Pasta with pesto. Enjoy.

Pesto for Dummies

I’m not the best cook in the world. I need simple. This pesto recipe is super tasty and super easy.

I got the recipe from my son, who got it from his friend, Ascanio in Italy, who got it for his mum, who got it from her mum.

Pesto ingredients
Pesto ingredients

After looking at the great long list of ingredients on a jar of pesto, it was nice to see a little list of 5: basil leaves, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and Parmesan cheese.

Collect or buy a big handful of basil. About as much as is in this bowl.

Fresh basil
Fresh basil

Chop it up, removing the fatter stems. Chop up a couple of garlic cloves too.

Chopped basil leaves and garlic
Chop the basil leaves and garlic.

Chop up pine nuts into tiny pieces – we have a choppy thing, but a knife or a herb chopper will do.

Chopped pine nuts
Chopping pine nuts.

Put all of this into a bowl and add a little grated Parmesan. And then, as Ascanio explained, add olive oil until you think you might have added too much. Then add some more. Mix and season. Done.

Ingredients for pesto
Add olive oil to the rest of the ingredients.

Delicious with plain pasta. Can be stored for while in the fridge if you don’t eat it all in one go.


Baby sign language

Language: Baby Sign Language is for Crazy Giraffes

Is it crazy to teach your kids baby sign language? I decided to find out with baby number 3.

That was 10 years ago. I must have had a bit of an obsession with language for longer than I realised. We uprooted and moved abroad principally so that the kids could learn a second language when they were young. I became an English teacher and was allowed to wonder and marvel at language acquisition every day. I get all excited and animated talking about pronunciation. It’s a sad state of affairs.

So, investigating sign language, in retrospect seemed a given.

Baby signs.
Those first first baby “jelly neck” days are kinda tough, and scary.

With baby 1, even a solo trip to the bathroom was well nigh impossible to squeeze into a day. Having time for baby signs was out. With baby 2 we lived in that magical land of “self employment” and after the day of delivery itself, I was back to it the next day preparing end of year tax stuff because it was April and the person who usually did it was off sick. Everyone was cooing lovingly at baby name books. I had my pile of P60s.

When my little baby signs guinea pig, christened Katie, was born, we decided to see what baby sign language was all about. When I say we, my husband and sons looked on in amusement for the first few months, but got hooked too when things, amazing things, started to happen…….

So what happened?

I borrowed a book out the library called Baby Signs: How to talk with your baby before your baby can talk, by Linda Acredolo. The author did a lot of research about the effects of baby signs on language development. It was really interesting.

I started as suggested when Katie was about 5 months old doing the basic signs for “milk”, “thirsty”, “flower” etc. Some of the signs I copied from the book, some I just made up. Neil and the boys looked on, a bit amused/bemused at their crazy wife/mum sniffing wildly (made up sign) when she saw a flower, or with a fist and thumb like a hitch hiker, bringing her thumb up to her mouth for “thirsty”. I think also a made up sign.

But I began to wonder. I was getting absolutely zip back from my little guinea pig in terms of baby signs. I’d been sniffing and gesticulating for months. Then, when she was 8 or so months old, and I was carrying her down the stairs of our 1970s decorated house, she started madly sniffing and waggling her legs. She kept at it till I stopped moving. We weren’t in the garden. What was she on about? And then I looked at the swirly 70s wallpaper COVERED in flowers. And she wanted me to stop and look! I nearly dropped her down the stairs.

From then on it was pretty fast. The muscle coordination in her chubby hands and fingers had improved to the extent that she could do more and more signs herself. “Milk”, “thirsty”, “flower”, “more”, “cat”, “dog”, “nappy” – she was off!! Few words, but loads of signs. It was fantastic. It was fun. Neil and the boys joined in. It was two-way communication.

And how did this help? Life was made easier and so much less frustrating for all of us. Babies know what they want, but they sometimes have a mighty tricky time passing that message on. Even after they’ve figured out what “language” is, they’ve got the movement of their lips and tongue to master, and the speed of vibration of their vocal cords and of air from their lungs to get in check. It’s pretty complicated technical stuff, even after you know the words.

Here are a few examples of times when it helped us communicate. Katie could say “sore” – index finger tips touching. It’s great to be able to tell someone when something’s sore. What was sore? Her tummy, her ears, her mouth? She could point. She could ask for a drink. Get me to stop walking when I was carrying or pushing her in a buggy because she’d seen a cat or a flower, or a squirrel up in the trees, and wanted me to see it too. How frustrating being whisked along at adult pace, when the world is full of exciting things to look at.

In the early days Neil was a bit sceptical. Did she really know the sign? Was it just a fluke? One weekend when we were away for a couple of nights in our caravan, Katie repeated over and over the sign for giraffe. Every time we went out the door she’d do the sign again. “Jen, there are no giraffes in Fochabers.” (a small town in the north-east of Scotland). He was right. There were no (known) giraffes in the north-east of Scotland. Maybe she was just randomly copying, with no idea as to the connection between the sign and the meaning. I spend the weekend in doubt.

As we were packing to go home, we walked along the path outside the caravan on the way to the toilet block. The frantic giraffe signing started again. We looked into a neighbouring awning at a high chair in the corner – with a huge giraffe painted up the side. I went all goose pimply.

By one and a half, Katie also had a string of the usual early words. As she got the word she dropped the sign. “Hippopotamus” is a sign you tend to retain for a while. One evening she tried to reach up for a book from the bookcase. Which book? There were loads. She signed. “Ah, the one about the elephant”. Sorted. No tantrum to explain that it’s wasn’t any old book but the really funny stripy elephant book she couldn’t reach. Elephant is another pretty hard word to get your tongue and lips around – it might have been a year before she could ask in words.

Our Number 3 was a slow walker. I think because she could sit and ask for what she needed without moving her butt. We were lucky with the tantrums, I think because she was better able to express what she needed or meant.

She’s now 10, and I can’t report that she’s become a child genius as a result of her early language signing. But boy was it fun that the whole family could “chat” with her even before she could speak. We understood her better. And she could understand us. Even after the early months of looking a bit of a dummy, I’d do it all again, for sure. It’s a great way to communicate.

Baby signs
Communicating is fun.

These days there are loads of books on baby signs and even classes you can go to. Are you expecting a baby soon or do you have a little one? Are you a slightly obsessive language geek like me? Give it a try!

A morning's harvest ready to wipe and trim.

How to Collect Wild Musrooms and Survive!

A year or two after we moved to France I started as a parent helper at our primary school’s swimming lessons. I sat at the back of the minibus every Friday with a tiny school full of kids, winding along little country lanes towards “the big town” and the swimming pool. I mused at what I might say to engage these cute little French guys in conversation.

“Anyone like mushrooms?” I said. In a flash 16 beady eyes were upon me (my own daughter continued looking out the window, and my son at the back carried on his Yugiho Card conversation with his friend).

“Have you found mushrooms?” one set of beady eyes asked in an astonished but ultra sweet French voice. “Well, yes, a few. ” I fibbed, starting to dig my own little mushroom hole, “And you?” I asked.

Clearly not. “It’s a little early, isn’t it?” chipped in one 4 year old, “Although we should see some girolles soon.”

The rest of the journey was spent in deep superficial discussion with this tot about the subtleties of the black as opposed to normal apricot-coloured girolle, and how best to cook cêpes. I mostly listened.

This is a girolle (or a chanterelle) mushroom and a bolete (the penny bun and porcini are part of this family).

Chanterelle and bolete mushrooms
Chanterelle and Bolete

I realised during that bus trip that EVERYONE around me was a mushroom expert and I was not. From aged 4 up. French kids (country ones for sure, but possibly all) are born knowing about mushrooms. In our rural hamlet, all 8 other residents are AAA rated mushroom hunters. They look at mushrooms I have picked and taken over for approval with expert eyes. “Ah yes, that one’s fine, you’ll have found that to the left of the path beside the beech trees, 125 paces from here.” I exaggerate only slightly.

I am not encouraging anyone reading this blog to turn into a mushroom maverick and set off immediately into the woods with a wicker basket, and die….. Collecting mushrooms can be dangerous. Mature mushrooms often look different from younger specimens and you don’t want to be getting it wrong and ending up dead or on kidney dialysis.

These days, after a few years of training, there are several types of mushroom I would happily collect and fry up in butter for my entire family.

After that awkward day on the bus, I bought a mushroom book. I had a starter one in French prior to that, but it seemed to me that the extra few quid for a book in my native language about whether or not I might die was worth the expense.

Mushroom book
A good book on mushrooms is essential.

Then, on the advice of my neighbours, I narrowed the type of mushroom I was prepared to collect, from the several dozen edible local ones, down to 3. And even then, I only really collect two of them. That a) immediately reduced competition for top mushroom gathering spots and b) reduced the chances of dying considerably because the mushrooms on my list are very easy even for a clutz like me to tell apart.

You know you’ve made it and are a fully integrated member of the community when neighbours tell you within a mile or so where a mushroom gold mine is, or what day would be a good one to go out foraging. You can NEVER hope to get more specific information than that, except at gunpoint.

Girolle or chanterelle mushrooms
Girollle or chanterelle mushrooms.

So, girolles or chanterelles. They are a unique and uniform apricotty colour (I’ve never dared pick the black ones, subtle taste or not). The colour of a chamois cloth for cleaning a car windscreen. This colour is always the same. They glisten like little gold nuggets under moss and fallen leaves. It’s surprisingly exhilarating when you find a little clump of them.
Next on the list of distinguishing features, their gills divide into pairs and look more like wrinkles. This is pretty unusual in the mushroom world. The cap is wavy and funnelled when the mushroom is mature. They smell lovely.

Chanterelle on the forest floor.
Little nuggets of gold on the forest floor.

Chanterelle gills
Chanterelle gills divide into pairs

There is one mushroom, a false girolle, which looks similar – a little more orange and straight rather than dividing gills. But even if you pick one by mistake it won’t kill you, it just tastes of nothing. I found out about the false girolle early in my mushrooming days, when I rubbed my hands in glee at finding shed loads of them, on a well used mushroom track, before my neighbours had gotten there. But alas, no, I had not outsmarted my French mycologists.

There’s an etiquette to picking these mushrooms. Don’t collect tiny ones because tomorrow they will be big. I only, despondently, ever found the tiny leftovers for a long time. And, return any moss or leaves to their original position as if you are leaving a serious crime scene.

They are delicious sliced and fried with a little butter and garlic.

Mushroom tubes bolete
Sponge tubes rather than gills on the bottom of a bolete.

And cêpes or boletes. These are the ones you buy from the delicatessen for a fortune, or in jars from posh supermarkets. There are many varieties of cêpes but they have one obvious feature which makes them stand out from other mushrooms. They don’t have gills – they have a “sponge” or tubes instead. It’s obviously different and again, even a mushroom clutz like me can’t get it wrong.

Some cêpes taste better than others. There are two to avoid. One has a scarlet red base – aptly and terrifyingly called the devil’s bolete, but also rare – you’d have to be colourblind not to notice.

Don’t pick mushrooms if you are colourblind.

And the second “bad” one is the “bitter” bolete. You won’t die but one snifter of a crumb of “bitter” bolete in your dinner, and the whole lot’s for the bin. It tastes AWFUL. Neil, after consultation with one of our expert neighbours, did allow one of these to pass through double scrutiny and into an omelette. He said it was foul.

So, even with mushroom two on our modest list of two, we’ve narrowed the variety of cêpes we collect (there are many around these parts) to just a few – orange birch bolete, bay bolete, and the holy grail of the mushroom world, the penny bun. The penny bun is the one The River Cottage and maybe even Jamie Oliver go on about. Realistically, all neighbours within a 20 mile radius would have to be laid up simultaneously with the lurgy before we’d get near one of those babies.

It’s been sunny and warm all week. It rained yesterday. A couple of the neighbours ie 25% are on holiday. I’ve set my mushroom alarm for 7am. I reckon tomorrow is going to be a winner. I can’t sleep I am so excited.

Woodland and heather in France
A wood full of heather and mushroom in rural France. Not saying where.

Disclaimer: do not try this at home, unless you are supervised by a mycophiliac grownup.

The Golden Horn and the Galata tower in the distance.

Turkey: Istanbul in a Day?

By Jen

It’s not what I would advise. Istanbul is an AMAZING city. But if you only had a day, what to do?

Istanbul has been amazing for 2500 years. It’s not easy to condense that into a day. It’s been Byzantine, Constantinople and now Istanbul, although it’s remarkable position in the world at East meets West and North meets South has never changed.

The average age of its residents is 16. Its population is bigger than Belgium. It’s a happening place. The buildings are incredible; all 21043 tiles on the walls and ceiling of the Blue Mosque are worthy of admiration. The oldest and largest indoor market in the world, built in the 1460s, the Grand Bazaar, is a warren of 3600 shops. Daniel Craig races across the rooftops of the Bazaar in Skyfall. It was the European Capital of Culture in 2010. The place is packed full of history and life.

So in a day, this is what I’d do.

Getting your bearings

Istanbul City map
Istanbul City

Istanbul has several, very different, areas. 1 and 2 are in Europe, 3 is Asia. 1 is the historical part, home to the Grand Bazaar and the Blue Mosque, where you’d probably want to spend most of a short visit. 2 is the modern part, home to Taksim Square, the iconic Galata tower (Galata is Greek for Celtic) and Ortaköy, the cosmopolitan cafe and restaurant-filled area. 3 is where most of Istanbul’s 14 million residents live, and it’s where you’ll find the Kadiköy food market.

The Golden Horn is a passage of water which forms the biggest natural harbour in the world. When you first arrive in Istanbul, it’s easy to confuse this wide water crossing with the water over to the right, the Bophorus, which divides Europe and Asia.

It has been protected and fought over for thousands of years. A heavy iron chain once spanned the Horn to prevent invading ships passing up it.

The Bosphorus itself is the second busiest shipping channel in the world, with 130-odd vessels a day passing between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, not including local traffic.

So how about starting here?….

1. Start at 1 on the historical side, on the waterfront at the Galata bridge. A couple of minutes walk south is the SPICE BAZAAR. It’s a smaller version of the GRAND BAZAAR, although just as busy. Both of these markets are en route to Sultanamet, the area of town where you’ll find the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya. Choose one or both to stop in by. Have a drink and a cake. Take your time and wander round the thousands of shops and alley, full of lamps and spices and Turkish Delight.

Spices and dried flowers in the grand bazaar, istanbul
Spices and dried flowers in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

One of the many alleyways of the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Turkish Delight in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Turkish Delight in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Try these lovely chickpeas covered in sugar, which look for all the world like little mouse brains.

Little "mouse brains".
Little “mouse brains”.

2. It’s easy to get to Sultanamet square on foot, always heading south from the Golden Horn. There, you are pretty much at the centre of the most famous sights of Istanbul. The BLUE MOSQUE with its 6 minarets is stunning inside and out. Remember to take something to cover your head, and dress respectfully ie covered shoulders and knees. You also need to remove your shoes. Entry is free but donations can be given. It’s still a working mosque and there are times in the day when you will be asked to leave the inside (for prayer). I thought the inside was utterly beautiful, and spent so long there I didn’t go into Aya Sofya (almost next door). Just take your time. Sit. Watch. Admire. It’s especially lovely if you are outside to listen to one of the calls to prayer.

The outside of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The Blue Mosque with its 6 minarets.
Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The beautiful tiled domes of the Blue Mosque

3. Take your time to wander round Sultanamet square. The AYA SOFYA, the BASILLICA, one of the museums. I only went inside the Blue Mosque, and I sat and stared at the ceiling until I had to leave for prayer time.

4. Make you way back through the streets toward the Galata bridge. If you can time a trip on a boat on the Bosphorus at around sunset, you will get the most spectacular views. Most tours take you under the first bridge connecting Europe and Asia, and you will have the chance to admire the many mansions which line the river. Take a peek and see if you can spot the one worth $100 million, one of the most expensive mansions in the world.

Boat tours can be arranged from just beside Galata bridge. If there are enough of you, hire a boat for a private tour,

A Bosphorus boat trip
A Bosphorus boat trip.
The first bridge crossing from Europe to Asia, Istanbul
The first bridge crossing from Europe to Asia, Istanbul

5. On the top of the Galata bridge there are fishermen, and below, seafood restaurants. You can pick up something cheap and quick on one of the boats, or eat in a seafood restaurant on the bridge.

There’s so much to see that I wouldn’t recommend racing around for the day trying to see everything. Take it slowly, enjoy Sultanamet and the bustle of the streets and bazaars there and back. Then take it all in from the river on a boat. Sunset is spectacular.

Sunset on the Bosphorus
Sunset on the Bosphorus
DBahn train ICE

Ticketless Dbahn? Only for First Class…..

By Jen

I take the train a lot for work. I’m not daft, but I’ve been trying for a while to work out how “ticketless” DBahn, the German train company, are in this day and age of mobile technology. And I’ve finally cracked it!!

It’s not what you might imagine. It says online that you need a paper copy. But do you?

German trains are generally awfully efficient (except the night train from France which has been an hour or so late every time I’ve taken it – bear this in mind if you have an onward connection). But their policy on paper/online ticketing is anything but efficient.

IN FIRST CLASS you can show your mobile screen (tablet etc, in my case an IPad), which has the QR code (that bar code cube in the corner) and your journey/ID details, as evidence of your ticket. All with a “thank you madam”, a smile and not even the batting of an eyelid.

IN SECOND CLASS, with the same evidence of your ticket, on the same day, with the same company, just in a different class, you are bombarded by the dual efforts of the Dbahn and the SNCF ticket inspector (it was a cross border train), telling you that a screen copy to scan, rather than a paper copy, is not enough. Tough, you’ll have to buy another ticket. And no smile.

Luckily, this was just an experiment. I had a paper copy as well.

The reason for the experiment? I’ve been trying forever to work out the rule, which is applied on and off, it seems, at the whim of whoever checks your ticket. Sometimes it’s kinda difficult to find a printer if you make your booking after leaving home.

The whole idea of the QR code and an online ticket, is surely MOBILITY? Mobility is somewhat restricted if you are obliged to carry a printer in your pocket.

So, when travelling on the Dbahn rail network, if you are in Second class, make sure you have a paper copy of your ticket unless you want to face a battle with a ticket inspector lacking basic customer service skills. When travelling in First class, don’t worry, there are special rules for you.

Dbahn train ice
The difference between first and second class. Don’t eat it all at once.

I forgot. The other difference between First and Second class was this delicious sweetie. Unfortunately nothing useful, like free wifi (you have to have a contract already with Dbahn’s partner, Telekom, for that). And, admittedly, the seats are a tiny winy bit further apart.

Have you had any weird ticketing experiences with DBahn?

Adam's birthday cake

Scotland : Crieff Hydro

By Matt

We went to Crieff Hydro for my gramp’s and my brother’s birthday, I really enjoyed it, thank you to my grandma for all the organizing.

Crieff Hydro Resort
Crieff Hydro Resort

It’s in Crieff, which is and hour north of Edinburgh the fancy name is Crieff Hydro Hotel and Resort. Here’s their website if you want to check it out, it’s a really big place they have a 900 acre resort area ! They have loads and loads of activities for kids and adults too. When I was there with my grandparents and cousins  I did segway and woodland combat, I preferred the segway it’s a 2 wheel sort of well “vehicle” that has 5 gyroscopes that detect 60 movements a second ! So you have to lean on it to make it move, I thought that it was a really cool idea.

Website :

Crieff Hydro Map
Crieff Hydro Map
Segway at Crieff Hydro
Segway at Crieff Hydro

Most of the activities have a charge but there are some free ones. The pool is free for all hotel members. I went there in the mornings before breakfast, I usually did between 30-50 lengths !

Woodland Combat
Woodland Combat

The food. If you want to put on 15 kg in just a few days then here’s the place to come ! You can just have so much, a huge breakfast and we didn’t have anything for lunch or we would have blown up. Then tea that we had at 3 different restaurants for 3 nights.  The croissants for breakfast were delicious all together i must have eaten 20 !

Woodland Combat
Woodland Combat

On my grandpa’s birthday, the 16th, we did a badminton tournament that my uncle won. My uncle couldn’t do much sport after his operation, so we didn’t get the chance to play tennis. I would have beat him at that ! That day we went on a segway, it was the best thing ever. Grandpa didn’t go on because it could of hurt his hip but he did air rifle instead, so we did a sort of segway driving test for 10-15 mins to get it working. Then we went off in the woods for over an hour hike, it was really fun.


Unfortunately Charlie had a wee crash but everything was fine. And just when we were coming back another accident occurred, Ellie my cousin, hit grandma and they both fell off ! But again it was great fun and no one was injured !

Segway Brake-Down
Segway Brake-Down

Grandpa’s cake was delicious !

Cafe at Crieff Hydro
Cafe at Crieff Hydro

Then on the 17th, Adam’s 16th birthday, we didn’t do that much just chilled, I went for a swim then had a huge breakfast with everybody else. That afternoon we all met up in the cafe area to celebrate Adam’s birthday but most importantly eat the cake, the cake was delicious it had chocolate sponge and chocolate frosting on top !!!

Adam's birthday cake
Adam’s birthday cake

After that I hired a mountain bike for an hour and went on a cycle in the woods, I took the same path that we did on the segway the day before. And when I was at the top of the hill, I had a great view.

Trekking at Crieff Hydro
Trekking at Crieff Hydro

I saw a small path going to the right of the main one I decided to follow that one to see where it lead, I arrived at the end of it and it had “Witch’s Track”, “Ride at your own risk”, “Helmets must be worn”, so it was pretty weird I decided first to walk down to see what is was like.

Jumps on the Mountain Bike track
Jumps on the Mountain Bike track

It was the best track I have ever seen ! It had jumps and wooden tilted corners, excellent.

Jumps on the Mountain Bike track
Jumps on the Mountain Bike track

And finally the last meal we had in the poshest restaurant at the Hydro, it was called the Meikle Restaurant. It was delicious, I think I had salmon with lemon butter sauce.

Adam's birthday cake
Adam’s birthday cake

The day after we left at noon ish back to Elgin, we all had a fabulous time, thanks a lot to grandma and grandpa for organising it !




Moving to France with Kids

By Jen

We moved to France from Scotland 7 years ago. Our kids were 9, 7 and 3. Now they are 16, 14 and 10. There have been ups and downs living in another country, but here are three (of many) positive things which stand out for us about the kids growing up in France.

Splitting wood is hungry work
Splitting wood is hungry work

1. They like beetroot.

And they eat unnaturally large quantities of green beans, and snails on special occasions.

Beetroot and green beans feature highly on the school dinner menu. The French not only have an appreciation of good food, but they understand the social importance of eating.

We didn’t expect to see on the “what to bring” list for one of the kid’s football matches that a napkin had higher priority than football boots. And I remember in the early days, that pit of the stomach feeling on a Monday morning finding the napkins were still at the bottom of the laundry basket, again. The shame.

Our kids now look at us forlornly if dinner takes less than an hour. I used to be the queen of sandwiches at the desk at lunchtime. It’s not good. They have taught us to slow down. And enjoy.

2. They have sussed meeting and greeting.

I was a tiny bit surprised to hear when we arrived in France that sneaking away from a party without going round everyone individually to say goodbye is called “partir comme les anglais” or “leaving like the English”. Blimey that’s a bit harsh I thought.

The French generally give each other a kiss on each cheek (or shake hands); two or three or four kisses depending upon which part of France you are from or how well you know the person. It’s called a “bise” and it’s not a pretentious air kissy thing; it’s the standard way to say hello (or goodbye).

We watch the kids now with their confident bise or handshake, no matter whether it’s a group of 15 year olds or a bus load of old ladies. That makes us happy. We are maybe easily pleased.

3. They speak French.

When I first arrived in France I thought I spoke French. I studied it at school for 5 years. I did exams. I could listen to the recording and answer the questions in the book about where Henri the removal man had put the washing machine pretty well.

I got to France and I couldn’t understand a damned word.

Learning to write loopy French
Learning to write loopy French letters

Now we have three permanently-present French teachers with us (a bit embarrassing at Parents’ night at primary school with your youngest but otherwise quite useful). They switch from French to English without batting an eyelid. Being able to communicate in another language is becoming more and more important every day as our world gets smaller, and if I could have one wish it would be to be bilingual. And it’s said that mastering one language opens up the brain to learning another.

Kids make that look easy. To hear another language glide effortlessly out of the mouths of your offspring is beautiful.

5 big pairs of feet, one little campervan.


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