Monthly Archives: July 2012

Real Olympics

The Olympic Games of 1948 were the last games I got really interested in. Fanny Blankers- Koen, the heroic Dutch woman runner captured my imagination, and with a few girl friends we organised our own local Olympic games. The lucky girls who had bikes had a bike race. The rest of us made do with running in our cotton summer dresses. We tucked them into our knickers for the high jump – better named the middling to low jump.

We had a highly competitive three- legged race, and a wheelbarrow race. This is a real team event, with one person holding the legs of the front runner who is moving forward on her two hands. When the Olympics were first revived in the 1850’s by Dr William Penny Brookes at Much Wenlock, a small Shropshire town in England, the wheelbarrow race had an extra degree of difficulty in that the wheelbarrows were blindfold. This refinement was dropped for our less arduous sports event.

In spite of Dr Penny Brookes having often met and greatly influenced Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Baron neither gave him the credit for his influence, or included the blindfolded wheelbarrow race in his first modern Olympics held first in Greece in 1896 and then in Paris in 1904. In spite of this reckless omission, the Olympics flourished amid the normal squabbles and rivalries we’ve all come to expect, as everyone jockeys for influence, success and medals.

I find it quite ironic that the French baron was so impressed by the English physical education at Rugby School and by its famous headmaster Dr Arnold, that he tried to get the French interested in physical education in all French schools. The patriotic baron put down Britain’s success in winning an empire to their emphasis on sports at school. He must have believed in the Duke of Wellington’s slightly misquoted remark about Waterloo having been won on the playing fields of Eton.

Wellington actually said, as he walked past boys playing on an Eton cricket pitch, ‘there grows the stuff that won Waterloo!’ But since his French compatriots could not be interested in winning their battles on the playing fields of St Cyr or anywhere else at the time, de Coubertin put his efforts into reviving the ancient Greek Olympics.

Myself, I prefer the idea of the modern Olympics, revived in 1996 and held every four years at Nemea in Greece, the site of ancient Greek games. Anyone can enter, and athletes run in white tunics, rather than stark naked like the original Greek athletes. The opening ceremony is held in the magnificent ruins of the temple of Zeus near the stadium. In the golden Mediterranean twilight, families gather and spread themselves under the pine trees, and perch on ruined columns. After a speech by the Mayor of Nemea, Greek warriors in full regalia appear and are met by two women, one in white, personifying Ekecheiria – Peace – the other in black- Nemea, carrying the sacred flame. Choirs sing and the warriors lay down their weapons and a sacred truce is declared.

The gathering then meanders through the vineyards to the nearby stadium where a pyre is lit, a song is sung, and the games declared open. The next day the competitors, not necessarily athletes, go through their paces, all barefoot. (Remember the fuss when the South African, woman runner Zola Budd sprinted down the track barefoot?)

Men, women and children, old and young, compete in their classes down the 90 foot stadium – the other 100 metres hasn’t been excavated yet. Everyone is cheered down the track, and the winner is awarded a crown woven from wild celery. At the end of the day a marathon is held, raced over country where Hercules would have run, and ending in the stadium which Hercules had measured out. The runners emerge from a tunnel at the end of the track, with ancient Greek graffiti carved in it, and run onto the track to be cheered to the race’s end.

 Now that sounds like fun. No wheelbarrow race alas, but they can say, as I will say on my deathbed:  ‘cursum perficio’ – which can be translated as: ‘I have run the course’, or ‘my journey ends here’. For life is our Olympics, and like the Nemean Olympics, it isn’t so much about winning, but about being there, doing it, loving it, daring it, and making the most of it with laughter and determination. Maybe that’s how it feels for you too…

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Those who’ve read Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell will know what I mean when I say that our social life is rather like the ladies of Cranford’s. So we were due for dinner with friends, where I knew we would be joining two other sets of friends. I promised my hostess to bring a starter for her, so that we could nibble on them before dinner, and she only had to worry about two courses.

That morning, after a long session of Tai Chi, I dashed off to the supermarket to get blinis, which I’d always been able to buy in frozen packets. They’ve stopped stocking them. Gnashing my teeth, I tried to think of something else on the spot, and settled for crostinis. But back home, it felt like too much trouble, as you can only do the crostinis an hour or so before eating. Back to blinis.  I made my own, and smothered in cream cheese, a generous bite of smoked salmon, and a sprinkling of chopped parsley they were as good as the professional ones – and at least I knew what was in them! I forgot to look up Google for a recipe, and Mrs Beeton, who never lets me down on the bread and butter stuff, didn’t have anything on blinis. So I used her pikelet recipe without the sugar, and it was perfect.

It’s just six ounces, or six heaped tablespoons of self raising flour, two eggs, enough milk to make a thick batter, and salt. Whisk everything together, and using a dessertspoon, dribble each little blini into a non-stick frying pan or griddle. Cook one side until bubbles start to rise through the batter, and then turn. They cook very quickly. Put them to cool on a clean cloth.

Using half the amount I made thirty little blinis, and then added some sugar to the rest of the mix and cooked a small pile of pikelets for an indulgent afternoon tea, eaten hot with butter and homemade (not by me) fig and ginger jam.

 

Food for Thought

Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all     Helen Keller  1880 – 1968

Feminist, suffragist, pacifist, socialist, campaigner for the blind, first deaf- blind person to achieve a Bachelor of Arts, writer of 12 books. Beloved by many.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Village is a World

‘Pet Pig Lost’ read the notice pinned on a telegraph pole as I drove into the village.

My heart turned over. I do hope no-one catches him and eats him, I thought, and then banished the thought before it could take wings. This was a serious matter, but two days later the notice disappeared, and I heard that the pig had come home. He had better luck than a neighbour’s labrador, which being old and doddery wandered off in the wrong direction after he’d gone out for his late night pee. His owner searched frantically into the night, and then gathered the neighbours to search all next day. Finally, 36 hours later, someone realised they’d heard intermittent barks down in a wooded gully, and there was the poor old thing, he’d fallen into a drain and couldn’t get out, being too frail and arthritic.

This is the stuff of life in our village ( we also have births and deaths, strange accidents and surprising elopements). It’s made up of four hundred and fifty permanent residents – fishermen, retirees and the rest – and at weekends and holidays, what are known as weekenders. We’re a mixture of teachers, builders, mechanics, writers, potters, painters, lobster fishermen, retired professors in disciplines ranging from botany to marine biology, one ballet dancer who is now a choreographer, so we have our very own dance company, a lady who threads beads and makes necklaces, an odd job man, a mountaineer, a reiki teacher, a weaver, a sewing lady … the list could go on, but you get the picture – a mixed bunch. We’re Kiwis, English, French, German, American, Canadian, South African and Australian.

The first settlers landed in this beautiful place in the 1860’s. Their names still people the bowling club teams, the volunteer fire brigade and the library rosters, they adorn the grave-stones in the cemetery and the war memorials, the names of roads and rocky bays. The first family who landed, arrived from England, bringing a tent which they set up on the beach at the end of the harbour, the first Europeans to set foot here. They were joined by settlers from Nova Scotia who had originally come from Scotland. They had found life in Nova Scotia so hard, that after several consecutive years of the crops failing,  they packed up their lives after 30 years, built a couple of ships, and sailed off with unbelievable courage and optimism, to find another promised land.

They found it here, and once more set to, to chop down trees for their homes, and clear land of bush and forest to plough and plant their food. The nearest provisions were several hours of sailing down the coast to Auckland, or a long ride through untamed and unmapped country, to the nearest small town of a few hundred people.

So women made their own clothes, and carried and boiled the water for the copper. When the clothes had boiled in the copper, they pulled and pushed them through the mangle, and blued and starched them and hung them out to dry on bushes and make- shift lines with a forked branch as a prop, before the labour of ironing ; heating up the irons on a fire and testing to see if they were hot enough by spitting on the base to see if the moisture sizzled. They cooked and preserved and baked and dried and salted and bottled the food. If they ran out there was no store nearby to re-fill the larder. Those were the days, and they were also the days of my childhood, when neighbours were forever popping over to each other or sending a child to ask for an onion or an egg, or half a cup of sugar or milk. Neighbourliness was an absolute necessity of life, particularly in childbirth.

People gave each other lifts in their carts. The men helped each other fell the trees and saw the planks for building their homes, they lent their horses for the ploughing, and joined together to fence their fields, plant hedges and crops, cut the hay, build the hayricks, and even grind the wheat which they had to grow, or go without. Ships of supplies might berth at bigger ports like Auckland, but if they missed a tide or were caught in storms, then the supplies didn’t arrive. These settlers started their own school and paid the school mistress out of their own meagre pockets, and built the schoolroom, and found accommodation for the teacher.

And they made their own fun. They put on their Sunday best for church, they organised picnics, and sang round the piano, and formed a brass band… it was astonishing how many people learned a musical instrument then, and could play dance tunes on their violins or their flutes or mouth organs. And people whistled in those days, and sang songs to each other. They read aloud to each other at night by candle-light, and the children played hopscotch and five-stones and marbles – games that encouraged highly developed eye and hand and foot co-ordination . They skipped and played ball, and the boys played endless games of foot ball, kicking stones all the way home from school, so their boots were always scuffed, but they developed tremendous ball skills.

It was a hard life and a simple life, but also a satisfying life. Neighbourliness supported the whole community, and there were no extremes of rich and poor, it was a truly egalitarian society. Many of those qualities still make this small village what our store owner used to call paradise. It’s still a small self sufficient community. We have our own private library, run by local ladies, the school bus is driven by a white bearded retired professor, the store run by a retired social worker. We have our own fire brigade, all unpaid volunteers, who come for first aid as well as fires. We have our own garage, our own school, and most importantly, our own fresh fish and chip shop;  our own classy restaurant where local gigs are held, and some still sing hymns in our pretty white painted church with its tiny bell tower, while others do yoga in the church hall.

Our little cottage is on a cliff overlooking a small bay, where the waves crash onto the rocks below, and I go to sleep to the sound of the sea.  The Japanese poet Yoshi Isamu might have written his haiku especially for me:

 Even in my sleep 

the sound of water

flows beneath my pillow.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

This is called Healing Soup, and it’s certainly very comforting, due, I think, to the unusual inclusion of ginger and coriander. I love it, and you couldn’t get more economical than this. All you need is a large onion, a carrot or two, a few stalks of celery, a couple of garlic cloves, a piece of ginger the size of half a walnut, and a sprinkling of coriander.

Chop the vegetables and saute them till they begin to soften. Add the garlic and ginger, and sautee a bit more. If you haven’t got ginger you can use the powdered sort, but the real thing does taste better. Stir in a quarter to half a teaspoon of coriander powder. You may find you want more or less, but it’s the coriander that gives it its warming quality. Pour in some chicken stock or use Braggs amino acid or chicken bouillon, and make the liquid up to about a pint with this amount of vegetables. Boil until the vegetables are cooked, and then whizz in the blender, and you should have a lovely warming soup. I make it the consistency to sip from a cup.

You can double the amount, use less stock to make it thicker, use other vegetables, even cucumber which then makes it a cleansing soup. I’ve added mashed up sweet potato/kumara, left over from the day before, pumpkin… all delicious, but the original recipe is still my favourite. Salt and pepper to taste, and serve with lots of fresh chopped parsley.

Food for Thought

Loss

The day he moved out was terrible-

That evening she went through hell.

His absence wasn’t a problem

But the corkscrew had gone as well.       By Wendy Cope   English poet

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Books Taking Over The House

I’ve just inserted a tall narrow bookcase by the fire, the only place I could find to put another bookcase. When the sweep next comes, I expect he’ll tell me it’s a fire hazard, but it’s a risk I have to take.

 The books are taking over the house. Sometimes I do a clean out, and manage to sort out a small pile I think I won’t read again, and then a few months or even a year later, I go to find one, to look something up, or check a fact, and realise it ‘s gone with the wind and kick myself.

It’s such a little cottage that we haven’t got a special room for books. There’s nothing I love more than a room wall to wall with books. But here I have to slip them in between windows, the odd mirror and tall bits of furniture. I can’t bear to let go my collection of green and white china in the white dresser, so that’s book space gone, and we need the two big French armoires for storage, so that’s another two blocks of wall gone. There are windows everywhere to let in the views of the sea and the surrounding trees, so I have no quarrel with them. But there’s less room for bookcases.

 So we have books in the sitting room, books in the bedroom, books in the hall, books in my husband’s study, and books in the garage, books in piles on the round table in the middle of the room, books in piles on the bottom shelf of side tables and the coffee table. The new one inserted by the fireplace has absorbed all the piles of books heaped by the fire, and on the old grey painted bench, and on the stool by the French doors. There’s no more room for expansion, and we face the grim choice of buying no more books – unthinkable – or having piles all over the place again.

Other people manage to have tidy homes, and I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have clear empty surfaces, and no clutter of books, magazines, articles torn out from the newspaper, recipes, things to keep for the grand-children, jars of posies,  collections of tiny treasures, boxes, bits of silver, magnifying glass, candle snuffer, photo frames and the rest.

But books rule. Some I’ve carted round the world for years, like the old leather-bound Complete Works of Shakespeare, with an introduction by famous Victorian actor Henry Irving. The end papers are marbled in black and gold and it’s printed on rice paper with an unfaded gilt edging. I picked it up at the Petersfield market in 1958. A Prayer Book printed in 1745, the year of Bonnie Prince Charlie’ s rising, found on the book stall at Salisbury market in 1963, sits next to Shakespeare. One of the most awe-inspiring things about this book is that at the back of it some mathematical genius calculated back in 1745, all the dates of Easter up to the year 2000, which must have seemed like an impossible date to people in those times. Easter is calculated from what are known as the golden numbers, and involve various other arcane computations to do with the full moon on or after various dates, and taking into account the Gregorian calendar. None of which makes any sense to this mathematically challenged person, whose top mark in most exams was eight out of a hundred.

Lined up with these two venerable treasures is the Oxford Book of English Prose, given to me in 1954 as a prize for reading the lessons at school assembly – my only prize, so rather treasured! With these grand old men of my library I keep all my favourite books, which include the poetry of TS Eliot and John Betjeman, Alan Garner’s exquisite children’s book ‘Tom Fobble’s Day,’ The Oxford Book of Mystical Poetry, seven year old Daisy Ashford’s hilarious classic, ‘The Young Visitors’, Michelangelo’s Sonnets and of course, the Blessed Jane!

Other shelves house my collection of American Civil War books, all the books on Wellington and Waterloo, Arctic and Antarctic books, all Captain Cook’s journeys, including his diaries and the diaries of Captain Bligh of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’s’. Diaries are one of my favourite things, and I have shelves of them, men and women’s, some famous people, others interesting because they live like you and me. I love savouring their lives and the most mundane details that add up to each day lived. ‘Breakfast at eight, then went for a walk,’ sort of thing, gives me such pleasure, experiencing the routines and blessed ordinariness of such daily programmes.

 There’s innocent Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals of her country walks, dyspeptic James Lees-Milne’s quirky portraits of the owners of stately homes he had to inspect for the National Trust, poor old Victor Klemperer worrying about his cat as the Nazis closed in, swashbuckling Samuel Pepys and British MP Alan Clark revelling in their philandering, honest John Evelyn, back in 1654, getting a hammer out of his carriage to bash the boulders at Stonehenge and failing to make a dent… and dear Sam Grant’s memoirs written as he was dying of throat cancer and trying to make provision for his family. Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain, was his publisher.

Christopher Morley, American writer, wrote that when you get a new book, you get a new life –“love and friendship and humour and ships at sea at night -… all heaven and earth in a book.” So the piles of books will have to grow, because like the ones I’ve mentioned, they are precious companions, old friends, indispensable comforters and utterly irreplaceable.  Beds R Us, says the ad for the furniture shop on TV. Books R Us in this house, and as an anonymous wit once said, book lovers never go to bed alone!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Seasonal vegetables are the best way to live cheaply, and in winter, leeks are one of my favourites. This fragrant dish is simply hardboiled eggs and leeks. For each person allow one to two eggs, and a couple of leeks depending on size.

Trim and clean the leeks and steam them while you boil the eggs. Make a vinaigrette sauce, two thirds good olive oil to one third lemon juice or white wine vinegar. Whisk them together with a little Dijon mustard, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add capers and black olives to the vinaigrette.  If you don’t have any olives, you can manage without, but capers are a must. Peel and halve the eggs, place them on top of the leeks and pour the vinaigrette over them. Eat with good, hot crusty rolls. Quick, cheap and easy.

Food for Thought

A prayer written by Jane Austen, 1775 – 1817, peerless writer and daughter, sister and aunt of Anglican clergymen :

Incline us O God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be saved only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with the charity which we would desire from them ourselves.

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Another Milestone

I’m not sure if I could choose, which is more satisfying- going to the henhouse to check for new laid eggs in the morning, or going to switch on my computer as soon as I’ve had my morning tea in bed, to check for new laid ‘likes ‘and comments.  (Not that I have hens these days)

When I wrote a roundup of my first month of blogging, I hadn’t begun to get beyond the frontiers of this new world I’m venturing into. Four weeks ago, all I knew was doing the writing, and seeing numbers and places and countries popping up on the charts in the morning. But now I’m beginning to get to know some of the inhabitants of this fascinating new world. I’m told that there are 156 million blogs!

And I’m always amazed that any of them make contact with me. For a start, I’m so technologically incompetent, that I haven’t worked out how to find other blogs, and I have no idea how people find mine. So it’s  a bit like someone hobbling along on one leg, I’ve had to try to find other people’s blogs by clicking on the bloggers on the sites that have contacted me. Sometimes I can find their sites, other times I’m baffled by comments like ‘This URL is illegal’ – I’m hoping to discover what my URL is one day.

Whenever I try to obey the instructions in order to make a comment, and type in the name that seems logical to me, it turns out to be verboten, and I get another stern slap over the wrist from the distant all-seeing Great God of Technology – “This name is not yours”. I cower and switch off in panic, hoping the God doesn’t know what my real name is – but if he does, I wish he’d tell me! I don’t know what a widget is, and I don’t know how to do all sorts of things that appear on my charts… my computer is basically a bully and refuses to divulge who my followers are. It lets me click on everything else but won’t let me see the one thing I’m longing to see. It just keeps repeating:  ‘error on the page’. So I’ll have to drive for half an hour into town with the lap-top, to have a session with the computer repair man.

I realise that experts reading this – if they can bear to get this far- are probably steaming with frustration at the amateurish ignorance of this age-challenged blogger – but que sera sera…

BUT, the big but, has been the unexpected fun and enjoyment of contacting other people out there. Wonderful people, like the man who’s given me the lowdown on wind farms, the mountaineer who shared glorious photos of Canadian mountains in  the pink light of dawn, the aunt raising money for her handicapped nephew and writing warm witty posts about the journey, the man setting sail for a new life in Sweden, the Russian historian, the wonderful Indian gourmet-cook, the men and women who care about grammar and punctuation and writing and literature,  and communicate their passion with wit and kindness. I’ve followed the couple in their travelling home, and seen their photographs of the battlefield at Gettyburg – the turning point of the American Civil War – and also envied them their freshly caught lunch by a Canadian lake. I’ve read about the site of the Battle of Naseby, the pivot of the English Civil War.

I’ve read about the plight of Chinese farmers – what a terrible life – and caught up on historical moments like the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the day of the first landing on the moon. I’ve read some wonderful cookery columns, not just your elegant recipes, but lovely witty discussions about food, which is the real fun; and I’ve read and shared with friends the spiritual poetry of a man in Manipur, a place which I’d never even heard of before. I’ve enjoyed reading about the books that other bloggers have read, the funny encounters in an American supermarket, and the afternoon shopping in a little English town.

Above all, I’ve been enchanted by bloggers’ etiquette – the good manners, the acknowledgement of any comment or communication, the friendliness, the courtesy and the kindness of bloggers. They support each other, they click the ‘like’ button, they write friendly comments and they share their points of view with no aggro, just humour and patience. They ‘follow’ and they encourage. There’s no criticism or sniping, it’s a world of open mindedness and tolerance. Everyone’s point of view is accepted, and the amazing thing is, that so far everyone I’ve discovered, has written such sane and sensible, wise and informative viewpoints. What a world we would live in if everyone behaved like bloggers!

So now I’m proud to tell my friends that I have a new career as a blogger – I like the sound of it… it reminds me of old English bodgers, who went into the forest every day to chop and turn chair legs and stretchers. They were craftsmen who worked alone. I like to think that I too am a craftsman, working alone in my distant little fishing village in the Antipodes.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Several readers were so taken with the idea of enjoying greed, that I thought I’d share the ultimate in greed. Having nothing but pudding for lunch! When my children were home in the holidays we always had fun, and on this day we agreed that I’d bake them a Bombe Alaska so they knew just how delicious it was. And because it was so much effort we all agreed – three of us – that that would be all we’d eat for lunch.

Step one was to switch on the oven to heat up to really hot, and lay the kitchen table. We cut the base of a sponge cake to fit a baking tray, and soaked it in brandy. Then we piled on the fruit salad. Using some good vanilla ice-cream we covered   the fruit salad with great gobs of it, and when the fruit salad was completely covered in a thick layer of ice-cream, we put it in the deep freeze.

 For the meringue we needed four egg whites and two tablespoons of castor sugar for each egg white – eight tablespoons. This was whipped until the egg-whites stood in peaks and then the sugar added in three lots, beating till stiff each time. Once the meringue was ready, out came the base from the freezer, the meringue was smeared all over the ice-cream, and then the white tower went into the hot oven for three or four minutes until the meringue was browned.

The children were waiting expectantly at the table, each accompanied by their cavalier King Charles spaniel, and Sheba the afghan sitting underneath the table, when out came the glorious confection of sponge, brandy, fruit and ice cream, and lashings of meringue. There was no point in trying to save any because it wouldn’t keep! Delectable, delicious and disgustingly fattening!

Food for Thought

Walk on a rainbow trail; walk on a trail of song, and all about you will be beauty. There is a way out of every dark mist, over a rainbow trail.            Navajo Song

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Real Things Matter

It has to be real coffee. I can’t bear the taste of instant coffee with that smell of dry cleaning fluid lurking beneath the coffee fragrance.

No tea bags either. I reverted long ago to a tea-pot and a tea caddy. I love the meditative ritual of boiling the kettle, spooning the tea leaves from the caddy, and enjoy using a beautiful circular shaped silver spoon with a little intricately worked handle. I wonder who used it for this purpose in the past. When the tea is made, the pot goes on a tray with a cup and saucer with Redoute roses on it, a matching milk jug and tea plate. There’s also a little cream French provincial jug which holds hot water to make the tea weaker if I want. It’s Twinings’ lapsang souchong, the delicate smoky taste such a habit now that I never drink anything else.

I sometimes think that this will be my greatest deprivation when I’m shunted into an old people’s home – which is why I’ll be drinking a nice pot of hemlock before that happens.It’s the same with the ritual of the breakfast coffee and tray. It gives me such a sense of well being to enjoy these pretty things, instead of keeping them for best, and to eat and drink good, honest, unpolluted foodstuffs. There’s also a feeling of mindfulness as I savour these little things.

There’s no way I’d have mucked- around butter on my table either. We have the real thing, not some mixture with chemicals and oils to pretend to ourselves that it’s better for us than butter. I simply can’t believe that a pure substance like butter could be bad for you when the other is filled with all sorts of food substitutes.

The fact is, I don’t want any substitutes in my life. I want the real thing. I don’t want plastic plant pots in my garden, I want lovely terra cotta pots, the sort you find in Beatrix Potter’s pictures of Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s garden. I don’t want hybrid dwarf ageratum and stunted shasta daisies and miniature dahlias in the garden. I want the old fashioned blue ageratum with long stems to loll for most of the year at the back of the border. I want tall straight Shasta daisies, not mean little blooms cowering among the lavender, and in autumn I want those big shaggy dahlias shaking their blowsy heads at the sun, not struggling to find a space among the marigolds. Same with bouncy blue agapanthus. Who wants miniature agapanthus when the real thing is so gorgeous?

I’ve always hated synthetic fabrics. Give me real wool and cotton, linen and silk any day, whether we’re talking clothes or furnishings. And now they’ve discovered that many of the synthetics we use in curtains and carpets emit fumes which are dangerous to health – so why use them? Same with many building materials in modern homes. Houses of yesteryear, built using natural products were not unhealthy like so many modern homes. And we now also know that many of the synthetic fabrics in homes are easily inflammable and burn fast, unlike wool which takes a long time to catch fire.

Apart from the safety and health aspect, natural fibres and natural building products are beautiful.  Worse, our devotion to synthetics and plastic means that we’re using up oil to create much of the litter that’s strangling our planet. The monstrous islands of rubbish as big as continents in the oceans, are made up of plastic. The plastic breaks down into tiny shards and gets into the fish food chain, and finally into us. Serve us right.

Then there’s plastic bags! When I lived in Hong Kong over forty years ago, plastic hadn’t caught on, so we’d take home our food from the markets wrapped in real leaves and tied with real dried reeds. These small parcels were exquisite little works of art, and every Chinese shopkeeper and hawker could create them and tie them with the same instinctive skill. Even in English villages back when, we used string bags to carry our groceries home, not disposable plastic bags. Disposable of course, is a misnomer. Throwaways, yes, but then it takes aeons for the plastic to decompose.

And yes, in my day, of course we had the real thing – cloth nappies. And though the debate rages about the good and bad effects on the planet of disposables versus cloth nappies, at least you can go on using cloth nappies for years afterwards as dusters, car cleaning cloths, and so on, if you don’t pass them on to someone else.

 Actually, the debate over babies having the real thing is not funny, but is sometimes a matter of life and death in developing countries.The big global conglomerates, many of them American, have run such successful campaigns convincing Third World and Asian mothers that their babies are better off with powdered milk, that in Thailand for example, only five per cent of mothers now breast feed their babies. Babies all over the undeveloped world are being fed milk products which too often are mixed with polluted water, for lack of good hygeine. In China, unscrupulous middle-men added industrial additives to New Zealand milk powder to make it go further, and make bigger profits, with the result that thousands of babies ended up in hospital with serious permanent internal damage, and many died. So having the real thing is actually not a frivolous matter. It can be the difference between life and death. And what can be more real than a mother’s milk?

So having got this off my chest, I’m now going to make Welsh rarebit for our light evening meal. It’ll be brown bread, cooked by the local artisan baker, unprocessed cheddar cheese, real butter, and to my chagrin, the milk will be the processed stuff we all have to consume by law. No-one nowadays knows what fresh untampered -with milk tastes like. In my childhood, the cream used to sit at the top of the bottle of real milk delivered to the doorstep, and in cold weather, the sparrows would peck through the lids to get at the cream. They knew the real thing when they saw it.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Cheese goes further when used as Welsh rarebit, rather than straightforward cheese on toast, and the difference in flavour and texture is rather attractive for a change. So using an ounce of butter and a level tablespoon of flour – somewhere between half to an ounce, melt the butter and stir in the flour until smooth. Add enough milk, or milk and half beer, to make a stiff mixture. Then add a teaspoon of mixed mustard, a few drops of Worcester sauce, salt and pepper, and about six ounces of grated cheese. Stir it altogether and make sure the cheese is amalgamated. Don’t overcook or the cheese will become oily. Spread this mixture on four slices of buttered toast, and grill until golden brown. Serve at once. This amount will satisfy two greedy people, or four well-behaved people.

Food for Thought

Pilgrim,remember                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              For all your pain                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        The Master you seek abroad                                                                                                                                                                                                                You will find at home                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Or seek in vain.                 Anonymous 7th century poet

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Bedazzled by Their Jewels

The French want the Queen to give them her crown jewels as compensation for killing the last Plantagenet in 1499. Well I can understand that -those jewels are more than something- especially the tiaras. Oh, for a tiara – some people are born to wear them, and some are not. Alas, I was not.

The nearest I’ve got to it was on Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding day. I was in a sewing shop looking for buttons that morning, and just by the door was a stand draped with fairy clothes, wands and jewels for children’s parties. I seized the amethyst and diamond tiara, knowing I would need it that evening.

I wore it with a purple top and all my pearls and amethysts. Mostly faux, just the odd decent pearl winking under the load of beads and baubles. I looked like the late Queen Mary actually – laden with jewels – and as the evening wore on, and the champagne flowed while we watched the Wedding, I wondered how Queen Mary had managed all those years, with her bosom bedizened with strings of diamonds, ropes of pearls and layers of diamond brooches. My strings and strings of beads and brooches, earrings and bracelets were all fake, and therefore comparatively light.  But as time went by I wilted under the weight of wearing all this stuff. Queen Mary’s glittering jewels were the real thing – two large chips off the fabulous Cullinan diamond for starters – the biggest stone ever found – frequently adorned her bosom. They were known as Grannie’s chips to the present Queen, who wears them quite often. Then there were those lustrous pearls, giant rubies, heaps of emeralds, gorgeous sapphires…

Queen Mary, who married Queen Victoria’s grandson, George, who became the Fifth, did rather well in the jewellery line. Queen Victoria had lost most of her family jewels in a family wrangle which went to court, and the judges – English – found against her, and let the King of Hanover keep all the crown jewels. This left only a string of pearls which had once belonged to Queen Anne, who died in 1714, and another string which had belonged to Queen Caroline, wife of George 11. Queen Victoria later amassed plenty of jewels in her sixty-two year reign, not because she was particularly impressed by jewellery, but as symbols of the royal status. But Queen Mary, who’d always been an impecunious princess, adored jewels, and was showered with diamonds when she became engaged to the heir, including the diamond tiara the Queen often wears, known as Grannie’s tiara, and given by the Girls of Great Britain and Ireland.

Then there were the diamond brooches from the inhabitants of Kensington, another tiara from the county of Surrey, a large diamond bow from the county of Dorset, a diamond and ruby bracelet from the County of Cornwall, and this incomplete list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the collection of treasure she received, including precious gifts from all the royal families of Europe (they were all family anyway).  Queen Mary was famous for her acquisitiveness, and managed to snaffle many fabulous jewels, tiaras and bracelets from the desperate Russian Royals when they had escaped the Revolution, and needed money in the thirties.

Her mother in law, Queen Alexandra, had also done rather well, receiving hoards of priceless tribute from the Indian princes at various durbars – ropes of pearls, ruby and diamond chokers, an emerald girdle, to mention only a few of these princely gifts . So by the time the present Queen inherited all these generations of jewellery, she had a choice of over a dozen tiaras, diamond necklaces for Africa ( and many were African gifts and from African diamond mines) not to mention ruby, emerald, amethyst and sapphire tiaras, with their matching earrings, necklaces and bracelets. They all have names, like the Russian fringe tiara, the Brazilian aquamarine, the Greek key, the Vladimir circle tiara.  

But the favourite jewels in every generation of Royals seem to have been the ones with historic or sentimental value, like Albert’s brooch, the Prince Consort’s wedding gift to his bride Victoria. A huge sapphire ringed with diamonds, all the succeeding queens have worn it regularly, and Albert had a copy made for his eldest daughter, which Princess Anne now owns. The historic Crown pearls, rescued from the Hanoverian raid, were worn by the Queen on her wedding day, and she still often wears them. The Cambridge emeralds, large cabochon emeralds set with diamonds inherited from Queen Mary’s family, were given to Diana, who wore them as a head-band on a trip to Australia-  dancing at a ball in a matching green dress.

Diana also wore the bow knot tiara, another of Queen Mary’s family heirlooms. But Kate, as yet, has only been seen in a very modest, and entirely appropriate diamond tiara lent to her by the Queen on her wedding day. Meanwhile Camilla, Prince Charles’ second wife, flashes the dazzling jewels owned by the Queen Mother who left them to Prince Charles. The Queen Mother wore them with some restraint, but Camilla wears as much as possible at the same time! Sporting the huge modern diamond tiara, she adds a necklace of five rows of enormous diamonds, even managing to make the Queen’s exquisite jewellery look less impressive if big is what you like.

The history of all these jewels is recorded, and this is what makes jewellery so fascinating to me, that all the great pieces have a history behind them. Elizabeth Taylor possessed a famous necklace known as La Peregrina, dating from the sixteenth century, when Philip 11 of Spain gave this huge symmetrically perfect pearl to Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) of England on their marriage in 1554. When she died, the necklace went back to Spain, and two hundred years later, Napoleon captured it, which was when it earned the name of La Peregrina (the wanderer). Later Napoleon 111 sold it to the Marquess of Abercorn while in exile in England, and Richard Burton bought it from the Abercorns. Elizabeth Taylor also owned another famous jewel, a heart shaped diamond which had once belonged to Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal.

A scroll through Google, studying the jewels of the reigning and deposed royal houses of Europe is mouth-watering if jewels are your thing. One of the best things about the wedding of the Danish Crown Prince, a few years ago, was that everyone was asked to wear a tiara, and for the first time in years, all these wonderful jewels came out of hiding and bank vaults to dazzle and enchant.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

My granddaughter came today, to give me another session wrestling with the intricacies of computers. Not a big eater, so rather than proper lunch I gave her things to pick at… shredded ham sandwiches made with brown bread one side, and  white the other, with a touch of mustard. Crusts off, and cut into dainty squares to tempt her appetite.  The grand-children call the Danish slightly salted butter I always use, Grannie’s butter, so that was de rigueur on the bread. I also made some maple syrup and date muffins, but another time wouldn’t waste expensive maple syrup , brown sugar would taste just as good.  And we had celery soup to sip in a cup for those who wanted it, a fragrant gentle soup, made with just celery, a potato,  chicken stock, (stock cube actually), nutmeg and a dollop of cream. Gently sauted, then boiled till soft and whizzed in the blender with salt and pepper and nutmeg to taste – quick and easy.

The muffins – two cups of self raising flour, a cup of dates, chopped and softened in hot water, pinch of salt, 125 g of butter and of brown sugar, melted together, one egg, half a cup of milk and half a teasp of cinnamon. Beat the egg lightly with the milk, and stir all the ingredients together. Spoon into greased pattie tins, two thirds full, sprinkle with castor sugar and bake in a hot oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the muffins spring back when lightly touched. I did a dozen miniature ones, and eight big ones with this amount. Eat as soon as possible, while warm – with butter if waist-lines are no object!

  Food for Thought

The centre of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days.

 Stephen Jay Gould, 1941 – 2002  Popular science writer,  American palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist.

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Passion in Provence

Just back from seeing The Well-Digger’s Daughter for the second time, but not for the last time!

I see it’s called an art house film… so a film that has no violence or sex pictured in it, seems to be an art house film apparently. Good for art. So I didn’t feel like a voyeur having to watch heaving bottoms, and listen to other people’s orgasms, and I didn’t have to feel like an accomplice watching fighting, stabbings, shooting, and mayhem.

Instead I watched a story of life and death, love and birth, human pain and human greatness. It was set in the magic countryside of Provence, harsh, rocky, grey mountain ridges giving way to long stretches of olive groves, long avenues of ancient poplars, clear pebbly streams with dappled water beneath the branching pale green trees, and empty, dusty white roads. The well-digger’s farm house was the dream of most westerners, a weathered stone house with faded green shutters at each window, stone sinks and arched door-ways inside, pottery jugs and big old- fashioned soup plates for the cassoulet for dinner. Old barns, a stone parapeted well, and views over empty country-side completed the dream. Long shadows lay across green meadows, and grasses swayed in the evening breezes.

 It was that time before telephones, so children ran errands, and felt useful, people wrote letters which were kept and treasured, instead of e-mails quickly deleted, everyone walked miles for lack of public transport and was fit and healthy, while children got enough sleep every night without TV or computer games to keep them awake. It was that time before sprays and pesticides, wind farms and traffic fumes, tourists and agribusiness had changed the old ways, the old beauties, the centuries-old peace.

The music – some of it from old twenties and thirties recordings – pulled at the heart strings the way those wistful plangent sounds of old records always do. And the clothes! – old fashioned thirties summer dresses, elegant coats and hats and shoes. A green crocodile pochette that matched a shapely green coat… a clotted cream coloured cardigan edged with wine dark ribbon, matching the thin maroon stripe in the girl’s cream dress… the scalloped collar on a simple black dress, embroidered round the edge of the scallops in dull red and green.

But these were the delicious details. The people were the story -the well digger- implacable and generous, warm hearted and narrow minded, honest and angry all at the same time; the other father, weary, hen-pecked, dignified and distant; the possessive, petulant mother; the spoiled only son; the well-digger’s troubled, tragic daughter. The emotions of love and lust, anger and unrequited devotion, shame and guilt, grief and joy, swirled round these people as the Second World War broke out. And the birth of an unwanted baby brought together all these warring people and humbled their pride, softened their grief, opened their hearts, melted their anger, dissolved their arrogance and dispelled their petulance. 

There were some lovely lines. The rejected lover, prepared to marry the girl he loved, who was carrying another man’s child, is told by her angry, bitter father: “Felipe, you have no honour”, to which Felipe replies, “I have no honour, but I have plenty of love”. (How much pain and grief men’s honour has brought to women, and still does, as we read of so-called honour killings, and women strangled, stoned and even shot by machine gun, so as not to diminish this strange concept of murderous egotism, false pride, and cruelty wrongly named honour.)

When the possessive grandfather tries to claim authority over the baby, his new son-in law says, “He doesn’t belong to you. You belong to him.” And the other grandfather replies, “That’s right, the old can only serve the young”, like all grandparents, putty in the hands of his grandchild.

No doubt everyone who sees this film will understand it differently, depending on their age. But as a grandparent, it reminded me of the days when my grandchildren were small, and I discovered for the first time the bliss of giving unconditional love. The sort of love which accepts the loved one as a perfect and beautiful soul, knowing that all the foibles and  problems that parents see, don’t really exist; the sort of love that  knows with perfect certainty that their grand-children will grow up to be strong and good even if they don’t eat all their vegetables!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Padding is what families need in cold weather, and these two puddings fill the bill. They are hot plain puddings, but also delicious, and old-fashioned puddings are becoming fashionable again. They both need sultanas, washed and then soaked in boiling water to plump them up and make them juicy.

The first, batter pudding, needs the same ingredients as Yorkshire pudding, eight ounces of self raising flour, two eggs, and enough milk and a little water to mix to a pouring batter, plus a pinch of salt. Beat the eggs into the flour and salt, and add the liquid gradually. Leave in the fridge for half an hour. Heat a baking pan with a knob of fat until smoking, and pour in the batter, which you’ve just beaten again. Add the drained sultanas, and bake in a hot oven for an hour, or until risen and cooked. Serve immediately with knobs of butter and brown sugar sprinkled over. A hot and homely pudding.

Bread and butter pudding is the same. You need six slices of good bread – not white supermarket pap. Slice them, butter them and cut them into squares or triangles. Arrange them in a two pint pie dish. Sprinkle over the drained sultanas, and then beat three eggs with three to four ounces of sugar. Add the milk, and pour it over the bread. The pie dish should only be half full. Leave to soak for at least half an hour, before baking in a moderate oven (about 350degrees) for about an hour, or until the custard is set. Eat hot.

Food for Thought

Some day, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity we shall harness the energies of love. Then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, 1881 – 1955.  Jesuit, philosopher, eminent palaeontologist and mystic, who was banned from teaching, preaching and writing by the Catholic church, his books denied publication, and his most important book, ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ only published after his death. He is still persona non grata with the church fifty three years after his death.

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