Tuesday 31 March 2015

Le Château de Chambord ...

The other day, as we were bombing down the Loire Valley, we came upon a castle that blew us away.

Feast your eyes on the Renaissance splendour that is the Château de Chambord. 

Some say it was the brain child of no less a genius than Leonardo Da Vinci. Old Leo swung by the Loire before Francis I got to work on his great fantasy castle, and there's a complicated geometry to this place that has his fingerprints all over it. He also brought along a little portrait that he'd knocked off before he left home. It was something that he'd been obsessing over on and off, fiddling with and repainting from time to time as the whim took him. In the course of time Francis purchased the painting and it went to live with him in his castle at Fontainebleau. We know it today as the Mona Lisa.

Francis I was a bit of a boy-wonder King. He took the throne in 1515 at the tender age of twenty, and immediately set about reconquering the province of Milan, French territory that had been lost by his predecessor Louis XII. Buoyed up by victory, and heavily influenced by the wonders of the Italian Renaissance, Francis returned home and started work on his great castle at Chambord in 1519. In many ways it borrows heavily from the classical footprint of a medieval castle: there's a central keep flanked by four tall towers, two wings and a curtain wall, but none of them are designed for defensive strength. Perhaps, for the sake of tradition, they follow the outline of a great feudal stronghold, but they've been prettified and titivated for purely aesthetic reasons and then built to make a statement about the King's wealth and power.

Francis was passionate about hunting and architecture. Chambord, originally conceived as a royal hunting lodge, represented the union of his two great passions. As time went by, things got seriously out of hand, and it morphed into an extravagant château with 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces and 426 rooms. Not bad for a little place in the woods.

The salamander, personal emblem of Francis I
Francis was into one man upmanship in a big way. He'd wanted to be the Holy Roman Emperor, but his arch rival,  Charles V, beat him to it, and seized the prize. A fierce personal rivalry ensued, which was played out in their territorial campaigns as they battled over much of northern Italy. Francis sought to rope in Henry VIII of England as an ally. To which end the two kings met at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in June 1520, when they tried to out-shine one another in their splendour and refinement. And, whilst Henry was happy to strut his stuff in a field near Calais, he kept his armies safely back at home in England. 

Monogram of Francis I
Even on his quiet days, when he wasn't meeting rival monarchs, Francis was a bit blingtastic. And that's really what was behind the concept and design of Chambord. It was conceived to knock the socks off his old rival, Charles V, who was, of course, invited over to pop a few wild boar once it had advanced to a level at which Charles was guaranteed a right royal eyeful. History recalls that Charles had the good grace and the honesty of spirit to admit to his host that he was suitably impressed.

Anyway that's all by way of background. Back to the castle: it's one of the most amazing places I've ever visited. 

There's a whole complex geometry to the central design of the keep, all based around a Greek Cross. But for me it was a castle of staircases: great feats of masonry ascending and descending in all directions like a series of elaborate stage sets on which to see and to be seen.

The amazing central staircase of the keep is like a double helix. There are two flights of stairs unwinding in concentric circles from the same central newel, which is hollow with ornamental apertures. One person can ascend while another descends without their meeting, although they can see one another through the apertures. It's pure theatre.

I can so easily imagine Francis I leading a very envious Charles V up those grand stone stairs, gloating all the while over how well he'd out-shone anything his rival could call home. 

Even though the staircase is at the centre of a huge building it's illuminated by natural light from the glass lantern at the top.

And, of course, it's not the only stair case on which you can shake a tail feather. There are at least another 76 to run up and down if you've got the energy.

And they all lead up to the wonderful terraces on top.

There are so many towers, pillars, loggias, pilasters, carvings of salamanders, cherubs and fleurs-de-lys up there on the Renaissance Terraces. It's amazing how the master stonemasons were able to sculpt the tufa, the local sandstone, like icing on a cake. Francis I intended it to look like the skyline of Constantinople, and for my money it looks like something out of a fairytale.

It's an amazing cityscape sprouting out of the main roof to the Château, to leave you wondering whether you're in the tranquil idyll of the Loire Valley or some heavenly metropolis designed by angels.

Back in the day, when the Great Lords went hunting in the woods round about, the chatter and laughter of the ladies of the court rang out around these terraces. They'd come up here to entertain themselves watching the hunting parties return. And if you stand quietly in a shady corner you can still almost hear the distant echo of their dainty shoes dancing over the tiles, and the polite clink of their glassware as they took refreshments and waited for their menfolk to come home.

For me these terraces were the very best bit of the whole castle. On a sunny spring morning, framed by a brilliant blue sky, they were a surreal dreamscape.

In the great rooms downstairs they've got lots of furniture and paintings from other eras. But back in the days of Francis I the castle was mostly kept empty. When the King came to his hunting lodge a cavalcade of carts and carriages would roll in ahead of him, laden down with furniture and wall hangings to turn the cold, unadorned rooms of the castle into a residence fit for a great prince. Then, when he'd done with shooting his wild boar and hunting his stag, they'd pack everything up and move on.  And Chambord would go back to being a large, deserted folly sitting quietly and splendidly amidst the trees.

For me the magic of its spell was woven strongest when it was allied with the history of Francis I and the guiding genius of the great Da Vinci. Other princes and kings came afterwards but none surpassed the heady romance and exuberant vision of those early days.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Tuesday 24 March 2015

the life and times of the urban fox ...

Living in the middle of London you might expect not to see much in the way of wildlife, but you would be SO wrong. Our back garden is like a jungle - and that's not just down to my laissez faire style of gardening! It's full to bursting with life. And from where I'm sitting (elbows on worktop, coffee in hand, staring out of the kitchen window, wishing that spring would return) Foxy is the cock of the walk.

He's a great big dude who includes our back garden in his home territory. Occasionally he has an afternoon siesta under the decking or beneath the bamboo, where the dry leaves keep him nice and cosy.

He's an expert on the Green Cross Code, crossing the road on his morning and afternoon patrols without ever coming to any harm. He cruises up and down the little alleyways that run along the back of our gardens with the aplomb of one who owns them. As well he might, because he's got nothing to worry about other than a few hopelessly well-behaved city pooches, like the Wonder Dog, who have been schooled in getting along nicely with the other dogs in the park and never, ever barking at cats.

Foxy's principal protagonist ...

 So, as you can see, it's the life of Riley for Foxy. He's got all the food he can eat, served up carefully in hygienic plastic containers on bin day. Heck my neighbour across the road even leaves dog food out for him on a nightly basis.

I always notice when I go to the country that there aren't nearly so many foxes around, and they don't look anything like so healthy and well-fed as Foxy does. I guess his country cousins have to get by dodging the odd bullet and without any of the food deliveries and creature comforts that he's gotten used to.

This is his favourite morning perch:

The lady next door had a sedum roof put on her garden shed, which is nice and soft to snooze on, and with all that scientific drainage and rain-water harvesting that's going on, it's pleasingly dry underfoot. It gives him a good vantage point from which to spot dangerous predators ... like ... the Wonder Dog, who sometimes even manages to pluck up enough courage to bark at him.

One day old Foxy did push the boundaries a bit. The lady two doors' down on the other side used to have three very fine hens. Notice my careful use of the past-tense. Foxy sorted them out one afternoon in broad daylight. He didn't do himself any favours, because he didn't kill them for food. If he'd been hungry people would have understood, shrugged their shoulders and said that it was sad, but Foxy was doing what he had to do in order to get by. Instead, however, Foxy killed them for the fun of it and didn't eat anything - probably because he's developed a preference for having his meat well done.

For the next few days there were heated discussions about how something had to be done about Foxy. He was getting out of hand. Maybe we should call in the pest-control people and have him eradicated. But, we were all a bit squeamish about having Foxy eradicated, so, after we'd vented enough steam, we all quietly got back to doing nothing about our fox-infestationI suppose, if we'd had him removed, we'd only have created a territorial vacancy, ripe for another foxy take-over.

Better the fox you know, I say.

All the best,

Bonny x

Sunday 22 March 2015

Long-tailed tits ...

Just spotted these little guys outside my kitchen window. They look so dainty and polite - not like the squawking parakeets or the sharp-beaked, always-ravenous starlings.

Happy Sunday!

All the best,

Bonny x

Friday 20 March 2015

TGI Friday: 5 Random things from the week that was ...

And once again we've made it through to Friday. Phew! I'm so glad it's the weekend.

1. A Vernal Equinox Cake

And it's the Vernal Equinox, which I'll admit doesn't usually set my world on fire, but I found myself making a big noise about it as an excuse for baking a cake. It's a long and torturous logic that got my cake baked, and, if you're interested, it was a mighty fine cake. You can check my recipe here: the very best Marmalade cake in town ....

2. The Earth travels counterclockwise around the Sun ... if you're looking down from somewhere up above the North Pole ...

I got to thinking about this as I was sitting watching Emi plough through the water at swim club. I have to explain that I often get very, very bored at swim club. I'd been reading about the Vernal Equinox for my post here: And a very Merry Vernal Equinox to you too ..., and thought I'd draw a diagram. It all started to look very complicated. The lady sitting next to me on the mum's bench, who never, ever smiles or says Hello, shifted so close to read over my shoulder that I started wondering whether she'd developed a girl-crush.

I didn't have a Wifi connection so I sent a text to Mr B, who was out hob-nobbing with clients in a swanky restaurant. Out of nowhere, and apropos nothing, the sweet man got a text from his nearest and dearest inquiring whether the earth revolves clockwise or counterclockwise around the sun. Not missing a beat, or pausing to ask why this urgent issue had arisen and needed to be dealt with immediately, he promptly replied saying that it goes counterclockwise.

Sounded wrong to me, the sun seemed to be going east to west last time I was able to catch a glimpse, but, on being questioned further on the matter, he explained that the Earth turns clockwise on its own axis giving us day and night whilst at the same time moving around the sun on a counter-clockwise orbit. Because of how the earth is turning it looks as though the sun is rising in the East and travelling across the firmament to the West in a clockwise fashion, but in reality we're cruising counter-clockwise ... .

I decided to ditch the diagram and substitute a nice photo of some daffodils instead. I understand daffodils.

3. I am half-ways towards having Emi's summer wardrobe sorted  ...

I don't know what my son does, but he wears his trousers out faster than a Trappist Monk who spends all day on bended knee on the unforgiving flagstones of a medieval monastery.  Every other part of his trousers is pristine except for the knees. And now that he's gone past the age 7 to 8 jeans size, I've noticed that there's a hole in the right knee of every last pair of jeans that starts to appear at exactly 43 cm down from the top of the waistband. Whatever he's doing, he's doing it regularly and systematically. I could calibrate my measuring tapes with that hole in the left knee of his jeans.

On the plus side all this clothing-carnage makes it pretty easy to measure where the cut-off should be to transform a worn-out pair of jeans into a cool and groovy pair of shorts for summer. Feast your eyes on this cornucopia of shorts, waiting for the size 16 jeans sewing machine needle to arrive in the mail so that I can finish those turn-up seams:

4. St. Patrick's Day

We had a cold, grey, cloudy Saint Patrick's Day here in London. Back in Ireland they used to believe that if it was sunny on St. Pat's Day, the good Saint had turned the sunny side of the stone up, and an early spring would follow. Sadly it's been a bit grey and gloomy since the big day, so Come on Saint Pat, pull yourself together and turn the miserable stone already!.

5. Today we had a solar eclipse in London ...

Which sounds jolly exciting. Sadly we were able to see nothing, absolutely nada, not a sausage because of the clouds. On the news they said it was the astronomical event of the century ... so I'm guessing we should buckle our seat-belts for a very dull ride. 

All the best for a truly stellar weekend,

Bonny x

And a very merry Vernal Equinox to you too ...

Today is a very special day. Yes, yes,  I know it's Friday ...
... but it's also the Vernal Equinox!

Now these things normally pass me by in the whirlwind of activity that is my daily routine, but the other day I found myself searching around for a reason to bake a cake. As regular visitors will know we don't need much of an excuse to have a party over here at Talk-a-Lot Towers. But I don't bake cakes very often, and, as a result, I still subscribe to the view that a cake is a bit of a celebration. So I found myself casting around for something to celebrate when my recipe finally came together too late for either Mother's Day or St. Pat's. And as only the Vernal Equinox was on the near horizon I decided to run with that.

So what is this Vernal Equinox? Well our dear little planet travels around the sun on an orbit called the ecliptic. It's a journey that takes a year to complete. During the course of that year it tilts on its own axis. When the North Pole tilts towards the sun we have spring and summer up here in the Northern Hemisphere, and when it tilts the other way we go on our seasonal journey into winter. And because of this tilting behaviour the sun is rarely directly overhead the equator. That only happens twice in the year, as the tilt reverses, and the hemispheres change seasons on the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes.   On those two days of the year, at the tilting points of the seasons, day and night are of equal length. And thereafter the change of the season soon becomes manifest, or it ought to if old Mother Nature is following her script.

It's all text book science today, but way back in the days before anyone went to school, the ancient people of the world saw a special kind of magic in these two days.

I'm always amazed that they noticed, but I suppose if we didn't have television and I had to either grow or catch our dinner every evening before we ate it out in the back garden I might also notice a slew of things that escape me at the moment. Anyway our wily ancestors recognised the Vernal Equinox as the day that marked the shift from the season of cold, dark barrenness to spring, the season of light, growth and the rebirth of the natural world after the long dreary months of winter.

For totally logical reasons many ancient people regarded the Vernal Equinox, the first day of spring, as the first day of the year. It was, after all, the day on which the cycle of the seasons kicked off.

The ancient Chinese are said to have seized upon the egg as the emblem of all this happy sunny stuff; a perfect symbol of fertility and the rebirth of nature. Given what they observed to be the perfect balance of the hours of daylight and darkness they imagined that special forces were afoot in the world. Someone, somewhere, on this day, found a perfect egg with a slightly blunt end that they were able to stand on its end: a feat not normally achievable with a regular egg. It was hailed as a miracle! And the sages of the day reasoned that the perfect balance of the day and the night, and the tipping point of the seasons must mean that the celestial bodies were aligned in such a way that the Equinox was blessed with certain gravitational anomalies not present on other normal days.

It was all a load of old hooey, of course. You need to practise a lot, but on just about any day of the year you can balance a blunt-ended egg on its blunt end if you take the pains to do so. Why you'd want to is of course another matter entirely.

Actually, because I like you all so much,  I'll let you into a little secret as to how you can impress all the egg-fanciers out there. If you place a plain wedding ring under the tablecloth in the exact spot where you'd like to balance your egg, and then take pains to remember where you've left it, you can make just about any old egg stand upright on its end, using the ring as a hidden cradle to support it. Here's one I did earlier (photo below) Impressive, heh?

The ancient Chinese art of egg balancing on the Vernal Equinox
Anyway have a very merry Vernal Equinox. As for me: I'm off to peer through the clouds at the solar eclipse and honour this auspicious day with a very large slab of marmalade cake, and I'll worry about bringing order and balance to my waistline in the season of light and rebirth.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Thursday 19 March 2015

The very best Marmalade Cake in town ...

Yesterday I made a cake.  And, as a cake is a bit of a celebration over here at Talk-a-Lot Towers, I thought I'd better search around for something to celebrate. So having missed St. Pat's and Mother's Day it's a Vernal Equinox and Total Solar Eclipse Cake. How's that for something to celebrate?

Happy Vernal Equinox (on Friday) everyone!

The truth is this cake and I started out together about a week ago. We have history. Sad muppet that I am, I decided to make myself a Mother's Day Cake. The story gets even sadder as I put my experimental mixture into a cake tin that was way too small, which resulted in a cake explosion over the sides of the tin and all over the base of the oven. Then, not satisfied with the mess I'd made, I opened the oven door before the cake had finished rising, and the whole thing flopped. And then, when I finally extracted it I discovered that it was welded to the fancy cake mould, which, contrary to what it said on the label, really wasn't non-stick and ought to have been buttered like an oil-slick pre-launch.

It was cake-carnage, my friends. A great big tripple-whammy of a disaster.

Undaunted, and with a terrier-like determination that would put the Wonder Dog to shame, I tried it again the next day in a humble loaf tin. It was carefully greased and left in the oven for the requisite period of time without any curious door-opening to have a close-up on how the whole thing was getting along. And the result was pretty finger-licking good, even if I do say so myself.

Now the stealth ingredient here, which makes my cake just a little bit epic is the marmalade. It really is good. In fact, to state it plainly, if you like fragrant cardamon notes in your clementine orange marmalade, it's the marmalade of your dreams.  You can check it out here: Cardamon and Clementine Marmalade. It carries those wonderful top notes of cardamon into the cake, and it really is worth getting fat for. If you don't want to faff around making my special super-duper taste-it-in-your-dreams marmalade you can just substitute a tasty alternative of your own. I won't be too prescriptive but do bear in mind that your choice is important: the bottom line is that this cake will only ever be as good as the marmalade you make it from.

Anyway if you'd like to get your chops round some special marmalade cake, here's my recipe:


150 g butter
150 g caster sugar
1 large clementine (You could use any other small orange that you can lay your hands on. Blood oranges are good but their season is so short. My favourite citrus fruit is the clementine so I tend to use those whenever I can.)
2 large eggs
75 g of truly superb marmalade
150 g self-raising flour

And some icing sugar to dust on top of the cake once you're done.

1. Heat the oven to 180ºC  and line/ butter a smallish cake tin. For this recipe I have used a 1 1/2 pint Bundt pan. Alternatively you could use a 20cm x 11cm x 7cm loaf tin. If you're planning on using a Bundt pan make sure to grease it really well and sprinkle a dusting of flour on too for good measure.

2. Beat the butter and the sugar in the mixer until they are light and fluffy.

3. Whisk the eggs, and add them slowly to the mixture, a little at a time. Beat until they are uniformly mixed with the butter and the sugar.

4. Finely grate the skin of the clementine and add it to the mixture along with the marmalade. Mix until everything is uniform.

5. Fold in the flour. It's best to do this by hand with a big metal spoon. Keep going until all the flour has been absorbed without trace. It doesn't take very long so it's not too onerous to mix.

6. Spoon the mixture into the greased/ lined cake tin. Do not fill the cake tin to more than 3/4 of its depth, otherwise you risk a cake explosion over the sides, which is not pretty.

7. Bake for about 40 minutes in the oven, resisting all temptation to open the door and take a peek for the first 20 minutes or so. Check it after 35 minutes to see whether it's ready.

8. When it's done (a skewer, pushed in and then pulled back, should come out clean) take it out of the oven and leave it to cool.

9. When the cake has cooled dust the top with a sprinkling of icing sugar.

Enjoy in the sunshine after the excitement of the solar eclipse (fingers crossed) with a nice pot of tea.

All the best,

Bonny x