Friday, 31 July 2009

The glad game

I don’t know if you are familiar with the book Pollyanna by Eleanor H Porter – it is generally sold as a children’s book, but as with all the best books for children there is plenty for adult readers to think about, and it still makes me sob every time I read it. And not just at the end – I am usually in tears as soon as Pollyanna arrives on the scene. But then I have always been a bit of a bleeding heart – actually, no, not always – only since I have had children. I was quite carefree up until then, but it seems that those emotional hormones that were switched on by pregnancy were never switched off again.

However, I am digressing, as usual. I will try not to. Pollyanna is an orphaned clergyman’s daughter, but with (heartbreaking) prescience her dear, departed papa taught her the glad game before he died, and as Pollyanna tells us, ‘the game was to just find something about everything to be glad about – no matter what ‘twas.’ And Pollyanna manages to find something to be glad about, however dreadful the situation: she is heartbreaking and hilarious at one and the same time.

So taking a lesson from Pollyanna I decided to look once again at my rather jaded, rather messy, late summer cottage garden, which looks like paradise on earth for the first two weeks in June, and then seems to slide downhill ever after. I always tell myself that all the flowers have gone by August – and yet, when I looked more closely, I found all sorts of beautiful blooms all around me. Maybe that mass of blowsy perfection has departed, but there are still many small pockets of exquisiteness. It is just a matter of taking the time to look and to find something to be glad about.

So in the spirit of the glad game, here are some glads for you – I have always told myself that I don’t like gladioli. There is the name, for a start, rather ugly, and hinting at pretentiousness. And I always have an image of stiff blooms in harsh colours. Yet these gladioli counter all my irrational prejudices: the colours are so pretty, ice-creamlike in their pinkness. A couple of stems bunched together with purple lavender make a lovely present for a hostess (and you know how much I like presents!). And these are bonus glads – Princess Bunchy planted the corms last year, having bought them from a pick and mix display in the nursery. They flowered last year, and have come up again this year, in spite of a regime of benign neglect.

Like Ophelia, I come larded with sweet flowers and can list my blooms for you, but I can quite sensibly tell you that they are all very pretty and so easy (and cheap) to grow.

And the fact that they are flowering so well now is a function of my lackadaisicalness – I was far too preoccupied with my vegetables in early spring, so I didn’t sow the cornflowers and love-in-the-mist until quite late, and I put them directly into the soil.

The marigolds and nicotiana were sown in trays and potted on, but again I did not get round to planting them out until they were quite large and pot-bound – but it does not seem to have troubled them too much. Nicotiana flowers open towards the end of the day, and their scent is sweet and strong at night - plant them near where you sit in the evening, or under a window, so that you don't miss out on their ethereal nocturnal beauty. They shine out so whitely in the dark, and look so luminous.

And if I’m not too enthusiastic with my weeding over the winter and spring the marigolds will most certainly reseed themselves all over the garden, and save me some work next year.

The clarkia was sown into a tray and was then forgotten about behind the polytunnel – by the time that I planted it out it was half-dead from lack of water, but clarkia is such a toughie it has recovered completely and now stands pink and robust as you can see.

The feverfew started from one plant many years ago, and has been travelling round and round the garden since. If you make sandwiches from the leaves, it will apparently cure migraine - but I am not sure if any old feverfew will do. I think medical advice would be advisable on that one!

I am not sure of the name of the pink one, possibly soapwort, but this was originally a little slip from my grandmother’s garden. It spreads invasively by runners and I curse it every spring, and forgive it every August.

The sea holly was a plant that I bought rather than grew from seed, but this is a longlasting late-summer charmer, too – I love its sculptural quality, and it provides a good framework plant in flower arrangements.

And to make a good end, my wonderful lavender is still going strong, and keeping my friends the bees very busy. So there are more than glads to be glad about, and I hope you have plenty of gladness in your garden, too.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

My life in aprons

I have been reading The Apron Book by EllynAnne Geisel, an interesting book which is a mixture of memoir, social history and patterns for, as you might just have guessed, aprons, as well as a good few recipes thrown in for good measure, all intertwined with a gentle exploration of American female identity. Geisel connects the abandonment of the apron with the rise of feminism, and the apron's resurgence in popularity to a wish to reconnect with home and family.

So I began to think about my recent purchase of a wonderful apron from Mrs B, an apron with ‘Mia Casa’ embroidered upon the pocket: I have been pretty closely connected with home and family for pushing twenty years now, so I don’t think this is part of a sudden urge towards nestbuilding – more along the lines of having a fetching apron, unspattered by grease, in which to serve breakfast to our B&B guests.

And I rather like the handy pocket and tabs – just right to put my knitting in, or hang my scissors on, and imagine myself as a wonderfully industrious farmer’s wife, like the indomitable Mrs Poyser in Adam Bede, who has always been one of my great heroines.

But in spite of Geisel’s denial of an element of retro fashion and nostalgia in the current popularity of the apron, in my case there is definitely a more than a spot of nostalgia. The last time I tied on a waist apron, I was probably about nine years old.

The first thing that I remember sewing as a child is this pink gingham apron, and the fact that it is still in my possession, after more years than I care to reveal or remember, is a measure of how precious it has remained. I remember the Friday afternoons when I sat listening to The Water Babies being read to us, whilst clumsily and patiently herringboning and cross-stitching, as a small window of happiness in six years of misery at a school run on horribly old-fashioned and authoritarian lines.

Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby remains as a guiding example to me, and Mrs Donebyasyoudid with her nasty pebbles for sweets still haunts my unquiet moments. And disappointment as well as pleasure is contained in that apron – whoever was in charge of the fabric budget was rather mean: when completed the apron was really too small even for my tiny eight-year-old frame, and was thus quite impractical to wear. The next project was a spotted shantung blouse, a bizarre choice for primary school age children, and consequently this has disappeared, lost and unregretted, into the mists of time.

At around the same time my aunt brought me back this embroidered blue gingham apron from her travels to Mallorca – I remember being so enchanted with it that I rarely wore it. It seemed far to precious to risk making dirty, and already I was growing up and away from apronhood. When I took it out recently for Princess Bunchy to wear, it still retained its original starched stiffness.

Needlework lessons at secondary school were not a source of enjoyment for me – my clumsy fingers could not keep up with the pace of the older girls in the class, and it seemed me to be a relentless and uninspiring progress from one regimented project to another, with little imagination and creativity involved. The first task was a felt mouse – in a time when small stuffed animals were not associated with cuteness but with childishness, and I, for one, was ready to put aside childish things.

And then we embroidered a pocket with a culinary theme, ready to apply to our striped cookery apron, made with terrifying black treadle Singer sewing machines, ranged threateningly around the edges of the classroom. I would sit and prick my fingers, unpick what I had stitched, and take the whole mess home for my mother to complete. The last straw was a sleeveless, V-neck slipover blouse – the smallest size the pattern came in was a 12, and it was so large that at twelve years old I could pull it over the top of my school uniform, sweater and all. I rejected the blouse, I turned against needlework. I was going to be a modern, liberated woman, and live a life of the intellect: I associated domesticity with enforced slavery and boredom, and I did not sew again for many years.

Then came the seventies and eighties will all those PVC pinnies – so eminently practical and so cold and shiny. I remember I had one with a picture of Snoopy sitting atop a many-tiered burger in a bun, an apron which resolutely refused to wear out, just becoming more discoloured with age. And then I married someone who worked for a brewery, so I had a wardrobe of boringly plain canvas pinnies with the names of beers on them. Eminently practical, and eminently ugly.

And then, of course, came Cath Kidston with all those pretty flowers. My beery numbers were proving disappointingly hardwearing, and I nursed a secret desire for a wardrobe of flowery aprons. Having waited some years, quite unavailingly, for someone to put me out of my misery, and present me with one as a surprise, I suggested last Christmas that I would quite like a pretty apron. And this is what I received – one from my dear mother, and one from the Head Chef.

It may come as no surprise to the more percipient among you that my mother gave me the pretty, flowery one courtesy of the dear Cath, and my best-beloved interpreted ‘pretty’ as an orange-red stripe from the Aga shop. Of course, it is the thought that counts, and he looks very chef-like when he wears it.

And so, when I look at my word count, I feel that I might have tried your patience as I give you the story of my life, but I will leave you with one last picture of a pinny, made with my own fair hands, but with unalloyed joy this time round. I made this apron for Princess Bunchy, from the same pattern as her Bunchy dress (Burda 9755), and she was most touchingly pleased with it. And perhaps it marks the beginning of some apron memories for her, too.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The joy of small things - a birthday celebration

‘I am very fond of sunsets. Come, let us go look at a sunset now.’

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky ...

I sat upon the shore, not fishing …

Here is no water but only rock

If there were rock
And also water

The grey sea and the long black land

The fair, frail palaces,
The fading alps and archipelagoes,
And great cloud-continents of sunset-seas.

It would be the stuff that dreams and memories are made on.

And remember ...

... though the last lights off the black West went ... morning, at the brown brink eastward springs ...

Our revels now are ended but we may dream of this.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Absence and presence

I expect you have all heard of the old woman who lived in a shoe – she had so many children that she didn’t know what to do. Well, it seems that the gap left in my life by absent children is being filled up with courgettes. Yes, courgettes (or zucchini for those of other nations).

Here is this morning’s harvest – along with some dinky little cucumbers. Those round greeny-white things are cucumbers – I don’t know their name because I was given the plants. I think that they might be Australian in origin, but wherever they hail from, they taste delicious.

You might think that that is a modest and manageable harvest, but these jaunty little fellows are not alone – they are merely the tip of a great green and yellow iceberg. We have been eating courgettes every day. And we have frozen some as courgettes in tomato sauce. And we have tried to give some to friends. But, unfortunately, in the midst of an apparent national courgette surplus, there aren’t always willing takers.

This is the backlog (seemingly poised to take over the world as we know it).

And these are the ones that got away, hiding surreptitiously under leaves, and fattening themselves towards marrowdom.

So if you find yourself travelling along a quiet country lane and see a sign saying ‘Courgettes for sale’, please do stop and buy some. You could make an old woman very happy.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Jam today

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll ‘the rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.’ But here at Pomona’s cottage we do have jam today, lovely cherry jam to eat on our scones – and it is a pot of our newly-made cherry jam made even more delightful by the addition of an absolutely beautiful little embroidered cover. I was sent this in the post by the kind (and very talented) Mrs B, also known as one half of The Two Scrumptious Ladies.

Mrs B, you have made my day! I came home stricken with maternal grief because I had put Princess Bunchy (my smallest baby) on the train – she is off on an adventure for a whole week, and my little fledgling has never been away that long before. So a little surprise in the post went a long way towards assuaging my tears.

It also provided me with another opportunity for a post to be labelled ‘presents’. As the small boy says in Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, ‘Get back to the Presents!’ And I second that.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Fabulous flapjacks

I think the most useful recipes are those that are simple enough to learn by heart and can be rustled up in a few minutes, with ingredients from the store cupboard. As well as tasting nice, of course – I am not talking instant pudding out of a foil bag here. So I am making you a present of this recipe for the most delicious flapjacks, a recipe which fulfils all these criteria. It is also the recipe that I am asked to write down most often, so I thought there must be a case for making it a matter of public record.

These flapjacks travel well, important at this holiday time of year, and are perfect for picnics and lunchboxes, because they don’t melt and collapse in the heat. Well, not in an English summer, anyway – I can’t speak for sunnier climes. I find them quite handy for long journeys when the little people in the back start complaining of starvation half an hour into the trip. Flapjacks give them the sugar rush they crave, but the oats make the snack sustaining. And the effort of chewing will occupy those little jaws for a bit.

This flapjack recipe is also so easy that even a grumpy teenager can make them without much effort; they are thus simple for the more eager under-thirteens, and even toddlers can stir in the oats without ruining the end result. Maybe you could even leave them to it, while you go and do something interesting on your own – get them used to those hot stoves at an early age and they’ll be cooking supper for you before you know it. Although, on balance, perhaps it’s better not to leave toddlers alone with hot stoves, but teenagers – you never know, this could be the start of something wonderful.

I will give you the quantities for a 7 or 8 inch (18-20cm) square shallow tin, just double them up for a larger rectangular swiss roll or traybake tin (anything between 11x7in (28x18cm) and 13x9in (33x23cm) – the smaller the tin, the thicker the flapjacks).

You can skip the next bit in brackets if you are in a rush to get to the recipe: it is just a bit of unitary self-justification.

(I tend to bake in imperial units – the numbers are much easier to remember, and most cooking is a matter of proportions, so mathematically speaking you are just being given ratios. Ratios in multiples of one ounce are always going to be easier to work with than multiples of 25g; an ounce is a logically-sized based unit for domestic cooking, in the same way that a gram is more sensible for a scientist. I sew in metric because a centimetre is a sensible base unit, and this makes the numbers simpler there – no messing about with fractions with different denominators. So you will see that I am not innumerate, just eccentric, but for those who prefer metric recipes I have very kindly looked up the equivalents. However, I haven't tested the metric version - I will leave that to you.)

At last - here it is! You need to melt gently 4oz (115g) of unsalted butter in a saucepan together with 4oz (115g) of light muscovado sugar and 3 tablespoons of golden syrup. Remove from the heat and add in 8oz (225g) of porridge oats – stir well until it is thoroughly mixed together. Tip out into a very well greased shallow tin (the smaller size above). Double the quantities for the larger sized tin.

Bake in a medium oven 180C/350F/gas mark 4 for 20-30 minutes. In a two oven Aga, put the oven rack on the floor of the top oven and the cold plain shelf on the second set of runners, and cook for 20 minutes, turning once. You will get to know how well-done your family likes them – anything from pale gold (chewy) to dark brown (crispy) is acceptable, so you have a bit of leeway there.

When you remove them from the oven, leave them for a few minutes before running a palette knife round the edge, then leave for 20 minutes or so before cutting into squares or rectangles – they need to be firm enough to hold their shape when removed from the tin, but if you leave it until they have cooled hard, it will be a lot more difficult. Cool on a wire tray and eat one at a time whilst memorizing the recipe.

They store well in an airtight tin for a few days, but normally I don't find that storage time is an issue. In this house they tend to be eaten up depressingly quickly. I shall go and make some more.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Calorie-free cupcakes

Yes, you too can participate in the current cupcake fest – and not put on an ounce in weight! Sarah from Paper-and-String has come to the rescue.

Here is her absolutely wonderful Make Your Own Cupcake kit, which I was lucky enough to win in her giveaway earlier this month, and for which I am very grateful.

The catch, of course, is that you can’t eat these cupcakes once you have made them – well, you could try, I suppose, but I think that they would stick in your teeth.

However, felt cupcakes look just as pretty as the edible sort, and are definitely far, far better for you. The pink one at the front is from Sarah's kit.

Remember that doing nothing consumes more calories than watching television – so think how many you would use up by stitching a few cupcakes. (And really I didn’t make up that fact about the calories – I read it here.)

So all in all, I am very pleased with my cupcake kit. Giveaways are one of the things I love about blogland; it’s certainly the first time that I have won anything which depends on the luck of the draw. I think giveaways are a demonstration of a generosity of spirit which characterizes crafty bloggers – I don’t know if other types of blogger indulge in the same sort of thing, but I doubt if their prizes are as much fun. And it is fascinating to see how word of a giveaway spreads like magic amongst readers, and the comments proliferate, or maybe the readers are there anyway, and a giveaway tempts the quiet, shy types out of their silence.

I myself am not terribly good at keeping up with giveaways – I generally come across them by accident, but I know that Sarah at Paper-and-String has one every month (she must be a very generous soul). And there is one going on at Chez Sophie at the moment. As to any more, I am sure you will find them out yourself.

And for me, I will carry on working my way through my calorie-free cupcakes, and admire my shrinking waistline. Princess Bunchy has made a nice cupcake cushion to sit on, and a little blue felty cupcake because she rather likes blue icing. It has all been beautifully accessorized with an appley notebook, also courtesy of Paper-and-String, and a Bramley apple, courtesy of Mother Nature. Just right for Pomona to sit and dream.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Soothing needlework

Although it seems that all stations north and west of here are having a wet summer, unfortunately the rain is not wending itself our way. I say 'unfortunately' because our garden is gasping for a drink. No amount of watering can compensate for a good soaking shower of rain, and I begin to wonder what we will have to eat this winter. The runner beans are positively tough, and in spite of the Head Chef’s valiant attempts at watering, many of the plants look stressed. But if you, too, are feeling slightly stressed, due to the weather or otherwise, can I recommend a little soothing needlework?

The anonymous author of the Handbook of Plain and Fancy Needlework, published in 1882, tells the reader that ‘There is a peculiarly soothing influence about needlework, which is, perhaps, rather similar to that experienced by lovers of ‘the weed’ when under the influence of tobacco.’ I think that she means the common or garden sort of tobacco, rather than anything more exotic, in case you had begun to wonder how this Victorian lady spent her time.

And if you are any doubt about the morality of her advice, she asserts that ‘Needlework is a sweetener of women’s lives – and a wholesome sweetener.’ I am glad to know that sitting at my stitching is not a vice, but in the manner of a smoker on a street corner, I do rather like sewing outside.

And yesterday, in our dry eastern summer, I could sit on my holiday sofa, in the morning, with a clear conscience – I had a gratifyingly huge pile of clothes which needed name tapes.

Now, this might seem a boring job, but they weren’t for school uniform in all its Teflon and polycotton unloveliness – all shades of grey. These were clothes for Princess Bunchy to take on her first children’s adventure holiday away from home. Since her usual mode of operation is to leave a trail of clothes and belongings around the house on the floor, I felt that to ensure the majority of the clothes returned home, they must all be named.

So I had fun matching the thread colour to the garment colour, felt a warm glow of thrift as I reused name tapes which I had carefully removed from outgrown clothes, and an even warmer glow of contentment as I became absorbed in the rhythm of oversewing. I only wished that I could just sew on one gigantic nametape in order to keep that rhythm going on unbroken for longer.

And when I had finished it was the afternoon, so I said to myself ‘Forget the housework – housework is for mornings only,’ and took up my knitting. But that is a tale for another day, and another day I shall tell it.


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