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My roasties

Roast potatoes ... crunchy and golden outside and soft and fluffy inside. Yum yum!

Some very good things happen in winter
Monday 1 December 2014 

It’s December already. How did that happen? It seems like only yesterday that I was learning to surf (badly) on a boiling hot day in September. And now, here we are in deepest, darkest midwinter.


Midwinter isn’t all bad though. Some very good things happen in midwinter. We’re back to food again here – it’s one of my favourite things, as you’ll have noticed.


Because you know what midwinter means, don’t you? Yes, roasts. And in particular, roast potatoes. They are what Sundays in winter are all about, for me anyway.


I don’t know anybody who’s not fussy about roast potatoes. In my house, they have to be Maris Pipers par-boiled for 10-15 minutes and then, if they’re not already flaking, scraped about a bit.


Then it’s a good hour-and-a-half to two hours in the top of the oven with sunflower oil that’s already been in the oven for 10 minutes so it’s boiling hot by the time the spuds go in.


All things being equal, the potatoes will come out all crisp and golden on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. Perfect with my other roast ‘musts’ – stuffing and thick, dark gravy.


I don’t claim to be a brilliant cook, but as long as my roasts come out right, I’m happy :-)

The railway line pillars at Turnchapel

The remnants of the Turnchapel branch line in Hooe Lake.

Let's hear it for Plymouth 

Sunday 9 November 2014 

Next spring, I’ll have lived in Plymouth for 13 years. It’s a great place Plymouth, I love it – it’s full of surprises, especially along its miles of waterfront.


My work recently has taken me to Turnchapel Wharf, where the Royal Marines used to be based. To get there, you have to drive alongside Hooe Lake – a tidal creek in the River Plym estuary. Plonked in the middle of the lake are three imposing iron pillars. I thought: "Ooh, what are they then?"


So I did some research and I found that they used to carry the Turnchapel branch line on them until the line was closed to passengers in 1951 and for good in 1961. 


These pillars are all that’s left, a piece of Plymouth's history with a story to tell. They'd look even better with a train (preferably steam) running over them - but I reckon they still look great just as they are. 


I know that none of this will come as news to locals - but we don't always appreciate what's on our own doorstep. This particular Torquinian believes that Plymouth's waterfront and history take some beating.

 

Soar Mill Cove

Soar Mill Cove, looking fabulous in grey. 

When grey is better than blue

25 October 2014

I made a discovery today: Soar Mill Cove. There aren’t many bits of South Devon I’ve never been to before but this secluded beach just down the coast from Salcombe was one of them.


The cove is completely unspoilt. It’s right on the South West Coast Path so is well known to walkers; you have to be a walker to get there as it’s only accessible on foot. The nearest car park is up the steep hill, just above Soar Mill Cove Hotel, which charges you for it – but use of their ‘facilities’ does come included. While you’re there, check out the view from their front window.


I went to Soar Mill Cove to take photos and interview someone for a magazine. I chose today because every single weather forecast I saw and read assured me that from 10am-11am, there would be blue skies over this part of South Devon.


If you looked really, really closely you could just about make out a tiny speck of blue sky. It was there for about two minutes, and then it was gone. Which, as it happens, was lucky because the various shades of grey were far more dramatic and picturesque. 


My photo could never do the real thing justice, but I thought I'd share it with you anyway …

 

My crumble

My apple crumble (with a few raspberries thrown in), fresh from the oven - a sure sign in my house that autumn has arrived.

The tell-tale signs of autumn

12 October 2014 

This week I waved au revoir to my garden furniture, all freshly washed down and tucked away for their winter hibernation in the back of my garage. I’ve enjoyed their company this year – it’s a long time since we’ve had such a lovely summer and I made the most of it with lots of evenings out on the patio, watching the sun go down over the other side of the valley.

 

The annual ritual of bringing in the garden tables and chairs is always a sign to me that summer is finally over and autumn is here. I love summer but autumn has a specialness all of its own: the colourful yellows, oranges, reds and browns of the trees and fallen leaves, that unique fresh smell of autumn ... and fruit crumble.


My system (ie my stomach) knows instinctively that autumn is here because it tells me it's had enough of lettuce and cucumber and expects every Sunday for the forseeable future to be all about roast dinners and pud.


So today, I made an apple crumble (without blackberries this time as they seem to be all gone; I used a few raspberries by way of a substitute). Some of it will end up in my grateful stomach in a couple of hours' time; the rest has been delivered to my mother. 


The aroma that filled my house as I was baking the crumble reminded me of crumbles past, cooked by mum when we were little. Time to return the favour. Nigel Slater wasn't around in the '60s and '70s but I'm pretty sure she will appreciate his take on the fruit element (I took his advice, as ever, and added the juice of half a lemon) and from the little bit I've tasted on a 'just checking' basis, it's a small tweak that works a treat.


Yep, autumn is more than welcome in my house.

My beach shoes

These will be coming with me the next time I go surfing!

Further tales of a surfing adventure

1 October 2014

Three weeks ago today I had my first ever surfing lesson in the sea off Bigbury and Bantham in south Devon – you might have seen my little blog about it (see below). 'See below' ... now that’s something I wish I’d done as I waded out in search of my first wave, the wave I missed because my right foot introduced itself to a weever fish.


Off I hobbled to the First Aid building at Bantham Beach, where I plunged my foot into a bowl of hot water for the next 15 minutes. This, I learned, removes the venom immediately. What it appears not to have removed is the spike itself.


I went to see my doctor today and it turns out he goes surfing a lot at Bantham and Bigbury. In fact, he was out there just recently and he wore protective footwear, just like the pair of rubbery shoes I bought specially when I went to Gambia a few years ago and was told I’d need them because of ‘dangerous things in the sand’. I didn’t need them and they’ve lived in my downstairs cupboard ever since.


I’ve Googled weever fish and apparently, they’ve been in abundance all along the south coast of England this summer. They are most noticeable in soft sand at low tide; Bigbury and Bantham have soft sand and my lesson there was at low tide.


Anyway, the advice from my doctor is that the embedded spike (if it is indeed embedded) is probably best left alone and it will settle down eventually. The chances of finding and removing it is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.


So, another lesson learned – the next time I go surfing at low tide on a sandy beach I’ll make sure I take my lovely beach shoes with me!

 

Wild blackberries

Blackberries were everywhere I looked during a charity walk in East Devon.

Blackberries - the welcome return of an old friend 
25 September 2014 

I grew up on blackberry and apple pie and blackberry and apple crumble. Having both the main ingredients on tap in our garden, we seemed to have a permanent supply of them each summer, home-made scrumptiousness topped off with a dollop (or two) of clotted cream.


This summer has brought back memories of those days of blackberry-filled hedgerows. I can’t remember seeing so many wild blackberries, not since I was very young anyway. Everywhere I go in Devon, the hedges are full of them and last week, when I was doing a charity walk in East Devon, there were thousands and thousands of them.


I wondered if it was me. Was it just that I was starting to notice them again? I Googled ‘blackberries’ to see if this was, indeed, a bumper year. At the top of the search page came a link to a smartphone website so I searched instead for ‘wild blackberries 2014’. And yes, it turns out that the whole country is enjoying a feast of berries this autumn.


At last, something to celebrate not only for those of us who enjoy a bit of foraging for free food, but also for our poor, beleaguered wildlife.


So, as this week marked the first day of autumn, I’ve decided it’s an excellent excuse to indulge in one of the best food combinations ever discovered – and I won’t be skimping on the clotted cream, either!

 

Crab salad

My crab salad at Torcross, just before I tucked in.

Fish and me - a potted history

20 September 2014

 

I didn’t use to like fish or anything that came out of the sea. When I was little, we used to go mackerel fishing off Torquay. I’d use one of those children’s fishing line things where the line was wrapped around a piece of wood that looked like a trimaran. A lead weight would be attached to the end and we’d sit there for what seemed like ages, waiting for something to happen. But that was about it really, when it came to me and fish. On fish and chip nights, I always opted for battered sausage (no, I can’t believe it either).


Then, a few years back, I went to Australia to watch an Australia v England cricket series.  When I was in Melbourne I got chatting to a couple on holiday from Sydney who were staying in the same hotel as me: “When you’re in Sydney next week, give us a call and we’ll drive you to some of our favourite places.” What a brilliant offer!


So on a boiling hot Saturday they picked me up from my hotel and we drove south of the city to see the beautiful beaches down the coast. Then they took me to their sailing club for a bite to eat. Everyone there was eating fish so I said to Michael: “You know what they do best here – you order for me.” “Well, you’ve got to try the fish chowder for starter because it’s the sea in a dish and you can’t go wrong with the local John Dory.”  I thought: “Oh eek. Just grin and bear it Laura…” 


But it turns out that I’d got fish all wrong all my life. I have no idea what went into the two dishes exactly but the chowder was a lovely, creamy mixture of flavours and the John Dory tasted all fresh and zingy. Ever since that day, me and fish have been firm friends. 


This summer, I’ve been making up for lost time – it’s been a bit of a fish fest in my kitchen to be honest. One of my favourite seafood experiences of the summer happened this month; a scorching September day at Slapton Sands in Torcross. I’ve watched enough foodie shows to know that when it comes to crab, the waters off south Devon are just about the best in the UK. Plus there’s a little crabber that lands the day’s catch literally yards from the doors of the eateries at Torcross, which I think is really nice.


We were lucky enough to grab the last untaken table outside the Start Bay Inn. I’m sure the setting makes food taste even better … you could hear the sea, see the sea and taste the sea all at the same time. With a shake of vinegar and a squeeze of lemon (I'd have preferred lime but not to worry) the delicate white and tasty brown crab meat went down a treat. Now there's something I never thought I'd hear myself saying!

 

Bigbury and Bantham

Bigbury-on-Sea in the foreground and Bantham Beach in the distance. 

The day I finally caught a wave 

10 September 2014


So today I found out I was a goofy foot – no I didn’t know what it was either until I had my first surfing lesson this morning at the age of 50 – and I really don’t know what took me so long.


One of my favourite memories as a child were our family days out to Bantham Beach in south Devon; long, hot, sunny days (they were always long, hot, sunny days back then, honestly) spent swimming in the sea or playing sport on the beach.


Living in Torquay, we would spend many summer days on various beaches, but Bantham was my favourite by a million miles – lots of soft sand and great waves to dive into. I can remember which summers we spent time there because whenever I hear certain songs, my memory takes me right back: Bobby Goldsboro’s Summer (The First Time) in 1973 was one of the songs I clearly remember coming out of our Bush radio when we were at Bantham.


Today, I returned to this place of brilliant memories for the first time in years to do something I’ve been meaning to do for ages: I had my first ever surfing lesson. Why did it take me until I was 50 to do something that’s been on my doorstep all my life? The lesson was a 50th birthday present and I went along with a friend of mine, ‘Smiley Paul’, who was also having his first surf lesson.


I knew it was going to be a lovely sunny day – but what about the surf conditions? I tuned in to the forecast on BBC Spotlight to learn the good news: the surf on the south coast of Devon would be 1-2ft and choppy (clean would have been better, but I’ll settle for choppy).


We arrived at Bigbury-on-Sea in good time to wriggle into our wetsuits ahead of our 10.30am lesson. All ready and raring to go! Our Discovery Surf School instructor, Josh, handed us our boards and off we all headed down to the beach. On closer inspection (the tide was quite a way out) the surf wasn’t anywhere near 1-2ft – but it was over at Bantham. So we paddled across the River Avon estuary to my favourite childhood beach.


I don’t remember Weever fish back in 1973. Not to worry, after a quick 10 minutes with my right foot in a bowl of hot water at the Bantham First Aid centre, I was ready to throw myself into my surfing lesson.


That 'goofy foot' I was telling you about means that my front foot on the board is my right foot. Most people 'lead' with their left foot... there's probably a good reason for this. After a few attempts I managed to stand up on the board and ride a wave. Brilliant! I think I need a few more lessons to get the hang of it though; Paul, on the other hand, picked it up straight away. I did wonder if perhaps the blue boards were less temperamental than the red boards, but I was assured this wasn’t the case.


I wish I’d done this years ago. Next time, I won’t leave it so long before returning to Bantham. And I’ll definitely be having some more surfing lessons. It’s all right here, just a few miles from home – and amidst the most stunning setting, with Burgh Island making for a surf-with-a-view. The things I have learned today are: don’t wait forever to learn things; if you have waited forever, don’t let this stop you from doing it eventually; and surfing – even badly – is brilliant fun. I don’t even mind the aches and pains!