Sun

Jasmine is in the air.

My heart always leaps when I smell the first scent of jasmine for the year.  It promises long summer days and warm evenings in the sea, and salads and fruit and sitting outdoors with friends.

So with the storm now passed and waking to a fine day I was inspired to get into the garden.  Between my awesome new job, the battle with bandicoots and general winter hibernation, my herbs have been quite neglected.  The only thing that’s really survived the cold months was the lemongrass, which I chopped back today to dry and use as tea.  But I bought some parsley and a few pots of colour from the market which will start to revive my little garden.

Later James and I headed down to the harbour for a picnic lunch and a lazy hour and a half soaking up the sun.

Beautiful Budapest

The long unified settlements of Buda and Pest lay astride the River Danube.  It is a city of decay and renewal; crumbling, gritty, modern, and incredibly beautiful.  Here more than anywhere else was I awed by the sights this city offered: just when I thought I’d seen it all, another magnificent building or square would reveal itself.

The 1938 Technicolor film Beautiful Budapest shows the cosmopolitan life in Hungary’s capital just one year before the Second World War, a place unaware of the tragedy and devastation to come.  But it also showcases the many attractions that continue to hold appeal.  Like the remedial waters of the Gellert Baths, built in the art nouveaux style, where we spent and indulgent three hours in the thermal pools, and Castle Hill which affords the best views of the city.

Only one omission is the Gerbeaud patisserie.  If divine cakes are your thing, you won’t want to miss this Hungarian institution.

Vienna Before Sunrise

Was it just my imagination, or did the waiter at our first Wiener kaffeehaus look a little like Ethan Hawke?

Travelling on the cheap we stayed in a friendly mixed dorm, in Westbanhof, a good location for domestic and international trains without being too far away from the tourist draw cards.

By night the Old Town is labyrinthine and abuzz with clubs and restaurants.  By chance we stumbled across a warm and inviting beer hall in the subterranean depths of vienna and ate a fine Wiener schnitzel to the tune of a lively quartet.

One of the main attractions is the Museum Quarter.  We spent a good morning filing through the Klimt and Schiele collections and the avenues of monumental buildings nearby, in contrast to the smaller, yet beautifully executed Secession and Jugendstil architecture seen in the other areas of the city.

And of course we couldn’t leave without wandering along the banks of the Danube and up to the amusement park.

From Paris to Prague

We arrived in Prague to the sound of accordion played by an old busker working his way along the train.

After checking into our hostel we found our way to the town centre and joined the mass of tourists assembling to watch the astronomical clock chiming the hour, adorned with animated figures and a parade of miniature apostles.

Prague was a marvel to me.  Once the kingdom of Good King Wenceslas, Old Town Prague is a composition of medieval streets, Teutonic buildings and fairytale spires with just a hint of its hedonistic heyday in the art nouveau facades and absinthe bars, while Soviet era trams rumble along gritty streets to the outskirts of town.

Our guide book remarked that the mystery of Prague is what happened to the summer menu, but for the short time I was there I was quite happy to eat my fill of goulash with dumplings and the odd stein of local beer.

 

Paris, je t’aime

Even without a surprise proposal atop La Tour Eiffel on my last visit, the City of Light could be no less romantic.  From grand boulevards to narrow, cobblestone streets lined with cafes, restaurants, and mansions of old reincarnated into shops and inner city apartments, there is no where else like it.

This time we took up residence in Saint Germain and made our way on foot, visiting new places and revisiting a few of our favourites.

The vast Musee d’Orsay needs more than one afternoon to fully explore its treasures, not least because the galleries begin closing a half hour before COB, unbeknownst to us.  But we did manage to take stock of the extensive Impressionist collection.

On a similar scale is Père Lachaise Cemetery where it’s easy to lose your way amidst the thousands of monuments to people passed.  I couldn’t help but wonder what Oscar Wilde would make of the lipstick kisses covering his grave, but Edith Piaff’s humble plot evoked more sombre thoughts on her life and work.

An hour train ride took us to the gilt Palace of Versailles, truly magnificent and itself a lavish monument to an era that is better left in the past.  But we joined the crushing crowds to file through The Hall of Mirrors fitted with seventeen mirrors to match seventeen windows overlooking the gardens, and the various chambers and living quarters in all their golden brocaded opulence.

But it’s the everyday-ness that I enjoy the most, pausing on the bridges that span the Seine, the flower shops and cheese sellers in Marais, blossom-covered streets in Spring, Parisienne ladies with their well behaved pooches, sun-drenched city parks, hand-painted menu boards, scents both good and bad, tartine breakfast with a bowl of cafe o’lait.

Yes, I do love Paris.

The Grand Tour

It was a last minute decision to fly to Europe, but an opportunity arose and we took it.  Beyond catching up with family in the UK, our itinerary for Europe is still very sketchy so this will be quite an adventure.

Our first port of call was London with two whole days to fill.  We based ourselves in a studio, just a stones throw from romantic St Pancras Station and the London Underground.  For me the Underground, with all those unusual English place names like Elephant and Castle, and the more familiar Paddington and Baker Street, has a childhood nostalgia from British stories I grew up with, not to mention endless games of monopoly.

First stop was London Bridge to visit the Tate Modern, but by happy accident a road detour took us to Borough Markets and we were immediately flanked on all sides by people milling through food stalls piled high with cheese and bread and all manner of local produce.  Being lunch time, we joined a queue for toasted cheese sandwiches.  Unless you’ve tasted one for youself, you won’t believe this was the best toasted cheese sandwich I’ve every had!  Two slices of sourdough, overflowing with grated cheddar and a sprinkling of spring onion, toasted golden brown and piping hot – delicious!

So too, the Tate was a feast for the eyes: Dzanza, Picabia, Chapman Bros, Ernst, Gorky Raushenberg, Hockney, Klee…  I could go on.

Sunday was market day, walking from Spittlefields, through Brick Lane and up to Colombia Street Flower Markets and back again.  The colour and the smells and the crowds all added to the atmosphere and I was quite pleased the vintage scarf and Welsh wool/bamboo yarn I found that day.  (Incidently, James was wearing the jumper I knitted for him.  If it weren’t for that, I might have been jealous of the ladies at the wool stall who were seriously checking out my handiwork!)

And then it was off to Nottingham.

Wonton Noodle Soup

I met my lovely mum in town at our favourite Chinese restaurant.  It’s the wonton noodle soup (and maybe the Mediterranean decor) that’s kept us coming for nearly ten years.  The noodles and dumplings are handmade and you won’t find better this side of China.

Dumplings can be found in many cultures and I enjoy all their variations, from the confusingly named ‘mini pork bun’ which are actually soup-filled parcels that pop in the mouth, to vegetarian momos, a highlight of my trip to Darjeeling.

So it follows that I started making my own. In fact wonton noodle soup has become something of a Friday night favourite. Here’s a recipe we use, passed on by a friend from Beijing.

WONTON NOODLE SOUP
Makes 4 generous serves

Ingredients:

Wontons
250g free range pork, minced
2tsp cornflour
1 handful Chinese cabbage, finely shredded
sprinkling chives, finely chopped
Wonton wrappers (found in refrigerated section at your local Asian grocer. Some supermarkets stock them too)
Small dish of cold water

Noodle soup
3-4ltrs chicken stock
2 bunches bok choy, leaves separated and rinsed
Noodles of choice, prepared as per directions (I like fresh udon style noodles)

Condiments
Chilli flakes and sesame oil, combined to make a thick mixture
Zhen jiang vinegar (a dark red vinegar found in Asian grocery stores)
Soy sauce
Chives, finely chopped

Combine pork, flour, cabbage and chives in a bowl and massage for 10 mins.

Lay wrappers out on a clean, dry surface.  Taking tablespoon portions of the pork mixture, roll into balls and place one in the middle  of each wrapper.  You should have enough for around 40 pieces.  Lightly moisten the edges of the wrappers and pinch together, sealing the pork mixture inside.

Meanwhile bring the stock to boil and divide prepared noodles between 4 large bowls.

Place dumplings in boiling stock and cook for 4 minutes.  At 2 minutes place bok choy in the stock and continue cooking.  Do not overcook.

With a slotted spoon, divide dumplings and bok choy between the bowls then pour over stock and serve.  Condiments can be added to taste.