We are pushy parents – we recognised and reconciled ourselves to this long ago, but it does help our cause that our eldest is a very bright spark indeed. My wife, until fairly recently, worked for an education-based company that produces worksheets, which Cameron has been working his way through since shortly before he was two, enticed by carrots and sticks of varying type appropriate to his age. About a year ago we introduced the concept of the sticker chart; initially this yielded small rewards for regular landmarks, but, once this became a little mundane for Cam (and expensive for us), we opted for a bigger treat every time a full chart was finished.
The form of this big treat has so far manifested as a day out somewhere exciting with either one of us; a day of unadulterated attention from a parent being as big a part of said treat as the destination (call it a symptom of modern Western society if you will). So far Cam has chalked up a trip to Drayton Manor (incorporating Thomas LandTM!) and a visit to the National Space Centre. This week, after much research into alternatives and agonising over whether this or that attraction would be exciting / thrilling / gravity-defying enough to fit the bill, I opted to head up the A1 to Ripon, to the famous Lightwater Valley.
I could, in retrospect, have chosen a better date. A Friday preceding a bank holiday weekend, and one promising warm if not tropical weather, on one of the three main trunk roads north: I realised too late that I would be spending much of the two-hour journey cursing the mobile roadblocks commonly referred to as “caravans”.
I’ve a slightly Freudian relationship with caravans. Too many holidays as a child spent cooped up in the oxymoronic “static” variety in Cumbria and southern France. Having, as an adult, become acquainted with the wonderful invention known as the “hotel” (oh, the joys of hot running water!), I’ve become increasingly unable to understand the appeal of squeezing a family group of whatever size into what is essentially a partitioned Tupperware box. Perhaps it’s supposed to summon up the spirit of togetherness that we are told you get when being bombed by the Luftwaffe. Or maybe it’s a bit of reverse psychology, a reminder that however crap one’s normal existence, it could be worse. Whatever it is, thousands of people do it every bank holiday and clog up the roads for the rest of us who want to travel swiftly to our destinations.
Eventually, having done battle with the cohort of wheeled Tupperware, we arrived safely at Lightwater Valley, and paid our fourteen pounds each to get access to the fun bit. Amusingly there’s also a bird of prey centre, separately accessed and charged for, and a small shopping village, presumably for those poor parents who cannot stand theme parks but get roped into taxi duty for their teenagers. I say amusingly regarding the birds of prey only because I can’t imagine anyone going to Lightwater for that attraction alone, and those that do doubtless have to suffer extremely black looks from their children for the rest of the day.
Per my newfound best buddies at Tripadvisor, I found the park somewhat lacking when compared to its rivals elsewhere in the country. Drayton Manor is far superior, albeit a little more costly. Alton Towers beats it for both rides and wasps. In fact I would suggest the only thing in Lightwater’s favour is the relative shortness of queue – perhaps unsurprising. I’m being a little harsh – I don’t think it’s a million miles away from being a good theme park – it just needs a bit of vision and direction.
Having been forewarned about pricey eateries we made sure we took supplies and didn’t have to pay through the nose for food at the park, but this is the same for captive audiences at attractions everywhere. London Zoo is among the worst that I’ve experienced, although happily there my youngster got bored of mere animals fairly quickly and was more interested in the canal boats which rescued us from poor quality seven-pound burgers (money, not weight) and delivered us to the culinary delights of Camden Town.
Having said all of the above, Cameron had a fantastic day out and particularly enjoyed the swan-shaped pedalos, which he has since pretended virtually every one of his “ride-ons” is. And if Cameron’s happy then I’m happy, so it was a good day.
Time for a dodgy link to a recipe. Sometimes a little extra effort can yield great results: my day at the Valley was considerable effort for me but yielded an exhaustedly happy child; the Valley itself could be much better with a little well-placed effort of its own. Similarly, a dish that can be made excellent with a little added attention is the humble risotto. We eat loads of risotto and have half a dozen variations, but the basic recipe is the same and is below. I’ve suggested a couple of varieties here but a white risotto is like a blank canvas – use your imagination and you can create a thousand great dishes.
Basic risotto (serves 2)
- One onion, chopped
- Clove of garlic, crushed or finely chopped
- Stick of celery, finely sliced (for me it is very important to slice very finely)
- 250g of Arborio or other risotto rice (don’t rinse it!)
- Glass of dry vermouth (don’t use bianco, we tried that once and it was awful – use dry white wine or dry sherry if you can’t get vermouth)
- Pint of veg stock
- 50-75g of grated parmesan
- A little oil, we prefer olive
- Optional knob of butter
- Salt and pepper
Soften the onion, garlic and celery in the oil, for about five minutes. Add the rice, stir-fry for a couple of minutes and pour in the alcohol. Then add the stock a little at a time every time the liquid is fully absorbed, stirring continually to get the starch out of the rice and make it nice and creamy.
Once all the liquid is gone, the rice should be soft – I’m a philistine and don’t go for al dente, but you can check it earlier and stop adding stock when you’re happy with it. Add the parmesan and stir through until melted, then do the same with the butter if using. When seasoned, you have a basic white risotto. I like to top with a little more parmesan for serving.
- Handful of spring onions, finely sliced
- Handful of frozen peas
- Handful of broad beans, peeled (that means peeling the white outer bit on each bean, not just the big green shells on fresh beans, and yes it is a faff, and yes it is worth it)
- Handful of asparagus stems
Add the spring onions with (or instead of, if you like) the other onion, and add the peas about halfway through cooking. Separately fry off the asparagus in some more butter and add towards the end with the broad beans.
Fennel, ricotta and chilli
- One or two chopped fennel bulbs (this time of year is rubbish for fennel and they’re tiny and expensive)
- Teaspoon of fennel seeds
- 100g of ricotta
- Teaspoon of dried chilli flakes
- Couple of teaspoons of chopped fresh dill
- Squeeze of lemon juice
Crush the fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar and add to the fennel bulbs with some seasoning and a little oil in a separate pan. Fry slowly with the lid on for some time, until golden. Add to the risotto mix no more than three quarters of the way through cooking. When cooked, stir through the ricotta and lemon and serve, topping with the dill and chilli flakes.
Other nice risottos
- Butternut squash and fresh sage or marjoram
- Wild mushroom and parsley
- Blue cheese and smoked bacon (obviously not for the vegetarians – but very tasty – I like to use Blacksticks for the cheese but others work just as well)