Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Great gifts for your seasonal host

I am well and truly over the school run, after-school activities and sensible bed times. With just a week to go to the Big Day, I’m already dreaming of mornings spent in my PJs surrounded by wrapping paper and slightly hazy afternoons filled with family and friends.

Since this year I don’t need to be basting a turkey and wrapping pigs in blankets on Xmas morning, I’m feeling rather relaxed about the whole affair (although it is true that my Christmas cards are still sitting stamp-less on the sofa, and there’s unwrapped presents shoved in every hidey-hole I could think of). My main concern now is to source some rather lovely gifts to give to the hosts of the yuletide and New Year gatherings that I’m lucky enough to be invited to. And since, in true relaxed style, I’ve left it too late to order online, I’m heading off to the Great British High Street to do some last minute shopping…
Literally drooling at my keyboard Hotel Chocolat!

If there’s one place I can’t pass by without drooling it is British cocoa grower and chocolatier Hotel Chocolat. And have you seen its range of Xmassy gifts? (Look away now if you have no willpower…). As well as the best type of Christmas cracker I’ve even seen (contains 40 chocolates rather than plastic moustaches and dubious fortune-telling fish), it also offers a Festive Wreath with cookies and Florentines embedded into its chocolaty circle and a dark chocolate gianduja log studded with hazelnuts and pistachios. For a New Year gathering you might want to consider the Chocolate Dipping Adventure, a selection box of its tantalising chocs – or even cocoa gin (right now, I’m pretty much considering all of those things…mmmmmm).

If there’ll be plenty of corks popping when you’re partying, why not consider some gifts to help out your bubbly host? Lakeland offers a champagne opener, a ‘bubbly bung’ (in case you leave any bottles unfinished??), as well as Caviar d'Arôme and Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup (to add to the fizz and give it that little bit extra). And if you’re up for a bit of fun, why not take along a bottle of Blue Nun Sparkling Gold, a glitzy white wine with flecks of 22 Carat gold leaves to get the party started (available from Rhythm & Booze stores nationwide or in mini-bottles from ASDA).

Christmas cheer in a glass!

If your host is more tea and cakes than champers and canapés, perhaps a trip to Cath Kidston might be in order (the brand has been with us for 20 years now, how did that happen)? With china ranges including 3-tier cake stands and ‘proper’ tea cups and saucer sets, you can’t fail to impress any hostess with the mostess (plus you can buy some ‘Stanley’ shortbread biscuits – yum!). Joules also offers some lovely kitchenware – with the badger and fox designs bringing a touch of tongue-in-cheek country to any home.

If you want to pamper the lady of the house that you’ve checked into, head to John Lewis. The store is awash with luxury gifts, not least its selection of candles, which includes Jo Malone, Dipytique and Cochine offerings. In the beauty hall you can choose from the top brands which will help melt away hostess stress – everything from Liz Earle, Elemis, Rodial and Bare Minerals. Swoon! If you want to take your beauty gift to cult level, head to Space NK – something like the Georgia Louise Lift and Sculpt Butterfly Stone will set your gift apart from any other. I dare you to get in and out of that shop without buying something for yourself too!!
You will be invited back

So with all this shopping to do, I should probably stop blogging and get buying! If you have time to comment in the box below, I’d love to know which gift you’d choose! Right now, I’m off to the shops – and probably the post box too…

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Does your Christmas tree have the balls?

This week I have mostly been teaching my two girls what testicles are. Why on earth…? I hear you cry. Well, for a start it stops any more awkward questions about how Santa makes it around the world in just one night, how he monitors nice/naughty behaviour and why there are just soooo many look-a-likes about the place (they are his cousins, in case you were wondering). But more importantly, it is because a shiny, red pair of testicles came through my front door last weekend.

C'mon, who wouldn't want a pair of balls for their tree?

Fret not, I was expecting them! These very special ‘Bauballs’ are part of a seasonal campaign by Orchid, the UK’s leading charity focussed exclusively on male specific cancers. Once out of their presentation box, the Bauballs can take pride of place on your tree – and serve as a little reminder that a quick self-exam can help catch testicular cancer in the early stages (98% of men that are treated in this stage will make a full recovery). The boxed balls make an ideal stocking filler for your man – and a great Secret Santa gift. With a suggested donation  of £5, the Bauballs are available from House of Fraser stores and online. One hundred per cent of the donations go to Orchid.

This pose requires a Barbie with bendy knees

But where does Mummy come into this equation you may ask? Well, I think we all know the stats about how men with partners are generally healthier, and that men tend to leave serious health issues for too long (and yet are quite happy to go to town on the Man Flu thing). So, inside the Bauball box you will also find a little leaflet with some info on how to check for signs of testicular cancer (lumps, swelling, firmness, pain, fluid accumulation, a dull ache or heaviness). And it includes a paragraph about making the check that bit more fun. Just make sure the kids are in bed first.

It's more fun with a friend

And I understand that lots of kiddies are only too happy to get into bed on Christmas Eve...

There's a space for your comments below of course (don't leave me dangling!).

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Santa doesn't always ride a sleigh...

Unbelievably my first Christmas outing was not the BritMums do I wrote about last week (despite the fact that it was still only November then!). Just the day before, I took part in a charity Santa Dash. Yes, I ran 5k dressed in a full Father Christmas suit (beard and all) – and then afterwards ate a mince pie as festive tunes played in the background. I have to say, it was a perfect way to start the season and I can only hope (and yet think it is unlikely) that the rest of my Yuletide is as virtuous!

The Thames Hospice Santa Dash with Bracknell Forest mayor Councillor Jan Angel

The tradition of Santa Dashes (and sometimes accompanying Reindeer Runs for children) is alive and well up and down the country. On any given weekend in November and December you are likely to see a sack (the best collective noun I could come up with...) of Santas pounding pavements and braving the elements in big cities like London, Liverpool, Brighton, Exeter and Glasgow as well as more low-key locations like the one I did in Swinley Forest, Bracknell. The Santa runs do all have one thing in common though – they raise much-needed funds for deserving charities through sponsorship. The one I attended was in aid of Thames Hospice, which provides treatment and support for terminally-ill adults, and those that love and care for them.

A warm welcome

If you’ve ever had a loved one die from a serious illness, you know that is can be a long and painful process – for the patient and their friends and family. My paternal Aunt died from cancer when she was in her early fifties. For many patients facing the end of their life, like she did, simple things like male and female wards and private rooms can make a difference. People want to retain their dignity and independence as far as they can, and often have concerns about how and where they will spend those last precious days. The NHS is sometimes unable to provide the type of care desired to everyone that needs it.

Santa's little helper ready for his run

Thames Hospice runs a 17-bed unit in Windsor, with consultants, doctors, nurses, therapists and social workers, and a Community Therapy Unit for day services including social and support programmes and clinics. It also offers its free-of-charge and vital services in people’s homes – and is available 365 days of the year. But expert nursing and medical care – and supporting the physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs of patients during their illness – does not come cheap. Fundraisers and donors raise the £5.5m each year to ensure this compassionate approach to palliative care can continue. It makes running for half an hour in beautiful surroundings seem very much like the easy option.

My support team

Christmas is an ideal time to think about how we might help others, and a Santa run, while helping to fundraise for a worthy cause, is a fun festive event that allows those of us in good health to make the most of it. The way I look at it, everyone’s a winner!

If you’d like to donate to Thames Hospice, my JustGiving fundraising page is still open.

My medal doubles as a tree decoration too

Have you recently taken part in a charity event? Want to get up off the Christmas couch and do something more strenuous than pull a cracker? Leave a comment and let me know which charity events are important to you.

Monday, 2 December 2013

It’s 5pm shomewhere…

Yay to me – it’s only November and I have been to my first Christmas party of the year. And there was wine even though it was barely 11am (but shurely it’s 5pm shomewhere right?). And excuse me while I hashtag all over the place, but this was blogger central – the #BritMumsXmasDo – a jolly affair where bloggers could come out from behind their keyboards (touchscreens?) and enjoy the festivities courtesy of Morrisons.

Barbie gets right into introducing herself
Maybe it was the cosy lighting, maybe it was the wine and the good company – or maybe it was a Christmas combo of all these things – but it was a great way to kick off the festive season, not least because I overhead the following funnies…

‘Bloggers don't eat anything they haven’t photographed first’

These little biscuits wore their disco pants...

When I walked into the event – it was as if someone had screamed ‘don’t touch the food’ a few moments before I’d got there (they didn’t – in fact they were saying quite the opposite!!). The room was awash with appreciative ‘ooos’ and ‘aaahs’ as bloggers carefully circled the Christmassy treats enticingly laid out on central tables. But no one touched a thing until all the required images had been captured (and in some cases immediately uploaded to Twitter), because Bloggers like to look real hard – and take pictures. The star attractions included Ronnie The Reindeer Cake (£7.99), the already erected Make Your Own Gingerbread House kits (£4.99), the Super-Sized CandyCanes (£3) and the cute little Disco Pants biscuits (£2). Not that I stopped there, as there was also goodies like a Yule log, pretzels, ‘Pigs & Blankets’ and Panettone loaf that needed a good sampling (for research purposes I tell ya). I even snaffled some chocolate coins for my kids.

The Barbies do love an ice bucket

‘Butter and turkey should be married’

The man main attraction of the day was Neil Nugent, Morrisons’ Executive Chef and Head of Product Development. Nugent personally signed off 972 Xmas products this year, and was on hand to tell us how to cook a perfect Christmas meal. The biggest blunder is overcooking the turkey he said. To avoid this, get your bird out of the fridge a few hours before cooking so it doesn’t go into the oven cold, shake your turkey to open it up and to ensure even cooking, then get some soft (but not melted) butter under the skin (access should be from the neck end). Rather controversially he then went on to say don’t stuff it, and don’t truss it and NEVER use foil (because that steams it silly). Allow 20 minutes then 20 minutes per kg after that for cooking time and when its stretch is up use a basic probe to check for cold spots (like the armpits next to the bone).If all’s well, let your turkey rest, and the juices will make it easier to carve.

'Ronnie' didn't stand a chance against a hoard of hungry bloggers
Nugent was similarly provocative with his views on spuds, declaring ‘never boil a potato’ to the room (on the basis that the outside cooks quicker than the inside).You can’t go wrong with a Maris Piper apparently, and when you are ready to roast, dust a bit of semolina on your part-cooked potatoes for that professional edge. He was happy to recommend preparing accompaniments like veg, bread sauce and gravy base ahead of the day itself. And finally, I must add, that Nugent was ‘poached’ from Waitrose (seriously, who doesn’t love a foodie pun?).

‘That’s actually not for eating’

 After a few glasses of a rather smooth Saint-Veran, I felt even more relaxed about testing the tables teeming with festive food. That is when I spied the three different types of Christmas pud from the M Signature line on display. That’s interesting I thought to myself, I’ve never really compared different types of those, I wonder if I’d prefer the Candy Apple-encrusted one – or the Jewelled Fruit? So, locating a rather large fork, I dug in. I was just savouring said desserts when one of the food stylists (who were lovely incidentally) subtly informed me that the puds weren’t cooked and that I probably wouldn’t want to eat them. MY BAD! Of course I knew you have to cook Christmas pudding, of course I did… (it tasted good and I’m fine by the way, so in case of a zombie apocalypse and all you’ve got to eat is Morrisons uncooked Christmas pudding, dig in).
Barbie...putting the 'no' into Noel


Well, all’s well that ends well, and indeed I left armed with a goodie bag of tasty treats, feeling like this Christmas party thing is rather fun. I met some lovely bloggers I’d not come across before – like Mummy Endeavours, who has 4 children including twins, Steph’s Two Girls, who started her blog as a diary after a diagnosis of autism for her younger daughter, and Ali Clifford from Kids Chaos (every parent knows how that blog got that name!). I hope I’ll bump into them again on and off line!

The Barbies made time to try out some new Morrisons outfits
So, have you started to party yet? Did you hang your decorations this weekend – or do you prefer to wait until we are well into December before you get that Christmas jumper out (come on you know you want to)?