Monday 29 November 2010

Embracing The Nordic Diet

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One of the things that strikes you when walking around Gothenburg isn’t the stunning beauty of the city, or the overwhelming sight of gorgeous Swedes. It took me a while to work it out. It was an absence rather than a presence. And then I realised as I bumped into a fat person. Fatties are rare in Sweden. So much so that you land up staring at them and joking about whether they are Americans! Sure you see some big people. But they tend to be big boned Vikings rather than lardy layabouts.

A confluence of events spurred me into changing my diet to be more Scandinavian – my shirts were uncomfortable, I found myself wearing jumpers the whole time and I saw a sickening photograph of myself on a beach. And then, as if the fat Gods were watching, a nice person from Quadrille sent me a copy of The Nordic Diet. Initially I was sceptical and scoffed at the idea of a book with the word “diet” in the title. But then I did some background reading and cooked a couple of recipes… and now I am scoffing at myself for scoffing in the first place.

The Nordic Diet, by Trina Hahnemann, is inspired by the fact that the Nordic countries have very low levels of obesity. It stands to reason, therefore, that the dietary patterns of this part of the world might play a role. As you can imagine there’s plenty of debate because it is so hard to prove, but it is being championed by Arne Astruo from the University of Copenhagen who have put £12million behind it. Nutritionists are touting it as a more suitable alternative for Brits than the rather expensive and tricky Mediterranean diet which calls for lashings of olive oil, tomatoes and fresh fish. The Daily Mail says, “Nutritionists even predict the Viking diet could be to the 21st century what the Mediterranean diet was to the 20th.”

The Nordic Diet echoes the Mediterranean Diet’s slow approach to eating but takes things a few steps further by suggesting that we cut down our meat intake and instead eat more lean game, berries, brassicas, fish, vegetables and ancient grains that release their energy stores more slowly and provide more fibre.

Given that meat is expensive in Sweden and that the fish is so fresh, I’ve found myself naturally synching with this Nordic approach to eating. It’s left me feeling healthier, a stone or two lighter, less impoverished and far more appreciative of good meat when I eat it. It’s also led to me discovering new dishes and has encouraged me to experiment more with vegetables and grains like beetroot, kale and spelt. The only weird thing about it is that none of my Swedish friends have ever heard of it!

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Trina Hahnemann’s book is an inspirational foundation for living a healthier, more balanced life. The opening section explains the nuts and bolts of the “diet” which is as much about lifestyle as it about hardcore nutrition. The book then continues to offer ideas for salads, soups, fishy and meaty main courses as well as puddings and solid advice about Scandinavian baking. I’ve tried many of the ideas in the book such as delicious beetroot burgers, roast chicken with rhubarb, fabulous fish cakes and fish wrapped in cabbage leaves and will be sharing these dishes with your shortly.

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My only criticisms are that there aren’t enough recipes and that every now and again they aren’t quite as exciting as they could be. But that’s the flip side of a diet book I guess. But I can’t criticise the amount of flavour the recipes deliver given the simple ingredients they involve. So as well as sharing my experiences with Trina’s recipes I am also going to give a few ideas of my own that are based on the principles of The Nordic Diet but with a few twists. In the meantime, if you are feeling a bit podgy and are keen for a culinary adventure rather than lots of cut backs, then join me in embracing The Nordic Diet.

Thanks to Quadrille for the book and for helping me fit into my old wardrobe. And I hope these photos of the book's wonderful photos aren't some horrific breach of copyright!

Further reading:

Collection of Nordic Diet links on my Delicious feed
Trina Hahnemann's Scandinavian Kitchen on Amazon
Trina Hahnemann's The Nordic Diet on Amazon

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Speedboat Saunas and Cured Fish at Salt & Sill

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What better way to spend a gloriously sunny Sunday with Cowie than to drive for an hour or so up the idyllic West Coast from Gothenburg and enjoy a smorgasbord of pickled fish and a sauna in Sweden's only floating hotel?

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Salt & Sill
means “salt and herring” in Swedish which is rather appropriate given that Klädesholmen, where the hotel is based, is also known as “herring island”. They've been catching and preserving herring here since the fifteenth century. In fact half of Sweden's pickled herring comes from this island. So if you're going to gorge on pickled herring it makes sense to do it here.

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On Sunday they serve a smörgåsbord from lunch time to early evening with an emphasis on the fishy end of the spectrum. Feeling exhausted after an early morning 10km run through a frosty forest, we found ourselves making an indecent number of return visits to the buffet table which saw me eating 12 types of expertly cured fish!

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Whilst the hot smoked salmon with a pepper crust and the cold smoked roasted salmon were excellent, it was the mackerel that stole the show. The hot smoked mackerel put the stuff you get in a vacuum pack for a quid to shame. This was robust, flaky, moist and meaty. It was so good in fact that it made three appearances on my plate! The lemon pickled mackerel (far left) with a crumbed coating was very unusual, but delicious. It was like eating honey lemon chicken from a Chinese take away. Except a lot better! The prawns were very good too but let's ignore the dried out mussels that probably aren't the wisest of choices for a buffet lunch.

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The cold smoked salmon and gravid lax were both good without being thrilling. But it was the strömming and quenelles of herring, potato, crème fraiche and dill that were the stars of this particular plate. The strömming (Swedish name for pickled herring from the East Coast) had been pickled in lemon and garlic and had a very meaty texture and pleasantly metallic taste. The quenelles were soft, and moreish - like the sort of potato salad that continental Europeans would love and children would gag on at a picnic.

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We couldn't have left with our heads held high without trying their award winning pickled herring. I know the thought of pickled herring makes a lot of people feel a bit queasy, but if they just tried these beauties they may well change their minds. Until I moved to Sweden I had no idea that there were so many flavours of pickled herring other than vinegar and dill. We went for the full range from traditional at the top, lemon and garlic at 1 o'clock, roe at 3 o'clock, mustard and whisky at the bottom, lobster at 8ish and blackcurrant at 10 o'clock.

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The caviar and crème fraiche cure was deliciously creamy with little bubbles of roe that popped yet more fishiness into your mouth.

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The lemon and garlic cure was the most herring-y of the lot and none the worse for it. But any more than two small pieces and you'd start to feel like a seal.

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The blackcurrant cure tasted like cassis making it a bit like having a fishy glass of Kir Royale! But our favourite was the mustard and whisky variety which recently won Sweden's best pickled herring award!

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Feeling like engorged whales we waddled out to the jetty for some fresh air and a James Bond-esque stint on their sauna boat. Sadly it was moored so we didn't get a chance for a 15 knot sauna and a drink at the bar… but a 20 minute blast at 85'c followed by an icy shower was a fine alternative that left us feeling purged and blissfully relaxed.

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As we walked back to the lounge we admired the stylish floating hotel which is the only one of its type in Sweden. Apparently they've built a lobster reef with the rubble generated from the construction and are installing a mussel filtration until underneath the pontoon. It's just another example of how they've managed to balance luxury, their environmental principles and a commitment to the wonderful fruits of this very special stretch of coastline.

We couldn't have had a more quintessentially Swedish experience. 12 types of cured fish, a floating sauna and enough Sven look-a-likes to manage all of England's deluded and cash rich non-Premier league football clubs. If you are keen to visit, then take a look at the special deal that starts in January where you can enjoy a lazy Sunday like we did and stay in the floating hotel (like we didn't) for a reduced rate.

Or if you visit in the summer then we've heard it's fun to cycle around the island on the hotel's complementary bikes. Or better still, pay the Astol Rokeri (smokery) a visit on the island of Astol which can you reach from Ronnang harbour. They have a reputation for serving the finest smoked fish on the West Coast and for looking after their guests like long lost friends. I'm looking forward to it already.

Many thanks to the West Coast of Sweden Tourist Board for laying on this excellent experience.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Mussel Soup - Cooked in a Coffee Machine

I’ve had some surreal experiences whilst writing this blog – from having the most disturbing massage of all time in India, to eating ortolan to cooking in a bathtub. And I can now add my afternoon cooking mussel soup in a coffee pot in Lysekill to the list!

The team who had organised the Mussel Safari had arranged for me and my new Swedish food blogger friends to compete in a live cook off in front of the whole town of Lysekill and on local radio. It was far bigger deal than I was expecting involving a gospel choir and some very groovy dancing to get people in the mood before we took to the stage!

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I was very fortuitously paired with Katja who has just been crowned Sweden’s top food blogger for her quirky cooking in a coffee pot! Given my penchant for lateral cooking methods we were a like kindred spirits as we set about cooking mussel and seafood soup in Katja’s very own coffee pot. Given that coffee pot cooking normally involves 3 or 4 hour cooking times, we had our work cut out.

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6 lovely Lysekil mussels
One percolator style coffee maker
One Katja
Tomato puree
2 langoustines
200g of monkfish
6 mussels
100ml of cream
1 finely chopped onion
1 clove of finely minced garlic
300ml of water
3 glasses of white wine
Sliced peppers
Salt and pepper


Given the time constraints we had to move very quickly so compromised on frying off the onions properly. If we had more time we would have gently sautéed them in the glass pot on the hot plate. But we concentrated instead on getting the water hot and using that as our cooking method instead.

Place 6 mussels and some dill in the filter compartment and boil the water in the tank so it percolates through the mussels. In the glass pot add the finely chopped onion, garlic and whole langoustines. The water should pass though the dill and mussels in about 4 or 5 minutes and then mingle together into a fishy fug.

Squirt some tomato puree into the pot and then add the lumps of monkfish. Add one glass of wine to yourself and one to the pot and then stand back and watch your coffee pot do the work whilst everyone else is busy chopping, frying, reducing and generally cooking properly.

After 20 minutes strain the contents into another vessel and then return to the glass pot. Discard the onion and garlic pieces. And remove the langoustines and mussel meat from their respective shells. Add them to the glass pot along with a slug of cream, the cooked monkfish pieces and some seasoning and return to the hot plate to heat through.

Serve in a polystyrene cup to rain soaked, highly bemused onlookers and reflect on what a bizarre, but brilliant experience the whole thing has been.

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The soup itself was surprisingly good. What it lacked in depth of flavour it more than made up for in terms of personality and flair. The members of the audience and judges certainly enjoyed it.

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If you’ve been even remotely as inspired as I have been by this surreal episode then you must check out Katja’s awesome cooking blog. And also have a look at her balloon blog and her boyfriend’s monster drawings. They’re both truly inspirational and I’m looking forward to our next lateral cooking adventure. Thanks you Katja and Dan for a few of the photos as well.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Paul Ainsworth at Number 6 in Padstow

Our annual pilgrimage to the Cornish coast was one part “glamping” and another part fitness camp. On a frustratingly rainy day we stayed dry and cheery by conducting our own version of “Escape to the Country” by driving around looking for derelict wrecks to spruce up and turn into our dream house. We found a fabulous seven bedroom mansion with roses growing out of the tumbled down living room and dreamt of a new life of Cornish bliss. But when we got back to our campsite our hearts dropped when we saw that our tent had suffered a similar architectural disaster! My slapdash approach to securing the guy ropes had caused the business end of the tent to collapse and soaked all our bedding inside.


To her credit Cowie didn’t blame me in the slightest, but we both knew it was my hopelessness that had caused the catastrophe. We had planned to cook dinner al fresco, but in an inspired moment we decided instead to see if we could get a table somewhere good and not Steiny in Padstow.

“Not a problem Sir. We’re looking forward to seeing you,” were the words from the charming telephonist at Paul Ainsworth’s Number 6 restaurant that lifted our sodden spirits. In fact they were lifted so much that we decided to go for a sun downer 6 mile run to build up our appetite. So with chaffed nipples and an appetite the size of a dieting Texan we descended on Padstow.

We’ve been to Padstow a fair bit over the years with a very memorable stay at an eccentric BnB and a blow-out meal of lobster and all the trimmings at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant, but we have recently started to pick up an unfriendly vibe from the village. Parking attendants are particularly officious. Shopkeepers refuse to give you change. Ice-cream-licking-tourists hang around with nothing to actually do. And finding somewhere to give you a decent cup of tea is almost impossible. So the warmth we were greeted with and the genuinely friendly service we received at Paul Ainsworth’s restaurant couldn’t have been more welcome.

Paul Ainsworth is a talented chef who earned his stripes within the Gordon Ramsay Empire at The Greenhouse and Petrus who upped sticks and headed west in 2008 to cook in Padstow. He worked to the orders of the then management before buying them out and taking over in the last year or so. Since then, according to our waiter, the restaurant has taken on a new lease of life and is being touted, by some, as a Michelin starred restaurant in waiting.

We immediately warmed to the restaurant which was ablaze with rosy cheeks, the hubble bubble of merry laughter and the glistening twinkle of licked-clean-plates. The menu is full of locally sourced produce and just as many fun ideas that make you want to sample every single item.

Feeling exhausted after our run I chose to feed my weary muscles with as much iron-y meat as possible. So a starter of Charles Macleod black pudding with Dave Thomasson scallops and carrot cream was as welcome as a scalding hot Radox bath. Both the perfectly cooked scallops and black pudding were worthy of bearing their maker’s name on the menu.

Cowie’s beef carpaccio salad with pea shoots and horseradish was so delicious that I was barely allowed a mouthful. But that one little taster was stunning.

The star of the show was a rather dull sounding “day boat plaice with sea greens, brown shrimps and sweet corn salsa”. It was a single-handed demonstration of just how fine plaice can be. It had been poached in a flavoursome liquor which left it quivering like a petrified toddler who’s just seen their Wendy House go up in flames. All the elements worked together perfectly and we just wished, like at Relais de Venise, that they would bring out a second portion!

My Cornish lamb's liver with braised bacon, lettuce and a tomato fondue couldn’t have been more what I wanted. It was as if Paul Ainsworth had judged my mood and cooked exactly what my body wanted but my mind hadn’t realised. The liver was tender, pink and perfectly seasoned whilst the braised bacon and lettuce was a pitch perfect counterpoint. The tomato fondue was a clever twist on the classic grilled version that normally comes with liver and bacon. It was a great example of how the chef tried to apply his own twist on classic dishes.

We shared a wonderful dessert of Boddingtons strawberries, thyme, cheesecake and strawberry sorbet. It almost ended in a fight as I absent-mindedly demolished far more than my fair share having said that I wasn’t really in a pudding mood! If you want to avoid arguments ruining the end of your meal, you might want to have their, rather pricey, dessert tasting slate.

As the evening drew to a close and the other guests all left we found ourselves having a enthusiastic conversation with our waiter who could not have been more passionate about food and hospitality if he had tried. I’ve since read an interview with Paul Ainsworth where he speaks about his young team with enormous pride – and it is easy to see why. It’s this sort of youthful passion that is infectious and helped to make our evening far more than the sum of its excellent parts.

Photo from the Paul Ainsworth at Number 6 Facebook page

Further Reading

You can follow Paul Ainsworth on Twitter or like the restaurant on Facebook which is a good idea given that their website is “under construction”
Review in The Telegraph
Glowing reviews on Tripadvisor
How to make Tongue-n-Cheek by Paul Ainsworth

Friday 12 November 2010

Magnus & Magnus - So Good they Named it Twice

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Magnus & Magnus is one of the top 10 restaurants in Gothenburg and has a reputation for being slick, cool and trendy which is all backed up by an excellent wine list and imaginative Scandinavian cooking. So when Cowie came to visit me for the weekend it was my number one choice for a bit of a bit of a blow out. The restaurant occupies a fine corner berth on quirky Magasingatan, which is graced by a shady speakeasy, nerdy murals, hip coffee shops and, now that winter has struck, shops renting sledges.

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The menu is cleverly composed by someone who is clearly au fait with Behavioural Economics. They have a two course menu for €39, a three course menu for €49, a four course tasting menu for €49 and a six courser for €59. So you’d be mad to go for the three courser which is exactly what most people would typically go for. As a result you are drawn inexorably into the four course tasting menu instead and therefore spend an extra €24 (including tip) per couple and probably guzzle more wine as well. It’s a perfect example of what Nudge would call a “decoy”. Understandably we choose the four course tasting menu but opted not to pair a wine with each course and instead choose an excellent bottle of reasonably priced Grüner Veltliner. After a very welcome amuse of 80% warm cream and 20% pumpkin we got stuck into the good stuff.

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Carpaccio of beef · onion · carrot · butter

Their menu descriptions take a leaf out of St. John’s textbook, opting for simplicity over intricate details. The beef carpaccio was as tender as a Blur ballad with the thyme leaves adding a fragrant lift. The pickled onion worked well, but in contrast, the three styles of carrot, whilst vibrant to look at were rather bland in the mouth.

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Perch · Västerbotten cheese · potato · bleak roe

The perch was stunningly cooked, with a soft interior and crumbed shell. Anya potatoes were served simply boiled and curiously, turned into crushed up crisps. It was as if the chef had decided it was a good idea to munch a packet of Walkers and then tipped the dregs out onto our otherwise very impressive plate of food. A dollop of whipped cheese foam and a couple of splodges of bleak roe added further textures, but we finished the dish wondering what was going on. The extra accoutrements were like the bad metaphors in this paragraph that distract from the main point.

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Cod · fennel · cucumber · oysters

Cowie’s cod was a triumph. It was perfectly flaky and cooked by someone who would rather die than serve someone overcooked fish. The fennel and cucumber salad was textbook Cowie, but the less said about the burnt, limp chips the better.

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Venison · scorzonera · lingonberries · jerusalem artichoke

My venison was deeply flavoured and matched very successfully with a sharp lingonberry sauce, as well as the earthy tones of artichokes and salsify. I’d eat it all over again, every day of the week. But I’d like it even more if it had been cooked for 60 seconds less and with double helpings of the buttery celeriac mash.

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Blackberry · chocolate · coffee

Our dessert was a bit weird. Let’s just say that coffee ice cream, cassis infused chocolate mousse, blackberries and stale cake isn’t something that makes me want to do a Gregg Wallace and bite my spoon. It’s more like one of those hideous “concoctions” from Starbucks for people who don’t like coffee.

Despite a few glitches Magnus & Magnus is a very classy restaurant that I’m looking forward to revisiting time and time again for the atmosphere, imaginative food and excellent wine list. It’s tasteful but relaxed and encourages you to loosen up and enjoy yourself without taking itself too seriously. Whilst it isn’t as good as Kock och Vin and isn’t as indulgently fishy as Sjömagasinet, it certainly deserves the warm praise it receives from Gothenburgers. If you’re planning a visit to Gothenburg and fancy an urbane night of Swedish creativity, then Magnus & Magnus won’t let you down. For the full experience have a drink opposite in Puta Madre beforehand.

Further reading

Kock och Vin
Puta Madre

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Mussel Safari at Lysekil

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The West Coast of Sweden Tourist board very kindly took me on a Mussel Safari off the coast of Lysekil along with five of Sweden’s top food bloggers. So not only did I get to see more of the idyllic Swedish coastline, but I also got to eat fantastic shellfish and meet some inspiring people.

The West Coast of Sweden’s defining characteristic is its relationship with the chilly North Sea which creates the insane weather that Gothenburg is blessed with and nourishes the seafood that graces the icy counters of the feskekorka. It’s the reason why Gothenburg has five Michelin starred restaurants and why this rocky coastline is such a rewarding place to indulge in a shellfish safari.

After an overnight stay in the seaside town of Lysekil, our mussel safari started with a mist shrouded chug out to sea guided by mussel-men Lars Marstone and Adriaan van Der Plasse. Because I was the only non-Swede I stood at the back and admired their nautical roll-necks and the handsome shoreline views.

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Adriaan explained to me, in English, that the mussels take around two years to grow to maturity and thrive in the nutrient rich waters. They use the tried and tested nylon stocking technique where the mussel seeds are sown in a nylon sheath and then dangled off rafts into the sea. The mussels then grow on the rope itself before their gonads reach maturity. The diagram below from The Fish Site illustrates the process well.

Adriaan has been growing mussels all around the world, from Chile to Holland, for an eternity, so he knows what he’s talking about. The mussels we saw were six-month-old mini mussels that were still doing their GCSEs. His favourite way of eating his catch is to maintain their flavour by simply steaming them and then gorging on their seasoned naked flesh. No fancy sauces. No Thai green curry. No white wine and garlic. And definitely no cream.

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Adriaan also farms oysters in the same bay. He proudly explained that because of the ferociously cold winter this year’s natives are some of the finest he’s ever eaten. He lost 80% of his crop, which wasn’t insured, thanks to the two-mete layer of ice that covered the sea. But, as if by following a combination of Pareto and Darwin’s theories, the 20% that survived are stunningly tasty as I found out back on dry land.

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Sadly we didn’t get to try any mussels or oysters on board the boat on this particular trip. For paying punters Adriaan will swallow dive into the sea and return like a rugged mermaid clutching a bounty of be-shelled protein before cooking it there and then for you on the deck. In the bastardised words of Greg Wallace, “Cooking doesn’t get much fresher than this”.

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Unfortunately, we had to wait till we were back in Lysekil before we could taste the mussels which were served in a creamy soup that was laden with lip smacking garlic. But it was worth the wait. As was the sight of a market dripping with crayfish and the black gold of the sea...

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I trundled back down the coast to Gothenburg with my stomach full of mussels and my head jammed full of fishy facts whilst trying to persuade the tourist board to send me on one of their four other Shellfish Safaris.

You can find out more about going on a Lobster, Crayfish, Prawn, Mussel or Oyster Safari here or if you’re keen to book a trip then take a gander here.

And whilst we are on the subject of “Big Fives”, you should check out my “fem” new favourite Swedish food bloggers who I met on this trip...

Linnea's beautiful blog is soon to become a book about making the most of your pantry, Swedish style!

Kinna is a bit of a social media guru and has an excellent food blog that's good for when you want to practice your Swedish

Emma's Kök
is full of stunning photographs of food that is designed to be swift and tasty

Kalasgott has quickly become one of my favourites - from the photos to the charming design. It also helps that Jenny is lots of fun. It's also got a nifty feature that lets your translate the text into English.

I found a kindred spirit in Katja who cooks all her food in a coffee pot - look out for a forthcoming post about an unusual way of cooking mussel soup

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