Something old and something new

I have two history degrees. I like old things. I particularly like the old things that reside in London. And this is why I now have a reputation for being something of a tour guide on call for visitors (generally Americans) arrive in the best of Big Smokes. Thanks to guiding a couple of Texans around the city two years ago, this reputation is particularly valued by Matryoshka Haus. The arrival of interns or random visitors often elicits a request for a tour, which I’ll usually provide unless utterly overwhelmed with work.

Touring with Shannon & LaurenAs 2013 MH intern Lauren put this at the time (she’s unpictured – this is me chatting to her friend Shannon), I was their “Royal racontour”. Got to love Lauren’s puns…

Two weeks ago, I did it again, this time for the winners of Matryoshka Haus’ regular raffle prize of a trip to London. Suzy and Jeff had never left North America before, and this trip coincided with their 25th anniversary. No pressure there then! As ever, it was a joy to show off the city. In case you’re interested (or want your own – my fees are reasonable…) the tour begins at Embankment station, travels along the Embankment to Westminster, around the Palace, across Parliament Square, down Whitehall, through Horse Guards and into St James’ Park towards Buckingham Palace. It’s a nifty way of getting in the best-known landmarks in a minimal amount of time. But, while I was showing my new friends sights that were old friends to me, it turned out they had something new (yet old) for me.

Jeff & SuzyAmerican guests on the bridge mid-way through St James’ Park – one of the best spots to get a view of the Eye, or Buckingham Palace.

It turned out Jeff had one burning desire for his trip to London – a visit to the Churchill War Rooms. He wasn’t sure if they were open [bad Imperial War Museum, the pop-up notice that the main museum is currently shut is not helpful when looking at the website of one of your other sites!!], but we popped by en route to Horse Guards and discovered it was indeed. We immediately joined the queue (and met some Americans who had lived/worked in the same neighbourhoods as my Americans – because the world is that small and American tourists really like to chat with each other) and the visitors were incredulous that I’d never been before.

Turn off the switchThe signs were terribly polite in WW2.

It’s got to be said, it is VERY worth shelling out the dosh to visit! I can’t believe this historic site was nearly left to rot away into an historical footnote – saved by the efforts of Michael Heseltine, of all people. The rooms that housed the Cabinet office and its staff during WW2 have been preserved (or restored, some were used as storage rooms after the war) meaning that you get an excellent idea of what it would have been like to work down there (one word: unpleasant). Utterly fascinating – even for non-History buffs – especially as everyone is issued with a highly informative audio guide. Mid-way through the tour, there’s a newer section featuring a museum of Churchill’s life (hence the change in name just over a decade ago) which has been done brilliantly – especially the virtual filing machine style timeline of his life laid out across a table at its centre.

A key on his majesty's serviceA secret key? 

The moral of this tale? It is never too late to discover new joys in London!

Talking of new joys. An actual new joy – as in physically new, as opposed to new to me – is the Shard. Specifically, as discovered a week ago, its cocktails on the 55th floor (the views aren’t too shabby either).

Shard cocktailsThat would be a Spring Julep, served in a frozen mini chalice. (Oh, and note to parents: my hair has changed since this photo…)

Shard ViewThe view from the 55th floor.

Macaroons & Margaritas

Sometimes, life is just too short to make everything from scratch – and you know what? Often people don’t even notice…

On Sunday, thanks to the virtue of a time difference that lends me a two day birthday, I was justified in celebrating my birthday the night before its official date. I decided to make it an occasion for cocktails and cake, because, quite frankly nothing says birthday (or potentially even Sunday) than cake and cocktails.

Yes, I made some cake from scratch – there were ginger biscuits (the recipe of which I will post next time I make them as they were meant to include dark chocolate and I forgot) and my very special brownies; plus slightly cheating mini tarts (well, ready-rolled pastry is quite a big cheat I guess). There was a carrot cake that may have originated from a Sainsbury’s packet mix – but I was very honest when it was complimented. Then, there were French style raspberry macaroons…

Anyone who knows anything about baking knows that these things (which are hugely popular at the moment) are rather complicated and thus, it was with some interest that I discovered packet mixes for a variety of flavours in Carre Four – the local supermarket when at Chateau Duffy. Given as I return to Limoges next week, I thought it was worth testing the mix so I’d know if it was worth buying others.

If you’re familiar with the Betty Crocker style mixes, you’ll know that the usual method is as follows:
Open packet; empty into bowl; add eggs/liquid; mix with electric whisk; pour into tin; bake…

With the macaroons this was not the case. My method went something like this:

  • Locate translation of package instructions. (Found here 3 months ago).
  • Make jam element of package in saucepan, carefully ensuring it didn’t burn.
  • Separate 2 eggs and place whites in mug. 
  • Get electric whisk ready.
  • Discover macaroons need to begin their bake in a cold oven. 
  • Realise oven won’t be cold until following morning.
  • Put eggs to one side.
  • Accidentally wash up mug containing egg whites.
  • Sleep.
  • Separate another 2 eggs.
  • Whisk whites with electric whisk, ensuring bowl is completely dry.
  • Add mix. Combine.
  • Drop teaspoons of mixture onto lined baking tray.
  • Bake. Realise they’re going to spread too far.
  • Cool with oven door open. 
  • Sandwich macaroons with jam.

See, when it comes to French packet mixes, nothing is simple. But, aside from the mixture spreading in the oven, they worked rather well. Another time I’d bake each of the two trays separately as they were rather different in quality at the end. They certainly looked pretty in pink…

The other cheat came in the cocktail element of the evening. There was no cheating as far as the G&T’s and Pimm’s were concerned, but quite a considerable amount of it with the frozen margaritas. 
Ah yes, frozen margaritas! A Texan discovery that has been dreamed of since. Lacking a slushee maker, I had to come up with an alternative method. My solution owed something to a Texan suggestion – that you pre-mix the margarita (they sell such things in pouches in Walmart, not so in the UK), pour it into zip-lock bags and freeze it. Because the alcohol won’t actually freeze, it simply goes slushy – which is the precise consistency you want. On discovering a pre-mixed bottle of margarita in Sainsbury’s, I decided this was the way to go. I mixed it with a small quantity of soda water to ensure that it froze, and left it for 48 hours. The arrival of my guests provided two extra ingredients: Agave Syrup and festive straws. With this, adequate frozen margaritas were created. They may not have been perfect, but they were enjoyed by all…
I should point out that Baby J was only participating in the festive straws element of the cocktails. 
We did not serve him booze… 
Here’s to more cheating, more macaroons, more frozen magaritas and most of all, more birthdays!