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Hey Hey Beijing! One day in China's "Northern Capital"

One day is by no means long enough in any city, least of all somewhere as big as Beijing. Sadly that is all my brother and I had when we travelled to China after our father died, but we did try and make the most of it - while of course relaxing, getting over the jetlag thing, and thinking through the next few days dealing with Dad's affairs.

Beijing is literally the "northern capital", the southern capital being Nanjing, which was close to where our dad worked. We arrived in Beijing straight from the UK, at about 4pm local time, so by the time we got past passport control and into the city, it was time for food. We stayed at Holiday Inn Dongzhimen, which was picked because of price mainly, as well as being close to everything we wanted to see. Close is relative in Beijing, but that said taxi's are cheap - our ride from the airport costing less than 100RMB (about £10). We had done some research, and there was a top rated duck restaurant opposite, so that was Saturday's dinner sorted.

I was quite happy with just duck, but Merlin wanted more, so we got some ribs and an aubergine dish, as well as rice, to accompany. Going in blind with the menu, we did quite well. As expected our Peking Duck was absolutely FANTASTIC. The rest, well, the ribs were well cooked, very tender, and a bit sweeter than I was used too. However I say sweet - more of a honey sweet than a straight sugar sweet - which was a nice change. The aubergine was also great - unlike with alot of the European cooking methods, it didn't suck up a lot of oil, let tasted very moist and moreish. There really are no words for the duck except IN MY BELLY. We had read it in a review, and oh my god it was true! Sadly, there wasn't enough room for everything but we did try.

We also went for a quick drink around the corner, and watched a police raid go down. It was a small bar in a lane, that had tables in the road. Well, of course, not quite legit, and they got word the police were coming as we sat drinking, and suddenly there was a mad dash to get he tables away before they turned up. It seemed like they managed it, but it was a sight to see go down. A rather eventful evening.

Our "full day" was spent mainly in Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Both are epic, much much larger than I could have every imagined. You can intellectually know that somewhere (in this case Tiananmen Square) can hold 600,000 people but seeing it is another matter. We walked all the way arround Tiananmen square - past the massive queues for Mao's Tomb and climbed the Zhengyangmen (one of the gates in the city wall - opposite the Tiananmen gate) to get a good view of the square. Then through the Tiananmen gate to the forbidden city itself. Tiananmen means Gate of Heavenly Peace, and is an entrance gate to the Emperors Palace (the city) which gives the square it's name. Mao's portrait still hangs on the gate, over the entrance, looking over at his mausoleum, which is in the center of the square.

The Forbidden City is 180 acres in area, and to be honest I think we would need a full day to see the whole thing. I reached my saturation point (when I could take in no more) after about 4 hours of wandering around and still I look back and thing "gah! should have gone to see that bit!". We had no guide book and couldn't find an English language map, so were just wandering around letting it all sink in. Hopefully the photos do it justice.

After the square, a rikshaw ride (don't trust them! take taxi's!!) and a wander through a shopping area that looked all too familiar, we headed back to the hotel for nap to fight the jetlag.

That night for dinner we headed around the corner to The Great Leap Brewing Company. Neither of us fancied venturing far as Beijing is very large, very spread out and to be honest, a wee bit daunting. I had heard of Great Leap, and it turns out that they were only one minute walk from the hotel so we gave it a go. Totally wonderful - great beer, great food (although American style not Chinese) and I felt totally comfortable. Just what you need when jetlagged and feeling completely out of your comfort zone.

So that was our day in Beijing! If I did it again, I might organised to head out to the Great Wall - but it is 2 hours outside the city, it was a baking hot 36 degrees and neither of us were organized enough to have booked the trip, or fancied that long in a car. Also, had we been more organised, getting a cab to drive by a few of the more interesting skyscrapers, knowing what we were looking at in the Forbidden City and getting to the Temple of Heaven, rather than the all too western Wangfujing Street for shopping. But you live, you learn, and more often than not you have time to read blogs about what to do and what not to do. We had heard Wangfunjing was interesting, and it was, but with limited time not what I would prioritize, but this is my take.

Overall I just have to say - not somewhere that was on my travel bucket list but now I most definitely want to go back!

REVIEW - Glasses Direct

A geek is not a geek without glasses non? In all seriousness I'm so blind now I cannot see without them, so I'm having to wear them constantly. I of course can't live with one pair, and then I need sunglasses too, and of course it all racks up. Having read about Glasses Direct on a few other blogs I decided to give them a go, nothing ventured nothing gained after all.

I'm sure you've come across the blogs too, but I'll give you the pitch anyway. The idea is simple - you get your prescription from the optician as usual, but you order your specs from them. The website is full of various frame options, and you can order four pairs to "try at home", which is pretty much just try on your face, free of charge. This is an idea I really like - no more messing about with my hair in the Opticians while trying on glasses. Pretty much what every other blogger wrote, it was lovely and simple. I narrowed down the frames I wanted to try, ordered them and they arrived for me to try with no fuss. That whole part of the transaction worked just as they advertised - and really was a lot of fun. I did, of course. have to try the frames with various hairstyles and outfits.

I decided, in order for the world to remain in HD all the time, I needed some prescription sunglasses as well. Having decided on my frames, I went to order my specs, which wasn't as simple as I had hoped.

Realistically, it was because I was frazzled I made the cock up, but I did make a mistake on my prescription input - I basically forgot that my lenses were distance now and not reading. I changed it on one frame and forgot on the other. I triple checked the numbers, missed checking the clickbox. There was no way to change it once the order went through.

I placed my order at 7pm, yet there was no option to change, or even completely cancel and re-order via the website. I had to wait until the next day and call. Or rather, the other half did because I was in work and couldn't call. For a web based company this seems so counter-intuitive. It was easily fixed once we did call but to have to call was a total pain.

That said, once my specs arrived I was really happy with them. Suddenly the world is high definition again. The price was good too, two pairs for £66 (thanks to a good old discount code) including anti-scratch and anti-reflection lenses. I just wish they had an option to fix a mistake via the website rather than having to call.

At times there are various discounts and offers available, as well as giving customers links to refer people where everyone gets money off. If you want to be a lovely person and click my referral link, you can get a discount. I'm definitely keeping an eye out for another offer. Mamma needs more glasses.

Messy Meringues

More baking... I'm a wee bit obsessed right now. Maybe its because its bake off season, who knows?

Meringues are hard, or can at least seem that way.. getting the right mix between crispy and that marshmallow middle is an art. Not one that I get right all the time, but thats where mess comes in handy. I use Nigella's recipe, it works for me 9 times out of 10, and even if it cracks it tastes fab. Unfortunately today it cracked, so no pretty pavlova piled high with raspberries and cream. Instead Eton mess.

Eton mess is a great way of rescuing a planned pavlova that goes tits up. Story goes it was "invented" by students at Eton who destroyed a pavlova while taking it to a riverside picnic. Very romantic, maybe true, maybe not, but it sticks in my head. I always aim, when making meringue, for pavlova like I did today.

Occasionally, again like today, I end up with a mess.

It really is the same, just not as delicately put together. Meringue, cream and fruit, and if it suits I like to add a drizzle of sauce - fruit coulis, chocolate or something nice that works.

Today was one of the classics, Raspberry, with home made raspberry conserve (ie jam that came out a wee bit runny) as the sauce. A real stuff up rescue desert. But very yummy.

Whats your favourite fruit with meringues? Inspire me...

(The) Mee family and other animals...

One of my favourite places in the UK is down in Devon, and surprisingly enough you probably know a bit about it. A few years back when I turned 30, my lovely family all clubbed together to buy me a Zookeeper for a day, or more specifically a big cat keeper. The Zoo we were going to do it at was down in Devon, which may seem a bit odd, but bear with me..

A few years ago now, after watching We Bought a Zoo I did the usual googling and became enthralled by the story of the Mee family, who did in fact decide with no experience to buy a zoo. I also saw that they did Big Cat Keeper days, and I added it to the wishlist of things I wanted to do, and promptly let it fall to the back of my mind. Until, that is, a voucher showed up on my 30th. Although the movie was set in California, the real zoo is Dartmoor Zoological Park just outside Plymouth. Doing the keeper day was without a doubt its something I will never forget.

All the animals are locked into their "houses" before we go into the enclosure and clean up.
Jasiri was eager for us to stop coo-ing and get on with feeding him.

Its really hard to put into words how truly awesome it was to be up close and personal with the beautiful beasts. Jasiri their Lion scared me, but in an exhilarating way. He was just so big, and at the time we went to feed him I think we were the first people he had seen that day (it was an early start - before the park opened) and we was excited. Josie (one of the few remaining animals from when the zoo was purchased) was so diddy for a lioness, yet so agile, climbing tree's for her meat (lovingly hidden there by Mr O ), yet the whoomp when she dropped back to the ground was a reminded of just how powerful she is.

I *might* have hidden some food in the cab of the truck so I could get this shot of Josie

Vladimir and Stripe, the sibling tigers, were feeling rather lazy and lethargic - having had a big meal the day before. As well as scattering the food around the enclosures, they are fed every other day to properly reflect how they would eat in the wild. Vlad certainly didn't want to do much but warm up up the sun with his belly still full from what was (based on what we fed Jasiri) a faily big chunk of pony - bones and all. There were times he looked over at us and would expose his belly just like a pet wanting a belly rub. Sadly, or rather luckily for my health, he was the other side of the fence. at that point. Stripe was more accommodating, and I would swear she actually posed for me a couple of times. She's a bit of a flirt for the cameras. Sadly, both of these beautiful cats have passed since we visited, but the new cats Dragan and Alicia are just as gorgeous and MUCH more active.

Stripe and Vladimir, don't you just want to rub that fluffy belly?? 

The other "big cats" at the Zoo are the Cheetah who the Lynx's, who you might remember from the fuss a when he escaped after he was moved to the zoo. They also have a Jaguar, but not Sovereign (who's story is in the book), but the big cat keeper day included pretty much all the carnivores in the feeding routine. Definitely not one for the squeemish.

Ceeta keeping a lazy eye on what everyone is doing

There was the tame fox Bramble, who we were told was better behaved than most dogs according to the vet. We went in with her without putting her in her house first she was so well behaved, just sniffed me and licked my trousers a bit. We also fed the lovely bears Fudge and Hayley, another paid of the old guard who are still resident. Fudge, the lighter one, is an old lady and I really could half see her in a blue rinse and doddering along. Hayley was full of Sass and tried to con us into giving her sweets so we could get her into her house so we could clean her enclosure and leave food. I couldn't get a photo because of the angle, but I wont ever forget the sight of her, head half in the house, arms crossed and hanging over the threshold - almost as if shes saying "make it worth my while keeper lady....."

Fudge and Hayley

The stand out, unexpected stars were the otters. I love otters anyway, but Jonsi and little Atti (short for Attitude). Atti was hand-reared and because of that she squeaks. She squeaks and chirps so much and so loudly she if officially the loudest otter in the UK. She didn't even stop as she was eating, it was constant. I love her, I wanted to keep her. They now have Jasmine, who is a bit less talkative but shes a nice mate for Jonsi and he seems to be teaching her the ropes.

Jonsi and Atti were very happy to see us coming with their breakfast

Aside from the keeping being AMAZING and getting to know the personalities of all the animals a bit more than the average visitor, I also really loved the feel of the Zoo. It was small, yes, but all the animals had large homes, and I got the impression of a large family - and I don't just mean the one that saved the Zoo from closure when they bought it. The whole place just had a warm feeling, a love radiating and it just made the whole place feel all the nicer. I picked up Benjamin Mee's book in the gift shop, devoured it in a day, and it made me love the place a little more. On return visits the same comes back again - its definitely the kind of place worth visiting. Location wise its a great stop point if heading into Cornwall, as we did recently on the way to a wedding. Either way, if you love animals make the time to visit this family and all their humans.

Dartmoor Zoo is located just outside the city of Plymouth and is open 364 days a year (closed Christmas Day). For More information about the animals, the zoo and the Mee family please visit their website.

Decadent Chocolate Cake

A good gooey chocolate cake is a work of art. I honestly cannot stand a lot of store cake - it has to be moist and dessert like to be a proper cake for me. My niece is the same - its all about brownies with her - although I have been able to convince her with a good gooey chocolate fudge cake.

This is the ultimate chocolate cake recipe, and I'm reminded of it because, yet again, I am attending a wedding with a Bake Off competition as dessert.

Triple Chocolate Decadence Cake

This cake is a bit of an epic one to make in that it does take awhile, but it is relatively easy - just long cooking times/chilling times.  The one bonus for this cake for us is that it lasts really well. I used this recipe to create a cake for my brothers wedding. That cake WAS a monster, and needed a few days of construction, but the cake was still moist and gorgeous at the wedding and for a few days after - nearly a week after baking. Kept wrapped it was most definitely still edible. With only two of us at home, and for me not up for death by chocolate, a cake that lasts well is a must! It is a long slow bake, so I often put potatos in the bottom of the oven at the same time for making gnocchi (but that is another recipe)

For the cake:
325g butter
325g plain chocolate (at least 70%)
50ml dark strong coffee
1tsp Vanilla essence
475g brown sugar
325g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
5 eggs
284ml sour cream

Heat your oven to 140C / gas 4, and grease and double-line your cake tin.

Melt the butter and chocolate together over a low heat. Once smooth add the coffee and vanilla

Break up any lumps in the brown sugar into a large bowl. Sift in the remaining dry ingredients. In another bowl/jug beat the eggs and sour cream together, and then add to the dry ingredients along with the chocolate mix. Stir with a wooden spoon until you have a gooey, thick, delicious batter.

Put in the cake tin, then bake for 2½ hrs - don't open the oven door before 2 hrs is up, as this will cause the cake to sink. Once cooked, leave in the tin to cool completely.


For the buttercream:

250g icing sugar
125g butter
100ml cream
80g plain chocolate.

Make a basic buttercream mixture by putting the butter and icing sugar into the food processor until creamed together, or make the traditional way of creaming the butter then mixing in the sugar.  Bring the cream to the boil, then pour over the broken up chocolate. Leave for a few moments before stirring until smooth. Add the chocolate mixture to the butter cream and beat until blended.

For the white chocolate ganache:
400g white chocolate
200ml double cream

Melt the chocolate into the cream in a bowl suspended over a pan of simmering water. When melted and combined, leave to cool, stirring often to break up any “skin” that forms. Once it is cool, whisk until its nice and fluffy.

Slice the cake in half , then sandwich together using about half buttercream, before using the rest to put a thin layer to "crumb-coat" the cake. Put the iced cake into the fridge to harden the icing. This ensures the white chocolate icing stays looking white. Once the icing is hard, carefully ice using the ganache however you wish, I used a palette knife then a piping bag on the edges, but you could easily pipe the whole thing. Return to the fridge to harden the ganache and voila! Triple Chocolate Decadence!

Retro Towers Favourite Homemade Preserves

By that I of course mean Jams, although we have pretty much preserved in every way possible at some point. I have a bit of an obsession.

However, it is usually jam, and I've made ALOT of jams in the past. Its still one of my favourite ways to use up "bargain fruit - be it supermarket cheapo or free foraged.  Using jam sugar (so no need to add pectin and all that stuff) it really is so easy. Just stick to a 50/50 mix with the sugar and fruit, get it all boiling away for 5 minutes and done. We not only all the delicious jam we could need for lazy weekend breakfasts, but we've given loads in the past for gifts over christmas  and so forth. There's been loads of feedback on flavours, so we came up with the list of the top 5 jam flavours we have done.

  1. Black Forest - I used a frozen black forest fruit mix, the kind they advertise as "for smoothees" as I'm lazy it was cheaper and easier than making my own medley. A cinnamon stick, some finely grated fresh ginger (about a tablespoon to the bag of fruit) and a glug of Kirsch gives it a bit of a kick and turns it into something special
  2. Blackberry and Elderberry - The exact mix varies on what I can find in the hedgerows, but its usually about 250g blackberries to 100g elderberries. In the words of Mr O. "what do you mean its all gone!?!"
  3. Plumpocalpse - After a friend suffered a glut (or plumpocalpse) of plums from their garden, we devised this. It's basically victoria plum and a fair wack of stem ginger (get the stuff soaked in whiskey if you can, if not add a glug maybe?). Stew up the fruit and check the ginger kick is to your taste before adding the sugar - I like the ginger just tickling the back of my throat.
  4.  Strawberry and Elderflower - the usual 50/50 mix, to which I added an some elderflower cordial, at 1 tablespoon per 100g of strawberries. Perfect with clotted cream on scones.
  5. Marmalade - OK, so not exactly a quick one, but not exactly rocket science either - just takes time. Nothing beats home made marmalade, and you can mix up what citrus you use - Blood Orange and Bourbon is a favourite of mine.
Have you made any fun Jams this year? Or do you make other preserves? We tend to stick to the sweets in this house as we don't eat enough pickle to make it worthwhile, But I'm always up for trying something new. Any tips? It really is prime hedgerow foraging season right now isn't it, so happy foraging! 

Chocolate Chip Banana Bread

Sometimes rummaging the discount shelves can gift you with some fabulous bargains, one of the most common being fruit and veg. The best to go for in my opinion are the black and nasty looking bananas - because the more bruised and ripe they are the better for banana bread!

I love a nice slice and a cup of tea when I'm hard at it in the studio, and this recipe freezes spectacularly well. This weekend I got a bumper harvest in Tesco, and currently have two of these chilling out in my freezer waiting for mid afternoon creative munchies.

100g plain chocolate (at least 70%) or chips
125g butter
150g vanilla sugar, or add a teaspoon of essence
2 eggs
175g plain flour
2 tsps baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
4 bananas, browner the better 

Heat your oven to 170C / gas mark 3, and grease and line your tin. I use a loaf tin but in all honesty you could probably use this mix in any tin you like.

I do it all in a food processor, but you can mix the ingredients by hand in the same order. First, break your chocolate into chunks, then put in your food processor, until you have nice "chips", then remove to a bowl. If using chips obviously ignore this step. Then blitz together the butter and sugar, then the eggs, then finally the flour, baking powder and bicarb.

Cut the bananas into chunks, and add half to the processor and blend until smooth. Then add the other half and the chocolate chips to the batter and mix in by hand. Spoon into your tin and level..

Bake for 1-1 1/4 hours or until a knife/skewer inserted comes out clean. Try not to eat all at once. As I said, this does freeze wonderfully - I cut into individual slices and wrap. That way a slice takes a few minutes to defrost on the side while I make my tea. 

Any Port in a storm...

Everyone has, or knows someone who has, a Sloe Gin recipe. I have discovered it is the sign of someone who loves gin - pimping it with fruit. But, especially with the stone-laden sloes, what do you do with the fruit AFTER gin.

Port, thats what.

Last season I even added in the Elderberries from a small batch of elderberry vodka I made. Still lovely but a very different taste. Either way it is lovely stuff. And it is so incredibly easy it feels awkward writing a whole post on it,

How many bottles of gin did you make? Well, simply add your drained fruit from your rum/gin/whatever to the same amount of wine and 100g of sugar per bottle.

Leave for 3 months then drain and add 100ml of brandy to make it a bit more punchy. Works out about 15-20 percent. And very very dangerous delicious. 

Best bit.. its all recycling! Two bottles of lovely liquor from one batch of sloes, and I'm told you can even add the sloes to chocolate at this stage and make chocolate. I've not done this though as I know me.., I'd forget they have stones and break my teeth in the process of trying to shovel it in at breakneck speed. Or Mr O would, he inhales his food.