albanian chai

I don’t drink coffee.  I used to, lots of it, strong and without milk or sugar.  But about 15 or years ago I fell out of love with it and hardly touch it now.  Occasionally, maybe once a month I may have a mid morning coffee with friends, but certainly no  more than one and it is a notable event.

However, tea is another matter altogether.  I start the day like this.  One pot of English breakfast tea (also without milk or sugar).  Always in  my chicken pot and always with my chicken cup and saucer.  I am a creature of habit.  I do vary the tea cosy!morning tea

However, on or around 10.00 am I switch to this.

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On our recent visit to Albania I saw somebody drinking a proper herb tea (i.e. the full plant not dried up bits in a tea bag – I HATE tea bags, but that’s another story). Curious, I asked what it was and ordered a pot with my lunch.  Actually I did that the other way around and drank it first and discovered what it was afterwards!

Sideritis raeseri (not to be confused with Sideritis scardica or any of the other wild Sideritis many of which are at risk of extinction and should not be picked or indeed purchased), also known as ironwort, mountain tea, shepherd’s tea  is the only Sideritis which is cultivated  and has been drunk as a decoction for thousands of years (even mentioned by Dioscorides). It has a pleasant taste and I had it with breakfast every day and frequently during the day as well.  It is a habit I have continued since I returned home.  I brought plenty of the dried herb home with me and though I can replenish my supply through various well known internet sales sites it is not clear that I can be sure that it is the raeseri I am buying rather than one of the endangered species.  So I am trying to track down some seeds.  Unfortunately all I can find from a reputable (i.e. I know that the seeds will be what they say they are) supplier is Sideritis syricia.  So I’ll have to try that out instead.

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The dried Sideritis raeseri

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Ready for the boiling water.

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Brewing.

It is traditionally taken as an aid to digestion and to strengthen the immune system.  Considerable research has been undertaken on this unassuming plant and it has been proven to have anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant action.  As we were travelling I restricted my tinctures to just digestive bitters and left the echinacea I usually take at home.  Whilst we were away Stuart developed a monster of a cold which went straight to his chest.  I drank my Albanian chai every day and remained entirely cold free despite all his coughing and sneezing 🙂

Love Gillie x

 

 

 

feeling festive in Riga

 

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The shops are not full of images of Father Christmas, the cafes and restaurants are not heaving with fairy lights.  Yet Riga feels a lot more festive than most cities in Western Europe.  Yes it does help that is is cold and everyone is wrapped up in big coats with fluffy hoods, that there is snow on the ground and there is a whopping great Christmas Tree in the square next to our hotel, but there is more too it than that.

We attended the lighting of the tree ceremony on Sunday.  As it was obviously all in Latvian we didn’t understand a word, except for the countdown.  I think that is universal.  There was no need for barriers, I think I saw two policemen, the small square was full of people enjoying the Christmas market, drinking Black Balsalm or hot chocolate and enjoying browsing the stalls.  There was no brash commercialism, just people having fun.

Before

 

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and after.

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Also, did you know that the first ever Christmas tree was from Riga?

I am feeling festive in Riga because there is no loud Christmas music blaring out of every shop, there are no plastic Father Christmases, no tinsel on every till.  Just a beautiful tree, a lovely market and other people feeling festive.

love Gillie x

 

 

whittle down that wardrobe

One of the advantages of going on a lazy holiday just the two of you is that there is no urgency to keep anybody else happy or occupied, you can potter around at your own pace, you can visit the places you want to and stop for lunch whenever you want for as long as you want.  The other advantage is that you have time.  I have almost finished knitting a pair of socks, have had read  several books and have caught up on all those blogs I follow but often don’t get around to reading.

At this time of year (with apologies to my readers from the Southern Hemisphere) it would seem that the minds of many turn around to where and how to store their summer clothing and bedding.  This is a concept with which I have some trouble getting my head around.  Granted, I do wear more jumpers and scarves in the winter, I give up bare legs and wear woolly tights.  But I don’t have a separate summer wardrobe, I just wear more layers in the winter.  As for our bed.  We have one duvet, I’ve no idea of the tog value, it’s feather and down and if I am too hot I toss it off and if I am too cold I wear pyjamas and put a couple of blankets over the top.

Why on earth do we need separate wardrobes and separate bedding?  What shocked me even more was that many of the earnest discussions about the best way to store said belongings were on websites and groups dedicated to minimalist/low impact living.  Surely the essence of low impact living is to ensure that your belongings are multipurpose?

There are a few items that only see the light of day in summer or winter.  Bikinis, woolly hats, woollen long-johns.  I am struggling to think of any others, my standard summer footwear (Birkenstocks) become my winter indoor slippers worn with lovely thick hand knitted socks.  Those handful of season restricted items hardly need a drawer of their own let alone a purposed wardrobe or cupboard.

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So today I am still on holiday in the south of France.  It is warm but not excessively so.  I am wearing my birkies, navy leggings and a long floral shirt.    If I were at home in the north of England where I am reliably informed by friends it is somewhat cooler!  I would maybe wear a tee-shirt under my shirt, a cardigan or jumper on top and put on socks and shoes when going outside.  Likewise I have linen dresses that I wear in the summer and then in the winter layer up with tee-shirts and jumpers.

I do have some woollen skirts, dresses and trousers, but surprisingly few for somebody who lives in the apparently frozen north!

Before you start dividing up your wardrobe into Summer and Winter and thus consigning your clothes to be worn for only 6 months of the year, take another look.  If you are looking to downsize your wardrobe start looking at ways to wear most, if not necessarily all, your clothes all year around.  You can wear linen trousers in winter if you want, you just need a pair or tights or long johns underneath!

It also  makes packing for travelling a whole lot easier too if you can make your wardrobe work for two seasons instead of just one.

Love Gillie x

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

 

P1020455Grapes the size of plums.

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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