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  • 04/16/15--13:00: Washing Line Tales Part 3
  • This is the finale in my posts about my washing-line exploits, (for the time being, anyway!). You may already feel you have had more than enough of washing-line tales by now, but as this episode is a little bit different, I thought I'd post it, to round things off, if you see what I mean.

    As I mentioned in my Part 2 post here, I've found it very difficult to get the sides of my washing-line baskets to turn up at, anything like, ninety degrees and then remain perpendicular to the base to form more of a cylindrical, bucket-like shape. However carefully I turn the basket up, it persists in splaying out, as it spirals upwards. Not that that's necessarily a problem, if that's the shape you're after, but I did fancy something more barrel-shaped.

    What to do? Turning the conundrum over in my mind, I thought back to the crochet baskets I've made using no rope, just two strands of cotton yarn - most recently here. These don't have any problems with the sides turning up at a right-angle and remaining more or less perpendicular. Could I combine the two techniques, perhaps? Aha! A light-bulb moment!

    Want to see what resulted? Here it is!

    Much straighter sides, and very little splaying out. Bingo!

    This is how I got there. (In case you'd like to also.)

    Firstly you need some lightweight 1/8" / 3.2 mm diameter rope like this:

    You'll probably need a couple of skeins for a basket this size (10"/ 25 cm in diameter, 10" / 25 cm high)

    You also need some lightweight yarn - an acrylic / cotton mix is what I used. (Scheepjeswol Softfun,  a Dutch yarn that I used for my Spring Flower Bag and coin purse last year. You can get it in the UK here.) You don't want anything too dense or the finished basket will weigh rather heavy.

    You'll also need:
    a hook, one size up from what you would normally use for your yarn - I used a 5mm instead of the 4mm one specified on the ball band.
    a tape measure;
    a permanent marker pen;
    plenty of safety pins;
    stitch markers;
    sewing thread and a sewing machine.
    (Flowers and hens, optional - see below!)

    What you do:
    First coil the end of your rope round to make a little circle with a hole in the middle and the main part of the rope going off to the left (unless you crochet left-handed, in which case, it should go to the right). Pin in place and  using a zig-zag stitch, machine stitch it in place, to secure it.

    Now get your hook and yarn and beginning with a slip-knot, make 15 single crochet stitches (UK double crochet stitches) into the ring. (Round one) Put a stitch marker in the first stitch so you know where the round should end. You are now going to crochet over the rope in a spiral adding 15 stitches in every round and crocheting over the rope as you go. So, in round two you will make 2 stitches in each stitch (30 stitches in total). In round three you will make 2 stitches in every second stitch (45 stitches in total), in round four you will make 2 stitches in every third stitch (60 stitches in total) and so on, increasing the gap between increases, by one stitch in every round. My base was 13 rounds deep so my final round had 195 stitches in total ie 2 stitches in every 12th stitch, with 11 stitches between increases.

    When you want to change colour, join your new colour with a knot, just before you finish the final stitch of the round before, as in the pic below, so that the colour-change is nice and seamless. Crochet over the ends as you go, to avoid any pesky yarn-end-sewing-in later. : )

    Continue until you have a circle the size you want. Mine was 30" in circumference. Measure the circumference and make a note of it. This is important because that old rope wants to go a-splaying and a-wandering and you're going to need to rein it in. Using your permanent marker, mark your rope in sections, each measuring the circumference you're working to. You don't have to mark all the sections at once - you may not know how many rounds you'll want to add to the sides to begin with anyway - but just make sure you stay ahead of your crocheting so you're never crocheting over rope that doesn't have a mark to aim for. From now on, you will not make any increases at all and you'll keep the same number of stitches in each round. A good idea to count them and make a note at this point therefore.

    What you'll find is that as you get near the end of the round, despite the absence of extra stitches, your mark is short of the finish-line and the sides are beginning to lean outwards. You can see mine here, heading for the wild blue yonder without a backward glance! Naughty!

    As you can see in the pic, my mark is arriving about 2" short of the end of the round. Which we don't want. So pull gently on the rope to tauten it up and get the mark to coincide with the finish line as in the pic below.

    You can see in this pic what's happened now. The sides have been pulled in, to go up nice and straight. Which is what we want!

    Before you get carried away and carry on blithely crocheting, safety-pin both the crochet and rope at the marked point otherwise it can start walking, when you're not looking. I know this because that's what mine did and it had to be frogged and redone! Thank you, H, for the safety-pin suggestion - works brilliantly!

    Keep on crocheting round in simple single crochet stitches (UK double crochet stitches), maintaining exactly the same number of stitches in each round and changing colour whenever you feel like it. It grows fast because each stitch, made over the rope, is significantly bigger than a normal single crochet stitch would be, without the rope inside it to expand it. We are motoring now! Neeeeowwww!

    When, or if, you need to join in a new bit of rope, splice the two ends together and machine stitch together with a zig-zag stitch over the join, backwards and forwards, a few times.

    Trim off any fraying edges on the rope, on a slant, to make the join less bulky and carry on!

    I made the handles in the same sort of way as I made them in my fabric-wrapped version. Mark where you want them to come and mark the handle length on your rope and simply crochet only on to the single layer of rope on the handle section itself - make sure you use enough stitches to cover it completely - and go back to crocheting into the stitches below when the handle ends.

    On your next round (the final one) crochet along the top edge of the handle, joining the rope, as you go, on to each handle, to make it nice and strong, as I've done here, in the paler green colour.

    When you reach the end of your final round, carefully cut the rope at a slant ...

    ... and crochet a few slip stitches over the join, and beyond it, as if you were beginning another round. Only you're not beginning another round, so fasten off and sew in your yarn end.

    Now, if your basket is going to be mainly decorative, you may wish to omit the next step but if it's going to work for its living and you might at some stage want to wash it, I suggest using the sewing machine to stitch with a zig-zag stitch, both over the end of the final round where the rope ends and heading south, in a line that crosses all the rounds, from the top of the basket to the bottom, where your safety pins secured each round end, at the correct marked point. Take your safety pins out before you start stitching, obviously. This means any ideas that rope may have had of taking a meander or a wander, now, or at any point in the future, are well and truly scuppered! Even on the high seas of the washing machine! I went down and back up again just to make sure I had that rope's colours well-nailed to the mast! It ain't going anywhere fast now, me hearties!

    You may find that the act of stitching down, flattens the crochet stitches out slightly and leaves the rope peeping through in places, or you may find the stitching looks a bit too obvious. I found that, anyway. To correct this, simply thread up a few short lengths of yarn in the right colours and make a few strategic over-stiches to cover any gaps. Tie off neatly inside the basket and no one will ever know!


     ... after!

    The finished basket isn't as stiff as the fabric-covered ones but it holds up OK, even without anything  in it and actually, it's not going to have nothing in it - it's going to have yarn and shopping and may be a picnic to carry. And, filled-up, it stands up very nicely indeed. I'm very happy with it, anyway.

    When I took my basket into the garden for photography purposes, it aroused interest from an unexpected quarter.

    This is Black-Eyed-Susan who is very friendly and won't go to bed without being fed from a caring hand. She only gets sunflower-seeds like this, as I draw the line at plunging my hand into the bar-snacks bowl, aka the dried meal-worm tub!

    I was flattered to think she liked my basket too!

    Enough to hop up on to the back of the garden bench and get a proper close look at my crochet stitches and the nice, stripy colours. What a discerning hen you are!

    But it became clear, that actually it wasn't my crochet at all that she liked the look of! It was those yummy flowers I had provided for her especial delectation and delight!

    OK, Susan! That's enough of that!

    I hope, if anyone wants to give this a go, that my little tutorial notes are helpful. Feel free to email me if anything isn't, or ask a q in the comments and I'll reply there.

    E x

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    You may remember that in January I launched into hooking two blankets at the same time for using in my up-and-coming retreat space, which is shortly due to become a reality in my garden. I don't know why I can't just do one thing at a time but, it seems, I can't. And although it was, may be, a little on the ambitious side, I haven't fallen by the wayside too much on getting on with them. In fact, the body both of my stripy Handmade Glamping Sampler blanket and my Painted Roses blanket was finished before Easter. Good news! And you'd think with the end in sight I'd have got on with the borders but, somehow, I've kept putting them off.

    Borders intimidate me slightly. We don't get on very well for various reasons:
    1 I am never quite sure I have enough yarn to complete them and dread having to frog a whole round on a big blanket;
    2 because my arithmetic is so erratic, I have no idea whether my stitch count is going to work with a particular border;
    3 while I find crocheting along the top and bottom edges of a blanket is quite easy, going down the sides of rows and trying to make sure the stitches look evenly spaced is not at all easy. "Cats' teeth" stitches anyone? Mine sometimes look less like cats' teeth and more like crocodile bites and dearly though I love crocodiles, and I do, (more on that idiosyncracy at some future point, perhaps), borders that resemble crocodile toothmarks are not quite what I am after, in my hooky endeavours;
    4 my creative momentum seems to give out with the last stitch of the final row, or the final join of a block, leaving not much mojo left for a border; feeble, I know, but there it is;
    5 I underestimate what a difference borders make to a blanket and secretly wonder if I can get away without bothering; "No, you can't, Mrs T!"

    This is all rather foolish and I felt I really must get my act together. I began with the stripy affair because that was pretty big to begin with and didn't need much of a border - just something to enclose the stripy, bobbly rows nicely, and in which to hide all the yarn ends, so I filleted a few rows out of the border pattern as given in Handmade Glamping and kept it simple - one "granny row" of groups of three double crochet stitches (trebles in UK terms) and then a couple of rows of single crochet stitches (doubles in UK terms) to finish.

    Done! And even in its simplified form, it's really pulled the whole blanket together.

    What was so difficult about that, Mrs T?!

    The border on the other one is still, ahem, in progress but in my defence I can at least say I have started on it!

    Here is the finished one:

    I love the bobbles!

    ... and the soft cosiness of the wool and cotton mix yarn* ...

    ... and the stripes...

    Did I say, I love the bobbles? I really do!

    But I love the colours, almost as much as I love the bobbles ...

    ... and the way it tumbles and riots cosily...

    ... I love the whole thing, in fact, border included!

    *The yarn is Spud and Chloe's Sweater, if you're interested, which is expensive but an absolute dream to crochet with and the colours are amazing. It's an American yarn, but if you're in the UK, you can get it at Mrs Moon's wonderful On-Line shop here (where I see it's on special offer at the moment).  I wouldn't normally use such an expensive yarn for a blanket but this is an exception and I hope to enjoy it for many years to come, before handing it on to another Mrs Tittlemouse perhaps, to enjoy in a future generation.

    The colours I've used are:
    jelly bean
    ice cream 
    tiny dancer
    and lilac

    Can't think why I put off finishing it. Anyone else do this, get to within an inch of finishing a project and find the last lap a real effort, that you put off and put off and once it's done, wonder why it took you so long?!

    Wishing you all a happy weekend 
    with finishing-off mojo coming your way, 
    if you're like me and have a tendency to procrastinate!

    E x

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  • 05/05/15--05:57: Lily Pond Crochet

  • Have any of you found yourselves dipping your toes, or perhaps I should say rather, your hooks, into the Lily Pond Blanket Crochet-Along designed by Jane Crowfoot, in conjunction with Stylecraft Yarns? 

    There is something very appealing about the idea of replicating a lily pond with a hook and yarn and I am afraid I just couldn't resist the notion. It's an entrancing project to work on, as the Spring shifts towards early summer and my own little garden pond beckons. Have a look here for the free pattern instalments and details of Jane's exquisite design. Jane's blog has some extra, and very helpful, notes here, if you're interested.

    The blanket is designed to be hooked in Stylecraft Life yarn which is an acrylic / wool mix yarn in a fabulous range of colours. You can buy special packs for the project from Deramores and you can pre-order Stylecraft Life packs from Janie Crow here. I think there have been some supply problems with the Stylecraft Life but Deramores do a Stylecraft Special version, pretty close to the original pack.

    But here I came face to face with a snag, caused, not by supply problems, but by my own prejudices and / or fussiness. I know this is a heresy in the hooky-blogging sphere and I may get disapproval / criticism for "letting the side down" and saying that "the emperor has no clothes on", but I generally don't like making blankets from yarn whose predominant fibre is acrylic - I find a lot of it is quite scratchy and not very nice to work with. There are exceptions, of course, as with everything, but generally speaking.

    This is, quite frankly, a big, old nuisance as predominantly acrylic yarn is far cheaper; it tends to come in nice, fat balls, not 50g tiddlers you have to keep replenishing, and the colour ranges in something like Stylecraft Special, are, without question, first class. I've tried using it, but I always reach the same conclusion a few rows into whatever project it is - I don't like the feel of the finished fabric; I am not all that keen on the look of the yarn itself; and I don't much like working with it, to the extent that the sensation and sound of the run of it, down my hook, can set my teeth on edge. And if I am going to invest a good many hours in a project, I don't want to work with something that puts my teeth on edge all the time, or to end up with something that I don't like touching or looking at in the light. However cheap the yarn may be, or however extensive the colour range.

    I know there are very many people who love it and who get wonderful results from using it, but it just doesn't work for me, so in the first instance I thought the Lily Pond blanket would have to be shelved as a nice idea, but not practicable to realise. While wandering along Deramores' virtual shelves, however, and humming and hawing about whether I could put aside my aversion to acrylic scratchiness, I found they also offer a version of the Lily Pond CAL colours in Stylecraft Classique Cotton.  This is a pure cotton yarn, un-mercerised and soft; it is a dream to work with and while the colour range is not as comprehensive as its acrylic-based Stylecraft siblings, it's nonetheless good and not too far from the palette required for the blanket. Aha!

    So far, so good, especially as I had quite a few of the required colours in my stash and didn't have to buy the whole pack. But it wasn't quite as straightforward to make the switch to a different yarn, from that recommended in the design, as I'd hoped. The length of yarn in each ball is considerably shorter, for a start, so you need more balls of the Classique Cotton than the number specified in the pattern for the Life. Probably two, for each one of the main colours (the greens and teal at least). And the colours in the two ranges although similar, are far from identical. The suggested substitution of the pale blue "Sky Blue" (Classique) for "Mint" (Life), for example, just didn't work for me. I tried replacing it with the deeper and greener, "Tropical Jade" (Classique Cotton) but this had the effect of unexpectedly bringing out the yellow component in the other greens ("Leaf" and "Soft Lime" in the Classique Cotton) and gave the whole panel a most off-putting, sickly, yellowish tinge. The kind of colour, reminiscent of stagnant water, full of unspeakable sludge and suppurating duck-weed, that has been sitting in the sun without any refreshment of rain, for some weeks in a dry summer, and from which a heavy and unpleasant odour assails you, if you approach too close. Nasty! Certainly not what I wanted to replicate in my throw which I wanted to evoke a cool, clear, limpid pool into which you might, on a hot day, feel tempted to dip your feet. A few frogs and fish in there perhaps, to tickle your toes, but no rotting pond-sludge or decomposing waterweed, thank you!

    In the end I have substituted the dark blue "Nocturne" in the Classique Cotton for the pale bluey-green Life "Mint" which is quite a bold swap as the two colours are quite different. It works though, I think. I much prefer it to the "Sky Blue" or the "Tropical Jade" anyway.

    The pattern is being released at fortnightly intervals. The third instalment was released today. It's a lovely way of doing it, as you never face too much at any one time and so it feels nice and manageable. Of course you don't have to complete each stage in the first fortnight of its release, but if you want to, it's been well judged in terms of what it asks, I think.

    In the first instalment you make part of the pond - rippling stripes of greens and blues to represent the water. Among the first few rows there are flecks of colour - to represent the goldfish swimming among the depths and perhaps the waterlily roots. I love the idea of that. The bright flick of a tail, caught by the sunlight through the water, before it disappears into the cool, dark shadows. So evocative. But here I've made another swap. The pattern instructs you to use pink for the flecks of colour which is fine for representing reddish waterlily roots, or budding leaves perhaps, but I'd got stuck on the idea of the goldfish and have you ever seen a pink goldfish? No. Me neither, so the pink had to go and orange "Seville" has replaced it. I am conscious that this also is a bold swap (which may backfire on me) because potentially I may have disturbed the harmony and equilibrium of the overall blanket by introducing a rogue colour element. Orange features nowhere in the rest of the design and it may stand out like a sore thumb, if I am not careful, sparing though the flecks of orange are. I may have to add a judicious hint of orange to some of the flower centres, perhaps. We'll see. Too early to tell as yet. But in a strange way these slightly unexpected colour conundrums are making the creative journey of the blanket not stressful, but rather exciting. Unpredictable, but alive, if you see what I mean.

    I was so taken with the water panels I thought I'd make a waterlily to sit among them just for the sake of it. This isn't part of the CAL blanket but is a most beautiful three-dimensional design by Esther Chandler of Make My Day Creative. You can find her free pattern here.

    I've made this in Cascade Ultra Pima mercerised cotton in "Pink Sapphire" and "Buttercup". The pad I made up myself and is in Cascade Ultra Pima "Sprout". I took the water and the waterlily with its pad outside to photograph on a mirror under the big cherry tree currently in bloom in the garden and I love the effect of the deep-blue, Spring sky and the foamy, white blossom reflected alongside my hooky efforts.

    The second instalment of the pattern was for the first batch of lily-bud squares - I haven't quite finished these. They need some surface stitching in deep pink to highlight the petals.

    But I love the way the frame-work, that surrounds the flower in each square, has a slightly lacy, fragile quality to it, while the outer rows are quite solid for joining to the other panels.

    Today's instalment is for another version of the lily-bud square with a slightly bigger, more open flower. I am looking forward to starting it very much.

    Has anyone else embarked on this project and made any creative adjustments? Do share, if you have. I find that part of creativity, and reading accounts of others' experience of it, fascinating.

    E x

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  • 05/27/15--04:37: Pineapple Lanterns
  • Now it's the end of May, one can almost spend evenings outside without freezing to bits in this country. It's one of our national characteristics to maintain a valiant front that outdoor-living is well within our grasp, even when it's pouring with rain and when a wind, that cuts like a knife, is blowing in unfriendly gusts. And we espouse a touching, (if often misplaced,) optimism every year, that it will be a "barbecue summer", so we've reached that time of year, (that we reach every year), where shops and catalogues are full of "must-have" delightful, outdoor-living accessories to make the perfect mise-en-scène for those long, dreamy, summer nights - barbecue equipment; picnic-ware; bunting to string across your al fresco dining area; candle-holders to nestle among summery salads and jugs of Pimms; lanterns to hang from strategic branches and light the way from kitchen to table; all the accoutrements that make for enchanting evenings, wiled away on the terrace, on a balmy, summer night. Never mind the fact that, generally, we only get a tiny handful of evenings in the UK, where this is really viable without wearing a whole load of extra jumpers and huddling under blankets alongside a barbecue, ostensibly there for cooking sausages, but really for preventing hypothermia among the assembled throng. I may yet be surprised this year - I shall be very happy to be. So far however, I have not seen much evidence that this is likely. But it's early days.

    But I love the idea of the whole outside-living thing though, and every year I have to fight down the temptation to give in to the purveyors of aforementioned, delightful, outdoor-living accessories. I remind myself that, "I am not my mother", who is a much hardier soul than I am and who picnics more or less, at any time of year, without a second thought, and regards swimming off one of our cold, English beaches as the crown of any holiday spent in this country. Last time I swam off an English beach, a few years ago, I went an interesting blue colour that took an alarming length of time to dispel. And gritting my teeth (to prevent them chattering) and trying not to shiver too obviously is not my idea of a fun summer evening.

    But just as my sister and I - we were hardier as children, clearly - used to argue no end with my mother about wearing our lightweight, cotton, school, summer-dresses from the beginning of the summer term in April "because it's the summer term and everyone is wearing summer dresses, except us", I am not quite ready to give up on the idea of the outdoor-living vibe. It's summer after all! But I don't want to waste money on a lot of stuff that will only see the light of day (or night) very occasionally, if that. Enter a little homemade solution or two.

    Resisting the temptation to spend multiples of £15 or £20 on charmingly atmospheric, outdoor lanterns, I've made some for next to nothing and best of all they work beautifully and atmospherically inside, as well as outside. In fact, I haven't  deployed them outside yet - it hasn't been warm enough. They also get round that irritating thing of using real candles outside, where the slightest gust of that balmy (or otherwise) summer breeze extinguishes their flames, almost as soon as they're lit.

    Like a peek?

    They are very simple to make and thrifty too. Here is a kind of broad-brush guide to how to do it if you want to have a go but it's not an exact pattern as the shape and size of your chosen bottle as well as your choice of pattern and yarn will affect the way it makes up.

    What you need:

    a clear, uncoloured plastic drinks bottle rescued from the recycling pile and washed out.

    I used an Innocent Orange Juice bottle because I liked the cuboid, lanterny shape of the base but any clear, uncoloured plastic bottle will do.

    a craft knife or sharp pair of heavy scissors

    fine-grade sandpaper

    a set of battery-operated LED fairy lights per lantern - available inexpensively from Amazon here

    a lacy pattern for a crochet square whose finished dimensions will fit within the width of one side of your bottle - I used the pineapple design from Priscilla Hewitt's delightful, pineapple afghan pattern which you can get here but any lacy or filet design will work well - flowers, hearts, geometric patterns, whatever takes your fancy.

    stitch markers

    DK weight washable yarn in a colour of your choosing - 50 g will be more than adequate - and a crochet hook in the appropriate hook size for your chosen yarn. I used Cascade Ultra Pima Cotton from my stash in "waterlily", "mint" and "sage" with a  4mm hook for mine.

    optional: a hole-punch and string or raffia

    What you do:

    Remove the label from your plastic bottle and clean off any residual stickiness with white spirit or "Sticky Stuff remover". We seem to spend a disconcerting amount of time in this house, de-sticking packaging of various sorts. It would make recycling at home much easier, if manufacturers used a nice, easily-dissolved glue for their labels, that would soak off cleanly in plain, hot water. Annoyingly, most labels seem to be stuck on with industrial-strength adhesive, requiring chemical warfare to remove it. Marmite jars are the worst, I find, which is a shame because the chunky, dark brown, 500 g size glass jars with their sturdy, yellow, non-corrodible, plastic lids are perfect for homemade chutney, but I digress!

    Using a craft knife, or your scissors, carefully cut off the neck of the bottle just after where it starts to narrow and discard the top section you've removed. Sand off any roughness on the cut edge of the bottle with your sandpaper.

    Measure the circumference of the base of your bottle and work out how many repeats of your pattern you want to have. I opted for two pattern repeats, so that there is one pineapple on the front and one on the back. Work out how many stitches you need for each pattern repeat and then add on enough to make a ring big enough to fit around your bottle base. Make a note of the number of extra stitches you are adding and mark where you will begin your pattern repeat with stitch markers as you go. Chain the appropriate number of stitches and join with a slip-stitch to make a snug fit around your bottle. Try it on for fit.

    Now crochet up a tube or "sleeve" for the bottle, following your chosen pattern for the patterned sections and filling in with simple double crochet (UK treble crochet) stitches in between. Join each row with a slip stitch before carrying on. Begin each new row with a chain of three to get yourself up to the right height.*

    *These instructions assume your pattern is basically in double crochet (UK treble). If your pattern uses half-doubles or singles, you'll need to make the fill-in sections in the same stitches or you'll get into a war of stitch-height difference!

    The pattern sections should finish before the bottle starts to begin to taper at all. Once you've got to that point, carry on using your plain double (UK treble) crochet stitches (or whatever stitches you are using) and decreasing a few stitches in each row to keep the fit snug. You have to do this by trial and error, so keep trying the fit of the cover over the bottle to check. Begin by decreasing two to three stitches per row and seeing how it goes. The rows are quite short so it's not a big deal to undo a row and redo, with more, or fewer, decreases. Once you are nearly up to the top, you might like to end with a row of single crochet (UK double) just to make a neat finish. Or you might not - up to you. When you're finished, simply fasten off your yarn and sew in the end.

    Bingo! Now fit a couple of  AA batteries to your fairy lights' battery box, shove the string of lights inside and switch on. You can either hide the whole battery box inside the bottle or you can leave it outside and tuck it behind. It's unobtrusive either way. If you're going to hang the lantern up, the box would be better tucked inside completely.

    You can punch a couple of holes in the thin plastic at the top of the bottle and thread some string or raffia through, if you want to hang them up. You can even crochet a simple granny square in the same yarn to insert inside the bottle, underneath the lights, to avoid too much light shining through the bottom when it's swinging aloft in that balmy, summer-evening breeze! The beauty of these lanterns is that they're very lightweight - you don't need a cast-iron bracket or anything similarly robust to support them and there is no molten wax to worry about, once they're lit, so you don't even have to keep them level.

    They look nice in the daytime, unlit ...

    but they really come into their own once it's twilight or dark and you can light them up ...

    And if like me, you are leery about sitting outside, before it's a respectable temperature, (by which I mean over 20C), worry not! Pop your lanterns on a table, or shelf, inside and enjoy them there.

    Or hang them in a window. They feel very summery indeed to look at and you can enjoy them whatever the weather, even in the UK's "barbecue summer" that never seems to materialise.

    Of course if you are lucky enough to live somewhere with real "barbecue summers", go for it and enjoy them "à la terrasse"!

    I've got another little cheap-and-cheerful, homemade "summer-living-accessory" on my hook too. Here's my progress so far. Any guesses as to what it will be? (It's not a blanket.)

    I expect it will be a couple of months before I actually need to deploy it, so it's quite a relaxed project. Something to be said for the slow-to-appear English summer after all!

    E x

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  • 06/04/15--12:03: Crochet Fly-Curtain
  • In my last post I left you with an unidentified pic as to what was on my hook as my next cheap and cheerful summer-living project. Well, here it is:

    A crochet fly-curtain! And just as the weather turns a little bit more summery, I've managed to get it up and running in time to keep out those pesky midges and mosquitoes that make a bee-line for me at the first opportunity. Some people seem more prone to being bitten than others. I think perhaps it's some chemical in some people's skin that attracts biting insects to them more than to others and unfortunately I seem to have it. The pesky little critters leave the rest of my family in peace but me, they home in on, without fail, leaving large, itchy and painful bites that take ages to disappear. Which goes to explain why the idea of a fly-curtain had more than passing appeal.

    You used to find these kinds of curtains in the doorways to shops sometimes in this country - not crochet ones, usually just thin lengths of plastic in varying colours - as a small child I used to love swishing the colourful strips to and fro when I should have been helping my mother with the shopping! Nowadays you don't see them so much here, but they're still common in continental Europe, especially in places like Greece. They are popular too in the Netherlands, I gather, and the pattern for this one is a Dutch pattern, from the book Haken En Kleur by Claire Boeter and Saskia Laan. The book is in Dutch but if you can read crochet diagrams, you can follow what you're supposed to do quite easily. Anyway, as soon as I saw it, I felt that I really had to give this a go. The pelmet part was a doddle. Not too big - my chosen doorway belongs to my new, tiny garden-retreat-space and is actually quite a bit narrower than that in the pattern - so each row worked out reasonably short. It has happy colour changes that keeps it interesting and uses a straightforward and delightful combination of stitches. A piece of cake.

    The strings, ("slierten" in Dutch), were not a piece of cake, and, in fact, proved to be downright tedious, I have to say. Not because they were difficult - they're about as easy, in principle, as it gets - just long chains in different colours but they're long. As in LONG! And there are a lot of them.

    Each one is four hundred and seventy chains, approximately. I say "approximately" because counting four hundred and seventy chains without interruption on eighty eight of the wretched things was doing my head in, so I went free-form and aimed for the same sort of length on each but didn't worry about some being a bit short and some being a bit long. You might think that looks a bit unsatisfactory. It does in a way. But in another way, there's a kind of Bohemian freedom to their varying lengths that I rather like. A few of the strings have flowers that you crochet along, as you go, just for fun.

    A really sweet design touch, I think.

    The chains are attached with slip stitches and a knot to secure the ends, a few rows before the end of the pelmet section so the join is neatly hidden from view and then you finish the "slierten" off with beads to give a bit of weight that keeps the strings hanging vertically in the breeze. I used an assortment of wooden beads that I had in my sewing box.

    A lot of them come from a set of beads I was given for my fourth or fifth birthday, that my mother had kindly squirrelled away and passed on to me recently, (as mothers do!) I still remember painstakingly threading them onto an old green bootlace, when they were new!  Others come from a necklace of wooden beads that I've never worn, as the beads always seemed slightly too big. All good up-cycling / re-cycling!

    The curtain is attached using an idea I got from the clever Handmade Glamping book in which Charlotte Liddle and Lucy Hopping suggest using Velcro for attaching a blind to a caravan window. It's a brilliant idea, I think. You stick one part of the Velcro to where you want to hang the curtain and sew the other half onto your blind or curtain.

    Easy to remove for washing; inexpensive; no struggling to fit a rail or cumbersome curtain pole or anything too taxing of DIY skills. Perfect! John Lewis actually sells boxes of "Sew and Stick Velcro" for this kind of project with the two halves in separate reels, one with a self-adhesive backing and the other without, ready to sew onto whatever you want. Sheer genius! Click on the link if you feel your crafty life might be enhanced by acquiring some! I expect you can get it elsewhere too, although I've not seen it.

    Rather than sticking the Velcro directly to the door-frame I got D to cut me a thin panel of plastic styrene sheet which he uses in his railway-modelling but is darn useful stuff for various sewing and crochet purposes that require a bit of stiffening, so I, ahem, "borrow" it periodically! (You can buy it by the sheet here. To cut it, you score it with a craft knife and then snap it carefully apart along the score-line.) This was then lightly sanded, in order to key the surface, and screwed in place first, before sticking the Velcro to it, to preserve the paintwork behind. You could use a thin piece of wood similarly, if you wanted to, or go ahead and stick the Velcro directly in situ. Depends on your chosen surface, really.

    Anyway the long and the short of it is that this is about as delightful a summer-living accessory as I've seen in a long time.

    And right on cue the weather has turned hot and summery - perfect for a swishy fly-curtain to swirl and float as one sits with an open door and the breeze coming and going but with flies and bugs stopped and searched, and most importantly of all, Turned Back, at the frontier!

    I love the way that the breeze makes the beads gently dance and tap, companionably in the background, as they swing to and fro.

    Tomorrow I am off university-prospecting with H. 
    Do you think a little yarn-shopping is in order, while he does his thing, 
    without the embarrassment of his mother in tow all the time? 
    Funnily enough, so do I! 
    Tee hee!

    E x

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    Thank you so much for all your kind and enthusiastic comments about my crochet fly-curtain. The weather has tailed off somewhat since finishing it but I am pleased to report that on those occasions when the sun has shone and the door has been open, the curtain has done "what it says on the tin" and has kept pesky, flying visitors well and truly Out. Which augurs well for future sunny days, as and when we get them.

    Although it has not been very summery the last few days, the elderflowers are nevertheless boldly coming out in the hedgerows here. The wide, shallow flower-heads with their creamy, delicate blossoms, overflowing with sweet scent, remind me of shallow champagne-goblets, perched among the green leaves. They beckon me to leave my desk and get out and pick them for elderflower cordial before the heavy thunderstorms, forecast for later today, batter them down and soak the fragile flowers, beyond use. I took the hint. This morning they are still new and dry and drifting with golden pollen - perfect for making cordial. Most cordial recipes caution against washing the flowers after picking. I had assumed this was because in washing you would lose the perfume and the water that would cling to the flowers would add unnecessary extra liquid to your mixture. I discovered today, while researching one or two variations, that actually the chemical composition changes in the flowers, when they are wet. Negatively so. You only want to immerse them at the point of infusion, not before. No idea why this should be, but they do smell different in the rain and perhaps that's why. I don't wash them anyway but this is just an added incentive not to bother.

    Anne floated the idea of infusing rose petals with the elderflowers for cordial in her post here and this seemed to me to be an inspiration of sheer genius. (Not uncommon with Anne in the kitchen, I have to say.) My new-last-year Gertrude Jekyll rose is a bit green and youthful still and her flowers have been hanging, slightly sadly, from her young and whippy stems, which are not yet up to the job of supporting them in a more upright position. Nudging me to pick them to enjoy them properly, rather than leaving them to trail on the ground. I've picked some to put in a vase and been enjoying them all week.

    The scent is breath-taking.

    As is the colour.

    What about pairing that scent (and colour) with the elderflowers? What about it indeed!

    As with making rose petal jam, it's a good idea to snip off the white part of the rose petals as these can be bitter so all the white tips, like the one in the pic, got snipped off before I poured on the bubbling-hot sugar syrup.

    I now have two batches of elderflowers infusing in the kitchen, one with rose petals, one without, and the scent is headily distracting.

    Despite the vagaries of the English summer about which I was grumbling a few weeks back, there is something about the scent both of elderflowers and old-fashioned roses that makes all my grumbles about the lack of warmth and sunshine evaporate.

    The essence of summer. In your face, literally.

    Do you make your own elderflower cordial? If you don't, I recommend having a go, with or without experimental variation. It is extraordinarily easy and, personally, I find it a marked step-up from the commercial variety, as well as being cheaper, of course.

    There are lots of recipes for elderflower cordial. It's child's play and boils down to the following:

    1 Pick the flowers.
    2 Pare and squeeze a few lemons.
    3 Boil up a simple sugar syrup.
    4 Pour the hot syrup over the flowers and lemons.
    5 Cover and leave for twenty four hours.
    6 Strain and bottle / freeze.
    7 Drink diluted with water (and / or something alcoholic)

    For more detailed instructions of how I go about it, you can find the recipe that I use here where I posted about it last year. The frozen cordial keeps beautifully for a year or more. I know because this week I have been drinking the last of the batch I made last June.

    The rose variation on the elderflower theme has sparked one or two other possibilities for experiment - elderflower partnered with lemon verbena, for example. Apparently very good indeed with gin. As I have recently planted out some little lemon verbena plants, I am wondering whether, if the thunder and rain will just hold off a smidgeon longer, I might have time to pick some more flowers for a third batch. I think I might!

    I have no idea as to quantities with these variations. For the rose one, I picked four generous Gertrude Jekyll roses because these were the flowers drooping lowest that would otherwise see out their days sweeping the flowerbed and because Anne said two were insufficient in her initial experiment. They have partnered about twenty seven elderflower heads. The lemon verbena plants are new and not very bushy as yet, so I didn't want to pick too many leaves off them. A generous handful of the aromatic, pointy, green leaves leaves with half a lemon sliced up for good measure, to eighteen elderflower heads is what I ended up with for this batch.

    The kitchen now looks (and smells) like some kind of summery alchemist's cave with assorted pans and bowls emitting similar, but subtly different, fragrances from beneath their lids. I keep going in there, just to breathe them in. I hope no one wants any rice with their chilli con carne this evening - all my big pans are now occupied! Oops!

    Wishing you a cordially happy (and flowery) weekend!

    E x

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    It's always nice to indulge in a bit of sewing in the summer. Pretty cotton prints in summery colours. Nothing too big or that takes too long. Stitching in the garden, or inside while the summer sun streams through the open windows.

    Very satisfying and soul-lifting. Even better if you have a friend to share it with too.

    So, in the last few busy weeks, there has been a bit of the above.

    A summer blouse - Butterick B5711 - charmingly old-fashioned in style with a little round collar and short, slightly puffed sleeves. Sadly, this pattern is discontinued now but you may be able to pick one up in a sewing shop which still has it in stock.

    It's has a fitted shape and sits nicely on top of jeans or a denim skirt. I love the inexpensive but very pretty, flowery fabric I found for it, even though it took me by surprise and bled rather profusely on its prewash and dyed one of H's white T shirts a pretty, but distinctly unpopular, shell-pink colour. Oops! Nothing a good dose of bleach in a bucket of soaking water couldn't fix fortunately, or I would have been in the dog-house.

    I don't make fitted clothing much - getting collars and sleeves to behave nicely and look "meant" is not always easy, I find. But this blouse appealed so much that I gave it a go and I am rather pleased with the results. I haven't worn it as much as I had hoped yet as (predictably) the English summer has been erratic in its presence recently.

    My other recent sewing escapade was a joint one with my American friend Liz of Carolina Knits who, along with her husband, came to stay with us a couple of weeks ago. We popped into Oxford for a bit of sightseeing and to cover off some jet-lag-relieving punting on the river - thank you H and D for propelling all five of us, without mishap, up and down the Cherwell!

    D has always loved punting and is very good at it, which is perhaps not surprising as Oxford is his hometown and he spent a good deal of his time growing up either on the Thames or on the Cherwell in one form of boat or another, but H has also taken to it, well, like a duck to water in recent years ...

    ... and it is not easy to wrest the pole off him to have a go oneself these days! Not that I mind personally - being punted along an Oxford river in the sunshine is one of life's great relaxations. Operating the punt-pole oneself is considerably harder work - harder than it looks and requires quite a deft hand and eye.

    Anyway back to the sewing! Amongst our cultural and river-based activities, we made a quick detour to Oxford's delightful little haberdashery shop Darn It And Stitch for a couple of fat quarters apiece, to turn into homemade espadrilles.

    This is a fun idea that I found while researching craft shops in Bath (where we also went for a little sightseeing). Bath is home to The Makery a wonderful emporium of fabric, sewing notions and inspiration.

    The Makery has been having a series of summer espadrille sewing workshops and there's even a little video tutorial on YouTube that Kate has done for those who can't make it to a workshop but would like to have a go. You can find it here. We found it really clear and helpful.

    You need a pair of espadrille soles in your size (either from The Makery here or John Lewis sell them too, here), a couple of fat quarters, and any other notions you want to use by way of embellishment as well as standard sewing equipment.

    And ideally you want a friend to do it with because it's more fun like that!

    The espadrille soles come with a pattern which you need to trace in the correct size, making sure you add on a seam allowance. Then you cut out your fabric pieces - we used contrasting fabrics for the top of the espadrilles and their backs and I used a third fabric for the lining.

    You stitch the outer fabric and the lining pieces together on the sewing machine, clip the seams, turn and press them and then pin on to the soles and hand-stitch in place with blanket stitch.

    It was a lot of fun!

    You then persuade a couple of husbands quietly reclining in the garden and minding their own business over a glass of wine to get up again and take a few photos of you both and the finished espadrilles for posterity! Thank you D and D!

     It's a lovely project to mix prints and plains - the grey rain-drop pattern fabric and plain bright pink for contrast, that Liz chose, worked brilliantly.

    Or you can use a pair of toning prints, perhaps with a plain lining, like I did: 

    As you can see, I also included ballet-shoe-style ties on mine which I attached by simply adding a looped tab of fabric in the centre of the back of the shoe and threading some red twill tape through to tie up in a criss-cross style around the ankle. I like the effect of the ribbons and they also help the espadrilles to stay firmly on one's feet. 

    I know, I know, these shoes look as if they aren't made for walking - just posing! But they're surprisingly comfortable and they're a lovely reminder of a happy summery week together. and once the sun returns, or if the sun returns, perhaps I should say, bearing in mind the appalling wind and rain and gloomy grey skies of the last few days, I shall be wearing mine a lot and hope Liz will be wearing hers too in North Carolina. 

    Happy Summer Sewing, whatever the weather!

    E x

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    So it's September. And the summer is gone. The swallows knew it weeks ago and had made themselves scarce before August struggled to its bedraggled end here, but I've been slower to catch on, I think. Sometimes the ebb and flow of life sits harmoniously alongside the ebb and flow of the seasons and sometimes it doesn't and I find myself trying to catch up, slightly out of synch. I've found that recently anyway.

    There are special joys to be found in September even though I find the deep golden light that is characteristic of a nice day at this time of year somehow carries a feeling of melancholy that always makes me feel wistful.

    I've not wanted to go looking for any extra melancholy and wistfulness however and have been concentrating instead on the uplifting qualities of the following:

    1 A new sewing project that was originally going to be a one-off but looks as though it might be set to replicate itself, possibly more than once. It started with me playing around with bits of fabric from my fabric boxes that were having some difficulty closing. They seemed to me to murmur a little autumn poem.

    Then I unearthed a bunch of old lace and trimmings that have sat in my sewing basket for years. Some of the lace, like the two bits, in the bottom centre of the pic above, have lain there for at least forty years, to my certain knowledge. And a happy idea was born to make an autumn apron out of strips of all these fabrics, sewn together, and trimmed with the oddments of lace. The plan was to evoke some of the browns, russets and hunting greens of autumn leaves together with the filigree adornment of those lacy spider-webs, you see in the garden, beaded with dew on early, autumn mornings. No, I was not tempted to add an embroidered eight-legged resident or two!

    There is a nice large pocket sewn out of the off-cuts, with the strips going vertically, instead of horizontally and the top edge of the pocket is trimmed with a bit of grey lace.

    A pair of wooden buttons (that came free, a while ago with an issue of Simply Crochet, I think) finish off the top. They are purely decorative but I like them.

    To hide all the seams and to give the apron a bit of extra strength, it's lined with the cream, dusky pink and soft green fabric that you can see  in the pic below, where the apron is turned back. It reminds me of end of-the-summer roses lingering in the September sun - still blooming but in slightly more muted tones than those of June.

    The ties are deliberately mismatched; stitched together using two spare strips for each, before turning out and pressing and sandwiching between the outer and the lining fabrics to secure them in place.

    Almost all the strips are pieced together, some in several places, as I only had a few fabrics in large enough widths to cut the strips in single pieces but that doesn't matter - it's part of the joy of the thing that it's been made from odds and ends. It's been a delightful, frugal make that has made going into the autumn seem a good deal more appealing. 

    2 Baking with berries from the hedgerows and pears from a friend's garden.

    It's a tweaked variation of Ruby Tandoh's Pear Blackberry and Coconut Cake which was featured in The Guardian last weekend. I tweaked it by replacing the coconut oil with almond oil and the desiccated coconut with ground almonds to make a Blackberry, Pear and Almond Cake.

    I do like cakes made with oil that only require you to get out a whisk and a bowl rather than the whole faff of the food processor. Life is never too short to make cake, I feel, but sometimes, when time is short, a quick cake-making fix is better than a long one!

    3 Drying apples from our elderly apple tree. It is so weighed down with fruit this year that I am wondering whether it needs crutches under its low-slung branches. Most instructions tell you to dry apples in slices but I want chunks for using in bread, porridge, buns and cakes over the winter.

    I haven't treated the cut fruit with acidulated water or anything so it's inevitably gone a bit brown in the drying,

    but that doesn't worry me - it's the flavour and consistency I am after, particularly for adding to bread recipes where fresh apple is too wet and too fragile to hold together under the kneading process. I could probably have dried these a bit longer but I don't want them too leathery, as an ingredient, so I'm freezing what I am not using immediately, in case they have not lost quite enough moisture simply to store in jars, or paper bags, in the larder. An initial experiment in using them in these spiced apple buns promises rather well - the apple pieces remain definite but are neither hard nor dry and the apple flavour is very good.

    I am making a lot of these kinds of fruited, yeast-raised buns at the moment - they satisfy my need for something sweet to nibble on around 4.00 pm without being too heavy on the old sugar (and fat). They would also be rather good in lunch-boxes should you find yourself needing to fill same or, for that matter, lightly toasted for breakfast.

    If you want to have a go, my recipe is as follows:

    Spiced Apple Buns

    3tsp active dried yeast
    350 g strong white flour
    150 g strong wholemeal flour (you could just use white flour but I quite like the nuttiness of a bit of wholemeal in here - means they qualify as health food!)
    1 tsp salt
    2 tsps ground cinnamon
    1 tsp ground mace (or nutmeg)
    1/4 tsp ground cloves
    50 g unsalted butter cut into pieces
    50 g runny honey
    2 large eggs (or 3 bantam eggs) whisked with c 100 ml whole milk and enough water to make up the liquid total to c 380 ml
    100 g home-dried apple pieces (or you could use commercially dried apple rings snipped up)
    100 g sultanas (or raisins)

    For the glaze: 1 egg whisked with a teaspoon of water
    pearl sugar or demerara sugar to sprinkle on top

    I've used an assortment of spices that I think go well with apple - I've got a particular fondness for ground mace at the moment which I think is made from the outer casing of the nutmeg seed. Its taste is similar to nutmeg but slightly warmer and stronger. It works very well in breads like this one anyway. But you can vary the spices according to what you like / have in the cupboard. The same applies to the fruit. You can change the make-up of the liquid as well, so long as you end up with the about the same quantity of liquid overall so feel free to use all milk and no water and one egg rather than two if that suits you. Some egg and some milk is needed though so I wouldn't simply replace with all plain water if you want the same tender-crumbed results, especially for eating just as they are.

    I make the dough for these buns in my automatic bread-maker on the wholemeal raisin dough programme. Not all the fruit will go in the fruit-and-nut dispenser of my machine so I just add the extra by hand when I hear the portcullis-like trap on the dispenser fall and know that the automatic hopper has released its payload at the right moment. You can, of course, make them by hand following any fruited bread or hot cross bun recipe for the method.

    Once the dough is risen and ready, preheat the oven to 200 C (195 C for fan ovens). Shape the dough gently  - it's quite loose and tender - into twelve nice, round, cushiony buns and place on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Brush each one with the slightly diluted, beaten egg and sprinkle with pearl or demerara sugar. Bake for around 13 - 14 minutes until well-risen and golden. Watch them carefully towards the end of the baking time to make sure they don't overcook. You might need to turn the baking tray around if some of the buns seem done before the whole tray is ready.

    Cool the buns on a wire rack before eating just as they are ...

    ... or may be with a bit of unsalted butter. Any leftover buns freeze beautifully.

    4 Mastering a knitting pattern for a vintage-style tea cosy for my big enamel teapot that pours beautifully but is too big for any of my existing tea cosies. There's a gorgeous pattern in Handmade Glamping for a tea cosy like this made with five colours, rather than just two, but I got in such a pickle trying to follow the (somewhat elliptic) instructions and keep five balls of yarn separate and in the right places that I gave up and found a simpler pattern for the traditional two-colour version here.

    I love the Handmade Glamping book, it's one of my favourites and full of inspiration but I do find the technical instructions for how actually to make the projects are sometimes insufficient. It's fine, if you're fairly confident with the required crafting skill and can supply what is not explained from your own experience but trickier if you aren't. And with knitting, I am not at all confident, and should only really be let loose under the watchful eye of a minder!

    But this has, in the end (and perhaps despite me), worked OK. It keeps the tea as hot as can be. The design of these vintage-style cosies with their self-pleating folds, means that the teapot is effectively wearing something like an eiderdown, with a pocket of insulating air trapped in each fold. Perfect for brewing up tea to go in a flask, without the tea losing its heat, as well as keeping a pot of tea alive and well, some time after making it, even when you're not "taking it out." Do you use a proper teapot and a tea cosy when you make tea? I'd got rather lazy and had fallen into bad tea-bag-in-a-mug habits that were quite wasteful really, both of electricity and tea.

    5 Photographing my late summer sunflowers in the early morning sun which despite being planted quite late, have come good and cheered these late summer / early autumn days with their wonderful, yellow, mop-like heads.

    6 Changing up breakfast a little by switching from porridge to a very simple, but oh-so-good, homemade granola. Just oats and chopped almonds turned in maple syrup, honey, vanilla extract and a spoonful of rapeseed oil and baked on a tray in a slow oven before being cooled and nibbled, stored in a large jar for quick and easy, nutritious breakfasts served with with ice-cold, unpasteurised, whole milk. Absolutely deeelicious and popular with the whole household.

    Small things, but good. 

    And hopefully providing momentum for navigating the rest of the autumn, 
    regardless of what falls from the trees, 
    either literally or figuratively.

    E x

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  • 10/09/15--04:29: Autumn Delights
  • 1 Pumpkins. I really do love pumpkins and when their bright orange faces first appear in October, I always feel buoyed up.

    I bought one of those beautiful duck-egg blue ones the other day (although I think technically it's a Crown Prince Squash and not a pumpkin at all) but felt that on balance it was a bit like the idea of wearing blue lipstick. Fun, in theory, but better to stick to the more tried and tested classic colour zone, in practice. I roasted the the flesh in its blue-green skin and found the skin turned the beautiful vivid orange flesh disconcertingly murky; the flavour was a bit murky too. One lives and learns these things. In case you're wondering, I have not actually worn blue lipstick to live and learn that, but I can probably anticipate that particular "learn", without bothering!

    Back to the pumpkins. I always make roasted pumpkin soup at this time of year. Simple; delicious and full of vitamin A.

    This version was about as simple as you can get. A splash of olive oil, an onion, two sticks of celery and a pile of roasted (classic orange) pumpkin, water, salt and pepper. Thick. Satisfying. Cheerful.

    I also make spiced pumpkin muffins with grated, raw pumpkin. The pumpkin flavour is subtle and unobtrusive but it makes the muffins deliciously moist and sticky. I look forward to making these every year and they never disappoint. Ever.

    You can find my recipe here, if you're interested - just scroll down past the crochet slippers.

    This year I wanted to experiment with making pumpkin scones. I'd seen a few examples around on the Interwebs and loved the idea of a bright yellow scone hit. The first version I made was disappointing - not enough pumpkin purée and too many spices so that they tasted wonderfully of "pumpkin spice" but were a very miserable brown colour. I can make spiced, plain, brown scones any time. What I wanted was the colour pop! (Is it the blue lipstick thing again, perhaps?!) So I had another go, using my own family scone recipe as a base and "pumpkinising" it, if that's a word. It worked. These yellow jobs are vivid, to say the least, even on the outside.

    And on the inside? Well, see for yourself... Sunny side every side! Even allowing for the fact that it had got dark by the time I took this photo last night and the light had to be lamplight.

    To make these, you need 250 g cooled roasted pumpkin purée on hand for which you'll want about a quarter to a half of a culinary pumpkin weighing approximately 1.5 kg  to 2 kg in the hand. Cut the raw pumpkin into wedges and cut out all the woolly fibres and seeds. Don't peel it. Roast, skin-side down, in a baking tin for an hour at 190 C until the flesh is beautifully soft. Cool and then peel off the skin before mashing the flesh with a fork or whizzing to a rough purée in a food processor.

    For the scones, put 500 g white self-raising flour, a generous pinch of salt, half a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg, two teaspoons of cream of tartar and one teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda into the food processor, Whizz briefly to aerate and mix. Add 50 g cold unsalted butter in pieces and whizz to the consistency of breadcrumbs. Tip the mix into a big bowl and when you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 220 C and line a baking sheet with baking parchment.

    Whisk 250 g of the cooled, roasted pumpkin puree with enough natural yoghurt to make about 350 ml of liquid overall. Pour into the bowl of dry ingredients and mix with a knife to a dough. It makes a nice well-behaved kind of dough, I found. Roll out thickly, (or just press out with well-floured hands which is what I do) and cut into rounds or triangles. Brush with milk and bake for 10 - 12 minutes until well-risen and golden.

    I omitted adding any sugar because I fancied them as savoury scones with cream cheese but you could add a tablespoon of sugar or two, if you wanted to serve them with jam. They are very good. A hint of nutmeg but not too spicy and the colour is just glorious. A brilliant, unshadowed, sunflower-yellow. Not remotely a blue lipstick experiment! The marriage with cream cheese works beautifully and I think they'd also be very good with soup.

    And because every home needs a pumpkin or two that aren't roasted, but sit cheerfully on the window-sill on grey, wet autumn days, I made these.

    Not remotely functional, but completely charming and I love them. They are weighted down with plastic, bean-bag pellets tied up in a little nylon stocking bag stuffed inside the filling to give them a bit of authentic heft - the best real pumpkins feel heavy for their size. So actually, they work as paper-weights should they need usefully to earn their keep! You can find the pattern here. It's in German but very nice and straightforward to follow. When you come to the decrease part, the pattern only specifies the first couple of rows. Don't worry - just keep on decreasing in exactly the reverse order in which you increased on the way up. You can alter the number of rows you do in the middle (without increases or decreases) to vary the size of your finished pumpkin. My pale green and lighter orange pumpkins are done with eight of these rows (as per the original pattern) and the larger, darker orange one is done with twelve rows instead of eight to make him a bit bigger than the other two. I made up the leaves and curly tendrils myself, using this pattern here as a starting point and adapting it, as I went, to suit.

    Lurking in the pumpkin patch is not just a toadstool or two - hooky or otherwise - for luck, but also one of the hedgehogs I made a couple of years ago. Clearly enjoying a bit of autumn rootling before hibernation calls!

    2 Potatoes. While we are talking vegetables. Not for eating, this time, but printing.

    Inspired by the turning leaves in their vivid reds, russets, and yellows against the evergreen ivy in the hedge, I turned some potatoes into leaf-stamps for printing wrapping paper. Fun. And easy. I used real leaves for the templates and water-based printing ink to print with.

    I find it works best to paint the ink on with a brush rather than dip the potato in a pool of ink as printing ink is quite thick and you risk overloading your design area and wasting ink. It's also a good idea to cut a couple of wedges out of the wrong side of the potato stamp to make something to grip them by when you're printing as they can be slippery customers to manipulate otherwise.

    Some of the prints are more imperfect than others but somehow they work OK all together, I think.

    I started off trying to print in some kind of ordered pattern but the potatoes had other ideas. And when potatoes have their own ideas it's best to go with them. The overall effect reminds me of autumn leaves eddying and floating to earth in a sunny, autumn breeze.

    3 Crab Apples. I promised myself that I would make no more jam this year. The larder shelves are full and there is only so much jam one household can eat. But my little crab apple tree, planted only eighteen months ago has been unexpectedly dripping with tiny, rosy, crab apples and I couldn't resist. I will give it away at Christmastime, I promise! (Well, some of it, may be!)

    4 Dulce de leche. I thought I would have a go at making my own dulce de leche to spoon on, well anything really, pancakes, fruit, yoghurt, whatever. H tasted my efforts cautiously but when I told him how I made it, he went off the idea. Can't think why - it's just boiled milk and sugar, but there you have it. Feeling that as a result, the temptation of it sitting uneaten in a jar, in the fridge, might lure me into secretive, midnight spoon-raids, and that temptation might be less, if it were incorporated into a composite dish, I wondered how to use it. Various possibilities proffered themselves but I opted for swirling it into freshly churned, homemade vanilla ice cream. I am not sure however, that the tub of finished ice cream is not a substantially more powerful temptation than the original jar was of the stuff, neat! What was I saying about living and learning?!

    You can buy dulce de leche ready-made, of course, and if you do want to make it, you can go an easier route by simply boiling up an unopened tin of condensed milk. However, making it from scratch was, although time-consuming, not at all difficult. I didn't want to go down the boiling tin route - comes out a bit too dark and thick for my liking and then there's always the risk of the tin exploding "in media re" which, although potentially exciting, would also be messy. Anyway, I wanted something slightly more gooily runny but still unctuously thick, and you can control that much more easily if you use the fresh milk method. I used Claire Thomson's recipe from The Guardian which you can find here.

    Claire specifies that you need to cook the milk mixture for about an hour and a half and up to two. I cooked mine for an hour and twenty minutes. Couldn't wait any longer as I had to go out but you could go on a tad longer, if you want it sit-up-and-beg-stiff. Get a good book or go through your emails on your laptop to wile away the time usefully, as you stir. The precise time will depend in part on the size and shape of your pan as well as the vigour of your heat source. If you have an extractor fan over your hob, use it - speeds up the evaporation. Do not leave the mixture unattended. You want to avoid it catching and burning at all costs. The beauty about this method is a) you can see the milk begin to caramelise and progressively change colour which, if you like seeing a bit of kitchen chemistry in action, like I do, is fun and b) you can control the timing of the process to end up with the consistency you prefer. A little less long and a lighter, caramel shade, for a runnier sauce and slightly longer and a darker, more treacle-toffee shade, for a stiffer one. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Carefully spoon and scrape the cooled dulce de leche into a jar; cover and store in the fridge.

    Lick the spoon and that spatula you used to scrape the sides of the pan - it would be wasteful not to! - yes, it is as delicious as you hoped it might be! Apparently keeps for several weeks but I doubt if I will be able to road-test that.

    Swirl into freshly churned, homemade, vanilla ice cream, if you want to taste the ambrosia of the Homeric gods come to life, from the pages of myth!

    5 Late blooming of flowers in the garden that I thought had gone to their eternal rest for good. In the golden autumn light the colours are peculiarly intense and alive.

    6 And finally, a delightful autumn visitor to my apple tree earlier this week. I apologise for the blurry quality of the pic but it had to be taken through a window to avoid disturbing him. I think he is not after apples, but earwigs and other creepy crawlies in the bark of the tree, to which he is very welcome. If he would care to venture inside and see off the enormous house-spiders which currently seem to be launching a takeover bid here, I'd be even happier.

    Autumn delights. 
    In many ways. 
    Wishing you a pumpkin-shell full of them!

    E x

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  • 10/17/15--09:30: Rubbish Talk
  • Seriously. This content of this post is rubbish. You might argue that how a society disposes of its waste tells you something fundamental about it, in which case there are some signs of hope for us all, as we've become a lot more conscientious about waste than we were. Long gone are the days of my childhood when you put your rubbish (all of it, shamefully unsorted) into galvanised metal bins that the dustmen (so-called) came and collected from your back door, emptied and put back, outside your back door, every week. Now rubbish has to be carefully sorted, segregated and placed in the correct, coloured wheelie-bin which must be placed at the roadside, (but not on the road), by 7.00 am on the correct morning for collection on designated dates, once a fortnight unless there's a public holiday, when the whole system goes haywire and a whole new temporary timetable has to be digested. Waste disposal is no longer a simple business. And failure to comply at any stage of the process  - not sorting rubbish according to the guidelines; filling the  brown garden-waste wheelie-bin so that the lid does not completely close; not placing any wheelie-bin in the correct location for collection, or failing to get any bin in position by 7.00 am sharp - is a serious matter and not taken lightly.

    Keeping track of which colour wheelie-bin is due for collection, which day, in which week, is not always easy, when one's life mostly revolves around matters other than rubbish, but it's a shift in the way daily life is lived, that basically, I think, is a rather good thing. Partly because sometimes one man's / woman's waste is another man's / woman's treasure, and partly because the idea of piles of waste fouling the landscape and polluting the earth, sea and air we all live alongside is, obviously, pretty nasty. Something that seeing (and smelling) some of the city's rubbish mountains on a trip to Cairo, a few years back, really brought home.

    Having said that, every time the goal posts are moved on the rubbish front, it takes me a while to adjust. For example, when waste-food bins were introduced in Oxfordshire for collecting stuff that wasn't suitable for home-composting, back in 2010, I got myself in a ridiculous quandrary over the correct destination for various items. Where do you place a used muffin paper, for example? It's paper, so, presumably it goes in the normal paper, glass and tin recycling bin, but hang on! What about that muffin-residue that's still stuck to the wrapper? Does that make it food waste? Or where do you put that wad of kitchen paper-towel, soaked in excess roasting-fat, that you used to wipe the dish out before washing? The dilemmas seemed legion at the time although of course one adjusts after a while and it becomes second nature. (Biodegradable paper muffin-wrappers do go in the food bin, I decided.)

    The latest goal-post-moving, here in the UK, is in relation to plastic carrier bags which, apparently, take a terrifying one thousand years to decompose. In order to cut down their indiscriminate use, most UK retailers must now charge for supplying plastic carrier bags and the day of the plastic carrier as the disposable receptacle of choice, for everything from muddy wellington-boots to cooking-apples, gifted from a friend's tree, is gone.

    I tend anyway to use an old-fashioned shopping basket for hands-on food-shopping. Though, if my eyes are bigger than my basket, I've always fallen back on accepting a free carrier. No more.

    I have also always used plastic carriers as bin-liners. In fact, in my kitchen, a plastic carrier on the inside of the cupboard door, under the sink, has, for the last twenty-years-plus, I am ashamed to say, been the bin itself - free, space-saving, hygienic, convenient. Or it was, up till now.

    Shopping for clothes or other items, I've never bothered to take a receptacle for my purchases. But I can't stuff half a dozen pairs of socks from Marks and Spencers in my handbag or squirrel bulky stationery supplies in my coat pockets. Habits must change.

    So I've been experimenting with a few novel solutions for this new phase in the rubbish dispensation. One is rather frivolous while also functional, the other is a bit more utilitarian. Both recycle stuff that would otherwise probably be heading for one or other of the wheelies.

    Want a peek?

    This is my first effort. A bin made out of an old Malteser tub and a bit of hooky. It's not huge but adequate for a small room. No liner required. Though I have imposed s few restrictions on what may be placed in it! See below!

    The pattern for the crochet flower fabric is taken from a pattern for a gorgeous bag in Nicki Trench's Cute And Easy Crochet With Flowers.

    I love that bag! But it requires 207 flowers which is a lot of flowers. In fact the bin idea came about when I'd made and sewn together about 20 and was beginning to baulk at clocking up another 187. I was also becoming concerned by the fact that the way the flowers tessellated together once sewn, was distinctly un-linear and it looked as though it might prove distinctly tricky to create the rectangular bag shape. Could I find something where the way the flowers tessellated was an advantage, rather than the reverse? I could! It's worked like a dream. The Malteser tub, as you can see, is a flower-pot kind of shape ie its circumference is smaller at the bottom than the top.

    This is not the easiest shape in the world to crochet a cover for in straight rows, I've found, but the flowers negotiated easily what is difficult otherwise to accommodate, namely the sloping sides. 

    I had to keep trying the cover on with the wrong side turned outwards to see where to join on the flowers as I went but it worked fine. I made sure I joined enough flowers to hold together first of all and then went round filling in the gaps, keeping the flowers fairly taut so that it held up nicely.

    I think I've used about 80 flowers in total - it's very difficult to count them, once sewn together, without losing track of which ones have been counted and which ones haven't. Certainly nowhere near 207 anyway. The yarn is Stylecraft Classique DK Cotton in a variety of colours left over from various other projects and I've used a 5mm hook which is big for this yarn but works well as the flowers hook up quite densely.

    Then there was the question of how to attach the cover to the plastic tub. I considered threading some elastic through the top edge of the flowers but wasn't sure it would hold firmly enough - the cover needs to be stretched quite taut, for the best effect. So I persuaded D to drill small holes all along the top edge which he did very kindly.

    I was then able to stitch the cover in place directly on to the tub itself using red yarn to match the colour of the plastic.

    Very easy to do, and it can easily be snipped off in order to wash the cover and re-sewn, as and when need arises.

    I am thrilled at how it's turned out. The tub is ages old - I got it one Christmas and once the Maltesers were finished - what is it about Maltesers that makes them, even in a tub this size, last so short a time?! - it's served, very occasionally, as a useful container for fruit-picking etc but has otherwise been cluttering up a cupboard and falling out on anyone so foolish as to open the door unwarily. It now has a permanent useful function and has become a delightful object to the eye as well as very useful rubbish container.

    This is the base which I decided to make solid.

    No nasty rubbish in here, please, though! Yarn ends? Yes! Waste paper? Yes! Pencil shavings? Possibly!

    Chewing gum, the contents of the dust-pan, detritus off the bottom of people's shoes? No thank you! I am as pernickety as the local council, on waste disposal protocol, clearly!

    OK, now for my second experiment. These are very simple and very functional bags made from old shirts. They aren't disposable but neither are they at all special and if one gets irretrievably snagged, or damaged I shan't have the slightest compunction in getting rid of it (into the textile recycling bank) and replacing it with another. I have taken to using them as my kitchen bin and as other bin-liners as well as spare shopping bags than can be stuffed in the car, my handbag or anywhere else. They go in the washing machine at whim, on a hot wash and I don't care if they get marked or dirty. They aren't particularly pretty but they don't need to be. They are quick to run up and all you need is an old man's shirt. An old shirt, I mean, not an old man! Men's shirts are best as they are more generously cut but you could use any shirt that's reasonably sized. I used some old shirts where the collars and cuffs had become so frayed as to be unwearable but the body of the shirt fabric was still fine.

    What you do:

    1 Lay the shirt out on a table with the front facing you. (Unbuttoned, as in the pic)

    Cut off the button band and the button hole band on each side of the front of the shirt, cutting up from the bottom edge, in a straight line -  the existing stitching will guide you - no need necessarily to use a ruler.

    2 Now cut up alongside the side-seams nice and close to the seams. When you reach the sleeve, cut across the shirt front horizontally. You now have two similarly shaped panels each with a straight edge lying adjacent to one another.

    3 Place the two edges of these pieces together, with right sides facing, and stitch in a straight seam. Press the seam open.

    4 Now turn the shirt over so that the back is facing you. Cut up alongside the side seams as you did for the front and when you reach the sleeves, cut across horizontally.

    5 Place the stitched panel and the panel cut from the back together with right sides facing and cut out a simple squareish bag shape. The pattern I drew out was 16"/ 41cm square

    6 Cut out small, identical-sized squares from the bottom corners. (Mine were 2"/ 5cm) This helps to make the bag nice and boxy when you come to stitch it up but you can omit this stage if you like. You can see how I've cut mine in the pic of the panels waiting to be sewn together below. The panel on the left is the one made from the two pieces from the front of the shirt, stitched together down the centre as in Step 3 above.

    7 Place the cut panels together, right sides facing and pin and stitch the long sides and the bottom edges together leaving the boxy bits flapping, if you cut boxy bits, that is. If you did this, once you've stitched the main side and bottom seams, you need to align these so that the end of the side-seam matches the end of the bottom seam. Pin and stitch across to seal up the bottom of the bag.

    If you didn't cut boxy bits out, just carry on sewing down one side, round the corner, along the bottom, round the second corner and up the remaining side. Even simpler.

    8 Fold over the top of the bag, press and the fold in the raw edge. Stitch all the way around the top.

    9 Cut two strips for the handles about 16" / 41cm long by 3"/ 7.5cm wide from the shirt fabric that remains. I cut mine from the bottom of the back panel but you could also use the sleeves. Try to cut the strips along the straight grain of the fabric from wherever you cut them.

    10 Fold each of the handle strips together, right sides facing, lengthwise. Stitch. Turn out and press.

    11 Position the handles where you want them along the top edge of the bag and stitch in place.

    12 Snip off any loose threads and you're done.

    A rather roomier, bigger version could be made from old bed-linen. I have some elderly duvet covers in my sights next which might become boot-bags or potato-storing sacks! And of course although these homemade bags aren't waterproof like plastic ones are, I am not sure that their breathability isn't more useful. Neither muddy boots nor fruit and vegetables do well, wrapped in plastic. And for rubbish? Well, so far, I've found they've worked a treat. Anything wet and messy is generally destined either for the garden compost heap or the waste-food bin. What happens when I have something that falls outside the remit of those receptacles I will have to discover, as and when! Meanwhile, I have no plastic carriers in the house - they've all gone in the bag-recycling facility offered by the supermarket. A small insignificant planet-friendly effort may be, but from small acorns and all that.

    Anyone have any any inspirational rubbish tales to tell or frugal rubbish makes you'd recommend? Do share them.
    E x

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    Do you know the legend of the Christmas Rose? There are a couple of Christmas Rose legends, actually, but the one I've been thinking about recently is originally a Scandinavian folk-tale. It was retold very beautifully by the Nobel Prize-winning Selma Lagerlöf in the early 20th C. Her story, in the original format, is out of print now but you can get a kind of basic, reprint version here

    Like all the best folk-tales, it is a mysterious, and slightly unsettling, mix of light and shadow; good and bad; truth and fiction. The bad guys are not all bad and the good guys are not all good, as in real life.

    And because one of my favourite things at Christmastime is to enjoy and share a Christmas story I thought I'd share this one with you here. I hope you enjoy it! I've paraphrased the story as told by Lagerlöf (actual quotations are in italics). So get a cup of tea or coffee and may be a homemade Christmas marshmallow (if you insist and only because they are so yummy and it is Christmas!), put your feet up for a few moments well-earned rest and read on:

    The legend is set, deep in the forest of Göinge in the province of Skåne, in southern Sweden. It tells of an outlawed family, who live in the forest because the misdeeds of the father mean that they have to live, literally, beyond the pale, to avoid him being arrested. Beyond the reach of the law and outside society.

           Periodically, the endearingly, if slightly unimaginatively, named, Robber Mother leaves the forest hideaway to beg for food – it’s not easy to provide for five children when you are an outcast.

           One day Robber Mother and the ragged robber children arrive at the gates of the local monastery. While a monk fetches bread for them, one of the children spies the cloister garden. It is a work of art. Robber Mother pushes open the gate and walks along the neat, gravel paths, lined with box-hedging, beside beds planted with herbs and a profusion of flowers – roses, wall-flowers and lavender, among aromatic bushes of rosemary, thyme, dill and chamomile. The air hums with bees in the sunshine. The whole thing is a vision of Eden and Robber Mother and her children love it.

           The gardener - a lay brother novice - however is not pleased at the invasion of Robber Mother and her unruly brood and tries to turf them out. Hearing raised voices, the Abbot comes out and talks kindly to Robber Mother. Abbot Hans is astonished at her delight in the garden. She is a wild, uncouth creature. What on earth does she know about the beauty and order of a garden like this?

           Robber Mother turns to Abbot Hans, “First when I saw this, I thought I had never seen a prettier garden but now I see that it can’t be compared with one I know of.”

           Abbot Hans is even more astonished and the gardener, laughs mockingly at Robber Mother. “We all know that this is the most beautiful garden in Skåne. How can you who live in the wild forest know of a better one? I’ll wager my soul you’ve never ever been in a garden like this before.”

           Robber Mother is angered by this response. “It may be true that I have never been in a monastery garden before but if you are holy men, you must know that every Christmas Eve Göinge Forest is transformed into a beautiful garden to commemorate our Lord’s birth. We who live in the forest have seen it every year and the flowers are so beautiful I dare not pick a single one.”

           Abbot Hans is intrigued. He’s heard the old story that every Christmas Eve the forest blooms as if it’s the garden of Paradise but he’s assumed it was just a myth. He begs Robber Mother to let him come up to Robber Cave on Christmas Eve and show him the garden. Robber Mother is uncertain – she’s worried about revealing where they live but Abbot Hans promises she can trust him and she agrees.

           The weeks go by and Abbot Hans can’t wait for Christmas Eve! He visits the Archbishop and tells him about the robber family living in the forest which blooms every Christmas and he asks for a pardon for Robber Father. “For if they can see God’s glory, they can’t be wholly bad.” The Archbishop is unconvinced but he promises the Abbot that the day the Abbot sends him a flower plucked from the Christmas garden in Göinge, he will sign a pardon for Robber Father.

           Christmas Eve arrives and Robber Mother sends one of her ragged youngsters to show Abbot Hans, and the lay brother who accompanies him, the way. The route is long and arduous. They pass through villages where preparations are in full swing for Christmas. Floors are being swept and scoured; spiced bread is being baked; children’s faces are being scrubbed and new clothes put on; doorways and rafters are being decorated with evergreens. People are joyful and merry together.

           Soon the villages are left behind. The road is steep and desolate. Snow is falling thickly, adding to the drifts that already cover the banks. Rocks litter the path and mountain streams gush in freezing torrents across the way. Finally as the daylight fades, they arrive. The child opens the door of Robber Cave and the visitors enter. There is a log fire but little else. Robber Father lies asleep on a bed of pine branches and moss while the children sprawl on the floor eating a watery gruel from a common pot. Abbot Hans is shocked. “Robber Mother has neither brewed nor baked; she has neither washed nor scoured.” A few of us might, in our heart of hearts, own to a pang of envy of Robber Mother bypassing the cooking and cleaning tyranny that can sometimes beset Christmas, but that’s by the by!

           Abbot Hans talks to Robber Father and Robber Mother about the Christmas merriment down in the villages from which the family is excluded and explains his hope of a pardon from the Archbishop.

           Robber Father and Robber Mother laugh at him. “If I get a pardon from the Archbishop, I’ll never steal again.” Robber Father mocks.

           Now midnight is approaching and on the cold, night wind, through the snow, they hear the faint clang of the first Christmas bells chiming in the valley below. Everyone rushes outside into the dark, frozen forest. After a few moments, there is a glimmer of light and the darkness begins to lift. The snow on the ground begins to melt and in its place is fresh green moss and new fern shoots. Blossom appears on the trees and there are crimson, bell-shaped flowers on the heather. Butterflies, woodpeckers and finches fly among the leafy branches. A warm wind blows up from the south scattering wildflower seeds that take root, spring up and bloom the instant they reach the earth. Purple blueberries, lingonberries and juniper berries are everywhere. Russet cones deck the spruces. The whole place is a version of Isaiah’s vision of God’s holy mountain with peace and plenty throughout Creation. There are even the faint strains of harp music and angelic singing on the breeze.

           Abbot Hans’ heart is filled with wonder and delight. His face is radiant. Never did he think he would get to taste the joy of heaven on earth or hear the Christmas angels sing. He kneels down in adoration of the heavenly vision before him.

           But the lay brother is sceptical. Instead of recognising the glory of God, he thinks it is all a work of deception and devilry. A forest dove flutters down to nestle on his shoulder but he strikes out at her and cries out, “Be gone, you sorcerers!”

           Now, suddenly, everything changes. The light and warmth vanish abruptly and the darkness rushes back. The frost inches its way back over the moss and green plants. The fresh leaves shrivel and drop. Abbot Hans is so struck with grief that he drops down in a dead faint and when they carry him back to the monastery, they find he is indeed dead. The lay brother is full of remorse. He knows it was his fault for scoffing at the miracle.

           As they come to bury the Abbot they realise that he has something clutched tight in his hand. A pale-fleshed bulb. The lay brother gardener plants it in the cloister garden but all year there is no sign of life from it.

           Finally it is nearing Christmas again and on Christmas Eve he sees that the bulb has sprung into life with green stalks and fragile, white flowers. He realises that the bulb had been plucked by Abbot Hans from the Christmas Garden in Göinge Forest and so he takes a flower from it to the Archbishop and secures a letter of pardon for Robber Father. The Robber Family are now able to leave their cave and rejoin the warmth of human society and share everyone’s Christmas joy and merrymaking.

           But the damage has been done, for after the lay brother’s outburst of cynical scoffing, Göinge Forest never again bloomed on Christmas Eve. Of all its glory only one flower remains – the Christmas Rose that Abbot Hans plucked. Each year, the legend goes, she blooms again at Christmastime and “sends forth from the earth her green stems and white blossoms as if she never could forget that she had once grown in the great Christmas Garden at Göinge Forest.”

           It is a poignant tale, albeit a very charming one. Like all the best stories, it holds some precious kernels of timeless truths. Nothing earth-shattering, in fact most of them are well-worn truisms, but somehow seen through the lens of the story, there is a freshness about them, I think. 

     The story reminds me that “The whole world is a series of miracles, but we are so used to seeing them, we call them ordinary.” (Hans Christian Andersen)  It nudges me to remember that to experience miracles depends on faith and a willingness to see. It's so easy to become cynical especially when you look around at what's going on in the world. But it's a slippery slope I would like to resist.

    It reminds me that the magic of Christmas is not about a perfect family enjoying perfect presents, a perfect house, perfect hand-made decorations, and a perfect turkey dinner – go, Robber Mother! - it is about having room for wonder in one's heart at God coming among us.

    It reminds me that sometimes we have so much "stuff"in our lives that if we're not careful, we can miss the real gifts that come our way unbidden, without fancy wrapping or a hefty price tag and that sometimes our certainties are the things that cut us off from light and joy and peace.

    It reminds me that sometimes it takes the outsider, the stranger, the one who is different and even unwelcome to show us what really matters and that sometimes we realise that, only when it is too late.

    It reminds me that Christmas is still a magical time even when I feel snowed under with work and other stuff.

    Inspired by the legend and among all the unexpectedly time-consuming busyness that this autumn has brought, I've made a Christmas Rose wreath. Like to see?

    Wishing you all 
    a wondrous and blessed Christmas 
    and Christmas Roses of hope and faith to light your 2016.


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  • 01/07/16--06:32: Motto For 2016
  • Lots of people, these days, seem to choose a word, or a phrase, as a kind of motto, or talisman, for the New Year. It's rather an appealing idea and I've been toying with a few. Some of them more frivolous than others.

    I wondered first of all about taking a leaf out of Marie Antoinette's book - something along the lines of "Let me eat cake!" but that seemed a bit greedy and, actually, I intend to eat cake a-plenty whether or not I've adopted a cake-eating motto.

    Next, I considered something a little more serious and dynamic such as "flow" - a lot of change, potential and actual, lies ahead this year and I need to be able to move with the tide of life, as it ebbs and flows. Not something I shall find all that easy, I suspect.

    In the same vein, I considered "open" - both as a verb and a description of a static state. Opening doors and windows to move forward and to sniff the wind and the weather outside in a figurative sense. Being open and receptive to what the year and life may bring.

    Both of these possibilities had the virtue of simplicity, being single words. I'm not sure why, but, simplicity notwithstanding, neither seemed quite right. And then H and I went to see "Bridge of Spies" on Monday. I saw it for the first time before Christmas actually, but it's still showing in Oxford, so going to see it again made a nice end-of-the holidays-outing.

    There is a catch-phrase that comes up in the film - "stoikiy muzhik"* or "standing man" in Russian, with  associations of endurance, patience and persistence winning through against unlikely odds. I am not sure I am a natural "stoikiy muzhik" - I am too inclined to bustle and flit and let's admit it, panic!, but in an odd sort of way, the slight unfamiliarity, even strangeness of the concept makes more sense to me, on the threshold of this year than anything else. After all, there's no point adopting a motto that doesn't remind you to do things slightly differently from how you would have done things anyway. So "stoikiy muzhik" it is. I expect, as Russian is an inflected language, there's a feminine form for "standing woman" which would be more appropriate for my purposes but I'm afraid I have no idea what that would be.

    * I have no idea either whether I've transliterated this correctly from what I heard in the film. If anyone, reading this, speaks Russian and can correct me, or indeed supply the feminine version, please do so!

    It's perhaps not a very glamorous motto, I grant you. Even in the film, the phrase is originally applied to someone "who never did anything remarkable". But that unremarkable someone survived when perhaps otherwise he wouldn't have done and the lawyer to whom the phrase gets transferred in the film proves that being there; being yourself; waiting out the to-ings and fro-ings of events; refusing to blow with every wayward gust of wind; those things have a worth and value that it's easy to underestimate or overlook.

    It's not a pretext for remaining static or failing to move on. That would be a poor motto indeed for handling the inevitable changeability of life, in this year or any other. But it is a reminder to keep faith when the ground feels unsteady or treacherous, figuratively speaking. It's a reminder to hold a steady course, rather than give up because there is a cross-wind or it has started to rain, metaphorically. It is a reminder that as human beings we are precious primarily because we are here, not because of what we achieve or even aim to achieve. It may of course backfire on me and I may find it helps me not a jot. But it may just find me at the year's end standing, like Tom Hanks on the Glienicke Bridge outside Berlin, with a certain peace of mind and heart and with more gained than I imagined would be possible. And that seems to me worth aiming for.

    I doubt that 2016 will see me continuously display the serene aspect of my Russian matryoshka doll here, but you never know! Here's hoping!

    Do you adopt a motto or word at the beginning of the year? If so, what's your chosen one for 2016?

    Wishing you the best of health and happiness for the year ahead, 
    E x

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  • 02/11/16--02:34: Snow-Shoes

  • It all began with one of those meanders along the highways and byways of the Interwebs when you can't remember how on earth you ended up where you have done, but you feel rather pleased at your destination anyway, however random the chance that brought you there. Don't ask me what started the meander - I have absolutely no idea now - but what I stumbled on in January was this website featuring Russian felt boots. They are called "valenki" in Russian - traditional footwear for men and women that provide excellent insulation in the severe cold of a Russian winter. Apparently they are effective in temperatures as low as - 40 C. They are traditionally worn both inside the home and outside in the snow, if it's dry or compacted snow, without any ill effect. But of course, being felt, they are not waterproof so they're not suitable for wearing in wet snow, or slush, (or English rain). These days, you can get plastic galoshes, or overshoes, to wear over the top of your valenki, in wet conditions, but originally they were designed just for the intense, dry cold of the Russian winter.

    While we never have that kind of cold in the UK - or that kind of snow, sadly - I find my feet often feel the cold and am always on the look-out for ways of keeping them warm in winter. These Russian felt boots seemed rather appealing. But would I wear them enough to justify buying a pair, bearing in mind that I live a long way south of the Arctic Circle, and would only be able to wear them indoors, on account of English rain and mud? I hummed and hawed and when I discovered that one of the options was plain valenki decorated with crocheted flowers, I nearly succumbed. I could buy a plain pair and add my own crochet flowers. Bingo! But then my more frugal self toyed with the idea, not just of decorating, but making a pair of valenki myself. There must be loads of felted boot patterns out there, why not have a go from scratch?

    Why not, indeed?! The rest, as they say, is history. I found a wonderful pattern, not for felted boots exactly, but for crocheted "mukluks" or slipper-socks. "Mukluks" are similar to valenki. They were also originally worn by those living in the Arctic. They differ from valenki in that, traditionally, they were not made of felted wool, but sealskin and they usually have ties to adjust the fit, rather than the single-piece wellington-boot-style of the valenki. They were worn, not by Russians, but by the native peoples of the Arctic much further west, at the northernmost tip of America. As well as keeping feet warm and dry, they also made your footfall silent and mukluks were therefore traditionally worn for hunting across the arctic snows. This version however is designed for tamer environments. I shall not be ice-fishing or moose-hunting in mine! The pattern is by Erssie Major and you can get it on Ravelry here. You can get a knitted version as well if you have a mukluk fancy, but you don't crochet. 

    The pattern uses tapestry crochet and a much thinner hook than you would normally use for the weight of yarn so that the fabric you make is quite dense and stiff.

    Because fit was important with these and I wanted to use a different yarn from that specified, I broke with habit, or I should say, laziness(!) and made a tension square. Worth the trouble, I have to say. I don't like working with very thin hooks; 3mm is about as thin as I'll go, comfortably, so I was relieved to find that although the yarn I wanted to use was aran weight rather than DK, a 3mm hook was fine. In fact the prescribed 2.5 mm hook and DK yarn would have come out too small. OK perhaps, if you don''t want to tuck your jeans into your mukluks but I did. 

    I've dabbled with tapestry crochet before. I wrote about it here - it's fun, if a bit fiddly until you get into the swing of it. Worth persevering, as it gets a lot easier and quicker, with practice.

    You need to change colour ahead of needing to use it, which results in quite a lot of twists getting put into the working yarn.

    I found the best way to deal with this was to push the twists down the yarn away from the work for as long as they would happily slide along and when they wouldn't slide any longer, to hold the work up by the two strands and let them spin the twists out by themselves before resuming and then repeating the process when necessary.

    Here you can see the accumulated twists that I've pushed down again towards the work so you can see how many there are, before I hold up the pink and red yarn strands and let the whole lot untwizzle itself.

    Initially I was going to restrict my colour palette to turquoises, purples and pinks but the mukluks had other ideas and it soon became apparent that they more or less had a mind of their own. So they are much more multi-coloured than I originally intended. I do think they would also work up very effectively in a much more restricted and/ or toned down palette. I might even consider making another pair, just to see!

    The yarn I used was Cascade 220, mostly left over from other projects. It's a perfect make for using up oddments of lots of different colours.

    In total, I used eleven colours. The specifics are as follows if you're interested:

    Blue Hawaii 9421
    Tutu 9477
    Lavender 8888
    Hot Pink 9469
    Hollyhock 9613
    Chartreuse 7814
    Blue Velvet 7818
    Koi 9565
    Goldenrod 7827
    Anis 8908
    Tiger Lily 9605

    The finished mukluks are longer than the pattern specified because I wanted them to be properly knee-high. That meant adding two extra bands of patterning. One band I repeated from the top, but in different colours, and the other I made up myself, using a simple heart design. I also added some extra rows to make the channel for the twisted cord at the top after I'd finished the basic mukluk. All in all, these additions gave me the extra length I was after.

    And my, am I pleased with them! They are bright, cheerful and as warm and comfortable as can be. The fit is generous enough to wear over the top of my jeans (which is what I wanted) and although they have these gorgeous stripy cords and happy pompoms to tighten the tops, they hold up perfectly well without needing to use them.

    The pattern suggests using moccasin-type soles which are perfect because they have a shallow "wall" along the sole making a kind of tray in which each foot sits and the "wall" is then sewn in place using pre-punched holes. These, sadly, are not available in the UK so I used a pair of suede slipper soles from Joes Toes, (a brilliant and inspirational emporium that I am sure I shall revisit.) When you are sewing on the soles, it is very helpful indeed if you can persuade a friend to insert their hand into the mukluk while you stitch. Be careful though, or a carelessly jabbed needle will render your helper both nervous and reluctant to continue! I am pleased to report that no hands were damaged in the construction of these mukluks!

    These soles don't have the shallow-tray, moccasin-design but neither do they hide any of the stripiness of the heels and toes which the moccasin-style ones might have done.

    Be warned, when selecting the size of sole, that you will probably need to go down several sizes - I made the mistake initially of measuring my shoes but actually, you need to go by your foot measurement because the mukluks are closer to a sock, in fit. My soles, for example, are actually size 3-4 even though my shoe size is 6.5.

    Inside the mukluks there is a hidden layer of extra cosiness too, in the form of a pair of sheepskin insoles from here. Gilding the lily, perhaps, you say?! I beg to differ! Putting my feet in these at the end of a long day is proving to be one of winter's great joys! As January proved to be a particularly grim month, I am enjoying the lift my mukluks are giving February!

    And if we should be lucky enough to have a spell of proper arctic weather with cold crisp skies and frost that disdains melting even though the sun is out, instead of this constant, miserable, grey rain and wind, my feet are ready. I may even wear the mukluks, out and about, inside my Hunter wellingtons with the pom-poms peeping out of the top.

    H informs me that along with my green coat this get-up would amount to pushing the embarrassing-parent-meter into the red zone but I am confident I am not yet in my mother's league with her infamous "tea-cosy hat" a garment that has gone down in family annals as the most embarrassing garment to be seen out with, ever! I can best describe it as a kind of tam o'shanter that came out way too big and in an ingenious bid to take up the slack, she bunched up the centre to make a kind of bulky top-knot. It is, shall we say, slightly peculiar, but very warm! She knitted it over forty years ago, when I was about six. I regret to say that my sister and I found it pretty embarrassing then and the next generation have unanimously maintained our approach! But it lives on indefatigably and when my parents came to stay this last Christmas and we went for a walk, guess what emerged from my mother's capacious pocket?! And do you know what? I was secretly pleased it was still going strong! One day, you never know, H might be pleased to see my mukluks in the same way!

    Wishing you cosy toes on a cold February day!

    E x

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  • 06/06/16--09:12: A Patchwork Story

  • Have you had defining moments of inspiration that set you off down a particular creative path? While much creative inspiration, I'm sure, is absorbed gradually and by a sort of process of subconscious osmosis, sometimes it strikes more like a bolt of lightning and looking back, even over many years, it stands out distinctly and identifiably.

    Trying out patchwork was one of these for me, when I was around eight or nine. The source of inspiration was a book - The Milly-Molly-Mandy Omnibus to be precise. Do you know the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories, written and illustrated by Joyce Lankester Brisley? They are very innocent and unsophisticated but happy, sunny tales of a little girl and her doings. Always highly moral and very homely, but utterly charming, they narrate an English childhood idyll that even when they were written in the late 1920s probably bore scant relation to real life. They are, I am glad to see, still available here

    Today, they read rather quaintly alongside contemporaneous offerings of modern children's literature and I am not sure that they would hold the attention of today's rather more sophisticated youngsters for long. But I was not a sophisticated child. In fact, quite the reverse and I loved these stories, one in particular. I still remember encountering it and the effect it instantly had on me. The story in question is "Milly-Molly-Mandy Makes a Cosy"

    Milly-Molly-Mandy has been invited to tea one afternoon "with Miss Muggins and her little niece Jilly." Miss Muggins, as well as being Jilly's aunt, is the proprietor of a haberdashery shop, of the old-fashioned kind: "Miss Muggins' shop and the passage behind smelt so interesting - like calico and flanelette and brown paper, with whiffs of peppermint and raspberry-drops" - are you hooked yet?! I certainly was, when I first read that description more than forty years ago.

    In my mind, I was already in that passage, sniffing the intriguing smells of fabric, paper, lint, furniture polish and sweets and I could see the bales of patterned muslin and plain calico, the glass-fronted drawers containing buttons and wooden reels of ordinary sewing thread and bright, silky skeins of embroidery floss that the shop sold even though the illustration didn't extend far enough to include them. Miss Muggins' job, of selling "cards of linen buttons and black elastic" and cutting gorgeous fabrics from different rolls with a big pair of heavy scissors, seemed, to me then, the acme of career choices. Even today, I find myself, every now and again, toying with the notion of giving up my present job and doing something similar. One day, you never know, it might become reality!

    But back to the story. Afternoon tea, of course, was not taken in the shop, but in the "little sitting room at the back". This smelt differently - "of warm buttered scones and sugary cakes, for the table was all laid ready, and Miss Muggins and Jilly were waiting for her. And over the teapot in front of Miss Muggins was a most beautiful cosy, all made of odd-shaped pieces of bright-coloured silks and velvets, with loops of coloured cord on top." 

    Milly-Molly-Mandy, (and her young reader all those years ago), were both transfixed by the tea-cosy and "thought how nice it would be to have such a beautiful cosy on the table at home." Informed by Jilly that her aunt had made the cosy herself, and emboldened by the consumption of "two buttered scones"and "a pink sugary cake", Milly-Molly-Mandy asks how it was made. Miss Muggins explains that it was quite straightforward and Milly-Molly-Mandy could easily make one herself. Milly-Molly-Mandy is entranced at the idea and so was I! The story continues with a most delightful account of Milly-Molly-Mandy saving scraps of fabric, ribbon and cord and secretly sewing together a cosy of her own.

    Her aunt teaches her how to cut the pieces and join them with embroidered feather-stitching and finally she is proudly able to put the finished patchwork tea-cosy over the cocoa-jug on the supper table, as a surprise for her mother.

    Well, it didn't take more than a second or two for the idea of copycatting this project to lodge firmly in my head and fashion my own, rather inexpert, patchwork tea-cosy from oddments of fabric in my mother's piece bag. It was a ham-fisted piece of construction, really, - it was made up of sixteen squares, sewn together by hand in wonky back-stitch. There was a lining - an off-cut of the printed wool fabric from which my mother had made my first long dress - it was the seventies, remember!  - but the bottom edges of said lining remained raw and it was attached to the outer part of the cosy with running stitch in bright green thread, that didn't match any of the fabrics, but was one of only two colours of thread I had of my own, in my sewing-basket. My mother, bless her, was every bit as delighted as Milly-Molly-Mandy's mother in the story and the cosy remains tucked in a drawer, in the kitchen of my parents' house. My mother even occasionally still uses it and despite its wonkiness, lack of skilled sewing and rough and ready design features, it does the job it was meant to. 

    More importantly, the whole experience started a happy patchwork journey which has stayed with me ever since. I am not talking about proper patchwork quilting here which is a skilled art-form in its own right that is rather beyond my powers, just simple, homely patchwork - playing with scraps of different left-over fabrics, turning something discarded or otherwise useless into something useful and, ideally, attractive to boot. I don't do it all the time but every now and again I get the urge for a bit of patchwork and it is always a happy and therapeutic activity. As happy as that first Milly-Molly-Mandy-inspired foray.

    Most recently, I got it in my head to make a patchwork sun-hat out of Liberty lawn fabric scraps really too small to keep but too pretty to throw away. (I think every stitcher has a bag of such scraps.) I found the idea here and I used the same pattern - you can download it for free here. It's beautifully designed - the instructions are clear and easy to follow and the shape of the hat is just right, I think.

    The lining is cut from a larger piece of Liberty lawn of which there was enough to cut all the pieces. It contrasts nicely with the patchy outside, I think. If you omit the ties you could of course treat the hat as reversible.

    All in all, it's been a totally delightful project. If you fancy giving a similar idea a go, yourself, here are a few tips that you might find helpful.

    1 Cut out the pattern pieces that you want to apply patchwork to in a neutral, plain fabric to act as a base for the patchwork and stay-stitch around the edges before you apply any patchwork at all, so that with all the stitching, they don't stretch. (I used some unbleached calico left over from backing some cushions which was perfect. You want something with a bit of substance, especially if the patchwork fabrics you are using are on the thin side like Liberty lawn. Old sheeting or a piece of lining fabric could also work well.)

    2 Make sure you allow enough fabric in each patch to ensure that all exposed raw edges can be turned in ie when you lay them out to plot your design, make sure there is plenty of overlap. Otherwise when you turn the edges in, unwelcome gaps, showing the base fabric, irritatingly pop up.

    3 Once you are happy with your patchwork layout, pin the pieces more accurately in position, turning under any visible raw edges. Then tack each one in place, by hand. This is especially important if you are using crazy patchwork with odd shapes. I rather like this part of the process. If you find it tedious, you can speed things up by using a glue stick suitable for fabric but I prefer the old-fashioned tacking method with a needle and thread.

    4 Now machine-stitch close to the folded over edge on each piece making sure there are no unsecured edges. I used a straight stitch, set at a slightly shorter stitch length than usual but you can also use a close-set zigzag stitch which works well too and is good if you want the stitching to stand out, as a bit of a feature. I notice the construction seam in the pic below stands out for lacking the top-stitching of the patches. I should have thought of that and stitched along the edge of the finished seam for a more uniform look but I didn't and now it's too late so, too bad!

    5 Once you have finished all the patchwork seams, stitch a 1/4" seam around the outside of each patchworked piece, trimming off any overlap and then you can treat your pieces just as if they were each a single piece of fabric and proceed with the construction of the hat, (or whatever you are making), as per the pattern.

    6 If you want to attach a tie so that there is some means of securing the hat and preventing it flying off in the wind, like me, this is what I did. I made a thin tube of fabric (1.25" wide, 28" long bias strip, folded lengthways, right sides together, and stitched with a 1/8" seam allowance) This I turned right side out out, using one of these turning gizmos - I used the narrowest one. Have you used these workers of magic? They are something of a revelation.

    Having said that, I found that it was absolutely impossible to persuade the fabric to go down the inside of the tube as per the instructions. Worked fine with a wider fabric tube for the larger plastic tubes but not the very narrow one. Don't despair however, because all you need to do is use the narrow tube to hold the fabric tube apart, as you get it started and then discard it. Bit by bit, you can push the sealed end down inside the fabric tube alone with the metal rod provided. Fiddly, but not impossible-fiddly, and there was certainly no way I'd have got that tube turned out without the help of the plastic tube to begin with. Apologies if what I'm saying is as clear as mud. It makes sense, I think, alongside the instructions for the gizmo. I inserted the two ends of the tie in the seam that joins the crown and rim of the lining, making sure it was not twisted and that the positions were equidistant apart. 

    Alternatively you can make two separate ties that can be tied in a bow or use a piece of elastic or nothing at all - depends on how you want to use the hat. I want to wear it while out walking or gardening or fruit-picking when a hat suddenly flying off in the breeze is a nuisance, especially if your hands are covered in blackberry juice or mud. The tie also means that you can hang the hat up easily which is quite convenient.

    7 To adjust the fit I attached one of those spring-loaded spherical cord stoppers to the loop of the tie. You can get these spring-loaded cord stoppers very cheaply from Ebay - 99p for 2 -and they come in lots of colours. Or you might be able to cannibalise one from an old camera strap or cagoule.

     Today it is beautifully warm and sunny after a long spell of cold, grey murkiness so I have christened my little patchwork hat while sewing and drinking tea in the garden keeping H company over his history revision. I am pleased to report that it works beautifully - light and comfortable to wear and the brim is just deep enough to shade out the sun from the eyes.

    As you can see, my teapot does not run to a patchwork cosy (yet!) but is wearing a bunch of cosy hooky nasturtium flowers instead.

    Wishing you a happy and sunny day, wherever you are.

    Apologies for my rather long absence from blogging - I haven't abandoned Mrs Tittlemouse's pages - there's just been too much to juggle in the rest of life, I am afraid, but hopefully I shall be back a bit more frequently over the summer.

    E x

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    ... if all the trees were bread and cheese
    what should we have to drink?

    Do you remember that absurd nursery rhyme? I thought of it today after a little printing foray landed me in a sea of blue ink which I managed to get on myself and almost everything else in the immediate, and not so immediate, vicinity. But never mind the mess, the print results were pleasing and what is a little blue ink among friends?!

    I have found this summer a strange limbo time, for various reasons with which I won't bore you. Even without today's inky exploits reminding me of the old nursery rhyme, I have felt sometimes I am inhabiting an absurd world that no longer makes a great deal of sense and in which I am not sure where I belong.

    But it is mid-August; the weather has been glorious; the blackberries are beginning to glow darkly on the bramble bushes and the wild plums are ripening far above my head in the trees that line the rides beside the cornfields and this is a good time.

    The country smells of summer - the contented, rich, dusty smell of ripe barley and wheat against the greener scent of long grass, wet with dew in the early morning but quickly drying as the sun climbs higher. The atmosphere is anchoring and seems to dare me to preserve it.

    That primeval urge to preserve and squirrel away at this time of year runs pretty deep in Mrs Tittlemouse's soul and this week I have given in. Not to making jam though - I have a jam-making-embargo this year because we have enough jam in my larder from previous years' preserving efforts to feed an army. A large army, at that! Researching other possibilities, I found a recipe for a Russian plum liqueur. Intriguing. Slightly different from some of my other concoctions and safely not in the adding-to-my-jam-mountain category,  I thought I'd give it a go.

    As I mentioned earlier, the wild plums are are already ripening but harvesting them is not an easy matter. The plum trees are tall - twelve or even fifteen feet high.

    And of course the plums sway tantalisingly, right up among the dappled leaves, at their tops.

    I have no portable step-ladder  high enough to pick them nor are the trees conducive to climbing, at least by me. What to do? A little ingenuity, was called for (and a little compromise). Some of the plums have already begun to fall to the ground. Discarding any with obvious bruising but retaining those that looked intact among those already fallen was a start. And what nature starts, man or woman may encourage, so a little judicious shaking of the tree produced a heavy shower of more. Plenty to half-fill several large jars. Here are some of my first gatherings - the reds a mixture of bright cherry, through garnet and ruby to deep purple with some translucent yellow ones thrown in for good measure

    The liqueur recipe, which is my own tweaking of several similar ones, is childs-play. Here it is, in case you should wish to do likewise:

    Pick or gather your plums - wild ones, any type, are great, if you can find them, but cultivated ones should work fine too, I guess.
    Wash the plums and dry carefully in a clean tea towel. (Discard any obviously bruised or damaged fruit.)
    Prick each one with a needle, several times and add to a large glass jar with a sealable lid.
    Add sugar - ordinary white granulated sugar is fine - about 300g to 500g fruit.
    Add a handful of blanched almonds for every 500g fruit.
    Add enough Russian vodka* to top the jar up and cover the fruit and sugar generously - about 500 ml per 500 g fruit.
    Leave in a cool dark place for as long as you can manage but at least three months before straining and bottling in clean, sterilised bottles. You may want to shake the jar from time to time as it matures to encourage the sugar to dissolve properly.
    Before drinking or giving your bottles of liqueur away, design and attach a suitable label.

    Ah, the labels! Which brings me to my printing foray. I liked the idea of the wild plum liqueur's Russian roots and wanted to make a Russian label for my bottles using Cyrillic script to spell out its Russian name - slivyanka.

    *Obviously you can use any vodka but I wanted to keep the Russian connection intact so I used Russian vodka made, (according to the label on the bottle), from wheat grown on the Russian steppes and water from Lake Ladoga near St Petersburg. I like the story of its provenance and the thought of that exotic northern distillate meeting my homely wild plums and sugar, under my nose here in rural England. A northern stranger made welcome and warmed, far from home.

    Researching slivyanka threw up some images of old Soviet labels which I used for inspiration and I made my own rubber stamp using this rather good little kit and this morning while my plums quietly continued to macerate in their rosy, syrupy jars in the dark, I had a go at printing with it.

    It's come out nicely, I think - handmade and rather rustic-looking but that's the effect I was after. The lettering, which had to be cut in reverse in order to print legibly, was tricky to carve out accurately and one or two letters had to have remedial plastic surgery in D's workshop to repair slightly over-enthusiastic carving. Ahem! Nothing to see here, people!

    I can't wait to bottle and label up my slivyanka and then sip the sunshine that it encapsulates on a grey, cold and wet November day. And it doesn't just encapsulate the sunshine - it's the ordinary and yet extraordinary memory of walking out on this last Monday morning, early enough for the air to feel like cool water on my bare legs but warm with the promise of a hot day ahead; looking up into the fluttering, sun-dappled leaves, far above my head to search out the bright plums hiding there; the curious feeling of plums raining on my head as my friend gave the tree a strategic shake; gathering the fallen fruit from their dusty, chalky resting places on the path and in the more cushiony, tuffets of grass; it's the memory too of the simple assembly of the jars, companionably done, and the uncomplicated delight in seeing them begin their long, slow journey from raw fruit, sugar and spirit to becoming a single blended liqueur that I imagine might find itself at home in a Russian forest under birch trees laden with snow, sparkling in the winter sun. "Fanciful!", you may say. Guilty as charged! But food and drink is always about the imagination as well as taste. And this particular imaginative byway makes me feel no longer in limbo but at home in myself so I am sticking with it.

    And so, ...
    If all the world was paper,
    and all the sea was ink,
    if all the trees were bread and cheese,
    what should we have to drink? 

    ... slivyanka, of course!

    Wishing you too, happy August days, wherever you are
    with memories so ordinary they become somehow extraordinary.
    E x

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  • 01/17/17--12:04: Ragged Lavender Hearts
  • I know it's a long time since Mrs Tittlemouse got her act together and posted anything but here I am, with a little creative idea that I thought you might like, if you're still reading, that is, and I can well understand it, if you have moved on to less stagnant waters over the last six months or so! Anyway, here it is. A little tutorial for making frugal, ragged, lavender hearts like this one.

    The other day my favourite pair of pyjamas - a brushed cotton Cath Kidston pair, duck-egg blue, spotted with white polka dots - finally gave up the ghost. Recent launderings had flagged up the fact that the main fabric had faded quite a bit and got very thin in places but I crossed my fingers and hoped it would continue to hold out. Sadly, it didn't. I considered mending the large rent that had appeared all of a sudden "and without any invitation" (to quote the original Mrs Tittlemouse) by my right shoulder but regretfully decided the fabric simply wasn't strong enough to take a patch that wouldn't quickly tear away.

    The main duck-egg-blue-spotted-with-white-polka-dots fabric of the pyjamas had been delightfully paired with a contrasting duck-egg blue and rose-sprigged print to make the collar, facings and placket on the jacket and the small back pocket on the trousers as well as trimming the sleeve and trouser cuffs. I really wanted to salvage that pretty, rose-sprigged fabric but close inspection revealed there was very little of it to play with. What could I make?

    After humming and hawing over various possibilities, I opted for something very small and simple but surprisingly satisfactory - ragged, lavender-filled hearts. I pass it on, in case you too have a pretty brushed cotton nightdress or pair of pyjamas that have seen better days that you can't bear to part with, though, of course, there's nothing to stop you using new fabric, if all your winter nightwear is in good shape!

    What you do:
    1 Draw out a simple heart-shaped template. Mine is about 12 cm / 4.5" tall and 12 cm / 4.5" wide. Too small and it will be too fiddly to sew and stuff; too large and you'll need more fabric and a lot of lavender to fill it. If you want to use the pattern I drew, I have managed, (I hope), to upload it as a pdf here. Make sure you print it out at 100% scale.

    2 Press your fabric pieces and if, like me, you are cutting up worn out clothing, choose a less worn part of the fabric, at least for the outer two of the four hearts you will need for each ragged lavender heart. If again, like me, you are after a fabric only used in very small quantity on the garment, look carefully at where it's deployed to see what you can salvage. Carefully unpick any stitching and lay out what you have. You may need, as I did, to stitch smaller strips together to give you enough to cut from. Just match and stitch together as required, pressing open the seams before laying out for cutting out your hearts.

    3 Cut out four hearts for each lavender bag. Two of these can be cut from less good portions of the fabric as they won't be seen. I cut my inner hearts from the rather more plentiful supply of faded main fabric, saving the rose-sprigged ones for the outer hearts. I was quite chuffed to manage to realise three ragged, lavender bags in total like this, although only one, made from the placket on the inside back of the jacket, is free from piecing-together seams, The others all needed some strategic joining together - see 2 above.

    4 For each finished lavender bag, place four hearts together with the right side of the top and the bottom heart facing outwards. Pin together.

    5 Cut a small piece of ribbon - about 15cm / 6" long - and fold in half lengthways. Insert the raw edges about 2cm / .75" below the edge into the central dip of the heart and pin in place to secure.

    6 Using a matching sewing thread, machine stitch all round the heart about .75 cm / a quarter of an inch in from the edge, leaving a gap of approximately 2 cm / .75" on one of the long sides so that you can fill the heart with lavender. Yes, I do mean stitch on the outside with the seam allowances showing! The red-headed pins mark my filling gap in the pics above and below.

    7 Fill the heart with dried lavender using a funnel and a spoon to help you. Make sure you spoon the lavender into the centre of the heart ie between the two innermost layers of fabric, leaving two layers on the outside, on both sides, as you can see in the pic below where my scissors are holding open the gap.

     A container is helpful to catch the lavender you will inevitably spill. I rather foolishly decided to do the filling, while sitting up in bed. Let's just say that finding grains of dried lavender in your sheets may smell wonderful but isn't exactly comfortable! If you have dried lavender from the garden, use that, or alternatively you can buy it, by the bagful, from suppliers such as this one. It's expensive if you buy a big bag but remember dried lavender does not weigh much in relation to its volume and you won't need more than around 10g / 0.5oz for each of these.

    8 Don't overfill the heart, or it will make it difficult to stitch up the gap. Also, I think a little looseness is nice in lavender bags. Once you have filled the heart adequately, pin the gap shut, to avoid losing any precious florets, and stitch the gap closed, joining up the two ends of the seam left previously. If you've overfilled the heart with lavender, you may not be able to lower the presser foot on your machine properly to stitch the gap closed. Either remove some of the lavender to give yourself a bit more room or alternatively, if you prefer the heart to be more plumply filled, you could switch your foot to a zipper foot to enable you to sew easily.

    Neatly tie off the threads and snip the ends so that it looks tidy.

    9 Now take a pair of pinking shears and carefully trim the edge of the seam allowance which is left on the outside to give a nice zigzag edge. Be extra careful around the dip of the heart where the hanging ribbon is attached, as you don't want to cut the ribbon by mistake.

    10 Hang your heart from a clothes-hanger or place in a drawer and enjoy.

    The multiple layers of brushed cotton fabric make these hearts beautifully soft and tactile.

     As well as giving them a nice fluffy edge.

    You can obviously make these with brand new fabric but I think you can't beat the softness of something much-laundered and worn. If you don't wear brushed-cotton pyjamas, mens' casual shirts are sometimes made from brushed cotton so a worn out, old one of these would be an alternative hunting ground, although it probably won't have pretty, rosy sprigs on it! But you could always prettify a manly tartan check with some embroidery, or a decorative button or two.

    I am wondering what other things one might make with brushed cotton. Other than polishing rags, of course. I see you can make a very attractive rag quilt using brushed cotton squares but I don't have enough fabric for that. Shoe bags are another possibility and it's good for baby accessories.  Any other suggestions? Do let me know if you have any bright ideas - I have quite a lot of pyjama fabric still to play with!

    Thank you for still being there, if you're reading this. I wish you a happy 2017 and hope to be back here again soon.

    E x

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    Hygge, the Danish concept of cosiness in winter seems to have become mainstream in the UK. Books, blogs, magazines, knitting and clothing catalogues are all exhibiting their hyggelig credentials. I really like the philosophy of hygge because rather than simply promoting pulling a metaphorical duvet over your head until the dark, cold winter days are gone (attractive although that sometimes seems, on yet another cold, dark, January morning), its essence actually rests on a subtler message : achieving a healthy balance between discomfort and comfort, bleakness and bliss, activity and rest.

    Hygge, it seems, is not just about toasting your toes in hand-knitted socks before a log fire with your hands around a warm mug of frothy, hot chocolate in the light of an obligatory candle. That's only half of it. The toasting your toes bit is only properly hyggelig when you've spent some time outside, walking in the countryside, chopping logs or gardening, (or may be skiiing, if you live in Scandinavia).

    It encourages us to get out there in the cold and be active outside, as well as to retreat inside and hunker down with a good book, a steaming mug of tea (and a candle).

    The combination is a good recipe for these early months of the year, post-Christmas when it still feels such a long way from warmer, lighter days. January blues are a common phenomenon. I see that the third Monday in January has even acquired Official Depressed Status  and is now being referred to as Blue Monday. Don't worry - we've past it; it was last Monday, not tomorrow!

    The other reason I like the philosophy of hygge is that although, like any of these lifestyle recommendations, you can spend a fair bit of money equipping yourself with hyggelig trappings, it is essentially a homely philosophy that makes the most of ordinary things, ordinary contexts, ordinary days and you don't have to spend much at all to bring out the hygge in your life, despite some of the marketing hype that might persuade you otherwise.

    Yes, it's cold outside, so, yes, you do need warm clothing and proper footwear if you're going to be outside for long. But they don't have to be new this year nor do they all have to match this season's colour-way.

    Yes, it's nice to come in to a warm house after being out but you don't need to install an open fire or a wood stove to be cosy.

    Yes, to earn its proper hygge status, what's on the table is ideally homemade, but it doesn't have to be complicated, in fact, for the Danes, it seems, if it's too complicated, it's not hygge. Hurray for simple!

    Hygge seems to be as much about doing as spectating - and that appeals to me.

    I've been trying to beat the January blues with the active part of hygge, aiming to walk early, every morning for 45 minutes or so and to get out and about at other times too. Nothing chills me down faster than working, hunched for hours over a computer screen, I find, so this, in part, is a functional strategy to keep my circulation active. But it's more than that - I just really love being out and being more active, even when it is bone-chillingly cold and to begin with, not remotely inviting.

    There's a very inspiring article from a couple of years back by Alys Fowler, of Gardener's Question Time fame, on the joys of being outside in winter. You can read it here. It buoyed me up just to read it. So if you feel you too need a bit of encouragement to get your boots on, have a look.

    But there's no doubt about it, that being outside in sub-zero temperatures (-8 C in Oxfordshire this morning) means something piping hot and inviting on the table when it comes to mealtimes is definitely de rigueur. Soup has always been prominent in my winter cooking repertoire - there's just something so comforting about a bowl of hot homemade soup and this year I've been making it even more than usual.

    Here is one that has become my winter favourite this year. It makes a perfect lunch after a winter walk (you can leave the vegetables to roast while you're out) and is cheap and cheerful to boot. Here in the UK, fresh tomatoes are often a bit disappointing, especially in winter. I devised this to try and emulate that intense, tomato flavour you get far more often in the Mediterranean and I am pleased to report it was a blinding success. Sorry, that doesn't sound very modest, does it? But it was! It's a variation on a number of similar roast tomato soup recipes I found and then tweaked to my satisfaction. You may well have one that works equally well but here is my version, for what it's worth.

    Roasted Tomato Soup - serves 4-6 

    What you need
    c 2 kg large tomatoes - plum ones are good but not essential. Last time I used three 500g packs and a small bowl of leftover smaller ones that were beginning to look a bit sad so probably a bit less than 2 kg in total.
    2 red peppers
    1 onion
    good, green olive oil
    salt and black pepper
    c 1.5 litres homemade vegetable stock or water - I have got into making my own vegetable stock as a regular thing - (very quick and easy in a pressure cooker) but plain water with some salt will be fine if stock-making isn't your thing. If using a commercial, powdered stock, make it up on the dilute side, otherwise it will overpower the fresh intensity of the tomato hit in this soup.

    What you do
    Preheat the oven to 190 C. Wash the tomatoes and peppers. Cut the tomatoes into halves or quarters (depending on their size).
    Halve the peppers, remove the stalks and inner cores with their seeds. Chop the flesh. Peel the onion and chop into chunks.
    Drizzle some olive oil over the base of a large heavy cast iron casserole with a lid. Pile in the vegetables. Season with a bit of salt and pepper and another good drizzle of olive oil. Not too much oil - or the finished soup will be heavy.
    Clap the lid on and put the casserole into the oven for a couple of hours. Remove the lid and roast uncovered for another half hour to 45 minutes to evaporate off some of the juices. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a bit. The vegetables should be meltingly soft and the juices concentrated but still present. This is what it should look like by the end of roasting:

    Tip the vegetables and their juices into a mouli* or food mill over a pan and crank the handle. Warning - I may be peculiar here, but I find this Seriously Fun!

    Thin the resulting intense, thick, red, purée with c 1.5 litres of stock (or water) - the exact amount of stock you need will depend on how thick your tomato purée is and how thick you want the soup to be. Reheat on the hob.
    Eat and survey the frost that remains outside, even though it's midday, with satisfaction!
      *If you don't have a mouli or food mill, obviously you can blitz the soup in a liquidiser, food processor or use a stick blender. The snag with these other methods is that you will really then need to sieve the purée to remove the bits of skin and remaining seeds, which is a bit of a faff. If you make soup or fruit purée a lot, I recommend buying a food mill. I didn't have one for ages, bought one some months back and have used it more than I would ever have believed.

      Mine is a stainless steel one, as you can see, and it comes with two interchangeable milling discs, a coarse one and a finer one, which is what I generally use. It was quite expensive but it's excellent; I'd thoroughly recommend it, but you can buy much cheaper plastic ones, if you're more of an intermittent soup-maker. Amazon have a range here, if you want to browse some options.

      The wonderful thing about the mouli is that it results in so little waste which, from both a nutritional and an economical point of view, is rather good news. See what I mean? This is all the debris that was left:

      Cold, after being outside? You bet!
      Piping hot soup, fresh off the hob, will do nicely, thank you very much!

      E x

      PS Thank you for your kind comments on my previous post welcoming me back after my unexpectedly long blogging absence - I appreciate them very much.

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    • 02/04/17--03:17: Of Tweed and Tablet
    • So... the tweed first. A few years ago I picked up a small bundle of fat quarters of Jamiesons Shetland tweed fabric at the Knitting And Stitching Show. I wasn't sure what to do with them - it was just an impulse fabric purchase. They were plain - one a very dark, lovat green, and the other a soft beige, both quite austere but with that lovely hint of different colours flecking here and there that is characteristic of tweed fabric.

      Pondering what I might do with them, I got it into my head that the fabric would make beautiful winter skirts. Of course, that wasn't possible with the very small amounts I had, but Jamiesons were very helpful when I 'phoned their mill and I ordered enough fabric, to make two winter skirts. Slightly nervous, because I had no experience of sewing wool fabrics and wondering how sensible it would be to make something that would need dry-cleaning, I cut and sewed two very simple A-line skirts using the pattern I drew out to make my denim skirt replacement, some years ago. They needed lining, of course, but the pattern was so simple, it wasn't complicated. I just added on a waistband to the original pattern to make affixing the lining easier. I've worn those skirts so much over the subsequent winters it's not true.

      The skirts are delicious to wear - because of the warmth of the wool fabric and the easy flow that the lining fabric gives them. I have brushed out the occasional spot of mud and had them dry-cleaned minimally. They look as good as the day they were made. Wool is actually a very forgiving fabric with naturally dirt-repelling characteristics so the skirts have turned out much more user-friendly than I feared. I wouldn't wear them to do anything particularly mucky but for ordinary wear they've been great.

      Some of my other winter garments have not held up so well and this year I thought I'd make another couple to replace some skirts that had really got beyond wearing. I duly ordered some samples and chose a plain grey and a subtle dark purple and black check. Not very bright or cheerful, I grant you, but I've found the neutrality of plain and dark is by far more versatile than anything more lively.

      I have to wear a lot of black or dark clothes for work and although none of these skirts are actually black, they work very well with it and I've found their soft, nuanced tones very cooperative in going along with a brighter scarf or flamboyant earrings, if I want to jolly things up. So they may be plain but I know I will wear them. A lot. They're warm as toast when it's really cold and they are breathable enough to be comfortable when it's not quite so raw.

      In the aftermath of my skirt-making, there were, of course a lot of scraps. The fabric is not cheap and I really wanted to find a good use for them. I made a hot water bottle cover for one friend and a scarf lined with Liberty lawn for another, a while back.

      But with these two new skirts, the bag of leftovers was still bulging. Sewing one of the skirt hems, I was struck by just how cosy it was with the skirt lying on my lap and so I thought I might cut the leftovers into squares and make a patchwork blanket with them.

      A blanket made solely from my left-over scraps was going to be very sombre. I did wonder about appliquéing some felt shapes in brighter colours onto some of the squares. But in the end I purchased some very small amounts of lighter and brighter Harris tweed from here to mix in some more cheerful colours.

      Although the website indicates the minimum length you can order is a metre, in fact, if you 'phone them, they are happy to send as little as a quarter of a metre which was great for my purposes. I think they glow beautifully against the plainer fabrics and although it isn't quite going to be an entirely scrap project, I am hoping the result will be beautiful and frugal enough to be very satisfying.

      I haven't quite decided on the assembly process. Whether to use the second method in Kristin's post here and overlap the edges to avoid bulky seam allowances or whether to sew the squares together in the normal way, in which case the blanket will need to be backed. If I go that way, I'll use squares patched together from old shirts, for the backing, I think.

      Have you sewn any patchwork with thicker fabrics, like these? I'd be interested to know what you'd advise, if so.

      And I'll post about my tweedy progress in due course!

      Now for tablet. This is a chequered tale of trial, error and tragedy as well as eventual (sort of) triumph. I am not talking here about your iPad or similar gizmo. I am talking about that peculiarly Scottish confection which is akin to fudge but different. Although made of similar ingredients, tablet, sometimes called "butter tablet" but often just "tablet", is grainy and almost sandy in texture, where fudge is smoother and creamier although some artisan fudges have a texture not dissimilar to tablet. If you are lucky enough to come across this sort of fudge on sale, snap it up, though in my experience, it tends only to be sold in small, expensively priced bags, probably because it's been made by hand. There is nothing to beat real Scottish tablet but it's difficult to obtain outside Scotland. Living a long way south of the border I thought I would make some. I used this recipe which seemed both clear and reasonably simple.

      I mean, how hard can it be? It's just sugar, butter and milk (both ordinary and condensed) and a bit of vanilla essence, boiled up, beaten and poured into a tin to set.

      Well, it just shows how wrong you can be. It turns out to be a rather trickier customer than I anticipated. I am always just a little bit suspicious of recipes, I come across, which tell me they "turn out perfectly every time" and some of the Scottish tablet recipes I found had that weasel phrase in there. The hidden subtext seems to be that there is a hinterland of exasperated experience with recipes, for whatever it is, that have not turned out perfectly every time. And that tells you something.

      Anyway, I know my limitations and not having made this before I thought it would be prudent to use my thermo-spatula which is basically a handy silicone spoon with a sugar thermometer insert - bringing the mixture to the boil and the boiling it until it reached 115 C before beating with a wooden spoon and pouring into the tin. This I dutifully did but instead of lovely, set sandy tablet, the tin contained a lava flow of a viscosity that if tipped up would have made a steady, inexorable break for the wild blue yonder. D suggested we might eat it out of the tin with a spoon. A good idea to deploy at the end of a really bad day perhaps but not exactly an ideal solution. The following day I tipped the whole lot back into the pan and this time used the fahrenheit scale to measure the temperature because it turns out that the "soft ball" stage, which is what you are after, is actually 240 F which is nearer to 116 C than 115 C, so the mixture had not been quite hot enough.

      I duly reheated it, beat it again and poured into the pan. Bingo! It set! It was slightly darker than if I hadn't had to reboil it, but never mind; it tasted very good and the texture was right.

      My father-in-law has been in hospital, still is, in fact, and as my mother-in-law loves all things fudgy, and has been quite down, I took her some. It went down a storm. My brother-in-law hoovered a bag of it and my father-in-law, once permitted to eat anything, also made short work of some. "Would I make some more?", my mother-in-law asked. "Yes, of course", I said, thinking that now I had sussed this temperature thing it would be plain sailing.

      Well, it wasn't. I got the mixture to 240F, I beat the heck out of it, poured it into its tin, left it to set and when I came back, well, it hadn't. It was more set than the first version but again it was behaving more like molten lava than sandstone. Cursing somewhat, (OK, quite a lot), I tipped the lava back in the pan and reboiled it, but this time, perhaps because it had been hotter to begin with, the mixture darkened ominously and began to catch and burn. I removed it from the heat, beat it like a mad thing and transferred it back into the tin where it sat, like that coarse rubble that the county council plug pot-holes with, before putting tarmac on top. I tasted a small piece cautiously. Was that the deep aromatic note of vanilla, underlying the sweetness, or was it er, just carbon? Sadly, I had to face the fact that it had more in common with the cinder bucket than fragrant vanilla orchids. And the texture had gone most peculiar to boot. It wasn't lava, but you couldn't cut it into pieces without it totally disintegrating. It was, in other words, a culinary disaster.

      With one more tin of condensed milk in the larder, (let's hear it for hoarding!) I braced myself for a final go and this time made sure I did things rather more slowly. Tablet does not like to be hurried either at the heating stage, or the beating one, I gather.

      Still the darn thing did not set properly. It came to the correct temperature; I beat it vigorously for a whole eighteen minutes until it was so thick it would barely pour our of the pan, spread it hopefully in my tin and crossed my fingers. H, home for the weekend from uni, tasted a bit and gave it the thumbs up but the texture was oozy and creamy, not sandy and crumbly. You can see in the pic below that although the knife has marked the tablet into squares, the mixture is oozing forth to fill in the gaps already.

      Finally victory was achieved by carefully warming the mixture back in a pan just until it was runny enough to whisk and then I whisked it with an electric whisk for five minutes and poured it out again. I am pleased to report that the stuff has now set as it should. You can see in the pic that now the marked out squares stay separate as they're meant to.

      And are in an acceptable condition to be given away.

      But I don't really understand why it didn't set the first time.

      Does anyone out there have any experience of making this and any advice to give? All the recipes indicate that I am going well up to the upper end of cooking times and beating time and I am stirring as vigorously as I can with my wooden spoon. Some recipes do suggest using an electric whisk straight up for the beating but I have been nervous to deploy the electric whisk in a thick sugar mixture that's sitting at 240 F on account of risking serious burns. I may simply have to overcome that, if I'm going to make it again.

      On the plus side, success, when it does come, is satisfying. If you have a sweet tooth, you will love it. Yes, of course, it's rich and too many pieces will not be good for your heart or your figure but a small piece now and again is not going to do you any harm and in fact I believe it might cheer your day as it has cheered ours collectively over a difficult couple of weeks. I think it would make the perfect small something to tuck in your pocket, twisted in a square of greaseproof paper, when you go out on a grey and wet February afternoon, for a winter's walk, or at the end of a long day, with may be a wee dram of another Scottish delicacy to go with it. But failing the whisky, I find it goes beautifully with a cup of tea.

      If you are a born and bred Scottish lass, making tablet is probably instinctive but for us lesser mortals, it seems to be a bit of an arcane mystery. Any light anyone can shed on what I am doing wrong would be most gratefully received.

      E x

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      Both the Scots and the Russians have got the art of surviving and thriving in a long, cold winter down to a fine art, although of course, Russia's cold makes Scotland's look like amateursville.

      I broke from my moorings to go to Russia for the first time in November last year. It's where I discovered just how perfect Scottish tweed is for wearing in seriously cold weather. Those tweed skirts I made - I lived in them all day, every day.

      This is the only pic I have in evidence - taken in Elisaeev's Food Hall -  an enchanting food emporium in St Petersburg - a bit like London's Harrods Food Hall or the 6th Floor of KaDeWe in Berlin but on a much smaller, more intimate scale. If you are ever in St Petersburg, make a beeline for this place - it's delightful. You can't see the detail of the skirt I'm wearing terribly well - but it's the dark green lovat tweed one, worn over boots and under a quilted jacket - perfect for going between snow and ice outside and well-heated interiors inside, without freezing or sweltering.

      Despite temperatures in St Petersburg in November of -16 C or so, I can honestly say I was never cold. I am not sure how I would have fared in January or February when temperatures drop a lot further but I am optimistic that the tweed would have held up.

      February in Oxfordshire in southern England can't compete but it has nevertheless been quite cold and my goodness, my tweedy blanket has come into its own. I finished my tweedy patchwork and it's been in use ever since keeping me beautifully, but never stiflingly, warm - that wonderful breathability of wool that is so user-friendly. I say "finished" but that's not strictly true from a purist perspective. I finished the patchwork and then couldn't decide about the backing so I left it unlined and if you turn it back, yes, you can see all the seam allowances. But the fact is that you don't turn it back in normal use and I prefer the lightness of it, as it is. I also have an eye on cleaning it, at some future point. Anne suggested that tweed fabric can actually be hand-washed using Eucalan, avoiding the need to dry-clean at all. If I do that, I don't want the extra weight of any lining fabric pulling the tweed out of shape as it will be quite heavy enough on its own, once wet. If it shrinks a little, I shan't worry - plenty of scope to lose an inch or so, should it come to that.

      I am going to wash a sample before I immerse my tweed skirts in water as, obviously, with a fitted garment there isn't the scope to accommodate shrinkage but the blanket is different.

      I finished the edge with a traditional blanket edging in old-fashioned blanket stitch and, well, it looks like a proper blanket!

      It is a proper blanket!

      Made almost entirely out of scraps, as per my previous post.

      I made a crochet flower square cushion last year and, serendipitously, the colours go beautifully with it, I think.

      So, onto the Russian cake. I loved Russia. At every level. So different from Western Europe although, of course, after the dismantling of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, many more western influences pervade it. But it is still very different. Wonderfully so, I thought.

      I spent a good deal of time last year learning the basics of the language - the cyrillic alphabet and script - printed cyrillic is quite different from handwritten which makes things extra complicated for a beginner - and getting outside the rudiments of Russian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation (which has quite a few peculiar vagaries to entrap the unwary novice). Not easy. Learning a language from scratch in one's fifties, from a book and a CD, is a very different proposition from learning a language as a child, or teenager, at school, in a class, with a teacher on hand to help and, most importantly of all, to correct, I realise. But I was very proud of learning enough Russian to be able to read and communicate effectively in the normal sort of tourist contexts - buying things in shops and markets, asking the way to places, understanding and asking about menus etc etc because although a certain amount of English is spoken in the main tourist spots, it's nowhere near universal.

      I haven't written about my trip on this blog but there will probably be the odd allusion to it now and again such as with this cake which was something I ate in the café at The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. This is a pic of the original. 120 roubles (about £1.60) for a slice of "песочный пирог" ("pesochnyie pirog").

      It's basically a sort of apple and sour cream streusel cake. The Russians are keen on streusel type cakes. In fact they're keen on homemade cakes, full-stop. The phrase "домашняя выпечка" ("domashnyaya vyipechka") at the top right of the blackboard sign above, was proudly repeated in many places - it means "homemade baking".  Russian baking can clearly give any other baking a very serious run for its money. One of the reasons why this particular Mrs Tittlemouse found herself at home in Russia, perhaps! Anyway, I had this cake several times - if you go to the Hermitage Museum yourself, you'll understand why - one visit is simply not enough to take in what's there - in terms of art, I mean, not cake!

      But back to the business of cake in hand... The Russian word for "streusel", rather endearingly, is "песочный" (pesochnyie), which means "sandy", perfectly describing the rubbly texture of the topping. This version with apples and sour cream (sour cream is ubiquitous in both savoury and sweet dishes in Russia) was to die for. It looked relatively simple to recreate but tracking down a suitable "рецепт" / recipe was less easy, partly because my Russian is still barely past tourist level and I wanted a genuine Russian recipe. There are some American (very good) versions of sour cream apple cake around but none quite captured the charm of my rubbly Russian one. Until persistence and my own trial and error paid off, that is.

      So here is my recipe for "песочный яблочный пирог" ("pesochnyie yablochnyie pirog") or "Apple Streusel Cake". It's pretty darn close to the one I ate in the Hermitage café, I have to say and very good. One of the (for me anyway) felicitous characteristics of Russian baking, is its tendency to be ingeniously creative with essentially simple and straightforward components. You don't need to have in stock, (or go out and buy), an army of strange and esoteric ingredients to bake Russian-style and I am getting a bit tired of all the goji berry / chia seed / no-wheat / no-dairy / no-sugar recipes that are popping up everywhere with righteous, if not self-righteous, claims to being "clean cuisine" implying that other less esoteric cooking is slightly contaminated or worse. (Sorry - rant over!) Mooving on...!

      For my Russian Apple Streusel cake you need
      300 g white self-raising flour
      100g caster sugar + 2 tbsps for the filling
      1/4 tsp cinnamon
      1/4 tsp salt
      225 g cold unsalted butter
      2 small eggs (I used bantam eggs as my bantams have just started laying again after the winter - about time too, you may hear me say! Bantam eggs are small and usually I double up for any given egg quantity in a recipe but they're just right for this)
      300 ml sour cream
      2 tbsps semolina
      6-7 apples - I used 7 small ones (an eating variety not Bramleys)

      Put the flour, 100g sugar, cinnamon and salt in the food processor and whizz to aerate it. Add the cold butter cut into cubes and whizz in short bursts to incorporate it into the flour mixture. It should look like breadcrumbs. Remove about a third of the mixture by spooning it out into a pudding basin. If you weighed accurately, you are talking about removing just over 200g (208g to be precise).

      Break one of your eggs into the remaining mixture and whizz briefly to make a dough.

      Line a 25 cm square tin with baking parchment and press the dough into the bottom as evenly as you can with your fingers. Chill both the dough and the reserved mixture in the fridge (or you could freeze if you wanted to).

      When the dough has had a few hours in the cold, remove it and your basin of reserved mixture from the fridge and preheat the oven to 180 C.

      Mix the sour cream, semolina, remaining 2 tbsps sugar and your final egg in a large bowl. Peel, core and finely chop the apples into small pieces or thin slices. I prefer chunks because that's how I had the cake in Russia. Add to the sour cream mixture.

      Fold the apple through gently and then pile on top of your chilled dough base. Pop in the oven for 30 minutes.

      Now remove the cake from the oven and scatter your reserved sandy, rubbly mixture over the top to make the streusel topping.

      Return to the oven and bake for another 20 -25 minutes or so until the top of the пирог /cake is crisp and golden.

      Cool in the tin, on a wire rack and then chill further in the fridge before cutting into squares or slices and eating. A light dusting of icing sugar, in honour of the Russian snows of its place of origin, is not gilding the lily, I feel!

      Needs nothing with it other than perhaps a glass of "чёрный чай" ("chornyie chai") black tea, Russian-style.

      Enjoy! Or, as the Russians say, "приатнога аппетита!" ("priyatnava appetita") "Bon appétit!"

      E x

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    • 05/03/17--11:07: Cucina Povera
    • Lots of good causes now seem to have their own official day in the calendar. Sunday 28th May 2017 is this year's World Hunger Day. Alongside raising awareness, and encouragement to give to hunger-relieving charities, such as The Hunger Project, past years have included throwing out the challenge to "Live Below The Line" for five days. "Living Below The Line", if you're not already aware of it, means living below the extreme poverty line of subsisting on no more than £1 (or the equivalent in other currency) for all food and drink per day and it is a shocking fact that over a billion people do this, not for five days for a challenge, but every day for real. It got me thinking.

      As you will probably know, if you've dipped into these pages before, I love cooking. I get withdrawal symptoms on holiday, if I am away from a kitchen for too long. I find it therapeutic, soul-nurturing, calming and energising all at the same time. I am lucky not to have to subsist on a food and drink budget of £1 per day. I am extremely grateful that I earn enough to fund my creative kitchen experiments (and to drink unlimited cups of tea while I undertake them). My days are lit up by grinding flour from a sack of leftover grain, given to me by my farmer neighbour, to prepare everyday bread for lunch, (I succumbed to buying a grain-mill last autumn), boiling up crab-apples for jars of translucent jelly, baking gingerbread, or submitting fresh vegetables to steam under pressure to make fennel and asparagus soup for supper. Cooking is my life-blood and life without its creative possibilities would seem sadly colourless. But this challenge got me thinking, as I say.

      It's reminded me that this cooking habit of mine is not a right, it is a huge blessing; and I wanted to do something to acknowledge that. What about taking on the challenge? To begin with, the idea seemed fairly simple; yes it would be challenging but it didn't look impossible. Of course, I knew meals would need to be mostly vegetarian - no expensive meat* or fish. Wine wouldn't figure, nor would out of season fresh fruit or vegetables but I had a sort of vague idea that by steering towards the more frugal regions of my culinary repertoire, it might not be too difficult.

      *D offered to shoot a couple of pigeons, a rabbit, or even a squirrel for casseroling, (an idea that every local farmer for miles around would most surely encourage me to take up, if they knew about it), but I am afraid I drew the line at this. I am aware that this immediately betrays my privileged status. If I genuinely had to subsist every day on only £1 a day, I am sure I would have to overcome my squeamishness at the idea of skinning and gutting this kind of free, wild food but for now it's just a step too far. Apologies to more rigorous souls, if they feel this is a cop out!

      Anyway I've decided to give the challenge a go. Having decided, I've begun to do some homework to see whether my initial hunch about it not being too difficult was correct. Here are ten things I've discovered so far:

      1 I was completely wrong about it "not being too difficult".

      2 While I was right about meat and fish being off the menu, a lot of the fairly simple vegetarian things I cook were out of the question too. I discovered, as I began work on costing out recipes, many of them that I thought were straightforward and inexpensive, that virtually everything blew my budget. We're not talking vast sums here. Meals that I thought were cheap, were cheap but just not cheap enough. Because that £1 per day budget has to cover everything. Not just one meal. I could come up with supper costing a £1 a head, no problem, but what about leaving some slack for breakfast? Or lunch?

      3 I've realised very quickly that this challenge isn't just about cooking, but about the thrifty sourcing of ingredients. I do most of my shopping via a once-a-week Ocado order which suits my cooking and the time I have available for shopping which isn't a lot generally. I top this up with the odd periodic foray for fresh vegetables or fruit from a supermarket or the farm shop down the road. None of this will work on the challenge. My shopping habits will change, have already changed, radically.

      4 My attitude to left-overs has changed overnight. I am not talking here about the two portions of soup left in the pot after four generous bowlfuls have been filled for supper, nor the few stray roast potatoes that no one quite had room for, nor even the roast chicken carcass that I often boil up with onions and herbs for stock, I am talking here about left-overs that I would normally put in the compost bucket outside the back door, without a second thought - trimmings from vegetables, tea bags dipped for a few seconds in a mug and then discarded, orange or grapefruit peel; even things I would normally pour down the drain such as the milk that clings to the glass in an empty bottle before rinsing out, or the water at the bottom of the pan after steaming vegetables, these things are no longer to be discarded without considered thought. They've all suddenly acquired new significance; new potential and new value.

      5 My perspective on the food landscape outside the house has also changed. I've always enjoyed foraging for blackberries, sloes, elderflowers or other wild foods as well as growing a certain amount of food in the garden but I've done it in a rather dilettante fashion. Because I enjoyed it not because I had to. Suddenly I've begun to see things differently. That huge clump of nettles, growing under the horse-chestnut tree in a corner of the garden, was no longer a pernicious invasion of weeds but a steaming tureen of dark green, vitamin-packed soup waiting to happen and when D, in a fit of over-enthusiastic gardening, hacked them all down unexpectedly, I was seriously dismayed. "You've ruined my nettle soup!," I wailed tragically."But you don't like nettle soup!" he claimed plaintively. He's right; I don't like nettle soup much but it's May and the range of food for free in the garden and elsewhere is limited and I suddenly realise I need all the help I can get. Changes your perspective no end when you have to make something almost out of nothing.

      6 Consciousness of the ingredients I often use has changed too - I use a lot of spices in my baking, for example. In Medieval times these were very expensive ingredients only used by the very wealthy and in judicious quantities. They are actually still some of the most expensive commodities, by weight, sold in the world, but I don't use them like that. I throw a spoonful of cinnamon and another of nutmeg into my weekend slow-cooked porridge with abandon; I add ginger, allspice, cloves and aniseed freely to my gingerbread; I scatter cardamom pods into a mortar, to flavour sweet bread, as if they were dandelion seeds; I snip up vanilla pods happily to flavour everything from apple purée to custard. I ought to be more thoughtful. Likewise with sugar although, of course, sugar is now cheap as chips. Again, our Medieval forbears used sugar very differently from ourselves - it was regarded as a flavouring rather than an ingredient used in bulk. Today, using too much sugar is frowned on for health reasons rather than money-saving ones, but maybe the Medieval approach that used it with respect might be useful.

      7 I've realised that there are two main ways to approach the challenge. The first and simplest is to go out and buy what you can for the five days, using the budget of £5 and living exclusively off that. The second is to use a wider range of ingredients than you could buy in one shopping expedition costing £5, but to cost out meticulously each ingredient and make sure that each day's food comes within the limit. I've chosen to follow the second approach because, in reality, if I were living on such a budget all the time, I would, of course, use things in my larder or fridge that I hadn't necessarily bought that week and I want to be able to be more creative than the first approach will allow me to be. That's necessitated some careful and time-consuming preparation in order to swap cheaper ingredients in my larder and fridge for their usual equivalents, in order to make sure that I will be able to use them, even if only in small quantities, when it gets to the end of the month. Every single penny counts, with this!

      8 Cooking, for me, is usually a solitary activity. I like being by myself in the kitchen, pottering with this and that with only my family of wooden spoons for company.  I have a secret almost mystical relationship with these spoons, known only to me and to them and which causes peril for the unwary. Woe betide anyone, for example, who thinks casually and unthinkingly to borrow the vintage (1987) chilli con carne spoon to stir a pudding, or who confuses the long-handled, slightly twisted spoon, bought years ago in a market in Sansepolcro, and used only for custard, with the vegetarian risotto spoon, that used to be the identical twin of the chilli con carne one, but now has its own totally unique identity. Sorry, I digress!

      Some of my wooden spoon friends.
      But approaching this project, I've realised that my solitary cooking habits are a privilege and that kitchen interdependency and kitchen community are crucial ways of making the most of resources. Buying in bulk seriously lowers the cost of ingredients but without vast storage facilities and in the absence of a large family to feed, bulk-buying is not very economical. Sharing bulk ingredients with a few friends, also taken with the project, however is a different matter. Similarly, pooling access to sources of cheap ingredients can help too.

      9 Investigating the challenge has proved to be like setting off an unexpected firework sending sparks arcing in different directions. It's made me think afresh about how much I take for granted in the food I cook and eat and made me question a whole raft of assumptions I had acquired without really being aware of it. It's made me see the simplest ingredients in new ways and with new respect. While in many ways, reaching one's fifties is a bit depressing, I find myself comforted, even elated by what years of cooking experience has taught me and wanting to develop some of that further as I head towards retirement years, (which are on the now visible horizon), with rather less income but hopefully rather more time to play with. The whole thing has taken me by surprise in the way that it's engaged my imagination and heart as well as my mind.

      10 Making the most of ingredients and being canny with what food you buy, grow or forage for is deeply ingrained in many rural societies. Some have made it an art form even though it has been a necessity for survival. That is particularly the case in southern Italy where la cucina povera or "peasant cooking" has a deeply creative and vivid heritage. That should not mask the fact that poverty there was a very serious problem for significant parts of of the 19th and 20th Cs. People knew genuine hunger and it wasn't easy to combat it. Having said that, the southern Italians responded to the challenge with a colourful verve and flair, whose legacy now populates some of the most stylish restaurants across the world. Calabrian or Puglian cooks of the early 20th C would laugh to see their humble, eked out dishes of pulses, saltless bread and simple vegetables that they prepared in farmhouse kitchens, often with only the most basic cooking equipment, now studiously replicated by Michelin-starred chefs, in state of the art kitchens but sic transit gloria etc etc.

      In taking up the Living Below The Line challenge I want to embrace the verve and creativity that distinguishes "cucina povera". Anyone can exist on bread and water for five days and easily meet the technical requirements of the challenge but I want to see if I can't do it with a bit more creativity and fun. I also want to do it without giving in to buying processed food. It's a sad fact that often processed food is cheaper than food, prepared from scratch, at home. The watchword of "cucina povera" is "cucina buona in tempi brutti" - "good cooking in hard times" - I like that. It feels real and unvarnished but also defiant and courageous. It will define what I buy, cook and eat over the coming days.

      My aims are threefold:

      Firstly, to donate a generous sum reflecting what I might well otherwise have spent on food and drink to The Hunger Project and my local food-bank, to help people who, unlike me, are genuinely battling the pangs of hunger because there simply isn't enough food to go round.

      Secondly, to reevaluate my own approach to cooking, at least in part, and cultivate more permanently less wasteful / indiscriminate kitchen habits, which, I fear, have crept in over the years.

      Thirdly, to discover how far ingenuity will stretch against, what has to be said, is a very stringent framework.

      Will I feel hungry? Probably - I am a greedy soul! 

      Will I feel more self-sufficient? Quite possibly. 

      Will I go back, once the challenge is over, to shopping / eating as I did before? Quite possibly not.

      Will I appreciate what is on my plate day by day, rather more? Definitely.

      Fancy coming along for the ride? Or even giving the challenge a whirl yourself?

      I shall post a kind of sporadic kitchen diary over the next while which will include some of my preparations, my meal plans and the recipes that I've used or adapted, as well as some reflections along the way, in case anyone is interested, and because I think I will find it interesting to look back on. I aim to start the challenge in earnest around 28th May, maybe a bit earlier depending on work etc

      Wish me luck!

      A very frugal basil plant grown from a cutting taken from a supermarket plant bought ages ago.
      E x

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      So, the end of May and the start of my £1 a day food challenge, inspired by The Hunger Project's campaign is not that far away. One of the questions that has been bothering me is whether my stint of living on £1 a day for food and drink will really qualify as living "below the line" and, if not, does that invalidate the whole idea?

      The conclusion I've come to is, "No, it won't qualify as "living below the line," because there's a lot more to living below the poverty line than simply having a restricted food budget to draw on for a few days ie limited access, (or no access at all), to clean running water, limited fuel and very basic cooking facilities, no refrigeration or freezing facilities, constrained access to food supply sources, few, if any, On-Line resources etc etc and I can't transplant myself completely into such a context. So, although I shall not be spending more than £1 a day on food or drink for the five or six days of my project, my existence will be a whole different ball game from that of someone for whom it's a daily, inescapable reality, and for whom it has been like that for a long time. Does that then invalidate the whole idea?

      Well, no, I don't think it does. It does mean that I must be very cautious about any instinct to feel that I know what such a reality would be like on the inside track, just because I have limited my expenditure on food and drink to £1 a day. I don't know and I can't know. I am on the outside track and I mustn't ever think otherwise. Checking one's privilege is no idle sound-bite with this.

      On the other hand, if the result of living life on £1 a day, inspires me to give generously to hunger-relieving charities and pulls me up short on my cooking and eating habits, leading to less waste and more respect for the food I eat and those who work to provide it, as well as encouraging me to be more self-sufficient in the way I use and husband resources, that is, I believe, a good thing. Food waste in the lands of plenty is one of the reasons that those in the lands of scarcity go short.

      I have to accept that the context I live in, is just that. For the impact of the challenge to have lasting effect that will shape my future behaviours and choices irrevocably, I feel there is actually some merit in the experience being anchored in, rather than detached from, my own daily reality. The challenge for me, in that sense, is not intended to be an isolated, alien bubble, but the beginning of something that, I hope, will live on and grow and evolve over time. A trivial, insignificant contribution maybe, but better than doing nothing at all and, as Mahatma Gandhi said, "We must become the change we wish to see in the world."

      It's very easy to become bogged down by the sheer scale of world problems and feel there's no point in even trying to respond to them, so intractable are they and so little are we, or our efforts, but of one thing we can be sure, if we all do nothing because of that, nothing will change. I also happen to believe that one of the most powerful forces, perhaps the most powerful force, on this earth, in the 21st C, is the power that rests with consumer choice. And that rests in the hands, not of governments or leaders, but in the ordinary hands and ordinary lives of ordinary people. The everyday consumer choices I make; the everyday consumer choices you make; the everyday consumer choices we all make; shape and influence much more than perhaps we realise.

      So, to answer the question I posed myself, no, I don't think my £1 a day food challenge really qualifies as "living below the line" although that's where the idea came from. But neither is the whole thing invalid or a waste of time because of that.

      The parameters that I've set myself are a compromise which is in one sense unsatisfactory, from a purist point of view. Compromise is always unsatisfactory, from a purist point of view. But because that compromise roots the experience into my ongoing context, I hope the effects will survive, at least in part, long after the five or six days of the project have ended.

      So I shall stick to my budget and my carefully costed meal plans but I shall also use those resources around me that are free to me - things growing in my garden and the hedgerows (not much at the moment, it has to be said), the sack of left-over grain given to me, after my farmer neighbour's harvest was finished last year and any eggs that my bantams see fit to lay, although if you think I shall be living off fresh eggs every day, sadly, I shan't be. Having been laying prolifically, up until Easter, the bantams have now all gone broody and there's nary an egg in sight, so at the current rate, unless they start laying again soon, the project will be entirely eggless, other than the few I have used in a couple of things I've already cooked and frozen.

      This is one of the broody bantams who shows not the slightest sign of abandoning her post in the cosy nest-box, despite having been sitting on nothing for over a fortnight and only emerging to eat and drink. She has a habit of doing this and is nicknamed "Little Brown Brooder" as a result. Not exactly innovative in the naming stakes, I grant you, but an accurate description, nonetheless!

      I've tried humming the old 1920s song to her:

      "Chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken, lay a little egg for me!
      Chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken, I want one for my tea!
      Oh, I haven't had an egg since Easter and now it's half past three,
      so, chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken, lay a little egg for me!"

      ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Image used with permission)
      But so far, without success. "Not a chance!" she says!

      That's OK though - in the past I would simply have bought a box or two of free-range eggs to plug the gap, but free-range eggs are relatively expensive to buy and certainly beyond the £1 a day budget. Learning to live within the limits, not just of a very stringent food budget, but within the rhythms of the seasons and of natural production cycles is part of what the challenge is about.

      I am, however, persisting in talking nicely to my rhubarb patch every day - it's taking a long time to regenerate itself after my depredations on it earlier this Spring and I would very much like it to help me out at the end of the month. Anyone have any magic suggestions as to what might encourage it? I've been watering it, as well as talking to it, but it doesn't seem to be doing a lot of good. There's a lot of comfrey, growing in, taking over the garden so I am wondering whether I ought to make some of that comfrey tea fertiliser. Anyone got any experience of that?

      The very-frugal-basil-plant is, unlike the rhubarb, growing apace.

      I have pinched out the central pair of leaves at the top now and while it's a long way off providing enough foliage to make a batch of pesto, it will certainly provide a few happy leaves for adding flavour and interest to my thrifty meal plans. A fact which gives me a totally disproportionate sense of satisfaction.

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    • 05/17/17--07:13: Shopping - No Small Change
    • What are your preferred food-shopping habits? Are you a devotee of On-Line-delivered-to-your-door supermarket shopping or do you prefer to shop in person, in a bricks and mortar store? Are you loyal to one particular supermarket brand or do you vary your allegiance? Do you buy in bulk from cash-and-carry stores like Costco or their On-Line equivalents? Do you make use of the increasing number of budget supermarket stores in the UK such as Aldi and Lidl? Do you shop at a local market, farmer's or other? Do you bypass supermarkets and buy direct from suppliers, either in person or On-Line?

      For most of us, the answers to these questions are largely dictated by the simple constraints of geographical convenience, available time, the nature and extent of our storage facilities and our budget as well as personal preferences.

      Shopping has changed as an activity almost out of all recognition, in my lifetime. When I was a small child, growing up in the late sixties / early seventies, in a leafy suburb of North-West London, there were no big supermarkets within easy reach. Especially as my mother then didn't drive and shopping had to be done on foot, with assorted scratchy baskets and string bags in tow. Carrier bags were not then, as again now, freely offered to contain your goods. We didn't have a big freezer at home - only that little freezing compartment you used to get at the top of your below-the-counter fridge - it held an ice cube tray, a brick of frozen chopped spinach and maybe another brick of Walls' Neapolitan ice cream and nothing else. The fridge itself, (minus the space taken up by the freezing compartment), was pretty limited in capacity too. There was a walk-in larder though and plenty of cupboards for storing non-perishable foods. My mother, brought up under rationing in wartime Britain, regarded these cupboards as her insurance against prolonged siege or famine and you could have lived for months, even years, off her hoard of tins, bottled fruit and dry goods. You still can, actually! It's become something of a family joke.

      Extracting stuff from these cupboards was, and still is, not a task for the faint-hearted. My mother is quite short (barely over 5') and these cupboards are both deep and lofty, so it always falls to my father, who is now not far off eighty, to climb an ancient, rickety stepladder, and rummage about in search of whatever it is that my mother is after. The required item is always at the back and only extracted after a small avalanche of cantilevered boxes and cartons heads south, which is sometimes headed off at the pass and sometimes isn't. My father surveyed this task and its attendant perils with limited enthusiasm fifty years ago and he hasn't got any keener on it since! Understandably so!

      To supplement the withstand-a-siege-cupboards and the daily delivery of milk in tall, glass bottles from Harry, the milkman, my mother shopped little and often.

      from "Shopping with Mother" by  M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield,
      (London: Ladybird Books Ltd, 1958)
      Each expedition was a series of old-fashioned encounters: at Mr Baron's, the greengrocer's, the butcher's, Mr Sanders, whose shop floor was strewn with a thick layer of sawdust and where you handed over your money at a separate kiosk at the back of the shop, (for eminently sensible hygiene reasons, so that the person handling the meat didn't handle money as well), and at an independent small grocery, endearingly named, Pat-a-Cake's.

      from "Shopping with Mother" by  M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield, 
      (London: Ladybird Books Ltd, 1958)
      As a child, I used to find these shopping expeditions rather a bore - the walk was quite long for a small child and I hated helping to carry those cumbersome string bags stuffed with dirty potatoes in flimsy, brown, paper bags and heavy, green cabbages that bumped my legs all the way home. Making patterns with the toes of my sandals in the sawdust of Mr Sanders' shop while my mother bought lamb's liver, or steak and kidney, was a small compensation. Very occasionally, we were allowed to go into the sweet shop, Pratt's, and spend our pocket money on vivid, glassy lollipops, pastel-coloured flying-saucers made from rice paper, or small paper bags of sherbet lemons and pear drops, weighed out by the ounce, from big glass jars. Now, despite all the wonders of modern food supply, I look back fondly at that time and wish for it again, dirty potatoes, bumpy cabbages, scratchy baskets, cumbersome string bags and all.

      Alcoholic beverages, (usually Amontillado sherry or gin, not wine), came from what my father still refers to as "the wine merchant". Shopping there was done by him, not my mother, on a Saturday morning. Sometimes, I would go with him and sniff the intriguing smells of cork, wood shavings and the faint whiff of yeasty beer that distinguished the shop. For a weekend treat, he and I might also make our way up to the independent baker, Elizabeth's, in the summer, and buy a sponge cake, sandwiched with raspberry jam and genuine, fresh cream for tea. I felt an affinity with Elizabeth's because of the name.

      Shopping then was an experience straight out of the Ladybird book, "Shopping With Mother", a book I loved as a very small child. And while I never had long, fair plaits like Susan (more's the pity!), I did have a miniature shopping basket, very like hers, and my mother looked not at all unlike Susan's!

      from "Shopping with Mother" by  M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield, 
      (London: Ladybird Books Ltd, 1958)
      Shopping today is totally different. There are very few independent butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers who have survived the competition brought by the big supermarkets with their economies of scale and production. Such as there are, tend to be specialists of some kind and expensive for using every day. The choice available to us in the big supermarkets in the developed world is unbelievably wide. Take olive oil for example. In the early 1970s, olive oil BP (sic) was something you bought at Boots The Chemists in small, medicinal-size bottles. Go into any supermarket today and the range of olive oil on sale is huge - Italian, Greek, Spanish? Extra-virgin, green and peppery, mild? Single estate, blended? 500ml? A litre? No problem. It's all there. And the same applies to many other goods.

      The Internet has brought supermarkets and faraway suppliers otherwise out of reach to the tips of our fingers, as we sit at home. Most supermarkets sell a good deal more than food. You can pick up clothes, bedding, kitchen equipment and more, along with your groceries in the glories of the one-stop shop. I know I am old-fashioned here, but I do not like this growing tendency. It's most convenient to be able to pick up a bottle of wine along with the ingredients for supper and non-food, but kitchen-related, stuff I can cope with, but I do not like being confronted with lawnmowers and chain-saws when I am buying milk and potatoes!

      Apart from the lawnmowers-cheek-by-jowl-with-milk-and-potatoes issue, these changes are positive - far more convenient and they offer a much wider landscape for culinary creativity and I am deeply grateful for both. Working full time, six days a week, means my shopping time is limited. I don't have time to shop as my non-working mother did.  But I still hanker after those days and given half a chance, I'd snap them up again.

      As I mentioned in my initial post about this £1-a-day Food Challenge, my shopping habits have changed radically over the last few weeks. I am delighted at what the changes have brought about and food-shopping has become, for the time being anyway, a bit of an adventure.

      The shift has had to take place in advance of the project itself in order to make sure that instead of the normal brands I buy of basics such as flour, sugar, tea, rice, oil, etc, etc I have replaced them with significantly cheaper ones so that when I come to use them in the challenge itself, I am not inadvertently blowing my budget.

      The swapping over process has inevitably taken some time and quite a lot of patient searching and sourcing and I'm glad I started it early. My go-to source of help on the quest for cheap buys has been which is a quick and easy tool for comparing prices across all the standard UK supermarkets. It didn't take more than a few minutes of doing price comparisons to realise that I have been paying way over the odds for a huge number of items. A very large proportion of what I have been buying from Ocado or Waitrose can be had for a fraction of the price elsewhere. Not everything, but a lot. I realise that I have got a bit sloppy about food-shopping and have got set in ways which, while convenient, are actually costing me a great deal of unnecessary money.

      Of course, one has to be clear about whether one is comparing apples with apples or apples with pears, figuratively speaking. Soft brown sugar, for example, varies quite a bit, not just in price but in texture and flavour and I greatly prefer Waitrose's soft light brown muscovado sugar to cheaper soft brown sugar brands which don't seem to have the deep aromatic flavour of the Waitrose muscovado. But a red onion is a red onion is a red onion, if you see what I mean.

      Anyway, I have been slashing my Ocado order by two thirds and have been sourcing most of my other stuff from Aldi.

      It's two miles further away than Waitrose but in the scheme of things it's a comparable trip so there's no real extra cost in travelling. It's been a revelation shopping there. A basket of goods that would have cost me £35 or more in Waitrose, has come out at little over £15 at Aldi and the shopping experience itself has been slick and straightforward. There are no frills and the range of goods on sale is much smaller but all the basics are there, for a fraction of the price. I find it best to go with a balance of clear planning and a defined list of what I want but with enough flexibility to be open to picking up something in this week's special deals that maybe wasn't on the list. Some items are on the shelves this week but they won't be next week so you need to have a bit more flexibility than you would at the other big supermarkets, where there's a predictable consistency of what's on offer.

      I've found that a lot of Aldi's stuff is British sourced which I like. Their vegetables are particularly good - tomatoes to die for and really fresh, bright spinach, for example. Soya milk, porridge oats, tinned tomatoes, rice, olive oil - things I buy a lot of - are fine and very much less than the price of my usual ones. You can't buy white bread flour there though, nor many individual herbs and spices. I haven't braved their meat or fish yet - we don't eat a lot of meat and when we do, I want it to be free range which, understandably for a budget store, Aldi doesn't offer nearly so much of. But all in all it's been a very positive shift and one that I shan't be reversing any time soon.

      Some things I wanted to use in the £1-a-day food challenge I have had to look further afield for. Dried pulses for example. Lazy old me, I've never bothered to soak and cook dried beans and have always preferred the convenience of tins but dried beans work out much cheaper than tinned ones so were perfect for my budget meal plans. You can't get these in Aldi and actually Sainsbury's turned out to be the best cheap source, along with Lidl for lentils. The nearest Lidl to me is twenty miles away so I had to ask a kind friend with a local Lidl to get those for me. Lidl also came up with the prize for the cheapest white bread flour - 75p for 1.5kg. It's not as good as the Canadian Extra Strong flour I get from Waitrose, but mixed, approximately 50/50, with home-ground wholemeal, it's fine.

      Oatmeal proved more problematic. It ought, I felt, to be a cheap foodstuff but a) it isn't as cheap as porridge oats b) it isn't nearly as ubiquitous. In the end I had to speculate to accumulate and had to order 5kg bags of medium and pinhead oatmeal from which halved the price per 100g compared to the standard supermarket one.

      I had to top the order up with other stuff in order to qualify for the free delivery charge, which doesn't kick in until you spend £30, which was a nuisance, but it's all stuff that will keep and I will use.  This highlighted one of the big pinch points of the poverty trap - in order to access the cheapest deals, such as these, you need capital to lay out, up front. You will save in the long run but you need ready cash initially and that's difficult on a restricted income that, after all, has to cover items other than food such as rent, clothing, utilities etc. My father-in-law helped set up a local credit union to provide very low interest loans for people in this situation, a few years back and I've really appreciated afresh what a practical everyday difference such a facility makes.

      I notice that the use-by dates on these bags of oatmeal are the end of January / early February next year and although I expect that, stored carefully, they'll be fine for a while after that, I do hope nobody goes off porridge in a hurry, or my bargain oatmeal won't be quite such a bargain after all!

      E x

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      My £1-a-day food challenge takes off in a couple of days. I've decided to run it from Thursday to Tuesday, across the weekend even though it's a Bank Holiday one. I am looking forward to it actually, if that doesn't sound a funny thing to say. Having invested a lot of time and thought and planning in the project, I want now to see if it will work in practice.

      I am afraid it may be a bit boring to read, so my apologies in advance, if that's the case, but I am intending to post at the end of each day (or beginning of the following one) with a summary of my meal plan, the costs involved and recipes that I've devised or altered, to fit, or get round the demands of the challenge as well as any reflections as I go along. That is in part a kind of accountability exercise that I think will help to motivate me sticking to it, if the going gets, er, hungry! I'm also keen to record the minutiae of the challenge on a day to day level for my own retrospective reading and analysis.

      So the first of these daily posts will be at the end of the week. I am also planning to do a kind of round-up post after the end of the challenge, with a collection of tips and tricks for future reference both for myself, should I be so rash as to undertake a repeat exercise, and in case anyone else might find them useful, either on a similar challenge or just generally. Thereafter normal, intermittent blogging service will resume!

      Meanwhile, my preparations have been focussed this last week on ...

      ... some foraging...

      Not for nettles which, as you will know if you read my Cucina povera post, were unceremoniously evicted before I could get to them, but for dandelions.

      I always knew you could eat the leaves - they're good added with other wild green leaves to soup as their strong flavour gets muted by the heat and other ingredients but raw and travelling solo, they're quite bitter, so a few go a long way in salad.

      There 's a lovely passage about a dandelion leaf salad in Serge Krebs' novel, "Aux Mains de l'Ennemi", (In Enemy Hands"), in which an English and a German soldier, Edward and Hans, strike up an unlikely friendship when they inadvertently cross one another's path behind the trenches in northern France. Edward, is wounded in the initial encounter and the pair lie up for a while in the strange territory of no-man's land, finding shelter in the abandoned farmhouses that litter the landscape. Food is scarce and they have to live off whatever they can find, mostly "pommes flétries" (withered apples) and dried up, old onions. After some days of this fare, Hans suggests collecting dandelion leaves for "une salade de pissenlits", which still grow in profusion, despite the ravages of artillery bombardment. Edward is very suspicious as to the edibility of dandelion leaves but Hans assures him that "les Français s'en raffolent" ("the French enjoy them") and that "ils sont pleins de vitamines".

      Anyway, there's nothing else to hand so they pick a big bagful and hit on the bright idea of raiding the kitchen cupboards of the abandoned mill where they're holed up, for the sour dregs of a bottle of vinegar to dress the bitter leaves. On its own, the vinegar makes the leaves barely palatable but one idea leads to another and incurring very considerable risk for the sake of their precious salad, they leave the relative safety of their hiding place and manage to get hold of a bottle of oil from the cellar of another abandoned farmhouse. The bottle is almost empty and the oil that is left is turning rancid but there's enough to dress the leaves along with the vinegar and they feast incongruously but triumphantly on the results. I think you would need to be pretty hungry to enjoy this - I am hoping I will not find myself in that scenario this coming week! - but there's something very appealing about the foraged meal and the delight with which it is eaten. Bitter and tough though the leaves must have been despite the make-shift dressing, in the circumstances, the salad is a defiant and stylish solution to "ventres crispés par la faim" ("stomachs cramped with hunger").

      Sorry - I am digressing; back to real life! While, as I say, I knew that the leaves were edible and also that you can eat the root of the plant - in hard times people have made a kind of ersatz coffee from dandelion root - I didn't know that you can also eat the flowers, but, to my surprise, I learn that you can.

      I usually have a spoonful of maple syrup on my everyday porridge. I adore maple syrup and have to ration myself as, even away from a £1-a-day food challenge, pure maple syrup is very expensive. Even a single teaspoonful was off limits for the challenge however, so I toyed with possible alternatives - a teaspoon of soft brown sugar from Aldi would be OK, as would a teaspoonful of Aldi honey, which is ridiculously cheap compared with the price of honey elsewhere. And then I came across the idea of "cramaillotte" or "dandelion honey".

      "Cramaillotte" is not a true honey, as made by honeybees, but something that tastes most disconcertingly like it, made from dandelion flowers, sugar and some citrus fruit. I was almost too late - the lawn and flower-beds have been covered in bright yellow dandelion flowers (hurray for lazy gardening!) and I thought it would be an easy matter to pick plenty. But dandelions only flower with their glorious, yellow, pom-pom heads for three days and then the golden petals turn, to the characteristic puffy seed-heads and when I went out into the garden, full of optimism, I found a sea of fluffy clocks and not nearly so many golden heads as there had been only a few days previously. I moved fast and gathered all I could find and added a few more from a bank down the lane that seemed reasonably clear of the possibility of contamination, either from traffic or dogs. There were just enough flower-heads to have a go at this recipe if I scaled back the quantities to ⅓ of the orginal. Phew!

      "Cramaillotte" originates in the Franche-Comté region of Eastern France. There's not much you can teach traditional French countryfolk about thrift (my mother always tells me that it is our French peasant ancestry that encourages any thrifty family tendencies!) and this recipe is a good example of that. It's extremely good and the funny thing is that "cramaillotte" tastes exactly like real honey, even though it isn't, if you see what I mean. If you are reading this and there are still dandelions out there in your garden to gather, I encourage you to lose no time in so doing! You will not regret it.

      For the recipe, I had to use the ingredients I already had in the house, as I didn't want to lose any time, having picked the flowers, so while I had a lemon (which I used in full), I had no oranges. I did however have some dried orange-peel shapes, left over from making orange-peel-bunting last year so I added some of those to the mixture. That's why the orange peel is in those little shapes in the pic with holes for threading string through.

      I didn't have any of the "sucre gélifiant" (jam sugar with pectin) that the recipe asked for, either. I do use jam sugar when I make preserves - I find it takes the stress out of getting stuff to set - but I realise that it is a great deal more expensive than plain sugar so perhaps it was just as well that the cupboard was bare, as it would have pushed my budget to accommodate it. I did have ordinary granulated sugar though, so that's what I used and it's worked fine. The cost of the whole batch, (using granulated sugar from Aldi (22p), a lemon from Aldi on their Super Six Offer (7p) and the leftover dried orange peel (0p) ) worked out at 29p for around 330g. That means a teaspoonful costs less than a halfpenny, 0.43p to be precise.

      The finished product is like a runny honey - it would be difficult to spread it on toast and for it to stay there perhaps but it's perfect for my everyday porridge on the challenge - more fragrant than soft brown sugar, considerably more flavoursome than Aldi's (amazingly cheap) real honey and every bit as good as any good quality, wildflower honey. I guess it would be amazing on some Breton style crêpes made with buckwheat flour or on Belgian waffles ... I'll try that next week perhaps!

      The name "cramaillotte" has a quaint and convoluted pedigree. It comes from "cramaillot", a country name in la Franche-Comté for dandelions. "Cramaillot" is itself a diminutive of "cramail", an old form of the word "crémaillère" - a technical term for a notched, metal piece, or rack in a mechanism that meshes into a gear wheel. It refers to the toothed leaves that distinguish the dandelion leaves. Of course, although I'd never thought about it before, dandelion in English is simply an anglicisation of "dent de lion", (lion's tooth), which also refers to the jagged leaves and the same thing applies in German where the word for dandelion is "Löwenzahn" (lion's tooth). The other common French name for dandelion is "pissenlit" which refers, unkindly and exaggeratedly, to the diuretic properties of dandelion. Diuretic qualities apart, I believe dandelion honey was originally made to combat symptoms of "mal de la gorge", but never mind whether you have a sore throat or not, this is just delicious in its own right, so, as I say, if you have any dandelions out there for the picking...

      ... some searching...

      We discovered that one of the bantams had disappeared and gone into broody hiding one evening so a massive hen-hunt had to be launched before night-fall in order to deprive Mr Fox of a takeaway chicken. Eventually after hunting high and low, we found her ... sitting on top of 14 lovely fresh eggs! The eggs are a bit smudged and grubby from having been laid among the goose-grass and comfrey but they're all fresh - I tested them in a jug of water - so I have some unexpected extra ammunition in the way of ingredients should I need it over the coming days. The main relief is finding the bantam, not the eggs, although she wasn't exactly pleased to be found and restored to a cosy nest box with only miserable old, ceramic, dummy eggs in place of her own clutch.

      ... some growing...

      Even if you only have a windowsill, you can grow herbs from seed or cuttings in pots in a relatively short time, for negligible or no cost. My very-frugal-basil-plant is a case in point. He started as a single stem from a pot of basil from Aldi. I followed the instructions here and was amazed that they worked. It's much quicker to get to harvesting than growing from seed although it's taken about a month to get from cutting a single stem from the parent plant to this.

      I also have a load of basil seedlings in the greenhouse, grown from very ancient, vintage seed packets dating from 2009. A surprising number of the seeds have germinated but, of course, even though they were planted over a month ago, starting from seed, they are nowhere near harvesting in quantity yet.

      In addition I have dabbled with planting chervil, dill, Greek oregano, lovage, chives and caraway. All going quite nicely but not really useable yet in the kitchen. The oregano and lovage I planted because I thought earlier in the Spring that they hadn't survived the winter in their normal habitats but I was wrong - there's a happy forest of both so while the wee chaps in the greenhouse are too tiny to use, their longer established cousins in the flowerbeds are most certainly not. I've always used oregano in my cooking but I am new to using lovage - it has quite a strong celery-type flavour and is very good in stock to provide a celery component without using any celery, if you see what I mean, so it's proving a bit of a frugal friend.

      I have also been growing the remnants of a slightly less ancient, but still vintage, (2010 as opposed to 2009!), previously opened packet of cress seeds in an even shorter time-frame. Who says growing mustard and cress is just for children? And despite their antique status, like the ancient basil, they've, more or less, all germinated which I've regarded as a freebie bonus. I've been saving these ugly old trays that mushrooms in the supermarket are packed in. D kindly cut them down, as the sides were too high to allow easy harvesting and they've made perfect cress-growing trays.

      A few pieces of kitchen roll folded up as a base, a liberal sprinkling of seeds, regular watering and voilà! Fresh salad on tap, packed with vitamin C and minerals! I've got several trays on the go in succession so that supply will keep up with demand.

      ... some basic cooking ahead...

      Making homemade vegetable stock for example, from the peelings and trimmings of vegetables left over from other cooking and herbs.

      I've found that a tightly-lidded plastic container in the fridge keeps such vegetable trimmings fresh and useable for two or three days if I can't make the stock straightaway and the finished product is well worth the effort for adding a depth of flavour to otherwise plain dishes. As it's made from herbs growing in the garden and stuff that would otherwise go straight in the compost bucket, it is also effectively free, apart from the salt. I cook it for 20 minutes under pressure in my pressure cooker, before cooling and straining. What I don't immediately need, I freeze in washed-out, old 450ml yoghurt containers.

      ... and some creative hooky distraction!

      More of this once normal service resumes hopefully!

      E x

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      So this evening sees the end of Day 1 of my £1-a-day Food Challenge and so far, I'm surviving reasonably happily on my iron rations. Just have to see if I can keep it going! What I notice already is that the food itself is great but that some of the portion sizes are quite meagre. It hasn't been too noticeable today but I am conscious of it. And I remind myself that I only have to do this for five or six days. If I were to be living with scaled-back portions all the time, it would be a very different story. Sobering. 

      Anyway, here, for anyone who may be interested, are my Day 1 details and the recipes I've devised from scratch or tweaked to fit the stringent budget. 

      Breakfast is smaller than usual, but not very different from what I usually eat except that the milk to make the porridge is heavily watered down and I usually have a teaspoon of maple syrup on it instead of this new-to-me preserve, dandelion honey. (See my previous post for details.)

      I often make apple purée for breakfast - I don't really like raw apple - and thought it wouldn't be too much of a problem to include a portion on the £1-a-day meal plans but even with the cheapest apples I could find (65p for a bag of seven at Aldi on their Super Six offer), it works out at 9p for a tiny bowlful. Later in the year when there are windfalls a-plenty in the garden and hedgerows, it will, of course, be free. In fact, doing the challenge now in May, I found that most fruit, unless it had been foraged and frozen last year, or grown for free like rhubarb, had to be eliminated because it was just too expensive to include. A bit of a shock as, normally, I eat a lot of fruit. Probably too much actually.

      To make the apple purée, wash but do not peel or core the apples. Cut them up roughly and place in a pan with enough water almost to cover. In less frugal circumstances I often snip off an inch or so of vanilla pod, split it down the middle to expose the tiny fragrant seeds and add it to the apples as they cook which gives the resulting purée a delicious, creamy vanilla flavour but vanilla pods are off limits for this week.

      Bring to the boil and simmer until really soft - about an hour. Then tip the contents (fruit, juice, skins, stalks, pips and everything) into a mouli placed over a bowl and turn the handle to press out the purée. The purée freezes well if you want to make a big batch and freeze some. I made this batch using 11 apples from Aldi's Super Six offer - a bag of 7 apples for 65p. It made 11 small portions so it comes out at 9p each.

      Although I have managed to include a few Earl Grey tea bags in my budget, I had to switch to Aldi's own brand instead of Waitrose's. I have to say that it's the first completely unsatisfactory ingredient swap I've made. It tastes awful. If it's not made with floor-sweepings, it might as well be. I am supplementing it with fresh mint tea made from bright green, Moroccan mint in the garden.

      I do like mint tea but it's not the same as my beloved, usual Earl Grey. Anyway at least it doesn't taste like the dregs at the bottom of a floor-washing bucket which can't easily be said for Aldi's offering on the tea front. Enough said but this will be one item I most certainly won't be buying long term.

      Grain for grinding. Exactly as it came out of the combine harvester last August so it needs a bit of picking over to remove chaff, small stones and the odd dead insect but I love it - grown only yards from my front door and a free gift to boot.
      Grain milled into flour, sifted and ready for baking.
      The thrifty seeded roll recipe is a variation on one I often make. The ingredients are as follows:

      1tsp yeast ("Dove's Farm" from Waitrose) 2p
      270g wholemeal flour (ground at home from sack of grain given to me by my neighbour farmer last autumn) 
      230g strong white bread flour (Lidl) 12p
      1tsp salt 1p
      8g skimmed milk powder ("Marvel" from Waitrose) 9p
      10ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 1p
      50g brown linseeds ("Tree of Life" from Waitrose) 14p
      380ml water (plain or mixed with whey from drained yoghurt)

      Total cost for 12 rolls 39p ie 3p each.

      I make the dough in my automatic bread-maker on the wholemeal dough programme and then divide it into 12 rolls, place on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking paper and bake at 195 C for 14-15 minutes. Once cooked, shunt the rolls off the baking sheet, onto a wire rack to cool. 

      Normally I make these with an even 50/50 split between wholemeal flour and white, a mixture of seeds such as millet, poppy and sesame, more skimmed milk powder and 30ml not 10ml of a nutty British rapeseed oil . I've stuck with linseeds because they're filling, nutritious and the cheapest seed option and I like their hidden nutty taste. Obviously you could omit the milk powder entirely but it does improve the texture of the bread and provides an extra shot of protein and vitamins which is grist to my mill this week.

      I know it's a weakness but if I am to carry on functioning reasonably sweetly for the latter part of the day, I need something to eat and drink around 4.00 o'clock in the afternoon. And not a celery stick or a handful of healthy chia seeds either, I am afraid. So one of the particular challenges of these £1-a-day meal plans was that I had to factor that in, which wasn't easy. As you'll see, I've hunkered down around wholemeal-based recipes which haven't cost me anything for the wholemeal flour and are relatively light on other ingredients. It has made for slightly unseasonal menus - today has been the hottest day of the year so far in the UK - almost 30 C here in Oxfordshire - so it feels slightly incongruous to be eating a toasted muffin more appropriate for a cold winter's afternoon, but no matter. The rose-hip and crab apple jelly is a 2013 vintage. Not quite as old as my basil and cress seeds but nonetheless venerable! Because the fruit was foraged for free, I've costed it out just for the amount of jam sugar used, so it's pretty cheap for a reasonably generous serving, which is good because there's not much slack available for any butter. 

      The recipe for thrifty English muffins is another variation on an existing theme. The dough is very sloppy and sticky so if you are making it by hand you might well want to reduce the liquid to make it more workable. The high fluid content is what gives the muffins their loose, light texture though. I make the dough in my bread-maker on the pizza dough setting.

      For a batch of ten muffins you need:

      a starter made with one eighth of a teaspoon of yeast ("Dove's Farm" from Waitrose) and 180g strong white bread flour (Lidl) mixed with 170ml water and left covered for a couple of hours 9p
      1 tsp yeast ("Dove's Farm" from Waitrose) 4p
      206g wholemeal flour (home-ground as above) 
      14g cornflour (Waitrose) 4p
      1 tsp salt 1p
      20g demerara sugar (Aldi) 3p
      30ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 3p
      140ml whole milk  (from 4pt bottle Aldi) 6p
      c34ml water (or whey from drained yoghurt)
      30g ground rice to dust the outsides of the muffins ("Whitworths" from Waitrose) 4p

      Total cost for 10 muffins 43p ie 4p each.

      Shape the dough as best you can (it's sticky!) into ten balls, dust them in ground rice (which helps with handling the sticky dough) and bake in non-stick muffin rings on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking paper at 180 C for c 25 minutes. 

      Lift off the muffin rings (carefully - they're hot!) and as before, shunt the muffins off the tin to cool on a wire rack. 

      When not on the £1-a-day food challenge I would use 174ml milk instead of milk diluted with water / whey and I usually use an organic sunflower margarine such as Biona rather than the oil.

      Carrot and lentil soup with cumin and coconut milk

      c 1litre homemade vegetable stock (using trimmings from any vegetables you've saved, a few sprigs of herbs eg rosemary, thyme, lovage, bay leaf, 2 tsps salt and 2 pints water) 2p
      12ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 1p
      2 small red onions (140g), peeled and chopped (Aldi) 9p
      770g carrots, peeled and grated coarsely (Aldi) 32p
      140g red lentils (Lidl) 21p
      half a tsp cumin seeds toasted in a dry pan and ground (Waitrose) 5p
      pinch black pepper
      large tin of reduced fat coconut milk (Aldi) 79p
      fresh parsley (from garden)

      Total cost £1.49. Makes 6 portions costing 25p each.

      To make:
      Sweat the onions and grated carrot in the sunflower oil in the base of the pressure cooker. Season with the cumin and black pepper. Add the stock, lentils and coconut milk, bring to the boil and cook under pressure for 7 minutes. Release the pressure and allow to cool a bit before whizzing to a purée in a blender. Thin with extra water if necessary. Serve sprinkled with a bit of chopped parsley and dill.

      In less frugal circumstances I would use more carrots - up to a kilo, quite a bit more seasoning - up to 2 tsps of cumin and plenty of black pepper. I would also use olive oil, not sunflower, to sweat the vegetables in.

      So my total costs for Day 1 amount to 93p. That includes "extras" which are not strictly necessary but which I felt would make the challenge more realistically sustainable. They may be small but they have a disproportionately cheering psychological effect, especially my end-of-the-day, small, twopenny square of Scottish tablet with a cup of the unspeakable, Aldi Earl Grey tea! 

      E x

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      As you will see, if you read about Day 1, Day 2's menu on my £1-a-day Food Challenge is quite similar. In fact generating variety has proved one of the more difficult aspects of the challenge. I don't mind a certain amount of repetitiveness in my eating but I can well see that one might tire of eating the same things over and over for a period of months or even years. A reminder that the huge variety of foods at our disposal in the western developed world is something to be genuinely appreciative of. It is also, of course, now recommended for good health that we eat from as wide a range of foods as possible. On a very restricted budget that is very difficult so eating to maintain good health, as well as simply surviving, raises the stakes to an even higher level of difficulty, if you are living on no more than £1 per day for a long period of time.

      I suppose to call my drained yoghurt "cheese" is stretching things a bit but it tastes like a very young, fresh, cream cheese, it spreads like cheese and it works with other ingredients like cheese, so cheese it is. I use a small jar of homemade yoghurt for this, made from a litre of UHT semi-skimmed milk from Aldi (49p) seeded with a jar of homemade yoghurt left over from a previous batch seeded with commercial live yoghurt (overall cost 13p). The cost of each jar in this second batch comes down to 9p and in a subsequent one to 8p but by then you really need to seed the homemade batch with commercial yoghurt again. For the cheese. all I do is tip a small jar of yoghurt into a sieve lined with muslin over a jug, pop a small saucer on top and a weight and leave it to drain in the fridge overnight. The next day most of the whey will have dripped through the muslin into the jug leaving a mass of creamy white cheese to use as you wish.

      It's still quite loose in texture but it's very good, sprinkled with a pinch of salt and pepper on fresh homemade wholemeal bread and topped with herbs or salad or a sliced tomato.

      Tomatoes, even cheap ones, are off limits on the challenge but herbs and / or cress are not. It's repetitive having the same thing for lunch each day but still good and I'm changing the plate for variety!

      The thrifty spiced bun recipe is really a variant on a hot cross bun that I made this last Lent. Similar to the ones I usually make but with one or two differences and the recipe was quite susceptible to being tweaked to reduce the cost so even though Eastertide has virtually come to an end, I am afraid I am still eating Shrovetide buns!

      Thrifty Spiced Buns

      2tsps yeast ("Dove's Farm" from Waitrose) 4p
      250g wholemeal flour (homeground)
      250g strong white flour (Lidl) 13p
      1 tsp salt 1p
      50ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 5p
      50g soft brown sugar (Aldi) 7p
      300ml whole milk (from Aldi 4pt bottle) 13p
      90ml water / whey from draining yoghurt
      120g raisins (Aldi) 31p
      120g homemade candied orange and grapefruit peel 12p
      1 tsp ground mixed spice (Aldi) 2p
      1tsp ground cinnamon (Aldi) 3p
      1tsp ground anise (from a gift from a German friend I know through work; ground anise is difficult to obtain in the UK. You could use more of the other two spices or add nutmeg instead.)

      Homemade candied peel is a whole different story from the commercial variety - forget those dry tubs of uniformly cubed, nondescript "mixed peel" and meet meltingly fragrant, citrus chunks that retain all the distinct aromatic qualities of the individual fruits they come from. I use the recipe in Jane Grigson's Fruit Book which is very good. The two separate boilings before you put the peel anywhere near the sugar really are necessary so that the finished candied peel is tender and not tough. You can shorten the time by using a pressure cooker - 7 minutes under pressure for each boiling. I store the finished peel in the freezer as I've found it doesn't keep very well in a jar.

      I make the dough for these buns in my bread-maker, using the wholemeal raisin-dough programme. When the dough is ready, I divide it into 12 pieces, place them on non-stick baking parchment on a baking sheet and cut a deep cross in each one with a knife dipped in flour before each cut. I leave them to prove while the oven heats up to 195 C and then bake them for 14 minutes until well risen and nicely brown.

      As with all my yeast baking, on taking them out of the oven, I shunt them off the baking sheet to cool on a wire rack. Fresh from the oven they don't need butter or anything else on them and what I don't immediately need, I freeze and just defrost as required. If you don't freeze them, they will go stale quite quickly but will be fine for a day or two, if you're going to toast and butter them.

      Away from the £1-a-day food project I use more raisins (150g) , more candied peel (150g) and more of each of the spices (1½ tsps). I also like using almond oil and maple syrup in place of the sunflower oil and soft brown sugar but the thrifty version is good enough to make me think that this is an unnecessary extravagance.

      The buns are delicious and filling without being dense. Neither are they too heavy on fat or sugar so they're a good recipe for anyone wanting to cut down, not just on cost, but also on sugar or fat.

      Total cost 91p. Makes 12 buns, each costing 8p.

      Chilli sin carne

      224g red kidney beans, soaked overnight and cooked in a pressure cooker with 2½pts water for 20 minutes (Sainsbury's) 52p
      20ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 2p
      2 small red onions, peeled and finely chopped (Aldi) 12p
      2 tsps chilli powder (Aldi) 5p
      salt / black pepper (Waitrose) 1p
      2 large (400g) tins chopped tomatoes (Aldi) 58p
      c 500ml homemade vegetable stock 1p
      oregano (from garden)
      parsley (from garden)

      To make:
      In the base of a large cast iron casserole, sweat the chopped onions in the sunflower oil until softened. Stir in the chilli powder and a grinding of black pepper. Add the tins of chopped tomatoes and plenty of fresh oregano. Drain the kidney beans, saving the cooking liquid, and add the beans to the pan. Pour in the stock and about the same quantity again of the bean-cooking liquid, to make quite a sloppy mix. Add a bit of salt if you think it needs it. Bake in the oven at 170 C for about three hours or so, until the liquid has substantially reduced into a nice thick sauce. I leave the lid slightly ajar on the casserole to encourage evaporation.

      Check towards the end of the cooking time to make sure the chilli is not drying out. If it seems on the dry side, you can add a bit of boiling water and leave it in the oven, or you can take it out a bit early - everything's cooked by now - just do whatever suits your schedule.

      Serve sprinkled with fresh chopped oregano and parsley, on top of some rice and, if you are not on so tight a budget, garlic bread would be nice too. Freed from the constraints of the challenge I would maybe use an extra onion, and possibly a wee bit more chilli powder. A good fat dollop of tinned tomato purée would not go amiss either. You could also add other vegetables such as celery or fennel to the onions if you wanted to make it go further. For preference I would be using olive oil, not sunflower.

      Total cost £1.31. Makes 5 portions each costing 26p.

      For the challenge I used Aldi's cheapest possible rice which works out at 4p per 125g. The rice could have been better - I much prefer proper Basmati rice - but for 4p per serving, one can't possibly complain and I have to say that the whole thing was unexpectedly good this evening. In other circumstances it's not what I would necessarily have chosen to cook on by far hottest day of the year so far, but it kind of made up for itself, despite that. I shall be making it again away from the challenge.

      Today's piece of culinary bad news relates to my rhubarb which just doesn't seem to have regenerated properly after my last picking a few weeks ago, despite being well-watered and spoken kindly to. There was just enough to make a batch of rhubarb compôte with 100g Aldi soft brown sugar (14p) - enough for six portions at 2p each so long as the servings were minuscule. I am relieved for the purposes of the challenge that there was just enough and know that next week I can buy it, if I want to. Not an option, if you have to manage on this budget permanently, I remind myself.

      I had to divide it up equally into small pots immediately as I knew if I just spooned it into bowls as required, I would over-serve to begin with and run out. 10ml cream sounds no more than a token but it goes a long way as you can see in the pic. Despite this, opprobrious remarks were made at supper about needing microscopes and the fact that I appear to be serving meals for fleas! But I don't think fleas eat rhubarb...! And we're at the end of Day 2 already!

      A small square of Scottish tablet to disguise the taste of that unpleasant Earl Grey tea? I think so!

      Today's total is a penny more than yesterday's at 94p but still well within bounds. Now for the weekend!

      E x