Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The big picture

And breathe. We are getting into our summer groove. Breakfast happens around two hours later than on a school day, we take things at our own pace and gradually there are more and more beautiful moments, the kind that I had hoped for when I had a baby in my belly. Every year I dread the summer holidays; every year it comes good.

Daughter asks if I will lie with her in bed one evening, the room lit by fairy lights, a girl fragrant, warm and soft after her bath. We spend the next ten minutes taking turns inflating our cheeks and letting the other squeeze the air out. I pass her her book and she happily immerses herself in it. A minute or two later she looks over at me and says "Isn't this lovely?". And it is; she is quite right.

All sitting round the kitchen table, colouring, cutting, glueing, making. And a new version of a scene that has been played many times at that table: boy draws and draws, gets cross that something is not as good as the vision he had in his head, and roars from frustration, starts again. After the third roar, I suggest that if it's making him really cross, maybe it might be good to have a break and do something else. The new ending: "No Mum, I'm persevering". Ten minutes later he interrupts my cooking to show me the final version, the one he's pleased with.

Playing in the woods, gathering leaves, sticks, finding treasure: bones, pieces of china, a piece of rock sparkling with crystals. Going home, stripping off muddy clothes, gulping down drinks, a big washing up bowl full of soapy water for cleaning feet in and also for scrubbing the treasure until it's glistening.

And in the spare time, I finally manage to succeed. I send an email to apologise that the quilt will be another week, that there are so many loose ends of threads to sew in and that time is so short. That evening I check it all over and am surprised to see they are almost all done; the quilt is so huge that it hasn't been possible to view the whole thing as I'm going along. A reminder to look at the big picture more often.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The sexiest bowl of food

I knew I'd got used to solitude a bit too much. But just how much I'd got used to it has been a bit of a shock. The children have been finished with school for just over a week, which might not sound long to you, or to husband, who doesn't quite get why I look a bit haggard by the time he gets home after 7 each night. But I have a son who just has to make a noise of some sort from the moment he wakes up until the time his eyes roll up into his head at bedtime. It might be an imitation of a motorbike or a plane, a fact about an anaconda, a bad joke, a complaint about his sister, or it could be the noise of a foot kicking a chair, or a burp, or a lot of huffing and grunting if he's in a bad mood (which he often is if the sister has anything to do with it). So I find myself craving silence. Or craving just some loud music coming from my iPod to bring me back to life with no other interruptions. Ah, it just occurs to me why one of my favourite playlists is one I concocted last summer entitled "3rd September"; I must start a new one.

And the time all gets sucked up into nothing. I assumed the quilt would be done, but no, still tying up ends and sewing them in every evening. Pictures will be there soon. Next week?

I did a little stupid something recently. Something so stupid, so embarrassingly inappropriate that I can't tell you about it. But it was really stupid. You know how sometimes you can convince yourself things will be better if you utter things out loud, rather than bottling them up, when actually they would probably have gone away if you'd just kept your mouth shut? Well it's one of those things. Please don't ask me, because I won't ever tell you. But it's the sort of thing that, when I manage to uncurl my toes, makes me think of chocolate and comfort food.

So now I finally have some silence now the children have gone to bed and husband has gone out to try out his new bike. It's actually not quite silent, as there is the whirring of the oven fan, but the smell more than makes up for it. I'm making something I discovered recently, quite the sexiest foodstuff I've eaten for a long time. Many years ago I had some raspberry chocolates from a shop called Wittamer in Brussels and they were very very memorable. This isn't far off from that memory, and tonight I'm hoping that, still warm, cuddled up in a bowl in a gooey embrace with some Haagen Dazs salted caramel ice cream, I might have hit the pinnacle of chocolate and raspberry lusciousness. This is the first time I've ever given you a recipe that I haven't altered in any way. Thanks to BBC Good Food website.

Chocolate and Raspberry Brownies

100g dark chocolate, broken up
50g milk chocolate, broken up
125g salted butter
200g soft light brown sugar
2 large eggs
70g plain flour
25g cocoa
100g raspberries

Before I start, let me tell you two things that sadden me about this... the eggs that I've used are from our chicken share. We had 25 chickens but on two separate occasions, despite electric fences, a fox came and did the dirty with them, and as of yesterday there is only one left, and a miserable broody one at that. So I'm feeling sad about using up the eggs from those lovely chickens and sad about the prospect of buying supermarket eggs for a while until they get replaced. Ditto with the cocoa, which came from our lovely holiday in Rome; once it's gone that's another holiday to be consigned to memories only. Big sigh.

Anyway here's the recipe: Preheat the oven to 180 degrees or gas mark 4. Put the chocolate, butter and sugar in a pan and heat the mixture until it's melted, stirring every so often. Take off the heat and stir in the eggs one at a time, thinking sad thoughts about the chickens. Stir in the flour and cocoa (hey I did alter the recipe, which said to sieve them, but life is way too short for sieving anything). Stir in half the raspberries, smushing them up a bit, and pour the mixture into a tin lined with baking parchment. My tin is 26 x 20cm. Then arrange the rest of the raspberries over the top and bake for 30 minutes. Cool and then cut into squares. Or cut into squares when it's still at blood temperature and envelope in some melting salted caramel ice cream...

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The New Year's Eve Chrysalis

I think I've written before about the way that since the children have been at school, this time of year always feels like New Year's Eve. I loathe the real New Year's Eve with all its maudlin contemplation of passing time, getting older and "What have you achieved this year?" self-questioning, and so, if ever possible, I try and avoid it and stay at home, going to bed at the usual time in an attempt to pretend it's not happening; but at this time of year, at the end of the academic year, I really can't put my head in the sand. Sorry to those people who complain that I sound too miserable in my blog posts (spoiler: keep reading, it does get a lot better), but I can't deny it: it is a moment to feel a certain sadness for time lost. Moving on from people close to my heart, missed opportunities, bungled chances. Was it Sisyphus who every day pushed the big rock up to the top of the mountain, only for it to roll down again?

This year it's a trying one. The children have become little frayed knots full of exhaustion, frustration and upset. Both indignant that their sibling is still breathing and, worse, seemingly getting a better deal than themselves, and then distraught that the sibling doesn't want to play with them. We all need a holiday so badly. It seems unlikely that we can all spend the next four weeks together without some spontaneous combustion, before I can find myself floating once more in the sea in my favourite part of Brittany, dreaming of langoustines and pastries so buttery that grease drips down your chin as you are eating.

And there's no denying that there have been some really testing times recently. Waiting in all day for a new king-sized mattress, only for it to arrive at the very end of the timeslot and the two burly men refuse to take it up the stairs because their insurance won't cover it. Imagine over 20 minutes of heaving, pushing, pulling, sweating and panting to get something around a foot too big for the gap it has to squeeze through into your bedroom. A very birth-like experience. I hear Ikea will exchange it if there are any issues with it within the first 90 days, but I fear the only way it is leaving this house now is if it gets hacked to pieces by a woman enraged during the summer holidays.

A hangover on a hot day, only eclipsed by husband's hangover and bad temper, plus a deadline to take some pictures to an open exhibition for handing-in day. Two children moaning all the way there. The realisation that I'd misread the instructions and got the wrong fixings on the back of one of the pictures so it couldn't be accepted. And ultimately the other one wasn't selected either. This art lark is such a damned rollercoaster.

And then the high: ta daa! I've just been accepted at the University of Bristol for my MA in Translation! How lovely. It's easy to believe that I have lost a lot of my brain power, with two children and a husband all talking at me about different things at the same time, and never being able to complete my train of thought, so it's really very heartwarming indeed to be validated in this way: if I could get myself together enough to do two test translations (one of which is in a language I really haven't spoken for 20 years) and an 1500-word essay with references as part of my application, and then get through, it's as close to biological proof as I'll ever get that I still have my marbles.

So this New Year's Eve might well be about moving on from some of the old and then out of my chrysalis to reveal a brand new me. I am trying to tie up the loose ends and finish a few other things off before term ends so I can start afresh in September. Which brings me nicely on to the quilt I've been making for someone (literally tying up loose ends and sewing them in). I had hoped to finish this, well, several months ago but things have got in the way. Then I had hoped to finish it before the end of term this Friday but the last metre of backing fabric was stuck in the midst of a German postal strike until last Wednesday. I've done my darndest but I think it will be next week now. I will take some photos when it's completely finished but for now here are some details... This is an enormous, glorious technicolor quilt built from love and it has babys' clothes, 1950's pinnies (apparently worn with chagrin by someone who hadn't been allowed to go to university - I can feel the pain; it is so good to have chopped those up for something better), old pillowcases, cross-stitched napkins, well-worn charity shop blouses, sarongs harking back to distant worldwide sojourns, jam pot covers, circles and spots galore... take a peek!

Thursday, 2 July 2015


A hard few days. Terrible overbearing heat and humidity making the easiest tasks feel like mountains and sweat dripping off my nose as I return up the hill from the school run. Then a day of showers, eternal dusk and goosepimples (or goosebumps, is it a regional term? The ridicule I get from my family for calling them pimples rather than bumps is never ending). 

The frustration of wanting to finish the most beautiful eye-popping quilt before the end of the school term (11 working days, yikes) but having to wait for the post to bring the final metre of backing fabric all the way from Germany. Yes, pictures will follow soon but for now I am keeping it under wraps.

The anticipation to hear whether I'm going to be let in to Bristol University for my MA or whether I accept my offer from Portsmouth. The impatience of wanting so badly to start the course and get my brain into action but having to wait until September. 

The eternal ironing pile, turning into a permanent fixture in the corner of the living room, reminding me of my failure to ever be a decent housewife. 

The broken friendship that I am powerless to mend, the unfathomable origin of the first cracks, a black cloud overshadowing nearly every school run, forcing two highly intelligent adults with a lot in common to resort to childishly pretending the other one doesn't exist. God I would so like to solve that one.

Every so often it helps to ignore it all, go back into myself and shout "Knickers!" to it all. Or "Pants!" - I'm not sure which is most effective. Today I did just that. Daughter has been asking for some time when I would be making up the kit she got me for my birthday and today was the day. There is nothing so life-affirming as the acquisition of a new skill. I've never wrestled with elastic before. My day always always ALWAYS feels better when I've made something.

Would you like to see my knickers?

Friday, 26 June 2015

French Onion Tart (or I haven't done a recipe for a while have I?)

I emerged from university all those years ago and set up my first proper home in Bath. It coincided with my mum presenting me with my first Elizabeth David. It was an old battered copy, probably from a jumble sale or a charity shop, although I might be doing her an injustice. Some of the pages were a little loose, and they were discoloured and scented with that magical ancient musty book smell. Wait a minute, I'll go and find it so I can show it to you...

I can remember reading through it and thinking that it could well be the only cookery book I would ever need. These days I have probably got over a hundred cookery books, but there is one recipe from this one that follows me around and knocks on the door as a very welcome visitor every six months or so. I know it so well that I haven't looked the recipe up for years and in fact I've just found out that I've made a little amendment or two to it in the interim. I made this recipe back in the old days in Bath, and it was the first meal I cooked on the first day in our current house, 14 years ago, on the basis that it was the one thing I knew I'd be able to buy all the ingredients for in the local shop. I've made it to impress people; I've made it as comfort food. I think I even made it in honour of Keith Floyd when I heard he'd died. And today happiness was a couple of hours while the children were out, some gentle music and a pile of onions...

Tarte à l'oignon (or Onion Tart if you look in the index)

A lot of onions: more than you can fit on a chopping board once they are peeled and halved (Elizabeth David says 2lbs), finely sliced
40g butter
2 eggs
70g gruyère cheese, grated
100ml double cream (my addition, I'm not sure when that started but there didn't seem to be enough cholesterol in it before)

Pastry (again a few additions to make the crusts a little more welcome)
100g plain flour
50g butter
Salt & pepper
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
A good grating of Parmesan

Melt the butter in a big frying pan, over the lowest heat possible, and add the sliced onions. It might be hard to fit all of them in the pan but it does shrink down over time. Season them well and keep stirring occasionally. At first the mixture will be wet but as it cooks it will start caramelising on the base of the pan so you need to ensure you turn it all over. Keep cooking very slowly - it usually takes an hour or so - until there is a little colour everywhere and the huge pile of onions has turned into a luscious few tablespoonfuls of loveliness. Like this...

Let's have a little close up, can you smell them yet?

While this is all going on, make your pastry by combining the flour, butter, seasonings and parmesan. Oh and turn your oven on, 180 degrees or gas mark 4.

 Rub in the butter, then add just enough water to bring it all together. Mine today was bit too wet so I had to add some more flour.

Wrap it in cling film and put in the fridge for half an hour. Then roll it out and line your quiche tin. A circle of baking parchment and some baking beans and Bob's your uncle. Into the oven with it for 15 minutes.

Now take it out and leave it and the onions to cool while you go out to pick up your daughter from her friend's house, discuss summer holiday playdates and buy some secondhand roller skates from the friend. By the time you get back, the pan will be the perfect temperature for you to add the eggs, cream and most of the cheese, plus a little more seasoning, and give it a good stir.

And the baking beans can go back in their jar. Turn your oven back on and put your filling into the pastry case. Top with the rest of the cheese.

Cook for... well... half an hour or so. Until it looks like this. Funny how some of the best food just looks beige... Serve with some good tomato-heavy salad and vinaigrette, and a good glass of red wine to raise to the memory of Elizabeth David and Keith Floyd. Bon appétit.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Lost in translation

Husband leaves tomorrow morning for a week in Japan. He is going to investigate laser machines but the trip strangely seems to include a rather large amount of sightseeing. You might not think this is very interesting but it has been a testing time for me. You might not know it, but Japan was my place, not his, and I always had it on my list of things to do that I would show him around there one day. As soon as I heard he was going, I was adamant we could all go. Opportunity of a lifetime. Wrong. Four days of upset and arguments and it is not happening. All is reconciled now; my time will come. But it did make me think about an awful lot of everything and for a while it became a symbol of everything I've had to give up since children came along. It's only today that it occurs to me that it might just be linked to my next big unveiling of news. Sometimes you need a big shove to realise what you really want and to try to go after it.

Another thing you might not know about me is that a long long time ago I went to university and studied French, German and Swedish. It took me a long while to find a job using just one of my languages, and then I stopped because of the babies. And for a long time, along with the old wild nights out and the less saggy body, I told myself it was all just part of the past and that I was better off this way. The children would be my ultimate reward and I could get all the fulfilment I needed from framing some bits of felt or from organising a PTA fair.

Last year when we were getting the kitchen done and the only tap that we loved on Pinterest had to be imported from Sweden, I dusted off my 25-year-old Swedish, relearning to tell my past participles from my definite articles and translated every last word of the assembly instructions into English. I'm not convinced Charlie ever needed to look at my translation to fit the tap but it set my heart on fire. It coincided with an old university friend getting in touch on Facebook and asking if I'd ever thought about translation. A little filing cabinet in my head had its first memo put away into it.

Last Christmas, on a night out, two friends drunkenly rounded on me and told me I was wasted and that I would be much happier if I got a proper job. I spent a lot of time justifying myself to myself - but I think the second memo went into the filing cabinet.

Then recently the cabinet was flung open... I answered an urgent call on Facebook from the International Feltmakers Association for someone to translate an interview with a French felter and designer for their members' magazine. How lovely to combine two of my favourite things... the joy of writing down for all those British readers that the designer had worked for Yves Saint-Laurent and spent evenings alone in the studio on all fours picking up offcuts of sumptuous fabrics that she still had in her box of scraps - a woman after my own heart. Then a week in France and some children who tested the definition of my ultimate reward to the limits and the damage was done, the dam had come crashing down and on my return I found myself googling translation.

I'm now halfway through my application for a part-time MA in Translation at the University of Bristol (I did one for Portsmouth distance learning too just in case). I've done my test translations in French and in, gulp, German pulled out of my head after a gap of 20 years, and although I keep rereading and amending them on a daily basis, I'm getting quietly proud of them. Next I have to write a 1500-2000 word essay complete with quoted references on why a good translator needs to have a good knowledge of the target language. It's daunting but it's a good buzz. There is a huge chunk of my brain that has been lying dormant for years. And I'm really pleased to say it's started jumping up and down and shouting "Hello!" and I'm very happy to see it again.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Beauty and the beast

Lots of interesting things going on... It's only a week and a half until North Somerset Arts Week and I'm feeling twitchy. How do you know when you've made an exhibition rather than just a few pictures? I think I'm getting there but until it all goes up on the wall it's just guesswork. I've framed everything I've made so far. I gave in to the critics and did some more stitching on my daisy, so now nobody can say it's not finished...

And actually I have grown rather fond of my daisy, especially now that it's in a lovely understated ash frame; I will be a little bit sad if it goes.

Then I made a little something else. I'm hoping that for lots of people it will be a happy memory of somewhere or other... 

And then I made another one. I was thinking about this beautiful batik by a lovely lady I know called Conny Ridge who will be exhibiting in Arts Week too....

I got an urge. Let's hope she thinks "inspired by" rather than "ripped off", as I really love her work...

So it's starting to come together. A mixture of flowery scenes and the sea. Some photos mounted and put into cellophane bags, plenty of greetings cards and postcards, of both my textiles and my photography (scary, never sold any photos before, I wonder endlessly how it will go). A play room full of things in frames all wrapped up in bubble wrap. The problem now is not really being able to relax until every last empty frame hidden around the house is filled with something beautiful to sell. I should stop writing this rubbish and get cracking now. 

I rather wish the thing I photographed today had appeared earlier - for one thing I might have been able to sort out a print or two of it, but also if I had known it existed earlier, I might have been able to spare the five little lives inside by stopping the hedge from being cut down... Sometimes at the children's bedtime we talk about the three happiest things that happened in our day, and tonight I had to include this just for the joy of seeing such beauty, even though it was also the saddest thing today.