Thursday, September 26, 2013

Northern Food on Tour: Self-catering in France

I really don't have a great deal to say about the things I ate and drank in France the other week. We kept it very, very simple.

Crusty bread

Peasant food, as Jamie Oliver might have it.... 'You see these rural types, dressed in rags, barely a centime to their names, and they'll have been down the marche and bought just three simple ingredients; bread, cheese and wine, from which they'll conjure up the most amazing meal. It's called bread, cheese and wine. Now why can't you do that, you fat English plebeians?' That's how I imagine he'd have it anyway.

Rillettes: food of the Gods

And that's what I ate and drank for most of the week (I say I rather than we, as my better half is pregnant. I tried not to gloat, really I did). Crusty bread, oozing cheese and the unexpectedly good local red. There were a few salads too, with plenty of tomatoes. And not much in the way of charcuterie but loads of rillettes. If you've not had rillettes before think very coarse, extra fatty potted meat. Eat slices of baguette smothered in the stuff and topped with cornichons for added bite. Ooh yeah.

Oozing Perail

The best two cheeses of the trip were both local-ish, being from neighbouring departements (we stayed in a gite in the Tarn region, an hour or so east of Toulouse). Both were of the typical French mouldy rind, oozy paste school of cheese. Perail a sheep's and Rocamadour a goat's, though neither were stridently sheepy or goaty, probably as I think they're eaten very young.

Plus de vin rouge (the finest wine known to humanity)

The best wine? A recycled plastic water bottle filled from a van sporting an assortment of hoses and pipes by a jolly, gesticulating Frenchman at the weekly market in the local town. It was a red from the Gaillac wine region just down the road, and proved an inspired purchase at two euros ten a litre. I'm crap at describing wine, so bear with me here, it was very fruity tasting, actually slightly grapey which is rare, but with none of that overbearing sense of Ribena you get with, say, a mass market Aussie Shiraz. Very fruity but still subtle, dry on the palate but not from a big whack of tannin. I'll stop now. It was very nice.

Need spring onions, honey, game, spices and melons? No problem.

The market in the local town, Realmont, was outstandingly good. There were stalls for literally everything. On the food front alone there were stalls devoted solely to things as wide ranging as salt cod, spring onions and vanilla, as well as the full complement of greengrocers, charcuterers, butchers, bakers and so on. If it hadn't been on the Wednesday morning with only three days of our holiday remaining I'd have gone wild.


It was just so splendidly French too. The sense of locality and terroir and the genuine importance of market day and the relaxed, good life and all that stuff the French are supposedly famous for. Groups of men standing around in berets smoking Gauloises and saying bof! a lot. That sort of thing.

Old and French

I might be gushing somewhat (and exaggerating), but there is something captivating about market day in an attractive country town in France. It seems daft to describe it as really French, it being in French France and all, but take England as a comparison. No town in England is quite so resolutely, so stereotypically English as a French town is French (except perhaps London, which is in the curious position of being by far the most and the least English place in England).

I haven't got a discernible photo of my steak and chips, so here's one of our lovely (French) garden

Enough musing on the nature of Frenchness, and a final word on the food, which I've realised as I write is going to turn into more of the same. We only ate out a few times all holiday, but I really enjoyed it when we did. Not because the food was special or amazing or even very interesting, but because it was done properly. Steak or a duck breast, chips and salad will make most people happy if the meat is singed on the outside, pink within, the chips are thin and crisp and the salad leaves are dressed.

That's all it takes to make me smile anyway, and on this trip it was perfect every time. We could still learn a thing or two about getting these basics right over on this side of the channel (meat somehow overcooked despite having little evidence of contact with anything very hot, mealy chips and undressed salad sound familiar to anyone?).

still French

In summary, having just re-read what I've written, I think France maybe regaining its crown from Spain as my favoured holiday eating destination. If you ever get the chance to visit the Tarn region or anywhere nearby, then I'd thoroughly recommend it. The countryside is all rolling hills and wooded valleys, and the towns are ancient, pretty and sport an interesting architectural style combining bricks with half timbering (imagine Castleford crossed with Stratford-upon-Avon. Or maybe don't).

Beans and sossidges

Finally, one last thing that I've just remembered. Tinned cassoulet is ace. I'm sure it's not quite up to the standards of a home made version, but I wasn't keen on spending my holiday soaking beans and confit-ing duck, so the tin had to suffice. If you liked tinned beans and sausages, you'll like tinned cassoulet. It's like a super premium version where the sausages have been upgraded and a duck leg thrown in for good measure. With bonus duck fat.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Noodle Inn, Sheffield (revisited)

I've eaten at two of the restaurants in Sheffield's Noodle Inn mini-empire before (see here and here), enjoying the meal on both occasions but finding it tricky to work out what they're actually best at, the almost novel sized menus proving a challenge.

A repeat visit to the original Noodle Inn on London Road enlightened me further in one regard: their roast meats are very good indeed, especially the belly pork.

Three roast meats and noodles in soup brought a competent broth, bouncy noodles, plenty of greens and a ridiculous quantity of meat for the £7.50 price tag. The belly pork was a dream, the thin layer of crackling fracturing on the bite to give way to melting fat and tender flesh. Spot on, and it didn't even lose the crunch after sitting in the soup for ages. Many a gastropub charging twice the price for the stuff could learn a thing or two from these lot.

The duck and char sui pork were also good, but it's the belly pork that's sticking in the memory, and that I'll definitely be back for.

Service was brisk and to the point, but that's fine by me. You come here to get fed not for someone to be all nice to you. £7.50 for a huge bowl of noodles, or £11 with a beer and service.


156 London Road
S2 4LT

Edit: The website has disappeared. Surely they haven't closed down in the last fortnight or so since I was there? and are still online...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bitch Box (or otherwise titled, why I'll never have a sponsor)

Hey, I decided to do something fun.  I joined this monthly delivery called Birch Box where for $10 a month they'll send you a box of beauty samples to try out.  I recently realized I've been doing my makeup the same for at least 20 years and that's just weird.  But I didn't really know where to start to change up my routine or try new things.  Then I found out about this Birch Box subscription and I thought it would be a great opportunity to just try some things out.

I got my very first box a couple days ago and wanted to share my thoughts.

Let me start by saying, getting this box is fun in and of itself.  So though I'm about to bitch about it, let me tell you, it's really fun and I look forward to being disappointed next month as well.

These are the items I received.

Voesh - Manicure Hand Mask 
This is basically a set of latex gloves with lotion in them.  I saw someone's review and they thought they were pretty lame.  My cuticles could use some attention so when my husband isn't around to laugh at me I'll give these a go.  But I would never buy them.  Latex gloves make me think that I'm about to do something gross like clean out the bathtub drain, so they aren't my go-to for beauty care.
Amika - Blowout Spray
Whenever I get my hair done they always use some sort of spray and usually I think it seems like a waste so I never think of it myself but I'll try this next time I straighten my hair. 
Caudalie - Hand and Nail Cream
I actually want and need some sort of hand cream so I was excited to have a sample to try.  The problem with this lotion is it smells HORRIBLE.  It's so bad, like putrid citrus.  So I have to throw this out.
Ruffian - Nail Polish in Hedge Fund
I'm open to different nail polish colors but sparkly acid army green is not one of those colors.  Trash.

Elizabeth Arden - Lip Gloss in Precious Petal
I figured they sent me this because I'm old.  Elizabeth Arden Lip Gloss in Granny Pink.  Thanks for the B-Day present Birch Box.  I noticed younger girls received Benefit lip gloss so I'm pretty upset as any granny would be.  I couldn't even read the color because I have old lady eyes.  I guessed and googled it.  Grrrr.

Can't wait for next month!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Office Space

A long, long time ago Brian and I bought this gigantic house 4 blocks from where we are now and moved in together.  That house had a gigantic hallway (everything was gigantic there) downstairs and a nook perfect for our office space.  But because it was so large and the house had such high ceilings 12.5 feet (!) we wanted the space to feel as undinky as possible.  So we bought this gigantic computer armoire and it filled the space very nicely.  Didn't look dinky at all.

But then we moved.

And we downsized considerably.

And we struggled even getting the armoire into the new house (tiny hallway).  And ever since this wall of armoire doom took over most of the front bedroom in the yellow house, I've pretty much hated it.

This is the only picture I have of it that I can find that proves a point.  I hate this monstrosity.

I tried removing the doors that always swung out that like because the floors are uneven.  Then when we moved the damn thing over to the blue house I decided I would paint it and maybe I would like it better then.  Unfortunately I used a brand of black paint that was uncooperative and the paint has been a disaster ever since (scratches and peeling, it's a nightmare).

It does hold a lot, I'll give it that and because storage is a premium here I've tried to make the best of it.  But I grow weary.  See that shelf that pulls out for the keyboard.  It's always out.  And so the desk sits out from the wall like 45 inches (I just measured) meaning I lose all that space from the center of the room.  This is valuable real estate.  It makes this whole room a nightmare because of how it juts out.  I can't even take pictures in this room because I hate it so.

But what can I do?  I don't even know how to transport this thing anywhere and I don't think I could even sell it because the paint is scratched and peeling.

But then the Foster/Adopt thing started happening and if we do Foster/Adopt that kid needs a room, a whole room, and therefore something needs to be done about this office.

I've been keeping a office pinterest page for a while.  Mostly to help me when I was redecorating my husband's office conference room.  And then I just threw inspiration pictures in there whenever I saw them.  When I knew we'd have to move the office space into the dining room I knew we would need to go small.  The area I measured for is slightly longer than 4 feet (48 inches).  Most regular sized desks are 50 something inches.  So what I'm looking for is some sort of smaller writing desk.  Luckily that sort of size is all the rage right now.

My favorite inspiration picture was this one.  I'm not sure why, the size was right, it felt warm, the shelving, the rug, it spoke to me.

So I've been on the look out for a simple sort of desk less than 48 inches wide to get me somewhere in the vicinity of this photo.  As always I'm on a tight budget but at the same time I didn't want to end up with something that looked terribly cheap that would be right out in our public space for parties and so forth.  As much as I could avoid fiberboard the better.  A happy medium so to speak.  I have all my choices on my pinterest but for the sake of illustration, I really narrowed it down to these 2 choices, both on sale at Pottery Barn Kids.

I really liked the legs of the first one but I loved the drawer front of the second one. I also wouldn't need to replace knobs on the second one and considering my anthropologie knob obsession that actually saves some bucks.  I was worried about the white, Pottery Barn loves to call things white that are really off-white, so I was leaning towards the top one that comes in gray.  But then after some searching I found out this white is supposed to be real white.  The bottom one is also on backorder but I'm not in a hurry anyway.  I ended up going with the bottom one.  I found some cheaper desk options but in the end I felt like this desk was a piece of furniture I could see myself with for a long long time.  I don't want to save a buck to get another desk I don't like or worse, doesn't hold up well.  One thing they don't tell you when you start buying furniture is you keep all your furniture, like forever, so make your purchases count.  It costs money to replace things and your husband gets mad.

I think this computer armoire will end up at Brian's office.  I can touch up the paint once it's moved, I can't do anything here because of the cats, the last thing I painted was an awful experience.  When the desk gets here I'm going to go ahead and set it up in the front bedroom.  I need to work on where all the other stuff goes because obviously the new desk has hardly no storage.  I need to get creative and I need to organize our closets better.  I don't think this will be an issue, I'm an anti-hoarder so it's easy for me to pare down.

I also have to figure out about a chair.  In the dining room it might be better to just move a chair over from the table but if a chair could fit completely under the desk a computer desk chair is nice to have too.  I found this one that I really like from Amazon but I'm not buying it today, that comes later.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Tortoise Timeline

Just a brief update so you guys realize how painfully slow all this is, we received confirmation of the class dates in October.  First day is our anniversary, poetic, no?  This is a 30 hour class so that breaks down to 5 weeks, classes twice a week, for three hours each.  Crazy, right?  What if every parent had to take a 30 hour class.  Wouldn't that be something?  But for now, and probably always, it's just prospective foster parents.

I have no idea what you can possibly discuss for 30 hours.  It's apparently not a parenting class.  So I'm thinking it's 30 hours on to become attached to a child and return him to the mom 8 months later.

I'll keep you updated.  We still have not finished our li.fe story or gotten our fingerprints.  Plenty of time still.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fifteen Years and Counting...

I still love the house.  It's 15 years and 2 owners later and NOTHING has been done to this house other than paint and letting it fall apart.  I'm amazed.  I want to wrap this little cottage up in a blanket and take care of it.  It needs it. 

Unfortunately we are just not in a financial state right now where we can buy a house and have the money to throw at it.  The realtor and we think somewhere in the neighborhood of $30k just for the basics.  And in a different world maybe Brian and I could swing putting on a new roof and updating the electricity, put in a new tub and then SLOWLY do the rest, and trust me, this is right up my alley, but there's no way right now.  A couple years from now, possibly.  But house prices will probably go up in that time.

And Brian's right, there are houses like this all over town, it's not even in my preferred neighborhood.  The main problem with the house that can't really be fixed is the extremely awkward dining room and kitchen.  I made a graphic for demonstration purposes.

The dining room is on the left and it's right off the living room with a super cute arch.  It's so tiny that if I put in my table that I have now, and it's not that big, I think you'd have to scoot around it to get into the entrance of the kitchen.

Then you enter into the kitchen which is basically a hallway with a turn into the den, the addition in the back.  The fact that it's super tiny isn't even it's biggest problem but that it's your main access to half the house.  Any party that you have or guests you have over go through this room hallway to the den. 

But even if you remove that the kitchen is so tiny.  The boxes on the left are the stove and the refrigerator.  The circle on the back right is the world's largest hot water heater.  The long rectangle is basically all the storage your kitchen will hold.  Granted it's not far removed from the space I'm used to in the yellow house.  If we removed the water heater and built a shed for it outside (our brilliant plan that we stole from a neighbor and used at the yellow and blue house) then you could put in a pantry there and have a pretty good amount of storage.  The sink is original white cast iron with the built in dish drain on the side and I'd have to keep it.  The cabinets are original and although cute wouldn't really work in a functioning kitchen.  How to fit in a dishwasher and what to do with the refrigerator/stove side.  Ideally you'd want a Smeg or a counter depth refrigerator (they are taller and don't stick out as far).  A full size stove would barely fit and I personally don't like a free floating stove in a kitchen, maybe you could stick a tiny cabinet next to it.  But it's still a hallway.  It's still extremely impractical for parties and Thanksgiving.

But I'd still do it anyway.

The extra bedroom would be awesome for an office/craft room.  The master is HUGE, like the old house huge.  The den is great, it's nice to have a TV room and a sitting/reading room.  The 3rd bedroom is way in the front, totally private and quiet, perfect for a kid.  The screened porch, though it needs help, is the most adorable screened porch I've ever seen.  It has an artsy broken mosaic floor and is built up with a stacked stone ledge.  The backyard is huge and the garage is so great and so needed.  Lots of planter beds around begging for attention.

Sigh.  Oh well, it was fun to see it.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What a Girl Wants

Tomorrow I'll be wasting a realtor friend's precious time to look at a house.  But not just any old house.  This my friends, is my dream house.  Picture the year 1997 when I was about to turn 26 years old and had my first "real" job and was so proud of myself I decided I wanted to buy a house.  This was the house I fell in love with.  As soon as I walked in it felt like home and I knew I didn't want to look at another house, this was it.  All I had to do was convince my stepfather to help me with the downpayment.  And he did!  And then during a memorable trip to New York City he decided to loudly humiliate me during dinner at a classy restaurant and I sulked out embarrassed with my mom knowing the house wasn't going to happen.  My dream died that day.

And now it's 15 years later and every once in a while when we are driving through this neighborhood, a very odd but good short cut to the beach, I ask Brian to drive by the house so I can see how it's doing.  And we did that very thing on Sunday on the way to brunch.  It looked a mess and had papers taped to the door.  We all know what this means, it's in foreclosure.

The thought of foreclosure has never made me smile in my life but my face broke out into a huge grin and I leapt from the car to read the sheet and stare in the window in the door.  I could make out the entry archway, it has an entry archway, no wonder I fell in love.

Brian called our realtor friend later that day who's agreed to show it to us tomorrow.  Everything has gone full circle.  It's 15 years later and I still can't buy the house.  I mean, I don't think we could.  Maybe if we put our house on the market and it actually sold (unlikely) and sold for enough to give us a down payment (unlikely) and then my mom would have to cosign (unlikely).  Sigh.

The worst part is I could buy it for less than what my offer was accepted for in 1997.  And mortgage rates are down. Our payment would be half what we pay now, if you can believe that.  But like the house, we've suffered from the economy too and I don't known when we'll ever be on our feet again enough to move.  But I was looking at schools for our hopeful future foster/adopt and our local Elementary school is about as bad as you can get.  93% of kids qualify for free lunches.  The test scores are almost half the county's average.  If we moved it would be a better school.  If we moved we'd have a third bedroom for an office.  It has a giant screened in porch.  It has a detached garage with electricity (I could paint furniture!).  It's my dream and it's right there.

It's the saddest thing in the world but I'm going to be so happy tomorrow.

Update: Rescheduled viewing for Saturday.  Oh well.

Bar 44, Cowbridge, Wales

Completely off-piste from my normal neck of the woods, and probably any of you who happen to be reading this too, but should you find yourself in the Vale of Glamorgan I'd strongly recommend you dine at Bar 44.

It's a tapas bar of rare quality. I dined alone there last week while working away in the area, and everything was bloody brilliant.

Catalan bread with tomatoes and serrano ham. Just very good bread, toasted and topped with a mush of tomatoes with actual flavour and a generous covering of glistening, gorgeous ham. This stuff reminded me how good serrano can be, how you can get something of the intense, lingering taste of the finest iberico de bellota without the scary price tag. Full marks for serving it at room temperature too, fridge coldness is the enemy of good ham but is often what you end up with early on a quiet weekday.

Crispy hake with alioli. Why isn't hake more popular? I rarely see it on menus and it's practically never sold in chip shops. I've no idea why as it has the right attributes; pearlescent, sweet tasting, flaky flesh in thick fillets that survive a good battering. The batter on these was spot on and the garlickiness of the mayo was judged just right too.

I think it might be the injudicious use of olive oil that makes veggie tapas dishes seem so luxurious. Chickpeas and spinach was a plate licking triumph of paprika laced deliciousness.

Finally, from the more ambitious dishes on the specials menu, iberico pork presa (shoulder) with apple puree and hazelnut crumble. I had to get something from an iberico pig in there somewhere didn't I? The apple brought a subtle hint of acidity, the hazelnuts variation in texture, but the meat was the star. Cooked blush pink, tender but not meltingly so, it had a sweet, lingering flavour not dissimilar to the ham but sort of milder, fresher. Marvellous.

The bill for this little lot came to around £25 including a glass of properly chilled Manzanilla. I couldn't fault the service, and didn't get any sense of my having 'outcast freak' status for dining alone (always a worry especially in smaller towns).

Excellent, and judging by the steady stream of punters arriving, the locals know it too. They also have another branch in Penarth, closer to Cardiff.


44c High Street
CF71 7AG

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Chafing Solutions

I'm one of those weirdos who don't even own a pair of jeans.  In fact, I rarely wear pants and if I do they are yoga pants.  I'm a dress kind of girl.  But being a chubby girl living in a hot climate brings a very uncomfortable problem.  I'm talking about thigh chafing.  I know, it's such an embarrassing topic.

I have tried all the popular options from using my deodorant on my thighs to baby powder to a chafing gel designed for this very problem.  Baby powder was my favorite, despite the cloud of white powder, I love the smell of baby powder.  The problem is my sensitive skin.  You won't believe this but baby powder clogged pores and gave me bumps on my thighs. 

I recently found out about Monistat Chafing gel and I thought it was the perfect solution.  During our trip to DC we did a lot of walking it and it was a very hot weekend.  Every time we stopped for a bathroom break, I'd reapply but I guess because it was TOO HOT it really wasn't doing the trick for me.  It would dry right up in about a minute and I'd be back to square one.  Plus, who wants to rub something on their thighs every half hour.

Chafing Solutions

Enter, Jockey Skimmies. 

They kind of look like Spanx but they are not tight and they are very breathable. They don't bind your waist (or roll down) or squeeze in your thighs, they are very comfortable to wear, like wearing tights that go to your knees.  I'm a new lady with these shorts.  I've been wearing them for a couple of weeks now.  I will say one day it was blistering hot outside and we were walking more than usual and I noticed the skimmies would rid up a little and I'd have to pull them back down.  Also because it was hot and I was wearing underwear, skimmies, and a maxi dress of polyester jersey I was about to have a heat stroke and had to change clothes when I got home.  But every other day that I've worn them I haven't had a problem.  I don't even think about them.  They are a great solution for me and I wanted to share with you.

The downside is they only go up to XXL and although I find the XXL to work for me, I did have the riding up problem on our super hot day and maybe a bigger size would have helped that.  I wish these came in Plus Sizes, they are designed for us in mind, it really doesn't make any sense.  But they are very stretchy and I find the XXL does the trick for this 2X gal.

I'm not sponsored in this post, I wish I was, so I could do a give away or something fun, but I wanted to let you guys know about any solutions or great products I find so here you go.  Let me know if they work for you or if you have other chafing solutions.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Derby Pyclet Company, Derby

Resurrecting and reinventing great local food; - that's the tagline on the Derby Pyclet Company's website. The great local foods in question are pyclets and Derbyshire oatcakes, the latter essentially the same as the famous Staffordshire variety.

But what the hell is a pyclet you might ask? If I wrote pikelet instead perhaps that will help, as that's what I'd always known them as in Yorkshire. Think of a flatter, broader crumpet.

They have a stall in Derby's original market hall (the city has two, an enormous modern one and its Victorian predecessor which has somehow miraculously survived redevelopment as something other than a proper market) where you can buy the goods to take away, or sit at the counter and order them to eat there and then.

I did both, pyclets for lunch and a bag of six (£1.50) for breakfasts and snacks in the week. You can keep it simple with butter and jam or go all out with a more substantial topping. Two with stilton, walnuts and honey (£4) made for a hefty lunch, they're not small these pyclets, that's a large dinner plate they're sat on.

If I'm a honest a little too hefty. The cheese was excellent stuff, rich and creamy, but a bit overbearing with the sugar hit and the soft, doughy innards of the pyclets. Not that I didn't wolf down the lot. The pyclets are still great though, they just benefit from an age in the toaster. Toast the hell out of them (twice on a medium high setting should do the trick) until the edges are lovely and crisp, the insides chewy and yielding, and they're a delight. Spread with butter, butter and jam, or butter and cheese.

I'll be back to try the oatcakes.