Sunday, 30 September 2007

Autumn orange

Autumn is definitely here now.
  • The children are back to school
  • I am thinking about their birthdays
  • The hens fluff up their feathers and grumble when I open the eglu door in the morning
  • I can wear woolen hats and scarves again
  • I find conkers in the washing machine when I forget to check the pockets of C's trousers
  • I have plums, squashes and apples in my veg box for the first time in months
  • C wants porridge for breakfast
  • I want to take soup into work for my lunch rather than sandwiches

This afternoon I married the butternut squash with my soup craving and made squash soup, which ends up a beautifully autumnal golden orange colour.

Squash Soup

  • 1 squash
  • 1 onion
  • a few good pinches dried thyme
  • 1 litre vegetable stock
  • 50ml milk or cream
  • salt and pepper to taste

Thinly slice the onion and peel, core and chop the squash into chunks. Heat a small amount of olive oil in a large, heavy based saucepan and add the onion, thyme and salt & pepper. Cook gently for 5 minutes until the onions are softened. Add the chunks of squash and cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until the squash just starts to soften around the edges.

Tip in the vegetable stock. If the stock doesn't completely cover the onion and squash, add a little boiling water from the kettle until it does. Bring to the boil and bubble for about 25 minutes; after that time the squash should be completely soft and able to be crushed very easily against the side of the pan with the back of a spoon. Blend the soup, stir in the milk or cream, and reheat very gently. Serve with crusty bread rolls.

This recipe works well with all kinds of autumn or winter squash and pumpkin. You can also add cubes of cheese just before serving for a richer, stronger taste.


My lunch may well be the best bit about work tomorrow!

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Welcome home

This afternoon my brother-in-law, N, left Iraq for the UK at the end of his tour of duty there with his tank regiment. My sister was with me when she got the call from him earlier today to say that he was ready to board the plane and leave, and we have been celebrating ever since.

When N left for Iraq I knew it would affect my sister, but I didn't expect it to affect me as much as it did. Suddenly every time I woke in the morning to hear on Radio 4 the words "A British soldier has been killed in Iraq..." my stomach lurched and my heart thumped until I heard the name of the regiment.

We had to explain to C & O the realities of what their uncle serving in Iraq meant. They listened quietly to my explanation and at the end O calmly said what none of the rest of us had dared speak out loud, "Well I'll keep my fingers crossed that Uncle N doesn't get deaded then".

Over the past six months I have learnt many new things about the British Army, and the life of its soldiers and their families, that I didn't know before.

  • soldiers in Iraq sleep with walls of breeze blocks around their beds to protect them in case of mortar attacks during the night
  • a parcel of haribo sweets boosts morale
  • you can upload photos to your Facebook profile from the Iraqi desert
  • wives and girlfriends of soldiers serving in warzones have their mobile phones with them all the time - even in the shower
  • letters from home mean more than you could ever imagine - even a glitter covered drawing of a pony from your niece is a good thing to receive
  • soldiers are still equipped with bayonets
  • when your soldier tells you he is stuck behind a desk at base doing boring admin, he is doing anything but
  • you don't pay any postage when you send a parcel to a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan
  • soldiers in Iraq still get to watch rugby world cup games

N, we are all so proud of you and delighted to have you home. When O heard you were coming back she grinned and said "Good! He didn't get deaded then!"


Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Shopping lists

I realised as I was pushing my trolley around the supermarket this evening, that I haven't written about shopping lists yet. When I started this blog, shopping lists were the type of list that all my friends and family wanted to talk to me about.

My father (not a natural list writer) emailed me to say "I make shopping lists - but then forget to take them to the shops with me."

And then my sister pointed out to me that our mother never, ever writes out shopping lists. But in contrast to my father she manages to hold a list of what she needs to buy in her head. And importantly, she remembers to buy everything that is on her list. That's a rare talent I think.

So I am like neither of my parents. I keep a permanent shopping list stuck on the fridge and add to it all week before taking it shopping with me.

Should you stick rigidly to what you have written or stray off list? I am a big fan of starting off with a list and then getting 'inspired' as I walk around the shop. C is an intensely practical child and when he comes shopping with me this freelance behaviour drives him wild. Maybe its because he dislikes shopping so much. Before we set off he will take my list and count how many items are on it.

"So, we are going to buy ten things, Mum?" he clarifies.
I hedge.
"At least ten things," I reply.
He's not daft and fixes his gaze on me.
"Ten things? Or more than ten things?"
"Hmmmm...well...yes, about ten things."
A deep, knowing sigh from C.

Then, later, comes his triumphant moment. The customer display at the till tells us not just how much I have to pay, but crucially, how many items I have bought. C shrieks in alarm.
"Mum! You bought twenty-four items! We just needed ten things! You said!"
"Well, the lamb mince was on special offer," I say, weakly.
C shakes his head at me in disappointment.

A quick search on Google reveals that there are websites for shopping list templates, shopping list generators, shopping list software, shopping list organisers and shopping list makers. It really needn't be that complicated.

I just have a favourite rainbow coloured pad from Paperchase that I use to write my shopping lists on, and I stick it somewhere that all the family can see it and add to it if they want. Of course, no-one does ever add to it. Instead I end up asking everyone before I go if there is anything they want me to buy. O always asks me for shreddies, G for syrup and C for an obscure tropical fruit that he wants to try. For ages, I believed that we really were in need of these items, and didn't bother to check the veracity of these demands. The obscure fruit was fine, but we quickly ended up with stockpiles of shreddies and golden syrup.

So these days I ignore other people's requests and just stick to my those all important 'inspirations'. I'd better go and unpack it all now.


PS - my father has quite rightly pointed out that he is not a natural shopper rather than not a natural list maker!

Sunday, 23 September 2007

A weekend away

We have all just come back from a weekend in beautiful Oxford, visiting my parents.

I grew up in and around Oxford but not in the house my parents now live in. This makes visiting them a weird mixture of very deeply held childhood memories (the comfy chair that used to belong to Aunty Ethel, the silver statue, the bag of knitting tucked out of sight, the smell of their washing powder, bath towels with my sister's nametapes sewn on them) but also new views and sounds (they have Wi-Fi, iPod docks, honey from Marrakesh and double glazing).

There have been many small lovelinesses this weekend. Here is my list of some of them.
  • swapping jams with Mum (my blackcurrant for her apricot and her plum)
  • drinking a delicious gin & tonic made by Dad (he taught me how to make them - a very important piece of my education)
  • watching O play with the same dolls' house I played with at her age
  • long walks along the canal towpath and through North Oxford to playground and pub
  • looking at all the many, many photos of the family that are in every room of the house
  • playing peepo with my one year old nephew, who came over for a visit
  • making Mum & Dad a cup of tea

But I find that the strangest part of going to stay with my parents as an adult, is realising that when I come back to my own house at the end of the weekend, that is when I feel like I am coming home.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Delights in domesticity

I am discovering, as I get older, that there are many good things to be found in domestic life. The satisfaction and quiet pleasure to be found in everyday home-based pursuits is something that I have overlooked for many years.

Domesticity is a strange mixture of drudgery and delight. I find that the more time I spend away from home, whether at work, running errands or just gadding about, the more the drudgery part dominates. This is probably why I felt so discombobulated (I always love an opportunity to use that word!) on Sunday evening after a strangely busy weekend.

When I am properly at home, for several days at a time, I tune in more to the rhythms of home life, and I find that I can get a great deal of satisfaction from the more pleasurable tasks.

Domestic delights:
  • The sound of the washing machine. Is there really any nicer sound? It gives me a real inner peace to hear the sound of the washing machine gently sploshing away, getting everything clean and sweet-smelling for me.
  • Making bread. Apart from the smell of freshly baked bread, which is so lovely, there is something pleasingly ancient about the act of making bread. It must be one of the oldest recipes known to man.
  • Baking a cake. Or cakes. Makes me feel like a generous hostess from a more domestic era!
  • Feeding the hens their corn in the mornings.
  • Any sewing that involves using the sewing machine - such a great sound and pretty fabrics draped everywhere.
  • Gathering dry washing in from the line outside. I bury my face into line-dried washing and inhale deeply. It smells almost as good as freshly baked bread.
  • Putting clean sheets on the beds - I love this! And once slept in, the bed never looks as good again, until you change the sheets the next time.

Domestic drudgery:

  • Sewing on name tapes. Really, really hate it.
  • Washing up greasy frying pans because they are too big to fit in the dishwasher.
  • Putting clean washing back into people's drawers and cupboards. There's so much of it!
  • Dusting.
  • Ironing.
  • Changing light bulbs or batteries. No matter how many I buy, and despite having a cupboard FULL of assorted bulbs and batteries, I never seem to have the right one.

In our brave, scary, 21st Century world, where many people are striving to return to a simpler way of living, there are of course more blogs and books lauding the underrated pleasures of domesticity than you could possibly imagine. I am very much looking forward to the publication of Jane Brocket's first book The Gentle Art of Domesticity which is published next month; I have been a big fan of her beautiful blog for a long time now.

I have finished my working week now and have two domestic days ahead of me. I'll start by putting a load of washing on, and by the time I have finished all my domestic delights I will need to sit down with a good book for a while, and then with any luck there won't be any time left for the drudgery part.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Lists for the weekend

After a very peaceful and calm week last week, I've struggled a little to adjust myself to a somewhat hectic (although lovely) weekend. Two lists seem to have set the tone for this weekend.

A Saturday shopping list:

  • two bottles of wine to take round to friends' for lunch
  • a packet of Yu-Gi-Oh cards to be bought with C's pocket money
  • a selection of posh olives - also for lunch with friends
  • fresh orange juice, chorizo and cherry tomatoes for Sunday morning hungover breakfast (also in connection with lunch with friends)
  • a newspaper
  • replacement ballet socks for O (before ballet lesson which was before going round to friends house with rest of shopping)

A Sunday To Do list:

  • go to a bookshop to spend O's pocket money (not on Yu-Gi-Oh cards...)
  • homework with C (accompanied by discussion of new Yu-Gi-Oh cards purchased yesterday)
  • bake a banana cake to put in lunchboxes for the week ahead
  • think about what we're going to do for C & O's forthcoming birthday parties (I was alarmed to have it pointed out to me by C & O that they are only a few weeks away now - C suggested he might like some Yu-Gi-Oh cards)
  • plan meals for the week ahead
  • make yet another shopping list

All this shopping, baking, going out, chatting, drinking, planning, cooking, sorting and preparing is such a big part of family life; sometimes it can feel a little like being swept up in a whirlwind.

My favourite time in such a weekend is right now. Sunday evening. We've done so much and now the house is (vaguely) tidy, the fridge is full of good things, the children's cupboards have some clean uniform in them and all four of us have our work and school bags ready by the front door for the week ahead.


Wednesday, 12 September 2007

The British Library

I did a day's work at The British Library in Euston today. I haven't been over the summer and I'd rather forgotten what an amazing place it is. Of course it is designed to be the ultimate library, but beyond the breathtaking range of its collection of books, periodicals, newspapers, sounds, documents and photos, there are so many things about it that please me.

  • The architecture of the building is exactly the kind of architecture I like. Striking and surprising to look at from both the outside and the inside; it is a lovely mixture of clean lines, smooth stone and mezzanines and balconies. I find it very inspiring to work in such a beautiful place.
  • One of the nicest aspects of the architecture is that there are places to sit absolutely everywhere in the library and its courtyards. Not just chairs in the reading rooms, but benches, sofas, armchairs, walls, steps and corners. There will always be somewhere to sit on your own or with others, spread out your bags and belongings and enjoy a coffee or a chat. Or just some peace and quiet to read a good book.
  • There are pieces of art and sculpture scattered around, feeding your senses and inspiring you in a nicely abstract way. My favourite piece is a tromp d'oeuil of some book shelves that move in a very trippy way as you walk past them on your way out of the cloakroom in the basement. This particular piece means I always start my visit with a chuckle.
  • The lighting in the building is very clever. There are no windows, which is a very good thing when you are working and do not want distractions, and instead all the light comes flooding through vast sky lights.
  • The chairs and desks in the reading rooms are the comfiest I have ever known. I like to think that it was someone's job when the place was being built and fitted out, to try out thousands of different chairs and desks and choose the best. Whoever that person was, I think they did a great job.
  • There is always a free exhibition or two to look around when work gets too frustrating. My favourite is The Sir John Ritblat Gallery which holds a permanent exhibition of some of the library's most famous treasures such as the Magna Carta, Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks and a Shakespeare First Folio. I wander around just saying "wow!" under my breath at everything.
  • The library also has a fantastic website which gives you access to some huge online catalogues and other resources.

Most of this is accessible to everyone, whether or not you have a Reader's pass, so next time you are in London, don't just take my word for it, go and have a look for yourself.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

So tired

I'm so very, very tired at the moment. Too tired to do anything productive (other than tell everybody how tired I am), too tired to concentrate on anything interesting, and too tired to find much enthusiasm for anything.

I don't like to fight the tiredness though - now is not the time to drink an espresso or listen to funk music. I want to enjoy the tiredness, wallow in it, and eventually drift off into a long and very deep dreamless sleep.

Here are some nice things to do with yourself if you're tired, and you want to embrace the weariness.
  • Have a nice cup of tea and a sit down - maybe chamomile tea if its near bedtime.
  • Drink a glass of cold milk - very soothing.
  • Look at the pictures in Nigella Lawson's How To Be A Domestic Goddess.
  • Sprinkle some lavender oil around - a small amount will make you sleepy but too much will make you very alert, so go easy.
  • Listen to some ambient music. There's rather a lot of that in our house, but albums of choice for tiredness would be Inside by Flipside or Big Chill Classics.
  • Don't switch on the tv - it is too stressful and anxiety inducing.
  • Lie in the garden listening to the sounds around you (though this doesn't work so well if the sounds you can hear are children having a water fight or similar).
  • Listen to Radio 4 - ultimately soothing and reassuring, and sometimes dry enough to send you off to sleep.
  • Hum to yourself, happily but tunelessly.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Uniform list

I have always been fascinated with uniform lists. When I was 8 I wore a school uniform for the first time and I remember poring over the list before I started at the school. I longed to get hold of exotic items on the list like a straw boater (with ribbon in school colours), bottle-green gym knickers, fawn tights and a gabardine mac. The entire uniform was rather bizarre and old-fashioned, but I absolutely loved it!

Then I started to draw up uniform lists for my toys as I sent them to imaginary schools. The uniform list I was most pleased with consisted of a royal purple pinafore, pink shirt, pink and purple stripey socks and patent dark purple Mary-Jane shoes. Wow!

My secondary school was a liberal, academic place and had a colour scheme rather than the strict uniform I had been used to when I was younger. This was such a disappointment when I started (one of the other local secondary schools had a green woolen cape as part of their uniform - how cool!). But as I grew older I appreciated more the freedom to wear pretty much what I liked as long as it was navy and white. I had a great pair of baggy cord trousers that I wore one year, plus some very long pencil skirts that I could hardly walk in.

When I lived in Brisbane in Australia for a short while in my early 20s I loved looking at the school uniforms as I travelled into town each morning on the bus. The girls - even older teenagers - all wore stripey or checked dresses in very loud patterns, with wide white peter-pan collars. The boys all wore hats, striped blazers, shorts and knee socks. My purple and pink creation would not have been out of place here!

Today was O's first ever day at school. Her uniform has been a great source of excitement to her as we've got things ready over the past few months. The uniform of her and C's school is pleasingly not the usual royal blue and white, but equally nothing as weird as the bottle green and fawn that I wore at their age. Coincidentally it is the colours of the local football team! Burgundy, grey and pale blue.

O's favourite bit is those wonderful, grey knee socks!

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Bored at breakfast time

I get bored with food very easily. I can't be doing with eating the same thing more than once every few weeks. Conversations like this are not uncommon in my house:

Me: "What would you like in your packed lunch today?"
C: "Ham sandwiches."
Me: "No. You had ham sandwiches on Monday."
C: "But I like ham sandwiches!"
Me: "I know, but you wouldn't want them every day, would you?"
C: "Yes, I would. They're my favourite!"
Me: "How about soup instead?"

And the worst meal for sheer repetition is breakfast. I mean cereal and toast every damn day? No!!

None of the rest of my family share this horror of eating the same thing every day. I try to enforce variety upon them, but when it comes to breakfast they know what they like and they like what they know. G and O are the worst.

G is happy to eat a bowl of oats and milk for breakfast. Not even muesli. Plain oats are fine. At least, though, he is happy to eat other things if pressed.

O is even more extreme. She has eaten one weetabix plus a handful of shreddies, followed by toast with strawberry jam, every single day since she was six months old. She will not be persuaded that anything else is acceptable for breakfast.

In the face of this conservative approach to breakfast, I make a lonely case for variety. Here is my list of good things to eat for breakfast, that are not cereal or toast:
  • American pancakes with fresh blueberries and maple syrup
  • scrambled eggs
  • stewed apple with natural yogurt
  • fresh figs, ricotta and runny honey
  • fried slices of black pudding with fried cherry tomatoes
  • a bacon sandwich
  • boiled eggs and marmite toast soldiers
  • a banana smoothie
  • porridge made with apple juice and with grated apple stirred in
  • french toast
  • a bowl of strawberries
  • half a grapefruit, sprinkled with sugar and flashed under the grill

Very occasionally I will have a bowl of cornflakes followed by some wholemeal toast with peanut butter. Just for a change.