Postcard from the Vuelta

Unusually, this year’s edition of the Vuelta a Espana kicked off in Nimes. It’s only three hours down the motorway from us and it’s a place we’ve only ever driven past, never visited. We drove down on Thursday afternoon after an expensive lunch in Antibes. I rarely park in the road but there’s no parking fee in France during the lunch break (12:30 – 14:30)  – so civilised. We parked on the opposite side of the road, about 100 metres down from the restaurant. Tom was looking particularly fine as he’d just been for a wash and polish. When we went back to the car after a very pleasant lunch, I noticed someone had keyed the length of the passenger side of the car. I checked the cars either side but mine was the only one chosen for such treatment. Hence my comment about an expensive lunch.

I’d decided we would stay in Uzes, in a small, highly rated B&B which lived up to its billing. Uzes is a chocolate boxey, bastide town in the Occitane region, on the western fringes of Provence, 45km west of the Medieval walled city of Avignon, 25km north of the Roman city of Nimes and a mere 6km from the world UNESCO heritage site, Pont du Gard. Aside from its Roman origins, it’s home to the first duchy of France, whose glorious Ducal Castle, built on the site of the Roman Castrum (camp) is still in family hands.

There are plenty of grand Renaissance mansions, plus the Cathédrale Saint-Théodorit d’Uzès, a place of worship since Roman times, which dates from the Middle Ages. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. What remains is largely from the 19th century, only the organ remains from pre-Revolutionary times. Next door is its fascinating and iconic Fenestrelle tower, the only Lombard style campanile tower in France which dates from the 11th century and stands guard over a wonderful Medieval garden, restored to its former glory in 1995.

The town’s cobbled, largely pedestrianised streets spill out into elegant squares, shaded by gently worn, pale golden stone and shuttered buildings. In the centre of town, ancient sycamore trees dominate and shelter the Place-aux-Herbes and its fountain which is fringed by golden arches. This is where you’ll find the town’s famous twice-weekly (Wednesday and Saturday) market. The place is a gourmet’s delight, surrounded by truffle plantations, vineyards and home to Le Musee du Bonbon, opened in 1996 by Haribo. Though the town’s traditionally famous for its liquorice rather than gummy bears.

To be honest, all we did was stroll around the town, meandering along its cobbled streets, pausing every so often to oooh and aah over its captivating architecture, its wonderful specialist food shops and plentiful restaurant menus. We also visited Pont du Gard, an incredible World UNESCO heritage site, 275 metres long and 48 metres high, spanning the river Gardon, which was built in 50AD as part of the Nimes’ Roman acqua-duct, in use until the 6th century.

Sadly there was no time to visit any of the many wineries, olive oil mills or the Haribo Musee du Bonbon – next time! Nor, aside from Nimes with its amphitheatre, did we see much of the rich Roman heritage in the area in Arles, Orange, Avignon and Chateauneuf-du-Papes  –  another time.

Saturday was devoted to wandering around Nimes and watching the Vuelta’s opening team time-trial. The city is located between the sea and the Cevennes hills. It was established by the Romans, on the edge of the Mediterranean plain, some 16 kilometres inland, and has the finest collection of Roman remains in France, plus an attractive old town.

Nimes Maison Carree

The teams started on the steps of one of Nimes’ most famous Roman remains, the Maison Carrée – the best preserved Roman temple anywhere – and rode through the 2,000 year old Arena, one of only three large Roman arenas in the south of France. The city has several other Roman remains, in particular the Temple of Diana and Tour Magne.

Apart from its Roman monuments, Nimes has an attractive and historic centre, with narrow streets and tree-lined boulevards typical of the south of France. The park of the Jardins de la Fontaine, the site of Friday’s team presentation, laid out in 1745, is one of the oldest city parks in France, and a delightful area of greenery, fountains and shade on the edge of the old town. It also has some striking modern civic buildings designed by Jean Nouvel, Lord Foster and the Portzamparcs.

I had hoped to follow in the Vuelta’s footsteps for a few stages more but my beloved had to fly off to China at lunchtime on Sunday. While I might not visit Nimes again, I’d certainly consider a return trip to Uzes and its gummy bears!

 

 

Finally back in the saddle

My cycling has been more off than on of late. I felt I was getting back into my stride when my beloved fell off his bike and broke his leg. Consequently, I’ve waited on him hand and foot for the past four – five months. Nothing particularly new but way more time-consuming than I’d anticipated. Since he’s resumed travelling on his own I’d managed the odd ride or two but hadn’t established any regularity.

He’d been riding the aqua bike down at the hospital as part of his recovery programme, as well as his own road bike on the home trainer. A couple of weeks ago, he decided he was ready to ride on the road. However, he’d still not recovered full flexibility in his hips so it was easier to ride his mountain rather than his road bike. I decided we’d ride on part of the Cote d’Azur’s network of cycle routes, steering well clear of any traffic until he got his confidence back.

It was a long hot slog for both of us and we’ve persisted ever since. He’s now back on the road bike but still having problems getting his leg over, despite the hip flexor exercises. We’ve gone out early in the morning but the temperature’s not falling much overnight so it’s still a lot warmer than I’d like. Typically, at this time of year, we’d be off out, up and away into the Niçois hinterland but we’re still both refinding our climbing legs, so we’ve been pretty much restricted to a couple of flattish routes where we try to stay away from the holiday traffic.

We know that it’s going to take some time to recover our former bike fitness but are prepared to soldier on, come what may, knowing we’ll get there in the end. I’m looking forward to less heat and less traffic as we tip into September. It’s helped that my beloved has been at home for much of August allowing us to ride together. Inevitably we start out together and then I let him go off at his own pace once we hit the cycle paths. Typically, I’ll take the more undulating route back and do a few intervals. I can now ride all the way back up the 7% average incline to the apartment without getting off and walking – result!

The incline dips down once I reach the apartment block and I always like to sprint up the last bit of the incline, preferably in the big ring, before screaming to a halt in front of the door. Last week I managed the sprint, although not in the big ring, and almost ran over one of the boys I’d raced against some years ago. He said he was impressed that I was still riding but wouldn’t be racing me again any time soon. Which frankly, is just as well! I consider it fortunate that he didn’t see me riding up the rest of the hill in what felt like, and probably looked like, slow-motion.

 

 

 

Things my beloved does: leaves everything until the very last moment

My beloved is a great fan of “just in time” management. By which I mean he leaves everything until the last minute. Invariably this lack of planning and preparation means he’ll forget something or leave something behind.

He travels most weeks and by now you’d have thought he’d have packing both his suitcase and briefcase off pat. But no, invariably I’ll do his packing the night before, ascertaining what he’ll need and pressing or cleaning various items. I’ll then lay out his outfit to travel in. However I refuse to have anything to do with his briefcase. It has sufficient pockets such that he can dedicate one for his passport and wallet, another for his glasses and so on. But does he ever put anythng in the same place? Does he ever!

This often means that minutes before we’re leaving for the airport, he’ll be ferreting around for his wallet, passport, key documents, his moleskin notepad, one of his various chargers. Worse still, we’ll be in the car about to leave, when he’ll announce he’s forgotten something. The time we leave for the airport is dictated by me, the driver. Otherwise, he’d be working on the basis that he needs to be at the airport just 30 minutes before departure and, of course, it only takes 10 minutes to get to the airport.

I’m not sure where he gets this magic oft-quoted 10 minutes from because it can sometimes take that long to reach the car in the basement garage! It’s estate agent speak. I can’t tell you how many properties I see advertised as being “just 10 minutes from Nice airport” – only by teleport or in your dreams! Even in the early hours of the morning, with all 12 sets of traffic lights in my favour, I have NEVER taken just 10 minutes to get to the airport. It’s not far but when the traffic’s bad, it can take 45 minutes. I generally work on 20 minutes minimum.

My beloved’s just in time philosophy also extends to work. Never do anything earlier than you absolutely, definitely have to. Of course, a spot of adrenaline fuelled creativity is often no bad thing. But I like to finish something ahead of time, then re-check and re-consider it before hitting the send button. Not so my beloved who loves to go to the wire. I undertook two of his more recent assignments because he’d otherwise have missed the deadline. Both he and, more importantly, the clients were impressed. I suspect that I’ve only made a rod for my own back.

On our most recent trip to San Sebastian, my beloved left his swimming goggles and the memory card for his camera at home. He also left the latter at home on our trip to the Giro in May and it’s because, despite my urging, he’ll never check or sort anything out well beforehand or, in this case, not at all. It’s so frustrating!

The Musette: chocolate chip, oat biscuits

My Thursday evening English class were my first official guinea pigs. Now I agree that a bunch of teenage cyclists probably aren’t the most discerning of taste-testers. But mine were reasonably forthright and, while capable of inhaling their own bodyweights in baked goods, if they didn’t like something, I would be left with more than just crumbs. Unsurprisingly, anything with chocolate in it scored highly and they simply loved home-made biscuits and cookies.

These also found favour with a few professional cyclists who pretty much polished off the entire batch! I’m not sure exactly how many more kilometres on the bike were ridden to work off the surplus calories but safe to say it was plenty.

The recipe is based on one for shortbread type biscuits to which I’ve added chocolate chips – everything’s better with chocolate  – and oats for sustained energy.

You don't need many ingredients to make delicious baked good! (image: Sheree)

You don’t need many ingredients to make delicious baked goodies!

Ingredients (makes 24 biscuits)

  • 225g (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 120g (1 cup)  caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp of fine sea salt
  • 275g (2⅓ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 30g (⅓ cup) oats (oatmeal)
  • 100g (6 tbsp) 70% min. chocolate chips

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°Cfan/ gas mark 6 (400°F/350°F).

2. Line two shallow baking sheets with greaseproof (parchment) paper.

3. Beat the softened butter until it lightens. Use really great butter as it does make a difference to the finished product.

4. Beat but don’t whip in the sugar and vanilla extract then gently fold in the sifted flour, salt, oats and chocolate chips. Don’t overwork the mixture, which should be of a similar consistency to that of pastry. Indeed you can roll the mixture into logs, wrap in greaseproof (parchment) paper and freeze for baking at a later date.

5. I use a small ice cream scoop – equally you could use a soup spoon – to portion the dough and ensure the cookies are a similar size. Place the balls on the baking sheets about 1cm (less than ½”) apart, as they’ll spread slightly while baking, and flatten the tops. I found the dough made 24 biscuits, each weighing around 30g (1 oz) uncooked.

6. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until they start to turn golden at the edges and they’re firm to the touch. Depending upon the size of your oven, you might need to rotate the sheets midway through the cooking process.

7. Remove from the oven and transfer to cool on a wire rack. Once cool, put them in an airtight container where they’ll keep for 3-4 days, providing you keep them out of reach of any cyclists, or enjoy with a cup of tea or coffee.

Gone in a flash! (image: Sheree)

Gone in a flash!

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 biscuits in the oven, put the timer on for five minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. I have also made the biscuits with milk chocolate chips but found them too sweet for my taste.

4. I’ve successfully substituted the chocolate chips for a similar weight of fat juicy raisins.

5. The biscuits work equally well with a mixture of 50g (1¾oz) tart chopped dried cranberries and 50g (1¾oz) white chocolate chips.

Date Nights: Football and Fireworks

Not long after we purchased our holiday flat in Nice, its football team OGCN were promoted to the first division – total coincidence. They used to play at a small and rather tatty stadium in the north of the city and, for their first few seasons back in Ligue 1, we had season tickets. However, I got fed up of always being surrounded by heavy smokers and my beloved missing 50% of the home games because of business trips. We decided to cancel our season tickets but continued to support them at a number of home matches throughout the season.

When the team moved a couple of seasons ago to its swanky new stadium in the Var valley, I had hoped that there might just be a small totally smoke-free corner, but there isn’t. In theory, fans shouldn’t smoke in their seats during the match. In practice they do and why oh why do they always sit in the row just in front of me? I’ve tried complaining to the stewards, to no avail. I generally just have to move seats. Not a problem providing the match isn’t a sell-out.

It was OGC Nice’s first home game of the season against Troyes on Friday and I readily agreed to go when my beloved suggested it. There’s nothing I love more than watching live sport with him. On the face of it this should have been an easy win for the boys in black and red who had already beaten the Mighty Ajax to progress to the next round of the Champions League play-offs. They hadn’t lost to Troyes in their last 10 encounters, either home or away.

As usual, in the off-season we’d lost a number of players but had managed to hang onto the mercurial Mario Balotelli and had just acquired former-Dutch international, Wesley Sneijder, neither of whom would be playing that evening. We’d also managed to retain our manager, Lucien Favre and, for the time being, Jean-Michael Seri, our very own Iniesta. We were home debuting a number of new players, including the on-loan from Monaco, Allan Saint-Maximim, who was everyone’s man of the match.

Sadly, despite having 70% possession and numerous shots millimetres wide of the target, we went down 1-2 from a “smash & grab” raid by Troyes who deployed that old defensive trick “11 men behind the ball” – well their manager is a former goal keeper – and hit us twice on the break. Having already lost away at St Etienne, we’re now languishing in the bottom half of the table. Let’s hope we fare rather better against Naples in Wednesday’s Champion’s League match.

Heading away from the match on the bus back to the car parking, the fans were in a sombre mood although this may have been because the heavens had opened towards the end of the match and many were soaking wet!

We were out again on Saturday evening albeit to a “free” event put on by the local community. Three times during the summer months (June – Aug), the promenade is closed for a musical extravaganza and firework display. We’d missed the previous two events so decided to head down after dinner on foot. Although free parking is provided at the Hippodrome, we know from past experience that the traffic is so bad it’s actually quicker on foot.

Many of the restaurants along the front are allowed to increase the number of tables on their terraces. They typically put on special fixed price menus and generally do a roaring trade on these evenings. There are also plenty of less expensive options with a number of food trucks and loads of picnickers on the beach.

Security was reassuringly tight though we were much amused when one of the police horses left his calling card on the closed road. Quick as a flash, his rider leapt out of the saddle, pulled a shovel from his saddle bag and shovelled the dung onto the roots of the nearest tree. I’ve never seen anyone do that before but, given how many kids were enjoying running, riding, scooting or skating up and down the road, it was a sensible precaution.

Aside from the six stages featuring different DJs and musical acts there are plenty of activities to wear out the kids such as bouncy castles, huge slides and so on. To be honest we were feeling a little weary from that morning’s ride and, after walking the length of the promenade, fortified by an ice cream, we wandered back home to watch the fireworks from our balcony.  We also wanted to watch Usain Bolt run in the 4 x 100m relay. Sadly limping from the stadium wasn’t a fitting way for him to end his splendid career. But not even the biggest sporting stars are guaranteed a fairy tale ending. At best they just get to choose when and where, not how.

 

Postcard from San Sebastian

We first visited the fabulous town of San Sebastian in 2010 to watch the Clasica San Sebastian and have been visiting regularly ever since. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate why I like the place so much. But, in short, it’s all about the city’s Belle Epoque architecture, its beautiful sandy beaches, Basque culture, Basque cuisine and overall ambience. When friends ask me for recommendations for a week-end away, I never hesitate to mention San Sebastian. Its appeal is evergreen, just like the surrounding hills.

It helps that San Sebastian is cradled in a perfectly shaped bay and boasts four beautiful sandy beaches right on its doorstep. It’s a global gastronomic giant, with more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in Europe – yes, even Paris! There are plenty of festivals throughout the year and last year (2016) it was the European City of Culture.

sebastian1813

San Sebastian has an interesting history. The city was largely destroyed by fire in 1813 by the British and Portuguese. The tragedy left just one street standing, now renamed after the deadly assault, 31 de Agosto, and home to some fabulous eateries. The place was gradually rebuilt from scratch, albeit initially still within the confines of the city walls. Thereafter, the previously compact town began to spread along La Concha beach. In 1854 it took over as the regional capital of Gipuzkoa from Tolosa and continued its inland expansion, demolishing the old city walls in the process, part of which can still be seen in the underground car park on Boulevard.

It’s a place that’s easy to walk around so come with me for a gentle stroll. If we look at the city from left to right, Monte Igeldo towers above the western end of Ondarreta beach. Access its summit via a quaint funicular railway that runs up its eastern flank. Can I suggest you ride up and walk down. It’s worth it alone for the views from the top. Ignore the hotel and fun fair at the summit, instead stop for a delightful lunch at Rekondo on your way back into San Sebastian – more stunning views, fabulous menu and an amazing wine cellar.

While you’re walking off lunch. Walk round the headland to see Pieno del Viento, one of Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s most well-known works at the western end of Ondarreta beach. Three steel sculptures are twisted into shapes designed to comb the prevailing wind. The one facing the rocks represents the past, the one looking out to sea is the future and the one you can touch is the present. As you stroll back into town, you’ll pass by the Miramar Palace on your right which marks the divide between the two beaches. It’s the former site of El Antiguo Monastery which was pretty much all there was in San Sebastian back in the 12th century. On the left you’ll see La Perla, re-built in 1912, the white Victorian edifice which now houses a Thalassotherapy Centre and several bars and restaurants.

At the eastern end of La Concha beach, you’ll see the fishing port lined with restaurants, fishermen’s cottages, and now home to the Aquarium. On the way over, you’ll pass by the Yacht Club which forms part of the sea wall. It looks like a ship and is a stark contrast to its surrounding buildings. It’s not far from the Town Hall or Ayuntamiento, completed in 1887 and originally built as a casino but the 1924 prohibition on gambling rather thwarted its original purpose. Out front is the Alderdi-Eder park designed by the same gardener who designed the gardens of Versailles. The non-native stumpy tamarind trees were a present from Napoleon III to the city and burst into purple flowers during August, a sight to behold.

On the opposite side of the Town Hall, you’ll see El Dual, a hole studded sculpture which commemorates San Sebastian’s victims of the Spanish Civil war. Behind it you’ll see  the fisherman’s  church, Capilla de San Pedro Apostol. Presiding above the fishing port is Monte Urgull which sports a ruined castle, the English cemetery for soldiers who perished in the Carlist wars and another emblematic sculpture, the Sagrado Corazon (sacred heart).

Now, turn right and head into the Old Town past the beautiful Inglesia de Santa Maria. It’s the third church on this site and, aside from the beautifully sculpted stone, is notable for the ship’s emblem and crown that adorn its top. Look down the street and you’ll see the spire of the Catedral Buen Pastor which can hold up to 4,000 and has a gi-normous organ. The cathedral sits at the end of the Plaza Buen Pastor, in front of a simply splendid main post office and the Koldo Mitxelena Cultural Centre.

As you wander along the famous 31 de Agosto road, do find time for some local specialities, such as a glass of txakoli (local wine) and some pinxtos (tapas). My favourite haunt is Gandarias. Continue along to the Museo San Telmo, housed in a 16th century convent, the museum of Basque society and citizenship, whose newer extension hosts temporary exhibitions. It’s well worth stopping off in its delightful restaurant for coffee and cake or, at another time, lunch.

Head back towards the Plaza de la Constitucion. At one end is the old city hall, in use until 1940, and one of the first buildings built after the 1813 fire. There are numbered apartments on three sides of the square from which people used to spectate dances and bullfights for free. The Old Town is a delight to wander around though many of its quaint old shops are (sadly) being replaced by high street names. On the far side of the Old Town, alongside Boulevard, you’ll find Le Brexta which plays host to one of San Sebastian’s two markets and, bizarrely, a McDonalds!

Across the road  you can see the Belle Epoque Victoria Eugenia Theatre, next to the swanky Marie Cristina Hotel, named after the queen consort of King Alfonso XII who was largely responsible for the town’s emergence as an upmarket holiday resort. The hotel has been a city landmark since the queen inaugurated it in 1912.  Recently completely refurbished, the hotel just shouts glamour, opulence and elegance from its soaring ceilings, intricate mouldings, towering marble pillars to its polished grey and white marble floors. Well worth a visit, if only for a coffee.

Cross over the Puente de Zurriola or Kursaal bridge to check out Gros and yet another of San Sebastian’s beaches, the Zurriola surf beach, which often features exhibitions along its boardwalk. Last year there were Henry Moore sculptures, this year there’s the exhibition of wildlife photographs which we saw last year in Gijon. At the far end of the beach is the Okendo Cultural Centre. Alternatively, you can head along the river Urumea to the Parque Cristina Enea, probably the best of San Sebastian’s many green spaces, which is a real oasis, chock-full of exotic plants, next to the Tabakalera, a former tobacco factory now turned into a centre for contemporary culture.

Our stroll has only touched upon a few of San Sebastian’s sights, there’s many more besides. One of my favourites is the Gipuzkoa Plaza, an English style park surrounded by arcades fashioned after those on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris and bounded on one side by a major bank with the most splendid wrought iron doors. Everywhere you look in San Sebastian there are delights to discover. But, don’t take my word for it, visit it yourself.

Nightmare scenario: my beloved retires!

One of my biggest fears has always been what will happen when my beloved retires? Despite being happily married for more years than I like to own up to, he’s travelled a lot on business throughout our marriage. This has meant we’ve spent limited albeit quality time together. Consequently, I’m not used to having him underfoot all the time but now the clock is ticking down.

This year has shown how we might muddle along in the future. Firstly, we were on vacation in Australia the whole month of January. I say “on vacation” but given we can work anywhere that has WiFi, we both spent some time working too. However, we had a truly blissful time throughout the lengthy holiday. February was typically busy as my beloved geared up for a major dental exhibition which is held in Germany every two years. Then he broke his leg!

What followed, I hope and pray, wasn’t totally indicative of our future life together as retirees. I waited on him hand and foot for the best part of three months. Even now he has a tendency to expect me to leap up from my chair to fetch him something. I’m not slow to remind him he has two fully functioning legs and he can fetch it himself. I even remind him that he promised me he’d be more helpful around the house. We all know how that turned out.

He’s back travelling again on business but being unable to travel rather focused his mind and now he appreciates that it’s not always necessary to leap into a plane and jet off somewhere. He’ll shortly be heading off to China for a quick but necessary trip which is sadly cutting short our time at the Vuelta a Espana. In the meantime, we’ve been spending plenty of quality time together and I have to admit, it hasn’t been all bad.

On the plus side have been lazy meals (prepared by me) eaten outside on the balcony where we’ve talked about anything and everything. Great communication is definitely one of the cornerstones of the longevity of our relationship. We’ve enjoyed a few week-ends away watching sport – a shared passion from the start of our relationship. In contrast, we’ve had plenty of days companionably working away in the office where we sit either side of a massive desk. A few shared projects where I do the donkey work and he takes the glory – plus ça change. Early morning cycle rides, where we’re both rediscovering our cycling legs.

On the downside, not so much. Maybe all those years of training have finally licked him into shape. I know he’s never going to be anything other than high-maintenance but this summer he’s refrained from losing too much and making too much mess. I really can’t expect any more! So, whenever it happens, I think I’m going to be able to manage just so long as we never have to share a bathroom.

The Musette: my riff on Panzanella and Insalata con l’acqua

Frankly, it’s way too hot at the moment to do much cooking, even for someone who loves it as much as I do. Yesterday evening, I surveyed my bounty: stale bread, sun-ripe organic tomatoes, a wilted bunch of basil and some salad stuff. Initially, I thought of Panzanella, bread and tomato salad, until I remembered I don’t like how the tomatoes make the bread all soggy. So here’s what I made for us instead which is more like an insalata con l’acqua – but not quite! The end result was both refreshing and substantial.

Ingredients (serves 2 as a meal, or 4 as a starter)

Salad

  • 4 slices of stale sourdough bread
  • 3 large sun-ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 large cucumber, cubed
  • 2 fat salad onions (scallions), finely sliced
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • handful of salad leaves

Dressing

  • leaves from a bunch of basil, approx. 3 tbsp., finely chopped
  • 3 tbsp  extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 1 fat garlic clove, crushed
  • I tbsp Dijon mustard
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Method

1. Put all the chopped vegetables into a bowl, including all the juices from the tomatoes, and season.

2. Whisk all the ingredients together to make the dressing – I confess to whipping this up in my liquidiser – and pour over the chopped vegetables. Toss well and allow the flavours to mingle for around 20 minutes at room temperature.

3. Toast the bread and place on a bed of green leaves. Pile the vegetables and dressing onto the bread, and serve.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. Feel free to use whatever salad vegetables you have in the fridge. Finely diced celery and fennel would go well.

2. A mixture of different types and sizes of tomatoes would also work.

3. You can substitute flat-leaf parsley for the basil or, if you’ve no fresh herbs, add 1/2 tsp dried oregano to the dressing.

4. If I’d had some to hand, I might have added some small black olives and capers to the salad.

5. For a more substantial dish, top with chopped feta or even mozzarella.

6. Rather than toast the bread, make croutons with it and mix into the salad just before serving.

7. Substitute the salad onions with half a finely sliced small red onion, but soak it in the vinegar beforehand to reduce its heat.

8. If you’re particularly fond of garlic, you can rub a cut slice of garlic over the toasted bread.

Dolce far niente

It’s official, we’re enduring a heat wave similar to that of 2003, La Grande Canicule, which this time is appropriately called Lucifer. The problem with heatwaves is that it’s too hot to do much of anything, particularly housework. Iron a few garments and you’ve worked up enough sweat to re-soak said items. Sweep the floor and within seconds you’re perspiring all over the floor. Well, that’s my excuse for taking a rain check on housework. A few hours in the office, and you slump across the desk.

When it’s really hot you feel languid, as if everything’s just too much effort. Now, unlike my two sisters, I’m not one for sunbathing. I last about 30 minutes in the sun. I get bored lying still and doing nothing. While the cool waters of our pool beckon, it’s even hotter beside the pool as it’s sheltered from what little breeze is around. Plus, at this time of year, it’s pretty busy. My beloved prefers to swim either when it opens, or just before it closes. I prefer to sit outside, in the shade, while carrying on with a few chores, maybe read a book or just sit back and enjoy the scenery. I regularly return to the kitchen to check on whatever I have simmering on the hob or cooking in the oven. Plus, I can throw another pile of clothes into the washing machine. I find it hard to do absolutely nothing but have scaled back during the heat wave which looks to continue.

Fortunately, if we open all the windows in the apartment we can enjoy the slight through breeze. While I’m not a fan of air conditioning, just getting into the car and turning it on is blissful. As is turning the hairdryer on full-blast, cold to cool the sweat pouring from my brow after just brushing my teeth.

Yesterday, I relaxed on the balcony, in the shade, where there was a mere hint of a welcome breeze. The cicadas were rubbing their legs together to no avail. It’s the omnipresent sound of summer which typically dies down at night, but not this year. Those poor insects have been at it night and day. I sympathise, not even the linen sheets are cool but that could be because of the heat being given off by my beloved on the far side of the bed. Heat that’s welcome in winter but not now. I keep conjuring up scenes from that 1980s film Body Heat where Kathleen Turner and William Hurt cooled down in a bath full of ice cubes but the ice cube maker on the fridge-freezer isn’t working!

Early this morning we awoke to thunder and lightning, but no rain. That arrived later. It poured, but not for long, and 30 minutes later everything was dry. The thirsty earth had sucked up every drop of available moisture and the rain merely made conditions more humid. There was nothing for it, we’d have another lazy day, pottering around the flat and watching the MotoGP from Brno. Not that we need any excuse to watch sport!

 

 

 

The Musette: Coffee and walnut cake

I’m a sucker for anything coffee-flavoured, so this is one of my favourite cake combinations. I wouldn’t necessarily cover it with frosting if I were serving it at a cycling club event, but it’s a staple at my afternoon tea parties.

The French are not overly enamoured of what they perceive to be British cooking but they do agree that we make a cracking breakfast, fantastic desserts and delicious afternoon teas. Of course, without the frosting, a slice sits neatly in one’s back pocket for a spot of mid-ride refuelling with a coffee. French cafes don’t so much as blink an eyelid if you eat something you’ve brought with you after buying a drink from them.

More ingredients than usual - but worth it (image: Sheree)

More ingredients than usual – but worth it (Image: Sheree)

Ingredients (makes 16 thick slices)

Cake

  • 200ml (¾ cup) freshly made espresso coffee
  • 150g (1 cup) soft light brown sugar
  • 225g (2 sticks) butter
  • 225g (1 cup) golden syrup or honey
  • 2 tsp coffee essence
  • 1 tbsp dark rum or coffee liqueur
  • 3 large eggs, approximately 45g (1⅔oz) each without their shells, lightly beaten
  • 360g (3 cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate (baking) soda
  • ¼ tsp fine sea salt
  • 75g (¾ cup) toasted walnuts, roughly chopped

Frosting

  • 1 tbsp instant espresso coffee granules, dissolved in 1 tbsp hot water or rum
  • 100g mascarpone or 100g butter, softened
  • 200g icing sugar, sifted
  • Chopped walnuts or coffee-flavoured chocolate to decorate

Method

1. Preheat oven to 170°C/150°C fan/gas mark 3½ (325°F/300°F fan).

2. Grease a baking tin. I typically 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. This amount fills two cake tins.

3. Put the coffee in a pan and add the sugar, butter and syrup or honey. Heat gently, without boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour into a jug and leave to cool. Whisk in the coffee essence, eggs and rum.

4. Sift the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) into a large mixing bowl and add the chopped walnuts. Make a well in the centre and slowly pour in the wet mixture, fold the flour in gradually with a wooden spoon or spatula. Pour the mix into the prepared tins and bake in the oven for about 50-60 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.

5. Leave to cool in the tins for ten minutes then turn out onto a wire rack, peel off the paper and turn the right way up. Leave to cool completely.

6. Dissolve the espresso powder in 1 tbsp hot water or rum and leave to cool. Put the mascarpone and icing sugar into a mixing bowl and beat together. Gradually add the cooled coffee. You should end up with a smooth, soft mixture.

7. Spread the frosting over the cooled cake and then leave it to firm up a bit. I topped the cake with coffee-flavoured chocolate beans but a scattering of toasted chopped walnuts would also be good.

So good, half disappeared before I cold photo it! (image: Sheree)

So good, half disappeared before I could even photo it! (Image: Sheree)

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 cakes in the oven, put the timer on for 5-10 minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the cakes are browning too much at the edges, cover them with an aluminium foil tent.

4.  Each cake provides eight fat slices.

5. The cake will keep for a couple of days in a cake tin or, unfrosted, in the freezer for a month.