Friday, 23 September 2011

Smelly marketing

I wandered into town this morning to run some errands and buy some things I didn't absolutely need but wanted.

One of the things on my list was a large silicone baking dish for toad in the hole.  My toad in the hole always sticks to the dish it's baked in.  I mentioned this to someone yesterday and she recommended getting a silicone baking dish, because she has one and she only uses it for toad in the hole.  Well she must have been talking to everyone in Brentwood because the whole of the town was out of silicone, apart from the silicone that is used in breast implants.  Since the TOWIE lot have been filiming in the town we're over-flowing with silicone.

Anyway, one of the shops I wandered into was Steamer Trading Company.  It's a beautiful shop full of pretty things and I could spend a fortune if I didn't have reasonable self control.  As I entered the shop the aroma of freshly baking cakes hit me.  I looked around for an oven and couldn't see one and wondered if they piped the small into the shop.  I went upstairs and looked in every nook and cranny (without looking like a freak) and couldn't find the oven.  As I came downstairs a member of staff was going upstairs with used mixing bowls and utensils coated in cake mix.  I figured the oven must just be well hidden and decided I'd return later in case there was some lovely cake to be had.

I reflected that doing baking in a shop that sells cookery and dining items is a brilliant idea.  Everyone loves the smell of cake cooking in the oven and it must entice people into the shop and put them in the mood for buying baking related items.

I returned later, after a trip to the bank, and as I went into the shop I was overwhelmed by the smell of burnt cake.  It was an acrid smell that was deinitely not enticing.  I had another quick look for the oven but found, instead, the charred remains of cake on a chopping board.  Black crumbs were all that remained.

It was then I thought that the idea of baking in a cookware shop only works if the people doing the cooking know what they're doing.


Thursday, 22 September 2011

Moist scrummy chocolate muffins

Choc mufties

I haven't given these muffins their correct title because it might put you off baking them.  The title should read cocoa courgette muffins.  Please don't let the courgette put you off.

Chocolate muffins can often be dry, sorry affairs that look so much better than they taste.  These muffins look as good as they taste and taste as good as they look.  There is no hint of courgette flavour but the courgette does bring a delicious moisture to the mix in the same way carrot can to a carrot cake.

OK, that's the sales pitch over, here's the recipe.

Makes at least 12 standard size muffins.

You will need a muffin tin or two, muffin cases, two large bowls and an oven pre-heated to 190˚C or 160˚C if you have a fan oven.


  • 280g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 tsp cinnamon (weird I know but have faith)
  • 3 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 egg
  • 140g soft brown sugar (I didn't have this so used 100g natural granulated and 40g light muscovado)
  • 60ml milk
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence (not quite so weird but still a little strange)
  • 340g grated courgette (I used course grater although recipe said finely grated and I didn't peel the courgette although you can if you want to)
  • 90ml corn oil
  • 85g optional chocolate chips (the recipe said raisins which I thought sounded disgusting but you could always try it as an alternative)


  • Put muffin cases in muffin tins and if you haven't turned the oven on, do so now.
  • In a large bowl stir flour, baking powder, bicarb of soda, salt, cinnamon, cocoa powder and choc chips (or raisins) if using.  If you're keen then you can sieve this.  I'm not convinced sieving makes any difference and I only ever stir with a fork.
  • In another bowl beat egg with a fork.  Add sugar, milk, vanilla, courgette and oil and stir well.
  • Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir.  Do not be tempted to use an electric mixer at all because you will ruin your muffins.  Have faith, use a spoon and stir.   If it's anything like the batch I made today you will think that there's not enough of the wet ingredients to mix in all of the dry ingredients.  Persevere because it is possible.  It will be a fairly stiff mixture because the courgette releases moisture when it's baking.  Just make sure that no dry flour is visible when you've finished stirring.
  • Spoon this mixture into the muffin cases and bake for 20 minutes ish.  I usually turn them in the oven at 17 minutes to make sure they bake evenly.
  • They are cooked when tops spring back when pressed

It is customary for the cook to make a cup of tea towards the end of the baking time which is to be enjoyed with one of the muffin batch.  It's very important to check the quality of one's own baking.

Choc mufty

Monday, 19 September 2011

Wasting time and ruining lives

I have spent most of this evening crying.  With laughter.

I recommend you visit and kill a few minutes the next time you have a few minutes to kill.

Here is a tame taster:


Most of the autocorrect screen grabs are much more offensive, so you have been warned.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Around and about

Sometimes someone does such a rubbish job that they really need to have it pointed out.

I mean if somebody did something that endangered life and limb, they should be told, am I right?

OK does anyone know the muppet who works at Essex County Council and has responsibility for roundabout design?

You see this roundabout here:


I know which side of this roundabout I should use if I'm travelling straight on.  The problem is that too many people in Brentwood seem to be confused by this roundabout and travel on the right of the roundabout when approaching it as shown in the photo.

I have been travelling in the opposite direction and I've come across cars heading straight for me.  I could interpret this as a vendetta against me were it not for the fact that the twonk at Essex County Council has so clearly screwed up with the planning of this roundabout.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The real holiday car

As promised, just a little later than promised.  Disclaimers here.

We had an S-MAX 2.2 Duratorq TDCi 6 speed Manual Titanium.  For those not initiated in the ways of the Ford product an S-MAX is a seven-seater that can also be a five-seater or a two-seater depending how many seats are up or down.

I could tell you what I think of the car's looks but you should really judge for yourself.

S MAX Exterior

Of course that's a brochure shot.  I'm not sure the heights and angles of this next shot are quite as complimentary, but at least the wheels match the brochure shot.

IMG 0377

It does however show that, despite a thick layer of French road filth, the car doesn't look desperately dirty.  I think that's down to the choice of the Mica Stone paint.  Our next car will be black and will show every last speck of dirt.

We travelled in five-seater mode with the last two seats folded flat and it was very capacious.  It fitted all of our holiday gear, including all of the unnecessary stuff that we took and never used or touched and we still had room to see out of the back window, although the height of the luggage was too high to allow us to use the tonneau cover.

The storage inside the car was reasonable and we found enough space in the glove box to hide the TomTom satnav and also the 35 DVDs we took.  Door bins, seat pockets, centre console and space under seats allowed for more storage and, because we only have two children, there was a spare seat providing a spot for in-car snacks and drinks.  This spare seat also served as a useful no man's land in between those same two children.  I remember that seat housing the largest coolbox ever when I was a child which served as a barrier separating me from my brother on long car journeys.

We have also taken this car camping which has meant it has been stuffed to the gunnels with "stuff" and it is just amazing how much "stuff" you can fit in the car.  The issue is that the car does not come with my husband fitted as standard and if there is one person who can pack a car to within an inch of its exhaust pipe, it's my husband.

The panoramic roof would, I've no doubt, have been delightful but we had to steal the fuse for that to feed the 12V cigar lighter at the front of the car which failed on our day of departure.  A fuse costs nothing (well the dealer I got the fuse from didn't charge me) and it's easy to change, but it's annoying in a car that's less than a year old to have anything fail.  I did wonder whether Ford ever discovers there might be a problem if everyone just fixes it themselves although that does mean diagnosing the problem too without help.

The seats are very comfortable.  For our return journey we spent about 12 hours in the car and it was more comfortable than an office chair or the sofa at home.  I thought I'd miss the lack of lumbar support on the driver's seat but the seat was supportive enough without it.

The entertainment in the car was provided by Dave's iPhone iTunes library streaming via Bluetooth through the car speakers.  We adjusted the sound so that we used front speakers thus minimising any audio interference with the DVDs being played on the Nextbase DVD players attached to the rear headrests and playing sound through infra red magic through to wireless headphones.  (Think that sentence should probably have had a comma or two.)  It was a set up that worked perfectly (12V power permitting) and if you don't have Bluetooth in your car, you need it.

The engine performed very well and provided all the power we needed even when fully loaded.  We could overtake on hills and pull away from lights without any problems.  We used the cruise control and in sixth gear the car was able to maintain the speed smoothly and without struggling at all.

Fuel economy though was underwhelming.  The car told us we were achieving 35.9mpg which is less than I expected.  I should say we were travelling at French autoroute speeds combined with twisty turny hilly roads with air-conditioning on about 70% of the time, which isn't great for brilliant fuel economy but I expect better.  I know that a new car needs time to reduce the friction in the engine and improve its efficiency but this car had a thousand or two miles under its (fan) belt.

The technology that we used a lot was cruise control.  On long autoroutes with the Gendarmerie being ever watchful we used cruise control to keep ourselves legal.  I noticed that the car had a speed limiter too.  We tried that function too but, because the system can be overridden if you kick down for extra power, I struggled to understand how it was useful.

We also used the satnav, but in conjunction with the TomTom.  I don't like the Ford satnav.  Firstly It didn't show the road that led to our accommodation, but the user interface isn't intuitive for me at all; I would go as far as to say frustrating.  Most of the time it will get you to your destination and it will probably get you there using an efficient route and I'm sure it's possible to get used to the interface, I just prefer my TomTom.

As to the other tech in the car, we appreciated the Quickclear screen and the parking sensors.  The car had a rear view camera but I didn't like it.  I think it might be a spatial awareness thing and men might appreciate this feature more.  I preferred to see nothing and rely on the parking distance sensors; the camera view just confused me.

In summary: We like the car so much we're getting another one, but in black.



Wednesday, 7 September 2011


I will blog about the holiday car I promise, just not tonight.

This evening I had the chance to attend a local Tweetup but knew I couldn't.  Dave was away for a business trip so I couldn't leave the house.

Dave being away meant leaving London in time to collect the children from the after school club, sorting out an evening meal and then rushing Ethan off to choir.

While the children were eating it occurred to me that after dropping Ethie at choir Hannah and I would be kicking our heels for about an hour until Ethie needed to be collected again.  And then the penny dropped.  Hannah and I could go to the Tweetup together.

I hesitated.  It wasn't the type of event you'd normally take a child to but Hannah is nine years old, very sensible she knows what Twitter is.  Plus it wasn't as if I'd been to previous events and seen drunken, loutish behaviour.  People were drinking in moderation and were being terribly polite.

Ah, the venue, a pub.  Well actually it was a room set apart from the main bar, but still a pub.

I tweeted the event organiser and asked whether it would be OK to bring a nine year old.  He wasn't sure the pub allowed children.  So I phoned the pub and they were absolutely fine.

But would Hannah be comfortable in a room full of Brentwood Twitterati?  I asked her and she said she'd be fine.  I explained in detail what previous Tweetups had been like and I checked she was still OK about turning up.  She said she'd be fine.

So we went, Hannah felt very grown up, some people were lovely and spoke to both of us, and Hannah was a star performer for the magician who was doing some close up magic.

But amongst all of this I heard "She's brought her child."

Words account for 7% of communication, tone of voice 37% and body language 57%.  I couldn't see the body language but the tone of voice wasn't pleasant.

Imagine the Witches in the Roald Dahl book and imagine the sneer in the voice as they might say the word "child."  It's a sort of spitting sneer and that's what I heard.  And the tone of voice grated.  Fortunately it was almost time to leave and collect Ethan and get both children home for bedtime.

I know some people don't like children but this annoyed me.  That attitude annoyed me but there was something else that annoyed me more.  Hannah was between me and the voice and I just hope she didn't hear it.

I hope I misheard.  I hope I got it wrong.  Either way, sadly, that was the last Tweetup Hannah attends on my watch.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The holiday car

I did suggest I might blog about the holiday car.

Firstly you need to know I work for Ford so, whilst I believe this to be an honest appraisal, I have had years of brain-washing.  I mean seriously.  Next month sees my 20 year anniversary with the Company.  (If you want to send congratulatory cards the date is October 14th.)

Secondly, you should I know I was a passenger for most of the holiday, predominantly playing the part of SatMum or, as I think I should be called with the benefit of hindsight, MumNav.  I did some driving, mixing up a bit of smooth and slick autoroute with twisty, turny, lumpy, bumpy roads.

Thirdly you should know I used to be part of a Drive Team.  This is a bunch of (usually) educated engineering types with perhaps a random marketeer (I was the random marketeer) who appraise vehicles during the product development phase.  The tests are contrived but are intended to reflect the customer experience.  The Drive Team evaluate all manner of vehicle attributes (defined by the Vehicle Integration Team) such as "left foot comfort."  This was always a strange attribute to my thinking as my left foot was always comfortable, but then I was enlightened by colleagues who pointed me in the direction of the left foot rest which is a feature that I had never used and still consider to be completely redundant.

One of the benefits of being "on" the Drive Team was a training session with Jackie Stewart.  The only thing I really recall from the session was his advice on testing the build quality of the vehicle.  Apparently, using the bottom of one's fist one should bash a vehicle body panel 15 times, because (and I quote) "Ten is not enough and 20 is too many."  The wisdom of the three time World Champion was legendary.  He didn't mention those World Championships at all by the way.  Not ten times, not 20 times...

The other benefit was driving around proving grounds.  I am pleased to say that Michigan Proving Ground has a corner named after me.  I got a little over-enthusiastic taking a corner in a VW Transporter.  I know, the glamour - a bloody van.  But anyway I gave the Armco a friendly nudge and now, and forever more, that corner is Cardus corner.

Actually, I'll leave it there.  I've given you an insight into my skills, abilities, age and admiration for the legend that is three time World Champion Jackie Stewart.  I'll leave talking about the car to another day. :)

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Day 15, in which we consider an investment

There's a ruin of a chateau not far from where we're staying.

We'd seen it from the road and thought (as my Dad would have said) it had "potential".  We drove along a few lanes and trudged along an overgrown path to take a closer look.  It's perfect.  Granted it would probably have cost at least a million and probably three times that to restore and return to holiday home condition avec le piscine.  This, not insignificant, financial hurdle hasn't prevented us from consistently and constantly referring to it as our future holiday home.  We've toyed with renaming it from Chateau Longas to Chateau Cardus (there's a wine called Chateau Cardus from a vineyard west of Bordeaux) or Dave's favourite: Chateau David.

The trouble with all of this is that we've already invested in a raft of holiday homes by investing in Holiday Property Bond.  I don't want you thinking that this whole series of holiday blogs has led up to a sales pitch because that wasn't my intention.  I wanted to blog about our accommodation, not because I want to brag, but because the type of accommodation we have is a little different from the norm and requires an explanation.  Tomorrow's blog may well be an honest appraisal of our holiday transport.  I haven't decided yet.

I've spoken to some people about Holiday Property Bond (HPB) and the first thing I say is "It isn't timeshare" because it isn't.

Firstly I must explain that I'm not a financial advisor, nor am I on commission, but I am a "customer", "owner", "investor".

The way I think about HPB is like a syndicate or co-operative who have pooled resources to invest in holiday properties in the UK and rest of Europe.  This means that everyone who has invested in the Bond owns a little bit of the whole property portfolio.  It is an investment and I can choose to cash it in, at which time it may have lost or gained in value.  Equally I can ensure my children, and grandchildren inherit my investment, if I choose to keep it.  I invested a sum that had been left to me by my Auntie Margery because she loved travelling and it seemed to be an appropriate use of the money.

My investment entitles me to points and points can be spent to book properties that are a part of the portfolio.  So, for example, a £10,000 investment might be the equivalent of 10,000 points which will book two weeks in a two bed cottage in Constant in the Dordogne.  The properties require maintenance and there is a maintenance charge for the period of the booking.

Normally when one books accommodation the cost is seasonal and rises dramatically during the school holidays.  Because the HPB maintenance charge is just that, for maintenance, it remains constant throughout the year and is significantly lower than a high season charge for similar accommodation.  The thing that is used to even out demand and supply is the number of points required to make the booking.

HPB sites usually have at least one pool and sometimes the larger properties will have their own pool.  There is usually a games room, DVD library, a clubhouse with games library, children's play area, tennis courts, a reception office and often an onsite shop and/or restaurant.  We've also found giant chess/chequers, mini golf, boules, bowls, WiFi, onsite PC, bar, croquet, gym, sauna, steam room.  It's all very middle class.

The self-catering properties are generally of a good standard and you know what you are getting before you arrive.  When travelling with young children we arrived to find our property didn't have a stairgate.  We asked if it was possible to install one and it happened, within hours of our request.

We have now stayed in properties in Spain, Portugal, La Gomera, Anglesey, Brittany, Dordogne, near Paris, Madeira and Turkey.  Sometimes the HPB development is wholly built and designed for HPB whereas at other times HPB has bought part of a bigger development.  In our experience the bespoke developments are better.

There is a downside to the arrangement and that is that if you want to get the pick of the properties in peak season you can't book at the last minute.  You do need to plan ahead.  But this downside also has an upside.  There is a points free booking system, 28 days before departure for UK properties and 56 days before an overseas departure  This means that if you aren't tied to school holidays you can often pick up a holiday at short notice without dipping into precious points.

If you decide you don't need points for a year you can elect, in advance, to take a return on your investment instead, about 2.5% I think.  And your investment can be used to book a holiday for anyone.

I think I've covered the main points but if you have questions I can try and answer them, or you can look for information yourself, if you're interested (HPB do tenancy propoerties too but that's too much to digest).  It's worked for us and could work for you too.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Day 14, in which the end is nigh

Tomorrow is our last full day here.  This is so far past holiday hump day that we're at the bottom of the slippery slope.  This is the sort of time that I start thinking about the return to home.  It's when the holiday stops being pure holiday.

I've already been online to sort the shopping out for the evening that we arrive home.

I'm mentally going through the things we need to have sorted before school and work start again.  It's not a very long list but I wish I'd sorted more out before now.

I had intended to keep an eye on work e-mails and I was for the first couple of days.  Luckily I did some pre-holiday preparation to ensure my e-mail inbox could cope with the vacation onslaught.  I picked up the 2,000 plus e-mails in the inbox and filed them all into an offline folder called "Pre holiday e-mails".  Some of you are wondering how my e-mail could be so out of control.

Well it all started when I returned from a week away earlier in the year.  I'd cleared down my inbox to make space for incoming e-mail missiles that would appear in my absence, but when I returned from the week away I couldn't send e-mails, or receive them.  I was completely work-handicapped.  I couldn't do anything and I didn't know which e-mails I hadn't been able to receive.   I called the IT Helpdesk and once I'd got through the queue and spelled my surname using the phonetic alphabet and confirmed my desk location I explained I needed a bigger inbox capacity.  It wasn't the first time I'd had this conversation so I knew they could fix this problem.

My argument went something like "I can't work under these conditions" and yes I think I probably used those exact words.  I know that right now you're thinking that my working conditions are pretty cushty and you'd be right, they are, but everything is relative.  I have the slowest laptop in the world, which nobody believes until they actually watch my machine change screen pixel by pixel, and to be hamstrung by a daft megabyte limit is just adding insult to injury.  Anyway the rather bemused gentleman in Manila who was at the other end of the phone explained that I already had a substantial e-mail capacity.  My retort probably used words like "multi-media", "large", "files", "part-time", "can't", "work", "under", "these" and "conditions".  If he hadn't acquiesced to my request then I would probably have resorted to tears, not as some pathetic female manipulation but just because I would have been exhausted with the frustration of the whole situation.  Waterworks were unnecessary though and I got what I wanted.

So my inbox doesn't need clearing to zero every week and regular deleting and filing of the stuff I get time to look at is normally enough.  Every month I have a clearout of the oldest stuff and that gets me through.  Holidays though are an additional strain, hence the extra preparation and hence the intent to manage things through the holiday.

It didn't last more than a couple of days so the stress of e-mail hell is starting to seep into my consciousness.

Obviously I'm doing my best to push work away so that I can continue to be in holiday mode but I know the end is nigh.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Day 13, in which we count wild things

I haven't gone looking for wildlife this holiday, but I've stumbled across quite a bit.

Everyone expects little lizards to climb walls in Europe and I've seen plenty of them, but I've also seen things I didn't expect.

While driving along the local lanes we've seen red squirrels.

While paddling in the Dordogne at Beynac to cool down a viperine snake swam past.  I wasn't sure I'd ever been in water when a snake had been in the same vicinity.  Now granted it was small and, having done my research, I now know it wasn't venomous but I didn't know that at the time.  I just stayed where I was and called to Dave, Hannah and Ethan to come and have a look.

While waiting for the boys stood next to a pond yesterday we saw two European water voles and whilst they are sometimes called water rates they are much cuter than rats.  They are chubbier and have smaller ears and tails.

And today there were hundreds of swifts flying balletically next to out holiday house.  They were swooping and diving and catching insects on the wing and they were incredibly beautiful.

The highlight though might have been the sight when I was watching the swifts.  I heard a rush of air and then I saw it; a peregrine falcon at the end of a steep dive aiming for one of the super fast swifts.  It failed and stumbled out of its dive to gradually regain height and disappear from view but it all happened within 20 metres of me.  Stunning.



Thursday, 1 September 2011

Day 12, in which we were utter tourists

This morning sort of dissolved in the way that soluble aspirin does; one minute it's there and the next it's gone.

After lunch we went to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the area: La Roque Saint-Christophe.  It's basically a big rock.  It's not the first time I've visited a big rock.  I mean there are the mountains on which I've skied (badly), there's Ayer's rock (or Uluru), there's Snowdon, Dartmoor, Mount St Helens, Yosemite, Badlands National Park, Hawaiian volcanoes... you get my drift.

This rock was quite cool.

The Dordogne has carved the rock around it and this has resulted in huge rock overhangs which previous generations have used for shelter including constructing houses using the natural shelter provided by the rock.  But at this big rock had a ledge that was about 80 metres up from the ground and this one has been used as shelter too.

55,000 years ago the first Neanderthals used the space and the dwellings morphed over time.

The displays we saw showed how the space might have been used by Neanderthals and also by more recent occupants from medieval times.

The displays were interesting but the views were very pretty.

We drove though Les Eyzies, stopping for a touristy ice cream and then we took the scenic SatMum route home for some pool and sunshine time.

Isn't that the kind of thing holidays should be about?