Monday, 30 December 2013

A month in books - December

We've been at the same campsite in Ourique for a month now and I'm running out of promising-looking English titles on the book exchange shelves.  This is the only thing I REALLY don't like about Serro Da Bica - the vast majority of the books are in Dutch! It is a Dutch campsite so understandable, but there are half a dozen whole shelves of books that I can't read. And it's so frustrating! So I've done something I haven't done in over twenty years and picked up a book in a foreign language! In lieu of rapidly learning Dutch, I chose to brush off my A Level German because there are about as many German books as English ones so immediately my choices are doubled! I initially and optimistically started with Cheng by Heinrich Steinfest because it had a great cover. Ten pages in I put it aside in favour of Die Bande O.N. by Hans Pille, a novella for older children. I'm progressing much better with this one and hopefully my vocabulary will be enough improved soon that I can restart the Steinfest.

Totally unintentionally I've read or listened to sixteen books again in December. Managing to complete two audio books is an achievement because, while they're great for commuting, they are so soporific when lounging in the sun! 


(All the titles link to their relevant pages on Amazon.co.uk)

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith **** 

Having listened to Child 44 on audio, I was pleased to pick up a copy of Agent 6 in a campsite book exchange, not realising that this is actually the third of the trilogy. I don't think it mattered that I've missed the second volume as the story flowed well on its own and the background narrative felt comprehensive without being awkwardly presented. I was interested in the range of venues visited - a truly international novel - and their historical setting. Agent 6 seemed to me to be less violently descriptive than Child 44, the first book making me feel quite nauseous at moments, which I did appreciate and I must now keep an eye open for the middle volume, The Secret Speech. 

Prophecy by S J Parris *** 

Historical mystery with a good sense of place and atmosphere including real figures from Elizabeth the First's court together with fictional inventions. The storyline was good and moved along at a good pace, but I found myself enjoying the book more for its setting than its plot. I would pick up other Giordano Bruno novels when I found them - a nice holiday read.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo **** 

At first read, there's nothing particularly amazing about this novel - the characters are well-rounded and come across as genuine people, the plot is winding and tricky, the writing is swiftly paced and draws you in. The surprise came when I realised that this novel is nearly fifty years old and, apart from the lack of technology, it hasn't really dated at all. Thanks to an interesting introduction by Val McDermid, I learned that its authors, Sjowall & Wahloo, were the trendsetters for the current way of writing crime novels. There are ten in this series - I'm going to track down them all.

Ablutions by Patrick DeWitt ***** 

Wow, this is a brilliant book! The device of 'notes for a novel' was a little offputting for the first few pages, but then it began to make sense and adds a feeling of immediacy and truth to the whole book. The narrator, a complete lost cause himself, is recording and judging those around him in a fascinating portrayal of despair and desperation. A lot of small things happen, most of them violent, and there isn't much of a storyline in an action sense, but the characterisations are perfect and I was gripped from start to finish. Easily as good as The Sisters Brothers, maybe better!

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido ***** 

This book is one of my WorldReads from Spain.
I read this on Kindle so didn't notice that the book was in translation from Spanish until I caught up with all the notes at the end. The translation is an excellent job - there's no sense of clunkiness or bizarre phrasing at all and the text flows fluently. It's perhaps no surprise that forensic science was first practiced in China and many great discoveries hail from there, but to understand that this kind of work was being done so many hundreds of years ago is pretty amazing. Garrido has done exhaustive research into medieval China with the result that The Corpse Reader totally immerses its readers into the culture and beliefs of the times. This is a fascinating read both as an exciting novel and as a glimpse into a fascinating hidden world.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn *** 

I loved Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn which I read recently so I had high hopes for Dark Places too. However Dark Places for me was disappointing. The book is ok but I didn't think that it was in the same league as Gone Girl. Libby is essentially an unlikeable character and I didn't feel any particular sympathy with her so the will for her to succeed is lacking. Plus, the story itself wasn't a credible, perhaps because the main characters weren't as fleshed out. Runner and Libby seemed to be the only ones we really got to know. Hopefully, as we've already got it on the Kindle, Sharp Objects will be better!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green **** 

I saw 'romance' and 'young adult' in the descriptions of this novel before I read it, so was expecting a fairly light and schmaltzy book. The text is pretty simply written which belies its heavy subject matter and I liked the way the storyline emphasis is put on the blossoming relationship between Hazel and Augustus, rather than their suffering from cancer which is given a pragmatic approach. Hazel's level headedness in particular, raises what could have become a mawkish and sentimental book into a strong emotional novel. I enjoyed reading The Fault In Our Stars right through to the end and the only thing I wish hadn't been done as it was, was the Author's Note. In the Kindle edition, this rather blunt declamation of 'it's only fiction' is on the very next page to the moving end of the story and it felt a bit like a slap in the face! Perhaps this should be moved to the beginning of the novel or a blank page be inserted first to allow the reader a moment to adjust?

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson **** 

A considerably more readable book that Men Who Stare At Goats and I found this to be an interesting subject. Ronson does jump about between subjects and I would have liked him to spend longer on the social implications of the changes in scientific approaches but as a first book on this area of psychology, The Psychopath Test has certainly piqued my interest. I hope go on to read some of the other books mentioned in the bibliography.

Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel ***** 
One of my WorldReads from France

Beautifully atmospheric evocation of a small town in First World War France, initially shielded from the immediate outrages of war, but as the fighting drags on, the town finds its own horrors. I love Claudel's writing although I am not sure I would rave about Grey Souls in the same way as I did Brodeck's Report as I thought it missed the otherworldly aspects of Brodeck. Interestingly, Dave preferred Grey Souls and cited exactly the same reason but from the alternate angle!

The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning ***

Not the standard plot for a detective novel but the sprawling storyline made it difficult to remember who everyone was and why or whether they mattered. From the synopsis on the back, I was expecting more of a literary novel. However, it's only the subject that leans towards literature, the writing itself is standard for the mystery genre, complete with some pretty gung ho dialogue at times. While Dunning spends a long time building up his plotlines at the expense of rounded characters and, although this book passed a couple of days reading time ok, I found it ultimately to be unsatisfying.

Death by Black Hole by Neil DeGrasse Tyson **** 

I still don't get particle physics but have crept a fraction closer to understanding thanks to this audio book! Fortunately the really heavy (for me) theory is intertwined with lots of more basic physics, plus chemistry, history, philosophy and even religion so there's a great mix of astrophysics based information in this book. Comprised of a series of essays which overlap, Death In A Black Hole covers some areas several times and I liked that, having listened for a few hours, I was finding myself 'accurately predicting' what the next few words might be as we had already covered part of the information some hours previously. I guess I've learned something! After having listened to the book, I read through some of the Audible reviews and was surprised that the narrator has come in for such criticism. I enjoyed his enthusiastic approach and didn't find his speech too fast at all. Much of the humour in the text is pleasantly dry and, for an American book, refreshingly sarcastic. I would buy more work by both the author and the narrator, just as soon as I've managed to memorise all this book. More listenings needed I think!

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury **** 

Hard to believe this book is over fifty years old! I loved the imagery, especially of the scenes with the carnival folk and the frightening descriptions of the Illustrated Man. The story rattles along mostly at a good pace although I did find the more intense segments of moralising slowed the tale unnecessarily. The Sound Of Thunder very-short story is also included in the Audible download I listened to. This was also interesting, but obviously not such a developed work as Something Wicked.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris *** 

A good start to this novel which details the everyday lives of a group of office workers in America. The situation is pretty much the same as happens in the UK - lots of chat and little work, rumours magnified and gossip spread, one upmanship and practical jokes - so I was easily able to identify with the book. However, once we come to know these people, not much else really developed to keep my attention and I found myself not caring about their fates. There are two big set pieces which I won't give away, but these events seemed two-dimensional and unreal. I think this book could have been an excellent novella, but in stretching its idea to a full novel, the potential 'magic' is too diluted to maintain interest.

Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson **** 

Although the blurb is intriguing, I didn't expect much from this novel but was running out of options in the book exchange at our current campsite so picked it out. Bleeding London is actually pretty good! The three central human characters are interesting, if not completely rounded, and I liked the way London itself almost became another character in its own right. The story is dark in places but I identified with the obsessive walking angle. Perhaps the intertwining of the stories is too contrived, but it's a good read nonetheless.

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld ** 

Sadly a rather dull thriller which I found to be neither 'elegant' or 'spellbinding'. The patronising misogyny throughout is infuriating and the main characters are so two-dimensional that I didn't really care about them from half-way onwards - I just hate to leave a book unfinished! Perversely, several supporting characters are well-presented cameos. With sharp editing, the premise of The Death Instinct could have been the stopping-off point for a much stronger thriller, but there seems to be so much extraneous history crammed in that its points are dulled. A shame.

Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews *** 

This book is one those that used to reliably fly straight out the door when I had my bookshop years ago. I thought it would be more 'chick-lit' though and never bothered to read it. I picked it up on the campsite book exchange yesterday and finished it this morning! Very readable, the story is bizarre and horrifying, and the only bit I really didn't like was the ending which was rushed with several far-too-convenient elements and yelled 'buy the sequel'. Unfortunately this spoilt the book for me as, otherwise, it would probably have got a Good four stars. Instead it's an OK three stars.

So that's my December! I've got a couple of English books on my shelf still to read - The Shell House by Linda Newbury and Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard - both of which I expect to be solid three-starrers but I might be pleasantly surprised. We've also bought a Kindle 'boxed set' of the first four Sjowall and Wahloo books. The one I've read is duplicated but it's still a great price for the remaining three. Plus, of course, I have the two German books mentioned above - will they be in January's finished list?

Finally, does anyone else follow +Mary Okeke's blog? She's a reviewer of African literature and has recently posted her reads for 2013. Top of her favourites list was Neighbours by Lilia Momple so I'm going to try and pick up a copy.

Friday, 27 December 2013

A Dutch Christmas in Portugal

Several new motorhomes joined us since my last post so there's a bustling little community
A busy Serro da Bica 
of nine campers here now, 17 people including Herman and Albertje. Everyone is Dutch apart from us, one other English couple and Frithjof who is German, but all the Dutch people speak good 'Engels' and are more than happy to switch between languages.

I'm glad we didn't follow my whim of spending Christmas day on the beach though. I know the weather in Portugal isn't anywhere near as bad as it has been back home, but heavy rain set in at about 5pm on Christmas Eve and just kept coming - all night! We managed maybe a couple of hours sleep between us as, with the awning blowing around and the rain thundering on Bailey's roof, it sounded like a hurricane outside. The awning escaped most of its pegs before morning so water got in. However, Bailey coped just fine and we stayed cosy and dry, if wearied.

Christmas Day began with coffee and Buterkoek in the bar. One of the other campers, Peter, had his birthday and joining a group for coffee and cake is a traditional Dutch way to celebrate. We braved the much-lighter-by-then rain afterwards for a hour's walking which meant I got the chance to try out my new Marmot waterproof trousers. They're perfect - comfortable, warm and stayed completely dry throughout the walk which is more than my previous Peter Storm pair ever managed. Well worth the price!
The house at Serro da Bica 

Highlight of the day was our Christmas meal for which we (almost) all gathered in the bar at 5pm. The other English couple won't come to the bar because 'they all speak Dutch' but everyone else was there. Albertje and Herman had arranged the tables with cloths and candles, red and green Christmas napkins and it looked lovely. I wrote out the menu afterwards and all the courses took up two days of my pocket diary - coincidentally, we both felt as though we had eaten a good two days' worth of food! First course was Albertje's homemade Hummous with mini toasts. Then we had Herman's Soup which was similar to a minestrone but with chourico pieces and meatballs in it. Everyone had seconds. Then the main course was a delicious Hachee which is a thrice cooked thick beef stew, vaguely similar in taste to the Greek Stifado. Albertje had been cooking this over the previous two days so we all already knew how good it smelt! The meal is traditional Dutch cuisine, but not traditional for Christmas Day. However, with so many mouths to feed here, it has become the Serro Da Bica tradition and several of this year's guests have been previously and returned. The Hachee was served with roasted rosemary potatoes, rice, spiced red cabbage, pears poached in red wine, and stewed apple. Everyone had at least seconds of all this as well. Then, when you would have thought no one could eat any more, our hosts served a rich dessert of whipped cream with multi-coloured jelly cubes, topped with a conserve of Albertje's homegrown strawberries. Phew! The Dutch have a fantastic word (which I've probably spelt wrongly) - 'outbouken'. It means to sit back and let your stomach hang out after having eaten too much. We all practised 'outbouken' with a small liqueur to finish! Dave had a Portuguese cognac and I had a white port.

We rolled back to Bailey and slept for about ten hours!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Bread Soup recipe

At the time of writing, on the Serro Da Bica campsite in Ourique, Portugal, we were getting a
 delivery of a small loaf of freshly baked brown bread six days a week. Most days we ate about three-quarters of the loaf so I started to look around for recipes to use up the remainder. Waste not, want not and all that. This frugal bread soup recipe is vaguely based on an idea in the book Portuguese Homestyle Cooking that I first mentioned when we tried its Baked Salmon recipe. The soup recipe in the book is called Acorda a Alentejana (page 44) although if you know the original, you might not recognise what I actually ended up creating here! The texture of my soup as I served it was similar to a coarse mushroom soup and it was delicious!

Ingredients:

3 inch pieces of chourico (ends and curve of a ring)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried parsley
salt and pepper
1 vegetable stock cube
1 pint water
day-old brown bread (I had about half a small loaf)

Heat the chorizo in a saucepan until the oils start to run.
Add the garlic, herbs, seasoning and crumbled stock cube. Add the water and cover the pan. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes.
When the stock is simmering, remove the crust from the bread and tear into roughly inch-square pieces.
Remove pan from the heat and add the bread, pushing it under the liquid. Recover the pan and leave for five minutes so the bread can soak up the stock.
When the bread cannot absorb any more stock, stir it to break up the bread into a thick sort-of puree.
Serve immediately while soup is still warm.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

We saw an otter!

A welcome sight at the end of a long walk 

We nearly didn't go for a walk today because, apart from a half hour of sunshine this morning, the sky has been overcast most of the day. The weather here has changed over the past week from practically guaranteed sunshine to anything between full sun and brief heavy rain showers. The two photos that accompany this post were taken only a day or so apart. It's still much, much warmer here than for the poor souls we left back in the UK though, so mustn't grumble!

Back to today. We set off for a little stroll about half past three and achieved an hour-and-a-half walk which took in tricky narrow goat trails high above the river Mira, rocky river banks, the edges of ploughed fields, and dusty tracks. I love how the scenery here can change with seemingly every corner. As we passed the abandoned watermill near our campsite, Dave stopped suddenly as he had spotted a ripple in the water. His immediate thought was turtle, but the animal soon turned out to be an otter. We were both delighted - neither of us is a particularly quiet walker so I think we often scare off potential wildlife sightings. I have never seen a wild otter before, only rescued captive ones in enclosures. We watched for probably five minutes as the otter dived and swam around, seemingly oblivious to us on the bank. Then, later in the walk, a second ripple resolved into a turtle who had slid back into the river at our approach but then took its time about swimming away under grasses.

I guess we're not going walking today 

Other walking 'triumphs' this week include discovering a new place to ford the river by improvising rock stepping stones. It was a bit scary at the time and I think we both felt euphoric afterwards! Yesterday's four-hour picnic walk enabled us to eat our bread and cheese lunch on the bank of a gorgeous babbling brook. This was all the more surprising as most of the route had been fenced-in dusty tracks, but just as we got to about half-past one, turning a corner revealed the perfect picturesque spot. I've improvised a way to attach our Picnic Rug to my candy-striped Picnic Set Rucksack - like the one linked, but PINK! (It's still that one you got from The Pier, Adrienne, do you remember?) So we can have perfect picnics with our gingham-edged plates and tartan rug.

And we went out for Sunday lunch this week too. Together with Herman and Albertje, and Fritzhof who at the time was the only other guest here, we visited the Cafe Central da Alcaria in the nearby village of Aldeia. There is a little bar area inside and terrace space at the side of the road, but once you walk through the bar, it is like stepping inside someone's home. Which is pretty much what we were doing! A back room is whitewashed and has large tables to seat maybe three groups of up to about six people each. The menu comprises of 'meat' or 'fish' and you need to both place your order the day before and specify what time you will arrive. Our table chose 'meat' and one pm. Fatima, the owner, had created a tasty kale soup for starters, followed by delicious slow cooked pork with chips, rice and salad. Dessert was a selection of fruits, fresh from the garden, and also a slice of Buterkoek (recipe to follow once I've made it myself) which Albertje had baked and taken as a gift but which Fatima insisted on serving some of too. We then sat out in the sun for coffee and I spent the rest of day dozing in my sun lounger with an audio book. Bliss!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Italian stewed octopus recipe

Italian stewed octopus 
A very delayed recipe post here because Dave first cooked this Italian-inspired meal while we were still in Spain and I've been meaning to blog it ever since because this is a delicious dinner. I am surprised at myself that I am happy to eat octopus because I am quite squeamish about things like cooked fish 'looking at me' during my meal and octopus isn't the most visually appetising of seafood, but when it's cut into pieces, it doesn't look too scary! I think I first tasted it in a rice stew when we were in Croatia. The dish contained a few whole baby octopi so I could see exactly what I was eating. One of the main reasons to travel for me though is to try new foods so I was very brave!

It is possible to buy small packs of about 300g of pre-cooked octopus pieces in Spanish supermarkets and this worked perfectly for the first time of creating this dish. For the second time I think we were already in Portugal and had to buy frozen raw octopus instead in order to get little enough for just the two of us. Most meat and seafood in Portugal seems to be sold in quantities suitable for feeding your extended family at every meal. The raw octopus tasted just as good in the end but took a lot longer to cook.


Ingredients:
300g octopus pieces (or enough for two people)
olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
200ml tomato passata or tinned chopped tomato
100ml white wine
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp dried dill
2 tbsp dried parsley
1 tsp chilli powder
salt and pepper

If your octopus is raw, boil in in a large pan of salted water for 1-2 mins, then drain, cut into large pieces, and saute in olive oil for 2-3 minutes. If it's already pre-cooked, ignore this stage.
Heat oil in a large pan and add the octopus pieces. Add chopped garlic and saute for 2-3 minutes.
Add the wine and bring to the boil over a high heat. Stir well and allow to cook for about five minutes. Add tomato and chilli powder then bring back to a simmer.
Add sugar and a scant tsp of salt.
Mix well, cover and simmer for about half an hour.
Check if octopus is done. If it still needs more cooking time, add half the dill and parsley at this point, re-cover pan and allow to continue cooking for up to 45 minutes. Check every 15 minutes or so. Add remainder of dill and parsley when it is done.
If octopus was already cooked at the end of the 30 minutes, add all the dill and parsley together, leave the pan uncovered and turn up the heat for an additional ten minutes to slightly reduce the sauce.
Serve with pasta penne or hunks of fresh bread.

Chicken tikka masala recipe

Chicken tikka masala 



So I promised a Chicken Tikka Masala recipe during my first Ourique post and then completely forgot to publish it. D'oh! Here goes ...

This is my interpretation of a recipe by +Elaine Lemm - her original recipe is here but I had to amend a few bits to suit what we can find locally in Portugal. Dave doesn't like food too spicy so I reduced the chilli making this version less hot than would probably be served in a UK restaurant. Plus life is too short to zest a lime and I always ending up grating my knuckle instead!

There appears to be an almost total dearth of Indian restaurants in Alentejo. You need to travel right down south to the Algarve (and all the holidaying Brits) to find one. Strangely, there are Chinese-run shops in practically every town but hardly any Chinese restaurants either. 


Ingredients:
2 chicken breasts, diced (or enough for 2 people)
1 tsp ground ginger
1 garlic clove, finely diced
salt & black pepper
1 tsp ground coriander
juice of half a lime
olive oil
1/2 tsp chilli powder
1 small onion, finely diced
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin seeds
200ml double cream
2 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp lemon juice

Put the diced chicken in a bowl with the ginger, garlic, salt, pepper, coriander, lime and 1 tsp olive oil. Mix well, cover and leave to marinate for as long as possible. We left ours for about ten hours in the fridge.
When ready to begin cooking, heat more oil in a saucepan and brown the chicken pieces.
Remove the chicken from the pan, lower the heat and fry the onion with the chilli powder until the onion is soft.
Add turmeric and cumin and cook for one minute. I used whole cumin seeds because we didn't have any ground cumin.
Add cream and cook for five minutes. Pingo Doce sells cream differently to what we find in the UK. I used a 200ml carton of cooking cream which most closely resembles double cream. I think you could use plain yoghurt instead.
Return chicken to the pan and cook for five minutes.
Add tomato puree and lemon juice and cook for one minute.
Check chicken is piping hot, then serve immediately with rice.

Interestingly (or not), 'tikka' in Finnish means 'woodpecker'.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

A cloudy day in Ourique

In a "shock, horror" storyline, we were actually awoken this morning by a faint pitter patter of rain on Bailey's roof!

Dave walking the river Mira
on a sunnier day
I think this is only the second day we've had rain since we left Britain and it was only very light, so we carried on with our day's plans undeterred. First off was a visit to a little market in the village of Santana da Serra, about a ten minute drive away. Around two dozen stalls were set up selling a variety of fruits and vegetables, clothes, pottery, live chicks, plastic containers and tools. The clothes stalls were interesting in that they only had quite formal items including skirts, trousers and thick woollen cardigans. It's easy to spot the tourists in southern Portugal at this time of year - we're the ones in shorts and t-shirts while the locals sport scarves, gloves, hats and coats! Unfortunately we were too early to spot many of said locals. Unlike British markets which generally start at the crack of dawn, we learned that Portuguese ones don't really get going until closer to lunchtime.


After lunch, with the rain gone but the sky still overcast, we chose to set off on what was intended to be a short 'getting out of the house' stroll but which turned into a lovely two hour walk and explore along the river. We were musing on a our good fortune, sat on a large rock at the turn-around point and trying to think what we would have been doing had we been back home. Apart from my needing to be at work, it being a Thursday, we realised that even had it been a weekend, we probably wouldn't have ventured outdoors and certainly not set off across the South Downs. We can both be discouraged by grey cloudy weather and generally choose to remain indoors on such days at home, whereas here we feel 'outdoors' already, mainly I believe due to the fantastic surface area of our Bailey Orion given over to windows. Plus, of course, it's considerably warmer here. The blustery breeze of the past couple of days has faded completely and I don't think Bailey's heater even turned itself on last night. I'm not sure how we will adapt to this loss of activity once we get home again. Obviously a complete lifestyle-change would be the perfect answer, but financial considerations don't make that an easy decision on any level.


Sinterklaas gifts! 
On a completely different and less philosophical note, Dave kindly pointed out, yesterday perhaps, that there are only two weeks left before Christmas. Neither of us are feeling particularly seasonal - even less than we usually do! However, Albertje has put up decorations in the bar at Serro da Bica and we joined in the 5th December Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas last week. (The link goes to Wikipedia if you want to read more about the tradition and its history.) For us here, the day meant we got to try small spiced biscuits (I initially thought they were pepernoten but kruidnoten are more likely) which Albertje had baked together with slices of a spiced cake with a almond-paste layer in the centre. We also got given the pictured pottery bowl presents - apparently all children get presents on 5th December! The smaller of the two has made a perfect ring dish and they are cute mementoes of our time here. Perhaps when we move on, we should fill them with the profuse prickly seed pods that get attached to our clothes every time we walk along the river?

A sad note to finish as I report the sad demise of our slow cooker which chose to give up the ghost on Sunday, part-way through the cooking of Dave's not-famous-enough Rogan Josh curry. Fortunately, we already had our new Clatronic EKP 3405 Hotplate  so the curry was saved and Herman very kindly took the cooker surround apart the next day to see if he could repair it in his workshop here but to no avail. We've googled up and down the Algarve, searching out a replacement and have come to the conclusion that Portuguese people don't use slow cookers. There are a few pressure cooker-like devices but we're a bit wary of them, Dave having witnessed a pressure-cooker accident some years ago. Therefore, as I finally get to the point, if anyone is coming out this way in the near future (and doesn't have a baggage weight limit!), could they put this Crock-Pot Slow Cooker  in their luggage?!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The first week in Ourique

Gorgeous view from Bailey at Serro da Bica
photo by Dave Greene
which rhymes so well I couldn't resist! We're staying at yet another brilliant Dutch-owned campsite, this one is called Serro da Bica and our hosts are Herman and Albertje. Again, we've pretty much got the place to ourselves - one other Dutch couple and a German man being our only neighbours - although Herman said that it's usually busier here at this time of year. Apparently tourist numbers are lower generally compared to previous years. Must be that recession still biting. Facilities here are a cut above the norm - there's even underfloor heating in the shower room for a couple of hours every morning. We also have a bar/library room where we all have the option to meet up of an evening. You'd like this, Dad! Herman rings a bell at 5pm, when he's got the wood-burning stove roaring away, which is our cue to trot over there for a hour or so of beer or port and olives. Last night was special because Albertje had baked delicious Sinterklass biscuits which are little spiced cookies to celebrate the 5th of December.

Banks of the river Mira,
photo by Dave Greene
Walking is the primary daytime activity here and there is a variety of maps to choose from in the bar, plus we also tried going off-piste - which nearly ended badly meeting a large dog in a farmyard! The first afternoon we explored a little of the gorgeous river Mira whose banks mark the edge of Serro da Bica. On the first full day, I packed a picnic lunch including a loaf of handmade fresh brown bread that is delivered daily. It's so tasty butter isn't needed with it. We set off on a 13km walk which doesn't sound too taxing except that the first half was mostly rock scrambling and following narrow wild boar tracks along the river bank in lieu of 'proper' footpaths. Great fun and the river here is beautiful. Rocks and autumn coloured trees, crystal clear water and red earth. Unfortunately most of the birds have gone south for winter but we saw azure magpies, red legged pheasants and evidence of an eagle owl.

Saturday night saw us going out to dinner for the first time since we've been away. Herman and Albertje drove us all to Café Restaurante O Novo Coimbra, a few minutes away. They had already got us salivating with much talk of the 'mirandesa' - a beef dish of the red cow which is served on vertical skewers with chestnuts and fried potatoes. Dave had this and was very impressed. I had javali, which is wild boar, in a very tasty stroganoff. I had not tried boar before. We're going back there on Friday and I think I shall have mirandesa then though - unless something else new catches my eye!


Do you remember my saying in a previous post that one of the problems we might face on such a long trip is only having British gas bottles which aren't compatible with those in ANY other country? Well to try and prevent this being an issue for as long as possible, we brought a camping gaz bottle that was still part-full from our last trip. It's done pretty well coping with most of the cooking outside in the awning until yesterday evening when it ran out. Replacing it was going to be expensive - 36 euros we think - so we have taken the advice of our Dutch neighbours at Evoramonte and have instead splashed out the princely sum of 17 euros on an electric hob. We generally have to pay a set amount for the electric hookup, regardless of how much energy is actually used so ... ! We are now the proud owners of a Clatronic EKP 3405 Hotplate which has just cooked an excellent Chicken Tikka Masala (recipe to follow) and fits neatly on the worktop in Bailey so no more chilly awning cookery!

Friday, 29 November 2013

A month in books - November

Can you believe we have been 'on the road' for a month already? We set out to Bosham on the 29th of October and it's now the same date in November. One of five months gone ... but still four months left so that's ok!
As there's not a lot to do of an evening once the sun has set, I have certainly been getting through a lot of books. If you're friend on Facebook or Twitter you might already have spotted these reviews being posted in real time. If not, or in case some were missed, I thought I'd do a recap post of my sixteen reads so far. Here goes ...

(The title links go to their respective Amazon pages.)

Armadillo by William Boyd *** Not sure about this book. I enjoyed the main plot which is quite intricate and well-thought out. However, there is lots of detail about journeys through London and about aspects of dress, neither of which really meant anything to me so I think I might have missed out on some of the deeper meaning.

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson ** I remember getting lost in all the details of who, where and when of the film of this book so hoped it would all become clearer in the written version. Unfortunately, I still feel none the wiser. I like a good conspiracy theory - and my next read, House of Rumour, is a fantastic conglomeration of many - but the book just didn't grab my attention. Perhaps the writing is too segmented so I didn't get a sense of an overall narrative, more a selection of varied events that, despite the best efforts and research of the author, didn't convincingly hang together.

Magenta Shaman by Lily Childs *** I enjoyed what there was of this novella but thought it felt like the beginning of a story, rather than a complete work in itself. I know that there is at least one other novella in the series. However, I would have preferred more to have been made of this opening.

The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott ***** Loved this book! Arnott cleverly entwines conspiracy theories from the 1940s onwards into his own narrative of a sci-fi writer. The book jumps about in time over the past seventy years with each chapter concentrating on different characters or real-life figures and I particularly enjoyed discovering how they began to appear in each other stories. Cleverly plotted and still a good read!

Stoner by John Williams ***** An unexpected find by Dave for our Kindle and possibly one of the most depressing stories I have read! Don't get me wrong. I loved the book and the writing is incredible but the lead character's life is very sad in that the personal cost to him of brief episodes of happiness is intense sorrow. The descriptions of certain classes of people at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly Stoner's wife Edith, are fantastic, as is the portrayal of his parents and their isolation. A great book but not a light read!

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan *** Not completely sure how I feel about this novel. I only finished it today so perhaps a few days thinking it over will help cement my opinion. The novel is told from several standpoints, each character interacting with some of the others at a point in their lives, some more fleetingly than others. Progressing through the novel, we jump forwards and backwards in time, understanding how future events were the result of earlier ones and how the characters' relationships develop or are lost. Unfortunately, although I was impressed by individual chapters, I didn't particularly like or identify with any of the characters who, I felt, came across as shallow people.

The Village that Died for England by Patrick Wright *** Patrick Wright has taken the history and myth of the requisitioned village of Tyneham in Dorset as his central theme in this book but has created a work that covers a much wider scope. From the German Youth Movements of the 1920s to the Arcitecture Association of the 1970s, he wanders far from the main theme in order to explore all the influential factors, theories and people. While his research has undoubtedly been thorough, I found that the book has too much information and its sprawl becomes overwhelming. It's a fantastic collation of knowledge but I think it needed much stronger editing.

Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard ***** I initially chose this book due to its evocative cover art and being aware that it is a classic I 'should' read! I didn't realise Ballard had written it so recently so was pleasantly surprised not to have to wade through 'British Raj' style writing as I had expected. <br/>Empire Of The Sun came across as young adult novel, both due to its language and the age of its primary character, Jim. I appreciated this as it did help to keep a slight distance, I felt, from the truly horrific scenes being played out. However, the undercurrents and allusions of the text give the work depth and help to make sense of the complete confusion that must have been so frightening at the time. Jim's sheer energy and enthusiasm for life is incredible and I thought, among all the great characters portrayed, he really did carry the story through. It was interesting, having learnt about this aspect of World War Two through the eyes of the novel to then also read a short interview with Ballard about his genuine war experience.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn **** Dave downloaded Gone Girl on to our Kindle months ago and loved the book. I've been meaning to get around to reading it ever since, especially as everyone else who's reviewed it was raving too. And for once, the book does deserve the hype. I liked the two-person viewpoint and the characterisations were brilliantly done. Perhaps the plot does unravel a little by overthinking after the books is finished, but it thunders along at a great pace and made for an entertaining couple of days reading.

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy **** I started though the first part of this book thinking that it was a bit 'gentle' for a Cormac McCarthy tale. Lester Ballard has a horrendous life, being even more in poverty than those around him, and I had been feeling sorry for him. Then I discovered a little more about Lester ... The descriptions of the town and its people are evocatively written, as is the countryside around it. I like the flow of the short chapter scenes. This is another wonderful Mccarthy story, saddening and thought-provoking, beautiful and horrific.

Love Me by Garrison Keillor *** Picked up whilst travelling and this is a pretty good holiday read. Amusing and somewhat poignant but nothing too deep or taxing!  

Madonna by Mark Bego *** A breathless, gushing biography of the then recently famous Madonna in which, for author Mark Bego, she can't put a step wrong. We get interviews with a school friend, a couple of film directors, Jellybean Benitez and the woman herself. It is fascinating to read this portrait of Madonna giving the impression that she had already conquered the musical world when, with the benefit of nearly thirty years of hindsight, we know that she would go on to achieve so much more! 

Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs *** Fast paced police thriller with an interesting plot idea. I think I might have read an earlier Temperance Brennan novel as her name was familiar and in this, the eighth in the series, all the regular characters are reintroduced which was helpful to me but might become irritating to fans who already know all this detail. I didn't like the way every chapter had to end on a cliff-hanger as this device made the plot feel contrived, but as a holiday read that I swept through in 24 hours, Cross Bones was fine.

Capital by John Lanchester ***** For me, Capital was reminiscent of If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things by Jon Mcgregor, both books being set along a single street and with a mysterious undercurrent throughout the work. I thought John Lanchester threaded his stories together beautifully with just enough connections between them but still maintaining the alienation of our contemporary society where neighbours are unlikely to mix. His characters are real, rounded people and I enjoyed the time I spent within their London.

NW by Zadie Smith *** I started out enjoying NW but unfortunately the book lost interest for me towards the end when it began concentrating solely on Natalie's story. I liked the interplay of characters earlier on and Smith's observation of life and speech is, as always, spot on. Perhaps reading NW straight after Capital was a mistake as both are primarily London novels. I thought NW was good but I had high expectations which it ultimately failed to meet.

Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell **** Having been a great fan of the Sharpe TV series all those years ago, I don't think I've ever actually got around to reading any Bernard Cornwell book before. I expected something much fluffier and certainly not the (I believe) well researched and interesting tale that unfolded. I am now a little wiser about this important period in European history but still feel as though I have been entertained rather than educated! Harlequin was a World Book Night choice for 2012 which is how I found the title, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the novel to a wide readership - not just those who have a particular interest in history.

And that's it for now. On the shelf still to be read I've got The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning, Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith, Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel and Prophecy by S J Parris. Expect me to publish reviews of these over the next few weeks and you can see a random selection of reviewed titles in the Amazon.co.uk box at the bottom of the page. Click on any of the book covers to read more!