Sunday, August 29

Knit Nurse in knitting shock

On Friday night I joined Deadly Knitshade and the Stitch London crew for a Friday late at the Natural History Museum. We taught people to knit and helped them to make knitted squid. Or should that be squids?

Loads of people turned up to see the 8m-long knitted squid that Lauren had crafted using old carrier bags, as well as some of the smaller specimens that had been made by other members of the team.

I even managed to make something myself - my very own knitted squid who came home with me later to meet Croc and Herdy. The squid pattern is very simple to do - you only need the knit stitch and a couple of stick-on eyes to make it (or you could just sew eyes on if you wanted). The pattern is available here.

Meanwhile I have cast on for something a bit more substantial. Last week I bought the Sweet Pea Coat pattern from Twist Collective with the intention of buying some yarn to make it.

Instead I dug out this beautiful Rowan Harris Tweed Chunky from my stash where it has been languishing for some years. I've cast on various garments with it, over the years, but they have never succeeded. Hopefully this one will endure.

It's going damn quick and looks good so far - my main worry being whether I'm going to have enough yarn to finish it!

Saturday, August 28

Simple pleasures

'Fresh from Kent this morning' according to the grizzled old bloke on Deptford Market who sells whatever fruit or veg is cheap at the wholesaler - he's great for seasonal stuff such as English plums or greengages, and today it was corn on the cob, three for £1. Boil for five minutes or so, then add butter, salt and pepper before chomping your way through it.

I often crave greens after being away from home since it usually involves a lot of eating out. Savoy cabbage is a particular treat.

Paisley weekend

Last weekend myself and the Curse spent a few days in Glasgow - originally planned around the fact that I was doing the Great Scottish Swim but seamlessly converted into a city break when the swim ended up being cancelled because of a blue-green algae infestation.

In fact we stayed in a rather luxurious apartment on the Oakshaw ridge in Paisley, just across the road from the Coats Observatory and surrounded by beautiful Victorian buildings, lingering evidence of the town's prosperity. Paisley is about 10 minutes on the train from Glasgow and has some glorious Victorian and early 20th century architecture. My particular favourites were the Bull Inn and St Matthews Church, both designed in fabulous Art Nouveau style by local architect William Daniel McLennan.

I was disappointed not to be able to get inside the church, but we did have a few pints in the Bull, which has the most glorious stained glass windows and very characterful bar. They just need to improve their food offerings and they have a winning combination; the ale was very good.

I dug these fabulous pictures out from Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland website - they are so much better than those on the Bull's own website, and although the interior has changed somewhat since these were taken, much of it remains as it is in these photos.

I also enjoyed the Russell Institute (above) in its fine Beaux Arts grandeur - designed by James Steel Maitland in 1923 and gifted to the town as a children's clinic by Agnes Russell in memory of her two bachelor brothers who died in 1920 and 1923. The bronze sculptures of sick children around the building are somewhat sinister-looking, but the proportions of the structure and its careful details pleased me.

The Oakshaw ridge has several quaint cobbled footpaths leading up to the road, and is graced by several churches - this being the most dramatic and picturesque.

In fact, much of Paisley's architecture is beautiful. But the town centre has dozens of empty shops and bargain stores. Even M&S has ditched its regular model for an 'outlet' store.

We did not see a single independent butcher, baker, grocery store or greengrocers in the town centre - and a small Coop was the only food retailer we could get to by foot. In fact many of the units that were still occupied in the town centre were pound shops, cheap clothes stores, mobile phone stores and so on, although some high street regulars such as WH Smith, Boots, Top Shop etc still perist. In general, the number of empty units and the quality of the remaining retailers was profoundly depressing.

The council is clearly making some effort to stop the slide continuing - empty units have colourful murals stuck on their windows to make them look like they are occupied, with 'Imagine your home decor shop here!' written on them. The fact remains that two relatively recent mall/shopping centre developments are probably responsible for the fact that so many other units lie empty.

Additionally, between them, Paisley and its close neighbour Renfrew them have a huge Morrisons, an Asda, a Sainsbury's and a Tesco superstore. All of them are out of town.

The knock-on effect on the life of the town centre is clear; we also found a dearth of restaurants and decent pubs (although it seems able to support dozens of drinking barns including my favourite, 'Cafuffles'. In today's parlance, WTF?!).

Paisley deserves better.

Although one of the town's recommended restaurants had closed down, we did find Cardosi's, which offered some very tasty Italian grub, and Castelvecci which cooked up the fab northern supper mentioned in the last post.

We spent quite a lot of time in Glasgow too, enjoying a walk along the River Clyde from the so-called 'Squiggly Bridge' (above) to the 'Squinty Bridge' further west.

A couple of happy hours were spent wandering the Necropolis in Glasgow, in suitably gloomy weather. We admired the views, examined the detail of the monuments and built our own imaginary tales around the words on the headstones. Many of the graves had suffered with age and corrosion of the iron rods holding them together, and their constituent pieces were heaped randomly together. I wondered how often visitors came to some of the quieter corners and how long it was since the names on some of the headstones had been read. Sobering but fascinating at the same time.

Love the melodramatic exclamation mark on this headstone!

Wednesday, August 25

Northern supper

Traditional northern fish n chips, freshly cooked and wrapped in newspaper to take away.

I don't care what culinary claims they make down here in London - from more than 20 years' experience as a northerner living in the capital I can attest that you just CAN'T GET a decent fish supper here.

So we took advantage of our weekend in Scotland to savour the real thing - I believe this version was even cooked in beef fat or something similar. Don't forget to drench with malt vinegar and then salt generously. If you are feeling really adventurous and it's not raining, eat straight out of the wrapper using your fingers, while sitting on a park bench.

Beautiful borlotti beans

These came from my friend's back garden a few weeks ago but I've only just got around to posting about them.

Aren't they beautiful?!

I cooked them and then made 'pasta e fagioli' along the lines of this recipe.

Cook the beans (they should take about half an hour if they are fresh).

Chop a couple of cloves of garlic and fry for a minute in some olive oil, then throw in a couple potatoes, two carrots, a stick of celery, sliced, and a couple of fresh tomatoes - all of which should be chopped small.

Add some stock, vegetable or chicken, bring to boil and simmer for about five minutes.

Then add the beans, a crushed dried chilli, some small pasta (I used macaroni) and some fresh basil. Simmer until the pasta is cooked, then serve with a drizzle of olive oil on the top and some freshly ground black pepper.

A soup that is more like a meal, especially if served with a big chunk of crusty bread slathered with butter!

Tuesday, August 17

English apples are here!

Kent Discovery, no less!

Much as I love the summer soft fruits and am currently enjoying greengage heaven, there is nothing quite like the arrival of the first English apples of the season to raise my spirits.

Of course I bought these off a market stall - the supermarkets are still shipping their apples in from New Zealand, South Africa et all.

Sunday, August 15

Pimientos de Padrón

Grown on my windowsill.

These are small, mild chilli peppers made famous by the town of Padrón in Galicia, Spain. Often served in tapas bars they are fried in garlic, then sprinkled with salt and eaten whole. One out of every 20 or so is hot, although in my case I think I may have left them to grow a little bit too big as most of them were quite zingy!

Definitely a success, they are on the list for next year!

Saturday, August 14

Local foraging

Another great River Cottage Handbook, Hedgerow, prompted me to set out on a local foraging excursion a couple of weeks ago.

Here's what I found, within a comfortable cycle ride from home. I also picked the blackberries that I used for making the vinegar, and found a park full of trees laden with ripe wild plums. Unfortunately these were huge trees and it would have been impossible to pick the plums without a big ladder. By happy coincidence - or was it? - the park with the plums wasn't far from Plumstead.

Sloes - mental note to go back in September.

Fennel. Seeds later in the month?

Horseradish! Slightly contentious as I would have to dig it up for the root, but it will be fab with the beetroot...

Sea buckthorn. Apparently great for the juice.

Rowan berries - for jelly.

Not bad considering we are only a few miles from central London!

Friday, August 13

'Friends' reunited

While going through the 2001 diary I came across an email from a woman who got in touch with me on Friends Reunited. This is what it said:

Hi H

Saw your name and had to write - how could I not contact the girl who stole my first boyfriend??

Remember Peter D..., Newbold Green?

Well after all this time, I guess I forgive you, although it did leave me scarred for life and incapable of forging a lasting relationship with any man for fear he would run off with someone called H....only kidding!

I was Pennie H.... in those days and went from Newbold Green to St Helenas at the same time as you, only to leave in 1981 when my family moved to Lincolnshire.

So would love to hear how life developed for you, and whether you have any idea what happened to Peter - I still need to achieve closure on that particular relationship....


Not only do I have no recollection of this woman, apart a vague familiarity with her name, but I certainly didn't 'steal' Peter from anyone!

It's funny and quite sad that she was still brooding over him in 2001. I 'went out' with him for a couple of months in 1978 or thereabouts!

Navel gazing

Recent events have prompted me to indulge in an extended period of navel gazing. I spent the last week re-reading my old diaries from the 1990s and embarking on something of a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows.

I really have laughed and cried over some of the things I wrote and some of the things that happened to me - most of which I remembered in one way or another. Sometimes as an event too painful to hold on to in much detail, sometimes just as a vague recollection. Some things I have no memory of at all - even though they are set out in explicit detail.

That decade of my life was a very varied one, at times incredibly unstable and often involving extreme emotions. A succession of relationships - mostly rather unconventional in one way or another, sometimes overlapping, often difficult - seemed to drag me from pillar to post. Friendships came and went; thankfully some endured.

I particularly learned that I like myself much more as I am these days. Reading back my old diaries brought me into stark confrontation with a rather selfish and hedonistic individual - perhaps partly created by circumstances, but certainly lacking in self-awareness and shirking personal responsibility in some respects.

Does anyone else ever re-read their own diaries or have those who wrote them taken the wise course and burned them?!

I say that flippantly but I don't see burning them as a solution. In some ways it's very interesting to look back from such a distance and recognise the events that shaped me and others around me. Some of these events seemed unimportant at the time but on hindsight they almost achieve notoriety. It's also a reminder that self-perception is a valuable skill to have.

It's also nice to be reminded of the good things that I'd forgotten. Without the diaries I would have dismissed one particular relationship as a real mistake - it ended on a sour note and the individual concerned had struggled throughout with his own personal demons, sometimes using me as an emotional punch-bag to work through his own issues.

The diaries brought back to life the side of him that I had fallen in love with - a funny, cheeky and erudite man with whom I was 100% sexually compatible. In itself a lesson in growing up and recognising that sexual compatibility does not a successful relationship make.

It wasn't all doom and navel-gazing gloom, however. Some of the comments, particularly in relation to a number of my first rather unsuccessful internet-dating excursions, made me laugh out loud.

On hearing of my date with Jules, a 'jolly, ruddy-looking bloke' who 'had a terribly unappealing habit of making an excitable-sounding noise at the end of every sentence as he sucked air in through his teeth', my good friend Suze quipped: 'Not so much the Jules in the crown as the clinker in the ash heap'!

Friday, August 6

Blackberry vinegar

It's very difficult to convey the beauty of this vinegar in amateur photos taken by a rather lazy photographer. Suffice it to say that it is the most scrumptious-looking potion I've ever seen! In the sun, the colour is dramatic and the aroma is mouth-watering. It's a great (and very easy) alternative use for blackberries if, like me, you don't eat a lot of jam.

Use it in salad dressings, on pancakes, with tonic water in the summer or with hot water in the winter as a drink.

The recipe comes from Pam Corbin's great River Cottage Handbook on preserves, which I've written about previously.

1. Pick your blackberries - best picked on a dry day to catch the full flavour.

2. Put the blackberries in a large bowl and squish them a bit, then cover them with cider vinegar. Cover with clingfilm and leave for five or six days, stirring occasionally. The vinegar will turn a beautiful deep claret colour.

3. Strain through muslin cloth or a jelly bag overnight. It's ok to squeeze the juice out of the bag to get as much as you can.

4. Measure the juice - for every 600ml of juice add 450g of sugar and put the whole lot in a pan. Bring to the boil, stirring till the sugar is dissolved, then boil gently for about 10 mins, remove any scum that rises to the top.

5. Cool, then pour into clean bottles. It will keep for a year at least.