my behind as I brought them their coffee or rubbing up against me as they squeezed past the filing cabinets and their language was often ribald but it never occurred to me to be offended, it was just the way things were. After a few years in office work I was bored to tears and decided to follow my heart and pursue a career in hairdressing. My family were not best pleased that I was considering giving up a good salary for an apprenticeship but I was an independent young lady and very headstrong. I was shopping in Caversham one day and I walked past a salon with a vacancy sign in the window. I went in, spoke to the manager Denise and left half an hour later with a new job as a junior. My job would involve making tea, sweeping up the hair and cleaning the salon until the September when I would start my college course. My wages were £15 per week, cash in a brown envelope, of which I gave my mum £5 housekeeping and put aside £5 for my travel costs. This left very little for my skincare products so for a few years I made my own face masks from store cupboard ingredients like oats and honey and requested creams and make up for birthdays and Christmas presents. The girls I worked with were my icons, I adored their huge eighties hair styles and neon eyeshadow. I soaked up knowledge like a sponge, eager to learn new skills and my colleagues often used me as a model to try out new products so my hair was always a different colour. In this new female-led environment I flourished but my home life was deteriorating. My stepdad didn’t feel that I was contributing enough money to the household so, at the age of eighteen, I took the decision to move in with my boyfriend. Now I was living in a tiny bedsit, doing my own washing and cooking and trying to study. Somehow I survived and even managed regular nights out to show off my latest hair colour. I was living my best life but my skincare routine was never compromised. Even if I got home very drunk and late I never failed to cleanse, tone and moisturise.
Once I passed all my exams and became a stylist I was earning much more money. I had moved to another salon to finish my apprenticeship and the clientele were generous tippers. I spent most of my spare cash on creams and oils for my face. I also started going for facials and quizzed the beauticians endlessly about the best products to use. I would think nothing of spending £50 on a jar of face cream with mixed results. I had given up on night cream as it seemed too heavy for my skin and made it breakout. After I had my first child my skin changed, as did my hair. I struggled with a very dry, flaky complexion and my hair went from dead straight and silky to wiry and wavy. For years I hated how I looked. After three children I was overweight and tired all the time. I looked in the mirror and saw an old bag lady. I was at rock bottom. I hardly left the house and retreated into myself, finding consolation in sweet, fatty foods which I binged on in secret when the kids were in bed. I remember turning forty and realising that life was passing me by in a blur and that I was deeply unhappy. I joined a slimming club and although it was hard work I lost almost three stones. I had so much more energy and my passion for hair and beauty returned. I got a new job as a receptionist and began having my nails done. I embraced my new curls and grew them longer, adding highlights to hide the emerging grey hairs.
In my mid forties I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. Initially it set me back, I was in denial for a while but now I have my head round everything and I’m on the right medication, my condition and my weight is stable. I discovered Clarins skincare after having a facial with them and I feel that my complexion is better than it has been in years. I turned fifty this year and although I’m beginning to feel the first symptoms of the menopause I like what I see in the mirror now. I’m hoping I can maintain this new found confidence into my sixties, seventies and beyond. So I think that beauty definitely comes from within. Once you have found an inner peace and acceptance with the way you look it shines through for everyone to see.