Thursday, December 30

Christmas slippers

Bought the Curse some lovely felt slippers for his birthday and soon realised that I needed a pair too....!

Yes, I know I could have made my own but sometimes there's a great pleasure to be had in the immediate gratification of retail therapy!

Plus I was supporting our local independent shoe shop...ah well, enough excuses. They are lovely and warm! Next year perhaps a pipe or hip flask?

Saturday, December 18

Sumudu's dal

A typical dinner when I'm home alone is heavy on pulses and greens. Last night I made my favourite store-cupboard dinner lentil dal, and served it with pak choi that had simply been browned in groundnut oil, plum & chilli jam and plain yoghurt.

The dal recipe is one I was given years ago by a woman called Sumudu whom I met on a BTCV weekend break. The only thing that niggles me slightly about it is that it uses two pans, but I have learned to live with it. It's very simple to make, yet tasty and substantial.

My apologies that most of the quantities here are 'some'. I seem to remember that Sumudu learned the recipe from her mother and these were the quantities she passed on.

Red lentils (estimate depending on how many you are serving to, and whether it's a main course or side dish)
Onion, chopped
Bay leaf
Dried mixed herbs
Curry powder
Chilli powder

Spice quantities are for two:

Put the red lentils in a pan and wash in warm water two or three times. Then fill the pan with cold water up to about an inch above the level of the lentils. Add a teaspoon of curry powder, the same of turmeric, a bit of chilli powder to suit your taste and half a teaspoon of salt. Bring to the boil and simmer until the lentils are breaking down but not too mushy. Don't let all the water evaporate - top up if necessary.

Grind a bayleaf, three or four cloves, half an inch of cinnamon stick (or use ready ground) and the seeds of a few cardamom in a grinder. Fry gently in some oil with the chopped onion, one crushed garlic clove and a teaspoon of mixed herbs.

Once the onion is soft (about five to ten mins), tip the lentil mix into it and cook for a further 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally to check that it is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Sunday, December 12

Trosley country park

A sunny afternoon with no commitments was a great opportunity for myself and the Curse to get out of London for a couple of hours, so we drove down to Trosley country park near Meopham in Kent for a leg stretch. This is one of several small country parks that are within a relatively short drive of us and are a great fall-back for walks when you can't be bothered to pore over maps or search the internet for suggestions.

They are easy to find, have car parks, cafes and toilets, and also have waymarked routes ranging from one to six or seven miles.

I'd planned to do the Coldrum trail at Trosley - it's about six miles long and takes you along the ridge (great views south over Kent) then down through fields to the Coldrum longbarrow and eventually back up to the cafe where they have a roaring wood-burning stove in front of which to warm up with a cup of tea.

However it soon became clear that descending the steep paths of the ridge would be tempting broken limbs - the paths were still thick with snow and compacted ice. Instead we contented ourselves with a slippery stroll on the path that runs the length of the park along the ridge, then back through the woodland.

It was late afternoon and the trees were alive with tits and jays flitting around and searching out whatever they could find to eat. In a largely brown, black and white landscape it was almost shocking to see the pink smears of yew berries on the snow under the trees.
By the time we got back to the car park the sun was fast disappearing and the weak heat of the afternoon was dropping off fast. Despite our shorter-than-planned walk, we still felt justified in warming ourselves with a cup of tea in front of the fire before heading home.

Friday, December 10

Tea cosies

I love to make tea cosies. As someone who brews up a large pot of tea every weekend morning and proceeds to drink several cups in succession, I am well aware of the importance of keeping the tea warm while it continues to brew.

I reckon I've made at least a dozen in the last few years - from special old-fashioned granny-type cosies for my granny to cosies based on the construction method used in Ysolda's Urchin hat. I've whipped them up during stays in holiday cottages and left them as my legacy, and I've even made a couple where the pompom on the top was almost as big as the teapot!

I wanted to make a new one for granny - the previous version is looking a bit tatty and stained and it's a bit too big for the teapot she now uses. I also wanted to make one for my sis who lives in Austria. I know she misses English tea (Tetley tea bags usually form part of any gift that gets sent) and I figure a tea cosy might be welcome too.

But with Christmas fast approaching there was little time to knit them up. So instead I dug out an old wool jumper that I'd bought off the junk market for £1 and felted in the washing machine, and I 'up-cycled' bits of it into two rather jazzy new tea cosies. I think they are rather successful, especially given the time it took me to make them. Stitching the words 'Short' and 'Stout' onto my sister's full-size cosy was the longest operation.

First get your raw materials. Felted jumper, and some odds and sods of Rowan Kid Classic in contrasting colours.

A bit of blanket stitch later and some i-cord for the top. Ta-dah.

Flushed with success I hit out for a larger version. This time I decided to add some decoration since the expanse of the larger cosy looked rather bare without. The loop at the top is made from the seam that I cut off the jumper.

Sunday, December 5

A ray of sunshine

It has been a gloomy week or two what with one thing and another - even when London was blanketed with snow we only got greyness, no sunshine. Various family crises made it necessary to travel in difficult conditions, and we experienced the worst of the winter.

Thankfully today we have had some sunshine - a reminder that winter is not all doom and gloom, and that life goes on despite everything. It's amazing what difference the weather can make to one's mood and today it was good to see the light streaming through the beautiful 1970s Holmegaard suncatcher that I hung in my window just a day or so before all the shit hit the fan.

I've also been knitting socks - a natural choice in freezing conditions! These are made using Rowan Felted Tweed for my friend Lisa, whose 40th birthday fell at the end of October. The wide rib gives them a bit of stretch but hopefully will mean they are also quite snug around the ankle. She specified 'socks that don't fall down' which I'll admit is a bit of a difficult brief to fulfil. In my experience if you are wearing wellies, all socks fall down. Perhaps I should have included some of those little sock suspenders that my grandad used to wear!

Thursday, November 18

Whitby gingerbread

As I finished off the last slice of Botham's Whitby gingerbread yesterday (bought way back in September and still as tasty - the best before date on the packet was March 2011!), buttered and eaten with a slice of hard goats cheese, I was slightly bemused by the statement on the wrapper along the lines of: 'This is not for everyone'.

I couldn't find any further explanation of this rather enigmatic statement, but suspect it may refer to the unusual texture.

According to The Taste of Britain by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, Whitby gingerbread was believed to have been developed with a rather more dry and firm texture than normal gingerbread to enable it to last for a long time as part of a ship's provisions. It's described as somewhere between a loaf and a biscuit, and traditionally is served buttered with cheese. The entry in the book says it's made with lard, but that seems to have changed since the book was written, presumably to make it suitable for vegetarians.

It is certainly drier than you would expect of a regular gingerbread or parkin, but this in no way detracts from its delicious gingery taste. Us landlubbers are lucky to be able to offset the dry texture with a nice moist cheese (presumably Wensleydale would be perfect) but I guess if you were on a long voyage it would be a real taste of home after weeks at sea.

If you fancy trying some baked Yorkshire delicacies, you can now order online!

Sunday, November 14

Vegetable and lentil soup

This is one of my favourite soups and is great for using up those droopy leftovers at the bottom of the veg drawer. You can tart it up with some soured cream or spice it up with a crushed dried chilli, but the basic recipe also works exceedingly well. It's also a good way to introduce pulses into the diet of those who might otherwise be resistant to them ;-)

When we have had roast chicken I make the basic soup (using chicken stock) and then after blending, drop in all the odds and ends of chicken from the carcass.

Sorry the quantities are so vague, but I never measure it. You can always thin it down later if it's too thick so best to underestimate the liquid to start with.

Couple of sticks of celery
Carrot/parsnip/swede/any other leftover vegetable
Hot water & stock cube (or homemade stock should you be so inclined)
Tin tomatoes
Tomato puree
Dried red lentils/split peas (use lentils for quicker results)
Dried mixed herbs
Salt & pepper
Vegetable oil

Chop the onion and garlic and saute them in a bit of oil. Chop all the other veg into roughly-similar size pieces and throw in, with the herbs. Stir and then fry for five minutes or so.

Sprinkle in some red lentils and mix them round in the veg, then add the water and stock cube so that the veg is covered, and add the tinned tomatoes and a squirt of tomato puree. (add a crushed dried chilli at this point if you want a bit of bite)

Cover and cook till the veg is tender and the lentils are falling apart (about 15 mins). Leave it to cool for five minutes or so, then blend in a liquidiser or using a hand blender (less washing up!).

Throw in chicken leftovers/soured cream/chilli oil or just serve as it is. Hot crusty bread or fresh herb scones will go down well although it's also pretty filling on its own!

Monday, November 8

Fun of the fair: or The Louder You Scream the Faster You Go!

I love fairground rides with a passion - and very disappointingly I find myself almost alone in this among my friends and family. I usually have trouble enticing the Curse to even visit a fairground, let alone go on any rides. My folks enjoy visiting the fair but are very cautious in the type of rides they will go on - these days the Golden Gallopers (carousel) is about the most adventurous.

As a child, one of our annual family outings was to visit the massive Goose Fair in Nottingham - one of the largest travelling fairs in Europe. It was one of the highlights of my year, I can still remember the smell of the candyfloss and hot dogs, and the excitement of seeing the bright lights of the fair emerge as darkness fell. I love the smells, the noise, the combination of Euro pop and traditional organ music, the gaudy art that adorns every surface of the rides, and the cut and thrust of fighting for a seat on one of the horses on the outside of the carousel.

The Goose Fair had every imaginable ride and I could have stood for hours just watching them spinning, lurching and twisting, anticipating the thrill and terror of the ride. In those days my dad or sisters would accompany me on the rides but as we got older and the rides got scarier, this happened less and less. Among all the scary modern rides was a selection of vintage rides, including an enduring favourite - the Cakewalk.

At the Chesterfield Markets Festival a couple of weeks ago we got the chance to relive the 'thrill' of the Cakewalk as part of the vintage fair in Queen's Park. It's a very simple ride, apparently named for the motion of people on it, which mimics the steps of the Cake Walk dance, a rag-time dance dating back to the era of slavery in the USA. This particular machine was built way back in 1895.

Here's a You Tube film showing the very same machine in operation at the Goose Fair a couple of years ago, and some pics taken in Chesterfield.

We had such fun we went on it twice - and had a ride on the Golden Gallopers in between!

Meanwhile fellow fairground junkies might be interested to browse this resource I found while searching out the history of the Cakewalk - the National Fairground Archive which quite coincidentally is based at Sheffield University. Just browsing these pages raised my adrenaline level a couple of notches as I remembered some of the vintage rides that we used to see at the Goose Fair when we first started going - the Steam Yachts (one of which has a Union Jack on the base and the other has the Stars & Stripes on the base) and the Dive Bomber being just two of them.

Faves? Definitely the oldies - the Octopus, the Round-up (or Meteorite), the Waltzer and the Paratrooper all rate highly.

Saturday, November 6

Azure socks

These socks were my portable project for the last few months while the Sweet Pea Coat was my home knitting project; they suddenly reached completion after a couple of long train journeys and the clocks going back. Knitted in Yarn Yard toddy.

They are the Azure socks from Knitty, designed by Deb Barnhill - a lovely pattern that became quite hypnotic after a while. I very much liked the design of the heel with the cables extending right down it, very clever and pleasing to knit, also the fact that you launch into the cables almost immediately after casting on at the toe.

Straight after finishing these I cast on for a pair of plain and simple socks using some self-striping Regia yarn - they are flying ahead and after just a few nights of TV knitting the first one is nearly done! Knit, knit, knit, knit....*sigh!*

Tuesday, November 2

Sculpture at Chatsworth

The gardens of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire provided a fantastic setting for Sotheby's 'selling exhibition' of sculpture 'Beyond Limits' which has just finished its fifth year.
We were lucky to get good weather for our visit on Saturday - the pictures make it look like we were one of just a few visitors, but in reality it was heaving!
Manolo Valdes - Butterflies

Lynn Chadwick - Ace of Diamonds III

Yue Min Jun - Contemporary Terracotta Warriors

Ju Ming - Swimming

Lynn Chadwick - Stairs

Richard Hudson - Eve

There's a video about the exhibition on Sotheby's site here - worth a look although I admit I found some of the commentary a bit impenetrable.

Monday, November 1

Sourdough bread

Inspired by the efforts of my friend Rowan, I have spent the last ten days or so building up to the baking of a sourdough loaf.

You have to start a week or so in advance for this process if you are planning to make your own sourdough starter - alternatively if you have a generous friend who keeps their own starter, you may be able to beg some from them. Keeping the starter alive involves discarding half of it every couple of days  - giving away to a friend or of course using it to bake a loaf - and adding fresh water and flour so there's always some spare hanging around.

Basically sourdough baking involves using natural yeasts to make your bread, and it takes a few days to get these yeasts going sufficiently to get your bread to rise. Mine didn't rise a lot, but the loaf did have a great flavour and some big holes inside it, so I'm hoping it will improve as my starter matures.

The first part of the process - finding some organic grapes/unoiled organic raisins with which to make the starter - was the most difficult part for me. Luckily another friend was given a box of such grapes by a neighbour, and once she had pulped them for their juice, I was the recipient of the skins and pips which I mixed with bread flour, rye flour and water in a loosely covered jar. However you don't need to use grapes or raisins at all - there are many different ways of making a starter, such as this recipe from the River Cottage.

After several days of mixing, adding extra flour and water, straining, discarding various proportions etc, it was ready to use.

Making the loaf was a rather sticky, drawn-out process that is not complicated in terms of what you have to do, but it does involve relatively meticulous planning since the dough has to be left to sit for periods of time that vary from a whole day to 15 minutes. Quite simple if you are around the house all day, but fiendish if you need to fit it in around a working day, shopping, pilates class etc.

I found myself making the mix first thing in the morning, then leaving it to sit all day until I came home at night when I did the kneading. It then had to sit until it doubled in size - overnight was convenient since the following day I was at home. After that there's a period of folding, more rising and eventually baking - involving heating up the oven half an hour before you need it, spritzing water on the loaf to make a crust, making cuts in the top of it (why do mine never work?!) and so on.

Although the bread had a fabulous taste and big air holes inside it, in terms of shape it looked more like a bread biscuit than a loaf. I found it almost impossible to get the dough into any kind of loaf shape. Next time I intend to try baking it in a casserole dish with the lid on.

There's a couple of good articles here and here about maintaining a starter and baking.

Sweet Pea Coat

One of the first yarns added to my stash when I got back into knitting about ten years ago was this gorgeous, super chunky,  Rowan Harris Tweed. I started several projects with it and ripped them all back, never finding the best use for it.

Then a couple of months ago I finally managed to match up Kate Gilbert's Sweet Pea Coat pattern from Twist Collective's winter 2008 issue, which was in my Ravelry queue, with the yarn, which was languishing in my stash.

There was only one problem - although on paper I had enough yarn to make the coat, in practice I knew that I was likely to need more. In the intervening years, not only had the yarn been discontinued, it had been discontinued some years ago, making it very difficult to find any remaindered balls hanging around at online retailers.

I started knitting while retaining an optimistic outlook, somehow believing that this might be sufficient to solve the problem.

With the back and one side completed, I realised I was going to need more than optimism to solve this problem. This was another challenge for Ravelry!

Do you remember the story of the Nordic sock yarn? Contacting (almost) total strangers on Ravelry to beg yarn off them and making new friends?

This time it was a similar story, although I suspect me and my benefactor will never meet, since she lives in the USA. I could find no UK Raveler with the right yarn and colour, but happened upon Kat from Boston, MA (MyOwnOpus on Ravelry). Crazily enough she not only had the right yarn and colour, it also turned out to be the same dye lot! She was not at all offended by my unsolicited request to buy her yarn, and we agreed a price for the yarn and shipping which I was able to send by Paypal.

So the coat is now finished, and I just spent the weekend wearing it and loving it! The colour is sufficiently neutral to go with everything, yet the flecks of turquoise, yellow and red save it from being too bland. Warmer than the Central Park Hoodie and roomy enough to wear several layers underneath, I think it's going to keep me going quite a way into winter. The only thing I don't really like is the buttonholes - a couple of them are a bit too loose and they might have to undergo a bit of alteration.

1 November: a significant date

1 November is a significant date in our household - it's officially classified as the first day that the heating is allowed to be switched on for the winter. Our maisonette has hot air heating, supplied by a huge, ancient boiler housed in a massive cupboard right in the middle of the house. I'm pretty sure it's the original boiler that was installed when the block was built in about 1970. So putting the heating on involves lighting the pilot light, setting the timer and pressing the switch to 'auto'.

We do benefit from having properties below and next to us that are occupied throughout the day, and we also have great insulation and a relatively small area to heat. But while I cycle to work and use the cosy shower room heated at the company's expense, the Curse showers at home and I suspect it's getting a little chilly in the mornings by now!

We've had a few skirmishes about the heating so far - the Curse is apt to sit around in a t-shirt complaining that he's cold which of course cuts no ice with me considering he's got a lovely hand-knitted cardigan available for just such occasions. All the same, we always try and hold out till November, and beyond if we can - it's turned into something of an autumn tradition. Last year I think we lasted till about 5 November, so still a few days to go!

Tuesday, October 26

Fungal foraging

In the event of a lack of posts over here I would like to point readers over to the Icehouse for a fabulous report on a fungal foray in Thetford Forest.

Leezz has posted some beautiful and inspiring photos of fungi picked on a forage in the local forest a week or so ago. The stinkhorn is particularly gross - not for nothing does this type of fungi go under the name 'Phallaceae'.  I have never seen one of these in its 'erect' state but came across a couple of eggs a few years ago - took a while to work out what they were, it seemed like someone had buried a couple of peeled, hard-boiled goose eggs in the beech leaves!

Sunday, October 17

Nature's bounty - Cliffe Pools

With good weather promised for today I was up early and off for a walk on the Hoo Peninsula (although I did manage to make a few jars of spiced beetroot chutney first of all...!).

I decided to go to Cliffe Pools RSPB reserve on the Thames in north Kent to see if I could spy any interesting waders. One of the main (birdwatching) lessons of the day was that my binoculars are not a great deal of use for such a huge reserve. Many of the birds were on the far side of the water from the pathway, and I could only identify the most obvious (Egret, Lapwing, Coot etc). But it's a great place to walk - very flat and you can stay on tracks all the way round so you don't even really need your walking boots. 

It's a curious place, with Tilbury power station looming across the Thames at one end and Coryton oil refinery at the other. Ships drift aimlessly along the river making you do a double take at first when you hadn't realised where the river was, and there are curious ruins dotted around - the 19th century Cliffe Fort and the remains of the launch tracks for the Brennan Torpedo. The ruins of an old munitions factory still stand at the north side of the marshes - Danny McL has some great photos in his Flickr set here.
There's also plenty of foraging to be had. If you need sloes - great big juicy buggers, loads of them - then get yourself to Cliffe and walk down the track to the bird reserve. You will find enough to start a business making sloe gin! There were still quite a few blackberries, albeit rather bland in taste, as well as acres of hips and haws.

I also came across some Shaggy Inkcaps - one of the few fungi that I am confident enough to pick and eat - although I left these as there were only a few.  Shaggy Inkcaps, also known as Lawyer's Wig due to their resemblance to aforementioned, have a very distinctive shape and there is no other fungi that looks like them. Pick them before they open fully, and fry in butter.

Many beautiful seedheads were in evidence, such as teasels and bullrushes, and these lovely umbelliferous seeds, so dark and dramatic. I'm not sure what plant they come from - any idea?
The site is pretty flat all round, but at one point near the RSPB car park a little knob of land has survived the quarrying behind it, and a lookout has been built from where it's possible to get the best idea of the site layout.

Monday, October 11

High rise adventures

My work takes me to some very interesting places. A few weeks ago I found myself at the top of one of the towers of the Humber Bridge near Hull. It was rather a grey day but the views were still rather fabulous.

Sunday, October 3

Top tip for a pleasant Boris bike experience

Don't forget to bring some wet wipes or tissues if you are going to use a bike from the racks at Northumberland Avenue. Last week there were only two left and this was the one with the least/driest bird shit on it. It was on the handlebars too!

Masham sheep fair

A bit late posting about this one, but it's been a bit of a crazy week and I've barely had time to catch my breath, never mind keep up with the blog. Sometimes life just gets in the way a bit too much!

Last weekend I was lucky enough to get up to Yorkshire for a break, and my friend took me to the Masham Sheep Fair - a fab day out for someone who loves yarn and sheepy things so much!

We witnessed the intricacies of the judging process...

..wished I hadn't come north by train so I could have bought a Teeswater fleece to take home... 

Had a laugh at the sheep show (Nobby the ram was being a bit of a sex pest to poor Susie who was next to him)...

...definitely a date for next year's diary. We missed the sheep racing and the sheepdog rounding up the geese, so plenty to go back for!  I did manage to score some Alpaca sock yarn from a knitting stall and some fabulous moisturiser from Oakwood Aromatics (who make the wonderfully-named Oomilegs soap).

Tuesday, September 28

Mystifying sign

I spotted this sign from the train while waiting at Doncaster Station. It has obviously been altered, but from what and why?!

*Updated later - thanks Val in the comments for supplying a link explaining that 'brute' actually stands for 'British Rail Universal Trolleying Equipment'

Sunday, September 19

Sloe gin

The sloes have been so prodigious this year I have been itching to go out there and pick a potful in order to stoke up my first batch of sloe gin. It's recommended to wait until after the first frosts to pick your sloes, or prick each one individually in order to break the skin and allow the flavour out.

If, like me, you are not confident that you will be organised enough to pick on demand, or you are too impatient to wait, you can do it the cheat's way and put your sloes in the freezer overnight.

Once they have defrosted, combine about a pound of sloes with a pound of sugar and steep in 600ml of gin or thereabouts. Put them into a large jar and stir, then put the lid on. This is how they look at first:

Within hours the colour will start to seep out - a glorious beetrooty pink. Stir or shake every day for a week, then once a week for the next two or three months. Strain the gin through muslin or coffee filters before decanting into sterilised bottles. Keep it longer for a better flavour - 18 months if you can resist!

The sloes can then be steeped in cider to make 'slider'; made into chutney; pureed for ice-cream; baked into cakes etc etc.

Cycling challenge

I'm very proud to say that a friend of mine from university is currently riding his bike from Orkney to Chatham on his own personal adventure/challenge/fundraiser.

Hugh is a keen cyclist who has long been envious reading about my solo tours on the bike - although he often goes out cycling with his family, he has also yearned to take off for a different kind of adventure and a personal challenge of his own.

Ironically redundancy has given him the opportunity to do this - probably something of a once in a lifetime chance - and I'm delighted that I'm able to follow his adventures on his blog.

I know quite a few cyclists read this blog and might find his adventure inspirational, so if you have a moment, do pop over there and leave a comment to spur him on his way. He's also raising money for two charities and any donations would be gratefully received.

Saturday, September 18

French architecture

The good and the bad.

This is the town clock and the town hall of Desvres in northern France. The town is known for its painted pottery and we had come here for lunch in one of the cafes in the market square. We had not bargained for the godawful architecture. From the look of the town, the same 'architect' was employed to design the clock, the town hall and the library. Perhaps he or she is related to the mayor?

Apparently the clock is designed to reflect the town's famous ceramics - which explains the tiles around its base but doesn't give any clue as to the 'inspiration' behind the remainder of the pile of po-mo poo.

Thankfully my short stay in France included many sights to gladden the eyes, such as the glorious surroundings of the campsite we stayed in at Manoir de Senlecques in Pernes Les Boulogne.


Almost exactly two years ago I first visited the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans just outside Cardiff on the way home from a cycling tour of the Brecon Beacons.

Happening upon clogmaker Geraint Parfitt I made a spur of the moment decision to order a a pair of hand-made clogs from him - requiring nothing more at the time than having my feet drawn round and choosing a style and colour.

I'd all but forgotten about them when he rang me a couple of months ago to say that they were ready for me to collect, and last week I travelled out to Cardiff for an overnight trip to pick them up.

The final fitting involves getting to the museum first thing in the morning to try them on, then Geraint will make the final adjustments to the upper and attach the rubber soles and so on, so that you can take them home later that day.

The wooden soles are made of sycamore, which came from Barry (the place, not Geraint's mate!) just a few miles from the museum. They are also made by hand and bear the signs of the whittling involved. The dye is painted on by hand by Geraint himself, and the extent to which the dye takes to the leather varies, depending on the oil content and so on of the leather. As a result the colour is expected to weather over time to give a mottled effect. The closures on the straps are very simple and are made very tight to begin with, as the leather will stretch quite quickly as the clogs are broken in.

Wearing the clogs gives me a couple of inches extra in height - which is very welcome for a shorty like me. The lack of flexibility of the soles means they are strange to walk in and I suspect it will take some time to get used to them. I really love the colour and the care with which they have been crafted.