Monday, June 1, 2020

Along many of London’s cycle paths and rivers, you will find an abundance of tiny, white clusters of elderflowers blooming right now.

Elder trees seem to be quite common in the London area as well as the rest of the UK. The elder tree (‘Sambucus nigra’) is common everywhere except the far north of Scotland and frequently grows along hedgerows and woodlands. These trees produce lovely, lightly perfumed blossoms beginning in May through June. By August, those flowers will have transformed into deep claret elder berries, which are often cooked down with sugar and used to make jams, syrups and even wine. 

One of the best areas that I have found elderflowers in London is along the River Wandle, which is a tributary of the Thames in the southwest part of the city. There’s a wonderful cycle/walking path that mostly follows the river and runs for about 12.5 miles (20km) from East Croydon Station to the Thames Path near Wandsworth Town train station. (See map of Wandle Valley Trail.) 
If you decide to go foraging for elderflowers, here’s my advice:

·      * Bring a plastic bag and scissors or small gardening trimmers.

·       *Pick the flowers on a dry, sunny day because the scent will be the strongest then.

·       *Cut the stalks carefully and keep the flowers upright so you don’t lose the precious pollen, which is the source of that unique flavor and fragrance.

·       *Place the flowers carefully into your plastic bag and inspect them later once you are home. Do not wash the flower heads.

·      * Wear long pants. Most of the elder trees I have found are nestled in between tons of nettle plants, which cause an itchy rash if you rub up against them.

Last year, I made a huge pot of elderflower cordial, and I did the same thing just a few weeks ago. Brits seems to love using elderflower cordial in fizzy drinks, cocktails and desserts. So I’ve wholeheartedly adopted this custom while living here. I enjoy topping up my sparkling water with a spoonful or two of homemade elderflower cordial.

While researching recipes for elderflower cordial, I found a variety of recipes involving all lemons or sometimes a mix of lemons and limes. This year, I used the zest and the juice from one lime and two huge Sicilian lemons, which yielded a pale-yellow color in my cordial and a delicate taste. Last year, I used a more equal mix of lemons and limes and I think the flavor was stronger. However, I think I prefer the taste of using a greater quantity of lemons.

Homemade Elderflower Cordial
1.5       L.         water
750      g.         granulated or caster sugar
40        g.         citric acid
1          ea.       zest and juice of a lime
6-8       ea.       zest and juice of lemons
20        ea.       large elderflower heads (If small, use two or three to yield 1 flower head.)

1. Place the water and sugar into a large pot and bring to a boil. Cook until all the sugar is dissolved. Add the citric acid. Remove from the heat.
2. Add the elderflowers and citrus zest and juice.
3. Cover the pot with a lid and leave out at room temperature to let the flowers steep for at least 24 hours.
4. When ready, pass the cordial through a sieve lined with a muslin cloth to catch any debris and the discarded zest.
5. Pour the cordial into clean bottles and store in the fridge.

This recipe will yield about 2 liters, so it’s perfect for gift-giving a few bottles to your friends.


Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Detailed Post on Where to Find Wisteria Blooms in Battersea

Spring in London follows a fairly consistent pattern: snowdrops, crocus, magnolia trees, cherry blossoms and then the vibrant, purple wisteria vines.

While you’ll often find older wisteria vines climbing up fancy Victorian houses in posh areas such as Chelsea, Kensington, Holland Park and Hampstead Heath, I’ve found plenty of lovely wisteria in my own neighborhood of Battersea. Wisteria in London usually blooms during April and part of May.

Living here for nearly four years means I’ve seen the seasons change and have found plenty of opportunities to walk or cycle around – even under Covid19 lockdown conditions. I took most of these photos over the last two years, but a few I took during the past month. Keeping mainly safe at home means I’m also pining for sunny days when I used to cycle around the city and the English countryside. Hence, my desire to peruse old photos and write a new post on my nearly forgotten blog. 

I miss other things in life that used to be more consistent – like going to work, finding flour, going to the pub. Sigh, but such is life.

Anyways, perusing through my photo archives unearthed these wisteria photos for you. Enjoy!

Battersea Park
Battersea is a mix of architecture. During the late 1800s, many factories were set up along the Thames and near the railway, so housing estates – containing numerous small rowhouses – were built for workers. You’ll still find many of these old rowhouses west of Battersea Park and south of the main railway lines, running east to west. 
Wisteria on Battersea Bridge Road
Wisteria often grows over doorways like in these photos near Battersea Park.

Interestingly, many of the two-storied rowhouses along and surrounding Eversleigh Road have plaques dating to 1873 and 1874 on the facades.
Now, it’s not all cute rowhouses in Battersea. Post-World War II, a large part of this area was swept away in a vast municipal re-building plan. Ugly public housing estates and high-rises were built once the heavily bombed debris was cleared away. And then, there are the more modern, concrete high-rises built in recent years that also lack any botanical life.

But, there are still plenty of streets that I enjoy passing by in Battersea.

Clapham Common
As I cycled closer to Clapham Common, I found larger, more stately-looking Victorian houses. Most of the houses along Clapham Common North Side are swathed in gorgeous wisteria vines. Also, feel free to take a wander along Orlando Road, Macaulay Road, The Chase and Victoria Rise. Technically, most of Clapham falls in the Lambeth borough, but it’s not too far away.
One of my fav photos: pink on purple located on Oralndo Road in Clapham.
English Architect Sir Charles Barry, best known for his role in designing the Houses of Parliament during the mid-19th century, lived at The Elms, 29-32 Clapham Common North Side. The building is currently used as part of the Royal Trinity Hospice.

Wandsworth Common
Then west of Clapham Common towards Wandsworth Common, you’ll find another style of architecture. Most of these Victorian houses are three-stories tall and free-standing, meaning not attached to the neighboring houses like the rowhouses. Obviously, there is more money in this part of the neighborhood, with the stretch of Northcote Road nicknamed “Nappy Valley” for the “yummy mummies” that patrol the area with their prams.
Still, this is a nice area to cycle or walk through. Sometimes, I’ll cycle down own street and then make a loop onto the next street so I can take photographs in the neighborhood. You’ll find quite a few houses along Bolingbroke Grove that are covered with wisteria vines as well as some houses just south of Wandsworth Common.
Sigh…Flowers keep on giving no matter what is happening in the world!

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Before the world became consumed by everything related to Covid-19, I simply used to enjoy the beautiful flowers out and about in London.

During February and half of March, Kew Gardens in London hosted its annual Orchids Festival. The 25th annual orchid festival featured the incredible wildlife and vibrant culture of Indonesia – an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, including Java, Borneo, Papua and Bali. The festival showcased Indonesia’s diverse landscape from tropical rainforests to spectacular volcanos, which was the main focus in the central pond area. Here, the garden staff had created a volcano with orchids!

Did you know that Indonesia has at least 4,000 species of orchids, as well as many other plants that can be found only on certain islands in the archipelago? We’ve only visited Bali so far, but I would love see more of this beautiful country?

Every year, the Orchids Festival at Kew Gardens never fails to impress me. The displays are filled with such vibrant orchids as you can see from my photos. 

Blue Orchids

Although these Phalaenopsis orchids were dyed blue, there really are rare blue orchids in Indonesia. In 1938, British entomologist Evelyn Cheesman collected samples of the extremely rare blue orchid Dendrobium azureum. In 2017, a local Indonesian conservationist discovered examples of this rare species out in the wild.

Z Orchids
Zygopetalum orchids have small blooms and only consist of 15 recognized species. The blooms usually are green and brown striped or speckled and have a velvety lip. They are quite unique!

Pitcher Plants
Bizarre pitcher plants, a type of carnivorous plants, made a good showing at the festival as well. The bulb part of the plants trap the bugs that the plants feed on.

A cute orangutan made from plants amongst the orchids.
Who knew that orchids bloom in nearly every shade of the rainbow and beyond?

Hope you enjoy the orchid photo show!

Friday, January 31, 2020

The idea of spending the night under soft reindeer skins in Northern Norway with the potential of seeing the Northern lights sounded like a good idea.

And waking up on a husky dog farm, playing with hundreds of cute huskies and doing a dog sledding tour through the fresh snow also sounded like a dream.

The reality, of course, turned out quite differently.

While hubby and I really enjoyed the dog sledding part of our recent trip, the rest of the experience at Tromsø Villmarksenter could be greatly improved.

Raining and a Big Bus – What Could Go Wrong?
I booked our tour through Much Better Adventures based in London because the tour was sold as being “no more than 20 persons.” Generally, we hate large group tours, so a small tour sounded perfect for us. But when we arrived at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Tromsø to meet our tour, at least 40 people were on the bus. Little did we know that those of us overnighting were joining another large group who had booked just the evening tour at Tromsø Villmarksenter. Another large tour bus arrived on site about an hour later.

Upon arrival, staff showed us to our traditional, communal Sami tent – a peaked, wooden structure that’s heated by a wood-burning stove in the middle and furnished with warm sleeping bags and soft reindeer skins. The Lavvu-tent sleeps up to 10-12 people. We ended up having seven people in our tent, including one American lady who later snored like a freight train most of the night. The other Sami tent contained about 10 people. So I guess, technically, less than 20 people spent the night, but the fact that our group was mixed in with at least 50 other people was annoying.
After getting settled, we met back at the base to get fitted with warm thermal overalls and boots. Trust me, you want the boots especially when you’re walking around the dog yard and playing with the huskies. I’d also recommend wearing thick wool socks, a pair of thermal tights, snow pants and at least two warm, winter layers on top. We visited Tromsø at the end of December and temperatures ranged between 0-7C, meaning that the frequent rain and drizzle often turned into sleet and snow. 
Before dinner, we had the chance to meet the huskies – you’ll hear the dogs howling before you see them. Approximately 300 Alaskan huskies – ranging from young puppies to competition dogs – call Tromsø Villmarksenter home. The dogs are an excited, raucous bunch and love all the attention and cuddles that you give them. I highly recommend that you be a dog person before you do a tour like this. Luckily, we are.

We met some of the dogs like Sis, Snø, Termos, Avacado, Donald and Perro (who roomed together…lol), Kiwi, Tinder, Mango and more. Since it was lightly raining outside, many of the dogs didn’t want to leave the warmth of their dog houses to play with us.
Husky puppies that didn't want to pose for photos. lol
Dinner, Campfire and Bedtime with Strangers
After our guided tour of the dog yard, we met back at the large, wooden Gamme-hut for dinner. We ended up sitting with a friendly British couple and their two young kids.  We tried bacalao, a traditional Norwegian fish stew made from locally sourced cod, and local brown bread. While the stew was a great way to warm up, it was a bit too fishy for me. For dessert, we had a rich chocolate cake and tea.
Next, we moved on to a quieter part of the farm to have a bonfire and hear traditional Sami stories. The Sami people are regarded as the indigenous people of Norway with settlements in areas of Finland, Russia, Sweden and Norway. The Northern Lights are called “Guovssahasat” in the Sami language – try saying that three times fast.

One of the Sami folklores is that the bright Northern lights emanate from the souls of the dead and was therefore something to be feared. The Sami would stay indoors if the lights were outside so the “souls” didn’t carry them away or even cut off their heads. Other Samis believed that the lights are gas coming up from the seas or the lakes.

We warmed up around a bonfire and even roasted some marshmallows and drank some hot chocolate. At this point, we were hoping to see some Northern lights, but winds were up to 30kph and it kept raining off and on. We literally had a 1 percent chance of seeing the lights that night, and of course, we didn’t.  
Now, here’s the strange part, after the large tour groups left, those of us overnighting were just kind of left to our own devices. Staff didn’t say anything to us or really give us any directions about the fire, the tent or the bathrooms. (By the way, this camping experience was nothing like the glamping we did in Australia.) In a small outhouse building, there were two female toilets, two sinks and simply paper towels for washing your face before bed.

Since we had zero chances of seeing the Northern Lights and were cold, hubby and I decided to hunker down back in our wooden Lavvu-tent. While the tent was fairly warm at first, it was quite chilly inside by the morning. Throughout the night, the strong winds pounded on the wooden door, which didn’t quite shut all the way, the dogs howled and the American snored. The delightful-sounding overnight Aurora Camping is not a good experience if you are a light sleeper like we are.

Husky Dog Sledding in Norway
After very little sleep, we woke up to have a filling hot breakfast at least. The cinnamon-sugared pancakes were the best! Then, we finally got prepared for our dog sledding adventure – clearly the best part of this whole trip!
Our new guide, Julien, divided our group up to those who had selected the self-driving option for the dog sled. Again, another large tour bus arrived at the farm, but at least these people were more separate from us – at least until lunch. Julien was the best guide we met on this tour and thoroughly explained how to mush with our dogs, how to control our sled and other safety precautions.

Hubby was my faithful driver while I sat in the sled with a rain poncho over my entire body. It had started raining again. Luckily, we also had our own head lamps so we could actually see the frozen tundra landscape surrounding us on Kvaløya.

We slid through the slushy snow and even went airborne a few times as we hit a few bumps with our five husky dogs. The dogs just know what to do and love running through the snow! Sometimes, hubby had to give the sled a running push from behind when we were going uphill or brake suddenly if the dogs started getting too close to the sled in front of us.
 Luckily, my only role on the sled was to take unforgettable photos of our experience. If you do ever go dog sledding, I’d highly recommend having a Go-pro type camera so you can take photos and videos as you glide through the snow.

After an hour of sledding, we returned to the base, played with the huskies again and took more photos. For lunch, we were served Bidos, a traditional Sami reindeer stew made vegetables. The hot soup was delicious – tasty like lamb – and helped restore our frozen bones.
At 12:30 p.m., we said goodbye to the dogs and boarded a big tour bus bound for Tromsø. I was ready for a hot shower and a long nap!

So was this 500 pound tour worth it?

For the dog sledding part – yes! For everything else – definitely not!

As I mentioned earlier, we prefer small tours, so I feel like we were sold a lie.

This Aurora Overnight trip was most certainly not a small group tour. If you ever visit the Tromsø area during winter, I would recommend looking at other dog sledding tours in the Lyngen Alps, Alta or even farther north. Even though this camp was highly rated, I felt like it’s basically just trying to make as much money as it can. But if you want to sleep with strangers and be surrounded by as many as 100 people, have fun!

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