23 January 2015

taking heart


There are times when the twenty first century gets the better of me: when I can't remember the password for this or that; when the internet connection fails repeatedly and the helpline suggests it's time to get a screwdriver out (what?!?); when the fridge you want from the dispiriting electrical store is on dispay but no longer stocked; when the kettle has given up the ghost and the the main oven has also slipped into a half life and a second mortgage. It's at this point that the shoulders slump invountarily, a vice grips the neck and a massive sigh rises from the depths of the soul. And shortly afterwards you come across an odd juxtaposition in the local yarn shop which just might be sending a message to take heart and count your blessings.

With many thanks for your generous and hearty suggestions for spicing up in general and best wishes for a warm and woolly weekend.

07 January 2015

in my spice box



My dentist and I are on quite friendly terms after all these years and this morning we were talking about cooking - probably not an ideal topic of conversation when your mouth is about to be assaulted, but there you are. She told me that her mother, who had given up her career when she had children, was a brilliant cook but had never passed on her knowledge so she wanted to make sure that her own children were confident in the kitchen rather than having to learn from books as she had. Her husband, she said, was also a great cook - Punjabi dishes, lots of meat whereas her own mother had cooked mostly vegetarian dishes. "Our spice boxes are very different", she said, "though I am very fond of his dal".

Such a lovely thought - each partner bringing different spice boxes and fragrances to a a family. As a child the most exotic thing we had in our home was white pepper, even though the bricks and mortar of Wapping were heavy with the scent of spices. In our own home we have only one spice box - mine - newly refreshed in winter for the pudding-fest but not exotic by any means. I think of it as a very "British" spice box - nutmeg cloves, cardamom the box, ground ginger, cinnamon, cumin, allspice. Nothing very adventurous and easily and cheaply replenished at any of the local grocers. I think it's time for me to try a little harder, be a little more adventurous, more confident. I've always avoided Indian cookery because I don't care for food that burns my mouth, but it's about much more than that and I want to be more adventurous.

My dentist is going to think about what books might help, and suggested that in the meantime I should get myself down to Forest Gate to eat. By the next time we meet I hope to have cleared out my store to make room for some fresh flavours and a new book or two.

What should I make room for do you think? What's in your spice box? What would you recommend?


06 January 2015

before I forget



In our house, the festive season doesn't end until twelfth night. The cake's gone, the last of the cream has been put in the morning porridge, and there will be soup today to use up any solitary parsnips, carrots and scraps of cheese. I've closed the shutters on the driftwood tree and today we'll take down the greenery and settle down by the fire with a drink and possibly a spicy ginger star biscuit. Next year I won't make so many. I've already reset the alarm clock for dark and cold instead of light and cold. And then the job of shimmying into a shiny new year will be well under way. Before I do though, and at the risk of making you yawn, here are some of the things I want to remember...

Birdsong and the incredible number of robins this year round here. Taking walks at dusk to  hear them. John's delight at seeing a nightjar and mine at coming across that woodcock round the corner.

Taking the bus and sitting on the top deck. The pleasure of doing circular journeys; tube, walk, overground, bus. It's not called the freedom oyster for nothing.


The pleasure of reading again and no qualms about disposing of some books onto the "life's too short" pile. On the other hand, Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Fitzgerald and Tove Jansson would come with me to my desert island.

Going to the cinema, best of all on wintry afternoons, on my own.

Sewing. I made lots of dresses, seven in total I think. Some were more successful than others, and some were inspired by those trips to the cinema. I learnt a lot.

The seaside. Obviously. The day we spent there to celebrate a significant birthday. A lovely funeral in a windswept corner of Norfolk. It was midsummer and we stayed in a coastguard's cottage overlooking the sea, close to where our friend lived. It was all so right.


Glastonbury with my boy. Warm, generous, uplifting, clever, funny friends and family.  Loads of new babies and new mothers. The women I worked with this year. I don't think they realise how much they've taught me. Nigel Farage can go hang.

Scania - or should that be Wallander Country?
I wasn't brilliant at lightening the load last year- thank you Oliver Burkeman for cutting some slack. At a push this year I might manage to rise and shine.

Wishing you all a shiny time too.

27 December 2014

and out the other side


"Hours go in walking thought. Be like a time of flu." (The Country of Ice Cream Star, Sandra Newman)

It was what a friend calls the 100 day cold that got me, except it was only 20 days. It sort of crept up and floored me somewhat. Christmas shopping? Not even a list. I managed to get to a local craft fair and buy some small gifts, walked at dusk to get some fresh air and listen to the robins singing, crept off to see Paddington one dark afternoon at the local cinema and had the place to myself (all the better to weep at the sad bits without anyone noticing). It was all a bit grim.


Then, thank goodness there was a loosening up, a lifting of the achiness and low mood. I may even have smiled. All a bit late in the day, but instead of scratching Christmas altogether - there had been talk of sandwiches and a flask of tea - we managed a scratch Christmas instead. Last year's driftwood tree came in from the garden, a tin of spicy star-shaped ginger biscuits were rolled out and sent off, several variously-sized fruit cakes were mixed and baked using a favourite recipe, some cranberry vodka was decanted from a couple of jars in the cellar.  


Much to everyone's surprise, especially mine, and some hard work from the green-fingered members of the family, it sort of came together after all. Hope your celebrations did too.

Now then: time for a small glass of something and a bit of reflection.

02 December 2014

not just for dogs


This makes me laugh all year round as I cycle up the canal- you learn quickly to ignore the rest of the graffitti. It seems a shame that the message has been overwritten by a danger sign, but on the other hand perhaps it adds a very relevant cautionary note for the time of year.

01 December 2014

defence against the dark


December, at last, possibly even the arrival of winter. Three weeks until the solstice, a few days more until Christmas, dark mornings, long nights. More time indoors with the radio on, listening or half-listening, depending on what else I'm up to.

There have been some sparkly little gems tucked away on that radio recently: the last reading from Margaret Forster's "My Life in Houses",  Jarvis Cocker's exaltation to us baby boomers to join in Molly Malone at the end of the nostalgic Singing Together programme (I couldn't because of a lump in the throat); throwaway words of wisdom here and there. Ruth Padel particularly caught my ear this morning on Start the Week when she said that making is our defence against the dark. How very perceptive.

Here then is a double offering to start this week, the season, and Advent. I stirred them up at the weekend but, unlike plum pudding, these were not for storing on top of the kitchen cupboard until Christmas day. First up, a pear and chocolate upside down cake. Very easy to assemble, some delicious bowl-licking, a bit more difficult to get the timing and texture exactly right. I left it to cool in the tin overnight - too long! - it was slightly soggy by morning. It tasted ok though I'd be inclined to add some spices to pep it up a bit. The second was an anglicised version of Smitten Kitchen's recipe. Well sort of. I made a crumble with no pie base, and added apples and dried apricots with the cranberries to temper the tartness adding no more than light sprinkling of sugar to the fruit.  I tend generally to be quite puritan with my crumble toppings but I've been converted by this one - butter, nuts, sugar, the lot. It's possibly the best I have ever tasted after years of searching.

I made double the quantity and there's some left in the fridge. I like to think of it as a defence against the dark. Deferred gratification can wait until another day, don't you think?

28 November 2014

nocturne

District Line train going east at Three Mills
We have a small history of outings in the dark. The moon has been a spur, like the time we grabbed our toddler son in his PJs and a blanket and drove away eastwards to see a full harvest moon over Hadleigh Castle only to have to abandon a broken down car and take the train home like a family of raggle taggles. This time it was a mist  that drew us out . Nothing too spectacular, but enough to envelop and muffle and make you imagine that you're much further away from the Blackwall Tunnel Approach road than you are.

Three Mills at night
Somehow it wouldn't be too surprising if a ghost-horse-drawn something or other rolled over the cobbles.


Round the corner, the canal goes south towards the A11, the Olympic Park and the lights of the new builds.


You can just about see the shadows of construction site cranes topped by the red warning light. The mist somehow transforms the space into something mysterious and subsdued after the clanging daytime hubbub.


Climb up the ramp off the canal and turn right and you're back in the real world. A giant supermarket, a car park, late night shopping.

We wondered whether that might be magically transformed by the mist too. It wasn't, so perhaps we can just pretend for a moment or two that it wasn't there.

23 November 2014

the house of good intentions



In the house of good intentions mirrors lean against walls waiting to be painted and given a permanent home. A collection of window blinds is propped against a dresser while naked bodies flit swiftly in the half-light lest passers-by should look up rather than down at the uneven pavements. Receipts are carelessly bundled in bulldog clips waiting for monies to be claimed for the not inconsiderable expenses incurred providing tens, possibly scores, of cakes to cake stalls. Elsewhere, a canvas laundry bag lies collapsed in its stand as it overflows with clothes awaiting minor adjustments - a zip here, a hem there, a tweaking of princess seams, a toe to be darned. 

In the house of good intentions odd buttons collect in saucers and candle holders waiting to be sewn on to dresses and shirts. Dress patterns are tucked into cloth bags waiting to be laid out on the table once it is cleared of unread sections of the weekend newspapers or the long read. Unaired shirts are strewn over wooden frames until, too late, they become bone dry and too creased to smooth easily. Inside cupboards, balls of wool are tucked into ziplock bags for so long that the plans that prompted their purchase are entirely mislaid or forgotten. 




In the house of good intentions, unused seeds are poked into a tin at the bottom of the kitchen dresser until they are sorted in the spring when someone suddenly realises that it's warm enough to sow squashes or whatever.  On the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard, just above the section of cookery books that are used once or twice a year, a pile of yellowing clippings is poked inside a scrap book waiting to be sorted and glued while the kitchen range houses a stack of limp giveaway magazines awaiting their turn for the chop.

In the house of good intentions, flip chart paper is rolled and labelled, and booklets and pens tumble out of scrappy cardboard boxes until the imminent arrival of the school holidays signals the end of another round of entirely satisfying but tiring and time consuming volunteering. Someone drops hints about the hand-sewn Grayson Perry handkerchief he's still waiting for, and another wonders whether a pair of trousers can be mended.

While all this was going on, things were rather different outside the house of good intentions. Summer lingered on and on until the leaves finally started dropping from exhaustion after lighting up the streets and parks and fields night and day. Snails multiplied and got fat on brassicas in the balmy afternoons, the ivy flowers enticed bees in the sunshine, and exhausted blackbirds and robins sang confusedly. Nearly a million poppies appeared at the Tower and a woodcock (! yes, in Mile End) waited lazily in the road as I came home from seeing them at dawn. 



Constable's clouds fed an obsession with the sky, Mr Turner made me long for more and light and marshes and sea. Good intentions sent me off at dawn to walk through the streets, the park, along the canal, before breakfast. I discovered solitary men tucked away in quiet corners, packing away their space blankets into rucksacks, a woman in a remote and misty corner of the park standing along and singing aloud until she'd got it right, then walking off briskly.  I was captivated by the morning light from the Green Bridge, turned round, tripped into a hole and hobbled home with a sprained ankle. 

There she goes
We went to Sweden and found huge skies alive with red kites and buzzards, tidy plains and houses, a lazy sea. Back home, we bought apples and pears at Brogdale's Apple Day, then more and more again, stored potatoes of all shapes and colours, relished beetroot soup and sourdough. 




We watched the re-shaping of Wallasea Island being raised with Crossrail-excavated London clay, sand and gravel, brought by ship and by Hell Drivers across the land . And we discovered Oare Marshes, then Rye Harbour. 

Rye Harbour at dusk
We walked and walked while the weather was on our side and once the clocks turned back and the nights drew in we took advantage of good coffee and films at our local indie cinema, a good book, a good talk, inspiring learning opportunities. 

Back at the house of good intentions, the dust has shifted, the fire is laid, the list of good intentions has been mentally audited; some have been laid to rest. New good intentions are creeping in: today I'm thinking of a woolen plaid something after seeing The Homesman. And a blog post has at long last been written (with special thanks to Denise for her very kind prompt: yes, busy in a good way.)


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.