Wednesday, November 27

Homemade mincemeat

You are probably wondering why the hell anyone would bother to make their own mincemeat when you can buy 'perfectly good' stuff in the shops.

To be honest I don't always make the effort since I don't eat a lot of mincemeat at christmas, but I did some last year and the mince pies went down so well that I decided to do it again this year.

Here's why I make my own mincemeat:

1. no candied peel. One of the few foody things I dislike is mass produced candied peel - the homemade stuff is fine, as my chocolate-covered orange peel fave sweetie attests.

2. vegetarian. Not a huge concern for me, and I believe a lot of shop-bought mincemeats are veggie now in any case, long gone are the days when beef suet was a staple ingredient, but it's good to know what's in there in any case, for those friends who are veggie. It's almost vegan, and if I were able to dig out some vegan trifle sponges or did an appropriate substitution it would be suitable.

3. no booze. You know I think booze in food is a waste and it dismays me that a lot of the better quality mincemeats are soaked in stuff that should really be served in a glass.

Making the mincemeat was also was the main foody tradition in our house at christmas, since we didn't really do christmas pudding and the christmas cake was only of modest proportions. 

So here's the family recipe, it's far from traditional but makes a very fine product and is very easy. This recipe makes half a dozen jars and if you use veggie suet rather than butter, it will keep for months. Adapt with booze or mixed fruit if you really must. 

11b cooking apples
1.5 lb sugar
1lb sultanas
1lb raisins
0.5 lb veggie suet
1 box trifle sponges
1 lemon
1tsp ground mixed spice
1tsp ground nutmeg

Peel and core the apples, grate them into a large bowl.
Grate the lemon peel into the apples, then juice the lemon and add that as well. 
Stir in the sultanas and raisins, then the spices, sugar and suet.
Crumble the trifle sponges into the mix, stir it well, cover with a clean teatowel and leave overnight at room temperature.

Stir again, then pack into sterilised jars and store in a cool, dark place. 

Friday, November 8

A view I never tire of

When I work at home I miss the morning exercise I get from the bike commute, and if I'm not in the mood for a swim, I usually ride a half hour circuit round Greenwich before I sit down at the desk. 

After nipping through the pretty streets of the Ashburnham Triangle I give the legs and lungs a workout up Point Hill, before cutting over Blackheath, against the traffic, and turning into Greenwich Park. Where all the commuters turn left and down the hill to the village, I go straight on and pause for a few minutes at the General Wolfe statue on the top of the slope next to the Royal Observatory. 

It's one of the best views in London and I often have it to myself at that time of day.

Often I take a photograph, so I have quite a selection now. 

Mist - or perhaps more likely smog? - drifting across to Canary Wharf.

Lovely autumnal scene with damp pavements and fallen horse chestnuts.

A clear and sunny morning, looking particularly grand.

Saturday, October 19

Beautiful things

Walking, for me, is not just about getting from A to B while having some exercise and perhaps seeing some nice views.

Anyone who's ever been for a walk with me knows that I am always pausing to look at things, pick things off bushes or off the floor, taste blackberries or muse about the name of a flower or tree.

On a recent walk from Cuxton on the Medway I found/picked/came across many beautiful things.

Bushes laden with sloes - gathering the sloes for this year's gin being the main aim of the walk.

Beautiful bracket fungi on a tree trunk.

A vast array of Shaggy Ink Cap fungi, which provided a welcome and unexpected foraged supper.

Evidence of chestnut woodlands being successfully managed - the coppiced shoots in the clearing contrasting beautifully with the tall trees surrounding them.

A carved bench on the edge of the woods; a pleasant and thoughtful place to pause and eat our apples.

Fabulous sycamore seed skeletons - the filigree pattern of the wings put me in mind of winter trees, which fascinate and perhaps even obsess me.

Sunday, October 6

More Kentish adventures

I pride myself on knowing Kent quite well - and I find myself often having to defend this much-maligned county against the naysayers. Until you have spent a fair bit of time exploring the many very different parts of Kent, it's impossible to get a full flavour of everything it has to offer. 

So I was very pleased to discover yet another part of the county that I didn't know, on a recent break with my folks in a little village east of Canterbury. As well as getting chance to explore the area south of the Stour, I was able to take my parents to visit some of my favourite towns on the coastal fringes.

We stayed in a small village called Preston, just a few miles out of Canterbury, and deep in the heart of apple country. I was quite surprised to find huge orchards with apples groaning under the weight of fruit - cherries yes, hops yes, but apples? Not really! But it seems that a lot of this fruit goes to make Copella apple juice - judging by the number of lorries we met on the country lanes that were bearing the branding - and it was peak apple time when we were there.

The area is dotted with quiet villages, which are mostly off the beaten track; many have beautiful churches of a very typical Kentish style, covered in flint and generally quite simple inside - a lot are on pilgrimage routes to Canterbury so it's also more common to find them open than you would expect in such small villages.

I love wandering around the graveyards and checking out the headstones - here's a particular favourite that I happened upon in Fordwich.

The river at Fordwich is also particularly stunning - slow moving, crystal clear water streaked with weed and with the village houses built almost into it. I would happily have waded in - in the nip, perhaps! - and lain right back in water, felt its cool touch and maybe run my fingers through the green ribbons of weed. There was something deeply inviting about it, something reminiscent of Ophelia

Others clearly found the water just as hypnotic; this man stood on the beach at Deal for so long that I started to wonder if he was an art installation. His shirt and smart trousers made him look all the more incongruous, we wondered if he was considering doing a Reggie Perrin. In the end he turned round, walked back up the beach and disappeared into the roads of suburban Deal.

I visited a few old favourites too, including Walmer Castle where I had a short break a few years ago. Fond memories of having the castle grounds to myself when all the visitors had gone home.

We ate well during our stay - including a fabulous lunch at the Black Douglas cafe on Deal seafront - well worth seeking out for fresh, seasonal food, although at this time of year you might be out of luck if you don't like beetroot. We also had lunch at the very shiny new Wyatt & Jones in Broadstairs - it had the feeling of not having been open very long, and certainly represents a step up in terms of the food offering in the Thanet towns. Hopefully it will survive and flourish, it has a lovely location and the three old shop units that form the restaurant have been nicely converted.  

It wouldn't be a British holiday without paddling and beach huts, and we found both of those at Broadstairs, one of the few sandy beaches in Kent.

The beach huts are much more utilitarian than the chi-chi offerings at places like Whitstable, and I must confess I rather prefer their brash colours and pebble-dash finish. I don't think I'll ever be able to do chi-chi successfully, but I can certainly do brash and utilitarian.

And finally, the oddest moment of the holiday was coming across this steam-engine graveyard behind the church in Preston. My mum and I stumbled on it just as dusk was falling - there were probably a dozen or so of these huge rusting engines all lines up, along with various enormous boilers and other assorted machines that we could not identify. Someone obviously Has Plans for them, perhaps a life's work of restoration, but in the darkening gloom and silence of a field in eastern Kent, it was nothing short of spooky.

Wednesday, September 4

Tate memories

Remember Carston Holler's slides at the Tate?

I went with my friend Lisa and we had a blast - at the time I was enjoying experimenting with the film setting on my camera and I had just discovered IMovie, so I thought I'd make a little movie about it.

I dug it out again recently after talking with another friend about making films, and felt quite proud of what I'd achieved, especially since I had no experience in film making or IMovie, and even now after making a few little films, I still struggle with the software.

Reading back the blurb on the Tate website, I was struck by the fact that the themes in my film are identical to those that interest Holler:

"What interests Höller, however, is both the visual spectacle of watching people sliding and the ‘inner spectacle’ experienced by the sliders themselves, the state of simultaneous delight and anxiety that you enter as you descend."

A bit cheesy perhaps? But brings back some great memories!

Thursday, August 22

From tree to chair

This is how it all started, in a wood in Herefordshire a couple of miles from the little town of Bromyard. I was here to make a chair, on a course led by famous greenwood chairmaker (and author of several books on the subject) Mike Abbott. Naturally, it began with a tree being felled, from the woods which were to be our home for a week.

One of the most crucial - and largely unpredictable, as we discovered - decisions that have to be made is which bit of the tree to use for which part of the chair. As well as having to saw the trunk into appropriate lengths which will yield pieces long enough for the back legs and which will make efficient use of all the available wood, it's important to identify the knots and natural bends and curves of the wood, and place them where they will be most decorative, or failing that, easily avoided. Some twisty trunks and branches are highly prized for specific uses, and we saw a great example of that with a piece of wood Mike chose as the perfect shape for the curved arms of the ladderback chair made by one of our group.

The first part of the process is to cleave the logs into smaller pieces, a technique requiring much more subtlety and precision than you would imagine, given that it involves axes, fros (thin cleaving blades) and large wooden mallets. I became very enamoured by the process, particularly as Mike managed to imbue it with an even deeper philosophical resonance, remarking occasionally on how the slow, thoughtful process of looking at both sides (of the wood) and stopping regularly to review your progress were good life lessons.

The first couple of days were a race to get all the bits of the chair made so that they could be steamed, bent and dried (in the case of the back legs and the chair back) or simply dried, in the case of the remaining pieces, in time to assemble the chair and weave the seat. Wood shrinks as it dries, and it shrinks by different proportions depending on the orientation of the grain, so most pieces which start off with a round cross-section will end up being slightly oval when they are dry. Since Mike's chairs all depend on mortise and tenon joints, no wedges or glue or nails, it's vitally important to get the dimensions of the dry joints correct, so that they will fit snugly.

The majority of work took place on the faithful shave horse, using a drawknife to shape the legs and rungs, and a thin slice of plastic pipe (see above) to gauge the diameter. It took quite some time to slowly reduce the size of a chunk of wood to an even size so that the plastic ring could pass along its full length. Despite taking some time, it was quite a meditative process, and once I'd done the first one and improved my shaving technique, the remaining work was deeply satisfying. Learning to 'go with the grain' is one of Mike's mantras, and I began to understand how this approach could be implemented with success.

The legs and back pieces of the chair were steamed for about an hour in a large, coffin-like steamer placed on top of a huge drum of water heated over the open fire. They were bent and clamped into jigs, then left to dry in that shape for more than a day.

Smaller pieces like the rungs, seat rails and skinny little spindles for the back of the chair were shaped, had tenons cut on the ends using the Veritas tenon cutter, and were then dried in the 'warm box' for 24 hours or so, before being thoroughly examined by Mike with one of his favourite tools, the vernier calipers (something I haven't used since university!).

The mortises had to be drilled with appropriate precision - some vertical and others at angles which required calculation, use of the 'bunny ears' for alignment (I don't think I have a clear photo of the latter, so-called because of its shape) and working with a partner to sight you in from the other angle. There was lots of 'out a bit, back a bit, bit more, stop, ok'. Drilling made me quite nervous but after half a dozen mortises I got used to it.

The assembly of the chairs was great fun, albeit quite nerve-wracking; we used a specially set-up vise with enough space between the jaws to enable the chair sides to be placed in it. The handle wound the jaws together and we worked in pairs to wiggle the joints into place as it did so. It's a noisy procedure that initially strikes dread into the heart of the unitiated. Thankfully there were only a couple of chairs where one or two of the rungs proved insubstantial and which, after the initial sickening cracking noise, bringing a dreadful hush across the whole workshop, had to be replaced - luckily none were mine!

Most people made the simple spindle-back chair, but Wolf opted for a ladderback chair - clearly not enough of a challenge since he also decided he wanted to put arms on it too. He proved to be up to the challenge, although all credit to him, he did put in a lot more hours than the rest of us slackers, and was regularly working till darkness made it impossible.

The final day was the seat weaving - we all chose different patterns and materials, mine being Danish cord (essentially made of twisted paper) in a splayed weave. With expert help it was not too difficult to achieve, compared to the actual construction of the chair; funnily enough it seems to be the thing that most impresses people seeing the finished chair now!

I learned a lot of things this week, mostly that it's a bad idea to have shoulders on your seat rails (makes the seat weaving difficult at the ends), that cleaving wood is a philosophical, considered process, and that it's best to butter your bread very thickly on the outside when using toasty makers in an open fire.

Here's the eight course participants with our finished chairs (From L: Dan, Leon, Alice, me, Wolf, Lewis, Jack and Ian), and our assistants Sharyn and Steve, one at each end of the row.

You can see some of Mike's videos on Youtube 

Wednesday, June 26


It's been a busy few months with a few trips for work, holidays and weekends away keeping me on the move pretty much constantly - or so it feels!

Latest trip was to Bergen, Norway, where I was treated to a much bluer sky than London, and even some warm sunshine. The Hanseatic Wharf on the harbour side in the middle of the city proved a beautiful and fascinating place, with its 18th century rebuilt wooden houses, many of them a bit lopsided and all of them looking pretty ramshackle. 

Part of the conference social programme included a walking tour, during which I learned all about Bergen's historic role in the stockfish trade and the fact that the city fell under control of the Hanseatic League after most of its indigenous population was wiped out by the Bubonic Plague that arrived on a boat from England. Luckily the Norwegians don't seem to bear a grudge about that, they are too busy feeling aggrieved about various historic wrongs visited on them by their neighbours in Denmark.

As well as the wooden houses, there's quite a bit of 20th century architecture in the city, including this wonderful department store which was designed by architect Per Grieg and built in 1938 as the city's first shopping centre. The statue on top of the tower is apparently Mercury, Roman god for trade, commerce and profit.

Close by the Sundt store is this rather dramatic Sailor's Monument which was completed in 1950 and is surrounded by statues representing sailors through the ages, topped with four panels showing different seafaring scenes - including whaling, naturally. You can't get away from whole whaling thing here.

No visit would be complete without a trip up one of the city's hills - this is the most popular one Floyen, which is reached via the Floibanen funicular railway.

Gifted coasters

Part of the enjoyment I get out of crafting for gifts is the wrapping and sending. 

I recently crocheted these coasters for a friend as a thank-you gift and enjoyed packaging them up and labelling them almost as much as I enjoyed the crafting!

You'd think it would be a simple matter to find a good pattern for a circular, basic crocheted coaster - in fact it was anything but! I had to try quite a few iterations - I had selected some yarn from my stash (Rowan Cotton Tape in a nice rich navy colour) and it was not easy to find a pattern that suited it fully.

After a few false starts, I managed to find this lovely simple pattern - took me about 15 minutes to make each coaster, so it was nice and quick, as well as being very simple to remember.

The coasters are now hopefully keeping my friend's furniture free of coffee cup rings.

Sunday, May 12

Bristol street art

Found some very impressive street art on a recent weekend break in Bristol, these are on Nelson Street and are part of the 'See no evil' project which has been held for several years now on 'one of the ugliest streets in the UK'.

Some of these are huge and take up the whole of sides of the buildings, begging the question of how they were created.

There's a great video here that answers some of these questions as well as explaining how street art in Bristol went from being an illegal activity to an artistic pursuit.

Aside from this impressive collection of pieces, and the famous Banksy murals that can be found around the city, there are plenty of other creative interventions to spot whichever part of the city you are in. And all for free.

Tuesday, April 2

Grain and Hoo

My exploration of the Hoo peninsula in north Kent continues; it seems there are many more secret corners to unearth, some of them in the most unexpected places. Yesterday we started at the eastern extreme, the Isle of Grain, which is nominally part of the peninsula. However since a new bridge was built recently over the end of the Yantlet Creek, it does seem like you are actually crossing to an island. Most of the island is covered by power stations and other industrial compounds, but at the very end of the road is the windswept and strangely otherly village of Grain, with a two-mile long sea wall you can walk along and gaze over towards Sheerness and Sheppey.

Our mission to walk to the London Stone - the boundary of the city's jurisdiction - was aborted due to the presence of a military firing range in our path. Going to try from the other side of the creek next time. So after enjoying the crazy geometry of the rows of WWII tank traps and the desolation of the rubbish-strewn sand dunes we wandered the other direction through the bitter northerly winds and watched the oystercatchers, dunlin and curlews strutting around on the acres of mudflats.

After lunch it was on to familiar territory - the Northward Hill RSPB reserve - in search of herons. They were all in hiding, it seemed, although we did catch one poking its head above the reeds as we headed back, and as usual there were many rooks circling the rookery.

I was disappointed not to see any adders, perhaps it's still a little early for them. Last year I spied two of them basking in the sunshine at the edge of the drainage channel that runs along the edge of the field in a sheltered spot. I'd hoped they would be doing the same this year, on the first proper day of sunshine, but if they were, they were keeping to themselves.

Even without much wildlife to be seen, there's always the glorious swathes of reeds to gaze on, and the lichen-covered trees to marvel it. It was bitterly cold in the wind, so much so that even the twitchers took to setting up their equipment behind the bushes, but somehow we felt obliged to soak up as much as we can before the risk of hypothermia drove us back to the car and home for tea.

Saturday, March 23

Wool House

Somerset House in London has just been host to a 12-day celebration of all things woolly, organised by the Campaign for Wool and curated by designer Arabella McNie. Although I didn't manage to get to any of the fantastic-looking workshops that were scheduled, I did find time to drop in on Friday and check out the exhibition. 

There was an inspirational range of stuff - from humorous and impressive art works like this life-size crocheted bear by Shauna Richardson to whole room sets that had been specially commissioned from leading interior designers to showcase wool in its many forms. Spinners, weavers, knitters and other crafters showed off their skills throughout the week, and there were exhibitions demonstrating how wool is used in clothing, textiles and other products, as well as some more radical applications like this chair made of fibre and resin by Devon start-up company Solidwool.

I watched a woman working on a fairly small tapestry using beautiful natural yarns to create a picture of bare tree trunks in a winter scene. This is a craft I've never really been aware of - the work looked slow and painstaking and very complicated with all the different bobbins and the need to think ahead and work out how to build the picture up with the different colours.

There were some great displays of how wool is used in clothing and fashion, including these great Vivienne Westwood platform shoes and the tweed-covered headphones below. 

As well as these quirky items, there was a whole room devoted to tailoring which was totally fascinating. It included two scrapbooks full of handwritten pages explaining the different types of stitches and techiques used for making a bespoke suit.

The seven interiors that had been built in rooms in part of the exhibition space were quite breathtaking and all very different. I'm pretty sure everyone who saw them wanted to move in at least one of them, and it was hard to resist the urge to throw yourself on all the beds and sofas, caressing every different texture and cooing over the colourful fabrics.

My favourites were Donna Wilson's nursery, Anne Kyyro Quinn's funky fun room (below)..

..and the rather classy bedroom which was designed by Kit Kemp. Green may not be a traditional choice of colour for a bedroom but would totally suit me!