Sunday, 31 March 2013

Chicken tarragon recipe

I've never blogged about a recipe before, but after cooking this tonight, it tasted so good that I thought that the least I could do was to publicise it.

I bought Lisa Faulkner's 'Recipes from my Mother for my Daughter' a year or so ago, as I'd heard such good things about it. I have to admit that although I've flicked through it, this is the first time I've tried one of the recipes. We were looking for something a bit different from a traditional roast for Easter Sunday, and I thought this recipe might be worth a go. It was! To save the risk of breaching any copyright laws, you can find it here.

It was very easy to make. I left the chicken breasts frying lightly whilst I tidied up the kitchen, loaded the dishwasher and put some potatoes in the oven. I then chopped up the shallots and the tarragon and when the chicken was done, transferred that onto a plate, fried the shallots for a couple of minutes and added a glass of wine. Once that had simmered down by half, I added the double cream and the tarragon and stirred that whilst steaming some greens, returning the chicken to the pan for the last couple of minutes to warm through. This is what it looked like just before serving.

 It was really tasty, and took very little effort, which is a bonus as far as I'm concerned. I'll certainly be trying other recipes from Lisa Faulkner's book. If you'd like to join me, you can get it at Amazon.

If you try this recipe, I'd love to hear what you think of it.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Farewell PKF

Thursday was my last day at PKF, in fact it was everyone's last day at PKF. From midnight on Thursday, the trade of PKF was merged into BDO; the combined firm will be known as BDO going forwards. The origins of PKF date back to the late 19th century, with Pannell Kerr Forster being created in 1980, latterly rebranding as PKF. Whilst the UK firm has been sold, PKF International continues, so I'm sure at some stage, a new firm in the UK will be branded under the PKF International umbrella but without any of the history associated with the current holder of the name. We're not moving offices quite yet, but the office will be rebranded over the weekend and so any mentions of PKF will disappear. It's sad to be at the end of an era and so I took a few photos throughout the day as a memento.
Coming into the office for the last time.
Passing through our reception area.
Our old scrap books were out, who'd have thought we used to have a hot air balloon? I guess shaping it like a bowler hat wasn't too stereotypical back then!
My boss always buys everyone an Easter egg. Best thing about the merger? This time we got one from our new employer too.

We all ended up outside when the fire alarms went off, no doubt someone breaking all the health and safety regulations by cooking hot cross buns.

There are a number of members of staff, not just in their 20s and 30s, but also in their 40s, 50s and 60s who have worked at PKF (or its predecessor firms) since leaving school. For these people who have never worked anywhere else, the change will clearly have a massive impact. For the rest of us, it'll be odd going from our spacious office of about thirty people, where everyone knows everyone, with contacts in every office around the country, to a more populous environment where initially we're bound to forget peoples' names and have new procedures and policies to learn. Whilst no merger is ever completely smooth, and there are bound to be some difficult issues to surmount initially, hopefully it will be a good thing for the firm in the long term. 

For now though, I need to start practising introducing myself as Rachel from BDO, not Rachel from PKF. That alone will take a little while.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The only people who like change are wet babies

I was struggling for a title for this post and so looked through some proverbs about change, this one, unfortunately from an unknown source, was the one that struck me. I've wanted to blog about work for ages, but I've struggled over how to approach it. I think I've finally got all my thoughts straight in my head, albeit I feel a little uncomfortable voicing my thoughts.

By way of background, I'm an accountant. More specifically, I work in audit as a senior manager for a medium sized firm. When I look back, I think I've been very fortunate to get to where I am today. I left school with some very average GCSEs and some poor A level grades, and as a result couldn't get into the university I wanted, and had to settle for a College of Higher Education (by good fortune, it's now a university, so my CV doesn't look quite as bad!) where I graduated with a very average degree. Things weren't looking good. I applied for accountancy training positions when I graduated, but no-one would look twice at me. I took a part-time job in a department store for eighteen months, until a threatened move to childrenswear brought me to my senses. I resigned, telling HR I was going to be an accountant. They looked at me like I'd said I wanted to be a brain surgeon. I stepped up the application process and managed to get two interviews, out of which I got two job offers. I accepted the one at the larger firm at the princely salary of £6,500. It got my foot on the very lowest rung of the ladder. I struggled a bit initially, a large part of being an accountant is getting a professional qualification. I had to teach myself the first level from study books, it was hard work, but I developed a skill I'd not managed to previously, how to study. I realised why I'd struggled at school and college, but I passed my first exams easily. I was hit hard by glandular fever and had to take some time off work and defer my next exams as a result, which threw me off the usual timetable, but a stiff talking to by the managing partner got me to regain my focus, and I managed to persuade him to let me attend classroom courses for future exams. That made it much easier. With the exception of an IT paper, all about networks and computer systems (honestly!) I passed all my exams at first attempt. After five years at the firm, I was well respected, but a change in management meant I wasn't happy, so it was time to move on.

I went to a recruitment agency, who told me about a local firm who were really well regarded for their training. I went for an interview, was offered the position and accepted. What a mistake. It was so old fashioned, certain clients wouldn't allow women on-site, so I was stuck in the office, and as I was studying for ACCA not ACA, although I was part qualified, I was aligned with the first year ACA students. I lasted nine months, and literally skipped out of the building when they released me before the end of my notice period.

I'd again gone to an agency, stating that I'd worked for the only firms I wanted to in the area, and so was looking further afield. They found a well-respected regional firm about 70 miles away who liked me and offered me a job. I went house-hunting and moved down there, literally not knowing anyone within 50 miles. People have told me they admired my confidence, but I literally had no doubts or concerns, although I have to admit it was a bit lonely at times. I loved the job and bought a house down there (again, flying by the seat of my pants, it was whilst I was waiting for the results of my final exams, and I knew that if it didn't pass, I realistically wouldn't be able to pay the mortgage, luckly I passed). It was a good role that gave me more experience and responsibility. It was only when I met the man who is now my husband, who lived a further 50 miles south of my new home, that I decided it was time for another move.

I have to admit, I moved job to be nearer to him. Almost from day one, I knew the job wasn't going to work out, but decided I had to stick it out for a couple of years. I did, but was very glad to escape. It was a larger firm, which gave me less independence, and indeed less challenging and interesting work. The management structure meant that I was being micro managed, which I didn't take kindly to.

And that brings me to my present role. I've worked for my current firm for five years, initially as a manager and latterly as a senior manager. There have been bad days, normally when I'm short of work, but on the whole I've enjoyed it. It's given me fresh challenges, more responsibility and a greater variety of clients to interact with.

It's fair to say that it's been clear something has been going on for a year or more. Firstly non fee earning staff numbers were streamlined, we lost our local IT support and one of our secretaries. Even well regarded staff nationally, such as the head of training, left. Rumours hit the press in the middle of last year that the firm was in merger negotiations, and few people were surprised, even though the rumours were stamped down. Towards the end of last year, the rumours were confirmed, five months on and the merger is due to go through by the end of the month.

Reaction has been mixed. I'm sure from the firm's point of view it's a good and necessary move. Fee earning staff have been reassured that there will be no redundancies (however, this is clearly dependent on there being no loss of clients), and roles which are seen as vulnerable won't be put under review until post merger. There are six cities around the country where both firms have offices, mine being one of them. In those locations, our offices will be closed and we'll be moving into their offices.

I have to admit that I have my concerns. We're merging (realistically, being taken over) by a larger firm. Having worked for a larger firm previously, I know that it means that local offices will be less empowered to make their own decisions, a supposition which I've already seen backed up my managers having their hands tied in interactions with us. Presently, I'm in a senior position within the department and effectively run it, as the audit partner gives me plenty of freedom, he knows and trusts me to go to him when I need to. Joining a firm with other staff at the same level, clearly suggests I'll be losing this degree of authority and independence, at the same time I'm concerned that I'll have someone micro managing me again, which never goes down well. Evidence also shows that they work long days as a matter of course, whereas my team generally work 9 to 5, and only on exception have to work longer hours to get their work done. I'm concerned that this will cause friction between the teams, or 'my' team feeling they have to be seen to work longer hours and their work life balance being negatively impacted as a result. Finally, we're due to move offices shortly after the merger, despite initially being told that they have plenty of room for us, it's rapidly becoming clear that that isn't the case. It appears that room is so short that staff visiting from other offices will have to book desks in advance as there may not be room for them if they turn up on spec. All staff, except partners, hot desk, and will be going from sitting three to a bench to four to a bench. In contrast, I always have a spare six foot desk free next to me, which I'm used to spreading over when I have a lot of work on the go. Equally, it means I have a degree of privacy. As a manager there are times when I'm working on things that I don't want other members of the team to see. I'm not sure how that will work going forwards. Finally, and this is a purely personal issue, I'm really susceptible to distraction. Noisy eaters set my teeth on edge, gossip distracts me and coughing annoys me. I'm seriously very concerned that I'd end up with a high level of workplace stress, or a murder charge, with such a large increase in people all around me.

Whilst I know the merger is necessary from a business case, I'm sure some of our longer serving members of staff will be lost, whether voluntarily or through redundancy. Myself, whilst I'm open minded, I'd be very surprised if it will be a positive move for me. I think I'll find it stressful and feel demoted and demotivated. I have a number of clients who are recruiting and recruitment agencies calling my mobile on a daily basis. As such, I'm in the fortunate position that I, hopefully, have other options, but it's going to be a difficult decision when the time comes. 

It's fair to say that the next few months will be difficult and challenging, but hopefully it will all work out for the best, however it turns out.

Image courtesy of

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Four months of braces

Wow, four months. It's not exactly flown by, but it's not been too painful. That said, I'll be very glad when I get these braces off for good!

Work has started to get busier, which means I've had more meetings with clients I've not seen for six months or so. I'm astonished that not a single person has commented on my braces. In fact, I don't even catch people looking at my teeth when I'm not looking at them anymore. Maybe I've dropped that gurning that new brace wearers do! I went to one of our other offices three or four weeks ago and was greeted by a secretary who was also wearing braces. I made a throw away comment about us both being brace wearers but I couldn't draw her in. I guess I've broken a really important rule; when you wear braces everyone has to pretend you're not.

I had my latest adjustment appointment on Wednesday. I turned up early, as I normally do, and sat and waited and waited and waited. I could tell from the sounds coming out of the surgery, intermittent noises from the saliva sucking machine, that someone was having a very bad appointment. By the time she came out I was fifty minutes late going in. She came out properly pouty and looking very sorry for herself, doing a Chloe from 24 face (hopefully that means something to you!) When I went in both the orthodontist and nurse were looking utterly drained, I can only think the previous patient hadn't been following the advice given to brace wearers and had knocked off several brackets. My appointment was fairly uneventful. My teeth are generally going what they should be, albeit my molars have gone a bit awry, which may mean having brackets put on my lower wisdom teeth next time. I had a thicker wire put on my top arch, and a thicker, stainless steel wire on the bottom. Again, I had power chain all the way around my lower incisors to keep pulling them back. The adjustment was a bit uncomfortable when pressure was applied to my sorer teeth, but I've learned to take a couple of painkillers before the appointment, which seems to help.

My teeth were sore by the time I came to eat that evening and worse the next day. Who knew that sweetcorn and dried apricots could cause such pain?! However, by the Friday I was pack to eating pretty much anything I wanted again.

The photograph shows that my cross bite is now corrected, it's just a case of continuing to move my teeth to fill the gaps in my lower arch and small adjustments to optimise my top arch. As the orthodontist said, it'll still take several months though. Oh well!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

A wander around Chester Zoo

As members of Bristol Zoo, we can get free admission to Chester Zoo. It sounds like a great idea, and we talk about going, but it never seems to happen. That was until a couple of weekends ago, we were due to be in North Wales over the weekend, so we took the Friday off work and headed up the country for our trip to the Zoo.

The journey took about three hours and it was fairly uneventful until our windscreen was hit by a stone on the M56. It didn't seem like a very big stone, but within a minute the chip had turned into a three inch crack and by the time we got to the zoo, the crack was over a foot long! We rang the glass company from the car park, but as there was nothing they could do for a week (!) we did what we'd come to do; explore the zoo.

The main reason for the trip was because I'd seen that the zoo had a baby elephant. The elephants were the first species we saw when we arrived, and not just did they have one baby elephant, they had two! I spent ages just watching them before I remembered that there was a whole lot more zoo to get around.

Next we moved onto the butterfly house. I love butterflies and spend a lot of time in the butterfly house at Bristol Zoo, but there the butterflies rarely settle for long. Here, they seemed to be lounging around. I watched a guy photographing one with his lens only centimetres away from the butterfly, but it wasn't bothered at all.

 Next we went to see Napo, the jaguar, who had only recently arrived at the zoo. I'm not sure where he'd come from, but I'm thinking somewhere warmer by his body language.

We then carried on round to see the tigers and lions, who both seemed to be enjoying the sun.

We moved onto the cheetahs next who, one by one, each came out and posed elegantly for us whilst we photographed them. They can obviously recognise a photo opportunity!

The spectacled bears were our next stop, they were on good form, exploring and climbing trees for food.

We finished our trip with a detour to see the elephants again before heading home. Unfortunately there were a few species, such as the rhinos and giraffes which seemed to be tucked up inside on a cool February day, but that just gives us an excuse for a return visit, hopefully with no car related disasters next time!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Cars I have owned, loved and lost

When I saw James McAvoy on Top Gear last weekend, I totally identified with him. Jeremy Clarkson was ribbing him relentlessly about his Nissan Micra ownership, whilst James tried to defend himself saying that they went incredibly quickly. I couldn't have agreed more.

I've been meaning to do a car blog for sometime. I've always been somewhat of a petrol head, and yes, this coming from someone who owned a series of Nissan Micras. I've loved cars since before I passed my driving test, and even then used to plan what I'd get when I could afford it. Somehow though, I never did get that MR2 I had a picture of on my wall. Crazy as it sounds now, I used to choose having a new car over having a place of my own. Anyway, let's go for it, here are the cars I've owned, loved and lost.

My first Nissan Micra. This was my parents' car and both my brother and I learned to drive in it. When I got my first full time job, it was given to me. I loved this car, even when I drove it into a boulder within a week of passing my test and burst a tyre. Living in the middle of nowhere it gave me the freedom to get out and about without my parents needing to drive me. He may have only had a one litre engine, but he had plenty of soul. Much as I loved him, the toll of two learner drivers meant that when I got the first large repair bill for him, it was time to move on.

However, I stayed loyal to the mighty Micra. This time, he was sparkly blue and even had blue seats. I used to drive this around the country lanes like a go kart, and yes, James McAvoy, it did go really quickly! As I was a cash strapped trainee accountant, I bought him on a personal contract plan, which meant after three years I traded him in for the current model.

Still not willing to give up on a good thing, this was my third Micra. I have to admit I can't really remember much about this car, which I think is the problem with having three Micras in a row. I only kept him for a couple of years before deciding it was time for something new, with a few more gadgets.

Now this was exciting, a 1.4 litre car, and it was a bright blue colour. It gave me a bit more room than the Micra(s) and was perfect for driving around with work. Unfortunately he was also the only car I've done significant damage to. 

Driving home on a wet day, I came over the brow of a hill, about three miles from the nearest town and didn't have time to stop before hitting the car in front of me. There'd been a flood at the bottom of the hill and the fire brigade pumping the water out had caused a tail back. I managed to pull him into a layby and walked the three miles home feeling very sorry for myself. I got him fixed, but he was never the same again, always overheating when he was in stationery traffic.

This was my only convertible (to date!) He was a bit of a Friday afternoon production line car, with a series of faults and, as a result, seemed to spent more time in the garage than with me. Whilst I loved having a convertible and he was great fun when he worked, I don't think I'd buy another Peugeot, which is a shame. I was a real petrol head at this stage, I gave myself sunburn fitting those chrome hoops on a scorching hot day, and even used to polish his tailpipe!

As I said, I was a real petrol head by this stage and I made my next car purchasing decision whilst watching the Top Gear review below. 

Literally, I saw this car on the track and decided I had to have it. I was single at the time and needed something to make me smile. That said, I met my now husband before the car was delivered, and he was a little incredulous that I'd ordered such an expensive car. I have to admit I was blown away on the test drive and got it up to a speed that I wouldn't do nowadays on the motorway. I loved everything about this car, his unique engine which meant you'd recognise another one on the road by its sound, his suicide doors, his handling and the fact he came with a free track day, taking him on the skid pan was a blast. He was prone to flooding, but I only had an issue once when I forgot, and turned the engine off too quickly after moving him. However, I changed jobs and knew I'd have to park him on narrow streets every day and I was struggling to justify the sub 20 miles to the gallon he was doing. He had to go, but I still miss him.

The Mini seemed the perfect solution for parallel parking on tight streets. He was fab, really nippy and easy to park and with enough gadgets to keep the petrol head in me entertained. Again, he was a bit of a Friday afternoon production car and spent a fair amount of time in the garage, but they managed to get him fixed eventually. The only reason I changed him was because he started to get expensive when he got out of warranty and much as I loved his firm handling on country roads, I really could feel every bump and pot hole on long journeys. It was time to admit I needed more of a sofa car.

My BMW is really comfortable and gets great fuel economy, it's not however 'my' car exactly as it's a company car. I'd had so many warranty issues with cars before, that I wanted it to be someone else's problem this time!

Looking back, I've had some great cars and smiled a lot watching that RX8 review on Top Gear. I remember why I bought the car, even though it's not the best financial decision I've ever made.

I think next time though, maybe not a red or blue car??