2015 Highlights

In a year of so many highs, which ones really stood out in yet another busy and thoroughly enjoyable year?

1. Richmond 2015 UCI Road World Championships

If I had to pick only one, this would be it for a myriad of reasons. Firstly a big shout out to the organisers and the people of Richmond for putting on a well-organised, well-supported fantastic World Championships. None will ever surpass my first in Salzburg  – a girl never forgets her first – but this one came pretty close.

Next, I (finally) got to meet Greig Leach as we began to collaborate on our second book together. On so many levels, it’s odd for him have an editor who’s not American, editing American prose. But I know that I bring my knowledge of the cycling world and obsessive eye for detail which is the perfect counter-point for Greig’s broad brush perspective. Our second book will be published in early February but you can order a copy now.

The World Championships are a great opportunity to meet up with friends old and new, including VeloVoices’ very own Panache. I’ve been working with these guys since 2012 and have still to meet everyone in person! I not only met Panache aka Chris but his lovely wife Audrey, who was nursing a broken foot, his best cycling buddy Chad and his equally lovely wife Belva. I helped Chris, Chad and another of their friends Scott have a memorable cycling holiday at the Tour a couple of years back. I think the next trip might well be in the Dolomites with their better halves! I am poised to lend a helping hand.

Sagan wins Worlds (image: Greig Leach)
Sagan wins Worlds (image: Greig Leach)

I love it when someone I know wins a race. Admittedly, Peter Sagan was one of the bookies’  favourites for the men’s road race title but, with only two team-mates and a season which had not perhaps gone the way everyone expected, the pressure was on. Peter delivered in spades with a swashbuckling attack, a risk-all descent and a hanging on for grim death finish. He was warmly congratulated by his peers and the fans after winning in style – something he does only too well.

2. Three Grand Departs

More by accident than design, this year I was fortunate to attend the start of all three of the grand tours. Impossible to pick a favourite as they were all special for many reasons. The Tour is always fantastically well-organised and I take my hat off to anyone who can organise the equivalent of 21 Royal Weddings with barely a hitch. It runs like a well-oiled machine but its sheer size mitigates against rider and fan intimacy which is much more easily achieved at both the Giro and Vuelta which are both rather more laid back affairs.

3. My Beloved Aston Villa

My late father (far left) holding 1957 FA Cup won by AVFC
My late father (far left) holding 1957 FA Cup won by AVFC

The boys managed to reach the FA Cup final where they were roundly beaten by a vastly superior Arsenal but, more importantly, they managed to (again) stave off relegation. Unfortunately, key players wanted out and were sold to be replaced with a bunch of very promising youngsters, including a player from my French team OGCN. A change of managers has not managed to lift the boys off the bottom of the Premiership where they languish easily in last place. I fear for them, I really do. Let’s hope they get their act together under Remi Gard (who is a disciple of OGCN Manager Claude Puel) and play (much) better in the first half of 2016. I’m hoping Gus will lend us Loic Remy, another ex-OGCN and OC Lyon player, who can score goals.

Season’s Greetings

The holiday season starts when I receive my first Christmas card. Most years it’s one from a couple who almost bought our house in Chiswick back in 1993. Their lovely cards typically showcase one of the photographs they’ve taken on their travels. I always think: “That’s such a good idea, I’ll do something similar next year.”

Well, this year I (finally) have! Of course, I couldn’t pick just one photograph, so I went for a montage to sum up our year.

1. Albi, a UNESCO World Heritage site

The rose coloured town of Albi on the banks of the river Tarn

I took this picture of the rose-coloured town of Albi, on the river Tarn, on my iPhone from the ramparts of the cathedral. It was taken during a magical week-end, returning to a place I’d only driven through during the 2013 Tour de France. My beloved had to visit a potential client in nearby Castres and, as we are wont to do, we turned a business trip into something special.

2. The view from our bedroom window

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This view is the main reason we bought our apartment and it’s one of which I never tire. I take a photograph most mornings but some, like this one taken last winter, are more spectacular than others.

3. Alassio, the Italian Riviera

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My beloved took this photograph, with his newly acquired Cannon camera, while we were waiting for the peloton to pass us by on stage two of this year’s Giro d’Italia. We spent the week-end in nearby Alassio and, not long after the peloton passed, I was greeted like a long-lost friend by the owner of the small family hotel I’d stayed in for the Trofeo Laigueglia in February. That’s just one of the things I love about cycling – you make friends everywhere.

4. Getaria, the Basque country

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Our card wouldn’t be complete without a photograph from the Basque country but which one to choose? We have so many. I love seascapes and I took this photograph on my iPhone from the promontory in Getaria looking back towards the coastline. The past couple of years, we’ve stayed in the same five-bedroomed, family-run hotel for both the Clasica and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Getaria is a lovely spot, famed for its Txakoli wine, with plenty of bars and restaurants just a short walk from the hotel.

5. Antwerp

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This shows the crowds waiting for the start of stage three of the Tour de France with the magnificent Het Steen Castle – the city’s oldest building – and the Cathedral of our Lady in the background. After the riders had set off, we had a delightful lunch in one of the many restaurants in the old town.

6. Sag Harbor, The Hamptons

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I adore US colonial style housing with gingerbread trims and this is a particularly fine example of the genre. I also loved that this business in Sag Harbor’s main street was selling French antiques. We witnessed many fine properties on our September trip to US.

7. Costa del Sol

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This was taken by my beloved from the road outside the restaurant where we’d stopped for a long, convivial and typically Spanish lunch. It was on the finishing circuit, not too far from the finish line, on stage two of the Vuelta which played out in the hills of Gualdahorce on the Costa del Sol. This year we were very fortunate to be able to visit the starts of all three Grand Tours, a feat we’re unlikely to repeat.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas

much happiness, good health, and every success in 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where’s the car keys?

It’s been a while since we’ve had a key incident. And, when I say “we,” I mean my beloved.

At Christmas time I often make biscuits, cookies, truffles, Christmas cakes and brownies to give as presents or to offer to unexpected guests who pop in during the Festive Season. As a result, there’s usually the warm and comforting fug of baking all around the apartment.

A selection of some of my baked goodies
A selection of some of my baked goodies

Saturday afternoon, we drove round to friends for an unanticipated pre-Christmas high tea. We parked the car in my usual spot near their apartment that only fits SMART cars and, laden with parcels of baked goodies and presents, headed inside where we passed several enjoyable hours catching up with a number of friends, most of whom were heading back to parental homes for either Christmas or New Year. My baked offerings were well received, some of which I had made specifically to be taken home to their parents for Christmas.

A number of the other guests had newly returned from their teams’ first training camps and were already in restraint mode in anticipation of the forthcoming cycling season. I’m always amused when professional cyclists initially refuse my wares on account of weight-maintenance. They’ll then unobtrusively cut a piece of cake in half and eat first the one half and, a few minutes later, the other. A technique they’ll use to taste all of the cakes and cookies, at least once.

I had taken round some of my race winning brownies so it was understandable they were keen to tuck in but I’m not sure the benefits will last until the Europe Tour season opener, the GP Marseillaise. In no time at all, the guests had reduced the brimming plates to the odd crumb or two.

One of my friends’ adorable sons, a notoriously picky eater, single-handedly polished off four brownies. I was impressed, these are seriously dark, rich, sticky and typically adult only. He passed on the truffles but dug into the cookies, particularly the hazelnut and chocolate caramel ones.

Before taking our leave, we popped down to our friends’ cave to pick up some brochures. At which point my beloved asked me for the car keys. I replied that he hadn’t given me the keys. I usually take them off him as soon as we park up, but my hands had been full of parcels, so hadn’t taken possession of them. We returned to the flat, where I emptied my handbag – no car keys! My beloved checked he hadn’t left them in the car. He hadn’t. At which point, we were inundated with offers of lifts to fetch our spare set of keys.

Whenever my beloved loses anything, I attempt to re-trace his steps. This typically helps us locate the item in question. He had entered the flat and taken off his shoes. Had he left the keys on the shelf? No! He had played with our friends’ children. Were they on the floor or down the side of the sofa? No! Were they on the coffee or dinner tables? No! En route to the car, we had gone down to the cave. Had he put the keys down in the cave? Yes!

Who’s going to win?

Okay, hands up, I’m a sucker for reality cookery shows. One of my favourites is MasterChef: The Professionals. It’s on UK television and the format is pretty much replicated throughout the globe in one form or another. Interestingly in the French equivalent, it’s diners who choose the winner not the four resident judges, who are all renowned chefs with Michelin stars aplenty.

MasterChef judges

The series starts with the judges setting the competitors a skill’s test. Now, I’m what you might call a better than average home cook. My friends’ joke that I have a “Michelin” star – I wish – but I’m always shocked at how many of the contestants don’t know or understand the basics. I appreciate not all are classically trained; some are “self-taught” like one of my favourite chefs, Raymond Blanc. Of course, Raymond had the benefit of a childhood in France and a mother who showed him how to cook.

Understandably, and sadly, some of the chefs fall prey to nerves and their skills desert them. However, the kitchen is a very pressured environment and, if you can’t take the heat, then get out of the kitchen or, in this case, the competition.

Having faced the skills test, contestants then have an opportunity for redemption with their “signature” dish. Something tried and endlessly tested which should delight the judges. Unfortunately too many hide behind chemistry-set cookery with foams and water baths, neither of which impress the judges.

Too many competitors talk about “pushing boundaries,” being daring, and experimenting with interesting flavours. Down this path lies disaster. I say this as a seasoned watcher of the programme and someone who’s accurately picked out the winner from the first round every year, save one .

My one failure was 2013 where I had predicted Adam Handling would win. And he would have done so if Michael Roux had not expected more from him than the other two finalists. Yes, he was Michael’s favourite too. However, he’s not fared too badly since and has garnered plenty of awards for himself and his restaurant.

Each year a particular technique or ingredient seems to pop up. This year it’s honeycomb which has cropped up in sweet and savoury dishes aplenty. Now I like honeycomb, it’s easy to prepare and can offer an interesting taste and/or texture in desserts which it did yesterday evening for one of the successful semi-finalists. But guys, with lamb and fish, really?

MasterChef Dish

We’ve just gotten past my favourite bit of the programme – the head-to-head semi-finals – where two (or three) contestants take part in the day’s service in a notable restaurant with a well-known chef. This culminates  in them cooking the chef’s signature dish for them to taste and critique. Then it’s back to MasterChef HQ to cook two kick-ass, show stopping dishes to show not only what they’ve learnt from the previous days’ experience but also from taking part in the show. The winner makes it into the last round.

This year’s programme has re-awakened my desire for a blow torch. Sadly my beloved has forbidden me to buy one. Quite rightly, he fears I’ll burn down the kitchen. Given my history, can you blame him? I could buy a small domestic version, but where would be the fun in that?

I appreciate I have avoided the elephant in the room. Who’s going to win the title this year? I think it’s still all up for grabs though I do have a favourite. Who is it? Ah, that would be telling!

Christmas Day Postscript: Just watched the final episode on iPlayer and, I was right, my favourite chef Mark Stinchcombe won. Scott and Nick were worthy opponents but Mark’s a star now and one to watch for the future. Mark, if you need an editor for your first  book, just get in touch. It’d be a pleasure!

Images courtesy of BBC MasterChef: The Professionals

 

Postcards from Paris and New York

It was chilly, damp even, in Paris but finally the sun broke through to shine on Black Friday, though arguably that event was two weeks before. At Les Invalides, the French President led a memorial service for the 130 victims. Accordingly, Paris was a sombre place with many buildings flying the tricolour at half-mast or on posters plastered in their shop or apartment windows.

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When friends learned I was going to Paris they were aghast but I said that if I cancelled my trip it would be a victory for IS. I’ve lived through the IRA’s campaign of terror, admittedly much less sinister than that of IS, I wasn’t about to cave now.

It was originally meant to be a long romantic week-end with my beloved with plans (as always) made well in advance. We typically go to Paris at this time every year, ostensibly to attend the major French dental exhibition at the Palais des Congres. Our plans changed a couple of weeks ago when my beloved decided he needed to attend the Greater New York Dental Meeting which follows swiftly on its heels.

Paris

Meanwhile, I had a day and a half pounding the Parisian pavements. My beloved always says I’ve gone shopping. But, I haven’t, I’ve gone walking. Most people enjoy walking in the countryside but I love exploring the architecture of urban spaces and they don’t get much finer than those in central Paris.

I think the city has a timeless and elegant feel unified by its stylish buildings which sprang up only around 150 years ago under the aegis of Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine district. Unbelievable now, but his sweeping changes did not make him a popular man and his opponents accused him of imposing a coldly regimented style.

Today he’s (rightly) viewed as a visionary who sketched Paris’s great vistas  and imposed the characteristic style of the five-floor, honey-coloured, stone apartment block. Personally I adore these buildings with their symmetrical carved reliefs, beautiful wrought iron balconies, porticoes, front doors and lights – my idea of property porn heaven.

Understandably there was a heavy and visible armed presence at major transport hubs, all around French government buildings, and increased security in every doorway. None of which spoilt the enjoyment of my perambulations. Having made an early start, well before any shops were open, I enjoyed frequent pit-stops to warm up at some of my favourite Parisian watering holes.

In no time at all, I was flying back to Nice for a following day turn-around for our flight to New York. I amused myself on the way over by watching the new Minions movie. I’m now a firm fan. I dined Saturday evening with my beloved, and one of his work colleagues, and that was pretty much all I saw of him. Again, I was left to enjoy myself in New York on foot.

New York is full of buildings with interesting features and I’m not talking about The Empire State Building. No, if you zigzag up and down the cross-streets, gazing upwards, you spot some interesting details. The state of New York side-walks demands that you take care and wear comfortable shoes.

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I had two bright, sunny but very cold days where I walked all over Manhattan followed by two wet days where I meandered around MOMA and The Witney Museum. On my return my two shopaholic sisters were aghast to learn I had only bought two cookery books. What can I say? I’m not a shopper, I’m only a window shopper at best but mostly I’m a walker. New York, Paris, London, indeed any of the world’s great cities, need to be experienced on foot.