Because I had the good luck at 17 to meet the best person I'll ever know (although granted, he was well-disguised as a scrawny self-important teen with a prog rock fascination I will never understand) AND the good sense to stay with the ornery cuss for 33 years, I am in the fortunate position of living with someone who loves and knows the very soul of me. As a result, his gift selection is brilliant.
I was dreading Christmas this year - the first year without Mum and to a large degree without Dad too because he needed to ignore it all for his own wellbeing. Mark found things to rekindle my excitement and engagement in the world. The man's a magician.
First amazing gift was from my parents-in-law at M's suggestion. They got me a wildlife camera so we can see who and what visits our garden at night. I'm absolutely delighted. I know we've had some hedgehogs over that past 2 years and that foxes visit to hope for a wandering hen (never mind the rodent corpses our cats thoughtfully provide) but actually seeing what comes when, and how it behaves is very exciting.
I've spent my Christmas money from my brother on a large charger and lots of rechargeable batteries so I can run the camera down the bottom of the garden. My plan is to move it every few days until we discover where we are most likely to see our nocturnal visitors.
The next brilliant gift was my own personal Springwatch experience.
I love Springwatch. I love Chris and Michaela and poor deposed Martin and I'm bearing with Gillian hoping she finds her feet as a presenter eventually but above all I love Iolo Williams. He's the lanky Welshman who bubbles over with enthusiasm and delight at all wild encounters in this tiny but remarkable country. Iolo's the reason we went to the Farne Islands and why I wanted to see a murmuration - I didn't know such things existed and he inspired me with a desire to seek them out.
He's doing a talk at a centre near my Dad for a local wildlife charity. Mark's got tickets for Dad and me and a copy of Iolo's book about UK wildlife so I can get it signed. I'm beyond delighted.
So far, so middle aged twitcher. Which is an identity I am proud to acknowledge, by the way.
But the third gift...
That's the "yeah, great, thanks for the two scented tree resins, Caspar and Melchior, but where's Balthazar with the gold?" gift. Not just ace but brilliant.
A pizza oven.
|assembled inside, but for OUTSIDE use only|
I know it's a fairly shameful claim, but we eat more pizza than any family I know. Luke would eat pizza for every meal of his life if he could. I love Roman, Neopolitan, Chicago style - all of it. I remember my horror moving to the UK in 1985 and seeing the ghastly cardboard discs passing as "pizza" here, and my cousins' bemusement at my disgust. (Britain, I love you but your food prior to the 90s was a damned disgrace). I've experimented with lots of different dough recipes, various cooking techniques, bought pizza tins, stones and peels. Ever since my Very Excellent Mate Nic talked about how she and Ady built a cob pizza oven on their croft on Rum I've been trying to persuade Mark we need one.
The Ooni 3 is a work of genius. Like my beloved Eglu did for hen-keeping, it makes wood-fired pizzas a doddle in your back garden. It's portable, it takes 15 minutes to heat up rather than the 4-6 hours of a cob oven and the pizzas cook in under 2 minutes. They are beyond anything -
I can't recommedt them enough. I made around 8 of them today, I think, maybe more.
The dough recipe I used was a very simple one - 500g strong flour, 300g water, 7g quick acting yeast and a heaped teaspoon of salt. I put it in the kitchen mixer for 10-15 minutes then moved it to an oiled, covered bowl in a warm spot in the kitchen. The first batch was done while the kitchen door was open and it was really cold so I popped it in the Instant Pot on the "yogurt making" setting for 90 minutes. The second sat in a sunny window.
Each dough batch made 5 balls weighing 160g. After a second prove I kneaded and stretched each into a 24-30cm circle (this is a lie, they were weird splodges). I put flour on the peel (official name for that metal flat thing that gets pizzas out of ovens) and
The thing cooks unbelieveably quickly. I charred the first one because I couldn't believe 30 seconds was enough before turning. (it was)
|in which we learn 60 seconds a side is too long|
Using the peel, I pulled the pizza out every 30 seconds or so and rotated it 180 degrees. Within 90 seconds to 2 minutes (depending on the temperature of the baking stone at the heart of the oven) each pizza was perfectly cooked.
|one of many misshapen but delicious pizzas|
It was wonderful to find things that are fun and exciting, especially when I'd anticipated this season with a fair amount of dread.
If you need me, I'll be pitting olives and sourcing 00 flour online for the foreseeable future.
Happy New Year, and may the coming decade be kinder than the last.