Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Lincolnshire Food & Gift Fair 2015

It's usually around the last few days of November that I surrender to the season and allow myself to start getting excited about Christmas

Perfect timing then, for the Lincolnshire Food & Gift Fair at the Lincolnshire Showground. A gathering of local chefs and producers, all vying to show off their festive treats. For my sister in law and me, a chance to pick up a few gift ideas and eat and drink until we almost passed out

We arrived on Sunday morning, a little later than planned at about 11am and the Showground was already heaving with excited shoppers and foodies. Having skipped breakfast to leave plenty of room for sampling the delicious local fare, we kept our eyes peeled for food as we made our way down the first aisle of stalls 

I have to be honest, at any of these county events I am always most excited about the food. Lincolnshire produce is so varied but invariably delicious! And judging by the crowd around the Uncle Henry's stall I'm not alone! Honestly, it was six deep, I couldn't even get a photo! Luckily my sister in law managed to elbow her way to the front at one end and with me at the other we managed to pass each other many morsels of sausages before eventually plumping for a pack of the caramelised onion. Just SO DAMN GOOD!

Sadly, due to my chronic ill timing, we managed to miss all the cooking demonstrations but I will definitely make sure I catch one next year. We had a chat with The Lincolnshire Chef as we saw him popping a delicious looking pie into the oven and pinched some recipe cards off him to try at home

Despite being completely overwhelmed by the choice of food on offer, we managed to settle on delicious spicy Moroccan lamb served with a zingy salad, pitta bread, minty yoghurt and chilli sauce. Probably the most expensive lunch available on site but oh so worth the queue! I managed to get the sneakiest of sneaky pics ...

We followed it up with pears poached in mulled wine and topped with gingerbread crumble, served with a generous helping of vanilla custard

By the time we'd devoured this feast we were almost too rotund to make it out of the doors but we managed to leave and make our way home, full and sleepy! We'd planned to stop at Waitrose on the way home for shopping but we were both so full that the thought of any more food just made us groan!

If you like to mix your festive shopping with a glut of excellent local grub then I highly recommend you plan a visit to the Lincolnshire Food & Gift Fair next year. The quality of stalls is superb, there are demonstrations, food tasting - did I mention the food?? Parking is free and very well managed and the facilities are excellent. All in all it is a fun day out and perfect for getting you in the mood for Christmas

Thank you to the Marketing team at the Lincolnshire Showground for the complimentary tickets. No payment was received for this feature and all opinions are my own

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Break Up Post

I've been a little absent from this blog lately but with good reason. Sadly, Matt and I parted ways in August.

I'm not going to go into the whys and wherefores here on the internet but I can't let it pass without mention because this blog is quite a personal one and it's going to be a bit different from now on. For one thing, I've moved house and I didn't want to have to field any awkward questions like 'where's your lovely kitchen gone??'

It's an incredibly emotional time and I feel like I'm grieving to be honest - grieving for the life that I'd planned out for my family and for all the things that might have been. I have no doubt that leaving was the right thing to do but knowing that doesn't make it any easier just now, unfortunately.

I've been hiding from the world for a bit. The rest of my life looks so uncertain and too overwhelming to contemplate. And I don't mind admitting that I get frightened sometimes. This isn't the end of a chapter so much as the beginning of a whole new book.

And while I have worries - so many worries - about our future, I know that if I just focus on being the best mother I can be to Forrest then I won't let him down.

And that's all I care about really.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Living With An Aga Part 2 - How Do I Cook On It?

Apologies for the terrible photo but I feel it's only what you have come to expect

This is the second part of my 'Living With An Aga' posts - you can find Part 1 here 

What do I need to know before I start?

You need to know what all the ovens and hotplates are called and how hot they are (see Part 1)

You also need to know that when referring to an Aga oven, the runners down either side are numbered 1-4, starting at the top. So the top set of runners is the first, the bottom set is the fourth. It's also handy to remember that Agas are vented outside so you don't always get cooking smells from them. Which is great if you hate cooking smells (as I do) but not so great if you are forgetful. You're unlikely to forget that your dinner's is in there if you're waiting hungrily to eat it but if you batch cook or bake ahead then it's easy to forget when there's no delicious smell pervading the room. Some people use timers (Aga sell a 4 timer one) but I just put a post-it note on the oven door so I notice it when I walk past.
DON'T ever put a pan (or anything else) on the beautiful, shiny enamel lids - they will get scratched and you will never get over it. Use a chef's pad to protect them or just avoid like the plague.

Aga Cooking Principles

The 80:20 rule
80% of Aga cooking is done in the ovens, rather than on the hotplates. While the hotplate lids are open the Aga is losing heat, so the idea is to start cooking on the hotplates, then transfer to the ovens. Which brings me nicely to ...

The 'Start and Transfer' Principle
As above, lots of food is started on the hotplates and transferred to the oven to continue cooking. So for example, when you're making a casserole you bring the whole lot to the boil on the Boiling Plate then pop a lid on and bung it in the Simmering Oven for a few hours. Job done.

The 'Partially Offset' Principle
Because you only have two hotplates and you can't adjust the temperature, what do you do if the plate you are using is too hot? You partially offset the pan. Aga pans all have completely flat bottoms, to maximise contact with the hotplate. So if you slide half of the pan off the hotplate, the heat is still spread across the whole bottom of the pan but is less fierce. This also means that you can use one hotplate for up to three pans at a time.

The Shielding Principle
Mostly applicable if you have a smaller Aga and therefore less choice of ovens, you can use the Cold Plain Shelf to shield the food from heat and avoid burning it. For example, you're cooking a chilled lasagne in the Roasting Oven and it's browned on the top but not heated through. Simply put the Cold Plain shelf on the runners above it to shield it from the heat coming from above. If you have a four oven Aga you would simply move it to the Baking Oven but if you have a two oven model then you don't have that option. It's worth mentioning that the Cold Plain Shelf should be kept cold, somewhere away from the Aga. Leaving it in the oven all the time means it won't be cold and defeats the object.

I suppose it's true that Aga cooking is a completely new way of cooking because you don't set the heat, you find the heat. It's a bit more instinctive, less precise and you have to think a bit harder if you're following a non-Aga recipe. For example, if a recipe states that you need to begin by softening onions then I do this by warming the oil on the Simmering Plate, adding the onions, stirring for a minute then popping a lid on and sticking them in the Simmering Oven for 10 minutes. When making a layered dish such as cottage pie or lasagne, I start the cooking in the Roasting Oven, to bring the dish up to temperature, then transfer it to the Baking Oven. I cook root veg by placing them in cold water and bringing to the boil on the Boiling Plate, boiling hard for a couple of minutes then draining, lidding and plonking in the Simmering Oven to steam for 20-30 minutes. And I make gravy on the floor of the Roasting Oven - I got this tip from Sarah Whitaker and it's changed my Sundays for good. Once you get the hang of the basic principles, cooking on an Aga is really easy, just pop the food in the right place and let the Aga get on with it.

How do I clean it?
You don't really need to clean an Aga - any spills in the ovens are carbonised by the constant heat so can be swept out periodically. An E Cloth can be used to wipe down the enamel surfaces (and chrome lids, buffing dry with a soft cloth or piece of kitchen roll) and take care of any grease. Aga do sell chrome cleaner (for the lids) and enamel cleaner (for everything else) but you should only need these if you get a particularly stubborn mark.

What do I need to get started?
Well, an Aga, obviously. Aside from that, Aga sell an enormous range of products in their shops and on the Aga Cookshop website but they are - without exception - extortionately expensive, so unless you're prepared to remortgage your house do not go out and buy the lot in one go. You don't need it all. Unless you have a limitless budget, in which case have at it, go wild, release the hounds etc.

If you are starting from scratch then the absolute essentials are;

Two grid shelves
Full and half size roasting tins and grill racks - these hang on the oven runners
Bake-O-Glide Cooks Set - pre cut Bake-O-Glide to fit both roasting tins, the Simmering Plate and the Cold Plain Shelf
Aga Toaster - intriguing, tennis racquet shaped implement for making toast on the Boiling Plate
Aga kettle - obviously
Oven thermometer - for the all important first setup. Borrow one if you can.
Aga Gauntlets - to protect your arms when reaching into the depths of the ovens
Aga pans - Aga pans have completely flat bottoms to ensure perfect contact with the hotplates and therefore, fast and even cooking. You can cook without them (after a fashion) but once you've tried one you'll never look back.

On the subject of Aga pans, they are cripplingly expensive, so choose wisely. My most used pan is my most expensive at a whopping £130 but it's worth its weight in gold - I use it nearly every day. It's a ceramic coated cast aluminium casserole with a silicone rimmed lid, so it's non stick and lightweight and suitable for almost anything. Leave the cast iron cookware well alone unless you've arms like a blacksmith, it's unfeasibly heavy and if you already have a bad back it'll be the ruin of you. The stainless steel pans are my second favourite - lightweight and with flat lids so you can actually stack them in the ovens if you're cooking for a crowd. I recommend taking a good long look at what dishes you cook most regularly, starting with a couple of multitasking pans and working your way up. My Aga cookware collection has now almost run over £1000 but there are still some things I have had to be firm about.I DO NOT NEED the rectangular baker, beautiful though it may be.

What else can I use an Aga for?
My Aga spends most nights airing laundry while I sleep and it's great for drying clothes which aren't suitable for the tumble drier in the winter. The rail is handy for hanging towels to dry or shirts on hangers and perfect for my bras delicates (or warming pyjamas in the winter - just saying) And as I've already mentioned, the Warming Oven is great for drying my sheepskin slippers after a wash. The Warming Plate is especially handy - I use it for softening butter or melting chocolate prior to baking and it's great for keeping a cup of tea warm when someone comes to the door. I also use it a lot when cooking a roast dinner to keep items warm or warm plates and dishes, it's the perfect temperature for finishing off flour based sauces too. I often put metal items here to dry before putting them away to prevent rusting - those measuring cups and spoons will never rust again.  And the Baking Oven door is just the right height and temperature for warming cold feet.

Recommended Reading
There are quite a few specialist Aga cooks out there who have written books on Aga cooking. There are also quite a few that I wish I hadn't bothered with. An essential book to get you started is Aga Know How by Richard Maggs - I was intimidated by this rather serious looking tome to begin with but it was invaluable in teaching me the basics. Richard Maggs has also written some little books of Aga tips which are handy, especially the first one. Sarah Whitaker is a brilliant Aga cook and has a simple, no nonsense manner of cooking which translates well to her books. If you get the opportunity to go to one of her demonstrations at an Aga shop you must - they are really enjoyable and there's lots of delicious food to eat at the end.

I'll finish by saying once again that I am no expert but I love my Aga and 18 months in, I feel that I've really got the knack of it now. If you are new to Aga cooking and have a question I'd love to help if I can - just leave a comment below or drop me an email.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Catch Up Post

I fully expected to be sitting here waxing lyrical about my spa day last week, but the universe had other plans. I started vomiting almost as soon as my eyes opened so, sadly, it had to be cancelled. Sad for me, who had woken with the Christmas morning feeling that one gets upon waking on a much anticipated day, but sadder for my poor sister, who lost out on her birthday treat. It will be rebooked ASAP but I'm feeling understandably hacked off at the loss of my first child-free break since about April (as well as still slightly nauseous) 

It's been a while since I did a general life catch up and a lot has happened in the meantime. Obviously we have been on our FIRST FAMILY HOLIDAY (woo hoo!) which I wrote about here and I have to say, the first week back was a major bummer. Forrest was a complete nightmare - having had all of our attention for a full week and precious little in the way of a routine, it was a shock to the system to wake up on the Monday morning and find that life was back to normal. He vented his frustration with tears and tantrums, which wasn't much fun for Mummy, let me assure you. 

The holiday itself was fabulous and just what we needed. It meant a 2.30am start to get us to the airport on time and despite arriving in France at 10am, we were told that we couldn't officially 'move in' to the house until 4pm as it was being cleaned. But we took a chance, had a delicious lunch in Issegeac and arrived early anyway and by 2.30pm we were near-comatose by the pool

We're not the most sociable couple in the world, we love being at home with Forrest asleep upstairs and prefer to keep ourselves to ourselves rather than be around people, given a choice. So renting a private house was perfect for us - we got to do what we liked, when we liked and within our little family unit. The house was in a rural area and was old and full of character, as well as having its own pool and a huge garden with a stream running through it. The stream was full of fish and had a resident beaver. Matt came in one afternoon and said 'I've just seen something in the stream - it's either a beaver or a giant rat'. I went to investigate that evening, consulted Google and informed him that we had a Eurasian Beaver in the garden. 'A what? A Eurovision winner?' Cue much hilarity, that joke ran and ran as you can imagine. 'Remember that time we went to France and found a Eurovision winner in the garden?' Ho ho ho.

We treated the house like our home, cooking most of our meals rather than going out and spending our evenings lazing around by the pool, soaking up the glorious sun, reading books in companionable silence and playing boules. We visited a couple of markets and boulangeres but that was about it. It really was perfect, especially as we were away during Heatwave Week and had temperatures up to 40 degrees!

My pictures don't really do the house justice but if you want to see more - including the fabulous beamed bedrooms - you can do so at the Vintage Travel website (who were brilliant and I can recommend them without hesitation) We loved it so much that we have already put our names down for a week there next year.

What else happened in June? We had our first family trip to Brocklesby Country Fair, our local estate puts on a fair every year and it was Forrest's first time. It holds mixed memories for me, being the place where I once agreed to give a gundog demonstration and made a bit of a hash of it, as well as dropping my brand new iPhone into a portaloo (on the same day - it wasn't a great day) but it had all the ingredients for a very happy Forrest - animals, tractors, food - so we dressed him like a complete goon and went along with my sister and her little family and our Dad

He loved it. There was also The Lincolnshire Show the week after, which he also loved. Then there was France and now we are at home and the weather is rubbish, July is definitely not living up to June's example.

We have had a team of painters in at home, who have painted and oiled all of the exterior doors and windows as well as finishing off our new bedroom, which has been a fantastic boost. We just need to get the second fix electrics sorted and a carpet and we can move in! Matt has suggested waiting until we have a new bed to put in there but ... I'm not sure I can wait. The cinema room is also now boarded out and plastered and we're planning to slap some paint on the walls this weekend, so work on the house is moving along again. A good thing as our new sofa has been made and delivered to the store, where it has languished in a warehouse for the last month. I've assured them that they can deliver it soon, but how soon is anyone's guess ...

In other domestic news, Forrest's lovely Montessori nursery closed this week. It was a bit of a shock, we received a letter last Thursday telling us that the nursery had gone into liquidation and then BAM, Tuesday was his last day. Not a great deal of notice for the unlucky sods who have their children in full time childcare and are therefore without childcare and terribly out of pocket, having paid up for a month in advance, but absolutely horrendous for the poor staff, who only found out mere hours before us parents did. Credit to them though, they put on a lovely leaving party on the last day with bouncy castles and a party tea, it was quite emotional really. So after a lot of running around with my hands in the air and visiting unsuitable nurseries I have found a really wonderful one in town which can take Forrest for two full days a week from September. He's never done a full day in nursery before but it's not worth the 30 mile round trip to leave him for four hours so this is what we will do. I just need to figure out how I'm going to get any work done before September, especially as I have the two companies' VAT quarter ends looming large. I feel sick just thinking about it so I'm trying not to.

What have you been up to this month?

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

On Trying To Relax

I've always found it difficult to relax. I just find it really hard to switch my brain off, it feels as though there is a constant stream of conversation going on in my head at any given time, no matter what I'm doing. 

Although my life is far less stressful than it used to be, I still find that I get myself tightly wound. I'm a worrier by nature and I tend to always have something on my mind that I'm mulling over, as well as a To Do list as long as my arm! I'm also a serious introvert and I often find myself even more reluctant to spend time with anyone when I get like this and, if I do see people, I'm usually withdrawn and find I can't remember anything that's been said later on.

For me, with stress and tension come headaches and migraines. I used to suffer from terrible migraines in my early twenties, real stinkers that used to render me completely helpless. I'd often lose feeling or get numbness or tingling down one side of my body, that side of my face would droop and I knew that I'd have a very small window of time to get myself home, take my prescription tablets and get into bed - otherwise I'd be unable to drive and would be stuck wherever I was in complete agony. My tablets would knock me out for at least four hours and I'd be left with what I thought of as a 'migraine hangover' afterwards - feeling washed out and literally hungover for the following day or so. My doctor called these 'cluster headaches' as I'd get them regularly for a few weeks and then they'd disappear for a while.

Luckily it's been years since I had one of those migraines, though I still get headaches often. Strangely, since falling pregnant they are not as bad as they used to be. I was worried about getting a bad headache whilst I was pregnant as I knew I could only take paracetamol and let's face it, paracetamol doesn't do much of anything for most people. It's bloody laughable that they offer you it when you're in labour!

The team at Syndol have read about my reliance on their headache relief tablets in the past and I was delighted when they got in touch and told me about their newly launched website. Syndol headache relief tablets have been relaunched with a new formulation and I'm pleased to have them in my medicine cabinet again as nothing else comes close to dealing with serious headaches for me. The new formulation still gives me quick relief but I've found that it doesn't give me the sleepy feeling that the old formulation did, which is great if I need to take it in the middle of a busy day.

The website is full of really useful information about different types of headaches, their causes and triggers and ways to help headache/migraine sufferers 'head for a better place'. Every headache/migraine is different, as is every sufferer and Syndol have recognised that there isn't a 'one size fits all' approach to management. The Syndol website has pages of beautiful relaxing imagery, gentle music, suggested exercises to try and even massage techniques

Over the years I've found that my triggers are;

Broken sleep, a couple of late nights or poor quality sleep have always given me headaches. The worst is when you wake up with a headache, it's such a nasty, hopeless feeling

Tension always manifests itself in a back-of-the-head headache for me. Like the nape of my neck is being squeezed in a vice. If I'm particularly stressed I tense my jaw tightly, even whilst I'm asleep, and wake up with a headache that also affects my jaw and facial muscles

If I've got to do something that I'm nervous about, I'll often get a headache after it's over. It's as though the relief is too much for my poor little brain and it just aches

Going out in the cold without a scarf or in windy weather without my ears covered always gives me horrible headaches that affect my whole head and neck and also gives me earache. Ugh.

Caffeine withdrawal
I only usually have one coffee per day but in the summer when I drink more cold drinks and less coffee and tea I am prone to headaches. I remember having a migraine that lasted two days and nights one summer and realising that it had come on because I'd had no hot drinks, only water for a few days because it had been really hot. I had a cup of coffee and it started to lift almost immediately

Physical strain*
For some reason, tipping my head forward gives me an instant headache. For example, leaning over the bath to wash my hair is a total no no for me, as are certain TV watching positions which involve lying on my back on the sofa.  Squinting in the sun or balancing my sunglasses on top of my head can also bring on a headache.

*I'm assured by Dr Sue Lipscombe, headache specialist at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, that these are all common triggers except the last one, which is due to my existing back and neck problems. If you experience the last one you should discuss it with your GP.

It's become clear to me that the key to minimising my headaches is to make the time and effort to relax. It can be hard with a toddler, businesses and a busy household to run but it really makes all the difference for me. I do escape to a spa as often as I can (read 'not as often as I used to/would like to'!) but I obviously need to be able to relax at home too. I find the best ways to do this are to

Take a bath
Having a bath is a real luxury when you're short on time, isn't it? So often I find myself thinking 'I haven't got time for a bath, I'll have a shower instead so I can fold another load of washing/finish the online grocery shop/do some batch cooking for Forrest'. But a deep, warm bath with one of my favourite Aromatherapy Associates oils is a surefire way to relax my body and mind, which usually makes for a noticeably better night's sleep

Listen to some relaxing music
I find piano music really relaxing but there are also some wonderful pieces of music on the Syndol site

This is new to me but I have downloaded the Headspace app and try to make time to use it when I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed

I'm a big believer in aromatherapy, as was my mum. I used it during my pregnancy and even in labour and found it really helped me. My mum used to make me a cold compress with lavender oil when I had a headache, something I still do now. I also like to fragrance the room with a specially blended relaxing scent as a special treat, using an aromatherapy diffuser.

I can highly recommend Syndol to migraine/headache sufferers, having used it for 15 years myself (man that makes me feel old!) and the new website is really worth making time to have a look at if you are interested in finding out more about migraines/headaches and how to manage them. 

Are you a sufferer and do you find that they are linked to any of the triggers above? 

* I received a gift from Syndol in respect of this feature but would have been happy to recommend the product either way. You can read my disclosure policy here

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Lincolnshire Show 2015

I was lucky enough, once again, to be invited to cover the Lincolnshire Show for this little blog and, once again, I was delighted to do so. It's such an event in these parts, everyone makes the effort to go along and it allows me to indulge my passion for all things Lincolnshire. I am so proud to live here and occasions like this, where the county gets to celebrate and showcase its many talents, remind me again how lucky I am to be part of it.

That said, it was an entirely different experience this year. Last year Forrest was a mere seven months old, newly weaned and content to sit in his pushchair and take in the many sights and sounds of the Show. This year, as a rambunctious and confident toddler, he was less keen to sit still and far more interested in getting stuck in, taking part, touching, trying and making a bid for freedom whenever possible. Frankly, he was exhausting! It made it harder for us to get involved as he wanted to be off exploring all the time. I'm sure next year will be different again and it will be fun to look back at which bits he has enjoyed the most each year throughout his life.

This year it was tractors. Forrest is heavily into anything to do with farms and is completely, totally, utterly obsessed with tractors. So as you can imagine, he was on cloud nine when he found himself surrounded by them. And in one!

Children are really well catered for at the Lincolnshire Show. Not only is there an abundance of things for them to look at but there are plenty of demonstrations and thins for them to get involved in too

I found myself a new car (a girl can dream)

And Matt found himself one (ha)

Uncle Henry's - a firm favourite in this house (AMAZING SAUSAGES!)

And of course, there was the food court ...

As you'd expect from a county famous for its produce, there is always an abundance of local food to sample and local producers to meet, from established household names to brand new start up companies.

I was pleased to see that one of my favourite cheese producers, Lymn Bank Farm, were also in attendance. If you like strong, creamy Cheddar then you must try their Just Jane - it's the best there is.

It was all too much for some ...

We grabbed ourselves a quick coffee and a sit down whilst Forrest gave us half an hour's respite but he soon awoke, clamouring for food, so we found ourselves with a difficult decision to make. Which of the amazing foods on offer would be treat ourselves to? We settled for delicious wraps - chicken and pepper salad for me and halloumi and peppers for Matt, with sweet potato fries. Forrest had his fair share of both whilst watching the Shetland Pony Grand National in the Main Ring, which was great fun (and a first for Matt, who never knew such a thing existed!)

Nothing stirs the blood quite like the sight of a hunt, but a parade of hounds comes a close second. 

Spectators at the Main Ring were treated to a parade of not one, not two but five packs of hounds. Our local pack, the Brocklesby Hunt,  were joined by the Burton (Lincoln), the Blankney (Lincoln), the Belvoir (Rutland) and the East Lincs Bassets for a fantastic parade, followed by the opportunity for the crowd to invade the ring and meet the hounds. And more than one errant hound took his chance to invade the crowd!

 Spot the naughty hound!

I was looking forward to showing Forrest the animals as he's become such a little farmer and he was thrilled to see the sheep and cows in the livestock lines. We also visited the Meet A Moo Marquee, where children could meet some cows and learn about the different breeds of cattle, the story of where milk comes from and see a foot trimming demonstration

We also had to see some of the horse showing classes, of course. I could watch these all day, truth be told.

Forrest was delighted to see the Red Arrows, he loves to point out planes in the sky!

And before we knew it, it was time to leave. Not before we popped back to pick up a new John Deere tractor for Forrest of course. The hardest thing about the day was all the gear we dragged around with us - my huge baby bag, picnic blanket, bottles of water and all the things we picked up throughout the day made us grateful to have the pushchair to help us along. Though by the end of the day it was a little overloaded!

Luckily, Forrest was more than happy to make his own way back to the car!

I'd like to thank the organisers once again for inviting us along, we are already looking forward to next year! So much work goes into making this such a fantastic event (if you don't believe me, have a look at the timelapse video on the Show's homepage) and it's so worth it. I read that this year the Show attracted record numbers of visitors, with over 60,000 people flocking to the show ground to celebrate this wonderful county. I expect that next year will be even bigger!

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