Archive | August, 2012

Day out: Blenheim photo journey

27 Aug

Yes, I have been to Blenheim Palace a couple of times.  (Day out: Blenheim, Olympic Blenheim)  Today was different, however.  Today the stated goal was to take a group of interested photographers to Blenheim and get all arty-photography and stuff.  Something technical like that.  It was a bit absurd to run my pink Elph alongside  my companions with their big-gun DSLRs with multiple lenses and casual use of terms like ‘f-stop’ (apparently not a curse word) and ‘speed’ (apparently not a drug reference) and ‘light’  (okay, I do know what light is).  I’m not fancy with my photos, or particularly technical in my understanding of photography.  (You point. You click.)  But: I like Blenheim, I like looking at things, and I’m never going to turn down a chance at a day out.  So here’s what I saw today.  All arty, and such.

Shhhhhh.  It’s a secret.

Looking skyward through bright red heart-shaped leaves.

Blossoms just coming in to being.  Singing?  Dancing?  They look like fairies.

A visitor in the garden.

Reflections, and treasure, in the secret stream.

An anemone.  Or a swan.  Or a space capsule.

Tree moss.

Now, wait a minute.  Time for a break.

I’ll have a large latte, please.  And one of these in my kitchen.

Lovely.  Now we can go on.

Eagle victorious.

Aslan in stone.

I love sundials.  Six.

Time’s reflected glory.  All our yesterdays lighting fools the way to dusty death.  And whatnot.

Chains.

Rosy raindrops.

And that’s it.  My favorite photos from a rainy, end of summer, photo journey though Blenheim.  Hope you enjoyed walking along with me.

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Banana Bread, hold the sugar

25 Aug
What I saw on my kitchen counter this morning:
You bakers know what this means — banana bread!  I love pumpkin and banana breads, but don’t like all the sugar that tends to be added to those batters.  So I experimented a bit today to come up with this no-refined-sugar version of a home favorite.
Did I say no sugar?  Well, except for the chocolate chips.  They don’t count, do they?
  • 4 bananas
  • 1/3 C coconut oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 C apple juice
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 2 C whole wheat flour
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 2 t baking powder
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t nutmeg
  • 1 C chocolate chips
Preheat over to 325F.  Mash bananas (this is a good job for the kids).  Mix in oil, eggs, and juice.  Add flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Combine and stir in chocolate chips.  Pour into large oiled loaf pan and shake to level batter.  Bake for about an hour.
Let cool in pan for about 15 minutes before removing — bread may be tender and crumbly fresh out of the oven.  Tender or not, it is going to smell amazing.
It was hard to get a shot of a few of the slices because my children were circling like sharks.  No sugar, no problem — between the banana, the apple juice, and coconut oil, this banana bread has a natural sweetness that is irresistible.

Drive by America, or: Why is Everyone Smiling at Me?

19 Aug

Yours truly just returned from a very quick trip stateside, for deeply fascinating reasons I don’t intend to write about. Deal with it.  I wondered, before I left, if returning to American waters would reverse my cultural acclimation to England, and turn me back into that bipolar expat hot mess I so thoroughly explored our first months here.

You are so pretty, America, with your man-made ponds being watered by sprinklers in the middle of the high desert

Instead, I found myself marveling at all the conspicuous use of natural resources. The huge ride-on mowers driven over small strips of grass. The sprinklers. The large large cars and the wide wide roads that lead straight on for miles and miles. The massive stores. The free parking.  The air-conditioning.  The glasses full of ice.  The free wifi.  The huge street lights.

The friendliness. Random strangers smiling and waving at me from their cars. Walkers stopping to chat. Salespeople grinning and shaking hands like old friends. People I never met before doing me favors. Neighbors out on bikes or with dogs calling out greetings as we sat on my parents’ porch.

It’s enough to make a person who has gotten used to English reserve just a little bit nervous. Who are all these people and why are they smiling at me?  Americans are as generous with their expressions and willingness to engage as they are with their use of petroleum and size of their stores or dinner plates.  We reach out.  We work hard.  We play hard.  We want more, and we’re not afraid to say so, or to share what we have.  We smile.

Smile, England. I’m back.

Day out: Cotswold Wildlife Park, Part 2

12 Aug

We first visited the Cotswold Wildlife Park in the middle of winter, during term break, just before the Christmas holiday.  I had some fun writing up that Day out: Cotswold Wildlife Park post.  On a very different, very warm, and very crowded day this summer, we revisited and tried to catch up with favorite animals and see parts of the park we had previously missed.

You remember the Wildlife Park.  Where rhino roam the front lawn.

Alongside masculine zebra.

And camels.

And trains.

You know.  The usual.

Penguins flip about happily.  Except for that one guy.

We got up close and personal with the giraffe family.

WHY ARE YOU ALL STARING AT ME?Ostriches yelling and hissing at each other.  GET OUT OF MY FACE!

My friend the magpie goose appeared to remember me, or at least remember my camera.  COME CLOSER SO I CAN PECK YOUR FACE.

Did you know giant murderous hamsters could swim?  I DID NOT.

It’s the size of a pony.  WHY GOD WHY?

Poppies.  Poppies will soothe away the terror of those horrible capybara.  Beautiful wildflower displays.  Pretty shiny happy.

MEERKAT SEES OTHER MEERKAT AND PASSES OUT FROM CUTE.  AIEEE!

Prarie Dog baby.  Awwwwwwwww.

Adult lemur is mysteriously intent on something outside the bars.  Must … escape …

Lemur baby. OMG I CAN DIE NOW.

Why is that tall biped giggling and pointing at me?  Me, THE MOST ADORABLE ANIMAL IN THE WORLD?

Come on, let’s go PLAY ADORABLY UNTIL WE MAKE EVERYONE DIE FROM CUTE.
Seems in poor taste to display this right next to this

Is it a warning?  A threat?

Your turtle says “slow down.”

Bring a picnic, bring a blanket, and stay all day.  Another great day out at the Wildlife Park.  And I didn’t even show you the GIANT SNAKES or the PILES OF RATS.  You’ll have the wait for Part 3.

Moosewood muffins

9 Aug
This basic muffin recipe from the Moosewood Restaurant New Classics cookbook is my go-to muffin recipe.  You can add anything to this basic batter, and it tastes delicious.  Some ideas for additions at the end; substitute in coconut oil and coconut or almond milk for a dairy free version which tastes just as delicious.

I’ve been making these muffins for years.  Here’s an almond-cherry version, from 2010.  Yes, I have been photographing my baking obsession forever.

Preheat oven to 350.  Prep 12-cup muffin tin with oil or paper.

Optional streusel topping (I almost never make this.  But when I do it is gooo-ooo-oood.)
1/3 C flour
1 1/2 T cold butter chopped small
1 1/2 T brown sugar, packed
1/4 t ground cinnamon
pinch nutmeg
pinch salt

Wet ingredients
6 T butter, room temp  (works just as well with coconut oil, for a different flavor)
1/2 – 3/4 C sugar
1 egg
1/2 C + 2T milk
1/2 t vanilla extract
2 cups chopped fruit and/or nuts and/or chocolate chips

Dry ingredients
2 C flour
1 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1/4 t ground cinnamon

In large bowl, sift together all dry ingredients and mix well.  In separate bowl mix together all wet ingredients, saving fruit/nuts for last.  Add wet to dry and gently fold together.  Spoon batter into muffin cups.  If using streusel topping, add scant T to top of each muffin.

Immediately put into oven and bake apprx 30 mins, until puffed and golden.

The batter has a lovely density to it, and the fragrance is the smell of  baby cherubs smiling. 

Remove from oven and put tin on rack to cool 15 mns.  Hot muffins are a bit tender and may crumble if handled right away.  (Really.  Just let them sit for a few minutes before you pop them out of the tin.)  Serve warm or cool and store sealed at room temperature.

I … I love you.

This recipe will make 12 goodly-sized muffins.  Although they keep well, they’re so delicious fresh from the oven that I rarely have leftovers.

Some of my favorite variations:
peach+blueberry
cherry+almonds
mango+banana+chocolate chip
mango alone
peach+pecan
pumpkin (mashed)+walnut+chocolate chip
blueberry alone
apple alone
apple+cranberry

Happy baking!

Day out: Cadbury World

5 Aug

Cadbury World is tucked away in Bournville, a suburb of Birmingham, and presents — in a mildly-theme-park style — the the socialist-industrial-chocolate dreams of the Cadbury family.

I think this sums up the overall theme of the factory tour: St. Cadbury of the one and a half glasses.  Go ahead and read the story of Cadbury if you like — I’m not going to repeat it all here.  I get the feeling Cadbury has enough of a PR machine already.

When you first arrive, you see a plain building highlighted in Cadbury purple.  Tip: buy your tickets online ahead of time, and print them yourself.  You’ll skip all the lines and can go right in to the start the tour.

There is — of course — a gift shop.  This photo was taken just before it opened.  Before the heaving masses of chocolate seekers tore in.  I can feel it, pulling me, calling me …

Jump right in to the Experience– yes, capitalized — and see life-sized mannequins in jungle scenes depicting the early days of chocolate consumption.  The Experience goes on in a series of slightly bizarre (and therefore delightful) would-be multi-media edutainment displays.

From life-sized mannequins to miniature holograms in tiny dioramas.  Here a spanish explorer introduces the upper class to chocolate.  In another display, a Jacobean gentlemen extolls the use of chocolate as a hangover cure.

Then walk into a recreation of the original street where Cadbury had his first shop.  When the doors open, enter to view:

A sit-down theater where the floating head of Cadbury talks to the audience about the development of his business.  I’ve never been lectured about Quaker values and industrial philanthropy by a floating head before.

The next theater has some interactive elements — with shaking benches, hissing steam, and hot red lamps the audience is meant to feel what it’s like to be a cocoa bean as it is processed, Cadbury style, complete with shaking, roasting, crushing.  And, one assumes, watching black and white photography.

After our indoctrination education in the theaters, the walk of the factory begins.  With more chocolate.  There are big signs everywhere restricting photography, but this nice purple stripy young man said I could take his photo as he passed out chocolate.  Did I mention all the free chocolate?

The self-guided factory tour involved a lot of walking down hallways next to closed-up rooms, which was even less exciting than it sounds.  Interesting trivia: the floor tiles are metal, to hold up to the weight of the heavy pallets of chocolate going to and fro throughout the facility.

Also, this.

The factory walks leads to CADABRA!  Where you can ride in a tiny car and watch chocolate potatoes, or beans, or deer pellets, dance and sing and go fishing.

There are also cows.  Cow heads.  Something.

You’ve been patient long enough, it’s time for more chocolate!  The warmer is HOT.

And then this sterile angel pours you a shot of pure liquid chocolate, and you have a heart attack and die.

As you wait for your diabetic coma, you can admire a London 2012 Olympic Stadium, made of chocolate!  (You didn’t think you were going to get out of this post without an Olympic reference, did you?)

Even chocolate Olympic medals.  When the medals are made of chocolate, everybody wins.

Kids gone crazy from sugar?  Take a break outside in the adventure playground.  A climbing wall and archery butts rounded out the activities on offer the day we visited.

Some picnic tables next to the play area and the outdoor cafe, existing under the largess of CADBURY.  The Bournville Experience continues the indoctrination edutainment — we skipped it.  It was probably very cool, but the kids were ready for some running around.

And if you want some more chocolate, move along to the steampunkesque Essence Emporium.

Where you can see more holograms, this time life-sized.

This is a recreation of the mythological moment where a glass and a half of milk is added to the mix to make Cadbury dairy milk chocolate.

I like this poster. I look just like that, really.  And carrying around buckets of milk is totes my thing.  Also blue corsets.  Like the St. Pauli Girl, but wholesome.  Really, me all around.

I don’t know what this is meant to represent.  I think it distills dreams into chocolate.

Which is then poured out here for you to drink.  Yes, more liquid chocolate.  I … I nearly died.

In the random grooviness department, a large sign made of pence reads out “LONDON 2012”.

You know I love a good macro.

I was remarkably restrained in the gift shop,  No, honestly, I was.  I didn’t grow up on Cadbury so the myth of the chocolate is a bit lost on me, but delicious is as delicious does and Cadbury’s is a nice contrast to the darker, more intense and less milky chocolates I usually enjoy.

Cadbury World is positively quaint compared to the mega-entertainment commercial theme park complex that is Hershey Park (the only other chocolate world experience I have to measure a comparison), but it has a charm all its own, in a very British style.  And with endless streams of liquid chocolate to ramp up the heart rate, this is a day out we’ll surely remember.

(Note to the side, here at the end.  You know when you meet someone in real life, think they are really cool, lose touch for a few years, reconnect through a mutual friend on Facebook, start to stalk them because you think they do all the sorts of things you want to do, only better, and then freakishly you end up both living overseas in the same country, and you find a day when you can get together with the kids and tour a chocolate factory?  That happens to everyone, right?  Well, it happened to me and IT WAS AWESOME!  You know who you are — love ya, babe!)

Day out: Birdland Park & Gardens

2 Aug

A slight break from our wall-to-wall Olympic coverage.  (Although to be honest, I am watching the Olympics in a pop-out window on my laptop as I write this.  Typos?  Blame men in swimsuits.)

Birdland is an easy day out and happens to be located in my favorite Cotswold village, Bourton-on-the-Water.  I had somehow managed not to visit Birdland during any of our many trips to Bourton-on-the-Water, but it’s the perfect add-on to a visit to the village with children.  Model village?  Ice cream by the river?  Penguins?  Check, check, and check.

The superstars of Birdland are these guys — the only groups of King penguins to be seen in the UK.  Their enclosure is near the entrance, and they appear to be used to people and not at all shy about cameras — or swimming up and splashing people in the face with a cheeky wiggle of the tail feathers.

We happened to visit on the hottest day we’ve seen so far in the UK, and the water was looking pretty nice.

We could get much closer than I expected to most of the birds. This is a friendly-ish Rhea.  She may have been waiting for us to get in really close to peck off our faces.

A wilderness trail provides lots of animal-fact questions for the kids, as well as several ‘hides’ for viewing various local birds and wildlife.  Everything was sleeping when we visited.  This is the kingfisher hide.

A bird-encounter and education building shows off various collections.  Something strikes me as funny about this vicar wandering around engaging in a now-illegal egg-collecting.  Is it because all vicars make me think of the Vicar of Dibley?  Maybe.

The Discovery Zone is a larger education center near the center of the park, with more detailed information panels, small animal enclosures, and a small play zone.  On a warm summer day, it is also hotter than the hottest ring of hell, having been apparently built without any air conditioning, fans, or even windows.  Learn while you burn, children!

Don’t know who this fellow is, but I like his beak.

 

The keepers give talks about the different animals throughout the day. Because nothing in England can just be normal, there are also massive metal sculptures of bird and bird-like forms scattered throughout the park.

We ended our day at penguin feeding time.  They know what’s up, and start marching around their area to find the best spot for fish-grabbing.

Bits of fish are tossed in the pool above for the Humbolt penguins, then the keeper comes down here to pass whole fish to the King penguins. Why is he behind a fence?  So the penguins won’t peck him until he bleeds.  Not kidding.  Circle of life ain’t pretty.

This sweet fellow is sitting on an imaginary egg.  Apparently when males get broody they just pretend they have an egg and sit around waiting for it to hatch.  This guy had been sitting there for 10 days, and he didn’t appear at all interested in leaving his imaginary egg-baby to go get some fish.  It’s nice to see such dedication, and mental instability, in a creature other than humans.

One last goodbye.

Pay-and-display parking is available next to Birdland, at the usual exorbitant tourist-location prices.  Entry to the park is good for the entire day, so you could go in first thing, leave to have lunch in the village, and come back for more birds in the afternoon.  Although if you do want to buy lunch at the park, the Birdland Penguin Cafe is surprisingly decent and there are plenty of tables and green spaces for a bring-your-own picnic.  There’s also a good-sized play area with rope climbing, slides, and other fun running-around things — thankfully in the shade — and more ice cream stands.  Just remember your hat and sunblock.