Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Europe, Gardening and The Shed

It's been a busy few weeks with lots of work travel to Holland, Germany and Holland again during their World Cup win over Australia. The cheering as each goal was scored was something powerful!

The times in between have been filled with gardening, nourishing our first plants as if they are new borns and taking personal pride in each days additional growth. We're experimenting this year with brussel sprouts, sweet corn, beet root, potatoes in bags, leeks, mangetout, lettuces, herbs, spinach, garlic and french beans. We've been in the middle of a heat wave with very little rain for the past two weeks and lovely burning hot days which make the garden a great escape from the office.
Our first harvest has been the garlic, planted at mid winter last year and pulled today, just after mid summer. It's drying in the sunshine as I type and my plan is to weave the long fronds into one of those pleated things you see women sitting making by the side of the roads in summer in France so we can have our own garlic string in the kitchen.
And most excitingly, we took delivery of a new shed....
This is something we have been talking about and planning for, for over 4 years as part of our "where will we put everything if I move in" dilemma. So now, finally, we have gone a long way to solving that problem and giving us more space in the house. It's also the last of the really big jobs we wanted to tackle this year. The chimneys have also been repaired and had little pots put on them to stop birds nesting where they shouldn't and been swept for the first time in some years. So were optimistic we won't smoke ourselves out when we're relying on the log burner this winter :)
With the help of some friends, some kind weather, lots of drills, beer and a bit of swearing the job was done.
On the creative side, it's mostly been about playing with nail art. I've really taken to this after being shown the techniques by a friend who invited some of the girlie crew over one Saturday for lunch and varnish. Life is too short for boring nails and if you don't like it, you just scrub it off. Easier than tattoos I presume. I don't have any but I think changing them is far more troublesome.
My preference is for subtle rather than bold colours although it was fun to play with the samples above. I like the dotty flowers you can make (a cocktail stick dipped in varnish does the trick). Put on a base coat and dip dip dot in the colours you have lying around. Fun and cheap!










Dancing with Diggers in Deutschland

Strange sights in Germany where I'm working this week. On my way back to my hotel this evening I saw a large crowd gathered and heard loud opera music playing. There was an earth mover with a bucket on the end of its arm and a man dangling from it. As I watched, the arm lifted, taking the man with it, spinning round above the crowd in time to the music. The man started weaving in and out of the bucket, again in time to the music. Man and machine were dancing together.
Once I was able to suspend disbelief and soak up the music and atmosphere this was surprisingly moving! In those moments there was an emotional relationship between the digger and the dancer who caressed the metal and slid around the mechanism in a loving way.
All of this was done with no safety harness but there were two ambulances standing by! Then something distracted my involvement in the dance and all I saw was a man and a digger again but as the performance drew to a close I joined the crowd and clapped and cheered the strangeness and audacity of the piece. The driver of the digger emerged from the cabin and both he and the dancer took several bows and were even presented with red roses.
In other German news...I have never woken up in a hotel bed thinking "what a lovely duvet." It's not something I've ever got giddy about. A duvet is a functional thing and that's that. Oh how little I knew back then before I discovered the world of Really, Really Splendid Duvets! Something else I've never done in a hotel room is remove the cover from a duvet to see if there's a label to tell me the brand of the duvet contained. Until now.
See the pretty label? A quick search on Das Internet taught me that this is a very special Bavarian made duvet and they cost more than I thought you could spend on a duvet. What's so special about them? Well, they are feather light and drape over you gently and feel amazingly soft. They keep you warm but not too warm and cool but not cold. This my friends is the Goldilocks of duvets and I have duvet lust.
Will I buy one? Hmmm, difficult to justify the expense. Will I turn criminal and steal mine from the hotel? If only I had any space in my suitcase! But it's full so I shall just return home with my duvet lust.

Monday, 21 April 2014

How We Camp

I suppose you either love camping or hate it.  I was first introduced to it by Himself a few years ago.  We slept on thin bed rolls, cooked kneeling down over a little gas stove and listened to the sound of the wind and rain outside pounding the tent.   I should have hated it but there's something liberating about being outside in the elements overdosing on fresh air which I can't explain and now we camp as many times in a year as we can.
Things have progressed since that first soggy trip.  Now we have electric hook up and a small heater which means we can start camping around Easter and keep going till Sept.  We have 3 tents. The one below is a very splendid Outwell Bear Lake 4 for family trips.  It's heavy, being poly cotton, but stands up to all types of weather, keeps us cool in the sun and warm in the cold, has any number of variations for windows, mesh screens and entrances and is very comfortable for all of us for a couple of weeks. 
Two years ago, Himself and I decided we wanted a touring tent just for us with room to stand up and a separate bedroom area.  So we have a Coleman Instant 4 which pops up in 2 mins, has good head height (I can't reach the top) and has provided shelter for some fellow campers who got caught in a massive rainstorm and needed rescue. 
We bought a carpet with the Bear Lake tent and we adapt it (ie fold it!) to fit each tent and this makes a big difference to how comfortable the tent is.  It's an extra layer protecting you from the ground if it's cold and makes the tent feel a bit luxurious.  I don't like walking on cold plastic!

Finally we have my favourite because it was our first joint tental purchase, a Coleman Celsius Duo. It's lightweight, easy to put up (only 3 spring loaded poles) and versatile for touring.  We've pitched it half way up a Swiss alp, cooked scrambled eggs in it in Luxembourg and sheltered snugly inside while monsoon rains poured on us in Belgium.  You can't stand up in it and it's really only good for 2 people but I love it!  And to prove you don't need a big car for the kit I've described, next to the neat green Celsius Duo is my little Renault Clio we used for several years of buzzing around Europe. 
Other improvements which make camping a pleasure rather than a pain include an aero bed which is a comfortable as our bed at home and lifts you a good way off the ground, a double sleeping bag, normal pillows AND a cheapie duvet.  That duvet can make a big difference on chilly nights at the extremes of the seasons.  
We use a big cool box which works as a general food store, freezer box and table.
We take an electric lamp and cook with a single electric ring and a Foreman grill which is neat enough to pack away easily and means we can have sausages, burgers and toasties!
Altogether we fill perhaps half the boot of our (current) car which leaves ample room if we want to take walking boots or surf boards and wet suits.  And we do it all because it means we can spend more time enjoying this...

Saturday, 8 March 2014

A Baking Saturday

It's been a weekend of baking!  It started with a first attempt at a Zendala which is a fusion of Zentangle patterns and mandalas.  What doesn't show up so well in the picture is the light glitter from the gell roll pens I used to give the whole thing some colour.  I like the usual black and white but wanted to jolly this one up a bit.  Because it's spring :) Nearly.
Then I tried this.  It's another recipe from one of the birthday gift baking books and it's made with WINE.  Quite a lot of wine :).  The basic cake was easy to make and the scent of ground cardamoms, lemons, oranges and wine wafting from the oven was very lovely.  The recipe then calls for a syrup to be made and drizzled over the cake to be absorbed but this didn't work.  In fact I think it spoiled what had been a real winner.
That didn't stop the cake being devoured.  While it was still warm this Bad Thing happened!  If you want to try, it's from the Hairy Bikers Big Book of Baking and (without the syrup) is bloomin' lovely.  I predict this will be taken to many girlfriends houses, nom nom.
The bread experiments continued too as I had another go at using the banneton.  I make this bread differently each time, mixing recipes, techniques and rise times.  This is what I took out of the fridge this morning.  This beastie had been in its basket in the fridge overnight, quietly rising.
And this splat is what it looked like after I'd turning it out of its basket.  I added the slashes to the top and put it into a hot oven immediately.  That's where I went wrong.  I should have given the splat an extra hour rise again and look like a proper loaf but I forgot. 
Then I waited.  Did you know bread "sings"?  When loaves are taken out of the oven, if they have a good crust as it cools down it makes little splitty, cracky, creaky sounds.  This is called singing.

And this one sang it's head off.  And despite being denied its full rising time, tasted gorgeous.  This is becoming my favourite part of the weekend, when I wake up early and sneak downstairs to bake the bread during the quiet, still time of the morning, snuggled up in big goonie working my way through a pot of coffee, listening to my bread singing and waiting for the rest of the house to wake up.
We decided we needed some muffins for after lunch.  Acting on the boys advice, I adapted the thermomix recipe I posted a couple of weeks ago and made a marshmallow and choc chip version.  I've made this basic recipe many times now and these can be knocked together and put in the oven within 15 mins so it's super quick.  There weren't many left to take a picture of so they all got pushed together to look like lots.
There are soooo many recipes to be tried and eaten.  All my recipe books have bits of paper hanging out of them where ideas have been marked, ready to be tested "when there's time"  but I'm realising that special time is never going to magically appear so I'd better just get on with it.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Fougasse Night!

There is something wrong with our TV.  It has football on it.  So I spent a lovely time having a go at one of the recipes in my new bread book. It's "Dough" by Richard Bertinet who has his bakery and runs classes in nearby Bath.

Here's the recipe.  In the opening pages he describes (with pics) how to slap and thump the basic dough.  There's also a very useful DVD with the book and you can see it thanks to you tube here.
I found slapping and thumping the basic dough a bit of a faff in comparison with my earlier breads made using James' Morton's Brilliant Bread book where you weigh out 4 things, mix them up and stick it all in the fridge overnight.  It took a good 20 mins of thwumping to get my dough looking like Richard's and the violence of the activity moved the kitchen table halfway across the kitchen.  Once it was made and rested for 1 hour and the table had been restored to its usual position, I shaped the dough like in the book.  Sort of.
 I made half the quantity of the recipe so had three lumps of dough to shape.
 You're supposed to slide the shape onto a pre-heated tray in the oven, and mist inside the oven with a water spray.  When I slid my dough onto the tray it lost it's shape and went wonky but I think it has a bready charm.  I didn't have a water spray so I threw a quarter cup of water onto the floor of the oven.  Seemed to work.  
My second and third attempts were more successful.  With these I didn't slide onto the heated tray, I placed the metal tray I'd shaped the dough on straight onto the heated tray in the oven.  One thing worth saying is that although I said the slapping of the dough took a while, it was absolutely worth it because this is the nicest bread I've made.  If I'd bought one of these from a bakery I'd be really happy with it!  However, as Himself pointed out, they're not going to make very good sandwiches.  

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Mutton Years

There was no blogging over the weekend due to birthday japes, curry and cake, coffee in bed and lazy times. With another year in the bag  I fear I have entered the Mutton Years.  That short skirt which seemed socially acceptable at 6.45 in the morning is not by 11.30. Now I am aware that I have reached a certain age, I shall make the most of my short skirts and wear them with defiant abandon - as long as my knees hold out.  Speaking of knees, the couch to 5K running programme is entering it's final fortnight with 3 runs per week of 25 mins and no walking or stopping.  None.  Just running. On the plus side, nothing hurts at the moment and I get to run past loads of snowdrops.

In addition to loads of lovely books, I received some wicker bannetons to help my bread making.  They support the dough as it rises and create the nice circles you see on artisan bread.

The finished loaf below with its circles and my clumsy cuts.  Next time I'll cut in a square shape round the top.  (You make cuts to allow the dough to open in a controlled way rather than just splitting.   There are other reasons too but I can't remember them.)
Another birthday gift was a jar of home made marmalade which is becoming a bit of an annual ritual and I don't know what I'll do if my friend gets bored with her Seville orange based activities each January!
On the creative front I've been planning what I'll get the girls to make when I'm hosting our crafting day in a few weeks.  I've been experimenting with some back to basics crafting, using minimal tools, paints, cards, papers, stamps etc.  Below are shabby chic flowers and leaves made without using scissors.  It's brown paper torn from one of my birthday delivery boxes, some pages from a 50p charity shop book, a white pencil and some buttons and string.
I like the effect and will use them to make a scrapbook cover.
Finally, THIS is a brilliant thing!  It's a puffy spritzer puff I got here.
It's great for using with felt pens or any marker pens you may have.  You push the pen in, lock it in place by turning the little screw, squeeze the bubble and....
Voila!  A nicely controlled spray of colour which isn't so wet it mushes up your paper.  Genius!

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Home Made Happy Face Cream

Some weeks ago in dark and dismal January a few of us girls (hah!!) at work got chatting about our hobbies and discovered that we are each gifted geniuses.  So we put some Saturday dates in our diaries to go to the home of that month's hostess, drink her tea and coffee, eat her food and learn her craft thing.  The first of these creative dates was yesterday and was a massive success :) Not only did we have a splendid lunch with contributions from all, we also learned how to make lip balms, body oils and the BIG revelation - face cream.  The recipe was similar to this one from the school of natural skincare.  We just used some different base and essential oils but the method is the same.  Some of our ingredients...

I didn't know just how gorgeous Papyrus oil is.  It's the sort of scent you only need to catch a waft of and it gives you an "oh that's all alright then" feeling and it seemed to complement everything we put it with.  Our host had brought some back from a holiday in Egypt and it's tricky to find in the UK but I found one online site, Hermitage Oils.  On the "ouch-how-much!?!" scale it scores an eeek but we only used 10 drops for about 90gms of cream which gave each of us a 30gm pot to take away with us and the delicious  scent had us ooohing and ahhhing all afternoon.  The texture is softy, creamy, silky, creamy, softy, yummmm (you get the idea) and melts into your skin without leaving a filmy residue or feeling greasy.  I'll have to stop re-applying it or at this rate my pot will vanish in days.
And at the end of the session we had made all this...we will be very, very beautiful on Monday.  
And the Couch to 5 K programme continues.  This run was the first of 3 for Week 6 and the sun shone so it was worth taking some pics during the walking sections.  Himself came with me as he always does if he's home and even though he can walk faster than I can run, it's good to have company :)
There's a lane we run down where the field alongside is starting to fill with the songs of skylarks looking for nesting sights and fighting for territory.  That's how we know spring is on the way.
And when I've completed the current programme, I plan to do a 5K to 10K programme and run over the hills and far away.
 Zentangling is still proving to be a very rewarding, restful thing and this week I've mostly focussed on practicing the patterns but this tile captures some new ones learned this week.  I really like the one that looks like netting, it's quick, airy and useful for filling a space when you've got to hurry up and do something grown up and boring.  Like ironing.