Saturday 29 August 2009

Chicken politics

The night before the new ones arrived I had a dream that all my chickens turned into swans and turkeys and started beating the crap out of each other in the back garden.

Maybe I was anxious about introducing two little teenage hens into my flock of grand old dames.

But look at them - they are so sweet!

What could possibly go wrong?

Thursday 27 August 2009

Busy, busy

You might not see me around here for a while.

The children picked so many plums and strawberries today...

...and I bought so much jam sugar...

...that I'm going to be kept busy for a very long time.

Sunday 23 August 2009

Sewing presents

Last week I made a cushion for my Mum, for her birthday which was yesterday. I loved making this. I knew I wanted to do something with this lace and linen doily I bought when I was with Mum at a vide grenier in France.

Once I had washed and pressed it, the doily looked so sunny and appealing that I abandoned my vague plans to embellish it and instead I used it as a sun on the front of the cushion cover. I made some yo-yos for flowers and did my embroidery around those instead.

I am so pleased with how the cushion turned out. It became one of those lovely sewing projects that ends up EXACTLY as you planned it. The cushion back is made using the very simple envelope method that Ruth Singer describes in Sew It Up.

I also made both Ma and me a needle case for our dpns. I was inspired by this Cath Kidston knitting needle roll that I was given for Christmas. I love the Cath Kidston roll for my full size needles, but the slim dpns get lost in it. So I worked out the size of needle roll I needed for my dpns and set about making one, and then a second one.

This is how they ended up. I'm pretty pleased with them!

I topstitched the pocket panel onto the backing panel, but I think next time I would try to sew all the layers together inside out and then turn it. My machine is getting old though, and is not great at going through multiple layers.

And now I'm turning my attention back to knitting for a few weeks as I try to get a little present finished for a new nephew who is due to be born at the end of September.

Monday 17 August 2009

Walking to the station - Monday morning

Walking to the tube station, by myself, at about 8 o'clock on a Monday morning I think of how for well over a hundred years commuters just like me have left these Victorian terraced houses and walked to the tube station every morning to catch their train to work.

  • A neighbour, further up the street, is standing with the builders who are putting a new roof on his house this summer. The neighbour and both the builders are all howling with laughter, bent double and clutching at each other for support.
  • A black cat is stretched out, soaking up the early morning sun, in the middle of a catmint bush.
  • A man wearing a backpack swings out of his gate, loudly munching an apple. He strides purposefully up the road, and pulls a second apple out of his pocket when he’s finished the first.
  • At the greengrocers a woman with a very shiny purple handbag is buying a banana and a packet of sesame snaps
  • As I get closer to the station more people are walking in front of me and behind me. We are like a procession of worker ants.
  • The schools I walk past have an air of dusty neglect. Their playground gates are fastened with chunky chain locks.
  • The flowers on the railings outside the tube are vivid and lush in the sunshine.
  • Monday morning has an air of perkiness and ironed shirts about it that very much pleases me.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Kew Gardens and science experiments

Now we are back from our holidays, G is doing a great deal of training for his half-ironman race in September. This mainly involves getting up well before 6am on Saturdays and Sundays and going on a three to four hour bike ride out into Essex, then coming home and heading out for a run or a swim in Victoria Park. The rest of the day is then spent eating bananas and dozing under a quilt.

So I've been thinking of good lone-parent things for me to do with the children while G is training or asleep. This week I asked C and O what they would like to do at the weekend. I vetoed a request to go to Kidspace in Romford (look at the link and you will understand why) and then a plea for an all day Wii tournament.

Once C and O realised that the phrase 'anything you like' should actually be 'anything you like that Mum will like too' they came up with two great suggestions that really surprised me.

C wanted to go to Kew Gardens for the day and O wanted to spend a morning doing science experiments.

Despite being over the far side of London, we go to Kew fairly often. I love Kew but assumed that the children merely endured it. I was so pleased to find out that I was wrong!

We saw:
  • beautiful, waxy waterlillies
  • a flowerbed full of pineapples
  • and a very self-satisfied peacock.

We took crayons and sketchbooks along and were pleased to find we had vivid enough colours to do the peacock justice.

And a visit to Kew proved even more alluring for G than a 90km bike ride. He postponed his training for a day and came along too!

This morning we woke up to find G and his bike long gone. After breakfast we settled down to some science experiments. We had chosen three to do:
  • A citrus fruit will float with its skin on, but sink when peeled. Is this true?
  • Turning milk into plastic (an experiment suggested in this excellent book)
  • Baking a cake using condensed tomato soup (an appalling suggestion from the 2008 Blue Peter annual, that C and O BEGGED me to do).
We did the citrus fruit experiment with a grapefruit and a lemon. Both floated very happily with their skin on and sunk immediately when they were peeled.

And what are you going to do with a peeled grapefruit and lemon other than eat them?

C and O both love eating anything really sour - they will eat segments of raw lemons with lip smacking enthusiasm. I can hardly bear to watch - ack!

The turning milk into plastic experiment was more dramatic. This is what we did.

  • We heated up half a jam-jar full of milk in a small pan until warm (not boiling).
  • Next we added 2 tablespoons of vinegar to the warm milk. Cue loud howls about the disgusting smell!
  • Then we strained the curdled milk through the foot of an old pair of tights suspended over the jam jar for ten minutes. We were left with lumpy bits of rubber-like resin. It felt a bit like playdough.
  • We pressed the rubbery stuff into a cookie cutter, then un-molded it and left it to dry out on the windowsill.

It looks a bit like raw Wensleydale cheese but it doesn't smell. The book says after two days it will have hardened into plastic. I am thinking we should have compressed it a bit more - it still seems quite crumbly. When it is dry, this plastic will be casein, which knitting needles are sometimes made of. Very cool.

And then the cake. C was my chief helper for this one. O said she thought the whole idea was "completely gross" and went off to build a playmobil world for her Sylvanians.

Once C and I started mixing the ingredients we were inclined to agree with her. The cake mix smelt utterly disgusting and was a very unappealing orange colour.

It was your basic cake recipe: cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs, add flour and baking powder, mixed spice and raisins. Spoon into tin and bake. But we also had to put a whole can of condensed tomato soup in with the eggs. Ugh ugh ugh. The smell! The orangeness!

C remarked that this was no longer a science experiment but a religious one. If this cake turned out to be edible it would be a miracle.

We baked the cake, and amazingly after about 20 minutes in the oven the kitchen started to smell rather good. When we took the cake out of the oven it had lost its alarming orangeness and was a dark brown - like a chocolate cake.

We ate some (rather nervously) for lunch, and incredibly it tasted really rather good. O was not a fan, but she admitted that was because the whole concept of a cake made from soup was not really doing it for her. C on the other hand liked it so much he had a second slice!

We are going to give G a slice when he gets home, later this afternoon...will he guess what the secret ingredient is?

Thursday 13 August 2009


Good things to do with a large punnet of blackberries picked in Epping Forest:

  • Blackberry and apple crumble
  • Scones, clotted cream and squished blackberries
  • See how purple you can make your fingers....
  • Blackberry and apple puree, with a teeny dash of cinnamon, spooned over vanilla ice cream
  • Anna's famous blackberry jam
  • Blackberry porridge, made with apple juice in place of the milk
  • Or - just pick them off the brambles and eat them in the sunshine!


As well as banner success - mosaics are definitely the way to go - I have also put some pdfs onto the blog for you to download. Go and have a rummage over on the right hand side. So far there is the camping checklist from my very first blog post plus a list of books for 6-8 year olds that my children have enjoyed. More downloadable lists coming very soon!

Sunday 9 August 2009

Post-holiday sewing projects and You need this cake book

I took knitting rather than sewing on holiday with me. If I had been travelling by car I probably would have taken the quilt which needs quilting, but there was no room for such nonsense on the train. So I brought along a squishy bag full of Debbie Bliss baby cashmerino yarn and carried on knitting 10cm squares for a blanket that will probably not be finished until after the London Olympics have been and gone.

And I came home yearning to sew something. I had bought two kits from Clothkits in their summer sale - the chicken and fox tote bag, and the 1970s cropped cotton trousers.

Yesterday I made the bag.

The kit was for a bag and a purse, but I wanted my bag to have a pocket so I turned the purse pieces into a roomy, divided pocket. I also had some bag clips from u-handbag, so added a bag strap and clip, using the polka dot ribbon that the kit came wrapped up in.

The kit was very straightforward and quick. My only grumble is that the instructions said to make the bag liner with a much bigger seam allowance than the outer bag, which meant that when I came to put the bag together the liner was too small and I had to unpick the seams and re-stitch it with the same seam allowance as the outer bag. But that wasn't the end of the world. I am very pleased with how it has turned out.

The pieces for the trousers are now cut out and with luck I can sew them up this week. I love the acid green colours!

When I was in France I found these pieces of vintage linen at a local 'vide grenier' (sort of a cross between a car boot sale and an antiques sale). I have a handmade linen doily (which cost me the princely sum of €1), six huge, striped linen napkins and a baby's blouse.

I'm still not sure what to do with the napkins. Perhaps they should remain napkins? But the doily and probably the baby's shirt are going to be made into something for my Mum's birthday later this month.

The other thing I came back from holiday with (and I left other books behind in order to fit it in my suitcase...) was a late birthday present from my parents: Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache by Harry Eastwood.

I had never heard of this woman before, but she did a TV show here last year I think. This book is a baking book full of recipes for cake and jam. And the completely odd thing is that all her cakes are full of grated vegetables, and most of them contain no butter and very little sugar. They are healthy cakes!

It sounds strange, but I suppose is a natural progression from carrot cake. There is a victoria sponge cake with potato in it, a cherry cake wth parsnip in it and elderflower buns with courgette in them. The vegetables add texture, moistness and sweetness to replace the butter and sugar.

I tried the double chocolate cupcakes first. They have no butter in them but a huge pile of grated carrot. And they taste AMAZING! I didn't ice them, so they are probably the most virtuous cakes I have ever made. Nobody here guessed they had vegetables instead of butter in them; they taste really rather rich in fact.

And even better, for anyone with a gluten intolerance, all of the recipes use rice flour rather than wheat flour. I haven't got hold of any rice flour yet, so I substituted plain flour (which you can do with all the cakes) but I am keen to try the rice flour and see how it affects the texture and the rise.

I do want to make absolutely everything in this book. The photography is stunning and just makes me want to grab my grater and a glut of vegetables from the fridge and start cooking! The children are particularly excited because they are thoroughly sick of courgettes by this time of the year and would love it if I made cakes with them rather than pasta sauce.

If anyone else has this book, I'd love to hear what you think of it. It was only published in mid-July so I'm not sure if it's all over the shops yet, but Amazon stock it and it already has 13 good reviews. Healthy cakes. Really!

Saturday 8 August 2009

France and What would Michael do?

Well, I have loved this voting lark!

As I suspected everyone voted for different things - the travellers wanted to hear about France, the chefs wanted to hear about the cake book, the people related to Michaels want to find out about the Michael story, and the crafty types want to hear about sewing.

But I think the greedy readers who want to hear about everything shall be declared the winners! France and Michael first, then sewing and cakes.

We went to Paris for a week and then on to South-West France, where my parents live, for a second week.

I was good at French when I was a teenager and I visited Paris a great deal on exchanges and school trips. In my twenties I worked there for a little bit too, and when G and I were newly going out together he used to catch the Eurostar on a Friday night and come and stay with me for the weekend. Pure romance. We love Paris. If I didn't live in London I would live in Paris.

The children had never been there before and had come up with a good list of everything they wanted to do:
  • see the Eiffel Tower
  • go on the Metro
  • visit the Louvre and find the Mona Lisa
  • eat lots of pains au chocolats and drink Orangina
  • go to Disneyland

G and I had lists of our own, which looked a bit like this:

  • walk up to Sacre Coeur and drink in the view
  • sit in a cafe and people watch
  • go to Parc de la Villette and the Cite des Sciences
  • stroll through parks
  • eat amazing food and drink fabulous wine
  • go to the Musee d'Orsay and look at everything
  • buy French stationery
  • prowl around bookshops and look intellectual

G, outside a cafe, practising his French shrugs.

We were there for six days and we managed to do everything on everybody's list, plus several other impromptu things. Disneyland was horrible but everything else was magical.

By the time we got on the train to head south we were shattered!

C on our last day in Paris, waiting for a metro. Just look at those bags under his eyes!

Our second week, in the South West, was a complete contrast. We did almost nothing. I don't think I've ever had such an idle holiday. The peak daytime temperatures didn't drop below 35 degrees the whole time we were there, but despite my hatred of hot weather I had a fantastic time.

In the cool of the early mornings and late evenings I sat outside knitting, or reading, or chatting with my parents. In the middle of the day we played our favourite board game in the cool thick-walled house, and read, knitted or chatted. In the late afternoon everyone went for a long swim in the pool and I sat on the edge, knitting, reading and chatting (I hate swimming). Occasionally we ventured out to the croissant shop or a market or a restaurant, but not in a terribly energetic way.

During our week of extreme idleness G and I had plenty of time to admire my father, Michael's, approach to house and garden maintenance. In a very old, rambling, rural house with a large, lush garden there is a never-ending stream of tasks to be done.
  • cutting the grass
  • keeping the fridge stocked with wine
  • putting new tea lights in the lanterns each day
  • testing the pH of the swimming pool
  • fixing a new hosepipe with connectors
  • treating the centuries-old beams for munching beatles
  • bringing in the chair cushions every single evening without fail
  • mopping up spills and croissant crumbs so that the ants don't take up residence
Happily my father is not a martyr to these many jobs. He is great company and likes nothing better than to drink a glass or two of wine and chat with family and friends long into the evening. But nevertheless, everything that needs to be done to keep the house a delightful place to live, gets done.

A baby lizard rescued from the perfectly pH balanced swimming pool.

The best illustration is the old wooden, homemade stool that Dad picked up for €2 at a second hand fair. G or I might have bought the stool and then would have taken it home and put it into use straightaway in the front room or a bedroom, marvelling at the bargain. But Dad bought the stool and when he got it home took the time to treat it with two different types of wood preserver and was so that it shone like a new conker and would not stain. There is a thoroughness in the pottering sort of tasks he does which makes their house such a wonderful place to live.

So G and I came home with a new phrase which we have been asking each other ever since. "What would Michael do?"

Well, he wouldn't leave half-unpacked bags lying around our bedroom for days. Nor would he leave the kitchen floor unwashed or six-month old cobwebs up at the top of the windows. He would sweep up the mess in the yard left by the nesting birds and he would wind a little bit more of the flourishing clematis around the trellis every single day. All those little things have been uncharacteristically done on time this week after one of us muttered "what would Michael do?".

Mind you, we still haven't fixed the door knobs that have been broken since before O was born (yes, really; seven years). This meticulous attention to detail does not seem to come naturally to us. But we are trying.
And I'm sure that my father is delighted that after thirty-seven years I have finally understood that a little bit of care and attention to the more mundane of life's tasks is well worth it. He's probably been trying to tell me this piece of wisdom for years, but you know what children are like. They never listen.

Dad sawing a branch for C to make a wasp trap