Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Lanzarote diaries : First impressions

This year for the first time ever, we headed off to the Canary Islands for our summer holidays. We've already visited Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey several times but with the current terrorist threat, it seemed unwise to head over that way again this year. That said, we flew out from Zaventem airport in Brussels which was blown apart by terrorist bombs earlier in the year - we recognised the places that have changed, especially as we saw the photos straight after the explosions, but if you didn't know, you'd never be able to tell. There were a few armed military personnel standing around holding machine guns but apart from that, it was business as usual.

So Lanzarote it was ! When we first got out of the airport in Arrecife, our first impression was ... it's quite cold ! Usually, you get that immediate wave of heat striking you when you set foot outside the plane and dash across the tarmac to the relative cool of an air-conditioned coach. This time, it was blowing a gale and we all looked at each other, regretting not bringing our jumpers ! The wind did drop after a couple of days but it's certainly much cooler than the other countries we've visited - in the mornings, the pool was so cold we had to repeatedly tell Pierre to get out because his teeth were chattering so much ! We wandered around in shorts and T-shirts but could have done with a light jumper on a few evenings. Temperatures were usually in the 20's/low 30's rather than the high 30's/40's that North Africa offers, even if it's just across the water from Lanzarote.

The initial views from the coach as we headed to our hotel were slightly disconcerting - endless black lunar-like lava landscapes with little or no vegetation and nothing else to see. I started to wonder how we'd manage to fill the two weeks that were stretching before us ! Once you start looking, the island's hidden treasures are there though, as I will be showing you in upcoming blogposts, and we did have a good time.

We were based at the Paradise Island hotel in Playa Blanca - it's a 10 minute bus ride to the beach but there was a free shuttle bus to take you there and back about once an hour during the day. 

We went there a few times and wandered along the prom, looking for crabs and lizards in the rocks and souvenir-hunting in the touristy shops. There are plenty of knick knacks to buy, including natural sponges, ornaments and even jewellery made out of lava and numerous decorative objects representing lizards, owls, fish and dolphins.

There was a "living statue" who had us in hysterics because he scared Pierre to death the first time, but the subsequent times, he wanted to go and put the money in the tray to make him move !

I had my reservations about the Canary Islands - from what I'd seen on TV, it was very geared towards Brits with nothing but cafes offering full English breakfasts and English-speaking bars wherever you look. I've got nothing against those kinds of places in England but when I go abroad, I want to discover the local culture, not just the same old same old ! It was definitely very Brit-oriented, both in the hotel where the restaurant had English sausages, beans and cooked breakfasts on offer every day and the shop was full of UK brands for teabags, brown sauce, chocolate and other "essentials", but there were more local options available too.

As you can tell, our first impressions were a little on the cool side, but we soon started looking below the surface and finding out that there is more to it than endless empty lava fields ! I'll soon be telling you about visiting volcanoes and cactus gardens, hiring a car to go exploring and even going in a submarine ! 

Maverick Books junior fiction titles review

We've long been fans of Maverick's delightful picture books so we were very pleased when they launched a series of Early Readers last year, transforming some of their popular picture book titles into a simplified format for beginner readers to enjoy. They've now taken their books in another direction and are about to release their first ever Junior Fiction titles, aimed at six to nine year olds. (Available in October but they can be pre-ordered already.) These books are for children who are embarking on their own reading adventure or can be shared with a grown up. 

They are perfectly suited for Pierre, who has just turned seven and is turning into quite a confident little reader. These are his first "real" books and he was initially daunted by the number of pages in each book (around 120) and the fact that they would have lots of words in them.

The books are very well thought-out though and are packed full of illustrations that break up the text, making it all much less intimidating for beginner readers and also helping to keep their interest up if they are listening to a parent reading to them. We tend to alternate passages, with Pierre reading a couple of paragraphs then having a rest while I read the next ones, or sometimes he will read the narrator's parts, leaving me to put on silly voices for the dialogues ! It's lovely to see that Maverick books are "growing up" at the same rate as Pierre, leading to a much more interactive bedtime story time than when it was just me reading and him listening and looking at the pictures.

We were delighted to discover that the initial trio of Junior Fiction books includes some of our favourite Maverick authors. Rickety Rockets is written by Alice Hemmings, author of George and the New Craze, The Black & White Club, Robopop, Bibble and the Bubbles and A Gold Star For George (click through to read my reviews), and illustrated by Emma Randall. It is a collection of three stories  - Rickety Rocket, Jetpack Jelly and Picnic Planet - all featuring Spacey Stacey and her friends who live on Planet Five Ways. 

There's never a dull moment in their lives, whether it's trying to stop a bunch of naughty Space Rabbits from pinching their picnic, delivering jellies by jetpack or fixing up an old rocket together to try and win a space race. In these action-packed, intergalactic stories that children of both sexes will enjoy, Stacey and her friends repeatedly show that it's important for friends to stick together and help each other out - and finding a way to get one up on the annoyingly arrogant twerps in your life (like Astro Pete or Jack Boom and Jill Zoom) is just the icing on the cake ! Pierre loved the stories (particularly the part where Stacey's jetpack gets her all wrapped up in a washing line full of spotty pants !) and was very proud of managing to read them out loud to me.

Grandma Bendy and the Great Snake Escape is written by new author and illustrator, Izy Penguin. In this ssssscrumptiously sssssilly ssssslice of bedlam, Lucy calls in the help of her impressively flexible grandma to clear her name when someone releases a deadly snake in Pumperton and she is the main suspect. Just like Rickety Rockets, this book reinforces the notion that while it is great to have a group of loyal friends that you can count on in a crisis, there are also always going to be people at school or in life in general who you aren't going to like - in this case, school bully Mike Grimace and snooty busybody, Lady Lavender. This is an important life lesson for children of this age group to integrate.

Pierre giggled as he read all about the madcap antics of Lucy and the other residents of Plumperton, plunged into terrified chaos as they try to escape the scary snake. I laughed myself when he triumphantly announced "Look Mum, more pants !" at one point in the story (thick organic woolly ones from the health food shop, no less !). We also enjoyed the mini story by Spag Bol the dog at the end of the book, seeing how he got up to his own adventures unnoticed !

Finally, we discovered Letter To Pluto by Lou Treleaven, author of another picture book that we have reviewed, Professor McQuark & the Oojamaflip. This delightful book is entirely written in letters, the fruit of an interplanetary school penpal project dreamed up by Jon's teacher. At first, Jon is not at all enthusiastic, particularly when he realises that his penpal Straxi is a girl and that she lives on Pluto, the most boring, smelliest and far away place possible.

They soon realise, though, that they have more in common than they ever would have imagined and they become real friends rather than just penfriends. As they delight in learning about each other's different lives and cultures, they send little gifts to each other, including a sickeningly smelly vomblefruit that Straxi has been telling Jon about.

Even on Pluto, everybody hates the smell of vomblefruit so the government decide to eradicate them from the planet, with disastrous knock-on effects for the rest of the ecosystem, which leave Pluto dying. In the nick of time, Jon remembers that he has his penfriend's stinky gift hiding out in his mum's greenhouse and sends it back, with a police escort, to save the day (and the planet) ! It's a totally enchanting book, with brilliant messages for children about how exciting it is to write real letters (not just emails or facebook updates), how you can still be friends with someone who (at first glance) has nothing in common with you and the importance of respecting the natural balance of the environment. As a teacher myself, I also couldn't help smiling when I read the letters from Mrs Hall to Jon at the end of the book - it's a tough life being a teacher sometimes !!

All three of the books were perfectly adapted to Pierre's level and the stories really appealed to him (and me!). The texts are challenging but not too difficult and the oodles and oodles of illustrations inside them add to the utter delight of reading your first ever proper book. We'll definitely be keeping an eye out for further titles as they're added to the series.

star rating : 5/5

release date : 13 Oct. 2016

Disclosure : We received the books in order to write an honest review.

Feeling peachy ! Easy peasy jam-making with Tate & Lyle Jam Sugar #letsgetjamming

I have clear memories of going blackberrying with my family when I was growing up, then coming back home and watching my dad making a huge vat of blackberry and apple jam. Even if it always came out absolutely delicious, I remember that it was always quite complicated working out how much apple to put in to have enough pectin for it to set and - yuck - skimming off the maggots that wriggled out of the blackberries ! I absolutely hate maggots so this could possibly explain why I have never had a go at making jam myself. When Tate & Lyle sent me through a fabulous jam-making kit, I was keen to see how I'd get on though. It contained everything I'd need : a jam thermometer, a funnel, two jam jars, a knife to spread the finished jam on toast and, all importantly, a bag of 1:1 Jam Sugar.

This sugar, specially made for jam making (although it can also be used in sponges), takes all the hassle out of the process because you just need to add equal measures of fruit and sugar - that's it, no lemon juice, apple or anything else is required because it has added pectin to help your jam set every time. My first stop was the local farmers' market half an hour before it closed so I could grab one of the bargain boxes of overripe fruit that they always try to shift at the end of the day. Sure enough, I managed to grab a box of vine peaches (also called flat peaches) for €3, with only a few mouldy bits to cut out.

I totally blew Pierre's mind when I told him that I was going to make jam - apparently he had no idea where jam came from and when I said I was just going to use fruit and sugar, he looked at me like I was a magician !

After peeling and roughly chopping the fruit, it was time to bring the sugar into play. I used 1kg of peaches (this worked out at about 6 peaches, although I didn't count them) so I used the whole bag of sugar. This produced four jars of jam plus a bit extra.

My first thought was wow, that's a LOT of sugar, but once it starts dissolving and mixing into the softened fruit, it looks less scary ! After about ten minutes of cooking and stirring, it was bubbling away nicely and starting to look like runny jam. As I had a jam thermometer, I kept cooking until it hit the magic temperature of 105°C (it took a while to get there as it seemed to stick at 102°C !), but if you haven't got a thermometer, you can spoon a little onto a chilled plate to see if it's reached its setting point by looking to see if it wrinkles when you prod it.

All that was left was to ladle it into clean, sterilised jam jars.

I had purposely left large chunks of fruit in it and they had gone perfectly soft and juicy. The kids instantly decided that they wanted jam on toast for tea and polished off the whole bowlful between them !

I still have four jars left though, which is pretty good going for half an hour's work. The question is, will I get to make jam tarts or a nice Victoria sponge or will the kids work their way through the whole lot on toast and in sandwiches before I get there ?!

Tate & Lyle have plenty of jam recipes on their website if you want to make something a bit more unusual, including  Mango & Passionfruit, Raspberry & Rosewater or Strawberry & Prosecco Jam. They have some live video recipes too, if you need extra inspiration.

If you've never made your own jam before, I highly recommend giving it a go as it is so, so simple and it tastes divine !

Disclosure : I received a jam-making kit from Tate & Lyle.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Summer recipe : Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup

When I first saw this recipe for Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup by Gary Durrant, Head Chef at Hunter 486, my first thought was "hmmm, cold soup, not too sure". I know that gazpacho is very popular and Madhouse Daddy guzzled his way through loads of it while we were in Lanzarote, but I don't know, I've never been totally convinced. It did sound like the perfect heat-busting recipe though so I decided to read on a bit more. Cucumber, yep, OK ... oh hold on ... COOKED cucumber ?? Boiled with vegetable stock ?? Really ???! Well, I'm always willing to try anything once and it turns out that it was actually very nice, like a more virtuous version of guacamole without the mayonnaise.

Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup 

Ingredients (To serve 4)

1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ clove garlic, finely chopped
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeds removed and sliced
650 ml vegetable stock
1 medium avocado
½ cucumber peeled, seeds removed and cut into small cubes
40g peeled brown shrimps
4 sprigs dill


Cook the chopped onions and garlic in a little vegetable oil until soft and translucent.

I used lemon-infused olive oil to add extra flavour.

Peel and deseed the cucumber. To do this, I cut it into thirds, peeled each section with a potato peeler and cut it into quarters. Then I used a sharp knife to cut out the core with the seeds in it.

Add the sliced cucumber to the pot and cook for approximately 10 minutes until the cucumber is soft. I'd never tasted cooked cucumber before but it's actually very tasty and doesn't go soggy, as I'd imagined.

Add the vegetable stock, bring to the boil and then simmer for 20 minutes. (I used a Knorr vegetable stock pot which gave it a brown colour - it's supposed to stay bright green.)

Remove to a bowl.

Madhouse Daddy is usually the one to make soup so he came into the kitchen to have a nosey at this point !

Place in a liquidiser (or use a stick blender) and whizz until it is smooth. Pass through a fine sieve into a bowl, and place this in a bowl of ice to chill the soup.

When the soup is cold, peel and chop the avocado. (Yes, OK, I am a big kid and I keep myself amused !)

It is very important that the soup is cold before you add the avocado otherwise it will go brown and you are looking for a bright green colour.

Add the avocado to the soup and blend again until it is smooth. Season with salt and black pepper.

To serve pour into a chilled soup bowl and sprinkle over the peeled brown shrimps, the cubed cucumber and the chopped dill. (Oops, when I wrote up the recipe, I realised that I forgot to add diced cucumber on top, which is why you can't see any in the photo !)

It is a healthy and refreshing dish, perfect for an alfresco lunch or a light supper during this hot weather. It tastes similar to guacamole and goes very well with the prawns.

This dish features on the new menu at Hunter 486. Named after the 1950s dialling code for Marylebone, Hunter 486 is the stylish restaurant within five-star boutique hotel The Arch London. 

(The Arch London, 50 Great Cumberland Place, Marble Arch, London W1H 7FD)

DVD review : Ratchet & Clank

Today sees the release of Ratchet & Clank, a new family-friendly movie based on the legendary Playstation game of the same name. The eponymous heroes of the film are two unlikely friends, who show that opposites attract.

Ratchet is the last Lombax in the universe and he grew up alone, with no family but himself. His carefree character has a tough exterior but a heart of gold and he dreams big with great ambition. He's not afraid of danger and is always trying to jump in head-first to solve problems. He's strong, acrobatic, loyal, trustworthy and a talented engineer.

His best friend Clank is a pocket-sized robot with more brains than power - in fact, he is the most intelligent robot you could possibly ever meet. He is a walking, talking, living computer, filled with endless information, who uses the powers of reason to form a plan of attack, but he has only recently moved to the universe, so he hangs onto his old child-like habits.

Despite their very different personalities, they both have one common goal... to save the universe!
The combination of Ratchet’s ambition and bravery and Clank’s brainy organisation makes them the best team in the universe and the ultimate package to overcome any problem that may get in their way.

Despite not knowing the video game, the Madhouse kids fell in love with both Ratchet and Clank, two very different but equally appealing characters. With the fate of the universe on their shoulders, this unlikely pair embarks on a whirlwind adventure through outer-space, where they learn about heroism, courage, and the importance of having a good friend by your side. Both characters have faults and failings but they complement each other perfectly with their differing skill sets and opposing personalities. The film is full of important life lessons and feel-good messages for young viewers to pick up on. The grown-ups can also have fun trying to spot the famous names behind the voices, including Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, James Arnold Taylor and Sylvester Stallone.

star rating : 4/5

Ratchet & Clank release details
Digital Download release date: 19th August, 2016
DVD release date: 29th August, 2016
Running time: 90 minutes approx.
Cert: U
DVD RRP: £15.99

Disclosure : We received a review copy of the film.

Giveaway #580 : Win a Nick Jr goodie bag and Wacky Hair Dough - closing date 9/9

The popular Nick Jr website has had a revamp and now has a new streamlined look, offering UK families the best in pre-school digital content. “Our aim was to rejuvenate nickjr.co.uk to match our young audience’s constantly evolving digital habits,” said Suzie Adams, Nickelodeon Digital Director. “We now have a platform which encourages and inspires children to use their imagination whilst providing them opportunity to immerse themselves in the worlds of their favourite Nick Jr. shows.”

Improved navigation on the site now features more visual cues for kids aged two to seven, allowing
them to access content easily by clicking on their favourite characters such as Paw PatrolPeppa PigBlaze and the Monster Machines and Dora. The website has been upgraded so it can be used anywhere, on any device, enabling access to full-screen games and activities on the go. 

The site has also become more interactive for its users, with extra educational content added in for good measure. New ‘Alphabuttons’ have been dotted across the site and aim to help children learn the alphabet. When clicked, a unique animation will appear featuring both the letter and a Nick Jr. character.

As well as being separated by character, the site content has been allocated into five groups to allow users to navigate quickly and easily: Music, Learn, Activities, Videos and Games.

To celebrate the launch of the new improved website, Nick Jr are offering a fantastic prize here on my blog. One lucky Madhouse Family Reviews reader will receive a Nickeodeon goodie bag containing : 
- Nick Jr. colouring book
- Nick Jr. umbrella
- Nick Jr. tote bag
- Nick Jr. crayon set

There will also be a Nick Jr. ‘Wacky Hair Dough’ art kit, which is a brand new product that hasn't even hit the shops yet !

If you want to be in with a chance of winning, head over to the Nick Jr website and tell me what your favourite feature is then fill in your entries via the Rafflecopter widget below.

UK only. Closing date : 9/9/16

T & C's : Entries close at midnight on the closing date. Winners will be selected with a random number generator and announced on facebook, twitter and in the giveaway post subject line. Please note, you will be contacted by email and/or twitter and if I haven't heard from you after 28 days, I'll have to pick another winner. Prizes will be sent out by the companies or their PR directly to winners. Madhouse Family Reviews cannot be held responsible for any prizes that go astray !

You may also like to enter my other giveaways :

Giveaway #579 : Win Chucklevision Complete Series One and Two on DVD - closing date 12/9

Giveaway #578 : Win a Braun Beard Trimmer - closing date 11/9

Giveaway #577 : Win 2 x A Dozen Summers - closing date 3/9