Friday, 8 January 2021

To garden is to be an optimist


It's that rare thing - a properly snowy day in England.  They are exciting days to be relished, as years can go by without them. The wildlife is making the most of it as well - two healthy young foxes were. doing what can only be described as frolicking in the next garden, and it was all very Christmas card-like. Leaping, pouncing, rolling in the snow, looking absolutely gorgeous. The birds are less keen. The hens are quail are hunkered down under shelter. 23 starlings mobbed the bird feeders, so I suspect I'll need to venture out and top that up shortly.

Fox in snow


I'm warm and snug inside with a stack of seed and plant catalogues and a wish list. It's time to plan this year's vegetable garden. 

We've had a lot of reference books over the years but the one I most turn to is the River Cottage Handbook: Veg Patch by Mark Diacono. It's full of practical advice, suggestions about various varieties, soil conditions, sowing and planting charts and all the usual stuff you'd expect. However, what stands it apart is the section on What To Plant.

Diacono suggests first making a list of all the veg you like. Don't worry about whether it will grow or not at this stage, you can whittle the list down later.  If a vegetable doesn't appear on your list, don't grow it.  Sounds obvious but believe me, it isn't. I grew perpetual spinach for several years before accepting that yes, true spinach bolts and runs to seed but who cares? It's far, far nicer to eat than a chard pretending to be spinach. See also beetroot (for my Mum) and radish (for my Dad).

He also suggests you look at several different reasons to plant something. Is it far better when freshly picked? Asparagus, peas, sweetcorn and sprouts picked minutes ago are all a world away from the supermarket equivalent because the sugars degrade to starch by the hour. Freshly picked tomatoes smell absolutely wonderful. The best strawberries you'll ever taste are picked straight from the plant, still warm from the sun.

Large strawberry


Is it expensive to buy but easy to grow? Again, asparagus is the clear example; once the bed is well established it effortlessly produces stalks for years. Herbs grow very well from seed in generous armfuls. The more unusual varieties like Pink Fir Apple spuds are pricey in the shops and a doddle to grow in a sack on the patio.  

The reverse is also important from my point of view - is it cheap to buy and either complicated to grow or needs too much space? Don't bother. (Celery, I'm looking at you.) Greedy things, squashes - the plants grow quickly and well but they take many months and a huge patch of the raised bed to produce something I can pick up for a quid at the supermarket with no loss of flavour. Onions are insanely cheap, whereas shallots are far more expensive to buy and grow beautifully in our climate so I choose them instead.

NB - this space issue is for those of us with limited raised bed space or a small veg patch. You allotmenteers can fill your boots, you lucky devils.

How about thinking about food miles - there are loads of commonly imported vegetables that grow perfectly happily in our gardens. Any we grow ourselves is a step to reducing our carbon footprint. With successional planting in troughs I can keep us in mixed salad leaves from late May to September at the very least. 

Is it attractive? Runner beans were initially grown for their flowers, not the pods, and come in many shades from  white or yellow through orange to the most vivid red. Globe artichokes are stunning plants with huge silver leaves and giant purple thistle flowers (if you leave some buds to develop.) They are always covered in bees and hoverflies. Jerusalem artichokes are really a strain of sunflowers that grow 3m stalks with bright yellow flowers. Borage is not only great for bees and for producing cucumber flavoured flowers for your Pimms, those flowers are prolific and the most heavenly blue. So if you want to enjoy the look of your veg patch as well as its produce, that's worth thinking of.

Diacono also strongly recommends growing something you've never tried before. That's brought me a lot of fun over the years from cute but silly cucamelons, tomatillos for Mexican food, my first taste of quince this year and the ridiculous looking kohlrabi, which makes great coleslaw.  He also suggests something you think you dislike.  I know that sounds contradictory to Grow What You Enjoy, but it's choosing something deliberately to see if your prejudice holds. That's how I learnt that I love sprouts (see Better When Fresh above).

I would add another consideration - Don't Grow What Is Doomed To Fail. Why do it to yourself?  Optimist that I am, I have attempted to grow aubergines on at least 12 occasions. I'm here to tell you that if you live in Yorkshire without a heated greenhouse, my lovely, you are NOT likely to be successful. With red and green peppers you'll get some, with chilli peppers (in a poly tunnel or cold frame) you'll have masses; aubergines? not so much. Ditto rosemary in heavy clay soil, or blueberries planted in lime-rich soil. I also tried chilli peppers from seed unsuccessfully for years until I got a heated propagator. I make that mistake a lot, and it's expensive. Enthusiasm over practicality. I'd save yourself the bother; just look at me as someone who makes mistakes so you don't have to.

Jalapeño peppers in a poly tunnel

With all that in mind, I'ver gone through and created the list for Veg Patch 2021. I hope by placing my orders on the early side I won't get blindsided like last year when a third of the things I wanted were out of stock as new lockdown gardeners emptied the shelves. 

This year's wish list include some things I fancy a go at, some things I know we love, some stalwarts we can't do without. I haven’t included shallots, coriander and salad because those are my essentials I won’t forget.

Equally important is my No list. That starts with those I often out of habit but don't justify the space: broccoli and cauliflowers, squashes, more than 2 courgette plants.  The other group includes those that are great  in theory but fail in practice: last year no one harvested the runner beans or peas beyond a handful picked in passing and eaten raw. Not this year, I'll wait until we actually miss them before adding them back in the rotation. (Side eye to Mark, who asked me to plant the runner beans when I don't like them!)

I also know from experience that some plants are more economical for me to buy as seedlings rather than growning from seed myself. I'm an erratic gardener really, and tend to stop paying attention between the exciting bit (Oooh! a seedling!) and the fun bits (big enough to plant out, then later harvesting). Therefore I tend to have more luck with a sturdy couple of cucumber plants than a packet of 10 seeds. It's not all my fault, the slugs are also a major factor, but it's pretty frustrating so now I acknowledge that and work around it. 

By the way, my all time best Buy It, Don't Sow It is sweetpea seedlings from Sarah Raven. They are EXPENSIVE, there's no way around. However, they are extremely study and prolific plants. I get 2-3 bouquets of sweetpeas for at least 12 weeks straight - more if I were a less erratic waterer. It's an annual gift I give myself and it is stupendous value compared to any cut flowers I might buy. The whole house is filled with the scent, it's divine. My friends and neighbours benefit too. She has many gorgeous collections but my favourite are the very simple ones with few flowerheads that produce the most wonderful scent

Sweet peas on the kitchen counter

My final decision on the wish list is to not buy what I will inevitably get given. Last year I was offered courgette and tomato seedlings from 9 different people. Both those good natured plants propagate like billy-o, bless their lovely selves. Any gardener who grows them inevitably ends up with a glut of seedlings and not enough space. I'm going to bank on being offered some*, and will have some less common seedlings to offer in return.

Next jobs - planning what will go where, which involves looking at last year's planting diagram to make sure I'm rotating my crops and remembering companion planting. Then placing the orders. I love this - all the potential, and dreams of warm summer days in my garden, piucking veg for dinner. 

*If this all backfires, don't worry about us going without. I reorganised the freezer and food cupboards this week. Turn out I have 31 tins of tomatoes in there!


Friday, 25 December 2020

Drinking White Wine In the Sun

 Merry Christmas!

There's nothing I can say about 2020 that's not been said with more eloquence, style or wit by others so I won't even try. It's been... unusual.

Celebrating Christmas with just the five of us used to be a rare treat. Grandparents want to see grandkids and vice versa, cousins want to play, so that inevitably meant packing up and heading to North Wales of a good chunk of the holidays - pet care permitting. I used to fantasise about being Just Us - no packing, no complicated cat/hen/rodent/lizard rota with local friends, no fitting in with blended or distant family and their work/custody/travel commitments in a scheduling challenge that would stump lesser souls. The years we were home were fun, partly for the novelty, but mostly Christmas is Family.

Mum was very very into Christmas. In some ways, the rest of us were drawn along in her wake - she was the mover and shaker, the one around whom we'd orbit. It's our second Christmas without her; it's far more bearable this time but I still feel her absence sharply at the oddest moments. Memories crash through.

Christmas 1981: I was 12 years old. I'd loved ballet since lessons age 3 - and was a spectacularly incompetent participant of lessons for many years - but had never been to see one live. The National Ballet of Canada was celebrating its 30th Anniversary with a tour of The Nutcracker nationally so Mum bought tickets for the two of us at Hamilton Place (now First Ontario Concert Hall).

First of all we went to The Sirloin Cellar in downtown Hamilton.  This was possibly the most grown up I felt until I was around 25. First you descended the pokey staircase to enter the dark restaurant. As you entered it was a dim room dominated by dark wood and old photographs of Hamilton. To the left was that most macabre of restaurant trends, the aquarium. The twisted swine thought actively choosing which lobster to have boiled alive for your dinner would be fun is surely in one of the more baroque circles of hell. "You look nice, I'll have you murdered." It was a grisly fascination.

The thing that I most loved about the Sirloin Cellar was the starter - Swedish meatballs. A good 15 years before IKEA's ubiquity, these glorious creations were served above a sort of fondue arangement with a small flame to keep them warm. Sharing a dish with Mum as we discussed main course choices was brilliant. Just us women out on the town.

A short stroll away was Hamilton Place; a rather unusual looking brick and concrete structure that I knew more for the annual Lionel Blair Panto (yes, really! He spent every panto season in Hamilton Ontario) than the arts.  We were in the First Balcony, only a couple of rows back - a wonderful view. 



Now there's something you need to know about Mum - she took her disaster films VERY seriously. After Jaws she wouldn't go more than knee deep in the ocean for years. After Towering Inferno she took the location of Fire Escapes extremely seriously. 

We took our seats and Mum started. "Jackie, I want you to listen carefully;: if there is a fire you need to know how to get out. Look here - how many rows of seats to the front of the balcony?" "Three, Mum." "That's right. So if there's a fire you go forward THREE rows and climber the barrier. Smoke rises so there might not be a clear view up here, which is why it's important to know the count." "But Mum..." "No, listen, this is important. You climb over the barrier. See how it lines up with the aisle below? You wait until you can see it's clear and you drop. then make your way down the slope to that Fire Escape." "Yeah, but Mum..." "NO, Jackie, Listen to me. How many rows? "Three." "And then what?" "Climb over, wait for a gap, drop, head down the slope to the Fire Escape, but I could..." "No, just make sure you remember. Panic is as dangerous as smoke. You've got it?" "Yes Mum." "OK. What was it you wanted to say?" "Mum, there's a Fire Escape at the end of this row."

38 years. We teased Mum about that at ever theatre visity for thirty eight years. She took it in good heart, but I never see a theatre Fire Door without thinking of it.

The ballet was pretty much the most brilliant thing I'd ever experienced. I thought my heart would burst with joy - the music, the dancing, it was beyond my wildest dreams.

The Nutcracker's  Russian dance - the Trepak - is well known, but not to 12 year old me. I'd never heard or seen anything like it. Mum had to put a hand on my knee as it was positively bouncing. The dancers leapt impossible heights, did the splits midair - all perfectly normal choreography in the crowdpleasing juggernaut the Nutcracker remains. But for a first time viewer? My world expanded that day. I didn't know bodies could do that, and that such exhuberance was possible.  



When the music came onto the playlist in the kitchen on Christmas Eve, I was straight back there. Feeling like a Grown Up, out with my Mum as a co-participant and not a little kid, had laughed long and hard about what would become a family joke, and so swept up by the glory of the ballet I thought I'd burst with joy.

And I miss my Mum. 

I'm lucky to have such strong and wonderful memories. I'm lucky she showed me my favourite thing - and Ballet Weekend is always one of my annual highlights. I'm glad that for many years I could invite her here to Leeds to watch Northern Ballet's Christmas production, sometimes with her grandchildren too. 

NB - There's a link from that day and place to this day and place: a young second soloist of that production, David Nixon, has been the Creative Director of Northern Ballet since 2001. Check out the smart/casual vibe! 



The other strong memory that hit me was this afternoon. 

We'd quite regularly go on holiday with our kids and my parents to Doña Lola, between Malaga and Marbella. My brother and his girls would come too. It wasn't always easy - a large group with different interests, food preferences and ideas of how to have fun. Mark and I like restaurtants and galleries,  Mark hates beaches, I love swimming in the sea and hate pools. The younger kids all love the pool and endless ice creams, eldest like pools or video games and quiet, Neil likes games and home food but thinks cities are boring, Dad's mobility was reducing thanks to his arthritis. You can't please everyone. Sometimes it would be frustrating, sometimes harmonious. Families  - love them, but also argue with them like a teenager. 

However, there was one perfect time every day. As the sun would dip low, Mum and I would carry a pair of chairs, a pair of glasses and an ice cold bottle of white wine down to the ocean's edge and we'd watch the sun set together. Best bit of my holidays in Spain by far. When the low sun hits my face I thinbk of those warm seashore moments.

Today Christmas dawned clear and mild. After so much rain it was a gloriously sunny day. I thought it would be foolish to miss it all so as Mark chatted with his parents I popped out to enjoy the last 10 minutes of winter sunshine. It's Christmas, so obviously Tim Minchin's beautiful White Wine In The Sun was a perfect accompaniment. "My brothers, my sisters, my gran and my mum..."


Idiot. 

That was it - floored because I really do miss my Mum. And drinking white wine with her as the sun set over the Mediterranean really was one of our happiest rituals. I honestly hadn't thought about it; I felt blindsided. 

Christmas is Family. I'm lucky to have mine, even if I can't see some of them right now. I hope you are with yours, and that you are all as well and safe as you can be.

Take care.

J

PS - my full name is Jacqueline. My family called me Jac, and Jackie was for teachers or being told off. You know, like when I'm not paying enough attention to a fire briefing. I've been Jay for 30 years because it suits me better,

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Let the festivities begin!

 As warm autumn days get rarer and we're all confined to barracks for a month, it's time to think of the future and start preparations for whatever level of Christmas we're able to have. Early November is the ideal time to make mincemeat for this year's mince pies.

In my experience, there's a hierarchy of mince pies. At the bottom is shop bought, obviously*. Next is a jar of mincemeat and ready roll pastry, which gives a pleasing feeling of accomplishment. Only slightly more work than that (so VERY slightly) is making your own mincemeat and using ready roll pastry. I cannot stress enough how much of a difference this makes. It's streets ahead of the stuff in the jars, and is the work of about half an hour. Even better is fully homemade. The greatest of all is homemade by somebody else - no mess, no work! Sadly I rarely come across those.

The wonder of homemade mincemeat is that you can tweak it to your tastes.  Use the booze of your choice, go teetotal, alter the spice mix, add chopped nuts or be nut-free, use vegetarian suet if you prefer.



Jars of mincemeat

My recipe is based on the one in Rachel Allen's excellent book, Bake.

  • 3 large or 4 small cooking apples
  • 2 oranges
  • 2 lemons
  • 250g suet
  • 825g of mixed dried fruit (see note 1)
  • 125g mixed peel
  • 650g brown sugar 
  • 2-3tsp spice (see note 2)
  • 150ml dark rum or brandy or whisky or more orange juice
  • optional - chopped almons or pecans

Peel, core and chop the apples then simmer with a splash of water until cooked down to a pulp.

In a large stock pot or truly enormous bowl, mix the zest and juice of the oranges and lemons with the suet, dried fruit, mixed peel, sugar, spices, alcohol or juice and nuts if using. Add the cooked pulp, mix thoroughly and put into sterilised jars.

Leave to mature for 2-3 weeks. Easy, right?

Note 1: Rachel Allen had 275g each of raisins, sultanas and currants only.  Personally I think currants are nasty, gritty little things, and I like a touch of sharpness to cut through the sweetness. My prefered mix is  about half sultanas and the rest a mix of cranberries, sour cherries, apricots and prunes; I dice the larger fruits to similar sized pieces.  Dried fig, glacé cherries or tropical fruits can also work - pick whatever combination apeals to you.

Note 2 - Allen goes for 2tsp of mixed spice.  I grate half a nutmeg with a scant teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, ginger and cloves. I love nutmeg in Christmas food. Just use what you like, ditch what you don't. 

If you're going all out and making shortcrust pastry from scratch, my absolute favourite recipe is from my Sugarcraft tutor at college: German Paste. It's one part sugar, two parts fat, three parts flour and an egg to bind it.  Judith liked Trex or margarine for a crisper pastry, I prefer the flavour butter provides. Or go half and half, which is a great compromise. 

  • 200g sugar
  • 400g butter, Trex or combination
  • 600g plain flour
  • 1 large egg or 2 small, beaten
Put the sugar and flour in a food processor and gradually add the fat, followed by the beaten egg. Mix until it just comes together. Bring it into a ball, wrap it in clingfilm or a substitute and leave it to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

For the thinest, crispiest pastry, roll it out very thinly between two sheets of clingfilm or nonstick sheeting rather than on a floured surface and floured rolling pin. Cut out the circles and peel them off the clingfilm to put in a well greased tart tray. Add a heaped teaspoon of mincemeat and top with a pastry star. Wash with beaten egg and bake for 12-15 minutes.

The mincemeat recipe does make gargantuan quantities, so if you aren't planning to give it to friends or bake a zillion mince pies, you might prefer to halve it.  I once put out a plate of 8 that I took through to the living room while I washed up the baking tray, and when I went through with my cuppa 10 minutes later, Mark and Zach had polished off the lot. We go through a lot of mince pies.

*The exceptions to that hierarchy is Betty's of Harrogate mince pies - which are divine - and people who can't make pastry, who should stick to the ready roll rather than make tough pastry. The more you work it, flour it, roll it out, the tougher it gets. Like with scones, Less Is More for pastry.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

And treat those two imposters just the same

This is a story of hubris, preserves and living in a sitcom.

The first thing I did after breakfast on Saturday was to water the poly tunnel and harvest some of the produce. The first batch of tomatillos were ripe, there were 17 jalapeños ready, some dwarf cucumbers and courgettes ranging from acceptable to giant marrows.

After chucking the marrows to the hens (chickens love them) I laid my haul on the garden table. I called  to Mark, "behold, I have a crop of finest Green!" in a daft pompous tone. The photo went to friends and family, Facebook and Twitter; I was extremely satisfied with the fruits of my labours. Downright smug even - look at the Earth Mother growing her veg and making preserves and pickles! How very Good Life. 


I wasn't far off the mark, but not in the way I thought.

The next thing I did was tackle the overgrown raised bed to remove some of the giant courgette leaves, the borage that had collapsed in the high winds and was drooping across the path and remove the bits that were rotting or dying back.  It's a job I'd been putting off because they are extremely prickly plants. Despite long sleeves and gloves, I had the raised bumps and  rashes I always get from the many bristles poking into me. My forearms were covered in them. I hate that job.



Mark and the kids were doing errands in Zach's car (Mum's aged Polo) so I messaged him to ask he buy a big bottle of white vinegar so I could do the pickling in the afternoon. We usually buy the glass bottles with a screw top. This time he bought plastic bottles with the small hole in the stopper (like you use for putting vinegar on your chips) because he thought I might need lots and it was cheaper. This will matter later.

I was looking forward to making the salsa verde with the tomatillos. You can't buy them easily in the UK and they are delicious. We love  Mexican/Central American food in general, really - hence the jalapenos! 

The counter was *covered* in stuff because I am a slob who lives with slobs. I couldn't be bothered clearing it all properly. I knew I could clean down a working area and ignore the rest - to Mark's horror I can do this perfectly happily. For reference, here's how it looked last week when I was making a curry:
Yes, I am ashamed. Mark can't work in this chaos because he's normal but as long as I can clear and clean a small space I'm good to go. 

First, I peeled the papery cases from the tomatillos, washed their soapy residue off, halved them and roasted them skin up in a very hot oven for 10 minutes.  I'd then pop them in the blender with half a chopped onion, a big fistful of coriander, a garlic clove, 3 chillies and the juice of a lime. Whizz it up, salt to taste, and there you've got a fantastic salsa that lasts about a week in the fridge or several months in the freezer.
Spot the food blogging in the anecdote; I'm content-rich, me.

While the tomatillos were cooling, I started on the pickling liquor for the jalapeños.

My preferred recipe is 250ml water, 250ml vinegar, a teaspoon or sugar, a tablespoon of salt and a few garlic cloves simmered to boiling, to which I  add the sliced chilli peppers off the heat and leave them to infuse/gently cook for 10 minutes before putting in a jar. It's very good, I heartily recomment it.

(See - content! Two recipes already)

I tried to prise the stopper off the vinegar bottle with the edge of a spoon so I could pour out 250ml, but it wouldn't be shifted. Damn it.  I squeezed the plastic bottle into the measuring cup.

I squeezed a bit hard.

The stopper came off with a POP and vinegar poured out at force, covering everything.

Everything.

Veg, cooking equipment, papers, a book, bowls, fruit, phone, floor, me.

I found every single scratch I got pruning back all the prickly stuff this morning. Ow.

It took me 40 minutes to clear up: wash everything down, mop the floor, rinse the fruit and veg and leave them out to dry, bin the butter in the butter dish, wash the pasta jar, lay out the papers and novel to dry, change clothes, wash up the crockery I doused.

 I was knackered and sweating. 

My (freshly washed) hair and face got covered to. I sweated VINEGAR into my EYES.

I smelled like a chip shop.

I want to be an Earth Mother type, whereas I am in fact in a slapstick sitcom or a Carry On film.

It was the hubris particularly.  “Look at my amazing monochrome veg harvest. Isn’t it gorgeous! Aren’t I such a great example,  growing and preserving things?” to a Joni Mitchell Ladies Of The Canyon soundtrack. Me in my maxi dress and wellies, tending my crops and preserving my veg.

Fast forward to vinegar drenched train wreck.

I did get a happy ending - see the jars below. 

This morning I resolved to have a less farcical experience. I went down the garden to sit in my new swing/hammock chair and read a novel. Swaying gently in the sunshine enjoying a favourite book I was feeling at one with the world.

Until the hook holding the chair gave way.

Cue title sequence.


P.S. No, I'm not kidding, yes, it hurt and I'm on painkillers and yes, it did look ridiculous and yes, I was flat on my back like an upturned tortoise.

Monday, 10 February 2020

After a rough week back in July, 2016 I thought of things I'd like to do by the end of the year Mark and I turned 50. Rather than the 'challenge myself' stuff that got me starting the blog in the first place, it's what I thought would help me feel positive, proud of, or just plain enjoy. 



I haven't managed them all but I got 15 of my 20 achieved. 

  1. Go fishing  - Hurray for fishing - it was great fun. 
  2. See the Giant's Causeway How has that not happened? Still, current state of arthritic knees makes it hard to imagine it happening in the near future
  3. Try salsify and Jerusalem artichokes  Salsify didn't taste of very much, Jerusalem artichokes were OK. 
  4. Go rock pooling - A happy day at Sandsend took care of that
  5. Sing in a choir - I think I'm  over this one. Somehow I'm not bothered anymore. 
  6. Grow cut flowers - Huge success! 
  7. See live music - Since first writing the list I've seen James, Elbow and George Ezra.
  8. Visit Hadrian's Wall - What a lovely day out that was!
  9. Spend all day at the movies - Nearly managed it then life got complicated. 
  10. Learn to apply make up properly - Heather-in-London got for sorted, but the hot flushes of menopause mean it's a skill I can't use just now. No one needs mascara running to their chin.
  11. See the Northern Lights - TICK! Best thing imaginable.
  12. Go whale-watching - Also TICK! A morning watching a pod of orca hunt for herring before a night chasing Aurora Borealis. What a day.
  13. Learn a new range of cooking - I can make loads of curries now, and am not intimidated by long lists of spices
  14. Sew something I can wear - My slouchy jersey T Shirt was a lot of fun to make
  15. See a new ballet company - My birthday trip to Covent Garden was amazing. What a venue, what a company
  16. Learn to play a song on an instrument - Another music based challenge I moved past, totally forgot.
  17. Go Birdwatching on the Farne Islands - Not only that but Bempton Cliffs twice AND met lovely Iolo Williams from Springwatch
  18. Return to Paris - (and eat enough cheese to sink a ship) TICK
  19. Cook a decent roast dinner - I can roast a chicken!!!!! I've done it three times and didn't even need to name the last one. My first attempt, with Janice the Zombie Chicken was pretty traumatic for us both (especially Janice, because she was dead) but I feel confident about it now
  20. Build sandcastles - because it's fun yet I never do it anymore. And still haven't.
I made a T shirt!


In addition I've seen a starling murmuration, made a stained glass artwork, organised annual street parties, seen 2 of my children reach adulthood, gone on marches and protests, rejoined active feminist campaigning, been to Venice, played virtual reality video games (badly!), swum in a river, built and aviary and kept quail, eaten a tasting menu at a Michelin starred restaurant, met several of my heroes, seen loads of theatre and tried a number of new crafts.
Stained glass 

Now to look forward...


Starling murmurations are amazing

Monday, 3 February 2020

Present or correct

Here we are at the start of February, having seemingly skipped winter altogether. The weather in Yorkshire's been a long wet autumn and the garden's still flooded.  It may not be the drama and catastrophe of the Australian fires, but our weather pattern is deeply messed up. The water in the poultry drinkers has only frozen 3 times. It used to be a regular occurrence.

My plans of a wildflower meadow may be doomed this year - having carefully collected yellow rattle seeds in August, the bottom of the garden has been either sodden or actually under several centimetres of water and we haven't had the succession of cold snaps needed to germinate the seeds.
Less a garden, more a swamp

Yellow rattle is a semi-parasitic plant that draws much of its energy from hijacking the roots of grasses, so it's a useful tool when wanting to diminish a lawn's vigour and allow native plants to flourish. I was so pleased to find some in a meadow to harvest, in the hopes of making the garden a more wildlife friendly habitat. Ah well, we'll see how it plays out.

My wildlife camera has been a bit of disappointment so far. Plenty of action, almost all of it Gonzo. Just the occasional clip of Isaac, or rain heavy enough to trigger the motion sensor. I'm hoping spring will bring a little more variety.
Not the wildlife we were hoping for
Ballet Weekend rolled around again and if anything it surpassed itself. On Friday I took myself to see the uplifting and delightful Come From Away. It's basically a hug in theatre form. Saturday afternoon I treated my Very Excellent Mate Bon to her first trip to see Hamilton. New cast for the third year, so I got to see some different interpretations of the roles, and Bon was (obviously) absolutely smitten. It was brilliant. Then Bon treated me to The Red Shoes at Sadler's Wells. I actually enjoyed it more this time - having never seen the original film I was a bit lost on our first viewing. All in all the weekend was a wonderful break in an otherwise challenging month,

Sitting in The Room Where It Happens once again


I confess I loathe January and am glad to see the back of it.  It's got too many birthdays. Typically, I've used up all my gift ideas (and money) at Christmas. However from December 23 to January 29th I have a stretch with my father-in-law, daughter, eldest niece, younger niece, brother, mum and son to buy for - and celebrate with - where appropriate. Mum's birthday was difficult but at least we're past it now. Zach's was lovely - deferred celebration until his mock exams were over, and he has such a lovely gang of friends.

So here we are, the plethora of birthdays over until the April cluster (me, Dad, Luke) and the days lengthening enough for the hens to start laying.  This is good. Spring's not far away, and everything is better in the spring.

Something odd happened last week. I was fannying about on an internet forum - OK, Mumsnet; I came for the radical feminism and stayed for the craziness of the AIBU board - and responding to something about mothers, I wrote "My Mum loved that too."

Loved.

Past tense.

That's the first time I used the past tense without having correct myself from the present. It jolted me. I've been saying "Mum's got those shoes; Mum hates risotto; Mum sews her own clothes; Mum likes musicals but not opera so much..."  for months now. Yes, obviously I know she is dead - and I had to write to the people who hadn't heard when the Christmas cards to "Kate and Bri" arrived. But I hadn't  - oh hell, I don't know - adjusted to it? Acknowledged that she's in our past not our present, maybe? Each month that takes me further away from her feels like a betrayal. I'm not sure by whom, her for dying or me for living.  Grief isn't terribly rational.

But suddenly there is was, a past tense. An admission that Mum's not here, that it's memories not current events. I think it's probably healthy. I'm sure it's normal. But I'm not sure how I feel about it yet.

Monday, 30 December 2019

That's amore

When the moon hits your eye...

PIZZA, baby!


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 plopped carefully placed the dough on it. 2 spoons of pizza sauce, a scattering of olives/pepperoni/nothing, a generous sprinkling of mozzarella and a quick shimmy to get it from peel to oven.


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

I had a brilliant time. I was supposed to be making dinner for everyone but I got overexcited and made pizza for a late lunch first. This was serendipitous, as trying to use an unfamiliar cooking technique with FIRE and at up to 500 degrees Celsius in the dark would have been a nightmare. I did have a second batch in the dark but it was much harder to see whether things were cooked/burnt/undercooked so in future I'll stick to cooking with actual visibility.

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.