02 September 2014

home and away: berries, birds, sun, cloud


This is how it goes in our house at the weekend: "The weather forecast says sunny intervals. There's a bit of a breeze, but it's not from the north east so it won't be cold. Where shall we go?" Our options are the tedium of the A12, or the chanciness of the Blackwall Tunnel. The latter normally wins out. Schlepping across London to go westward is not even under consideration. So within the hour, sensibly shod, and with a bottle of water, a bag of bananas, a cardi and an ordnance survey map on the back seat, we turned off onto the road to the Isle of Grain. But much as I'm drawn to Egypt Bay and Yantlet Creek, not least for the romance of the names, the lure of berries and raptors wins out and we turn off towards Cooling and Northward Hill. I know there will be berries there and this year more berries than I have ever seen. Plenty for the birds, plenty for us, even if it means more work on top of all those courgettes. It's greed that drives me on and after picking away, wandering randomly from patch to patch, there is something of Lady Macbeth about my stained hands. Not a good look.


It was one of those perfectly English days - warm enough to go sleeveless, cloudy enough not to get hot. We sat in a hide and look out across the marshes watching a small group of godwits, climbed the hills towards the woods, stopped to look out across the Thames towards the shiny industrial sites at the river's edge and, in the distant haze, the skyscrapers of London.


We walked through the woods and saw an oak and ash intertwined, a perfect union. Out in the open again, still high up, we spotted a pair of marsh harriers high in the sky, then another and two more - five in the sky together, then a sparrowhawk sped across a little lower. Back on the marshland trail we passed a planting of sunflowers left to dry, smaller birds were singing, warblers perhaps, and there were scatterings of small puffballs on the paths, and on the edge of paths giant brown (unidentified) funghi.


Back on the road, we stopped in Rochester for a cup of tea and a scone, bought a workshirt in a charity shop waiting to close, briefly enjoyed the architectural charms of the high street. Nearly home, we  squeezed in a visit to the allotment. The sun was lower but warm and we cropped sweetcorn, a late rush of runner beans, some half ripe tomatoes to add to the pile, a couple of cucumbers, and mercifully few courgettes.  Supper was sorted.

Officially it was the last day of summer. Unofficially it was a most  perfect day and I need to remember it.


01 September 2014

home and away: the kitchen table


Any allotment holder will know that as little as a week away from your plot in the summer months can cause havoc. Given the right conditions those female courgette flowers metamorphose into giant fruits that exhaust the plant and leave it barren for the rest of the season. It happened to us while we were away and we're still playing catch-up. As I sat at the free corner of the kitchen table I surveyed the bounty amid the ephemera of everyday life:

- the radio and lamp
- two glass bowls of ripened and ripening plum tomatoes, variety unknown as they were bought from a market stall, the slugs having eaten all of my plantlets
- four fat cucumbers
- a heap of giant courgettes, only slightly diminished in size by their inclusion in the four jars of plum chutney sitting in another corner of the table, and immobilised by the engineering efforts of a spider that comes out at night to examine the contents of the enormous web that stretches from table to chair to window frame to a short rope hanging from the kitchen cupboard (don't ask)
- a bowl of defrosted Seville oranges, evicted from the freezer that really must be defrosted to make space for an epic bakeathon coming up at the end of the month
- a glass jar, flowerless
- a sad looking bowl of fruit
- two teapot stands and one teapot
- two jars of sourdough starter, a flour shaker, and a very decent home made loaf
- a small pile of fluorescent post-it notes, some scribbled dates on the top one to transfer to my diary
- a pile of unread Guardian reviews, copies of the Cook supplement, Dan Lepard's Short and Sweet and my cookery scrap books. My intentions are good at least.
- a paper bag that contained some fat quarters of fabric, now washed, and destined for another quilt that will come in second place to the baby it's destined for; plus a rag of fabric that has to go into the cupboard with the rest of the shoe cleaning cloths
- two mortars containing pepper and sea salt

Surrounded by all this stuff, I resolve to tidy up, well at least enough to make some more space for for us to sit and eat. But the big clear-up has to wait until I've managed to squeeze in a few more outings to make the most of these last, lovely days of warmth and sunshine...before I go on holiday again.

The spider doesn't seem to mind.


12 August 2014

things about the seaside


We've spent a week at the seaside, and I'm missing it.  Missing the sky and the clouds.




All things stripey. The seaside is clearly the place that stripes belong. A stripey dress or t- shirt just doesn't have the same cachet at home.


Missing the light in the morning, and the promise of a dip in the sea in the afternoon. Those delicious first steps when you wonder whether you really want to cool down quite so much, and then after a few minutes that delicious feeling of moving water all round you.


Missing the promise of adventure, even if we did nothing about it.

Missing dog spotting and people spotting. This year we were looking out for men in pink shorts (score 5) and trousers (score 10); any shade of pink from strawberry to raspberry to rhubarb crumble. Missing the quick crossword on the beach and a game of Linkee in the evening; keeping cool with Arctic Chill and Hypothermia and Christmas Pudding ice cream.

Don't get me wrong. It's nice to be home, at least once the bags have been unpacked, the cats fed and the allotment watered. But that spending time somewhere completely different, creating short term comforting routines that will only last a week with people you want to spend time with is so very, very refreshing - and one of the best birthday gifts ever.


25 July 2014

slow bread, fast cakes


A certain fondness has developed between me and my sourdough starters. Four jars, each with varying degrees of acidity, are still alive and kicking. Just like babies, they each smell slightly different and I'm not averse to a quick sniff just for the pleasure of catching the scent. It's all quite addictive in a slow, relaxed way. I've yet to perfect the technique though. My first attempts using Dan Lepard's method (his book Short and Sweet is more detailed) made a chewy crumb with a pronounced flavour, but would not rise very much and hardened up very quickly. My latest trial, using Hugh Fearnley-Whitenstall's "sponge" method" but Dan Lepard's "folding" technique is much softer, less strongly flavoured, but a better keeping loaf - and a little burnt. Waiting for the sponge to bubble and the dough to rise and re-prove takes up the best part of a day - making a good sourdough it seems is as much about the pleasure of deferred gratification as it is about the all round sensual experience of delivering a tasty loaf. I can't help thinking it's good for the soul. And when it happens, all in good time, my perfect loaf will be bigger, crustier, with a slightly waxy, open texture. Patience, patience.

I only wish cake making was quite as fulfilling just now, for we are in cake stall season and this means hygiene, volume, efficiency. The joy of making cakes is fading fast for I find I am in a baking rut, relying on the old favourites that I know I can bake in batches and rely on very time - rock cakes for big hands, fairy cakes for little ones, banana bread or carrot cake for those who see these as the healthy option, cup cakes for those with a sweet tooth, apple cake for the fruity. It has to be quick, able to travel well, easy to cut, cream-free, affordable for those who can't pay Broadway Market prices because cakes for all is our motto. So Delia is my bible, Nigella my comfort, Rachel Allen a distraction, Mary Berry my penance, and inspiration my prayer.

I'm reaching the point that I can't look at let alone eat a cake for pleasure. Help is clearly required.


24 July 2014

pause



The vis insita, or innate force of matter, is a power of resisting by which every body, as much as in it lies, endeavours to preserve its present state, whether it be of rest or of moving uniformly forward in a straight line. (Isaac Newton, Principia Mathematica)



For those of you who may have paid attention during physics or applied maths lessons, this is a description of intertia, with thanks to Sir Isaac.

I don't quite know how it happened. It's something I'd been conscious of for a while, but this time it just sort of crept up - an inability to get going, a positive desire to lay low, an avoidance of commitment of any sort whatsoever. And in this case there was even very little moving forward in a straight line unless you include getting out of bed in the morning and eating porridge for breakfast, made by someone else.

Then the stars moved into a different alignment, or something like that, and things started to shift. My quiz-team chum offered two spare tickets for Glastonbury late on the Friday afternoon - would my son like them? Well, yes, but how would he get there in such short order? Bucket lists were mentioned - I don't have one - maybe I should. I had never, ever been to a "festival" other than those in the local parks. Yes, I said. let's go.

The road to Glastonbury, at least  once you get past the Hammersmith Flyover, the M4 and M5, is a pleasure. That first glimpse of Stonehenge is magic. And the red kite swooping down to feast on some roadkill at close range was rather amazing. Then you twist and turn around A road this and A road that sans satnav and it's all a delightful adventure. And that's how, once we arrived, I got to fall over a guy rope into the mud about 5 minutes after arriving while looking up at the buzzards circling the site, walk for miles, and see Dolly.


And things have been on the up ever since, albeit in a modest mid-lifeish way. But that's another story or two.

07 June 2014

lull


We've had a run of lovely fine weather these last few days and, perversely, it's been a bit of a strain. Firstly because there always seems to be an obligation to be out and about when it's fine, at least in my mind; I put that down to having to catch up after working indoors for too many years. But secondly, and more currently, because the blackbirds have built a nest in our holly tree. Maybe it's because each of our three cats are black that the birds hadn't cottoned on to the fact that there were three potential killers around. So it has been totally nerve wracking  with the constant and exhausting alarm call of the male bird each time one of the cats goes out, adding to his burden of having to find food for the nestlings. Apart from some initial curiosity, including a half hearted and failed attempt to climb into the holly tree by one cat (ha, ha! it wasn't a bad choice on that score then), the cats have ignored the racket. The Mitten Cat continued to pursue her inexorable search for the perfect warm spot in the garden, mostly on next door's polished black granite slabs, and the Fluffy one just stretched out on the baked asphalt roofing of the other side's garage, as per usual. The little cat just slept indoors all day, recovering I think from a luffing by the look of her eye. None of this stopped the blackbird getting into a parental frenzy that put my nerves on edge so much that I had to seize the creatures and lock them indoors to be driven mad instead by their mewling to be released.

Just listening to the rain this morning has been, then, an interlude of great peace. It's stopped now, and so I think have the alarm calls. The fledgelings must have moved on to a neighbouring space.

Paws crossed.

04 June 2014

a family, a tree, a story



There is something very absorbing and meditative about making a quilt - the pleasure of choosing the fabrics, shifting colours and patterns around to get the right balance, the uncomplicated rhythm of sewing and quilting a simple design. This one was a special pleasure not only because it celebrates a birth, but because it has a story to tell. The design is taken from Cassandra Ellis's book "Quilt Love" and is inspired by "how a baby is a mix of both its parents as well as its grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins...".  Ideally the quilt would contain some old fabrics, but the new parents, both born overseas, travel light (and often), so most of the fabric had to be bought new and with consideration and purpose.

This was the quest. Mother is from Malaysia and observes Chinese festivals and culture so certain colours and shapes are symbolic. Father is from Martinique - his memories are of trees, the green hills, the sea. The challenge was to find patterns and colours that would reflect these elements and meld into a coherent tree of life. So we have red and gold for luck and wealth, green for health and harmony. There are lots of leaves, and those greens fabrics were also a reminder of the baby's grandmother and great grandmother. There are some puns - the seed heads, birds in the clouds and the bright orange fabric are all puns on the parents' surnames and the baby's forename. There is also a fabric designed by Spitalfields based textile designer Anna Maria Garthwaite to represent London where they live.



One of the things that surprises me about making quilts is that they develop a life of their own. You might start off with some ideas, but as you gather the fabrics what seemed to be quite fixed ideas shift and change leading to and all sorts of surprising outcomes. That orange for example - I love it, but would never have imagined it would be a choice I would have made. It's almost as if the quilt made the decision for me. Moreover you would have thought that after spending hours gathering, cutting, sewing, hand quilting and pressing that you might be reluctant to say goodbye to the finished object. Not a bit of it. Handing over your finished work to somebody else is the best bit of all.

Here's hoping baby Clementine enjoys the story.

(And this one's gone too! With love.)

03 June 2014

a life in frocks

That's me on the right with the spotty frock and the gappy smile. I would have been coming up for seven. My cousin is on the left. The name of the girl in the middle is a bit of a mystery- Linda? Barbara perhaps? It was her brother who had the camera and he took several photos on the that day, Procession Day, the day we paraded around Tower Hill, dressed in our long dresses and holding posies, the streamers of banners depicting the saints pressed between our gloved hands.  It was early summer and a big event in the social calendar. The kerbs were whitewashed in John Fisher Street and, with the exception of Thomas Moore Street which wound through the dock walls, there were temporary altars all along the route. Friends, families, neighbours, whatever their religion, would assemble to watch and afterwords there was a party atmosphere. Here we've changed into our Sunday best at the end of the day, though we still have our parade sandals on - I seem to remember being particularly jealous that my cousin had been allowed to wear kitten heels but the mum-made dress, well, that was a pearl.

Crepe paper, Mum-made, fancy dress at holiday camp as Miss Kitty (!), aged 3/4

So this is how you develop a taste for frocks. Dress- up. A frill here, petticoats there, a fabric with a bit of body so that it stands proud and facilitates a swish or a twirl. You may go through various phases - the uniformity of navy blue serge at school, turquoise paisley bell-bottoms or denim jeans, tailored mohair suits as a teenager or clipped woollen suits to prove that you can compete with the men at work. But if you want to enjoy dressing up, it really has to be a frock, or maybe a skirt, something with a bit of gentle architecture.


I hadn't really thought about any of this until I paid a visit to Stereochron Island, the imaginary state without clocks. Cathy Haynes had invited us to create our depiction of how a life might be mapped. What with the rediscovery of the photo and my recent obsession with trying to find the perfect dress pattern/ fabric combination, I realised that my life could be mapped in frocks, or as a cross section of a map with peaks and troughs. (I still remember the thrill of learning how to draw a cross section from an ordinance survey map at school, you see.) And this is the result - with limited materials - and time - available.

Navy viyella, blue spot, made by my friend Chris, my boy's christening, October 87

Just now I am in a gaudy frock phase. It was a a conscious decision when I stopped work not to wear jeans, or trousers. I would mend or modify old or second hand clothes or create new ones and severely rein in the purchase of any brand new clothes to a couple of items a year. It's amazing how easy it is to adapt, and how much you can learn along the way. And if you have kept some frocks for a very long time, like me, there is a great deal of pleasure to be taken from a revival of an old favourite.

African wax fabric, me-made, Madison bodice, self drafted full circle skirt, May 2014
Is it so very bad to remember what you were wearing on high days, holidays and the most ordinary of days when your spirit was lifted by the texture, the colour, the heft or lightness, the drape or swish of a well-loved frock? And what would your map of time look like?

19 May 2014

seasonal


A few days of sunshine has brought on the strawberries and by some twist of good fortune we managed to get there this evening before the invading hordes of slugs and snails. The asparagus we cropped has been griddled and eaten for supper. There are three jars of Glencar jam* on the table, left from the batch I made a few days ago - in a row of course - and more rhubarb steeping in sugar, ready for another batch to be made tomorrow.

We'll rise above whatever has attacked the garlic, razed the brassica seedlings, chomped the pea seedlings, brutalised the emerging runner beans, and instead admire the architecture of our very own Shard...

Echium
Magnifico.

* I don't use candied peel, though I do use the zest of the fresh lemon

15 May 2014

four in a row


If you are thinking of getting a pet and remain unsure about whether you have the time to look after it, perhaps you should think about experimenting with a sourdough starter. You'll know then that if you don't manage to get to Day 7 then you're really not fit to have a pet. If you already have a houseful of cats or dogs who need feeding and grooming at regular intervals, it should be simple. Shouldn't it? Well it is. What nobody tells you however is is that you'll end up with jars of the stuff and it will take over the kitchen table, if not your life.

Now I'm sure there's plenty of advice out there on how to make a sourdough starter and you may indeed have tried it yourself.  I followed Dan Lepard's advice in Short and Sweet, though he doesn't  cover all of the practical issues (though this article does). It is all quite exciting in a Quatermass kind of way. And I'm sure if you read the recipe properly the resultant loaf will turn out fine. Mine didn't because Dan's recipe is narrative and it seems I can only follow lists if I've any chance of getting something right. But even though I missed out 100g of flour and the rise was not airy enough, my loaf  had a fabulous crust and tasted wonderful, if somewhat dense and chewy.

I'm going to be trying again. There may even be a picture of a row of one when I manage to get it right.