5 Things I Learned About Cooking From Our Neighbors

Samosa time!
While Christopher and I have had some amazing experiences living abroad this year, one of the things we're going to cherish forever is our friendship with our neighbors Aleks and Greg. I seriously can't imagine this year without them.

We've had a lot of fun moments together, most of them involve cooking at each others' apartments (well, cooking at ours usually involves borrowing most of their kitchen gadgets and bringing their dining room table into our place, so we've kind of stopped doing that and just go over to theirs' most of the time...)

Our latest dinner party started around 2pm and lasted until midnight--it was pretty epic. Chef Greg taught us how to make spring rolls and samosas. I was going to dedicate this blog to the recipes for those dishes, but I figured I'd go deeper and talk about what I learned about cooking from the two of them. (If you really want the recipes, email me!)

A Visit to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin

Guinness Storehouse

What do you do when you have a four-day weekend and you live in England? Jet off to Ireland, of course! Well, at least that's what we did... It's still crazy to me how cheap and fast flights are over here. We flew from London to Dublin in just one hour! Seriously, it used to take me longer to get from my neighborhood in Brooklyn to the Upper East Side.

The trip was amazing. But the absolute highlight was our visit to the Guinness Storehouse on Easter Sunday. I've always heard that pints of Guinness tasted different in Ireland, and I can now confirm that. (And it's not just at the Storehouse itself--we pretty much had a Guinness at every pub we went to while we were over there, and they were all equally amazing.)

The Storehouse is a destination in itself. We arrived around 1 and didn't leave until 5 (we probably would have stayed longer, but we had an early dinner and music pub crawl planned.) The first part of the experience involves learning about the history of the company which was started in 1759 by Arthur Guinness. Fun fact: That year, he signed a 9,000 year lease at £45 annually! If only my ancestors would have done that with a New York City apartment...

After agreeing that Arthur was a genius in his real-estate decisions, we walked around learning how they make the beer. There are fun hi-def presentations and exhibitions to show you what each step is. I like to think we're now experts in barley, hops, water, and yeast when it comes to brewing a Guinness.

Standing in front of the water display. The water in Guinness comes from springs in the Wicklow Mountains... in case you wanted to know.
Oh, I forgot to mention: the entire seven-story place is built around the world's largest pint glass (which if filled, would hold 14.3 million pints of Guinness.) We continued making our way up and came across the advertising section. I've always thought the old-timey ads for Guinness are just the cutest. So cute in fact, that we bought a tin version of one for our kitchen (and honestly, it'll probably be the only advertisement I'll ever willingly put in my home.)

Lovely Day for a Guinness
An adorable display near the advertising section
We then got to my personal favorite part of the experience: learning how to pour the perfect pint. As we stood in line, I casually read the instructions on the wall:

Step 1. Take a cool, clean, dry Guinness glass.
Step 2. Hold the glass under the tap at a 45 degree angle.
Step 3. Pull the handle forward until it is horizontal and fill the glass to between 15mm and 20mm (about ¾”) from the top. Never put the tap spout into the Guinness.
Step 4. Leave the surge to settle (approx 119.5 secs).
Step 5. Top up the glass by pushing the tap handle backwards until the head is just proud of the glass. Do not let the stout overflow, and never use a spatula to level the head.

When we got up to the "class," our instructor asked for a volunteer. Seriously, there were like 20 seconds of silence among the group so I decided to raise my hand (I never volunteer for things like this, but I figured since I read up on the assignment, nothing could go wrong, right?)

Guinness Storehouse
Straight A student right there! ;)

An A-Z Guide to Oxford

Oxford England Radcliffe Camera

I feel like we have a thousand people coming to visit from now until we move home at the end of June, and we're so excited to play host and show those of you who are coming a fun time in our temporary town. For those of you who can't make it to see us before we leave, I HIGHLY suggest making a trip here one day, especially if you're going to be in London at any point. It's about an hour and a half bus ride at the most... and well worth it.

Since we've been in planning mode for all of our upcoming guests, I figured I'd just put all of my favorite places and things to do in a post in case you want to plan your own trip one day. I used the A-Z guide template as a way of not getting too carried away. It helped me edit my suggestions down--but of course, if you want more, email me!

Ashmolean - This museum of art and archeology has collections acquired since 1683. It's got some pretty great things including the world's largest collection of Raphael drawings. Best of all? Admission is free!

Bury Knowle Park - This beautiful park was developed in 1930. The playground would make any American kid green with envy: it's got a zipline and a swing that gives even me butterflies when I'm on it.

Colleges - Oxford University isn't like a university as we would know it. It's made up of 38 colleges. Students can live at their colleges, and they'll study and take classes there, but they'll take their exams through the university. Each college is beautiful in its own way, and visitors are permitted to stroll around some of them. Many Harry Potter scenes were inspired by or filmed at New College and Christ Church (definitely worth a visit if you're into HP!)

Christ Church College Oxford
Christ Church College
Double-Decker Buses - Most of the city buses feature the traditional UK style of two floors. The best seat/view in my opinion is in the very front on the 2nd floor.

English Breakfast - Baked beans for breakfast sounded kind of weird when I first moved here, but I'm obsessed with it now. It also typically comes with sausage, bacon, toast, grilled tomato, and a mushroom. My personal favorite is at Jacobs and Fields in Headington.

A Trip Down Cuckoo Lane...

You know that scene in Forrest Gump where he decides to go for a run and just keeps going? That kind of happened to us this weekend (except instead of a jog, it was more like a stroll). We woke up, rolled out of bed, and grabbed coffee from a local cafe. But it was such a pretty day--something we haven't had in a while--so we decided to take our lattes to go and explore the neighbourhood (<-- see what I did there?). We ended up venturing down this adorable path called Cuckoo Lane.

Selfie at the start of our journey. We had no idea how far we were about to go.
Once we came to the end of that path, we just kept going and found another one that lead us to a river full of mallards and swans--SWANS! What kind of magical place did we stumble across?

No ugly ducklings in this water. They were all so pretty.
We then went through a gate and entered what I pretended was a secret garden. For some reason this tree reminded me of Hogwarts:

Doesn't the tree look like it might grab Christopher and take him away?
I then got caught up in a forest of branches.

It's okay, I managed to get untangled.
Before we knew it, we were facing off with monsters...

My new dinosaur friend at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

5 Things I Didn't Know About Wine Until I Went to Bordeaux

As much as I drink wine, you'd think I'd be an expert by now. My girlfriends and I have a wine club back in NYC where we do blind tastings, have field trips to local wineries, and invite guest speakers to come talk to us (we're so fancy, ya'll!) But there's still so much I don't know.

During our trip to France a couple of weeks ago with Christopher's parents, we stayed a few days in Bordeaux and visited something like ten wineries (although who really knows? I lost count after the third tasting…) While the wine was delicious, my favorite part about each visit was learning more about it.

So, I thought I'd share some of my favorite takeaways (I wrote them down during the tours so I wouldn't forget because, you know… wine.)

1. The barrels are everything.

wine barrel cellar bordeaux france

All of the barrels we saw in Bordeaux were made from French oak that comes directly from a nearby forest. The average age of each tree used is 200 years old. One barrel costs around $600 to make--they're the biggest expense for the chateau each year. They only use them for two to three years, and then sell them at a super-reduced rate to other companies like whiskey producers. Makes you appreciate that "oaky" taste even more, huh?

2. Winemakers are messy… but creative.

Many of the barrels we saw were red in the middle, and it turns out it's because they paint them with wine to mask the spills they make when topping up (the process of adding more wine to the barrel to prevent oxidation). Eighty-nine percent of Bordeaux wine is red, and with 300 bottles in each barrel, there are bound to be some colorful spills.

3. The winemakers are at the mercy of the weather.

wine vines in bordeaux, france

2013 was a bad, bad year for Bordeaux wines due to constant rain and hail storms--the worst conditions in over two decades, apparently. The winemakers in Bordeaux want to produce only the highest quality wine, even if that means they have to throw out 60 percent of their harvest. Unfortunately that means that some of them went out of business in 2013 because of Mother Nature.

Seeing Normandy Through My Great Aunt's Eyes

Julie Pennell at Mont St Michel

I recently got a very special package in the mail from my dad's cousin Edith. It was a copy of my Great Aunt's Polly's diary from when she was an army nurse in World War II. I sat down one rainy afternoon and read the entire thing in one sitting. I felt like I was meeting my soul sister/ spirit animal/ whatever you want to call it through her writing and given a unique and personalized glimpse of history, always more exciting than reading about it in a textbook.

The timing couldn't have been any more perfect either--Christopher and I were headed to Normandy with his parents so it would be even more impactful for me to walk where she walked and see the things she talked about. Well, we just got back from our trip, and I thought I'd rather have her words describe where we were, even though the images show a much different time:

"We stopped moving before daylight, after which we eased into our position among the thousands of ships standing off shore. Multiply the largest and most varied regatta you have ever seen by many times and you will have a fair picture of that water off the Normandy Beach. There was much wreckage. The bit of beach we could see was littered with it."

Omaha Beach, Normandy
Omaha Beach, present day
"By the middle of the next day most of our wards were full and the business of repair well established. I walked through a ward and was appalled at the complete and thorough mangling. It shocks one's faith in humanity to see such destruction, and to realize that it is the result of brilliant, creative minds."

Medical kit from World War II, Normandy, France
A collection of medical tools used in WWII seen at the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église
blood-stained pew at World War II church
The Angoville au Plain Church was used as a makeshift hospital. Blood stains still remain on the pews as a reminder.
"We were having to patch the tents which were torn by flak. That peninsula positively bristled with anti-aircraft guns and they put on a show for us every night. We usually stayed outside the tents and watched during an attack. For some reason the noise sounds so much closer than the tracers looked, so it was considerably easier on the nerves to watch."

World War II medical tents in Normandy
Photo of medical tents at the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église
"We passed great dumps of wreckage, our own as well as enemy vehicles. We saw many glider frames and other wrecked planes.... The size of the guns and the number of them were most impressive.... It was a menacing sight."

World War II German bunker in Normandy France
Standing in front of a German bunker, present day

Weekend Adventures Part 2: The Old Operating Theatre

Old Operating Theatre, London

For someone who shudders at the thought of blood and can't stand talking about anything medical, I think it's pretty ironic that I ended up marrying a surgeon. When we read before bed (because yes, we're old), I'll be engaged in something by Judy Blume while he's engrossed in something called The History of Blood and Guts (probably not the exact title but I swear it was something like that last week…) Often times he'll interrupt my reading with, "Do you know how they used to [insert something medical here]?" And the answer usually causes a vile reaction on my end.

So, naturally, when I told him I was taking him to London to celebrate his birthday last weekend, his only request was that we go to the Old Operating Theatre. All I know about this place is that it's where they used to do surgery without anesthetics (so, ew), but everyone knows you can't say no to the birthday boy.

After our walk around Portobello Market, we headed near the London Bridge to check it out. It's one of the oldest in Europe and is housed in the Herb Garret of St. Thomas Church. It used to be part of the old St. Thomas Hospital.

Visitors have to enter a super narrow spiral staircase that seems like it's never ending, especially when you're surrounded by people in front of and behind you and you're claustrophobic. I wondered if that's how patients had to enter and exit the building (because coming out of surgery and having to do this would be pretty uncomfortable), but there was another entrance that they went through thank goodness.

Can you sense my excitement?

The first room you entered once you made it into the museum was the roof of the church, and it smelled delicious since it was filled with herbs. The space was used by St. Thomas' Apothecary to store and cure herbs.

skeleton at the Old Operating Theatre, London
Spotted: A skeleton surrounded by herbs

This display of an old amputation set kind of made me want to faint at first, but then I just became super thankful that medicine has come such a long way since then. This was before they even knew what germs were so doctors would do operations without gloves and with dirty hands. Could you even imagine?!

Vintage amputation set at Old Operating Theatre, London
The set contains: 1 saw, 2 spare blades, 2 forceps, tweezers, bone shears, 5 amputation knives, 0 anesthetics