Saturday, 24 September 2016

Bethnal Green house sit: Basil Distress Leads to Culinary Success

Bethnal Green, London, United Kingdom
We initially accepted a house sit in Bethnal Green for two months, but were asked if we'd be happy to extend the sit. We ended up staying there with the ever grumpy yet begrudgingly affectionate cat Wanda for nearly four months. 
As a very timid cat, she was initially skittish around us and would hide from loud noises. After a few days, however, she would allow us to approach her slowly and scratch her ears, and by the end of the four months she was even fine with us picking her up and rubbing her belly. 

Every cat has their quirks, and Wanda was no different. She was slightly asthmatic, so she would wheeze sometimes and snore. She liked to spend some time out in the garden, but also enjoyed sitting on the window sill and looking out from indoors. As an older cat, she was less playful than she used to be, but occasionally the mood struck her and she would bat at the ribbon on a chair or chase a ball. She was very particular about where she would sleep, changing her preferred location often: for a fortnight she would always sleep on the chair by the kitchen, the next she would only sleep on the sofa, and the next would be curled up on my side of the bed.

Her main quirk was that she was very greedy. Whenever she wanted food (which was often) she would become very affectionate towards you, rubbing up against your legs and purring as loud and incessantly as a chainsaw. When you got up from what you were doing, she would dash away and meow in the kitchen. Then, when it was feeding time, she would put her front paws up on the cabinet as you poured out her food and bat at the bowl as you lowered it to the ground. She could never get that food quick enough for her liking! This may partly be due to the fact that Wanda was on a diet, as she was a "bit chubby", as described by her vet.

At one stage Wanda had changed her sleeping location to a patch of dirt out in the garden. It had been a particularly dry week, so perhaps the sun had warmed the dirt nicely, but it didn't seem like a great place to sleep to me, and she would come inside afterwards scattering dirt on the floor. We would be frequently visited by Tim, a three-legged ginger tom with a piercing meow. They were good friends. (Note: I have no idea if the ginger cat had a name at all, but he looked like a Tim to me, so that was his name to us.)

Summer was in full swing, so I made use of the Tesco down the road and the many fruit vendors nearby for lovely fresh fruit salads.

I also got into cooking in a big way while in Bethnal Green, and cooked up a nice dinner most nights with leftovers that Yannick could take to work for lunch. Mexican was a staple for us! We would make fresh salsa to top off our burritos or quesadillas, and have a chilled bottle of sparkling water with a wedge of lime on the side.

Occasionally I felt like trying something more adventurous. Twice I made gnocchi, an Italian potato pasta. With homemade lemon basil sauce and roasted cherry tomatoes, the gnocchi were almost restaurant quality in my humble opinion.

After making a fair number of Italian dishes, though, my basil plant certainly looked worse for wear!

The best nights were of course when Fabienne was staying in London! One night we whipped out the disposable barbie and grilled burgers. We did this again weeks later and though we had some trouble getting the black bean burgers to stick together, it was all delicious! (And that time we put corn cobs on the barbeque - so good!)

Perhaps our most extravagant meal was what we referred to as "Greek Night". We wanted to recreate some of our favourite dishes from our July Greek trip (posts to follow), so we fried up some courgette, roasted capsicum and cherry tomatoes, blitzed up a hummus, baked a block of feta and made pita bread! I can take no credit for the pita bread, as that was all the genius idea of Fabienne and Yannick, who mixed the dough, kneaded it for ages, waited for it to rise, shaped it and cooked it in the pan. They need a round of applause! Accompanied by a dash of lemon juice and a glass of rosé, it was a night to remember. 

Today's post was almost called: There’s Gnocchi Place Like (Someone Else’s) Home

Friday, 23 September 2016

Mallorca, part three: Double Perdito Midst Gaudi’s Great Cameo

Palma, Majorca, Spain (Palma de Mallorca, España)
April 2016
Spain and doughnuts go together like tea and biscuits. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to have a Spanish doughnut again after being stuck in the land of mediocre doughnuts (London), Yannick bought a doughnut kebab for part of his breakfast.

Strawberries from the Mercat de l'Olivar in hand, we decided that the line to enter the cathedral was too long and we would try later, so for the time being we lounged in the sun and finished our morning meal.

There was a large park to one side of the cathedral with both paved and grassy areas. Seeing as it was softer on the bum, we chose the grass and munched on our strawberries for a while. After falling asleep briefly, we went hunting for a shot of the cathedral. I had seen a beautifully composed photo somewhere online and wanted to recreate it - after some deliberation we figured that the photographer must have been shooting from the marina, so off we went. However, an untimely exhibition on superyachts meant that the marina had a big fence around it, blocking all potential photography. Our plan thwarted, we returned to the cathedral to find absolutely no entrance queue whatsoever!

Constructed on the former site of a mosque from the Moorish period, the cathedral took nearly 400 years to build, and was completed in 1601. Along with Beauvais in France and Cologne in Germany, Palma has one of the tallest Gothic cathedrals in the world, and it's quite stunning to see from the inside.

Gaudi had been invited to help with the cathedral's restoration work at the turn of the twentieth century, and did so for over a decade. When he up and left one day, the work had to be taken over by other architects. It's theorised that the reason for his sudden departure was because of whisperings from the locals, saying that Gaudi was trying to upstage God and put too much of himself into the cathedral. As much of the work was completed after he left, it's not clear exactly where Gaudi left his influence, but to me the central pulpit area felt like it had a certain Gaudi-esque charm.

Yannick and I had been wandering around the nave at different speeds, so when I was ready to move on, I searched for him. I walked around clockwise, anti-clockwise, I stared at the pews thinking he might be resting his feet, I held still and scanned the room but could not see him anywhere. Thinking he must have just moved on, I walked through to the next section, which was a lovely courtyard with a well. But he wasn't there either! I sat on a bench for a few minutes, wondering if he was still in the nave or if he had continued to move forwards. Without much else to do, I entered the gift shop after an issue with the automatic sliding doors (I think I was too small for the sensor to detect me and a member of staff had to help). Yannick was nowhere to be seen in the gift shop, so perhaps he was getting a breath of fresh air outside and waiting for me. Nope! And now I couldn't go back through the gift shop and couldn't go in the main entrance unless I wanted to purchase a new ticket, so I waited for him. And waited. Just as I was getting worried and was on the verge of begging the gift shop's security guard to let me back in, I saw Yannick's white shirt in the shop and I waved frantically. He had been looking for me too, but had stayed in the nave for much longer than I did. We were both flummoxed at how we didn't see each other.
After spending a relaxed afternoon at our flat, we went out for dinner at 500 Degrees, an authentic Naples pizzeria. As the restaurant was on the long pedestrian street that we lived right next to (Carrer del 31 de Desembre), we had checked out their menu as we walked past and saw that they do marinara pizza, which is traditionally vegan! It was pretty scrummy. 

The next day we went a-wandering. For lunch we made a trip to Bon Lloc, the first vegetarian restaurant in Mallorca (opened 1978) that offers a four-course vegan lunch menu each day for €15 per person. To complement the food we ordered a bottle of Mallorcan wine!

A lesser-known type of sightseeing in Mallorca focuses on private courtyards. I suppose in a way, these were similar to the traboules we saw in Lyon, except without the passages linking residences to others and to the river.

Apparently, Mallorcan courtyards are a remnant of Roman architecture. In a Roman house, there would be a central courtyard called an atrium, which would be open to the sky but surrounded on all sides by the house. Though almost all of the coastline around the Mediterranean Sea has been occupied by the Romans at some point in history, for some unexplained reason Mallorcan houses in particular held onto this facet of ancient architecture.

An unattractive carpark and giant recycling bins were plonked right in front of the Basílica de Sant Francesc, so I don't want to show you wide angles from the outside. I will, however, present a close up of a highly detailed window on the face, with a statue of Saint George slaying a very small dragon beneath it.

This church took over 400 years to build (what you up to, Mallorcans?) but the end result was impressive, with a large cloister encircling a garden with palm trees.

Though not as tall as the cathedral, the basilica was still a gorgeous example of Gothic architecture and we had the place almost to ourselves to explore. 

On our way to El Corte Ingles, a hypermarket, we stopped by Amorino for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up and I experienced pistachio sorbet! Sorbet! As in, no milk! It was so delicious, and there was no dairy to dampen the flavour of the nuts so the pistachio shone. 

Also along the way, we found that we were walking along a pedestrian street that ran right in between two normal streets! A flower market was being held, and it made for a pleasant stroll. 
Once we had reached El Cotre Ingles, we beelined for the home department and found what we were searching for in about two minutes flat: a zumo wrestler (aka an orange squeezer). We had been looking far and wide in the UK since the handy one we had acquired in Liencres broke. It was a sad day, and the grief of our lost friend was made worse by the fact that all orange squeezers in England are shit! Either they're too small, comprised of shoddy materials or they don't have the strainer bit that catches falling seeds to prevent them falling in the juice. Is that so much to ask? Well, we knew that we could find one in Spain, and we did! Take that, England! While we were there we gathered supplies for dinner: cava and cointreau chocolate.
Before we knew it, our little holiday to Palma was over and it was time to board our flight back to the considerably more chilly United Kingdom. Adios, Spain. ¡Hasta luego! Though we didn't want to leave, we had a house sit lined up in the East London neighborhood of Bethnal Green. We would have a cat again! 

Today's post was almost called: Eat Like a Majorcqueen!

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Mallorca, part two: Riding The Sóller Flair

Majorca, Spain (Mallorca, España)
April 2016
We decided that one of our days on Mallorca had to be spent in Sóller, a town to the north of Palma. You can get there by car, but we took the old wood-panelled train.
The train line's construction began in 1911, when profits from the orange and lemon trades were peaking. The ride north passed through mostly orange orchards, and mountainous areas where no orchards could grow. 

Halfway through the journey the train halted to allow everyone to disembark for a photo op.

And what a photo op it was! With the mountain range Serra de Tramuntana in the background, it was a perfect place to stop for a selfie splurge and a stretch of the legs.

Once in Sóller, we looked around a little. Sitting in front of the cathedral, we devoured another kilo of strawberries that was becoming our customary breakfast, and watched the Tranvía de Sóller glide past. This was the tram that we would be taking shortly to reach the Port de Sóller for seaside frolicking. The main square, in front of the cathedral, was swamped by tourists eating and drinking. It seemed exactly like what an English person might imagine a Spanish square to be: a guitarist strumming classical songs, restaurants with pictures of generic pasta dishes, ice cream cones everywhere, and men and women in socks and sandals.

Wanting to get away from the tourist crowds for a while, we took to some less busy areas of the town and breathed in the fresh mountain air.

After a short jaunt via tram, we arrived in Port de Sóller, which was astoundingly even more touristy and crowded than Sóller. All along the waterfront were restaurants (that looked like they had been stamped from cookie cutters) selling one or more of the following: tapas, seafood, sangria or pizza. Interspersed with the restaurants were a few beach shops selling swimwear, jandals, inflatables and snorkels.

The area was meant to be a good place to take walks, so we selected a short hike from the website we had found the night before and started the walk up the hill to a lighthouse. Along the way we saw the cutest little baby goats! Mama goats too. A bit further, we were glared at by the daddy goat and moved quickly past. He had sharp horns and we hoped he didn't consider the road his territory.

We couldn't get right up to the lighthouse because it was guarded by a fence, but the view from the hill was beautiful and we took several photos and panoramas.
By the time we had descended into the town again, I had to use the bathroom so we thought up the genius idea to order a litre of sangria from a restaurant in order to use their bathroom. Well, that part of the plan worked and we enjoyed some tasty sangria while chilling by the waterfront for a while, but afterwards the old wood-panelled train that took us back to Palma did not have toilet facilities. So we sat there, buzzed, bellies full of sangria, and trying very hard not to think about peeing for the hour-long journey. It wasn't fun, but we made it back and used the train station facilities.
That evening we dined at Reserva Iberico, where we tried pimentos padron for the first time (tiny hot green peppers liberally sprinkled with rock salt). I also ordered patatas bravas, which were delivered to us with non-consensual shavings of jamon so I picked all the bits off. Full of good food and wine (including the sangria from not long before), we slept deeply.

Today's post was almost called: Soaking In Some Sóller Radiation