Sunday, 30 October 2011

Making winter with Silverpebble and Mrs Thrifty Household

The clocks changed last night, it's going to be dark oh so early, and some cheery chappie on the radio announced this morning that winter had begun. My heart sinks at those dismal signs of the season of short days and long nights, of chill and damp, and leaden skies - but help is at hand in the persons of Emma from Silverpebble and her trusty friend, Mrs Thrifty Household. Together they have a cunning plan to avert the miseries of the grey days by Making Winter a happy time.

So I have heaved myself out of my incipient doldrums and tried to think of something nice about winter. And it being the time to hack into those poor pumpkins and give them scary faces, what came to mind were pumpkin soup, so cheery and warming, and another of my favourites, toasted pumpkin seeds.

Princess Bunchy has chopped away at Mr Pumpkin, and at my behest has given him a benignant face, and whilst she was doing the carving we gave her a bowl for the innards, in the spirit of waste not, want not, which prevails in our little cottage.

We took the seeds, cleared them of flesh, then spread them out on a baking tray. Sprinkle with olive oil and salt, then put into a hot oven for ten minutes or so - best to keep a close eye on them because the interval between crispy and burnt is a short one. They are done when they have browned and start crackling as the outer husk pops.

So that's a nice thrifty idea for a cheering winter snack, in the spirit of Mrs TH, who has a wonderful ability to conjure up goodies out of the orts and scraps of life. She sent me some of the most beautiful little lavender bags made out of vintage fabric - it was such a lovely package to receive in the post and I absolutely adore the willow pattern fabric.

If you go and visit Mrs Thrifty Household here, and Silverpebble here, you will find all sorts of Making Winter happiness - I am hoping that they can get me through January with a smile on my face.

I am also wondering if all the nice things in winter are edible - I have a horrible feeling that they are, and that is why when I emerge into spring I have a certain air of rotundity and all is straining at the seams.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Dalmatian bath: Pomona's cottage gets a makeover, part 1

It's been All Go at the Cottage this week, the Lady Decorators are arriving on Monday, there is a man in my bathroom huffing and puffing and making a lot of noise, and the Fly Lady has flown out of the window. What can one do when the contents of Zone 3 are cluttering Zone 5, and yes, we did it on purpose . . .

How did those spots get there?
First casualty of the upheavals is the Dalmatian Bath - twenty-five years' faithful service and the Dalmatian finds itself on the lawn in the company of a Little Stranger. Yes, I do feel guilty, but the depredations of unknown visitants hurling hard objects at speed onto the surface enamel has ensured that the quantities of 'not me, guv' Black Spots and surface crazing are incompatible with the Shiny Standards now upheld steadfastly in this abode. (I say 'unknown visitants' advisedly, as when the said Black Spots appeared so mysteriously, it always turned out that no member of the household ever had any knowledge of the manner of their coming into being, in fact, they had not been into the bathroom for days, weeks, a month of Sundays? What spot, oh that spot, oh not me, guv, oh no . . .)

What have you done to my friend?
And so the imminent arrival of the Lady Decorators is preceded by our Friendly, Local Plumber with a heart of gold and an infinite supply of local gossip, head-shaking advice, and roll-ups (or is it rollies?), who comes out on a Saturday at very short notice in return for a couple of cups of coffee, a pound of sausages and an exceedingly small amount of Cash.

Accusatory glance from dog sitting on Dalmatian spots in an economical bath
If you are planning on doing a bathroom on a budget, forget the DIY warehouse where there is no one to talk to you, and also the discount bathroom warehouse. The plumber tells us that these places tend to sell poor quality imported baths which look good on the surface to a layman, but are not hardwearing, and even the permanent half-price clearance 'bargains' will be two or three times more expensive than from a trade supplier. Get your bath from a builder's merchant - a basic unbranded white bath (ours is made of pressed steel, I am told). They are very reasonably priced at around £100 (we said no to handles and dimples, although sometimes I feel that I am headed that way, such is my physical state), and the tap fittings are standard, so we were able to reuse the taps (which are not 25 years old).

Economical taps (very shiny)

Again, the most economical way to source taps is to go to a plumber's merchant which supplies the trade - there are always lots of jolly types to help and advise you. Don't buy the very cheapest - these are a false economy as the poor quality will not stand up to much wear and tear, but you can always find some in whatever style you like, which are robust but not over-priced, by looking through the trade catalogues and picking the brains of the jolly chaps behind the counter. Hugely expensive does not mean hugely hardwearing or best quality - like so many things, you pay extra for famous names, and if you have decided that you really must pay several hundred pounds for taps, there will be a manufacturer with some ready for you at your price point.

I rather like this one
Be careful about buying continental taps, and this is a point worth checking: in many countries water is at mains pressure (which is high), so their taps have built-in pressure reducing valves, which works well for them, but not if you live in an English country cottage where the effect is to reduce your kitchen hot water to a pathetic trickle. (It took quite a few £50 bills from a variety of 'helpful' plumbers before we finally learned from our Friendly Local Plumber that the Italian taps which came with our Habitat sale kitchen would never, ever work properly for that very reason.)

Bathroom waiting for Lady Decorators

So after those handy hints, I can tell you that I am taking a big step on the paint front. I have always been one for a bit of Colour in my life, but after many years of blue woodwork in the bathroom, I have decided that it is going to be painted All White. I can't do anything about the blue tiles, but I feel like I need a bit more light in my life, and the window is small and north-facing, so the reflectiveness of the white will improve the light levels (and help my ageing optics as I peer into the mirror with trowel of concrete in hand ready to fill in the cracks in my visage). The tiles are pure bright white, so the combination of powder blue and white tiles precludes paintwork in one of the dirtier whites - it would just look, well, dirty (and so, possibly, would my face), so maybe not.

Shades of white
There is also the question of the bath surround - the burnt orange pine was toned down with a bit of distressing on the last makeover (so you can tell how long ago that was), but I am on a campaign to banish the orange hues which pervade the house (I will tell you more about the orange next time) and there is nothing for it but All White. 

A basin just like mine in a Cabbages and Roses bathroom
PS The Head Chef tells me that he is going to paint the scullery while the Lady Decorators are here, along with five bookcases and a dresser. He has even bought the paint. I am wondering how far he will get and whether the Lady Decorators will have to be invited back to finish off . . .

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Rose-tinted; or, a disquisition by any other name

Wrap up warm
I just have to thank you all for your lovely comments on my previous posts - I am sure that you will all be most ecstatic to know that I have quite overcome any urge for a slot on Radio 4.

Boots tightly buckled

After all, it would probably only be three minutes long and as is their wont in the interests of Balance they would invite in someone guaranteed to disagree with every word I said, and I am sure that it would be all too flustering.

Thick woolly tights and extra skirt for warmth

And do I need such an outlet for venting my witterings on sundry subjects?

Don't forget a nice warm shawl
Why, no, I can stand on my soapbox in the orchard and expound my opinions to a captive audience, who are bound to nod sympathetically and agree with my every word, as if not they won't get their daily rations.

An adoring audience
Actually, I lie, it is not a soapbox, it is a beer bottle box, which would seem more fitting considering my heritage and connections (not that we are a family of soap-dodgers, you understand, there being only one soap-dodger in this little household and you know who you are).

Captive audience

Not that I know what a soapbox looks like, although I have always coveted one (along with a wrapover flowery pinny just like the one on Hen's blog here).

Distracted audience
And if the furred and feathered friends walk off, then all is not lost, as I have you, my dear readers, who say such nice things and fortify my resolve in so many ways (and raise my ratings with my offspring, as every lovely comment is another little point on the scorecard of people who agree with what their mother says, and also a demonstration of my long-expressed adage, 'If you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all.')

How interesting. Yes, fascinating. I wish she would go on forever. Don't worry, she will.

In fact, the days of expressing that adage seem to be fading fast, as the bickering has simmered down, and rarely now am I called upon to intervene in some sibling dispute, muttering under my breath blessed are the peacemakers . . . (I can never remember the second bit, in spite of the fact that I had to memorize the Beatitudes at school, but thanks to your encouragement I think I will now add, blessed are the knitters and needlewomen, the cooks and the bottlewashers for where would the world be without them . . .).

Did you say something?
The quiet has fallen again, although the house did erupt quite unexpectedly into noise, and grubby sinks, and wet bathmats, and voracious appetites, as my big boys arrived home again with laundry and empty stomachs, only to depart back to the groves of academe almost as suddenly as they had come.

And as they say, it Never Rains but it Pours - only a couple of days ago I was looking at my shiny sinks, and my tightly-laced shoes, and thinking that this is all very well but it won't keep me in cashmere cardigans, hand-dyed yarn and fat quarter bundles, then suddenly half-term hits me like a wave, with wall-to-wall B&B guests (the last two said that it was the best B&B they have ever stayed in, oh joy), sheets flapping on the washing line, sheets piled up in the ironing basket, sheets in the washing machine, and 100,000 words flying in over the wires (not a rush job, just a couple of weeks, you're not going away for half term are you?) . . .

Best coat
There was nothing for it but to put on my best coat and boots and my rose-tinted spectacles and gaze at far horizons, for the world to appear in a whole new light.  And the best thing about those glasses is that the rosy glow is not the least metaphorical - I suddenly noticed, as I was driving the Princess about, that as we motored down the hill with the Kentish countryside spread before us the sky was the most wonderful Technicolor blue, and I said to the Princess, look at those most exceedingly wonderful autumnal colours, look at the leaves on the trees all marching across hill and vale in the brightest and richest coppers and golds that I have ever seen in all my born days, it must be the weather this year . . . and I took off my glasses to see more clearly, and the colours went out like a light and we were back to English watercolours in shades of grey and russet.

Bathed in a rosy glow
So back on with the shades, they make the world a happy place - they came free with a Tatler magazine (or perhaps the magazine was free with the sunglasses) and I bought them on a whim in the spring for the promise that they would make me look rich and glamorous and famous and thin, and a whole host of other enthusiastic adjectives so many that I can't remember but I know that they must be true for they were printed on the paper that came with the magazine.

I will stride forth into the future, secure in the encouragement that you give me, and loving the rosy glow.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Handing on handmade

Last week I went a-visiting and took tea at the most charming little cottage in the country - a cottage quite out of a Country Living 'dreaming of the country'-style magazine spread - and there on the table I saw an array of pretty patchwork pieces, stitched together by hand.

My eye was of course immediately drawn to such prettiness and upon enquiry I found that this stitchery was the work of a little girl of very tender years, who has taken to working with the needle quite recently and with an enthusiasm and tenacity that made a great impression on me.

She had little in the way of equipment and her needle and thread sat in a recycled plastic tub.  I thought of the needle case that Jane Austen gave to her niece Louisa two hundred years ago, also the housewife or hussif (a sewing case) that Austen made for her sister-in-law, described by the recipient's son as 'the kind of article that some benevolent fairy might be supposed to give as a reward to a diligent little girl', and enclosed within which was a little poem:

This little bag, I hope will prove
To be not vainly made:
For should you thread and needles want,
It will afford you aid.

And as we are about to part,
'T will serve another end:
For when you look upon this bag,
You'll recollect your friend.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries women often gave gifts of needle cases and pincushions to each other, and I thought of this little girl taking up her needle and stitching away, an occupation which was so commonplace in th past, so bound up with female gender identity, and which now is really quite unusual in one so young, not something that girls or women are bound to do whether they will or no, and which has become purely an expression of creativity rather than necessity.

But perhaps in the loss of compulsion, other things have been lost, too, and somehow I wanted to encourage that expression of skill and creativity, and retain a sense of continuity, of things being passed on from one generation of women to another in a positive way, and that sense of feminine friendship and community inherent in the exchange of handmade gifts.

So I sat down and made a little needle case and pincushion for this little girl; she too is moving away, and perhaps one day she will pick up these small artefacts, and recollect a friend, and her first hesitant stitches, and the beginnings of creativity in her world.

And maybe you could give such gifts too - so simple and quick to make, two pinked rectangles of felt, a stitched felt flower and button on the cover.

The pincushion was eight squares of fabric from my stash (including some early Cath Kidston left over from a skirt) - I used my Go! Baby die to cut 2 1/2in squares, 2in finished size, to make up a 4in square pincushion wrapped in ribbon like the gift that it is, and trimmed with buttons either side.

A gift that was a pleasure to make, and a pleasure to give, a handing on from one generation to another of the joy of the handmade, and a lesson to me that actually giving is oh so much better than receiving.

(And if you want to find out more about needlework in the works of Jane Austen, the poem and the photo come from Jane Austen Fashion: Fashion and Needlework in the Works of Jane Austen, by Penelope Byrde, a delightful and informative little book which is a great introduction to the subject. You can get all colours of felt and felt shapes from Paper and String, and the original idea for the pincushion came from Indigo Blue.)

Thursday, 20 October 2011

All in the bag: heaving out a winner

Twice in the last couple of weeks I have been listening to Radio 4 and heard people I know from university days, who are most definitely on the way to being Eminent (if they are not already) opining in a most grown-up and erudite fashion, the second time this morning when I was standing in the kitchen, enmeshed in domesticity, well wrapped up in a pinny and stirring up some double chocolate muffins.

I think that I am beginning to feel a failure, never having been invited onto Radio 4 and actually not doing too well on the grown-up front (although the very sagacious Angela did call me erudite recently; I am thinking of having a badge made with the label 'Erudite' to make up for my lack of an Important Job, or indeed Eminence).

Bag on a tree

I comforted myself with the thought that I do know how to knit socks (although I am struggling with my Postmodern Socks at the moment, not so much with the theory as the putting the postmodernism into practice), and that yesterday I made a Ruched Happy Bag and a Swatch Book Cover, both to be carried in my recently completed Multi Tasker Tote (made from a pattern by Anna Maria Horner) - fabric Pop Garden flowers in green by Heather Bailey, together with Bijoux Tile in ice blue and red (all from Saints and Pinners).

For Multi-Taskers everywhere

And anyone who has need of a Multi Tasker Tote must of course be multi-tasking, which seems to be a most happening thing to do, although possibly for credibility's sake the Efficient Multi-Tasker should be wearing a suit, and as you will see from the photographs so ably composed and taken by the Head Chef I am failing most sadly on the sartorial front, the recent vertiginous drop in ambient temperatures having necessitated the donning of vest, cardi and mitts (luckily we have B&Bs arriving tomorrow so lighting the fire is allowed (this is why I was making chocolate muffins again, and not of course for me to comfort eat while contemplating the ashes of my career ambitions, oh no)).

How not to stand

I would not dare criticize the Head Chef's competence in fashion photography. I hinted that the photographer must be below the subject for a slimming effect, and thus the suggestion was that I should stand on a very wobbly chair (one of whose ilk has been known to collapse under the weight of an only moderately large course attendee on a former unfortunate occasion).

Note the photographer's careful attention re extraneous objects in background of photo

On viewing the results of the Head Chef's shutter work and being asked to comment, I made the mistake of being honest, and ventured the opinion that the images were Not Up To Scratch at which point I found out that the fault was in the way that I was standing. It was good to clear that one up, and I shall be very careful not to stand in any pictures again.

Loops and pockets - how jolly!

I am happy to say that my jolly new multitasking bag is far more photogenic than Pomona the granny fashionista, the epitome of cardigan grunge chic, and I would ask you to admire the nifty little inside pocket, so artfully divided into sections for pencil and pen (for multitasking mummies always have such things handy for sticky moments in restaurants even when their offspring are way beyond the stage of having any call for such old-fashioned writing implements).

And the contents are even more exciting for one of my limited needleworking skills - I have made another Ruched Happy Bag, from Amy's wonderful pattern (you can see my first Happy Bag here); these are truly happy bags, for they make me most happy to have made such a professional-looking zippy bag.

And I have also made a Swatch Book Cover, from a Keykalou pattern, so that I may always be prepared with notebook to hand in case I have any Deep Thoughts, which I can write down in the hope that one day someone on Radio 4 would like me to expound them so that I, too, can join the pantheon of those who fulfilled their early promise and made their Aged Parents proud.

This is a rather nifty pattern, which works for the two sizes of Moleskine Cahier - it thus makes a good present, for wherever the recipient is located, they are sure to be able to find refills. Not only do Moleskine Cahiers come in large and small, they also come in ruled, plain, and squared, so by choosing the fabrics appropriately I have come to the conclusion that you can make these Swatch Book Covers as a present for almost anyone (can you hear the production line cranking up?). And what is even better about both of these patterns, they only use small pieces of fabric, so great for using up stash - just right for an thrifty Christmas as the world economy approaches ruin.

And now we come to the Very Important Bit: choosing the winner of the Sugru giveaway.

Can I help?

As I cast about for a receptacle capacious enough for all of you to fit in, my optics fell upon the Multi Tasker Tote and the Little Stranger lurking about with intent.

In here, you say?

As you will see, the Little Stranger needed a little explanation and encouragement, but I think she is beginning to understand the concept of the blog giveaway.

How far down?

A sausage roll is an added incentive - I am not sure what they put in dog sausage rolls, but I suspect that it is either Addictive or Mouse.

Oh, I see!

And so my little furry friend rootled around in the recesses, and out she came with a winner.

Got one!

The photograph doesn't make it clear, but hip, hip, hooray for Mrs Micawber - perhaps you could let me know your address so that we can get the Sugru winging its way to you.

It's Mrs Micawber . . .

The Little Stranger was disappointed that there was only one winner to be rootled for today, but hey, who knows, another day may bring another giveaway.

Now I must get back to the production line: the geese are getting fat . . . .

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Fantastic chocolate muffins

It's not just me blowing my own trumpet by telling you that these are fantastic chocolate muffins - I actually received a text from the Head Chef saying so, and that is a compliment indeed considering that his usual comment on anything I cook is that it could do with a little more salt . . .

So as a little bonne bouche for a weekday evening, and mindful of the fact that I have sadly neglected my adoring readers (cough) this week, here is my recipe for the most fantastic double chocolate muffins, baked in the Aga, but just as nice from whatever oven you choose.


(For this recipe I use the metric measurements, so imperial are untested.)

Makes 1 dozen

150g (5 1/2oz) self-raising white flour
2 generous teaspoons (tsp) baking powder
50g (2oz) Green and Blacks cocoa powder
75g (3oz) golden caster sugar
100-125g (4oz) good quality chocolate chips (I use a mixture of dark and white chocolate)

75g (3 oz) unsalted butter, melted
2 free range eggs
200ml (7 fl oz) milk

Sift together the flour, baking powder and cocoa in a mixing bowl, then stir in the sugar and chocolate chips. Add some more chocolate chips if you feel the need.

Beat the eggs into the milk, then pour the melted butter into the egg and milk, and beat together.

Pour this liquid into the bowl of dry ingredients and mix together.

Divide between 12 muffin cases in a muffin pan.

In a 2 oven Aga, use the roasting oven with the shelf half way up and bake for 20 minutes turning half way. In a conventional oven, bake for 20 mins at 190C/400F (reduce by 10-20 deg for a fan oven).

Health warning:
These chocolate muffins are very delicious, and call to you from the cake tin when you are feeling a little low. If you don't have children in the house to gobble them up in a trice, your midriff is sure to suffer (don't ask me how I know). This effect can be counteracted by going to the gym, where 20 mins hard labour on the exercise bike will use up only 100 calories, but make you so hungry that you will need more muffins and a latte to revive yourself (this I definitely do know).

Absence note:
Pomona has been stitching away with the assistance of her dear Rose, and has several completed items of her very own manufacture as a result of such industry. Photos will surely follow if the sun shines, but hints are to be found here and here. (She is feeling very pleased with herself at this productivity - surely the Christmas season can hold no fear at this rate? This year there will be no emergency scarf knitting on Christmas Eve. Definitely.)

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Fancy some Sugru; or, a giveaway by any other name

Do you know what Sugru is? I know, it sounds like a game, except it isn't really, but actually I have had some fun playing around with it, so maybe it almost counts as a game.

I first came across Sugru (hack things better, as they say) when I went to the Power of Making exhibition at the V&A (which you can read about here). Sugru is quite amazing stuff which you can use to mend or modify all sorts of things, and when the nice people at Sugru sent me some to play about with, and offered to give some away to my readers, well, who was I to say no?

And in fact, mending things apart, I think I have found the perfect stocking filler or budget present for the chaps in your life. When the parcel arrived and the silver package dropped out, the chaps in my life all exclaimed excitedly 'What's that?', 'Can I have some?', and 'Wow, that's amazing!'

I promise you that they never normally say that about the contents of the parcels that arrive for me.

Luckily it comes with a book of hints and tips

The Sugru website is full of pictures and ideas of how you can mend and adjust and improve things with this innocuous-looking material which moulds like modelling clay, and then gradually becomes firm, but in a plastic rather than brittle way. The big advantage is that it sticks to shiny things (unlike most glues which never seem able to stick together the things that you want to mend).

Being a complete girlie, I liked the way it comes in a selection of bright colours, and in spite of being a girlie who gets the Head Chef to do anything in the form of mending and maintenance which does not involve a needle and thread, I decided to improve my world on my own without any male interference.

Tidy wires - the Flylady would approve

And I am so pleased with myself - look what I made.

Girlie desk

A little hooky shelf on the back of Hippolyta to hold those annoying leads which are in daily use, but trail messily on the desk, viz Ipod and camera wires.

I find the sight of muffins most comforting

And I even made a nifty-thrifty little stand to hold my very high-tech portable speaking apparatus while it is charging. I would like you to admire the little wedge I made at the back so that it won't topple over.

Where have all the muffins gone?

(The Head Chef and the General had rather more boyish ideas which involved mending an aerial and something to do with a plug, but being a girl I wouldn't understand that.)

I think I will be buying some Sugru for the awkward nephews and difficult uncles (not personality-wise, of course, uncle, if you are reading this, which is not at all likely) for Christmas - it seems to me the perfect present for any of those chaps whose wants are either silver and matt black, and when asked can't think of anything they want except a BMW, a Macbook Pro, or some inordinately expensive power drill. Sugru seems to hit on all fronts - silver package (they even do a boys' version in black and white, no colours), a bit techie, and very compatible with tools.

So if you would like a nice shiny silver package of Sugru of your own, to play with or to tuck into your man's stocking (that didn't come out quite right, but you know what I mean), just leave me a comment below. No conditions, post anywhere - I'll heave one of you out of the sink next week, or maybe I'll feed you to the dogs, and see who comes flying out of the bowl.


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