Friday, 21 June 2013

iPod playlists: a new artform? Oh and the near-perfect pad thai...

I have been ridiculously busy in the last few days, not a drop of felt making in sight. Mostly obsessing about every last detail of the school summer barbecue next Friday. Well not every last detail: I have learnt to banish all thoughts of bad weather from my brain as a way of avoiding lunacy, and similarly volunteer rotas which, for some stalls, have nothing but a tumbleweed rolling past them. As I said before, being chair of a PTA is not pleasant in many ways. But as for the summer barbecue, it will all come good. Or then again it may not. But I have spent too many days being ground down by the stress of it all. Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill has just discovered that the boulder has a little engine and the hill is getting less steep. I am not a believer but my dear friend Laura prayed for me. The weight lifted. I will take help wherever I can get it.

Anyway the mood has been much improved by a new car that is like a speeding bullet when it's allowed, and a new playlist. The new car has 8 speakers and it is very much the best place for listening to music that I have. I've never had a car before into which I could plug my beloved iPod, and certainly never before had buttons on my steering wheel for skipping tracks and controlling volume. I am haunted by James Field, whose name came up on the Bluetooth phone menu before I set up my own phone details in there and deleted his; I would love to know who he is and why he would want to get rid of such a lovely car after just 9 months of its short life. But I bet he never had so much fun with an iPod and the volume control. Apparently there is a PA system that I can use my iPod on for the school barbecue, so I have spent the last day and a half creating a playlist that will hopefully get everyone thinking summer thoughts even if it is clouded over. It is quite the happiest, freshest, most summery bunch of songs that I can imagine and it has made me realise just how much I LOVE compiling playlists. I remember making compilation tapes for friends and quite enjoying it but that was such an unwieldy, time-consuming and unforgiving business. I adore getting it together, listening to the ends and beginnings of each song to make sure they flow, moving the order around and deleting things that just don't seem to fit, and then listening to it a few times to make sure it's perfect to my ears. And this one, to me, is 2 and a half hours of pure joy. Especially in my new car. And I am wondering if making a good playlist is the new art form. It feels so creative and it is so subjective that it is a proper expression of one's personality. If you said to 100 people that they had to make a playlist entitled "Summer BBQ", they would all come up with something completely different and all very lovely to each and every one of them - OK maybe with a few elements in common (I have after all got the very obvious "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince and "In the Summertime" by Mungo Jerry; and I am ashamed to admit that I have taken one or two tracks from a terrible compilation album I found on iTunes called "101 Barbecue Songs"). Mine is a mix of reggae, Motown, Northern soul, a tiny bit of Mediterranean and a few feel-good bits and pieces that will be nicely familiar to anyone over the age of about 30, plus one or two little personal treats for myself. I would love to know what other people would put in theirs...

Pad thai noodles have been on my mind for some time now. We used to get the most wonderful and addictive takeaway one from a fantastic place called Teoh's; they shut the branch nearest to us a while ago due to rent rises and their other branch is too far away to get a takeaway. It has been a sadness to us and to a lot of people I know for several months now and so I have been doing some research. I have two recipes for it in books, one by Rick Stein and one by a Thai man called Vatcharin Bhumichitr, both excellent books but both quite different recipes. Teoh's menu states that it has preserved turnip in, as well as dried shrimps, so that already was a challenge, but of course I'd forgotten that Teoh also has a shop that sells both of these ingredients, and it turns out that if you want a pad thai that tastes like Teoh's, it does need both of those items. I did some googling for recipes and it appears that everyone who is anyone has their own version, and there are a lot of very contentious issues. Bloggers everywhere have stuck their oar in and had a go and they vary enormously (I steered clear of any that included tomato ketchup). The only thing that everyone agrees on is that you need to get everything measured out and ready to go in little bowls so you can assemble it quickly in the pan. So I might as well join in, if only so that I get my amalgamation of about 15 recipes all written down so that I can repeat the delicious plateful I've just eaten. Mine had a little too much lemon in (the recipe below has less than mine did) and the noodles this time were a little underdone but apart from that, perfect...

My Pad Thai - serves 2

2 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 egg
175g Thai rice noodles, soaked in lukewarm water for around 20 minutes, until you can wind them tightly around your fingers but they still have a bit of bite to them, drained
1 tablespoon lemon/lime juice
2 teaspoons tamarind paste
1 and a half tablespoons fish sauce
Half a teaspoon palm sugar (or Demerara)
2 teaspoons sweet chilli sauce
2 tablespoons dried shrimps, soaked in a little water for about 10 minutes and then drained and pounded a little in a pestle and mortar
100g large prawns
1 and a half tablespoons chopped pickled turnip
4 spring onions, chopped into 1 inch pieces
40g beansprouts
Small handful of coriander, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons dried chilli flakes
A couple of handfuls of roasted salted peanuts, roughly chopped or broken up in a pestle and mortar

Put the lemon or lime juice, tamarind paste, fish sauce, sugar and sweet chilli sauce in a small bowl and stir. Heat the oil in a frying pan or wok with a highish temperature and when it's hot, add the garlic and fry for a few seconds, then break in the egg and stir very quickly to start to scramble it. Add the softened noodles, and stir again. Add the bowlful of sauce and stir again. Then add both the dried shrimps and prawns, stir again, pop in the pickled turnip and add the spring onions and beansprouts, and half the chilli flakes. Stir and cook until everything is properly heated through, then add the coriander, stir again (yes there's lots of stirring, well I suppose it is a stir-fry) and serve on two plates for you and a loved one, topped with the peanuts and the rest of the chilli flakes. Heaven. Let's hope that Sisyphus' boulder stays at the top of the hill this time. And sorry I forgot to take a photo of my pad thai for you.

Oh and on the subject of photos I could show you a little bit of felting I had forgotten about; last weekend my friend Jenny and I did some felted pebbles to take our minds off a little marital disharmony and we ended up with the most beautiful ones, and then the harmony resumed. And Jenny has an eye for a really beautiful photographic composition, so unlike me:-

Thursday, 13 June 2013


It has been an uphill struggle. This week I have been finding out just how hard it is to make felted pictures to order. It's hard to make pieces to a desired size and it's also hard to copy an existing piece. I have been finally getting on with a picture for a friend who asked me to make a copy of one I'd already sold during Arts Week. Here is the original:-

I set all the wool out, carefully copying the colours and rough format of the original. I was hoping some wild movement would form as I was felting, but actually nothing much shifted and even after stitching it looks quite a bit calmer:-

I have been worried that my friend might not be too impressed, so my next thought was that if I made a second one and showed her both, I would have a better chance of pleasing her. And I would have a spare to show to galleries once I am ready to go. So I had another go. And did the wild stormy movement materialise? Again, no not really:-

So I have emailed her both photos and I will see what she says. She might well not like either. I can't wait to see.

I have also taken the first steps in working on some small affordable pictures for my brother's gallery; he has asked for some that are small enough to put on the front of a 6" x 4" card. Which sounds simple doesn't it? I had a vision of a green background with a daisy and on the other one a dandelion clock (it has been a good spring for dandelions unfortunately and on sunny morning walks home from school I have been taking lots of photos of the seed heads; yes they are a pest but they are stunning, especially backlit by sunshine). I laid out a couple of small pictures that seemed teeny and started felting. There is always an element of shrinkage in felting and the great thing about it is that you can keep rolling away at it and it will keep shrinking almost indefinitely. But little did I expect that I would have to keep at it for nearly an hour to get them both down to under 6" x 4" and that by that point the designs would be much fuzzier than intended. I had to do an enormous amount of embellishment to get this dandelion clock out of a weird white cloud in the middle of an expanse of green...

I'm not sure if it's finished yet; I need to do my now customary wait for a couple of days to see if I'm happy. In the meantime I must see if I can get positive about the school's summer fair. Sometimes as Chair of the PTA I am reminded of Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill and every day it rolling back to the bottom. Right now I feel as if the rock rolled over me on the way down and it is making me question every aspect of my existence. The gloom will rise, I know it will, but for now I need to wallow for a while...

Friday, 7 June 2013

Not crap at craft at all!

So I returned from my first ever paid felting workshop last night. And I think it was a success. Just one stage in the process that I need to remember to demonstrate or explain better, but the finished articles were beautiful - and it has to be said much better than mine, I shall keep to my rather thin excuse that I was too busy explaining and checking their felt to concentrate on my own. I gave them the option of doing their own creative thing or making my favourite kind: a sea picture. Three opted for the sea, all in very different ways and all three charming, and one went creative in a very beautiful, impressionist kind of way. The lovely ladies in question are a group who meet every month under the guise of "Crap at Craft" but do these look crap to you, especially as first attempts?
It was a craft group after my own heart; any craft gathering that doesn't have a treat like a freshly made scone with jam and clotted cream isn't really worth bothering with. I think a good time was had by all and I came home so pleased with myself, not merely because I came home with a full belly, some money in my purse, and the satisfaction that comes from showing people how to do something I enjoy, but mainly because in the footwell of the car I had something very special to contribute to my children's new bug topic at school: a large jar of unwanted stick insects! I felt like Jack with the magic beans on arrival home. I had my instructions for them: clean the jar out every 2 weeks to get rid of eggs and avoid a population explosion, don't make the air holes in the clingfilm over the jar too big (to avoid escapees), get them a bigger jar every so often so they have room to grow and feed them only on privet. Dead simple. What a great present for school, how pleased they will be. I went to bed buzzing.  This morning I woke at just after five in horror: stick insects? Privet? PRIVET?! I don't have any privet, don't even know what a privet hedge looks like (please note I do now, after investigating the contents of the jar and checking every hedge on the walk to school). What if the school doesn't want them? What if I get reported to the RSPCA for taking on some animals with no idea of how to deal with them, no source of food and no intention of doing anything other than pass them on to someone else who might not want them anyway? Cue the soothing words of my husband: we can always take them to the zoo if all else fails. Luckily my eldest's teacher was pleased to take them on and the story is closed, for the time being. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, now that I know I can feed them, and I find myself feeling a bit maternal about them, maybe enough to offer to have them back for the summer holidays. It was well worth it to hear a huge "Awesome!" when the children went down the stairs first thing in the morning, and to see so many children clamouring round the jar gasping when we reached school. Good payment indeed for a felting workshop. 
Another development from last night is that I have a much needed renewed vigour for getting exhibited somewhere. I had a tip off from one of the not-so-crap-at-crafters that the Toll House Gallery at Clevedon Pier might have some space in a few months - this coming from a trustee of the pier. It was the spark I needed. After my early awakening this morning I drew up a mini plan for myself and this morning I ordered up 5 small frames so I can make some more of the smaller beach "windows" that sold so well at Arts Week. I did another sea picture, one of two done this week, in the hope that one will be just right for the commission a friend asked for during Arts Week (so hard to recreate something that had already sold, I can't get all the curves the same and I figure that if I make two similar ones and hope for the best, one might be right for her and the other can go into one of the frames I've ordered). If I do some smaller ones they will be ideal to take with me if I go and visit any galleries, and I will be able to draw strength from the proof that they can sell well. Things are going too well to stop now...

Tuesday, 4 June 2013


Damn it. Only been back 3 days and already I have run out of one of my favourite sorts of chocolate. On our day trip to Belgium from France last week there was a special offer on Galler bars of chocolate, 4 for the price of 3. So I stocked up with one bar of framboise (dreadful over-sweet raspberry goo, like something out of the 1970's), one bar of something else so nondescript that I can't remember what it was, and 2 bars of Manon. This classic Belgian combination of white chocolate, rich coffee filling and (normally) walnuts is phenomenal and the Galler bar has 4 very generous chunks of it. I first tried it with a friend who I spent most of my year in Belgium with; we bought it because her name was Manon. In fact a long blanked out memory has just resurfaced: Galler Manon was in fact responsible for my one and only foray into the world of bulimia, one dreary morning in Liege in 1989! Tonight for some reason I looked at the list of ingredients and was surprised on two counts: first the walnuts that are normally found in a manon chocolate are actually in this bar allegedly hazelnuts, even though they definitely taste walnutty (it makes me wonder how accurate the list can be), and second, the coffee filling is mostly made up of date and apple puree instead of the rich cream and cocoa butter concoction I imagined I needed to get out of my system back in 1989. What a waste. It could have been one of my five-a-day. The other waste is that of the two bars of it I bought last week, I ended up giving one away so it is now all gone. I gave it to someone as a thank you while we were still in France; she had helped me out enormously when I had done a proper stupidity. Imagine charging your phone in your husband's van while he is driving you to a big French shopping centre, and he has given you carte blanche to ring him up for a lift home whenever you have finished shopping for your heart's desire, on your own, without children. Then imagine getting out of the van without a care in the world, thinking about the underwear, swimming costumes, perfume and nail varnish you are going to try, then realising your left coat pocket is a bit lighter than usual and that the phone you need to get your lift home through the French countryside is still in the van. Imagine explaining all this to shopping centre staff and asking if you can use their phone to ring England to get someone to give him a message (can't remember his number off by heart) and in response getting an understandable "Oh la la la la" and a shrug of refusal. Then imagine trying one more time and explaining to them that if they can get internet access, they could look up the apartments we stay in and get a number for the housekeeper who might just be able to go there especially to drop off a message. Then realising that she can talk to him all she likes but as she speaks no English and he speaks no French the message will be pointless. So imagine finally spelling out letter by, er, French letter to her a written message: COME TO CITE D'EUROPE AT 12, JO and asking her to take it to him. I guess she deserved a Galler Manon bar after that.  But I am feeling truly robbed right now. And because of my trauma at the shopping centre I never did get the chance to get any underwear, swimming costumes, perfume or nail varnish. Plenty of cheese though.

I am having trouble getting back to felting. I have bought more wool in preparation but cannot quite bring myself to do anything with it yet. Bit of a writer's block. I am incapable of getting up off the sofa in the evenings and the days have been too busy. It is easier for me to sit here and type this than to go and do something creative. I must get cracking: a friend wanted another square sea scene like one I sold in Arts Week, and my brother has asked for some little pictures that might fit onto a card. I am also trying to gear myself up for my first ever paid felting workshop on Thursday night, another by-product of Arts Week which could turn out to be an interesting path to go down, but which is scaring me a little right now.

I did manage to do a tiny bit of creative yesterday in a vague attempt to snap myself back into action. The dress I made for the 5-year-old's Great Fire of London day at school was actually a very wearable if drab sundress and needed some embellishment. I suggested a flower on the front and she said "It has to be white with a yellow middle" so a big daisy it was...

I am quite pleased with my daisy and it reminds me of the opening credits to "The Good Life". She says "Mummy you should have coloured it in!". Ah well. More chocolate anyone?

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Back home

Not long before I pass out in my bed; it has been a long and hard day but we are home. Having a van to take to France is great (and a day trip to Belgium too: you don't spend a year in Belgium without afterwards getting nostalgic for Cuberdon sweets, shrimp croquettes, Cecemel chocolate milk and about 200 different sorts of beer)  but finding places to put all the wine and food when you get home is no fun at all. I fear that I will get killed under an avalanche of biscuits when I open a particular cupboard door. All will feel better after a good night's sleep.
French cheeses for a Frenchman: I have completed my mission to bring back 6 French supermarket cheeses for my friend's French husband. I was tempted to sneak in a Belgian Herve but resisted as it wasn't in the remit. I do hope he will be happy...
So we have the requested Cancoillotte oozing in its pot, plus the local Maroilles and Boulette d'Avesnes, both in a cloud of stench. I was given a hint that Comte would go down well and managed to search around the aisles and find not the usual 5-month old, nor 7, nor 9 (although I did buy one of those in reserve that I can surely use myself) but 15-month-old, which I am hoping might have the nutty, slightly marmitey flavour and granular texture I'd expect. Then goats' cheese: this isn't really my thing but I did a bit of reading up and ended up with a Selles-sur-Cher, which is caked in ash and looks suitably dark, wrinkled and shrivelled to have a good bit of personality, I hope. And finally I just had to pick a Camembert (about a quarter of the cheese section in each supermarket is given over to them, you can't ignore them) and this one, made from raw milk, had won a prize recently which I hope bodes well. And before you ask the obvious, no he doesn't like blue cheese. The blue went to my friend Jenny who rolled home earlier, after doing a very good job of quality control on some of our newly-bought wine, with a lovely-looking wheel of Fourme d'Ambert, and a much more dainty embodiment of goats' milk in a set of 3 cute little Cabecous. I think in total we brought home 16 cheeses and there was a satisfying stink reminiscent of bad nappy bags when I opened the cool box after a day on the road. Good job done. 
We went to an aquarium while we were on holiday and very good it was too. I saw some tiny little white starfish that were very very similar to the snowflakes I saw recently: spot the difference (again apologies for the photography):-

The photo is so bad that it really doesn't do them justice, but they really did look just the same, honest.