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The prettiest sight to see…

…is the holly that will be, on your own front door.”

It’s back to the countryside for the run up to Christmas. Making the most of the glorious winter foliage, I spent Sunday afternoon playing around with holly, rosemary, dried oranges, cinnamon sticks and ribbon…

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Tidings of sequins and joy

With the last posting date for Christmas fast approaching (it’s Saturday 20th for those of you who are like me and work right down to the wire), I dedicated this evening to making Christmas cards. I took to the kitchen table armed with a big jar of sequins and my trusty laminator and here they are – I made some Christmas tree shaped ones and a few baubles.

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Brussels

It is a foodie’s paradise. Sat with my friend L, inside one of Brussels’ most understated restaurants, Bonsoir Clara, eating ‘deer country style’ (essenitally venison stew) by the spoonful, I flicked through the photographs that I’d taken of my first day exploring Brussels and noted how I had considerably more pictures of food than I had of any of the city’s impressive Gothic architecture or major landmarks. So, here are my Belgian highlights based around all the fabulous food that we found along the way.

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The good food doesn’t necessarily jump out at you. In the run up to Christmas, the unevenly cobbled streets are lined with markets selling all manner of sugary treats from Belgian waffles to mulled wine. On arrival, this typically Christmassy scene is inviting but after a day, it left me craving meat, vegetables and a bitterly strong coffee. Luckily, our airbnb hostess had left us with an entire list of her favourite restaurants and cafes near to our home-from-home; the beauty of living like a local and having a hostess to point you in the right direction.

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Arriving in Brussels after dark, the streets were lit up by Christmas lights and the markets in full swing. We wandered around the Grand Place, getting our bearings and peering longingly in all the chocolate shops. Defeated, we got one of these hot chocolate stirrers –  a dark orange chocolate one and a white chocolate and raspberry one.

Saturday lunchtime, perusing all the delicately parcelled goodies in a lovely little chocolatier’s called Elisabeth. The shop assistant spoke very good English and, when we asked him where he went for good coffee, he pointed us in the direction of Coffee Company, ‘where all the cool people go,’ he said.

Coffee Company just off Grand Place- a recommendation from a local.

Coffee Company just off Grand Place- a recommendation from a local.

 

The charming streets en route to Upper Town Brussels.

En route to Upper Town Brussels

 

Flea Market at Place du Grand Sablon. Considered to be one of Europe's finest.

Having a good search through the Flea Market at Place du Grand Sablon. It’s considered to be one of Europe’s finest

 

Notre Dame du Sablon. One of Brussels most beautiful Gothic churches

Notre Dame du Sablon – a beautiful Gothic church

 

The Royal Palace of Brussels - there were flowers covering the front lawn this weekend to commemorate the death of Queen Fabiola who died just three days before we visited.

The Royal Palace of Brussels. Flowers were covering the front lawn this weekend in memory of Queen Fabiola who died just three days before we visited

Dinner was at Bonsoir Clara‘deer country style’ was followed by a generous board of French cheeses and then the biggest creme brûlée I’ve ever seen with a thick, crisp lid of sugar, just waiting to be cracked.

 

After our hostess had described her favourite boulangerie, Charli, we were determined to find it and Sunday morning breakfast time seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Rue Antoine Dansaert on a bright wintry morning - our home for the weekend.

Rue Antoine Dansaert on a bright wintry morning – our home for the weekend.

A little bit of to-ing and fro-ing and an emergency google-map consultation later, we located the bakery.

Charli Boulangerie, 34, rue Ste-Catherine. The freshest bakery experience; sip on coffee and nibble on croissants while watching the baker at work.

Charli Boulangerie, 34, rue Ste-Catherine, has to be the freshest bakery experience; sip on coffee and nibble on croissants while watching the bakers at work

 

Our hostess had repeatedly insisted ‘these are the best almond croissants you have ever tasted,’ and, she was absolutely right. Not only that but this boulangerie experience was one of a kind. The cafe is laid out around the bakers’ workspace and separated by a glass wall so you can watch the bakers mix, knead and roll while enjoying their amazingly fresh produce.

 

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Now, back to England with armfuls of Belgian chocolate truffles – it’s a shame that almond croissants don’t travel well!

 

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Ping pong and Pornstar Martinis

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Last night my girlfriends and I celebrated our good friend S’s birthday at Ping bar in Earls Court, London. It was so much fun! The birthday girl had booked us a table so we caught up over dinner and tested the cocktails first (the Pingstar Martini is amazing). After dinner we booked ourselves a few sessions on the ping pong tables – each an hour long. I don’t think any of us will be entering a ping pong tournament any time soon but we laughed a lot – a great idea for a birthday bash!

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Fox and the city

I’ve landed in London once again to begin a two-week internship in the city. I’ll be bed-hopping and sofa surfing; making the most of my good friends who are living and working here.  Suitcase brimming with clothes, home-made chilli carefully packed in Tupperware, wrapped in cling-film and double-bagged, I arrived at my friend L’s front-door on Sunday evening, mulled wine in hand. We lived together for two years when we were at University and so we’ve had a lovely few days catching up in between the working day.

As it’s such a fleeting visit, it has given me a refreshed perspective of working in the city. I’ve enjoyed the tube travel, embraced the constant delays and wondered round London appreciating the oodles of landmarks that line my route into the office.  Having worked in London for a year, I know that sometimes, working full time in the city can make travelling into London monotonous and it’s possible to quickly become immune to the incredible landmarks that you pass everyday, twice a day. So it has been nice for me to return with a fresh outlook.

I’m working in the Blue Fin Building in Southwark and the views from the 11th floor are just breathtaking.

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I plan to take full advantage of London’s cafe culture while I’m here. My Mum sent me on my way with this “Cafe Writing Map” full of little challenges and ideas to get you writing around the city. Over the next week I’m going to attempt to do one-a-day and visit a new cafe spot each time. If anyone knows Southwark well – suggestions are welcome!

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Today, I tested the Tate Espresso Bar. It’s a nice hideaway. You have full panoramic view of the lunchtime rush unfolding along the river but you’re further enough away to not hear it.  Today on the Cafe Writing Map was “A Lunch Poem”- a nice, easy task to ease me into the challenge.

 “Walk into a cafe and, inspired by Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, use the following structure to write a story or a poem: “It’s my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the…First…Then onto…”

 It’s my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the high-rise buildings. First to a little card shop on the corner where I find a suitably overpriced birthday card for my Aunty – it’s her birthday on Friday. Then onto the Tate to muse among the masses about what exactly was going through these artists’ heads when they created their ‘masterpiece’.

 Tomorrow’s challenge is called ‘Cafe Windows’…

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A lesson in poultry petting

On Saturday I, quite literally, returned to school to attend a chicken-keeping course – held at my old secondary school and taught by my old science teacher. Once I’d recovered from the nostalgia that came with the dusky smell of the old art classroom where I used to spend my lunchtimes, I sat listening intently to the golden nuggets of information shared with us by an experienced chicken-keeper and smallholder.

I’ve always fancied having chickens. The idea of having a few running round the garden is a very romantic one but, as I feared, it isn’t as easy as I initially thought.

Once you have your chicken coop (with indoor and outdoor parts, robust mesh, liftable roof and paving slab base), you have to fox proof your hen house with locks and catches, before thinking about the perches (are they wide enough for optimum egg-laying?), lining the coop with soft barley straw (normal straw is too coarse). Then you need to decide whether you want to buy chickens at point-of-lay (usually 5-6 weeks before they are mature enough to lay eggs) or whether you want to rear chicks from hatching eggs. Then there are the parasites, illnesses, and moulting season to consider…

I was a bit put off by the sheer amount to consider when thinking about keeping, what I believed to be, one of the simplest animals in the kingdom. But when I held the lovely lady that had been sitting pretty, waiting silently for us to finish the class and give her some attention, I fell in love! She was even more docile and friendly than I expected, not nearly as scrabbly as I imagined and had such soft feathers! We were assured that each chicken has their own distinctive personality and promises to provide endless entertainment.

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I think it will be a while before I can commit to getting my own brood but I will be filing my notes away carefully as I hope to put them to good use one day.

I was given a gorgeous “Illustrated guide to Chickens” for my birthday, illustrated and written by Celia Smith. It is enough to turn anyone into a wannabe hen-keeper – her paintings are quirky and full of character. It is a great book to refer to if you’re just starting out and deciding which breed to go for – it tells you all the basics on how to keep chickens plus specific details on each breed – how many eggs they lay, what size and what colour. Here are three of my favourites:

The Chamois Poland Hen

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The Sultan Hen

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The Dark Silkie Hen

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Exotic, aren’t they?

We were warned however, that generally, the more interesting the breed, the sassier their characters and they tend to fight and peck at each other a lot more while the standard, brown chickens are content, docile, easy to pick up and very good egg-layers.

 

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“There beneath the blue suburban skies…”

…sang The Beatles about Penny Lane, Liverpool – the city I’ve just arrived home from after a visit to see my cousin who is in her first term at University there. The North of England didn’t disappoint me and the bracing, ice-cold air that I’ve come to associate it with, welcomed me as I stepped out onto Liverpool Lime Street station.

We didn’t have any solid plans for the weekend which made it a very relaxing one – on Saturday another of my cousins came into the city and the three of us wandered around Liverpool’s shopping centre checking out the glittery products that have arrived in The Body Shop, trying on all manner of faux-fur accessories and gauping at the huge crowds of shoppers, high on Christmas.

I love exploring new cities with friends and family that know the area well. My cousin had pinpointed a few places that she had tried and tested and a few that she hadn’t tried and wanted to test. Leaf Tea Shop on Bold Street was one of the latter. Set in a large warehouse type building it’s a spot that’s always busy; a popular cafe by day and a bustling bar by night. We popped in on Saturday morning for a quick bite of breakfast and opted for toast – a somewhat boring choice made all the more exciting by the delicious seeded bread and homemade jam. And again, the North didn’t let us down – we paid £1.50!

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We returned in the evening for a few cocktails and, as we sipped our ‘Hedgerow’ and  ‘Elderflower Fizz’ while enjoying the live music, I spotted on the notice board that there is an entire calendar of events hosted here; from knitting club to book club to a life drawing workshop! If you are a student here, it’s worth checking it out, I am certainly wishing that I lived closer to this little hive of activity.

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Counting down to Christmas

With the all-famous Christmas advert being released last week and other retailers fast behind them, it is official – Christmas is on its way. For me, the festive season begins once I’ve taken my first sip of mulled wine. The smell of heated orange mixed with warm spices is so provocative, I think it would make me feel Christmassy even if I caught a whiff in mid-August! I spent this chilly, November weekend just gone, perusing the food market at London South-bank. Following my nose, I found a young man nursing a cauldron-like pan of warm, delicately spiced wine, decanting it into paper cups and we took a pit stop to stand by the river, a cup of mulled wine in each of our gloved hands.

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I returned home feeling very excited for the season’s festivities – Christmas tree decorating, present wrapping, Christmas cake feeding…What better way to satisfy my craving for Christmas creativity in November than to make an advent calendar? Flicking through the “Plan the Perfect Christmas” insertion that I received with my Country Living magazine earlier this week, I found this simple but gorgeous advent calendar design. I found some nice bits of paper (mostly used bits of last year’s Christmas wrapping that was too nice to throw away) some little wooden pegs (I got a whole bag for 99p on amazon), some ribbon to hang your triangular envelopes from and some sticky labels to label up the dates. I altered the design a little and instead of securing the envelopes shut with a label, I used Velcro strips so that it can be used again and again.

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This week, I arrived home from work and spent my evenings folding a few triangles each day – it’s very therapeutic! Yesterday I reached 25 triangles so strung each one up carefully on some nicely coloured raffia and filled each one with a chocolate. I placed it in a shoebox and gave it to my sister who has recently moved into a new home.

She loved it. And tonight, I’m starting advent calendar number two – after the rest of my family clapped eyes on it, these homemade advent calendars are in high demand. So, the folding continues…

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My meringue masterclass

According to The Meringue Girls, it is not just the technology industry that is subject to constant upgrades and modernisation, the age-old, quintessentially English tradition of Afternoon Tea is, too. Say ‘too-da-loo’ to scones laden with clotted cream, miniature meringues are the way forward. I went along to one of the girls’ meringue classes in Hackney, with the intention of mastering the art of creating beautiful, deliciously flavoured ‘meringue kisses’.

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Held at Meringue Girl HQ in their warehouse kitchen space, it was an evening affair and, as our group of eight hurried inside one-by-one to escape the rainy October weather, we were welcomed with glasses of Prosecco, a table filled with savoury snacks and, of course, a menagerie of meringues.

It was an incredibly well organised event run by the girls themselves. Their knowledge and experience in all things meringue was made clear as they were circling the kitchen ensuring our mixture was ok, stopping at each meringue-making-station for a little chat. Their  recipe is no secret and you can find it on their website here. But I would challenge anyone who doesn’t need hands-on-help from the experts. It’s an art that is not easy to replicate – their recipe relies on impeccable timing and uses a very particular piping technique.

Having made the perfect meringue-mixture, we were let loose on their impressive collection of flavourings and toppings. I went for a lemon and strawberry meringue, swirling pink and yellow food colouring through the bright white mixture and secondly a lavender flavour meringue with purple food colouring and peanut sprinkles. I’m going to be honest and admit that the lavender and peanut flavour meringues were quite revolting and I definitely didn’t discover a new, innovative flavour combination there. Nevertheless, I returned home with boxes and boxes piled high with beautiful sugary treats.

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I have since tried making the meringues at home with great success. I made rose and pistachio flavoured ones which had pale pink colouring pulled through and sprinkled with crushed pistachio nuts and then violet flavoured meringues which were meant to be a pretty pale lilac colour but turned out to be a bright indigo. I served them at a dinner party and there was not a sugary crumb left.

If you’d like to try your hand at making these gorgeous meringues, I would recommend investing in a silicone baking mat (I got mine from Lakeland Limited) and also Two Chicks’ egg whites in a carton (you can get these in most large supermarkets and they can be frozen for up to two years- so when you find some – stock up!).

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A lining of love

Enjoying ‘auntie-hood’ far too much, I finished a little project today that I have been working on for my two-week-old nephew. When my sister got married last summer, she chose a lovely Liberty print Tana Lawn fabric to be made into a tie for the groom, a sash for the little bridesmaid and a cummerbund for the page boy and the bridesmaid dresses. We’ve had the remnants of material lying around the house since the wedding and, this week, I put it to good use, as a soft, cotton lining inside a woolly jumper for the baby.

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I didn’t have time to knit the jumper from scratch so I found this one in Zara Baby. Lining it was incredibly easy and it’s a really good way to add a personal touch if you lack the time or expertise to make something more extravagant. First, I cut a pattern of my jumper using tracing paper.
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I then used the pattern to cut out the fabric, leaving about 2cm around each template – I ironed this down to make a hem which you can stitch into the jumper.

 

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It takes a good few hours of careful hand-stitching but the result is definitely worth it. Not only does the lining spruce up a plain jumper, it also softens the garment so the woolly texture doesn’t scratch the skin. I’m tempted to line one of my own jumpers now!  (Perhaps with a different fabric before we start to resemble the Von Trapp family!)