5 Dec 2009

Any More Clues Anyone?

As indicated in my previous post, La Baguette Magique is about to embark on another life-changing journey which (sic) ‘will uproot us from the relative familiarity of our base in the North West of England for a road less travelled, slightly off the beaten track, two seas and hundreds of miles away’.

Our mini-adventure will start off as a 3-day road trip across a variety of landscapes, from the Cheshire plains down the M6 corridor, southeast-bound for the white cliffs of Dover and across the English Channel onto the European continent…

Thank you 'berry' much to my pretty garden!

Another clue, added on Twitter on 1st December, divulged an idea of the geological relief which our final destination will encompass: ‘mountain and the sea as horizons, a palette of blues that won't give you the blues... A traditional setting for a holiday!’ By deduction (and with a little guidance from the writer!) we may well be talking blue skies set against a coastal and alpine landscape.

Taking this information on board, our next and final clue will praise the merits of the cooking of this particular region: earthy and simple, yet the top notch of comfort food, where a strong Italian influence holds pride of place. It will deliver one of the best pancetta the carnivorous amongst you will ever sample, but don’t forget sunshine staple items like the remarkable tomatoes, peaches, apricots, citrus fruit and olives… And if you are familiar with this blog, you should be able to guess my mystery destination without much difficulty! As for the rest of you, now may be the time to revisit and re-acquaint yourself with my earliest articles…

The first person to give me the name of my mystery destination will win a 3-month sponsorship deal, with link-up to their own blog/ website/ Twitter site prominently featured on La Baguette Magique, with additional Twitter buzz and promotional features! Closing date for entries is Monday 14th December at 11:00pm GMT*. Good luck!

* {The competition is now closed.}

28 Nov 2009

Sails Out!

If you like surprises, here’s one that I have kept hidden from you for a little while, yet feel that now is the right time to reveal… My partner, our little dog Tickle and I are about to embark on the next leg of our journey in life, which will uproot us from the relative familiarity of our base in the North West of England for a road less travelled, slightly off the beaten track, two seas and hundreds of miles away.

We are excited about the adventure and understandably slightly daunted too. You will certainly agree that moving house is an upheaval in itself, but when this also involves the proverbial change of direction – encompassing change of jobs, lifestyle, scenery and surroundings, the prospect takes a new dimension.

The decision to move was not taken lightly, however we had been contemplating the idea of novelty, of starting a new chapter rather than follow a slightly worn script. We wanted to feel excitement and anticipation again rather than keep stuck in a rut that we were begrudging.

Undoubtedly, and without falling into the old cliché mode, we will miss some aspects of our current lives, some of the comforts and assurances they provide. On the other hand, if you seek change you have to welcome its challenges too!

In the next few days, I will be revealing little clues as to our destination. For now, I’ll just mention that it’s not Sedona, Arizona (a long story)… Anyhow, how could this be as I mentioned ‘two seas’ earlier, didn’t I?

As for our recently freshened-up house whose photos I have posted on the blog, it will be rented out through a property agency. The sentimental side of I hopes that the tenant(s) who will succumb to its charms will take care of it like it’s their own little nest.

22 Nov 2009

Winter Comforts

For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, in places that are not blessed with the mild climate of California or North Africa, Summer is slowly turning into a distant memory, making way for the long Winter months ahead, spearheaded by the sparkle of the Christmas season that will fleetingly cast its glow over those long sultry nights to come…

Despite this, Winter is generally a drab affair between the bad weather and the shorter days, cutting short one’s enjoyment of the garden and most outdoor pursuits, and intensifying SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Nature goes into hibernation and so do we, in a way, seduced by nights in rather than nights out, and gorging our way through carbohydrates and a number of forbidden treats, the foods that comfort body and soul!

Bakewell, Derbyshire

In north-western England, Winter 2008-09 was a drag, in particular Jan/ Feb 09, when we suffered weeks of frost and black ice in a way I had never experienced in my 15 years’ residency in the country! I remember vividly slipping down the pavement in a spectacular manner, while walking from my car to workplace. As it happened, one of the local residents had had the not ingenuous idea of pouring hot water onto their car to defrost it and the water had quickly set into lethal ice!

Some of those early mornings were spent battling with the car door that was closed shut by the ice, then having to negotiate those deadly bendy roads around the estate that the City Council seems to overlook whenever road gritting is required… The climate situation inevitably put a strain on the major road infrastructures too, with traffic delays, accidents and car batteries giving up the ghost! Let’s just say that the start to the working day was a tad frayed for the unfortunate commuter!

Bail House Tea Rooms in Lincoln

However one would ‘miss the point’ if they only chose to remember Winter for its predicaments, for there are enjoyments to be had, providing of course that you are fortunate enough to afford the basics of comfort, like a warm home and a balanced diet. In my book, Winter is a state of mind:

  • Winter is a time to clear the dead wood, quite literally, from the garden and your life. It is a time for introspection, it makes you take stock, and gives you time to think, about the physical and emotional clutter in your life, about things that need doing around the home and garden, and about the more metaphysical matters, if you are so inclined.
  • Winter also makes you appreciate what you have and may be taking for granted, like the comfort of your home.
  • Winter is an excuse for rallying the family around the fireplace and play a board game, join in a discussion, or light-heartedly share food, drinks, memories or good old gossip, cosied up on the sofa.
  • Winter is an excuse for self-indulgence that goes beyond chocolates: candles, a warm bubble bath, your favourite book or film, something that will lift your spirits and make you appreciate your own surroundings, your own company and that of your closest and dearest.
  • You need to experience the cold in order to appreciate the warmth! Brace yourself and go for a long countryside walk with your partner/ children/ dog. Then reward your bravery by going down to one of those cosy country pubs/ cafés and enjoy your favourite beverage, and – why not, a slice of cake or pack of nuts – comfortably sat by the fireplace if possible. Reminisce the moments of the walk when you were cold/ fed up/ tired: satisfaction guaranteed!
Bail House Tea Rooms in Lincoln

And if there is just one point to remember from this essay, this is it: like the Yin that only exists through its Yang opposite, Winter makes you appreciate Summer. If it were forever Summer, you probably wouldn’t be appreciating its glories as much!

21 Nov 2009

A Taste for Design

Dear friends and followers, I am delighted to reveal that I will be releasing my second blog in early 2010. This new venture will concentrate purely on design, involving visuals gleaned from the ambient world.

As a teasing taster, I thought I would include these two very Warhol-esque photo compositions from Agatha’s latest catalogue (AW 09). The French jewellery brand is celebrating 35 years at the cutting edge of high street fashion and recreating popular styles from the last 3 decades as homage to its own success. There is however a dominant edgy late 70s - early 80s feel to the retrospective, in an East Coast kind of way, with a neat British influence (Roxy Music, David Bowie). The mood is clubby, sleek and sophisticated, heralding the next step up from the dust of disco into an era of New Wave, with a sharp palette of black, red, white and silver.

Photography: Thierry Le Goues

20 Nov 2009

Piccolino Salad

This is a salad favourite which I re-created after dining at Est Piccolino, a Knutsford (Cheshire) restaurant, over 8 years ago. As I couldn’t remember the exact name of the dish, I named it after the restaurant where I had it that very first time, as a tribute.

The quality of the ingredients will influence the taste of the salad, therefore the best you can afford, the more rewarding it will be for the palate!

Serves 2 as a main course/ 4 as a side dish
Preparation: 10 mins
Cooking: 8 mins

  • 3 slices of French baguette, slightly stale
  • 100g of good quality organic pancetta, cubed, or 4 rashers of good quality organic streaky bacon
  • 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Half a ripe medium avocado
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 100g of mixed salad leaves (baby spinach, lettuce, rocket etc.), rinsed and drained
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Chopped chives to garnish (optional)
Toast the bread slices on a medium setting to obtain a golden colour and a crunchy finish. Then with a bread knife, cut the slices in small strips. Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the diced garlic cloves and then the strips of bread, coating them evenly in the oil and garlic mixture. Stir frequently for a good couple of minutes until the bread has turned into croûtons (but not burnt!). Set aside with the garlic mix.

Meanwhile using the same frying pan, quickly fry the pancetta (or bacon cut in strips) until cooked and slightly crunchy to the bite. Set aside.

Peel the avocado, cut it in half and remove the stone. Then cube the flesh and sprinkle it with the lemon juice in order to prevent oxidisation.

In a serving bowl, arrange the mixed salad leaves, add the avocado cubes and lemon juice, the cooled pancetta and cooled croûtons (with garlic). Drizzle with olive oil and season before carefully combining all the ingredients together. Finally sprinkle with chives.

Time to tuck in, safe in the knowledge that this colourful salad will help you replenish your vitamin levels, and brighten up an otherwise dull November day!

19 Nov 2009

Choc-a-Block! (Part 2)

Yet you will find pure cocoa and traditional drinking chocolate safely tucked away in my kitchen cupboard. I mix them together in order to obtain the perfect balance between sweetness and bitterness, before adding to organic semi-skimmed hot milk for breakfast. Indeed, I have hot chocolate in the morning - not the evening - mixed with some unsweetened Swiss muesli to add sustenance to breakfast. This seemingly peculiar gruel sets me off for the day and wards off any food cravings until lunchtime (unlike popular brands of sugary cornflakes or the toast-and-butter/ jam combo which neither seems to fill you up for long!).

Chocolate bars are a fairly inexpensive and convenient way to treat yourself, either on the go or at home. My own taste in chocolate meets certain requirements: the cheaper brands that dilute the taste in no uncertain quantities of hydrogenated fats and sugar are snubbed. I generally prefer the ‘continental’ taste, described as being less sweet than your average confectionery brands and popular chocolate snack bars (although I will make allowances for those wafer-based favourites like KitKat and Blue Riband). The continental taste bars are mostly represented by Lindt, Milka, Green & Black’s, Divine Chocolate, and selected ranges by Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat.

By the way, sorry to disappoint (or pleased to reassure you!), but I am no chocolate purist (in the chocolate purity sense of the word), as I am not a fan of those 85% dark chocolate bars (although this is chocolate at its less adulterated form and therefore at its truest taste!). Ironically it may be because it tastes too much like real chocolate, an acquired taste after all!

On the subject of chocolate variants, a special mention however to pralines/ giandujas (found in Ferrero Rochers and Nutella!)... Again, did I mention anywhere in this article that I was a chocolate purist…

Onto the next level, I dispense with special occasions in order to justify my enjoyment of the more sophisticated side of chocolates, the ones displayed in presentation boxes, in their shiny foil or veiled in a cocoa, icing sugar or mocha dusting, teasing your eye with their lashings of packaging, secretive layers and evocative descriptions from the menu card… I will try to pace myself if I am in company but if, for instance, my partner randomly orders a surprise box that is ‘just for me’, I am afraid those treats will have signed their own death warrant the moment the box is deposited in my hands…

If chocolate is your weakness too, then resistance is futile! Give in to it because it is, after all, one of life’s little pleasures!

Find out more - brush up your chemistry: Neuroscience for Kids.

18 Nov 2009

Choc-a-Block! (Part 1)

I have a confession to make. There is a love in my life that has burnt a fire in my heart for as long as I can remember. This love is nothing to do with a quick burn-out affair, a fleeting passion that comes and goes with the seasons, or a reasoned affection. This love is more like a single-sided devotion on my part that will forever stay with me, leaving me appeased soon enough until satisfied again...

This is not Lord Byron enthusing about a lover, only humble I waxing lyrical over one of life’s little luxuries: chocolate, in rather hedonistic terms - I must concede (where’s my head at!) - but the word is as potent as it tastes, stirring emotions in me and bringing pleasure to my tastebuds and respite to my sanity!

Chocolate is synonym with food comforts, and one of those treats described as péché mignon (the cute sin) in French, the bon vivant’s allegorical excuse for indulgence bordering on the deadly sin of greed!

Clockwise from top left:  Thorntons, Van Houten, After Eight, Hotel Chocolat

According to ancient Aztec/ Mayan beliefs, chocolate used to be the drink of the Gods, certainly of society’s privileged few, bestowing powers. Chocolate was also used as a trading currency. The moment Conquistadores got acquainted to this treasured commodity was pivotal in defining and refining a new chapter in Western civilisations’ gastronomy.

A complex chemical reaction happens in the brain when the latter is stimulated by chocolate consumption. Chocolate compounds encourage the increase in serotonin and dopamine levels, therefore triggering the well-publicised mood-boosting effect one experiences on consumption. Chocolate as a mind-altering drug – I hear you gush – is the truth in principle, with the added advantage that the effects are mild, safe and legal!

However chocolate is also addictive, and I am probably a good example of this dependence. Although Choc and I go back a long time (early childhood), for the last 10 years, I have probably had it one way or another as part of my daily diet and, as such, we could safely deduct that this is one of my staple kitchen ingredients, although the bar form tends to be found in close proximity to the sofa – for a very brief period only – before disappearing! (to be continued)

15 Nov 2009

Sweet Nothings?

Trendy cookery and lifestyle books and blogs, the press, TV programmes, celebrity/ pastry chefs, bakers, culinary gurus and food photographers, down to greeting cards and the baking aisles of supermarkets and department stores have one hot golden favourite in common, an embodiment of sweetness and all things nice! Devotees have fallen under the spell of ‘her’ cute appearance, whose contained sexiness they extol as if describing an aspiring starlet with an evocative pout, Nabokov’s Lolita or a promising teen idol that will never grow up!

Please let me stop you in your tracks before you aim for Le Grand Larousse Gastronomique or Julia Child’s recipe books, for my friends I am not talking about a feast of ‘haute’ cuisine, but a pâtisserie phenomenon that has taken sexy back to the baking tray, in a riot of delectable and covetable creamy and dreamy textures, frosted colours, all packaged up in innovative designs and all-round feminity and girly fluffiness that make this pretty young thing hot property in our principally visual world. It is a bite-size wonder of pure hedonism that pleases the senses: so easy on the eye, eyes devour it, yet so easy on the palate, one never suffices, easy on the fingers, no clumsiness involved, all-round easy with a touch of deluxe… To put it simply, beauty has turned into an edible art form!

These delicate wonders that sparkle and shimmer and unfold are like precious jewels, little phials of perfume, allegorical dressed-up Barbie dolls of the pastry world distilling their attraction and asking for abandonment and complete devotion in return… This little treat is loved across generations, a social, age and gender leveller, powerful yet seemingly fragile!

This is also the humble combination of butter, sugar, eggs, flour into sponge, revisited, sexed-up, nipped and tucked, adorned to the limits of imagination to represent a miniature (doll-like) version of what a ‘normal-sized’ cake would look like. Its girliness and abundance of (mostly) snow white, baby pink, lemon/ primrose yellow, almond/ mint green and silver take us back to childhood idealised, a world of safety and nostalgia, like candyfloss and the candy store….

Its visual appeal makes it a delight to film and photograph, a darling of the home designer and trend-follower. Its convenient self-contained format makes it perfect in our on-the-move, on-the-run world, and a perfect occasion piece as it stands on its own, stands out and can be customised and disguised to match anything, from the delicate ribbon in the bridesmaids’ hair, to the prom night theme…

Its popularity transcends the world, and its many combinations and associations in looks, flavours and textures make it a versatile act to follow! This little one may be easy to describe and easy to eat, and – to the detractor - full of hot air – all style and no substance! - compared to established pâtisserie classics, but the chance is we’ll never sample all of its varieties/ coating and filling variants, thanks to the limitless human imagination, and this trendy cake will soon enough become a pillar of bakery establishment and rewrite the rules of pâtisserie, to make it more fun and colourful!

As you can see, there is definitely more to the cupcake/ fairy cake than cute! And let’s thank the girls from SATC for putting Magnolia Bakery on our radar.

Photographic credits in this article:

Additional resources:

13 Nov 2009

Nifty Thrifty (Part 2)

While exploring ways to shop savvily, I realised that I was paying over the odds for pet food at the supermarket or pet chain stores, and soon enough found a local pet food supplier who sells a wide variety of produce in bulk, and with a smile!

As a student, I was a hairdressing model for a few months and would get a free haircut from top salons, cultivating that neat straightened bob I favoured at the time. Recently, I asked my usual salon if I could be their model (terms including a great haircut for a fraction of the price, i.e. 5 times cheaper than the normal rate!). I have to say I had to swallow my pride for a moment (being their client turned model, and not exactly an 18-year-old) but the financial gain is not to be frowned upon, and in return you are doing a trainee hairdresser a favour, so this is definitely a win-win situation!

Further in my quest to be economically smart, I also started to plan my car journeys more carefully, making sure they would involve more than one errand! For example, if I drive down to the bank, I will also get some petrol on the way and walk a few blocks from the bank to the charity shop with items to donate. Making the trip more economically viable, with a thought for the environment: priceless!

On the subject of charity shops, on a couple of occasions I surprised my good intentions by sparing a few items from donation (sorry charity!), having decided that although I hadn’t worn them for years, maybe now was the time to give them a second chance, as there was no way I could justify a fashion expense (no matter how necessary the expense was!). Well, do I regret rediscovering those once-beleaguered UK-made straight-cut indigo denim (in pristine condition)? Nope, they definitely are my favourite jeans right now! Ha, the fickleness of the fashion follower!

Finally, if you are watching your money and calling yourself eco-conscious, then leaving electrical appliances (computer, TV set, hi-fi, game consoles) on standby when not used will be wasteful. According to Act on CO2, ‘if everyone in the UK switched off unused appliances it would save £800 million a year’. So there's another smart move for you and you will be quids in!

12 Nov 2009

Nifty Thrifty (Part 1)

The recession will have taught a number of us to exercise more caution towards our finances, prompting us to make clever savings, and for our money to work harder. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of it (being no financial adviser!) but by simply using a healthy dose of common sense, I embarked on a journey to streamline my outgoings, made a few savings in the process, and I thought I would share those simple tips with you! Handy all-year round, not just in the run-up to Christmas…

It has to start somewhere so it might as well start with your monthly bank statement. Take a critical look and take action! It may sound obvious but, if you haven’t yet looked into your mortgage repayment terms, now would be a good time to start, by scheduling a meeting with your mortgage provider. It could also be worthwhile to consult an independent financial adviser who would be able to submit interesting mortgage plans to you, and then transfer over.

The same tactic applies to all your other outgoings, from home insurance to life assurance, through to telephone and utility bills. Tell yourself that you have nothing to lose and potentially a lot to gain! Here are 2 juicy examples:

  • For the last 11 years, I was tied up to an expensive yet inflexible mobile phone contract that simply didn’t work for me. But out of habit, complacency, or fear of the unknown, I stuck to it. Then I took a leap of faith in March and decided to switch providers and move to the pay-as-you-go formula. Now I am just wondering why I didn’t switch earlier, as I am saving between £10 and £20 a month!
  • I felt discontented with our telephone/ broadband/ digital TV package. We had been long-time customers and felt taken for granted, whereas new customers were being incentivised. We gave the company a ring (actually quite a few persistent calls!) and eventually they agreed to review our account and offer a discount (once we threatened to leave them!).
The fact that you are a long-term customer, a good payer and/ or in receipt of a bundle of services (ex: gas and electricity) from one provider, will go in your favour and add clout to your claim. As companies will not reward your loyalty outright, you will have to be the one making that call.

Bills aside, I started to look at my purchasing patterns and identify areas for improvement, for instance paying more attention to those shopping coupons and store loyalty cards that may be underused or overlooked. In-store, I started to pay more attention to offers, and limit impulse buys.

Although supermarkets deliver the convenience of shopping, you need to realise that they also have a negative impact on local communities, draining livelihood out of them, with local shops struggling for survival. Also bear in mind that although our 4 main supermarket chains may compete with one another on price, they may not be necessarily cheaper or offer higher quality of produce than the local competition. Think about the fishmonger or the butcher for instance. (to be continued)

11 Nov 2009

Domesticity without the Nasties (Part 2)

When a ‘power’ clean beckons or that blitz clean mood has possessed me, I will use a cleaning cream (the successor to the scouring powders of my childhood, with the added promise of not scratching surfaces although its use on shiny acrylic sanitaryware is not recommended – if you want the sheen to remain vibrant). You will also find a bottle of Dettol lurking under my sink (always used in diluted form), handy for the pet owner in their battle against germs, odours and little accidents over laminate/ tiled floors. And once a fortnight I soak scouring pads, washing-up brushes and sponges in diluted Dettol overnight.

Laundry-wise, things are a tad more complicated, with 3 different purpose washing products: Ecover (either in powder or liquid form) for all whites, a leading supermarket brand for coloured items and a delicates gel specifically designed for hand-washing and machine-washable delicates. I also have a box of Ecover Chlorine-Free Laundry Bleach (100% percarbonate, i.e. salt + limestone + oxygenated water) that I occasionally use, for  linen and net curtains in need of a boost of brightness.

Furniture-wise, I have a good quality nourishing balm that I apply on my few leather items. First of all, I remove any traces of dirt with a slightly damp clean cloth, then pat dry, before nourishing the leather in circular movements.

Finally, a standard window-cleaning spray is my little extra chemical luxury (I do wash and pat dry the windows first, obtaining a great clean as it is, but finish off with the spray, although I could do without!)

Essentially these afore-mentioned products are the main chemical staples I use around the home. I keep it simple, because experience has taught me that having many products will not encourage you to use them all religiously. So why waste your money and that precious space in the utility room?

My beautiful bespoke patterned curtains, from John Lewis
However, as mentioned in my previous post, I do have a few simple tricks up my sleeve that help me justify my minimised use of chemicals:
  • Washing up: I take it easy on the washing-up liquid (only a few drops) but change the water as soon as it gets cloudy: more hygienic and effective than loads of foam that masks the dirty dish water and bathes your dishes in it!
  • Dusting: my dusters are no state-of-the-art coated cloths, but plain rags made from old kitchen towels and old hand towels that have been cut up. I slightly dampen a clean cloth before dusting the furniture, carefully yet in a light manner. This is more effective than any of the sprays out there that have the nasty habit of clogging up the wood and leaving a glaze that will end up tarnishing it.
  • Air freshening: it is no rocket science, I simply open the windows! Ask the smokers in your household to smoke outside (or burn a candle as those will absorb odours). Yet if you are keen on a fragrance, use a few drops of essential oils in a burner, this beats chemicals anytime!
  • Scouring/ de-staining: ask Kim and Aggie (but this was already a favourite of mine before they mentioned it on TV!), there is no better way than the soda bicarbonate way! I mix it into a paste with water and use it around the home: to remove tea/ coffee stains from cups and teaspoons, to clean inside vases, to freshen grout around bathroom wall tiles, and (a long time ago, before the glass shower panel was installed) to clean mould traces off the shower curtain. It is also a great deodoriser/ disinfectant, as I found out in the early stages of dog ownership, when Tickle stained the bottom of the dry-clean-only patio door curtain and the fabric sofa (what a little devil he was!). Patience, a damp clean rag and soda bicarbonate helped me to remedy the potentially disastrous mishaps, leaving no trace and no smell afterwards!
  • Hard-to-reach surfaces: scrubbing with a little help from an old toothbrush! I never throw them away and give them a second lease of life: great for grout, around taps, in nooks and crannies overlooked by a sponge or a standard-size brush, they are definitely those under-rated allies that will help you achieve that attention to detail.
  • Disinfectant: another evident, overlooked, truth in the form of boiling hot water (i.e. straight out of the kettle). A good kettle-ful of it down the sink will banish lingering smells and prevent clog-ups. Soak sponges, scourers and washing-up brushes in them to help eliminate germs and odours.
All in all, this is about domesticity without the nasties!

8 Nov 2009

Domesticity without the Nasties (Part 1)

Advertising has the power to create need and influence consumer decision. Household product advertising, in particular, will never fall short of a miracle, featuring a formula that has passed the test of time (decades of it, to be precise!): problem vs. solution (evil vs. good), transposed into a scarily dirty household situation quickly remedied by a miracle cure resulting in gleaming surfaces and a happy and grateful housewife. A few simple yet powerful words (clean, fresh, brilliant, dazzling, sparkling, amazing, fantastic, quick, easy, trust, love) convey a message of hope and reassurance against a background of promises.

It is far too tempting to fall under the spell of advertising and purchase all the products available on the market: a gel to remove stubborn stains, a cleaner specifically designed for mouldy grout, another for the kitchen oven, an air purifier, a stain-removal spray, a loo disinfectant… It is easy to get carried away with problem-specific products, and soon enough turn the shelves of one’s utility room into a personal hardware shop… However there is no mention of the chemical ingredients that help achieve those results. Because, of course, in case we had forgotten, those kinds of miracles are far from being holy manifestations!

Yet the chance (the irony!) is you will end up using the same 3 or 4 core products (your tried, trusted and tested ones!), actually a bit like your capsule clothing wardrobe (those favourite garments: that comfy jumper, that beloved dress, that no-fuss jacket…).

I am not ashamed to admit that in the past I have fallen for some of those ‘high-tech’ household products, TV-advertised or not, succumbed to their convincing spiel and before-and-after photos, but never actually used them once purchased... In parallel to this, I have to admit that I have never been a fan of ‘hardcore’ cleaners that deliver the clean at a hefty cost to the environment and your health! In my quest for less chemicals, I have used alternative cleaning agents and methods. First though I will reveal my core (chemical) products. Who said I was perfect?

Over the years I have experienced with a variety of washing-up liquid brands, but my one favourite remains Ecover. Its ecological stance over the minimal impact of its chemical ingredients on aquatic life has probably played a major role in my mind, while the power of natural ingredients (ex: chamomile) has been harnessed to conjure up a ‘chemistry’ with the chemicals. Furthermore the washing-up liquid is not harsh on your hands, with no unnecessary extra foaming, colourings, or man-made aromas. Also where facilities exist, bottles may be refilled, minimising waste by allowing packaging to be re-used.

I use a general household cleaner whose versatile applications (in diluted form) cover a variety of surfaces and materials, indoor and outdoor, from kitchen to bathroom, from laminate flooring to ceramic tiles via the painted staircase, enamelled cooker top, acrylic sink, ceramic handbasin, PVC window frames and glass, windowsills, bins, iron gates etc. (to be continued)

7 Nov 2009

Five Minute Coconut Cake

Approx 8 slices
Preparation: 5 mins
Cooking: 40 mins

When time is of the essence and kitchen ingredients are sparse, this no-fuss creation delivers its promise of simplicity and time efficiency, with a rough-textured crumbly mix brought to life by a touch of the exotic. A perfect accompaniment to elevenses, high tea and the late-night hot cocoa mug, or simply to soothe a sweet-tooth craving!

  • 120 g of desiccated coconut
  • 6 heaped tablespoons of self-raising flour
  • 1 whole egg
  • Pint of semi-skimmed milk
  • 3 heaped tablespoons of Demerara sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of nut-flavoured oil (walnut, hazelnut)
Pre-heat the oven (180°C). Combine all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Stir together with a spoon until you obtain a smooth mixture.

Oil a cake mould, then add the mixture. Place in the oven for 40 mins. Finally leave to cool for at least 5 mins before succumbing to temptation!

6 Nov 2009

Pretty Lovely!

Hello and pleased to be back! My 8-day break from La Baguette Magique wasn’t a result of writer’s block or blogosphere desertion… I was away last week-end, and then on Monday the decorators took over my house for the week, for a long-overdue refresh. I am delighted with the results and would like to casually share a few pictures with you, like old friends do!

I do decorate my own home and put a lot of attention to detail in the process, however the lounge is a tricky space as it incorporates the open staircase and I find the walls of the latter daunting in terms of decorating, so prefer to leave them to the experts… I also currently have a variety of other projects on the go and, with time being a precious commodity and with my propensity to flutter from project to the next like a butterfly, I thought it wiser to offload the decorating to professionals who would stand a better chance at sticking to their 5-day timeframe promise than if I did undertake the task!

My partner and I chose Mellow Mocha by Dulux for the walls. The name conjures up an idea of gourmandise (very suited to me!): think white coffee, very diluted to the point where the traditional café latte colour almost fades away. At this very moment is its encounter with a light-hearted touch of milky hot chocolate, creating a tone of mauve that subtly balances between warmth and cold, a welcome diversion from the previous scheme of Suede (an off-white with a hint of grey/ green) set against a feature wall of light ochre (very trendy back in 2001!).

Woodwork, including the actual wooden staircase, has been recoated, this time in a silk finish, making the surface less slippery underfoot than traditional gloss. Babushka seems to agree with me on this!

29 Oct 2009

Time to Take Time! (Part 2)

The idea of the snatched sandwich lunch at the office desk, popular in British workplaces, will always baffle me in terms of those office workers (not talking about higher management here!) jeopardising their entitlement to a legally-deserved quality time break that they should dedicate to their lunch and to general well-being!

Instead those employees give me the impression of feeling guilty or shifty about their break, having what looks like a working lunch improvised against the distractions of the office, while at the same time multi-tasking over the internet, juggling between different web pages, the work-related ones and the social network/ news/ shopping ones…

How can you be performant and productive the whole day, every day, without taking a proper break away from your desk, is beyond me. In my fifteen years spent in office environments, I have always made a point of leaving my desk, whether to go to the canteen, out for a walk, run some errands, even drive somewhere and stay in the car just to take stock and enjoy some peace and quiet.

Remember, a few generations ago, some workers - maybe your own ancestors – would have raised their voices and gone on strike to help better the human condition and obtain more rights in the workplace. One of these rights was a lunch break and if you are not taking it, then maybe one day employers will become convinced that employees don’t need them after all… Now I hope you are not reading this while on your snatched lunch break at work. What did I say earlier?

28 Oct 2009

Time to Take Time! (Part 1)

As an introduction to this post, I would be tempted to quote the first sentence of my user profile: ‘In this fast-paced, deadline-chasing modern world, it is far too easy to lose touch with the little pleasures of life...’ Unfortunately everything the modern world has to offer seems to lean towards the fickleness of speed: fast fashion, fast food, fast cars, fast results, life in the fast lane, the fast and the furious… For the appreciation of life’s little pleasures cannot be achieved at speed, and the latter may only generate frustration at some level.

The little pleasures of life are epitomised by a slower approach, in tune with the seasons, the environment, the emotions. As seen earlier on (in The Reckoning), one of the little pleasures of life may be to appreciate fruit and veg that are in season, for example the oh-so-brief British asparagus season that is worth the wait! The beauty of seasonal produce is that they reward you for your wait with their quality and taste at their very best.

Right time also goes hand in hand with right place. In France, the gourmet hastes not. Part of their pleasure in purchasing pastries from the pâtisserie lies in their selection, a sweet dilemma for the indecisive faced with so many temptations. Shall we plump for 2 chocolate religieuses, 1 millefeuille and 1 gland, or how about 1 tartelette paysanne, 1 pêche melba, 1 coffee éclair and 1 meringue? Or maybe just 2 barquettes aux marrons, 1 tête de nègre and 1 opéra?

The taste experience is enhanced by the prelude of the pâtisserie ‘ceremony’, as once the selection has been finalised, the anticipation of cake-eating is prolonged further while we watch the shop assistant skilfully arranging the pastries in a box, or on a cardboard tray with branded pâtisserie paper folded over in a precise - almost origami-like – style, and tied together with a ribbon. If you indicate that the pastries are actually a present, then wrapping paper sublimates the experience. Adding mystery and drama to the contents through packaging is a time-consuming art that is lost on the Starbucks or Prêt-à-Mangers of the fast world.

On departing from the pâtisserie you then travel all the way back home with your unopened package, prolonging the anticipation further with patience and self-discipline. No, you just don’t rip those wrappings in the street and scoff your pastries like some would a burger or croissant! You have to respect your gâteaux!

This is just one of life’s little pleasures: it is not just about treating yourself, but taking time to savour the treat, having your cake and (a little later) eating it! This time-consumed little pleasure is in direct opposition to the next section of this essay: the snatched office lunch. (to be continued)

25 Oct 2009

A Textile Heritage (Part 2)

Maybe we took it for granted back then, but most of the clothing, upholstery, table, bed and bathroom linen which were available for purchase from the independent high street specialists down to the Parisian chain stores and the modern hypermarkets, were made in France.

I grew up in the firm patriotic belief that ‘homegrown’ was best, as it was all we knew and satisfied our requirements: cheap in price, abundant in quantity, reliable in quality and design, trusted in know-how and expertise. It also kept the economy going and fed mouths.

As we are only too aware, the demise of textile, not just across France but elsewhere in Europe and North America, has been – to say the least – spectacular, with established textile dynasties going bust and making way for the cheap imports and the tat! When once upon a time, my hometown boasted dozens of production mills providing employment to thousands of workers, today is a different story with only one textile mill, Bochard, still in activity, with less than a dozen employees…

If the industry is clutching at straws in Picardie and other declining northern French regions, it is still nonetheless trying to maintain a reputation for quality and tradition by producing table, bed and bath linen that may not necessarily compete in price with the cheap imports from the Middle & Far East, but which surpasses them on the overlooked parameter of quality. A parameter that the supply-chain guys employed by big retail organisations will sadly overlook as they nurture their bottom line and ROIs...

Below is the photographic testimony of this ruthless end of an era, with La Cotonnière de St-Quentin during demolition in 2008 (© Ministère de la Culture/ Région Picardie - Inventaire général/ Ville de St-Quentin).

I, the humble customer with a discerning taste that ‘traces its origins back to my own origins’, will carry on purchasing those items, out of love and principle, and because they represent a textile heritage that is linked to my own history.

24 Oct 2009

A Textile Heritage (Part 1)

My love for quality linen traces its origins back to my own origins… Intrigued? Find out why I am prepared to go the extra mile and pay the price...

As intimated on An Old Faithful Kitchen Companion blog post, I was born and raised in North East Picardie, France, an outpost of the textile industry - and more precisely in the town of St-Quentin, 'le Manchester de la France'. Many of my ancestors, on my paternal side of the family, were involved as weavers in (mainly) cottage industries throughout the villages. My great grandfather, Louis, worked in textile from the age of 6 until retirement, with a 4-year hiatus to fight the war in the trenches, hardly a much-deserved holiday break…

On my maternal side of the family, upon their arrival from Corsica in 1949, mémé and my grandad, Armand, also worked in textile, in town. Although the industry had been declining as a whole since the 1950s, it remained the main employer in the region, drawing in a skilled labour pool, providing a livelihood and contributing to the economic prosperity of my hometown. Bedlinen, elaborate curtain guipures and garment production requiring a multitude of skills were the main activities, centred around cotton and synthetics. Below is a late 19th century lithography of Société David, Troullier & Adhémar, a cotton mill (© Ministère de la Culture/ Région Picardie - Inventaire général/ Ville de St-Quentin).

Most mills traced their origins back to the mid-19th century, with the close-border geography lending itself to international ties, from Britain to the Netherlands, from Argentina to Germany. Names spoke for themselves: William Cliff, Vandendriessche, La Cotonnière, Daltroff, Touron, amongst so many others… Below is a letterhead (1900-14) for Société Albert Sidoux & Cie (© Ministère de la Culture/ Région Picardie - Inventaire général/ Ville de St-Quentin).

Factory shops were a shop-window of sorts, offering a sample collection of what had been produced in-situ. As a child growing up in the 1970s, I would visit them with my mum and I would be dressed - on a tight budget - on dégriffé off-the-peg couture (i.e. genuine designer garments sold cheaply in the factory shop where they had been made, with their designer labels cut out for legal reasons). I remember a much-loved purple folksy skirt and bolero ensemble produced under licence for Sonia Rykiel, which my mum had bought me for a few Francs. (to be continued)

23 Oct 2009

Creamed Spinach

Serves 2-4
Preparation: 10 mins
Cooking: 8 mins

This is the perfect main-course accompaniment to meats, white fish or poached eggs, with minimum fuss and maximum flavour, one of your 5-a-days and iron-rich (ask Popeye!). It can be reheated, or even finished off under the grill for that slightly gratined bite. Béchamel is the basis to this sauce.
  • 300g of spinach, washed
  • 30 g of salted butter
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons of self-raising flour (or plain flour)
  • Pint of semi-skimmed milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Add the spinach to a pan of simmering water, place the lid on the pan and leave to simmer for 4 minutes. Drain immediately, making sure you extract as much water as possible. Keep the spinach aside.

Prepare the Béchamel, starting with the butter that you melt onto a very low setting. Once the butter is almost melted, add the finely chopped garlic and stir quickly for no more than 10 seconds. Add the flour to the pan in one swoop, and whisk altogether, making sure the flour is coated in butter and you obtain a solid yet sticky consistency. I personally prefer using self-raising flour as it gives the Béchamel a more ‘airy’ texture than plain flour would.

Add half the milk to the pan and turn the cooker setting up slightly. Keep whisking the sauce to prevent it from sticking and forming lumps. A couple of minutes later, as the sauce thickens and starts bubbling up, add the remaining milk and carry on whisking until the preparation bubbles up yet again.

Season to taste and add the drained spinach, stirring with a wooden spoon and making sure the spinach is evenly distributed. Serve immediately. Alternatively, finish off under the grill.

19 Oct 2009

My Organic Garden (Part 2)

For those other rose bushes, I opted for an organic alternative provided by an online supplier: a horticultural soft soap contact insecticide solution which is diluted in water then sprayed onto the affected areas, and repeated until results are noticed. The solution acts as a gooey deterrent. On another occasion, I even ordered a box of live ladybirds from Scarletts which I released inside the bush itself, as per instructions. The operation was a tad volatile - shall we say - as I had difficulty in securing the opened box within the bush and also coercing the ladybirds to remain on the bush rather than fly away to greener pastures!

My Heavenly-scented Rosa canina for the front garden...

Another method I have used, more drastic and with a varying level of success was to trim down the affected bush, removing the contaminated branches, plunging them in a bucket of diluted household cleaner solution (the chemical interference, I concede) to kill off the aphids before disposing safely to avoid cross-contamination. All things considered, the chives’ preventative influence remains by far the easiest, less stressful and less messy option.

Garden pests do not only refer to weeds or bugs, but also to animal pets… I am not a cat owner but on a few occasions my garden has turned into a cat social club, with the felines using areas of freshly dug-up soil as a toilet. Meanwhile I had read a magazine review praising a totally safe and chemical-free method which thankfully would get rid of the nuisance. The product is called ‘Silent Roar’, and is made up of round pellets coated in lion dung. This may not sound like your average deterrent, but it does the trick, albeit not instantly.

You are required to clean the soiled area first, then, wearing the gloves provided, sprinkle the pellets, and let them work the charm! Repeat the operation until the area is no longer soiled. Those pesky cats will realise soon enough (although this may take 2-3 weeks!) that a much bigger cat has made the patch his territory, and they will end up deserting it.

Finally, my gallery of organic ideas wouldn’t be complete without a few fertilizing tips that won't cost the earth. Having read and heard from different sources that infused/ percolated, loose tea and ground coffee make good plant fertilisers, I sprinkle them at the foot of my garden and indoor plants alike. Banana skins are a good fortifier and source of potassium for rose bushes: just leave at the foot. Crushed eggshell will provide calcium to your indoor cacti.

... and my amazing Callistemon in my South-facing back garden!

I believe that gardening should be fun. I also believe that it should be chemical-free. We interfere with nature enough as it is so, while we are playing god with our little vegetal cosmos, why not let nature do its course and work its wonders, with a gentle help of common sense and earth-friendly methods? It is easier than we think.

My Organic Garden (Part 1)

Weeds are the vegetal pests of the garden and can wreak havoc with lawns, flower borders and vegetable patches relentlessly. However I disagree with the use of pesticides and weed killers. Those may provide a quick turnaround solution, but they are not without consequence as they leave a trail of death behind them, killing not just weeds, but also garden bugs (good or bad!), gastropods, worms, and harming other life forms. Regular use of chemicals will impoverish the soil, destroying precious nutrients. If you are using pesticides, weed killers and – come to think of it – fertilizers, while cultivating edible plants, you will also incur the risk of consuming quantities of the chemicals as these will travel down the food chain.

For as long as I have owned my property (over ten years), I have never used chemicals, bar once when I was given (against my will!) an anti-greenfly/ whitefly spray to treat my single rose bush in the front garden! Having said that, I used the spray on no more than a couple of occasions, as I didn’t want it to interfere with my principles.

However my proudest achievements have been to eradicate disease without resorting to chemical aid, and allow plants to grow and strengthen at their own rhythm rather than force them to balloon up with fertilizing wonders… I also decided from the start that my lawn would be a country lawn, with the accepted interference of dandelion if need be (dandelions might sometimes be humanely removed, by pulling them off the ground, not a mean feat in itself!). Earlier on in the garden’s life I even sowed the odd splash of prairie lawn seeds and every now and again I still enjoy the sighting of cardamine coming into its own.

It may sound obvious but research carefully the soil and location requirements for each new plant you purchase. Sadly I never realised for years that hydrangeas do not thrive in sunny positions. By the time I had found out it was too late. But I learnt from my mistake and made sure that the next hydrangea I purchased would be placed in a shady position. In the space of 3 years, it has thrived enormously, with nothing more than the right location, a good watering in the summer and a good haircut in the autumn once its blooms have withered beyond recognition.

Old wives’ tales and personal observations have also enabled me to nurture my plants and help them thrive in as much of a natural environment as possible. My mum had mentioned to me a few times that chives planted at the foot of a rose bush would help keep aphids away. Incidentally a wild rosa canina started to grow amongst the chive patch in my herb garden. Over the years, I've had the pleasure to notice that the rose bush was never once affected by pests, although rose bushes in other parts of the garden had been under attack (to be continued).

14 Oct 2009

T is for Tea

After dedicating a post to one of my staple food ingredients (sea salt), I thought I would take the liberty to explore with you another of my 'capsule wardrobe' ingredients, one which – should you knock on my front door unannounced – you will be assured is stored in my kitchen cupboard, no matter the day of week or time of month!

I may intermittently run out of essentials like bread, fruit juice or chocolate (who’s the culprit?!), but I’ll always be safe in the knowledge that my extensive collection of teas and herbal teas will last me for months. These are probably not everyone’s cup of tea (so to speak) but as far as hot drinks are concerned I like to keep my tea options open.

First I should perhaps clarify the fact that I am not a fan of ‘everyday’ English tea, the one that is spurn out in tea bags from the big brands off the supermarket, and needs to be drowned in milk and sugar to make it remotely palatable… I won’t give names but I’m sure you'll have an idea. Having said that, the irony is that I do store it in large quantities, due to the fact that my partner is an avid ‘everyday’ tea drinker…

However my personal selection of teas is eclectic and includes loose and bagged varieties, mainstream brands and the more connoisseur products. Just to give you an idea of what I have in store right this moment:

  • Mainstream: Twinings Earl Grey; Tick Tock rooibos tea (with redbush, a caffeine-free alternative); supermarket own brand peppermint tea (admittedly a very poor alternative to the freshly-picked, freshly-crushed garden mint ingredient!); Twinings Digestif Tea (a mix of peppermint and fennel to aid digestion)
  • Connoisseur: Earl Grey (from Stokes, a renowned tea and coffee house in Lincoln); ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ (a romantic blend of loose green tea and dried rose buds, purchased from Geels in Amsterdam).

Undoubtedly my moods and the availability from shops I visit influence my choices. In the last 12 months, the following were also part of my collection:
  • Mainstream: Loose jasmine tea (supermarket own brand); Clipper’s white tea with raspberry-flavour; fruit infusions from Tetley
  • Connoisseur: Brewhaha rose tea (a potent black tea, delightfully flavoured); a tiny tin of framboise tea from Geels (which I consumed in extreme moderation!); Farrer’s Lakeland Special Tea (a holiday present); bergamot tea from Imperial Teas of Lincoln (a specialist tea and coffee house on Steep Hill)…
If it is claimed that variety is the spice of life, the saying definitely applies to my approach to tea concoctions and infusions! Why stick with the one when you could enjoy more! And you needn’t feel guilty about those little pleasures, a little goes a long way, and they will therefore be cheaper than chocolate! Now on to some serious business: let’s put the kettle on…

12 Oct 2009

Hot Shots!

Hot beverages needn't be restricted to coffee, tea, or that late-night mug of cocoa. There are various other ways to quench your thirst, or simply treat yourself. Here I will share with you my most unusual hot drink sensations, in no preferential order:

Hot Spiced Apple Juice:

The first time I had it was at the Manchester Craft & Design Centre’s café about 10 years ago. It was a crisp autumn afternoon and I’d met up with a friend. A quick glance at the menu convinced us to try the drink, served in tall latte glasses, and it couldn’t be easier to recreate at home. It was refreshing yet warming at the same time.

For 2 people: pour half a carton of good quality apple juice into a saucepan, add a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and gently warm up on the stove (do not boil). For added effect, omit the ground cinnamon, gently warm up the apple juice on its own, then pour into individual tall glasses and add a cinnamon quill per glass. Leave to infuse. Enjoy!

Masala Chai with Cardamom Seeds:

A Pakistani friend of mine, Mrs Anwar, gave me the recipe for this deliciously sweet milky tea years ago at her dinner party. I was surprised at how sweet and aromatic the tea was, the combination of milk and cardamom seeds lending it a caramel-like flavour and colour, while taking any of the tea bitterness away.

Steep one English breakfast tea bag (or Assam or black tea) per person into a saucepan of whole milk and water (a ratio of roughly two thirds milk for one third water). Add a good tablespoon of cardamom seeds per 2 drinkers, and bring to the boil. Allow the concoction to boil for a good couple of minutes before straining directly into mugs with a tea strainer. Sweeten to taste with Demerara sugar.

Fresh Mint Tea (Verse Muntthee):

The best mint tea I have ever tasted was last June in the heart of Amsterdam, at the Café de Jaren. The one and only ingredient (bar the hot water) couldn’t be simpler, I agree, but its quality, freshness, concentrated flavours and the overall presentation made it perfect. The clear glass tea cup held a handful of bushy mint twigs (not the paltry one or two that might have been expected) whose flavour gradually developed as I gently pressed my teaspoon against their leaves. The tea was incredibly tasty and crisp and was a pleasure for the senses. The commercially-available dry-powdered peppermint bags will definitely taste bland and vulgar after such an experience!

The mint from my herb garden!

I have tried to recreate the flavour at home with my organic home-grown mint, unfortunately the aphids and other garden pests which I found drowned in my cuppa were a bit of a turn-off, despite the twigs having been washed… Also it appears that my mint is just not as aromatic as the one from the café.

Café de Jaren, Nieuwe Doelenstraat 20, 1012 CP Amsterdam.

Hot Chocolate:

Travelling back in time again, a good decade ago to be precise, I experienced not just hot chocolate from the high street, but Café Thorntons’ hot chocolate, according to a method which they have since unfortunately streamlined. Back in the day, indulgence was the secret ingredient for this particular drink (I think it used to be called Continental Hot Chocolate, but don’t take my word for it!)

The hot chocolate was made pretty much like it is today, except that at the end of the process the café assistant would take a thimble-size chocolate cup out of the fridge, fill it up with double cream and then drop it gently into the hot chocolate, for that final oomph! And like today, the drink was accompanied by one of Thorntons' individual chocolate creations, boosting the total chocolate intake to chocolate heaven levels! I used to enjoy this as part of a weekly lunchtime treat, and would float on a chocolate high for the rest of the afternoon! Bring it (back) on, Mr Thornton!