Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Hail, Caesar!

That Hadrian was a top bloke.

Not satisfied with building ace stuff in Rome like the Pantheon - a building so perfect it made me come over all emotional -  he schleps himself to the furthest northern reach of empire and builds ace stuff here too. The jury's still out about whether introducing hipsters to the empire by making beards fashionable was a good or a bad thing, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

As I said in my last post, Hadrian's Wall is something I've wanted to see since I was back in Highland being taught History by Mr Regan. Jim Regan was a wonderful teacher. I've never met anyone here in the UK who was taught history in such a fantastic manner - from prehistory to WW1, hopping countries and continents to look where the most interesting stuff was happening. I learnt to think about how one event led to another and ideas spread from place to place rather than knowing a list of dates and battle names. Mr Regan inspired me to want to see these remarkable places we were hearing about.  I'll always be grateful to him for bringing so much history to life for me.

So, off Mark and I went first thing on Saturday morning for points North.

For my pals not from the UK:
 I live in Leeds, Yorkshire.  Hadrian's Wall is about 125 miles away roughly due North, about 2 and a half hours drive. On the map below, if you follow down the east coast from Hadrian's Wall to a downward pointing snag on the coastline ( the River Humber estuary) Leeds is inland from that. Not an unmanageable distance but quite a long way for a day trip.


We grabbed our breakfasts of choice - toasted cheese bread with marmite from Haley and Clifford for me, a McDonalds sausage McMuffin for Himself. I definitely win at breakfast - and made for Gateshead to pay homage to the Big Man, the Angel of the North.




He's a good looking fella, the Angel. I'm immensely fond of him.

Something I hadn't seen before were young trees planted nearby with decorations, stuffed toys, artificial flowers and memorabilia hanging off them.  They appeared to be shrines or memorials to people - a sort of Christmas tree to the dead.  Is this now A Thing?
Most unexpected.


Driving past the Sage and over river Tyne on the bridge those nice people from Springwatch tell me is a major nesting site for kittiwakes, we cut through Newcastle and headed out to drive alongside the Wall for as much of the journey as we could.

My ridiculously fit and active cousin Gaz O'Connor once ran the entire length of the wall in 13 hours 42 minutes.  Gaz is three weeks older than me and a world apart. He's amazing, and he mystifies me completely. A fun run is a contradiction in terms in my experience. I chose the more indolent option and navigated while Mark drove. I love maps.

We explored the Roman fort and village at Vindolanda, and the museum there. My lovely internet mates Sarah and Katie agreed with WI mate Morticia that it we should definitely visit it. I love having recommendations from mates, it makes trips more exciting somehow.

Amongst the remarkable discoveries in the excavated site there was a mystery. A body of a child had been found under the floor of a room in the barracks. It was against Roman law to bury people in forts or towns; the mausoleums were just outside. Whoever hid the body of that 11 year old girl didn't want her found, poor love.

Vindolanda is most famous for the Roman 'postcards,' the wooden tablets with letters, pleas and a birthday party invitation written on them.  There are photographs, translations and fragments in the museum, but the main collection is with the British Museum. However, the other finds there were also amazing.  The domestic details, the shoes, the child's sock and woman's hairnet are incredible. such small, human touches. I loved the betrothal pendant with two heads kissing on one side and clasped hands on the reverse. The carefully painted glasswork was crazy - two pieces of the same piece found 20 years apart.

One fascinating aspect of Vindolanda was a result of their reconstruction.  In the mid 1970s they built a reconstruction of both the earthworks and timber wall and tower and the stone wall and tower.  In the 40 years since, the earthworks have settled so much the height of that wall is now two metres lower than its stone counterpart.  No wonder they rebuilt in stone!

We had a lovely lunch sitting out in the roman style garden of the museum. Daring little chaffinches, tits and robins were darting from a nearby bush to pinch crumbs from under the tables. There were martin nests at the top of window lintels and a great many swallows zigzagged across catching insects.  It was a delightful way to spend a warm afternoon.

Driving on to Steel Rigg we had a short stroll to the Wall itself. It's a lovely thing. It snakes up and down the hills, sometimes disappearing where stones have been taken and used for other things over the centuries, sometimes rising up from the farmland abruptly.  Steel Rigg is absolutely beautiful, and I had my Wish You Were Here moment.



I am a tactile soul at heart, so I climbed over to the Wall to feel the warmth of the stones. I was there, I touched it, I saw the stonework follow the contours of the landscape and I thought of the men who built it and the men and women it was designed to keep out.

I only wish Mr Regan had been with me.


Friday, 29 July 2016

Looking forward

It's been a pretty rough couple of weeks. Most significantly, my beloved new Vespa, my pride and joy, my ticket to freedom and self-reliance, was stolen from outside the food bank where I was volunteering. I'm heartbroken.
Through assorted coincidences, mistakes, and glitches, I faced the equally devastating news that there will be no insurance pay out and I am not going to be able to have another bike.
This also means no more volunteering in the Food Bank Office, as I can't get there by public transport. That's a blow to me and them both - I'm pretty good at admin. I felt like my insides had been kicked out.

Wallowing isn't going to do me any good.  There are people in real distress in our community, and while loss of a vehicle is a significant dent in a life it's something I can push past. So I am attempting to direct my attention towards more positive things.

I'm 47 years old. In 3 years Mark and I will both turn 50 and we will celebrate our 25th anniversary. Rather than my usual "Things that scare me that I will try this year" list, I'm going to write a list of things I'd really like to do before the end of that big year - not challenging necessarily, but pleasing.

For example, I've never been to Hadrian's Wall. I'd really like to, it sounds cool.  History was my favourite subject in school and actually seeing the things I've only learnt about in books always gives me a thrill. I was ridiculously overexcited the first time I saw the Rosetta Stone (back before the boxed it away in a big case.)

So, like the National Trust's 50 Things To Do Before You're 11 3/4, here's the first 10 items on my list of things to do before 2020:


  1. Go fishing. I'm serious. I've been trying to do this for 6 years and it just never quite happens. Mark's promised it me as a birthday present twice, for heaven's sake. I want to go fishing for mackerel and then eat them.
  2. See the Giant's Causeway. The first time I saw a picture of it was in National Geographic's kids' magazine, World, back in the mid 70s. I couldn't believe it was real.  I've always wanted to see it, and unlike the Northern Lights is isn't hard to find. Nor, unlike Petra, is it prohibitively expensive to get to.  So I am determined to go.
  3. Try salsify and Jerusalem artichokes. Somehow despite 26 years as a vege- or pesce- tarian I've never had them and I want to know what they taste like.
  4. Go rock pooling. Not a new experience, but something I completely love to do and rarely get the opportunity.
  5. Sing in a choir. Singing out loud with a bunch of people is scary as hell - what if I'm terrible? - but I also think it would be amazing fun. I even know of a choir I could try out for, but previously fear and now my lack of transport conspire against me.
  6. Grow cut flowers. I'd like a change from my total vegetable gardening focus to grow some lovely cut flowers for the house. My Very Excellent Mate Kirsty got me thinking about it, and I do fancy being able to have flowers in my room.
  7. See live music. I tend to use any money for going out on ballet tickets or comedy. I tend to think of music as not for me, really, because I have terrible, uncool taste and had A Thing about singing badly. I've determined to get past that now.
  8. Visit Hadrian's Wall (see above)
  9. Spend all day at the movies. Mark and I did this all the while before we had the kids. There are very few films from the mid 80s to early 1999 that I didn't see, excepting scary films. Don't like being scared. Pulling a 3 or 4 movie marathon would be a blast from the past. 
  10. Learn to apply make up properly. I only occasionally feel like wearing makeup, but when I do, I feel uninformed. I have favourites, I have skin care standbys I know how to use but I can't do flicky eyeliner, smokey eyes eyeshadow, apply false lashes, prevent lipstick bleeding or do contouring. I'd like to have a clue how to apply makeup that enhances my appearance rather than slapping on a lippy and hoping for the best.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Let's talk about scones.

What feels like a very, very long time ago, the marvellous Val Berry, owner of Haley and Clifford asked me if I could make scones for her as well as the cakes I was already supplying.

Actually, that's not quite true. What she really said was "I bet your scones are great, aren't they Jay. I'm not happy with the scones we've got. Could you do some?" To which I obviously said, "No problem," whilst thinking to myself, "I've never made a scone in my life."

That led to 2 weeks of mad recipe testing, trying to find the nicest rise, the lightest texture without falling into the burn of too much raising agent. The egg versus no-egg recipes, the egg wash versus milk wash, then standing in the school yard with various trays of scones and coloured counters to get people to try several and choose their favourite.

I was VERY thorough.



Seven years on, I've made an awful lot of scones.  I've demonstrated scone making at a church ladies' group,  taught kids and adult groups and once, to my bloke's endless amusement, insisted on talking to the chef in a guest house that served utterly revolting tough hockey pucks as their 'cream tea' and told him what not to do and gave him a decent recipe. (Poor man. He looked most uncomfortable. But for God's sake, he kneaded the mixture in a machine. He HAD to be stopped)

Just this Saturday morning I got up early to blast out 6 and a half dozen for my lovely WI Darling Roses to serve at the local Wool Festival. 

All this is my pitch for Why You Should Listen To Me When It Comes To Scones.  Because you should, you really, really should.

Scones are the single easiest things to bake as long as you know how.  They are an absolute doddle. No kneading, no creaming butter and sugar, no technique beyond Doing The Minimum.

So, how to make scones:

First, what not to do - Don't work the mixture. Don't knead it, don't roll it out. Barely touch it. You don't need to and the less you do the better your scones.  Lazy bakers make the best scones. You don't even need to do that rubbing the butter into the flour thing if you don't fancy it. You can stick it in a food processor if you like.

So - 500g of plain flour and 6 tsp of baking powder
OR
500g of self raising flour and 2 tsp of baking powder
(whichever you've got, it really doesn't matter)

50g of caster sugar
75g butter

You can sift the dry ingredients together and rub in the butter until it's like slightly damp sand
OR
You can tip it into a food processor and blitz it until completely combined.

See? Easy.

If you've used the processor you need to tip things into a big bowl for the next bit.

Pour in 300ml of milk. If your milk is on the turn, all the better. You can swap out 50ml of milk for yogurt if you have it in, you can sour your milk by warming it slightly in the microwave and sloshing in a dash of lemon juice, or just use it as is. It's totally fine.

Here's the important bit:
Mix the milk through the dry ingredients until there are no pockets of dry flour. I use a butter knife, you can use a wooden spoon if you'd rather, but do it S-L-O-W-L-Y. No muscle power, no energy, just barely mix it. If it's not quite come together, use your hands to gently bring it together into one big sticky mess. It will look a right flipping state but don't worry.

Tip the mess onto a very well floured surface. (I have a large thin chopping mat I use, because that's easier to remove scone dough from than my counter.) Pat it gently with your hands until it's approximately even. Don't use a rolling pin, there's no need.  Either flouring your hands or dampening them will reduce how much sticks to you.   All you are after is a reasonably even thickness of dough. At a guess I'd say about 2-3cm thick for 12 scones.

Dip your cutter into some flour, cut out your scone by pressing down, NOT twisting. You can give it a little shimmy if it's sticking, but promise me you won't twist it. If you twist you are sealing the top and bottom edges together which dramatically affects the rise.

NB - that's why using a small glass as a cutter isn't as effective as a cutter - pressing the glass into  the mixture inevitably presses the top and bottom edges together because of the air pressure trapped in the glass as it's forced to accommodate the scone dough.

Brush the top of the scones with beaten egg and bake at 220 C for 10 to 12 minutes.
Job's a good 'un. Well done you.

I want to show you the difference between a scone made the way I suggest and a scone that's been kneaded a bit.






That one on the left is the result of kneading the bits left over to make some spares for the family after doing the proper scone (on the right). Can you see how the right hand side could rise evenly whereas the left one has a split across the middle as the only place it could rise. It was made with more dough than the other but turned out the same size.  It was quite nice but not as light as it could be.
 Here's a size view - the top one is smoother, and has a much tighter crumb That's because the gluten in the flour was activated by the slight kneading. The lower one is light as air. It looks less smooth but that's a Good Thing in scones.

I told you it was easy! Mix some dry ingredients, give a rough stir to mix in the milk, don't bother to roll it out, just pat it gently, cut by pressing rather than twisting. Perfect scones.


Oh, and the rhymes-with-gone versus rhymes-with-stone thing? It rhymes with gone, in case you were wondering.

xx

Friday, 27 May 2016

What I'm really thinking

(with apologies to the weekly feature in the Guardian of the same name)

What I'm Really Thinking... The Charity Volunteer

I'm standing in a busy public space, wearing the tabard with the charity's name emblazoned across it, and I'm holding a collection bucket for people the drop coins into.

I'm not saying anything nor approaching people, just standing still and smiling, holding the bucket. There are 3 other volunteers at the train station with me - one near the barriers, one near a display about the charity, and another near the other main thoroughfare to me. We're not close enough to speak to each other, so we're each on our own trying to look friendly and approachable while people walk past.

I wish I could say to you all "It's ok. You can smile and I won't take is as a commitment to give money. I'm in the middle of you all, and I am going to look at you and smile. I'm a friendly person, smiling comes naturally. You don't have to avert your eyes so obviously.  Making eye contact, smiling back, acknowledging someone... it doesn't mean you are obliged to make a donation. "

Instead I thank those who drop coins in, and wish people a lovely bank holiday weekend.

After about 40 minutes I'm a bit bored so I amuse myself by finding something positive about each person walking towards me.  Great haircut; nice jacket; shared book taste from the WH Smith purchase; warm smile as they greet their friends.  It makes it easier to keep being friendly.

But again, the carefully averted gaze, the swerve to avoid passing near the collection bucket. I'm feeling like a pariah. I've had about 20 donations (mostly small change)  but a good 300 people carefully *not* looking in my direction as they walk straight past me.

Guys. Seriously.

I am not so desperate for your pocket change that I'm going guilt trip you into it with big puppy dog eyes. That 20p the girl dropped in the bucket just now? That's nice of her, but not the sort of contribution to badger and harangue people over.

If you'd like to drop some money in the bucket, ACE. That's kind of you. It's a really worthwhile cause. But if you don't, that's OK too. No one is judging you. So there's no need to look sharply away like you've been caught. I know everyone has her own priorities, preferred causes, money worries, busy lives or just self-absorption. Relax. Catching my eye is and smiling back is just that - a smile.

And have a great weekend.


Sunday, 22 May 2016

Summery food for sunny days

A burst of sunshine in between the rainy days had me in the mood for food that tasted of summer. I started browsing the Guardian and BBC food sections for something new to make that is suitable for celebrating warm and gentle days. I found it on a round up of Nigel Slater recipes. 
I've cut and pasted this recipe directly from the Guardian article so I won't lose it. When read it I suddenly remembered an amazing tiny taster of gazpacho we were given before our meal in Cancalle 8 years ago, looking over the oyster beds in the sunshine.  It was one of the most delicious things I'd ever tasted. 
This wasn't quite the same but was still utterly gorgeous. Today I'm making it for the second time but I'm going to leave out the crab. Maybe try tuna or prawns? It won't have the same contrast of heat and sweetness but at £5 for a small pot of white crab meat I can't afford to use that ingredient often.
Actually, I'd have this gazpacho without any seafood at all and still love it, I think. It is dead easy and so delicious.
Nigel Slater's Cold Crab Soup:
See that tiny green chilli?
That was TOO MUCH
Serves 4
garlic 1 small clove
cherry tomatoes 300g
cucumber 1
romano peppers 2
bird’s-eye chilli 1
sherry vinegar 2 tbsp
white crab meat 300g
mustard and cress or watercress to finish
Peel the garlic and place in the jug of an electric blender or food processor. Tip in the cherry tomatoes. Peel the cucumber, then halve and cut one half into two or three pieces and add to the tomatoes and garlic. Finely dice the second half of the cucumber and set aside.
Roughly chop the romano peppers and add to the vegetables in the blender. Process the vegetables until you have a brilliant red puree, then season with the sherry vinegar and a little salt and black pepper.

Chuck it all in the blender
Fold the reserved diced cucumber into the white crab meat, taking care not to crush the flakes of crab.
Pour the soup into four bowls. Spoon the crab on top of the soup, add a pinch of mustard and cress and serve

Ready for the fridge, chilled for later

Note from me - White wine vinegar was fine instead of sherry vinegar. I think I could use a normal red pepper too, but I did buy the long romano peppers this time. I charred the skin off before using them as I find pepper skin a little tough when not cooked.
I would also go very cautiously with the bird's eye chilli - they pack one hell of a punch and could easily overwhelm the other flavours. We love chillies and it had us gasping.
If you put the soup in the fridge before serving, it really thickens up.
If you skip the crab, I suggest a little spring onion in the diced cucumber. Up the salt slightly and maybe a dash of Worcestershire sauce in the soup itself.

Friday, 4 December 2015

The Happy Art of Wrapping

Every year in mid-December my Facebook feed is full of people bemoaning all the wrapping they have to do.  It seems to be a last minute and ridiculously time-consuming chore to many people.

May I suggest another approach? Enjoy it.

I love wrapping presents. It's one of my favourite Christmas rituals. I set it out Just So and I look forward to it as a lovely quiet interlude.  This is how it works:

First of all, get all chef-y about it and set up your mise en place.  (That's a poncey French restaurant way of saying laying out all the things you need where you need them. Don't Mess With My Meez is an essential tenet of my life.  I hate it when people mess with my stuff.)

I need all the presents stacked on the living room floor.  A cup of coffee - or a pot of coffee with milk and a mug as this will be a multi-coffee activity - a mince pie or two and the Christmas film of your choice will keep you going.


My wrapping film of choice is While You Were Sleeping. Christmassy and cute.  I used to watch White Christmas but you can't wrap and watch dance numbers. 

For the wrapping you need your wrapping paper, scissors, tape, ribbons, decorative bits, a pen and labels.  I strongly recommend Scotch tape or Sellotape. Fannying about with tape that tears off in ragged points or that you're endlessly picking at with your nail trying to find an edge makes the whole enterprise needlessly painful. A bin bag per person/destination is also handy, unless your family keeps all the presents under the tree.  I do a bag per child then a bag for the people we see at my parents' house and a bag for those at Mark's parents' house.  It just makes it easy when we're driving to North Wales to have a bag to grab and pop in the boot to take in rather than root about through a mound of gifts.

You're all set - drinks, mince pies, film and supplies. Before you press Play you must do the most important thing - barricade the door.  I'm not kidding, properly block it.  I move a stool in front of the door and sometimes write a note too, along the lines of "DO NOT COME IN. If you do come in I get to keep your presents and eat your chocolate." The only possible way to relax into wrapping in my experience is to be left the hell alone. If you have kids, the prospect of having someone else do the wrapping can be a good incentive for one's partner to keep the kids entertained. Or do it while kids are napping/at school/in bed/at a friend's house. But peace and solitude are important.

For the wrapping itself, may I suggest brown kraft paper? You know the stuff - thick plain paper with faint pinstripes. It's cheap, comes in big rolls, doesn't tear easily like some wrapping papers, gives a nice crisp folds and is appropriate for every occasion.  I love it and use it for Christmas, birthdays, everything. I just swap the Christmassy ribbon for brighter colours. I do buy patterned paper to use for the younger kids' present too, because they like it, but I try and stick to things that look nice together.

The fun of kraft paper is what you put with it.  I like ribbons of jute, satin, velvet, small Christmas tree decorations, white or silver pens, rubber stamps - anything really.  Butchers twine - that twisted red and white string - also looks good on it. I often pick up nice bits in the after Christmas sales and pop them in my Christmas box to use the following year.

This year it was oversized jingle bells and painted wooden hearts and stars.




I found a set of tiny rubber stamps in a winter motif in a craft shop year ago, reduced to £2. I thought they'd be nice on gift tags. Yes, I have plain brown luggage labels as gift tags. They come in bulk, they are cheap and I like the minimalist chic vibe going on here.



Instead of feeling like I've a hateful chore I'm trudging through, I have a lovely peaceful afternoon with a romcom of my choice and a growing stack of gifts that (I think) look pretty.


Friday, 30 October 2015

A question of Darcy

Recently, a friend attributed my love of Pride and Prejudice to the appeal of a soaking wet Colin Firth emerging from a lake. Heaven knows in the 20 years since it aired it's remained one of the iconic heart throb moments and caused millions to swoon.

I. Think. Not.

I hate that scene. It's one of my most loathed scenes on telly. More than the time Gordon Ramsay tricked a vegetarian into eating pizza with bacon and boasted about it, more than any appearance by Jeremy Clarkson.  Even more than John Selwyn-Gummer shoving a burger into his little girl's face during the BSE crisis.  Allow me to explain.

I love Colin Firth. I think he's marvellous - very talented, extremely attractive and charming. I've seen Fever Pitch more times than I can remember and pretty much every film he's made since. Although singing in Mamma Mia wasn't one of his better moments...

In no way whatsoever is Colin Firth responsible for that dreadful scene. It's entirely the fault of Andrew Davies, the ferociously successful TV writer.  He wanted to sex up the dry and proper Mr Darcy for modern audiences so he had him partially disrobe and plunge into the water, emerging all tousled and hunky.

That's attractive and all, if it weren't for the fact that I know Fitzwilliam Darcy. I know him pretty well; I've spent countless hours with him.  I read P&P at least twice a year. What he looks like is pretty fluid and the nuances of his motivation I'm happy to let others play with, but at his heart I know him. I know his faults and his strength and I love him for them.

Mr Darcy is a very proper young man. He, like another of Jane Austen's heroes Mr Knightly, believes in honour, dignity, duty and being a gentleman. He is proper in the old-fashioned sense. Darcy is intensely private and reserved - rather shy really, retreating into stiffness when confronted with the unfamiliar.

His reversal in behaviour comes when Elizabeth forces him to recognise that his sense of self-worth has lead him to behave with arrogance, valuing his consequence above all else. It's awful realising you're in the wrong. He is hurt and but once his temper cools he realises the truth in her accusation. So when he sees her in the grounds of Pemberley he wants to prove her wrong, to be welcoming. Gracious even. "Look how wrong you were about me, I am a true gentleman" which progresses into "I realised you were right, so I've fixed it."

That meeting is both awkward and touching - both characters discomfited, neither quite knowing what to do, and aware of a change in themselves they can't yet let the other know of.  I love it. It's perfectly written just as it is.

Darcy wouldn't plunge himself into a lake on his way home unless her were actually aflame. Even then he'd be more likely to take the offending jacket off and throw it to the ground. He's not the impulsive, physical type. Andrew Davies wanted to make him more appealing to a modern viewer by showing a relaxed, unguarded man indulging in a relief from a stuffy day. In a different character I'd have liked it - hell, as a human, heterosexual woman I like it, but I absolutely loathe that he did that to Darcy. Davies rewrote him to sex it up a bit, and that re-write became the image of Mr Darcy in popular culture.  Andrew Davies deserves a slap with a kipper.

Incidentally, Matthew Macfadyen's Darcy works well for me - again, there's a modern slant as you see more vulnerability, but it's emotionally and psychologically consistent with the Darcy Jane Austen wrote. Nice work, Deborah Moggach (except for the ghastly scene added for American audiences that I've done my best to blot from memory.) It helps that Matthew Macfadyen is utterly lovely.

I know my fixation with some of my literary heroes can make me a cussed thing - I refuse to watch Life of Pi because the book in my head is so perfect. (This drives Luke crazy. ) I am happy with my images from the author's words and don't want them supplanted by someone else's vision.
I wouldn't watch To Kill A Mockingbird until I was in my 30s because Gregory Peck plainly isn't Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck is about as handsome, authoritative and charming as a man can be, and an absolute idol. Atticus is older, thin, with fading eyesight, thinning hair and a tendency to stoop, and he can't play ballgames like the other kids' dads. He isn't a fine figure of a man but he's a very fine man indeed.

Anne Shirley, Gilbert Blythe, Laura Ingalls, Scout and Atticus, Charlotte and Wilbur, Lizzie Bennett and Darcy, Elinor Dashwood, Dorothea Brooke, The Grand Sophy and so many others have been amongst my dearest and most cherished friends for years. I want to share them with the world, buy copies for my friends' children, revisit them regularly.

I don't need to shove them in a lake to see their appeal.