Saturday, 18 October 2014

An Unexpected Pleasure

Oman has been two years of unexpected pleasures.  Yesterday was no exception (of course I wrote this at least two months ago* and then got busy and visited Australia, so you'll just have to wait for the Australia visit blog).  On a Tuesday morning I general host a little "Stitch and Bitch," but today I went along with a group of about 30 other to see the Royal Guard Stables; oh what a splendid time it was.

We often go to the Lulu's hypermarket to shop and that sits slap bang in the middle of the Royal Court area, which is made up of a vast array of building, gardens, racecourse, palace, and, of course, the stables.  The supermarket itself used to be the Royal Guard's quartermaster's store.  You get very used to seeing the red bereted royal guard all over the place and very familiar with the walls that surround everything...lots of walls...lots of everything.  Today I discovered there was also a Royal Guard motorcycle squad who rode large black motorcycles, wore rather sexy black leather and red helmets to match the berets.  I'd never seen them anywhere before, even in cavalcades.  We often muse about what might be hidden behind the walls.  Well, today I found out about one little corner.

The group (a new ladies group called Phoenix) had arranged a tour of the stables and we all were told to meet in the Lulu's carpark at 7:30am so that we could be picked up and taken into the grounds.  We all duly arrived and hopped into the bus, drove through the gates right in front of us and around a couple of corners...there we were.  We didn't know quite what to expect and what we got was a little taste of some of the things that go on behind those walls.  Starting with watching the new music recruits learning to ride.  They will all eventually play on horseback for ceremonial events.

Some of the new music recruits.  Being able to ride is not a prerequisite for joining.

Some of the lads looked at ease on horseback, some looked nervous and some looked like they were convinced the horse was going to eat them.  Round and round and round they went.  While we watched some of the more senior riders running the competition horses through their paces.

This is their world champion dressage horse, who apparently likes to jump.  Unusual in Arabians we were told. He's being trained for showjumping now
And of course Omani's love their bagpipes, so there is a mounted band, including the most gorgeous drum horses.  They were huge.

The new recruits had to hold their horses steady while the band walked slowly past.  They looked even more terrified than when they were moving.

Then we went to watch the farrier hot shoeing a horse.  Considering this large group of people were hanging about exclaiming and taking photos, the horse was pretty chilled.  The farrier was pretty chilled too.  Holy cow he was a big bloke.

Preparing the shoe

Hammering the still hot shoe on - with bare hands.....
Yes, definitely hot-shoeing

Then for our big treat of the day.  Last week Oman hosted the world tent-pegging championships and the Royal Guard makes up a large part of their team. They were all still there so they gave us a demo.  Seriously cool to watch.  They use spears (javelins really) and swords, and it's not very difficult to imagine what tent pegging used to be very good training for...............

The Royal Guard Tent pegging team
The Mascot.  Definitely very handsome and not for eating. 

The latest addition to the stables.  3 months old and full of fun

*Um errr, make that substantially more than two months.  Here it was sitting in drafts.........................................

Friday, 17 October 2014

Eid Mubarak! Ooops!

A week or so ago David went flying off to Brussels for meetings and then popped over to Manchester to visit Meaghan and Jamie, leaving me at home with the cats and what was going to be the last run for my thesis (yes was, but that's a whole other story).
It was Eid and the country had shut down for over a week.  Boy do I mean shut down.  Practically every one I spoke to was heading out for a little trip to Europe, Thailand, Cyprus, Zanzibar, Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi.......  Pout.

 I was being a good girl and sitting at the PC editing away like a loon and listening to the sewerage truck slurp up water from our unconnected sewer outlet.  Dum de da de dum.


What the hell was that??????

A quick dash to the front door showed me..........

Yes, the truck had clipped the gate and pulled down the wall and the pedestrian gate.  Excellent. 
 "You broke the wall!" I cried cleverly.
"Madam, It is broken" was his even cleverer reply.  Then he jumped into his truck and drove away.

Right.  Good.  Marvelous.  It's a little nervous making when the whole world can see straight into your house when everyone lives behind high walls, and of course the whole world did come and have a really good look.  Especially five times a day on the way to the Mosque.  Quick call to my landlord had no reply, and a call to the handy man was met with "Oh....I will come and look at it maybe after tomorrow."  SMS to landlord.  Minutes later, the landlord called and the ability of Omanis to get things going even in the middle of a religious festival swung into action.

By the end of the day two handy men had been, and the police had been. The next day cleanup began happened and the following day the footings were begun.  We were to get a little more front.  Hooray!!  Of course the hooray may be short lived as the owners are looking at renovating and moving in.  Although their youngest boy has decided that he is going to live in a tree house at the top of the biggest tree so that David can live in the new upstairs bedroom.

Footings were followed by a wall that immediately gave us more privacy.  The cats, however, were not amused.  Either were the two beautiful pots that had been sitting behind the wall.  The very flat pots.  The plants, on the other hand, are Omani plants and can survive almost anything.

The wall was followed by two pillars for the gates.  Getting in and out was a little "interesting" at this point.  Well, for those of us with knees that don't bend too well and hadn't been to yoga for a couple of weeks (the teacher was one of the friends in Cyprus....).

Bluey finishing his inspection of the new paving

From the front
New paving ensued, and you can see that we have a new garden bed. Plus enough room to easily fit David's car if we wanted to.  Actually, both cars.  

This was all done by three blokes (here are two of them) armed with a jackhammer (for taking down the old pillars), a drill (for drilling holes of course) a shovel, some bessa blocks, quite a lot of concrete and even more sweat.  The electrics were powered by a lead hanging over the roof.  I'm not sure the tools had any plugs, they just stuffed the wires into the end of the lead.................. 

There it is pretty much finished except for the painting.  Bukra insha'allah.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Adventures in Bread

One of the frustrations here is the lack of yummy bread that is also good for you.  there is no shortage of french-style loaves of crusty white bread, but I'm a bit partial to bread with actual food value.  We can get a nice Norlinger, but even it palls after a while.

I'm also pretty partial to making my own bread, but with the choice of flours being a touch limited it is an exercise in frustration, unless I want to stodge out on flours based on white bread or plain wholemeal.  Not so bad, but still boring.
Enter a new bread making book, skilfully discovered by Michelle 'Enabler' Dean for very little cost and quietly exported to Australia in my hand baggage, with step-by-step instructions (with pictures) of the creation of a sour dough leaven.  The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard for those playing at home.

Right.  To begin.  Rye flour.  Now I'd seen that somewhere...Al Fair?...Carrefour?...Nevermind, I have to do this NOW!! I've got chapatti flour made of 7 different grains (except rye) there must be some wild yeasts sitting on some of that.  Raisins.  Sigh, I don't have any of those (maybe I should go to the souq...NO! It must be done NOW!!)  I've got dates.  Dates are sweet, they'll feed the wild yeasts that may or may not be lurking on the chapatti flour.  Done, now to wait.  One day...two days...found the rye flour...three days...feeding, feeding, feeding...four days...five days...AHA!!

White four leaven on the move
Rye flour leaven on the move
Both leavens seemed to be pretty happy, so I went ahead on day seven and started to make my bread.  Lepard's bread instructions call for very little kneading, 20 seconds only, but at regular intervals over about four hours before finally shaping the loaf and letting it prove for up to six hours.  First up a rye loaf.  Mmmmm, I don't think this is going very far......... 

The not very action packed rye loaf attempting to prove.
Annnnd, it didn't.  The white bread on the other hand (I call it white, but it was made with a bread mix from England called Barleycorn.  It had whole wheat flour, barley flour and linseeds but no corn at all.)  I didn't get any photos of these two loaves.  They worked quite well and were somewhat reminiscent of ciabatta loaves, which David loves so that was good.  They were a bit chewy after being frozen, but still nice.  I think perhaps the dough was a little wet.

I was grumpy about the rye, so I tried another sweet rye recipe and using date syrup instead of honey.  Mmmmm, now THAT worked.  It tastes like pumpernickel and isn't very sweet at all.  Now it's all chopped up and frozen for very slow eating.

The cooked sweet rye loaf

The inside of the sweet rye.  Simply perfect.

Excellent.  Not quite what I was hoping for, but still. I had lots of bread so I popped the leavens into the fridge for a week and sat in a corner muttering to myself.  I also took off to Lakeland and invested in a temperature probe (good for meat, liquids and bread etc).

Then my yoga teacher showed me the "Diet Flour" that the Muscat flour mills produce.  It's got whole grains, malted stuff and is enriched with iron and folates.  It's sold as flour for making bread for diabetics.  Right ho, I thought, I'll give it a go.

I pulled out the white leaven and brought it back to life.  Pow!  Back into very, very active life!  Goodness gracious it was excited!  So excited I just used it rather than taking a photo!  I used a 60:40 mix of Diet flour and barleycorn flour and was a little more careful about the amount of fluid.  The dough was still sticky to start with but firmer than before.  

I had bought two little one pound bread pans so I thought I'd have a go at putting half the dough in these two just to see if the sour dough would behave in a tin and create more sandwich/toast friendly shapes.  They did!

Two one pound loaves and yes, they really did weigh one pound!
Aren't they cute???  I was very, very pleased and was itching to cut one to see how it went.  But first to cook the big one.  I proved this one is a square basket and tipped it onto a semolina covered tray before slashing it around the top and sliding onto the bread stone.

Here it is just in the oven and beginning to cook.

Well that worked a treat!!  It came out beautifully and sounding like a drum!  The temperature probe was very useful, but also helped me discover just how hot my oven doesn't get.  Grrrrrrr.

The results using the re-invigorated leaven

The first one pound loaf.  Not bad at all!

The second one pound loaf. Mmmmmmmmm.
The bread tasted fabulous!  It was soft on in the outside, crunchy on the outside and tasted divine.  It was also filling.  However, we did accidentally eat almost all of the two loaves over the weekend.  Actually when I say we, I mean I ate a lot more of it than David.  What can I say?  I'm an addict.  Luckily I cut up the 2 pound loaf and froze it. It's not quite so tempting that way............

I'll have some of that for lunch with the Mango chutneys that I made as well.................

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Visit Home Part I

We've just spent a truly lovely few weeks visiting home.  It was not all wonderful, the sudden loss of a very special man made for a bittersweet welcome home.  Words cannot express the joy in seeing friends and family on our home soil, so, as is my wont, it will be in pictures.

The first week was spent in Brisbane catching up with some of our favourite hairy friends and family.

At Knights of the North

My favourite Knight of the North in the Whole Worlde.

And of course we all know that the Politarchopolis/St Florian
World Domination Treaty is alive and well.

My favouritest Brisvegas Girlie

Swimming between the flags at the Gold Coast


The lovely, and very old, Shubs who ran out to meet us in Brisbane.
One of the loveliest things about Brisbane was spending time with Rufus and George, as well as a whole range of Rufus' school-friends and their partners.  While David conferenced like a maniac I got to hang out with Jacky, the cutest little button Ivy, Matt, Phil, Dougie and Anna.  It was fabulous.  Then David and I climbed into the green and purple Jucy machine.  It was special, but we had an uneventful drive to Canberra - including sleeping in the van in a rest stop -  and visiting Byron Bay - where we didn't see any real hippies at all.  

Yes, for the first time we went to Byron Bay...
I did stop at the Rainbow Shop and bought Rainbow Pants.
It is apparently legal to turn left, cross a road and run over a bike
Who'd a thought?

When I was a girl, hippies were on the pill..........

A visit to Al Ain Zoo

As many of you know, David is a little fond of visiting zoos.  Very fond of visiting zoos.  I am too, but sshhh, don't tell David.

It's just possible that David has already blogged about this visit already, but I'm in the zone and thought I would too.  I still have very fond memories of our visit at the end of March as I was particularly taken with the relaxed and cheerful staff as well has the very happy animals.  So here are some gratuitous animal photos......

Here we are.  In Arabic a zoo is called "The Park of the Animals"
We arrived early and decided to spend a small fortune on a guided tour of the zoo.  Ever since the Great Kayak Disaster of 2014, my knee has been known to give up and go home without notice, so the fewer actual steps the better. Not only did the tour come with a guide, it also came with transport that could carry twelve. Never mind that there was only two of us.  Next time......

Inside the visitor's welcome area
We started with some refreshments (coffee, dates and water) in the welcome area as our lovely guide prepared for us.  I have a photograph of her, but I promised I wouldn't post it as her father would not approve at all.

Our first stop was pretty little beasties with horns.

Our second was larger beasties with truly impressive horns

I struggled to photograph him out of the shade,
but frankly I think he looks pretty amazing just the way he is.

It wasn't very hot but, as with most zoos, day time is the lying around not doing very much part of the animal's daily life.
Of course my favourites are the ferocious big cats.

The killers of the savanah

Ready to take down their prey in the blink of an eye

David, however, managed to get some fabulous shots of the white lioness chasing a bird.  Mmmmm, domestic cats are not that far removed from their giant cousins after all.

She missed

It's too hot in Al Ain to have elephants at the zoo and I'm not at all sure how the other animals stay cool. Even on a gentle spring day (about 32 degrees) the hippos were up to their eyeballs in their gigantic undercover swimming pool.

I can seeeee you!

In the middle of the reptile house was a little fennic fox.  Lord knows what he was doing there, they are desert dwellers and a little bit of heat won't hurt them.  They're sooooo cute with their gigantic ears - which are a bit of a disadvantage when inside with continual running, screaming children.  However, the real reason he was inside might have been a protective measure.  After our visit I was chatting to one of the SQU students about the cuteness of the fennic fox.  He agreed wholeheartedly and mentioned they had them in their village.  He talked of them with gentle pride before telling me they had killed all their chickens and run of with his favourite peacock.  He thought that was a bit rude, but didn't dent his delight in the little critters.

One little fennic fox trying to work out how to murder all small children in Al Ain.

And there were flamingos!  Yummy pink flamingos!!

Of course this is the Arabian Gulf so there were fountains

And flowers

Lots of flowers

And a pile of sleeping flamingos
Safe from rampaging fennic foxes...for now........ 
One of the highlights was feeding the giraffes.  I got licked by a giraffe!!!  How cool is that??!!!  Also watching the birds of prey feed.........
I don't think this is fennic fox territory.

The keepers come prepared for the worst.