Monthly Archives: October 2009
October in London: it’s dark in the morning, a chill is in the air and at work the central heating isn’t working so we wear scarves all day long. It isn’t even Hallowe’en yet.
Cue a timely newsletter from the folk at Fuelmyblog asking for interested bloggers to review the snug boots made by Australian brand, Emu. I needed no prompting to reply. This sort of footwear is right up my street, having a reputation for being both warm and comfortable. I fired off an e-mail to say I would be more than happy to review a pair of tall, black, Bronte-style Emus.
The boots arrived yesterday, which was perfect timing as it was a cool 18 degrees Celsius in the office. With blue lips I skipped back to my desk, box under one arm, to try them on. Opening the box I pulled out the Emus and smiled. In smart black suede with merino wool lining, they have a sensible rubber sole with the sort of traction that should help me to stay upright in the snow this winter, a feat not easily achieved. The boots certainly looked warm and comfortable from the outside, but how would they feel once on?
I pulled on the first boot and – what? – my foot would only go so far. I wriggled my toes and felt scrunching. Ah. This doofus had forgotten to remove the paper ball keeping the boot in shape. Paper ball jettisoned, I tried again, this time with success. The boot fitted perfectly and my right foot had found its cold weather heaven. Until that moment on an early winter’s morning I had not realised exactly how cold my feet had been.
For some time I kept just that one boot on. I didn’t think I could get away with wearing my Emus to meetings; at least not yet, but while I was at my desk I could at least get a feel for them. Eventually realising how odd I must have looked with loafer on left foot and Emu on right, I reluctantly removed the Emu, wishing the day away so I could take my Emus for a test drive after work.
On leaving the office it was suitably cold, grey and dull, but I was now happily wearing my Emus, every step taken a delight to my spoiled feet which adore comfort such as this. It’s like walking on a sheepskin, with full support, especially in the arches, and on sitting down I had to stamp my feet a couple of times to make sure they weren’t floating above ground.
The verdict? I love Emus and may well invest in a tan pair in one of their different styles. But this is not the end of this tale.
Earlier in the day French Colleague had noticed my Emus sitting under my desk.
“Aaah, you have EEEE-mus!” she enthused, “I have them too. I prefer them to UGGs.”
“Why’s that?” I asked,
“Because they have better traction. Actually, I have two pairs of Emus now.” Quite the menagerie.
That can only be a good thing for me as long ago I stopped wearing heels in the street due to a rather nasty accident. I caught a heel between cobbles, resulting in a broken front tooth, severely bruised knee, grazed forehand and grazed hands. No, I didn’t call a ‘trip-or-fall’ lawyer, although perhaps I should have, given the size of the dental bill. Overnight I changed from no-pain-no-gain perpetual-heel-wearer to flat-footwear-afficionado. There’d be no more heels caught in cobbles or tube station grates for me. Heels are now reserved for work or special occasions.
On the travel footwear front, Monsieur and I will be visiting Portugal in a few weeks. Breton-Crêpe-Lover was giving me advice on Lisbon this morning when suitable footwear came into the conversation.
“In the streets there are lots of… what you call… stones, errr…”
“Yes, cobblestones, so you shouldn’t wear heels. Just flat shoes.”
Looking at my feet she noticed the Emus.
“Yes, those are PER-fect.” she said with a nod. “Wear THOSE in Lisbon.”
So not only are my new Emus comfortable, toasty-warm and soft on the sole, they’re also going to keep me safe from broken teeth. What a relief.
Fitness Footwear UK stockist of Emus with FREE UK delivery
Their homepage is here.
To read the previous instalment please click here.
So far, so good. Monsieur and I may not have been walking down the aisle, hand in hand, or trying to knock our female friends unconscious with a low-flying bouquet, but we were certainly enjoying our private celebration of The Wedding that Wasn’t. In one afternoon we’d checked in to a wedding cake hotel, hung out at the driving range, practised our putts and swum in an indoor heated pool. All that activity had worked up our appetites, so we spruced up and set off downstairs to dine at the Club’s Park Restaurant.
As we were greeted by the maître d’ – ”Good evening, Madame-Sir,” following him into a sumptuous dining room, my heart sank. Our day at Stoke Park had been wonderful; how ever was dining here going to live up to our now extremely high expectations?
Monsieur and I were seated at a table for two in the centre of the room; we were not by a window nor tucked comfortably into a plush banquette by the wall. At first I felt a little exposed but we soon overcame that hurdle when the menus appeared. Then, torn between food porn and people-watching I realised that the tables were spaced out in a way that our neighbours’ conversation could not be overheard. At least, not yet. I do like that in a restaurant.
The bread basket was offered and I permitted myself one soft, small brown bun, still warm from the oven. The butter melted slowly into it indicating that it wasn’t too hot or cold, just perfect. Then it was time for some Serious Decision-making as we selected our starters. There was something on the menu for every palate, including vegetarians. Would I choose the pan-fried scallops with celeriac purée, crispy pancetta, port reduction and caviar? Or perhaps I’d try the ragout of chicken winglets, chorizo, girolles and flageolet beans, served inside a filo casserole pan with madeira jus? Even the vegetarian option was sophisticated as opposed to a tie-dyed celebration of lentils; Stoke Park veges could enjoy the goat’s cheese, sweet potato and basil roulade with pear and fig salad and walnut vinaigrette.
Following our amuse bouches of a mushroom cappuccino?? (at least, I think that’s what it was) served with tiny spoon in tiny Mad Hatter’s teacup, the starters appeared, and not a moment too soon, for the afternoon’s activities had caused a persistent rumble in my stomach. I’d chosen the decadence of seared foie gras served on a brioche crouton with baby spinach, red grapes, pomegranate and sweet muscat sauce. Neither piled high nor lilliputian, the starter’s serving was just the right size to stimulate the tastebuds without overloading them.
Monsieur’s first course was a tian of Dorset crab, lobster, prawn and avocado with a cucumber and pink grapefruit dressing. It arrived shaped into a small but perfect tower on the plate, a work of culinary art. Apparently there are various definitions for tian, from layered vegetable preparations to casserole dishes, but in this case it took the meaning of layered presentation. I could tell that Monsieur was torn between tearing into it with his fork and simply contemplating its beauty from afar. The ending here was somewhat predictable, though, and the tian was consumed in its entirety.
We ate slowly, savouring each morsel, for this was not food to be rushed, and we were not in a hurried environment, although the maître d’ often appeared to check that everything was as it should be, each time calling us “Madame-sir”. He was practised in the efficient running of a fine dining establishment, that much was certain, dashing in silent fashion from table to table, seating any new arrivals, farewelling those on their way out, flourishing menus and assisting with wine selection or the deciphering of gastronomic terminology.
In between mouthfuls, Monsieur and I were thoroughly enjoying alternating between a delicious chablis and thirst-quenching Hildon water but we didn’t have long to contemplate grapey notes between courses. Our mains arrived at just the right interval, having allowed us time to ruminate over our delicious starters but not enough time to fret over tardiness in the kitchens.
Monsieur was in carnivore’s heaven with his Beef Wellington. Served with seasonal chanterelles and warm cherry tomatoes (still on the vine)on a bed of mash, he thought nothing of ordering sautéed potatoes to add to his meat- ‘n’-two-servings-of-the-same-veg main. (It even came with the letters SPC in puff pastry – the initials of the Club).
My choice was the trio of fish. Presented on an oval, almost fish-shaped platter with thumb hole at one end for serving, I enjoyed three entirely different, yet complementary, types of fish. First was red mullet ‘escabèche, a delightfully tender fish with zesty marinade. Next was John Dory with pea purée and confit fennel, which struck me as a humourous five-star approach to fish ‘n’ mushy peas. Last on the platter was sea bream with baby provençale vegetables – essentially a ratatouille of mini-veg to match the serving size. For a fish lover, such as me, this was heaven. With a few sautéed spuds pinched from Monsieur’s side order, I couldn’t fault it. Everything tasted freshly-caught, ‘never seen a freezer’, and had evidently been prepared with the utmost attention to the detail of both recipe and presentation.
But we hadn’t finished yet. Oh, yes, there was still dessert to come, and somehow, thanks to considerate portions, we miraculously had room to accommodate another course.
Monsieur tried the Tiramisu Plate – a chocaholic’s perfect falling-off-the-wagon platter. Everything was tiny – the bitter chocolate pot, the artful spoonful of mascarpone and kahlua ice cream, a teeny coffee soufflée and quenelle of tiramisu. Yet the richness of the combination of small tastes just about finished Monsieur off. Even so, I don’t think he would ever have considered not finishing every last bit.
Feeling in the need of a fromage fix, I indulged in the cheese platter. “But please, no blue cheese,” I told the waitress, feeling very When Harry Met Sally in such a high-maintenance demand. Sure enough, the cheeseboard arrived laden with perfect small slices of soft cheeses and hard cheeses but not a blue in sight. I didn’t touch the homemade walnut bread, which looked wonderful but which would only have stolen the last precious intestinal centimetres reserved for cheese. Instead I nibbled on the oatcakes and grapes and perfect slivers of celery to temper the strength of the cheeses and even so, I was quite ready to turn my back on food for a few hours at the end.
And so, feeling like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Monsieur and I rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and up the narrow set of stairs to our room, where we had earlier stored a bottle of New Zealand’s Lindauer bubbly (if you haven’t tried this yet, do! It’s affordable and doesn’t give you a sore head the following day.) with which to celebrate The Wedding That Wasn’t. We needed ice so called the porter who brought it to the door within minutes, asking, with glint in his eye, if we’d like champagne flutes. Either he’d done the turn-down earlier, spotting our bottle chilling in one of the sinks (there was strangely no fridge or mini-bar in the otherwise beautifully appointed room) or he was accustomed to people bringing their own bubbles to Stoke Park. Once he’d left, I couldn’t decide if this chap was superb customer service, a psychic in our midst or a spy.
Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. Monsieur and I lay there in the Hastings Room, warm and comfortable on the soft bed, sipping on bubbly and talking about the superb day we’d just had. But no, we couldn’t laze about for long. We had to get a full night’s sleep, for the next day we’d be trying our hand at the championship golf course. Tee off was set for 9.40am and you can’t play 18 holes without breakfast.
To read part 1 of this series, please click here.
After weeks of waiting and wondering and harassing Monsieur for information, which was not forthcoming, we had finally reached the surprise destination where we’d celebrate The Wedding that Wasn’t. As we drove off the road, through pairs (plural) of gatehouses and up a drive snaking smoothly through immaculate surrounds, I spotted golfers with carts and clubs to the right, a little church and a bridge and a long, glassy lake to the left. Then, before us rose a big white building in colonial clubhouse style. This was Stoke Park Club. This was the surprise.
We drove across crunchy gravel between the clubhouse and a putting practice green punctuated by lots of holes marked by little red or white flags, and into the car park, which was like a Who’s Who of luxury car manufactury. There were at least five Range Rovers in the first row, various Porsches, in both Carrera and Cayman styles, BMWs with windows tinted for anonymity, Mercedes large and Mercedes small, a Ferrari, a couple of Astons (I had to bite my knuckles, so beautiful were the Astons) and so on. Picking a spot that wouldn’t give our own car an inferiority complex, we walked back to the clubhouse, which strangely enough reminded me of a wedding cake in its whiteness, to check in. I suppose I had weddings on the brain.
Once inside the ‘wedding cake’, the staff were consummate professionals, evidently seasoned in dealing with the demands of the super-rich; we could tell. We had two people dedicated to checking us in and two different porters insisted on helping us with our bags at different times, in spite of the insignificance of our luggage in both size and weight. Following the second porter we passed through a bar hung with impressive artworks, a couple of guests therein looking like advertisements for Pringle as they sipped on post-golf refreshments.
Along a dim corridor with life-size portrait staring at us from its end, we climbed a narrow staircase to our room named after a long-dead soul called Hastings. A little ante room with antique armoire of ancient mahogany gave onto the bedroom in one direction and bathroom in the other. As I checked the bed for bounce Monsieur shouted to me from the bathroom – “It’s bigger than the bedroom! Come and see!” And heavens, so it was. There was room enough between power shower and bathtub to play skittles, should one ever consider that a good way to pass the time.
Back in the bedroom I threw open the window to find the fifteenth hole just yonder. Yes, this was a golfer’s paradise, and novice golfer though I may be, my hands were itching to grab a club and give this lush course a whirl.
Not wanting to waste too much time indoors, in spite of the plumpscious cushions and armchairs-with-a-view, we trudged back to the car to retrieve our golf bags, heading across an expanse of perfect grass to the driving range. This was no purpose-built range with partitioned areas from which to fire our little white balls. No, this was an open-air driving range at ground level on real grass.
There stood a column at the far end of the range, making a suitable target for our shots. Alas, it was too far for me, for Monsieur and even the pro practising next to us did not possess drive enough to do that column damage. We later learned it was dedicated to a certain Sir Edward Coke, a lawyer of some note in his day, yet a column of such grandeur looked quite odd in its setting of trees and undulating landscape, the green below spotted with range balls; such a monument would surely look more usual mid-square in a market town or at the end of a street of Georgian terraces.
Sir Edward WHO? And well to ask for this former tenant of Stoke Park counts among his many achievements the prosecution of the gunpowder plotters, including the infamous Guy Fawkes. Their crime of treason saw them hung, drawn and quartered for conniving to blow up the Houses of Parliament, such were the gruesome punishments in the England of 1605. Nowadays this legal great is remembered by a column in a golf course in a park in a home county in England but really he should stand proud in Westminster where law is made.
Back on the range Monsieur and I were off centre in more ways than one as we fired our little white balls at Sir Edward. Something was off. I couldn’t get my shots past the 150 yard mark and some were embarrassingly shy of achieving any sort of respectable distance. Apart from learning how to position my feet and back when driving down the fairway, I’m also learning that some days, no matter how hard you try, all golfing technique escapes you and it doesn’t need to give a reason why. Today, in the beautiful Stoke Park, Monsieur and I were experiencing one of those days.
The sun was fast-disappearing now, a slight chill developing, so we ditched our clubs to try a different sort of relaxation – in the spa. Housed in a modern building next to the car park, this was one serious pampering operation. No fewer than four uniformed staff met, greeted and guided us on entering. I was led past counters of softening potions and lotions to the ladies’ changing room while Monsieur was taken in the opposite direction. Inside were rows of oaky lockers, more country club than gymnasium, and pile upon fluffy pile of fresh sunshine-yellow towels. There were hairdryers aplenty and Molton Brown body products, tissues and cellophane-wrapped shower caps and spacious limestone shower cubicles in which to wear them. It was official: Monsieur and I were in our very own episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. How wonderful everything was.
I was reunited with my Frenchman at the heated indoor pool, looking out towards the golf course through tall, arched windows running the entire length of the pool. The rear wall was pleasantly interrupted by a built-in aquarium filled with yellow fish that matched my towel. As we lapped and tried to avoid the Splashmonster, a man old and hairy enough to know better than belly-flop water all over his fellow pool-mates, I watched the French couples frolicking at one end of the pool. The men were attractive and the girls so slim that I wondered whether they ever ate solid food or simply existed on Slim Fast. Suddenly I felt very fat, even though I’m more curvaceous than fat, the by-product of which is that I grew my own breasts and didn’t have to buy them in. Those girls were practically flat-chested but somehow, on them, even that was sexy. Still, I needn’t have worried myself with body-type comparisons because, as I’d later discover, there are some things you just can’t fix, no matter how fat your wallet or silthe-like your figure. But first, Monsieur and I would eat.
Monsieur and I were to be married this year, but as we’re grown up and responsible, we made the grown-up and responsible decision to postpone the happiest day of our lives, just in case we lost our jobs, something that was a very real threat at just the hour when the demands for deposits various were due.
Some grown up and responsible months later, the day that was to be our big day approached and I felt a tinge of sadness.
“Darling, I think we should do something to celebrate, especially as it’s a bank holiday weekend.” I said to Monsieur, eager to eliminate the threat of regret.
“You’re right,” he agreed, “I’ll look into it.” Even better, Monsieur was making the arrangements and if there’s one thing I can say about my future husband, it’s that he’s VERY good at surprises.
At first I thought we’d be going to a restaurant, perhaps somewhere with a star or two after its name or even a starless wonder with enough starch in just one of their white tablecloths to keep a man’s shirt collars stiff for a year. Yes, the sort of place that makes a girl feel adored, even when she gets out her camera to snap the foie gras from sixteen different angles.
And so, as I can’t remember a single time that Monsieur has failed in surprising me, I spent an inordinate amount of time fantasising about where we might be going. Before long, curiosity got this particular cat and the Epic Inquisition began.
“So where are we going?” I demanded on a daily, if not hourly basis, sometimes by e-mail with giant, red font in BOLD.
“It’s a surprise.” came the reply, over and over and over again. He would not budge. He would not stir. Monsieur would simply smile that infuriating smile he has when he holds a secret.
Then, the week before our celebration of The Wedding that Wasn’t, Monsieur let slip that we would be staying overnight wherever we were going. No, he would not be whizzing me off to Venice for some O Sole Mios in a bobbing gondola; I knew that much because Monsieur’s passport was at the consulate. We’d therefore be somewhere in the UK, but where?
Next he booked a car – another clue to toy with. Knowing that Monsieur would never drive 5 hours to spend a single night at a place, only to drive 5 hours back the following day, I figured that our destination must be relatively close to London. Hmmmm. But where?
The e-mail font got bigger and bolder, but still Monsieur wouldn’t tell me where we were going. I felt like a five year old counting the sleeps until Christmas. At long last D-day dawned and we packed our overnight cases.
“Bring your golf clothes,” instructed Monsieur. Ah, apparently small white balls would be involved in the surprise, as he pulled our golf bags out of the closet.
“And a swimsuit.” he continued.
“And something smart to wear to dinner.” Well, that was a given. I’d taken for granted that I’d have to dress up for some special food on our special occasion. After all, Monsieur has never been a fish ‘n’ chips-on-a-freezing-beach-with-a-bottle-of-wine-sort of romantic.
Then we got into the car with our clubs and our bags and some little white balls and drove out of London. Goodbye, Westfield Shopping Centre. Goodbye Heathrow Airport. Goodbye Windsor Castle… and just before reaching the Slough of John Betjeman’s disparaging poem of the same name, which starts with ‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough, It isn’t fit for humans now.’, and only worsens in its damnation of the town, we turned off the motorway.
“We’d better not be lunching in Slough,” I thought to myself in unattractive snobbish manner, as Monsieur turned the car this way and that, eventually easing it onto leafy back-roads dappled with shade. Here were not concrete block buildings and superstores but tall brick walls and gate houses and hedges and vicarages and lots and lots of green. Perhaps we were going to Bray? It wasn’t far from here and Monsieur and I have long planned to visit Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck for some bacon and egg ice cream, among other culinary delights.
“I know where you’re taking me.” I said, rendered smug by my skills of deduction.
“No you don’t.” replied Monsieur, rendered equally smug by his own self-assurance.
And with that, we swept across to the left, onto a broad driveway climbing a gentle slope amidst the handiwork of Capability Brown and the manicured greens of a golf course.
No. I didn’t know where Monsieur was taking me. Not in the least.
It’s a happy day when someone sends me something food or drink-related to play with. It’s far preferable to those depressing brown envelopes with windows that usually fill the mailbox. So it is that I am the grateful recipient of a Friday with Gordon’s pack, comprising an adult-size bottle of Gordon’s gin, 6 smart highball glasses with Gordon’s logo marked ever so discreetly on their sides and a cookbook by the F-Word man himself, Gordon Ramsay.
So to what did I owe this gin-tastic pleasure? The Telegraph is promoting its new Friday supplement, The Friday, sponsored by none other than Gordon’s itself. The Friday is filled with great ideas for how to get the most out of those two precious days we call The Weekend, from cocktail recipes (naturellement) to themed takeaway ideas, relaxation tips and that useful tool – a countdown clock telling you exactly how many days, hours and minutes you have to wait for the next weekend.
Well, I’m having fun thinking up all sorts of wicked things to do with my Gordon’s tonight, but in the meantime, we have an Epic début in the shape of a competition. That’s right, G&T lovers, if you would like to win a Friday With Gordon’s pack with which to kick on your very own gin-themed weekend, you may enter here. I’m sorry to say that I have to restrict entries to UK residents only for this one, and you must be over 18 to enter because those are the rules I’ve been given by the nice Gordon’s people.
So here’s what you do:
Tell me in any way, shape or form who is your ‘Gordon Gracious Me’?
(that means in a comment, haiku, photo, video or any other way that can appear on this blog. Points will be given for originality.)
You have until midnight on Friday 9th October to send me your entries. Then we’ll take a vote and send the winner their very own Friday With Gordon’s kit.
Viel Glück, PEEPS! Now, for a word from Mr Ramsay: