fragrant fun at Fragonard

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All the girls are now at university so we are officially empty nesters. With that in mind we decided to take a few days off and are currently enjoying warm weather and the local rosé in the south of France.  St Paul-de-Vence to be precise, and very lovely it is too.

As we are only half an hour from Grasse it was not difficult to persuade the Boss that a little detour around the Fragonard museum and factory would be a pleasant way to spend the morning.

The museum was small but fascinating with fine examples of toiletry bottles and equipment from as early as the sixth century BC, the latter in such superb condition that at first I thought it was a copy.  But the jewel in the crown is the factory tour.

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The bottles of essential oils alone were enough to woo me.

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The bottle went on and one.  To be honest I am not sure what is in them, but they were so beautiful.

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Originally extraction was either cold press, where each flower was placed on a rack of animal fat (cow or pig) for twenty four hours and then replaced daily for a  month until the fat was soaked with the flower essence.  It was then washed with alcohol, the alcohol evaporated away and what was left was the absolute.

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Racks for cold press.

More robust plants were heated with the oil over a few days and then washed with alcohol as above.  Today they have perfected a slightly more rapid option using alcohol directly, or the good old maceration and still method.  (See my post here about how to make your own rosewater – but sadly not essential oil!)

The perfumes (at 76% these are the perfumes not the eau du parfum nor eau de toilette) are blended in these huge vats.  Perhaps not quite as romantic as those rose petals we soaked in water to make perfume for our mothers, but a little more effective!

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I am wearing this particular perfume today/

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Some of the equipment looked like giant coffee machines!

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For reasons known only to Fragonard, you can buy egg boxes of soap.

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This process was a little more familiar (soap making not egg boxes – most of our egg boxes are full of real eggs from our real hens!)

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Lots of mixing, shaving and mixing again.  Mind you their equipment is a little more sophisticated.

They also run workshops where you can mix your own perfume.  Sounds fun at two hours and might give it a go.  Particularly when I learned it takes six years to train as a Nose.  That’s as long as a doctor!  This is the play laboratory.  Apparently a real one has 2,000 to 3,000 different scents to choose from!  This Libran would find that a little overwhelming.

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And finally of course to the shop!  The prices were actually quite reasonable (especially with my 10% discount voucher acquired earlier in the day!)  So a few purchases were made.

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Today is Farmers’ Market day in St Paul-de-Vence so it will be cheese I will be smelling and tasting!

Love Gillie x

to sieze or not the day

Horace

Horace has a lot to answer for.  Often regarded as the first autobiographer as well as a superb poet he also was either right hand man or court puppet, depending on your point of view, to Octavius during the transition from Republic of Rome to Roman Empire.  He also coined two of the most misused words in poetry: carpe diem.

From the first book of Odes, the words carpe diem are frequently translated as “seize the day” and often quoted alongside six equally misused words: live each day as your last.  I have recently had good cause to consider these six words.

My eldest daughter has been travelling in southern Mexico. She was travelling with a friend who returned at the end of last week, my daughter is due to fly back tonight.  Like parents of most young travellers we watched her Facebook page and kept in touch with the occasional text.  Then on Saturday morning I woke up to the news of the devastating earthquake in Mexico.  It took me a good five minutes before I linked Mexico, earthquake and my daughter.  And then I went into panic mode.  It went a little like this.

  • Main damage is in Chiapas and Oaxaca. Check where daughter was last seen.  Chiapas.
  • Check last message from travelling companion.  Daughter due to leave Chiapas for Oaxaca.
  • Contact travelling companion.  Daughter said she was going to spend her last few days on the coast at Puerto Escondido.  The coast, the nearest part of the country to the epicentre.
  • I send emails, texts, messages to her.  None are returned.

I tell myself she will be fine.  Then I ask myself why should she be fine?  Why should ours be the story with the happy ending.  I watch the numbers of deaths rise alarmingly.  I remember what I said when she left.  It was something like “have a lovely holiday and take care” followed by a kiss and a hug.

I fire up all the networks I know and help and support comes pouring out of the woodwork.  A friend of a friend is married to a Mexican military official who will check casualty lists.  Old school friends offer somewhere for her to stay when (if?) she is found.  People offer help with repatriation when (if?) she is found and she can’t get to her flight.  Somebody knows a BBC journalist in Mexico and asks if I would like her to make contact.  Anything, yes please.  This was a little odd as I then found myself on the M74 heading up to Glasgow to drop another daughter at university and conducting a live radio interview at the same time (I wasn’t driving!)

I think back to the time she left and wonder if I should have said more, should I have lived that day as if it were her last?  I am now in serious mother panic mode, but on the outside am all calm and positive.  Only my feet are paddling furiously under the water and going nowhere.

We arrive in Glasgow, still no news.  I have been welded to my phone all day.  We go out for a meal and for the first time in my life I have my phone, screen up in front of me on the table.  All those times I have sneered at people who can’t leave their phones for one second and I have become that person overnight.

Late that night standing in the co-op whilst the twins pick up some fruit and yoghurt one of them yelps “She is active on Facebook!”  Frantic punching of keys and we phone her.

She is fine, she is safe and she is well.  She had not been in Puerto Escondido, she had not been in Chiapas, nor Oaxaca city.  She had been up in the mountains.  They had felt the quake and it had been terrifying, but in the middle of nowhere, with no telephone or internet connection they had no idea of the devastation elsewhere.  It was not until they got down to Oaxaca city that it dawned on them that they had had a very lucky escape.

I have no idea what the other people in the Co-op made of our happy little family squeaking and shrieking as we headed out onto Gordon Street, but who cared?

She isn’t home yet and today I am hoping to find out if she has made it to Mexico City where she can catch the first of her planes home.  If not, well we’ll sort something out.

Going back to saying goodbye to her before she left. If we truly are to live each day as if it were our last then we would not really be living at all.  We would be forever fearful of what tomorrow might bring, we could not seize this day because our minds would be forever concentrating on the next day.

Carpe diem is correctly translated as “pluck the day”, perhaps no better than “sieze the day” in its intention?  However, as with all things context is vital.

Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero – sieze the present, trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may.

Now things start to make a little more sense.  Perhaps it is wise not to trust tomorrow entirely, because the lack of flexibility that would ensue would make for a very fractured and disappointing life as things fail to go as expected.  On the other hand, to have no trust in tomorrow is equally unhelpful.

So I have my own tenet.  I won’t seize (or pluck) the day, nor will I live each day as if it were my (or even my daughter’s) last.

I will live contentedly.  I will enjoy this moment and at the end of each day I ask myself if I had a good day.  If I did I spend a moment or two reliving and enjoying it.  If I didn’t, then I look at where I could have, if at all, improved upon it and then I let it go.  It is been and gone and tomorrow is another day.  To be trusted a little but not to be entirely depended on.

love Gillie x

triangles, opium and rubies

I am leaping ahead a little, but as it’s my blog I make the rules.  Fast forward from Ko Samui to a couple of hours north of Chiang Rai.  We are staying in a community owned lodge called Lanjia.  It is well off the beaten track, and utterly beautiful.  There are four bamboo lodges each with two double beds.

These are no ordinary double beds.  For those of you who have read Heidi, cast your mind back to the moment when Heidi’s grandfather makes up her bed for the first time.  For the rest of you, imagine a down mattress, a light down duvet and down pillows. Sorry geese, but your feather sacrifice was worth it I promise you.

We are about an hour from the Golden Triangle where Laos, Thailand and Burma meet, and where opium grows like nobody knows …

We have a car.  We always hire a car when we travel, it’s the only way to get around and see what you want to see when you want to.  You can hire a guide but we have found that with good books, good internet research and a map (or good old google maps – see my earlier post!)  you can find pretty much anything you want (well apart from the Mae Chan Winery – but that is a whole other story).

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The Golden Triangle is a tourist centre, but beguiling nonetheless.  I can only assume that until Laos became communist free and Burma became more democratic it must have been a no go area.  It would be easy even for me to swim across the borders.

Thailand on the left,  Burma the spit in the middle, Laos on the left.

Even young novice monks go on tourist trips, these three must have been about 13 years old at most.

There were Buddhas

And Hindu Gods

We left the Golden Triangle and went to visit the Opium Hall.  Not what you are thinking, it is the most amazing museum set up by the Princess Mother to educate people about the perils of Opium.  It is a striking building and excellent museum, with interactive displays, videos and well produced information and videos.  It begins with the history of opium, the development of the East India Company and the opium trade cycles the opium wars that resulted the free use of opium and cocaine during the nineteenth century (where do you think Coca Cola gets its name?)  and concludes with the herion trade and problems of addiction today.  It is one of the best museums I have ever been too and if you make it up here you must visit it.  There are no pictures because none are allowed, but here is a link to the tripadvisor page  for more information.

We finally headed up to the Burma border at Mae Sai.

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We didn’t cross over as the Volunteer has only a single exit visa and is off to Cambodia and Vietnam after we leave, but we went for a fascinating walk through the huge market that lines the street towards the border.

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Fish

 

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Squid kebabs.  And gemstones, lots and lots of gemstones, particularly rubies, pearls, silver, gold you name it you could buy it.  Not sure of the provenance mind you!  Meanwhile the main road was packed with cars, songtaks and scooters heading across the border in both directions.

Love Gillie x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

food glorious food

Family Smellie is very keen on its food and Thailand has not let us down once.  So we thought it was time that we did a little hands on cooking.   Rather than just stuffing our faces with the delicious food cooked by others, we would do some of the preliminary work ourselves.

Enter Toi, chef extraordinaire at Sea Dance.  She was chosen to bravely steer Family Smellie through the cooking process.  This is what awaited us when we arrived for our lesson.

 

Even if we didn’t cook it but just feasted with our eyes and noses that would have been a sensual journey in itself.  But Family Smellie needed to fill its bellies so onwards and upwards.

First up, as in any good project of any kind, is the preparation.  I was put on chopping duty and managed to impress Toi not only with my knowledge of nam pla but also my prowess with a mini machete!

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We began with seafood salad and followed with chicken green curry and chicken and ginger stir fry.  The Travellerwas not impressed by having to skin and scour the squid, but she did an excellent job.

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The seafood was left to marinade in soy sauce, nampla, chopped chilli, chopped garlic and palm sugar.  The Boss was in charge of chicken prep.

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First up was the green curry.  The curry paste was added to hot oil and the coconut cream added spoon by spoon.  I am used to chucking the tin in all at once, but this way the sauce remained thick and cooked more slowly, it was thinned with water or chicken stock later.

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Chicken first and finally vegetables.

 

The volunteer took notes.

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Stir fry was down to the Traveller and she was not convinced she could do the flip so expertly demonstrated by Toi, convinced that instead she would cover the Boss with a selection of chicken and vegetables.

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But she got the wrist action and managed a perfect stir fry flip with no stray veg at all.

 

And the finished products.

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And time to eat.

 

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A few days later I bumped into Toi in the gardens and she showed me around her kitchen garden.  Many of the vegetables used in the kitchen are grown on site and Toi is an excellent gardener as well as chef.  I also managed to impress her again with my knowledge of Holy Basil, there are hidden depths to me yet!  She not only grows a huge range of vegetables, salad leaves and herbs for the kitchen but also a comprehensive range of herbs for the spa as well.  And I can testify that the spa is as good as the kitchen!

Love Gillie x

 

 

the big buddha and the mummified monk

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Thank God for Google maps.  Usually we are good to go with a proper map before we even leave the UK but for some reason we completely forgot to order a Ko Samui or Chiang Rai/Mai map before we left so on arrival at Sea Dance we picked up a map in reception.   A pirate map….. to be fair it did show the major sights one might want to see, but the routes to reach them were overlaid with “oo ah me hearties” lots of treasure chests and a goodly amount of parrots and one legged men.  No I have no idea either, but either way it was up there with the chocolate fireguard.

Naively I let the Boss drive off without checking where he was heading.  He has many talents and gifts, a sense of direction is not one of them.  Seriously, how many people have to ask their wife where the kids’ school is?  So as we approached Chaeweng I knew we were in trouble, we wanted to go north, Chaeweng was south.  Also the main drag in Chaeweng is one way so when the Boss tried to turn around…. well you get the picture.  At this point it was also clear that any comment about in which direction we should be heading and how to get there may have led to an expensive and messy divorce case.

So back to Google Maps.  It may not be appropriate for the wife to correct the husband, but Google Maps is allowed to.  As a result we did make it to the Big Buddha still married.

The Big Buddha is big.  Very big and quite impressive.  Although in the  mid morning heat, walking up the steps to get up close and personal to the Big Buddha is also quite impressive.  Not least because I had forgotten my scarf and was wearing a strappy dress so had to cover my shoulder with a thick woollen number borrowed from the temple.  I was very hot and bothered.  Note to self.  Leave scarf in car at all times.

I was surprised how many people went into the temple in short shorts.  It’s not hard to borrow a gown, they had plenty to borrow for free (in Bangkok you had to hire them).  It’s common courtesy and it’s not as if there were not plenty of signs asking people not to enter inappropriately dressed.

Once you have visited the temple there is little else to detain you.  There are plenty of little shops selling clothes, ice-cream and knick-knacks, not over-priced but nothing you couldn’t buy anywhere else if the desire for a tie die dress overwhelms you.

So we headed on to Wat Khunarum.   This temple is particularly famous for its mummified monk.  Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to take a photograph of him so if you would like to see him, have a look and read his story here.  If you are interested in the possibilities of deep meditation, particularly the concept of meditation at death and beyond then google “tukdam” .

Before you leave go to the gong to the left of the monk.  If you can make it sing it is supposed to bring you good luck.  It is a little like making a singing bowl sing, it is all in the angle and the pressure. There is a bucket of water.  I found a wet hand and a little earth on your palm hit the spot.

Should you wish, there is, as in almost all temples, a monk who will bless you.  It is a rather lovely and peaceful place.  Not a lot to see, but a lot to feel.

Love Gillie

a train, a parade and a ferry

From markets to sleeper trains.  On the Sunday evening we headed back to Hualumphong to wait for our sleeper.  Despite all the street food we had eaten at JJ we were all still ravenous so we took it in turns to look for a bite to eat that looked a little more appetising than that on offer at the station food court.

The Boss and I found a lovely street cafe, a few chairs and a small stall.  A selection of pork, rice, half a hard-boiled egg and endless iced tea.  The girls went in the other direction and found an apparently excellent noodle bar.  All in all the food choices around the market are not great.  There are several stalls selling fruit bags, banana rice and waffles and we later found a small noodle bar by the station itself but that was about it.  To be fair it was a Sunday and we were in the middle of the business district and there did seem to be more on offer when we were there on Thursday but if you have time to kill and an appetite, eat before you arrive.

On the subject of food.  We were in first class, which costs only a little more than second but sells out very fast.  Tickets go on sale 3 months before departure so if you know your itinerary, book asap.  In first they offer you food.  Don’t bother.  We got caught out by a steward offering us glasses of orange juice before we departed.  How lovely we thought – how pricey we thought when we were offered the bill.  We made the mistake of ordering breakfast and went for the sandwiches.  The Thais like sugar.  I have never tasted sweet mayonnaise before.  Suffice to say one mouthful was enough.  Apparently the fruit juice that came with it was even sweeter.

Fortunately we had stocked up beforehand with fruit bags, banana rice, seaweed (me only!) cremos (the girls – exactly like oreos but half the price), dried fruit and nuts. I suggest you do the same.  There is a small store in the station and two 7/11 stores about 5 minutes walk away via the metro subway.

We had a connecting cabin with the girls – who insisted it was kept closed!  The steward came to make up the beds around 8.30.  They were excellent, larger and more comfortable than the Highland sleeper and the top bunk has a barrier put up so no falling off in the night.

A word about the air con.  It is wonderful – but VERY powerful (apparently the top bunk is warmer – I’m having that one next time). We never found the controls so I had rather an icy night, however the girls worked out they were controlled manually on each air vent.  Failing that bag the top bunk and let the cold air sink to the person in the bunk below!

We were woken with the aforementioned breakfast and a welcome cup of tea at 6am and pulled into Surat Thani at about 7am.  Pretty much on time.

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All very efficient, our ferry vouchers were exchanged for tickets.  The Boss and the chap in charge of the buses to the ferry waxed lyrical over Phuket and Ko Samui 30 years ago and I went to investigate the parade.

This was one of the smartest parades I had seen for a long time, albeit with a rather incongruous bride like young woman at the front.  Apparently it was National Health Day and health workers across Thailand were parading and being appreciated.  Perhaps something the NHS should think about, it needs some love.

The bus ride from Surat Thani to the ferry is a lot longer than any of us expected – at least an hour, an hour and 15 minutes.  But the bus is air conditioned – even if some of the signs are redundant.  There are no seat belts!

 

We took the catamaran to Ko Samui, which is a lot faster than the regular ferry.  If you manage to blag a seat on the top deck (where the views are amazing) do take lots of sun cream in your hand luggage, all cases (though not back packs) are put in the hold.  Failing that there is a very pleasant air-conditioned room downstairs.

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On arrival it is mayhem.  We had a hire car ordered so it was a bit easier for us.  There are hotel pick ups, taxi touts, everyone!

On the car hire front we were recommended to take photographs of all the scratches and dents on the car even if they had been written down.  Just in case!

Then off to Sea Dance.

The roads are good until you turn off the main drag.  Turnings can be very small and what you think is a dirt track may well be your road so keep your eyes open.

The oasis that awaited was stunning.  We had a two roomed hut with private pool.

The main pool was pretty stunning too.

The food outstanding (more about our cookery lesson later).  We were hungry.  Margarita and lunch.

 

This is breakfast.  I usually start with yoghurt and fruit salad.

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The Boss prefers honey on his.  My favourite juices are watermelon or carrot but there are all the usual suspects.  I usually follow with dim sum and banana pancakes, I know, but it’s my breakfast and I like it.  However if you feel the urge, there is pad Thai, Tom Gha, bacon, sausages, eggs cooked to order…

And endless pastries, croissants, toast and home-made preserves all in an airy dining room with a stunning view.

 

But most important the staff, they are out of this world, nothing is too much and they are friendly and helpful and just gorgeous.  Faith is a star and can organise anything, I am sure she could arrange for Pink Floyd to play at dinner if we asked nicely enough!

Love Gillie

in which we shop till we drop and buy almost nothing

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If I could say only one word about shopping in Bangkok it would have to be JJ (Chattachuk) market.  The Volunteer has waxed lyrical about Monday markets, floating markets and night markets. But the one that comes up time and time again is JJ Market.   It is the largest market in Thailand and covers over 27 acres. Believe me that is one heck of a market.

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It sells everything, and I do mean everything.  It has its dark side and on the advice of the volunteer we did not go into the pet section.  Even walking past the apparently mild outside my heart and stomach were sick to see huge fish in tiny bags and turtles and mice piled high in boxes.

There were also some seriously scary mannequins.

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However, the rest of the market was fascinating.  It is divided into sections so in theory you can find what you want.  But over 27 acres of “sections” still makes it extremely easy to get lost, several times!  With the help of the volunteer and a couple of online language apps I have learned some basic Thai and “mai ao kaa” is a polite and handy way to ensure you don’t get hassled (literally “I don’t take”)

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The Boss and I had foot and shoulder massage.  Now I like a hard and brutal massage, I can’t be doing with namby pamby gentle wafting of the hands.  I have had some deep and hard massages in my time, but boy did this little Thai lady get deep and strong on my poor western muscles.  Great but not for the fainthearted or those with low pain thresholds.

My favourite section, was the food one!  We had some sumptuous spring rolls from the stall that the Volunteer recommended.

But every stall was piled high.

There is little you cannot buy and the Volunteer arrived with a shopping list, memory bank, charging cable, t-shirts and flip flops.  But whether you wanted a new teak sofa, a beach dress,  more craft items than Hobbycraft has even dreamed of, or a working antique telephone I found them all at JJ.

It’s easy to get to by BTS (Mo Chit and follow the crowds) or metro (Chattachuk Park).  I don’t recommend taxi or tuk tuk.  The traffic makes rush hour in Naples look like a country lane.  Go early whilst it is relatively (and I use the term carefully!) quiet but more importantly not so hot.  Midday at JJ is crowded and very hot.  There are plenty of places to sit and eat snacks and lots of “refreshment stations” but precious few where you can sit down and just have a drink.  There is one lovely exception.  Head to section 7 (the 7 sign at the end of the long street closest to the stations)  facing the 7 sign turn left and you will see a little rest area just at the entrance to the home decor and art section.  We left my husband there whilst we went for a wander and came back an hour or so later to find him deep in conversations with his new friend Saul from Singapore whose wife was also shopping.  This was his third visit during this trip!

 

Enjoy!

Love Gillie  x