Thursday, 17 August 2017

Brittany diaries : An incredible dolphin encounter

On our last day in Brittany, we popped down to the port of Brest on the way home, to see the Recouvrance, which is a big replica schooner. We decided that the figurehead looked like a mermaid and took a few snaps.

Then we looked out to the harbour entrance and looked at each other in amazement as a big black fin appeared out of the water. My first thought was that it was a shark (a small one, not a Jaws sized man-eating one !) but Juliette squealed "Mum, I just saw a dolphin" ... and she was right ! It came right over to the side of the boat and just sat there. 

According to some of the locals, it was a dolphin that had been injured and rescued by the local sealife centre and, after its release, it keeps coming back to get food and swim around in the harbour.

It's certainly not scared of people, coming right up to the jetty where some of the kids even stroked it, before someone shouted down that you shouldn't touch it because apparently it has parasites (I have no idea what kind). 

Being well-behaved, law-abiding citizens, we stayed up the top and didn't venture on to the jetty that gives access to the boats, because it had a gate that was open but said you weren't allowed down there. 

Then, as lots of people started going down, we followed them. I thought he would be long gone by the time we carefully walked down the wobbly bridge but he stayed there for ages.

Eventually someone came along and asked everyone to go back up, then locked the gate, but not before we'd taken loads of photos and heard it clicking, splashing and blowing water out of the hole in the top of its head.

The kids were totally mesmerised - even the grown-ups thought it was a pretty magical experience, especially as it was so totally unexpected. It was only a spur-of-the-moment decision to go down to the port and we just happened to be there at the right time. 



It made it even more special that he was free to swim off whenever he wanted but stayed for ages. We watched him for about half an hour, then went to look round a few shops and went to see him again until it started raining. He was still there when we left !

 The perfect end to our week in Brittany.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Globecooking recipe : Graavi lohi - salted salmon (Finland)

I was very squeamish about this recipe because the idea of eating "raw" fish that has only been "cooked" with salt seemed very dodgy to me. I kept putting it off - it was in the Finnish-themed Kitchen Trotter box from Christmas - but in the end, I bit the bullet, and it was actually very nice and surprisingly simple, although you do need to plan ahead.

Graavi lohi

2 fresh salmon fillets
2tbsp coarse salt (I would use a lot more)
1tsp black pepper
2tsp sugar
6tbsp dill

for the mustard sauce :

1tsp red wine vinegar (I used pomegranate vinegar)
1tbsp mild Finnish mustard
5cl oil
1/2tsp sugar

for the optional marinade :

a few small fir twigs
1 capful of vodka or gin
1/2tsp pink pepper

The two exotic ingredients which were in my Finnish-themed Kitchen Trotter box were the mild Finnish mustard and the organic pine needles.

As I have an overflowing spice rack, I had several different pots of coarse salt so I decided to combine them all. I therefore used a mixture of coarse red salt from Hawaii, Murray River salt from Australia which has a pinkish colour and Persian Blue Sapphire salt from Iran. I don't think it makes any difference though - apart from the colour, they all just taste salty !

I had six thin fillets of fish but you could use two bigger ones. Simply sprinkle over the salt, sugar, dill and black pepper. The recipe said to use 2tbsp of salt but I didn't think this was anywhere near enough to cover the whole surface of the fish, as this would be the only thing that would be "cooking" it. I just sprinkled until it was completely coated with a thickish layer of salt.

Lay the other salmon fillets on top, skin upwards, and put in the fridge. Again, this is where different recipes vary greatly. Most say at east eight hours, I saw one recipe that said two hours (eek !) and this one said overnight, which is what I went for, to be on the safe side.

The next day, finely chop the pine needles, grind the pink pepper and add to the vodka/gin. In a separate bowl, mix the mustard and vinegar, sugar and white pepper, then whisk in the oil to create a sort of mayonnaise.

Take the salmon out of the fridge and scrape off the excess salt. It should have taken on an orangey smoked salmon colour.

Cut into thin slices and, if you want, drizzle over some of the gin/vodka marinade. Serve with crusty bread and some of the mustard mixture on the side.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Book review : Freshers - Tom Ellen & Lucy Ivison

If you didn't go to university, you probably won't like Freshers because you'll find it far-fetched and ridiculous. If you did go to university, it will be a rollicking, riotous trip down memory lane that will keep making you think back to your own university days.

I was a fresher (or first year student, if you're unfamiliar with the lingo) all the way back in 1991. Back then, there was no such thing as mobile phones (we'd spend hours hanging around the pay phones in the halls of residence, silently seething as the person in front hogged the phone way beyond the scheduled time that your parents would be calling to save you paying for the call !). There was no such thing as internet - we actually had to look things up in books in the library (shock horror !). Nobody had their own computer - we'd book an hour-long slot in the computer room next to the library and use a "word processor" then save everything on floppy disk so that we could go and print it all out. Times were very very different. And yet, on nearly every page, there was something that made me squeal with delight or literally laugh out loud as I reminisced at our own crazy shenanigans as freshers.

At the time, we felt like we were the only ones being totally crazy and living life to the limit. Waking up after yet another heavy night out and wondering why there was a traffic cone in the middle of the room and a "for sale" sign hanging out of the window of the halls of residence. Leaving an iron-shaped melted patch in the carpet after trying to do the ironing without an ironing board. Trying to sneak people in past the porters after the evening curfew then giggling so much they came to see what was going on. Going for alcohol-fuelled fridge raids in the communal fridges on other people's corridors. On one memorable occasion, some of the boys down the hall got some bricks from goodness knows where and bricked up (without cement - they weren't that bad !) their friend's door so that when he got up in the morning and opened the door, he was totally confused to walk into a wall. I'm still not sure how he managed to get out ! All things that actually happened in my first year and that wouldn't have been out of place in the book.

The interplay and banter between the characters is spot on too. The incredibly close friendships that instantly sprang up, as well as the on-off-on again relationships that never quite knew if they wanted to be friendships or something more. Also the long distance relationships that never quite made it past the end of the first term, and the sudden desire to connect with people from your home town that you'd never even spoken to at school, just because there was a connection, however tenuous. It all rang totally true in the book.

It's a coming-of-age novel with true-to-life characters, trying to find their way through the "brave new world" of life, love and lectures as an undergraduate. None of them are perfect but none of them are totally despicable either.

I loved every page - for me, it was a totally nostalgic and enchanting trip down memory lane, minus the hangovers ! I'm just jealous Harry Potter hadn't been written when I was a student because quidditch club sounds brilliant fun ! (We did have The Magic Roundabout Appreciation Society though, not that I ever went to any of the meetings, but I did buy the T-shirt !)

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £7.99

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Chicken House; 1 edition (3 Aug. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1910655880
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910655887
  • Product Dimensions: 14.6 x 2.6 x 20.4 cm

Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.

Monday, 14 August 2017

#readcookeat recipe : Mediterranean-style Picnic Bread (Under A Sardinian Sky)

Under A Sardinian Sky was an enjoyable read (click through for my review) but it's been even better as inspiration for some fabulous meals ... and I haven't even started on the desserts yet ! After munching on a hearty Sausage & Lentil Stew and nibbling on deep-fried cheese pastries called Seadas, this time I turned to the ultimate picnic food.

p123 Carmela took the loaf from her sister and began cutting it into thick slices. The smell of mortadella and ham mixed with the marinated peppers and eggplant that she and her sister had stuffed it with drew her back to the start of the day : the cool, clean of the kitchen, the safe order of her world. She arranged the slices on a wide plate, then cut thin lengths of chicory and made a green nest at the centre before trimming a couple of stalks of celery and placing those on top.

For the last week of term, our school canteen stopped functioning because there were barely any pupils left (the school closes to pupils for three days as an exam centre and hardly anyone comes back for the last couple of days before the holidays), so I was on the lookout for inspiring packed lunches. This was delicious and was also a great way of clearing out the fridge.

Mediterranean-style Picnic Bread

ingredients :

1 ciabatta loaf
4tbsp pesto
4 slices of mortadella
1/2 a jar of sun-dried tomatoes
a few slices of cheese (cheddar would do, or parmesan, gruyère, edam, etc)
a few slices of polony-type sausage
6 cucumber slices

Rip out most of the soft bread - don't throw it away. It can be used in gazpacho, toasted and blitzed as a crunchy breadcrumb coating for fish or chicken or munched straight away, dipped in olive oil and spices.

Spread liberally with pesto.

Start with a layer of mortadella.

Add a layer of juicy sun-dried tomatoes.

I had the end of a polony-type sausage and the remains of the Italian cheese from the seadas in the fridge, so they went in next.

I finished off with a row of cucumber slices, to add some crunch, but just use whatever you have in the fridge. 

Pop the lid back on and press flat.

Wrap tightly in foil and slice into servings. It's ideal as picnic or packed lunch food.

Linking up with the #readcookeat linky at Chez Maximka.

Also adding to the #KitchenClearout linky as it was perfect for clearing out the fridge.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Book review : The Teacher's Secret - Suzanne Leal

Terry Pritchard, or Mr P, as he has been known to generations of kids at Brindle Public primary school, has everything it takes to be a great teacher - the kids like and respect him and he has their wellbeing at heart, both in and outside of the classroom. Then Ms Mathews arrives at the school, fresh out of college and intent on making her mark on her year's placement as acting school principal. From instantly rearranging a well-established classroom plan to spouting official jargon day in day out, she soon has everyone's backs up. Whether it is down to youthful over-exuberance and naivety, or a genuine desire to take down a man who refuses to scrape and bow to her as she desires, she soon has it in for Mr P. If you look hard enough, there is always a weak spot that can be exploited and Terry has an unfortunate secret in his past that comes back to haunt him.

It's a tender, heart-warming and fairly accurate look at what life is like as a teacher, highlighting both the positives and negatives of the experience. From Terry's hard-earned confidence and ease with the kids and their parents to Nina's struggles as a new teacher, it all rang true to me, from my own experiences. Ms Mathews comes across as a villain, but it is possible that her heart was in the right place and her decisions were just ill-judged. The plot is worryingly believable and the fact that there is no happy-every-after ending for everyone adds authenticity.

I did find it hard to keep track of everyone though. Each chapter switches to a different narrator, so as well as Terry, we get to know more about Nina, the new teacher going through a marriage break-up, Joan, her neighbour, Rebecca, the mother of the new boy, Mel, mother of the naughty kid in class, Sid, the school caretaker ... even Laurie (or Ms Mathews as she is known at work) gets a couple of chapters to help balance things out. By the end of the book, I had got to know all of them and understand their own private dramas and how they all connected, but I was slightly confused in the beginning. Despite the title, Mr P is far from the only one to have secrets in his life.

It's an enjoyable read with an intriguing and poignant story and characters that you can really relate to and empathise with. As a teacher, it's also reminded me to focus on the good times in class, rather than the negatives, but maybe that's because I'm in holiday mode at the moment !

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £14.99

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Legend Press (15 May 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1785079077
  • ISBN-13: 978-1785079078
  • Product Dimensions: 22.3 x 3.6 x 14.4 cm

Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Brittany diaries : The village in the rocks - Meneham, Côte des Légendes

The village of Meneham, tucked away in the cliffs of the Côte des Légendes in Northern Brittany, facing the English Channel between Brest and Roscoff, is a "site classé" or heritage site.

You can see the charming thatched cottages and bizarre dollops of rock before you've even left the car park.

It's a big hit with the tourists, so there are things like an inn (in the picture above), signposts, toilets and car parks, as well as a gîte if you want to stay the night, but is is all in-keeping with the olde-worlde feel of the place. It reminds me very much of the still wild places in Cornwall that we visited back in the early eighties - Land's End back when there were still no tourist amenities had the same rugged, mystical feel - so I hope it manages to retain its charm as it becomes more well-known. I bet the next time we go back, you will have to pay to get in or at least to park the car.

Mother Nature gave us the perfect weather conditions to really appreciate the beauty of the place - a (rare) sunny day in a week of drizzle, blue skies and fluffy clouds to really set off the photos.

There are a few information boards and signposts but you're pretty much left to your own devices to explore the rocks and paths.

We tried to spot different shapes and forms in the rock formations. Madhouse Daddy thought that the one on the left looked like a shark whereas I see a turtle (maybe it depends on the angle), but I was the only one to see a King Kong face on the right.

But everyone agreed that this one looks like a face - the kids said it made them think of Homer Simpson !

Tucked away in between two giant rocks is this little stone cottage. I thought the rocks were designed to offer shelter from the wind, but it is apparently a 17th-century coastguard’s cottage, camouflaged so that they could sneakily keep an eye on the coast to try to combat smuggling. There was a video running inside to show you the history but the kids were more interested in exploring outside.

There are lots of rocks to scramble over, tiny passages to squeeze through and strange formations to marvel at.

Amateur photographers (or Instagram fans like Sophie) can spend ages finding arty shots using the rocks as frames for the views.

Despite usually being fairly camera shy, the Madhouse kids kept posing in and on the rocks for me to take photos.

Even though the car park was packed, you can still get away from the crowds to enjoy the natural beauty of the place.

There is also a big sandy beach, studded with rocks, along with tiny boats bobbing in the sea at low tide. This tractor was dragging a boat up the beach but it is also used for harvesting seaweed.

These narrow ditches are seaweed ovens and were used for burning the dried seaweed to make sodium carbonate from the ashes, which was then sold to be used in soap and glass making, or iodine, used in medicine and for making photos.

The rock formations continue on the beach, and there are also protected species of plants to look out for.

"Look Mum, we found a whale !"

Following the path back up to the village, we had a look around the artisans' thatched cottages, where you can buy all sorts of handmade crafts and watch the artists at work.

You can also go inside some of the traditional buildings to see how they were constructed or discover some of the old fishing equipment, such as these lobster pots and handcarts.

There's plenty to discover and you really get a feel for the way the old village used to be.

We finished off with the obligatory family selfie before heading for home. It's a great place to go if you're looking for a free day out.