Saturday, 9 November 2019

Seafood. And Steak.




One of the delights of popping across the channel, be it to St Malo - the location of our most recent jaunt - or elsewhere in France, is to sample the food. The French are famous for many things, but I'd argue that their food is top of the list. Any decent blogger worth their salt would produce lengthy reports on the culinary delights they sampled, reviews of the restaurants they visited and rave about the wonders of the French food scene in general.

Alas, I'm not worthy of any salt. Not the table, rock or sea varieties. My palate has the sophistication of a single celled organism. I'm as easily pleased in a hamburger joint as I am in a multi Michelin starred restaurant. This does at least make me a cheap and cheerful dining companion. My scale for rating food stretched from 'absolutely delicious' to 'well, I didn't spit it out'. The latter would, of course, be muttered quietly and even then only to the most trusted of dining companions.

I am ever so British. I could be served a broth scooped from an unflushed toilet, topped with maggots and a sprinkling of dustpan debris and I'd likely still inform an enquiring waiter that 'everything is just fine, thank you'.

The best I can do for you, should you happen to be curious about foodie options in St Malo, is inform you that they are very famous - unsurprisingly for a coastal town - for seafood. Mussels and oysters top the bill apparently. The photo above is of a couple of bags of mussels and a box of oysters (I think), dropped off outside a restaurant early in the morning. Most restaurants seemed to have a sack or two awaiting the arrival of the chef.

When we dined that evening, we were presented with a menu filled with different fish and shellfish options. I, ever the contrarian, ate steak. Which was 'delicious'. Mrs P went for the oysters, seeing as our home town on the northern side of the English channel is even more famous for mussels than St Malo. We like going to a local Loch Fyne restaurant where she can eat unlimited mussels on Tuesday when they are in season. I will eat steak. Or traditional fish and chips if I'm trying to 'fit in'.

Nothing during our short stay came close to 'well, I didn't spit it out'. Prices were reasonable - neither cheap nor expensive. There is a shop that sells butter which is very famous. We brought back a packet of their smoked stuff, which also fits in the 'delicious' category. I rather wish we'd brought back more of the stuff. What else can I say? I think I'm done on the topic.

If I were ever to branch out into the food blogging scene, I do know the niche I'd like to occupy. The title of the blog would be 'Cheese I've Eaten', which tells you pretty much all you need to know. I could live on cheese and bread. I've yet to find a cheese that my taste buds object to. Creamy cheeses, hard cheeses, blue cheeses, smoked cheeses, processed cheeses, mature cheeses, stinky cheeses, stringy cheeses - I like the lot. I've always liked cheeses.

I have fond memories of working on a delicatessen in a posh convenience store in the late 80s/early 90s. No off cuts were wasted. And there were a lot of off cuts. Indeed, if I am going to be absolutely honest with you, dear reader, then I must confess that what I refer to as an off cut would possibly be described as theft by the store owner. But it was all such a long time ago, let's simply describe the whole thing as a matter of semantics.

Still, my single celled palate developed a certain degree of hitherto undiscovered sophistication during my time working for that delicatessen. I discovered many new cheeses there, Roquefort being my favourite. But ultimately, nothing quite beats a real top quality extra mature cave aged cheddar. It's such a versatile cheese too. You can slice it up for a sandwich with some Branston pickle. You can melt it for the perfect Welsh Rarebit. Or just chop a big chunk off to go with a Cheese Ploughmans.

I don't think we actually ate any cheese in St Malo. The French are currently engaged in a national sulk having done so poorly in the World Cheese Awards. Perhaps the nations stocks of cheese have been removed from public view until the shame has passed. The awards are not to be taken too seriously though. An American cheese won, after all. The best thing I can say about US cheeses is that they're not Mexican cheeses. But when all is said and done, once all the insults in the world have been offered and received, after tempers have cooled - there's still not a cheese in that list - or any list - that I don't like
Read More

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Neighbours Part Two



Our neighbours are moving out, exactly one year after they moved in. Apparently, the landlord is intending to sell the flat. But that's what we heard last time when the previous occupants moved out. Who knows. We'll find out soon. This isn't the first time I've mentioned the neighbours. I previously wrote about their unholy rows and the possibility of domestic violence. However, since I published that post, I don't think we've heard a single argument of note. Although two months ago somebody pinned up a poster on the communal noticeboard, titled 'Are you afraid of your partner?', with instructions on what to do if your answer is 'yes'. Perhaps someone else heard them screaming when we were out, and took indirect action. I do not know. I do know that I use it to jokingly threaten Mrs P if she carries on as she sometimes does. 

This isn't to say that they haven't caused any disturbances since. One afternoon in the summer, on a hot day when every window in the block was open to let fresh air in, they decided to have sex. Loud sex. We are talking the sort of noise levels that you would associate with a 70s German porn movie. Or so I've been told. Mrs P was mortified. I found it hilarious. I didn't ask the other tenants in the block what they thought. 

And then there's the cigarette inspired coughing fits that the gentleman treats us to. They aren't ordinary coughing fits. They are the deathly choking fits I'd associate with emphysema. He can't be much older than me. It's been going on a long time, but I'll bet he hasn't had it checked out. He won't, not till it's too late. He's that sort of bloke. Which isn't an insult. I reckon most of us are that sort of a bloke. 

As I sit here typing, there's a professional cleaning company inside the flat working their magic with noisy machinery and clever cleaning potions. I suspect they've got their work cut out. The ceiling will almost certainly need to be repainted to cover up the nicotine stains, although they will probably leave it to the next occupants. And once they're done and gone, we'll soon start to see people coming to view the apartment. Whether as tenants or owners, we'll have to wait to see. Will the next people be an improvement or neighbours from hell? We'll have to wait and see on that too.
Read More

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The Automotive Upgrade



Nearly five years ago, I passed my driving test. A month later, Mrs P and I went to buy our first car in the UK, from a dealer in east London. It was a four year old, low mileage red Mazda 3, and it served us very well. Reliable, easy to drive, comfortable and generally cheap to run. Nothing ever went wrong with it, beyond your normal wear and tear issues. And rust. Chronic, terminal rust. It is, I have since learned, a common problem with Mazda 3's from around that time and a problem that became noticeable on our motor about a year ago. It scraped through the last MOT. It would have needed substantial welding and other work to get it through the next one in April. That's expense that I'm not willing to invest in a twelve year old car. It was a shame, because were it not for that, I'd have kept it for a few years more.

I'd been looking at used cars since last April. The budget? I don't like taking on debt, but the choice was between borrowing big or bagging a banger. I didn't want a banger. So perhaps somewhere between £10,000 and £12,000. The car? Something reliable, easy to drive and comfortable. More of the same, really. Ideally about three years old, with less than 30,000 miles on the clock. Apple CarPlay would be a plus. But then something caught my eye. And I started looking at new cars. And doing the maths. It's always important to do the maths.

If you look hard and haggle harder, new car deals can start to look attractive. Even with the heavy depreciation. I used Carwow to gauge what sort of deal I could get. I became quite addicted to the process of choosing a car, specifying the extras and waiting for the offers to come in. I must have done hundreds, including cars I had no intention of buying. I didn't buy through Carwow, though. I bought from our local Mazda dealer. Because we really wanted another Mazda. But I used my best Carwow quotes to get a price match.

The maths told me that ultimately I would be paying more for a new car. Of course I would, or what state would the used car market be in? But not so extravagantly more, once I'd added in the extra costs of MOTing and maintenance. It's also a less risky purchase, with the chances of buying a dog of a car eliminated. And then there's the pleasure of having a brand new car. The smell of a new car.

So I'd like to introduce the new member of our family. It's a Mazda 2 Sport Nav+ in Mica Crimson. It's a smaller car, but more than big enough for our purposes. It's very economical. It's extremely easy to drive. It's comfortable. It comes with Apple CarPlay. It's pretty much what we wanted. We're happy. And the maths worked out for us. In case you're wondering, the cost of buying new worked out to be between £50 and £60 a month more than buying a £12,000 used car based on my estimations. 
Read More

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

St Malo



Would you like me just for once to write a positive Brexit story? Well, I shall then. In June, Mrs P and I paid a quick visit to Malta on a Brexit-busting getaway, days before the UK was due to leave the EU. The grand departure from the union did not, of course, happen. It was postponed until the end of October. So we plotted another last minute Brexit-busting getaway to the EU. This time aboard the Bretagne, a Brittany ferry that crosses from Portsmouth to St Malo in France. It's a large ferry with plenty to do, see and buy on board. Although we'd highly recommend bringing your own food for lunch or dinner. The restaurants are neither cheap nor likely to feature in a Michelin guide.

We returned only to discover, much to our surprise*, that once again the UK's departure from the EU would be postponed. This time until, potentially, the end of January. We will need to plot another Brexit-busting trip before then. Although, as this extension is actually a flextension, the UK could actually leave earlier. Or we might not leave at all. Who really knows? If you ask about, everyone on both sides has a firm opinion, but I'd suggest you take them all with a generous pinch of salt. 



We shall plot another trip nonetheless. Although we will probably pick a different mode of transport. The English Channel can get rather rough in winter. It was rather rough on our way over to St Malo in October. However, as it was a night time crossing and we had a cabin with beds to lie down on, we survived without needing to make use of the seasickness bags provided to passengers. We did not get a wink of sleep though. It's not just the motion that keeps one awake. It's the constant, loud creaking and banging of the ship that really keeps you awake.

St Malo is a very pleasant little town. Full of history, cobbled streets, wonderful seafood restaurants, a picturesque beach and a stunning cathedral that sadly closed half an hour before we turned up to have a look inside. And there was also a four man troop of soldiers, armed with very smart looking assault rifles, on constant patrol. Mrs P found their presence to be disconcerting. I found them reassuring. Having watched the very moving Netflix documentary on the Bataclan attack, we both understood why they are considered necessary. I highly recommend watching the series.



Is there an actual purpose, a real benefit, for us Brits taking these Brexit-busting holidays before the UK leaves the EU? Not really. There will be changes. For example, we'll no longer have access to free health care. But then we have worldwide travel insurance anyway. But as the UK is not part of the Schengen area, passport control will not change. It might be more awkward to travel with pets. But duty free shopping with cheap booze and fags will return.

Our Brexit-busting holidays are entirely symbolic, travelling when we are still part of the EU family. Seeing the sights before we become outsiders. Foreigners. Immigrants. So there is our personal positive Brexit story. We're getting multiple holidays out of the fiasco. While we can. Vive le EU!






Read More

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Seasons

 

Summer is over for another year.  It is as far as I'm concerned anyway. Different people in different places have different methods to determine when seasons begin and end. I like simplicity. December, January and February constitute winter. March, April and May make up spring. June, July and August are the summer months. September, October and November are reserved for autumn. In Mexico I used different seasonal standards. There was dry season, rainy season and Jacaranda season.

Summer and autumn are my favourite seasons. I like the first month of winter too, thanks to the Christmas lights and festive atmosphere. From January onwards, life is just bleak. Rural landscapes are grey and lifeless. Towns and cities are grey and wet. But the New Forest, just a few minutes drive from home, offers some respite from the misery of winter. It's a pine tree dominated part of the UK. If the skies are blue and you can overlook the brown mass of dead ferns and ignore the cold, then you can pretend it's summer for a while.

The photo was taken just a week or so ago, at the beginning of October. October is the month when our central heating system springs back to life and our summer duvet is swapped out for our thick winter duvet. Mrs P and I are not fond of the cold. At all. We have it on higher than most households. And we get choosy about who we visit in winter and for how long. Most households feel like caves to us. We are not fond of cave-like temperatures. At all.
Read More

Monday, 8 July 2019

A Shrinking World



I have been plotting our 2020 trips for several months. Next year, all being well, we will have two long haul vacations.  Mexico City next summer will be one of them. The other? I have been looking at a map of the world to have a looky-see, hoping for inspiration. Yet the options are diminishing every year. A few dozen countries are now categorised 'Been There, Done That', although a repeat trip to Sri Lanka one day is not off the cards. It's a fabulous place and I'm sure Mrs P would love it.

An increasing number of countries are a little bit too 'Head Choppy Offy' or just plain too confrontational for my liking. Which is a shame. I'd love to see Libya and Iran. A growing number of places just have too many people and too much pollution. Mumbai is an absolute non-starter. In fact, that applies to much of India. And, for next year at least, a trip to South America is not on the cards. It's an expensive trek, one that will have to wait for a year when we do just the one long haul holiday. 

I have been considering Uzbekistan, and possibly Kazakhstan. They are both opening up to the idea of tourism. But ultimately, our second long haul trip this year will be defined by cost and ease. So China and Cambodia it is. It is possible to nab a multi stop ticket from London to Beijing (two or three night stop over), on to Cambodia and then back to London for little over £400. That sounds like a winner. Not least because I'd like to see the Forbidden City and a bit of the Great Wall, but have never been inclined to spend a fortune in time and money on a Chinese visa. Which won't be a problem with this trip. So I think we may well have a winner...

Read More

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Guernsey



I have a range of options to choose from when looking to flee the country. The two most common departure points are Heathrow and Gatwick airports. At about 2 hours and 3 hours respectively, they don't make for a quick getaway, but they do provide the widest choices of destination, particularly if one is looking to  go to far flung shores. Stansted and Luton airports are a good four hours away, but as the likes of RyanAir and EasyJet use them, they are good for ultra cheap fares. I've made use of all these options more than once.

The most local airport is Bournemouth International which offers some cracking fares courtesy of RyanAir, to some pretty decent places. Malaga, Krakow, Prague, Dublin and Malta to name but a few. Indeed, I could continue to reel off some desirable European destinations. But it's a small airport, so if I did continue, I wouldn't add an awful many more words to this paragraph. We've used Bournemouth airport plenty though.



But living on the coast means there's more than one way to leave the UK behind. Docks at Southampton provide the escape route for the cruise liner set. Portsmouth is the place to go for most cross channel ferries. But Poole also has a port, just a fifteen minute drive from home. A giant ferry transports cars and passengers to Cherbourg in France. Condor Ferries operate a high speed trimaran between Poole and the Channel Islands.

Mrs P and I have used the ferry to Cherbourg. But I had refrained from jumping aboard Condor's Liberation. It might be new. It might be quick. But it also has a terrible reputation for emptying the stomachs of its passengers when crossing on waters that are anything other than dead calm. I've been sea sick before, on a small fishing boat nine miles into the English Channel. It's a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Not something one would want to repeat.



But a half price offer is hard to refuse. So, with a certain degree of trepidation, I bought a pair of day return tickets for the pair of us. And prayed to a god I don't believe in to provide us with seas that resembled a mirror. The non-existant god obliged, bless him. Very pleasant sailing conditions. Almost as good as they get. But regardless, we both felt a little bit queasy on the way over. Less so on the way back. Perhaps our stomachs were too full and too tired to be queasy.

Guernsey is a small, quaint little island. And much like the Channel Islands currency, it is immediately identifiable as British, and yet not British. One feels a little like Alice as one wanders through the streets of St Peters Port, as things become curiouser and curiouser. I was convinced I'd turn a corner and be greeted by a grinning Cheshire cat. Not that Lewis Carroll spent any time in Guernsey as far as I know. The most famous author to have spent time here was the French writer, Victor Hugo, who penned Les Miserables during his stay.



As with most of these sea faring day trips, one spends more time aboard than abroad. The ferry whisked us there in little more than three hours, but that totals six hours bobbing on the waves, and a paltry three hours walking and dining. Should you ever make it there yourself, I can recommend Le Nautique. It's a conveniently located restaurant, with reasonably priced two and three course lunch deals and excellent service.

Will we ever return? Never say never. But probably not. I'm still a cautious sea traveller and don't want to push my luck too far.

Read More