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Thursday, 5 December 2013

74. White Walls and Tiaras

Ah, the good old days of living in a building site.

In many ways, it’s really easy living in a building site. I’m only just realising this now, as we near the end of our renovation. (At least, we’re nearly finished on the inside of the house. The exterior is a hot frigging mess and don’t even get me started on the garden.)

Now we have to get used to being house-proud again. 

One time, before we had a proper kitchen, we were cooking a giant batch of onion soup on the gas camping stove. Our then cat Moona (a.k.a. Mymoona, Moon Cat, Moo Moo) managed to knock the entire pan – it was a BIG pan – over. There was onion soup all over the floor and sprayed up one wall. We were livid for all of five seconds, before we realised that a) we hadn’t yet plastered the walls and b) the floor was just bare concrete so it didn’t much matter. (We were livid again when we remembered that was our dinner she was walking through. We may not have had much, but we still liked a good feed.)

Then there was the time we were demolishing a wall downstairs. Rob was wielding the sledgehammer, wearing his safety flip flops, and we were having a great time - until a stray brick went flying through one of the windows. Oh well, we breezed, we need new windows anyway, let’s just cover it in plastic and have a beer!

How many times have the cats come in covered in mud and rain? (And, on two memorable occasions, actual pig shit.) No bother, it’s not like we have a proper floor to dirty or a sofa to jump on. You run around getting the concrete dirty, see if I care. (We did draw the line at pig shit though - someone got a proper bucket-bath on those occasions.)

Now though, now we have plastered, whitewashed walls and real floors we have to be so damn careful. Now we have a sofa and cushions and rugs and things that can get so dirty. How am I supposed to cope with (gulp) wear-and-tear on what we've only just finished? In a lot of ways it was easier when it was a building site. I think it was good for me to let go of my uptightness for a while. It’s creeping back now: all menacing, like a fog in a James Herbert novel. Oh yeah, you know shit is about to get depraved.

Also, speaking of menacing, a large family of mice have moved in upstairs. The house stood empty for years before we moved in – were there any rodents living in it? No. Then, for two years we lived in a shit tip with holes everywhere and soup sprayed up the walls. Did any mice move in then? No. No they did not. Now we’re all airtight and everything the buggers have moved in en masse. And just as it was starting to feel like a normal house...

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

73. Ten things we've eaten next door for breakfast

Our neighbours are our surrogate Bulgarian parents. We love them, they make a big old fuss of us, and we have coffee with them most mornings. Trouble is, they are such feeders. If I should dare turn down a second slice of cake or pie, Svilen shouts at me and makes Rob eat something to compensate.

Also, we watched High Fidelity again last night* and it got me in the mood for making lists.

So, top ten things we have eaten next door for breakfast. In order of weirdness (whereby 1 is a perfectly normal thing to have with coffee at breakfast time, and 10 is really very weird indeed).

  1. Biscuits.
  2. Banitsa. A Bulgarian cheesy filo pastry pie. It’s amazing and perfect at any time of day, but common for breakfast.
  3. Melon.
  4. A hot crème caramel pudding. Much as I like puddings, there are certain things that shouldn’t be eaten before 9am. It’s an unwritten dessert-based watershed. Am I right?
  5. Mini jacket potatoes with feta cheese. These are delicious…but can I come back and eat them at 5pm?
  6. Sugary, cheesy pasta with croutons.
  7. Gruel. Actually not that weird…if you’re a Victorian urchin.
  8. BBQ ribs. See number 5.
  9. Chips and grapes.
  10. Yorkshire pudding.

*I heart John Cusack. In fact…bonus list: Top 5 John Cusack movies.
  1. High Fidelity.
  2. The Sure Thing.
  3. Grosse Pointe Blank.
  4. Say Anything.
  5. Con Air. And I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

72. Ode to the beach

I bloody love the beach, I do.
I love the way the wind troubles my hair.
(A too-short bob in summer is a bad choice, 
what I wouldn't give for a ponytail!)
The constant watering of my left eye.
Those little pimples I get
after days of sweating under factor 50 suncream.
I love how sand gets everywhere,
in between the buttons on my blackberry 
inside the packet of wetwipes, 
right up in my…. 

No. Wait.

It’s the idea of the beach that I love. The reality gets on my wick after an hour. But the idea of lying on a beach with a fully loaded Kindle is heaven. It doesn’t matter that, in reality, I can never get comfortable enough to read for more than ten minutes. The idea, in the weeks running up to a holiday, is the thing to savour. This year I got carried away in anticipation of my little jaunt and bought fifteen books. Fifteen! Just daft. What am I, a Booker prize judge?

So yeah, we went to the beach last week!

In the UK I grew up about 4 miles from the sea and, I guess as a consequence of that, we never went on beach holidays. Maybe that’s why I get so excited about the beach holiday – too many childhood trips visiting National Trust houses and doing, like, cultural stuff. Last year we drove to Greece – which was ruddy excellent but a horrific drive. This year we went to Sinemorets in Bulgaria, right down near the Turkish border. Still a 700-mile round trip but on better roads. (Bulgaria recently completed its first ever motorway, and we drove the whole length of it. Amazing. I didn’t need a single cigarette, it was so smooth.)

And this is stunning place is Sinemorets.

Our favourite beach. Where the Veleka river meets the Black Sea.

More Veleka river. Strandzha nature reserve in the background.

Sinemorets has 3 sandy beaches. This one can only be reached on foot after climbing up and over a cliff (okay, some rocks).  I was a Very Brave Soldier about it all.

It’s a village that’s sort of evolved into a small-ish resort thanks to the lovely beaches and nearby nature reserve. Walking down a dirt track, you’ll see a luxury villa next to a tumble-down cottage with a baba pottering amongst the tomatoes. It’s mainly Bulgarian holidaymakers who go there (we heard maybe two British voices all week). There was that one chap with swastika tattoos on his face but it mainly seemed to attract a hippy, back-packing crowd. There were quite a few people wild camping on the beaches and nobody seemed to mind.

We were officially the whitest people on the beach. Rob avoided as much vitamin D as possible. I got my watery eye and bad skin. I managed, nay forced myself, to read one-and-a-half of those darn books. It was all very stoic.

Only 51 weeks to go until my next beach holiday!

Saturday, 27 July 2013

71. Obsessive (gluten-free and dairy-free) Almond and Plum Cake

I’ve been on a gluten-free bender for a couple of months now. Not, like, religiously or anything. If I go out to a pizza restaurant, I’m going to eat the pizza, not some lame salad. But, on the whole, I’ve cut out wheat (mainly bread, pasta and beer). I feel like a new woman. And I’m not being even remotely sarcastic there. 

I find myself sniffing out gluten-free cake blogs like a crack addict. Usually I’m left disappointed – either the cakes look crap or they include ingredients that would be hard to find in the UK, let alone rural Bulgaria. (Seriously, WTF is xanthan gum and why would you want to put it IN YOUR FOOD?)

But this recipe is different. It’s loosely based on something I found on a gluten-free blog but I tweaked it to make it sweeter and dairy-free (for a special little visitor who couldn’t eat dairy). It’s so good I’ve become obsessed with it. One time I made it twice in 48 hours. So, although I never blog about food (which is weird considering how obsessive I am about food), I thought I’d share it here. 

Yeah, sorry about the rubbish picture. I was in a rush to eat it!

·         125g sugar. I use a fine brown sugar that’s easily available here but any old sugar would do.
·         100ml olive oil. I like olive oil in cakes but I know some people think the flavour is too strong. If you’re one of them, use whatever oil you prefer. If you simply *must* use butter, 125g.
·         2 eggs
·         200g ground almonds
·         A few drops of vanilla essence. I fully intended to use almond essence – in fact, it’s probably much better in this cake – but I reached for the vanilla out of habit and have kept doing it this way ever since.
·         Plums. We have tiny round plums in the garden so I use about 10-12 of them, halved and stoned. If you’re using regular English plums, maybe use 4-6, quartered or sliced. I’ve tried it with raspberries too and they also work pretty well. In a month’s time no doubt I’ll be trying it with peaches. Did I mention I’m obsessed with this cake?
·         Cinnamon

1.       Heat oven to 180°C and oil a 20cm springform cake tin.

2.       Beat the oil and sugar together for a few minutes until it’s, you know, ‘light and fluffy’. I used a handmixer because Rob was busy.

3.       Beat in the eggs one at a time and add the vanilla/almond essence.

4.       Gently fold in the ground almonds with a metal spoon. It’s not a cake that rises a lot, so just don’t bash all the air out of it.

5.       Pour the mixture into the tin and press the plums/raspberries into it.

6.       Dust the top with cinnamon.

7.       Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or so. The last time I made it, it was ready in just 20 minutes, which is odd because my oven usually takes longer than any recipe says. Maybe check it at 20 minutes and keep checking every five minutes thereafter.

The cake may be dairy-free, but I’m not on a dairy-free diet so I like to serve it with a huge dollop of mascarpone on top (the closest thing we can get to clotted cream). For the dairy-free, I don’t know, a dusting of tears?

Next time, I’m quite tempted to make two and sandwich them together with mascarpone. Or, if you don’t care about the gluten-free shizzle,  you could scatter a little crumble topping over before putting it in the oven. I know right, filthy!

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

70. Gardening and the art of compromise

Last year was our first summer growing veg; our first summer with a garden of our own. It’s brilliant when you eat your first home-grown courgette (not so much when eating your two-hundredth home-grown courgette). But, man, gardening is a lot of hard work. Weeds are outrageous little fuckers – and not in a ‘tsk, weeds, you cheeky little tinkers’ sort of way, but a ‘YOU WEEDS ARE TAKING OVER MY LIFE. I JUST WANT A WEEKEND TO MYSELF. DIE! DIE! DIE!’ sort of way.

So, this year, I wanted to do things a little differently. I had a vision of nice, organised raised beds (complete with chicken wire and newspaper bases to keep out the moles as well as weeds – oh yes, moles). I wanted pretty pathways with lovely creeping thyme growing in between the stones. And I wanted a rustic fence around it to keep our (future) chickens out.

In our house, what Claire wants, Claire gets. Ahem. I wish writing that down made it true. In reality we had so many arguments about how to do the veg garden. I tried explaining and sketching calmly what I wanted, then I took to manically shoving Pinterest pictures under Rob’s nose, chanting “See! See how pretty it will look!” Finally I resorted to my typical fallback of: “Why can’t you just do it my way? Why? Would it kill you?” In the end, we agreed that we would indeed do the veg garden my way (hurrah) and he would have utter free reign over the areas at the front and side of the house (uh-oh). The rest we’ll muddle through together. It’s a strange feeling, to compromise. I feel like I’ve forgotten to put my pants on or something.

Before we marvel at what Rob has built, I think it’s worth revisiting what the garden looked like when we bought the house, and the patch that we battled with last year. Bring on the garden timeline…

Year 0: When we bought the house 


Year 1: Our first summer here

Just ploughed it, planted and, erm, spent the rest of the summer weeding. Like the uninitiated chumps that we were.

Year 2: Hurrah, organised garden fun! 

I so love organised fun.

Like many of our projects, it’s not completely finished yet. We need to build a compost bin in the big empty corner. We’ve only just planted the seeds for the creeping thyme in between the stones – so the path should look a lot softer in a few months. I’m not entirely convinced that the fence is really chicken-proof, but I guess there’s only one way to find out. And I want to dot flowers around in pots and as companion plants in the beds. I’m not good with flowers. I can name about five different kinds, at a push. I just never really understood spending all that time, effort and money on things you can’t eat. But I’m going to get my girly on and give this flower lark a go.

Best of all, the only thing we had to buy was concrete to make the ‘stone’ pathways. We built the fence out of sticks that were lying around the garden (we had a lot of broken branches from all the snooooow in our first winter – still have a huge pile of them). And the beds are made from wood that was already in the house.

This year we’re growing swede, broccoli, tomatoes, lettuce, squash, courgettes, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, strawberries, and we have a few herbs dotted around. I’ve also got some sweet potato slips almost ready to go in. We’ve planted parsnips but they’re proving to be elusive buggers (I don’t know why, they were our most successful crop last year). And the empty bed nearest the terrace is earmarked for a couple of rhubarb plants. I’ve never even cooked with rhubarb - I’ve eaten it, I like it, I’ve just never bothered to cook with it - but as I am British and I have a veg garden, I feel it is my duty to grow rhubarb. Likewise with the Asparagus I guess. 

Granted, it’s a bit of an odd mix of veg but we wanted to focus on things we can’t easily buy here. (Correction, of course we can easily buy tomatoes and potatoes at the market here. You can’t walk two feet in summer without walking into a tomato stand. But all our neighbours grow their own spuds and tomatoes and we want to blend in, like. It’s some weird, middle-aged version of peer pressure.) I miss sweet potatoes almost as much as I miss my family. Some days, more. 

If this all seems rather smug and self-congratulatory, don’t be fooled. It’s just my way of pretending that the rest of the garden doesn’t look like this:

Which it does.

Monday, 25 March 2013

69. Three good things

Some things that have made me happy lately...

Wardrobes. For 18 months I’ve been sharing one of those cheap clothes racks with Rob (you know, the things that very organised people take to car boot sales to hang their wares on). Some time ago we gave up putting stuff on actual hangers on the rail, and it became just a convenient bar on which to pile clothes at eye level. We had clothes under the bed, clothes in the spare room, clothes on chairs. Sometimes I would put something barely-worn and still perfectly clean in the washing bin, just so I didn’t have to find another place to put it. But now Rob has built me a wardrobe all of my own. It’s huge - basically a whole wall of the bedroom has been turned into a built-in wardrobe all for me. It’s so big, it’s in danger of turning into a ‘yo mamma’ joke. My wardrobe so BIG, I took a picture of it last week and it’s STILL printing.

I know, I know, it's a lot of clothes. But almost all of them
are second hand. 

Profiteroles. As in, I made them. My first time making anything with choux pastry and it was surprisingly easy. Piping in the cream was a bit of a fiddly bitch – I’d never used a piping bag before – but otherwise it was okay. Note to self: I must not eat profiteroles every weekend, I must not eat profiteroles every weekend, I must not… Must. Not. Must. I must. I must eat profiteroles every weekend.  

The Sopranos. We’re finally getting around to watching The Sopranos. It’s good. Really good. I’m not loving it as much as Breaking Bad, or the Wire. Or even, gulp, Merlin. But it is good. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I loved the BBC show Merlin. Loved. It. We were given season 1 recently and started watching it with some scepticism, then found ourselves watching season 2, then 3 and so on until we’d watched all the seasons and I was sobbing my eyes out at the ending. I still get a bit sad when I think there won’t be any more Merlin to watch. Sometimes, in moments of weakness, I find myself YouTubing videos of random interviews with the Merlin cast, bloopers, them at awards ceremonies, that sort of thing. I’m starting to worry about myself. Okay, so really this bullet point is about discovering and loving Merlin. Ahem. The Sopranos is alright though.
So, to sum up, the things that make me happy are clothes, food and telly.

Oh dear.

Friday, 15 February 2013

68. House renovation update - in pictures

In the lounge

Lounge again...


The pantry's all finished now!

My office...

Getting there on bricking in the staircase...