Monday, 30 September 2013

Getting in at the ground floor

Hello webby mates,

How are you all? Have you had a nice weekend? Did you spend it doing chores, or having fun, or just relaxing? I hope it was full of sunshine and good thoughts.

One of the truly great films that I can watch endlessly is Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. James Stewart is one of the most delightful actors there ever was. I can almost quote the whole film from memory.

There's a bit where George is offered the chance to invest in his friend Sam Wainwright's new business - plastics. "You can get in at the ground floor" is Sam's refrain, but George has more pressing matters to mind - the most heartbreaking and tormented proposals of marriage I've ever seen.

Because of that scene, Sam's telephone chatter of 'Getting in at the ground floor" has snagged in my mind. Although he meant it in a capitalist, money-making way I only associate it with being there at the start of something big.

I took the chance to be there at the start of something big on Saturday. I went to the Yarndale event in Skipton. It was one of the most inspiring things I've seen in a good long time.

The story of its creation is on the Yarndale Blog. In a nutshell, a Skipton Knit and Natter group were chatting about how great it would be to have a yarn festival nearby, and then, over the course of 18 months, they created one.  This weekend, September 28th and 29th, saw the first ever Yarndale festival, and I ran away from my familial responsibilities to spend a day there.

It was HUGE. The roads into Skipton were moving at a slow crawl, the 1000 space car park was full long before noon and the trains were bursting at the seams.  Bright crocheted triangles of bunting covered the route to the Auction Mart, which was heaving. No one could quite believe the sheer number of people.

The entrance lead to an exhibition hall showing knitted picnics and crocheted blankets from all over the place. I'd never seen anything like it. While for me a picnic-you-can-eat is infinitely superior to one made out of wool - especially in a venue unable to cope with the demand for coffees and lunch - the skill and the humour shown in these displays was just astonishingly.

Then it was in to the main hall.  Wow. Over 160 exhibitors dazzled me with different colours, materials and textures. There were crafts I've never hear of, equipment that amazed me, examples of work(wo)manship that dazzled me. Women outnumbered men by about 25 to one. We all chatted, mingled, ooo'd and ahh'd at each other's purchases.  It was so nice to be amongst a huge crowd of warm and friendly people who were so enthusiastic about making things.

I met a woman who wove fabric on a wooden loom to the design of those used by Romans, Tudors and beyond. I'd never quite managed to picture how the threads of the weft stopped getting tangled but after watching for a few seconds it all made perfect sense. Her looms were as beautiful pieces of craftmanship as the fabrics she wove on them.

I saw people who spin yarn, dyed it, people who made astonishingly beautiful items of clothing and lovely works of art. So many were from this region that it gave me a glow of pride that I get to be a Yorkshire-woman too. I also met some of the beautiful originators of  a very soft and beautiful yarn - Alpacas. They had alpacas. Mark is tense, waiting for me to wander home one day soon leading a brace of them to live in the garden.

I will love him and hug him and call him George
The Yarndale celebrity, the lovely Lucy of the fantastic Attic24 blog, was swamped all day by people wanting to meet her, take a photo, tell her how much her blog inspired them to attempt crafts. I was no different - a total groupie.

Happy groupie and tired but friendly Lucy
I didn't buy any yard to knit or crochet with in the end. Instead I bought stuff for crafts I'd never tried before. The first was a little octagon of slitted card - a braid wheel - with a leaflet and a few bits of wool for £1 from the Braid Society (there is an actual Society for braiding. I love this country. So eccentric). My daughter and her cousin are now enthusiastically braiding book marks and friendship bracelets for each other. Brilliant.

My other purchases? Tune in in a few days and I'll show you. I'm having a LOT of fun.

Easy Friendship Bracelets:

Cut a square of card approximately 5 - 8cm (3 - 4 inches) wide. (I used a cereal box) . Cut off the corners to make an octagon. (That's a stop sign, if you are explaining this to a little kid). Cut a slit about 1cm deep in the middle of each side and punch a hole in the centre of the shape.  That's your braid wheel.
Take 7 pieces of yarn/string/ribbon/embroidery thread etc about 20cm long.  Tie them together with a knot and drop the knot through your braid wheel's central hole. Tuck one piece of yarn in each of the slits.
You now have 7 slits holding yarn and one empty one. Count up from the empty slit three threads and move that thread to the empty slit.  Repeat. That's it.

If you are right handed you'll probably count up anti-clockwise from the bottom, and we lefties are more likely to do it clockwise. It doesn't matter at all as long as you stick to whichever way you started. Keep the empty slit facing you at all times so you don't lose track, mix and match colours and textures as much as you like, and perhaps thread little beads onto the yarns occasionally if you fancy.

It's easy, cheap and rather soothing to do. It certainly kept a trio of kids silent for a good while!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Shout. Shout. Let it all out...

Hello webby mates!

Today I have rage. Big, futile, amorphous anger. I feel like this -


... only more so and with sound effects.
I love the world, it's a thrilling exciting place with many amazing people and places worth knowing. But sometimes the sheer assholery of the place makes me want to go about hitting it things with sticks.* Or grab the world by the face and squish its cheeks, yelling "You forgot the first rule of living: Don't be a dick."

*Props to Google's doodle for today, its 15th birthday, for having a pinata mini game so I can whack stuff with a virtual stick and not get into trouble

First there were the news stories about Asda, Tesco, Amazon etc selling 'mental patient' Hallowe'en costumes. Way to reinforce old and vile stereotypes that people with mental health problems are dangerous psychotic nutters, guys. Thanks.. Those of us stuck in the daily struggle with depression and other debilitating  mental health problems were hoping attitudes had changed enough that such images just wouldn't cut it any more. Apparently not.
I didn't even get mad about that one. I just felt resigned.

Then there were a few demented climate change deniers wheeled out to disagree with the IPCC report that paints a grim and scary future for us. Seriously, dudes. The scientific community is pretty much united. It's happening, we caused it, let's (wo)man up and start working together to fix it.

But something that really got under my skin was such a silly, commonplace thing that I can't believe how mad I got. And I got really, really mad.

Last night I watched the last episode of Music that Made the Movies on BBC4. I watch a LOT of film. I love films. But I kept thinking "I've not seen that one yet" about most of the movies Neil Brand chose to discuss. And I'd not seen them for the same reason - they felt rather blokey to me and didn't appeal at all. So I started thinking about it; where were the women in this series? Where were non-white musicians?  There was a photo of woman - Bebe Barron -  who made electronic music for Forbidden Planet as part of a partnership, but that was it. The interviewees were all men. As were the directors of the films chosen.

Then I thought about the previous episode. We had clips of Shirley Bassey and Adele singing Bond songs illustrating the use of popular songs in films. There was a short piece with the woman who secures song rights for Quentin Tarrantino, but in a "we couldn't get Quentin so he's the woman who gets the music Quentin picks." The other interviewees were Martin Scorsese, Lalo Schifrin, Richard Sherman, David Arnold, and discussion of Ennio Morricone and John Barry. Each in possession of a Y chromosome.

And the first episode - the golden age of Hollywood. Yep. Lots more white blokes. Talented, without a doubt, but still... no women? anywhere?

I'm not going to get in to a fruitless "why didn't he feature X or Y" rant. However, in case you think there are no women who made music that would fit in this series of films, I offer you the pioneering Delia Derbyshire for his Electronic episode (he'd used examples from TV in a previous episode so it's not like that was the problem) and (Oscar winning) Anne Dudley for the pop music episode. (For non-white composers, this article from 2007 has plenty to say.)

The fact that there are SO few women in film composing is a reason to feature those that we have. They are the role models, the trail blazers.

Why did I get so damned mad? It's just a TV show. Not one that is going to be seen by many, realistically, because it's on the lovely and under-appreciated BBC4. And lighten up, woman, jeez.

I got so damned mad because this is what TV is like. And film. And comedy shows. And news panels. And video games. Not only do we accept this, we don't even notice. One woman out of 5 performers is pretty common on shows like QI, but all-male-participants episodes are also a common sight. All-female comedy or news panels are as common as hens' teeth. An astonishing number films fail the Bechdel test, for heaven's sake, and that was set up as a joke about how few women are in films.

Don't get me wrong, I LIKE blokes. My dad and brother are blokes. My partner is, and 2 of my children will grow up to be. But for only 48% of the population, men do hog most of the room, don't you think?

So, I have rage.
Rage that plenty of people in product development and selection of national brands think it's fine for mental health to be equated with murderous psychopath.
Rage that those with vested interests still rail against then compelling evidence that our climate is being damaged by our actions.
And rage that our culture says women don't seem to exist at all.

Monday, 23 September 2013

A change in perspective

Hello webby world,
The original and lovely Cake Box
I think most of you know I am a baker. My business's name is Cake Box, and come January I will have been trading under that name for 5 years. (I also had a blog called Cake Boxing but I'm not keeping that one up to date at  the moment). My business is small, but I have built up a very good reputation over those years.  I do not advertise and all of my work has been through recommendation. I am immensely proud of my reputation and work hard to sustain it.

Have a look at some of the things I've done - cupcakes, slices, celebration cakes (The one below was for a Beatles fan's birthday), Malteser cake (a fancy one for a special event) and a torte. I make all my own decorations and have FIRM views about how important good ingredients are.

Over the past week I discovered that a new cake shop is opening a few miles down the road. It is called Cake Box.

Upon investigation, it's a franchise called Eggless Cake Box, but the 'eggless' bit is in TINY type. I work in Roundhay; it's on Roundhay Road. They aren't open yet but I've already had some confused customers ring and email. And if people looking for them find me, people looking for me will find them. I have no doubt people who have been told that Cake Box, Roundhay makes lovely cakes will think the shop called Cake Box on the main route to the city centre (Roundhay Road) will be the one.

We have a different core clientèle with some overlap. They are aimed at the Sikh and Hindu community, and others that don't want eggs in their cakes. My customers are the people of my North Leeds community willing to pay more than supermarket prices for high quality ingredients and cakes, which does include a number of people wanting egg free cakes.

I was so upset. My branding, stickers, ingredient labels, business cards, email and domain name are all Cake Box. I can't easily change them - or at least not without a sizable cost. And inconvenience. Having been careful at the time I chose my trading name that there was no chance of confusion with other businesses in the area I was inwardly shouting 'It's not fair!'when another business didn't care about doing the same. And how do I preserve my reputation for lovely home made cakes when something using the same name is advertising "cakes while you wait?"

Anyway, I felt so sad and defeated about it all.

Then I popped to the supermarket. There at the entrance was someone collecting for St George's Crypt, the homeless charity in Leeds.  They had something that looked like a book of raffle tickets but wasn't. The volunteer explained to me that it was a book of vouchers for £5. Instead of giving people begging a coin or two, i you could give them one of the 5 vouchers and they could exchange it for a hot shower and cooked meal at one of the 4 centres around the city. Isn't it a brilliant idea? Everything looks brighter when you are warm, clean and fed. If a paltry quid can get that for someone who needed it, that's an absolute steal. 

I don't believe that telling someone "other people have it worse" is helpful. It's like telling a happy person that someone has it even better than they - so what?  But I was slipping into self pity and it did me good to be jolted out my inward focus. A disappointing and crappy thing happened to my business and I was only seeing problems rather than solutions. Generally I try to shake off those negative thoughts that I cannot  do anything about but I was dwelling on it. And, if I'm honest, sulking. I felt hard done by. 

Yes, my fiver bought meals and showers for people who might need it. But it also bought me a little sense of perspective. Bargain.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Entente Cordial

Hello webby world!

Sometimes a bit of seasonal goodness can fix pretty much anything. Like this:
Are you well?
 No? Oh, poor thing, you sound full of a cold. Have a spoon of elderberry cordial to help your cough.
Yes? Marvellous! Join me in a cocktail. I've made Hedgerow Kir Royale: elderberry cordial and prosecco.

Droopy, juicy elderberries
If you need neither soothing nor plying with exciting purple cocktails (is that possible?), how about having some on greek yogurt or stirred through your porridge. It's full of vitamin C and is supposed to be good for colds and flu.
I don't actually care about that if I'm truthful. I only care that it is utterly delicious.
And seasonal, which is oh so virtuous and fashionable these days.
And mostly free, making it ideal for these frugal and glum times. (Except when you add prosecco to it.)
And I get to make it myself, continuing my transformation from lazy bookworm to the Ambridge matriarch.*

*A side note: My mum and I have been emailing back and forth with competing baking and preserve making triumphs over the last week. I sign mine Jill Archer Wannabe, Mum signs hers Suzy Homemaker. Suzy overtook Jill when she made 90 billion jars of damson jam (well, 34. but that's pretty much a billion ) over the past two days. However, I'm not writing Jill off yet - I have more types of jam, jelly, crumble and cordials. Plus I'm hoping the 220 shortbread biscuits I made today will help pull Jill into the lead.

In case you too would like to make the miracle of scrumptiousness that is elderberry cordial, here's how I did it.

First, pick your elderberries. Assuming you aren't in a totally concrete environment, you'll find heaps of them around just now. We drove to the hedgerows a few miles from our house, near Harewood, because there are absolutely MASSES there. I prefer to use a little pair of scissors to pick the berries to just pulling them because fewer berries fall to the ground. Only pick the droopy, heavy berry clusters - they are the most ripe and juicy.
When you've filled your carrier bag, head home for the exciting task of removing the berries from the stalks. This is important because the plant and unripe berries contain a form of cyanide. (Don't get too worried, so do loads of fruit we eat. It's mild) The ripe ones are good for you once they've been cooked, which breaks down the alkaloids that cause the problems. Well, the BBC Food website says that and if you can't trust the BBC who can you trust?

Anyway, removing the berries by hand is a long and finger-staining job. I use a fork to whip them off the stalks much more quickly. It still took me an hour but I had the radio to keep me company.
I pick out any green, unripe berries by hand. I also have to keep an eye out for unwitting passengers. This week's score was:
          Earwigs:   1
         Ladybirds: 4
         Spiders: 17
Despite using a fork mostly, I still ended up with fairly stained hands, but it washed off far more easily than the stains from the plum jam.
Note the very short nails. Between baking, gardening and jam making I think the shorter my nails are the better. 
Anyway, I ended up with two and a half kilos of elderberries. Most I simmered with apples to make elderberry jelly but some were for the cordial.

I add about 400 or 500ml of water per kilo of elderberries and simmer them for around 25 minutes. I bash them about with a potato masher towards the end of the cooking period to release as much juice as possible. It goes an astonishingly rich dark purple colour.  Then it is ready to be strained.

Straining it needs a jelly bag, a fine tea towel or some muslin suspended above a bowl. I use a jelly bag tied to the legs of an upturned kitchen chair that I sit on a counter out of the way, with a LARGE bowl underneath the bag to catch the liquid. You need to let gravity do its work, slowly trickling and dripping all the juice out. If you squeeze the bag or press the berry pulp to speed things along your cordial (or jelly) will be cloudy.My advice it to go see a movie at this point. Or take a nap. Naps are lovely.

When I was ready to crack on (i.e. woke up) I popped some clean bottles in a low oven to sterilise. Lakeland and other places do nice bottles with swing tops that are really good for this sort of thing if you want to give the cordial as a present. 
I added 400g of sugar per litre of elderberry liquid and heated it in a saucepan. Once the sugar had dissolved I tasted it for sweetness and added any more I felt necessary (not much on this occasion.)  I poured the cordial into the warm sterilised bottles and sealed them. All done.

Recipe - Hedgerow Kir Royale

Add one tablespoon of elderberry cordial to each wine glass and top up carefully with Cava, Prosecco or whatever sparkling wine you like. It froths hugely, so go easy.
Share with your very best pals.
Iechyd Da!

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Hello Ladies

 Hello webby world,

This one is all about pets. Well, 12 of them. You can meet the others at a later date.

We have quite a number of pets. We've two lovely young cats, two sweet natured rats, three guinea pigs from a rescue centre and 12 chickens.  We had a lizard until very recently but she died, poor thing. We'll have another soon.
Almost all of those pets are totally my fault.

Let's introduce you to the chooks. In April 2004 Mark showed me an article in the Guardian about a cool hen house for keeping chickens in urban back gardens. The eglu looked like an overgrown iMac, all colour and curves. The poor man was expecting me to smile, say something like "neat," and get on with my life. I said "That is SO cool! Let's get one. Chickens in the garden would be fab!" Oh dear.

After a year of reading about them, talking about them, coming up with increasingly desperate excuses for why it would be a good idea ("it will be so good for the kids - like living on a farm without having to actually be on a farm!") I just announced I was buying myself an eglu for my birthday.

Their house and playground
That was just the start. My pair of hens were killed after 3 months by a fox. I replaced them with a trio. A couple of years later my friend Lisa asked where she could get a cheap second hand eglu for her son. He was desperate for a pair of hens for his 9th birthday and wouldn't even be tempted away by the offer of an Xbox from her disgusted husband. I sold my eglu to Lisa and put the money towards a big hen house and went chicken shopping again.

A trio became a half dozen, then 8 sounded such a good number. Aww, but that one is so pretty, and there's barely any difference between 8 and 9, surely...  The numbers ebbed and flowed as some died or were killed by foxes and others joined us. By this spring our flock had reached 12. In my defence, some of those are, erm, in their twilight years and don't lay any more. They have earned their retirement but that still left me short of eggs for breakfast so I had to get new hens.

Mark's initial horror of anything with such dinosaur feet and talons (and my own nervousness of being pecked) lasted less than a week. He even texts me photos of particularly nice breeds at the garden centre he passes when commuting down south. He tolerates my crazy-assed naming themes and has favourite hens himself. In short, he's gone native. Win!

Name themes we've had- 

We started off naming each hen individually but over the years started giving each group that arrived some themed names. Those names in bold are still with us, although some are very advanced in years. The horrid loss of many of the Forecast hens when only a few months old was the result of a daylight fox attack while the chooks were still free-ranging.

The 'Chicken' Supremes: Diana, Mary and Florence

Beatles songs: Lucy, Eleanor, Penny, Rita and Prudence.

Science fiction TV characters: Buffy, Caprica 6, Xena, Chloe (from Smallville - loved her), Sarah Jane

Doctor Who Companions : Rose, Martha, Donna, Ace, Leela and Amy
Shipping forecast regions: Lundy, Rockall, Shannon, Malin, Bailey, Hebrides, Viking, Cromarty, Dogger, Biscay, Fitzroy and Finisterre.

NB: If you don't know what the shipping forecast is, find out here. It is read out over BBC Radio 4 at set times of the day and it's somehow soothing and poetic.
If you are very familiar with it, you'll know that Finisterre is no longer a region; it's been renamed Fitzroy. But it's a lovely name and hell, they are chickens. They don't care.

They all have very distinct personalities, and are a range of different hybrid and pure breed hens. Those whose ear patches are white lay white eggs. The others all lay different shades of brown from very pale to a rich brick colour. Their sizes vary a lot too. Mixed use breeds like Rita (a Bluebelle) are very heavy of body and could be killed when young for their meat. Those like Donna (White Star) are bred as laying birds only. There is no muscle (meat) on them at all. It's all feathers and bones.
Rita - Queen of the flock
Penny - 2nd in command (Cromarty behind her)

Xena and Donna
Martha - a bit of a bully

Biscay - very friendly

Hebrides with Fin behind her

Dogger - follows me like a puppy

Fitzroy - very skittish

Cromarty - a real survivor
Viking - big, very dumb, often broody
Finisterre - sweet tempered

Cromarty was a marvel. She was friends with Malin; they were always together. When the fox attacked I found them huddled against each other by the fence. Malin had died and Crom was so terribly wounded. I was scared I'd have to put her down because her damage was so severe. Her wing was broken, her leg injured so she couldn't stand, the back bald with huge bleeding wounds all across it.  We managed to nurse her back to health, although she pined for Malin dreadfully for a week or so. She kept making the little "where are you" peeps hens do when they are lost. 
She is fine now. Fitzroy  and Fin became her new pals. Her feathers are darker than before and she can't jump very high but she's healthy and is laying eggs again. Go Crom!

Questions everyone asks:
1) Do you hatch chicks?
No, we have only females so the eggs are infertile

2) Is that one with the big comb a cockerel? 
(usually Donna, whose comb flops to the side like an oversized quiff)
No, most chickens have combs. The size of the comb is down to the breed and the sexual maturity of the bird

3) How can you get eggs if you haven't got a cockerel?
Hens lay eggs, like women have periods. They happen regardless of the presence of a male.

4) Are you going to eat them when they die/stop laying?
NO! Ew! For a start if they got ill and died I don't want us eating diseased meat. For another thing they have almost no meat on them. And, being old, what little there is of it would be tough as old boots. And hell, I don't eat meat anyway.
But most importantly, these are my pets. They are pets with the benefit of free eggs, but still pets with names and personalities. The cats don't provide me with breakfast* and I don't eat them. And in their post-menopausal years they deserve a happy retirement.

*In fairness, the cats have tried to bring me breakfast on several occasions. It's not their fault I don't fancy mice or sparrow chicks.

Hens are fantastic pets. They eat slugs, weeds, wilted veg we won't eat. They produce the best fertiliser my garden could have. They are easy to take care of, rarely noisy, easy to tame and make the garden a more fun place to be. And when they do lay eggs, those eggs are the most delicious you've ever tasted.
Hurray for chooks!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

A Kinder Life

Hello webby mates!

This post is more earnest that the others. Normal service shall resume shortly.

I wish kindness was more highly thought of. It's one of those qualities that slides by without much attention. We admire people who are witty, bright, articulate, independent, adventurous, creative, sociable, determined, honest, talented, courageous and so on. But being kind... It's a powerful thing when you stop and notice it.

A couple of examples:

One really tough day this year I dashed into Pret A Manger to buy a coffee to take away. I was rained on, late, stressed and limping but I really needed a cuppa. The woman serving me wouldn't accept payment. She said, "You look like you are having a hard morning. Your coffee is on me today." I nearly cried. Everything had been stressful and awful, then a total stranger was unexpectedly kind and the world seemed much less horrid. That was worth far more that the £2 coffee she gave me.

Some years ago Mark dropped me in town with our then-toddler to go to story time at the library. When it finished and we were leaving I passed women collecting for a charity. As I went to get some change from my wallet I realised it was on the kitchen counter at home. No cash for bus fare home, Mark stuck in meetings 5 miles away until 6 pm and a toddler crying for a snack. Oh god.
One of the charity women took a five pound note from her wallet and told me to get myself a cuppa and have bus fare as well. I asked for her address to repay her and she refused, saying she knew I would help someone else out in the same boat one day. Wasn't that fabulous of her?

The wonderful thing about being kind is the positive cycle it creates. When I got my free coffee I not only felt good about having coffee but also about the woman at Pret, Pret as a company,  more positive about the world at large and I felt inspired to do a nice thing for someone else that day. My negative spiral of emotions was stopped in its tracks and my day got better (It truly was an AWFUL morning for me until that point). The woman at Pret got to feel good about herself when she saw how much I appreciated her kindness, and her colleagues saw how powerful a small thoughtful gesture can be. 

As for the total stranger who spontaneously gave me £5... I still think about her 8 years on. And of course she was right: I have done the same for someone else.

Goodness only knows I'm no saint. I am stroppy, short tempered, argumentative and bloody-minded. However, I am also rather idealistic. I think you can change your world if you try it. A bit, anyway.

I want to live in a world where kind gestures happen more often. Getting all "be the change you want in the world" I challenged myself to do a kind thing for someone - over and above what I would usually do - every day during Lent this year. (I am an atheist but it seemed a convenient period of time to latch onto.) I only aspired to do little things: stuff  like sending actual proper birthday cards to friends rather than texting them; taking some of my hens' eggs to share; making extra scones in a batch for the widowed neighbour whose wife always used to bake them for him. Nothing expensive, nothing difficult, just a little consideration of how to brighten someone's day.

It was amazing. Tiny acts had a response so disproportionate to the effort involved. Just as the coffee in Pret made my day, simple little gestures had a big impact in some situations. 

It wasn't a selfless thing. Life is just more rewarding when there is a little more goodwill about. And over time I was more than repaid for any nice thing I did. Someone I dropped off a slice of cake for brought me some books she thought my daughter would like. The giving away the hens' eggs led to being given fruit from someone's allotment. I am already lucky enough to have very kind and fabulous mates and yet I found new relationships, neighbours I'd not got to know in my previous 11 years here, strangers I've encountered since and who hail me as a friend.

I didn't keep it up, that One Act Each Day thing. It felt rather artificial at times trying to come up with something. I should also point out that I am still as much a pain in the butt as I was before; I still talk too much, get irritable easily and am hard bloody work to know some days.  Standing in front of the mirror colouring my hair, I haven't spotted a halo floating above me, nor have I done anything more than millions of people do every day. The change has been smaller than that. I try to be a little kinder and more tolerant than I was and to act on thoughtful impulses to be when they occur to me. And I  appreciate the many lovely things my friends, neighbours and community do for me and my family.

It's amazing how lovely people are if you just stop to notice.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013


Hello webby mates!

Fancy a a slice of toastand jam? I have lots to share.

My Victoria plum tree is bent almost to the ground under the weight of its fruit this year. I knew it was likely - plum trees lave a good year/bad year cycle as far as I can work out. Last year it managed about 10 plums. This year I removed over half the fruit in July to protect the branches from snapping and my little tree still gave me 4 kilos of gloriously sweet plums yesterday. Twice as many are still on the tree to ripen.
Don't they look good?
 My plum season is very short. Everything ripens within a 2 or 3 week window. There is no way we could eat them all fresh (without being ill) and I do love being able to have plums from my tree many months after they appeared. The easiest way to do that is to make them into jam.

I'm still fairly inexperienced at making jam. I refer to the wonderful River Cottage Preserves book written by Pam Corbin - aka Pam the Jam - for the essentials and even then I do make a hash of it sometimes. Rather spectacularly on several occasions.  However, the lure of a line of jars filled with golden jam in a kitchen scented with rich sweet fruit brings me back to have another go every time.

The recipe is this:
1.5kg of plums
400ml water
1.25kg granulated sugar

I doubled it because I have heaps and heaps of plums.

As you will have noticed if you've read my other blog posts, I like Thinking Things Through and I like an easy option if there is one. There are lots of approaches to jam making and this is the one that works well for me.

Sterilising the jars - If I've room in the dishwasher I stick all my jars and lids in, run a hot wash cycle as I start the jam and leave the dishy door shut until I'm ready to fill the jars. If I haven't the room I just wash them as hand hot as i can stand and pop them on the middle shelf of the oven, and turn the oven on low. Boiling them seems a right flipping pain.

Setting point - I second, third and forth guess myself on setting point. To that end, I take a belt-and-braces approach. I stick 3 or 4 saucers in the freezer as I get ready to start and I use my digital thermometer as well. The great Pam says setting point of jam is 104 degrees C.

Pam also says you should only wash the fruit if absolutely necessary and if you do you must dry it thoroughly. My fruit are from my trees, unsprayed with anything, so I just keep a very slightly damp cloth to hand if i need to wipe any bits off. Or wipe it on my apron (scruffy but true.)

Weighing as I go

I set up all my stuff first - massive pan sitting on my digital scales, sack of fruit and cutting board in front of me, bowl for the plum stones and any manky bits to my right.

First job - cut the plums in half and remove the stone. The easiest way is to cut along that line on the plum - I think of it as the plum's Greenwich Meridian or butt crack, depending on my mood - and up again the other side, then twist the two plum halves apart. Cut any manky bits off and pop the plum halves in the pan.

Incidentally, Pam tells us to use a nutcracker to open some plum stones to remove the kernels and simmer them with the plums for a lovely hint of almond. I don't own a nutcracker and can't be bothered anyway. I love plum jam as it is.

The other advice Pam offers is to use slightly under ripe fruit for jam making.
Two years ago we had to give our middle child a 4 plum rule. They are so soft, plump and delicious, just hanging there at easy picking height for a child and the temptation was too much for him. As he played in the garden one day he helped himself to loads of them and had one hell of a stomach ache as a result. He stuck to the 4 plum limit after that.  I was struggling to stick to that rule myself as I picked out the plums from the harvest that were too ripe for jam making. It turns out they are just exactly ripe enough for scoffing.

Is it a bit late to mention that you shouldn't make plum jam when you have a fancy event to go to that night? Picking all those plum stones out tends to stain your fingers a delightful nicotine yellow which can undermine your wholesome homestead-y vibe and kill any glamour thing off too.  Unless you are a chain smoker, I guess. Then it wouldn't make much difference.
What 3kg of plums looks like

Anyway, back to business. I weighed out 3kg of stoned fruit, added some water and put it on the stove to boil. This time (unlike the previous year) I remembered not to add the sugar until the plums were well cooked. It took about 25 minutes of simmering. Jam making wisdom decrees that if you add the sugar at the start the fruit skins won't soften. I haven't found it bothers me particularly, but what the heck.

By the way, you don't have to remove the skins of the plums unless they really bother you. Pam doesn't and I no longer do. It makes the whole thing much easier. Also, just skimming along with a slotted spoon as the skins rise to the surface can get rid of lots of them if you aren't too fastidious about the odd skin.
I actually kind of like them. They are just part of the texture of the jam, and aren't tough or chewy in the slightest.

Once the fruit is totally cooked I added the sugar. Victoria plums are pretty sweet, so I don't match the fruit weight quite equally. I added 2.5kg of granulated sugar to the pan.

Yes, you read that correctly. Two and a half kilos. Of sugar. Five and a half pounds. What sort of insane foodstuff needs that much sugar?

Well, jam, obviously. Because it is the high sugar content that preserves the fruit so I can have this September's plums on my toast next spring. Logically I know that but it still feels an insane amount to weigh out. It filled 2 of my big pasta bowls.
Heaps of sugar
 I stirred it well and kept it on a low boil for a while to let the sugar dissolve completely. Then, with a last stir for luck, I took it up to a rolling boil in pursuit of the elusive Setting Point.

Books and online recipes usually tell me my jam will reach setting point in 10 to 12 minutes. I don't think it has ever happened in less than 20. I don't stir it (it cools the jam slightly and delays setting) and I *think* I do everything they suggest, but it still takes longer than they tell me. Possibly it's because I have MASSES of plums and scale up the recipes.

Anyway, once my jam is boiling like billy-o and gets a little darker in colour I pop my sugar thermometer in. It usually romps up to 102 degrees and then sits there for ages. I try again every few minutes. By around 103 degrees I grab one of those saucers I put in the freezer and plop a tiny bit of jam on it. after a couple of minutes I push it with my finger to see if the jam wrinkles up ahead of my finger or not. If not (and the first few goes are always a 'not' in my experience) I get to scoff the yummy sloppy jam bit and try again with another cold saucer in a few minutes.

Once I was fairly happy the jam had reached setting point I turned off the heat. I took the still-warm jars and lids from the dishwasher and put them on the counter ready to be filled.  I don't have a jam funnel which would make filling the jars nice and easy. And I only remember this when I am in full jam-making flow. Dolt.

Anyway, I put my jars on sheets of the reusable baking parchment I use for lining cake tins and baking trays. It makes clearing up my jam spillage much easier. Had my kitchen not been very warm - and consequently my counter top - I would have put folded tea towels under the parchment. hot jam jars and cold stone counters can result in the glass breaking. Not good.

I filled the jars to very near the absolute top and put the lids on. As the jam cools and contracts it will create a vacuum seal. You can tell that it's worked by looking at the little dimple on the jar lid. If it is concave the seal is fine. If you can push that dimple down and it pops up convex again, the jar isn't sealed. You can just keep that jar in the fridge and use it up quickly or you can heat the jam up again, sterilise the jar again and have another go.

I got 13 jars of jam from my 3kg (stoned weight) of plums. I expect about 5 or 6 will get given away. The rest will go on the top shelf of my cupboard, waiting to bring late summer happiness to months ahead.

Jay xx

PS - When I was a kid I had a hell of a time remembering which was concave and which was convex. The only way I kept it straight was this -  concave is caved in. Convex is vexed, and is sticking its tongue out at you. I'm educational gold, me. You're welcome.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Making Something Useful

Hello webby mates!
Sorry for the 3 week gap. I've been on holiday for a fortnight with extended family, then spent this last week getting the remaining school stuff ready and doing all the unpacking and other post holiday chores. I thought I was looking forward to returning home to my garden and pets. However, with low temperatures, rain, one important pet death, 2 hens going broody, the rats peeing all over my favourite sweater and dress and my (formerly) favourite cat having diarrhoea in the laundry hamper I felt less than thrilled to be home.

On the bright side I have LOADS of chillies on the chilli pepper plants in the poly tunnel, the other hens are laying well, the apples, raspberries and plums are ripening and Joss Whedon has a new TV show starting this months. That's all worth being home for.

The most significant event this week - aside from the death of Slinky the skink - was my lovely 11 year old son starting high school.  He was so keen to make a good impression he got up super early to have a shower and get dressed in his shirt, jumper and blazer. He wanted everything to be just right. Unfortunately this translated to a certain pickiness when it came to a school bag, lunch bag and pencil case. We found the first two eventually but all the pencil cases he saw were girly or babyish. Come on, stationery suppliers, please stock less gendered stuff!

I thought I could make something myself that might do. I am trying VERY hard not to spend any money this month (beyond the essentials. I'm not making the kids fast or anything. Yet.) so I hoped to use things I already had.
I found a spare 10 inch zipper in my sewing box.  I'd bought it for a project last winter I ended up using buttons on instead. Then I had a good rummage in my fabric bins. I have two of those Tuff Crates you can get from Costco stacked next to my sewing machine desk. In theory everything I own for sewing would fit inside them. In practice they are bulging with fabric, batting, interfacing and so on, there's a huge stack on top of them in addition to 2 shelves full of books, thread spools and other haberdashery notions.  I LOVE an excuse to furtle about in the fabric bins. It gets me all inspired for projects. It's so hard to stay focussed when I'm there.
Anyway, I had several pairs of old jeans the kids had grown out of as well. Denim is a nice hard wearing fabric that would do a decent job as a pencil case. I chose one of Z's own pairs as I thought that would be more cool for him.

The lower part of the leg looked to me the most suitable. Well, easiest, anyway. I trimmed off the tatty hem and measured enough to make a roomy pencil case. This meant using the rather worn knee section of the jeans. I could either cut out a rectangle from the back of each jean leg or keep the nice side seam as part of the pencil case's look and reinforce it some way. I really liked the idea of the finished item looking as 'jeansy' as possible so I stuck to using that once leg. Plus, as a lazy wench I was happy to take the option that left me with one fewer seam to sew.

My next step was to cut the tube of denim open and trim off the unwanted second side seam. The legs tapered in so I also used my metre stick and my handy dandy rotary cutter to make it a more even rectangle.

To resolve the issue of the worn knees I remembered Z's Scout Camp badges. They kick about on bookshelves or in drawers being unloved clutter but too important to him to throw away. I stitched them across the worn bit and across a small stain.  Incidentally, I don't know why that photo is upside down. I've reformatted it several times but it just keeps flipping back.

  Next up, installing a zip. Here goes the "Do what I say not what I do" bit of the post.

Line up the wrong side edge of the zip with the right side of the fabric. Pin  and then tack into place. Tacking is the bit I forget. It holds the zip and jean edge more securely while I'm faffing about getting the presser and needle in the right position. As my zip is slip-sliding about I always think Drat! I meant to tack this in place.
Sew them together at a consistent gap from the teeth of the zip - you'll probably find the ridge the teeth make force your sewing machine foot a certain distance away.  As you get near to the zip itself - you know, the bit you pull to do it up - stop sewing.  Leave your needle in the fabric, lift your presser foot up and ease the zip past it to a part you've already sewn.  This bit is VERY IMPORTANT (and I forgot this too). If you try to sew past the zip pull its width will make your nice straight line in to a nice straight line with a blooming great swerve in it. Like, for example, the left hand side of the zip in the picture. 

As you see I went a bit wrong. I sewed a second line nice and evenly after that. It's on the inside of a pencil case; no one is going to see it. Except you guys, and I trust you not to point it out to my lad. 
Oh yeah, if you did the tacking that I forgot - dumb me - pull out the tacking stitches once you've finished. Their mission is complete. 

I did the same with the other side of the zip so I had a tube of denim with a zip running down its length. I then undid the zip about halfway so I'd have a nice easy way to turning it the right side out.

I drew a line across each open end of my pencil case from the end of the zip teeth down to the fold at the bottom. I am a firm believer in drawing lines to guide my sewing. I make a pig's ear of attempting straight lines without some guide to help keep me on track.

To prevent the denim fraying inside the case, I sewed a zigzag stitch right alongside my seam. I trimmed the excess denim as close to the zigzag as I could without actually cutting any of the stitches. I did a quick once-over checking for untrimmed threads then turned the finished pencil case the right way out.
There we go - a customised pencil case cobbled together in about half an hour from bits already in my house. My lovely 11 year old was delighted, I stuck to my promise of not spending any cash and I had a nice time doing it.