I don’t know about you, but I’m SO glad to see the back of January and February – all that rain, wind and general misery has left me longing for bright spring mornings, sunshine and a few bright colours. Of course, February wasn’t without its perks, and a few things made February bearable, including:
I love clothes, and as I’ve got older (and had many instances of things being knackered after the first wash), I tend to shop very carefully and buy less things, but the best quality things I can afford. Of course, the down side to that is that you need to be very careful that something suits you before investing decent money in it.
I’m a huge believer in living life to the full. I’ve written before about how important I think it is to build memories: snapshots we can look back on and treasure. Years from now, we’re not going to remember the handbag we spent our birthday money on, or the fabulous jumper we spent a month’s salary to buy – what we will remember is holding hands watching a perfect sunset or an evening laughing with friends.
So as the storms battered the country, the dog and I sat next to the fire with a hot chocolate (me) and a biscuit (her) and listened to the rain lashing the window. We both jumped, though, when suddenly there was groaning and moaning and the sound of someone tapping on the windows.
Luckily, Freddie Krueger wasn’t in Buckinghamshire, but unluckily, it meant that our beautiful contorted willow was leaning further and further towards the house – its twisted fingers reaching out to tap on the window and let me know that all wasn’t well. It’s a beautiful tree. In the summer, it weeps in its very own wonky, bendy way, across the front of the house. Plus, it’s Ninja Cat’s favourite place for sitting whilst looking through the window at us with her ‘I want to kill you’ face on.
I wonder if it’s a symptom of being self employed, but every so often I get such a feeling of impending panic, of everything being overwhelming and worrying and out of control. This stressy feeling seems to build up gradually (much like my ironing pile) until something trivial will completely tip me over the edge and I’ll end up having a total meltdown. This time a very minor disagreement about how much of their wages the boys are saving turned into tears, door slamming and sulking in my bedroom while the male members of the house rolled their eyes and went about their business. For my friend Laura it was a row about soup that tipped her over the edge. It seems to be a bit of a ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ situation.
Or maybe it’s just me.
So I think I told you a while back about my latest obsession about all things mismatched in the crockery cupboard. I’ve been adding to my collection with a few bits – always making sure they’ve got a touch of blue to keep everything together. My goal is to slowly Ebay off all my matching plates and cups and end up with a completely mismatching collection. I think that could take a while, to be honest. Then recently, the lovely people at Emma Bridgewater sent me this AMAZING starry skies teapot:
It’s been a bit of a lifechanger since it arrived actually and suddenly everyone’s really keen to make the tea (unheard of in this house).
So.. out with the old and in with the new and all that. In my case, it’s going to be off with the old as I’ve finally decided to get rid of my hideous tattoo. I’ve hated it almost since I had it done – about twenty years ago. It was supposed to be an abstract, Celtic design, but it’s always looked more like a wonky fat lady with a very small head whenever I look at it. Every holiday when I pop on a bikini, it makes me so miserable. It’s just not me at all and now I’m a mum of teenagers it seems even worse, for some reason. I really hate it.
I always thought laser removal was really expensive, but recently saw something on the TV which made me think about it again so I gave it a Google and lo! It’s a lot cheaper than I thought. I found a clinic in Milton Keynes reassuringly called ‘Disappear‘ and started up an email conversation with a very lovely therapist called Melissa. She was pretty positive she could help me (black is easier to get rid of, pastel colours nearly impossible), so arranged to visit her at her clinic for a consultation. There was a reassuring amount of medical questions and paperwork, and then we did a couple of practice zaps.
Today I went for my first treatment. I’m not going to lie, it’s unpleasant. It feels kind of like being pinged with a hot elastic band, and then there are a couple of seconds of stinging afterwards. Melissa uses cryo-somethingorother which blows cold air onto you while she’s working, and that really takes the edge off. Still, if I can tolerate it, then anyone can. She thinks I’ll need maybe four sessions (it’s not an exact science) and they have to be about eight weeks apart. I’ve got after care instructions and should start to see proper results within a couple of weeks. I am BEYOND excited.
Here’s my before pic. Can I just point out that it is IMPOSSIBLE to take a picture of the small of your back without contorting yourself into incredibly weird positions? You’re welcome.
Melissa also does non-surgical facelifts – maybe I’ll treat myself after I’ve had this done. New Year, new me!
Honestly, I cannot tell you just how much joy this little bony bundle has bought us. Everyone bangs on about the wonders of dog ownership, but for me, it’s been a revelation. And not just, to quote Nora Ephron, because ‘when your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you’.
Firstly, she’s got me up and about. No more lying in bed all weekend, wasting the day away. Now we’re up and out, gasping a little in the brisk air, but dazzled by frosty fields glittering in the winter sunshine and exchanging a smile and occasionally a few words with like minded passers by.
And she’s such fun – oh, she makes us smile all the time: answering back with a cheeky woof when asked if she wouldn’t mind getting off the back of the sofa (it’s a prime street-viewing spot and she’s so nosy); making a nest of all her toys, fresh and warm out of the tumble drier after a much-needed wash 0r smothering the boys in kisses when they return to her after being out all day…
Of course, it’s not all roses, but we’re out of the woods house-training wise now, and she doesn’t chew too much stuff (although the bobble on my woolly hat got a bit of a hammering recently) but hey, the good things outweigh the bad.
And don’t get me started on how USEFUL pupsters are. Here she is opening my post…
See? So helpful. What did we ever do without her?
Kerastase Elixir Ultime Masque (£28.50) I love being blonde but my hair is quite fine and does get a bit frazzled. My lovely hairdresser, Sean, has made me promise that I’ll use this religiously AND commit to massaging my scalp for one minute every time I wash my hair to increase blood flow and nourish all the new hair I’ve got coming through. The masque is quite pricey (currently on spesh at Gorgeous shop for £20.52!) but you only use a tiny amount and it’s really rich. It smells sublime and leaves my hair soft and shiny.
Red Fox Bottle O’Butter We discovered this amazing stuff years ago on holiday in St Lucia, so I was delighted to see that it’s now being hailed as a ‘cult’ product. I buy it on Ebay for about £3.50 for a massive bottle which last for ages. It smells like Caramac, is a great all over body lotion, brilliant as an after sun and makes your skin feel amazingly soft. Stockpile it!
L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Laser Renew Precision Eye Cream (£19.99) I love this light eye cream. It’s wonderful at de-crinkling and doesn’t feel at all greasy. I use it night and morning and swear it keeps the crows’ feet away.
Radical Skincare Age Defying Exfoliating Pads (£45) These little moist pads are the easiest beauty treat I’ve ever used. Just literally wipe them around your face after cleansing at night. They leave your face feeling tingly clean and fresh and have serious exfoliating, wrinkle busting power. Each pad contains age defying AHAs and despite having only used them for a couple of weeks, I honestly believe the texture of my skin has improved, and I’m convinced the skin just under my chin feels tighter too. Highly recommended.
Dior Addict Lip Glow £22.50 I’m not really a lipstick girl, but sometimes feel that lipbalm isn’t really enough. This super-glam Lip Glow apparently shows up as a slightly different colour on everyone, but with me it just seems to enhance my natural lip colour and leave my lips really soft. I love it.
I love the time after Christmas when we have a few lazy days before everyone goes back to school and work. We had a quiet New Year with Gary Barlow (not literally, I’m not THAT lucky). Sam’s girlfriend has American parents and had us popping a piece of fruit into our mouths on every bong on the countdown to midnight – I think it’s a Spanish tradition, but it’s hilarious and by the last bong everyone’s cheeks were bulging and we were all drooling and laughing.
We’ve opened some really lovely wine over the festive period. At midnight, we toasted 2014 a delicious Wolf Blass Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir (on spesh at Asda at £5.75 at the moment I notice – SNAP IT UP!). We also opened the front door to let the old year out and the new year in – think that one’s Irish. My own favourite wine of the season was the Cune Crianza Rioja 2010 – an absolute beaut with that hint of vanilla that I seem really drawn to. Again, on spesh at the moment I think.
Mr English is very keen on Pinot Noir. His favourite of the season was the Californian Clos du Bois Pinot Noir (Majestic, £9.99 if you buy two American wines). There’s something herbal about it (which doesn’t sound nice, but is) but it’s still full of really ripe fruit. Yum.
The Big Bro recommended a splash-out Amarone, perfect for Christmas. I’ve got this one on my wish list from Majestic: Amarone Classico ‘Vigneti di Roccolo’ 2010 Cantina Negrar. It’s a pricey one at £23 but comes down to £18 if you buy two fine wines. One for when the coffers have been replenished.
Baking-wise, I’m loving Nigel Slater’s wonderful lazy loaf. It’s a soda bread, but because it’s baked in a cast iron casserole, it develops a wonderful chewy crust. Delicious, and barely 30 minutes to make – with no kneading. I also used up the last of the Christmas clementines with a clementine drizzle cake. Exactly the same as lemon drizzle cake:
Clementine Drizzle Cake
Same weight (about 175g) of caster sugar, butter and self raising flour
Juice and zest of a couple of clementines.
So just weigh the eggs in their shells, then weigh out the rest of the ingredients to the same weight.
Beat the butter until soft, then add in the sugar and beat until light coloured and creamy. Add the zest and juice of the clementines to the eggs and give them a quick whisk with a fork. Add them a dribble at a time to the butter/sugar mix.
Stir in the flour, then dollop the mixture into a buttered cake tin and bake at 180 degrees/gas 4 for about 30 minutes until springy to the touch or until a knife point comes out clean.
Mix the juice of a final clementine with a couple of teaspoons of sugar and drizzle over the warm cake. Delicious.
In pupster news, she’s settling in really well, has made a best friend at puppy classes (a cute and ridiculously soft Vizsla called Ellie) and thinks having everyone at home over Christmas is wonderful!
If you remember, earlier on this year we toured Brittany with a Honda CR-V 2.2i-Dtec EX 4WD . We loved the car, so when Honda offered us a go in their very eco-friendly 1.6 i-DTEC model we jumped at the chance. We basically whooshed around for a whole week, using the car for everyday driving: school runs, shopping etc, sailing past petrol stations and feeling really smug.
About not being Jeremy Clarkson
I know I’ve already done this gag, but this is very much a family review and won’t contain anything about rack ratios (snigger) or wheel bases, but I know people google these things when they’re choosing a car, so hopefully this will be helpful if you’re considering a change.
We love the look of the CR-V. It’s enormous inside and even Sam with his massive lanky legs can sit in the back in comfort. The 1.6 i-DTEC has less bells and whistles than the high spec EX version we had last time, but there are still enough brilliant gadgets to keep everyone happy. We were also pretty gobsmacked to find on delivery that the screen showed a potential mileage of 650 miles. Apparently you can get up to 800 miles out of one tank which I guess means you could end up filling up about once a month – fabulous for all those petrol station phobics like me.
The best bits
I particularly love the rear video parking screen. It makes reversing into spaces so easy, and the beeper means you can edge up to the next car (or anything else) knowing that you’re not going to clonk it.
The boot is huge (589 litres, whatever that means) and the 60/40 rear seats fold down with a single pull. So our first trip was off to the Christmas tree farm…
I also headed up the M1 to pick Mr English up from the airport and found the large wing mirrors and fantastic visibility right into the boot meant it was really easy to drive on the motorway.
The eco function that we liked so much on the EX still features on the SE – you can turn it off if you want, but it’s a great way of driving economically and I don’t find it distracting at all.
I loved driving the Honda – it’s smooth and easy to drive (although I found the 6 gears confusing at first, and spent miles sailing along in fifth), and although it’s not super-speedy, it was fine for everyday driving around town and on the motorway.
The boys loved the sound system – you can connect your phone by USB or AUX cable, but the best bit was connecting by BlueTooth. I had no idea I was even connected on one journey (my phone was in the boot) when suddenly the music stopped and a voice informed me that I had a text message from Sam: ‘okay cheers Mam smiley face ex ex‘ which made me laugh – dead handy if you’re ever tempted to look at your phone while you’re driving. It will reply for you too!
What we didn’t like
The BlueTooth connection didn’t like my Windows phone and continually connected and disconnected. The keyfob only unlocks the drivers door, unless you click it twice, which is brilliant for safety if you’re driving alone because you know no lunatic is going to leap into the passenger seat or steal your handbag, but to let anyone else in you then have to push a button on the driver’s door. I constantly forgot to unlock it when the kids got in the car, leaving them yanking at locked doors outside the school. Still, you soon get used to it and apart from that, we really couldn’t find anything to complain about.
This is our second Honda CR-V and we absolutely love them. If we had the budget to move up from our somewhat ancient BMW X5, it would be the first on my list – it’s an excellent all-round family car with bags of room and frankly amazing fuel economy. It’s incredibly practical for families with all the handy gadgets, storage spaces and cup holders (and that massive boot), it’s built in the UK and because its emissions are below 120g/km* of CO2 (nope, no idea either), the road tax is only £30 A YEAR!
I’ve added it to my Christmas list for next year, so let’s hope Santa is feeling generous. I’d like the white orchid pearl colour please!
The vehicle we tested was the Honda CR-V1.6 i-DTEC SE 2WD Manual, OTR £24,660 or £25,160 with the pearlescent paint.
Massive thanks to Honda (UK) for their generosity, patience and time. You can find more information on the Honda CR-V here.
So we started January 2013 with a bit of excitement after my Dad’s Christmas Day proposal to his partner (by the way, the Dodgy Centre of Gravity reared its ugly head again after our cheese and wine tasting night when he’d had a few too many and fell over putting his shoes on at the end of the night).
In February, I travelled down to beautiful Blagdon to meet up with my Yeo Valley chums and have a nosey around their wonderful new HQ, and went on the adventure of a lifetime with my five bestest chums when we sailed the Caribbean on the frankly fantastic Liberty of the Seas (we’re Royal Mums, ambassadors for the Royal Caribbean brand and we take our job VERY seriously). As you know, I’m big on spending your time and money enjoying experiences that you can cherish, rather than stuff, and this was right up there, believe me. I came back with aching ribs from all the laughing (the horse riding through the surf in Jamaica might have added to that a bit, but oh, riding through an azure sea is one of my most treasured memories). I also felt incredibly lucky to have shared an incredible experience with such incredible friends. I love you guys.
April saw birthdays galore. Charlie turned 15:
And Sam celebrated his 18th with karting, a party at home and a pretty epic double chocolate curly wurly cake…
Then there was my Disreputable Dad’s wedding…
In May, I headed out to the Cote d’Azur to experience the gorgeous Chateau Saint Martin in Vence:
July was beautifully sunny and we spent a wonderful day aboard the Independence of the Seas. The boys adored the FlowRider and it was lovely to meet up with all my besties and their families:
I also spent a lovely weekend with my friend Erica doing an amazing foodie tour of Edinburgh. Foodinburgh 2014 is already in the early planning stages!
August was MENTAL with nearly three weeks of it spent abroad, in beautiful Brittany…
and then with the boys on the INCREDIBLE Disney Magic – a real trip of a lifetime:
We even managed to squeeze in a day in Barcelona with wonderful friends after desembarking:
In September, Mr English and I squeezed in a quick weekend at Nutfield Priory…
and then in October, we headed off on an immersive wine cruise of Europe on the really quite gorgeous Celebrity Infinity…
and then all that travelling squealed to an abrupt halt. Because this little dude came along…
In November, Glam C and I went to Hogwarts Christmas at the Warner Bros Studio Tour:
and before we knew it, it was freezing, wet December then… bloody January again! (to quote Flanders and Swann). We had a wonderful Christmas lunch at the Chequers Inn at Weston Turville: a seven course Christmas extravaganza with some amazing wine that really was festive, fun and very relaxing. My favourite course was this stonking turbot with a huge crevette:
So here’s to 2014. What’s on the agenda for this year, then? More travel, certainly, more time spent with family and friends, loads of exams for the boys, more eating, more cooking, more relaxing, walking in the woods with our gorgeous new pupster and… who knows? My wishlist still includes Las Vegas (Britney, b*tch!), Australia and Thailand.
Thank you to each and every person who has stopped by to have a read, followed me on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, or just blundered here via Google. I’m immensely grateful. Wishing you a very happy and restful New Year. May 2014 bring you peace, happiness and new experiences galore xx
So it’s that time again. The pupster woke me up at 7am this morning, and we’re snuggled on the sofa by the twinkling tree (I’ve just put a piece of tinsel back on after she’s nicked it for the fifteenth time), I’ve got a cup of tea in my ‘Happy Christmas’ mug, and a scented candle flickering.
If, like me, your thoughts are turning to your Christmas dinner (whether you’ve cooked it before or not), my best advice to you is just to think of it as a roast dinner on a slightly larger scale.
Rule 1: it’s all in the planning
You’ll have a much calmer Christmas if you spend a little time beforehand planning and preparing, so grab a pen and a piece of paper, and write down a rough plan. Start at the time you want to serve the dinner (or lunch) and work backwards. This means that when Christmas day is in full flow, you can quickly refer to your timings and know exactly what you’re doing.
First things first, weigh your turkey and work out the cooking time. If you’ve gone for a free range turkey it will often look a bit less plump than those ones you see in all the Christmas adverts (check out the pic of my turkey from last year, below). This is because they lead a more active lifestyle though, which is a good thing. They will also be full of flavour and really succulent as they’re allowed to mature slowly (and they’re happier, obviously – happy turkey = yummy turkey). Free range turkeys also take a little less time to took, so check with the retailer for their recommended cooking times. In general though, my lovely chums Lean on Turkey, have both cooking AND defrosting timings on their website). As a general rule:
Turkey under 4kg: 20 minutes per kilo, plus a further 70 minutes
Turkey over 4kg: 20 minutes per kilo, plus a further 90 minutes
Remember, if you’re steaming a Christmas pudding on the day, you’ll need to add this to your timetable.
Rule 2: prepare as much as you can in advance
Potatoes: peel them, cut them into even sized chunks and blanch them for as long as you dare (the softer they are the fluffier the centre will be when you roast them). Drain, leave to sit until cool and then pop them into a bag and store them in the fridge. You can also open freeze them on a tray until solid before popping in a sealable freezer bag and chucking them in the freezer (if you freeze them straight into the bag they all fuse together in one big lump). On the day they can go straight into the hot oil/goose fat from chilled or frozen.
Parsnips: peel, cut into quarters or whatever you like and pop the in the fridge. They don’t need blanching, but DO benefit from a nice little squidge of honey and a sprinkling of thyme before roasting for about half an hour.
Carrots: peel and blanch, cool and pop in the fridge. They can just be warmed up in some butter on the day, or just leave them raw and roast them along with the parsnips.
Sprouts: cut a bit off the bottom and take off any scruffy outer leaves. Blanch until just tender, cool and pop into the fridge. On the day, fry some pancetta or streaky bacon in lots of butter in a large frying pan, then add in the cooked sprouts and stir fry until they’re piping hot. A pack of those shrink-wrapped chestnuts go really well in this dish too.
Stuffing: Again, make this in advance. It will keep happily for a couple of days in the fridge.
Easy apple and red onion stuffing:
(serves 4-6, double up as necessary):
1 tbsp butter
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 dessert apple, grated (don’t bother to peel)
225g pork sausage meat
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
Squeeze of lemon juice
Heat the butter in a frying pan, add the onion and fry gently until soft. Add the apple and cook until softened. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl and allow to cool.
Stir the sausage meat and breadcrumbs into the onion mixture along with the herbs and lemon juice. Once well combined, squish it into a buttered oven-proof dish, cool and bung in the fridge. On the day, it’ll take about 25 minutes (obviously more if you double up).
Turkey: Again, do this the day before. Don’t bother washing it in the sink – the hot oven will kill any germs and you’ll just cover yourself and your sink in all manner of bacteria. Just unwrap it, take the giblets out (use to make stock or cook for a lucky pet), pluck out any stray feathers (I use fish boning tweezers) and get on with it.
I use one of those massive disposable foil turkey tray things – I know it’s not the most environmentally friendly choice but hey, it’s Christmas. Just recycle it afterwards.
It’s nice to use a few flavours to enhance the turkey so cut up a couple of lemons or oranges, squeeze them over the bird and then stick them into the body cavity along with a halved onion and a nice bunch of bay or rosemary or whatever you have and some salt and pepper, then tie the legs together.
For extra moistness and flavour, you can take about half a pack of butter, and mush it up with some of the stuff you’ve used in the cavity – maybe some lemon zest, pepper and a little chopped rosemary or parsley. Then separate the skin from the breast with your fingertips (you don’t have to be too careful, turkey skin is like leather), then squish the butter all over the breast under the skin. Now smooth the skin back down, drizzle with a little oil and some salt and pepper. You can also criss cross the breast with some lovely (outdoor reared please) streaky bacon.
I don’t stuff the turkey, partly because eating something out of a turkey’s innards puts me off a bit and partly because I think it’s better for the hot air to circulate inside it. I make the stuffing separately and cook it in a terrine in the oven once the turkey’s resting. If you want to, though, by all means stuff the neck end just before cooking.
Weigh your turkey (remember if you ARE stuffing, you need to stuff before you weigh) and work out the cooking time. Write it on your timetable then just cover with foil (don’t bother buying that ridiculously expensive turkey foil – just overlap the normal stuff), then leave it somewhere cool until you need it – a plastic box in the garage as it’s nice and cold in there, but if we have a sudden warm snap you’ll need to pack a bit of ice around it (it needs to be less than 4 degrees).
Rule 3: be organised on the day
First thing, fetch the turkey from its hiding place and allow it to come to room temperature. There’s really no point in putting a very cold turkey into a hot oven – it’ll take ten minutes to even start cooking.
Preheat the oven for half an hour before you need it, then when your carefully worked out timetable says so, just slosh a bit of water in the bottom of the roasting pan, and stick the turkey on at 190/gas 5 (180/gas 4 for fan ovens), set your timer and go and have a glass of champers. If you want to, you can baste it every so often, but if you forget, don’t worry at all. Some people recommend cooking the turkey upside down (on its breast) which does result in really juicy breast meat. I guess it depends on how large your turkey is and if you’re prepared to wrestle it up the right way for the last half hour or so to crisp up the breast (likewise if you cover yours with foil, take it off for the last half hour.)
To make sure the turkey is done you should be able to wobble a leg easily, and a quick stab with a knife into the thickest part will allow you to collect nice clear juices on a spoon), drain the juices into a pan for the gravy, then cover with foil and forget it while you cook everything else.
Cooking a turkey crown:
Cream some butter in a bowl until very soft, then add the crushed garlic, orange rind, parsley and thyme. Beat well, until thoroughly blended. Gently loosen the neck flap away from the breast and pack the flavoured butter right under the skin — this is best done wearing disposable gloves. Rub well into the flesh of the turkey, then re-cover the skin and secure with a small skewer or sew with fine twine. Finally, cover the top of the crown with the rashers.
Place the turkey crown in the oven and calculate your time — 20 minutes per 450g (1lb) plus 20 minutes. Cover loosely with foil, which should be removed about 40 minutes before the end of the cooking time. The turkey crown will cook much more quickly than a whole turkey, so make sure to keep basting.
Again, to check if it’s cooked, pierce a fine skewer into the chest part of the crown, the juice should run clear. When cooked, cover with foil to rest and keep warm.
Rule 4: free up your oven before you start on the trimmings
Remember, once covered with foil and maybe a couple of tea towels, the turkey will keep warm for AT LEAST an hour, leaving your oven free for all your other accompaniments:
For great roast potatoes
You really don’t need a lake of fat to make them lovely and crispy. Once you’ve taken the turkey out of the oven, whack the heat up high, then just cover the bottom of the roasting tin completely with oil, goose fat or lard. Make sure the fat is very hot before you add your frozen (or chilled) potatoes. Spoon the fat over all the potatoes then put the in your nice hot oven. The turkey will wait until your potatoes are golden and crispy (40 mins to an hour).
Rule 5: great gravy brings it all together
So that’s it. You’ve got the last half hour to fiddle with all your little extras. Skim off the worst of the fat from the stuff left in the roasting tin, then add a tablespoon or two (depending on the amount) of plain flour to the pan juices in a saucepan and stir well, cooking out that ‘raw’ flour taste, before adding plenty of stock (you can never have enough gravy). Bubble until thick and taste. If it’s at all bitter, a spoonful or two of cranberry sauce will lift it back up.
Get your veg on, stir fry your sprouts (or whatever you’re doing), and don’t forget to pop cranberry sauce on the table (here’s my favourite recipe).
Skip a starter and serve a lovely cocktail: try a Poinsettia – a slug of Cointreau in the bottom of a champagne glass, then up to about half way with cranberry juice, and top up with fizz. Decorate with a little spiral of orange peel if you have time.
If it goes a bit wrong and something gets burned or forgotten, it’s not the end of the world. Enjoy the day, pour yourself a drink and remember: it’s just dinner.
If you want wine advice, look no further than my lovely friend Helen’s 40 festive wines guide, and if you want any extra recipes this Christmas, try my glazed and spiced festive ham, cranberry and port sauce, home made mince pies, maybe a showstopping chocolate bundt cake, or some cute little Christmas tree jaffa cakes.
If you get stuck, drop me an email, but mostly, have a glass of fizz, hug your loved ones, dress up, light a candle, say you love it even if you hate it and please don’t drink and drive. I need you here to keep me company. So I’ll just say merry Christmas, from us lot, to you lot. Have a wonderful, wonderful Christmas. Mwah xx
‘And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?’
So next to get the Big Christmas Gift Guide treatment are your gorgeous teenagers.
First up are the frankly fantastic All in One Company who hand make their fabulous quality onesies in Northumberland. They very kindly asked me for Charlie’s measurements and made him a special onesie with his choice of purple camo polar fleece. He’s absolutely delighted with it because, hey, there’s not another one in the world that’s exactly the same. You can also give All in One Company gift vouchers so that people can design their very own onesie, and they also have an adorable baby section (check it out – the cuteness!)
Colgate’s new ProClinical A1500 electrical toothbrush is a bit more practical but makes a really cool present (and what teenager doesn’t love looking in the mirror let’s face it). It’s a really clever gadget with sensors that automatically adjust the speed and cleaning action of the brush depending on how it’s held in the mouth, and cleans using sonic vibration (32,500 strokes per minute!) to really attack that plaque. It also comes with a spare brush head so more than one person can use it, which is handy. RRP is £169.99 but it’s on a less than half price offer in Boots at the moment!
Scholl have got a really nice ColourPop manicure set which is like the the professional shaping machines you find in salons. It’s got lots of different filing and shaping heads and is rechargeable too. The little polishing head is useful if you’re not wearing nail varnish to give your nails a lovely shine. Nifty. (RRP £24.99)
TONI&GUY have got loads of amazing hairdryers and gadgets out in lovely kits this Christmas including Twist and Crimp (RRP £50) with which apparently – if you’re clever – it’s possible to crimp the underneath of your hair to give it more volume, or go all out 70s and crimp the whole lot, or the Reverse Conical wand for gorgeous casual waves and curls. We love these as they’re all in beautiful packaging and look really special.
The Snowman is a Christmas classic (30 years young!) and Build a Bear have bought out a special toy this Christmas, perfect for younger teens with a soft spot for film. He retails at £18 and is actually really gorgeous – you can buy him online or go into a Build a Bear store for the full stuffing experience! There’ll be a few adults that would rather like him too, we think!
Excuse the weird ear-selfie, but if you’re looking for beautiful, unique jeweller – for teenagers or anyone else, frankly – look no further than lovely Diva & Me who sent me these gorgeous 14k gold opalite earrings which literally change colour depending on the light – anything from the darkest purple to very light, almost translucent violet. The gold setting is a delicate ‘hand crocheted’ design – have a look at it close up on the website, it’s absolutely amazing. I adore them, and I’m really not a jewellery person.
Lifeproof do AMAZING iPad and iPhone cases that make them completely waterproof, shockproof and even mudproof, rendering their gadget pretty much indestructible. Once sealed (it does take a bit of time to fit, plus you have to test it, but all the instructions are in the box and the test kit is enclosed), it is shock proof from two metres with an IP level of 68, whatever that is, and is so waterproof it can actualy be used as an underwater camera. Brilliant.
Stocking filler wise, I’m always keen to keep away from any sort of useless plastic crap that will be broken by Boxing Day, so we concentrate on anything yummy or useful. The boys get through tons of the Lynx shower gel and shampoo, especially the Apollo scent, so these are always a winner. We love all the Cadbury Christmas chocolate, especially the Winter Wonderland bar. Yum! and Kleenex‘s lovely Winter Originals Christmas pocket tissue packs are cute and handy too.
So following on from fab pressies for foodies, this time it’s the turn of the cook in your life. Don’t immediately discount cookery books as the safe option, there are some fabulous cookbooks out there at this time of year.
The wonderful Eric Lanlard, Master Pâtissier and all-round creative genius has brought out a gorgeous book, perfect for any chocolate lover: Chocolat: Seductive Recipes for Bakes, Desserts, Truffles and Other Treats is stuffed full of every chocolate recipe you could ever want, plus it looks stunning. The perfect gift.
The Great British Vegetable Cookbook by Sybil Kapoor is full of really inventive vegetable recipes – both as accompaniments to main meals and as delicious meals in their own right. It’s wonderfully inspirational when you’re planning meals and would make a lovely gift for a veggie or meat eater.
Another of my favourite books of the year is A Good Egg: a year of recipes from an urban hen-keeper - by Genevieve Taylor. Perfect for anyone who yearns for the simple things – cooking simple, delicious dinners made with produce from your garden and eggs from hens pecking in the yard. It reminds me of classic Nigella books as it’s a lovely read as well as having some really gorgeous recipes. A bedside book, I’d call it. Inspirational.
I must admit I did once get very cross with Mr English for buying me a breadmaker for Christmas. It was when we’d first got together and I thought it was the most unromantic gift I’d ever received. Now, of course, I’d be delighted with a gorgeous appliance and I’ve got my eye on this very pretty pearly Breville Aurora toaster to go with my glossy cream kitchen units.
Next up is cheeeeese! No Christmas is complete without cheese and this one is really special (and extensively tested by me. You’re welcome). The Denhay Dorset Drum of cheddar is a real showstopper and packs a bit of punch, flavour wise. Denhay have now decided to focus all their attention on their bacon, so this is the last time you’ll be able to buy it. Snap one up online (from £25 + p&p) .
For something really special, how about a bottle of English Knightor Brut NV sparkling wine from Cornish winery Knightor. We gave it a try and it really is the perfect festive fizz – light, fruity (peachy?) and with lovely, almost creamy bubbles. You can buy it online, priced £27 from www.knightor.com. Gorgeous.
Experiences make really interesting gifts too. Why not treat your favourite chef/chefette to a course at Padstow Seafood School. They have a fab range of courses starting at £95 for a half day course. Gift cards are available and can be posted direct with a personalised message (they have no expiry date). Check out rickstein.com/seafood-school for details.
And for little stocking fillers? Check out Monin’s gorgeous gingerbread syrup (yummy in coffee, but equally good poured over pancakes or even as an ingredient in cakes), or why not wrap up a couple of Very Lazy’s little pots – the Smoked Chopped Garlic, Smoked Chopped Chillies (our favourite – amazing on pizzas) and Fire-Roasted Sliced Chillies are really interesting and useful – what more could you ask for?!
You know me, I pop up all over the interwebs, and at the moment you can find me chatting about Stir Up Sunday on the Yeo Valley website. Funnily enough, my recipe is the same as theirs in that you’ll need to start a little prep the day before, as the fruit benefits from an overnight soak, but if you don’t have time (or you’ve only just read this bit and were all ready to go), don’t worry – just give it as long as you have. Now, if you need information, hints, tips, ingredient notes and a step by step guide to making Christmas pudding, please just click here.
This is my updated recipe for 2013. This year, I’m going back more to how Christmas Pudding used to be, with loads of figs, currants and sultanas, and moving away from the more modern apricot and cherry additions.
I was chatting to our lovely friend (and wine expert) Tom Forrest from Vinopolis on Twitter about what booze to use, and he had some really lovely suggestions. I’m a huge fan of Pedro Ximenez and Tom recommends a Pedro from the English Whisky Company (£18) or an Aussie Brown Brothers Muscat Liqueur (about £12). You can also be more traditional and just use brandy, obviously.
Figgy Christmas Pudding
250g dried figs, finely chopped
50g prunes, finely chopped
100ml black tea
1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half
100ml Pedro Ximenez or other booze
3 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp black treacle
1 Bramley apple, grated
100g self raising flour (or rice flour for gluten free)
100g fresh white breadcrumbs (or again, ground almonds if you need to keep the recipe gluten free)
150g veggie suet
150g dark muscovado sugar
25g almonds, finely chopped
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground mixed spice
So on to the recipe then:
1. Weigh out the dried fruit, then have a good pick through and get rid of any stems, they’re yucky if you crunch on them. I let them fall through my fingers into the bowl a handful at a time. With the larger dried fruit, make sure they’re stoneless and snip them into small pieces.
2. Finely grate the lemon zest, then juice it as well. Add the zest and juice to the fruit then brew up the tea (one tea bag is fine for that amount of water) and pour it over the fruit, along with the rum. Add in the cinnamon stick and stir it all up. Cover with a plate and leave the whole shooting match to steep (make sure it’s not a metal bowl) overnight, stirring occasionally if you remember.
3. The next day, weigh out all the dry ingredients and combine them in a huge bowl. Don’t forget the spices! The muscovado sugar can be a bit lumpy so you might need to sift it to break up any lumps.
4. Take the steeped fruit and remove the cinnamon stick pieces. Add the eggs (give them a quick mix with a fork first), honey, treacle and grated apple (leave the peel on).
5. Stir well, then you can add all that into the dry ingredients. Give it a really good stir (get everyone to take a turn to stir and make a wish).
6. Now butter a big basin (3 pint/1.7 litre) or two smaller ones and bung in your mixture, pressing it down well and filling as near to the top as you can.
7. Cut out a circle of greaseproof paper, bigger than the top of the basin/s, then add a layer of foil. Tie the two layers tightly just under the basin rim with string, leaving lots of excess to make a handle. Now there is some weird way to loop the excess string underneath the basin to make a handle, but I’ve never managed it as I didn’t pay attention at Brownies. If you want to be extra sure no liquid gets in, add another layer of foil and tie again. Or you can use a basin with a lid, or tie it in a muslin, or use one of those special circular moulds.
And that’s it, you’ve made a Christmas pudding! Pause here a minute to give yourself a quick round of applause.
To steam it, you can use a steamer if you’re posh, but I haven’t got one so I just use a huge saucepan and balance the basin inside it on a circular metal pastry cutter so it isn’t sitting on the bottom of the pan. This will also stop it burning if you inadvertently let it boil dry. Add boiling water about halfway up the basin and put the lid on the saucepan. Steam for 5 hours, making sure you go back every so often to top up the boiling water.
I rewrap it with fresh greaseproof paper and foil, but you don’t have to. Keep it somewhere cool until Christmas day when it’ll need to steam for about another 2.5 to 3 hours (don’t worry if it gets a bit longer, it won’t ruin it). Or you could *gasp* just microwave it on Christmas day. Much easier, but not really traditional!
On Christmas day, just warm some booze gently, then at the last minute, pour it over the pud and set it alight. A splash of rum or a bit more of that Pedro and a tablespoon of icing sugar in some whipped cream (Yeo Valley Organic of course) would make a welcome addition.
So I guess we’ve now had Lyra for about a month – I think we got her on 26th October. And whereas before we were barely functioning and bleary eyed, things have really settled down. My Disreputable Dad and his wife are thinking of getting a puppy and I think I probably put them off with my tales of piddles on the carpet and early mornings, but honestly, I’m really feeling like we’ve made progress.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that you HAVE to be firm. It upset me when I popped her in her crate so that I could get on with something, but after a while she settles and especially if she’s got a chew or a kong with a few bits of cheese in, she’s mostly happy in there for an hour while I crack on with cleaning or whatever. In the evening, she wanders into the crate and settles down without even being asked.
We’re still working on ear and nose biting. It’s not in anger, more in a licky, excited ‘I LOVE YOU WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN I MISSED YOU! kind of way…
House training is bloody hard, and there’s nothing you can do except watch the pup like a hawk and take her out a lot. She’s a clever girl and very eager to please so she’s starting to pick up on the fact that if she ‘goes’ in the garden, she gets cuddles and treats, but in the house she gets ignored and people get all huffy and stomp around with bowls of water and sponges. We’re three days since our last accident, so we’re definitely getting there!
I’ve started on recall training. I’ve been using a long training lead and calling her back to me, giving her loads of praise and treats, but I’ve been told it’s best to move it on as soon as possible. There’s a small area of woods near where I live and I had a good look round to make sure it was pretty well enclosed. I grabbed a bag full of the smelliest most yummy treats and took a big deep breath and let her off the lead. She had a bit of a wander and came back to me every time I called. The I panicked and put her back on the lead. Still, it’s a start.
But the good stuff, oh the good stuff is magic. Charlie was away at Vans Warped Tour this weekend and Sam was at his girlfriend’s, and she was wonderful company – we wandered through the woods, snuggled on the sofa and even watched X Factor together (I may have used the sentence ‘yes, I just said that to the dog’ in response to someone on Twitter). She’s already learned that if someone’s eating, she’s not allowed to have any (she sits very close to me and grumbles), and when you tell her off (her favourite naughty trick is bringing me a filthy welly and dropping it next to me on the sofa) she goes all silly and bouncy and occasionally answers back. She really is delightful, even when she’s being a massive pain.
Here’s my view from last night. Whippet bum, eh? Delightful.
How many recipes do you think you use on a regular basis? Ten? Twenty? If you’re anything like me, you probably have your favourites that you cook week after week, interspersed with a bit of experimental stuff from magazines or cookbooks.
Happily, The Sunday Times has been hard at work to help us shake things up a bit, seeking out the absolute best recipes around, created by our favourite celebrity chefs and some of the UK’s most popular restaurants too. Over the next four weeksends, you’ll be able to recreate some of these spectacular dishes and hopefully add a few of them to your own repertoire. The series kicks off this weekend (Sunday 17th November) with my favourite meal of the week: Sunday Lunch, and I’ve been lucky enough to get a sneaky peek at the fabulous recipes coming up, including Heston Blumenthal’s incredible triple cooked chips (easier than you think) and Rick Stein’s simple but sensational roasted monkfish.
For me, though, there was one recipe I really wanted to try: Simon Hopkinson’s seminal roast chicken. I adore Simon Hopkinson’s cooking, and his cookbook, ‘Roast Chicken and Other Stories’ was voted the most useful cookery book of all time. I went all out on an absolutely beautiful free range beauty of a chicken and set to work. The recipe differs from my own in that he starts his chicken off in a very hot oven for 15 minutes (liberally smothered in a frankly obscene amount of butter) and the result was, as my children were delighted to point out, much better than mine. The chicken was moist and fragrant and the juices good enough to be used as gravy, with no need for any further messing about. Utterly delicious and with enough leftovers for another meal too.
I’ll be cooking it again this Sunday, and maybe even following it up with Raymond Blanc’s chocolate fondant. Oh yes, that’s in there too.
Get your copy of The Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook: Sunday Lunch this weekend, the first in a four-part series. Featuring a selection of the finest recipes of the celebrity chef era, The Ultimate Cookbook is part of The Incredible Edibles Food Series dedicated to food and dining.
Upcoming editions in the series are Quick Eats on Sunday November 24, Brunch & Baking on Sunday December 1 and Dinner Party on Sunday December 8.
Visit thesundaytimes.co.uk to subscribe and to find out more details about exclusive Times+ chef events, hosted at some of the country’s best restaurants.
This week, we were invited to our local Prezzo to try out the new Christmas menus. We pop in to Prezzo every so often for pizzas and salads, but I hadn’t really considered it particularly for Christmas. Someone on Twitter even suggested turkey pizza when I mentioned I was going to Prezzo to try their Christmas menus!
Happily I was completely wrong. The place was absolutely buzzing – our local restaurant is housed in the town’s old Post Office building and it’s got a lovely industrial feel to it, with a huge oven at the centre of the open kitchen. It was lovely inside – all warm and sparkly, with candles, an open fire and a gentle buzz of conversation. We were shown to a lovely big table by the fire and got stuck in to the menus (and a very nice bottle of Barbera d’Asti).
There are three menus for Christmas:
The Classic (3 courses for £16.95)
This menu only offers a few choices and you’ll find most things are on the normal Prezzo menu anyway. We tried the bruschetta starter, which was a really generous portion of flatbread, topped with loads of yellow and red cherry tomato quarters, red onion, fresh basil leaves and a generous drizzle of pesto. It was really fresh and tasty.
Mains include pizzas, pastas and a Caesar salad and desserts include Charlie’s favourite chocolate profiteroles, filled with chocolate cream and generously drizzled with vanilla sauce. The choux pastry was light, the filling generous and the vanilla cream sauce REALLY yummy.
The Premium (three courses for £19.95)
This menu has more choice. We ordered one of each of the starters and had an absolutely fantastic time sharing and dipping. The king prawns served in a rich, garlicky tomato sauce with a generous touch of chilli are utterly delicious, and we ended up dipping the crispy calamari in there too. Yum. The pane con cipolla – garlic bread smothered with sweet sour balsamic onions and mozzarella is like a huge pizza – perfect for sharing (and scoffing with those delicious king prawns).
Mains are varied and tasty: we ordered the VIP tre gusti pizza – a massive pizza piled with pepperoni, chicken, pancetta and mozzarella. Charlie found the amount of fresh rosemary a bit overwhelming and ended up picking it all off – apart from that it was spot on. We were also tempted by the pene al zafferano (chicken with red chilli, spinach and garlic in saffron sauce) and the fusilli Gorgonzola with chicken, pancetta, and veg in a creamy sauce. The king prawn risotto looked great too.
Desserts on this menu are nothing short of fabulous. We fought over the sticky toffee pudding – a huge slab of the most delicious, sticky softness, and the white chocolate bombe (mascarpone ice cream covered in white chocolate with raspberry sauce) was lush.
The Signature (four courses and a glass of Prosecco for £24.95)
This menu starts off with a small tray of marinated olives and a glass of fizz. Starters include the most delicious, crispy, soft centred crab cakes (you only get two – we could have eaten ten) and gorgeous gnocchi stuffed with Gorgonzola and walnuts in a tasty, herby tomato sauce.
The mains were the star of the show: panciotti (little pasta parcels similar to ravioli) stuffed with scallop and prawns in a dill sauce, the most deliciously savoury wild boar tortelli in a creamy tomato sauce (slightly let down by being a bit gristly in places but otherwise meaty and satisfying), and a tender roasted duck leg served on a big plate of potatoes and vegetables with tomatoes and a touch of chilli. The pollo al funghi – a plate of chargrilled chicken with mushrooms and spinach – wasn’t particularly generous, but the marsala sauce was delicious and it’s served with lovely rosemary potatoes for mopping it all up.
Desserts on the signature menu include the white chocolate bombe again and a perfec, rich chocolate orange cheesecake with a crunchy chocolate topping, served with a big dollop of mascarpone.
Service was attentive and friendly, even though the place was busy. We walked out absolutely stuffed (I couldn’t even manage a calzone mince pie and I was really looking forward to it) and imbued with Christmas spirit. And it’s only November!
Our verdict? Splash out and go for the Signature menu. The choices are more varied and the dishes are really special. Christmas menus are available now. Click here to have a look at the menus.
Thank you to lovely Prezzo for inviting us xx
This week, one of Charlie’s best buddies, James, turns 16. They’ve known each other forever, well, since they started school, and James just feels like one of the family, basically. He had a Halloween party yesterday (his poor Mum) and they also went up to Wembley to watch the Jags vs 49ers American football game too (which was amazing, apparently – ‘apart from the streaker. Legend’).
I promised to make him a double chocolate cheesecake (we class the chocolate in the digestives as the second chocolate – probably slightly tenuous, but hey), and even though it’s not officially his birthday yet, we let him blow out the candle. We’re good like that.
Double Chocolate Cheesecake
100g salted butter
300g pack of dark chocolate digestives
500g cream cheese
100g icing sugar
200ml whipping cream
200g good quality dark chocolate
So warm the butter in a small saucepan until it’s just melted and in the meantime whizz up the digestives, or if you don’t have a processor, just put them in a plastic bag and whack them with a rolling pin. Stir the butter into the biscuits then press into the bottom of a springform tin (you’ll never get the bugger out otherwise) and leave to cool.
Now, melt the dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of water (don’t let the bowl touch the water), turning the pan off once the water boils. Put the cream cheese in a bowl, beat it until smooth then beat in the icing sugar.
Now, and this is important, you must wait for the chocolate to cool back to room temperature. Wait until it feels the same temperature as your finger when you dip it in. While you’re waiting, whip the cream.
Add the cooled chocolate to the cream cheese and icing sugar. Stir it in until the colour is uniform, then fold in the cream gently with a metal spoon so you don’t lose all the air you’ve incorporated. Smooth the mixture over the prepared base.
And that’s it. Just let it set in the fridge. I decorated mine with a bit of melted chocolate (excuse the rubbish photo – there was a bit of hilarity), but you can add whatever topping you like: grated chocolate, maltesers, raspberries, even a cheeky layer of chocolate ganache.
Happy birthday James. Sweet 16! xx
So it’s been five days since Lyra joined the family. I’m not going to lie, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. My lovely pal Amanda, who also has a quite new puppy put it this way: ‘it’s hard and tedious but I promise it’s worth it’.
I guess having a puppy really is a lot like having a new baby. We got her straight on the back of arriving back from holiday and me going into hospital, which, with hindsight wasn’t the best bit of planning. Plus, Mr English is away on duty and the boys are off on half term. All this basically means that the washing mountain (it’s ceased to be contained by the basket) has reached epic proportions, we’re wandering around half-dead having had no sleep, and rather a lot of takeaways have been consumed.
Still, five days in and I feel like we’re making progress. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about surviving with a new puppy:
1. It’s all about routine. The quicker she knew what was what, the more she settled in. After the carnage of the first few days, where I put food down, then she didn’t eat it, so I left it, then she grazed all day, I sorted myself out. Now she gets three meals a day and goes straight out after each meal. It makes housetraining a lot more predictable.
2. Talking of housetraining, you basically spend your life in the garden. Out of interest I wrote down a little note every time she ate or went in the garden (and every time she had an accident in the house) and you can definitely predict a pattern. She basically needs to go out every time she’s been asleep, been playing, eaten or drunk anything… and sometimes just because it’s been a while. And even then accidents happen.
3. Everyone has an opinion. It’s very difficult to make decisions on how you’re going to treat your puppy, even harder when everyone offers their view on what you’re doing wrong. This is my fault because I’m basically an oversharer. I need to learn to shut up. My bestie Laura sent me a fab book called The Perfect Puppy and it’s really helped shape how we’re going to be with her: firm but fair, never angry, always celebrating the good and ignoring the bad. Some people don’t let dogs upstairs/in bed/on the sofa, others do. You have to work out what’s acceptable to you and your family.
4. You basically get nothing done at all. Puppies need watching like a hawk. I’ve learned now that if I need to get on with something I should just pop her in her crate. The vet gave us some really good advice when she said we should make it a place where fun things happen, not just when we’re going to leave her – so she sometimes gets fed and played with in there too – just with the door open.
5. Having a dog is just the best thing ever. When she sees the boys she leaps on them, tail wagging, trying to kiss them all over their faces (bleurgh) and when I come down in the morning (the night time crying is slowly subsiding) she’s just so darned pleased to see me. We love her so much already it’s ridiculous. Our lovely, gentle, sweet, bonkers girl.
Halloween is fast approaching. I never really used to like it, but now find myself buying the odd bag of sweets every week in my shop in readiness for when the kids come knocking. It seems to be getting more and more popular around our way. Yankee Candle have an amazing range out for Halloween this year. We tried the ‘licorice’ candle which is black, as the name suggests, and smells absolutely delicious. It’s like scenting your room with Black Jacks (remember those?). I’m also looking forward to testing some of their Christmas range too.
One of Charlie’s besties is having a Halloween party for his 16th and I thought I’d try and knock up some Halloween pumpkin fairy cakes using these ones from Pinterest for inspiration: I might go for some really rancid-looking bogey green icing too! If you need any more inspiration for Halloween baking, my lovely friend Helen over at Casa Costello has some amazing Halloween cookies, and Tara has some great ghostly cupcakes too.
If you’ve seen (or baked!) anything else for Halloween please do let me know, I’d love to have a look.
If you’re looking for a little something for the adults, why not try a traditional bloody Mary, but make it with gin instead of vodka (I like Martin Miller’s at the moment) – it’s called a Red Snapper and is deeelicious. In fact, I like it more than the vodka-based original.
Next up, of course is Bonfire Night (and British Sausage Week, 4th to 11th November!) To celebrate, I was sent a lovely hamper. Happily, it contained our current sausage of choice, the delicious Spoilt Pig sausage, which satisfy my ‘happy pig’ ethos and taste really nice too. They don’t ooze loads of fat, have a nice texture and don’t have any of those horrible gristly bits in that I particularly hate. The bacon jam was also a revelation! We’ll be eating our sausages smothered in my own barbecue sauce, baked in the oven and then stuffed into fresh baguette with loads of slow roasted onions. Yum.
So yesterday Charlie and I went up to London to pick up our new baby whippet pupster. I’m not the world’s best London driver so our journey included an accidental U-turn (the satnav said ‘turn right, then bear right and I bore too far right and went back on to the road I’d just come down) and a pretty scary intentional one (satnav: ‘turn right’, me and Charlie: ‘what, NOW? Really? Okay… arrrggghhhh!’)
By the time we got there, all sweaty and stressed, we were nearly an hour late. This is the second time I’ve seen Tamsin and her family and the second time I’ve been late. Honestly, and I hate being late too. Their lovely daughter was saying goodbye to our pupster, who they’d named Mouse, and I was touched to see that they were genuinely upset to see the little pup go. We actually felt a bit guilty taking her away.
Anyhoo, long story short: conked out phone, detour around Enfield and lots of puppy puke later, we finally got home. The poor mite was not happy and huddled against the kitchen door, shaking. What on earth must it be like to be taken away from your mum and taken on a horrible journey to a strange house with massive, strange people looming over you? All at just under 12 weeks. Poor pupster.
And then we went to bed. And she cried. She cried and cried and cried. We’d promised ourselves we’d be strong and not go back down to her, but honestly it was heartbreaking. I lasted until 6am then went down to give her a cuddle. She was so ridiculously pleased to see me too!
She’s been brilliant in the house so far and already seems to know that she has to go to the back door if she needs some personal time. Bless her heart. We’ve called her Lyra, after the little girl in the Golden Compass, one of our favourite films. We love her already.
We’ve been talking about puppies for ages. We’ve been through the mill with older rescue dogs and really wanted to start with a dog right from a puppy. Once this was decided we argued and argued about breeds. We like greyhounds, but have had a bad experience with rescue ones (most are delicious, we had Bert for years, but it’s a sad fact that some do have trouble adapting to a home environment), the boys wanted a husky, but my own view is that those sort of dogs should be pulling sleds not sitting on sofas, plus they’re a bit too hairy. We registered with puppy sites, bought books, asked the vet to ring us if any puppies were on the way…
Then one day, I was looking through a pups for sale site and saw this:
… a delightful sleepy tangle of – wait for it – whippets.
And why not a whippet? We’re quite big on the gangly/houndy/sleep in stupid positions/I’m gunna chase that wabbit type of dog, so why not? I showed the others. We googled whippets, looked on breed sites and studied photos. To my astonishment, we were all in agreement. It was meant to be.
I travelled up on the tube to see them. The lady selling the pups, Tamsin, was absolutely lovely and we spent a while chatting. The pupsters were sprawled everywhere, and a little fat one with a blue face, a blue stripe down her back and a two-tone blue and fawn tail came and plonked herself on my lap. She plodded up my chest, gave my nose a quick sniff, then settled back and went to sleep in the crook of my arm. I sent this picture to Mr English along with the message ‘I think I’m in love’:
And so, on 25th October, little Boo – or at the moment she is Boo, after little Boo in Monsters Inc, but that’s not to say she won’t end up with a different name, that’s another thing we’re arguing about – is coming to live at English Towers.
I’m sure there’ll be sleepless nights, little accidents and a fair bit of stress along the way, but we just can’t wait to bring her home. In the mean time, the lovely chaps at Blacks, the outdoor specialist store, were chatting to me about coats and the like. I said I prefer layers, and being experts on everything to do with ‘life outdoors’, they steered me in the direction of this lovely North Face Resolve jacket (£95), which is lightweight, but waterproof and windproof and with a nice big hood for getting out and about in all weathers, with plenty of room underneath for me to layer up jumpers and maybe even a hoody. I’ve also got some lovely classic short Hunter wellies from Millets (£65). I love Hunters but do find the tall ones a bit of a battle to get on and off. These are fab and will be really practical for me to throw on for emergency garden duty! I now feel battle ready. So bring it on, pupster, I’m ready for you :
Massive thanks to Blacks and Millets for your generosity and for being extra lovely xx
So as you know, I’m a huge Disney fan. I adore Minnie Mouse, regularly weep over my ancient Beauty and the Beast DVD and could walk you around Walt Disney World blindfolded telling you all about my favourite rides. I love the films, the characters, the parks, the food (Disney dining is second to none, but cupcakes are my speciality – ask me anything). The boys have grown up with Hercules, Toy Story, Stitch and Pirates of the Caribbean, and Disney has been a part of all our lives for as long as we can all remember.
This summer we were ridiculously excited to be invited for an amazing trip aboard the Disney Magic as it cruised around the Mediterranean for one of the last times before heading to dry dock for a spectacular new makeover and with an 18 year old and a 15 year old in tow, I was interested to see how we’d get on.
Let’s be clear: there are as many different types of teens as there are holidays. You’ve got your adventurous ones, your quiet ones, your sociable ones, your ‘not talk to anyone at all’ ones… So what’s the best way to choose a holiday that will suit your teenagers AND the rest of you?
1. Involve them in the choice of holiday
As I write about travel, we tend to go on holiday a lot. My teenagers have been on all sorts of trips but the ones that are the best received are always the ones where they’ve had some choice in the matter. Make it a treat: head out for a burger (this is our standard meeting place as it guarantees at least a few minutes of silence where I can get my point across) and flump a big pile of brochures on the table (obviously you can tip the odds in your favour by adding in your favourites). Arguing will no doubt ensue, but you’ll also be able to gather who wants what from a holiday.
2. Teenagers need freedom
Cruises are perfect for families. Think about it: there’s buckets of fun for the little ones, plus the teenagers can’t really wander off and there are a gazillion activities for them to do. You can stay by the pool, head to the beach or sightsee on shore days, watch the latest Disney films (either on the amazing ‘Tunnel Vision’, an outdoor screen, or in a proper cinema), catch a show (the shows are INCREDIBLE – I always cry), play a game of basketball or table tennis… a Disney cruise is like 10 holidays in one and their kids’ clubs are amazing.
3. Which brings me to a word about kids’ clubs
Teen Clubs are really hard to get right. It helps if the age groups are well thought out (young teens and old teens is the best split: no 17 year old wants their style cramped by a 13 year old) and the leadership needs to be friendly and non-patronising. ’Teen disco’ tends to strike fear into the heart of any teenager, but generally by day four or five they’ll be there, hanging about looking like they don’t really want to be there, but actually enjoying themselves. By day seven, they’ll be cruising around in a huge pack, annoying everyone. Teen clubs also allow them more access to the facilities: Charlie wanted to go into the gym, but it’s over 18s only. Turns out the teen club organise group visits to the gym. Result: happy Charlie.
4. Think outside the box
Our Disney Magic cruise took us to Spain, Italy and France, but maybe you fancy going further afield, or you’ve ‘done’ Rome already? No problem. Disney Cruises go to the most amazing places: cruise the Caribbean, or swoosh along the California coastline. Next on my list? Alaska!
5. Compromise compromise and compromise a bit more
Want to schlep around Pompeii on your shore day but have kids who want to lie by the pool plugged in to their iPhones? It’s all about the compromise. There are some absolutely amazing shore excursions – you don’t have to spend hours in a coach or traipsing round cathedrals. Let them choose what they want to do – I wanted to see Monaco, so we chose a trip with a visit to the Top Car Museum in Monte Carlo, which suited all of us. Also, maybe consider splitting up. We find this works well: I might head off on a trip with one, leaving Dad slobbing on the deck with the other.
6. City breaks can be really cool
We weren’t looking forward to our last day in Barcelona. We were disembarking at 9am and had all day to kill before our evening flight. We were lucky to team up with friends we’d made who knew it inside out and showed us around some really cool places. It turned out to be one of our favourite days.
7. Disney is part of everyone’s past
Some of our favourite moments were really unexpected. We bumped into Stitch – a huge favourite from their childhood, and one evening we sat and watched Hercules up on the deck, singing along to our favourite songs from the film and reminiscing about when it was their favourite film (‘nice catch, jerkules!’). Lovely moments to share.
8. Consider doubling up
Know another family with kids a similar age? Think about holidaying together. Not only is it fun to have a Disney adventure with friends, but it’s a lot easier walking into that kids’ club on the first day if they’re doing it with someone they know. It also means that you have more adults to mingle with too!
9. Everybody loves the pirate party
Trust me: nobody is ever too old for pirate night. Everyone on the ship dresses up as pirates (whole families bring their costumes with them), there are pirate themed dinners and then a massive party on the deck afterwards, with the best firework display ever and then a DJ until the early hours. There is nothing better than dancing to amazing tunes out on the deck at ridiculous o’clock in the morning under the biggest sky full of stars you ever saw.
10. Disney’s for everyone
Think Disney’s just for young ones? Think again. One of my happiest moments after we came back from the cruise was overhearing Sam talking to a friend describing the cruise: ‘I’m going every year if I can, mate, you can’t beat Disney’. Nothing makes me happier than to know I’ve passed my love of everything Disney onto my children.
7-night Disney Magic Mediterranean Cruise from £949 per adult and £699 per child. Virgin Holidays Cruises offers seven nights onboard Disney Magic from Barcelona, calling at Villefranche (for Nice, France), Pisa, Rome and Naples, including flights from London Gatwick and transfers. Prices are per person based on two adults and two children travelling and sharing an inside cabin on a full-board basis. Based on a departure on 30 August 2014. Offer is subject to availability and includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change.
To book: Visit www.virginholidayscruises.co.uk, call 0844 573 4398 or visit one of our stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.
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