Thursday, 6 November 2014

With different eyes

I haven't yet mentioned my photography course, have I? Well I have in the past, but only to say that I hadn't started it yet. And in fact I last posted on here the day before my course started. Well what a change. I don't think my pictures will ever be the same again. Thank the lord for that, I hear you mutter. It started slowly, gradually, without me even noticing it, but over the last couple of weeks it has become clear. My eyes see things differently. I have a long way to go, of course, and some things still baffle me and always will. I'll never be a great portrait photographer. But give me a little detailed something and a half-decent background and I can now do it justice...

I have learned all about shallow depth of field and manual focus...

So much more about composition has seeped into my bones...

And I love it, just love it.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Happiness is a big pile of fabric

Frustrating few weeks. Frustrating term so far. I can't seem to get on with the projects I want to get on with. Recently I have had too many hours getting sucked into the Internet for no good reason, cooking complicated things for hours on end that get wolfed down unnoticed in minutes, cleaning the new kitchen for hours on end to stop the inevitable grubbiness from becoming permanent, finding myself embroiled in other people's problems and inevitably being pulled back into the PTA quicksand when I'm sure I uttered the words that I was resigning. But there have been some glimpses of the happiness I could be helping myself to more of if I just organised my life a bit better:

I have finally started my photography course. Every Thursday morning I can disappear into a little self-indulgent world where I can at last get inside my new camera's brain and start to find out how to take a decent picture instead of just finding once in a blue moon that one has happened by magic. Who knows, the pictures for you here might even improve a little over the next few weeks.

Loud music, fast car. The best way I could find the other night to get away from the gloom in my head brought on by two children deliberately trying to make eachother's life miserable after school.

And yes, more than anything, a big pile of fabric. Why is that? Not just any old fabric. I have the makings of a new quilt in a bag on the kitchen floor. And even more exciting, not a self indulgent quilt for me, but a service for a friend who has wanted a quilt for a while and just hasn't the time. There are little bits of history in the bag, little personality traits in the bag, and some new fabrics that are simply gorgeous in the bag. It was horribly nerve wracking at first, cutting into someone else's fabric, hands shaking for half an hour, but now I am off, whizzing away with the rotary cutter, cutting square after square after square, and it just makes me happy. The patterns shouldn't go. But I know they will. I am following a vague design I used last time, involving 6-inch squares and the magic maths involving the number 6. Got your maths head on? Good. So I have some 6 inch squares....

I have some 5 inch squares, which I can team up with 1 inch squares along 2 sides...

I have some 4 inch squares, which I can use with 2 inch squares to make the magic 6. Or I could do them 3 in a row which would make 12 inches, so a double of the 6 inch square (hope I haven't lost you yet)...

I have 3 inch squares. These of course, if I use 4 together, will make a 6 inch square...

I have 2 inch squares. And yes 3 x 2 is 6 inches...

I have 1 1/2 inch squares. Now 4 of these can make 6 inches....

And lastly I have 1 inch squares. These are great with the 5 inch squares and of course I can put 6 in a row to make, yes, 6 inches. These make me a bit nervous as accuracy is paramount when you work on this small a scale but a few will be great.

The beauty of this is that once I've made up as many 6 inch squares as I can from these various combinations, I can put them together in a lovely random way and the whole thing will zing with these fabulous patterns and colours. Happiness!

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Get an eyeful of this!

Once again, I haven't written for a while, have I? Not because of a lack of subject matter, as I have plenty of tell you about. I could tell you about my recent holiday, of floating in the Brittany sea early in the morning and the tiny fish swimming around me, of langoustines wriggling in the bag just before being plunged into hot water, and of the butteriest, sweet-yet-saltiest cakes known to man, but I seem to remember that I told you about all that last year twice and not a lot has changed since then, apart from the realisation that if you stay in a holiday home three years in a row, you get a kiss on both cheeks from the landlord and the neighbours start to speak to you. I could tell you about the children being off school for six weeks and the desperate need I have to be alone for a day, but I will get that soon enough. I could tell you about the art in my head waiting to be made, of beaches and sailing boats, of sunflowers and rape fields, but I think that ought to wait until it becomes reality. No, right now I want to, need to, tell you about my kitchen.

I always try to give you a bit of a visual treat when you pop by and today, it's easier than usual. If you know me, I apologise, I have been a complete kitchen bore for months so I'm hoping that if I blurt it all out here, I might get most of it out of my system. It's been an interesting journey. I had a brief and regrettable dalliance with the sleek handleless German, pans-in-drawers kind of kitchen. I planned on the kind of built-in ovens they have on the Bake Off with the doors that slide underneath, until I allowed my head to be turned by something very big, Italian and yellow. Heart over head. Reliable Germanic versus a swarthy unpredictable mediterranean type... better say no more. So then I planned the colour scheme: a big hunk of yellow with a nice soothing grey for the cabinets. I started shopping for grey accessories and I bought some heat-resistant wadding to make some coordinating trivets and pot holders:-

Then I had a strange and unexpected odyssey involving Farrow and Ball samples and the kitchen told me it couldn't stomach the insipid greys and that it wanted something altogether more lively. The trivet doesn't go at all. Ah well.

So a few months on, and with enormous thanks to the very clever and lovely guys at It Woodwork, it is all done, bar a final lick of paint, a few more boxes unpacked and a splashback behind the cooker (when will the husband come up with the goods?). Come and see (but excuse the photography, I still haven't managed to go on a course to do my camera justice yet)...

Meet my new magnificent yellow best friend...

And the matching radiator...

I think I knew it would be It Woodwork when I first saw their spice racks inside their larder doors; I've seen similar ones since with dowels, metal rods or just straight pieces of wood to hold in the spices but I laugh in their faces; mine are a much smilier shape...

The pan rack is a revelation: at first I thought it looked a bit small and that I'd never fit all my pans in. But it turns out that the more I pile onto it, the better it looks. And it's still on the wall. It feels like a giant game of Buckaroo. 

I love the new tap. It is amazing what you can find on Pinterest. So many dull taps. So many horrible taps. And then this one. It took a bit of hunting down, being only available in Sweden. I resurrected my ancient university Swedish and six weeks and a few thousand krona later, Bob was my uncle and my Swedish tap turned out to be made in Italy. Maybe it talks to the cooker in the night.

Then there is the dresser. The design started out as a perfectly normal dresser with shelves but I thought it might be good to have a few doors and drawers to hide the clutter in. Before school one morning I did a quick drawing of a bonkers idea:

And just look! The bonkers dresser now exists, only with straight lines instead of my wobbly ones!

It makes me feel pretty good to gaze up at one big yellow happy light, and another light covered by a  lampshade that I made out of a map of my favourite corner of Brittany (thanks so much Ruth for all your help)...

I guess it's just a love thing. 

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Another year

I remember doing a post exactly this time last year. As I explained then, this is a weird time of year for me, and I have a feeling I'm not alone. I am taking stock of what has happened in the last year and trying to gather my thoughts for the next year. The academic year has, after a gap of over 20 years, caused a shift in the calendar in my head and I do suppose it is probably a more positive time of year to be doing an annual evaluation of one's life than 31st December. It is also small girl's birthday today and there is nothing like your child's birthday to turn your head to the past.

I haven't written to you for a while, not because nothing has happened, but because I guess I feel a bit of a fraud. I started this blog to partner my budding felting career, and I've done just the one - no two - pictures this year. I do like the blogging thing but who would really want to read my brain gently unravelling, if it's not focussed on a targeted audience? Ah well let's do it anyway. Oh and before I go off on a tangent, here is the latest picture, done in June for the exhibition in Flax Bourton (or strictly speaking, the best section of the picture - reminder to self to chop off the other two chickens and frame just this one):-

I get the feeling that I can point my creativity towards just one area at a time. Sometimes it could be cooking, sometimes (though not for a while) felting, sometimes sewing or quilting, sometimes another thing entirely and at the moment... a kitchen. Which is odd considering that somebody else has designed the thing. But - especially now that pretty much all the decisions have been made and it's in the process of being built - I can see that it's been an oddly personal journey. I wonder if normal people feel like this? A lot of myself has gone into this. From scribbling a silly picture quickly before the school run - which has become known as the bonkers dresser and will soon really exist - to choosing the paint colour, from making a lampshade from a map of my favourite part of the world to getting a tap sent from Sweden just because it was just a love thing (when you fall in love with something you've seen on Pinterest, go on, act on it) and then translating the installation instructions with my rusty Swedish (what a buzz to be had from washers and pull-out rinsers! Another reminder to self: do more with my languages, there is a part of my brain itching to come out into the daylight and get some exercise again, not just holiday French). The crazy idea I had on the way home from the children's swimming lessons may just turn out to be the funkiest cooker splashback in history. The slightly obsessional searching on French and Belgian Ebay for old metal advertising signs is getting rapidly more expensive. I've been down one or two dead ends (just google images of Kee Klamp shelves, and then check out the husband's blank and disbelieving expression) but it's been a blast.

So the annual wading through the sludge of the year's memories and working out how much of it is worth keeping in a cupboard... I recently announced I would give up the PTA and felt entirely disrobed of my millstone. The announcement had such a lukewarm reception that I knew it was the right thing to be doing. And then Thursday came. We had arranged a bit of a social to thank everyone for their support and to celebrate our achievements... and then it happened! They had all got together and bought me the most unexpected and extravagant presents to thank me, and spent most of the evening imploring me to stay. It was utterly and totally heartwarming. So I suspect I might spend another summer mulling it over again, the eternal "Should I stay or should I go now?". I know what I ought to do, but can I really do it?

Then the eternal question of what I should be doing with my life... When you don't work, there is a need - and an expectation from some - to be doing something that a) draws in some money or b) is an all-encompassing thing for you to focus on and for other people to label you with. Someone asked husband yesterday if he would start to push me to do something now I'll have all this time on my hands after giving up the PTA. Never have I been busier! And never have I been so aware that I have so many things I'd like to do and have a talent for, but that not one of them could be a permanent anything or fulfil me completely forever. I am often busy with the behind-the-scenes organisation of North Somerset Arts, in a rather fish-out-of-water will-they-find-out-I'm-not-in the-mood-for-being-an-artist kind of way. I like the structure of preparing their newsletter every month, and it reminds me of my previous working life in front of a computer, in a comforting sense. The Swedish translation reminded me of the passion for languages I ought to be nurturing. For now I am very much looking forward to a commission from a friend for a quilt, that will now have to wait until September before I can turn my attention to it fully.

My resolution for the next year? Maybe it ought to be settling for going with the flow and stopping the worrying about what I am going to do with my life. Can I be me now please?

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Unfinished chickens, run over chicken...

It's been a while. Sorry I've neglected you. I've no excuse at all but it has been a tad busy and if I'm honest, I am reduced to taking one day at a time because there just seems to be a little too much to focus on at the moment. I had a holiday, closely - a little too closely - followed by organising the school PTA summer fair, which in itself has an amazing leech-like capacity to suck the life out of me for weeks on end. I am also planning a glorious new kitchen. This has a terrible way of sucking me away from all the things that need to be done and into the internet to research little kitchen details, taps, paint colours, storage jars, in a huge frenzy of retail therapy. It keeps me up late at night; why would I want to go to bed when I might find the perfect pendant light with the next click? There is only so long I can only blame the PTA trouble for my fatigue. Then the rest of the time I am trying to catch up with the various other things that need to be kept in mind, like the two dance classes my little girl is signed up for both doing dress rehearsals and performances within two days of each other, to a gruelling schedule and to - for a dance class virgin like me - a surprising level of micromanagement. Hair in a bun? a) her hair is too short and b) the only bun I know how to do has whipped cream in the middle. Anyway enough of this. Let's talk of something nice.

I need to do a bit of a plug. I'm doing an exhibition next weekend - 21st and 22nd June - at St.Michael's Church in Flax Bourton, along with a few very talented friends and some other very talented people I haven't met yet. Do go along if you can. I need to forget about hair buns and sort out what to take...

I will pick out some of my best, and see if I can finish and frame a couple of new ones for you to see. I did make a rather nice one of the chickens a while ago but haven't yet managed any stitching on it, and don't know if I have a frame the right size...

Enough of the plug... here's something else I've wanted to talk about for a while.

There is a place we go to in Northern France every May. I wrote about it last year. A tiny sleepy village right next to the sea. I am always struck by the beauty of... Yes the beach. Yes the sunsets. Yes the food is good, although not as good as in Brittany. But how about the house signs? Why don't we seem to revel in typography and a good house name over here so much? Or is it just a seaside thing of a certain era? These were just spotted on the daily walk to the baker's and back one morning (it has to be said that the baguette got a bit squashed under my arm after taking so many photos, but luckily nobody seemed to notice at lunchtime)... The swankier neighbouring town has some corkers too.

And then what about these beauties, decorating a row of garages? There are four altogether. I love the way all the scenes are different. I wonder how grand, bright and shiny they would have been in their heyday. Spot the run-over chicken...

Friday, 25 April 2014

To summarise a month...

It's been a busy few weeks... I finished a quilt:

In the spirit of all the Kaffe Fassett fabrics I used to make it, I went to his exhibition at the American Museum in Bath and my eyes jingled with all the patterns and colours:

I have been practising with my new camera, although my photography course hasn't started yet and I haven't gone on to the difficult settings so far:

I went to Paris. It was a challenge to remember not to do all the things I used to do pre-children and to keep it mostly child-friendly. There were fraught times and cross times, not to mention very very tired legs. But there were some special moments: beautiful macaroons in flavours that could not have been dreamed of by a tired English person (rose, mango, bergamot...), ice-creams heaving with authentic fruity flavours from Berthillon - roasted pineapple with basil anyone? - olfactory overload in Diptyque and an over-spend on a very grown-up perfume and several free samples for me and for children in a desperate attempt to stop them from touching everything in sight, fabulous breakfasts from a boulangerie in the Rue des Martyrs which included a brioche with pink pralines and a rose-scent, a lovely sunlit walk round the Menagerie in the Jardin des Plantes, and a wonderful lunch for everyone in the glorious Le Progres in Montmartre (it's not often that an 8 year old boy could be really happy with his choice of ox cheek stewed in wine with aromatic herbs, and egging his sister on to eat more of her lunch with the reward of a slice of yellow carrot - lovingly stewed with the cheek - after each completed mouthful). In the apartment we rented, there was a charming children's book called "En route pour la Tour Eiffel" by Iris de Mouy which covered a little girl's trip with her animal friends around Paris. It turned out that by Day 3 we had - coincidentally - seen almost everything featured in the book and the copy that we bought is going to turn into a very special and personal souvenir of our trip for us all.

The come-back to reality has not been an easy path but I am getting there. Busy with North Somerset Arts newsletter, PTA events and the drear of everyday life and argumentative tired children. Yesterday I tried something new. My good friend Laura organised a craft session with several friends and insisted it should include some printing. I was a bit stumped for inspiration until I realised this could include something textile-based rather than just paper. So I went off to buy a selection of lovely French fabric paints and started to wonder what printing onto felt might be like. I wasn't convinced it would be a success, but just to show willing I made some pieces of felt that looked a bit meadowy, in the hope that some printed flowers might do the trick on top. I had a vision of potato prints but this vision was not up to the mark and luckily Laura had thought to bring along some tiles and to explain mono printing: painting onto the tile and then pressing it onto the surface to be printed. So that is what I tried. What do you think?

I don't think I normally get on too well with paint; it's never really been my medium. But here I think  I quite like the ethereal quality of the printing. I now have to work out whether to add a little stitching as well to improve things, or whether to leave them alone.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Carrot dip and hangover

I was hosting the Long Ashton clothes swap last night. Good excuse for a REALLY thorough tidy up - so thorough that I stirred up enough dust to make 2 guests sniff and cough all evening (I even got the Piriton out for them but the "Avoid Alcohol" note on the bottle made us reluctantly put it back). 10 ladies with enormous bags of clothes they didn't want. We usually have 2 trying-on sessions: one early on where we pick some great outfits and hold them back for ourselves, then the later one, after more wine, where anything seems possible and the pirate shirt feels like an edgy new look with a respectful nod towards Vivienne Westwood - until you try it on the next day and husband says "Ah hargh me hearties". This time there was a cable-knit waistcoat with leather buckle fastenings and suede shoulder patches that seemed perfect until someone very wisely said "Going shooting?" and I took it off. This time the advantage of being host means that I can this morning go through the gargantuan pile of leftover clothes with a more critical eye before jettisoning the lot to the charity shop.

Awake half the night with an evil headache behind my left eye, clinging to the bed in terror after a dream that rainwater had been gradually been dripping down the chimney and making the bedroom floor slowly damper and damper until it finally and suddenly disintegrated, dragging my wardrobe through a gaping hole into the living room downstairs and threatening to take the bed the same way. Do I need to get that analysed?

Great night had by all, if the kitchen floor strewn with crisps, pistachio shells and corks is anything to go by. And I have several people asking for my recipe for a middle-eastern carrot dip. To be honest I wouldn't have made it but I wanted to test it out before a North Somerset Arts get-together on Tuesday. It went really quickly to plenty of "ooh's" and did go very well with some cheese, sweetcorn and chilli muffins so both will be reappearing next week. I wanted the dip to taste like one I had at the wonderful Soukitchen in Bedminster and it wasn't far off once I interfered with the recipe a bit. Sorry I haven't any photos to show you but a) the food's all gone and b) I haven't had my whizzy new camera yet.

Roasted Carrot and Cumin Dip (loosely based on a recipe I found online from a New Zealand magazine called Cuisine)

400g carrots (I had 3 very long ones)
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
A good glug of olive oil, probably 2 tablespoonfuls or so
1 dessertspoon tahini - not too much or it makes everything bitter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 a small clove of garlic
1 dessertspoon agave syrup or maple syrup, or even honey - probably should be pomegranate molasses to be authentic but I didn't have any
Salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 5 or 190c. Peel the carrots and slice them, then put them in an ovenproof dish with the olive oil and cumin seeds, season, mix them so that they are covered in the oil and then cover with either a lid or some foil. Bake them until they are soft - mine took around 35 minutes. When they are cooked and still hot, chop the garlic up very finely and then put everything (include the juices from the baking dish as well as the carrots) into a food processor and whiz until completely pureed. I had to add a little water to get a properly dippy consistency. Taste and season - it needs to be properly tasty (read salty!) to officially be a dip rather than something resembling baby food. Cool and chill for a couple of hours to let those flavours mingle and do their magic.

Chilli, Cheese and Sweetcorn Muffins (reproduced without shame from The Hummingbird Bakery's Cake Days)

5g (1/4oz) butter
60g (2oz) onion, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried mixed herbs
300g (10oz) plain flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/4 teaspoon salt (I have doubled their amount)
250ml (9fl oz) milk
2 large eggs
85g (3oz) butter, melted
100g (3 1/2 oz) mature Cheddar, grated
60g (2oz) tinned sweetcorn
1 teaspoon red chilli paste (I just chopped up a chilli very finely until it looked like a teaspoonful)

This recipe is originally for 12 big muffins, in a deep muffin tin. I've made them like this but yesterday's experiment was halving the recipe for 24 mini canape-sized ones. The big ones go really well with some carrot and coriander soup.

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 3 or 170c and line the tin with muffin cases if you are using them. Melt the 5g of butter in a small pan and gently fry the onion and herbs until soft. set aside.
Put the flour, baking powder, bicarb and salt in a bowl - the book says "sift" but life feels too short for that to me. Add the milk and the eggs and whisk together, then add the melted butter, and mix again until you have a smooth mixture.
Tip in most of the cheese, the onions, chilli and sweetcorn and mix again. Spoon it into the muffin cases, then top with the remaining cheese. Bake for around 25 minutes until golden and springy. My mini ones took just 15 minutes. Cool impatiently on a wire rack. Or eat them while they are warm, up to you!