Friday, 30 July 2010

TP Spiro Hop see-saw, not impressed

I'm a big fan of TP products. We have its swings at home. So when I was in the market for a see-saw, I ignored other makes to go for TP, despite that it's not the cheapest.

The Spiro Hop is a see-saw that's also a 'merry go round' of sorts. Children sit on it and they can spin round. The Spiro Hop has what look like two Space Hoppers that you sit on.

Here it is on the John Lewis website, where I bought it last year. It clearly says it's for four years and up and that each seat can take up to 35kilos (equivalent to about five stones). My six year old weighs nowhere near that, neither do any of her friends (I weighed that at aged twelve for goodness sake).

Anyway it's been used maybe a dozen times. And this is what's happened to both seats. the bouncy ball elements have been taken out, please note my feet in the first one, wearing Chanel's Paradoxal (latest shade, hello!).

Now, this is crap. Not at all what I expect from a child's see-saw after many years of use, never mind hardly any. The only excuse is if really fat kids have been on it and bouncing as if their next Happy Meal depended on it.

And they haven't.

So I wrote to TP Toys and John Lewis. Anyone who is familiar with my writings over the years will know that I am a big fan of John Lewis. Huge. But very occasionally the online service isn't as good as it could be. All staff of JLP are partners, but not everyone who works on the online side of the business is. This shows.

I met the MD of John Lewis, Andy Street, in late 2008 when we both did a programme for Radio 4 (The Long View). I told him this, that the on-line customer service sometimes lets the side down, probably rather gauchely as I was heavily pregnant and taking no prisoners that day (oh dear, anyone who has been pregnant, or has had a pregnant partner will know what I mean).

I know the head of customer services, because we had a lot of dealings last year over a cooker I bought. I could have just emailed him. But I didn't. I emailed the general customer service email this:

"Dear Sirs

I purchased the TP Spiro Hop from John Lewis last year (John Lewis order no: XXXXXXXX, 30th April 2009). Because I'd not long had a baby, it took us a while to put it up - the late summer - and since then it's been used maybe a dozen times.

I write as a big fan of TP Toys and John Lewis, but I'm really disappointed by this product. I will attach some pictures and you can see what's happened to both seats - they've broken. The see saw has not had anything unusual happen to it, other than children playing on it, which is surely what it's intended for? The weight limit as printed on the JL website has never even remotely been exceeded, either.

Can I have your thoughts please?

Thank you.

Annalisa Barbieri"

I sent it to the customer service department of TP Toys and to John Lewis. To its credit, JL replied that day with this:

"Dear Miss Barbieri,

John Lewis Direct operate a 28 day return policy. This means that items can usually be returned, free of charge, for any reason within 28 days from the purchase date for a full refund or replacement. This period has now passed and as the item in question was not damaged upon delivery, or faulty, we are unable to accept it back for a refund.

Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience caused.

If I can assist you further, please get in touch with me.

Yours sincerely,

Oh dear.  A cut and paste job from someone who has either not really read my email properly, or hasn't understood it. Nowhere did I ask for a refund or replacement. So I tried again:

"I'm not asking for a refund or a replacement. I'm telling you that a product that you've sold doesn't seem to be fit for purpose."

And got this reply:

"Please accept my apologies for any confusion regarding the Spiro Hop you purchased from us.

I can advise that receiving feedback from our customers, both positive and constructive, is crucial to the on going improvements we are constantly striving to make to both our service and our website. I would also like to inform you that your comments regarding your purchase have been retained for consideration within future enhancements of our service.

Please contact me if you require any further assistance."

I still consider that to be pretty crap. TP Toys in the meantime, hasn't replied yet. I'll keep you posted.

Update. After I  posted this I sent another email to John Lewis, because I really think its reply is not up to it. I said this:

"I find that a disappointing response. You sell a see-saw which clearly states it's for age four and up and can tolerate 35kilos per seat. I've done nothing to take that product outside of those parameters. And it's been used not very much at all.

Do you not have any other feedback for me or comments? Do you think this product is fit for purpose?


and almost immediately got this back:

"Dear Miss Barbieri,

I am sorry to hear that you are disappointed with my response.

I am currently unaware of any  problems associated with this product; however, I have made the relevant department aware of this matter. They will investigate further.

Thank you for also taking the time to write to us regarding this matter. Receiving feedback from our customers, both positive and constructive, is crucial to the ongoing improvements we strive to make to both our web site and our services.

If I can be of any further assistance, please contact me.

Yours sincerely,

name withheld
John Lewis Direct"

Now what you can't see here, because the format of this blog changes it, is that the font for the salutation ("Miss Barbieri") and the sign-off "(Yours sincerely, etc) is different to that on the body of the message. This makes the cynic in me this is a standard email they have.

I'm afraid this makes me even more mad.

An update: 12 August 2010.

TP and I have been in regular contact. I still haven't returned the seats to them, but have managed to take them off and put them in an envelope. Did I say 'take them off'? I barked instructions at my boyfriend to do this and he did so.

TP offered to replace the Spiro Hop, saying it had sold many thousands. But I've really gone off it. Although I said this wasn't about a refund or a replacement, the more I thought about it (and read comments that most of you put on FB rather than here, tsk!) the more I thought that I should have something to show for my £88 outlay. So I asked them to replace it with the wooden see saw.

This is fab. I will write a review of it in a few weeks/months when it has lived a little.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Christian Dior's Creme Abricot

This is a cuticle cream. "For goodness sake", some of you may be thinking, "what next?" But hang on, because it's actually not new at all, it's been around for decades - the design and product is unchanged, which shows you how popular it is. It's also unlike any other product on the market, so you can't cheat it, and buy cheaper. Believe me when I say (yes: believe) that nothing comes close. There are loads of great handcreams out there but in order for this to work as well as it does, it has to be really viscous. And a hand cream that thick would be unworkable.

  Creme Abricot. Nice pot.

Obviously if you are happy with your cuticles, read no further. But this is for people, like me, who don't bite their nails, but pick at the skin around it. This cream, applied at night, helps you stop doing this because it doesn't allow any dryness (precursor to picking I think).

You can also put it on spots of really dry skin (boyfy-husband uses it on his eczema when his skin splits, ouch). 

A little pot lasts about a year or more, so it works out very good value per use. Because, er, it's about £17.50 (

Creme Abricot, the stuff inside, I can't understand why Dior doesn't ask me to do its advertising shots..

Monday, 26 July 2010

Mint choc chip ice cream

 Mint choc chip ice cream. I know this isn't the best picture in the world but it was hard to get a six year old to keep still. It's presented in a mini cone. 

Here's the gelato in a bowl. See how delicate the colour is? You can also see I have a LOT of stainless steel in my kitchen!

This is my current favourite ice cream. I would never buy mint choc chip ice cream, because it's just not my thing, but this home made version is, I promise you, delicious. Unless you really hate the taste of mint, but even then I'd urge you to give it a try.

You can easily leave the chocolate out, but together this makes for a near perfect ice cream in my blog. Which this is.

I tend to make my ice cream in small quantities as the fresher it is, the nicer it is. By all means double or treble the amounts, it's easy to do. This makes about half a litre, which I find is ample for four greedy people.

375ml of cream and milk. You need cream AND milk. Don't be tempted to use one or t'other because to make ice cream you need both (i.e. not just this flavour). This has something to do with the way the fats mix up and interact. Don't ask me cos I never listen properly when my dad tries to explain it to me in the same way that I still don't really understand about what that white powder is he's given me to put into sorbets. Because I never have whole milk in the house, but I nearly always have double cream, I tend to use 250ml of double cream and 125ml of semi skimmed milk. If you have more or less of one or t'other don't worry. I've also done it with 300ml double cream and 75ml semi-skimmed milk. You get the idea.
15g mint leaves. Don't be tempted to use anything else, such as mint flavour. Urgh, forget it.
70g caster sugar
1 egg
50g 70% cocoa chocolate if using

In a blender or food processor (I use the little chopper attachment on my Braun MultiStick thing), blend together the milk, cream and mint leaves. The mint leaves should go down to tiny pieces, but don't over do it or the cream will curdle (however, you'd have to be really stupid to go this far). Pour the whole lot into a sauce pan, and bring to just below boiling point. Turn down the heat and simmer for 5-10 mins. Don't let it boil, stir it a bit. You'll see the cream/milk mixture become infused with the mint colour and it will go to a lovely green colour. However, it won't be that lurid dark green pretend-mint-colour you get in shop bought ice cream. Think Farrow and Ball hues instead.

Turn off the heat and let it cool for a bit. Now you can either strain it so that the leafy minty bits stay out or leave them in. Try both and see how you prefer it. Obviously one will give you ice cream speckled with tiny green bits, one won't. Perhaps if you're adding the chocolate then having the mint in as well might be overkill.

Whilst that's cooling, get a heat-proof bowl (important) that will fit over the sauce pan (important) and take the whole egg (not just the yolk, which is usual in custard-base ice cream) and whisk up with the sugar until it's light and thick. Then slowly mix in the (sieved if you're going to) milk/cream/mint mixture into the egg/sugar mixture. Pour some water into the pan which just had the milk/cream/mint mixture in (doesn't matter that it's dirty you're not drinking it) and place the bowl containing the ice cream mixture on top. The idea is to make custard, so stir as the water underneath boils, and keep stirring until the mixture coats the back of a wooden spoon, which it will do pretty quickly really. Whole process should take about 5-10 mins. Now you're done, so take the bowl off the sauce pan, let it cool for a few minutes then cover the actual surface with cling film/baking parchment. The reason you need it to touch the actual surface is so a skin doesn't form.

Let it cool for about an hour, then put it in the fridge. You can keep it for up to 24 hours before making ice cream but once it's cooled right down in the fridge (say a few hours) then you can whack it in the ice cream maker.

Once that's churning, chop the chocolate really small. I sort of semi shave it. When the ice cream has finished, you can just stir through the chocolate. The ice cream will be pretty soft still as all ice cream out of an ice cream maker is soft-ish. Either eat it now or put it in a freezer container and let it harden up more for later.

If you want to read about ice cream makers you can do so here.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Lutyens Children's bench

I recently went to see my friend Susie, who had a really cute miniature children's bench in her garden, like a scaled down park bench. My youngest loved it and spent many a happy time sitting on it, getting up, sitting on it, getting up.

Susie was also the friend at whose house I saw the fly curtains that I then bought. Nothing like going round to your friends' houses to nick ideas. Anyway, in this instance, Susie couldn't tell me where the mini bench was from so I searched on line and asked all my FB friends where they thought I could get one from. The only place I found was Robert Dyas, it says it's normally £50 but I've never actually seen it for sale for that much, it's always 'knocked down' to £30. Now for some reason this seems a lot to me. Further searching showed that at some point, Tesco's had had one for the knocked down price of £10 but no more. Of course, I loathe Tesco and never shop there on principle unless it has something I really, really want to buy in which case I forget my principles momentarily..

In our garden we have a Lutyens bench, adult sized. So I was really pleased to see a website that makes them in small size too. In the end, this is what I got because it seemed better value for money, even though it was double the cost of the Dyas bench. I bought it with my birthday money, for my girls. I was going to have it engraved with something cheesy but that cost almost as much as the bench again.

Lutyens children's bench .

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Zotter Chocolate - beware, crazily good

 Zotter Plum Brandy chocolate. Disgustingly good.

The other Friday I was in London. I'd had a really productive meeting discussing something Really Secret. I had something small and healthy for lunch and decided I really wanted chocolate.

Now for some time, the only chocolate I eat is 70% plus cocoa content. This cuts down what I can buy and how much of the stuff I can eat as it's really hard for me to eat too much of it. Plus, you know, high cocoa content chocolate is full of iron and antioxidants. Practically health food.

I went to the Food Hall in John Lewis, aka Waitrose in the basement and got into a bit of a tizz in amongst all the whicker baskets (everything, it seems is displayed in them).

"Where is the chocolate?" I asked. Now because the staff in Waitrose are trained to accompany you to the food stuff you've asked for, the man took me there, after asking "what sort of chocolate, bars?" to which I'd nodded cautiously (who wants to miss the other kind?)

He took me to this mini display of chocolate, none of which I recognised. The bars were small, 70g, but intriguing. I looked at the price tag of the 'hand scooped' chocolate bar: £3.25.

Ordinarily, I would never spend this much  on a bar of chocolate, but I was in London and I live in Suffolk, so I was sort-of on holiday and the sea-air went to my head. My choice was cut down (no "bacon bits" for instance) as only some of them were 70% cocoa. I selected Plum Brandy. I knew I was onto a good thing when the woman at the check-out said "God they're so good, I had Bacon Bits last week when we had a tasting session".

I fully expected to, you know, eat half and save half. But this is where I came unstuck. When I opened the bar there were no pieces. It was one big slab of chocolate. I have to say, I've dreamed of this. In films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie bites into one huge slab of chocolate at one point. Plus one big slab is so bossy, it's like it's telling you  you can't cut it up, you have to eat the whole thing.

And it was really hot, so it would have melted, and I couldn't let £1.625p worth of chocolate just turn to mush in my bag.

Even if it hadn't have been hot, or the chocolate hadn't have been in one big slab, it was hopeless. This chocolate bar was just amazing, the inside was this wonderful goo and tasted of plum brandy. I also felt slightly drunk by the end of it which must have been my imagination. I'm so glad it's not sold in my local Waitrose but if you live in London you can probably find it in yours.

Be careful. Remember what happened with the MaltEaster bunny, although these are two VASTLY different animals.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010


 "Have you been in a car crash?" one of my 147 (just on my mother's side, and last counted in 1982, although that is first and second cousins) asked me.  My legs were covered in those circular cotton wool pads you get, and each disc was held on by a strip of American tan coloured Elastoplast.  Underneath each was a mosquito bite and I had 23 on my left calf alone.

Every year it was the same story. Every year I'd go to Italy and be told by alligator-skinned relatives that there were no mosquitoes. Every year, like an idiot, I'd believe them and until I woke up covered in bites like mini volcanos. I'm not allergic to mozzie bites, but I do react really badly to them, each one growing bigger by the day until it starts to ooze pus and get infected and I was effectively  house-bound.

It's not surprising I didn't lose my virginity til I was 22.

In 1996, after one famous holiday to the North when my dad told me there were, positively, no mosquitoes and that I was being a girl about it and I then got half eaten alive until I was just one big mound of bites and just to walk hurt...well after that I decided, rather belatedly, to never ever listen to anyone ever again on this subject.

Since then I have not been bitten in Italy, although of course, you get mozzies here now.

As I write I have a bite on my toe, right at the point, sustained last night, and three - THREE - on my bottom. Bastards. But so far anyway, the mozzies here are just nowhere near as bad as the ones in Italy ("you want parmesan with that madam, black pepper?") and I can control the bites simply with an application of Germolene (it has a local anaesthetic). It's so far never got so bad that I try to pull the poison out with one of those suction pens, which is what I'm reduced to in Italy. When this doesn't work, and I burst all the blood vessels around the bite, I then try to squeeze the poison out using just my fingernails. I cannot imagine why my bites get infected and I then get paraded round the local farmacia like a freak. "Ma GUARDA!"

I have of course, become the world's most annoying self-styled expert about mosquitoes so here's what I've learned.

It's the females what bite (they need the proteins from your blood, or mostly my blood, to lay eggs). There is no relevance to this other than to make women feel it's their fault. If you get close enough to them the females have long proboscis, the male have shorter ones.

All but one species lays its eggs on standing water, so be aware if you have any outside your bedroom window. Left paddling pools, ponds, guttering, buckets. The bastards aren't fussy.

They find you through the carbon dioxide you exhale. Again, this is of no help to you unless you plan on not breathing.

Mosquitoes don't like 'air currents', so although it's not a good idea to sleep with the window open, an electric fan, sleeping in the wake of a Jumbo Jet or having the air conditioning on may help, although I wouldn't rely on those alone.

Never believe locals who tell you there are no mosquitoes.

Start your defence early. I use plug in mosquito repellent in the room I'll be sleeping in and start plugging them in at about tea-time (4pm) and carry an Autan stick with me everywhere. I'm very partial to Autan, but I'm sure any old make will do. Use a stick or cream rather than a spray because it lasts longer, because you get more on your skin rather than it dispersing through the air. (I use a stick cos it's easier to carry and apply, you don't need to get your fingers all greasy.) That said, the 'effective for' times given on the packet are the maximum. Like suncream, they start to lose effectiveness as each hours passes so if in doubt, apply again.

The three main ingredients you will find in most commercially available, topically applied repellents are:

Deet (usually listed as dimethyl benzamide or diethyl toluamide)
KBR-3023 (more commonly known as picaridin or icaridin)
IR-3535 (listed on products as ethyl butylacetylaminopropionate or 3-ethyl aminoproprionate).

Deet is regarded as the most effective, because lower doses of it last longer. However, there have been rare cases of children reacting to it. Also, be aware that Deet can ruin synthetics, leather and hard plastic so be particularly careful when applying it near watch-faces, sunglasses or camera lenses.

Mosi-guard, ( is made from lemon eucalyptus and is suitable for babies from three months.

You may also want to consider a mosquito net. However, be aware that these are usually impregnated with insecticide. Unimpregnated nets are not recommended because you would have to be absolutely sure that there wasn't an arm or leg touching the net, through which the mosquito could bite, or that the net wasn't torn.

Although mosquitoes can and do bite through clothing, they tend to prefer bare skin if it's available, so whatever product you go for, you need to apply it all over any exposed skin.

Products containing citronella have been shown to have some effect in tests, but don't last long at all - approximately two hours and usually aren't recommended for children under two.

Please note that if you are travelling somewhere where there is malaria, follow the instructions of your GP and never rely on a repellent alone.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Sun creams

When I was 18, I went to Spain for my first foreign holiday without adult supervision. I went with five girl-friends. Before our holiday, we set up a production line making bikinis. We were all, more or less, the same size then so one size sort-of fitted all. We made a pattern consisting of four triangles: two for the top half, two for the bottom.

One person cut, one person sewed a thick seam, through which another threaded cord with which to tie up the bottoms, or hold up the tops. We had all manner of lovely fabrics, but it was the gingham I remember the most.

We were tremendously pleased with ourselves, until we got to the beach and realised that swimwear is not made out of cotton for a very good reason. It sags. After one friend went into the sea and came out carrying a litre of water in her pants, we relegated the home-made bikinis to sun-worshipping duties only.

Because I was a right little miss I had the entire Lancome suncare collection with me. This was in part because I adored Isabella Rossellini, who was then the face of Lancome. But also I liked a bit of luxe and, importantly, I had been working every weekend since I was fourteen; so my pocket money situation was fairly buoyant. I have so many happy memories of that holiday, but the smell of the Lancome sun oil (in particular) stays with me.

(I need to pause here whilst I have a little reminisce.)

Whilst I adore Natura Bissé and Sisley and their sun products are excellent (and expensive), the Lancome sun oil factor 6 is still what I reach for if I'm just going to be out in the sun for half an hour or so. I love an oil. Obviously if you are in the sun all day then you need something a little more robust and remember to re-apply often. You don't really need me to tell you that (note: this is why I avoid really high protection creams cos I think they give you a false sense of security).

Sun protection basically comes in two types: chemical or physical. The easier to put on ones tend to be chemical sunscreens. That is, they contain chemical ingredients (usually one or more of these: benzophenone-3, homosalate, 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-MBC), octyl-methoxycinnamate, octyl-dimethyl-PABA, isotridecyl salicylate, octyl salicylate and octocrylene) that protect against the sun. There is some controversy around these: some studies have shown some of these ingredients to be oestrogenic or to double the uterine growth rates in rats before puberty. Some research also links chemical sunscreen with an increase in skin damage/cancer as the chemicals absorb the UV rays and keep them close to the skin.

Physical sunscreens contain either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide which reflect the sun's rays. These are greasier to put on and can look 'white'.  The more 'child friendly versions are usually physical sunscreens although (of course) there is also some controversy over the use of nanotechnology both in physical and chemical sunscreens. But look, this isn't a science blog, I'm not a trained scientist (I am a trained shopper however) so if this concerns you and you want to read more, I'm sure you know what to do.

Next: mozzie repellent.