Saturday, 31 December 2011

Christmas week 2011

Well, I do hope that everyone has had as lovely a Christmas time as me.  It might actually be my most favorite Christmas time that I can remember. The Wig and I decided that we would try to have a low key one this year since who knows what we'll be up too next chrimbo once our new little friend has arrived.

The week before Christmas however, was very hectic. From Tuesday until Thursday I had lunch and dinner dates each day. Not only did that mean a lot of food but it was probably a bit ambitious to have made so many plans over a short space of time. But since becoming a hermit I feel like I haven't seen anyone for ages and wanted to be sociable. I'm pleased to say though that I did manage to avoid falling asleep through any of the meals. The most fun lunch was with an old Director I used to work with and haven't seen for 10 years. He is a bit of a comedy legend really and one of the nicest chaps you could ever hope to meet. His credits include The Smell of Reeves + Mortimer, The Fast Show, Mr Bean, Victoria Wood, Harry Enfield, Dead Ringers, Mrs Merton, French + Saunders, The Thin Blue Line, he also has 2 Bafta nominations and is Jane Birkin's cousin! Amazing. But probably the most impressive of all is that he worked with Kenny Everett!! This is probably my most favorite comedy clip of all time.

My boss and I met him for lunch and too him to Greigs in Mayfair (not to be confused with Greg's the Bakers), which I would heartily recommend if ever you are in the market for good old traditional English food in a wood paneled room.  Its probably best not to google reviews of this place as most that I found are not very complimentary. However, my Prawn Cocktail and Cottage Pie were delicious.

Once we had finally broken up for work on the Thursday, it was time to get real Christmasified! This began with us collecting our meat order from Meat N16, the nice posh Butchers in Stoke Newington.

The Wig had put the order in two weeks previously as he did not want to be without a turkey on Christmas day. Or 15 chipolatas, 15 pieces of bacon, a ham, Goose fat and a huge ball of mincemeat for stuffing. For 2 people. Unfortunately, the butchers were not quite as organised as The Wig as when we tried to pick up the order, they couldn't find it. Gulp. Eventually, after 10 sweaty minutes of worrying what we would eat without the turkey and various other meat products, (we only seem to ever have marmalade and Piccalilli in our fridge these days) they found our food. And threw in the chipolatas for free for the inconvenience! Result!

Christmas Day Food.

That evening, we ventured up the road to the new Sherlock Holmes film at our new Cinema, The Hackney Picture House. This place seems to have popped up overnight and I'm so glad it has. It is built in the old Ocean Venue (I saw Ash there about 85 years ago, Do you remember the girl from Mars? . . ) which takes us 10 minutes to walk there from home, and not only has 3 screens but also has a bar a restaurant and reclining seats! If you live locally a membership card is a great idea as you get 3 free tickets when you join, around £2 off the price of each ticket thereafter (taking the price to £8 per ticket), 10% of all purchases made inside the Picture House and discounts at Strada, GBK and loads of other places. All for £35! A Bargain in my opinion. I'd pay that to sit on the reclining seats alone. They were the comfiest cinema seats my gluteus massive has ever experienced. Incidentally, the film was ok, not as good as the previous one, the first hour dragged a bit but after that it was very good. I would give it  a respectable 7 pipes out of a possible 10.

Christmas Eve was all about cooking. And watching National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. When I was younger my dad often made a delicious Sugar Glazed Baked Ham at christmas so for the past few years I have resurrected this tradition by making my own. Its super easy once I had worked out the ham only needed 2.5 hours on the hob not 9 hours that I had at first thought, it's also extremely delicious and will keep for a few days in a cold fridge so is great if anyone pops round for some hog.

1. First of all you have to soak the ham over night, changing its water every coupe of hours to get rid of the salt. I thought this would be good practice for changing a baby's nappy every couple of hours.
Then you boil it in clean water, bay leaves, onion and peppercorns for half an hour per 40g (I think, best to check on line for exact times).

2. After its been boiled, pour the water and onions etc away, peel off the skin while trying not to burn your fingers off ( I don't like this bit), discard the skin (from the ham not the fingers), score the fat in a  diamond pattern and cover in English Mustard and Demerara Sugar. Finally stick a clove in the corner of each diamond (we didn't do this this year since cloves aren't very good for pregnant people apparently) and bake in the oven for 45 minutes and the sugar has gone hard. Either eat it warm or let it cool and eat it for breakfast lunch and dinner for the next 4 days. Delicious.

I also finally got around to making the ruddy Christmas Cake! Yay. This was just as easy as the ham but not quite as tasty with a slab of Cornish Cruncher and half a jar of Piccalilli. I basically opened the bag of Mary Berry ingredients (now £2 at your nearest Tesco) and followed the instructions. 

Christmas Day itself was wonderful. I was very lucky and Wiggy Claus had been extremely generous with his gifts this year despite an understanding that we would not go too mad. I am too embarrassed to list all of the presents I received but they were all very thoughtful, even the Alan Partridge book.

Tree presents.

And the Christmas Hare Stocking. Naughty Wig.

After the presents were opened, we got down to real business. Eating. We had scrambled eggs for breakfast, Wig also had smoked salmon, but I wasn't allowed. Then we spent 4 hours cooking the Christmas lunch which included home made cranberry sauce and home made bread sauce. It seemed like a lot of food for 2 people, and I cant make any excuses, it was a lot of food for 2 people, but after next May we'll be too tired to eat so I'm making the most of it for now.

I thought as a treat, that I would have a glass of wine with lunch, but guess what. I couldn't drink it! 4 sips was all I could stomach then I chucked the rest away. I think this means my alcoholism is cured. Praise be.

On Boxing Day, we ventured outside of the flat and visited my younger brother and his family in Colchester, Essex. As you can see from this photo, Betty the Banana baby has really grown (she was 1 on Christmas Eve) and seems utterly perplexed by her big sister.

The day after Boxing Day we made our way back to London via Auntie Margaret's and had lunch there with my cousin and his family. They gave me some beautiful flowers, just for being up the duff! Amazing. I should get up the duff more often. Or maybe not.

Thanks Mark, Laraine, Jake, Liam and Aaron xx

And then things went slightly down hill. The Wig got a cold. We think he may have picked it up from a little person, naming no names (Betty Banana), so we have done little since then. We have mostly spent the last few days, watching box sets (Mildred Pierce, brilliant, Alan Partridge, still quite funny) and eating vegetables. Not the most thrilling of Christmas holidays but I think we may have peaked to soon at the start of the week.

We did venture out briefly on Friday as I had to return a watch Wiggy Claus had bought me (too big, the watch not Wiggy Claus) in Marylebone so popped into La Fromagerie for a Broccoli and Gruyere soup. I think I've mentioned this place before but it really is worth a visit if you are in the area. Its a restaurant which specialises in cheese dishes and also sells cheese and every type of cheese utensil you could possible need ie cheese boards, cheese knives and more cheese boards, it has the lot.

Then on the way home I did a very bad thing. I popped into a shop called Folk, which my friend Justine told me about a few weeks ago. Its a rather pricey clothes shop on Lambs Conduit Street in Holborn that I would never normally go into, but they had a sale on. And I bought the boots that I had been dreaming about since I first saw them. I justified buying them as my last selfish purchase before the great belt tightening excercise of 2012, literally and financially. The only problem is, they are the most expensive boot I have ever purchased (despite being in the Sale) and I'm now too scared to wear them outside in case they get dirty. Maybe I'll just use them as slippers.

So that was Christmas. I hope you all had a good one too, roll on 2012, xxx

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Bonjour Lille!

I may have already mentioned this, but The Wig and I love Christmas. So to get us (more) in the Christmas mood than we are already, we booked a small trip away to French Lille on the Eurostar to visit the Christmas Market. 

Goodbye St Pancras...

...Bonjour Lille!

Before we left London, as I am ignorant of all things geographical, I actually had no idea where Lille was, but I was very pleasantly surprised when I discovered our journey on the Eurostar was only going to take 1 and a half hours! It takes longer to get to Norwich, should anyone be thinking of going to Norwich on the train.

On arrival though it became glaringly obvious that unlike Norwich, Lille does not really speak Anglais. And The March Hare speaks virtually no Francais, German having been the language of choice at school for a teenage Hare. I am not very familiar with France but I think Lille is not a particularly touristy place which is great on one hand as it felt very traditional but bad if your knowledge of the local lingo is limited to Bonjour, Je Voudrais, Merde, Coiffeur, Au Revoir. Obviously not spoken all at once. However, we muddled through at the Station and managed to get a taxi to the hotel after some serious finger pointing at our map and a menagerie of rather peculiar facial expressions. 

The hotel we stayed at was called L'Hermitage Gantois and was booked as part of our Eurostar package through Railbookers. It was built in an old Hospice from the 1500's but sadly had no ghosts, although it did have a rather terrifying sculpture of some nuns in the foyer which more than made up for the lack of paranormal activity.

Very spacious corridors.

Fancy toiletries in the bathroom.

Curious French treats, which I did not eat having taken the liberty of bringing my own Patisserie Valerie Macaroon with me from London. However, someone did eat these French treats the next day after they had been in our room all night naming no names, MAID!

Utterly terrifying sculpture that will take some time to recover from.

The hotel staff were very pleasant during our 2 night stay and the room was very quiet and dark, which was heaven compared to the noisy road we live on in Hackney, however, I would not say it was a 5 star Hotel. Unfortunately for the Hotel, and pretty much all hotels I stay in, I have been very spoilt over the years with all the travelling I have been fortunate enough to do with my job. I've been to LA, San Francisco, New York, Austin, Portland, Buenos Aires, Cape Town twice, Turefa, Barcelona, Milan, Prague and Dublin and we always travelled Business Class and stayed in very swanky hotels. So I'm basically rather a hotel snoot. The hotel did have very many positive points (dressing gowns, slippers and the Clarins etc) but unfortunately it also had a few negative points:

* No complimentary water (7 Euros for a bottle...).
* No re-stocking of expensive water if you drank it.
* Broken light bulb in one of the bedside lamps.
* No facilities for making your own hot drink.
* The curious incident of the missing French Treats from the tea tray...

In conclusion, I would give the hotel 4 stars if I were a Hotel Inspector.

Having said all that, the hotel was very well located for sniffing around Lille. It was about a ten minute trot to the Old Town and Town Centre which is where we spent the day on Saturday. And Monday. Since we soon discovered there isn't really very much to do in Lille. 

St Maurice Cathedral on the way into town where I lit a candle for my Dad. It's a little tradition of ours that whenever The Wig and I go away we light a candle in a church or Cathedral and have a little chat with loved ones who are no longer with us. I had a very good chat with my Dad as I told him about the exciting news in my tummy. I'm sure he knew anyway but he pretended he didn't ;)

Shop windows of Lille.

In the evening we geared ourselves for the intended highlight of the trip. The Christmas Market. The town looked very beautiful but it was rammed. So we didn't really get a chance to look around the stalls properly, but I am beginning to come to the conclusion that once you have been to one Christmas Market, you have probably been to them all. There's only so much fake snow and German Sausage one can take in a lifetime.

On the Sunday, our second day, Lille was closed. Annoying. So the only thing we could do was go for a walk and visit Wazammes Market which is apparently the only thing to do on a Sunday in Lille. It was a 20 minute walk from the hotel and took us past some very beautiful buildings en route to our destination.  

Sadly our destination was not quite as spectacular. Wazammes Market is a local Market for local people which roughly translated equalled the French equivalent of Romford Market. Or Ridley Road in Dalston without the Cows heads but with a cut in half shark instead.

White China Robin in ear muffs purchased at Wazammes. (1.5 Euros, bargain)

Pine cone and jingle bell garland also Purchased at Wazammes. (10 Euros, not such a bargain).

That evening, as the weather was cold and wet (rather like the poor unfortunate cut in half shark), we decided to have dinner at the hotel. I knew that this would be an expensive option but didn't realise how limiting it would be in terms of food options. French cuisine is not really very accommodating for one what has a bun in the oven. Everything seems to consist of un-pasteurised cheese, or some sort of liver or a shell fish. France seems to be void of any type of vegetable.

The only thing I could eat from the hotel restaurant menu, was a well done steak, some sort of fried potato ring with a pickled onion in the middle and a brown smear. I have no idea what the smear consisted of and was quite frankly relieved at my lack of French at this moment. Sometimes its best not to know certain things.

The Wigs pink Pork Belly with Pumpkin mole hills. No, that's not a euphamism although it should be.

Viva le Chocolate Mille Feuille.

On our third and final day in Lille, we were ready to come home. We had exhausted the shops which didn't open until 2pm that day and seemed to consist mainly of Children's clothes and toy shops. It was a little bit like the town in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where Benny Hill lived. So to make up for the lack of things to do we treated ourselves to a delicious lunch at Aux Moules.

Aux Moules first opened in 1930 and apparently is THE place to go for authentic local food in Lille. The decor is like something out of Amelie and it gets very busy. Luckily we sat down just before the rush but within 15 minutes of our arrival there were no seats left and a long queue at the door. The Wig had Moules and I had pretty much the only thing I could eat on this menu too, Chicken and Frites. And it was delicious. It was far superior to the chicken that The poor Wig had eaten on our first day in Lille which resembled the Griswold's Christmas Turkey from National Lampoons Christmas Vacation.

So, all in all, it was a nice break away from London but we were both ready and happy to be home again last night. I think a trip to Lille would be great just for the day, 3 days was really too much, not only from the point of view of things to do and sights to see but also from a digestion point of view. The French diet seems to be based around incredibly rich food and in my current condition, 3 days sans vegetables is a dangerous situation to be in. Now, where's that Syrup of Figs . . .