Sunday, 8 December 2013

Pink Pomegranate Plums

A very quick break from Carracci to jot down the recipe du jour:

Boil the kettle and make yourself a cuppa tea. In addition to this, make a cup of fresh jasmine tea, courtesy of your flatmate. Whilst it is brewing, take a punnet of Lidl's finest purple plums, wash, half them and de-stone.

Pop the plums in a small pan with cinnamon stick, star anise, whole cloves, zest and juice of a Satsuma; add a splash (a cup?) of pomegranate juice and the jasmine tea - without the spent leaves, obviously. The liquid should just cover the fruit. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover with a lid and bubble.

When the plums are soft but not disintegrating, turn of the heat and just allow to infuse. The smell is fab and the colour vibrant red/pink. Add sugar/honey to taste.

Oh don't forget to finish making your own cuppa tea, otherwise it will have stewed.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Venerable Bead...

Last week I had a bit of a disaster. Not the sort that involves environmental catastrophe, television appeals or chuggers accosting you as you walk down Holborn, but the sort of disaster which puts me in a bit of a morning strop.

My favourite earrings broke.

Now you have to understand that these earrings had been given to me by my lovely friend Sarah who lives in darkest Norfolk. They meant a lot. So I was a little upset, especially as there wasn't a television appeal with popstars wringing their hands in anguish.


I decided that I would pick up some new fish-hook earring bases next time I was near John Lewis, fix them whilst we chatted at the next London West End WI craft evening. A simple plan. Whilst I was there though I saw some little packs of mixed purple beads and thought "Ooh, I like purple", not that you'd think that from my purple ink, notebook, cardy and tights from the other week. So, I bought both and then promptly didn't do the earring repairs as, well, we had a committee meeting to so no craft. Mostly because the craft part involved chatting over drinks...

The very next day...

Clare: Don't forget your ticket!
Me: Huh, ticket?... *blank face*
Clare: The choir Christmas concert...
Me: Oh...

I really am hopeless. I'm not sure how I'd not put the entry in my diary. If I'd realised I was going to be going out I probably wouldn't have been nearly all in black with a purple cardy. But that gave me an idea. Over lunch I picked the bag of shiny beads, chose a few suitably purple bits and... Made some earrings. As you do.

And I really liked them.

Actually, what I really liked was the immediacy, I wanted a little something and it had to colour match because otherwise the fashion police (let's call them Clare for the sake of argument) would have me executed if they didn't work.

Harsh but fair.

On Thursday I went a-wandering as I needed to get some fresh air and escape my desk. As I wobbled slightly on Cavendish Square I decided to pop in to John Lewis again as the shiny things would distract me. And I could always have a coffee. Somehow though I ended up in the shiny bits part of the haberdashery and picked up a range of interesting looking mixes. In a flash of inspiration I realised I could just make up something to wear if my earrings didn't match.

Why had I not thought of this before?

Well, to be fair it has been over thirty years since I last made any, if you ignore the day before, so it's hardly surprising. I also knew that it would make a nice distraction and if we're honest I really needed distraction and something to cheer me up...

So later that evening as I sat and chatted with my flatmate I started making up a new set. Of course she couldn't resist. Imagine if you will a kitten and a ball of wool. Yep, that's her with shiny things. And it was a lot of a giggle. In total we made six pairs, though rather inconsiderately she is wearing one of them so they don't appear in this picture. Tssk.

On Friday morning, buoyed by the success I tried some of the earrings with what I was wearing. They just didn't quite work. Which meant it was time to test the theory... And it works. In the time it takes for the
kettle to boil and tea to brew you can make something to match what you are wearing (terms and conditions apply).

Oh this is good...

So I thought, okay, that's all well and good, but what about necklaces? Oh... shiny chain! I couldn't try anything out as I had a) work and b) agreed to go out last night, but this morning I stood in the Contrary Kitchen and as my tea brewed... Well I'm sure you get the idea!

Now it's not just me that's getting all excited about the possibilities, which means we now have yet more interesting bits to make in to interesting shiny adornments. So in a very short period of time our supply of nice bits to make nice things with has grown quite quickly, even more quickly when I realised that there was a specialist bead place in Covent Garden. Oh yes. Actually beadgasm.

So I visited, I wandered, I found some fabulous bits and pieces and then wandered out to head off to the Apple Market in search of a bag. Not that I got there, at least not straight away. I was slightly distracted by my flatmate discussing chip options. And then I looked up and saw the most glorious coat in Base Fashions, yep, clothing for ladies of a larger size, which is me. I had to go and look more closely...

Fortunately I was saved from being utterly extravagant with a dress by a suggestion of chips at the Rock & Sole Plaice on Endell Street. Fortunately, as it turned out, the chips and fishcake are much better than the puns. Though I did get the coat.

It was calling me. Really.

Anyway. Food eaten, gossip exchanged with best friend and flatmate, it was time to head off and pick up a couple of suitable bags before heading home to write and maybe make a few things. I might have got the order wrong...

So now here I am, I've written up the LWEWI minutes, I've written this quick blog post, I haz winez, so now, finally, I can do something with pink and green beads.

To match my scarf.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Homeward bound...

Shorter. And Yellow car...
Final days are always somewhat tricky. Actually, not tricky, just shorter. With a deadline you can't avoid no matter what. At least not without some considerable expense. The good news though was with a 17:20 flight we had until roughly 14:30 before we needed to be on a train and heading back to the airport.

What could possibly go wrong?

Mama mia
So, the plan, vaguely head off to find a few simple gifts for those back in Blighty. The youngest offspring would be easy, the only sensible thing would be a faux roman centurion outfit. He is, after all, five. As we knew there were lots of gift shops, market stalls and street charlatans in the general direction of the Piazza di Trevi we headed there.

By the pretty route.

The Forum
Really pretty. We saw churches and streets, ruins and monuments, interesting windows, government buildings galore and goodness knows what else. To call it a circuitous route would be an understatement. The biggest happening upon was
probably the Forum which we initially found through a gap in a fence before realising there was a fabulous walkway that took is right through the whole area. I'm not sure how long we wandered and explored but, as ever, we were almost devoid of company from hoardes of tour groups so it was beautifully relaxed.

Eventually we headed towards the Piazza di Trevi in almost exactly the
Trevi, one last look
opposite direction to what had been planned before we went wandering. Even that route was somewhat meandering, after all it was warm, sunny and we had plenty of time and we used it finding a hotpotch of different places we'd never heard of but all that encouraged discussion.

The piazza was of course much quieter than the day before so we sat a while relaxing before heading off on the important job of locating something that was suitable. Even this went surprisingly well. Eventually we turned back with a vague idea of finding a spot for an early lunch. This would have been a leafy piazza near the Trevi if it hadn't been that they didn't start lunch outside until 12:30.

We'd decided on an al fresco lunch nothing else would do.

We passed several places, but none had the ambience I sought, until that is a flash of inspiration struck, there were several restaurants in the Piazza della Rotonda by the Pantheon, perfect! And only a few minutes away.

Haz winez...
Even the decision for the restaurant was simple, it looked good, it had customers and it had not too many tables outside. The clear view to the Pantheon and a couple of buskers with cello and viola da gamba was a definite bonus. So we sat, ordered pizza and wine whilst we watched the bustle of the world wander by.

It was idyllic.

Eventually the tick of time reminded me that we needed to head back to our
former hotel to collect bags before scampering to the Termini and our train to the airport. But not before having an ice cream. It was time to make like a cliché.

The upside was we discovered the secret to not being hassled by restaurant touts was to be stuffing your face. Who knew? The walk back was relatively direct with only a little bit of a diversion and even that was to make it easier to pick up the essential faux centurion outfit.

If we'd run we could have actually caught an earlier train, but we had plenty of time so waited patiently for the 14:52 and our ride out of Rome. But not before one final run in with a helpful beggar who felt he had to show me how to validate my ticket.

I managed not to actually growl.

So anyway, the airport is having a bit of remodelling. This means that we had to go to terminal 1 to check in but back to terminal 3 for our gate. It's around about a squillion miles away. But that's okay, we still had bags of time.

And there's the rub, there is no punchline, no "oops" moment, no chaos. We got to our gate, we sat for a while, the loos were clean and we boarded without a single scrap of drama.

Which was quite perfect.

I was a little more miffed getting back. As we left the sky ramp we were "greeted" by two official people that were obviously checking something. So I had my boarding pass and passport in hand to see what they said as we had *no* idea. It wasn't until one of them barked passport that I realised. So this is new. And as I said to the rude idiot, it really would have been helpful if you'd indicated we needed to show our passports there.

Because we still had to do it at border control.

Seriously, WTAF? As the elder offspring pointed out when he flew back to the UK via Manchester a few weeks ago they didn't have the same thing. Is this Her Majesty's finest just making all visitors and returning citizens feel as welcome as possible?

And then I got to border control. So I presented my passport, already irritated at doing it again and...

Official: Looks at passport, looks at me, looks at passport, looks at me...
Official: Are you sure this is you?
Me: Err, yes.
Official: Raised eyebrow
Me: It's ten years old and I've changed a bit...
Official: Mmmmm...

To be fair she was really nice. And it's true I have changed quite a lot as anyone who knows me closely enough to have seen my passport will attest! So we were back in Blighty and all we had to do was get home. Via the Piccadilly line. Joy. And reminders of all that makes this fair country of ours so tedious to live in...

So what of Rome? It's been years since I was last there and I'm glad I went back, more importantly I'm glad I could take me eldest there and imbibe him with the chaotic joy of Contrary Touring. I don't miss the beggars, but I did remember quickly how easy it was to blank them out. But I will miss, until the next time, the unadulterated pleasure of turning every corner and seeing something that simply makes you say...


Monday, 2 December 2013

Twelve Days of Christmas...Moroccan Style

One of the main reasons for going on holiday at this time of year was to avoid the festive scrum and skive the choir rehearsals where I've been doing carols since October. Inevitably, by trying to avoid the musical nonsense, I've ended up thinking about it. And this wintery whimsy popped out.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: a poached pear in cinnamon syrup. On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me; two collared doves and a poached pear in cinnamon syrup. On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me; three boiled eggs, two collared doves and a poached pear in cinnamon syrup.

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me; four chirping sparrows, three boiled eggs, two collared doves and a poached pear in cinnamon syrup. On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me; five brass lamps!, four chirping sparrows, three boiled eggs, two collared doves and a poached pear in cinnamon syrup.On the six day of Christmas, my true love gave to me six snakes a-hissing, five brass lamps!, four chirping sparrows, three boiled eggs, two collared doves and a poached pear in cinnamon syrup. 

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me; seven fountains plashing, six snakes a-hissing, five brass lamps!, four chirping sparrows, three boiled eggs, two collared doves and a poached pear in cinnamon syrup. On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me; eight maids a-pressing, seven fountains plashing, six snakes a-hissing, five brass lamps!, four chirping sparrows, three boiled eggs, two collared doves and a poached pear in cinnamon syrup.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me; nine belly dancers, eight maids a-pressing, seven fountains plashing, six snakes a-hissing, five brass lamps!, four chirping sparrows, three boiled eggs, two collared doves and a poached pear in cinnamon syrup. On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me; ten Taskiouine a-stamping, nine belly dancers, eight maids a-pressing, seven fountains plashing, six snakes a-hissing, five brass lamps!, four chirping sparrows, three boiled eggs, two collared doves and a poached pear in cinnamon syrup. 

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me; eleven muezzins minareting, ten Taskiouine a-stamping, nine belly dancers, eight maids a-pressing, seven fountains plashing, six snakes a-hissing, five brass lamps!, four chirping sparrows, three boiled eggs, two collared doves and a poached pear in cinnamon syrup. On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me; twelve traders trading, eleven muezzins minareting, ten Taskiouine a-stamping, nine belly dancers, eight maids a-pressing, seven fountains plashing, six snakes a-hissing, five brass lamps!, four chirping sparrows, three boiled eggs, two collared doves and a poached pear in cinnamon syrup.

And there you have it, my perfect Christmas!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Veni, Vedi, ooh...

You may recall that yesterday we were somewhat irritated by ticket touts and their incessant behaviour. That just wasn't going to happen again. The plan was simple, get to the Colosseum early, avoid the queues, ignore the touts.

Especially ignore anyone that says "do you speak English".

Perfect. Now as we intended to be there for 9am when the ticket office opened and it was a 20 minute walk (without distractions) my keen mathematical mind told me we would need to leave at 0840. Stat.

Which was why we left at 9:21... This was down to two things a) the elder offspring being a teenager and hence incapable of waking at stupid o'clock and b) a discussion about whether a coat was a good idea. It was. He went without. The walk though was pleasant and we kept the distractions to a minimum, taking in the sights and talking about what we could see. In Parco del Colle Oppio the elder offspring asked whether a structure we could see was an aquaduct. We couldn't really tell and as it seemed close I checked on Google Maps. Nothing. Except, some distance away, the Colosseum.


It was a bit like that scene in Star Wars where they talk about a ship heading to a small moon before realising it was actually a space station. It's very big. And big enough with little else big to appear to be just beyond some trees when it was really quarter of a mile away.

But first we had to negotiate some iffy looking Roman soldiers that would pose with you for money. It would have looked brilliant if one of them wasn't in wearing a woolen beany with some modern logo or other knitted in instead of a helmet. We declined.

We also ignored every tout as we discussed whether the outside would have originally been clad in marble as the stone and brick work showed signs of of regular patterns. We marched in, we queued for less than a minute, we bought tickets and in we went. As with the Castel Sant'Angelo the elder offspring was free as he's under 18!

It's a pretty impressive place, though the groups on guided tours were less impressive. More like hoardes of stampeding wilderbeests with electronic guides glued to their ears blissful of all that was going on. Which is a shame as they didn't get to linger and ponder the effort needed to build such a place, or even carve a single column. All lost as they moved incessantly to the next spot.

And they paid much more for this.

Still, mustn't grumble. I wonder if anyone gazed in wonder at the ancient graffiti carved in to the marble seating? The only problem was the rain started so I took a parental decision, we either buy a brolly from a brolly tout or back to the hotel for the elder offspring to dry up and get his coat. The hotel won and it wasn't long before we were back as well as laden with goodies from a local supermarket we found. It was picnic o'clock!

Oh, the brolly touts...

They are like rodents, swarming over the dampness of humanity trying to get you to buy their wares. As we walked through the park we saw yet more scurrying desperately towards the Colosseum in the hope of getting a sale. We turned down a lot of brollies.

Snacks eaten we were off again. Next stop the Fontana di Trevi. It was a fabulous walk over, peering down side streets, gaping at unxpected tableau, trying not to be squished by distracted drivers. Any thoughts of being able to dance in the fountain were of course ruined by the two policemen who had the job of stopping people going in. Or climbing on the sides. The area was packed and then. Suddenly. The crowd vanished...

Like some perfect storm it was several guided tours that had arrived at once.

We sat. Chatted. Absorbed the detail of what we could see. And wandered on safe in the knowledge that we were some distance away from the stampede. We had also switched to using GPS to navigate, no, not that one, Gosh Pretty See. This was a technique developed in Contrary Towers to allow you to take apparently random paths to the place you want to go without any hope of retracing the steps later. A bit like our recipes.

This meant we stumbled on a fabulous little piazza, interesting little side allies and even a building that had obviously suffered action during the war. Eventually we wandered in to the Piazza della Rotunda, glanced at the Pantheon (which we had been going to see) and instead stopped to admire the fountain and the surrounding buildings. It was very civilised.

At this point our general plan ran out of destinations so we picked the next stop as being the Isola Tiberina, not so much because we wanted to go there, but because we needed a rough destination.

And what a fabulous wander that was. We passed through the Largo di Torre Argentina and found a fascinating set of ruins set in a hollow. On their own they were interesting. Another English lady passed by and said to her companions "this is like such and such a place, but we have to pay a fiver to see that!". So true. Rome is littered with such sites, never mind the big headline places, look for the gems.

Like this one.

In one spot was the central exedra of Pompey's portico. The place used as senate house. The place where Caesar was assasinated on the 15th of March 44BC. I was a little bit excited. This was where by one act of disloyalty and murder the world changed. It was a pretty big thing. Huge.

I prattled on about this as we wandered on, taking a totally GPS driven route until, by chance, we found a kosher burger place on Via di Santa Maria del Pianto. If you're ever there look for Fonzies and try their chilli burgers, utterly gorgeous.

We realised we were now in the Jewish quarter and kept stopping to look at a myriad of different things. What puzzled us was the police, so many and the numbers increased as we got near the Great Synagogue. I have no idea of what was going on, but goodness there were lots of Police. And TV outside broadcast units.

Whatever, we had an island to invade.

And we did. Isola Tiberina is tiny. I suspect it is inabited because they decided to use it as a stepping stone to span the river, but it's very cute and worth a look. It's a shame we'd eaten as I would have liked to stop in the sole restaurant there!

After a while of chatting about what we could see and the elder offspring seeing how close he could get to the omnipresent Jackdaws, we set off, our destination the Circo Massimo.

Oh dear.

I'm sure it was fabulous in its day but now, well, less so. But that was okay as the adventure was in the journey, this was merely a waypoint. I did suggest to the elder offspring that we have a race. He declined as he obviously realised he would be humiliated by my massive running ability.

Or something like that.

The penultimate waypoint was to be the Colosseum, which was fab as we got to see the outside in a very different light. Though the brolly touts were still busy (no more rain) and had been joined by the trinket touts. We happily ignored them all.

After one final brief pause we headed back over the final mile to our hotel, weary, but I like to think pleased with the day of wandering in a giant circle around Rome. It really is the best way to see any place. Fact.


I give you good price

Marrakesh is playing havoc with my English reserve. We have been enticed into shops by a number of methods;
Come, look at my shop, Madame! Finest √©pices from Berber lands...I give you good price!
Non merci
My shop is near here, out of the market so I pay no taxes. Much cheaper there! I give you good price!
Non merci (increasing exasperation)
Madame, madame! Welcome, you need the main square? I show you way...
No I prefer to be lost. Merci.
You need argan oil for your skin, good for your body, for massage? I give your boyfriend Moroccan viagra?
No, he's fine, he has no need of that.
Non merci!

Flying carpet, madame?
You get the idea. I have always fought shy of haggling, hassle and harassment from shop people; even doing rapid about turns in independent shops where the assistant looks a bit keen. So the souk are my worst nightmare.

There is something called Ensemble Artisanal which has a selection of all the goods you can find in the souks. However because the government directs the prices, you don't need to haggle but they are obviously set at a premium. The shop assistants in this collection of shops look rather depressed and do not offer interesting information about their goods. I suppose they think this is the least fun way of doing business? Is the haggling part of the entertainment value?

Still, back to the souk and the familiar feeling of exasperation as you want to look in these treasure chests of brightly coloured goodies but dare not show interest as you will be pounced upon.

As it happens, getting into haggling mode is quite easy. So here is my contrary guide to getting good price...

  • Be hormonal
  • Do not look too keen
  • Know exactly what you want and know roughly how much you want to pay
  • Do not let the person you are with interfere - if they show weakness, you are lost and as a woman, utterly stuffed. You will not get the price down if the salesman knows your partner is happy to pay
  • Depends what you are buying...we learned a shed load about herbs, spices, customs and interesting things from Abdel the Berber. Happy to drink his tea, learn stuff and then buy some tagine spices and eucalyptus crystals from him
  • However if the herb prices are non negotiable, make sure you get the quantity you request and if you only want a gram, ensure you only get a gram - not 20!

Of course this is all very well in theory. I've been fleeced a couple of quid for 4 pieces of coconut (sigh), I'm sure what I was shown and what I walked out of the shop with were two different things (bastard lip balm) and if one more person wants paying for getting us lost, they are going to get a thump.

Anyway, I've bought more stuff this holiday than I ever have and for goodness sake, please don't let the Other Contrary one loose here; the brightly painted crockery, the colourful throws, the carved wooden things, the kaftans - I swear we'd need a bigger flat.