Monday, 11 December 2017

11th December: Friends at Christmas

It's lovely to get friends together at Christmas, and for the last few years, my friends and I have set aside a weekend to spend together rollicking around and generally hanging out. We call it Christmas Shindig, and last year was no exception. We spent a wonderful Saturday having brunch, playing Junkyard Crazy golf, wandering the Spitalfields market and indulging in a delicious dinner and cocktails. 

Then Liz and Chris kindly offered up their home on the Sunday for a chilled-out day of lovely food and drinks and good company.  It was such a pleasure to have time to natter and catch up and laugh together, made even more special by the onset of Christmas.  

It also happened to be an excellent time for me haul out the camera and do a photoshoot.

I like to do a photo shoot of my friends every so often, and Shindig is a good time to do it as everyone is together. I took a few pictures while we were out and about on the Saturday, but my pictures were never meant to be about the day, per se, but about getting some up to date pictures of my friends.

So on Sunday afternoon, we all piled onto the sofa, I whipped out my camera and started firing off a few shots.  And it's actually quite fun to do, when everyone is feeling the festive spirit and giggles through it.  The pictures quickly stop feeling awkward as no one is pressured to pose in a particular way, and everyone is part of a group.

In fact, I really like the concept of the semi-posed, semi-candid shot: everyone is seated on the sofa in the good light where I can get nice pictures.  But they aren't stiff and posed and formal.  They're clustered into a heap, chatting and laughing.  The resulting pictures are clear and have everyone in, but they are so much more full of life.

A few props don't hurt to mess around with either.

It's genuinely worth taking time to get pictures of the people you love.  Make it fun, make it an event, but make it worthwhile and strongly encourage (ie demand) compulsory participation.  Because I don't think anyone will end up regretting it.  And like I said, while Christmas is a natural choice of time meet up, I'm not really aiming to photograph the season, and so when I do a photoshoot isn't hugely important, I just like to get my favourite people together every so often and get a round of portraits; Christmas just happens to be a good excuse.

And remember, don't forget to get a picture of the photographer!

Kisses xxx

P.S. This post is part of a series I'm writing throughout December in response to Shimelle's scrapbooking class, Journal Your Christmas. By blogging each day, I hope to savour each and every lovely moment of the most wonderful time of the year, and have some great memories to look back on.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

10th December: Christmas Cups of Tea

Tea.  In my opinion, you can't beat it. A cup of tea is always welcome in winter to warm you through. It's cosy and soothing, it can energise and entertain and I find it's always gratefully received. I love that so many Christmas blends are available at this time of year as it makes my tea extra festive. I have taken delivery of a number of delicious brews from Bluebird Tea Co and I have spent many happy moments sipping on flavours such as Christmas Cake, Snowball (a coconutty, chocolatey blend complete with little marshmallows) and Gingerbread Chai. Not to mention fruit infusions such as Mulled Cider, or the delectable berry-filled Mrs Claus' Prosecco!

Today I thought I would share some of the photos I've taken as a rep for Bluebird Tea Co; I have loved getting out my camera and arranging Christmassy shots. And I also thought that I might take this little space over a cup of tea to share a few Christmassy goings-on and have a bit of a catch up, while getting a few memories down. Most of these memories don't have pictures to go with them. And most of these pictures don't have stories to go with them (beyond: seriously, this is good tea). But a cup of tea is often in my hand or by my side whether I'm dashing down a corridor at school or twirling into the night in the city, or settling down under a blanket at home. So it makes sense to me to post these together now.

Thus I bring you: Christmas antics and cups of tea.

One of the most Christmassy days in the school year is the annual school tea party. We spend the day preparing hampers for elderly residents in the local area, and the girls bring in donations of food and festive treats. I love to put some Christmas tunes on and we dance around the classroom (a science lab, in our case), wrapping the items, packing them into boxes and making them look as pretty as possible, curling the ends of ribbon and signing cards. I take treats along for the girls as well (a bit of chocolate adds a lot of festive spirit I find) and the results were really quite lovely.

After that, the old folks are collected from their residences by pupils (and escorted by staff, just to be on the safe side!) and we throw a tea party: sandwiches and cakes and scones, music and singing, decorations and a panto put on by Year 7 where each form performs a different scene.  It's chaotic and marvellous and everybody has a lovely time.  Then we take the guests home again afterwards with a hamper and as much good cheer as we can muster.

The mulled wine and mince pies for the staff don't hurt either, in the aftermath. I had 7 mince pies, because I'm losing my touch (one year I had nine). They are mini ones though. There was some discussion among the maths department afterwards about how many mini mince pies constitute a full mince pie. Debating whether we should measure by volume or cross-section or, which was my vote, mass (mince pies notoriously being not of constant density), we concluded that probably about 4 mini mince pies makes a full one.  So I barely had anything.

Which was good as afterwards, we went out for our maths department Christmas meal at Skylon, which was delicious and full of maths bants. Because maths is the coolest department.

Tuesday evening saw me venturing into centre of our fair city of London to meet friends for a quick bite and a theatre jaunt. We arrived at Whole Foods, having established there was a cafe there where we could grab a quick sandwich.  Instead we found a little mecca of grab-and-go food including delicious, piping hot pizza slices, cups of tea, fruit juices and a delicious peanut-butter-and-chocolate krispie slice. So good I bought a second one for the theatre.

Because as soon as we had finished chowing down, it was time to hop, skip and jump over to the Picadilly theatre to see Austentacious: an improvised regency drama based on audience suggestions for the names of missing Jane Austen novels. We ended up with a regency drama entitled "We Need to Talk About Emma" which was excellent, and gave us some very memorable giggles!

Sunday night the other weekend, I pottered over to the eastern side of London for a mystery evening out. Which turned out to be a delicious meal at the much-anticipated Homeslice Pizza. Homeslice is reputed to make some of the best pizza in London: super thin crusts baked to perfection, fresh and varied toppings lavishing delicious flavour onto each slice. They also make the largest pizzas in London. But sadly they don't take bookings, and so not wishing to stand in line for hours after a long day of work, I had never been.

However, my lovely date had managed to book us in for an all-you-can-eat event (already a winner) where the staff whipped pizza after pizza from the huge, flaming ovens and circled the room with htem, handing out slices to hungry patrons. Each pizza that wafted its way over was different: we had lamb, artichoke and sour cream, ricotta and butternut squash, BBQ pulled beef with chilli oil, a delectable, perfect margarita with fresh basil, chorizo and tomato, salami... I managed to put away 9 slices before admitting defeat, each slice being too large to fit on the plate and having to drape over the end.  I got it everywhere, hands coated in pizza, and an enormous grin of satisfaction plastered across my face.  The company was good too ;)

My first Christmassy night which really kicked off the festive season for me was the evening towards the end of November when a few friends popped round to the flat for an evening in.  We had intended to watch a film, but that never really happened is it quickly became the sort of evening where it was more fun to chat and catch up and laugh and we didn't really require an input of entertainment.  This amuses me somewhat, as my initial reasons for having the evening were 2-fold: firstly I wanted to bake and consume a Camembert, and secondly, I wanted to watch Love Actually. But as one friend refused point-blank to partake of Love Actually, we considered other options and then ended up watching nothing.

Except a Youtube video about how to extract the DNA from strawberries which was a revelation to some us, but apparently not to the friend with a PhD in sciencey genetics and stuff. Mind blown.

When explaining this to an A-level class the next day, they were similarly unimpressed, as they were doing that in their Biology lessons. At least I learned something.

But science aside, it was such a pleasure to have a night in with good company, lots of nibbles and drinks and some really quality time with friends.

Monday last week was another lovely adventure into town, this time to meet with a friend who was popping into London for the day. We met at the Science museum to check out the Maths gallery (well worth a visit if you're in the area, and totally free) and perused the equipment and exhibits with glee. The museums close at six, and while we didn't have to be forcibly ejected, a lady did come into the maths gallery and tell us off for lingering.  So we scuttled into town to meet the rest of the gang for cocktails.

We went to a place that was new to me called 'Opium'.  Squirreled away in Chinatown, its the sort of place you would never find unless you knew it was there and we hurried inside and up the stairs to find a wonderful bar and restaurant with low lighting and little booths tucked away perfect for merriment and gossip. They have a drinks menu which features cocktails related to the animal of the Chinese year of your birth and we opted for different ones regardless of age. Each one came in a mug shaped like the animal in question, and sipping on my dragon was extremely delicious.  It also seemed like a good idea to order a toffee apple sour as well, which definitely helped with the good cheer. A couple of rounds of dim sum and prawn crackers soaked up enough of the drink to steady us before we headed back down stairs in search of dinner.

Dinner took the form of a visit to Tibits, a vegetarian restaurant behind Region street where you fill your plate with anything you like from the counters and then pay by the weight of the food you have served yourself.  There were so many options it was hard to choose and I quickly filled my plate.  And then, frankly, I quickly emptied it. Tibits produced some really lovely food and it was a great choice for a group; they even provided us with Christmas crackers which were a hit! Another great evening spent catching up with the gang before Christmas.

That's the end of my cup of tea for now, and so I'll put the pause button on the tales of Christmas antics. Suffice to say there are more for another blog post: a wonderful house party for a belated birthday, Christmas cake making with the Guides, visiting Father Christmas with the Rainbows and a snow-covered trip to Hogwarts. But that's an adventure for another cup of tea.

Kisses xxx

P.S. This post is part of a series I'm writing throughout December in response to Shimelle's scrapbooking class, Journal Your Christmas. By blogging each day, I hope to savour each and every lovely moment of the most wonderful time of the year, and have some great memories to look back on.

P.P.S. As I happen to be a tea rep for Bluebird Tea Co, you can use my super special discount code to get 20% off your first order.  Just enter CURIOUSTEABIRD07 when you check out.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

9th December: Afternoon Tea for Christmas

I have definitely cheated a little bit this year on the Christmas gift front: for me, Father Christmas came early as Mum and Dad treated me to a fabulous afternoon tea at the wonderful Landmark Hotel in Marylebone. And it was an absolute treat!

Going for afternoon tea at the Landmark was one of the goals on my list; I'd had my eye on this beautiful hotel and the tantalising menu for a while. So when my parents offered to treat me, I jumped at the chance!

The building itself is incredibly impressive: luxurious and opulent and grand in the best possible way. Afternoon tea is served in the winter garden; an enormous courtyard in the centre of the hotel with the building rising around you and a glass roof.  But it's not cold or intimidating; it's beautiful and filled with light.  Palm trees arch overhead festooned with twinkly lights lend a cosy and seasonal air and it was a beautiful place to sit and people-watch.

All three of us opted for the traditional afternoon tea (although a chocolate version is available) and every morsel was an absolute treat!  But to kick things off, we needed to select a tea from the menu.  I was spoilt for choice, but fortunately Mum went for the Landmark blend so I could try it, which meant I could safely opt for the caramel infused tea: a black tea with hints of toffee and vanilla. My cup was kept topped up by the excellent and attentive servers and I must have ploughed my way through a couple of pots.

With the tea served, we were ready to tuck in. Firstly: sandwiches.

Perfect little fingers are the standard for afternoon tea, but these were a cut above.  Generously filled ranging from the classic smoked salmon, or a lovely cucumber on white bread, through to a delicious coronation chicken on walnut bread.  Coronation chicken doesn't often appear on afternoon tea menus, but as a particular favourite of mine and my Dad's we were pretty chuffed to sample one. Or a few.

Because you could have your sandwiches topped up as much as you liked. And so I ate twelve, because it seemed like a good idea, and there's nothing like value for money.  And they were absolutely delicious!

However, we did have to stop at some point; a difficult decision as it's hard to know how much space you should leave for scones and cakes. In the end, I think I could have squeezed in two more sandwiches, but that's by the by.

Next came scones. And you'll notice there isn't a picture of the scones as I wolfed them down before I remember to take one. We were served two each: a plain and a fruit.  We were also invited to select a couple of jams from the list, and opted for strawberry (classic and delicious) and blackberry (also delicious, and a nice tart foil for the strawberry). I sampled both generously. I'm not a cream fan so no need to leave any room on your scone for that nonsense.  The scones were light, warm and delicious, and worked well with both jams individually and indeed, mixed together.

And I had a third scone as well as Mum was happy with just the one and I couldn't see it go to waste.

Before long it was time for tiny perfect cakes. Tiny Perfect Cake Time is always the most picturesque point of afternoon tea, and I went to town with the camera. 4 cakes each, beautifully lined up  and presented and with truly delectable flavour and variety.

I started with a lovely lemon and blackberry drizzle poppyseed sponge; it was moist and light with drizzle all the way through.  Tasty! And then I moved swiftly on to a raspberry and rose macaron, filled with buttercream and fresh raspberries. It was light and refreshing and extremely scrummy.

Next came a little chocolate something-or-other-in-French. I don't remember what it was called but I do remember that it was completely chocolatey, and creamy, but without being too heavy.  It was just about perfect and looked an absolute treat. Which it was.

Last came a passionfruit something-else-in-French on a shortbread-style disc topped with a pretty white chocolate disc. It was wonderful: tangy and sweet and smooth and crumbly; just like the others it was the sort of tiny cake that's lovely to look at and of which you feel you could consume a whole plateful. 

I say last, but actually, I did manage another macaron as well as Dad didn't go for his, and so I thought I'd better tidy it up.  Again, mainly in the interests of really getting value for money. And I had another pot of tea, opting for the Landmark blend so that I could indulge in a post-food cuppa or six.

This was a wonderful Christmas present - thanks Mum and Dad! - and I can't recommend the Landmark highly enough. Here's to more afternoon tea in the new year!

Kisses xxx

P.S. This post is part of a series I'm writing throughout December in response to Shimelle's scrapbooking class, Journal Your Christmas. By blogging each day, I hope to savour each and every lovely moment of the most wonderful time of the year, and have some great memories to look back on.

Friday, 8 December 2017

8th December: Cologne After Dark

The lights simply sang against the soft, velvety night and I wandered underneath a canopy of sparks, grinning up into the heavens, weaving in and out of merry revellers, heading towards the central Christmas tree. We joined the crowd around the tree, the pinnacle of the shining canopy of lights, and pressed around the bandstand beneath, listening for the sounds of Christmas songs sung by a trio. We danced, swept along by the hustle and bustle, and it seemed as if everyone was smiling and absorbed, shining, swept away in Christmas and music, cold air and warm hearts.

This was my favourite moment. Under the tent of lights, if felt as if nothing could go wrong here. Even if it rained, I believed those little electric stars would keep us dry and warm. 

Simply magical is right.

As the singing came to end, we departed the cathedral market. We were pretty weary as we'd both been up since 4:00am so we sauntered through the market-lined streets markets before stopping at a restaurant for a curry and a sit down in the warm. Because it has been ever such a long time since we'd had a meal.

Finally we headed for our youth hostel around half nine and we were ready for bed by half ten. Because we are party people. But actually this worked for us both and meant we could get up at a reasonable hour and catch the markets as they opened. With only 24 hours in Cologne, we wanted to make the most of it.

We slumbered away with an 8-bed dorm to ourselves and had such a good sleep! We were up at eight, had tea at nine and then walked through the Sunday morning city listening to bells ring, catching glimpses of stalls starting to show signs of life, mingling and strolling with the fresh-faced early morning crowd. It was a different atmosphere from the night before: one full of promise for a new day and we were determined to squeeze every drop of Christmas out of those last few hours.

Our breakfast cup of tea had not been in vain: firstly a very tiny breakfast leaves lots of stomach space for market morsels, and secondly we had dug out the map and had a very clear idea of the places we wanted to hit again.

To whit, potatoes. Kartoffels galore. Fried please. And a badge for my camp blanket as this was a guiding trip after all, and I had spotted some pretty lacy snowflakes the day before.

We arrived back at Cologne cathedral and walked round it, admiring its towering gothic presence. We wandered to the main bridge across the Rhine. Many padlocks adorned its railings and indeed there were stalls on the market that were selling engraved locks for you to add your own.

I'll be honest: I think the locks-on-bridges thing has become pretty commercial.

At eleven, we approached the cathedral market again for our final couple of hours in the city. Armed with our food-and-knick-knacks game plan, we made a beeline for potatoes.

They were every bit as glorious as I remembered. Even thinking about them now, I miss those crispy, deep-fried slabs of carbs. They were hot in the chill morning air, and even a touch of drizzle couldn't dampen my enjoyment.

We huddled around a little table enjoying our treat and declaring breakfast a roaring success. Then we plunged back into the little market lanes to spend our final pennies. I picked out some lovely lace snowflakes: one for my tree, one for my parents' and one for my camp blanket. I also found a very pretty wooden one. It was lovely to have a little memento to go home with, especially something for my camp blanket.

Before we knew it, it was time for lunch. Because almost an hour had passed since breakfast and obviously we needed to fill up for the journey home (very practical).

Debbie finally managed to procure a metre of meat: a flame grilled skewer of roasted meat that she had been trying to find since we arrived. The barbecue smelled amazing and the crowd gathered round meant that meat-on-a-stick was a popular choice.

However, there was no doubt in my mind what I wanted. It might be my last chance after all.

By the end of lunch, we had scaled the lofty heights of Peak Christmas. 

And also Peak potato. I love kartoffel. 

We finished with a free sample of cinnamon biscuits, freshly warmed from the microwave (which I assume is how they are traditionally made) and we had some gluhwein. Just in order to keep our fingers warm, obvs.

We trailed back around the cathedral, happy, Christmassy and full to the brim and then some of the festive spirit. It had been a wonderful weekend and we rode the trains back to London peacefully, nibbling our purchases, reminiscing about our favourite moments, catching 40 winks, talking away...and of course, planning a future Christmas getaway.

I absolutely loved taking Christmas photos in Cologne. It was magical, and I wish I'd managed to capture even more of how it felt. I’m also very excited to be heading off to Luxembourg later this month for another Christmas market jaunt with Debbie.  Given that our first trip out was such a roaring success, it seemed daft not to repeat the experience.

Oh, and we’ve recruited three more Guide leaders to come with us. It looks set to be a lovely trip!

Kisses xxx

P.S. This post is part of a series I'm writing throughout December in response to Shimelle's scrapbooking class, Journal Your Christmas. By blogging each day, I hope to savour each and every lovely moment of the most wonderful time of the year, and have some great memories to look back on.

PPS Are there any Christmas markets in Europe you would recommend?

Thursday, 7 December 2017

7th December: My First Christmas Cake

One of the things I love about the festive season is the food! Everything seems to smell delicious; it's as if the scent of cinnamon is permanently in the air. Despite this though, I have actually made many of the more traditional Christmas bakes, and that includes Christmas cake. 

I'll be honest; Christmas cake isn't my favourite thing in the world. I don't dislike it, but I prefer a mince pie, or some rocky road, or a big helping of pudding with custard. But I wanted to take a stab at Christmas cake anyway, and my Dad really likes it, so I figured it wouldn't go to waste. Plus I love marzipan so it was also a good excuse to make a cake with an extra chunky marzipan layer.

I opted for Nigella's recipe (because I love her) but I made a couple of substitutions, such as adding some chopped nuts into the fruit. One November evening after work found me wandering the food aisles of local supermarkets looking for ingredients and then staggering home under the sheer weight of dried fruit. Seriously, the stuff weighed a ton!

The first step involved mixing all my dried fruit together, applying a liberal quantity of booze and then some, and leaving it all to soak overnight. Again, I made a substitution and used spiced rum for my booze. Partly because I like it better than brandy, and partly because I already had some in the cupboard, and the quantity of dried fruit alone was eating into my food budget.

It did smell good though: glistening boozy fruit all together in a bowl. 

Fast forward to the weekend and it was time to mix the cake. This turned out to be almost an anticlimax.  It was easy and straightforward; I sort of thought that Christmas cake would involve more faff and fanfire.  It turns out it's more an exercise in heavy lifting (yep, still weighs a ton) and building polished guns for all the stirring.

After getting hopelessly confused by the pages and pages of conflicting advice on the internet as regards lining the tin, I gave it up in frustration, did whatever I fancied and baked the cake.  I was pretty happy with the result.

Although having said I was happy, how would I know? I don't think I've ever made a cake before that you have to wait six weeks before trying it to see if it tastes any good. So I hoped for the best, fed it some more rum for good measure and wrapped it up carefully. Again, everyone on the internet had a different opinion about how to do this, all of them swearing blind that if you don't do it their way, your cake will fail and you will let down every single one of your nearest and dearest and you won't be allowed to have Christmas again. Helpful.

I ignored them all, and put my wrapped cake in a storage container because I didn't have any tins or tupperware big enough. And the cake lived with me in the living room quite happily with a good view of the TV. Not enough space to keep it on the kitchen counter, plus I think it enjoyed watching the Christmas movies in its quietly sozzled state as I fed it rum at regular intervals.

Not a bad life for a cake.

All that remained was to do the icing.  I wasn't prepared to make my own icing, but I invested in industrial quantities of marzipan and roll-out icing from my friendly neighbourhood massive corporate supermarket. I had thought it might be fiddly and I'd make a mess, but both marzipan and icing proved easy to work with.  I used some warmed-up, slightly diluted marmalade as glue (or whatever you're supposed to call the sticky layer in cake decorating - glue sounds unappetizing) and cheerfully slapped my marzipan on, trimming off the ends and scoffing them. 

After a while I felt that I probably shouldn't eat that much leftover marzipan in one go so I saved the rest for breakfast the next day.

With the icing, I had no desire to eat the leftovers, but I did manage to roll out a nice, even sheet of the stuff and it moulded round the cake very effectively.  I was a lot more forgiving than I thought it would be, and it was the work of mere moment to smooth out the wrinkles and plaster them down. I learned that a quick polish could make the icing shiny and weirdly, it totally worked.  I've never polished a cake before but it did end up with an almost glowing sheen. Sweet!

And, having made my cake... I promptly gave it away to to anyone who would eat it, and we all lived happily ever after, the end. Except the cake, which did survive for a good number of weeks before it was ultimately consumed.

Kisses xxx

P.S. This post is part of a series I'm writing throughout December in response to Shimelle's scrapbooking class, Journal Your Christmas. By blogging each day, I hope to savour each and every lovely moment of the most wonderful time of the year, and have some great memories to look back on.