Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Briefly Resurfacing

… to say that one of my posts has been nominated as blog post of the year on Expatica Germany. Click here to see more, and please vote if you feel moved to do so.

In other news, I broke my eight-month drought of not leaving the Rhein-Neckar Kreis by heading to Paris on the TGV with my Mama this weekend. We made three important pilgrimages:

  • Laduree, for macaroons, specifically the salted butter caramel
  • Berthillon, for ice-cream, where the salted butter caramel beat my usual favourite, pistachio, into righteous submission
  • Shakespeare & Co, where we dreamed among the bookshelves and bought some books

Otherwise, we shopped, drank champagne at inappropriate times of the day, hopped on and off buses like Parisiennes, saw the Manet exhibition, visited Monet’s waterlilies at the Orangerie, strolled through the Marais, bought a painting in Place des Vosges and watched the herds of joggers storm the Luxembourg Gardens on Sunday morning.

We stayed in a small but perfectly formed little hotel on the Place de Sorbonne, a small but sparkling square with shushing fountains, a few restaurants and, essentially, a Gap. It was glorious. I love, love, love Paris.

Ditto macaroons.

Ditto ice-cream.

Ditto my Mama.

Ditto Germany’s Top Husband who kept Germany’s Top Kids fed, watered and entertained while we were gone.

Now I’m off again, but I plan to be back on the other side of the Easter weekend. Wishing you chocolate of the highest quality and a weekend of the very best kind of sunshine.


Season Your Reading

There are two things I love: books and food. I’m never happier than when I can combine the two.

In August I reviewed Rosy Thornton’s evocative and moving Tapestry of Love. It is set in the Cevennes valley in France and while it is a love story, it is deeply redolent of the landscape, weather, people and food of that area.  The paperback version of Tapestry of Love has been released and to celebrate Rosy is offering readers of Charlotte’s Web a series of recipes for the food that her characters cook and serve during the course of the novel. In the 15 pages of recipes, Rosy includes salads, aoili, stews and something I won’t be waiting for Christmas to make: Devils at Horses’ Heels.

As a taster, here is Rosy’s cevennol recipe for lovage soup: 

Potage à l’Herbe de Maggi  (Lovage Soup)

Serves 4

This thick green soup is served to Catherine at the al fresco meal shared by the inhabitants of La Grelaudiere in the Mériels’ orchard to celebrate the spring transhumance. It has the distinctive, astringent taste of lovage, a herb which in French is formally called ‘la liveche’ but which is known to many French people as ‘l’herbe de Maggi’ because it is a key ingredient in bottled stocks produced by the Maggi company since before the war.

If you do not have lovage in your garden (where I promise, once introduced, it will grow like a rampant triffid), then substituting parsley will make for a pleasant (though rather different) herb soup.

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed

a good colander full of lovage leaves, rinsed and with any tough stalks removed

1½ pints of good chicken stock

1 oz butter

salt and freshly ground black pepper

¼ pint cream (optional)

 Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the garlic, onion and potatoes and sweat, stirring, over a low heat until soft but not browned. Add the lovage and pour over the chicken stock, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer until all the vegetables are soft, then blend in a food processor or with a hand-held blender. The soup should be smooth and quite thick, but if necessary it can be thinned a little with more stock, or with milk. If you like, you may add cream to make the soup richer – though that is not how Madame Mériel serves it!

Just mention in the comments if you would like the recipes and I will email them to you. You’ll be so glad you did!


Journey’s End

So I’m back from my journey. We took a 12-hour drive to the Dordogne Valley for a week’s glamping at the unequivocally fabulous Camping les Ormes. This is a camping site that actually lives up to its website – it is that beautiful. While strong design values don’t make an iota of difference to my kids’ holiday, or for that matter, my husband’s, they do to mine. I loved sleeping in a tent with a chandelier and an antique piano, having crystal tea light holders and fresh roses on the white kitchen table. Pictures and a full report to follow.

However, we came home to the news that France is the world’s most expensive destination. So we may not be going back for a while.

Today is South Africa’s big day, and we are off shortly to celebrate the start of the World Cup with all the South Africans who live in Germany. Since there are only 14 of us, some Germans have also been invited and we are looking forward to teaching them how to blow the vuvuzela. Though I hold with good design values, I may break from those for today and wear my green Bafana Bafana t-shirt. Because, the boys, you know, we want them to win.

I watched some of the concert last night and cried in the dark in front of the telly. The atmosphere was amazing, the musicians outstanding and I felt proud, patriotic and very far away. Still get a lump in my throat when I think about it.

My novel is progressing well. I am close to the finish line of draft four and have promised myself and my husband to start approaching agents by July at the latest. I wrote a car chase scene last night that included references to BMW model numbers and felt like James Bond, just for the day.

This was our family theme song for the holiday. Yes, we do allow our children to sing songs about ‘blowing the bad guys away’. We also let them play ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it’ on their recorders.

Hooray for Barbara Kingsolver winning the Orange Prize! I ordered The Lacuna from my DH who flew in from London last night, and as I wiped my tears and read the first pages at midnight, I discovered that Kingsolver has stolen a phrase of mine. Goddammit, don’t these published authors have any respect for great unpublished? It’s a phrase I’m proud of, that my beta readers have all circled and given me a gold star for. Now I have to decide whether to get rid of it, or let it slip in there.

Which is all grist to the finishing mill, so I’ll bid you another farewell. See you at the end of Draft Four!


Auf Wiedersehen, Pets

Today I spent at the pool vigilantly watching my threesome, who range from swimmer to paddler to fully paid-up water wings user. Tomorrow I take them to Alsace Lorraine to visit friends who, for their sins, are spending the Whitsun holidays in a camper van in a village that my friend described as “one house” (thank God for satnav). Thursday, we leave for Berlin.

With sunshine and holidays abounding, I bid you a brief Auf Wiedersehen. I am taking a blogging and Internet break for a couple of weeks. I plan to spend the hours that I’m not soaking up the wonders of Berlin and Lübeck working on my novel, which I have been neglecting since the sun arrived in Germany a couple of weeks ago. During my last two runs (six kilometres!), I crystallized the action of Chapter Six in my head and now have to get it all down before it vapourises.

I also plan to look for the ultimate summer dress. If I can’t find it in Berlin, then I can’t find it anywhere!

See you at the end of the holidays. May the sun shine on you wherever you are. Tschüss!


Royal Duties

Today, the Queen and Princess went to France. It was gruelling.

First of all, the Fairy Godmother collected them in her navy limousine, forgetting that both the Queen and the Princess prefer to travel in silver vehicles. However, they were able to forgive her because the back of her limousine is strewn with red velvet heart-shaped cushions – perfect for a little light napping. The Fairy Godmother drove the whole way to France, without forgetting the way once.

On arrival in France, the Queen and Princess were forced to sip hot French coffee and – wait for it – nibble on crusty little croissants. Then they went unto the shopping portals, which are, it must be said, far far better than the portals of Pietermaritzburg. They swished from shop to shop in their gowns, occasionally purchasing an item (the Fairy Godmother had to carry their bags, and the money) or rejecting one on the basis of not being up to royal standard.

After much swishing and shopping, the Fairy Godmother insisted it was time to sit down and partake of victuals. Having placed the Royal Family in the prime spot in the tavern of her choice, she proceeded to feed them buckwheat pancakes of various flavours, followed by dessert crepes of fruity deliciousness. The Queen called royally for the finest wines known to humanity, but the Fairy Godmother shushed her, saying only cider was served at the tavern. The Queen was somewhat surprised to be served her cider in a tea-cup, but she enjoyed it nevertheless.

Once refuelled, the Royals and their loyal attendant swept out into the streets of France for more touching, oohing, jumping up and down with excited little shrieks. Between the three of them, they gathered more bags. Finally, after a sit-down and a loo-stop, they felt it was time to say farewell to France and travel to Germany in Fairy’s limousine.

“But, I have a treat for you, dear Royals,” cried the Fairy Godmother. “Before we leave France, I wish to swish you through the Enormous French Supermarket where we can treats made by artisans in hovels and other treats made in food factories.”

So the Queen, the Princess and the Fairy Godmother visited the Enormous French Supermarket where the citizenry were gathered in their droves, purchasing and partaking of treats. The Queen and her daughter fell upon the following treats:

Violet-flavoured yoghurts
Almond-flavoured yoghurts
Saucisson (for the Prince)
Chocolate chip cookies (for the little Princesses and the Princeling)
Dijon mustard
Sirop de Citron Vert
Red wine, clearly the finest known to humanity

and many other products not always available to the good burghers of Germany.

They had a delightful day, and retired to bed, happy in the knowledge that, once more, they had fulfilled their royal duties.

Please admire …


…….. the Royal Pump.


Girls’ Weekend Away

I’ve been feeling envious of Ms Magic Hands’ road trip. I love a road trip – the singing badly to loud music, the disgustingly calorific food, the vistas and the braving of new territories. I have even driven from Germany to England with two small children (when I could have flown) just because I LOVE TO DRIVE. Very little excites me more than getting on the road-eo with a tank full of petrol, a CD drive full of singalong music and a destination looming.

As a student, I had a 1800-kilometre trip from university to home, so it was a good thing I enjoyed a drive. One of the best things about driving out of Cape Town was reaching the top of Van Reenen’s Pass and looking back at the whole of False Bay and the Cape Peninsula spread out behind you in a cathedral of sea and mountains. The next best thing was getting to the Old Cape Farm Stall, where we would stock up on padkos (Afrikaans for “road food”) – biltong (dried spiced meat strips like jerky, only better), dried guava rolls and rusks (a kind of dried sweetened bread – I’m noting for the first time, the proliferation of dried food in the South African cuisine: must be a leftover from the Afrikaner trekking tradition). We would stop to fill up the car at lonely petrol stations in the Karoo, and fill up our stomachs with toasted sandwiches, runny with grease and melted plastic cheese. The soundtrack was inevitably Van Morrison (I can still screech the lyrics to “Moon Dance”), Jim Morrison, Tracey Chapman (’twas the Eighties, folks), Johannes Kerkorrel (an Afrikaner rebel, who is sadly no longer around) and the music from The Big Chill. The car was usually full of girls, but the odd token boy student – boyfriend, brother, groupie – took his place on the back seat. Driving was for the girls, you understand.

Tomorrow, I am going on a road trip, and with one of my favourite co-travellers, an enthusiastic tourista whose appetite for travel and seeing stuff challenges my own – my mother. I have had a couple of trips with my mother to European destinations and she is indefatigable. I remember her waking me up in a Paris apartment at 7am saying, “We must get up. We must go out.” I groaned, turned over in my bed, muttering that nothing happens in Paris before 10am. “But the light, the light”, she exclaimed, pulling open the curtains so that I could better appreciate the light, “We must go out with our cameras and take photographs.” So, at 7.20am my mother, the Paris street-sweepers and I were out, taking note of the light.

That self-same day, we visited BOTH the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay (I have a memory of my mother running from room to room, saying, “I HAVE to see it all”), and walked so much, that the soles of my feet bled. I learned the French word for “plaster” that day.

On another occasion, we were staying in northern Tuscany with my husband and my aunt. We decided to drive to Sienna for the day. It was a long drive, made more exhausting by necessary wrangling of Italian drivers and the comments from the peanut gallery in the back seat of the car (mother + aunt). On arrival in Sienna, the limp driver and navigator felt a small coffee might be appropriate before hitting the sights. “I don’t want to waste time having coffee – I’m going straight to the cathedral,” said the Tourista, and headed off in a firm northerly direction. Husband and Aunt took in the necessary coffee, while I reeled in the determined little tourist.

Tomorrow’s road trip is not of mammoth proportions. We’re going to Strasbourg, a mere one and a half hour’s drive away. But it is FRANCE, and oh boy do the Tourista and I love France. We will both get giddy as soon as we cross the border, giggle and shriek “We’re in France!”. Then she will grip my arm and say, “This is SO much fun” and “I love travelling with you, darling” and I will do my best not to drive off the road in my state of high excitement.

When my husband suggested that we book ourselves into a hotel and spend the night in France, coming back the next day, I hesitated for about one second, then rushed to the computer and booked a hotel before anyone could change their mind. Now the Tourista’s got something else to get excited about – “staying in a HOTEL! in FRANCE! with CROISSANTS!”.

It’s going to be a lot of fun. I expect exclamation marks.


How to Go On Holiday and Gain (X) Kilograms

First, go to France. Go directly to France. France is the land of flaky delicious pastries, and little flans, and yummy custard things adorned with fruit, and tartes, and all number of things you don’t know the name of but at which you very successfully point. France is also the land of baguette filled with cheese, sundried tomatoes and the world’s best salami. It’s the place where you stand drooling in the yogurt aisle of the supermarket, trying to make a decision about whether you should have coconut or lemon yogurt for your mid-morning snack. It’s the land where you eat moules mariniere within sight of the blue sea, bobbing white yachts and dark green pine trees. The land where you eat a herb omelette served with green beans and artichokes on top of a mountain, while smelling the perfume of rose and lavender. The land where you lick at a cone filled with purplish fig ice-cream while you traverse the alleyways of a famous yellow fishing village. The land of ice-cold pink rose, of nougat and black olive tapenade with its sinewy undertow of anchovy.

Then, you should be lucky enough to have the world’s kindest hosts, who are not only interesting, well-travelled, charming, open-minded and welcoming to you and your large family, but who can cook superbly. We ate duck breast with hasselback potatoes, and slow-cooked Easter lamb with root vegetables, followed by an enormous Pavlova adorned with strawberries, mango and kiwi-fruit. Thanks to Sig, Tittin and the three princes for opening their hearts and their home to us, as well as introducing us to their beautiful corner of France. It was wonderful meeting you at last.

Then you should conjoin two families of five for the Easter weekend, and ensure that the mothers don’t talk in advance about the amount of chocolate both are buying, so that the Easter lapin (Tittin and one of the princes) had an enormous sack of chocolat to distribute under the lavender bushes and lemon trees. Have one mother seduced by SIZE of chocolate rabbits and the other mother seduced by VOLUME of chocolate ladybirds so that the combined AMOUNT of chocolate is enough to keep small children – and their mother, freshly out of chocolate rehab – bouncing off the walls for some days.

Bid farewell to your lovely friends and repair to a beach resort where there are three beach restaurants offering pizzas, pastas and numerous tempting desserts in easy walking distance. Actually, make that easy crawling distance, if you have drunk too much rose while watching your children cavort outside your beach hut. Make sure that these are casual places where you can eat barefoot and where your small, squeaking children are welcome to be as small and squeak as much as they want to.

Then, bring on the bad weather. Closet yourself in a beach hut the size of one of your bedrooms at home with your children and the remains of the chocolate stash. Finish the chocolate stash, firstly ably assisted by your kids and later, by your husband and a bottle of rose, once the babes are sleeping.

All this eating, and the sudden onset of summer here in Germany (30° today) has made me self-conscious about the need to lose some weight. It was a lot of fun putting it on, but now it, and the remainder of the Christmas speck which doesn’t seem to have got the message yet, has to go. Lean meats and fresh fruits and vegetables are on the menu chez Charlotte’s Web from here on.

While we were admiring the crowds of Saturday shoppers in Antibes, where human X-rays were buying huge custard-filled tartes and legs of ham to take home to their no doubt enormously fat husbands, Lily made a lovely remark. She said, “I am looking at all these ladies, and they are not very pretty. Not one of them is as pretty as my Mummy.”

Kids. You have them for a reason, you know.