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Sunday, 1 March 2015

Monthly musing - March 2013 - Anticipating spring

I’ve been spending time recently going through my box of seeds and – my favourite part – looking through seed catalogues to decide what I’m going to grow in my garden this year.  My husband has been muttering that the garden has looked particularly neglected this winter, and it’s true – bare branches, bare earth, no sign of any life at all apart from one or two winter-flowering shrubs and now the snowdrops, suggesting that winter may be nearly over.  I’m looking forward to the spring flowers that I know are resting just below ground level, to those flashes of brightness that catch the eye and gladden the heart.

Any gardener will tell you that winter isn’t over until the frost-risk has passed – in this part of the country it can even be as late as May – but the lighter nights and changes in the smell in the air are a sure sign that spring is definitely on it’s way.  The dog has noticed the changes too.  He spends his walks dashing into the bushes, digging at apparently nothing in the ground until he appears with something in his mouth (I don’t always look too closely at what that might be!).  We see birds with beaks full of twigs and grasses, ready to renovate or build new nests.  We’ve noticed more and more squirrels as we walk through the woods, rooting out the food that they buried in the autumn (although the dog may have got there first!).  All around us are signs of life, and it’s wonderful to see.

As much as I love the winter, I do like this time of year.  There’s a sense of anticipation that warmer weather and brighter skies are just around the corner.  I love the envelope that arrives from the seed company, full of little packets of potential.  These seeds will grow to be flowers and vegetables, a pleasure for our eyes and for our plates.   Every year is a new opportunity to start again, to review what grew well and what didn’t, and to try out new varieties of plants.  It’s an exciting time!  I find it very hard to make myself wait just another couple of weeks before starting my seed-sowing until the light is just that bit better and my seedlings will grow strong and sturdy rather than tall and leggy.  It’s hard because I’m an impatient gardener, but that’s why gardening is good for me!

In those few weeks, the first leaves on the trees will begin to blur the stark winter outlines and the whole landscape will become softer.  Winter sowings in the farmers’ fields will suddenly spring to life and almost overnight, the fields will be full of crops rather than ploughed earth.  It’s quite incredible that this is something that happens every year, and yet still has the capacity to make us stop and wonder at how nature knows it’s the right time to change the season.  Clever, eh? Welcome, spring!


Saturday, 28 February 2015

She flies through the air ...

We had a family outing with a difference today when we headed for the National Cycling Centre (also known as Manchester Velodrome) for big daughter's World Challenge sponsored abseil.  As part of her fundraising for her trip to Peru, she signed up to abseil from the roof of the Velodrome - only 130ft! - and after a few weeks of anticipation, today was the day.

It was a bit of a dim and dismal morning, but luckily she was going to be inside so it didn't matter too much what the weather did.  We've never been to the Velodrome before.  It's in an area of Manchester called Sportcity and it's fantastic that the national team trains here as it's made a huge difference to the regeneration of the area.



We made our way inside and discovered that we couldn't miss the signs to the abseil ... J


If big daughter was nervous, she was hiding it very well!  We met up with the rest of the team who were abseiling at the same time and they went through a safety briefing and strapped themselves into their harnesses and helmets.


Then they were off, climbing up and up on a walkway underneath the roof to reach the platform where they were to abseil from.


I found this picture of the Velodrome on the internet and have circled the platform - you can see that they're very high indeed!  If you look closely, you can even seen someone abseiling down, although this picture was taken on a different day.


And oblivious to all of the activity in the centre of the track were the cyclists, racing past us for lap after lap.  Their tyres were so quiet and they moved so quickly on the wooden boards - I think they were only training today but I can imagine that watching a real race here would be very exciting.


This is big daughter as she stepped over the edge and into thin air.  She's the one on the right.  It's not the best photo as the lights were very bright and I've done what I can to make it visible, but you get the general idea!


She was brilliant!  She got the hang of feeding the rope through her hands very quickly and her abseil was all over in less than five minutes.  She was very glad to get her feet on the floor again - but wanted to go up and have another go almost immediately!  I'm so pleased, and I'm bursting with pride too.  Now that she's achieved this, I know that she'll achieve anything she sets her mind to.


Small daughter was very pleased to have her sister back down on the ground too.  I think she must have been more worried about her being up in the roof than she admitted to, because she stuck to big daughter's side like glue for the rest of the time we were there.


Excitement over for the morning, big daughter realised that she was ravenously hungry (having felt sick for most of the previous couple of hours!) so we headed to her favourite eating place for some lunch.  


I've had lots of proud moments over the years with big daughter - from learning to walk to her first day at school, learning to ride a bike without stabilisers to passing her piano exams - and I know that I'm going to have many more.  This one, though, felt like a bit of a milestone.  The abseil was all big daughter's choice and although I know that there were moments of super-scariness for her today, she still got on with it and did it.  It's an important lesson for life, and I'd say she's got this one in the bag.





Friday, 27 February 2015

Liebster Award

It's been a bit of a manic week this week - the first week back after a school holiday always is, I find.  I seem to spend my time dashing about trying to catch up on things that got pushed to one side during the holidays, even though I do my best to keep on top of what's going on. 

It doesn't seem like a whole week since Jo at Angel Jem's City Cottage bestowed the Liebster Award on my little blog.  I feel very honoured, thank you Jo!  To be honest, I've shied away from this sort of thing in the past as they have seemed overly complicated in the rules and the amount of information you have to give and request of other bloggers.  A quick look at the Liebster Award rules hasn't changed my mind on this, and I will apologise in advance for providing an abbreviated version.  Life's too short for you to be endlessly reading my blog!

So without further ado, here are the answers to the questions that Jo had on her blog.  Not the same answers, of course - these are mine but they are her questions J.

1   If your house was on fire, what one thing other than family members and pets would you save?

My husband laughed when he read this and said that I'd never get the Aga through the door, but even I am sensible enough to know that trying to dismantle a hot metal box whilst my house is burning down is not a clever thing to do.  So instead, I would probably choose my old bear.  Or the family photographs.  Oh dear.  Only the first question and I'm not off to a good start!  

2   What, other than your children, is your greatest achievement?

Another one that’s not so easy to answer.  First off, I’d say it was achieving my Masters Degree in Classical Studies.  I can’t tell you how proud I was to walk across the stage at the Bridgewater Hall at my graduation to collect my degree – but then what about the person who told me that they’d finally managed to knit their first pair of socks thanks to my blog tutorial Or the mermaid book that I wrote with small daughter in mind, which is now for sale on Amazon?  Or the business I set up for myself last summer, which is helping other people to change their lives?  I’ve been lucky to be able to achieve many wonderful things.



3   What would be your dream job and is it a job you do or have done?

I think it's pretty much what I do.  I get to look after my family, run my business, help my husband run his business and write my blog.  I get to walk the dog, look after the house and garden and generally be around for my family.  As jobs go, I don't think I could get a better one.

4   What is your dream holiday destination?

I’d love to go back to Lapland.  I was lucky enough to go to the Ice Hotel in Sweden for my 40th birthday and my favourite memory is sitting on a huge mound of snow watching the Northern Lights like a green ribbon in the sky.  Magic.  Oh, it was such a beautiful place and the rooms inside the hotel with their stunning ice sculptures were really something to see.   There was a wedding in the ice chapel when we were and that was just lovely, although the bride did look a bit cold! We couldn't sleep inside the hotel when we went as small daughter was too small, so that's a good excuse to visit again.  I’d like to visit Scandinavia when it’s not snowing, too.  I’d like to see New Zealand.  I’d like to go back to Canada to spend more time with our relatives. Oh dear.  I’m not very good at picking one thing, am I? 



5    If you won the lottery, what would be the first thing you bought?

I’d pay off our mortgage.  Does that count as buying something?

6   Name your top three films of all time.

Highlander.  And as the hero of the film, Connor McLeod, says, “There can be only one”.  Ha!


7   If you could have a conversation with a famous person, dead or alive, who would it be?

My grandma.  She wrote knitting patterns for yarn companies, so in a way that was a kind of fame.  I’d ask her why she couldn’t hang around long enough to show me how she did it.  And if she was busy, I’d love to chat to Victoria Wood, because she makes me laugh.

8   What is your earliest childhood memory?

I can remember being very small and in my Dad’s arms for a photograph.  I was chewing his tie and I can still remember the taste of it.

9   What is your favourite season and why?

Winter.  Because it snows (sometimes).  You might have noticed that I quite like winter J.

10   What made you decide to start a blog?

I had been writing a “monthly musing” for the St Oswald’s church newsletter for a while and decided that I wanted to turn it into a blog, although it felt like such an arrogance – who would want to read what I was writing?  It took me quite a while to get over my self-consciousness but now, I just write.   I’d say it’s more of a self-indulgence these days!

11   What would you like the future to hold for you?

A healthy, happy family.  I want my husband’s business to flourish (as I want mine to, of course!).  I want my girls to have wonderful lives of their own one day.  I want to increase the world’s population of sock knitters, because we all need socks.

According to the rules, I need to think of some questions to pass on ... I told you there was a lot to this!

1     If you were down to your last £5.00 (or $5.00), what would you spend it on?
2    What is your favourite thing to eat?
3    What was the first film you ever watched at the pictures?
4    If your house was on fire, what one thing other than family members and pets would you save?
5    What, other than your children, is your greatest achievement?
6    What did you want to be when you grew up?
7    What word would other people use to describe you?
8    How many WIPs do you have at the moment?
9    What is your favourite yarn?
10  What tool could you not do without?
11   What was the last magazine you bought?

Phew!  That took some thinking about!  Now, passing the award on … it could be seen as an honour or a burden and I have no wish to put anybody on the spot.  So here goes with just six blogs that I'm enjoying reading at the moment, but the award is also given to anyone else who feels they would like to answer the questions!

Lilly My Cat
Fiddly Fingers
Jan Ramblings
A Colourful Life
Button Tree Crafts
Planet Penny

To keep up with the theme of finding new blogs to read, this is my post for Planet Penny's Happy Friday where there are lots of lovely blogs to discover!












Sunday, 22 February 2015

Half term part two

The rest of this week seems to have been a bit of a busy blur.

We have continued the painting theme, and big daughter's bedroom is now this rather lovely shade of purple.  It's called Allium Flower and although the alliums in my garden aren't quite that colour, it's an excellent purple for a bedroom.


We went to IKEA to pick up bedroom supplies including the bed and mattress which, quite amazingly, fitted into the car - although there wasn't an awful lot of room for small daughter to move.  In hindsight it was a mistake to go at lunchtime during a half term holiday (especially when we live close enough to go when it's less busy) but I'd promised to buy meatballs for lunch so there was nothing for it but to join the queue!


I finally got round to doing my seed order and remembered that I'd packed away a few packets of seeds from other years, so I rooted them out.  A few packets!  I appear to have a bit of a seed stash going on here.  


Small daughter challenged my husband to a games afternoon.  They started with chess, which small daughter is actually quite good at playing.  My husband only taught her to play a short while ago but she's got a good grasp of how the pieces move and I can see that it won't be long before he's got a real battle on his hands!


Then they moved onto table (or rug!) football which was a much more lively affair and seemed to involve a lot of shrieking and giggling and (dare I say it) cheating J.


Big daughter, meanwhile, had discovered that there weren't any chocolate digestives left so she decided to make her own.


And to round the holiday off, small daughter came out with me on a group dog walk this morning. We'd arranged to go back to the same beach at Formby that we went to just after Christmas, but further down the coast.  The last time we went it was a cold but sunny day.  Today, it was cold and not sunny.  In fact, it was Cold with a capital C, and very wet.  


The beach was pretty much empty apart from another large group of dog walkers, so at one point it seemed like the place was full of dogs and it was hard to tell whose was whose!  Once we had passed them, though, we had the whole windswept beach to ourselves.  Not even the seagulls were daft enough to be out today.  


Small daughter had a lovely time running up and down the sand dunes.  She thought it was very funny that the dog kept beating her up to the top, but that will be down to his four-leg-drive!


Luckily, the dog decided that the waves were a bit too cold for him today so he didn't end up quite as wet as he usually does.  It also meant that he didn't try to drink the water either, which always ends up as a messy experience!


As we made our way off the beach and turned for home, we passed through this group of trees. Small daughter declared them to be "spooky trees" and hurried through them as quickly as she could.  


Back at the car park, we were very glad of the hot chocolate that one of the ladies in our group had thoughtfully packed for us.  Small daughter drank hers in the car, wrapped up in a blanket and slowly thawing out whilst the rest of us stood and chatted in the rain.  It must be something about owning a dog!

And that's it.  Half term is over and tomorrow we're back to school runs and after-school clubs until the next break at Easter.  I've got mixed feelings about it - I'll miss the house being full tomorrow, but at the same time I'm looking forward to getting back to our usual routine.  If it's been half term where you are then I hope you've had a lovely break!


Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Half term part one

Half term.  It's such a relief not to have to get up early to get ready for school and college, and the daily commute is now down to the kitchen for breakfast rather than onto the busy roads to school.  There's something so delicious about knowing that it's seven thirty, you're still in bed and you're not late!

I've had time this week to make my sourdough loaf.  I've had a few disasters recently; whether the flour is a bit old, the starter isn't right or it's something else that's changed I'm not sure but I was pleased with this loaf.  I made a new starter using this recipe and it's worked really well.


Our plan this week is to re-decorate big daughter's bedroom.  She asked if she could have a new bed for Christmas (I don't know whether I'm sad that she's grown out of asking for toys or happy that she sees a new bed as something of a gift!) and as her bedroom walls are marked with blu-tack stains where pictures and photos have been taken up and down over the years, we felt that a paint makeover was also required.

Small daughter is desperate to get involved with the painting.  She's had a turn at painting the ceiling and then I turned her attention to some painting that was required outside.  About ten years ago, I made these wooden pencils (or perhaps more properly, crayons) to act as a screen for what was, at the time, big daughter's "secret" play area.  She had a sand pit and a trampoline at the bottom of the garden, and one birthday we bought her a "Wendy shed" to play in (now full of spiders and forgotten relics of games once played - I really must put it on my de-cluttering list!). Time passed, and the pencils are now badly in need of renovation.  Most of them have rotted at the bottom and fallen down, and my husband's muttering about it all has got louder.  It is definitely time to do something about them.


Small daughter and I set to work.  I've considered a few options - getting rid of the pencils altogether, buying new wood and starting again, or renovating what we have.  In the end, I have opted for renovating the ones that we have.  I cut the worst of the rot off the ends and made them all the same length again.  Some of them still aren't in great shape but they should be fine for another few years until I decide whether I still want them in the garden or not.


Small daughter got busy with the paint brush.  In hindsight, tying her hair back would have been a good idea as she ended up with quite a lot of paint in it, and both she and the dog ended up with paint in their ears.  The dog I can understand, as his ears are long and floppy, but small daughter?!

We used tester pots of paint in lovely bright primary colours.  In fact, they're nicer than the colours I used originally, so I'm very pleased with how they turned out.  


Luckily, we had just finished when small daughter announced that her fingers had turned to blocks of ice, and big daughter announced from the doorway that she had been making pancakes and they were ready.  Talk about good timing!  We left our pencils stacked up to dry and another day I'll start to dig out the trench where they're going to go.  It's a good opportunity for me to review the border that they're in as the plants in there have grown considerably since I first put the pencils in.


A quick hand-wash and into the kitchen to try out big daughter's pancakes.  They were really good! I think she can be our Official Pancake Maker from now on.  It doesn't seem like a year since we made these pancakes, and big daughter is now much more confident in the kitchen and happy to try out recipes on her own.


 So far, it's been a good week and we're only half-way through.  Not too rushed but not too lazy either.  More decorating planned for today, and a few treats lined up for later in the week.  Lovely! 





Friday, 13 February 2015

Aga love

We had our Aga serviced this week, which meant that it was a convenient time to give it a good scrub and take some pictures.  Because it's on all the time, it's not always easy to get in and give it a really good clean, especially around the hotplates, so I enjoy the opportunity to get rid of all the accumulated muck and make it shine when I can.  There's usually a large dog snoring on his bed in front of it, but he took himself off in disgust because it was cold.  

This is my Aga.  It's a two-oven Aga and the colour is Wedgwood Blue.  I love it.  I absolutely love it.  I've wanted an Aga from being about sixteen when I was on a very wet holiday and the owners of the house we were staying at dried all our clothes and boots overnight on their Aga.  Oh, the joy of putting warm clothes on the next morning!  I was sold, and promised myself that one day I would have an Aga in my kitchen.  My husband says that I would leave him before I left my Aga and although that's not true, I would be very sad to have to cook on anything else now.  


Agas were developed in the early 1920s by the blind Swedish Nobel prize-winning physicist, Gustav Dalen, who wanted to find a way to make it easier for his wife to cook.  It works on the principles of heat storage.  The frame of the Aga is enamelled cast iron which absorbs the heat from a constant low-burning heat source which can be fired by oil, gas or electricity.  Ours is oil-fired and stays on all the time - some people like to turn theirs off during the summer months but we don't have another way of cooking so ours stays on.  If you look at the picture above, it looks as if we have three ovens, but the door on the left is the burner and the two doors on the right are the ovens.  

This is what's inside the burner door.  The oil comes in through a small pipe to the burner in the centre which is constantly burning.  The temperature is regulated by the thermostat dial that you can see in the bottom left hand corner.  There are still solid-fuel Agas around which don't have the thermostat dial and need to have the heat manually maintained, but having the thermostat does make life a lot easier!  This burner is the part that needs servicing as the oil turns to coke in the pipe after a while and it gets blocked.  I always know when my Aga needs servicing because it turns itself off - not always very helpful if I'm not expecting it!  Luckily, we've got a great engineer who can usually get out to me quite quickly.  I bought a pressure cooker a few years ago for just these occasions so we will have casseroles and soups for the day or two before the Aga is turned on again.


Once the Aga is cold, it's easy to get in and give it a scrub.  As you can imagine, no matter how careful you are at wiping up spills, there is still grease that gets baked onto the enamel, and the inside of the doors are usually in need of a clean as well.  The doors come right off which makes it so much easier to get around the edges.  Because it's only grease, I use washing up liquid and a sponge scourer and they're shiny again in no time.


This is what I use on the rest of the enamel: Astonish paste and this nifty little scraper which removes the burnt-on grease without scratching.  I wasn't convinced about it at first, but once a lady at an Aga shop showed it to me and I realised it wasn't going to damage my beloved Aga, I found that it did indeed make light work of the cleaning!


Cleaning the lids is my favourite part because they come up so beautifully shiny.  They're made of stainless steel so I just use a damp soapy cloth to clean them.  For day-to-day use, I have towelling pads which sit on the lids to help keep the heat in and also to stop them getting scratched.


The left hand hotplate is called the boiling plate.  It's right above the burner so it's the hottest part of the Aga.  It brings pans and kettles to the boil very quickly and makes fabulous toast.  The right hand hotplate is called the simmering plate.  It's cooler than the boiling plate and ideal heat for making Scotch pancakes.  I have a piece of non-stick parchment called Bake-o-glide which is cut to the right shape for various Aga tins including the simmering plate.  This means that I can cook straight onto the hotplate without worrying about the mess.  It's brilliant for frying eggs without any fat - we call them flat eggs because they're not actually fried at all!


The two ovens are both the same size.  The heat range goes from grilling heat at the top of the top (roasting) oven to cool enough to cook meringues at the bottom of the bottom (simmering) oven. To get the temperature that you need, you simply move the grid shelves up and down on the runners that you can see along the side of the oven.  It's a different way of cooking but is fine once you get used to it.  I still get it wrong sometimes, even after all the years I've been using my Aga!   The temperature of the ovens can vary as well, especially if you've had the hotplate lids open for a while as the Aga loses a lot of heat from the hotplates.  If I'm cooking vegetables, I bring them to the boil on the boiling plate and then put the pan into the oven to conserve the heat.  The oven goes about about 50cm so you can put a few pans in there - Aga even sell pans which have the handle set down into the lid so that you can stack them and save even more space.

The best thing about the ovens is that you never need to clean them.  As they're constantly hot, anything that gets spilt in there is quickly incinerated - the ultimate in self-cleaning ovens!


I mentioned that Agas can lose heat which will affect where you might position your grid shelves. This is the thermometer which tells you how the heat is doing.  You can't see so well in this picture, but it's a mercury thermometer and the ideal is for the mercury to sit on that black line in the white section.  Once you've been cooking with an Aga for a while, it's quite easy to gauge how well your oven is performing and whether you need to adjust the cooking time.  Once you've set the thermostat, the mercury will always return to the temperature that you've set - unless there's a problem or the Aga needs a service.


And that's about it!  There really isn't very much to an Aga; it's a very simple principle and works very effectively.  Once the engineer's been, it takes about five hours for the Aga to get back up to temperature and for life to get back to normal again.  The dog is very pleased to have his bed back in his cosy spot and the whole house feels warmer, even though the Aga doesn't affect the heating.  

Fancy a brew, anyone?



It's Friday so of course I'm joining in with Planet Penny's Happy Friday.  Does my Aga make me happy?  Just a little bit J.





Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Soup night - courgette and Brie

It's Tuesday and after last week's departure from soup to a bean casserole, we're back on the soup again.  

Tonight, it's courgette and Brie, a recipe which I originally found in my Covent Garden soup book but as usual am too lazy busy to follow exactly so have adapted to my throw-it-all-in-the-pot style. Improv cooking at it's best!


Small daughter absolutely loves this soup, it's a close second to leek and potato for her.  I have to say that I was a bit surprised that she took to it the way that she did when I first made it - I expected a bit more resistance to a soup other than leek and potato - but it's a pleasant green colour, slightly creamy from the Brie and is actually just a very nice soup so there's nothing for her not to like!

Fancy having a go yourself?  Like the leek and potato soup I showed you a couple of weeks ago, there's not a lot to it.

You will need:

Courgettes - about three medium-sized 
Potatoes - two to three medium-sized depending on how thick you like your soup
Brie - I put in about a 3oz piece
Stock cube
About a litre of water
Salt, pepper, herbs to taste

Large pan to cook it all in
Blender or hand blender if you prefer smooth soup


Rinse the courgettes, remove the top and bottom, then chop roughly into rings.  (If you're not going to blend your soup then you might want to take a little more care over this bit, but as I blitz it all then I don't worry too much about the size.)  Add to the pan.  I'm using my usual Portmeirion casserole but you can use any large pan.

Next peel the potatoes, chop into chunks and add to the courgettes in the pan.  Potatoes are wonderful for thickening soup, so depending on how thick you like your soup to be, you will add more or less potato.

Cut the Brie into smaller pieces and add that too.  Finally, add the stock cube, water and seasoning.  I use about a teaspoon of dried mixed herbs at this time of year.


Put on the pan on the stove and bring to the boil.  At this point, I put my pan in the bottom (simmering) oven of my Aga and it will sit there until I'm ready to put the soup in the blender. You can get the same effect from a conventional oven on a very low light (ideal if you're out at work all day) or in a slow cooker.  You only need to cook the vegetables until they're soft so even if you're in a bit of a hurry, it will only take about 20 minutes to make your soup if you don't have time to leave the pan.

Once the vegetables are cooked, transfer the contents of the pan to a blender (or use a hand blender in the pan) and blitz it until it's smooth.  This soup is better blended, in my opinion, because as you can see, the Brie doesn't melt completely and blending it will make sure that no one gets a spoonful of Brie rind!  If the soup is too thick, add more water.  If it's thinner than you'd like you can thicken it up with cornflour.  Taste for seasoning.


I like to serve the soup with bread still warm from the bread maker (another wonderful time-saving device!).  Recently, I've had to make extra soup as big daughter has started taking it to college with her in a flask for her lunch.  It does mean that I'm having to fight people away from the pan though - too many platefuls of "seconds" and she'll be going hungry!