Two-day trip to Paris

Yes, it’s finally time for my beloved to get back to work full-time. He has mastered the crutches and can even walk without them for about 20 metres, so it was time to venture forth and meet one of our long-term clients, based in Paris. We opted to travel by train, less stressful, and I agreed to accompany him. He’s not yet ready to fly solo.

The train journey passes along the coast before heading inland. It’s delightful scenery even though it rained for most of the trip. The countryside at this time of year is verdant and lush. New bright green leaves contrast with bursts of bright yellow, pale pink, dark pink and purple blossoms against a backdrop of dark green evergreens, and lush soil every shade of ombre and ochre. April’s mix of sunshine and showers has made everything grow in abundance, from foliage to crops to vines.

There still isn’t a fast route from the Niçois coast to Paris, Marseilles has already bagged it. We’ll get one eventually, most probably via Grenoble. The train slowly winds its way along the coast until it turns inland after Marseilles and heads to Avignon – a place I keep meaning to visit – where it really picks up velocity. In no time at all we’re in Paris, a place that is irredeemably romantic. Just saying the name conjours up the Seine winding its way past Haussmanian buildings under stone bridges with majestic wrought iron lighting catching glimpses of famous sights and monuments.

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There’s something very restful about train journeys in Europe. The trains are invariably on time, you know exactly where to wait on the platform for your carriage. Trains are not overbooked, all tickets get a reserved seat. That’s right, there’s NO standing. The cost is very reasonable, particularly if you book in advance. We generally travel first-class and enjoy a late lunch in le Train Bleu restaurant at the Gare de Lyon. I just love all than fin de siecle splendour and the food’s pretty good too.

This time we were arriving late afternoon, far too late for even a late lunch. We had decided to stay in a hotel close to the station, within walking distance of Le Marais, and a short taxi ride to my beloved’s client. It was a charming bijou hotel, ideal for an overnight stop after feasting on oysters, lobster and champagne, always our favourite Parisian treat. And fitting, given it was the evening before my beloved’s birthday.

The following morning, after breakfast in a nearby brasserie, my beloved set off for his appointment, which was bound to include lunch, leaving me with a few precious hours to wander around Paris on my own – sheer bliss.

It was cold and damp to start with and I needed to walk briskly just to keep warm. I was wearing a layer too few. At one point I thought it was going to start raining but the moment passed and, thankfully, the sun came out. I just love wandering around Paris, so many independent specialist shops, many dating back hundreds of years. Of course, I particularly love all the food shops.

As I wander the streets, there’s always something to look at be it a wrought iron balcony, a beautiful street lamp, colourful  window boxes crammed with flowering plants, secret alleyways leading who knows where and wrought iron gates protecting someone’s heritage.

I also spotted some recent graffiti!

I didn’t indulge in as much window shopping as I usually do, probably because I had a destination in mind. I wanted to check out the summer collection of a German brand that I generally have to buy over the internet because it has limited availability in France and no outlets closer to me than Lyon. While its website is excellent it’s sometimes difficult to exactly discern the colour. Is is grey, beige or greige? Of course, I love all three but there were a couple of trouser styles, jackets and tops I wanted to check out.

On my early stroll I had spotted that rare beast in France, a vegan restaurant, which I wanted to try for lunch. It was excellent and I’ve made a note of its location, along with a couple of other restaurants, for us to try on our September anniversary trip. Of course, we’ll also be revisiting the site of our oyster fest.

After my enjoyable few hours, I met up with my be loved in Le Train Bleu bar where we took full advantage of the free WiFi, facilities and excellent tea. In no time at all, it was all abord for the return trip and a gentle snooze as the train purred all the way to Antibes. I have that fortunate knack of being able to power-nap anywhere at anytime.

The sun shone brighter as the train reached the south, stopping in Marseille after three or so hours before resuming its snail’s pace progression along the Med. Christophe, our uberfriendly and uberreliable local taxi driver, picked us up and whisked us back home. It had been a lovely trip, now I had to get everything ready for our maiden trip to Sardinia and 100th

Things my beloved says: “Would you like to go away next week?”

During my beloved’s recuperation from his broken leg, we’ve had an ongoing joke that I’ll deserve a break when he’s finally back on his feet. I haven’t yet decided when or where but I’m toying with Route du Sud in mid-June. So when my beloved enquired whether I’d like a two-day break at the Grand Hotel in Alassio which has a Thalassotherapy Centre I knew exactly what he meant. He wanted to go there. I played along with the charade and said that would be lovely and would he be okay on his own for three days? To say his face fell was an understatement. I then said he’d better come with me. I could tell that was exactly what he hoped I’d say.

Alassio’s a favourite destination of ours for a day trip for a spot of la dolca vita but I hadn’t been since I took my sisters over there for lunch last April. We first stayed in Alassio back in 2009 on a trip with our cycling club, was charmed by the place and have since stayed there a number of times over the years, as well as enjoying day trips for lunch and a spot of shopping. Alassio has the advantage of being just 90 minutes up the road, and what a road! The motorway offers views all along the coast and whether the sun’s shining or not, it’s always a fabulous vista.

We left after my beloved’s morning physio session and drove as far as Ventimiglia before stopping for a seafood lunch beside the azur blue sea. Ventimiglia’s another regular haunt. We frequently drive over to shop in its large covered market and adjoining shops before enjoying a spot of lunch. My shopping is roughly 30% cheaper in Italy than in France, as is lunch. Mind you, any saving is swallowed up in fuel and tolls.

Sated we drove to Alassio and, once I’d unpacked, I took my beloved down to the Spa where he spent many happy hours in the salt-water pool and adjacent steam rooms while I took a wander round the streets. I know the area well, it’s largely pedestrianised and a pleasure to stroll around. It was warm so I stopped for refreshments and by the time I got back to the hotel my beloved was in our room looking forward to an apero, or in his case, an Aperol spritz. Drinks often seem expensive in Italy but not when you take into account their ample accompaniments. We dropped into another favourite spot, Café Mozart, where the nibbles included a faro salad, fried fish, farinata, crisps, nuts and olives. On top of a generous lunch, this was more than enough for dinner.
The following morning we were first into breakfast before we both headed to the Spa. I’d booked my beloved a massage. To his delight his therapist was Russian, we always find Eastern European’s to be highly trained and knowledgeable. She soon sorted out all his blocked muscles and any little niggles as well as suggesting a few exercises for him to do in the pool. She’d also taped up his back with that coloured physio tape you often see on professional cyclists. He was happy as Larry. We lunched in the hotel, outside overlooking the sea. I find the sound of waves crashing  onto the sands so restful which is probably why I fell asleep after lunch!
Later, my beloved returned to frolic in the water while I went food shopping: broad beans, peas, artichokes, fennel and asparagus for a spring vegetable casserole. A mixture of lettuces and tomatoes for salad, foccaccia, vegetable pie and various Italian biscuits for a treat. I also popped into a local wine shop to replenish our Prosecco stocks – running dangerously low- and some local Ligurian white wine. We were all set for a feast on our return home.
For dinner, we returned to where we’d dined the night before for another range of tempting snacks and more Prosecco. We were beginning to realise that maybe two nights hadn’t been enough and resolved to return soon. The following morning we again breakfasted early to make the most of the morning in the Spa before lunching in the hotel. All good things sadly come to an end and we drove back to Nice at a slow and steady pace, largely on account of the Easter holiday traffic, but nothing could disturb our serenity after a relaxing couple of days.

Happy Easter

As my beloved has become more mobile we’ve been out and about for short walks over the Easter long week-end, enjoying the warm sunny weather and wonderful scenery. April, with its heady mix of sunshine and showers, encourages the place to spring into vibrant colour. The trees are every shade of green, the bushes are blossoming, the birds are canoodling, summer can’t be too far away.

On one of our walks, we were admiring the floating palaces in Antibes, the largest concentration of man caves in the Mediterranean. Most seemingly lie idle, the only sounds of activity are from workmen readying them for the start of the chartering season, the Cannes Film Festival.

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Today we strolled alongside  the beach in Cros de Cagnes, a former fishing village, where the boats are rather more utilitarian than the shiny beauties we saw yesterday. It was good to feel the sunshine on our faces.

I hope you’re having an enjoyable holiday week-end too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A fond farewell to Tom Boonen

Yesterday was Tom Boonen‘s last professional cycling race. For me, it’s the end of an era. Tom won the first race I ever watched and I’m going to have to come clean that my first thought was “Now there’s a guy that looks good in lycra!” My beloved blames him for my obsession with cycling but it’s not entirely Tom’s fault as, even though he’s now retired, the obsession continues.

So let’s have a dawdle down memory lane and look at some of the many highlights of his career, starting with a video including that  win on stage 6 in 2004’s Tour de France.

The following year, 2005 was Tom’s annus mirabilis, when he won Flemish hearts and minds with victories in the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the UCI Road World Championships in Madrid, among others. Tom had arrived, he was the biggest thing in cycling and most certainly the biggest star in Belgium.

After this magical season, many in Belgium worried that Tom would go the way of former Belgian cycling colossi such as Freddie Maertens or Frank Vandenbroucke. Tom did have career lows on and off the road, but let’s not dwell on those. They’re well-documented and safely in the past. Instead lets focus on the affection he engendered among the fans, the press, the peloton and especially his team-mates. He’s been a one-team rider his entire career, after an early, ill-fated flirtation with Lance Armstrong’s United Postal Service, where he’s been cannily managed by General Manager Patrick Lefevere who here talks about Tom’s career.

Now we turn to those who have had the pleasure of riding with Tom, as current and former team-mates talk fondly about him in these series of videos.

One of the riders who probably knows Tom best is Kevin Hulsmans. They rode together for over 10 years. Here’s what Kevin had to say.

But Tom doesn’t just inspire respect among his team-mates, he’s also held in high regard by his peers. As reported by Velonews, less than 48 hours before the start of the “Hell of the North,” there was universal agreement in the peloton. If they couldn’t win Roubaix, they wouldn’t mind seeing Boonen take the history-making fifth cobble. Two-time world champion Peter Sagan told Het Niewwsblad he would like to see Boonen win his final race if he’s not in winning position himself because:

Boonen was my role model and idol. When I first raced Roubaix, I had no idea how to race the pave. I watched him and learned. If I cannot win, I will be very happy if he could. It would be a great end to his career.

Specialized made Tom a special bike with a fitting tribute for his final race, but sadly he didn’t get his fairytale ending. Someone else won.

In a pre-race interview Tom said he was sure to be sad today largely as a result of a hangover! But whatever the future brings, I wish him health, happiness and more successes.

Now where did I put that box of paper tissues?

Header image: Trophy from the friends of Arenberg from Nord Eclair

The Musette: Gluten-free vegan banana bread

My beloved likes a slice of cake with his afternoon cuppa. Visitors had eaten all the pain d’epice I’d made last week-end so, this afternoon, I decided to make some banana bread. Largely because I had some ripe bananas hanging around in the fruit bowl. I then discovered I needed to replace the batteries in my kitchen scales but someone  – no prizes for guessing who – had found my secret cache and used them! Undeterred, I used my measuring spoons to make this spiced, mixed fruit, banana cake which used up a few odds and ends I had in the cupboards.

Ingredients (serves 8 hungry cyclists)

  • 4 ripe medium-sized bananas
  • 6 tbsps grape-seed or olive oil
  • 3 tbsps maple syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp mixed spice
  • 6 tbsps ground almonds
  • 4 tbsps rice flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder (gluten-free)
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 200g mixed dried fruit (approx. 10 prunes or figs and 10 apricots)
  • 100g  pistachio nuts (approx. handful)

Method

1. Preheat oven to 170ºC/150ºC fan/gas mark 3 (325ºF/300ºF fan).

2. Grease a 1kg (2lb) loaf tin with a tsp grape-seed oil. I often use a disposable tin-foil loaf tin 13cm x 23cm x 7cm (5” x 9” x 3”). They’re easier for storing the cakes in the freezer, which I line with a couple of strips of greaseproof paper to make it easier to remove the cake.

3. Mash bananas in large bowl – I use a potato masher – stir in the oil, maple syrup, vanilla extract. Then add the flour, baking powder, mixed spice and salt into a bowl. Fold ingredients to combine with a spatula. The mixture should have a soft dropping consistency.

4. Spoon mixture into the baking pan, put it into the middle of the oven on a baking tray and cook for 45 minutes. Baking times will vary depending on the dimensions of your baking tin and your oven, so check regularly. The cake is ready when a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.

7. Allow to cool for 10 minutes in the tin before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing and eating, or freezing for no longer than two months. The bread will keep for a week in an airtight container in the fridge providing I hide it from my beloved.

8. It’s also nice sliced and toasted with almond butter according to my chief taster!

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the cake in the oven, put the timer on for 5-10 minutes less than the cake should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the cake is browning too quickly, particularly at the edges, cover it with an aluminium foil tent.

4. When I have surplus ripe bananas I unpeel them, wrap them in greaseproof paper and freeze for later. If you’re making smoothies in a blender, you can add them still frozen.

5. If you don’t have any truly ripe bananas, roast them in the oven, still in their skins, to bring out their innate sweetness.

6. I used a 200g packet of mixed dried fruit but you can vary the mix according to taste.

 

 

The Musette: Vegetable Chilli

There’s nothing better than a crowd-pleaser when you’re cooking for a lots of people. This is loosely based on Ann Jones’ recipe for Vegetarian Chilli, but makes greater use of vegetables rather than grains. I love bulk cooking which gives me enough for a couple of meals during the week or week-end, and a few to put in the freezer for later. Halve the quantities if you want a more manageable potful. The beauty of dishes like these is that you can use up all sorts of odds and ends from your pantry and fridge. Just remember to have enough different textures in the dish otherwise it’ll taste very samey. Now, I love a bit of heat but, if you don’t, dial back on the amount of chilli (fresh and powder) that’s added.

Ingredients (Serves 10-12 hungry cyclists)

  • 3 tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 4 fat garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 fresh red chilli, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon or a cinnamon stick
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tbsp ancho chilli powder
  • 1 tbsp jalapeno chilli powder
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 × 400g (14 oz) tins of chopped tomatoes
  • 300g (10 oz) green lentils, washed
  • 125 ml (1/2 cup) white wine
  • 125 ml (1/2 cup) brewed coffee
  • 1 kg (2 lb) mixed vegetables* (see mix below)
  • 1 litre vegetable stock/water
  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Method

2. Add the chilli powders, cinnamon, cumin, coriander and stir around in the pan for 1-2 minutes. Add the lentils and stir them well into the mix, before adding white wine, and then tomato paste.

 

3. Now add all the other ingredients (except coffee and any green leaves), including 1 tsp of salt and 1/2 tsp of pepper. Bring pan to a gentle boil, then turn the heat down to low, cover with greaseproof paper and the lid, simmer gently for at least 40-45 minutes, until the lentils and vegetables are cooked. If, the chilli starts to look a bit dry, add further stock or water.

4. You can either season to taste, stir in the green leaves, fish out the cinnamon sticks and star anise then serve, or leave it to go cold and refrigerate over night for serving the following day or two. Add coffee before re-heating and check seasoning again before serving with tortillas, or baked potatoes, or rice, or polenta with maybe a tomato salsa or guacamole – the possibilities are endless! 

The final pictures don’t look too appetising – I really must work on my photography skills – but the end result was delicious – honest!

 

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. I use a mix of vegetables to provide a variety of tastes and textures. In this batch I used carrots, sweet potato, cauliflower, broccoli and chard. I cut the carrots and sweet potatoes into similarly sized pieces, chopped the chard stalks and added those with the rest of the vegetables adding the shredded leaves for adding just before serving and broke the cauliflower and broccoli into similar sized florets. While, most vegetables would work, instinctively I would avoid those such as  sugar-snap peas, leeks and asparagus while embracing sweet corn, peas, artichoke hearts, celery, spinach, swede, parsnip, turnip, beetroot, courgettes (zucchini), aubergine (eggplant), and green beans.

2. Feel free to substitute the lentils for other pulses and legumes such as chickpeas, cannellini, black or red kidney beans.

3. You can swap some of the vegetables for mushrooms which add another texture and meaty flavour to the chilli.

4. This will sit happily for 3-4 days in the fridge or the freeze for a month.