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Posts from the ‘All things nice’ Category

The Greengage Summer

We live in an area of Switzerland, in the south-west, which is known for being one of sunniest cantons in the country. Although July was rather on the wet side, August is looking a lot more clement already, the sun is blazing outside and the mountains look beautiful in the bright light. This kind of climate is a paradise for growing soft fruit. We are right in the middle of apricot season and when you drive down into the valley, there are stalls selling apricots and any related products every two kilometres along the road. There is something incredibly nice about knowing that your fruit’s provenance is a stone’s throw away.

Other than apricots, there are greengages, called Reine Claude in French. Small, gorgeous, green and amazingly juicy. They are in season for such a short time, it would be a crime not to grab a punnet and enjoy them.

We had some left over and I couldn’t quite muster the strength to eat all fifteen of them in one go before they went off… imagine the stomach ache! So instead I came up with this recipe, a tart, with a shortcrust base, some indulgent mascarpone, lemon marmalade and of course, the succulent greengages.

Greengage, Mascarpone & Lemon Marmalade Tart

Ingredients

For the shortcrust pastry
125g plain flour
Pinch of salt
55g butter, cut into cubes,
2-3 tbsp of water

For the filling
Approx. 15 greengages, cut in half, stones removed
250g tub of mascarpone
2 tbsp of icing sugar
Lemon marmalade

Put flour and salt in large bowl and then add the butter. Using your fingers, rub the flour and butter together until you have a consistency similar to coarse breadcrumbs. Try and do this swiftly or else it will go greasy, I usually run my hands under the cold tap and then pat dry before starting so the butter doesn’t melt too fast.

Add a tbsp of water, the consistency will change immediately once you mix it in, add another tbsp and repeat. Add a third if needed. Now wrap dough in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Whilst the dough is resting, grease a 24cm tart tin.

After you’ve prepared the greengages, mix 2 tbsp of icing sugar into the mascarpone.

At this point, your dough will be ready, remove from clingfilm and roll out with a rolling pin onto a surface lightly covered with flour. Carefully place it in the tart tin and shape to fit. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Turn the oven on to 190 degrees.

When the 15 minutes are up, blind bake the case. Prick the pastry with a fork and then cover with greaseproof paper that fits the base. Place dried beans (I use chickpeas), dry rice, dry lentils or pie weights over the surface of the covering. Put in the oven and bake for 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let it cool for about 5 minutes. Then add the mascarpone, spreading it evenly. Place the greengages, cut side down, and then put a little marmalade on each of the halves of fruit.

Bake for 30 minutes on a shelf near the bottom of the oven. Once done, don’t take the tart out immediately as the filling will still be runny. I turn the oven off, open the door and pull the shelf out slightly. After a few minutes, you should be able to place it on the kitchen counter without any spills!

Let the tart cool & set completely before serving. Enjoy!

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Surfing & Yoga at Surf Maroc

Onwards, in a taxi, to somewhere north of Agadir. A place called Aourir, known by everyone as Banana Village, just a little south of Taghazout, the surfing community of the area. The journey is chaotic but funny as our enthusiastic taxi driver bombs down the motorway towards our destination. This is argan tree land, there are thousands of them planted everywhere, on the hills, the side of the road, in every small patch available.

Late afternoon, we arrive at Villa Mandala, a wonderful house on the beach. A warm welcome awaits from Louise & Emma, our yoga teachers and hosts for the week. We also meet the other residents of this 7-day yoga and surf retreat – an array of nationalities from Europe and the US, a great mix of personalities and backgrounds.

Our schedule each day includes two hours of meditation & yoga early morning, followed by a hearty and wholesome breakfast, before Eunice and Karim, our surf instructors, turn up to take us surfing to the various spots in the area. We return mid-afternoon, salty, sandy, windswept and sun baked ready for another two-hour session of yoga early evening. We are then rewarded by an amazing Moroccan inspired vegetarian feast cooked up by Shane Vincent, the Global Table Chef.

I take part in a 4-hour cookery class with Shane and some of the girls on holiday there. Going to the market to pick out the produce is a great experience, the stalls are over spilling with fruit and vegetables, it is busy, hot, fragrant. Back in the kitchen, Shane has us working like a well oiled machine: peeling chickpeas and almonds, toasting seeds and nuts, making curry paste, melting chocolate… Cooking the evening meal for everyone is incredibly rewarding.

On the surfing front, Eunice, our instructor, is an incredible teacher – clear with his instructions, patient, happy, kind and always full of praise when you finally catch that wave and stand up. If you ever get the chance to go on a Surf Maroc holiday, be sure to seek him out.

And, of course, the yoga… This holiday changes everything for me. I’d never been particularly into yoga before I went to this retreat. I dabbled a little here and there for several years, focusing on running and cycling rather than increasing my flexibility or strength. The wonderful set-up, the teachers, the progress I make and the open atmosphere this retreat offers takes me to a place where I suddenly understand why people are passionate about yoga. I now embrace it, trying to practice at least three times a week by any means I can – be it alone or in a class.

Surf Maroc’s Villa Mandala is the place to go if you want an active holiday, with great food, some pampering, a welcoming environment and the opportunity to feel not only revived but relaxed. You can do as much or as little as you want… which is just what you want when you are on holiday, away from all the obligations of your usual life.

Eat, Sleep, Shop – The Marrakesh Way

Discovering a country’s cuisine, having a comfortable place to stay and indulging in a spot of shopping is all part of the holiday experience. Here is what Marrakesh had to offer:

EAT
If you are anything like me, sampling the local cuisine is a must when on holiday. Despite most restaurants aiming their menus at tourists, the food is, in the main, very good. There aren’t many options if you are a vegetarian but most places do have a limited selection for the non-meat eaters. Also it is worth remembering that as a Muslim country, most places do not serve alcohol, though the higher end restaurants do. Here are a few recommendations:

For lunch:

Le Bougainvillier (33 Rue Mouassine): We stumbled across this one lunchtime as we were trying to find our way back from the Medina. Serves paninis, sandwiches, salads & cakes. The lovely courtyard is a great place to relax after a morning in the souks.

Earth Café (www.earthcafemarrakech.com) : Marrakesh’s first vegetarian café, it has a great choice of food. The portions are very generous, the prices are reasonable and the staff is very friendly. A great little place for a relaxed lunch. It also runs some cookery classes if you are so inclined.

For dinner:

Marrakchi (52 Rue des Banques): A restaurant positioned high above the Djema el Fna square, it offers a wide choice of good food, the service is great and the entertainment made for a great evening. We shared a vegetable pastilla to start and then had tagines. We also sampled a Moroccan red wine from the Meknès region – very palatable! Mains start at 130dh (approx. 13 euros).

Le Tanjia (near Place des Ferblantiers): This restaurant, in an old mansion with modern decor, served the best fish tagine of the holiday! The service was excellent and the prices were reasonable.

Djemaa el Fna Foodstalls: If you wish to eat at one of the stalls, I’d recommend choosing one which is mainly visited by locals, they don’t tend to hustle for your custom as much and the food is very good. You just take a seat at one of the benches and choose what you want from the menu. I greedily had several merguez sausages whilst John plumped for some calamari, all food comes with bread and they fetch drinks for you from stalls nearby. Being at the heart of it all makes it an incredible experience, one which I urge you to try if you get the chance.

SLEEP

If you ever find yourself in Marrakesh, I’d recommend staying in a riad, namely Riad Les Hibiscus, an oasis in the middle of the chaos. A two minute walk from the Djemaa el Fna square, its non-descript exterior belies the beautiful interior of tasteful white walls, sage green doors & woodwork, a small pool in the central courtyard, comfortable wicker furniture and interesting artwork. Stunning flowers & lush plants add to this haven. The room (Lotus) was comfortable, clean and peaceful and I cannot praise the riad’s hosts enough for their kindness and discreet manner.

SHOP

I found the souks incredibly overwhelming the first time we ventured there, there are no street names and it is easy to get a little lost! However, if you are blessed with a good sense of direction and a map, you should enjoy finding your way round. The souks north of the Djemaa El Fna square are made up of a long covered street, Rue Souk Smarine, which then branches out into two smaller streets, Soul el Attarin and Souk el Kebir. Off these, you can find all the souks, down alleys, lanes and small squares. Each are dedicated to specific crafts.

If you are not keen on haggling, I’d recommend going to the Ensemble Artisanal (Av. Mohammed V). It is a government run complex of arts & crafts with a good selection of goods – leather, jewellery, clothing, rugs, carpets and ceramics. The prices are fixed and you can shop without any hassle – I bought my niece and nephew some gorgeous babouches for a very reasonable price. At the back there are workshops where we saw some young ladies making carpets, an impressive and time-consuming task.

Next instalment: yoga, surfing & some great Moroccan inspired vegetarian dishes

Rousing Marrakesh

Imagine all your senses being stimulated at once, the smell of spices & food, the taste of ‘whiskey marocain’ (mint tea), the sight of vivid colours in the souks & smoke plumes emanating from the food stalls, the warmth of the sun on your skin, the stickiness of the humidity, the cobbled streets teeming with people, the rousing call to prayer, the sounds of the snake charmers’ instruments, drums beating, mopeds speeding past, people selling their wares. This is Marrakesh. It’s loud, it’s big; it’s an exuberant friend – the life and soul of the party. Don’t be fooled by its liveliness, it also has quiet moments; in the beautiful riads, the ruined palaces, the less frequented streets away from the tourist spots.

We spent 4 days there at the end of June, staying a stone’s throw from Djemaa el Fna, the city’s amazing square. Famous for its snake charmers, acrobats and storytellers, the square is bustling with people from dawn till well beyond dusk. Stalls selling fresh orange juice, dried fruit, nuts and water are there for the duration. Come the evening, the lantern-lit food stalls set up adding to the already electric atmosphere. The decibels increase: music floods your senses from all quarters & stall holders tout for your business relentlessly. Being at the heart of this organised mayhem makes it an overwhelming yet incredible experience.

Places to see:
Ben Youssef Medersa: My favourite place in Marrakesh was the Ben Youssef Medersa, a koranic school attached to the Ben Youssef Mosque. Exuding a sense of peace and stillness, the large central courtyard is a sight to behold with its intricate carved cedarwood lintels, stucco work and zellij tilework. Mesmerised by such elaborate artistry, I felt transported to a different time. Dormitory quarters are found upstairs and are an insight into how students lived. It’s almost impossible to imagine that at one time over 800 students were housed there.

El Badi Palace: Now a ruin, El Badi Palace was originally commissioned by the Saadian sultan Ahmed el Mansour in the 14th century. Although stripped bare from anything valuable, you can’t help but feel that this was once a place of luxury and magnificence. It is vast and an oasis of calm away from the busy streets of the city.

Koutoubia Mosque & Minaret: Standing at an impressive 70m high, it is found close to the Djemaa el Fna square.

Majorelle Gardens: This carefully laid out botanical garden with groves of bamboo, palm trees, a cactus garden and lily-covered ponds was created by painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s and later owned by French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. A delightfully tranquil place, the bright blue pavilion contrasts beautifully with the verdant plants inhabiting this little piece of paradise.

There are many more places to see in Marrakesh and the bus tour is one of the best ways to see the city. You can get off at any of the stops to explore further. And, because the ticket lasts 24 hours, you don’t have to do it all in one day.

Coming soon: Marrakesh, where to eat, sleep & shop…

Papa, Winemaker

They say there is nothing like a free lunch, well John and I got a free lunch and some gorgeous wine to take home with us.

We were invited over to my Father’s chalet today for an al fresco lunch. View of the mountains. Sun shining. Lovely food. All accounted for. However, we hadn’t realised why my Dad had lured us there… to help him bottle his white wine. Back in August 2009, I recounted my Dad’s foray into winemaking. The Pinot Noir he produced in that first year was outstanding, very drinkable and dangerously moreish. He’s since bought a few more vineyards, including some white wine varieties such as Petite Arvine and Johannisberg. The plots are much smaller in size and therefore don’t need to be processed via Blaise Dubuis, a winemaker of the region.

John has had the chance to witness the process from beginning to end as he helped picked the grapes back in the autumn. The wine was kept in a container in the garage and had to go through several processes and tests. Today it was ready to be bottled. It took us 2 hours to fill and cork 120 bottles. It was a brilliant experience. And the wine? Made from Petite Arvine, Johannisberg and Marsanne grape varieties, it smells of green apples, it’s light and fresh, quite simply delicious. Just in time for summer.

Royally Speaking

One Royal Wedding party attended + Forty cupcakes delivered = Mission accomplished.

I was asked to provide cupcakes for a party John and I were invited to by a friend of his in Verbier. There was no real brief, apart from some ‘British’ frosting. After some pondering and some YouTube icing tutorials, an English rose, a crown and strawberries & cream made the final cut. One recipe is fairly traditional with butter, eggs and flour, the other calls for rice flour, grated courgette, ground almonds and strawberry jam. They went down a treat. Also, notice the handmade flags on each! A labour of love, I tell thee.

Vanilla cupcakes with Buttercream Icing (Rose & Crown)
Adapted from bbc.co.uk Food recipe

Ingredients
110g butter softened at room temperature
110g caster sugar
2 free range eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
110g self-raising flour
1-2 tbsp milk

For the buttercream icing
140g butter, softened
280g icing sugar
1-2 tbsp milk
a few drops food colouring (yellow and red)

Method
Preheat the oven to 180C and line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until pale. Beat in the eggs a little at a time and stir in the vanilla extract.

Fold in the flour using a large metal spoon, adding a little milk until the mixture is of a dropping consistency. Spoon the mixture into the paper cases until they are half full.

Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until golden-brown on top and a skewer inserted into one of the cakes comes out clean. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the tin and cool on a wire rack.

For the buttercream icing, beat the butter in a large bowl until soft. Add half the icing sugar and beat until smooth.

Then add the remaining icing sugar with one tablespoon of the milk, adding more milk if necessary, until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
Add the food colouring and mix until well combined.

Spoon the icing into a piping bag with a star nozzle and pipe the icing following this tutorial (third method for the rose and fourth for the crown).

Makes 12

Strawberries and Cream Cupcakes
Slightly adapted from Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache by Harry Eastwood

Ingredients
2 free range eggs
160g caster sugar
200g finely grated courgette (peeled, topped and tailed)
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g rice flour
100g ground almonds
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt

For the filling, some good quality strawberry jam

For the icing
50g butter, softened
150g icing sugar
50g mascarpone

12 fresh strawberries

Method
Preheat the oven to 180C and line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases.

Whisk eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl until pale and fluffy.

Whisk in the grated courgette (I pat this with kitchen towel before adding to remove some of the moisture as it can make the cupcake mixture too runny) and vanilla extract. Then add in the rice flour, ground almonds, baking powder and salt. Combine well.

Using a dessert spoon, ladle a couple of spoonfuls into each paper case. Add a teaspoon of jam, then cover with another spoonful of mixture to seal the jam. If your mixture is too runny, you might find that the jam drops to the bottom. Don’t worry, the cupcake is still delicious!

Place in the oven for 20 mins until risen and starting to go golden on top. Remove from oven and leave to cool for about 15 mins before transferring to the fridge to chill (it’s easier to ice cupcakes if they are cool).

For the icing, beat the butter with 50g of icing by hand until it turns into a paste. It’s usually best to use a wooden spoon, I used a fork though. Be patient, it takes a bit of time. Then add in 50g mascarpone and 50g icing sugar, using the same method until blended. Finally add the remaining 50g icing sugar and blend in well. Refrigerate until cupcakes are chilled.

Spoon the icing into a piping bag with a star nozzle and pipe the icing following the tutorial in the video linked above (first method for a twirl). Once iced, add a strawberry to each cupcake.

Makes 12.

Mieux vaut tard que jamais

Due to major renovations in my flat in London and my new found freedom in Switzerland, I’ve found it quite hard to settle down, both to write for the blog and generally. I’ve been distracted by skiing (on very little snow and in glorious weather), running (up and down a few rolling hills), flying back to London (to see my gorgeous niece and nephew and manage ‘Project Flat’), and cooking (some experimental mishaps with a few minor successes thrown in for good measure).

I’ll be back soon. I have Coconut Panna Cotta to tell you about. It’s worth the wait. Honestly.

Done deal

So there you have it. I resigned from my job last week. I am stepping off the treadmill. After six years, nine months, two weeks. Most people leave for another job. I have decided to move to another country. To be with my very patient man and support him in his new business, The Ski Alternative, to start a new life, to discover my true path career-wise. I am going back to my roots, to the country where I was born, where I was brought up. It’s gone full circle.

Years ago, when I first moved to the UK, I never imagined that I would go back to Switzerland. My love affair with London was tumultuous, bank-breaking, yet rewarding, mesmerising, addictive. I was young, enthusiastic, restless. I am still young, but I feel calm now, wiser and realise that, after this amazing rollercoaster of a journey, where you are is not so important, who you are is.

I am incredibly excited by the new direction my life is taking, not least because I’ll be able to contribute to this blog far more frequently (I have to tell you about this amazing Cauliflower & Tomato Curry I discovered!), explore what makes me tick, pursue my interests, learn new skills. I also have a big project, very close to my heart, which I will be working on till the end of the year.

My daily commute will be in a cable car, going up the mountain. 10 minutes. At most.

Tell me about big decisions you’ve made. What made you take the plunge? Did it fulfil your expectations? Do you have any regrets?

Because I can…

I am a creature of habit. I’ll be the first to admit that I like certainty, security, knowing my path… then 2010 changed everything. It cascaded into my life like the most terrifying and unexpected tidal wave. It cut me short, took my breath away, broke me. I was underwater tumbling, overwhelmed by the huge rush of white noise. The darkness of grief, the heartache of someone lost and the resilience I had to find within myself to get through those gloomy hours have changed me. Life is short and from darkness, pain, hurt, can emerge something better. A reinstated vigour for life. And hope. Because without hope, we are nothing. It’s no longer dusk, it’s finally dawn.

2011 is about breaking free, moving out of my comfort zone, finding my true calling and living every day as fully as I can. Because after all, this is it. One journey, no returns, no refunds.

Changes are afoot. Big changes. They’ve been brewing for a while. Slowly. Surely. I promise to tell. Not long now.

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A retrospective: summer of 2010

Yesterday was the last day of summer. Through the lens of my camera, this is the story of the past few months.

English Countryside: Beautiful Oxfordshire

South of France: Restful Provence

London suburbs: Dulwich

Stillness and peace: Switzerland

Statuesque: Greece

Tell me about your summer. Did you see new places? Take up new hobbies? Discover new eateries? Fulfill your goals?