French Fancies

Je suis retourné.

It was a week of hard work, early mornings, late nights, free-flowing vin rouge and a surprising amount of fun with people I’d never met two months ago. There’s probably a lot to say, but for now I’m sticking to the most important thing – food.
When one discovers one is going to France, one is likely to get excited at the gastronomic opportunities. My week at Chateau Duffy in the summer was notable for its culinary delights – from the simple pleasures of fresh croissants and baguettes daily, to huge quantities of cheese and an orgasmic beef bourginon. (Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I think about that beef…) However, combining the prospect of Francophone cuisine and a Christian conference centre led me to fear the very worst.
On our first evening, my fears were confirmed. Shark steak in curry sauce anyone? My dinner that day consisted of two bowls of soup, 3 slices of white bread (honestly, I don’t think I have ever consumed so much white bread in so few days) and cheese. There was always cheese. Every day the lunch (four courses) and dinner (four courses) menus appeared on a screen that changed colour every few seconds. Part of the excitement was working out what the words actually said or meant, the rest being the anticipation of whether it would be edible…
I’m not sure what dessert actually was, but it definitely didn’t involve cottage cheese.

Tuesday was a good day (except for my fellow vicars-to-be who got stuck in Lille thanks to a feast day bus time-table) – the kitchen for some inexplicable reason went Flemish. As I am Flemish by descent (a long descent, but the Clutterbucks were once Cloiterboicks who wove wool there) this was a potentially exciting prospect – even more so when I realised that beef and frites were involved. Hands-down, it was one of the best meals of the week. Oh, and it was concluded with this:
Not sure what it’s called, but it tasted like a Krispy Kreme. Evil, but goooood.

A major excitement of any overseas trip is shopping – especially food shopping. For many Brits, the word ‘Carrefour’ is the holy grail of French holidays – a source of exciting biscuits, jams, cheese, and all sorts of other diversions. Merville may not have had one, but it had an Intermarche, the next best thing, so we dutifully went and stocked up. In amongst the chocolate and toys was an unusual discovery:
Yes, that’s an advent calendar for cats. It begs a lot of questions:
– Why wasn’t there one for dogs too?
– Is there a whole tin of food at the end?
– Is it just a lump of cat food behind each door? Is it wrapped? 
– What kind of a cat might want an advent calendar?
– Why? 
In answer to the penultimate question, we have a possible candidate – another sighting during our short jaunt through the town of Merville:
That’s special, that is…

Oh, and you shouldn’t trust everything you see, it’s not always what you think it is.
This is not a real cake:
One final thing. Men, when buying last minute presents for your wives from French supermarkets, try to choose things that show some thought and aren’t available in the UK. Fizzy cola bottles – even when extra large and with ‘extra acid’ (assuming this meant they were extra sour) – is not a romantic or thoughtful gift. Just saying. 

Loner?

Although I love travelling solo, there’s one thing that never seems to have become socially acceptable – dining alone. I’m not a big fan of it, even though (as those I’ve eaten with can testify) I’m one of the world’s slowest eaters, which means having no one to compare my speed with is actually a good thing!

Usually I simply avoid the more traditional restaurants where tables for one stick out like sore thumbs, and instead opt for interesting tiny places where no one notices, or genius restaurants like Wagamamas where it’s canteen style, or, even better – eat take-out in the beautiful outdoors.

Last night, in cold, wet Edinburgh, this was not an option. In fact, being on my own wasn’t in the original plan either. It was meant to be a jaunt with my mother, she was flying in from Belfast as I flew in from London. Only problem was that by the time I landed, her flight had been cancelled meaning that she wouldn’t make it to the event we were attending together and thus making the entire trip pointless. Thus, at the end of the day I found myself ravenous and ended up all alone in a respectable Italian chain restaurant.

I was seated with a nice window view and my back to the rest of the place. My waiter was attentive (to the point of trying to remove my plate when I was only half-done – it’s that slow eating thing again…) and after he brought my drink he asked if he could get me a newspaper.

This surprised me, and then made me giggle. I think it was Carrie Bradshaw who once said that a lady could dine alone as long as she was equipped with one weapon – reading material. Did I look so pathetic sat there alone that my waiter felt bad? He needn’t have worried though, I was of course, in possession of a book – I’m never without one. His next trip to my table saw me engrossed in my current read (a delightful piece of travel-writing exploring George Orwell’s Burma) and thus protected from other people’s pity.

An hour or so later, while paying the bill, we chatted about the ridiculousness of having to get up at 5.30am on a Sunday (see yesterday’s post) and the wonders of London versus Edinburgh. I will say one thing for dining alone, it does give you the perfect opportunity to flirt with flirty waiters. Plus, the quality of waiters in the Scottish capital is excellent…

52 Weeks

I’m one of those people who usually knows how long it is since something happened – the last time I saw a particular friend; what years we went on holiday to Germany; how many weeks we’re into the new year (11 and a bit, if you’re interested!) – for example.

This morning marks 52 weeks since I got up on a Monday morning, took a deep breath and weighed myself for the first time in quite a while. I got out a brand new notebook, wrote down the weight, looked up the appropriate calorie allowance in my Rosemary Conley cookbook and proceeded to follow a healthier lifestyle than the day before. [As an aside, on the same day I also met with a friend for coffee after they’d had a meeting at my office and went to a friend’s birthday meal where I ate my favourite stir-fried broccoli…I have a freakishly good memory for random things!]

52 weeks later and this morning I was lighter by 53 pounds. (Well, 53¾ officially, but who’s being pedantic?) I rather liked the symmetry of the numbers (though in some ways I’d have preferred it to be 52 in 52, though I’m definitely not complaining that it’s more!) and therefore used it as a Facebook status. It was one of those statuses which I pondered, wrote and immediately closed down the tab and ran away. Thing is, I haven’t shared much about this process in the general scheme of things, nor did I want to flaunt my achievement online and be perceived as boasting or even fishing for compliments.

I could go off on one about how I’ve done it and why, but this isn’t the time or the place. Suffice to say that I’m now convinced the only way to do it effectively is to approach it holistically – quite literally with mind, body and spirit. (If you want to know more, get in touch, but it’s probably way too random for even this random blog.)

What’s amused me most is the way that people (especially ones I really don’t know very well) have brought it up. Don’t get me wrong – receiving compliments well is important, but some of things people come out with are quite frankly hilarious:

  • “You’ve lost a lot of weight. Are you doing it intentionally?” [No. One day I woke up and it had all fallen off, just like that.] 
  • “How have you done it? I suppose you’re going to say something annoying like you’re eating sensibly and exercising…” [Yep, that would be exactly it – rocket science.] 
  • “Are you ill?” [Genuinely touched by the concern, but this was a very random thing to say. If anyone I know well thinks I look ill, please do tell me, but I barely knew this person!] 
  • “How much exactly have you lost?” [Unless you know someone well, or the information is offered to you, this question is just plain rude. There are also very few good responses to the answer you receive…] 
  • “When are you going to stop?” [The plan’s to continue the lifestyle forever, though I am not aiming for a size zero (4) – I strongly suspect the family’s hips don’t get much smaller than a 12.] 
  • “But I just saw you eat a [mini] flake, aren’t you dieting today?” [This was this afternoon, and it’s not a ‘diet’ it’s a lifestyle change – and nothing’s banned!] 
It’s a funny old thing, our obsession with weight/appearance/food/size. I’m kind of glad I wrote the Facebook status – not because of the compliments – but because I’ve just spent half an hour chatting to a random school friend as a result of it. Perhaps one day I’ll write a best-seller on the topic, but until then I’ll try not to become an attention-seeking lifestyle bore – if you suspect me of becoming one, do shut me up. Thanks. 

Cupcakes

They’re becoming something of an obsession…

It’s not that I’m eating lots of them. (I’ve had two in nearly two weeks, but I think that’s ok!) It’s the process I go through whenever I buy one. It’s oh so slightly OCD:

1. It has to be a high quality, worth using up lots of calories, cupcake. This often involves a bit of a trek to the right establishment (or another country).
2. Once purchased, it has to be kept safe and intact until consumption can take place.
3. Before eating, the cupcake should be photographed at least twice – once from above and once from the side with the cupcake case removed.
4. Whilst eating, the cupcake should be savoured, with mental notes made as to quality – particularly whether it is worth purchasing the flavour again.

My father, on discovering this habit on my last trip over, dubbed it “food porn”. He’s right of course – that’s the reason why Cupcakes take the Cake is so popular. It’s how I now come to have an entire folder of photos devoted to the foodstuff, witness:

That one in the middle – devil’s foodcake with meringue frosting – officially the best cupcake I’ve ever tasted! Needless to say, it’s a Magnolia Bakery creation. I think it’ll be a long time before I get there again.

Anyway, a couple of week’s ago I had a red velvet cupcake craving. During my weekend with Mrs WF, she’d recommended the Hummingbird Bakery (she also had their recipe book – jealous!) and so on a bright Saturday afternoon I headed up into town to locate the Wardour St branch. It took me a while, but it was oh so worth it.

This afternoon, I was entertaining my bestest friend (not seen since August – an utter travesty) and I felt that a trip to the bakery was called for, in order to complete her London experience. She was completely inducted into the cupcake process. Cakes were bought (red velvet for her, at my insistence; chocolate marshmallow for me). We located a quiet graveyard (classy) in which to consume them and the photography commenced.

Hummingbird have several regular flavours (red velvet being one) but also have daily specials. Thursday’s is the chocolate marshmallow one and oh. my. gosh. it’s amaaazing! Marshmallow frosting and excellent chocolate sponge, with a surprise centre of melted marshmallow. Yummy. Here’s the cupcake porn to prove it:

It should be noted that my face does not accurately express the joy with which I ate this cake. It’s just that eating gooey cake with a strong breeze blowing is just a tad tricky!

Also, just in case you’re wondering why I don’t simply bake my own cupcakes, there are several good reasons:

1. I don’t have a cupcake recipe book [hint]. I bought Flatmate the Magnolia Bakery one for her birthday last year with the theory that I could borrow it and then she had the audacity to move out. Hmph.
2. You can’t just make one cupcake, and that leads one into dangerous temptation.
3. They’re actually quite tricky. Mrs WF made awesome caramel fudge ones which apparently took hours to construct – they’re also effectively diabetes in cake form.
4. The packaging is half the fun!