Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Garden of England

Last Summer, faced with the "what do I buy the man who has everything?" predicament in the run up to Mr HenHouse's birthday, I was pleased to discover a feature in good old Country Living mag about "Rent-a-Cherry Tree".  Mr HenHouse you see, as a boy born and bred in the garden of England, is a veritable cherry fiend, so what better than to hand over a few  notes and rent him a cherry tree so that he could gather his own bounty!  So, that is just what I did and in July last year, we picked pound after pound of the most delicious dark red/black cherries.  Oh yum, my mouth is watering at the thought of it.  Now, just some cherry jam remains as a memory.

I was first in the metaphorical queue, then, when the opportunity came to rent the same tree again this year.  Saturday saw the annual "blossom weekend" at the cherry farm (we missed this last year as we rented the tree after the blossom had, well, blossomed.)  How lucky we were that the rain stayed away and off we set in the trusty motor car, destination Northiam in Kent.  The countryside really is looking beautiful now.  We were only away on holiday for a couple of weeks but at this time of the year, the difference in nature is always very apparent when we return.

The cherry farm enjoys a very bucolic setting, all ramshackle barns, twisted old trees and grass that brushes your calves as you walk in it.

We set off in search of our tree.  Ah, here it is, row 13, the variety of cherry being "Colney".

Ah, what beauty. I'll let the photos speak for themselves...

Fellow cherry tree renters were making merry in the fields.  The hog roast smelled very tempting, shame they ran out of bread rolls!  I was more than happy with the local brew.

To top off the day for the boys, Northiam just happens to have an old steam railway (The Kent and East Sussex Railway). Well, we could hardly not drop in...

It's a beautifully picturesque setting and very well preserved.  It was once a very busy line, in the days when Kent was full of hop fields, bringing the hop pickers to work.

I wouldn't mind having that view whilst waiting for my train!

Further up the line, is the lovely town of Tenterden.  Now, I'm always up for a trip here as there are some rather nice shops (and tea shops too).  This station is so well kept.  I think this looks like a page in one of the Munchkin's (many many) railway books...

All around there was beauty in nature, too.  

Ah, this time of year makes me feel so very lucky to live in this wonderful country of England.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Holiday Happiness and Holiday Happenings

Hello again bloggers, lurkers, readers; well, let's just say, hello again, friends.  Yesterday was a bit of a washout here at the HenHouse, having stepped off the plane at 5:15am with very little sleep and also losing the 5 hours which represents the current time difference between Antigua and England.  Mr HenHouse somehow managed a day at work, the Munchkin a day at school and I managed errm, very little!  (Well, I did read Country Living mag, does that count?) Add to this that the broadband service was down so I couldn't even blog, the cable tv was down so we couldn't catch up with the Apprentice, and it was a relief to fall into bed last night! 

We had a marvellous time in Antigua, I'm pleased to be able to report.  The weather was on the whole fantastic, about 29 degrees with a good breeze, oodles of sun and very little rain, still about 24 degrees at night.  Of course, when we did see a bit of rain, it was Caribbean-style, that's to say a mega downpour for ten minutes before reverting back to glorious sunshine!  Yes, there are quite good tans being sported in the HenHouse, though not so much by the Munchkin who was slathered in high factor lotion most of the time (and which alarmingly, was blue!)  The resort was great, far too much good food, few outings (just too hard to drag oneself away from that beach), quite a lot of rum punch and pina coladas, steel bands and so on.  Yes, a perfect cocktail.

Hope you'll indulge me in some full-on photos of the beach. Ah, sigh...

I thought you might like to see a few photos of our trip?  I've put together some mosaics to compact them a bit which I hope you'll enjoy.

Antigua is quite dry and sparse as far as Caribbean islands go, nowhere near as lush at St Lucia, for example but it does manage some pretty and exotic flowers.  These were growing just in the hotel's grounds.  

You don't see these growing back home!

These were right by the swimming pool and tasted marvellous. It makes you realise how tasteless and under-ripe the bananas are we can buy back at home. It's great to be able to show a child where bananas grow and let them eat one, straight from the tree! Sadly, although the mango trees were laden with fruit, they were not yet ripe as the mango season proper is a few months off.  We did see some pineapples, which in Antigua are called the "black pineapple" and which they claim to be the sweetest pineapple in the world (of course). Unfortunately, we didn't get to eat any.  We did see, and indeed eat, plenty of melon on our holiday.  Please please, no more melon for a very long time!

Its fair to say that the Munchkin had a marvellous time. He was much more active this holiday, being a year older (make that "too active" sometimes!)  The children's club, however, was also great and it being the Easter holidays, there were plenty of children around so we managed a good bit of peace and quiet whilst they were entertained for us!

There's not an awful lot in the way of sightseeing to be done on Antigua, not like Barbados, for example, but we did manage a few trips out. We couldn't miss the English Harbour and Nelson's Dockyard. The name will have told you that this is the ex-Naval dockyard where the Brits used to maintain their ships, indeed the dockyard meant they were able to keep a naval presence in the Caribbean all of the time. The dockyard dates from the 1740s and is still a harbour to many yachts today. 

Antigua is a mecca for yachters, indeed next week is the official Antigua Sailing Week and there was already evidence of many yachts having arrived ready to compete in the races and a fair few yachty crews were spotted in bars and restaurants. 

Sunday late afternoon and evening, sees the highest point on Antigua, "Shirley Heights", putting on a great party, definitely the place to be.  There is a fabulous view down over the harbour not to mention a brilliant steel band, a yummy bbq and usually, an opportunity to see a wonderful sunset.  Sadly, it was quite cloudy the day that we went so we made the most of the band and the booze!

The Munchkin just couldn't keep those little feet still!

Another trip was made, off roading in a zebra-striped jeep followed by a spot of kayaking and finally ending at a dreamy uninhabited island, "Bird Island", for the obligatory lunch, rum punch and swimming in the crystal-clear waters.

It was just perfect to have some time to relax.  A spot of crochet was indeed done (didn't try to take my stuff in the cabin on the way but managed to get a metal crochet hook, needle and scissors onto the plane on the way back!)  Mr HenHouse and I realised just how hectic the pace of life is back at home. Inevitably, all too quickly, it was time to say so long, Antigua...

Its exciting to be back home, though! We missed our three furry boys very much (although we did find some in Antigua but they were not very friendly!) and I managed the odd sneak at some blogs via my 'phone but I have lots of catching up to which I can look forward. Everything has changed so much in the few short weeks we've been away. The garden looks like a very unmanageable jungle! Most of my seeds have germinated and we're looking forward to making some progress outside.  Of course, there'll need to be some progress inside too, in particular in my den!  I'll be hoping to share that with you, so please, come back soon...

Thursday, 9 April 2009

A Final Round-Up

Well, what a busy few weeks it has been.  Of course, the Munchkin finished school for the Easter holidays on Friday so amongst all the other things needing to be done, child entertainment has been high on the list.  Tuesday found us here...

It was a great day out (if very tiring, there's a lot of ground to cover).  The Munchkin really enjoyed the new "Animal Adventure" zone, which he tells me was "designed by children for children" with lots of interactive fun.  His absolute favourite thing was the meerkat enclosure.  The children could crawl through little tunnels until they popped up in this little perspex "bubble" right in the middle of the meerkat enclosure.  The meerkats scampered right up to the bubble.

There were beautiful flamingoes...

There were some lovely llamas...

Hen's favourite was this cute little red panda.  Oooh, how I would have loved to bring him home for a cuddle!

Or maybe the tigers were my favourite?

I am in two minds about zoos really.  A part of me really enjoys seeing the animals but another part of me thinks it's a bit of an unnatural environment.  There's no doubt it is a wonderful experience for children, clear unmasked delight on their faces when they see the animals for real rather than just in books.  The Munchkin is now having a severe love affair with meerkats and has spent an hour or so this afternoon enjoying "Meerkat Manor" on the 'net.

Meanwhile, I've been doing some sewing in preparation for our hols; perhaps I'll be one of the best dressed women in the Caribbean?!  In addition to my little dress, I've made a few skirts with some lovely "Good Folks" fabric designed by Anna Maria Horner which whizzed its way from America just in time.

My usual "makes", particularly in preparation for the Vintage & Handmade Fair (looming closer by the day), are in varying states.  Some finished...

Some not so finished!

One major job for our last day at home tomorrow is to sort out which craft materials to take with me.  I have to have something to occupy my hands, other than holding the rum punch, that is!  I did pick up some rather nice Rowan cashmerino yarn in Liberty in really delicious colours so I think that'll be making it into the luggage.  I'm getting quite a stash to choose from (this is but part of it!)

Before I forget, I have been meaning to ask whether anyone knows if I can take my crochet hook on the plane (in the cabin, I mean)?  Our current thinking is probably not.  Hmm, not chuffed about that!

What else have I to tell you, oh yes, I must show you my recent vintage finds.  These have accrued over a few weeks; some from the West Country, some from nearer to London.  There's a mixture of gorgeous textiles, pretty china and glassware, fabulous books...

Really really loving the cover of this book...

So, onto more child entertainment today, with an Easter theme.  I'm sure this sort of thing is going on in many households up and down the country, even across the world.

Stir the chocolate and syrup.  Very excited about that, oh yes indeedy.

Mix in the rice crispies...

Put the mixture into the cases.  It's a serious job this...

Leave the faffy, pretty decorating bit to mummy!

The Munchkin took part in the traditional Easter bonnet parade at school on his last day before the holidays.  Mummy had the idea of re-using the hat made two years ago in Reception class. Silly mummy!  Not only has the Munchkin's head grown significantly but the drawings are apparently "soooo babyish" now. Well, I like them (oops)...

The mantelpiece has been sporting some Easter decorations for a few weeks now.  In fact, they are not really looking their best as yesterday, there was the inevitable child/decoration accident/incident which saw the whole lot on the floor (which Jacky-Ginge then proceeded to make a den in).  The choccy egg supply has severely dwindled.  Hasn't it, Mr HenHouse?

Today, the Munchkin and I have enjoyed setting up our final Easter display which we shall enjoy tomorrow amidst the usual last minute holiday packing chaos!  I was surprised to find so many lovely flowers in the garden.

I hope you all have a wonderful Easter, whether at home or away, and I look forward to catching up with you all when I get back.  See you at the end of April.

Hen x

Monday, 6 April 2009

Cooking with J-C

Saturday was a special and unusual day.  For my birthday last November, Mr HenHouse presented me with a voucher to attend a "Tasting and Demonstration Day" with none other than the French chef, Jean-Christophe Novelli.  I had met Jean-Christophe at a book signing he was doing in John Lewis on Oxford Street a while earlier so I was looking forward to this day (and particularly that devastating French accent!)

J-C (I'm not trying to pretend we are bosom buddies, it's just easier to type!) lives on a farm in Hertfordshire which is not only his home but the base of the Novelli Academy, where I presented myself on Saturday morning.  The farm is in the countryside but only a 5 minute drive from Luton Airport so was quite handy to get to by my private jet. (Ha ha! Make that "by rail".) There is a lovely courtyard area in the front and a great patio area with a yurt, chiminea, bbq, fountain and goodness knows what else.

The "Academy" is through this barn door...

It is dominated by the most massive Lacanche range cooker in a very subtle shade of canary!

To each side, were two sets of granite topped bars with stools where we 16 "pupils" sat, except we actually stood for virtually the full day. My feet still haven't recovered! It is fair to say that Novelli is obsessed with food and cooking. He whizzed from one dish to the next, never measuring anything, flinging the ingredients in, bashing garlic, banging pans and so on. His passion for his craft was completely evident and it's fair to say he was very inspiring.

We were given a copy of the menu for that day but warned that he was likely to veer off and do all sorts of other things as he fancied and we weren't given copies of the recipes as he apparently changes them as he goes along.  (We are going to receive them by email apparently.)

True to form, we started off with bread which doesn't seem to be on the menu!  He showed us how to test the feel of the dough and add more water to ensure a crisp crust but airy centre and then demonstrated making various shapes: baguettes, rolls, croissants and cute little loaves cooked in terracotta pots, adding various herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, fruits, tomato sauce and so on.

He whizzed on through each dish whilst we students started to wilt a bit, standing on that unforgiving flagstone floor and being surrounded by the sight and smell of amazing foods...but not actually eating anything.  1pm came; no lunch.  2pm came; no lunch. 3pm came; no lunch. Getting the picture?  Every time J-C offered to let us taste anything, we fell on it greedily.  It's fair to say we completely demolished the chicken fricasee with chocolate!

We moved on through braised organic belly pork, pommes daupinoise, pommes boulangere, spinach, mushrooms, making caramel, tarte tatin, spiced berries, soup, mussels in thai sauce.  Phew!  Finally, we sat down to eat - at quarter to five!  J-C is apparently legendary for over-running on these courses.  We were meant to have finished the whole course at 5pm.  I don't think anyone minded in the least finishing late but we were damned starving by then!

The delicious pea soup with pancetta...

The Thai mussels...

The divine belly pork cooked with cider, honey and spices...

This was in the oven for four hours whilst we were watching J-C cooking all sorts of other stuff. The aroma was amazing but given that we were starving, it was abject torture!

The tarte tatin which went from this... this...

Oh yum!  There was also a chocolate pot dessert but I didn't photograph that because I was too eager to eat it!

Finally, J-C showed off a bit with some amazing caramel creations.  Here he is winding the liquid caramel round a sharpening steel to make a decorative spiral.  

He then used a ladle to make the sugar cage (served with vanilla bean ice cream and spiced berries flamed with kirsch).

So, it was an amazing day.  I would have to criticise the fact that we were expected to stand all day and that we didn't eat until so late but other than that, it was brilliant.  And was he inspiring?  Well, last night we had some mushrooms cooked a la J-C with our steak, this morning I've made bread dough which is rising downstairs as I type and I also marinaded the chicken last night ready to make the fricasee today!  He is a lovely guy, very genial and down to earth, happy to have as many photos taken as you wanted and full of energy!