Friday, March 30, 2007

Dreaming about chocolate

I keep dreaming about chocolate. I was not even aware I was doing it, except a couple of times I've had flashbacks about buying chocolate, or speaking to people about chocolate, and then realised that they never actually happened and so I must have dreamt them. Well, I guess there are worse things to dream about!

I got to talk to Holly today. She just got a promotion at work while I was in Africa (hooray!). We decided she is going to continue to be the most popular person because she is always bringing in cakes to work. I don't know what happened to the world that almost no one bakes from scratch these days. It tastes so much better. I wish I worked with her! I used to take in cakes and cookies to work too. I rarely do now. I don't make things that often, and when I do I have Jonny to eat them. Though he told me off the other day. Apparently I have to stop making nice things to eat. Because if I wasn't around he wouldn't bother with sweet things. It is my fault that he has to eat them and he is voicing concerns that despite all the running and cycling and climbing and snowboarding he does, he is going to get *fat*. My fault entirely. I am a terrible person for making cookies.

I don't know how Holly manages to make cakes and take them in without even trying them first! She just got a new recipe book and was reading me the recipes over the phone. Unfortunately I don't have the patience for ones that take an hour in the oven and then an hour to rest afterwards too. Though I would desparately like to make a cake now. Any sort of cake. Unfortunately I can't keep walking past the boxes in the hallway screaming "get me out of the way", and I still haven't gone and collected the last few. I'm not sure where the mini-trampoline is going to fit. Back to the boxes. Fortunately I have sustinance (read: chocolate) to make it more pleasurable!

Monday, March 26, 2007

many desserts

What a fabulous weekend. Strange that I worked Saturday yet the weekend almost seemed to feel longer than others. Though I guess I haven’t had a completely free weekend in a long time. Funny how action begets more action. Despite having less available time it almost felt like I got more done. But I guess the “more” was really just having a relatively clean and tidy flat. Always good for the soul! I stopped in very briefly at Paul’s on Saturday (Paul A Young). He was busy in the kitchen so I didn’t disturb him. He has some chocolates on display that were very tempting – though I did restrain myself. Sort of... I bought one of his brownies. He’s got a simnel flavour on display but there were no samplers so I stuck to walnut and raisin. Yum. Gooey. He had a 100% bar available to try. It was pretty spectacular, for a 100% bar, not bitter at all. I’m sorry now I didn’t buy any. Very foolish of me.

I ate three more desserts this weekend (and only managed a twenty minute run…) One of the desserts I did share! Strangely, in three desserts I didn’t choose another chocolate one. Fortunately other people on the table did so I managed to sample some. Afternoon tea at Laduree for a fabulous friend’s 30th was delicious. Their hot chocolate really is divine (I had a delicious caramel tea but polished off other people’s chocolat chaud.) The Arabica (coffee and walnut cake) was sensational too. From there a smaller group of us went to Pizza Organic and I foolishly overlooked an award winning gluten free chocolate cake for the lemon and almond cake. The latter was good, but not compared to the fudgy, chocolate dessert that I cheekily assisted my friends in demolishing. I had serious food envy. A sugary, sugary sweet day. We bought macarons to take away, but they are still sitting on the kitchen bench for the moment. I bought all the chocolate varieties, including chocolate and blackcurrant. Report to follow…

Saturday, March 24, 2007

chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate

So much chocolate news to report. Walking near Oxford Street today I passed near an outlet of Paul’s (bakery and patisserie) and the sign on the pavement was all about chocolate, and their obsession with it. So I decided to see just how well they did chocolate. Now, with several chocolate options on the menu it would not be fair to make a blanket judgement about quality based on one item, but I decided to restrict myself to one, just the same. I chose a piece of their chocolate cake. By the height of it I am guessing it is made with very little flour. It was nice. Great adjective, isn’t it? “Nice.” It was not particularly dense, and not overly chocolatey. Not particularly more-ish, or even a texture that felt like it would placate any chocolate cravings. Just: "nice". [I didn't eat the whole piece.]

I went from there to a meeting with Steve and Martin from Seventypercent. Martin offered me two new chocolate bars to try. Made by an American who buys in cocoa liquor and processes it into chocolate himself. A practice rarely done by small scale chocolatiers, or even by larger ones. The first had the most amazing, fruity smell, but its taste didn’t quite live up to this. Reminiscent of an American candy bar, clearly dark and of higher quality, but lacking something. Martin called it “control” and suggested the conching length needs a little refining. I never knew it took Amedei (the award winning chocolatier) eight years to get a great chocolate bar. The second bar barely had any smell at all, but the taste was far superior to the other. Fruity and notes of caramel, too. While a great chocolate it is not yet one I would hurry to buy again. (I'll find out the name and get back to you!)

After leaving the men I went to Yuatcha, to finally try their chocolates. Their display has expanded since I was last there, and sadly it seems they don’t seem to sell madeleines anymore. Shame, they were good. I asked the women behind the counter where the chocolates were made: “behind the glass screen there”.

“Do you know what chocolate it is made from?”

“The chef buys it in and makes them in there.”

“But do you know what chocolate it is made from?”

A sweet smile and a shake of the head. With titles like “apricot wasabi truffle” I decided I might as well try them anyway. A hefty £8 per 100g. I’m disappointed. While the ganache of the apricot wasabi (noticeably lacking in wasabi) and the raspberry rose) were quite nice, and the chocolates were well constructed and of a nice texture, I feel certain that they did not use chocolate that the other chocolatiers in that prie bracket use. They used a popular brand that, when mixed with good ingredients, make quite good chocolates, but on its own fails to shine. Unfortunately because truffles still often need to be encased in chocolate you still have to bite through chocolate on its own to get to the truffle.

Later that day I stopped in to L’Artisan du Chocolat in Sloane Square. Their Easter display is fabulous and they have created a whole range of mini eggs especially for Easter. These can be bought on their own or inside larger eggs, decorated as boiled eggs or with a fried egg slapped on the side. (Not a real fried egg!) L’Artisan have also recently bought the machines to be able to buy chocolate liquor and process it into chocolate. They have always made their own blends, but now can do so right from the bean. Their first blend is impressive. It tastes strong, but strong of fruit and a hint of smokiness or tobacco. It’s a really powerful chocolate that on its own is really satisfying. This is what their Easter eggs are being made from this year.

So, the weekend begins. I will be near Paul A Young’s today. I haven’t visited in a while, so I may have to pop in and see what he is up to... :-)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A chocolate shortage!?!

This is terrifying. While I am grateful that the whole world is now asking for better chocolate I refuse to accept that I might be rationed.

“World chocolate shortage ahead?” This was the heading that popped up on the MSN homepage when I opened my browser tonight. Apparently the trend towards high cocoa percentage chocolate has led to a 44% increase in the price of cocoa over the last eighteen months. World cocoa production is decreasing, while demand is increasing.

Now, I’m certain there’s no need to panic yet. I am sure that farmers will soon convert their banana plantations to cacao, and all will be right again with the world. Given Monday’s news, it is imperative for the future of the health of all mankind that we all have affordable access to chocolate.

Just in case… I think I might start stockpiling.

Monday, March 19, 2007

More good health news about chocolate

Again in the free magazine I was handed at the tube, chocolate is EVEN better for us that we first thought: “Cocoa could stop killer diseases.” Apparently unrefined cocoa contains a compound that has health benefits with effects that will make it a breakthrough comparable to penicillin and anaesthesia. Epicatechin is apparently so important that it should be considered a vitamin. It is also found in tea, wine and some fruits and vegetables, but is not present in most commercial chocolate. So, reach for the dark stuff! Pour yourself up a cup of cocoa and toast to a long, healthy and happy life!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Helping at the Masai school

I really didn’t expect that we wouldn’t see many more flushing toilets again during this trip. I should have read the small print! Though the ecotoilets in the Masai camp were pretty impressive: a high straw fence around a toilet seat on blocks and wrapped in black plastic; the ground covered in gray stones like some kind of water feature, and atmospherically lit by a kerosene lamp, with ash as a flush. Almost like it belonged in House and Garden. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for our dome tents, but the mattresses provided helped a lot.

What an interesting few days have just passed: On Thursday I visited a poor Tanzanian school, Friday I was on safari, Saturday I was laying on a sunlounger by a hotel pool, Sunday I was iceskating in Kenya and yesterday I got back at 5am and worked for 12 hours. I’m on the train on the way to work again. Surprisingly not too tired. Though I am definitely going to bed early tonight.

The time spent with the Masai tribe was really interesting. It was great to see that so much of the school had been built already with the money we sent earlier. We didn’t contribute much by our actual labour (though I did have fun throwing the mud and cement mixture at the walls!), but I am certain we did by our presence – the message it sent that we cared. On the final evening of our three nights the local children were brought to the school building, more than 20 of them ranging from babies to young men and women. They sang for us, and then we sang for them, this was followed by a dusk football match on the pitch that most of our group had spent the last few days clearing by hand. When the school is finished it will teach about 20 students. There are two rooms off the main room, one will house a local teacher, and the other a Western teacher.

The next day we visited the local school where the students currently attend. Many of the students who attend walk 1 ½ hours each way to get there. We went in to meet them and discovered even the youngest class are very familiar with the word “picture” and were thrilled to ham it up for the digital cameras flashing about. A bittersweet moment, cameras worth thousands of pounds capturing images of a school that struggles to provide pens and books for all of its 375 students (with just seven teachers!). We brought them pens and will send more.

Forty-eight percent of the Tanzanian population lives below the poverty line; one of the poorest countries in the world. Education is a particular problem in rural areas, most families are unable to afford school fees, and although women have been given rights to land ownership, enrolment and literacy rates remain particularly low amongst girls and women. Additionally, HIV/AIDS infection rates double among young people who do not finish primary school. If every girl and boy received a complete primary education, at least seven million new cases of HIV could be prevented in a decade. Pretty impressive how amounts of money that can seem small to us can so dramatically affect the lives of others. It was so nice to directly meet the people the money we are sending will help. Below are the girls whom thought it strange that most of us didn’t have children. In their culture I would be a grandmother already! They are standing in the main school room, we smacked the mud on the wall that you can see behind them; it is supposed to represent Mt Kilimanjaro.

The baby was so cute! He happily let all of us in the room have a turn holding him.

Did I say not too tired earlier? Journey is not even over and I am starting to feel it now, lulled by the gentle rocking of the carriage. I'm going to bed early tonight.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro

Alive. Sore. Definitely alive though. Two massages later I think I may actually feel worse. Though I am sure it must be just accelerating the healing process. It must be. Neither my feet nor my legs actually hurt until Day 6 (the last day). But after a massage that evening (last night) I could barely walk. A second one this morning and I am still hobbling like a 95 year old. We have stopped in town briefly to pick up more supplies before we head onto the school site. This will be the last chance I get to go onto the internet until Saturday or Sunday. I believe it’s Monday now? Apparently altitude can cause memory loss. I say that lightly but I don’t think any of us realized quite how seriously altitude can affect people.

May I suggest, if you are considering climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, NEVER climb the Marangu Route. Particularly not in six days or fewer. There were 19 in our group – one of the largest groups the guides had ever seen – and every one of us suffered at some point. You cannot predict who it will hit – fitness and size are not factors – and for some reason we were briefed so little about it that I don’t think everyone was even aware of all the symptoms. I kept falling asleep whilst climbing the biggest stretch from Kibo to Gillman’s point (from 4700m to 5700m). I thought it was because we set off just before midnight and I hadn’t eaten since dinner at 5pm (which we had after finishing a 7 hour hike from 3700m), nor had I drunk more than 500ml in the 7 hours it took me to reach the point. I suspect all of this contributed but I learnt later that falling asleep and losing your balance are symptoms of altitude, as is the loss of appetite. That one I knew about. It was very frustrating not to be able to eat anything. I felt if only I could consume some fuel I might be able to make the two hour hike to the real summit of 5895m, Uhuru. After hearing from the guide that we should have arrived at 5am if we wanted to go on to Uhuru because the sun melts the snow and makes it dangerous; and speaking to other groups who weren’t allowed to continue I decided I did not have the wherewithal to negotiate an icy path (falling asleep on the edge of a cliff was not an appealing prospect). I also had no idea where I was going to find the energy to get back down the cliff we had just dragged ourselves up, let alone do another 4 hour round trip.

I made the right decision. About half way down, a little after I had negotiated the more difficult boulder section near the crest, I was completely devoid of energy. I crumpled into the scree and contemplated falling asleep there. The guide, who was taking me and three other girls back, was a little further down and stopped to wait. I got up and inched and slid my way down further. Another 100m or so I sank to the ground again. I felt I may be there all day. The guide had taken my pack from me on the way up, so I had no water and no food, not that I could take any anyway. I felt sure the others would pass me on their way back down, even with the extra 4 hour stretch they were taking. I finally reached the amazingly patient Philip again and sat at his feet for a while. Eventually he encouraged me to “pole pole” (“slowly slowly”) continue. He held my arm for parts of our descent and eventually put my arm over his shoulder and slid us both down the slope (like skiing through the scree). Like an angel, our one team member who had turned back hours before because of breathing difficulties greeted each of us four girls as we arrived back to the hut with a fresh bottle of water and offered to give us a rub down. Philip organized passion fruit juices for us. I still couldn’t swallow either liquid.

After having my feet rubbed I heaved myself into my top bunk and except for a toilet trip I didn’t move until they told us we had to head back down to Horombo huts at 5pm (where we had only set off from at 7am the day before). Up and down more than 2000m in less than 24 hours. Having not eaten and drunk less than 1L in 24 hours I was still pretty weak. There was one stretcher which was going to be used solely by our friend who had temporarily lost the use of his legs up by the summit, but as he was much better they suggested he share it with me and another woman who also hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before. I managed to swallow 300ml of diarolyte and eat 5 goji berries (just to line my stomach for an ibuprofen to stop the pounding in my head). I was told it would take two hours to get back down the 11k route we took seven hours to ascend. I offered to try and walk so the others could have more space and then – after most of the team had started walking already – was asked if I would walk.

By now it was snowing so, pole pole, I started back down the route to Horombo. Fortunately two others caught up with me and I decided to walk faster to have company. I felt better with every step. It was then I realized that a lot of my illness was altitude related, though I’m sure exhaustion and dehydration played a part. By half way down I was starting to feel hungry and I was so grateful for their company as it had started to get dark. Also incredibly grateful I had my head torch in my pack. 3hours and 20 minutes later (at a reasonable pace too!) we returned to what had been our home for two of the nights of the trip. I ate well.

Yesterday we covered another 18km back down to our starting point. Across two days we had passed from snow, through rocks, scree, dirt plains, scrub, forest and rain forest. The first three days walking up were beautiful, and really fun too. What made this trip so incredible was the phenomenal 18 other people I shared it with, and some smiling guides and an eager-to-please chef. I was grateful for our huts and mattresses every night. And flushing toilets at every hut except Kibo. For the porters who carried bottled water we were able to buy at each camp. For the guides who carried my bag on the last climb, to Phillip who carried me down. For great conversations, and great lessons learnt. For having amongst our group someone who could somehow assist in every ailment, and for a team that kept smiling the entire time, ever patient, and unendingly supportive of each other. Now that we have completed our personal challenge we are off to give our time and the energy we are rapidly regaining to helping children in this country. If you would like to help you can go to and donate money. Thanks so much to those of you who have given money so far. I am really excited about this project, and I am looking forward to be telling you about it first hand.

Oh, and I discovered that chocolate doesn’t taste as good up Kilimanjaro, likely because the temperatures were far from ideal. Shame. Two small squares did get me down the last hour and a half to Horombo from Kibo though! Ever grateful!