40 years of Memorable Moments: and the winning ticket…………

No, this is not about a lottery win though it is about a winning ticket. We had booked our Christmas trip to Arizona through a travel agency which some months later invited me to a cocktail party at a hotel in Park Lane. At the last minute I was unable to attend, probably due to something work related, so instead I sent my beloved along and he won the prize draw, a week’s free vacation (excluding meals) in the Caribbean!

To say we were shocked was putting it mildly, we never win anything. No, that’s not true. Many moons ago, I won a box of broken biscuits in a raffle. The vacation, to be taken in the low season, was at The Four Season’s Resort in Nevis – not too shabby! We decided to take our free vacation in mid-June and extended it (at our own expense) by a few days.

I’ll be honest, we weren’t fans of the Caribbean. We’d previously only visited Barbados, on a tennis holiday with Sue Barker, where we’d spent most of our time at the hotel next door, a certain Sandy Lane! I was singularly unimpressed with the island and, consequently, had not the slightest inclination to visit any of the other islands. But, naturally enough, we weren’t about to turn down a free vacation.

To get to Nevis, we flew to Antigua club class – yes, we’d paid extra to upgrade – and then hopped onto a small plane, but not before we’d had the humiliating experience of being weighed with our luggage! It was just a short flight to Nevis followed by a quick limo to the resort. Our brief glimpse of the island from the air and from the road rather confirmed our fears, we wouldn’t be doing much exploring!

We were installed in a lovely ocean view suite and were looking forward to a relaxing vacation. Or, I was, my beloved was planning to play golf, tennis, go sailing etc etc  thereby ensuring I would have a relaxing time around the pool with my books. Aside from one meal at a neighbouring plantation, we ate all our meals in the resort which had several restaurants and evening events to tempt us.

On our second night in the resort, we’d opted to dine outside and had booked a table for 20:30. We turned up on time but our table wasn’t ready, we were happy to sit at the bar with a cocktail, or two, to wait. An hour and two cocktails later, our good mood had dissipated. Finally, we were seated but had to wait a further 20 minutes for menus.

A seasoned waitress, I soon spotted the problem. No one was managing the restaurant that evening. Staff were all over the place and coming in and out of the kitchen empty-handed. No one was clearing the tables. More importantly, guests were being seated without giving them menus and taking drinks’ orders. Clearly responsibilities hadn’t been established. At last we ordered, but 30 minutes later we were still waiting! In exasperation we left and I vowed to have a word with the resort manager the following morning after breakfast.

The manager beat me to it! He greeted us at breakfast and apologised profusely for the way we’d been treated the night before and explained that the restaurant manager and his assistant had both been “no shows” throwing the whole operation into chaos. By way of apology we’d find flowers, champagne and a big bowl of fruit in our suite.

Thereafter, whichever restaurant we ate in, staff treated us like royalty. It was kind of amusing, particularly as the other guests noticed our preferential treatment and you could see them wondering who we were. I’ve always felt that the mark of a world-class company is how you deal with problems. The manager had certainly turned this one to his advantage.

By the end of the vacation I was feeling suitably chilled having achieved my objective of lazing by the pool, reading my books while being regularly sprayed with ice-cold Evian by a couple of poolside hunks. My beloved meanwhile had availed himself of all the sports facilities. It had been a great “free” holiday.

Now, of course, when we added up all the extras, the flight upgrade, the extra three nights in a suite, food for ten days, green fees, games of tennis with the coach etc etc it was one of our more expensive vacations but still one we’ll treasure forever.

All images courtesy of the hotel website

 

 

 

Division of labour

With the prospect of full-time retirement looming on the horizon, I have belatedly been trying to lay down a few ground rules. Throughout our married life my beloved has done his job to the best of his ability and that’s it! I’ve done my job, helped him to do his better, and looked after pretty much everything else.

Until recently, I was resistant to the idea of staying in a self-catering apartment for a vacation because the only place I ever get waited on hand-and-foot is in a hotel. Staying in an apartment abroad was akin to still being at home but with better weather. In the early years of our married life, we spent many a holiday in one of my parents’ Spanish apartments where I would fiercely resist doing too much cooking. I was on holiday for goodness sake!

I can occasionally get my beloved to do a few household chores. He’s Officer in Charge of Drinks which generally means he’ll make the coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon and serve any alcoholic beverages I may desire. Occasionally, I’ll get him to take out the rubbish and, about twice a year, he’ll clean the windows outside. I have to do the inside. And that’s pretty much his sole contributions to domestic chores.

Of course, I always say I’ll settle for him creating less mess. Easier said than done. I’d just washed the marble floors this morning when I spot he’s walked muddy footprints from the front door round to his bathroom. Of course, while we both wear Birkenstock sandals, Marabis slippers and ON trainers, it’s easy to identify the culprit from the size of their footprint. He knows he’s in the doghouse so he’s been lying low in the office, teleconferencing all afternoon.

I have tried to explain that once he retires, I’ll expect him to give me more of a helping hand around the flat otherwise I’ll only be looking after myself. He thinks I’m joking. I’m not, I’d like to retire too!

More postcards from Siena

The last two years we’ve driven to Siena in Tom, this year my beloved put his foot down and we hired a larger car. Thank goodness! We had a dreadful journey with driving rain, sleet, snow and cross-winds. We had about 10 minutes of sunshine walking back from the restaurant where we lunched in Sarzana.

We’d previously stopped off in this town on the way back from Siena, two years ago. Failing to appreciate that it was an old walled town with its treasures, restaurants included, within, we’d finished up at a restaurant in the nearby countryside. Lunch was delicious but included in the price was a dance and sing song! We did not join in. 

This time we found a delightful patisserie and restaurant where for the princely price of 25 Euros we enjoyed a three course lunch with water and coffee. Of course, in Spain, we’d have had wine too. Fortified by lunch, and a brief exposure to sunlight, we continued to battle the elements and traffic before finally arriving at our destination in Siena, where I scored another room upgrade. I know I don’t know how I do it either.

We dashed round the corner from the hotel to what must be the most beautiful press room in the WorldTour to collect our accreditation which, despite the length of the queue, progressed surprisingly swiftly and smoothly. Soon thereafter we were quaffing a very respectable Chianti in one of our favourite watering holes. This one has a very generous nibbles buffet. So generous in fact that we didn’t require dinner. We were only too happy to sink into our crisp white cotton sheets well before our usual bedtime ahead of what was sure to be an arduous day.

The following day dawned heavily overcast. About the only thing my beloved and I would have in common with the professional riders braving Dantesque conditions was plenty of base layers. Theirs would be topped off with lycra, ours with cashmere and waterproof down coats.

It started raining heavily as soon as the ladies race set off. They raced all day in the rain and, as anticipated, the strongest riders prevailed with a surprisingly large number of participants finishing in the wonderfully historic Il Campo – surely the world’s best finish.

My beloved and his camera took refuge behind the podium out of the driving rain, along with most of the male peloton. There was no getting away from it, they were all going to be plastered in mud. Recalling that famous stage in the 2010 Giro d’Italia won by Cadel Evans who made the most of his skills as a former mountain biker to prevail. Would that be the case today?  

Meanwhile, I headed to the team buses to distribute my race winning brownies to a number of teams. I like to think they encourage the riders to get back to the buses quicker. Did the podium get any brownies? Now, that would be telling! 

Despite trying to shelter at every opportunity, we got drenched. We headed back to the hotel for a change of clothes and some warming soup feeling thankful we weren’t riding. We’ve previously ridden around the area, including on the white gravel roads, it’s definitely an experience to be savoured in fine weather.

There was a brief lull in the rain which enabled us to watch the exciting finale of the women’s race before we returned later to watch the men’s. I love watching them grind their way up the final climb. It was an enthralling race with a totally unexpected podium. But then, that’s bike racing! I just love it when someone totally confounds the pundits and wins their maiden race. Of course, in this case, I bet no one predicted the podium.

I should probably have cheered from afar as I wasn’t feeling too good and was running a high temperature but, after an early night, I felt much better the next day. This meant my beloved, who’s always at a bit of a loss when I’m ill, had to dine out on his own. 

The last two years we’ve headed home on Sunday, but not this year. We had a full day to walk around previously unexplored places in Siena in the weak sunshine and watch the sportive riders come home. There were some impressive times while I suspect some of the tail-end Charlies had been enjoying some of the facilities en route, and why not?

We retired to one of our favourite family-run restaurants for a simply splendid Sunday lunch amid plenty of locals. My late father would have approved: white linen tablecloths and napkins, the husband and grand-daughter in the kitchen, the wife running front of house, small number of covers, and full of locals who regularly eat there. Of course, there are lots of great restaurants in Siena.

Sunday evening we were still stuffed, despite walking for most of the afternoon and were only too happy to lounge around our splendid hotel which was housed in an elegant and charming 17th century palazzo which had been a wedding gift from Pope Alexander VII to his niece – those are the sort of relatives we could all do with! The hotel is centrally located, just a few steps from all of Siena’s many, major monuments.

Despite the weather, we were sorry to leave on Monday morning. We had a good drive home with the car carrying precious cargo: Chianti and lots of Italian edibles!

All cycling images courtesy of RCS

 

 

 

40 years of Memorable Moments: Bayswater

After we’d sold our place in Chiswick, and we knew weren’t going to move lock, stock and barrel to Germany  because my beloved would be coming back to work in UK, I needed to find us a new home. I had already decided that I wanted to live closer to central London and my beloved was in agreement. We’d settled on an area stretching from Bayswater to Marylebone which meant it would be a flat rather than a house.

I can never understand people who say that they looked at loads of properties. Generally, my beloved and I look at no more than five. Initially, we spend time deciding which roads we’d like to live on and then we draw up a short list of attributes the property absolutely must have and when we find one which fits the bill, we buy it. We never look at properties which don’t have our requirements. It’s just too distracting.

We’d narrowed our search to Cleveland Sq after we’d seen a budget-busting, south-facing, first floor flat overlooking the square’s beautiful gardens in a property magazine.

A 1.5-acre garden with lawns, gravel paths and mature trees, surrounded by grade II-listed white stucco-fronted houses. The square itself dates from around 1855 when the formerly rural area was redeveloped as part of the Paddington Estate.

We found a flat on the other side of the square which was (just) within budget and had everything our hearts’ desired. It had just been dramatically reduced in price and I immediately offered the asking price only to find that another couple, from Hong Kong, had done likewise. We were in a contract race!

I went back to the property the following evening to meet the owners, sell myself to them, to determine what I needed to do to secure the flat. Basically, I had to exchange contracts within 24 hours and agree to a postponed completion date. The former was easy to achieve. We exchanged at the close of play the following day and I agreed to a six month completion date. The sellers were building a property in Hertfordshire and had been under pressure from their lenders to exchange contracts as soon as possible on their London property.

My proposed mortgage lender was unhappy that I’d exchanged contracts without having a “firm offer” in place, so I found another lender. My London-based solicitor had handled everything himself, including the search, which was how we’d been able to exchange so quickly. We had rapidly resolved the problem of where we were going to live.

In the early 90s, Bayswater might best have been described as an edgy area on the up. I liked it because it was always lively. I felt happy and safe walking around there at night. My nearest tube was a mere five minute walk away, there were plenty of shops and restaurants  – including a second Chinatown in Queensway – on my doorstep, and I could easily walk to Knightsbridge, Notting Hill and the West-End. We really enjoyed living in a very multi-cultural area and profited greatly from all that London has to offer.

When we acquired it, the flat was in immaculate condition. The previous owners had bought it eight years earlier directly from the developer and had upped the original specification. It didn’t need any work doing to it, though over time I did make some decorative changes. That aside, we did very little work on it before we sold it in 2004, 10 years after we’d bought it. The flat still had the same kitchen, bathrooms and appliances. We sold it for over four times what we’d paid for it, which was a definite result in my book, to an American couple who still happily live there.

You may be wondering what were our must haves: needed no work doing to it, a separate utility/laundry, outside space  – it had a roof terrace (rare) and a patio garden – en-suite bathrooms and generously proportioned entertaining space!

 

The Musette: Cantonese pork chop(s)

I’ve recently joined the Great British Chefs Cookbook Club on Facebook. Each month the club will feature a cookery book and encourage members to try featured recipes from the book and then share photos of them. The idea is to expand our repertoires and encourage discussion around these dishes. As an added incentive, the club’s administrators will pick a winner each month from the posted photos who will win a signed copy of that months’ cookbook. Well, a gal can never have too many cookbooks!

The first cookery book is Hong Kong Diner by Jeremy Pang and I’ve cooked his recipe for Cantonese Pork Chops for my beloved, who’s extremely fond of Chinese food. The recipe below is Jeremy’s with a few amendments of my own, only because I didn’t have all of the specified ingredients and, while it didn’t look as good as the pictures in his book – they never do – my beloved said it was sticky, tender and very moreish – mission accomplished!

Ingredients (Feeds 4 cyclists)

  • 4 pork medium chops, (bone-in)
  • 1 medium red onion
  • vegetable oil, for frying
  • fresh coriander, to garnish

Marinade

  • 2 fat garlic cloves
  • 1/2 knob ginger
  • 1 spring onion
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp cornflour

Sauce

  • 1 1/2 tbsp dark soya sauce
  • 3 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 tbsp tomato ketchup
  • 4 1/2 tbsp of black rice vinegar/or balsamic vinegar
  • 4 1/2 tbsp of sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp chilli oil, Jeremy uses chiu chow chilli oil, I used my homemade chilli oil

Method

1. Slice the pork chop meat off each bone in one long sweep, keeping each chop as one whole piece of meat and reserving the bones, as they add flavour to the sauce.
2. Turn your cleaver upside down and, using the blunt end (careful not to hold the blade!), bash across the meat as many times as possible to flatten it out, making indentations along the pork and creating as much of a surface area as possible. This will begin to tenderise the chop and allow the marinade to really flavour the meat. I bashed mine with a wooden rolling pin!
3. Keep each pork chop in one large piece at this stage. Once the pork is flattened, a similar thickness to an escalope, mix the marinade ingredients in a bowl and massage them into the bashed-out meat and the bones until they are completely coated. Leave to marinate in the fridge, ideally overnight, or for a minimum of 1 hour.

4. When ready to make the dish, finely slice the red onion and set aside. I didn’t have a red onion so I used a couple of shallots.

 

5. Mix the sauce ingredients together in a bowl and stir well until the sugar has fully dissolved. [This smelled amazing even before I’d cooked it].

6. Half-fill a medium pan, wok or deep-fryer with vegetable oil and heat to 180°C (350°F), or test using a wooden skewer or chopstick and placing the tip in the oil: if the wood starts to fizz after a second or so, the oil is hot enough. I use a candy thermometer. 

7. Using a slotted spoon or a Chinese frying skimmer, first lay the marinated  – discard the marinade – pork chop bones in the oil and deep-fry them for 5 minutes. Remove the bones and drain well on kitchen paper, then lay the marinated pieces of pork in the fryer one by one, so they don’t stick together.

8. Deep-fry the pork for 2–3 minutes on a high heat, until crispy and brown on the outside, then remove and drain with the bones

9.  At this point, roughly chop the fried pork meat into bite-size portions

10. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a wok to a high heat. Once smoking hot, add the finely sliced red onion and stir-fry for 30 seconds or so.

11. Pour in the sauce and bring to a vigorous boil, then add the bones and the pieces of fried pork meat and toss 2 or 3 times.
12. Serve immediately, garnished with coriander leaves

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. Don’t worry if you don’t have all of the ingredients. I didn’t have a red onion, Shaoxing wine, black rice vinegar or chiu chow chilli oil  so made suitable substitutions, as noted above.

2. I served the dish with plain boiled rice and some vegetables which I’d cooked in more of the delicious sauce.

3. I’ll be honest, I’ve never even heard of chiu chow chilli oil, so looked up a recipe for it (see below)  – it sounds awesome – and realised my homemade the chilli and garlic oil, which I use on all sorts of things, would be just fine, this time.

Recipe for chiu chow chilli oil:-

  • 15 fresh red chili peppers, thinly sliced
  • 2 tsps sea salt
  • 2 whole heads of garlic, peeled
  • 315 ml (1¼ cups) neutral vegetable oil
  • 1 cup chili flakes, ideally Sichuan
  • ½ tsp caster sugar
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce

1. Slice the fresh chili peppers thinly. Place into a pestle and mortar along with the salt. Grind and mix thoroughly with the pestle. You don’t need to form a paste, just break down the peppers slightly.

2. Mince the garlic in a food processor or garlic press.

3. Heat 125 ml (½ cup) of your oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic. Stir and let it fry gently for about 30 minutes, until the garlic turns a pale gold.

4. Add the salted chilies, stir and let fry gently for another 5-10 minutes.

5. Next, add the remaining oil to the saucepan to heat through and add chili flakes and sugar. Stir to combine well.

6. Finish off with the soy sauce, and voilà, you’ve got a delicious jar of homemade chiu chow oil!

7. Transfer to a sterile jar and store in the fridge for 2-3 months. However, it sounds so delicious, I bet  it doesn’t last that long.