Monday, June 27, 2011

Experimental Cookery 2011 #7: Chicken Chow Mein

Source: Chinese Food Made Easy by Ching-He Huang
Cook Time: About 15 minutes prep plus 15 minutes cooking
Difficulty: Easy
Servings: 2
Equipment used: Wok, chopping board, sharp knives, spoons, etc.

This was an interesting one. I had previously tackled chicken chow mein while working through Jamie's book, so was curious to see how the two compared. This meal was considerably less involved than Jamie's version, considerably quicker and easier to put together, and generally less of a hassle.

The results from this meal were also quite excellent. Could perhaps have done with a bit more chicken (and I should probably have cut the chicken into smaller pieces), but otherwise it was pretty much ideal. I think this is the better of the two approaches.

Result: 8/10. Lady Chocolat gave this 10/10, but she is obviously easily impressed - after all, she agreed to marry me!

The British Pipe Band Championships 2011

After a short break, our competition season resumed this week with the British Championships in Annan.

The weather forecast was for heavy rain. Fortunately, though, this never quite materialised, with the worst that we faced being a light shower or two during the march past.

The day started early, with a 5:30 start. The band were joined on this occasion by Lady Chocolat, who disappointed the ladies who follow the band by arriving absent her engagement ring (which was being resized). Still, we climbed aboard the bus, and began the long journey south.

The performance itself came and went, and went rather well, or so we thought. We were aware of a few things needing work, but both the Pipe Major and Lead Drummer were quite happy, thinking it our best performance of the season.

And then we settled in for the long wait...

Unfortunately, the results at the end of the day simply did not reflect our optimism about the performance. We came 13th out of 19, scoring a 4th and a 16th for piping, 14th for drumming, and 15th for ensemble. It would seem that there is something that the judges are looking for that we're just missing.

This was obviously a hugely disappointing result, especially given that we were quite happy with the performance. The one positive that we can take from this is that it basically means we cannot hope to be promoted this year (which was always a big ask), and so can relax a bit more, and try to enjoy the rest of the season.

The journey home was interesting, and somewhat uncomfortable, but for reasons largely unrelated to the result. I may comment on that in a later post, but it is definitely a topic for another time.

The next competition is the Riding of the Marches next week, which also takes place in Annan. The next major competition is the European Championships in Ireland at the end of next month.

#17: "The Fort", by Bernard Cornwell

(My current plan is to try to read through the latest Pathfinder book and "Watcher of the Dead" by J.V. Jones over the next week or so. Then, after next week's Riding of the Marches, I'll move on to tackle "War and Peace"...)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Eternal City


We woke up at half past five in the morning, feeling appropriately awful. Staggered out of bed, struggled through a light breakfast, washed, showered, threw away the milk, emptied the bins, got in the car, and went to the airport.

Had a moment of worry when Lady Chocolat asked "do you have your passport?" just as we got on the shuttle to the terminal, but fortunately I had had the foresight to pack it directly in my hand luggage, rather than relying on picking it up in the morning. (In truth, I always do this, so it shouldn't have been a worry, but...)

The first flight was fine, punctuated by the pleasant surprise that they supplied a second breakfast. The stop in Amsterdam was too short though - just enough time to wolf down a Burger King meal, get indigestion, and pile onto the next plane. The second flight was appropriately uncomfortable, especially when my neck cramped and there was literally nothing could be done about it.

Eventually, though, we got to Rome, collected our bags, took a taxi to the hotel, checked in, and collapsed. Huzzah! (In hindsight, should have booked Expedia's shuttle to and from the airport; this would have worked out cheaper than the taxi and slightly less stressful.)

The hotel was great. The room was extremely small, but we'd known about that when booking, and although it was small, it was very high quality, nice and clean and, perhaps most importantly, right in the centre of the city. Basically, we were able to walk back from the Vatican City in about an hour. Also, they provided a complimentary breakfast in bed every day, which was a nice touch.

That evening, we went out for a wander, and grabbed a bite to eat. We made the significant mistake of spending way too much on the meal - should have just had a main course (no starter), or stuck to their 'special menu', or something. Oops.

We also wandered down to the Pantheon, and took in the sights there. Nice.

Went back to the hotel quite early, and got some sleep.


Friday was the Vatican City. We got up early, had breakfast, got dressed, and made our way to the Metro station, bought a ticket, four short stops across the two lines, then a short walk, and we were there.

At this point, I almost caused great offense when I discovered that my zipper had slipped down, and in fact had become stuck. Most annoying. Fortunately, I managed to get this sorted without causing a scene. Still, LC ordered me never to talk about this to anyone, and so I shall refrain from doing so.

The rest of the morning was spent in St Peter's seeing the sights. I can't do it justice, so won't even try to describe it here. Basically, if you get a chance, you should go.

Went for lunch, and again spent way too much money. This was the last time we did so; our mistake here was in spending our time choosing food, then ordering drinks without consideration; turned out soft drinks were vastly over-priced.

The afternoon was spent with yet more walking, this time around the Vatican Museum. Again, I cannot do it justice. Maps and tapestries, and endless, endless scupltures... There was also a special exhibition of Faberge egss, which was something to behold.

Afterwards, we walked back via Ponte San Angelo, as featured in "Roman Holiday", one of LC's favourite films. I then proceeded to walk into a lamppost, which scrambled my sense of direction. Such fun!

In the evening, we went out again and found a decently-priced meal. Then, we wandered down to see the Colliseum all lit up by night, before hopping on the Metro to go home.


It turned out that one of the lines was closed down at 9 for work to be done, and so we found ourselves stuck in the middle of Rome, at night, with no clear idea how to get back. So, we set off in a likely direction, and thanks to some skillful map-work made our way home. Quite fortunate, really.


Saturday was the day for the Forum, the Capitolino and Palatino hills, the Colliseum and the Circus Maximus. Another busy day, filled with lots of walking. That was also the day of a gay pride march in Rome, but we saw very little sign of them.

Saturday was also the day that it rained. The unending sunshine was broken by a very brief, warm shower. We duly ducked into a likely museum, wandered around for a few minutes, and by the time we were done, the rain was ended. Ten minutes later, and it was as if it had never happened.

Speaking of the sunshine: Rome was extremely hot and extremely sunny. Both LC and I got burned at various points; LC on her back, and me on the top of my head. This did have the advantage that I then simply had to wear my silly hat, so it wasn't all bad.

In the Forum, and also in the Colliseum, there was a special exhibition on about the emperor Nero, the burning of the city, and the reconstruction of the city thereafter. Interesting stuff.

Unfortunately, by the end of all this, the walking had really taken a toll. I had developed a really nasty cramp in one foot, that never really let up. This wasn't for the best, what with two more days to go.

Late that afternoon, we went to another museum, which LC again believed had been used as a location for "Roman Holiday". Anyway, it was rather impressive.

That evening we found ourselves a fairly nice, very modest, eatery and had a decent meal. That was where we were reminded of another lesson about Rome - often, the more modest the facade, the better the restaurant itself. More pizza; yum yum.


On Sunday we jumped on one of the tour buses, and went for a trip around Rome. This proved to be rather interesting, and we saw a lot of sights. We travelled the full circuit, and then made our way back round as far as the Circus Maximus.

From there, we walked to the Bocca Della Verita, the Mouth of Truth, where we took pictures of our hands being chewed off (like in "Roman Holiday"). We grabbed a snack from one of the mobile snack bars, and then took a gentle wander across to Piazza Navona, intent on getting a bottle of wine and just watching the world go by.

However, that plan soon changed, for two reasons. The first of these was that there was a small market going on, where I picked up a nice picture of sunset over Rome. The second was that we learned there was a concert of Russian dance happening there that night, so we decided to come back later to see that.

We went back to the hotel, dropped our bags, then made our way along to the Spanish Steps (as featured in, well, you know...), then a short jaunt through the Villa Borghese (where we took pictures of giant Jelly Baby Commandoes, and LC with Batman and Superman), and then on to Piazza Del Popolo. There, we caught the tour bus again, and back to the hotel.

That evening, we had to face the issue that we had spent too much money, especially on those first two meals. As a result, we needed to get some more. So, as we made our way back towards Piazza Navona, LC tried to withdraw some money. The machine refused, claiming her card wasn't valid for international withdrawals. Uh-oh...

We tried another machine, with much the same result. Worse still, this one declared "Card Captured", which really freaked us out. Fortunately, it then relented, and gave back her card.

Still, LC was rather upset by this, and I must admit to a little panic. What if none of our cards worked? We didn't have enough cash to manage completely without...

Fortunately, my own card did work, and I was able to withdraw some money. This was a huge relief, as I'm sure you can imagine. I was thus able to lend LC enough money to keep us both going.

We then went searching for somewhere to eat, preferably without too much hard work. Still, we managed a sight-seeing coup - we found the eatery where they only spoke Italian! (This wasn't too bad. Turns out Italian is extremely easy when you know some Spanish, and the rest I could cover with the universal mimes...)

Sadly, the Russian Dance Concert was a bit of a dead loss. They elected to start with an hour of long, tedious speeches (in Russian and Italian), before actually getting to the dances. I was paranoid about pick-pockets, and we were both extremely tired. So, we stayed for a couple of dances, but left pretty quickly. A shame; what we did see was really rather good.


We took things easy on the last day. Most of the day was spent in the huge Villa Borghese, a massive public park filled with all manner of tribes and factions. The turtles and the squirrels were in an uneasy stand-off, the giant fish moved to their own inscrutable agenda, and so on...

That was really a marvellous idea. We needed an easy day after three hard ones, and the park was the perfect setting.

In the afternoon, we went back to the hotel for a short rest, did what packing we could, then went out for ice creams. Afterwards, we wandered along past the Spanish Steps to complete our "Roman Holiday" tour, before doing a little window-shopping in the absurdly-priced designer shops, and then back to the hotel to get changed.

In the evening...

#16: "Cloud Atlas", by David Mitchell (a book from The List)

Super Secret Goal #3

When we were in France last year, on our last night Lady Chocolat and I agreed to get a bit dressed up and go for a nice meal out. This year in Rome, for our last night we got dressed up and went for a nice meal out. Lady Chocolat wore a blue dress and flats, while I wore my lucky purple shirt and Superman socks. It's important to get the details right.

So, we went for a nice meal at a very nice little pizzeria. LC kept wondering what was wrong, but I was appropriately unforthcoming.

After the meal, we went to the Trevi Fountain, there to throw coins in, as is the tradition.

The fountain was busy, even just after sunset, and even on a Monday night. I hadn't expected to be working with an audience, but oh well...

So, we were there. We had thrown our coins. We had had our pictures taken. The moment was upon us.

I turned to Lady Chocolat, and looked into her eyes.

"___," I said, "I love you. You're my best friend. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. So..."

I went down on one knee, my hand reaching into my pocket to produce the ring.

"will you marry me?"

She said yes. There was a round of applause.

The End.