Wind in the Willows – and so much more

Who does not know a willow on sight, those elegantly slim trees with long, flexible branches?
Did you know there are more than 400 known species of willow, also known as salix? Varieties range from trees to shrubs to creepers. Willows can often be found in parks near ponds or along rivers, making a wonderful, ornamental feature. They are also ideal for keeping waterlogged areas dry.

Thanks to the willow we now have a medicine that revolutionised pain treatments. An acid contained in the sap was the base for the later invented synthetic version known as aspirin. People in the older days would chew or brew the bark to treat fever and pain such as head- or toothache. Now we just conveniently swallow a pill. Worth hugging a tree for, don’t you think? Go on then.

In mythology and literature the willow is often connected with mysticism or life of one sort or the other. In the Northern Hemisphere the willow tree symbolises death or grief, whereas in China the willow stands for immortality and rebirth. In Shakespeare’s “Othello” Desdemona puts her fear and sorrow into “The Willow Song”. Hans Christian Andersen mentions in his story “Under the Willow Tree” an Elder Mother and Willow Father, under which the main character Knut finds solace. Similarities can be found in Disney’s “Pocahontas” where Grandmother Willow, a wise and ancient figure, is depicted as a speaking willow tree. Another famous willow is “The Whomping Willow” from the Harry Potter book series, a tree with attitude, standing tall in the grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Other legends tell of witches crafting brooms from willow tree branches.

My favourite variety is the weeping willow due to its very distinctive, roundish shape. During my childhood I had one in front of my bedroom window. I could (and probably did) spent hours just looking at the branches moving like long hair in the wind. The leaves would flick in the breeze, showing their whitish underside. Sunlight would filter through them, bringing the tree to life, mesmerising me. During the flowering period, the tree looked like as if it was wearing curlers – or was inhabited by millions of hairy caterpillars.Caterpillars are pretty but turn creepy if there are more than twenty in one spot, therefore I preferred the curler version. I imagined the willow would have liked to be a corkscrew willow rather than a weeping one. I could relate to that, having had very long straight hair at that time (spaghetti hair as I called it) and was wishing for a mop of curly hair. I got my wish in the 80s but it was more poodle perm than corkscrew. One is never happy with what one has…

If you want to plant a willow close to any structure you have to take into account that they tend to spread their roots everywhere and often close to the surface to get as much water as possible. My willow lifted up the paving alongside our block of flats and of the carpark – a mortal sin. Also the sticky flowers (catkin) would drop on cars and were hard to remove – another mortal sin. I tried to rescue my tree but there is only so much a teenager can do against a chain saw. The front of the house never looked the same after the removal. I rescued two young twigs and just stuck them in the ground at my secret hide-out. They took root and have been growing quite tall since. Sorry, location is still secret.

Willows grow amazingly easy and fast. A reason why they can be grown as hedge and branches can be “harvested” almost yearly for making baskets, furniture or other creations.
Have you ever wanted a handmade wicker basket? Don’t be put off by the price. Just pay for it. I once tried making one myself (with emphasis on “tried”) and I assure you, the money is well spent. Basket making is a skill. So is creating any other willow feature.

On my sightseeing trips through the United Kingdom I came across some astounding art creations in the gardens of the National Trust house “Knightshayes” near Tiverton, Devon.
I recently contacted the local artist and the magnificent creations should to be on display again from Easter onwards. Enjoy!



Driftwood Art, seen in New Zealand (East Coast of the North Island)

Tell me, what do YOU see?
Witch craft?
Voodoo signs?
A human skull?
Head of a whale?
A snake?
A bull’s skull?
A tiger’s tooth?


Sandwiches, Sandwiches

I often get asked by my contacts in Germany, how I can survive on the British food. Well, actually, pretty good! Believe it or not, the supermarkets do offer similar food, it all just comes down to what you do with it. It is not all fish & chips here. I can still cook Italian pasta or Indian curry or Chinese stir fry or the traditional Sunday Roast with vegetable, potatoes (roasted, not cooked), gravy and – very British – Yorkshire pudding. If you ask me, forget the vegetable, have more Yorkshire puds.
The bread assortment isn’t great and contains more air than sustenance, I’ll give you that, but what the Brits make with it is worth tasting.

The Brits love their sandwiches. The Germans excel in unusual bread loaf varieties such as onion, sesame, spelt, potato, caraway, apple, buttermilk, and poppy seed. The Brits lead in toast varieties: white, Danish white, brown, seeded, half and half, farmhouse, crusty, tiger, malted, sliced thin, medium, thick, extra thick and for difficult kids with no crust.

Order a sandwich in a tea room or restaurant and it will most certainly come with some salad leaves for decoration and crisps on the side. Traditional fillings are egg-mayo, tuna-cucumber, ham-cheese, cheese-pickles, chicken tikka and bacon-lettuce-tomato (blt). For those you have no time for a cooked full English breakfast there is the all-day-breakfast sandwich on the go, a combination of sausage, bacon, egg and ketchup. You won’t taste the toast, it merely serves to hold the filling together. One of my favourites.
For the more adventurous taste buds there is brie with cranberry, hog roast with apple sauce, salmon and cream cheese, chicken-chorizo and roast beef with horseradish.

But the best and most unusual ones you have to assemble yourself.
For a carb overload try Chip Butty: Fresh or cold left-over chips (preferably from a Chinese take-away) between 2 slices of white, buttered bread (not toasted) with ketchup, brown sauce or curry sauce.
I was introduced to this sandwich by a British colleague. I am not a fan of the other carb bomb loved by Brits – baked beans on toast –  and therefore was very sceptic about this combination. But one bite and I was converted. Thank you Brad, for expanding my food horizon!

Another interesting sandwich version is the Fish Finger Butty: Yes, you’ve guessed it – fried fish fingers on white, buttered bread (not toasted), often with sauce tartar or  ketchup. What’s not to like about that?

Even though originally considered a work-class meal, these two sandwich variations are nowadays rarely found on pub menus. I happen to know that the “Black Boy” pub in Winchester offers Fish Finger Butty. The size of the sandwich was enormous. The pub itself is worth a visit. Every available spots is filled with collections of stuffed animals, bobbins, bottle openers, miniature whisky bottles and stickers (see Table Art 07.12.2015). Visit the toilet and get watched by hundreds of doll’s eyes glued to the ceiling while reading the remarks on the walls. Unusual and hard to forget. I can truly say, this pub has left a lasting impression on me.




Wine tasting 1 – Hawke’s Bay

What is the first thing that comes to mind when asked “What do you associate with New Zealand?”
Oh yes, sheep, lots of wooly sheep. And after that? Wine? Or maybe Mānuka honey and Hobbits – not necessarily in that combination – but this is material for another post.

Let’s come back to wine. New Zealand is world famous for its wines and they constantly receive premium awards. A wine tasting tour is therefore a Must-Do when in the country.
The signature wine regions are Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough (best for Sauvignon Blanc), Martinborough and Central Otago. Smaller vineyards can be found around Auckland (Villa Maria headquarter), Gisborne and Waipara.
Many tour provider specialise in offering wine tasting with a twist, for example being chauffeured around in a vintage car or on a three-seater-trike, drive a 1960’s Moke or go by bicycle. Each tour provider favours different vineyards but offer bespoke tours as well, for an upgraded price.

EskValley1For my wine tasting experience in Hawke’s Bay I opted for a small group tour in a minibus. ‘Vines & Views Wine Tour’ (link below) is the only tour going to Esk Valley, one of the Villa Maria labels. Ross, the tour manager, is a working vineyard manager, and well known at the wineries. Currently he is managing the vineyard at Esk Valley and gave us interesting insight into his duty as well as an exclusive tour of the barrel room and around the facilities, explaining the process of wine making.

This vineyard is a little bit outside of Napier which EskValley2is why most tours don’t stop here. A mistake, I personally think. The location is stunning and the wine, oh well, I do look happy, don’t I? Esk Valley was our third stop and we had been tasting up to 5 wines at each cellar door.


Esk Valley Vineyard

Church Road Estate

Church Road Estate

We first stopped at the Church Road Estate with their open barrel room and the biggest entrance door made of railway sleepers I’ve ever seen (not that there are many around anyway!). Besides tasting beautiful wine you can dine al fresco under parasols. We didn’t see the Wine Museum but I have been told it is worth another visit. Some of the exhibits are said to date back 3,000 years.


Mission Estate

Next on the list was New Zealand’s oldest vineyard, the Mission Estate. The former home to monks with its colonial style buildings is nowadays also well known for the summer concerts held on the estate. Starting back in 1993, the event is well received and tickets sell out quickly. No wonder with top head liners like Ray Charles, Dianne Warwick, Shirley Bassey, Engelbert Humperdinck (honestly), Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Sting, Carol King, Billy Ocean and Eric Clapton, just to name a few.

Our last stop after Esk Valley was Linden Estate, which lies even further away from Napier, again making it very difficult to reach with any other organised tour. I found a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon here. Exquisite!

Wine tasting3a

Enjoying the “high” life

Our guide Ross was well received everywhere and had a light banter with the winery hosts, adding to the overall pleasurable experience. To top it all off Ross has an exclusive viewing platform high up on the Esk Valley hills with stunning panorama. The complimentary cheese platter, cracker and another locally produced Sauvignon Blanc were the perfect ending for a splendid tour.
I can only highly recommend Ross and his tour! I am certain, my fellow tasters would agree.
Cheers everyone!

Wine tasting2

For more information and bookings through the i-site:
Vines & Views Wine Tasting Tour

For a detailled map of all wineries in and around Napier:
Hawke’s Bay Winery Guide

For a self-drive tour through three wine regions:
Classic Wine Trail – self-drive




Snowdrops Galore


The greek name for snowdrops is Galanthus. At the moment there are more than 300 known species. Most commonly known is Nivalis. Carpets of wild snowdrop Nivalis can be seen throughout the UK in January and February.

Snowdrops are nearly always found in abbey ruins and graveyards. Norman monks planted them as a symbol of purity but also used them for medicine. Often aconite, petasites and mistletoe can be found alongside snowdrops – they are all attributed with strong healing properties.

I had the privilege to visit a private garden in New Arlesford last week, once holding the national collection of snowdrops. I missed the best of the flower display but there were still more cluster breaking through the soil. I learned that some snowdrop species flower as early as Autumn, others not until March. Snowdrops can be found throughout northern and central Europe, Italy (Sicily), Greece, Turkey, Crimea, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, the Caucasus region, Jordan, Iran and Syria.
Collectors pay top prices for rare bulbs. Thompson & Morgan (Ipswich based seed company) just acquired the world’s most expensive snowdrop in an auction for £725. Galanthus woronowii ‘Elisabeth Harrison’ is a variety with very unusual golden yellow ovary and yellow petal markings. A Galanthus ‘Green Tear’ sold for £360 last year. Who would have thought collecting snowdrops can be so expensive? And we are talking 1 (in words: ONE) tiny bulb.

Two avid collectors were visiting the garden as the same time as me. Between them and the host horticultural names were flying back and forth and all I could contribute was the odd ‘What a dainty flower’ or ‘What different leaves’ and ‘My, that one is tall’. I am not a snowdrop buff – or any type of plant buff  for that matter – but I appreciate flora and garden design in all its variety.

For a stunning carpet display in my ‘neighbourhood’ Welford Park in Berkshire was highly recommended to me. From researching the National Trust website it sounds like Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire is the place to go. Of the over 300 varieties, 20 were discovered on site. The 114 acres of gardens with its meandering paths, avenues of trees and a collection of classical statues are dotted with carpets of snowdrops. Sounds like good photo opportunities to me.

For more information on great snowdrop displays in the UK check out these websites: – unfortunately due to warm and wet weather their snowdrop walk will not be open in 2016. Official opening on March 3rd for spring bulb displays.


Volcano Damavand

Volcano Damavand_Iran1

With 5671 m is the volcano Damavand the highest summit in Iran and the Middle East. He is a stratovolcano, meaning a conical volcano built up by many layers (strata) of hardened lava, tephra, pumice, and volcanic ash. Due to sulfur emitting from fumaroles near the summit in 2007 Mount Damavand is classed as potentially active volcano.

Mount Damavand is part of the Alborz Mountains, a range which runs parallel with the southern coast of the Caspian Sea.

Volcano Damavand_Iran2a

The mountain range acts as a climate and vegetation divide between the precipitation rich coastal areas of the Caspian Sea in the north and the desertlike inner Iranian plateau to the south.

Tehran, the capital of Iran, with its approximately 8 million inhabitants is situated at the foot of the Alborz mountain range, only 66 km west of Mount Damavand.

The southern slopes are called Alborz mountain forest steppe. Mainly juniper, pistachio, almond and maple grow here. The lush Caspian Hyrcanian forests on the northern slopes consist of beeches, oaks, wild cypress and olive trees.

The Alborz mountain range is the habitat of important animals and birds, like griffon vultures, eagles, the Syrian brown bear and the Persian leopard. The now extinct Caspian tiger also lived here.

Volcano Damavand_Iran3a


Christmas Market – Winchester

Traditional sweets at Winchester Cathedral's Christmas Market

Traditional sweets at Winchester Cathedral’s Christmas Market

The popular Christmas market at Winchester Cathedral is open. Wrap up warm and have a stroll around the countless stalls nestling behind the cathedral. Marvel at the craftwork and sample from the many food stalls. Try the grilled cheese varieties, German sausages and the chocolate covered, flavoured marshmallows (gingerbread, rum, mint, orange – just to name a few). Or opt for some traditional candy floss and caramelised nuts. Top it all off with a leisurely round on the ice rink. A perfect day out.

Stall w citrus Stalls w cathedral