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.

14 May 2014

five in a row


It's the same pair who raised five last year on the canal. I was walking home from Stereochron Island*, the nest was empty, the Rangers didn't know whether they'd hatched or not, then I saw them all out together a little further on in a little flotilla, escorted by cob and pen.


Lovely.

*More to come.

29 April 2014

changeable



"The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March."
From Two Tramps in Mud Time, Robert Frost

April. You leave home wrapped in a tweed coat in brisk wind with showers forecast and half an hour later there is steam coming out of your collar. One minute you are beaming, the next piqued.

Take Sunday.  We visited my friend whose new baby was curled up and lost in the stupor of learning how to feed just a week ago, and this week had lengthened perceptively, eyes trying to focus, placid, and just as quickly on the brink of a yowl. Amazing. 

Still on a high, we rushed to Somerset House, only to find the Boro quilts we were hoping to see (again for me) dismantled. A cup of coffee gave us a boost, but a few minutes later we were cast down again to find Temple station closed just as we needed to get home quickly. Then, taking a different route, we discovered St Clement Danes ringing out the hour with a peal of Oranges and Lemons.  All these years, and never heard those bells until yesterday. Very jolly, cheered us up. 

Unlike St Saviour in the Marshes for whom the bell tolled this evening. Quite the emotional rollercoaster.

20 April 2014

ooh, er...


They don't look very happy, do they? Perhaps we should have stuck to chocolate.

But my internet connection seems to have been restored, which is good news. And even if the rain is threatening the canopies of spider webs spanning the gutters, this is not altogether unwelcome.

Have a Happy Easter day.