Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Challenge Number 32 – Swim 40 lengths of Energise pool (can be in more than one session)

The point of this challenge was to make me take up regular exercise again, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, by the end of the year I would in fact be able to swim 40 lengths of a pool in a single session.

But this is me we are talking about and I have always been good at finding excuses not to take up regular exercise. Knee dislocating, for example. Or the fact that I am ungainly and unfit. Or that exercise requires some sort of physical effort on my part. Exercise has to be very convenient for me – I prefer it to be on my doorstep if possible. I don’t mean that I will literally only exercise on my front doorstep, but I don’t like to have to travel far to do any kind of sporting activity. For me it sort of destroys the object of exercise if I have to use a car to get there.

I didn’t do too badly in my last few years in London, where I forked out for membership at the gym in Crouch End, and did actually use it from time to time (every day, for example, when our bathroom was being refitted and I needed somewhere to have a shower). The gym was located ten minutes’ walk from our flat and could be integrated into my journey to or from work. As I was working freelance, I could be very flexible about my hours and therefore go to the gym at quieter off-peak times. This was when all the local celebrities did their work-outs, which also gave me a good incentive for going. One morning for example, newsreader Dermot Murnaghan was on a bike next to me, actor Simon Pegg on a treadmill opposite, and Peter “Malcolm Tucker” Capaldi on a stepper to my right. It kind of made me feel like I was somebody important too, even though one look in a mirror at myself in shorts would do a lot to dispel that belief.

But as soon as we moved to York, things kind of slid downhill on the exercise front. There were no gyms or pools in walking distance from our house once the Barbican was demolished. I was working at the university, but the grotty university sports centre just smelled of teenage testosterone (and didn’t have a swimming pool). The fancier David Lloyd gym next to campus cost more than our London gym per month and was the wrong side of the university for my walk to work. I couldn’t go in my lunch hour as my team were expected to eat together every day, as we were all working in offices in different buildings and didn’t get to see each other otherwise. 

As I say, it doesn’t take much to create myself a suitable excuse to avoid exercise.

We did do quite a lot of walking out in the Yorkshire countryside at least. And as I mentioned above, I did walk to work and, briefly, own a bike. The sparkling new Energise finally opened when I was pregnant, replacing the hideously grotty Edmund Wilson as our nearest swimming pool, and it was nice enough to entice me straight away. I did manage to go most weeks until I got too bulky to fit behind the steering wheel of our car. (Unfortunately, “nearest” is still far enough away that I have to go by car.)

But then we had Charlotte and nothing we had ever done before would be the same again. I look forward to her being able to walk far enough to reinstate those regular hikes in the Wolds, Dales and Moors – for now, the paths aren’t pushchair friendly, and she weighs far too much to fit into any form of carrier.

In a bid to regain some sort of physical form, I did decide to take up Aquafit at Energise just after Charlotte turned one. I was going to go with a friend on Tuesday mornings. Once I’d overcome the psychological battle of making this decision, I took action - I managed to get Charlotte settled into the Energise crèche a couple of times, booked my first Aquafit session for the following week - and promptly wrecked my knee that very evening.

So that was that. My knee is still, a year on, puffy and painful, so Aquafit is still out of the question. But swimming isn’t, hence the challenge.

40 lengths of Energise pool took three sessions. The first two of these happened in June, the final one last night, in late December. Which says it all about how regular my "regular exercise" has been. I have taken Charlotte swimming numerous times in between, but swimming with Charlotte involves me standing in the pool while she sits on the side emptying a watering can over my head, and no actual swimming.

I don’t know what happened in those lost months that made this challenge take such a frustratingly long time to complete. It was partly the pool opening times – weekends are packed out with kids, and the evening sessions often don’t start until 8.50pm, which was OK in June when it was still light, but once it was dark by half eight, I usually collapsed onto our sofa, unable to be prised off it. And there is no way I could fit in a morning swim before Dave has to leave for his train. And there aren’t any public sessions in the daytime when it isn’t Charlotte’s lunchtime and when the crèche is open. (Once again, see how good my excuses are?)

However, the timetable at Energise has just changed to include a women-only session at 7pm on Tuesdays, which is what I went to last night. It worked out really well, so I am actually a little bit hopeful that I may manage to keep this one up in the New Year. Though there are only two categories of swimmer at women-only sessions and I don’t fit into either. There’s the very middle-aged, very overweight ones who swim breaststroke two abreast up and down the pool, engrossed in conversation and moving so slowly that they might as well be going backwards. And then there’s the super swimmers in the laned off area, who race up and down in an effortless front crawl that thoroughly puts me to shame. I am in between, willing to get out of breath and go as fast as I can, but that fast is a good swimmer’s slow. Plus I like to swim on my back, so need a clear run. But I managed to find a little niche for myself last night, so here’s hoping I can do so again after the Christmas holidays. No more excuses. .

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Update - And More Bread

I have been asked by a friend to republish my list of 40 challenges, with the ones that I have completed crossed off. So here you go. As you can see, there are about eleven left to go. Some of these are booked, some are ongoing, some are tantalisingly close to being finished, and at least two are looking pretty hopeless at this stage. But I am spending every spare moment obsessing about them at least.

1. Climb Snowdon (by train is allowed)
2. Learn some BSL.
3. Translate at least one chapter of a book from German to English.
4. Perfect (= be able to bash out) a Beethoven piano sonata.
5. Grow something new.
6. Drink cocktails in a glamorous dress and non-clumpy shoes.
7. Eat lobster.
8. Eat at a 2-Michelin star restaurant.
9. Do pilates every day.
10. Do something for charity.
11. Eat something differently coloured for breakfast every day of the week (for a week).
12. Get our attic fixed.
13. Learn enough about something in York to be able to give a guided tour of it.
14. Snog on the back row of the cinema...
15. Learn something crafty, e.g. knitting/quilting/ oil painting.
16. Write a short story.
17. Keep a challenge blog.
18. Have a crazy hair cut/colour.
19. Visit Clifford’s Tower.
20. Solve a moderate level Sudoku.
21. Attend a live sporting event.
22. Read a novel by Dickens.
23. Get in the Deal Or No Deal audience (= to be a pilgrim).
24. Attend a cookery course.
25. Visit somewhere German-speaking.
26. Visit an island.
27. Visit both Clapham Junction stations.
28. Swim (BATHE) in a natural body of water. (Skinny dipping optional.)
29. Make jam or marmalade.
30. Take Charlotte to an aquarium.
31. Take Charlotte on the North York Moors railway. (= Changed for make and ice Charlotte a birthday cake)
32. Swim 40 lengths of Energise pool (can be in more than one session!).
33. Build a piece of IKEA furniture all by myself.
34. Bake 40 loaves of bread in a year (not all of them in a bread maker).
35. Go on the Settle-Carlisle railway.
36. Spend a day as a yummy mummy (=yummy family) in Crouch End.
37. Take Charlotte to see both her parents’ home towns.
38. Take Charlotte to see the Queen and/or the Olympic torch.
39. Learn to count to 100 in Welsh (and three swear words).
40. Make a Christmas box for a needy child.

And here are some more contributions towards Challenge Number 34:

Loaf 22

Loaf 23: Spelt and honey loaf (the recipe book says the loaf is meant to be sunken in the middle)

Loaf 24: What happens when you use a packet of yeast that has been open too long. An inedible brick.
In the background you can see jars of my green tomato chutney, made with my home-grown tomatoes.
It's still maturing.I haven't dared try it yet.

Loaf 25

Loaf 26

Loaf 27: Chocolate and Banana Bread again

Loaf 28

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Challenge Number 25 – Visit Somewhere German-Speaking

The outcome of this challenge reminds me very much of Hale and Pace’s Yorkshire Airlines sketch. “Departing Leeds International Airstrip, touching down 20 minutes later at Leeds International Airstrip. Because if it’s outside Yorkshire, it’s not worth bloody visiting.” I absolutely love this sketch. If only because the air stewardesses serve out the mushy peas in exactly the same way that my mother – Leeds born and bred – used to spoon out stew.

My challenges are now at their compromise end stage, which means sticking to a tight budget. So yes, wherever my “somewhere German-speaking” was, it had to be in Yorkshire. We hope to make a trip to Germany, Austria or Switzerland next year as a proper holiday, but it is unlikely to be before my 40th birthday, which is now getting dangerously close.

Why am I so desperate to visit somewhere German-speaking? German used to be a big part of my life and steered the course it took for a few years. Now it’s a language that I claim to speak well but which in reality is hopelessly out of date and out of practice. So I need to go out and use it if I am ever to reclaim my long-lost knowledge.

My lovely friend Claire suggested I complete the challenge by having a night at the German Christmas market in Leeds, promising me from previous experience that it would be “awash with Germans”. So last Monday night, as soon as Dave got in the door from work, I shoved Charlotte in his direction and hopped off down to the station to meet Claire and get the first train out of York thereafter to Leeds.

What a fun night we had. I would almost say that the Leeds Christmas market had encapsulated more of the features of a German Christmas market into its confined space in Millennium Square than a Christmas market would do in Germany. Because in Yorkshire, they have sort of made it a Christmas market meets Munich Oktoberfest. They have the nice twinkly wooden houses selling scarves, ornaments and toys, and lots of stalls selling Glühwein, Wurst with Sauerkraut, and numerous varieties of Lebkuchen and Schokokuss. And then they have a gigantic in-your-face beer hall. Which was packed to the rafters with revellers. The wall of noise was quite a shock when we entered, as the stalls outside had been largely deserted on a Monday night.

Claire and I bought ourselves a couple of beers and squeezed on to the end of a table. And oh, what beautiful beer. There is plentiful fine real ale brewed locally in York, but nothing is quite so smooth and sweet as a perfect, pure helles Weizenbier bottled in Bavaria. We drank it very quickly. And then had another. This was only going to lead to trouble for two mums who can usually barely manage a swift half without falling asleep. (Though I may just be speaking for myself here.)

Then the oompah music started. A band came on stage dressed in Lederhosen and red waistcoats, claiming that they were “a German band from Austria”. No one in Yorkshire seemed perturbed by this description. They soon had everyone swaying on the benches, bobbing up and down and raising their hefty Krüge, though large signs warned us that dancing on the tables was strictly forbidden. They played well, filling the air with lusty Volksmusik for twenty minutes, before switching to a disappointingly English repertoire. Though they would sing Happy Birthday in German to anyone who asked.

We could have stayed there all night, but some sense had to prevail so we went in search of food to mop up our beer. Next door (of course!) was an Alpine chalet restaurant (there are a few Alps in Germany, I suppose) serving exceedingly hearty German fayre. Claire (who claimed the extent of her German was “Wo ist die Jugendherberge?”) entrusted me to choose from the menu on the proviso that I had to order in German. The beer gave me the confidence to do this without flinching, though not before double-checking that our waitress was actually German and not from Barnsley. And the food was mm-mm-mm! Which is not something I found myself saying very often about German food when I lived there, unless cake was involved. But seriously, these were the best Käsespätzli and Kartoffelknödel I have ever tasted, served with tender roast pork, delicious cabbage and a suitably vinegary salad on the side. And another Krug of beer. The waitress insisted we have dessert and we were unable to resist her recommendation of a raisin and almond pancake that came with a gigantic bowl of Apfelmus baby food. I was in heaven.

We rolled home like barrels, as you only should after a night of Volksmusik, and felt more than slightly the worst for wear the next day. But I had spoken German, and eaten and drunk authentically, which is all I would have asked of a trip abroad. And I hadn't had to take a toddler with me or endure a flight on Ryanair (or Yorkshire Airlines) to get there. Thank you, Claire, for a wonderful idea. And thank you, Leeds, for unexpectedly coming up with the goods. But please, sort out your spelling. As far as I am aware, Christkindlmarkt shouldn’t have an E in it anywhere.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Challenge Number 23 - Get In The Deal Or No Deal Audience

I can’t be the only new mother to have had a Deal Or No Deal phase. When Charlotte was just a few weeks old, several inches of snow fell in a single morning and lay on the ground for six weeks. She had also just been hospitalised overnight with a severe bout of gastro-enteritis, which left her with bad reflux, so that unless we held her upright for a long time after each feed she would bring the whole lot back up again. The snow meant it was impossible to get our pram or car out of our road, and I was too weak and wobbly with hideous post-birth infections and post-partum hyperthyroidism to be able to carry her in a sling, so I was effectively housebound.

By four o’clock each day I would finally cave in and turn the television on to watch Deal Or No Deal. I’d never really watched it before, apart from whenever I had been to visit my grandmother in the Lake District. She had got completely hooked on it during the last few years of her life, taking great pleasure when people got greedy and came unstuck. “He could have had £14,000 but he’s going home with 10 pence. Isn’t he stupid?” she would say severely. Deal Or No Deal hadn’t yet been conceived during the years I worked as a subtitler for the deaf and hard-of-hearing on Channel 4 programmes. Countdown and 15 To 1 were our staple afternoon fodder back then. No doubt Deal Or No Deal would have been utterly tedious to subtitle day after day, with capitalisation issues over “pilgrims”, “East Wing,” “West Wing”, “Walk of Wealth”, “Dream Factory”, “Banker”, “Five Box”, “Power Five” “1p Kiss”, and “Death Box”, and shortforms required for “I’m ready for the question, Noel,” “It’s an amazing offer”, “member of the 1p Club”, “Let’s hope it’s a blue”, “curse of the newbie”, “play on with honesty,” “first male quarter of a millionaire” and Noel’s unnecessarily sinister opening line, “22 boxes. A quarter of a million pounds. Just one question.”
Our back yard, early December 2010

Yet to watch, it is strangely addictive, as it varies so much from day to day. So for a few months, Deal Or No Deal was my vice, my secret guilty pleasure, my daily slice of mindless entertainment, where I would put my feet up and cuddle my baby. Once Charlotte could sit up independently, she clearly started to recognise the theme tune, and would clap along with the audience and squeal excitedly at the Jackpot Joy sponsorship cartoons at the start and end of every ad break. I realise this makes me sound like a terrible mother. I won’t even try to contradict you. But these were desperate times.

I’m not sure that the desperate times are over, but my Deal Or No Deal phase definitely is. Nowadays, if we watch television together, Charlotte has me on a strict diet of CBeebies and Pingu, Thomas The Tank Engine and Peppa Pig DVDs.

Anyway, I was nonetheless very tickled when a friend from my NCT group set me the challenge of getting myself in the Deal Or No Deal audience to watch an episode being filmed. Obviously to be a competitor was completely out of the question, but getting in the audience simply involved filling in an on-line form and waiting. After a few months I got a phonecall from from the production team inviting me to attend a recording on 23rd November 2012. I accepted, checked I still had some black clothes that fit in the wardrobe, and booked myself a night in a Bristol Travelodge.

Only I couldn’t go, when the time came. We’d spent ten days of sleepless nights with Charlotte suffering from flu, and then poor Dave went down with it with a bang. He tried to battle on for a couple of days but by the Monday of last week he was flat out in bed with shivering chills, ferocious sweats and a violent cough, literally unable to do anything. Exactly as Charlotte had been the week before. He just looked dreadful. He really isn’t a malingering sort - this wasn’t man flu, it was the real, er, “deal”. After three days he had shown little sign of improvement, so there was no way I could leave him in sole charge of Charlotte, who by this point had picked up considerably and was running us ragged again.

So I cancelled my trip, and it’s my first proper challenge failure. Time to demonstrate maturity and embrace this failure, accepting that life does not always go according to plan, especially when you have a young child. I’m 40 quid down as I had paid a lower, non-refundable room rate in Bristol. (Annoyingly, if I hadn’t tried to save money, I’d have got my money back.) Thankfully, as no cheap advance rail fares had been available and I was going to have to pay a walk-on fare anyway, I hadn’t yet forked out for a train ticket. And even if everyone had been well and I had actually managed to set off, I still might not have made it, as flooding in the Midlands and South West severely disrupted train services to and from Birmingham New Street and Bristol Temple Meads stations that week. The challenge was probably doomed from the start. It’s not worth re-applying to be in the audience again at this point. I think I am more gutted about missing out on an uninterrupted night’s sleep in that Travelodge and my first lie-in for two and a quarter years than anything else. Besides, did I really want to trek all the way across the country to see Noel Edmonds in a bad shirt? Truth be told, probably not. And if I had gone, I’d have had to sign a confidentiality agreement and so wouldn’t have been allowed to blog about the experience. Whereas as I haven’t seen anything, I can write all that I like. My freedom of speech is intact.

I did get in the audience of Deal Or No Deal on Friday 23rd November, however. Dave took Charlotte upstairs for an hour and I sat and watched it at home, alongside a few million other people. For old times’ sake. And it certainly did make me a little bit nostalgic about those early baby days, and a tiny bit regretful that I hadn’t made it to the recording after all. Ironically, at the end of the show, Noel turned to camera and said “You’ve got to come down here sometime and experience the Dream Factory. It really does have a magic all of its own.” Maybe one day.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Challenge Number 24: Attend a cookery course

This safely wins the prize of my favourite challenge so far. I chose this challenge because I’ve always fancied doing some sort of cookery course but never have. Apart from Home Economics lessons at school, which involved a lot of homework drawing pictures of jacket potatoes, but not much time actually learning to cook. We made a few fairly useless things like baked apples, but I left home completely unable to make a meal for myself. Admittedly this could also have been avoided if I’d been a little bit more prepared to help out my parents – both of them good cooks - in the kitchen as a teenager. Obviously I’ve learned a lot since, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement, especially as I am having to cook for us almost every single day now we don't get to eat out much any more.

Whilst the most useful cookery course for me these days would be one entitled “How to Prepare Food That A Toddler Will Eat Without Needing It To Be Disguised By Baked Beans”, a little while back the regular weekly e-mail update from our local delicatessen pointed me to exactly what I was looking for. It mentioned a new cookery school being set up by Sara Danesin Medio. When Charlotte was just a tiny baby, Dave and I became hooked on a particular series of Masterchef, as it was all we could manage to watch on television during the one hour we had to ourselves each evening. Sara Danesin Medio, an Italian intensive care nurse who lived in York, reached the final, but ultimately her divine-looking cocoa and partridge ravioli lost out to the zany burgers of a bespectacled American called Tim. It was Sara’s food that Dave and I had salivated over throughout the entire series, at a point in our lives where we were having to live off Waitrose ready meals from the freezer because we were too exhausted to cook properly for ourselves.

And here suddenly was a chance to meet Sara, and learn from her. I sent off an enquiry via her website and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing an available date was found.

Ironically, when the day came I was almost as exhausted as I was when I had watched Sara on Masterchef, since Charlotte chose this week to get the coughing virus from hell, which left her running a fever bordering on 40 degrees and entirely unable to eat or sleep. Which meant none of us had been able to sleep. For nights on end. Not wanting to cancel, I left her in Daddy’s capable hands to have a far less fun day than he had been hoping for, and walked across town to Sara’s house for a warm and friendly welcome. Rather than setting up her own restaurant, Sara runs a dining club from home on Saturday evenings, Sara @ St Johns. She serves 12 covers, does all the food preparation and clearing up herself, and has only her husband on hand to assist with front of house. The menu is fixed and the wine is bring your own. Oh, and it’s booked up for the next year.

Three of us were signed up for the course. Once the other two had arrived, we set to work. Though it was actually Sara who did most of the work. She was understandably wary of letting strangers loose with knives and hot oil in her kitchen, despite her intensive care nurse qualifications. So nearly everything we needed was already measured out and chopped, and she did any hot plate, oven and hob work herself.

We spent the day making a three-course menu: aubergine parmagiana served with pesto, Taggiasche olives, vine-roasted tomatoes and a parmesan crisp; fresh egg pasta filled with spinach and ricotta and drizzled in a beurre noisette (burro bruciato) and white truffle sauce; and a vanilla panna cotta served with a berry and kirsch compote. Sara started with the panna cotta, leaving it to set in the fridge while we prepared the other two courses. These meant my first attempts at using a chef’s ring to make a vegetable stack, at making and rolling my own pasta, and at plating up “prettily”, using smears rather than dollops of sauces. Miraculously, while I wouldn't go as far as to say that I carried out any of these activities with aplomb, I avoided any humiliating disasters and was pleased with my efforts.
Aubergine parmagiana

My very own spinach and ricotta filled pasta

Cooked and served with a burro bruciato and white truffle sauce

Panna cotta with generous smears of compote (my greed wins over grace)

Sara made it all look so simple. And really, there was nothing complicated about what we were doing: every recipe could easily be replicated at home. Sara’s approach was all about touch, smell, feel and taste rather than science and technique. She had calculated the exact ratio of gelatine sheets required for the panna cotta, but once she had the mixture prepared in the jug, a sixth sense seemed to tell her that another half sheet was needed to get a perfect result. And talking of feel, the temperature of food or scalding water that Sara will merrily stick her fingers into without so much as a wince is really quite scary.

Sara also insists on good quality ingredients. The extra virgin olive oil she was using costs 15 pounds a bottle, but I have never inhaled the scent of or tasted one so utterly, richly exquisite. The eggs that she uses for her pasta have yolks of an astronishingly vibrant yellow which give a sunshine-like sheen to her dough. The Taggiasche olives we perched on our aubergine parmagiana looked like tiny brown pellets but took olive-eating to a whole new gastronomic level.

Sara’s kitchen is spacious and light, but not full of fancy pans and gadgets. She has an Aga, but otherwise everything else was prepared on just two gas hobs. The most complicated thing she owns is a Thermomix, a small plug-in pot whose website claims it “weighs, grinds, purees, simmers, steams, emulses, crushes, kneads, minces and maintains chocolate at 37 degrees”, presumably while doing the washing up, defrosting your freezer and clearing out all the spices past their use-by date in your store cupboard. She had used the Thermomix to prepare an incredibly dense tomato and shallot sauce for the aubergine parmagiana, though she insisted that the sauce could just as well be prepared in a pressure cooker or on a low heat on the hob. A slightly battered pasta machine, her grandmother’s wicker ravioli scoop and a black angled spotlight above the Aga (which Sara nicknames the “gynae light”) complete the set-up.

I learned so much from my time with her. That large knives are actually less dangerous to handle than small ones when chopping vegetables. That you should source vanilla pods online. That it is almost as quick and far less messy to make pesto in a pestle and mortar rather than in a food processor, and that if you keep the mortar in the freezer, the pesto will turn out a brilliant emerald green every time. That a mix of parmesan and pecorino cheese are perfect for pesto. That the basil leaves we grow over here bear no resemblance to the tiny ones used in pesto by the Genoese. That parmesan crisps are simply grated parmesan scattered into discs, put in the oven for 3 minutes, peeled off the baking tray at just the right moment and shaped over a rolling pin. That if you salt and drain slices of aubergine for a couple of hours and then wring them out in your hands and deep-fry them, they won’t absorb gallons of oil and will taste exactly as aubergines are meant to. That when it comes to garlic, using less rather than more is enough to give a magical, subtle flavour which makes it somehow all the richer. That when chefs say “Add a little bit of salt” they generally add about ten times as much as I would have thought to. That the perfect consistency of pasta dough has been reached when the ball is as soft to caress “as a baby’s bottom”. That when pasta is stretched out and thin, it is unbelievably elastic and robust. That breadcrumbs can be like powder. That a sprinkling of semolina flour helps fresh pasta to dry and not to stick to surfaces. That if you coat the entire interior of a filled pasta shell with egg white rather than just the edges, the pasta is less likely to spring a leak on cooking. That it is a lot easier to extract panna cottas and parmesan crisps from silicon bakeware. That listening to the sound of butter melting in a frying pan allows you to determine when you have reached the perfect point to begin a beurre noisette sauce. That you should cook pasta in lots and lots of water. That no restaurants ever make their own filled pasta fresh for you – at best they may parboil then reheat them for your plate.

Sara’s tales of working in restaurants made me really understand why she does what she does, sticking to running a small and intimate dining club where the guests can be like family and she can control everything she serves from start to finish. It’s well-documented that restaurant chef life can be full-on, exhausting, male-dominated, and rife with fiery tempers, filthy language, bullying and more than occasional drug use. You might have to spend an eternity chopping vegetables at a work station before you are allowed to show any creative flair of your own. Sara is immensely gifted and incredibly hard-working. She was plainly a brilliant nurse and she is also a brilliant chef and gives everything she attempts her all, yet she is also resolutely determined to maintain a quality of life and a work-life balance, to be there for her family and to see the world. It was a real lesson to me to see this, knowing that I haven’t often found true happiness in the work place, as I battle on with these 40 challenges in my own bid to discover where I want to go next.

We ate the food we had created at various stages throughout the day, glad of a sit-down after long periods on our feet. Sara’s tabby cat Zorba sat outside the kitchen patio doors, peering in at us jealously. Apparently he likes nothing more than a plate of pasta and courgettes. If Sara had cooked them, who can blame him? We washed down lunch with a beautiful Piedmont Chardonnay, asked any foodie questions we had, and listened to Sara’s stories. She had also experimented with a sort of ravioli that contained the yolk of a quail’s egg on top of the spinach filling. The idea of it is that the egg doesn’t cook through or scramble, so that when you cut into the pasta, this glorious yolk comes oozing out all over your plate. Needless to say, when she sat down to try it, she had completely nailed it. With our post-prandial coffee or herbal teas, Sara also fished out a box of home-made hazelnut meringue cookies that were little crunchy mouthfuls of heaven.

“Little” is definitely part of Sara’s ethos when it comes to serving the finer, richer foods in life. Cream, butter and sugar are all delicious things, but left unheeded they clog up your arteries, and Sara has seen plenty of the consequences of that during her twenty years working in intensive care. So keep dessert portions small, and keep exercising to burn them off was definitely her message. I took away so much from my day with her, including a free bag of star and moon shaped pasta for the poorly little lady at home. I know and hope that we will be seeing a lot more of Sara Danesin Medio in the years to come. I’d better get my dining club reservation in now.