Monday, 25 June 2018

Coffin Road by Peter May

thriller


There's no faffing around with the mystery in Coffin Road by Peter May. You are plunged straight into it, from the very first page.
A man is washed up on a lonely bleak beach on the Isle of Harris. He's barely alive, suffering from hypothermia and major memory loss. He has no idea who he is, where he is and how he happened to be in that place. Stumbling away from the sea, he's greeted by an elderly lady, who calls him by his name (Neal McLean) and accompanies him home, of which he has no recognition.
The house gives no clues to his identity. The only possible pointer is the old map, with a track called the Coffin Road traced in it. What does it mean? Where does the road lead, and what is he going to find there?
Somewhere deep in his subconsciousness there is a feeling of dread and unease. And when Neal discovers a body on a remote isle, he is terrified that he might be the killer.
His memory is wiped clean, and he doesn't know anything about himself.

The body that Neal sees is eventually discovered by the tourists. The remote isle is known as the place where a mystery happened a century before, when three lighthouse keepers have disappeared without a trace.
DS George Gunn must find out the identity of the recent murder victim, and solve the mystery.

There is a parallel story unravelling of a teenage girl called Karen Fleming. Her father disappeared two years earlier, presumed dead (suicide). The mother quickly finds solace in the arms of her boss.
Both mother and daughter are hard to like or relate to.
Karen is one of those young women who rebel against any authority, she is awful towards her teachers, and though, supposedly smart, is pretty stupid when it comes to getting (or not) education. Rather than employing her brain and doing something for her future, she goes all defiant, malcontent and plain nasty and covers her body with tattoos, resembling a human carpet.
She doesn't want to accept the fact that her father is dead. Having seen his farewell note, she is convinced that he father would not just disappear, or kill himself.
Her father Tom was a dedicated scientist, whose research on the bee population and the effects of the chemicals on their brain is highly sensitive.
Are the big corporations behind her father's disappearance?

Will Neal recover his memory? Will Karen discover the truth about her father? And will the identity of the murder on the distant rock be ever found?

This book will appeal to fans of conspiracy theory novels, or eco-thrillers.

There were some rather implausible moments, regarding Neal's behaviour. A beautiful woman arrives in his cottage, he has no memory of who she is, but is happy to have a heated sex session with her.

The best bits for me were the descriptions of nature, you could almost feel the wind and taste the salty sea.

I haven't read Peter May's books before, but will see if I can find any other in The Works (this book was on 3 for a fiver deal).


Shchi for Marinka (The House with Chicken Legs #ReadCookEat )

Russian recipes, vegetarian Russian recipes


Russian cabbage soup Shchi takes a place of pride in the national cuisine. According to the historians, this dish was known in Rus long before the Christianity was introduced there (source: Russian Cuisine: Traditions and Customs by V.Kovalev and N.Mogilnyi, 1990). Apparently, Ivan the Terrible was a big fan of shchi (not that it's a great endorsement).
To begin with, most of the soups were called shchi, but later mainly the cabbage-based soups were left with the name.
There are some varieties of shchi without cabbage as well in the Russian cuisine - shchi with sorrel, and with nettles.
There are many versions of this soup, they could be cooked with meat, fish, mushrooms, with fresh cabbage or sauerkraut.
Alexander Dumas loved the Russian shchi so much, that he included a recipe in his culinary book.

I don't often cook Russian food, as my family prefer Italian dishes.
Last week I was reading The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson, and got all nostalgic about the Russian dishes which appear on the pages of the novel.
Baba Yaga is a great cook, and as the Guardian of the portal to the other world, it is her duty to guide the spirits of the dead. She celebrates their lives by providing them with the last feast.

Baba pokes her head out and smiles. "Lunch is ready. I've made a feast of shchi and black bagels. Enough for Jack too",
My stomach rumbles as the smell of cabbage soup and freshly baked bread hits my nose...

Baba is stirring a great cauldron of borsch over a roaring fire. She turns and smiles as I enter the room, an excited twinkle in her eyes. "You look lovely, my pchelka. Are you ready?"
...Baba talks to him softly in the language of the dead, as I fill the table. Bowls and spoons, thick black bread, a basket of dill, pots of sour cream and horseradish, mushroom dumplings, as assortment of tiny glasses and a large bottle of spirit trost - a fiery drink for the dead.

Baba has made ukha from tinned catfish and vegetables...
Tonight we'll treat the desert dead to a fish supper". Baba nods at the table and smiles. It's already laid with kvass and glasses, and bowls of food with a decidedly fishy theme: pickled herring with soured cream from the cold pantry, blinis with smoked salmon and dill, salted dried vobla, and mini fish dumplings...

These are just a few foodie quotes from the book.

I don't know which recipe Baba Yaga used to cook shchi for her granddaughter, but I think she would approve of my vegetarian/vegan mushroom-based soup. I prefer to serve it with a big dollop of soured cream. You can use a vegan variety, but somehow a coconut or soy yogurt would not give you an authentic taste.

Russian vegan recipes


Shchi with dried mushrooms
Ingredients:
a pack of dried porcini mushrooms (20g)
white cabbage 500g
1 smaller size onion or 1/2 of a big one
4tbsp vegetable oil
1 carrot, grated
1 parsnip
2 cloves of garlic
1-2 tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 big potato, peeled and cubed


Break dried mushrooms into smaller pieces.
Place them in a pan, pour hot boiling water over them (about a pint or 1/2 litre). Let them soak for 15 minutes. You'll get dark liquid, this will be the base stock for soup.
Finely chop half an onion and grate the carrot, fry them with the vegetable oil until the onion gets translucent. Add 2 cloves of garlic and chopped parsnip. Remove the mushrooms from the pan with a slotted spoon and place them in the frying pan, fry for about 5 minutes, stirring.



Put the mushrooms and veg mix back in the pan with stock and bay leaf, add more water, bring to the boil, add the finely chopped cabbage, cook for a few minutes on boiling, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the cubed potato in the last 10 minutes of cooking.
Season with sea salt.
Serve hot, with a good spoonful of soured cream or Greek style yogurt, but this is optional.

Russian vegetarian recipes


In this recipe I used dried Boletus Edulis Borowik Szlachetny also known as porcini. I buy these dried mushrooms in the Polish deli, and they are usually a half of what you'd expect to pay for porcini in supermarkets.

If you liked the sound of the Russian soup shchi, you might like to see the other recipe posts on Russian soups, mentioned in the novel.

Mama's Borscht (meat-based)

Vegetarian borscht

Ukha on a budget (made with a salmon head)

Ukha (fish soup made with tinned fish)

Marinated (pickled) herring


Sunday, 24 June 2018

Curd cheese cake with white vanilla chips

Russian cheesecake, Russian dessert

When I'm stressed, I bake, it's my way of coping with problems. The last night I couldn't sleep because of the blinking mouse under the bed. I could hear it rustling the papers, and actually saw it running in and out. I managed to nod off around 4am, but by 6am Sasha was already up.
I can't lift the bed, as it's very heavy, it's one of those boxed double beds.
We haven't had mice for a long time, so I need to rethink what to do about the problem. We live in a very old house, and I imagine there's plenty of space between the wooden floor boards and beams where they can live happily ever after.
Sasha is also not in a good mood, as he wanted to go out today. He spread out several picture symbols for me - walk, cafe and books (bookshop), but as his father is not here, I cannot take him out.

Last week I bought a pack of Polish curd/cottage cheese, thinking of baking a cake of some sort.
Curd cheese is a very popular ingredient in Russian cuisine, there are so many cakes and bakes which use it.

Russian dessert recipes


Curd cheese cake with white vanilla chips
Ingredients:
400g curd cheese
150g butter, softened
200g caster sugar
1tsp baking powder
zest of 1 lemon
4 medium eggs
2tbsp corn flour
250g self-raising flour
50g vanilla chips (Hershey's Premier white chips, vanilla flavour)
1 pack of cheesecake spice mix (optional)
a bit of vanilla (optional)
4tsp icing sugar + lemon juice for a thin icing



Grate the zest of 1 lemon in a deep mixing bowl.
Beat in the eggs with the caster sugar and softened butter, add curd cheese, baking powder, flour, corn flour, vanilla, spice mix and and mix well. Last end the vanilla chips, and mix them in well.
The cake batter is quite thick. Spoon it carefully in a well oiled cake tin. Put the cake tin in an oven preheated to 180C for 50+ minutes (depending on the size of the tin). Check with a wooden toothpick if it's ready. You might need to lower the temperature and bake it for another 10 minutes, until the skewer comes clean.
Once the cake is cooling out of the oven, mix the icing sugar with lemon juice to reach a not-too-runny consistency, and spread it on the top.
Serve warm or cold. It will keep well for a couple of days in the fridge, wrapped in foil.

Russian recipes


In this recipe I used a pack of Polish curd cheese - twarog, which is more grainy in comparison to the British curd cheese brands, and comes as a block rather than in a tub. The one I bought is called Twarog Tlusty (curd cheese, full fat). It is very similar to the Russian type of cottage/curd cheese I remember from my childhood.
The spice mix Kamis Przyprawa Do Sernika I Mas Serowych was another of my recent finds in the local Polish deli. This is the first time I've used it. It is a mix of sugar, vanilla, lemon and orange zest, cardamom and flavoring.
You can easily swap it for a mix of vanilla, cardamom and lemon zest.



Traditional curd cheese cake would include raisins soaked in sweet wine or tea, or/and sometimes dried apricots, also soaked and then chopped. Some cooks like adding mixed peel, or whole almonds.
Again the ratio of curd cheese to flour could vary from 50/50, to almost zero flour (just a couple of tablespoons). I used an almost double amount of cottage cheese to flour.

Vanilla chips are not found in traditional Russian recipes, but my guys do not like raisins in baking very much. Milk chocolate chips could be another possible ingredient.

Frylight Avocado Oil Cooking Spray was one of the products in the latest Degustabox food box. I use this oil, as well as the other in the range - Olive oil and Coconut oil - to spray the cake tins. I find them all useful for baking, as you can coat the inside of the tin evenly. They are particularly great for fancy bundt cake tins.


Russian cheesecake

Since I used the remains of the corn flour and vanilla chips, as well as the jelly decorations, I'm adding this recipe to the #KitchenClearout linky hosted by Cheryl at Madhouse Family Reviews blog.


Saturday, 23 June 2018

Photo diary: week 25, project 365

The week has passed by in a twilight zone, as our Sash doesn't sleep well. He can easily survive on just a few hours of sleep per night and still be super energetic, but I don't function well, and my brain is all mushy.

The red currants are starting to ripen this week, and I pick some every evening for Eddie's dinner. He loves them. Unfortunately, so do the feathery bastards thieves. They manage to pick the berries even through the netting.


Linden or lime blossom is one of my top favourite scents. I was waiting for the Polish deli to open on Monday morning, and looking up at the blossom. It takes me back to my school years. We had several linden trees in the backyard of the school, and I used to climb on them.


On Tuesday morning my husband and I had a quick coffee at the UE Roasters cafe, before he caught a bus to Oxford. He was travelling to Italy later that day and told me he would be away for 3 nights. Guess what? He's still there, and not back until Monday. Insert a long stream of expletives here, and feel free to add your own.


These silly birds made a nest on one of the chimneys on the roof. Lucky for them, we don't use the fireplace, and never had, but they cannot know that. I'd say, this is an irresponsible parenting.



On Thursday our Sash was staying overnight at his residential place, so Eddie and I didn't have to hurry home after school. We popped into The Shake Shop. Eddie loved his strawberry milkshake and the vintage jukebox, where you insert a coin and choose a song.
We picked up Baccara's Sorry, I'm a lady. Eddie found it utterly hilarious. Does anyone remember that catchy tune? I was just a little bit older than Eddie now, when it first appeared. Oh goodness, I so wanted to look like the dark-haired beauty.
I just told this to Eddie and showed him the video, and he said: "Well, you don't look like her". Thank you, son, say it as it is.


Yesterday the Moon was very clear in the evening sky.


Staying home today, so here are more berries from our garden. These are tayberries, a cross between raspberries and blackberries. They are still very green at the moment.


Monday, 18 June 2018

The house with chicken legs by Sophie Anderson

books set in Russia, Russian folklore


The Russian folklore and fairy tales have been a source of inspiration for many modern story-tellers. From the recent ones, The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter spring to mind.

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson (Usborne Publishing Ltd) is a captivating magic tale, based on the Russian folklore, and particularly stories of Baba Yaga.

I enjoy reading young adult fiction. Browsing new paperbacks at Waterstone's recently I couldn't resist the beautiful cover with the oh-so-familiar from books and films of my childhood image of the house with chicken legs. Elisa Paganelli's illustrations deserve a special mention, they are an organic part of the book.

This is an inspired re-invention of the Baba Yaga image. Baba Yaga of the Russian tales is an ugly scary old woman, who kidnaps (and eats) children and often tries to mislead the main heroes on their quest. Sometimes she shows a kind side, and shares her wisdom, and even gives a magic gift to the brave hero or heroine who visit her. She lives in a house with chicken legs. Baba Yaga is not your benevolent granny who wants to help you, out of a kindness of her heart.

That's why the re-telling and re-imagining of the Baba Yaga story by Sophie Anderson is intriguing. Her Baba Yaga might look the part, but she is a wise woman, who helps the dead and guides their spirits into the next world.

The story is told by Marinka, Baba Yaga's grand-daughter, a spirited and feisty girl, who dreams of being normal and making friends.
Marinka and her Baba live in the house with chicken legs, which has a mind and soul of its own. It is the house which makes the decisions on when and where to travel next. The house is a live organism which adapts to the wishes and needs of her adopted family.
When the souls of the dead arrive in the night, the house opens the Gate, i.e. the portal to the other world, for them. Baba and Marinka are there to celebrate the lives of those who pass through their house.
When Marinka was little, the house would play tag with her, build dens and playpens for her, tickle and make her laugh.
She knows her destiny is to become the next Guardian, just like her Grandma, but oh boy, how she resents it. She hates the idea of guiding the dead for the rest of her life, and tries to fight her destiny.

Marinka is feeling lonely, despite the love from her Baba, the house and her companion, jackdaw Jack.
She is delighted to meet a boy called Benjamin, and adopts a baby lamb. She craves human interaction, and wants to be friends with two girls, Salma and Lamya, who show her the nasty side of the human beings. And then there is Nina. Nina is dead, and she doesn't want to enter the next world, Can Marinka keep her friendship with the dead soul a secret? Sadly, this secret will bring on a great disaster.

This original story explores the difficult themes, like death and bereavement, and the meaning of life.

Will Marinka be able to break free?

In the last couple of years there's been an explosion of books about women who inspire us and rebel girls. Marinka will easily fit into the rebel girls category. She's a fighter, smart, stubborn, loyal and passionate. An ultimate heroine for modern times.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

A day at Legoland



Legoland, the world of plastic bricks' magic, brings a lot of memories and emotions.
I remember the first time we discovered Legoland with little Sasha who was about 4 and a half years old. I look at the old photos from the days when photos were still regularly printed and not just stored digitally, and his beaming smile tugs my heartstrings. He was such a cutie.

Sash in Legoland

Our lovely boy was entranced with the Miniland and enjoyed the rides for younger kids. He was small and portable then.
We returned there two more times, the last time, when he was 8 years old, growing more and more autistic and having sensory issues, and I was pregnant. That trip was so stressful, with Sash getting a sensory overload, and becoming frustrated with the queues, that I vouched never to step there again.

Until last Monday, when we took Eddie to Legoland for the very first time. He's been talking about it for years, but I just couldn't see how we could make it a fun event if we went as a family of four.
This week Sasha's class went on a residential trip to Butlins Minehead, and we decided to take Eddie out of school for several days to do things with him, which we cannot do otherwise.
The school trip ended for Sasha earlier than planned, as unfortunately his anxiety went through the roof. We had to change plans, but Monday was all about Eddie and Legoland.



The tickets are £47 per person, which is a total racket. I had a voucher for one free ticket (you can find these vouchers on boxes of cereals or chocolate - look for them in Poundland for the best value).

And they are making money out of everything. You would expect them to have some discounts on LEGO sets and minifigures, but no, the prices are not competitive at all. 
And I totally resent paying £2.20 for a small bottle of water. That is a rip off. We had a bottle of water with us, but it happened to be a very hot day, and the water didn't last long. 
Maybe because it was Monday, many food stalls and ice cream booths were closed, and the choice of food was very limited. 

We visited most of the areas, but as we had to travel by bus, train, taxi to Legoland, we arrived at 12.30pm, and that didn't leave us much time until 5pm, when the park closed. We couldn't leave home earlier, as we needed to get Sasha to school first for his trip.

We started with the Land of the Vikings and the Vikings' River Splash, which thankfully didn't last long, as it made me utterly queasy. While I moaned, Eddie enjoyed the ride and deemed it too short.

Legoland, Windsor

Eddie loves Ninjago characters, and the second area we visited was Lego Ninjago World. He admired all the statues around the Ninjago pavillion.



The Ninjago ride was quite entertaining, with digital interactive screens.
We moved on to the Kingdom of the Pharaohs, and the fun Laser Raiders ride. Am I being too childish to rejoice at the fact that my score of shooting the baddies was the highest?!


By then we were a bit on the hungry side, and hoped to get something to eat at the Heartflake City area. We have picked the wrong time, as there was a singing performance going on the stage in front of the cafes, with music blasting at the top level, and the most talentless singing from the crew who, I presume, were supposed to be the Lego Friends characters.
We had a quick peek at the Heartflake cafe, but all the pastries and donuts seemed to be covered with half a pound of sugar each.

Adventure Land has a cool boat ride called SQUID Surfer. We queued for about 20 minutes in the heat. The boy in front of us was too short to be allowed on the ride, even with his father, and he was inconsolable. While I appreciate the safety reasons, I still think there should have been someone measuring children at the entrance to the ride, so that people didn't waste their time or have their hopes dashed.

Eddie went on his own, and had a fabulous time.



Someone at the church told Eddie about the young drivers' course, and he was intent to drive a car.


While they were queuing and driving, I did a bit of plane-spotting. The planes were crossing the sky, one after another.



I thought we'd run through the Duplo Valley, but Eddie begged me to let him into the Drench Towers.
There is a shop next to it, where you can buy towels and swimming trunks. We got the trunks, and off he went to splash in the cold water and going down the slides. He was wet from head to toes, but so-so happy. A pity we couldn't stay longer there, as we had half an hour left til the closing time, and he wanted to build a minifigure at the Imagination Centre and have another look at the shop.

We walked through the Miniland, which is the most creative and beautiful area of Legoland, with the famous landmarks from around the world built from Lego bricks.

There were scenes from picturesque Italian towns...


Italian piazza in all its glory


I loved how the Dutch homes got colourful reflections in the water.


Magnificent Belgian architecture... I believe this is Leuven.


I loved the ruins of the abbey in Scotland (does anyone know what is it? We were running by then and I had no chance to read all the plates).



We found St Basil's Cathedral, representing Russia (and looking at that photo, I realise I so need to go on a diet).


London's landmarks took a whole big area.




And it being less than a month after the Royal wedding, you couldn't escape it in Legoland either.
Having arrived at the train station in Windsor, we saw this rather excellent piece of Lego art.


Meghan and Harry appear as Lego characters, leaving the Windsor after the ceremony.



I wish we had another couple of hours to see more of the Miniland, and also visit the Knights' Kingdom, but it was time to leave.
Eddie did build his minifigures and bought a set of Lego Minecraft figures as well.
He's been talking about it all the week, and says he wants to go back there.


Have you recently visited Legoland? What was your favourite part? 

Photo diary: week 24, project 365

This was one rollercoaster of a week for us. Sash was leaving on Monday to stay for five days at Butlins, Minehead, and we took Eddie out of school to do things together which we cannot do as a family of four any longer. It didn't work out as planned. Sasha couldn't cope with a new place and everything being out of his normal routine, and was too distressed, so he came home earlier.
Disappointing, yes, very much so, as we were looking forward to having a little break and devote all our attention to Eddie, but life is life, and that's what it means having a family member with a serious disability - life usually revolves around their needs.

At the weekend I made one last dash to the shops to get ready for the next days' trips. Walking through the flood fields, we saw this pretty skyline with clouds which looked like dinosaur ribs.


On Monday we waved Sasha good bye, and jumped on the bus to Oxford. Three train changes later and a taxi ride, and we were in Legoland at 12.30pm, which didn't leave us much time.
We managed to cram as much as possible, but still didn't quite make all the rides.
Eddie's absolute favourites were the Splash park and the Squid surfer ride at Adventure Land.
His smile really says it all.


On Tuesday morning we packed our bags for a two nights-stay in Brighton. We booked a family room at Jurys Inn Waterfront hotel. When we arrived, we got the keys to the room which overlooked the back, with a smelly fish shop. Eddie was so disappointed, that we went to the front desk and asked if we could be moved somewhere else. We explained that two years earlier we stayed in a family room on the side, with a partial view of the sea.
They offered us a room with a view at the front, but we'd have to pay more for the pleasure. We agreed. Eddie thought it was the best view in the world. We could see the beach and the Brighton Pier from our window.
Here is Eddie, chillaxing after a walk on the beach, eating breadsticks.


The next day I got a phone call from Sasha's teacher that he was too distressed and they were bringing him back home. They knew we were staying away, so asked when I could possibly be back.
There was not much I could do but grab my bag, and say Good bye to Eddie and Federico who stayed for another day/night. Eddie was pretty upset, as we had big plans for the day, including having fish and chips on the pier and long walks on the beach, and playing in the arcade. Alas, it was not meant to be.
On top of that, while on the train, I got messages and calls from Witney friends that there was a huge fire in our area, and our street was closed, and some of the houses were evacuated. I was worried that we won't be able to stay at home that night, and if Sasha were distressed after his trip, staying another night elsewhere would have been a nightmare.
But the angels were listening and took pity on me. The fire was put out by the time I came home, and when Sasha arrived later, his transport was let through the cordoned area.
When I went out in the garden, there was a muntjac deer, jumping around in panic. I managed to take one shot of it, and it scaled over to the neighbours' garden, first on the compost frame, then over the wall. Don't know how he would manage to get out of there, as their garden is on a much lower level than ours, and is surrounded by high walls on all sides.


Tomatoes in the greenhouse are just beginning to take shape. These are the yellow plum tomatoes.


Walking into town, we met this cat. It must be living locally, as we see it often enough.
I liked the silhouette of his head's shadow. Looks totally like a  Batman. So, it must have been a Catman.


There is a photo booth frame in the Co-Op. I guess there is some comp going on. Of course, Eddie had to poke his head through and giggle.