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The Musette: Baked stuffed tomatoes with potatoes

My beloved is home for the summer which means I have to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. My challenge is to prepare things we can both eat without having to cook or prepare two different meals. My new regime  – fish-eating vegan – means I have had to broaden my repertoire – no bad thing. This week a recipe by Rome-based blogger Rachel Roddy in The Guardian caught my eye.

My other half enjoys stuffed vegetables called petit facis niçois, a popular local dish which uses forcemeat whereas this recipe uses rice. I’ve had to amend the original recipe to eliminate the cheese and reduce the amount of oil but, nonetheless, it was still delish and made use of plentiful local produce.

Ingredients (serves three)

    • 6 ripe, firm, fleshy, medium‑size organic red tomatoes
    • fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
    • 2 medium garlic cloves
    • 1 small dried red chili pepper (optional)
    • 6 tbsp short-grain brown rice
    • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
    • 1/2 kg potatoes, peeled and cubed

Method

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  1. Cut the tops off the tomatoes and set them aside. Use a teaspoon to scoop the insides – flesh, seeds and juice – into a bowl, taking care not to pierce the skin. Sprinkle a little salt in the cavity of each tomato and then put them cut-side down on kitchen paper towel so that any excess juice can drain away.
  2. Liquidise the tomato flesh, seeds, juice, garlic and chilli pepper. Add the rice, season  with salt and pepper, stir, then leave for at least 45 minutes during which time the rice will absorb some of the liquid and start to swell.
  3. Toss the potato cubes in the olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
  4. Sit the empty tomato husks in a lightly greased oven-proof dish or baking tin. Spoon the rice mix into the shells so they’re not quite full, then put the lids back on. Scatter the diced potato around the tomatoes.
  5. Bake at 180C/160C fan/350F/gas mark 4 for around 60 minutes, or until the tomatoes are soft and starting to shrivel, the rice is plump and the potatoes golden. Allow to sit for at least 15 minutes before diving in and eating.

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Sheree’s Handy Hints

  1.  The tomatoes are the star of the show. Buy the very best you can find.
  2. You could add nutritional yeast to the tomato water to compensate for the loss of savoriness from the cheese but I didn’t feel it was necessary.
  3. My beloved decided to add a dollop or two of sauce vierge to his dish, a container of which was lurking in the fridge. It’s essentially fresh herbs, lemon juice, lemon zest, a clove of garlic, capers, cornichons and olive oil whizzed up in the liquidiser. It’s delicious on grilled fish and meat.

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Date Night: John Newman

When we lived in London, my beloved and I were serial concert-goers. Since we’ve moved to France, our outings have become less frequent for a variety of reasons. Generally, only during the summer months at the various festivals held throughout the department. I scan all the upcoming events to see if there’s anyone I would like to see. If there is, I book tickets. However, I often find that artists I’d like to see are inconveniently performing when we’re at the Tour or Clasica.  But there’s also plenty of freebies, where we’ll turn up and enjoy or leave surreptitiously if it’s not to our liking.

Just before we left for the start of the Tour de France in Normandy, I had spotted that John Newman, whose music we both enjoy, was performing in Monaco. I mortgaged the flat and bought two tickets. I’ve not previously seen him perform live but had watched his set at Glastonbury on the television. We parked at the Grimaldi Forum, which is the cheapest evening car park in Monaco, and walked the 500 metres or so to the Salle des Etoiles – Sporting Club of Monaco. Our brief walk took us past cars totalling millions of euros.

It was a lovely warm evening albeit rather humid, as it tends to be in Monaco. A recent acquaintance wearing a tux  greeted us at the venue – he was working the door. Our fears that we might well increase the average age of the audience were well founded though I spotted a couple of people who looked older than us. Turns out it was John’s mum, Jackie.

My beloved went to get the drinks: small beer, mineral water and a packet of crisps. “How much?” he asked. I guessed Euros 20,00. I was spot on. I had taken the prices from our beach-front bar in Cros-de-Cagnes and tripled them. In case you were wondering, the crisps were his dinner. I’d offered him a meal in the lounge bar of The Hermitage but we were too late leaving home solely on his account. But don’t feel too sorry for him, he’d had a splendid steak lunch.

Imagine this without the tables and chairs and only around 500 fans
Imagine this without the tables and chairs and only around 500 fans

I’m not sure how many the Salle des Etoiles, whose windows are indeed open to the stars, holds but it was largely empty. Suffice to say that I’ve never been to such an intimate concert. I easily managed to get into my favourite spot – front row, slightly right of centre and about arm’s length from the stage. Suddenly the ticket prices weren’t looking so exorbitant after all. I should add the toilets were magnificent. I’ve been in bathrooms smaller than the toilet cubicle.

The Sporting’s house band for the summer season, The Hometown Band, from Nashville Tennessee, opened the evening on time on a high. A seriously good 45 minute set. We then enjoyed a medley of presumably John Newman’s favourite Motown songs while waiting for him to burst onto the stage with his four-piece band and two backing singers. I didn’t realise girls still screamed at concerts. I should add I have never felt the need or desire to do so and I’m now far too old.

I think John was also probably taken aback by the paucity of the crowd and gamely encouraged plenty of audience participation. Many however seemed intent on recording snippets and tweeting them to friends unable or unwilling to stump up the ticket price. Me, I prefer to look, listen and enjoy though I’m happy to join in with the clap-a-long. I’m forbidden by my beloved to join in with the singing, my voice is guaranteed to clear anywhere pronto.

John Newman

We were not disappointed with the performance. The concert was well worth the ticket price. It was a tight, high energy set which had John in fine voice covering all his hits and latest number Olé, finishing with his greatest hit to date, Love Me Again, during which he and the band appeared to trash the stage. No encore!  I rather liked that instead of the usual baloney whereby the audience spend ten minutes demanding a pre-planned encore. We streamed out to discover the venue offered valet parking. You never got that at The Hammersmith Odeon!

On a more serious note, it’s been recently announced that John’s benign brain tumour has returned. He referred to it briefly during the concert and promised to continue making music whatever the outcome. We wish him well in overcoming this latest set-back and look forward to seeing him in concert again.

 

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Postcard from San Sebastian: 2016 City of Culture

Typically, our trip to the Clasica San Sebastian forms part of a longer trip but occasionally, like this year, we fly down. In the past we’ve flown to Bordeaux and hired a car. This year my beloved decided we would fly to San Sebastian (via Madrid) and stay in the centre, close to all the action. He booked the flight back in March and gave me the confirmations which I filed in chronological order in my big fat holiday file.

On the Sunday before we were due to depart for our five-day trip to San Sebastian, I took out the confirmation of our flight booking to check the luggage allowance. When I  entered my name plus the booking reference into the Iberia site, it advised me that no such reference existed on the system. Alarm bells started to ring. My beloved undertook a mercy dash to the airport to resolve the issue – several months in the dog house and complete removal of privileges at stake. He returned with a contact number and was put through immediately to an extremely helpful gentleman who obviously didn’t work in their call centre.

It appears that the bank rejected the payment despite more than adequate funds and my beloved correctly inputting the magic bank code he received on his mobile. We can only conclude that because he booked and paid for another Iberia flight, the bank willfully decided to reject one of them. We were blissfully unaware because we had a flight confirmation number. Fortunately, the man from Iberia was able to restore our booking – phew!

I had booked a room in a recently opened 10-bedroomed pension a few steps from the beach and the Old Town which was an ideal location and, thanks to triple glazed windows, blissfully quiet. It had everything you need in a hotel bedroom, nothing you didn’t, and all at a great price. I’ve already booked it again for next year’s race and given it a glowing endorsement on Booking.com.

Apart from watching the race, our intention was to further explore San Sebastian. Even though we’ve been here a number of times, we’ve not seen everything or even eaten in all of its wonderful bars and restaurants. Our days were spent walking along the beach and around the town, visiting its monuments, watching the race, sampling some old favourites and some new restaurants and pintxos (tapas) bars.

The hotel had an arrangement with an excellent nearby neighbourhood bar for breakfast, that also served some fabulous pintxos and local specialities, before deciding how to spend our day. The weather was better either side of the week-end and I like nothing better than strolling along the La Concha beach with my tootsies in the wet sand. The beach tends to be more crowded closer to San Sebastian’s Alderdi-Eder Park but there’s plenty of room further along or you can enjoy the extension of La Concha, in Ondarreta. Alternatively, if you like surfing, head to the beach the other side of the Urunea river, the Zurriola. So that’s three beaches to bronze on, swim, build sand castles, or whatever takes your fancy.

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One morning we walked the full length of two of the beaches to enjoy the civic sculptures at either end: Construccion Vacia by Jorge Oteiza and Peine del Viento by Chillida and Pena Ganachegui. Of course, had we been so inclined,we could have hired bikes and cycled on San Sebastian’s many bidegorris (bike lanes). We also walked up and along two of the town’s three hills: the Igueldo overlooking Ondarreta beach and Urgull overlooking the fishing port.

Saturday was spent watching the Clasica, one of my favourite one-day races which we first saw live back in 2011. While the organisation of the race and indeed the route is much improved, much stays the same including the enthusiasm of the fans. Many ex and current professional riders also come en famille to see the race. It’s just that kind of event. We spotted a number of teams the day before riding around and soaking up the sights and sounds. It’s a popular post-Tour race and generally won by a rider who’s shown good form in the Tour.

Sunday we’d set aside to explore the San Telmo Museum which includes a beautiful 16th century Dominican convent, decorated with canvasses illustrating the most important events in Basque history, among its many exhibition spaces. Aside from its temporary exhibitions, the museum presents an attractive journey to the very heart of Basque society from its origins to present day. The entrance fee is only Euros 6 and you get a Euro 2 reduction on a drink and a pintxos in the attached café San Telmo which has an excellent restaurant. I speak from experience.

Talking of restaurants, we’d booked to visit an old favourite Gandarias, in the Old Town, which also has an adjoining pintxos bar but sadly Kokotxa was fully booked for lunch and dinner – next time. On previous trips we’ve eaten at some of the many Michelin starred establishments but we’ve never eaten badly anywhere in the Basque country. Just follow your eyes and nose and you won’t go wrong.

We also had a wander around the town’s two markets in La Brexia and San Martin. Given half a chance I’d have brought back lots of Basque goodies but there was only so much space in my luggage. And while we’re on the subject of luggage, mine is currently still unaccounted for. My beloved’s turned up the following day but they’ve yet to establish the whereabouts of mine. I can only conclude it’s ticking off a few places on its bucket list. Meanwhile, I’m holding onto the thought that airlines rarely lose baggage, just misplace it for a while. But, just in case, I’ve already prepared a detailed list of its contents and their value.

Friday postscript: According to Iberia’s missing luggage tracker, they have tracked down a Tumi they think might be my missing bag.

Monday postscript: My bag’s back, no idea where it’s been, but am very grateful for its return.

 

 

 

 

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Postcard from the (De)Tour

Last year, on the way  to the Amstel Gold race, we ate lunch in Macon. It was a delightful place and, as we didn’t have time to look around, we resolved to return. The start of this year’s Tour de France in Normandy gave us an opportunity to do just that. It’s a good 12-13 hour drive from home to the Tour start, which we broke up into more manageable chunks. Finally, my beloved has agreed that we shouldn’t drive much longer than 4-5 hours each day.

This turned out to be a great resolve as we had to take my Smart rather than hire a (manual) car from RenaultRent as my beloved had to “pop” back to UK for a couple of days for a client conference.

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Macon

We left Tuesday morning, had lunch en-route and an overnight stop in Fuisse, some 5km from Macon, famed for its Pouilly-Fuisse wine. The countryside is glorious: gently rolling hills covered in regimented lines of bright green vines, warm honey-stoned houses nestling in the valleys and the odd herd of creamy coloured cows chewing the cud.

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After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we continued our journey. Passing through Charolles, home to the famous Charolais beef, we saw plenty of cattle grazing or, more ominously, sitting on the lush green grass. As we headed into the centre of France and endless vistas of the countryside, I was reminded once more of the size of France. Something we tend to forget living in the highly populated Cote d’Azur.

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Wednesday, we stayed not far from Le Mans in a hotel that’s been frequented by the greats of the motor racing world and whose names now adorn the hotel’s theatrically decorated bedrooms.

Chartres-sur-
La Chartres

A gentle stretch of our legs around town and we were ready for a pre-dinner apero or two. I woke to birdsong and a drive to Le Mans to drop off my beloved who was heading to Bradford via Paris, returning lunchtime on Saturday. I meanwhile headed to ASO HQ at Saint-Lo and the Tour de France team press conferences and presentation.

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Ducey

I’d booked a hotel for four nights convenient for the run-up to the Tour and the first three stages. There’s nothing worse than having to change hotel every day, just ask any of the riders. The weather had gotten worse as we drove further north. It was over 10 degrees colder and leaden skies hid the sun. I broke out the woolies and wet weather gear.

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Le Grand Depart at Mont Saint-Michel and you may be wondering “Where’s the peloton?” Unfortunately, my beloved’s train arrived into Saint-Malo at about the same time as the peloton set off from Mont Saint Michel. I couldn’t be in two places at once and the former was a good hour’s drive from the latter even without the Tour traffic. Simples! I had a lie-in and headed to Saint-Malo to collect my beloved. It was lunchtime, so we stopped to eat oysters and mussels in a restaurant along the seafront. It was full of French families and had white tablecloths and napkins – two sure signs we were in for a great lunch. We were not disappointed.

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Saint-Malo
We walked off lunch wandering around the old town which was heaving with tourists – too chilly to sit on the beach – before heading back to Mont Saint Michel to have a look at the recently built bridge (2014) across the causeway. We didn’t tarry long, as you can see from the photo above, the clouds had closed in and the strong wind was keeping the rain at bay. At about the same time, Mark  Cavendish was picking up another Tour stage win and his first ever yellow jersey, confounding all his doubters.
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Two stalwarts of the Tour Village: The Poulidors and the Barbershop
Sunday dawned cold, grey and wet. After an early start, we took refuge in a local restaurant awaiting the arrival of the team buses in Saint Lo. My plan had been to ask a number of supporters who they thought would win the Tour. Taking shelter in the same cafe were a dozen or so youngsters from a cycling club in Perier wearing their wet weather cycling gear. Unsurpringly, in a show of unity, they were all backing  French riders Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet. Fortunately, the weather was much improved for the start in Granville where the crowds were out in force, many of whom had just nipped across the Channel for the first three stages.
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Yellow glow in Granville
We then waived a fond adieu to the Tour and headed down memory lane to a hotel in Carnac which we first visited over 20 years ago. We had responded to an offer in The Sunday Times whereby we stayed at the hotel for free but agreed to eat every evening in the hotel’s restaurant. The hotel was a charming and slightly eccentric run family affair with an excellent restaurant where we held good on our promise and ate our way through their tank of lobsters. The following year, the hotel invited us back on the same basis and we once more pointed the digit of doom each evening at the occupants of its lobster tank.
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The beach in Carnac
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Around Carnac
This time around, we were keen to see if the hotel was still charming – it is – though there’s now a much greater choice of restaurants where we wreaked havoc on the local lobster population, along with the oysters and mussels. It was a delightful and restful sojourn, just what we both needed.
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Our days were spent walking along sandy beaches and around the local neighbourhood admiring its property porn and truly magnificent hydrangea bushes which seem to love the Atlantic air.
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Savonnieres
My beloved had expressed an interest in visiting the Chateaux of the Loire Valley – more property porn -on our return journey. Sated with seafood, we headed to a bijou B&B just outside of Tours for our whistle-stop tour of the area. With just a day to spare, we passed the time in the magnificent gardens of just three chateaux. All three were jam-packed with tourists but the gardens were blessedly calm as the hordes of visitors oohed and aahed over stately splendours indoors. We, meanwhile, were finding our way round mazes and marvelling at the symmetry of the formal gardens and box hedging and lusting after the potagers and herb gardens. There’s many more places to visit so we’ll be back!
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Amboise
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Amboise
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Chenonceaux
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Chenonceaux
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Villandry

Neither of us was tempted to bid for one of these glorious properties – far too many windows to clean! Though a casual glance in a local estate agent revealed we could sell our apartment and with just 50% of the proceeds acquire our own, fully-renovated, mini-chateau with 10 bedrooms! Unfotunately, all that rich agricultural land and lush pastures induced a severe case of hay-fever in my beloved so here endeth our dreams of a mini Versailles.

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Finally, it was time to head for home via Montpellier taking in the finish and start of two further Tour stages. As we drove there, we knew the peloton was going to face some echelon action as my Smart was visibly bobbing in the wind – it’s not the most aerodynamic of cars. Before bidding a fond farewell to the Tour, I managed to catch up with a few more acquaintances and contacts to set up some interviews post-Tour. Generally, I try not to get in the way of the other 1,999 journalists who earn their living writing about cycling. I’ll be content watching the action on the television for the next 10 days or so.

My parents to the left with dear family friends to the right

Daddy’s girls

You have to feel for my late mother – three daughters and we were all Daddy’s Girls! So I could appreciate why her first words to me were always: “How’s my son-in-law?” She doted on my beloved and the feelings were reciprocated. But to return to the point of today’s post, Father’s Day. A day which always conjures up fond memories of my wonderfully kind father, our happy times together and, more importantly, his many pearls of wisdom.

My two sisters and I spent an unexpectedly lovely Father’s Day with him in 2013. We didn’t realise it was to be our last. My youngest sister had made an unexpected trip to France with him to join my other sister and us for a week in the sunshine.  Unlike many of our previous Father’s Day lunches, this was decidedly low-key. My Dad and his three girls ate a light lunch I’d prepared and discussed what he was now going to do with his time. My mother had died in early January and, after getting her affairs in order, my dad was looking forward to what he hoped might be a few years of doing all the things he’d put on hold to care for her. He had already planned a cruise to St Petersburg and the Baltic States with dear friends in August, while I was hoping he’d come and spend the more inclement British months with us on the Cote d’Azur.

Over lunch, we also reflected on earlier Father’s Days when we’d gathered together for a celebratory lunch, often at a hotel in the Cotswolds, Oxford or at Le Manoir. Luncheon out en famille and not a gift was always my father’s preference. Something we’d been denied in recent years as my mother’s condition had worsened, so it was a real treat to have this unexpected opportunity to share Father’s Day with him.

Mid-week I drove him down the coast past Saint Tropez, to Cavaliere-sur-Mer,  where we’d spent our first foreign family holiday when I was only four years old. Unsurprisingly, given it was so long ago, the place was unrecognisable but we found a lovely Relais & Chateau, Tuscan-style hotel on the seafront where we enjoyed a light, leisurely lunch watching the sunshine dance on the water and chatting about anything and everything. Sunday we enjoyed lunch together with my beloved, a cosy threesome at our favourite local restaurant which has breathtaking views of the countryside, a neighbouring walled village and the sea. Whenever we eat at that restaurant, we think back on that lovely light-filled luncheon which seemed so full of promise.

My father (far left) holding FA Cup in 1957, the last time Villa won it.
My father (far left) holding FA Cup in 1957, the last time Villa won it.

Often when we eat at a new restaurant, we’ll say to one another “You know who’d have liked this…..” We are of course referring to my father who also instilled in me his love of dining out. But he wasn’t just my father. My beloved lost his father when he was 22 years old and he’d become very close to mine, after all he’d been his father-in-law for over 35 years. So we both miss him and never more on Father’s Day.

Header image taken in Mougins in 2009 with my late parents on the left and dear family friends on the right.

during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D match between Spain and Turkey at Allianz Riviera Stadium on June 17, 2016 in Nice, France.

Viva Espana

Yesterday evening my beloved and I went to watch a live Euro 2016 match.  We already knew first-hand what happens to the traffic on a match night at the Allianz Riviera stadium during the Championships – gridlock. So we set off three hours before kick-off. We parked easily enough at the Municipal Markets (MIN) Park & Ride, our usual parking spot for any OGC Nice home match before paying Euros 3,00 each for a return bus ride to the stadium. I wouldn’t have minded but the bus dropped us off about two kilometres from the stadium. Fortunately, the sun was shining, I was wearing comfortable shoes, looking forward to seeing Spain v Turkey and we had plenty of time on our hands.

The security was spot on. It’s the first time I’ve been properly searched before entering the stadium. There were a few fans milling around outside where a couple of stands were selling cold beverages, hot dogs and sandwiches. We skipped the refreshments and headed to our seats. We were in the Spanish end of the stadium, behind the goal, usually home to OGCN’s Ultras. It’s a great spot and not bad for Euros 55,00 a head. We splashed out on a couple of bottles of water. The catering is much improved by comparison with the old Stade du Ray but it’s essentially beer, cold drinks, French fries, hot dogs and sandwiches. I feel they’ve missed a trick for tonight’s match, they should have laid on kebabs and tapas.

during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D match between Spain and Turkey at Allianz Riviera Stadium on June 17, 2016 in Nice, France.
Opening ceremony

Three of the Spaniards wore long-sleeved shirts and sported over the knee socks. Wise move, it got chilly when the sun went down.

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SPAIN

As the “away” squad,  Turkey had to wear their fashionable tie-dye turquoise shirts.

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TURKEY

 

The Gamemaker Iniesta
The Maestro, Andres Iniesta

You’ll have read the match reports. The Spanish played a mesmerising game orchestrated by Iniesta. The Turks’ Plan A contained the Spanish for the first 30 minutes though you felt it was only a matter of time before Spain broke free and scored. Thereafter, the Turks were far too static, seemingly bereft of further ideas. Clearly, no Plan B. Or maybe, they too were enthralled by the skills on display. Did Spain really only enjoy 67% of possession? It felt like so much more.

But it wasn’t just on the pitch where the Spanish scored. Their fans really dressed for the occasion. I lost count of the number in fancy dress.

A few aging matadors
Ole!

I saw plenty of  fans wearing those spotted dresses more usually seen on flamenco dancers. Here’s one of them.

A few senoritas
A few senoritas

The Turkish fans had weight of numbers of their side and, thanks to Euro 2016 sponsor Turkish Airlines, had plenty of flags to waive. Despite the body searches, a few managed to smuggle in flares which they set off at the end of the match. That aside, there was no trouble either inside or outside of the stadium.

Post-match flares up the Turkish end
Post-match flares at the Turkish end

As we made our way back to the buses, some two kilometres down the road, under the watchful eyes of the riot police, the mood was one of celebration. We’d just enjoyed a fantastic display of football. Maybe the defending champions would successfully retain their title after all. Oh, in case you’re interested, Alvaro Morata, who scored two of Spain’s three goals, was my man of the match.

Morata, man of the match
Morata, man of the match

All images supplied by Getty Images

iPad

Stay calm, count to five and exhale

Just over three years ago, my beloved bought me an iPad mini. I was sceptical at first but it’s become an indispensable part of my life. It goes everywhere with me. It’s the first thing I reach for when waking up and the last thing I look at before going to sleep. Just in case you’re starting to feel sorry for me, please remember my beloved travels a lot so I’m often home alone.

This morning the screen froze while I was reading a newspaper online. I rebooted but it just returned to the frozen screen. Initially panic set in as I thought this might mean a trip to my local Apple Store where I knew I would encounter lots of indifferent Gallic shrugs, little assistance and be advised there were no appointments for the next three weeks. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt! Instead, I googled the problem and found plenty of advice to help me through the few steps needed to resolve the issue – phew! Crisis averted.

It’s amazing how dependent we become on these devices. I can honestly say it’s the best present he’s ever bought me. Regular readers will know he’s not a giver of great presents so, much to his relief, I have banned him from buying me gifts. Indeed, my blood runs cold when he utters the words “I’ve bought you a little something!” That’s because we’ve been together for 40 years and I can count on the fingers of one hand all the really great things he’s bought me.

Yes, I know I sound ungrateful, but I hate to waste money. You have to understand that my beloved gives very little thought to the actual purchase and is far more likely to buy something he’d like. Also, purchases tend to take place in airport duty-free while he’s rushing to catch a plane – not necessarily a conducive environment.

Unfortunately, my beloved has a hard act to follow. My late father was a purchaser of great gifts par excellence. He would spend hours trying to find the right coloured scarf to go with an outfit, or handbag or a piece of jewellery to delight or a beautiful handkerchief. Gifts don’t have to be expensive but they do need some careful thought as to what would please the receiver. He’d buy things throughout the year for little surprises, birthdays and Christmas, never once disappointing any of his four girls. My beloved is never going to assail those dizzy heights.

Indeed, my beloved will only go shopping if we’re going to buy him something. I generally don’t allow him to shop on his own, he’s very susceptible to the charm of the shop assistants and I’ve long suspected he’s colour blind. His distressed purchases, when the airline misplaces his baggage, bear witness to this. Recently we’ve been shopping to feed his recently acquired lululemon addiction. His latest purchase was four pairs of ABC pants (trousers) which are great for today’s smart casual dressing, and they’re washable.

But I digress. Usually, if  I entrust him to buy something from the airport, I specify what he should buy. I find it’s much safer that way. He was recently entrusted by a group of businessmen with purchasing gifts for the two Chinese ladies who’d accompanied them on a recent trip to China. Needless to say, I helped him choose the gifts otherwise I dread to think what they would have received! I also keep a stock of gifts suitable to give to clients, particularly those in the Middle and Far East, where an exchange of gifts is typical.

You can guess which ones I've kept and which one has gone to the charity shop!
You can guess which ones I’ve kept and which one has gone to the charity shop!

My favourite gifts to give and receive are consumables. French goodies go down very well while I’ve recently, and gratefully, received white tea, imperial rice and a selection of Indian spices. I’m still using up all the liquid and alcoholic gifts Richard has received over the years, most of which end up in my cooking. I suspect we may never exhaust all of them. Likewise, our local charity shop has been the “lucky” recipient of many of our unwanted gifts.   How many daggers mounted in picture frames does a girl need – none!

My last employer had a catalogue of corporate gifts, the Swiss Army knife being a particular and always welcome gift. I recall giving the all-singing, all-dancing version as a birthday present to a senior executive with whom I was negotiating to acquire a plot of land for the company. My birthday was later that month and he reciprocated with a wholly unsuitable gift – perfume and matching body lotion by Gianni Versace. I opened the gift at a table surrounded by our respective advisors and you could hear a pin drop when I revealed what was inside. I think I murmured “How thoughtful”  while appreciating my beloved wasn’t alone in buying unsuitable gifts!

Giro 2016 trophy

Postcard from the Giro d’Italia

My beloved and I consider ourselves fortunate to often combine work with pleasure. We spent the European mid-May Bank Holiday week-end in Tuscany watching the Giro d’Italia and cycling around the beautiful Tuscan countryside. Although typical wet Bank holiday weather was forecast, the weather was better than anticipated, with rain falling either overnight or just in the late afternoon.

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We stayed in a hotel we had first visited back in 2005 while spending time with one of my beloved’s German clients, who has a house in Chiantishire. Over several subsequent trips to the region we’ve spent time in a number of  Tuscan towns and have always been delighted with the food, wine and culture on offer plus the cycling, on undulating roads with little or no traffic, has been fantastic.

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On Saturday, after a quick ride, we headed over to Arezzo, the finish town for stage 8 of the  Giro d’Italia which included some of the (in)famous Strade Bianche. We made the mistake of steering clear of the motorway in preference to the country roads and found every which way was blocked by the race some 4km out of Arezzo.

Undaunted we elected to walk only to discover later that the finish line was actually 8km away. Now I usually love a brisk walk but found this tougher than anticipated in the warm late afternoon sunshine. We arrived at the finish the same time as the tail-end Charlies. More significantly, we arrived at the Accreditation Centre seconds after it was supposed to close to discover everyone had packed up early and moved on. Neither of us could face the hike back to the car so we took a taxi.

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By this point in the proceedings, and having missed lunch, my beloved and I were both famished. On the way back we stopped off in the town where we’d stayed during the 2013 World Championships. Our good humours were revived with an Aperol Spritz at a nearby bar followed by dinner at an Osteria, both of which we’d previously frequented. The owner of the Osteria, who runs front of house, remembered us and his wife duly whipped up a truly delicious meal. Sated, we could finally laugh about our afternoon of mishaps. I slept well that night.

After misfiring on Saturday, we had to collect our accreditation at the start of Sunday’s time-trial stage but this process wasn’t without its tribulations. I was fifth in the accreditation queue but those ahead of me hadn’t pre-registered. The convoluted process took over an hour, added to a further 30 minutes waiting for the accreditation staff to turn up. I managed to while away the time chatting to the other journos and former pro Paolo Longo Borghini, who’s now responsible for rider safety at the Giro, and part of RCS’s management team.

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Next up, and more importantly, I had to deliver my cakes to the respective teams before we headed to the finish in nearby Greve in Chianti with our wet weather gear. Yes, the sun was shining but we’d seen the weather forecast. Most of the peloton would be getting a soaking.

Monday’s rest day involved a recovery ride around the glorious Tuscan hills. We were fortunately back before the afternoon downpour and ate a superb meal in a nearby bar packed with locals. It was so filling we only needed an ice cream from gelateria for dinner where I was delighted to discover they did two flavours of vegan ice cream (coffee and raspberry) which, in the interests of research, I just had to try.

The Mighty Boz
The Mighty Boz

At the start of Tuesday’s stage in a suburb of Florence, we caught up with staff we know at Bardiani-CSF and evaluated their riders’ chances of a stage win. My parting comment was “I’ll keep my fingers crossed, who knows, today could be the one!” Prophetic or what? One of their promising neo-pros, Giulio Ciccone, won the stage.

Impressed by my cakes, one of the Sky boys challenged me to come up with a bar for their musettes. They gave me one prepared by the wife of one of soigneurs. It was okay but rather dry and tasteless. I shall be working on it this week and will return to the final few stages with a much improved product, along with some of my brownies.

Go, Joe, go!
The King of Utah, Joe Dombrowski
Cannondale's chef and crew enjoying my fruit cake!
Cannondale’s chef and crew enjoying my fruit cake!

After watching the peloton depart, we headed to a town we’d never before visited. Yes, this was our maiden trip to Bologna, a town about which I had little or no expectations but it blew me away. We stayed in a delightful, modern, three-roomed bed and breakfast in the old town, just a short stroll from the main attractions. Before checking in, we had lunch in a restaurant nearby which had been in situ since 1957. If it’s lasted that long it’s got to be good – right? Absolutely! We enjoyed yet another magnificent meal in a family run neighbourhood institution. The owner had passed away in 2007 but his widow still helps out while the three children now run the restaurant.

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Much to my delight, the restaurant featured an old childhood favourite, the sweet trolley. I couldn’t indulge but my beloved had the house speciality Zuppa Inglesi. He proclaimed it “nice” but a pale imitation of my and my late mother’s rum soaked trifles. Then it was time to walk off those calories around the magnificent old town whose monuments are build almost exclusively of brick, many dating from the 14th century. Some of them are very tall, underlining how wealthy the city was in former times.  The shops are under attractive stone porticoes which have beautiful frescoed ceilings and wrought iron lights, clocks and shop signs. This is one of the most beautiful cities in northern Italy and deserves to feature more prominently on tourists’ itineraries. I shall return particularly now I know how close it is to Mugello, home to last week-end’s Italian MotoGP.

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The following day we headed directly to the Giro stage finish in Asolo, the Pearl of Veneto, where one of my dearest friends lives. A fabulous cook, she whipped up a delicious feast for lunch which we enjoyed before watching the peloton stream through Asolo’s beautiful old town in dribs and drabs. Dinner at a local restaurant followed, before we headed to our hotel for the next few days in Pordenone.

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From time to time my beloved works with a company based here. We know the town well but haven’t visited for a while so it was good to renew our acquaintance with our favourite restaurants and watering holes. Thursday’s stage hugged the Venetian coastline though Wednesday’s warm sunshine had retreated behind clouds and heavy rain. We went to the stage start but when it’s pouring down with rain it’s difficult to do much more than wave at the riders one knows. Understandably, no one wants to spend a moment longer than necessary in the inclement conditions.

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Friday’s stage started close to Udine in a medieval border town and fared better weather wise though the boys were looking nervous as the stage heralded a triptych in the mountains before another difficult week ahead of the finish in Turin. I promised to return in the Southern Alps with more baked goods to see them through the penultimate day of climbing.

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Saturday we headed to Trieste to meet with potential Slovenian clients. We’d briefly visited the city when the Giro d’Italia finished there in 2014 but hadn’t been able to have a good look around as we needed to get back for Cannondale’s farewell Giro party. It was good to get another opportunity to visit this fascinating town which still bears the influence of its former occupiers, the Austrians, on its buildings and cuisine. Sadly, I couldn’t find a cake shop doing vegan equivalents of any of the delicious Austrian treats.

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It was a great trip. The Giro is a beautiful race and I love the way the Italians embrace it by decking themselves, their children, pets and shops in pink. It’s much more an individual and not a community effort and, as you might expect, it’s generally done with great style and panache and much reverence for the Giro’s history. I consider myself fortunate to live only 45 minutes from the Italian border.

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Differing fortunes

Yesterday evening, my beloved and I made one of our all too infrequent trips to the Allianz stadium to watch OGCN’s last home match of the season. It was a six-pointer against St Etienne who were one point and one position ahead of us in the league. Both teams are fighting for an all-important place in the Europa Cup.

That OGCN, a team which has spent the last few seasons defying the odds to remain in the top league, was in contention for Europe was nothing short of a miracle. A miracle wrought by the manager Claude Puel and two of the league’s leading goal scorers. Hatem Ben Arfa, who has risen like a phoenix from the ashes at Nice and who’ll no doubt figure strongly in the French squad for this year’s Euro Championships, and Valere Germain, a player on loan from neighbouring AS Monaco.

While qualification for Europe won’t help us retain the services of either of those three, it will help us attract reasonable replacements. Barcelona FC are eyeing up Ben Arfa, while AS Monaco, who were thrashed 6-1 away from home yesterday evening, will surely welcome back Germain with open arms. After all, he’s scored more goals than any of their first team players this season. Unhappy wealthy football club owners will undoubtedly also be eyeing up Puel, and the success he’s brought to OGCN, before bringing out the big bucks to tempt him away. It’s inevitable!

Of course, Nice have other players, such as Ricardo and Mendy, who will also no doubt have attracted the attention of richer clubs so once again the 2016/17 season will be one of rebuilding the team, but it’ll be much easier to do it from a position of strength with a place in the Europa League.

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Coincidentally, we won yesterday’s match 2-0. A tight and exciting goalless first half but then the Greens lost their heads and two men in the second half allowing Germain to strike twice in quick succession in the last 10 minutes of play. The fans were ecstatic. We had flares and a laser light show to bring down the curtain on a very successful season.

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A total contrast to the fortunes of my beloved Aston Villa who were ignominiously demoted without a whimper to the Championship. The clear out of dead wood has already begun and the quicker someone relieves Randy Lerner of his ownership of the club, which has stagnated under his stewardship, the better. Surely, there must be more Thai billionaires who’d like to have their own football team?