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What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.
I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps. See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Old forests, blue skies - where am I?

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. The autumn bounty made me think about the blue skies, forests, plants, hearty food and fabulous wild spaces of Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Romania. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Epping Forest lake - but on such a blue day you could be in a summery Austria if
the view had mountains (rather than clouds) and perhaps a castle atop a hill.
Just for a moment on the edge of Epping Forest which flips in and out of London and Essex I had the sense of being somewhere else - Austria maybe, by one of that country's famous lakes. Austria may boast Alpine scenery, mountains and whatnot, but in the populated valleys the plants look very similar to the ones in the UK. Golden rod and rosebay willow herb (fireweed) along the railway lines, bullrushes and reeds by the lakes, damselflies and dragonflies on the water. Plus a few crickets.

Checking fungi finds in Epping Forest. We left these.
Because Epping Forest is quite a busy place - on the morning we went there was a sponsored run for breast cancer, several Duke of Edinburgh trips, loads of kids with bikes, two girls taking it in turns to ride a little black pony, lots of small kids being introduced to the joys of holding a stick, plus the rest of us - including a huge number of dog walkers - all wanting nice coffee and ready to be tempted by breakfast, it's a good place for outdoor types who like strong coffee.

In Austria you can walk in the mountains or by a lake, thinking you are miles from anywhere and then stumble on a sweet cafe selling coffee, beer, apple streudel and ice cream. And at Chingford Plain you can do just the same at Butler's Retreat Cafe run by The Larder (and open in summer from 9am-6pm, shorter hours during the winter).

On these last sunny autumn days Epping Forest feels crowded - probably no more than popular Lipno Park in South Bohemia (the Czech Republic) with its lake and treetop platform with huge views over Sumava Forest. Epping Forest is smaller - you don't really need to dress in full hiking gear with maps, water and survival bag for a walk around it because it's broken into segments where roads cross it (and be careful as the roads here are very busy).

Autumn homemade gifts - rosehip infused vodka and crab apple/redcurrant jelly.
Both made from treasures found in Epping Forest.
To my mind East Europeans (Austria and some of its neighbours like Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Poland) always seem such capable woodsmen - able to turn anything into a feast. And in autumn London's Epping Forest offers a bounty of goodies to turn into delectable food - sloes, rosehips, crab apples, fungi and the very last of the blackberries.

In the end I made rosehip infused vodka and crab apple jelly brightened with homegrown redcurrants to give to a friend who was moving back into her home after a year away.

Rainham Marshes visitor centre is another great place for
UK wildlife spotting - we saw egrets, kestrels,
marsh frogs and loads of bullrushes.
It's fun finding unusual gifts for people - last week I passed freeze-dried mealworms (which I'd found on sale at the RSPB Bird sanctuary at Rainham Marshes) to neighbours who were having their 25th wedding anniversary. They love watching birds so it wasn't that odd a gift, the only worry was would one of the party goers accidentally think this gift was an exotic snack and tuck in?

Find an Epping Forest map, visitor centre opening hours and info here and info about Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge here.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A taste of Provence, in my kitchen

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. In the same way that it's cool to explore the UK it also makes loads of sense to use your home to host people - which is how we started to find out a little bit about France's sunny Provence. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

French regional specialities are easy to find in France (in dedicated shops), but
in the UK I have to rely on visitors. 
Did you do a French exchange as a teenager? I didn't but I really want my daughters to find French easier to learn than just via classroom learning, or even Duolingo. Luckily there are plenty of French families with the same ideas, so we found two French teenagers who joined our family for the first week of the summer holidays 2015  travelling to London on their own, quite an adventure.

In the bean field on a pick your own PYO farm.
Jeanne and Emilien were great company too, and Jeanne good enough at English to help her younger brother. We learnt that French teenagers study agronomie - wouldn't that be a good idea in the UK? So we made sure to take them to a PYO farm so they could compare agriculture, a day trip that was fun, got us all lots of strawberries and led to some interesting conversations about genetic modification. 

London teens on tour guide duty by St Paul's Cathedral.
Our visitors were very kind and brought us loads of proper French gifts including Callissons d'Aix, olive oil soap and Provence honey flavoured with lavender. All delicious.

Calissons d'Aix were new to me. They are diamond shaped almond patties. In a way they taste of Xmas cake icing but with Provence drama. I know our family of four will be fighting over the very last two.

Over to you
Any tips for hosting teenage language/culture exchange students - including how to find the right match for your family?

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Autumn tastes: durian love it or loathe it?

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Climate change still causes disagreement, but not nearly as much as wether you are a fan - or not - of the tropical life-saving, strong-smelling fruit durian. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Frozen durian is a way to try this distinctive fruit without suffering its intense (unpleasant?) aroma.
I'm a cautious gastronomie - after all I don't eat meat and rarely eat fish. Occasionally I've eaten an insect for the novelty, not the calories. So when a friend comes over bearing durian I know I have to try this horrible-tasting fruit again.... Maybe I'll love it this time?

I wish i did because durian is a super star vegetable, and because it stores so well can save lives during times of hunger. I first tried it in the Solomons where it has traditionally been stored in pits ready to use in the hungry gap when crops have been destroyed by a cyclone and new supplies have not yet arrived, or been grown.

But - and it's a big but - durian stinks. More precisely it smells like rotting rubbish which however attractive to flies and pollinating insects is not a great attraction to me. In fact in Malaysia it is quite common to see signs banning durian fruit - especially in hotels.

Frozen durian is the way forward then.

My former work colleague, Christian, is a big fan of durian, which he especially likes from Malaysia, and he is determined to convert me. This time he brings a durian grown in Thailand and purchased in London's China Town.

When we open the frozen lid the smell gently wafts out. It gets stronger when he then unwraps the clingfilm around it... suddenly I recognise that distinctive smell of the supermarkets in China Town.

Whatever it smells like, the taste is meant to be a LOT better. He describes it as a roasted onion flavour ice lolly which is right, except durian has such a curious taste that in our party of four it's only my friend who enjoys scoffing it!

And durian repeats on you too - expect burps, though fortunately small, polite ones.

Over to you
So, are you a durian fan? In a worst case scenario can you imagine yourself eating it?