Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


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In which I go to Kerala. Part 2: Spice up your life (again).

masala dosa

The best masala dosa in a roadside cafe.

For many years I lived in a part of London that is well-known for Southern Indian restaurants; the variety and tastes of this regional cuisine have long been my preferred go-to curry night menu. Give me bonda, vadai and masala dosas over tikka masala anytime.

Travelling across Kerala, it’s not hard to see why it is called “The Land of Spices.” This part of India is lush and verdant; the hills covered in a mosaic of tea bushes and the waterways lined with coconut trees. So many of the different spices typically used in Indian cooking grow here and a visit to a spice plantation was a real insight into the cultivation of the spices that live in my store cupboard.

 

Pepper

Green peppercorns

Surprisingly, although there are several different colours of peppercorn, they all come from the same climbing vine and are the product of different stages in the  development or treatment of the seeds. Historically, pepper has been called “black gold”, much prized for trade or as a commodity for payment in its own right – hence another pepper related phrase still in use: a “peppercorn rent”.  Peppercorns are traditionally picked by men, due to their height from the ground and the difficulty in climbing trees if dressed in a traditional sari.

 

Cloves (2)

Young Clove buds

Cloves are usually a dark brown, hard spice we stick in oranges or chuck into mulled wine. I don’t think I’ve ever considered what they look like before they arrive in my little jar from the supermarket. It turns out cloves are actually the bud from an evergreen tree – they start out pale green and gradually turn red as they develop. These were a surprise but not quite as much as the cardamom plant.

 

Cardamom

Cardamom seeds

This grows on a low down plant that was quite easy to miss. Again the dried-up, three-sided cardamoms in my kitchen bore no resemblance to the fresh, young seed pods. The cardamom flower has an orchid like quality which somehow matches the aromatic fragrance of the really fresh pods. cardamom is also one of the most expensive spices and is typically picked by women, who don’t have to climb trees to get to them.

 

One of the most interesting activities I took part in during my trip was a cookery class in Thekkady. This was led by the hilarious Sheril, whose catch phrases of “mixing, mixing,” and “cooking, cooking,” lasted longer than the night we visited his homestyle restaurant! Over the course of an evening we prepped, cooked and devoured a really delicious meal – using many of the spices we had seen earlier in the day. As I can’t share the smells and tastes of the food, I shall leave you with a visual collage of what we cooked and ate. You’ll just have to imagine the rest.

 

©Chez l’abeille  2018

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In which I go to Kerala: Part 1. So near and yet so far…

Of all the things I thought might cause havoc on my way to Kerala, the one I really hadn’t considered was fog. The weather reports for Heathrow were clear. The threats of snow had remained largly in the North. I was on a plane and heading for Cochin…until fog  brought the carefully scheduled Christmas plans of several hundred people crashing down into one spot: the transfer desk in Abu Dhabi airport. FOG! For the next three hours I queued and finally achieved two things: I found one of the other two people who were travelling to Cochin to join my holiday group and I got a flight out of Abu Dhabi 14 hours later, with a hotel room thrown in for good measure.

What to do then when your body clock is screaming stay awake and you’ve got several hours to kill? When The Louvre has just jointly opened a multi-million pound gallery on its own island, the answer was a no -brainer.

Louvre Abu Dhabi

Opening in November 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the first in a proposed group of internationally linked, cultural spaces on Saadiyat Island (the island of happiness). Designed by Jean Nouvel, the building is a collection of spaces interlinked under a dome of layered latticework, reflecting the traditional use of palm leaves for roofing. Light filters through this intricate structure and dapples the internal courtyards, creating a harmonious mix of light and shade. Unlike many of the other buildings in Abu Dhabi, the building sits low down on the island, close to the water’s edge; its full beauty is slowly revealed through a screened walkway. We were so entranced by the exterior that it did take us some time to finally make our way inside to view the collection!

And what an amazing collection it is. Spanning every medium, pieces are carefully curated to tell the universal stories of humanity. Linked by brass inlays that guide the vistor from space to space, glass cases present artefacts with a simplicity that is mesmerising. Play, work, food, family, love, war, art: all the great themes are explored and presented as shared experiences across times and spaces. Many works have been loaned but the museum has a very healthy aquisitions budget too, leading to a growing permanent collection. A surprisingly comprehensive collection of 20th Century and current artists was also a treat, with several much loved impressionist works on loan from the Musee D’Orsay. The galleries lead finally out into the covered courtyard where sculptures create focal points under the shady dome.

Getting stuck in Abu Dhabi was a pain, but without it I doubt I would ever have been able to visit this delightful, cultural oasis. Although we arrived a full 24 hours late for our Keralan adventure, the holiday had already started.

©Chez l’abeille 2018

 


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No place for the old? Age and fairy tales.

It’s a fairly established point of view that we can use children’s literature to challenge  enduring stereotypes. I’ve spent years working in Early Years education trying to do just that…seeking out the books where girls are empowered and boys love reading. Now in my own writing I try to ensure that my characters are positive and challenge the expected. Yet one thing I have not really considered is the concept of age in children’s stories, especially traditional fairy tales.

The recent IBBY conference entitled “Happily Ever After: The Evolution of Fairy Tales Across Time and Cultures” explored this theme in detail and threw up some surprisingly new ideas.

The key-note speaker, Professor Vanessa Joosen, kicked off the day with an exceptionally detailed study of how age is presented in classic and modern fairy tales. Despite many post-modern rewritings that aim to tackle existing stereotypes, casual ageism still remains unchallenged.

Women in classic fairy tales fare badly but old women do even worse

 Sylvia Henneberg

Through her detailed analysis, Professor Joosen demonstrated that although there has been a shift in female empowerment, this does not affect the way older women are presented to the young. The “literary crone” is still funnelled into the very limited static role of the witch or  someone seeking to regain their lost youth, for example the character Gothel in Walt Disney’s “Tangled”.  This “mirror stage” of life is described by Kathleen Woodward as the time when our real, youthful self is hidden inside our body – something that had many in the audience nodding in agreement! This midlife point is still presented as a time of crisis; the youthful female character moves away from the search for love and marriage and the conflict between age and youth is perceived. An interesting interpretation of “Hansel and Gretel” suggests that the stepmother’s desire to get rid of the children is to stop time – essentially preventing herself from ageing in comparison to the youthfulness of the children.

Yet not all old people play supporting roles in fairy tales. Outside of the western traditional tales, some glimmers of alternative viewpoints can be found. in Japanese traditional tales older characters often take the protagonists role, thus taking away the focus on beauty, marriage and children. Professor Joosen referenced “The Tongue Cut Sparrow” as a good example. Equally she argued, in some re-writing of traditional tales such as Emma Donoghue’s “Kissing the Witch”, older characters are portrayed as providing intergenerational collaboration –  bringing wisdom and standing up for the younger characters. However, even here the older characters are not permitted other strong emotions like anger.

It wasn’t all despair for the older character however and some writers are consciously challenging this most stubborn of stereotypes; try this for starters: “Snow White turns 39” by Ann Sheldon.

©Chez l’abeille  2017

 

 

 


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The Streets of London: Up on the roof.

At street level London is a jumble of traffic, people and bustle. It can be hard to see how it all connects and where space merges from one locality into another. To really appreciate the shape of London the only way is up.

looking up 20 Fenchurch StreetOnce upon a time, the tallest building near London Bridge was the Guys Hospital Tower. Now it stands dwarfed by the ever competing designs which parade across our skyline. Whilst the Shard retains its title for tallest building in the capital by quite a margin, another competitor is 20 Fenchurch Street. This building was designed in 2004 by Rafael Viñoly, a Uruguayan architect. The design flips a building on its head, by creating a larger space at the top than the footprint at ground level. With an oasis of greenery on the 35th floor there’s definitely something worth visiting.

It wasn’t the best day to go, but I’d planned my visit as part of my birthday “day off” and the free tickets are not issued until a week in advance so I couldn’t be picky. The website warns to dress up warmly so I was well prepared for the icy blast as I stepped out onto the viewing deck 35 floors above the Thames. There is a protective glass screen but on a grey November day I was glad of my thermal vest! Despite the weather, the views are still as fantastic as you would imagine. Below London is revealed, the shapes, colours and patterns that make up this amazing city.

 

The garden is arranged on several stepped levels which afford a 360 degree view of the city. An old favourite, “The Gherkin” at 30 St Mary Axe, was also revealed again – its familiar conical shape lost these days amidst a panoply of other, taller buildings and cranes. The free ticket gives you an hour, yet I didn’t see anyone pushing the 10.45am entrants out! With a glass of birthday fizz  in hand I had time to simply stop and stare.

 

Looking up and looking down, the views from the Sky Garden are worth the visit. Get in fast and book your space!

Sky Garden information is available here

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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A “Maverick” reading scheme? Yes please!

As a child I read everything and anything I could get my hands on and I can still vividly recall the moment I realised I was actually reading in my head! It was magical; words and pictures danced together, creating a perfect moment of pure story pleasure.

What I also remember is that I was very conscious of the existence of two types of books; the ones I chose for myself and the ones I had to read. The school reading books. The utterly boring and tedious activities of characters I had no interest or desire to know any more about, thank you! My Naughty Little Sister, Paddington Bear or Olga Da Polga would trump anything that Janet and John or Peter and Jane could offer me, any day.

“Literacy begins with immersion in an environment in which the skill is used in a purposeful, active, and meaningful way.”

Don Holdaway, “The Foundations of Literacy” (1979)

How could any reading scheme be purposeful, active and meaningful, when there were so many exciting books to explore and read? As a result, even as an experienced primary teacher, I have always been a tad suspicious of any reading scheme, no matter how “real book” they try to be.

I was curious, therefore, to have a closer look at the new “Early Readers” from Maverick Children’s Books. The idea behind this series is simple: to create reading books that support the transition from being a listener to being a reader. The resulting books have also been “banded” according to the Institute of Education’s book bands for guided reading, which provides clear guidance on the level of difficulty and reading skills needed. This is a big plus for me, as I frequently use the book bands in my advisory work with schools.

Working with their roster of established authors (including several SCBWI friends across the whole series), the purple band books are based on existing stories or characters, with which children may already be familiar. The established pairings of author and illustrator are also replicated, which again provides a sense of familiarity and high quality. In look and feel they have the same structure as a typical picture book with each one running to thirteen double page spreads. Illustrations and text work well together, although there is a greater separation of text and image on the page than is typically found in a picture book. This enhances the sense that they are a step up from a picture book  – they are instead books with great pictures! Yet there is still much to explore in the illustrations and I particularly liked Queen Fluff’s encounter with a rat in his underpants in “A Right Royal Mess”. 

As reading books these would be suitable for reading alone or in a guided group. Maverick have created useful activity packs for some of the books which can support the teaching of reading in a group activity or at home. For example a focus on specific consonant clusters is suggested if reading “The Jelly That Wouldn’t Wobble”, and key language features that can be used in writing, such as onomatopoeia are also featured. Yet they are not too schooly and I think they would be equally welcome as a shared bedtime story.

Each story comes with a quiz at the end, which can be used to support recall of key information. If I were to suggest one thing to strengthen this section of the book, it would be a greater focus on inference. Some questions do provide a “think about” element such as “Why does nobody want to help the Grizzly? in “The Great Grizzly Race., but there is only one answer. More open-ended questions could provide greater challenge and opportunities to develop skills of being able to “answer questions and make some inferences on the basis of what is being said and done” (End of KS1 expected standard).

For me, each book works well as a complete story, bringing the sense of satisfaction that comes from active engagement in a well written picture book. For a transitional reader the overall reading experience would be supportive, yet one of moving on to something more challenging. In Don Holdaway’s words, they are definitely purposeful and meaningful.

So am I converted? I have to say I am.

©Chez l’abeille  2017

Disclaimer: I was invited to review the Maverick Early Reader books by the publisher who provided copies of three purple band books.
I have received no compensation for doing this piece and all opinions are my own.

 


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Montalbano, Sono…

Montalbano sonoIf you watch “Inspector Montalbano” the sun is always shining. Sicily bathes in golden sunlight that illuminates the buttery stone buildings of fictitious Vigata. Our heroic Chief of Police wanders the streets in his reflective Ray Bans, solving crime then lunching on Linguine with sea-urchin and a nice glass of something alcoholic to wash it down with at his local trattoria.

My week in Sicily was wet torrential. So there was only one thing for a bunch of avid Montalbano fans to do: hunt out some of the programmes most loved locations.

Our first stop was the tiny seaside town of Punta Secca. It became evident that, after the beach, the B+B that doubles as Montalbano’s home is probably the key draw. Just as we arrived, the rain actually stopped for a short while, which meant we could get out of the car and have a wander around.

The house is exactly as we see it in the shows but there must be a fair amount of post production to remove the motley collection of beach houses and businesses that we definitely don’t see spoiling the Inspector’s peace and quiet. A regular event in each episode is his solitary swim, brought to life by a hardy local who was to be seen defying the weather and causing the visiting fans much excitement!

Enzo's Restaurant Punta Secca (4)

Turning left around the lighthouse and following the beach front took us to the lunch location of choice, Enzo a Mare. Generally Montalbano is the only person out on the terrace savouring the linguine with sea-urchin, but in reality, even on a blustery, rain-sodden day, the terrace was packed with diners tucking into some of the commissario’s favourites.

Fortified with local wine and ultra-sweet cannoli, our next location was the nearby maze of a town: Scicli.  Regular watchers will be familiar with the town hall which doubles as the exterior of the Chief’s police station. It is an impressive building in a very pretty, paved street and it wasn’t hard to imagine our hero casually parking his Fiat and leaping up the steps.

Our final location was the impressive Castello di Donnafugata, known to Montalbano watchers as the HQ of the Sinagras, the local Mafia family. The lure was the terrace, from which the Mafia henchmen watch every visitor’s approach. Unfortunately the opening times for the castle were so confusingly reported in the various guide books and websites we checked that by the time we arrived it was well and truly closed. Despite that, even from the outside, the magnificence of the castle was apparent.

The fictional world of Montalbano, created by author Andrea Camilleri, is deeply rooted in the culture and traditions of Sicily. Visiting the sites used in the programme drew back the tourist curtain a little and despite the weather was a great way to explore and appreciate this fascinating part of Italy.

©Chez l’abeille  2017

 


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The House of Dreams.

Step through this gateway and you will find yourself in The House of Dreams.

Front garden (9)I could try to describe the house and tell you all about Stephen Wright, the artist who has created and shaped this amazing work, but I’m not going to. Instead, as a tiny snapshot of this world apart, I’m going to show you some of the photographs Stephen very generously let me take before the most recent open day got underway.

Then I’m going to invite you to make a cup of tea, take some time out and let Stephen explain his work to you personally. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did. So go on – open the gate and step into the courtyard…

Now go through the front door and into the hallway. Memories surround you: Personal thoughts and immense feelings laid bare.

Peep through the archway – colours and textures draw you inwards. Assembled words and objects create something new from the lost and dispossessed detritus of the world.

The studio floor and walls bridge the space towards the back garden.

In the world of Forensic Science it is often said that “every contact leaves a trace”. The cherished fragments of lives lived and lives living infuse each space and become the very DNA of the house. Challenging, comforting, personal, intimate, human.

This is the House of Dreams.

Many thanks to Stephen and Michael for letting me get in the way while their final preparations for the open day were underway.

You can visit the House of Dreams in East Dulwich on the last Saturday in September or October – Tickets can be purchased via Stephen’s website here.

©Chez l’abeille  2017