Sourdough. What else?

I was actually quite surprised when I checked back and discovered that the last time I wrote anything about Sourdough baking was back in March 2018. A whole ten months back. I know time flies, but this is ridiculous.

And so, a brief recap. Back toward the end of 2017, I managed to tick another bucket list item by doing a sourdough workshop in Fumbally, Dublin with Shane Palmer, who is the main-man behind Sceal bakery in Dublin, and a big supplier to the Dublin restaurant scene. It was fairly mind-blowing, and got me on track to try making sourdough regularly. Practice makes perfect, and I set myself a target of getting to 100 loaves and seeing how I would improve ‘along the way’. The good news is that on 1 December 2018 I baked loaves 101 & 102 (yeah, I know this is sad, but I like numbers) and the even better news was that those two loaves were the absolute best I have made so far. And that made me very happy indeed.

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In between, what happened? I acquired quite a lot of added bits and pieces of equipment along the way, (like the above, which is called a Lame) and as I had been extra good in 2018, Santa Claus brought me a dough mixer for Christmas (still to come out of the box, but I expect great things). I also benefited from a few people who had no idea ‘what to get the man who has everything’ and plumped for Sourdough Baking books. But the big injection of pace in 2018 was going on a ‘second level’ one-day Sourdough baking course at Riot Rye Eco-village bread school in Cloughjordan on the Tipperary/Offaly border. There, Joe Fitzmaurice took me and a small number of (mostly male) fellow enthusiasts through a full-on, hands-filled day about the ins and outs of Sourdough baking. He also answered many questions, helped identify what we were, individually, doing wrong, and generally gave us a massive boost in confidence.

And so, armed with bubbling enthusiasm and some new techniques, I rushed back to my oven and began to produce much better loaves. To the relief of my neighbours and friends who had – I suspect – suffered through my learning curve and acted as my guinea pigs – you can’t eat that much bread on your own, so I give away a fair proportion of what I produce – it’s called ‘spreading the gospel’.

And so (I hear you ask) what were the main lessons of ‘the first hundred loaves’ – both good and bad? Here’s a brief list…

  • You can’t expect the Sourdough to work at your pace. You have to work at the pace IT dictates in terms of how the gluten and structure of the dough develops. When it’s ready to bake, it has to go in the oven, whether it’s convenient for you or not. There are ways you can retard the growth – mostly, it seems, by putting it in the fridge – but beyond that, when it’s ready, it’s ready. And so you literally have a to plan out a bake over 2 and maybe 3 days. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but for consistent results, this (for me) is now the number one rule. The dough drives the process.
  • Quality (fresh-ground) flour and correct temperatures will mean that the cycle can be telescoped. Basically if it’s left to ‘prove’ for too long, the dough more or less ‘eats itself’. The white flour leaven/mother/active yeast culture should float if it’s ready to use – you try a teaspoon of it in a glass of water. And pray. A starter made with Rye flour wont necessarily float, so you have to go by the bubbles in it to judge it’s ready. I use bottles still (obviously) water for making my initial leaven – my impression is that the Fluoride in tap water might not be great.
  •  Bake in a really HOT over – like 240 degree fan.
  • I also moved away from using cast iron saucepans (pre heated) to dome-type pyrex dishes, which means I can control temperature better and burn my hands a lot less (this is important, believe me). It also helps with moisture in the oven – the micro-climate is better. I ‘mist’ the inside of the pyrex dome before I bake – which may or may not help, I’m not sure.
  • Use a thermometer to test internal bread temperature at the end. If it’s 96 degrees or better, it’s probably cooked inside, and you are just working now on browning the crust.
  • Instagram is a great place to find fellow Sourdough enthusiasts and recipes – use the hashtag ‘sourdough’ and you get some amazing results. It’s a bit addictive…
  • Once your initial mix of the dough is done, you test that the gluten is developed by stretching and holding up a thin piece to the light – it should be translucent. This is called the windowpane test. Also at this stage (about 10 minutes of kneading) the dough sort of creates ‘webs’ across your fingers.
  • It’s nearly impossible to bake sourdough without making a mess, but you do get less hassle from your nearest and dearest if you clean up as you go along. Wire pot-scrubs are good for cleaning wooden chopping boards, and your dough-covered fingers too. You never have too many tea-towels, but a) they are cheap and b) you can hide the ones that you destroy along the way and put them into the bin. And if you end up with a tea-towel that has lots of dough stuck to it, you can pick a lot of it off if you put the tea towel in a deep freeze for a while.

The last thing I learned over the year is that making Sourdough is addictive. It’s really complicated in one sense, and (fairly) easy in another. The number of variables is mind-blowing, from flours to mixes, climate, temperature, time spent developing gluten, water quality, oven temperature, elapsed time etc. But that’s what makes every bake an adventure (no, really) and adds to the excitement. You just don’t really know what’s going to happen. And if there is anything to beat a still-warm slab of crusty sourdough with melting butter and slice of mature cheddar on it, well I’d like to hear about it. Now on to the next hundred loaves….

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Reading my way across Africa

Somewhere recently while posting a review on Goodreads of a book I had just finished I stumbled across a list of ‘recommended books about Africa’ on Listopia. It sort of piqued my interest and as I went down the list I realised with some surprise that I had read most of the books involved. Apart from travelling to Africa a number of times I have also read a lot of books set in that continent, a quite diverse set of reads.

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Africa does intrigue me, for reasons that I can’t fully explain. Maybe it started with me as a kid and my life-long interest in wildlife (partly fuelled by Gerald Durrell, who ‘makes my list’). In any case, here’s my own list of ‘Great books about or set in Africa’. It’s not in order of merit, but I do think each of these books have something to offer when it comes to understanding out about what makes Africa so interesting. A lot of the books are about Rwanda, because I spent some time volunteering there in 2015 and I read a lot about the area before, during and after my trip. And I allowed myself one sentence about each, to avoid going on and on and on…

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One thing – this is a mix of Fiction (marked F) and non-fiction (you guessed it, NF). Of course, much of the fiction is actually based on facts…

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  1. Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe (F)

Essential but sad reading, proves civilisation existed in Africa before the white man arrived with his version of same.

  1. Blood river by Tim Butcher (NF)

Author crosses the Congo warzone, survives with some close shaves, and shows how the jungle is reclaiming the transport links that once existed.

  1. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch. (NF)

Chilling book about the systematic genocide in Rwanda, and not for the faint-hearted.

  1. The power of one by Bryce Courtenay (F)

A coming of age story set in South Africa, oddly engaging, compelling and emotional.

  1. Dark star safari by Paul Theroux (NF)

A favourite travel writer of mine heads overland from Egypt down to South Africa, and offers his usual insights and observations along the way.

  1. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (F)

Powerful story about unfettered power, how it corrupts, and much more besides.

  1. The shadow of the sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski (NF)

Dispatches from the African front line, by an amazing and experienced journalist, and some very revealing essays about the hardships of life on this contintent.

  1. The last train to zona verde by Paul Theroux (NF)

An elegiac, informative overland trip from Capetown to Angola, with a lot of astute observations and self-reflections on ‘why am I here’?

  1. The first ladies detective agency by Alexander McCall Smith (F)

Whimsy set in Botswana but eminently readable and a wonderful sense of place.

  1. Congo by David Van Reybrouck (NF)

A detailed history of the last 120 years or so in one of the world’s most interesting and unstable countries, taking in music, sport, economics, war(s) and much more besides.

  1. Visiting Rwanda by Dervla Murphy (NF)

Written in 1997, three years after the genocide, these are the observations of one of the world’s foremost travel writers.

  1. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (F)

Life as a missionary in darkest Africa, and it’s engrossing trials and tribulations.

  1. King Leopold’s ghost by Adam Hochschild (NF)

Bewildering account of how one man more or less ‘owned’ the Congo, and the brutal way in which it was systematically stripped of its assets and dignity.

  1. The lost world of the Kalahari by Laurens Van der Post (NF)

Dated (in an interesting way) account of an expedition circa 1958 (?) to search for the Kalahari bushmen through countries that no longer exist today.

  1. Gorillas in the mist by Dian Fossey (NF)

Landmark book by a dedicated and idealistic naturalist who probably preferred the contact of gorillas to that of humans.

  1. The scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham (NF)

How the so-called ‘Great Powers’ carved up Africa and in the process created endless instability from their greed.

  1. Bad News by Anjan Sundaram (NF)

Idealistic journalist takes on the Rwandan establishment and – as might be expected – comes out of the experience second-best

  1. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (F – I think!)

‘I had a farm in Africa once’…enough said.

  1. The Bang Bang club by Greg Marinovich (NF)

Life and death as a freelance press photographer in South Africa during the townships uprisings – life on the front line.

  1. A Sunday at the pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche (F)

Terrifying ‘fiction’ based on the facts of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, and disturbing because of the banality of the killing.

  1. I do not come to you by chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (F)

Very funny morality tale about scammers in modern-day Nigeria who want to be good, but just can’t help themselves.

  1. An ordinary man by Paul Rusesabagina (NF)

The manager of the Hotel Rwanda tells his credible, brave story.

  1. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany (F)

A history of modern Egypt via a building’s occupants, and an insight into the roots of fundamentalism.

  1. Shake hands with the devil by Romeo Dallaire (NF)

The commander of the UN mission to Rwanda tells the whole sad story of the 1994 genocide from his frontline perspective

  1. Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell (NF)

The naturalist/conservationists first overseas ‘collecting trip’ to Cameroon in the early 60s (I think) and the humorous challenges and tribulations he faced along the way.

‘It’s in the mail’

Here’s a sad story about how hard it is to receive a parcel in Dublin these days. It’s not a ringing endorsement of An Post, our national postal service, rather the opposite.

In early November I ordered some books from Amazon UK, and rather than using Parcel Motel, as is my norm, I decided ‘Hey, this is simple. I’ll just get them delivered to my door by An Post.’ BIG mistake.

Sunday November 11 – as I am watching the ceremonies to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1, I get a text from An Post. Basically it says ‘your parcel is ready for delivery – so click this link to select delivery options. Netting it down, I was offered a number of choices to follow ‘if I was not at home when the delivery arrived’. So I entered an instruction along the lines of  – ‘if no-one is home, leave the parcel in the porch’. Easy, joined-up thinking, I liked it. Except that’s not how it worked out, not even close.

Monday 12th came, and went. Tuesday 13th came. Still no parcel. I began to wonder if it had been stolen out of our porch by unscrupulous book thieves. Unlikely, but hey, your mind starts to wonder/wander.

On Tuesday night I decided to log onto An Post’s ‘parcel tracking service’ and lo and behold, when I typed in my 13 digit code I saw that it had actually ‘been assigned a delivery route’ the previous day, ie Monday. Which could only mean that, as it had not yet come,  it’d be surely be delivered the next day, Wednesday 14th. And if no-one was home, my helpful instruction regarding the porch could/would be followed. Well, no. Wednesday came and went. No delivery.

So in the absence of any other ideas I phoned An Post’s ‘Customer Service Number’ on Thursday 15 November 2018. After speaking my tracking number into the phone the voice (you know the one) said ‘this service is unavailable’ so ‘please wait for the next available operator’. I did. After about 10 minutes of ‘we are experiencing high levels of calls’ and ‘you have been waiting for a very long period of time (I knew this) but your call is important to us’ I finally got to speak to a human.

He was relatively understanding and said that since the system did not give him the information he needed, he’d have to phone my local parcel depot where the delivery would/should/might emanate from. He came back after a few minutes to say that ‘no one was picking up’ so he’d try the manager. Then the manager didn’t pick up either, so the human on the helpdesk wrote an e-mail to the manager and talked me through the text, which basically said ‘where is this customer’s parcel’? Then sent it. I asked if it’d help if I called to the parcel depot. The man said that I’d probably be wasting my time because the parcel could be out for delivery.

However, I decided that since I was probably going to have to work from home that afternoon (on the off chance that the parcel might arrive), and as the Parcel office was more or less en route, I’d call in anyway. Another dead end. The man behind the bulletproof glass went and checked and said ‘it’s not here’. And so it’s ‘probably out for delivery’. I suggested that four days (now my best possible outcome) to deliver a parcel 2km away was ‘not great’. He told me – despite my incredulity – that ‘if a parcel from Amazon was taken to a house and could not be delivered, ‘they didn’t leave any note to say ‘we missed you’ but just brought the parcel back about three times’. By now – my mistake – my blood pressure was so high that I forgot to mention my own instruction (remember that, where my woes started?) to ‘leave the package in the porch’. I doubt it would have changed anything anyway. But my 90 seconds with the man behind the bulletproof glass was up, so I trudged home, hopefully. Possibly it was actually sitting in my porch already?

It wasn’t. But before I made it home, I saw an An Post van delivering parcels about 500m from my house. Losing all inhibitions, I pulled in in front of him and gently asked the driver, who was a bit taken aback (lest I be some kind of crazy guy), if he might perchance have a package for my house number. I waved the tracking number hopefully in front of him. Sadly, he indicated that he ‘only delivered big parcels’. Then, in fairness, seeing my glum face, he suggested I visit the Delivery Office as ‘they should know who has it’. I grimaced and said that I had just come from there. But – I said – ‘who knows, it may be waiting for me down the road’. But, as you already know, it wasn’t.

So at this juncture, late on Thursday 15 November 2018, my parcel has been ‘lost in space’ for about four days, between my house and a parcel depot about 2km way. I’m afraid to leave the house in case someone does actually try to deliver. On the positive side, it’ll be the weekend before I run out of milk. If I try to phone the parcel office, I’ll be diverted to a queue at the call centre. The current status of my package on the An Post ‘track and trace’ website is (since Monday) ‘assigned delivery route’. And I don’t know what to do next. I did find – and Tweet at – an An Post twitter handle who suggested I log a call with their Customer Service desk (see above). Then silence.

I do however know one thing for sure. Next time I’ll be using Parcel Motel.

Wild times in Botswana

This post is a bit longer than my norm, but it was an extraordinary trip so I felt it justified a bit more depth….rightly or wrongly.

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When the honey badgers attacked the camp’s cooking pots collection at 3am, I was sitting on the camp bed in my two man dome tent, debating with myself whether or not I really needed to go out to the bush toilet. The clattering dissuaded me for a short while, but inevitably I had to get up and make the short trek to the nearby latrine. My head torch was augmented by the bright light from an African full moon, and I was soon back in my tent, protected from the outside world by a small strip of canvas. But, you may well ask, how did I get here? My wife and I were on a Camping safari in Botswana, one of the best places in the world to get up close and personal with a bewildering selection of wildlife. But what had persuaded us that this was a trip worth making? Well, there were a number of factors.

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First of all, Botswana – a country the size of France but with only about 2.5 million inhabitants – is home to the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s most famous and unique wildlife zones. The annual rains in Angola, about 1000km to the North, seep underground through geological strata and literally bubble up inland in the Okavango. This up-flow peaks in July and August each year, and the water creates an influx of mammals and birds to join the population which lives there year-round. Basically it turns into a massive inland swamp, dotted with low-lying islands. And then it slowly evaporates over many months, there is eventually a dry season, and the cycle begins again. Apart from this amazing feature, Botswana is also home to the Kalahari desert, and has many other well-stocked wildlife reserves strung along the Chobe river in the Northeast of the country. The Chobe flows into the Zambezi River and ultimately Victoria Falls, where Zambia and Zimbabwe own the river banks.

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Ever since I was a kid I had been interested in African wildlife, and getting to Botswana had long been an ambition. And then, on more recent group trips of other parts of the world, well-seasoned fellow travellers would say ‘Botswana, absolutely’ when asked ‘Where would you go back to’? Finally, the whimsical series of books called ‘The first ladies detective agency’ were big favourites in our house, and their wonderful descriptions of Botswana had captivated us. So Botswana floated inexorably to the top of the must-see list. And off we went.

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We travelled as part of a small group tour of twelve, including ourselves, and we met most of the crew in Johannesburg airport as we boarded the Air Botswana plane to take us to Maun, the jumping off point just South of the Okavango delta. After a few suspicious glances in the queue to check-in we cracked and said ‘Are you with the Exodus trip?’ and so, in the course of about ten minutes, we met most of our fellow travelers. Happily they all turned out to be seasoned travelers with realistic expectations, and great company. Not the kind of people to panic over a broken fingernail (which was just as well, in retrospect).

After the airport pickup, our first stop in the frontier town of Maun was the Audi camp, where our tents were pitched and waiting for us. Our orientation meeting was very thorough, and it emerged that while we’d be spending some time in ‘fixed camps’ like Audi, most of our halts on the 13 night trip would be ‘wild camping’ where you literally stop under a shady tree, pitch your tents, and leave no trace when you depart, barring a few cold ashes from your campfire.

The Audi camp, to which we’d return a few times, had the relatively basic facilities of shower blocks, a bar, a small swimming pool and wi-fi near reception. It’s worth noting that after a number of nights in the bush, what we once thought of as ‘basic’ became impossibly exotic. Running water! Flush toilets (with doors). Mirrors! But it was all ahead of us as we set off the next morning in a 12 seater open-sided truck that would take us to the delta. There we were met by a fleet of ‘mokoros’ or traditional canoes, in which we were poled into the delta along papyrus-lined channels created by hippos. Happily the hippos were ‘only active at night’ as we were told. We landed on an island in the delta, the four man crew got busy, and soon our two man tents were assembled and our bags stowed away. Our cook John began to perform his daily miracles on an open fire, and before long we were all seated around the fire on camp-stools, having a very tasty lunch. In fact the food turned out to be excellent on the trip, and endlessly varied. There was always a kettle boiling for tea or coffee, and galvanised buckets beside the fire with water heating for showers (of which more anon).

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We soon set off into the surrounding bush on our first walking safari with local man Willie – there were no arms in evidence and our understanding was that our guides just relied on their knowledge of the terrain and animals behaviour to keep us safe. The walking safaris were great, a very interesting experience. Willie showed us different tracks, what various droppings looked like, identified with ease all the birds we saw, and we spotted – at a safe distance – Elephants, Hippo, Cape Buffalo, Impala, Zebra, Giraffes, Kudu, Baboons and more.

This established the pattern. Every morning we’d rise before dawn around 5am, grab a quick breakfast, and start walking, returning to camp around 11am. We’d have a lunch, discuss what we’d seen, compare notes and then either have a siesta or read a book.  Showers were optional, and consisted of a canvas bag rigged on a tree branch over a small enclosure about 40m away from the campfire. After a while we just took lukewarm showers as the water naturally heated up. With early afternoon temperature around 35 degrees, the cool water was a joy. Toilet arrangements consisted of a deep slot dug in the ground, with a toilet seat balanced over it and surrounded again by a canvas ‘box’. After using the facility, you threw a spade’s worth of dirt on top, and when we left the site the crew just filled in the hole. No-trace camping at its best.

In the late afternoon, around 4pm, we’d set off again on another ‘game walk’. Sunset was at 6.30, we generally got back by 6.45pm and ate around 7.15, and by 9pm the whole camp would be in their tents, as the campfire in the centre of the circle of tents deterred any wandering animals. Well, mostly! Further down the road, we’d be visited by Hyenas, Honey Badgers, and an elephant expressed some vague interest in our camp another night. Most people’s fear was snakes, but in fact on the entire trip we just saw one, and he was on the roadside rather than near our camp.

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After a few days in the delta, we canoed out again, and after a one night stay in Maun (Civilisation! Showers! Beer! Wifi!) we set off on the road. But, before that, five of us paid out a bit of money to take an optional light aircraft flight over the delta. Ignoring the fact that our pilot looked to be about 22 years old, we piled into a light Cessna and soon we were flying over the delta, as our shadow sped across the bush below. We got a great view of the whole area, realised how vast it was, and were ignored by the animals a few hundred feet below as we took photo after photo. A great end to that leg of the trip.

Net morning we pulled out, and without going into too much detail, we first stayed for one night at the Makgadikgadi salt pans (the size of Wales…). It was like being on the edge of the world, with salt flats stretching to the horizon. We trekked on and crossed the border into Zimbabwe before, ninety minutes later, pulling into our Victoria Falls campsite where – crazy luxury – we actually got to sleep in a real bed in chalets on the campsite. The falls were amazing, but it was hard to avoid the feeling that Zimbabwe was in a bad way, as people tried to sell us Banknotes printed with One Billion for a single US dollar. Two nights at the falls, and we headed back over the border for the home stretch of wild camping. Over five days we visited Chobe, Savuti and Moremi game parks. Again, the quantity of wildlife we spotted was amazing. This time we did our morning and evening games drives in the truck, and when you are in that the animals tend to ignore you, so you can get quite close. We were lucky enough to see an elusive Leopard, endangered Wild Dogs several times, Lions, hundreds of Elephants, herds of Buffalo, Impala, Wildebeest and so on. I got a bit closer to a large Crocodile than I wanted to while on a boat trip on the Chobe river (happily he wasn’t hungry). And we saw amazing sunrises and sunsets, and a full moon shining down on us every night. Truly memorable.

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But all good things must come to an end, and we rolled back into our Maun campsite mid-afternoon on the last day. Whereupon we all raced either to the shower-blocks or to the bar to fulfill the fantasy that we’d built up over the previous five days in the bush. At our farewell dinner that night we all swapped contact details and agreed to keep in touch – it’s funny how quickly you become friends with people, when you travel with them 24/7.

 

And the final question – would I do it again? Absolutely, no question. It might not be for everyone, and it is ‘full on’. You are tired by the end. But the proximity to the animals in bush camping, hearing them call at night, the excellence of the organisation and support crew, and the camaraderie with our fellow travellers all added up to a great experience. And one that we’d readily take on again, no question.

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When you gotta go…

I was lying in my tent, looking at the radiant full moon through the mesh window. It was 3am, and I was seriously debating with myself whether or not I needed a pee. The primary difficulty was that the ‘bush toilet’ – which was effectively a deep slot in the dry ground, surrounded by a canvas box – was about 15 metres away. And at that precise moment a pair of Honey Badgers attacked the camp utensils box with a crashing of pots, pans and anything else they could ransack. This in turn caused John, our cook to wake up, and they retreated when torches were produced. I decided to ‘hold on’ for a bit longer. And when I did eventually strap on my head-torch and venture forth in the moonlight, I could see the springer-spaniel-sized badgers as dark muttering blobs about 40 metres away.

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We were on a full-on camping safari in Botswana, which is generally seen as one of the best countries in Africa to see game animals in the wild. But it also tends to bring ‘the need to pee’ to the forefront of campfire conversations. Especially at the ‘wild camping’ locations which represented about 70% of our overnights. To explain – you arrive at a big tree, which is important for shade, as temperatures climbed into the mid-30s. The crew erect the tent, and do all the hard work. They chop a slot in the ground for a toilet, and (mostly) erect a canvas box with a canvas bag of water help over it by a rope slung over a branch. This is your shower. They build an open fire in the middle of the tents for a) cooking b) focal point and c) generally to dissuade animals from wandering in. And when you leave, you literally leave just some ashes behind you. It’s immersive, exciting, cumulatively tiring, and very sociable in terms of engaging with your fellow travellers – basically you don’t have any other distractions.

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We were a group of 12,and the trip involved touring the game parks of Botswana with a brief excursion over the border into Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls. And – the luxury – to sleep there in an actual room with a bed and an en-suite toilet for two whole nights (before being dragged, screaming, back to the Botswanan bush).

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Don’t get me wrong. The trip was great, and the proximity to the animals and birds was exactly what we had expected and hoped for. But as the trip went on, the topic of ‘did you have to go last night’ became pervasive around the evening campfire. We were – typically – going to bed around 9pm at the latest, for a 5am start. First light was around 5.30am, and it was pitch dark by 7.15pm. So the hours where ‘going to the toilet’ played on the mind were long and troubled.

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The last two nights, in Moremi Game park, featured a cacophony of sounds from the bush. Both nights (we were told), a hyena had passed through the camp at some point, and some particularly noisy birds (maybe) woke us up around 3am. The problem with waking is that you immediately begin to have ‘that’ conversation with yourself. As in ‘Do I need to go’? First answer is (always) ‘No’. Then, when you don’t immediately sink back to sleep, you start to think about it some more. And pretty soon you realise you have silently talked yourself into slipping on the boots, putting on the head torch (greatest invention known to man), undoing the tent zip, and heading that 15m into the great unknown of the night-time.

I won’t be taking my en-suite so much for granted in the future, that’s for sure.

NYC in B&W

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I was lucky enough recently to spend a week in New York – in Manhattan to be precise. I was visiting family, but also went to the US Open Tennis and used my central location to catch up on many aspects of New York that I had either a) done before a long time ago, or b) never done. I had a great, action-packed week.

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Before I went, I watched Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’ again. It’s one of my favourite films, and even if seems a bit dated now in parts, it still packs a punch. Especially that scene where he and Diane Keaton are sitting beside the Brooklyn Bridge with her dachshund, watching the lights glitter across the East river. Magical

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I decided this time around that I’d only bring my iPhone with me, just to travel as light as I could. And on the basis that a picture tells a thousand words, here’s a short summary of the highlights of the week that I had – but in black and white, naturally. All photos taken with an iPhone 7+…

A man called Whittaker

Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph,

Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.

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That’s from ‘Bookends’ by Paul Simon.

And I was thinking about that couplet when I found the small and very poor quality photograph that accompanies this post. The man on the left side, with a spade over his shoulder, is/was Paddy Whittaker. And although I never knew him, he played quite a big role in my existence. As far as I can tell, everyone just called him ‘Whittaker’

The photo was (it says on the back) ‘taken in Miss Keatings garden, in June 1938’. Miss Keating was ‘gentry’ and Paddy Whittaker, like many other men, worked in the gardens and the farm around her house, about six miles south of Athy. Paddy Whittaker was born in 1875 and came from a large family, most of them agricultural labourers.

His sister Anne and he were close, and she married twice, and had two families. Her first husband James Stynes died around 1900 (I’ve been unable to find his death certificate) and her second husband was Richard Cullen. One member of the first family was Anne (names seem to perpetuate in all these family lines), and she became, in due course my maternal  grandmother.

And this is where Paddy Whittaker became very important in my history. In 1914 my 23 year old grandmother Anne Stynes married a soldier, Patrick Mulhall. He went off to what became known as ‘the Great War’ and the next four years saw infrequent visits to Athy, as he participated in most of the major battles of WW1. Sadly he disappeared into the Flanders mud on March 20 1918 in the last German offensive of the war. And most likely he never saw my mother, (again) Anne Mulhall, born in November 1917.

So Anne Mulhall had an infant daughter, and – as far as I can tell – retreated into the bosom of her mother’s family. And by all accounts it was Whittaker, her grand-uncle, who more or less took on providing for and rearing the child. These were strange times, Ireland got its independence, and it seems that feelings toward the wives of British servicemen were complicated, at best.

After a while, the mother Anne went into service around Dublin, and left her child Anne at home with her mother (now married to Cullen) and Whittaker. I have one postcard from the mother to the child, effectively saying ‘I miss you and hope I see you soon’. Time passed, my mother grew up, and Whittaker was still around to make sure things were ok. I only know this, because she used to ask me ‘Do you remember Whittaker?’ and told me about how much he did for her when growing up. He died in 1959 when I was three, and I simply don’t remember him – I wish I did. Apparently he was delighted when I arrived, and a frequent and welcome visitor.

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My family album from that era is sparse. I don’t think taking photographs was a luxury they could afford, putting food on the table was the priority. And so finding that photo and learning who was in it became a treasure. But I do still have one small link to the past, and to him. When I was growing up, there was always a watch fob chain attached to our house keys, and I was told it was Whittaker’s. So in due course I inherited it, and now it’s always attached to my house and car keys. So in a sense, he’s still around somehow, the man that raised my mother.

Time it was, and what a time it was…

The harvest is plentiful

But the labourers are few. Someone famous said that, once upon a time. Well it feels like that to me anyway, as I hump several watering-cans around my carefully-tended vegetable plot most nights. For the last few years I have been experimenting with growing a selected range of vegetables in custom-made ‘boxes’ at the end of my garden. It’s been a trial and error affair, and I have learned a lot along the way. However this is the first year the ‘drought’ has struck, albeit there is an upside as the legions of slugs and snails that I normally have to battle with are absent.

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The FARM…

Having said all that, what have I grown. And more to the point, what am I going to do with it now that it’s coming into the harvest season?

 

First to ‘come through’ were the strawberries, this year was a bumper crop. No difficulty at all in getting through those. Next up was the Swiss Chard, which met an untimely end as the drought kicked in. I managed to get one brief crop (which anchored a vegetarian lasagne) before I faced the inevitable and ripped up the remaining wilting plants.

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A lotta lettuce

I have lots of lollorosso lettuce and salad leaves – in fact we can’t eat it fast enough. It’s very hard to ‘phase’ the sowings so that they come in a workable sequence, so I fear there will be a lot of lettuce going to seed shortly. I have a single outdoor cucumber plant and I have to keep pinning back the giant leaves of the adjacent courgette plant so the cucumber gets some light. But it has some fruits so I think they will be going into the salad bowl before long.

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Chives, Thyme, Oregano, Salad leaves

I do love courgettes, because they are so easy to grow. But I am on the edge of a massive glut, based on the number of flowers on view. At times it seems like you can almost see the crop growing, they swell so fast. I think I’m going to need to find some new recipes soon – the standard ones that involved making soup and (again) lasagne are probably not going to be enough.

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Beans, and the secret weapon – the composter.

Obviously I have lots of herbs growing, and my annual crop of Basil is looking unusually healthy at the moment. It always (literally, always) keels over and dies about now, so maybe it’s the long hot spell that’s keeping it alive this year. I’m thinking of making some pesto if the crop survives. So I inspect nightly for ‘signs of deterioration’. But in general the herbs (parsley, thyme, oregano, rosemary) go into the kitchen. Actually it’s evident that the Rosemary (in particular) loves the hot weather, and it’s aroma is so fantastic as well, even out in the garden.

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My temperamental Basil

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Rhubarb, wilting in the heat.

And finally, two new additions this year. I planted Rhubarb in a bed of very rich compost around March. It’s taken off like a forest fire, again massive leaves and this time around there are huge stalks below. So far we’ve made Rhubarb Crumble and a very nice Rhubarb and Custard cake. Both of which went down well. Last but not least, based on a successful trial last year, I have planted lots of beans – French and Runner varieties. They are in full flower at the moment, so I’m hoping for a good crop in August or thereabouts. We were picking the beans last year for a few months, they seemed to keep coming back, hence the expanded crop this year.

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Salad Leaves – the next generation 🙂

I should point out that I’m growing all this stuff in big boxes on a concrete slab, and the ‘footprint’ involved is about 8m x 2m. So it’s amazing what output you can get from a small space if you put your mind to it. I think our secret weapon is the composter, which is (this year)in full sun and therefore rots the vegetable matter very quickly, and it’s then recycled into the beds.

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So now it’s a case of eating these ‘fruits of the garden’ as they come into season. Last but not least, I have lots of Mint, which is an essential ingredient for Mojitos. Mmmmm…

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Cornwall and beyond.

Encouraged by friends who had recently visited the southwest of the UK – mainly Cornwall and Devon – we decided to take advantage of low airfares to jet in for a long weekend and see what we could fit in. We had not anticipated doing this in the middle of a heatwave, but you have to take life as it comes and certainly the fact that our car had air conditioning was, literally, a life-saver. Or at least it felt that way…

We flew into Bristol at an obscenely early hour on Saturday morning, and left late on Monday night. So more or less three full days for a whistle-stop tour. In retrospect, flying into Bristol was a bit too far North, we should have tried for flights to Exeter or Newquay. And we also should have based ourselves further south hotel-wise, rather than our excellent hotel on the edge of Dartmoor. But you live and learn, and next time I’ll know better.

Saturday benefited from the fact that England were playing in the World Cup Quarter Final, so traffic was probably lighter than otherwise. We spent the day exploring around Tintagel, reputed site of ‘the court of King Arthur of round table fame’ and then on to the pleasant town of Padstow where we had reserved an early table for dinner in one of Rick Padstow’s multiple restaurants. Both Padstow itself and the restaurant were lovely, and we headed back to our hotel by driving across Bodmin Moor.

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I should at this point say that once you get off the main roads in Devon and Cornwall, the driving is hair-raising. I have never gone around so many blind corners in second gear in my entire life, and I eventually had to turn off the SatNav because of some of the roads ‘she’ was sending me on. Truly scary.

After a VERY good night’s sleep on Saturday night (England won  their World Cup match comfortably also) we rose early and drove down to the south coast – about 90 minutes away. First stop was the wonderful ‘Lost gardens of Heligan’ which are, basically, a gardener’s dream outing. Wonderful walks, hidden gardens, history, vegetables, ferns, wildflower meadows etc. We dragged ourselves away reluctantly (as the temperature headed toward 30 degrees) and headed in our car toward the Lizard peninsula – the most Southerly point in England. It’s very pretty, and the walk down to the point itself in the heat sapped whatever energy we had left. So a Cornish ice-cream was called for to restore energy levels. Which we ate in the shade.

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We headed on to the nearby town of Penzance, and more specifically to see St Michael’s Mount, which is a church/castle on an island just off the coast, joined by a causeway at low tide. At this point it was around 4pm and the heat was intense, so rather than visiting the island we lounged on the beach opposite, and gazed across at the mount and the blue horizon on the sea. I swam briefly in the very cold but clear waters, dodging the jellyfish that occasionally appeared. They were not too big, so I reckoned I’d survive an encounter, albeit none appeared.

Last stop for the day was Land’s end – the southwest-most tip of Britain – and about 10 miles away. The temperature was still 30 degrees, and the sun was shimmering on the sea as we did a brief walk along the cliffs. Unfortunately we still had a two hour drive back to the hotel – it would have been so nice if we’d been staying closer. But them’s the breaks, and we made it back to the hotel in time to eat in the Beer Garden and explore the wine list. Another good night’s sleep, needless to say.

On Monday the plan was to ‘explore Dartmoor’ – given that we were on its doorstep, and after another ‘full English’ breakfast (diet begins tomorrow) we set off. Once again, the roads we travelled in getting TO the moor itself were scary in the extreme. High green hedges, no-where to allow cars you met to pass, and generally we alternated between praying and cursing loudly. We finally made it and drove up, up to the high moors. Which were, in fairness, very impressive. The Dartmoor ponies are friendly, the scenery intriguing, and the sheep lie on the roads panting in the heat, so you have to drive around them, with care.

We climbed Haytor (most of the ridge tops are called ‘tors’) and enjoyed a great view over the surrounding countryside as we wiped the sweat from our eyes. On to the beautiful Widdicome in the moor, as picturesque a village as you are likely to see, and then some more scary roads until I got to the old Clapper bridge at Postbridge, which apparently is one of the oldest bridges in the country. Basically it’s a set of granite slabs laid across the river. Then on to some more scary roads all the way into Exeter, where I got lost despite SatNav lady’s best efforts.

I eventually managed to find the M5 North and we headed back toward Bristol. I had one more stop planned. I wanted to see Glastonbury Abbey and the nearby Tor. Having tried and failed on multiple occasions to buy tickets for the rock festival, this was my ‘next best thing’. The Abbey itself is largely ruined, and was closed down by King Henry the Eighth in the reformation in 1539. But we had a great guide, who brought it all to life, and it really is worth a visit. Very easy to get at also – you basically park at the front gate and walk through the entrance. These things are important when the thermometer is once again hovering around 30 degrees.

We made a short tour of Glastonbury itself, grabbed a restorative coffee, and marvelled at the many ‘mystical’ and New Age shops on offer. How do they all survive? We also noticed, from our roadside coffee point, the numbers of people wandering around in tie-dye outfits – there’s definitely a ‘different feel’ on view in this town. A short spin in the car out to view the legendary Glastonbury Tor was followed by setting the SatNav for Bristol Airport, which we found despite some false turns. As in ‘does she mean turn here or further on’? And we made it back on one piece. Just about.

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In one sentence, I’d say… Lovely place, great vistas, way too much for one weekend, scary roads, nice food, and we survived the heatwave. I think we’ll be back…

On the Ile de Re…

We were spending a week on the French coast in the Vendee region, and decided that we’d do a day trip to the Ile de Re, an island that juts out into the sea just off La Rochelle. We’d heard it was very pretty and – being flat – a cyclists paradise. But I was unable to elicit much interest from my fellow-travellers, and in fairness the heat meant that the car provided air-conditioned refuge.

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The island is accessed by a long bridge/causeway which is well signposted from the North side of La Rochelle. There’s a hefty fee to cross, but no choice really. After we reached the island itself we decided to head to the very end – about 30km away – and the Phare des Baleines (Lighthouse of the Whales) and work our way back from there.

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We did not climb the lighthouse, but the views from its base across to the mainland were stunning anyway. We treated ourselves to a strong, reviving Café Crème, and a crepe to go with it. On a few km to the ‘cant not go there’ town of Arse n Re. It’s sleepy in the heat, but very pretty, with hollyhocks and geraniums adding a touch of colour. The hollyhocks seem to be able to grow in virtually no soil and the worse the location the more profuse the flowers… We also stopped a few times to get some photos of the profuse wildflower meadows that lined our routes. With light enough traffic we were in a good position to take advantage. On the edge of Arse en Re are salt pans where sea salt is dried in the sun – very organic and – obviously – we bought some to bring home.

To cool down, we got in for a swim near Couarde-sur-Mer. The sea was quite warm, which was a surprise, as about 100km North where we were staying, it was rather cold. Maybe it’s less exposed near Ile de Re. The landscape of the island is very flat, which means there are lots of cyclists, cycle hire shops, and dedicated cycle paths also. I’d imagine that in peak holiday season it must be impossible to get around – there are many campsites, hotels and other complexes that are obviously there to cater for the ‘French holiday rush’ in August. We traversed the town of Loix and had a late lunch under a spreading plane tree in the town square. Moules/Frites and a class of chilled Rose – the perfect combination.

There’s an old monastery (ruined) near the East end of the island, and by now it was glowing in the evening sun as we made our final few stops on the ‘big day out’.

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Our very last stop threw up what we agreed was the prettiest spot that we saw on the island. St Martin de Re is a small town on the North side of the island, facing across to the mainland. It has a very pretty old tower/church, and the ancient walls of the town are pretty much intact. However the piece de resistance is the little harbour. Lots of yachts, clear blue/green water, and lined with restaurants, bars, ice cream parlours and the like. A really beautiful spot to while away an hour and indulge in the classic French pursuit of people watching. I could see myself returning to Ile de Re, and if I do this little town would be high on my list of places to stay. A bientot, as they say around here.