Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Merry Christmas everyone

I'd like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a happy 2015.

This blog has been a bit neglected this year, and my stats tell me that I've posted fewer times than any year since 2008, but I'd like to thank everyone who continues to read, visit, share and comment - I really do appreciate it, and I promise to try harder next year.

I hope the New Year brings you everything you wish for yourself.  For me, it means new beginnings and a very personal challenge, which is - as any blogger would say - another blog post (or two).

Have a wonderful time.  See you on the other side!

Monday, 22 December 2014

The shortest day, and how to spot a black dog in the night

Yesterday was the shortest day, or the winter solstice, and it's a day I look forward to every year.

Today we get an extra second of daylight - a whole second! - but this soon begins to snowball everyday until those extra seconds turn into minutes. Then, before you know it the clocks go forward and we're back in the realm of longer days, shorter nights and the feeling that there is more time to do the things we've been putting off all winter.

At this time of year I like to check the daylight times everyday.  There's something very comforting about seeing the extra minutes of daylight added to each day.  I don't suffer from S.A.D. but it's reassuring to know that brighter days are coming.

One of things I hate about the dark days is having to drive to and from work in the dark  (although changes are afoot in that respect) and of course it also means that I have to walk the dog when it's still pitch black outside. But that's the thing about having a dog - you get to witness the changing seasons, including the less than good weather. It doesn't always feel like an advantage when its cold, windy, wet, or icy, but I try to convince myself that it is.

One of the problems of walking Tessie in the dark is that she's black so it's hard to see where she is.

But no more! We were sent some lovely doggy Christmas presents from Fetch, including this Hi-Vis greyhound coat.  I have to admit that Tessie seemed reluctant to put it on at first, but it's brilliant for spotting her when she wanders off-lead in the park.   Just look at the difference:

It's waterproof, windproof, and has a warm fleece lining to keep her warm.  I'm impressed, but Tessie's still not sure about it.

She was much more positive about these doggy treats though, particularly the venison chew sticks which she absolutely loves. And popcorn for dogs? I've seen everything now.

Are you looking forward to the lighter days?  And do you buy your pet a Christmas present?

Disclosure:  we were sent these items for review purposes, but words and opinions are mine (and Tessie's). 

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Review: Harrods Traditional Christmas Hamper

Not long to go now before the big day, and most of us are still in a Christmas shopping frenzy.  Are you an early-bird shopper or do you leave it all until the last possible minute?

We were lucky enough to be sent a Harrods Christmas hamper to review.  Not only were we delighted to receive it, but I think our postman now sees us in a different light.  When he knocked to deliver the box with the iconic Harrods name on the side he gave me a knowing wink and said "Nice, from someone special is it?"

And I suppose that's what a Harrods hamper is all about isn't it? Something special to someone special, and perfect for those people you might not see over Christmas but want to send them something a bit out of the ordinary.

We chose the Christmas Carol hamper from their Traditional Christmas Hampers range, and it arrived beautifully packaged as you might expect.

Opening and decanting the box was a lot of fun in itself, and we all earmarked the different items for ourselves.  I'm looking forward to the Christmas Pudding biscuits with a cup of the After Dinner Christmas Coffee which came in a gorgeous, reusable gold tin.   Even the beautiful red box is the subject of some debate with both daughters already 'discussing' who will get to keep it (but I suspect it will be used for storing Christmas decorations!)

We usually have a very quiet Christmas day, but this year we have my sister and her partner coming over for dinner, and I know these items will go down a storm later on in the evening, after dinner, when everyone is still too full to eat another meal but just fancy a nibble.

Although between you and me, I'm not sure they'll last that long...

Disclosure: we received the hamper for review purposes.  All words and photos are my own.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Christmas gifts for difficult-to-buy-for people.

I know it's still only November, but I'm going to have to mention Christmas shopping.  For most people it can be quite easy, they have lots of interests, or (like my own daughters) they make a wish-list which is conveniently stuck onto the fridge for me to see.  They don't get everything on the list, my pockets aren't deep enough for that, but I like to choose a couple of things they've asked for plus a surprise or two.

But there are still a few people who are a little bit more difficult to buy for than others. What do you buy them?  I have a few suggestions.

We don't have to buy a lot of gifts for men around here, but when we do it can sometimes stump me. Not suitable for my brother, who is teetotal, but I like these hip flasks from Buyahipflask,com and prices start from a very reasonable £15.  I know someone who'd love one of these.

Hip flasks from

Talking of alcohol, I received a very welcome surprise package from Lindeman's recently.  I enjoy a glass or two (or three) of wine at the weekend, although  I'm not an expert by any stretch of the imagination.

Lindeman's tell me that the Bin 45 Cabernet Sauvignon has a full-bodied palate with a mixture of blackcurrant and plums with hints of cedary French oak; and the Bin 85 Pinot Grigio has aromas of peach, fig and toasty oak, but honestly, I'll have take their word for it.  All I know is that I enjoyed both wines, and I'd be happy to get either of these in my Christmas stocking, particularly the Chardonnay. Very nice.

Lindeman's wines

If you know a chocolate-lover, and who doesn't, what about one of these 'gifts for chocolate lovers' from Pamper Parcels? I was lucky enough to receive one last week and it was a very welcome treat for a house full of hormonal women, although there was a bit of undignified grabbing when the box was opened.  The quality of the chocolate is top-notch by the way.

Pamper Parcels for chocolate lovers

For fragrance lovers I love this gift idea from The Fragrance Shop.  For just £20 a year (or £5 a quarter which can be cancelled at anytime) you can join their Discovery Club and every three months you can enjoy a new box of fragrances, including samples for men and women.  We received one of the beautifully packaged boxes and it was very well received, we particularly liked the fragrances by Loewe which were new to us. It's a great way to try out new scents, without the expensive outlay of buying a whole bottle, and each phial contains enough for you to wear it for a couple of days: long enough to decide if you like it.  Such a great idea.

The Fragrance Shop Discovery Club

What's on your wish list?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Review: Teen Parcel ~ it's a monthly thing

Teen Parcel

I was nine or ten when my Mum made her first and only attempt to explain what periods where.

She mumbled about some monthly stuff going on. I had no idea what she was talking about. "What do you mean....down there?....What, every month?"

Poor Mum. She endured the conversation for a few excruciating minutes, but I was still pretty unsure of the facts at the end of it. I just knew it was unpleasant, embarrassing, and not something people talked about.  

Two years later when I got my first period it was all a bit inconvenient. I was getting ready to get the train into town to see the Bay City Rollers at the Liverpool Empire, and I didn't want to be late, but I couldn't find the right words to explain to tell Mum that 'it' had happened.  She was in the kitchen battling with the twin-tub washer and I stood watching her for what seemed like an eternity, leaning against a hot radiator, until I eventually blurted it out. She immediately went upstairs and came back to hand me a brown paper bag with a pack of sanitary towels inside. Not a single word was said through the whole transaction and the word 'period' was never mentioned again in our house.

I always promised myself I would be more open with my own daughters and encourage them to ask me questions about growing up and changes to their bodies, and I'm pleased that they can talk to me about anything without mumbling or feeling embarrassed.

Teen Parcels are all about preparing girls for their first period, and encouraging a healthy and confident attitude to periods and growing up.  For a monthly subscription, the girl receives a parcel (small enough to be posted through the letterbox) that not only contains the essential sanitary protection (a choice of towels or tampons) but a box of goodies to enjoy, including beauty products, a sweet treat and something to drink. I think it's a great idea, and a perfect starting point for those conversations about becoming a woman.

Teen Parcel contents

Teen Parcel contents

We received two Teen Parcels and both arrived beautifully packaged and the contents were well thought out.  My girls were impressed with the contents and thought they'd be a great way to mark the start of a girl's periods and would be something to look forward to, because sometimes we all need a bit of cheering up at that time of the month.

The Teen Parcel website has some great information for girls, with handy apps and tips and advice on everything to do with periods, plus there's a monthly newsletter to sign up to.  I also liked '6 Life Lessons We've Learnt from Katniss Everdeen'  which definitely appealed to Tall Daughter who is a big fan of the Hunger Games.

The subscription is £5.95 for the first box, followed by £9.99 thereafter, which may seem a bit pricey but the contents of the boxes we received would definitely add up to more than that and P&P is included, plus you can cancel at any time.

It's a well executed idea - I can't believe it's not been thought of before now - and something I'd be happy to recommend to friends with younger daughters for when they reach that certain age.

Watch out for the Twitter party next week around building girls' self-confidence and how to prepare them for their first period. You can join the conversation by using the hashtag #itsamonthlything.

Disclosure:  we received two Teen Parcels for review purposes, but words and opinions are my own.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Teenager turns 18

The Teenager turns 18
Finally, after months of counting down the days The Teenager turned 18 yesterday.

It was a great day, filled with happiness. There were balloons, presents, cards, a meal at her favourite restaurant, cocktails, and the perfect cake for a mega-fan of the Foo Fighters.

The Teenager is a great girl.  Yes, I know I'm biased but honestly, she is. She's fun, she's smart, and she's got a great, bubbly personality. What's more, she knows what she wants out of life and is determined to get it.

I'll be honest, she hasn't always made the past 18 years easy for me - she's very headstrong and at times it's felt like she challenged almost every decision I've ever made, and she probably has, but my God, I admire her strength of character.  Speaking as someone who has spent their  whole life being compliant I love that she questions everything, even if it does drive me crazy sometimes.

So, I'm now the parent of a fully-grown adult. It's unchartered territory for us, but I'm sure it'll be fine.
Foo Fighters 18th birthday cake
Her Foo Fighters birthday cake

If things go to plan (and my goodness she's working hard to make it happen) this time next year she'll be at university studying law or criminology. I'm not sure how I feel about her leaving home, the house will be very quiet, and much tidier, without her but I know she can't wait. And that's her in a nutshell really, she's always been ready for the next adventure.

Happy birthday to my lovely lovely girl. Cheers!

p.s. Today is the turn of her sister as it's her 15th birthday.  You might think that was bad planning to have two birthdays the day after each other, but I prefer to see the positives - in 3 years time they can share a joint 18th and 21st birthday party. Genius.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Lest We Forget ~ In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

 John McRae

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Pamper Parcels ~ the perfect Christmas gifts

Pamper Parcels is a new business set up by my very clever friend Rosie Shelley (who blogs as Rosie Scribble) and in the run-up to the Christmas shopping season I thought these would be perfect presents.

I've already started doing my present shopping but there's always a question mark over what to send to the people we won't get to see over the Christmas period and these would be ideal. Here's how Rosie describes the philosophy behind it.
"The idea behind the business is to encourage us all to take time out from our busy lives, and enjoy a little me-time. We believe taking time out to relax and enjoy a little pampering is now essential rather than a luxury, and it has wide health benefits.

Each of our pamper boxes contains a mixture of carefully selected natural, organic and Fair Trade products, plus products sourced from independent businesses. The aim is that each product gives something back in some way – to the environment, to nature, to the community and to workers in the developing world.
 Each pamper box also contains one small extra gift, boxed with the words ‘pass it on’ stamped on, for you to pass on to someone else, promoting the gift of giving and spreading the happiness a little further. We’re calling it Pass the Parcel."

The range includes a variety of pamper boxes for men, women and teens, for a variety different occasions at a range of price points so there’s something for everyone.  A couple of friends who have received them as gifts were all equally impressed with the care and attention to detail that had gone into each parcel.

You can buy one for yourself or send it as a thoughtful gift to say thank you, good luck, take care of yourself, get well, happy birthday, or just because.

All of the items used have been ethically sourced, including the packaging, and are animal friendly too, which is a nice touch. Boxes are hand wrapped with care and sent through the post with your personalised message.

The website also offers a free me-time download to help you plan your time out.

And just in case anyone is wondering what to get me for Christmas I like this one...

Monday, 27 October 2014

British crime dramas worth watching

I watch a fair bit of TV, and autumn is traditionally the season when new dramas are rolled out. I love a good drama series - Broadchurch, The Killing, The Bridge, Top of the Lake - I loved all of those, and these recommendations are in the same vein.

The Fall is a psychological thriller which was broadcast earlier this year on the BBC, and although I missed it first time around I'm watching the repeat on BBC2 at the moment (I believe it's also available on Netflix).

On paper, it's a fairly predictable story - serial killer targets single women -  but it is brilliantly done. Tense, dark and quite scary in parts, it is a top notch drama that's won a bucket-load of awards and rightly so.  It's quite challenging to watch due to its subject matter and quite graphic and brutal images in places, but my goodness it's well written and creatively directed.

It stars Gillian Anderson who is mesmerising as DCI Stella Gibson, the head of the police investigation team, and Jamie Dornan as the serial killer, as well as an excellent ensemble cast including the very underrated Irish actor John Lynch (who I've fancied for years) it's definitely worth watching before the second series airs in November. So, so good.

Happy Valley is another excellent BBC drama and was aired earlier this year. Set in Yorkshire and starring Sarah Lancashire as police sergeant Catherine Cawood, and rising star James Norton as psychopath Tommy, it centres on a staged kidnapping that goes badly wrong with terrible and far-reaching repercussions. It's fairly brutal in parts, and not suitable for children, but I can't recommend it highly enough. Stunningly good.

Anyone old enough to remember Cagney and Lacey?  Well, Scott and Bailey is the modern-day, Manchester based equivalent of it, and bloody good it is too.  The series was created in 2011 by Sally Wainwright, who coincidentally also wrote and produced Happy Valley, and is currently in its fourth series. It is a very realistic police drama, and the lead characters, played by Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp, are portrayed as imperfect women (is their any other type?) one mouthy and impulsive, the other steady and methodical, who are good at their jobs but not so great in their personal lives.  It's a gritty, intelligent drama with terrific female leads and is extremely watchable, I love this programme and will be sad to see this series' final episode this week. Catch it on ITV iPlayer.

What are you watching on TV, and what would you recommend?

Friday, 24 October 2014

Aromatic lamb burgers with mint raita

Last week I was set a challenge to make a recipe using lamb mince, or keema, and I made Keema Shepherd's Pie with a sweet potato mash which was delicious (even if I do say so myself).

This week I've made aromatic lamb burgers with a lovely mint raita to go with it.  Lamb and mint are a food marriage made in heaven, so I wanted to use both in the same meal.   As always with the recipes on this blog, it's easy to make and perfect as a mid-week family meal.  The burgers use spices, but they make the burgers 'aromatic' rather than spicy hot - but you could add more spice if you wanted, and one or two chillies to the mix if you want a bit of a kick. I left the chilli out this time because my daughter doesn't like it.

Makes 6 burgers

250g lamb mince
1 small red onion, finely chopped
Fresh breadcrumbs made from 2 slices of white bread, processed into crumbs
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1-2 red chillies, finely chopped (optional)
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground cumin
1 egg
salt and freshly ground pepper 
Oil for cooking

Put all of the ingredients in a bowl, and mix well together. I find it easier to do it with my hands.

Shape the mixture into 6 burgers, put on a plate and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Lamb burgers

While the burgers are in the fridge, make the raita. Use 250ml of natural yoghurt, half a cucumber (grated and excess liquid squeezed out), a few leaves of fresh mint, chopped, and salt to taste.

Mint raita ingredients

Mix together in a bowl, that's it! 

When you're ready, take burgers out of the fridge about 10 mins before you're ready to cook to bring them back to room temperature.  

Brush the burgers with the oil and place into a hot frying pan. Cook for 5 minutes on each side.  Your kitchen will smell amazing at this point!

Aromatic lamb burgers

To serve, toast pitta bread for 30 seconds then open it up into a pocket.  Place the burger inside, serve with tomato and salad leaves. Top with some of the mint raita. We loved these, so easy and quick to make and the final result is really tasty. I'll definitely be making them again.

***To be in with a chance of winning one of 5 Indian Food Hampers, please vote for my recipe on the

Friday, 17 October 2014

Celebrating Apple Day

I love autumn. Not only is it time to break out the hot chocolate and woolen scarves, but it's also the time when Apple Day is celebrated. I think it's something that's only celebrated in the UK, but I could be wrong.

Last weekend I persuaded Tall Daughter to join me at our local Apple Day.  I say persuaded because these family days out are getting increasingly rare as they spend  more of their time with friends, boyfriends (eek!) and following their own interests. How very dare they!

But I was pleased she came because it's my favourite local event and we've been visiting since both girls were tiny. 

As usual there was lots to do and see, and it was a beautiful autumnal sunny day. There was food produce on sale, craft stalls, food stalls, games, activities and of course, apples. Plenty of apples, including dozens of different varieties.  My favourite variety McIntosh Red wasn't there, but it's 'relative' Lobo was so I had a taste. McIntosh Red is a very fragrant apple, crisp and juicy, just as all apples should be.  I used to be able to buy it at our local outdoor market, but alas the market is no more.

Is there an apple day event where you live? What are your favourite local events?

Cooking with keema: Keema shepherd's pie with sweet potato mash

This week I've been set a challenge by Simply Beef and Lamb to cook a meal using minced lamb, in particular using a basic lamb keema recipe for a family meal.

So after receiving a gorgeous parcel of goodies including  vegetables, spices and four packs of minced lamb, I thought I'd give it a go. 

One of our staple meals in the colder months is Cottage Pie using beef, but this time I decided to try something a little different and made a Shepherd's pie using a basic lamb keema recipe, with a sweet potato mash topping. The keema recipe is aromatic and slightly spicy and gives a nice twist to a standard shepherd's pie.

Lamb Keema recipe

Serves 4
Preparation time 20 minutes
Cooking time approx 40 minutes

450g lamb mince
2tsp sunflower oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed
2.5cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1-2 green chillies, deseeded (if preferred) and finely chopped
2tsp groung cumin
3tsp garam masala or medium curry powder
4 medium tomatoes, chopped 
1-2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp tomato puree
salt and pepper 
4oz fresh or frozen peas
Handful of fresh coriander, chopped (optional)

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and cook the onion gently over a low heat until soft and lightly golden, then add the garlic and continue to fry for one minute.
Add the ginger, chillies, cumin and garam masala or curry powder.
Cook over a moderate heat for 1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the lamb mince and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes, then add the tomatoes, sugar, tomato puree and bring to the boil.

Season and reduce the heat, cook uncovered for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a little water if it looks too dry.

10 minutes before the end of cooking, add the peas.

Delicious as it is with with plain basmati rice, naan bread and some relishes (mango chutney for me).
OR, you could use this recipe in to add to a shepherd's pie like I did!

Serves 4 hungry people
Ingredients: basic lamb keema recipe
150ml good hot lamb or veg stock
650g of sweet potatoes (or 4 medium-sized sweet potatoes)

Heat the oven to gas mark 6/180°c.
Put the keema in a large pan, add the stock (to make more of a gravy) and heat for 3-4 minutes until hot.
Peel, chop and boil the sweet potatoes to make a mash. 
Put the keema in your preferred baking dish and spoon the mash over the top.  For a crispy topping add a few small pieces of butter over the top of the mash.
Cook in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes until the pie is piping hot.
Serve with seasonal veg. Enjoy!

We loved this, and with just a few tweaks it turned a basic mid-week meal into something pretty special.   The basic keema recipe is very versatile, and could be used in a multiple of ways: spooned over hot pasta, or added to a jacket potato - in fact, you can use the keema recipe for any meal that uses a minced beef mixture.

Add beans, lentils or other pulses (chick peas would be great!) to ring the changes. Next time I'm going to add diced carrots, but it would be very easy to hide other vegetables in the recipe if, like mine, your children are not big veg eaters.

To show you how easy this recipe is, take a look at the video featuring Stacey Solomon and Indian chef, Nisha Katona. Nisha also explains the difference between 'hot' and 'aromatic' spices and how to tailor them to your tastes (especially if you're cooking for children).

Saturday, 11 October 2014

To follow or not to follow, that is the question

Pooky Rants: Auto DMs are NOT cool

I've been using Twitter since 2009. I enjoy a good chat on there, have made loads of interesting connections and even chatted with the odd celeb or two.

I don't use it everyday, probably more at weekends, but it can be a lot of fun especially if you're watching a big TV event (the 2012 Olympics being a very good example) and everyone is joining in the conversation.

But recently something has upset me.  A blogging friend,  someone I'd been chatting to without incident for years suddenly started to ignore me. And if she wasn't ignoring me she was being rather rude and abrupt with me. More than abrupt actually, downright rude.

If I tweeted them they would either not reply or their response made it clear that that was the end of the conversation.

I know this will seem like a very strange concept to anyone who doesn't use social media regularly, but these online relationships really do matter, to me at least. The connections you make online can become really important, especially at times when maybe you're feeling a bit fed-up. There's nothing like a few online friends to help put things in perspective and make you feel better.

Bloggers in particular are an amazing bunch, and I've had some fantastic pieces of advice on twitter and Facebook over the years, and I've made some genuine friends.

So, this recent incident confused me at first. Then I tried to figure out why it might be happening, and I think I might know why.

This person had been involved in a online conversation that I joined in with. I said I disagreed with her (nothing personal) but she took exception to my comment. In an attempt to resolve the issue I contacted her privately and said that I didn't mean to cause offence if that was what I'd done.  She said it was okay and not to worry and she valued our friendship.

But since then she has pointedly ignored me. And I suppose I could understand it if it wasn't for one thing. There were several other people who also disagreed with her, but I know for a fact she is still chatting with them. So it's just me then.

I mentioned this on Twitter earlier today and was blown away by the response. So many people were very nice about it, and many thought I should unfollow her.  (She still follows me by the way).

Thing is, I have always liked her. She has an interesting blog, I love her style of writing and some of the subjects she writes about are very close to my heart. Up until recently I was a regular commenter on her blog, but I can take the hint and don't comment anymore.

So, to follow or unfollow? If I unfollow it makes it clear I don't want to talk to her either, but I do. Pathetic, right?

I wish it didn't bother me, but it does.

Am I being over-sensitive? What makes you unfollow someone?

Friday, 10 October 2014

Hotter for autumn

Hotter shoes

It's been a good summer. Up until a week or so it was still warm and sunny, but then last weekend the weather turned and now, along with the autumn colours, we also have the chillier weather. Still lovely, but definitely colder. 

Once the weather turns I almost immediately start wearing ankle boots, and as I'm in trousers 99% of the time they're a footwear essential for me.

A couple of weeks ago Hotter sent me this lovely pair of Dusk boots in Petrol (£85.00).  I love the
colour which goes perfectly with jeans and makes a change from my usual black.  Made from a lovely soft velvet nubuck, they have a 'relaxed' fit and a side zip fastening. They're also incredibly comfortable.

Summit Boot £115.00
After 5 years of dog walking I desperately need a new pair of dog walking shoes, and these Gore-tex Summit boots are also calling my name.  Sturdy, weather-proof and with supportive cushioning. Perfect.

I like the fact that Hotter is a British brand, based very close to where we live in the North-west.  I think it's fair to say they have a good range of classic styles, although some of their more recent designs will appeal to younger buyers.

I've had a pair of Hotter shoes for years and their quality is worth mentioning here. Hotter is all about good quality footwear which, combined with their competitive pricing, is a good enough reason to visit one of their shops or their online store.

What about you? Have you put your summer shoes away yet?

Disclosure: I was sent the boots for review purposes, however all words, opinions and feet are my own.