I’m told that I might offend some of my readers by using Christmas to describe this fabulous festive time. I simply don’t believe it. Here in Britain we couldn’t be more multi-cultural or diverse if we tried, yet with remarkable tolerance and good sense not one of our many diverse communities makes a fuss. Everyone understands that Father Christmas is not about religion, he’s about tradition. In fact, Christmas puddings mince pies (not meat, but sweet fruit in gooey sauce) holly, ivy, robins, mistletoe and all the rest of it is Britain at its most traditional. Isn’t that why millions of visitors pour into these islands every year? Because no one does tradition quite like us?
The picture at the top of this column says it all. Holkham Hall is a stately home, an 18th century mansion in Norfolk, just a couple of hours up the motorway from our house. It’s still lived in and enjoyed by the Coke family, heirs of the Earl of Leicester and each year the whole house celebrates a proper traditional Christmas with every trimming you could imagine. Over 3000 tree decorations, a real fairy, reading stories, in a room full of fairies, crystal chandeliers dripping with glass baubles, a unicorn, a mad tea-party with tea cups suspended from the ceiling, hundreds of gingerbread men, Christmas trees in every room and ‘genuine’ Victorians in full costume, many from the nearby town of Wells-Next-The-Sea, drifting about adding atmosphere.
Just wandering around Holkham Hall, experiencing exactly how much the British cherish Christmas convinced me, with travel in my DNA, that it was time to keep the home fires burning this year. It’s all just too seductive to go anywhere else.
What’s more, other London home exchangers agree with me.
Take Mark and Louise who are practically neighbours, just up the hill and around the corner in Highgate. They’ve got a gorgeous, Victorian house that home exchangers love to discover. But this year, Mark and Louise, along with their three sons, Daniel, Gabriel and Rufus have turned down villas in Spain and beach houses in Florida. Highgate High Street, lined with Georgian houses and Dickensian shop fronts is the place for them. The village is not much more than that. A High street, plus a traditional square and a whole lot of lanes and alleyways winding their way behind. But just scatter a little snow around, add a few coloured lights, place a clutch of carol singers on a corner and it’s everyone’s dream of the perfect Christmas. Mark, who’s a songwriter, has even written a song about it, starring friends and family. He’s called it ‘Christmas cake’ and it’s set in a cake shop window with everyone looking as if they’re made of marzipan. I enquire if he always gets caught up like this is the spirit of Christmas. “Of course,” says Mark. “It’s tradition.”
Tradition brings the pantomime, a form of theatre that exists nowhere else in the world, with the leading figure, the Dame played by a man in drag, preferably a known straight man, while the principal boy, in fishnet tights and high heels is a woman. And they wonder why the English are a trifle confused about their sex lives!
Tradition has us making our Christmas puddings weeks in advance and only revealing our recipes, in urgent whispers to true and trusted friends.
Tradition has also always dictated that the Christmas cake has to be dark brown and stuffed with dried fruits and brandy. Hmmmm. I’ve never actually liked it, and nor has my family. Why not, we all thought, try something else? My favourite chef, Australian Chris Honor, who has opened ‘Chriskitch’, the best local café/restaurant in the area came up with an idea for me. “Christmas colours”, he said, “are red, white and green, so why not a red, white and green Christmas cake?”
We cooked a Red Velvet cake, which was mesmerisingly delicious. As you might guess I can be pretty guarded about special recipes, but in the spirit of Christmas and good will towards all men (and women) I shall include Chris’s Red Velvet Christmas Cake recipe for all my readers to try. I have never made a more exotic cake in my life. Deep red with creamy white cheese frosting with a scattering of icing sugar and a great red and green poinsettia flower in the middle.
As I sit here now, in front of my fire, sipping a mulled wine I am overcome with Christmas spirit and will include the pudding recipe as well. It’s been in the family for 50 years. How’s that for tradition?
Happy, happy Christmas and festive season. May your God go with you all.
YOUR LONDON HOME FROM HOME
If not for this Christmas, for another great holiday:
ID 41978, Sandra’s 5 bedroom, 2 bathroom Edwardian style home in Muswell Hill, London.
ID 218095, Mark and Louise’s Victorian 4 bedroom, 2-bathroom home in Highgate, London.
CHRISTMAS RECIPES – THE SECRET IS OUT!
Sandra’s Sister’s Christmas Pudding
- 500 g (2 cups) mixed dried fruit (sultanas, raisins, candied peel, cherries, etc)
- 250 – 300 g (1 – 1⅓ cup) dates
- 125 g (½ cup) butter
- 1 cup brown sugar (firmly packed)
- 3 eggs
- 1½ cups of stale white breadcrumbs
- 1 juicy green apple, not too sweet (the secret!)
- 1 cup self-raising flour
- ⅓ cup of brandy
- Chop all the fruit together and put in a large mixing bowl
- Melt butter, add to fruit with sugar and eggs and mix well
- Stir in breadcrumbs and peeled and grated apple.
- Add sifted flour (with pinch of salt) and brandy.
- Put in a large, well greased pudding basin (about 4 pints or 10 cups capacity)
- Cover the basin with foil or baking parchment and keep it tight with either string or a rubber band.
- Boil or steam for four hours. Boil or steam for another 2 hours on the day of serving.
- Present your pudding to the table with a sprig of holly. Wait for it to be admired.
- Remove the holly; pour over a couple of tablespoons full of warmed brandy. Set it alight and wait for it to be admired yet again.
- Serve with custard or cream or both and brandy butter on the side. Come back for more about an hour later.
Red Velvet Christmas Cake
- 2 cups of flour
- 70 g (⅓ cup) cocoa
- 2 tsp bi-carb (baking soda)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1½ cup of sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup full fat (whole) milk
- 50 g (¼ cup) cooked beetroot
- 100 ml good balsamic
- 125 ml olive oil
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Heat oven 180C (350F), line a 20cm spring form pan with baking paper
- Add flour, cocoa, baking, bicarb soda, sugar and mix
- In a food prover mix beetroot and balsamic
- Add eggs and oil to the dry flour mix, fold until combined. Fold in beetroot and balsamic mix.
- Put in tin and cook for about 30 -40 mins
Note: some ingredients are listed in “g” for “grams.” We have provided approximate conversions, in parentheses.
If you’re anything like us, the holiday season took you a little bit by surprise this year. Can you really believe there’s only two weeks until Christmas? To help you with your holiday shopping (so you can get back to planning your next adventure) we’ve put together a list of some of our favorite, road-tested products for the travelers in your life.
1. Knock Knock Pack This! Pad
Thankfully, Knock Knock’s Pack This! Pad has you covered. With an exhaustive list of items including “motion-sickness remedy”, separate clothing categories for dressy and casual, and every electronic device (and charger!) you could think of, the only thing you have to worry about is getting out the door.
2. Travelon Hanging Toiletry Kit
These days, packing your toiletries is hard work. For starters, there’s the dreaded 1-quart-bag restriction…should you pack those items separately? Forget about it and hope for the best?
The Travelon Hanging Toiletry Kit is large enough to accommodate all of your essentials PLUS your 1-quart bag, with room to spare for jewelry, shaving supplies, hair tools, and more. Yet it’s compact enough to fit in a roll-aboard carry on with ease. When you arrive at your destination, simply hook it to a towel bar, doorknob, curtain rod…you get the picture. Especially useful for bathrooms with less counter space, as frequently found in small apartments! Our tester was thrilled with its capacity and organizational features, and will be taking it on all future trips, long or short.
3. Josie Maran Argan Balm
Airplane travel can be less than luxurious, and the nearly zero percent humidity can wreak havoc on our skin and hair.
Happily, we’ve discovered Josie Maran Argan Balm, a densely moisturizing balm packed with natural and organic emollient ingredients. Our community manager gave it a try after cross-country flight, and it instantly restored life to her dry hands and lips. And because one can never underestimate the power of a multi-tasking product when packing for a vacation, this stuff doubles as a cuticle cream, face serum, and even a hair tamer. What’s not to love?
BONUS: Use promo code HomeExchange at checkout for $10 off a purchase of $50 or more through December 31st
4. Herban Essentials Towelettes
No two ways about it: travel is a dirty business. From crummy tray tables to mysterious sticky spots on your headrest, we always find things we’d like to give a good scrub when we get into a plane, train, or rental car. But as much as we hate germs, we hate harsh, damaging chemicals and artificial scents even more. Luckily, Herban Essentials doesn’t much care for chemicals OR germs. The family run company’s Towelettes use 100% pure essential oils like lavender and eucalyptus and are naturally antibacterial – and since they’re chemical-free, they’re perfect for use on hands. Try the orange variety, our favorite!
It’s a fact that no matter where you go, you’ll need an extra bag. Whether it’s collecting shells on the beach in Mexico, doing some heavy shopping in New York, or hitting the farmer’s market in Paris, you’re going to need a place to stash those finds. Why not do it the eco-friendly way with a sturdy reusable tote? The Baggu bag comes in every color of the rainbow and its uses are endless. Beach bag? Check! Picnic basket? Done! These little guys fit as much as three plastic grocery store bags, slip comfortably over your shoulder, hold up to 50 pounds (that’s a lot of baguettes!) and fold down into their own 5×5” pouch. They’re even machine washable!
6. RuMe ID Luggage Tag
Lost luggage is a total nightmare and has the potential to ruin a whole trip. Tip the odds of finding your missing suitcase in your favor with the RuMe ID Tag. This high-tech helper has a QR code on the back (which you easily register before using it) that will let whoever finds your bag know how to get in touch with you and where to send it. You can update it for each trip you take, and even include a personal note or reward for its safe return. Plus, these cool tags are made out of 100% recycled, durable aluminum. Happy luggage, happy planet!
7. Lo & Sons OG Bag
We’ve been on the hunt for ages for the perfect weekender bag to double as a “personal item” for airplane travel. It needed to be stylish enough to carry on its own so that we wouldn’t scream “tourist” once we arrived at our destination, durable enough to hold up to heavy travel, and have a ton of compartments and pockets to help us stay organized along the way. Enter the Lo & Sons OG Bag, which may well be the perfect travel companion.
The OG bag is lovely to look at and comes in a range of perfectly neutral colors. It features a water- and stain-resistant nylon interior and exterior, genuine leather straps, and shiny gold or silver hardware. But this bag is much more than just a pretty face. Hidden inside its walls is the patented internal support strap system, which means that the bag will never slouch or pull and all of the weight inside will be evenly distributed. Our community manager tested out the bag’s signature feature while speeding through Chicago O’Hare airport to make a connecting flight with great success…all of the items in her bag stayed firmly where she had left them, and the OG held its shape beautifully.
In addition to the internal strap system, the OG features a bevy of pockets and compartments: a padded laptop sleeve, a document/tablet sleeve, two open slide pockets, and a zippered pocket in the main compartment PLUS an external compartment with pen slots, id sleeve, phone sleeve, a key fob, and a “secret pocket” for travel documents or cash. Better still, there’s a zippered pocket along the side of the bag for your shoes, keeping them separate from your clean clothes and laptop. And if you’re using it in addition to a rolling suitcase, the OG has a convertible back pocket that unzips into a sleeve so that you can slide it onto your luggage’s handle.
Photo via Lo&Sons
The amount of stuff we packed into our OG is pretty incredible given its unassuming size: A 13” laptop, weekly planner, notebook, a collection of photos, toiletry kit, quart bag, travel blanket, neck pillow, makeup bag, pens, wallet, phone, keys, DSLR camera, a few snacks, and extra socks for the plane. Even after being shoved under the airplane seat, it looks as good as new. The OG is a little pricey, but we recommend it without hesitation.
BONUS: Lo & Sons is offering 20% off all orders through December 31st with code HOLIDAYSALE2013
Disclaimer: All above products were provided to HomeExchange.com for review, but opinions are our own.
Judy lives in Redondo Beach, California and has spent the last 20 years working with HomeExchange.com – in fact, she was our very first Team Member! She usually travels with her partner, David, and together they’ve done swaps all over Europe and North America. Over 20 exchanges…and counting!
The most amazing country I have visited so far is…
Italy. I have been to Lago Maggiore, Venice, Rome, and Sicily, and after each visit I have wanted to return for the food, the people, and the culture. It is such a special place.
A language I simply adore…
Portugese. It sounds so beautiful, especially when sung.
My favorite meal/dish…
The best time of the year to visit my city…
A local neighbourhood in my city that I recommend staying at…
The best day trip from my city…
The Getty Museum
Top 3 places to eat like a local in my city…
Charlie’s, Ichiriki, and Chez Melange
A place to catch a live band…
A secret spot…
On a weekday in the fall, you’ll have the whole huge beach to yourself!
The most amazing thing I have done during a home exchange holiday…
Climb The Preikestolen in Norway back in the late 90′s. Don’t attempt if you’re afraid of heights! It is one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. I would love to be there for a great sunset.
Something I always carry in my baggage…
One thing you can’t miss if you visit my city…
The Pacific Ocean
The first thing I do when I arrive to a new exchange home is…
And the first thing I do when I come back to my home after the exchange…
If I could exchange with any place in the world for a whole year I would definitely go to…
Want to exchange with Judy? Check out her listing!
We asked our Facebook fans:
How do you make yourself feel at home when you travel?
Here are some of our favorite answers!
The whole world is my home, so I feel at home anywhere I go!
I bring my favorite blanket, pillow, and teddy bear.
I bring all of my medicines…just in case!
I bring little packets of my favorite spices and a small bottle of hot sauce.
I don’t want to feel at home when I travel!
I always pack a scented candle and my eye mask.
I find the closest Starbucks…
I make the best out of every situation, just like I do at home!
I keep photos of my pets on my phone…I miss them when I travel!
I bring my slippers…so comfortable and perfect after a good day of sightseeing.
I make sure I have some coffee for the morning, then I light some candles and pour myself a beer.
I unpack my clothing and hide my suitcases so I don’t have to think about going home!
What’s YOUR favorite way to make yourself feel at home when you travel? Share your tips in the comments!
Photo via flickr
Meet Wendy, an adventurous exchanger from The Hague.
After reading an article about home exchange, I started browsing around on HomeExchange.com. Inspired by all of the amazing places I could visit for free, I took my chances and emailed a retired couple from South Africa. Within a week, all of the details were arranged and travel plans were set!
We’ve recently returned from our stay in our home exchange partners’ beautiful homes in Johannesburg and Mossel Bay, and I can honestly say that we had the BEST time ever! We explored Krugerpark, went shark diving and whale watching in Mossel Bay and Hermanus, and even had some special tour guides – our exchange partners’ children! They showed us soma amazing places that we would have never known to visit had we traveled the “normal way”.
After finishing off our holiday with a hospitality exchange in Cape Town, we returned to our own house…which was even cleaner than it had been when we left! This trip was a great experience and I hope to enjoy many more home exchanges in the future!
Want to exchange with Wendy? Check out her listing in The Hague, Netherlands.