Monthly Archives: June 2012

Royal Power Games

Someone once said that you can see where people are in the family pecking order by watching who ends up doing the washing up!

Family power games can be fun to watch if you’re not part of the power struggle and we‘ve had a very public power struggle to enjoy in the last week, in one of the most famous families in the world. It wasn’t about washing up of course, but it was definitely about the pecking order.

I mean the Windsor family of course – its main members sometimes known in a popular skit as Brenda and her son Kevin and daughter in law Cheryl – probably better known these days as The Queen, Charles and Diana. The court has just announced a new Order of Precedence – meaning the Queen has decided who will have to defer to whom.

She’s decided that Kate Middleton is going to have to courtesy to the “blood princesses”, which means the two sisters known as Princess Beatrix and Princess Eugenie, both of them famous for their fantastic headgear at Kate’s wedding. Apart from being known as Fergie’s daughters, Beatrix has famously lost weight, and Eugenie always looks as though her mother has just run up her dresses on her Singer sewing machine at home.

Neither of them can get a job, apparently because no-one wants to employ two unqualified socialites who go everywhere with a burly bodyguard in attendance. A large chap sitting around the office drinking tea, in and out of the loo, cluttering up the photo copier, unable even to read a good book if he’s supposed to be on duty, stopping in-house terrorists from bumping off his charge, would be rather in the way in a busy office. So no jobs for princesses.

These two girls are the daughters of Andrew, Duke of York, once known as Randy Andy, but more recently as Air-Miles Andy. He earned notoriety when he had a job promoting British trade. During this career, a number of highly trained mandarins in the Foreign Office put their careers on the line by reporting that amongst other problems, his association with a notorious American sex offender, and his links with Gaddafi’s family, and with corrupt regimes like Kazakstan were counter-productive. He was also accused of exploiting his travel opportunities.

Soon after leaving this job, the Queen gave him one of her personal medals signifying her approval of her favourite son, and presumably her displeasure for those who had ousted him in the name of duty and patriotism. So no medals for mandarins.

Love is blind. So in this family struggle in which the Duke is reportedly also trying to wangle royal jobs for his daughters – which Prince Charles is said to be resisting – the Queen has obviously given in to Andrew’s pressure to have his daughters placed above Kate in the Royal pecking order, hence the new curtseying regime. The logic behind this is that the sisters have the blood royal, and Kate doesn’t.

Certainly Beatrix is the spitting image of her great- great- great- great- grandmother Victoria. Take away her red Fergie hair, and give her black hair coiled in a bun at the nape of the neck, and she would look exactly like the young Victoria in the beautiful Winterhalter portraits  with her husband Albert, and some of her eight children. Beatrix has the same protuberant eyes, sharp little nose and rosebud mouth and she’s also named after Victoria’s youngest daughter, who married a Battenberg, the same family as Prince Philip. But do these connections make her any more worthy of respect than beautiful, dutiful, middle-class Kate?

Prince Andrew’s wife Fergie and non-royal mother of the girls was called vulgar by royal courtiers at the time of their marriage, by which they probably also meant that she was tasteless.  Fergie’s bad taste included various toe-sucking lovers, a cringe-making session on the Oprah Winfrey show having public psycho-therapy, and an attempt to get money using Royal connections. A former principal of Goldsmith’s College in London (co-incidentally the princesses’ university) Caroline Graveson, a Quaker, once wrote that if the church had paid as much attention to aesthetics as to virtue, we would probably feel as strongly about bad taste as about sin…

I think she’s right, bad taste is actually a lack of discrimination, which was one of the virtues of the ancient Christian Desert Fathers. So this week’s public power struggle in which Mummy’s favourite (but rather shady) son has come out on top, dragging his daughters with him, is not just power play and egotism, but a triumph of dubious values over virtue.

Kate Middleton can be seen to be virtuous, even paying for her own clothes, unlike the late Queen Mother, for example. She practises middle class thrift, buying clothes from chain stores as well as couturiers, and dresses with understated elegance instead of being extravagantly fashionable. It’s her husband who drives a freebie, like the two princesses, who were all given a Chelsea tractor each (large gas-guzzling four wheel drives) by the makers.

If only we were flies on the wall, we would be able to see how cleverly Kate is able to circumvent this attempt to put her down… only entering rooms with her husband, so then she doesn’t have to curtsey, telling the girls with a laugh at the Sandringham breakfast table, that they can take the word for the deed? Not doing it, and waiting to see if they report her to Granny?

Games people play! …  especially in families, even when they don’t have to wash-up!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Winter food is comforting, often stodgy, and frequently fattening! This recipe is all of those things and delicious too, and I crave it in cold wintry weather. It’s a simple apple crumble, but not your dry crumby institution version, but a rich luxurious version, in spite of being an economical pudding using apples in season.

You need at least six cooking apples, but sweet ones will do if you have none.  Take eight ounces of flour (I use self raising for everything), and six ounces of butter. Rub them together like coarse breadcrumbs, and then stir in six ounces of brown sugar (white will do if you have none). If you like, add some grated lemon peel. This mix will keep for three or four days in the fridge if you want to make it in advance, and I’ve also made extra and put it in the deep freeze and brought it out when I wanted.

When you want to eat it, boil the peeled chopped apples with sugar or stevia to taste, and when soft pour into an oven- proof dish and cover with the crumble. Cook for 40 minutes in a hot oven. Sometimes I add a cup and a half of mincemeat to the apple, to make a Christmassy tasting pudding and even add a tablespoon of brandy. Sometimes I add a few ounces of ground almonds to the crumble to make it extra rich, when I’m feeling rich. It’s just as good with a tin of plums if you haven’t got apples, and sublime with stewed rhubarb, or apple and blackberry. Serve it hot with cream, custard, or crème fraiche if you feel like pushing the boat out. You can re-heat it.

Food for Thought                 We will be held accountable for all the permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy…..  reputedly from the Hebrew Haggada.


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Mental Knitting

With the rain lashing down and the wind howling round the house, it’s time to blob out by the fire. Some people blob out with TV or a DVD – I blob out with a book. And not just any old book.

Men often relax with crime or detective novels, depending what you want to call them, and science fiction. Time was, when men would devour westerns, but they don’t seem to be around these days… and these forms of escapism always seemed respectable. Intelligent men can boast that they read detective novels for relaxation, but women tend to admit somewhat shamefacedly to blobbing out with Mills and Boon – romance seems slightly down-market, while chick-lit seems okay.

I’ve often thought that Jane Austen was a sort of superior version of Mills and Boon – like the real thing – real roast beef and Yorkshire pudding as opposed to meat-flavoured  potato crisps. Jane had plenty of love interest, and concerns about position and status, just like a Mills and Boon paperback, but developed the same themes in beautiful elegant English, unlike Mills and Boon.

But sometimes you don’t want roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. I go for the middle ground, not roast beef or potato crisps, but for the literary equivalent of chicken and chips. A lot of men would prefer something heartier than chicken and chips, but as a woman I could eat them forever. Which is how I feel about my favourite reading when I just want to be alive, but not to think.

I ‘m taking a long time to get round to owning up what is my favourite Jane Austen lite. Partly because I’ve spent a life-time concealing it,  partly because as soon as I divulge the name, or people get to see the rows of books on the shelf dedicated to Jane Austen lite, I get superior remarks, patronising jokes and some male derision, as though I’m reading some sort of trash! I was greatly relieved to read a few years ago about a very intelligent woman who used to hide the latest book from our favourite author in the covers of something acceptable  – like ‘The Great Gatsby’, or Shirer’s ‘The  Third Reich’. At least I wasn’t the only one with these apparently laughable lowbrow tastes!

I knew exactly how she felt. But I’ve come out of the closet now I’m old enough and tough enough to put up with people’s scorn – based mostly on ignorance, I should say – because anyone who’s read these books knows that they are full of wit and fun, well written, historically accurate without being boring, and often deal with themes like self esteem, the evils of gambling and racing, the value of good manners and integrity, and best of all, they END. They don’t leave me hanging in the air, the story unfinished, and fashionably enigmatic. And even better, the good always triumph over the evil, the dreary, the boring and the unwise!

Years ago, whenever I felt a bout of chronic fatigue syndrome begin to close down on me,  I’d stock up with bars of caramello chocolate, and stop at the bookshop where they had a permanent stock of the latest re-prints, even though the author had been dead for some years. Armed with these essentials, I’d drive home and collapse into bed, and read until the fatigue closed my eyes. Nowadays I don’t have that excuse for reading these books. Instead I take them when I’m too tired to concentrate on anything else – mental knitting. I know them practically by heart now and have to rotate them .But the wit and the fun remain intact, familiar though they are.

So this is my private pleasure and mental knitting, and Sylvester, and The Grand Sophy, The Devils Cub and The Reluctant Widow, Frederica and Arabella relax me and send me off to sleep, just as surely as a good brandy or a bout of bad TV does for others.

Georgette Heyer is the hallowed name of my secret vice. Are there any other devotees/fans out there?

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

In the cold days of the Antipodes winter, I’m thinking comfort food, and what better than the old fashioned and very economical toad-in-the hole. The combination of (good) pork sausages, and batter, baked in the oven, served with well buttered, mashed potatoes and baked beans in tomato sauce, or a good tomato and onion sauce, is homely, tasty, cheap and filling.

You can either have a crisp batter or a soggy batter. I always incline to the soggy sort, but will give both recipes. You need one sausage person. For soggy batter:  take four ounces or four rounded tablespoons of flour, good pinch of salt, an egg, and a quarter of a pint of milk mixed with a quarter of a pint of water. Break the egg into the flour and salt, and gradually add the milk and water. Then beat well. Leave in the fridge for at least half an hour or longer.

Heat two tablespoons of fat (not oil) till smoking in the roasting pan. Take out the batter and give another quick beat. Then pour it into the smoking pan, and lay the sausages in it at regular intervals. Bake for an hour in a hot oven at 200 degrees. This amount will serve four, and if you want to feed more, just double the amounts. For a crisper batter, simply use all milk, and no water.

Food for Thought

Look to this day: For it is life, the very life of life… For yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision.                                         But today well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well therefore to this day.             Sanskrit proverb

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Guerrilla Gardeners

Sitting by the fire on a winter’s afternoon, drinking a nice cup of Twining’s lapsang souchong, I gaze through the window-pane at the fence beyond.

On it I have nailed a persimmon and an apple. A tui, its deep turquoise plumage framed by the flaming orange fruit, is plunging his long beak into the persimmon with jerky relish. When he flies away, a blackbird drops in, his sooty black feathers and orange beak also beautiful against the bright colour of the persimmon.

Beyond the fence is a designated road. This means that about a hundred and fifty years ago, this village was surveyed, and that bit of land was set aside for a road. But since the surveyors were reputed to have been working from England, they designed the road to plunge straight over the cliff and into the sea. So it’s only a paper road. Since I’ve been here, I’ve spent a fortune paying the local handyman to spray the purple morning glory growing there which threatened to engulf house, strangle the trees and smother the garden when we first arrived. The sprawling purple flowers have now been eradicated , and instead, orange nasturtiums have colonised the space, along with arum lilies and cannas, and swan plants, to feed the monarch butterflies.

I’ve planted New Zealand flax bushes, for the tuis to suck the honey from their red flowers in summer, and best of all I’ve planted an oak tree. One of my grandsons and I grew it from an acorn in another of my gardens. As the years passed, and we moved from house to house, the pot with the oak went with us. Here, there seemed room to plant this spreading tree without fear of blocking anyone else’s sun. So now, screening the view of a neighbour’s house, and all the trampers walking past on the coast to coast track, our acorn has grown to be about twenty feet tall, and is spreading its branches wide in the boundless space of the paper road.

This makes me, I discover, a guerrilla gardener. Not an urban guerrilla gardener, but a rustic guerrilla gardener. I’ve also taken over the grass berm in front of the house, planted it with curving beds of blue agapanthus and ageratum, pink daisies and lambs lugs, and in spring, sprinkle wild flower seeds which bloom all summer long.

I was thrilled to discover that urban guerrilla gardeners are taking over cities all over the world. In Auckland, they plant lost plots on busy roads and forgotten council sites, and produce vegetables as well as flowers. A group of women in one suburb have approached the residents of streets with wide grass berms, and got their permission to plant fruit trees. The idea of fruit trees laden with seasonal apples and plums and peaches lining suburban streets is delicious – shades of Johnny Appleseed…

I’d always thought he walked the roads tossing apple- seeds along the way, but apparently not, he created orchards on plots of land he bought. From my experience of trying to plant trees along the wayside, he was wise. Mine got broken, nibbled by hungry goats and trampled won when cows were put to graze the long acre – country parlance for the grass banks along country roads.

One of the most inspiring things I’ve read recently, is that now big business has taken over the country-side, and planted hundreds of acres of one crop, whether in the States, England or elsewhere, thus destroying plant and wild life with this mono-culture, gardeners seem to be saving the planet. It’s been discovered that in gardens there are dozens of forgotten species of plants, birds and wild-life, and the more we garden, the more we are doing to save all this diversity, even in cities. We have bee hives now in the centre of Auckland city on the roof of City hall.

So bees are dodging busy traffic and winging their way to the gardens and parks around the inner city, visiting the potted plants of roof gardens and tiny city balconies. The other side of this is that people are concreting over their front gardens for parking and putting in paving and hard surfaces in the back, while developers are buying up land where gardens once were. So we gardeners, urban, country, or guerrilla are vital for all the birds and plants and tiny creatures who’ve been driven from their habitats in the country.

 The world needs our untidy garden corners where leaves and weeds and rubbish quietly rot for hedgehogs and other animals. They need a bit of untidiness, and forgotten corners in which to hide and hibernate, bees and butterflies need our flowers, while birds and squirrels and other life forms depend on our trees and hedges and shrubs. So gardeners of the world, unite and pat each other on the back! We are not just self-indulgently creating our own paradise, we are also saving the planet!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

When you want a treat for children, you can’t go past meringues, – quick, cheap and easy. And the best thing is having the yolks for mayonnaise. Even when times are tough, I only buy free range eggs, and the upside of this is that you know you’ve got good fresh eggs.

So take two eggs, and separate the yolks from the whites. Measure 120g of castor sugar… Whisk the egg whites till they’re stiff and form little peaks when you lift the beater out. Gradually whisk in half the sugar, and it’ll become wonderfully shiny. Then gently fold in the rest of the sugar with a metal spoon –very lightly, so as not to break up the meringue. Using a dessert or table spoon, ladle the meringue at intervals onto a grease–proof paper lined baking tray, and put in the oven on very low heat – 140 degrees. Leave in the oven for 70 minutes for the bigger size, 40 minutes for a small size. When they feel firm, you can lift one and check the underside is cooked. Leave them in the oven until cold, so they don’t go soggy. They will last for ages if stored in an air tight container.

Two egg whites will make about twenty meringues, which you can sandwich together with some whipped cream. Children love them as- is, and they’re delicious served with ice-cream and fruit- especially strawberries or raspberries. A bit extravagant maybe, but sometimes children deserve it!

Food for Thought:    Ascetism is not that you should not own anything, but that nothing should own you.

 Ali Ibn Abi Talib who was Muhammed’s nephew, son-in-law and closest follower, and one of the Sufi order’s great saints.

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A Brave New World

The bright frosty days have gone. It’s midwinter, and the storm is around us, the wind thrashing through the trees, the waves crashing on the rocks below so there are two rolling layers of incessant sound surrounding the house. And it’s now four weeks – four weeks since I started blogging, writing, posting, wondering, checking, counting, puzzling and feeling I still don’t know how to do it!

The writing’s the easy part, the lovely part, the part that makes my heart sing. It’s all the rest which is a challenge.

First of all, a big thank you to people who’ve made comments, and people who’ve contacted me via their blogs. I still haven’t learned how to get back to you with my appreciation, but am determined that by the end of the next four weeks of blogging, I’ll know my way round the communications side of it. And then there are the blogs I’ve discovered that I’d love to make contact with, but am gagged by my incompetence.

When I began, at my daughter’s suggestion and one of her special friends, and thanks to my printer, Peter Harris, (  I had no idea what fun it would be and what a journey it would be too. As a computer illiterate, I hardly knew what a blog was, though I’d heard of them!

Saturday afternoon four weeks ago I sat at one end of the phone, with Peter the printer on the other end. He talked me through, and when we got to writing a post, he told me to put something in the space for a title. I wrote ‘Goodbye Cat’. Now write the blog, he said. So I typed in my requiem to my beloved cat, pressed the button, and sent it out to the unknown world!

The next day one of New Zealand’s best known bloggers, Graham Beattie, generously posted my site on his blog. Thanks to him, an awful lot of people looked at it (though they haven’t since!) and the first comment came from this country’s only Booker Prize-winner, writer Keri Hulme. It was like being handed a bouquet, or being patted on the back by the head-mistress!

Since then, I’ve rushed to the lap-top every morning while the kettle is boiling for my early morning cup of tea in bed. Because we live in the Antipodes, the rest of the world is awake when we’re asleep, so there are always good surprises awaiting  in the morning. Two readers from Finland, I crow triumphantly to my husband –  five from Denmark, someone from Japan, two in Hong Kong, a whole lot from the UK, some from Canada, some from India, someone from the Philippines… this may all sound very small beer to most people, but to a newbie it’s magic, and gives me a real thrill every morning.

I see the name Finland, and visualise the snows of winter, the bright woollen clothes people wear, reindeer, and the lakes and islands and birch woods in summer; Japan, and the huge red sun sinking over the horizon at Narita airport, antique silk kimonos, and the miniature  origami cranes made from toffee papers by an Air Japan air hostess; they live in a tiny walnut box lined with red velvet.; Hong Kong, and Star Ferry and the junks streaming out to sea for a night’s fishing as I watched them from my bedroom window at Repulse Bay; India, and the romantic  pink palaces of the maharajas, beautiful women  in rainbow-coloured saris, elegant men in jodpurs and bright turbans; Canada, the lakes, the prairies and the hardy people who fled the War of Independence instead of becoming Americans; the US, the flaming autumn woods of New England and the Grand Canyon, the long beaches and blue Pacific of the West Coast; and England, grey stone walls and rolling dales, green meadows and cottages nestled into wooded hillsides, hazel,  honeysuckle and wild roses in the hedgerows; Denmark, and the grey beautiful architecture of Copenhagen, pretty Crown Princess Mary, and the Little Mermaid in the harbour… It feels as though the world comes into this tiny cottage by the sea every morning, as I read the names of the countries.

It’s tantalising not knowing whether it’s the same people who come back to read, and I realise I just have to flag many who won’t come back. And I can’t follow the various tables, graphs, and arcane words like tags… but I’ll get there in the end. I’m told by one of my nearest and dearest’s that I shouldn’t write too often, or I’ll wear people out, and they won’t have time to read all my posts. Point taken.

But in the mean-time, hello to all the friends and people who have peeked at this blog so far, all six hundred and eighteen of you. I hope some of you will go the distance with me, and hope too, to find new contacts and friends and readers as the weeks and months slip past. I don’t worry about drying up, because life doesn’t dry up… so I’m here for the long haul, the fun and the friendship – so ciao and arrivederci, shalom and aloha, farewell till we meet again in this brave new world. (probably tomorrow!)


Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I started adding on this little foodie thing because I love food, and have so often been hard up, that I’ve become expert at eating well but cheaply. I hope to give others in the same boat some ideas they may not have thought of!

So following on from yesterday, and stretching a tin of salmon to feed several. There are few items in the store cupboard so versatile. This time it’s a salmon soufflé which is dead easy to make and looks fabulous. Many people panic at the thought of making a soufflé, but if you can make a white sauce, you can make a soufflé. So once again open the tin of salmon, pink if that’s all you’ve got, red if you feel rich, and drain off the liquid into a cup. Once again make a fairly thick white sauce, and add the salmon liquid, salt and pepper. The only extra ingredient you need for a salmon soufflé is three large eggs.

Separate the yolks from the whites, and taking the pan off the stove, stir the yolks into the white sauce. Then stir in the salmon. Now whip the egg whites till they’re stiff, and lightly fold them into the salmon mixture. Pour into a greased souffle dish if you have one, and tie some greaseproof paper round the top so it supports the souffle when it rises. Or use a bigger casserole, and don’t worry about it popping over the top. But if you’re serving this to guests it does look spectacular to use the greaseproof paper version. Bake in a moderate oven for 35 to 40 minutes and serve at once, before it all sags! Eaten with salad and hot rolls, this will serve three or four people. I also make a parsley sauce to serve with it, and cook some new potatoes and green vegetables instead of salad and rolls. (The recipe for white sauce is in the previous blog)

Food for Thought  

 It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.            From ‘The Little Prince’,   by French aviator, poet and writer, Antoine de Saint Exupery


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Paradises Lost

The spice of life! Synchronicities or benevolent coincidences, as they’re sometimes known, have been coming at me fast this week.

It all started with reading the autobiography of an old soldier, General Carton de Wiart VC etc etc, who had one eye and one arm by the end of all his wars, and had been shot in the face, leg, stomach, ankle, leg, hip and ear on different occasions!

He was supposed to be the model for Evelyn Waugh’s Brigadier Hook in ‘Sword of Honour’, but there was a lot more to him than that. What intrigued me  was that having married the daughter of a European prince, who sported a stately eight names, he moved easily around pre-war European aristocracy, ending up living in a hunting lodge in the Pripet Marches between wars, courtesy of his ADC Prince Radziwill.

Then, picking up a book at random to read in bed the next night, I took Patrick Leigh Fermor’s anthology of his best bits. I read of his stay with Hungarian aristocrats outside Budapest, and a way of life now gone, and was fascinated, as I had been by Carton de Wiart’s  entree to this civilised European way of life. The sons of the houses had all been educated at English Catholic schools, Ampleforth, and  Downside.

These Europeans all spoke the same languages, and shared the same culture. Later Leigh Fermor stayed with a Rumanian family in their castles, playing bicycle polo with both the family and the footmen. They were tightly knit communities of families, both peasants, servants and owners’ whose lives all intertwined in what seemed like a centuries old alliance. And these families too, had been educated in England. At this level of society, friendships were international, something which has almost disappeared in the aftermath of World War Two.

Leigh Fermor had famously kidnapped a German general in Crete during the war, and his accomplice, Billy Moss, married a Polish aristocrat, a refugee from the war living in Cairo. Her Tarnowski family also lived in civilised pre-war European splendour, their homes filled with Titians and Rembrandts, family servants and international guests – their story told in a book called ‘The Last Mazurka’ – written by the last of the Tarnowski’s.

What struck me about all these families stretching across the continent from Poland and the edges of Russia through Hungary down to Rumania, was how the war destroyed this way of life, for both the families and the symbiotic communities they lived in. Centuries of beauty, loyalty, civilisation, all gone. And mostly they disappeared under the hands of the Nazis, and then Communist takeovers. The Rumanians were taken from their castles, the men sent to slave labour, the women to live in garrets far from their homes, as Leigh Fermor discovered when he went back to trace his friends from decades before. Most people were too frightened to talk to him. Much the same happened in Hungary and Poland, while Carton de Wiart’s hunting lodge in the Pripet Marshes disappeared in the same destruction.

And now I read from a Facebook friend, about the passing of her family’s way of life in East Prussia. In her soon to be published  novel ’ Last Daughter of Prussia’, Marina Gottlieb Sarles writes of the same centuries old story of beauty, decency and goodness destroyed by the Second World War – in the maelstrom of hell created by Nazis and Russian Communism. Her story is about the heroic escape of the lucky ones. Those left behind faced the horrors of starvation, un-imaginable tyranny and soul- destroying surveillance, as in Poland, Hungary, Rumania and elsewhere.

Writer Julian Barnes wrote recently that history is “where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”, but that seems to me to be an account of political history. These stories of paradise lost are the real histories – the  truths  about people and their ways of life – broken by ideologies and decisions of distant demagogues, tyrants, far-away bureaucrats and politicians of the twentieth century.

Books like Marina’s, stories like Leigh Fermor’s, memories like Carton de Wiart’s, tell us more about our past than the official histories. Their stories are the spiritual logbooks of mankind, and maybe now, all our blogs are becoming part of that stream of consciousness too… 

Read more about Marina’s story :  

Food for Thread-bare Gourmets

A tin of salmon and some pancakes means a delicious lunch or supper for hungry gourmets. Make the pancakes according to the last recipe – they can be made ahead of time. Open a tin of pink salmon – red if you’re feeling rich – and drain off the juice into a cup. Make a fairly thick white sauce – melt an ounce of butter, stir in a heaped tablespoon of flour, slowly add warm milk, or a mix of milk and hot water. (If I do this, I add a bit of cream too.) Let the sauce bubble and cook for a few minutes, stirring all the time, so it doesn’t stick or go lumpy.

To the white sauce, add salt and pepper to taste, the juices of the salmon, and lots of chopped parsley. Break up the salmon and add to the white sauce. Spread this mixture down the middle of each pancake, and fold over into three. Lay on a flat dish, sprinkle quite lavishly with grated Parmesan cheese, and gently re-heat in the oven. Serve with a green salad, and some hot buttered rolls, and it feels quite luxurious.

Food for Thought :  The unexamined life is not worth living.

 Socrates, Greek philosopher condemned to death in 399 for allegedly corrupting the young. He drank the poison hemlock, and as he breathed his last, asked for a cock to be sacrificed to Asclepius, the god of healing. This was taken to mean Socrates’ joy and thankfulness at passing over into another world.

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Farewell to George

George has gone. He gave no warning. I had expected to watch him grow from adolescence into a large hairy black male. I suppose like all adolescents he’s pushed off to find himself, or maybe to find more spacious quarters.

I had had a window into the tiny cosy home he’s left. I had wondered if, when he grew to full size, he would join the other big black spiders I know are living in the hinge of the French doors that I don’t often open. When I do there’s a panic-stricken rush to safety.

George was different. I’d watched him since he was a tiny baby – one of the ones I’d paid the house-washing firm to dispose of. I left George safely on one side of my bedroom window pane during the debate I had with the house-wash people about payment for their very unsatisfactory job. George was my proof. But when his function had been fulfilled, I still felt connected to him, so left him unmolested in his little nest on the other side of the glass, and watched the gradual expansion both of his size, and of his larder, with various tasty grubs and tiny insects.

I enjoyed greeting him each morning. I don’t know what research has been done into the brains of arachnids, but I have had a healthy respect for the intelligence of daddy long legs since I brought a book case up from under the house, and put it on the veranda to paint . I tipped all the baby daddy long legs out at one end of the veranda and took the book case to the other end, and left it while I went to have lunch. The veranda was about thirty feet long, and by the time I returned to get on with the painting, all the baby daddy long legs had found their way down the deck, and returned to their homes in the corners of the book shelves. So these days the long-legged invaders in the bathrooms are treated with respect, caught in a glass, and re-homed out in the garden. My husband watches this routine with disbelief…

But he has n’t read Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s exquisite book called ‘The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.’ She describes living with a snail that inadvertently entered her sickroom hidden in a wild cyclamen brought in for her from the woods. Among the many extraordinary things that I learned about snails from her, is that depending on the species, a snail’s brain has from 5,000 to 100,000 neurons. And amongst other charming things I now know about snails, is that when they lay their miniscule eggs around the garden or wherever, they visit them regularly and keep a maternal eye on them until they hatch into baby snails!

I found that when I put out lettuce leaves at night for the snails to eat in the garden, they left my petunias and other attractive delicacies alone.

Then there was the lizard who found his way inside last week. After a few days I discovered him in the middle of the carpet and nearly killed myself pouncing after him with the glass, finally losing my balance and hitting my head on the edge of the table as he escaped with lightning speed. So I left the French doors wide open all night, and I suspect he found the gap and I hope he is now back in the garden. Like the mouse I kept seeing flicking behind the sofa. In despair one night, I crumbled cheese fragments along the carpet and out through the French doors, Hansel and Gretel style. It must have worked, because there was no cheese left the next morning.

Why spend so much time on the tiniest orders of the animal kingdom? Scientists now tell us that our survival as a species is actually dependent on not allowing the larger animals to die out- and an awful lot of them have done so. And yet the smaller creatures, the bees and the worms and other forms of tiny life are just as vital to our survival. But we don’t know enough about creation to know what is important to the survival of the planet and what is not. What if ALL forms of life are vital to our survival? In her irresistible book ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’, American Annie Dillard, writes that: “of all known forms of life, only about ten per cent are still living today”.

And we know that ninety percent of the big fish in the oceans are now extinct. So maybe, every spider, every snail, every mouse, every insect matters – well, maybe not mosquitoes.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Yesterday I met some friends down by the waterfront to celebrate my birthday. (It isn’t due for a while but I like to spin it out). We were all grandmothers but one, and one friend confessed that when her grandchildren asked her to make pancakes, she didn’t know how. Is it possible to live without pancakes? A staple of my children and my grandchildren, it was the ideal food to fill up hordes of hungry visiting children too. They started with a baked potato each, the inside mashed with butter and grated cheese, and then the pancakes kept coming till they were full. They ‘re cheap, delicious and filling.

In a mixing bowl tip 8 ounces of self raising flour, a pinch of salt, an egg and gradually add half a pint of milk. Beat with a fork until it’s mixed, and then use a beater to whip it smooth. Leave this batter to settle in the fridge for a half an hour.

When you’re ready, beat the batter again, and it may need a little more milk to make it flow well into the frying pan – trial and error. Sometimes some water instead of all milk makes them lighter and crispy, but only experiment when you’ve got the hang of them. Fat, shortening, whatever you call it, is the best for pancakes. In a frying pan, heat a knob of fat the size of a walnut until it begins to smoke, and with a ladle or large spoon pour in enough batter to thinly cover the surface.

Cook till bubbles start to rise and then turn with a slice, and cook the other side until ready to slide out onto a plate (you sometimes have to add more fat to stop it sticking). Sprinkle with brown sugar (white will do, but doesn’t have the taste of brown), fold the pancake in three, sprinkle with more sugar, and squeeze quarter of a lemon over it. The tang of lemon is a must.  Eat straight away. Food for the gods.

The first pancake is usually not the best to look at, but still good to eat… it’s as though the frying pan settles down with the second pancake. I usually make double the quantity, and I only eat mine when everyone else is full, so I too, get the delectable taste of a pancake fresh out of the frying pan. Some people use maple syrup or treacle… but to those of us who have grown up on brown sugar, there’s nothing else like it.

When I referred to sausages in yesterday’s recipe, I should have said pork sausages.

Food for Thought:   It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.       John Wooden, American basketball coach.

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Of Duchesses and Doctors

It didn’t look promising. A book of letters between a duchess and a writer didn’t exactly grab me, even though the duchess was one of the famous Mitford sisters, and the writer was world famous Patrick Leigh Fermor.

But a quick dekko inside, and I was hooked. The page that did it was the one where Deborah the duchess, explained how thrilled she was with a book on farming which an eccentric  aristocrat farmer had left her in his will. “He asked if I wanted jewels” she wrote, “but I preferred the book.”

The book in question had the gripping title: ‘The Agricultural Notebook’ and was written by a yeoman farmer, with the unlikely name of Primrose McConnell. He lived at North Wycke, Essex, a suitably rural address, and wrote this esoteric tome on farming in 1883. Deborah’s copy was the nineth edition, published in 1919 with the inevitable dedication after the devastating Great War, to Captain Primrose McConnell MC, killed at Salonika in 1918.

From this book, she told Leigh Fermor, she learned about the Gunter Chain, Ville’s Dominant Ingredients of Manure, the diseases of sheep, the classifications of wheat. Surely she teased, you know all about these things. As an expert farmer, famous for breeding various animals and chickens due for extinction but for her, she did know, because she loved farming, and loved being a farmer, not a duchess.

But I had to look them up for myself, discovering that Gunter’s Chain was a measurement of length of chain invented by an English clergyman and mathematician in 1620, before the days of theodolites. His measurement became known as a chain and is still used in the US and other parts of the world, and I also learned that a cricket pitch is one chain – twenty two yards. The diseases of sheep from A to Z which included such horrors as agalactia, akabane and atypical scrapie, boils and black disease under the B’s , cheesy gland and ended some dozens of illnesses later with zoonotic disease, made me wonder why anyone would even dare farm such a delicate animal.

And as for the classifications of wheat, which included such terms as glumes, ploidy levels, tetraploid and hexaploid, meiosos and rachis ( the central stalk), by now, I felt overwhelmed with the level of expertise a skilled farmer apparently needs to have at his finger-tips.

It made me think about other experts who loved what they did, and a story in the newspaper today. It was about an eleven year old girl celebrating her birthday after spending all the years since she was three, in the childrens’ hospital. Coping with leukaemia and aggressive graft-versus-host disease, which I’d never heard of, she’s had countless operations and about 500 anaesthetics, and for six years was fed by a tube.

The nurses and doctors who cared for Claudia were all experts in their fields, and obviously gave her their best technical skills. But it was what they did for her which was beyond expertise, and could only be called love which was so moving. When she came round from her anaesthetics after having her wounds dressed, she would discover that the staff had painted her nails in a surprise colour to gladden her waking up. They would devise dress-up days to distract her from the pain. “They had cat days, fairy days, animal days. One doctor dressed up as a leprechaun”, said her mother. “They’re crazy, absolutely mad. They were always coming out of the theatre with tiaras and wings on”.

The imagination and devotion behind all this dressing up and craziness made me cry. Expertise is one thing, but without love, it ain’t anything. Knowing how busy hospitals are, and how stretched doctors and nurses are, with all the demands on their emotions, time and energy, to make the effort to add these gifts to their caring for the little girl, is nothing short of heroic to me. They all deserve medals for gallantry– because this was the front-line for them all. We  need medals to recognise  the wonderful experts in peace-time who go beyond the course of duty. And they did what they did, not because they were experts, but because they loved what they did – like Deborah!.


Food for Threadbare Gourmets; this is a family favourite, and it’s sausages to die for. Not your chemical, preservative-filled supermarket disasters, but good artisan butchers’ sausages.

Take as many as you need for each person. I often boil them first to get some of the fat out of them. Saute lots of sliced leeks in butter, and when they’re cooked, add a teaspoon of mustard, enough cream to make it a consistency you like, a couple of chicken bouillon cubes, and some nutmeg. Let it all bubble together, and then add the sausages to the mix. Serve with mashed potatoes and green vegetables. You can also add par-boiled sliced potatoes to the pan, and make it a one pan supper. A little brandy poured into the mix also gives it a bit of a kick if the budget runs to a bottle of medicinal brandy!

Food for Thought:      Alas, I have done nothing this day! What? Have you not lived? It is not only the fundamental but the noblest of your occupations.    Michel de Montaigne sixteenth century French philosopher

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Random Acts of Fun

Someone’s done it again! Dropped a silver coin in the dogs drink bowl outside my gate!

 I love it! The fun of pretending it’s a wishing well. It’s happened a few times over the years, and I always have a giggle, and love to think of someone standing there, looking at the bowl, deciding to have a bit of fun, and then dropping a fifty cent piece into the water.  It’s a deep one for thirsty dogs, and wasps, and birds who also bath in it, and make me keep changing the water. (I had no idea how dusty birds got until they began bathing in the aluminium- silver drinking bowl).

I love too, the whacky knitters who have covered the ropes and bollards in the centre of our nearest village with knitted crowns on the bollards and coloured cords twined around the ropes, all in glorious mismatched riotous colours. Hope the fun police don’t rip them off like they did the Father Christmas knitted white beards and red hats – (a numbingly huge job to make)  which the same jolly knitters prised onto the life-size male and female heads which adorn the edge of the walls of the local loos

I can also visualise the Puritans who once confiscated the diaper (or nappy depending where you live), carefully draped around a huge bronze discus player’s private parts on a statue at the entrance to an Auckland park. It must have taken the guilty students ages to climb up in the dark for this bit of dotty fun.

Just as much as I love random acts of fun, I love random acts of kindness too. Princess Diana popularised this idea, which I think she picked up from a group in California. I realised I’d been practising this form of enjoyment when I used to pop some money into expiring meters, when I worked in the city forty years ago. I never knew how the expirees of the meters felt, but I did hear of one who was informed by a grumpy warden about to pounce, that a dark-haired woman had got there first and filled his meter!

And I once had the fun of going into an Open-Home, and seeing the absent owner had a collection of pale yellow Aynsley china, with a pink orchid for a handle on each cup and jug, and tea-pot. I had one matching jug at home, unlike any in her collection, so the next time I went into town, I popped it in her letter box. When I heard from someone that the owner was in a wheel chair, it gave me double pleasure.

These I suppose are anonymous acts of kindness – if indeed they can be called kind when they give the initiator such a kick of real well-being. Sometimes, indeed, they help to ease the heart-ache we feel when we hear of some-one’s plight. The girl who used to serve me at the coffee shop left to have twins. One died at birth, and the other faced years of pain and operations, which the little family with an out- of- work partner couldn’t really afford. Since it was Christmas, I left an anonymous envelope at her place of work with some notes in it. It wasn’t enough to make much of a difference to them, but it made a difference to me.

I am always awed and thrilled when I read of people who regularly go to some desolate city area to give hot pies, or ham sandwiches or whatever, to the hungry. Not random acts of kindness, but a regular commitment and a planned act of kindness. Like the old lady who used to visit a big city park in Auckland to fill little plastic drinking bowls under various trees and hedges for the hens which used to roam and  delight generations of children. And the people who make long journeys every night to feed gatherings of hungry stray cats.

I had a friend who, wherever she went,  took a plastic bag and filled it with litter. She did it when I walked with her on a beach, and she and her husband did it staying at camp sites all over Europe.

These little everyday acts of kindness somehow satisfy the soul as much, or more, than hearing about the wonderful organisations who feed the famine-stricken in Africa and elsewhere. They are little reminders to us that we can all do something in our own backyard, including spreading some laughter and goodwill with a random act of fun. I’m hoping for another silver coin in my water bowl!

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Needing a quick pudding to please family or friends? Our tried and true standby is simply strawberry yogurt, cream and a handful of fresh berries or tinned fruit. We call it pink pudding.

Whip half a pint of cream until thick, add roughly the same amount of thick yogurt, which can be plain, or flavoured with the fruit you’re using. Stir them gently together, and then add the berries, or usually in our case, a drained tin of boysenberries or frozen raspberries, melted and drained. Add sugar to taste, and leave in the fridge till needed. Don’t leave too long in case the fruit sinks to the bottom. But it’s always delicious however it comes.

It can either be served in one large glass bowl, or spooned into individual glasses or bowls. A shortbread biscuit served with it, lifts it into a grander category of pudding, as do tiny hearts-ease flowers, or violets in the middle of each individual bowl. I’ve even used a large pink floppy rose in the middle of a big glass bowl of pink pudding. Looks are everything when it comes to food!

An added frill is to melt some marshmallows in some of the fruit juice, and stir in, to make the mix firmer. But I prefer the purity of natural ingredients with no preservatives, additives etc, etc.

Food for Thought

People have to be taken as they are; there are no other ones.  Kurt Adenauer. West German Premier


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Top Dogs

‘I would like, to begin with, to say that though parents, husbands, children, lovers and friends are all very well, they are not dogs’. How true.

Elizabeth Von Arnim wrote this opening sentence in her autobiography. And I could well write the same. Without going back to childhood to catalogue all the doggie divinities who’ve ruled my affections, in the last forty years of my second marriage we’ve clocked up round-about fifteen or seventeen assorted dogs.

 It’s difficult to be accurate, because it depends on whether we count the dogs we had for a few weeks before realising they were going to kill the others from jealousy, or the ones who adopted us for periods, but couldn’t stay the distance or had to be reluctantly returned to the owners they’d run away from. Thinking about those ones breaks me up. I wish we’d just kept quiet when I saw one poor lab slink back to his master with his tail between his legs.

We rarely chose the dogs who shared our lives. They came to us, sometimes because they had no home, or because some-one rang and said a dog needed a home. And there always seemed to be lost dogs needing to be rescued. One day my husband came home from work to find the family in the back garden, two cavaliers and a saluki, and a Pyrenean mountain hound tied up in the front as I didn’t dare let the saluki see a rival.

So we had a number of afghans, six Cavalier King Charles spaniels, two at a time, a labrador or two, a boxer, several salukis, a borzoi, a mastiff, a mastiff boxer cross. The borzoi had been found lying on the concrete floor of a cage with a scarcely healed broken leg, the boxer-mastiff cross had been left to starve when his owner went to prison and the girl friend walked out. When found three weeks later, his black coat had bleached to pale cream, and his ribs stuck out like a concentration camp victim. The vet said he had one more day in him.

 It took months to get him back to black, and if we went out without him, we left the lights on, and a big sack of dog biscuits open by him, so he always knew there was plenty of food. The dogs who had been in happy homes, and were being “let-go” for various reasons, usually took about six months to settle in and realise that this was their new home where they were loved. The rescued dogs settled in straight away, with devoted gratitude. They knew they had been rescued and that they were only too welcome with us.

One little Cavalier King Charles who looked like a grumpy Charles the Second with his long curly black ears framing his face like the King’s wig, finally rolled over for me to tickle his tummy as he lay on my un-made bed in the sunshine, after six months. That was his turning point. Another cavalier made it clear she belonged, when after six months her previous owners came to see her, and when they left, she remained on the steps with us, and watched them get back in their car. But even the sad, badly treated, rescued dogs would often crane to look when they saw a car that looked like their previous owner’s car. What intelligence and what loyalty.

My brother’s labrador, after my brother’s three years absence overseas, when he visited the farm, didn’t wait for an invitation, but went straight out and sat in the back of the land-rover till my brother drove off with him. Who says animals don’t remember?

Two dogs are more fun than one dog, and three dogs are even more fun. On the rare occasions when we had one dog, he or she ran the house, and became top dog, so it was actually better for our self esteem to have at least two dogs. True, there’s less room on the bed, when you have two, and two lots of snores and scratching and general re-arranging can be somewhat disturbing, but I read in an English survey that we are not alone in this, and that seventy per cent of dog owners sleep with their dogs, and a surprisingly large number said they’d rather sleep with their dog than their partner!

Our last dog was a bull mastiff, the gentlest creature in the world but so strong that he pulled my husband over, and broke two ribs. He finally departed for the great kennel in the sky, leaving us with just the cat, after a life-time of living with dogs, and going to the vet and bathing and walking and brushing and feeding and de-fleaing.

 I’m now down to looking after an elderly husband. And instead I drive him to the doctor, the dentist, the hearing aid repair people, the specialist, the optometrist. So I don’t walk as much anymore. I don’t miss the bed-time ritual of getting them to go out and pee, especially on cold rainy nights, but I miss everything else. So I have to cuddle the neighbours’ dogs, which include a black Labrador, a black and white English pointer, a little black bitsa, and a blissfully snorting bulldog, his master’s pride and joy.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

When hungry and in a hurry, there’s nothing like pasta. Any pasta. I always keep freshly grated Parmesan in the deep freeze, so in hungry emergencies all I have to do is boil some pasta, chop some parsley, and when the pasta’s cooked and drained, stir in a beaten egg with cream and parmesan, and sprinkle over parsley. The other quickie is to saute tomatoes in olive oil, add garlic and parsley if you fancy, and tip the tomatoes over the pasta with parmesan on the top. I even love pasta with just melted butter and Parmesan. Hunger is the best appetiser there is.

Food for Thought:    God, I can push the grass apart

                                    And lay my finger on Thy heart.     Edna St Vincent Millay


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Present but not Tense

Leaving my monthly meeting, I drove home under the full moon. As I left the city and began to drive through empty country roads with no street lights, the moon shone whitely down on the fields and hills, so that they looked as though they slept under a frosting of snow.

 I sang various rough and ready versions of arias from La Traviata, which was still on my mind, cracking on the high notes, and missing the low ones entirely as I flew along the quiet roads . At the meditation group I’d been to, I sat next to two sisters, not twins, but so alike in spite of seven years between them, the youngest only twenty-one, that they could have been. Both beautiful, gentle and good. I was the oldest there by a good twenty years, and they were the youngest. It made me feel good just to look at them.

At the end of an hour’s driving under the moon, I walked to the edge of the cliff when I got home to watch the wide path of light across the sea. No sound but the susurrations of the waves licking against the rocks below. As I made my way down the path to the door, I eased a few ripe guavas off the over-hanging branches, and sucked their tangy sweetness, spitting out the pips.

And I awoke to the sound of the tuis, the black and turquoise song-birds with their white bow-tie bobbing at their throats, singing their sweet songs to each other in the trees around the house. In the warm winter sunshine I took my breakfast tray into the garden and sat on the garden seat, and watched and listened to six tuis in the pururi tree above me. They sucked the honey out of the pink flowers with their long curved beaks, and warbled love-songs to each other as they sprang from branch to branch.

The albertine rose which should only flower in spring is blooming riotously over the trellis arch, where it twines into the ivy and the perpetually flowering mutabilis rose. With blue ageratum sprawling around the garden beds, and deep pink cannas, pink daisies and purple pansies, the garden feels as flowery as though it’s summer instead of almost midwinter.

 To have time to stand and stare like this is one of the great compensations for that stage of life when playing tennis is a distant memory, and climbing mountains a permanent impossibility.

 When I was young I used to look at older people sitting in deck-chairs gazing out to sea, instead of racing along the beach, or plunging into the sea with shrieks of laughter. Poor old things I patronisingly thought to myself, life must be so boring. I know better now. They were probably enjoying themselves far more than I, savouring the little things in life that I was far too busy being busy to even to notice.

 Some people call this mindfulness. In his book ‘Peace is Every Step’, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has a chapter called Present Moment, Wonderful Moment. And that’s how it seemed, sitting in the garden eating my toast and drinking my coffee this morning.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets means racking my brains for something quick and spoily to give my grand-daughter when she comes tomorrow to teach me how to use my computer ie, get into Facebook, and all the other wonders of social media.

 Since we’re having roast chicken tonight, I’ll keep the breasts for lunch tomorrow. I’ll make a thick parsley sauce, almost emerald green with parsley, and flavoured with some of the chicken essences and some sliced mushrooms sautéed in butter. I’ll chop the chicken breasts into small chunks and stir into the sauce. I have some emergency puff pastry vol au vents in my store cupboard, and they’ll be filled with the chicken mixture and heated up. We’ll eat them with new potatoes and salad. A quick emergency pudding will be artisan ice-cream made by the chap down the road, with meringues – another store cupboard stand-bye for grand-children, all doused in a chocolate and cointreau sauce from a gourmet bottle given to me at Christmas. That should do it!

PS. The best way to have green green parsley is to plunge it into boiling water for a minute. When you take it out and chop it, it keeps its bright emerald colour.

And now some Food for Thought: A job is what we do for money; work is what we do for love. Mary Sarah Quinn


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