I always talk about being a Londoner and it is true that I’ve always lived in London, but for my most of my childhood I lived right on the borders, in the Greater London Borough of Bexley with a postal address of Kent. Thus Kent is also ‘home’ and it’s where my brother and his family live and where my paternal relations – aunt and cousins – live. Thus, as I left the M25 on my drive on Saturday morning and eased the car on to the M20 and then M2 towards Canterbury, I definitely felt as if I was coming home as fields stretched before me towards the sea, signs indicated hop farms and I remembered how the county of Kent is also known as the garden of England. I spent a lot of time down that way as a child, often staying with my uncle Joe, one of my dad’s older brothers (my dad was the youngest of six). I was on my way to see my aunt Arleen, who, Joe’s second wife, is far too young to be called ‘aunt’ by me. She’d kindly come up with some great suggestions of what we could do over the weekend and this included a visit to Turner Contemporary in Margate and tea at her youngest son’s – my cousin Jason’s – farm, a 20-minute drive from her house.
Arleen lives in Birchington which lies on the Kent coast between Margate and Whitstable, in Thanet – a semi-island, surrounded by the sea on three sides. Margate is famous for its JMW Turner connection and Whitstable for its oysters. I arrived in time for lunch and in the afternoon we set off in the car to visit Whitstable. On the way, Arleen indulged me in a nostalgic trip via the village of Chestfield where she and Joe used to live and where I spent time as a child. We stopped by the beautiful oast houses next to Chestfield Golf Club where they lived and did a loop round the edge of the golf course in the car. The connection to the golf course came right forward in time to my son’s childhood for my dad used to take Jonathan there for days out to play golf and have lunch together.
Whitstable has become a fashionable destination for holidays and day trips from London. There was a group of huts at the edge of the harbour with people selling crafts – paintings, jewellery, clothes, etc.; further on were shacks selling the famous local oysters. Moving away from the harbour and beach we made our way into the narrow streets behind, with their pretty houses, and which were full of visitors on this warm Saturday afternoon. There were bijoux little shops selling lovely things you might like but didn’t need to buy; cafes and restaurants. After a wander, we made our way back to the car for the short drive to Jason’s farm – Brook Farm in Denstroude, near Canterbury. It was a beautiful afternoon, the sun low in the winter sky promising a beautiful sunset. I’m afraid I didn’t take photos but was busy instead having tea with my family! The farm is lovely, laying in a hundred acres of beautiful Kent countryside. Jason is a farrier and people can stable their horses there; he and Francesca also have cottages and a converted barn which are let for holidays (click here for info).
Sunday began with an early morning walk with Arleen and her dog Rosie: a beautiful rescue dog who is a cross between a Michon and a Maltese Terrier. Minnis Bay is within walking distance of Arleen’s house. It was quiet and lovely with the beach stretching miles; only other dog walkers about. After breakfast we set off to Margate but first visited the Spitfire & Hurricane Memorial Museum at Manston Airport on the way. Arleen wanted to show me the memorial to the famous The Channel Dash operation in World War II in which my dad’s and Joe’s older brother, Bill, took part and was sadly killed.
On 12 February 1942, six fabric Swordfish Torpedo Bombers were sent to meet a fleet of German battleships making their way across the Channel. All were shot down and 18 young men – including Bill – died. The sad irony for the family was that he had come off duty and at the last moment volunteered to fill a space. It was great to see this because my dad had talked about his brother Bill so much and Arleen and I could see a strong family likeness in the photo.
We moved on to Margate and the Turner Contemporary, which opened in 2011 and was designed by architect David Chipperfield. It’s the largest contemporary art space in south-east England and is built on the site of a guesthouse where Turner used to stay.
‘The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe,’ Turner wrote about the area. This, more remarkably, was where Turner first saw the sea, sent from London to school in Margate at the age of 11. Many of the local beaches and bays were inspirations to the painter and his great seascapes, and with the cloudier sky we had yesterday, and wonderful light coming through, it was easy to understand why.
The gallery is a minimalist building situated right by the sea, which you can look out on from the huge windows inside.
I’ve read so much about it since its opening, it was great to actually go inside the gallery. Arleen said the singing group she’s part of rehearse there each week; what a fantastic venue. After a look round, we headed into the town and found a cafe for coffee in a pretty square. Again, this was a nostalgic and lovely outing for me as I used to be taken to Margate often as a child; an easy day trip from where we lived.
Back in the car, we followed the coast round to Broadstairs in search of a late lunch.
We were noticing the darkening of the sky and the difference putting the clocks back the night before, for the end of British Summer Time, was making to our day. However, we found a great restaurant – Restaurant 54 – offering a good Sunday roast meal.
We received a friendly welcome; inside the style was stylish-simple and a comfortable and calm place to sit and enjoy a meal. The roast beef came with Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and vegetables.
The beef was delicious; perfectly cooked and melt-in-the mouth tender. We had an excellent glass of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon with it and then couldn’t resist dessert. I chose a spiced apple crumble tart with caramel custard and rhubarb & ginger ice cream. Definitely a Sunday indulgence and very delicious!
It was a full and lovely weekend. I woke to sunny skies and that made the return trip to London an easy and pleasant drive, but hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m back in Kent again.
I was a voracious reader as a child. I remember when, aged 8, I was ill in bed with mumps, my mother was severely challenged by my relentless demand for books. I would get through two or three a day: books like The Secret Garden, the Heidi books, the Jennings series and What Katy Did. Books I came to love and read over and over again. Sometimes my reading got me into trouble. My father would find me reading in the dark of my bedroom at night with a torch (my 9-year-old nephew Leo apparently does the same, according to my brother, but his Kindle acts as a torch!); I’d take books on family outings (and presumably be pretty unsociable) and be told off for reading too much. But fate was kind to me and led me to a job in book publishing at the prestigious house of Methuen, where I began as a secretary and eventually became a commissioning editor, and I was fully able to indulge my love of books. I even worked on lots of cookery books so was also able to indulge my other early love – food and cooking! I left full-time work to have my daughter (over 30 years ago) but have continued working as a freelancer. Fortunately – since it is my means of earning a living – my love of reading has not diminished and I still love a good book! Of course, what I read for work varies in terms of my enjoyment. Everyone has the odd bad day at work, and sometimes I end up having to read a book I don’t much like. But generally, as I work for leading publishers, I’m reading good stuff, often bestselling books. Even so, not all bestsellers are ‘my thing’ but happily I most often end up reading books I enjoy and sometimes books I enjoy a lot.
Such is my good fortune this week that I am proofreading one of Babara Nadel’s Inspector Ikmen mysteries. Set in Istanbul, the Turkish Inspector Ikmen is becoming a close rival for my fictional affections which for a long time have been given exclusively to the Italian Inspector Montalbano. Ikmen has been likened to Morse, but to me he is much more human and likeable; yes a bit grumpy but essentially good and a man who has his own moral standards. The feminist in me likes that despite his wife being a very strict Muslim, he doesn’t hold with ruling her life but is liberal and thinking in his outlook. He also loves his city of Istanbul passionately – much as I love London, where I was born and have always lived. I’ve been particularly enjoying the read because it’s so vividly reminded me of my trip to Istanbul a year ago with my friends Linda and George. That was a fabulous trip and it’s great fun to recognise places we visited and be able to picture them in my mind as I read the book. But, of course, I also get excited by mention of Turkish food, from Lahmacun (a kind of Turkish pizza), to borek (savoury pastries) and then, today, Menemen. I didn’t know this egg dish so just had to go downstairs and consult my Ghillie Basan’s Classic Turkish Cooking. There it was. There was even a photo. A tempting photo. Yes, here was supper!
I could have easily bought some pitta to go with the Menemen but felt like making Sam & Sam Clark’s Quick Flatbread from Casa Moro. I’m busy with work at the moment but for me cooking is so relaxing, I can lose myself nicely in the kitchen once I’ve come down from my office at the end of my working day and start cooking. A glass of wine to hand, a bit of blues or jazz in the background, and I’m away. And really, this is a very simple bread!
Sift 130g strong white flour into a bowl with 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt. Measure out 100ml lukewarm water in a jug and add 1/4 teaspoon dried yeast, give it a good mix and then slowly pour it into the flour, mixing it all together with one hand as you go and bringing it into a ball of dough. Then add 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and mix well. The Sams in their quickness don’t knead the dough but ‘beat’ it in the bowl. However, it was very wet so I kneaded for a couple of minutes on a floured worktop. Then leave the dough to rise for about 20 minutes in a floured bowl, covered with cling film. While this is happening, start preparing the Menemen.
As I was cooking just for myself, I halved Ghillie’s recipe. I sliced 1/2 medium onion, 1/2 yellow pepper, finely sliced about half a red chilli and skinned 2 medium tomatoes. Put the onion, pepper and chilli into a large frying pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a good knob of butter. When they’ve softened, add the skinned and chopped tomatoes and some seasoning of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Cook gently until the vegetables are soft and most of the liquid evaporated. At this point, I put the vegetables to the side while I cooked the flatbreads and prepared the ‘optional’ sauce (which I thought sounded too good to be missed). For the sauce, mix 2 tablespoons thick Greek yogurt with 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder, 1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika, a crushed 1/2 clove garlic and salt and pepper.
Now make the flatbreads. Roll the dough into a sausage shape and cut into 4 (I was planning to eat 2 and freeze 2.). Use a rolling pin to roll out each ball into a thin round. Heat a medium-sized frying pan until hot then drop a circle of dough in. Watch it carefully. It should bubble up a bit when done one side; use a spatula to turn it over and cook the other side.
Transfer to a plate in a warm (not hot) oven to keep warm and cook the second flatbread. Now for the final part of the menemen. Return the vegetables to the heat and when they’re warm through again, crack 2 eggs in (sadly I broke one yoke! But never mind). Put a lid on and cook gently until the white of the egg is cooked through but the yolk still runny (unless you like cooked-through yolks!).
Transfer very carefully to a warm plate and serve with the sauce and flatbreads.
Menemen is a kind of street food, made in stalls and sold at bus and train stations, anywhere there’s passing trade. It’s really a snack but also makes a gorgeous light supper, as I ate it tonight. I just loved the soft egg yolk running into the sweet vegetables with their slight, chilli hit. And it could all be mopped up nicely with the soft bread. It’s the kind of snack that can be cooked up really quickly – especially if you don’t bother to make the bread and use bought pitta or flatbread!
When Liz suggested meeting up this evening and asked me to decide where we ate, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to try out Pho Saigon in Twickenham. We’d talked about it before. She’d heard from other foodie friends that it was good; I, too, had heard good reports and have been saying for ages that I must visit, but just hadn’t got round to it. On the 15-minute walk from my home, as I was blown around by the tail end of Hurricane Gonzaio that has hit UK today, it seemed a perfect time to be trying out some spicy soup.
I’ve only eaten Vietnamese food a few times before and don’t know a lot about it. Liz – who has been to Vietnam – said she thought pho came from North Vietnam (Hanoi), not the southern Saigon area, so I did a bit of research earlier in the day. Vietnam’s most famous food – pho – a noodle soup, did indeed originate in the north but after the partition in 1954 a slightly different version emerged in the south – Saigon. In North Vietnam you’ll find Pho Bac, in South Vietnam there is Pho Nam. The northern version is more spicy and salty; the southern sweeter. In Hanoi only beef bones are used to make the soup – the broth – while in the south they also add chicken bones and sometimes dried squid (I suppose a bit like adding fish sauce), which gives a deeper flavour. In the south they use more vegetables, especially bean sprouts, which you won’t find in the north, and they also add hoisin sauce (hence the sweetness) whereas in Hanoi they add more spice, particularly chilli.
Pho Saigon describes itself as a street cafe and thus it’s not a surprise that inside it’s fairly basic. It has a bring-your-own policy (so I’d taken along a bottle of chilled white wine). I had booked though. It’s always busy when I pass by and this evening – a cold and blowy Tuesday night, it wasn’t full but it was more than half full. The service was friendly; a friendly welcome and the menus brought quickly with glasses for our wine and an offer to open the bottle and pour for us. Of course, I had to have pho. What else could I choose! But I suggested we share a couple of small dishes first. There weren’t really ‘starters’ as such but some small dishes so we chose some vegetable mini spring rolls with dipping sauce. The menu had said 3 but they brought 4 – presumably since there were two of us. I’m not sure if they charged extra (I’m guessing possibly not) as Liz kindly said she’d pay for the food as I’d brought the wine, and I didn’t see the bill.
These were good and we had ‘special roast duck with five spices and honey’ to go with it.
This was a kind of salad; the duck just lukewarm on a bed of salad-y strips, with the rich sweet sauce on top. It was tasty; a little like having Chinese crispy duck without the pancakes. Then came our pho’s. Liz had chosen chicken while I went for ‘traditional’ beef strips.
It was a delicious dish. Very different from the spicy Thai food I eat quite often, or Laksa, that spicy noodle soup from Malaysia (which I love). It was very delicate in flavour. A lovely broth base with noodles, bean sprouts, coriander; fresh chilli and lemon to add yourself. It was very fragrant but with a softness, a gentleness, to the flavour. Not only was it delicious – it felt very healthy too!
I really enjoyed my meal and would like to go back and try some of their other dishes. It’s very reasonably priced – the pho just £7.95 – so could be a great place to just pop into on the spur of the moment … assuming you can get a table, of course!
I feel very fortunate to live near the famous botanical gardens at Kew and one of my favourite times for visiting is on Sunday mornings when I get in early at opening time and beat the weekend crowds. Once away from the main gate, it’s possible to gain a sense that you have the gardens all to yourself, with barely another person in sight. However, it’s not long before the coachloads descend, and that’s usually, an hour or so into my walk, when I decide it’s time to head home. If that sounds a bit unsociable, I apologise. But to me they’re my ‘local gardens’ and what I love about going in when it’s quiet is the peace of the place. There are a number of different areas in the gardens, all quite different to each other, from the formal to a more wooded area, wide open avenues lined with trees and the lake with the beautiful Sackler Crossing bridge, but always there’s a sense of calm and therefore it’s a perfect place to relax or reflect in a meditative way as you wander round.
I’ve had a season ticket for years and it allows me to pop in whenever I want and it’s great to visit at different times of the year and see what’s in season. This morning I was expecting a riot of autumn colours – blazing reds, burnt orange and deep yellows – and was quite surprised to find remarkably little evidence of autumn, even though we’re halfway through October. It must be the continuing mild weather staving off the onset of winter.
I found the odd tree changing colour and dropping its leaves, but most bright colour came from gorgeous large displays of flowers planted in clumps at various points.
Back home I started to prepare the lasagne I’d decided to make for supper. It’s a rare thing for me to go veggie on a Sunday. A little of my upbringing and the thought that a proper meal contains meat (meat and two veg!) persists slightly with Sundays, although I do eat lots of meat-free meals during the week. However, I’d come across a tempting lasagne made with kale and mushrooms in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Everyday! yesterday. And I happened to have a large bag of kale and an almost full punnet of chestnut mushrooms in the fridge, so really, I couldn’t do anything other than try this recipe!
Here’s what I did – with slight adjustments to Hugh’s recipe for making only about half the original amount, and personal preferences. First of all, heat a pint of milk with a bay leaf, a sliced shallot, a few peppercorns and about half a celery stalk (I also added some leaves which give quite a strong flavour). When the milk comes to a simmer, take from the heat and leave to infuse.
Shred the kale if needed (mine was already prepared) and put in a pan with cold water and some salt; bring to the boil and then simmer for 2-3 minutes until just tender. Drain and set aside. Now slice 250g mushrooms (nice tasty ones like Portabello or chestnut) and put in a pan with about 25g butter. Fry, stirring frequently, until softening. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper, a crushed clove of garlic and a good pinch of dried thyme. Stir well and cook for a minute or so more, then take from the heat and put aside.
Now make a béchamel sauce: heat 50g butter with 50g plain flour in a pan. Stir to form a roux then slowly add the strained milk that has been infusing, beating well after each addition to make a smooth sauce. Check seasoning and then add salt and pepper to taste. Also add 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard.
Let it bubble for a minute or two then take from the heat. Mix almost half of it into the drained kale.
Now everything is almost ready for putting the lasagne together. I used an ovenproof dish that’s about 18 x 25 cm. I also used lasagne sheets that don’t need pre-cooking … but I still always like to soften them first in some hot water. A lasagne with undercooked pasta is not a nice thing! Play safe. I pour boiling water into a big bowl and then put a couple of sheets of lasagne in for a minute or two to soften. It also helps if you need to cut it at all to fit the dish properly. For my lasagne I found 2 sheets for the each of the first two layers were enough but I added an extra one on the top to ensure a good layer that fitted well. Put a little of the remaining béchamel on the bottom of the dish. Then add two lasagne sheets. Cover these with all the kale mixture.
Even though it wasn’t in the original recipe, I added a good dusting of grated Parmesan too for a nice cheesy flavour at the end. Cover with 2 more sheets of lasagne. Spread over a little of the béchamel (leaving a good amount for the top), then add the mushrooms and another dusting of Parmesan.
Cover this with the final sheets of lasagne. Spread over the remaining béchamel and then grate over a good layer of Parmesan. Dot with a few knobs of butter and now it’s ready to go into the oven.
I prepared mine a couple of hours ahead of time and just left it covered until near the time I wanted to eat. Put into a preheated oven at 108C/Fan 160 for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
Leave to rest for about 5 minutes while you make a green salad to go with it. Then cut a slice and place in a serving bowl or plate. I probably could have squeezed four small portions out of this but it’s probably only big enough for three; or two very healthy portions!
It was really delicious. Nicely creamy with a good full flavour from the mushrooms and kale. Hugh suggests you could use cavolo nero as an alternative to the kale; I think spinach would work well too. I haven’t made vegetable lasagna much in the past, but now I think I should experiment with some other vegetable mixes! It’s a great way to enjoy more vegetables and not as heavy as a meat lasagne (not that I can ever imagine giving those up!).
It’s still unseasonably warm in UK for the time of year but it’s been relentlessly wet since my return from Crete a couple of weeks ago and I’ve had a cold (it’s that time of year!). I had a packet of organic mince (10% fat) in the freezer I wanted to use up. I use mince mainly in Bolognese ragu but decided to make meatballs tonight; I haven’t done that in a while. I thought it would be nicely comforting food for the weather and the last stages of my cold. I’ve made meatballs many times but decided – since I was planning to write it up on the blog – to consult the ‘experts’ and see what they had to say. It seemed to me that the experts made it all a lot more complicated than I normally do. Angela Hartnett adds not only egg but Parmesan and breadcrumbs soaked in milk; Jamie Oliver adds mustard, Jacob’s cream crackers (!!) and egg; Gordon Ramsay adds breadcrumbs soaked in milk, garlic and Parmesan – though no egg. Gino d’Acampo actually came up with most straightforward recipe – just mince, seasoning and parsley … but then spoilt it be adding the wretched egg as well! Why do they want eggs? NO – don’t tell me. I know why people put eggs in mixtures like this but I simply don’t like it. I do, however, approve of the breadcrumbs: breadcrumbs give the meatballs a certain lightness that works well. But not too many. I added 40g to my 400g mince – in other words 10%. And as for Parmesan in the mix … yes, grated Parmesan nicely showered over the finished dish is great, but not in the meat mixture. I decided to stick my with usual simple mixture: mince, breadcrumbs, some dried herbs and seasoning. Then I’d make a nice rich tomato sauce for them to finish them off in; perhaps a hint of warming chilli in that. Perfect!
I put 400g good quality minced beef in a bowl, with 40g fresh breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme and seasoning of freshly ground black pepper and sea salt. (Traditionally in Italy, a mix of minced beef and minced pork are used, so you can try that if you prefer.) I mixed it all together with my hands, making sure it was all blended together well. Don’t, however, be tempted to use a food processor or any kind of machine: that will only make you a paste and not good meatballs. Now divide the mixture into whatever size meatballs you want. I made mine about golf ball sized, but that’s reasonably big and you might prefer smaller bite-sized ones.
Roll them in a little olive oil and if you have time, pop them in the fridge for an hour or so to firm up before frying. Then make the tomato sauce. Fry a finely chopped small onion with 1 crushed clove of garlic in some olive oil. I also added 1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes. This gave the sauce quite a kick of heat, which I like, but you can just as well leave the chilli out if you prefer.
When the onion has softened and is starting to go translucent, add 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and also add 1 teaspoon sugar to bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes. Give it all a good stir, bring to almost to the boil and then turn down to a simmer gently for about 15 minutes. I like to then blend my sauce with a hand blender. It makes a smoother sauce that clings better to the meatballs and spaghetti, but it also seems to give the sauce a smoother taste. Check seasoning.
Set aside and cook the meatballs. Fry them in a little olive oil until nicely browned on both sides.
Now tip the prepared tomato sauce into the meatballs.
Stir round well. Scatter over a handful of freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley.
Stir and then put a lid on the pan and leave to cook gently for 10-15 minutes – depending on the size of your meatballs. You want them to cook through but overcooking will make them tough.
Meanwhile cook some spaghetti (about 100g per serving) until al dente. Drain. Return to the pan and add the meatballs. I added just one portion; the other two portions I’ll bag up when cold and freeze. Gently mix the spaghetti and meatballs together and then transfer to a serving dish. I sprinkled over a little extra parsley, drizzled over some extra virgin olive oil and then grated some Parmesan over the top.
I served a rocket salad on the side. The meatballs were really good: very tender and had held together well (no egg needed!); they were very tasty too. The sauce was so rich and delicious and its smoothness meant it clung beautifully to the pasta and meatballs. I liked the chilli hit but if you don’t like chilli or want a fresher taste, leave it out. Your sauce will still be great. It’s such a simple recipe – for both the sauce and meatballs – but such is the brilliance of Italian cooking that simple equals excellent. That’s why I love Italian cooking so much!
It’s always a great pleasure to head up to Birmingham to spend a weekend with my lovely daughter, Nicola. It has to be said it wasn’t quite such a pleasure having to get up at 6.30 on Saturday to arrive in time for an appointment with a wedding dressmaker – yes Nicola and Rachael are getting married next year – at 10.00 in central Birmingham. But well, this is what mothers do and it turned out to be great fun, especially as we were looking at rather funky, unconventional dresses. Thankfully my future daughter-in-law’s coffee addiction matches mine so after this we all went in search of flat whites. Then funky wedding dresses were to be followed by Middle Eastern art.
Nicola’s friend, Rebecca (Dr Rebecca Bridgman) is the Curator of Islamic and South Asian Arts at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. She’d offered to give us a personal curator tour of True to Life – New Photography from the Middle East and Symmetry in Sculpture: Recent Work by Zarah Hussain. I often go on curators’ tours of major exhibitions at the Tate but it was nevertheless especially exciting to go on such a personalised tour: Rebecca taking round just Nicola, Rachael, Anna and me. Firstly, we looked at Zarah Hussain’s work: her sculptures are based on the geometric designs used in Islamic art.
Her 3-dimensional wall sculptures looked almost like origami suspended from the walls; very simple at first glance but with Rebecca’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic background description, the rest of us were able to appreciate them in a way that might have passed us by without her. We all loved them and played with moving ourselves close and then further away to catch the play of light on the surfaces. Moving on to the photography exhibition, we saw some wonderful and teasingly challenging photographs by contemporary and internationally acclaimed Middle East artists.
The exhibition encourages you to question what you see: what is real, staged or imaginary? Much of a Middle Eastern woman’s life is lived behind a veil or out of public sight: these photographs allow a freedom of expression not generally witnessed and spark debates about the representation of women. Isn’t this image of an Iranian woman with her can of Pepsi just brilliant? Of course, if this is ‘staged’ then so too is how we see the women outside their homes to some extent. If you’re in or near Birmingham, go and take a look. Check the website for more details: www.bmag.org.uk/events. (And many thanks to Rebecca for providing the images for my blog post.)
It was definitely time for lunch when we emerged from the museum. Outside it was heaving with people.
There was a big anti Muslim demonstration in the city, rather inevitably matched by an anti fascist demonstration. Large numbers of police were around. Fortunately, all was peaceful and we were able to make our way round the edge of the crowds to our lunch destination in Broad Street. In keeping with our morning of art, we were heading for an Iranian restaurant: Khayyam. Rebecca had heard of it and Nicola had been told about it by her Iranian hairdresser. It was a bit tricky to find – mainly because you had to go right through a kebab takeaway to doors at the back that led into Khayyam. Inside, they looked to be setting up for a big party but said we could take a table. I’ve cooked Iranian food but never eaten it in an Iranian – or Persian – restaurant before so it was quite exciting. We chose a selection of dips – aubergine, hummus and spinach & yogurt to share with bread to begin.
The dips were great: I especially liked the aubergine and the fabulous flat bread. My main course choice was a delicious chicken dish served with barberries and saffron rice.
After lunch we parted company with Rebecca, Anna and Linda (who had joined us at the restaurant). Nicola, Rachael and I went on to the Library of Birmingham.
This incredible and exciting building, designed by architect Francine Houben, was opened in April 2013. It’s been shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2014 – and you can see why. Surprisingly, ‘my girls’ hadn’t been inside it yet so it was a first for all three of us.
Inside it’s very impressive, reaching right up in the centre to its top and creating a wonderful space of light and calm. You expect calm in a library and here that is achieved, I think, by the sense of flow created by the gliding escalators, the colours, the different ‘layers’ and the slightly warren effect of smaller and larger areas that you move through.
At the top, we couldn’t go outside because of the demonstrations below, but still the view was great.
We’d arrived just before they closed at 5pm and were ushered out fairly quickly, but I’m so pleased to have seen it. What a fantastic building! And what a busy but very exciting day! We headed home to Nicola and Rachael’s house. A pot of tea was made. Nicola began making a Melanzane alla Parmigiana for supper; I was summoned to be sous chef. Later prosecco was opened and we finished our full-on day with a light but delicious meal and some fizz. The weekend’s excitement wasn’t quite over though. Next morning we were up fairly early to head north to Staffordshire to see some tipis.
It was foggy as you can see. Now, it’s only a couple of posts ago I said you wouldn’t find me in a tent. But there are tents … and, well, there are tipis. These are part of the wedding plan. And just how exciting is that! I’m converted. Yes, this is my kind of tent! (For more see: www.elitetents.co.uk)
I’ve become a well-practised single traveller over the last eleven years of singledom. To be honest, I was pretty good at it before then: jumping on planes alone to join a husband frequently working abroad for long periods of time; driving from Twickenham to Amsterdam over the period of a couple of years with my children during half-terms and holidays to join their dad. Going back even further, I just grew up with the idea that it was OK to travel alone, eat in restaurants alone, and for me it’s never really threatened any great challenge. It’s just what I do. But for the unpractised it can be quite daunting. And even for me, it’s not quite the same thing doing it through a different kind of necessity now rather than an occasional choice. Well, it is still a choice. But group holidays have never appealed; I’m not that kind of person, heading off with a group of unknowns, although I know lots of other people love it. I’m lucky to holiday often with good friends and my family, but sometimes if I want to get away for a break or go somewhere in particular, then alone is the only option. And there is an appeal to it; there are plenty of pluses even if inevitably some minuses.
Holidaying with others isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Even with your nearest and dearest, tensions can arise but holidaying with someone you’re not used to spending 24/7 with can be a disaster. We all invest a lot of expectations in our holidays: we reach mentally for the rarely attainable perfection – I’ve invariably found that even the best holidays have at least one day of imperfection when things don’t go quite so well – and it’s hard to let go of your own way of holidaying. I was talking with my lovely friend Annie the other day about trying to have another break away together some time next year and she remarked that we ‘holiday well’ together. Basically, if you go away with someone you need them to have pretty much the same idea about how to holiday. It’s no good going to a hot and sunny place with someone who hates heat; it’s no good going away with someone who wants to crash on a beach for two weeks and do nothing else if that’s not your style. If you like visiting archaeological sites and art galleries you’ll find a companion who hates that will spoil your own pleasure. And, of course, if like me you just love seeking out good food – restaurants, markets, food shops etc. – then someone who has no interest in food will be a poor holiday mate.
My son and daughter inevitably followed the backpacking trail during gap years and set off alone; well, Nicola travelled round China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand with a small organised group and Jonathan travelled alone in New Zealand but had my cousin on South Island and a family friend on North Island to act as bases for him to return to during his travels. I’ve never really been a backpacking girl. I’m not a tent girl. I’m not a camper girl. No one has yet got me on RyanAir plane. Yes, I like my luxury. But not necessarily super luxury – I don’t usually stay in luxury hotels or apartments – but I do like a proper bed, hot running water and electricity. I did quite a bit of youth hosteling in my youth but nowadays I wouldn’t go near a dormitory; I like a room to myself or shared only with a good friend or family. What I’m getting at here is that I’m of an age where I’m not afraid to say what I like. I’m of an age where I don’t have to prove anything – well, holiday-wise anyway; just as I know what I like I’m also happy to admit to what I don’t like: that you’ll never get me trekking through a jungle or holidaying somewhere it’s minus 40. My years of single travelling have given me an insight into what makes the experience work well for me; I understand my needs better and know what I need to do to take as much of the potential stress out of the trip as possible. Like anyone else, when I go away I want to have a good time; I want to relax and have fun. So here are some of the ways I’ve learnt to give myself the best possible chance of doing that:
1. It’s an open road: Embrace the freedom to go exactly where YOU want, in the way you want
Your holiday destination is no compromise; or at least, not with another person. I have some self-imposed limitations: I don’t want to go anywhere possibly dangerous for a woman alone; I don’t want to go anywhere that requires vaccinations (I don’t do jabs of any kind); I have a limited budget so have to consider costs. I used to talk about travelling the world one day (partly because I thought that’s what exciting people did) but I’ve come to accept that my holiday comfort zone is pretty much Europe. If the right person said, Come to Asia, Come to Australia, Come to South America, then I’m sure I would go. But I’m a true Europhile; I’m a happy European. I’ve been to Italy so many times yet always love to go back and discover more of it as well as visit favourite places; I can’t imagine not ever going to Paris or Amsterdam or Venice again. My choices now are often governed by food – going to Bologna earlier this year, for instance – and why I’m determined to get to Turin soon. But art will draw me too: like my trip to Aix en Provence last summer or seeing Guernica in Madrid. The beauty of the light, the promise of sun (though unfortunately not entirely realised!) and the friendliness of the Greeks drew me to Crete last month. The bonus for the single traveller is that you can just sit down with a map and think, Yes, this is where I want to go!
2. Time alone – how long is long enough?
When you travel alone you come to know yourself well. There have been times when I’ve felt really proud of myself for some of my lone ventures but I’ve also come to understand my needs better; what I can cope with easily and what will be too much of a challenge. So, as I said above, I don’t feel the need to prove anything so I’m happy to admit that a week on my own on holiday is my limit. I’m really happy on my own for that long (though more frequently I make shorter, weekend-length trips), but two weeks with just my iPhone for guaranteed company would be too much. I know people who think they couldn’t manage that long; I know others who’ve happily gone off for much longer alone. It’s personal. Don’t give yourself unnecessary grief. If you’re not used to holidaying alone, go for short breaks at first. When you feel ready to move on, try just a week. Then maybe you might feel up to longer. But be kind to yourself; don’t give yourself unnecessary stress to outstaying your own single welcome.
3. Small friendly hotels and other places to stay
I’ve never been a fan of large and impersonal hotels but when travelling alone, staying in a small, independent hotel can make all the difference. Regular readers will know that my very favourite hotel is Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo in Venice, where I’ve stayed many times. I’ve first stayed there on my own in 2006 but have since returned many times: with my children, with Annie and again on my own. Owners Walter and Sandro are always so welcoming; they will talk to me in the morning when I come through for breakfast, whenever I come in from a morning or afternoon out; they’ll ask where I’ve been, what I’ve seen and make suggestions. Now they ask me about my family too, since they know them. It makes all the difference and I value it so much. I found similar kindness and friendliness at Hotel Porta San Mamolo in Bologna earlier this year. While in Crete a couple of weeks ago, I chose to stay in a ground-floor apartment that gave me the opportunity to talk to neighbours and passing people rather than move to a quieter apartment with a better view. When you’re on your own, you have to factor in finding company for some of the time.
4. Reach out to others
Well, you might be lucky enough to come across someone to befriend, of course, but the chances are you’ll just be on your own – just as you planned. But I like to do a bit of reaching out. I invariably return to a favourite cafe or restaurant a few times so they get to know me. In Crete recently, I ate lunch or dinner so often at Meraki, just below my apartment, they started to talk to me more, ask me about my day, welcome me when I arrived as almost an old friend; they were wonderfully friendly and it really enhanced my stay. I find on my own that I end up talking to people in all kinds of situations and places much more than I’ve ever done before. That’s partly, I know, because I’m a much more confident and outgoing person than I was eleven years ago, but even so, I think being on your own attracts others to reach out to you. I just love this aspect of holidaying alone and have gained so much from it.
5. Engage with social media
I’m a social media junkie. My son bought me a Twitter mug; his own little joke with me about my Twitter addiction – he doesn’t have an account. I engage with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, not to mention my email account, WhatsApp and iMessage frequently throughout the day. On holiday alone, it has to be said, it’s a kind of lifeline: I’m never really alone. Vodafone have made it all the easier for me with their EuroTraveller deal: £3 a day for being able to use your phone (calls – including to home and in country you’re visiting – and internet access) just as you would at home. My iPhone itself has become a holiday essential and has saved me when lost a few times: Where am I? I ask it – and it tells me!! It is nice to share and if there’s no one at your side to say, What a beautiful view!, What a fantastic meal!, then you can share via your phone and get a response. I’ll post on Facebook or Twitter, if appropriate, but often it’s a message to my lovely daughter who is great at keeping in touch with me while I’m away, and ‘A’ has been great at emailing a lot while I’m away. Getting a response from my son or brother is a little more tricky but in general, when you’re on your own there’s nothing wrong with using social media if you want to connect back home some of the time. Many people want to cut themselves off from home while away; I like to have contact. It’s up to you – what do you want?
6. Safety rules
I don’t mean a list of ‘rules’ but safety reigns supreme: play safe. At home, when I’ve been out in the evening and am coming home late at night, the walk from the bus stop into the back streets can be a little unsettling on my own if there’s no one else around, so I don’t talk into my phone, and I’m attentive. I’m used to it so it would be too much to say I’m scared; I’m not, but I am attentive. Because attentive makes sense. On holiday in an unfamiliar place, it just makes no sense to take risks by going down dark alleys on your own at night. For that reason, I tend to stay close to my hotel or apartment when it comes to eating out in the evening – or be prepared to pay for a cab. But I’m careful in other ways. It hasn’t been a conscious thing but I’ve become aware I’m more careful of myself when I’m doing something like clambering across rocks or swimming out to sea. I like a glass of wine with my evening meal; maybe a chilled small beer at lunchtime, but I never drink much: drunk and alone do not go together well. If there’s no one to watch out for you – watch out for yourself! The other thing I do is make sure my family have all my details: I email my flight numbers and times; my address while away and a contact number for either the hotel or owner of an apartment. For me, this isn’t an opportunity to go AWOL; I prefer people know where I am.
7. Some planning makes sense ..
I’m generally a very organised person, but I’m not a great planner when it comes to holidays. I like to take things as much as I can day by day. It’s not unknown for me to open my guide book for the first time on the flight out. But some planning makes sense. I do buy a guide book and for short trips, I’ve become a devotee of Lonely Planet’s Encounter series which focuses on separate cities, so I now have copies for Istanbul, Amsterdam, Rome and Venice. I print off relevant Google maps before I go: how to find my hotel from the railway station; how to find my apartment from Heraklion airport in Crete last month. I buy a phrase book and always look to make sure there’s a food section so I’ll understand menus! I’ll generally have in mind a couple of particular things I want to do: places I want to visit; things I want to see. I buy foreign currency before I travel to get the best rate. But I don’t like to have my time totally mapped out and often I find, just going with the flow works really well. Sometimes if you’re too focused on the plan, you miss lots of things you’d notice if you just wandered (see more in this post in Crete). The other thing I like to do is take books about the place I’m holidaying in: both non-fiction and fiction, so I’ll get those organised before I go.
8. Gently does it … be kind to yourself
A holiday is supposed to be … well, a holiday: recharging the mind and body batteries, relaxing, having fun … a break from stress (unless you’re into danger sports). When you’re on your own, this is particularly important. If things go wrong, there’s no one to share the stress; no one to take over. It’s all down to you. So make things just as easy as you can. I’m willing (and fortunately able) to pay a little more for a few cushion comforts when I go away. Thus, when I flew out to Crete very early in the morning – too early to catch a train to Gatwick – I paid quite a bit more than I would have done for a minicab to take me there, to stay in the Gatwick Sofitel. It gained me a couple of extra hours in bed … and with the long journey ahead and a lone one-hour drive from Heraklion airport to my holiday apartment along Greek roads, being the least tired I could manage seemed like a good plan. Even when staying in an apartment, I rarely cook or even have coffee there. I like to get out. Whereas when I went to France with my family a couple of years ago we often cooked ourselves in the evening; bought food in the markets and boulangeries to take home for lunch; made a big pot of coffee for breakfast in the morning and got croissants from the local bakery to bring back. I don’t push myself to do anything I’m not comfortable with if there’s a choice; and even if it’s something I planned to do before I arrived. I’ll treat myself to little things when I can and do my best to make sure I have a good holiday.
Do you ever travel alone? What’s your best tip for the single traveller?