Sunday, 22 February 2015

Recipe: Hot Chocolate

Apparently adults without kids catch an average of 3 colds a year. I'm one of those folk who doesn't get 'properly' ill - I manage to miss the Noro and Flu that do the rounds every year - but for some reason every cold I get goes straight to my sinuses. Cue 24 hours of headaches, nosebleeds, and feeling sorry for myself. 

In an attempt to cheer myself up after cancelling my weekend social plans, I've spent a lot of this afternoon sipping on rich, thick hot chocolate while watching Poirot. The Belgian connection seems particularly appropriate, as I was first introduced to "proper" hot chocolate by a friend at university who left half way through to start a cookery diploma in her native Belgium. We lost touch before I managed to write down her recipe so I've spent quite a long time trying to recreate it (turns out no one makes a hot chocolate like a Belgian), but I have very fond memories of watching films and sipping the thick, almost savoury chocolatey treat.
Serves 2 
25g 70% chocolate 
350ml full fat milk 
1tsp sugar
1tsp cinnamon
1tsp cornflour
1pinch cayenne pepper

Bring 250ml of milk (I used almond milk) to a simmer in a small pan. Add in 25g chocolate, chopped into pieces, and stir  until melted. 
In a small mug or bowl, mix the remaining 100ml of cold milk and the cornflour, along with the sugar, cayenne and cinnamon. Slowly add to the simmering chocolate mixture, stirring well until it thickens to a double cream consistency. 
Serve in small, beautiful cups with a sprinkle of cinnamon or a grating of chocolate to decorate. Perfect with shortbread for dunking. 

Sunday, 15 February 2015


Kintsugi (金継ぎ) - golden joinery

The Japanese art of Kintsuge dates back to the 15th century. According to one of the legends, a Shogun sent his favourite tea bowl to China for repair and was saddened when it returned to him stapled, metal bars bridging the crack. The damage was highlighted, the piece was ruined. He challenged his craftsmen to develop a technique for repairing the broken earthenware while ensuring it was still beautiful. 
The 15th century saw the development of the Higashiyama period of Japanese culture, which drew heavily on Zen buddhism, and the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which focuses on accepting transience and imperfection. Kintsugi draws on these philosophies - embracing the flaws in an object and making them beautiful.
Last week I went for a drink with some friends. Friday night, after work - nothing special. Except, it was. Several glasses of wine in, one friend bluntly stated that we probably wouldn't have got to know each other in the same way had I not had a rough time over the last six months. Another agreed. I don't think they're wrong. I've been thinking a lot recently about Brené Brown's wonderful TED Talk about vulnerability, and how human nature dictates that when we are at our lowest - the bottom of the downwards slide - hiding from the world is tempting, but being frank and open is what we need to push ourselves to be. The people that pick us up and put us back on our feet are the ones that look past the cracks and see the potential for gilding. Without those crevices, we wouldn't see the opportunities or the chances for growth and good things to emerge. 
And so, at the end of a weekend that has seen Galentines, Valentine's, and a slightly painful anniversary, I am grateful. I am thankful for the friends and family who have boosted my confidence, who have shared their experiences and wisdom, who have talked about their own vulnerabilities, and who have made me laugh. When you're going through hell, all you can do is keep going. But knowing people are there to pull you through makes it an awful lot easier.

Ceramics by Paul Scott. Images from his Flikr account. 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Exploring: East Lothian

When there is a rare day of sunshine among the wintery white skies, I always get the urge to adventure - or at least to get out of the flat and into the fresh air. I wrote a list of places to go and things to do back at the beginning of January when the year was beginning, and along with my monthly resolutions I'm aiming to work my way through a fair few of them over the coming months. 

One of the reasons I love Edinburgh is that it's so close to both the coast and the hills. When the grey clouds gave way to glorious sunshine this weekend, it was the perfect opportunity to start ticking off my list with a walk along the coast and woodland at Gullane. It was beautiful, with clear skies allowing for views of the hills of Fife were visible to the right, and the Edinburgh skyline to the left. A re-fuelling stop at a bakery on the way back, followed by a happy half hour spent chomping cake and sipping hot tea while watching the birds swooping at Aberlady, and a perfect Sunday was spent. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

February Resolutions

I'm so glad that January is over and done with, and that February is firmly underway. Earlier mornings, walking to and from work in daylight, and excellent plans with family and friends. Resolutions for this month are mostly around enjoying myself and feeling good. I love Edinburgh but like most folk who live somewhere "exciting", I'm guilty of going to the same places all the time. Instead of going to old favourites - be it a cafe, museum or bookshop - I want to explore more. The same goes for packed lunches. I'm stingy, in that I won't pay £3.50 for a crap supermarket sandwich, but I do have a tendency to pull a box of soup and a breadroll out of the freezer at the last minute. Healthy but dull. If I make an effort to eat more interesting food and enjoy it, I feel good for the rest of the day (and I'm considerably less likely to snack on biscuits). Similarly - if I set aside a little bit of time each evening to do a quick whizz round with the Hoover or wipe down the bathroom, I'll have more time to enjoy the weekend and be less resentful of Sunday evenings spent cleaning instead of watching trashy films. The jewellery one? Not remotely related to my having had an uncharacteristic moment of overexcitement in the 70% off section on pay day. Not at all.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Books: January Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it" Oscar Wilde

22. Anthony Trollope, The Warden. 3/5
I've been meaning to read more "classics" and not really done it, so when I spotted this and remembered enjoying a TV adaptation of another Trollope, I thought I would give it a go. 
It's the first in Trollope's Barsetshire chronicles, the tale of Mr Harding. Harding is the warden of a Hospital - alms houses for the poor - alongside his day job in the clergy. When a young doctor moves to the town and points out how disproportionately large Harding's stipend as a warden is, chaos ensues. 
It was clear that the novel is supposed to have a moral note, but I couldn't work out what it was. The church is criticised for profiting from the hospital, as is the press (for hounding Harding and making a scapegoat of him - apparently nothing changed in 150 years) but I couldn't really work out what the rest of the point was. Pretty much everyone is deemed to be at fault other than the corrupt Archdeacon, and men that were supposedly principled seemed to change their minds at the behest of a pretty girl. Dull and confusing.

23. Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders. 3/5
I was so excited about this one - I love a good Poirot, and have either read or watched pretty much all of the stories, so I was excited when this one finally became available at the library I devoured it quickly.
The first half of the book does follow closely in the style of a Christie with the sudden meeting of a girl in a cafe, and a locked room murder, and I was really quickly absorbed in the narration and adventure element. However - the second half really let it down for me, and I found it really quite hard to keep up with the red herrings. It got to the point where I was so confused with the plotline that I remembered I was reading a "new" Poirot - there wasn't enough character development to quite work out what was going on and there were a couple of small things (really hard to explain without giving the plot away!) that grated on me and I found myself thinking that the "real" Poirot would have got secrets out of people earlier. Maybe I'm just not a fan of pastiche after all.

24. Nicola Upson, An Expert in Murder. 2/5.
I was looking forward to this one - an accolade from P. D. James is a high recommendation indeed. Josephine Tey, writer and 1930s woman about town, is on a long distance train to London when she meets a young woman who is a fan of Tey's latest West End theatre smash hit. When the young lady is murdered on arrival at the station, Tey becomes entwined with the case, helping her policeman friend Archie solve the crime.
There's quite a bit of gadding about town, some unnecessary references to University boat races that are slightly out of place, and a lot of theatre luvvie chatter - but to be honest, not a lot else. Tey is a plot device rather than the main character and I didn't realise that she was loosely based on a real person until the end, which says a lot. There are too many subplots to keep track of what's going on, every time someone referred to another character as their "lover" I wanted to scream (I read a goodreads review where someone had started a tally, it was that frequent...) and to say that the whodunnit reveal made me raise a cynical eyebrow would be an understatement. I won't be reading the next in the series.

25. Jojo Moyes, Me Before You. 4/5
After becoming enraged by a Katie Fforde a couple of months ago, I asked the world of Twitter for suggestions. I wanted a non-crime book where the female lead wasn't entirely pathetic, didn't have a thing about an inappropriate bloke, and had a bit of gumption about her. This was suggested by a couple of people, and I'm so glad I read/listened to it. 
Lou Clarke is made redundant from her job in a cafe, and ends up taking a six month contract as a carer/companion to a quadriplegic young man to make ends meet. Initially Will, her employer, is difficult and unpleasant to be around, but as Lou learns more about his story, they become firm friends - until the inevitable plot device shatters Lou's perceptions. 
A decent female lead, a male character that isn't a misogynistic arse - what's not to like? Well... I'll be honest, I struggled a bit with the plot twist and Will's attitude. Assisted suicide is a difficult and emotional subject, and as I have had a colleague with similar disabilities, I found it particularly tricky not to want to scream at Will. Arguably this demonstrates a real talent for characterisation by Moyes. I wasn't a fan of her insistence on a class divide subplot (why did Lou's family have to be the stereotype of poor but loving, with Will's rich family portrayed as emotionally stunted?) but that was easily forgiven as all of the characters were believable and relatable regardless.

26. Alexander McCall Smith, Bertie's Guide To Life and Mothers. 4/5
I do love Alexander McCall Smith and his Edinburgh novels. He somehow manages to capture the characters of the city perfectly - the eccentric artists, the pushy mothers obsessed with gender neutrality, the rich and pleasant but slightly dim young men, and the all-seeing coffee shop owner - all are gentle parodies of personalities that anyone who knows Edinburgh will recognise.
I picked this up not realising it was the ninth in the series (I think I've read the first two or three, quite a few years ago) but still enjoyed dipping in to Scotland Street in the affluent New Town. I didn't feel like I was missing out on in-jokes, which is often the way with a series heavily based around characters rather than situations.
My only criticism though - I'm not sure how much someone that doesn't know the city would 'get' from these books. I suspect that the references to certain landmarks would be lost, and as Edinburgh heavily features as a silent key character, I think the subplots might lose a bit of their relevance or focus. Even so, an enjoyable and easygoing read.

27. M. C. Beaton, Death of a Dentist. 3/5
I know, I know, I said a couple of months ago that I wasn't going to carry on reading this series, but I ended up giving in and going for something cheesy to curl up with when the weather was particularly bad this month.
Hamish has a toothache - off to the dentist he goes, only to discover a murder scene. This kind of thing seems to happen to him with alarming frequency, considering how rural his beat is, but Macbeth is unperturbed and takes it upon himself to solve the crime. 
There's a little romance entwined in the tale (Hamish hasn't had the best of luck in the past), and the regular characters make appearances which is an improvement on the last couple I've read where the format has started to feel quite flat. A comforting and comfortable read.  

28. Katie Fforde, A French Affair. 3/5
Ok, so I slated the last Katie Fforde book I read - and then came back for another one. If I'm honest, I quite like rolling my eyes at her books (some people watch Made in Chelsea for the same reason, don't judge me...) and listening along while I'm walking to work. They're good for switching the mind off. 
This one was a definite improvement on the last - there was no stereotypical and unpleasant male lead (although there was an evil ex in the background), the main character was real quite likeable and the supporting cast didn't involve an older female relative. Easy reading (listening in my case) escapism. 

29. Antonia Honeywell, The Ship. 3/5
This was the first book sent to me by the Curtis Brown Book Group for review. If I'm honest, I wouldn't usually go for a Dystopian novel, and this had a tinge of the Young Adult about it - another label that would normally put me off. However - change from the norm is a good thing, and I really enjoyed reading out of my comfort zone. 
Honeywell is an alumni of the Curtis Brown Creative's novel writing course, with The Ship as her debut novel. It tells the story of Lalla, a sixteen year old living in the London of the future with her parents. They protect her from the brutality of the world, an Orwellian society where people who have lost their identity cards cease to 'exist', and tins of beans and sausages make a luxury birthday meal. Lalla's father has been harbouring a secret, a ship, which will provide them with a means of escape.
I found The Ship a fairly easy read, in terms of the alternative future and themes it presents it's straightforward. However - I think this was its downfall for me. I could see the plot unravelling before me (there were a couple of small 'mystery' elements which I guessed), and there wasn't quite enough depth or explanation for me to completely fall into the story like I'd hoped. I also found myself throwing my hands up at the ending... I suspect a sequel might be in the planning.  

30. Emma Healey, Elizabeth Is Missing. 5/5
It took me ages to decide whether or not I actually liked this book. You know when something is really uncomfortable, and sad, and it makes you a bit cross at the character even though the way they act isn't entirely their fault? There was a lot of that in Elizabeth is Missing. 
I listened to it as an audiobook which really helped me to become absorbed in the story - it's the biography of Maud, and her onset of dementia. As Maud's memory slowly declines, flickers of her past come through, and alongside her confusion about where her friend Elizabeth has gone, and why she isn't in her house anymore, the story of Maud's sister's disappearance in the 1940s emerges. 
Maud's decline and her relationships with her carers and family are incredibly well observed - the gentle reminders about forgotten words that rapidly become labels and in turn become frustrations and snapped harsh words will be familiar to anyone who has known a family member with dementia. I was also impressed with the way that Healey managed to negotiate really uncomfortable scenes in with ease - a particularly painful one towards the end when Maud doesn't realise that she has moved house brought me to tears, and the contrast between the kindness of some strangers towards her compared to others (I wanted to scream at an uncaring policeman) made me think about how difficult life must be with such an illness. 
The plots themselves intertwined well, and I really enjoyed the ending, despite having worked out the mystery of her sister's disappearance at the same time as Maud did, and having a good idea about what had happened to Elizabeth. 
I'll be urging my colleagues who work with older people to read this book - and everyone else I know. It was wonderful, if tough going in parts. 

31. Jaqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather. 3/5
After finishing Elizabeth is Missing, I was after something a little more lightweight, and turned to the Masie Dobbs series. This is the second in the series (I read the first last year), which builds on the first well - characters are developed nicely, and we begin to see a bit more personality than in the scene setting first novel.
Maisie is called in to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy young woman, the daughter of a butcher-come-Oxford Street department store owner. Charlotte's vanishment is a big disappointment to her father, who is portrayed as a stereotypically gruff Yorkshireman (which annoyed me a little bit - are people from Yorkshire not allowed to be kind and caring in novels anymore?) - and Maisie's attempts to find her rapidly lead her on the trail of a series of murders.
The thing that bothered me about Birds of a Feather - and this is going to sound really picky - but I realised the significance of some of the clues (actually, the main ones) a good few chapters before our heroine did, which really annoyed me. I wasn't particularly bothered by the romance subplot either, it seemed a bit forced and unnecessary but I suspect it'll be explored more in the next in the series.