Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas Greetings

My blogging has been seriously neglected of late, because of the usual Christmas busyness plus some rather exotic travel - more of which later. Once you get out of the habit of posting blogs I've discovered it's really hard to get back into it. So, in the spirit of getting back into blogging mode, and because it's Christmas, here are some pictures I took in late November at Edinburgh's Christmas market. It's the typical German market /big wheel arrangement which seems to be obligatory in British cities in December. I don't mean this in a dismissive sense. C and I are always childishly thrilled by the appearance of the little wooden booths and the fairground rides at this time of year and rush into town on the first possible evening after the market has opened, to munch on Bratkartoffel and slurp Gluehwein. We then have a go on the chairoplane or the merrygoround - usually with me muttering that "we're too old to be doing this!".

On my birthday at the end of November, we were having a rather wonderful, self-indulgent day in town (more of which later!) and spotted this strange aparition at the Christmas market.

These angels were 7 feet tall, with fantastic, white,  feathered wings. Best of all, they were on wheels! All of a sudden they would accelerate with no visible means of propulsion. They just glided along magically. Unfortunately the new whizzy i-phone does not have a video camera, unlike my old ordinary phone, so you will just have to take my word for the movement.

The angels swept through the Xmas market and fairground, and then with total disregard for road safety, they swooped out onto the street, joined the queue of traffic waiting at the lights, and then whizzed out onto Princes Street.

I love to think my council tax is being spent on such gloriously eccentric entertainment!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Life lessons

Do not drink a mug of strong coffee at 9pm, in an attempt to fend off sleep long enough to get some Xmas cards written and some paperwork completed (and a blog post published!). Result: it's half past midnight and I am wide awake. I don't suffer from insomnia generally. I'm used to getting my sleep! As soon as I realise I'm not going to get at least 7 hours sleep, I start to panic. And sleep recedes further.

I wonder if cocoa would be an antidote? Or a large brandy?

Monday, 7 December 2009

Visit from the chocolate fairy

My blogging has been interrupted by strange technical problems - I couldn't upload any pictures. I've also been very busy recently. This has meant that I've had plenty I've wanted to blog about, but haven't had any time to blog. What time I did have was consumed by fruitless attempts to upload pictures. I'll have to do some retrospective blogging over the next few days and catch up.

Anyway, after posting about my friend S being the beneficiary of random donations of violet creams in Manchester, look what arrived for me in the post:

It was an unexpected and delightful birthday pressie from S, who had found the time, in amongst staffing her stall in Manchester, to send me these. Aw. I felt quite teary when I opened them. Lots of other gorgeous things and cards arrived from friends and family. I felt very blessed, not just by the gifts, but by the knowledge that I had been thought of by these lovely people.

Unfortunately, I fear I may never be able to bring myself to eat the chocolates. They are too beautiful. Actually, that's total rubbish. What I really fear is that I will gorge on them in one sitting, rather than delicately savouring one every so often. Frankly, my helplessness in the face of chocolate of any kind means I ought to confine my consumption to mars bars or dairy milk. Giving me expensive, sophisticated chocolate is rather like offering a bottle of fine single malt whisky to a wino slumped on a park bench. But don't stop giving me the lovely chocs, generous friends!!!

I know for a fact the Charbonnel & Walker box will survive indefinitely in my 'lovely boxes' collection. This is an idiosyncratic and utterly useless collection of 'nice boxes' that things have been packaged in, and that I can't quite bring myself to throw away. For example, I have a tiny, heart-shaped box that a single Charbonnel & Walker champagne truffle arrived in one Valentine's Day. The truffle is long gone of course. In fact, I don't think it survived much beyond breakfast on Valentine's Day.  I have a particularly fine collection of empty 'White Company' boxes - remnants of presents from my oldest friend L. There are also a couple of empty perfume gift boxes - the sort that appear around Christmas - which were gifts from my Auntie B. Why do I keep them? The contents, much appreciated, were enjoyed and are long gone. It's not as if the boxes can be used again as gift boxes, as they are clearly branded 'White Company' or 'Clarins'. I suppose part of me imagines I will do something artistic and crafty and paint them or decorate them with 'decoupage' cut outs, and use them again. Yeah - that's really going to happen.

I increasingly fear that I when I die, no doubt alone, or in the company of various smelly dogs and cats, people will discover these odd little collections and consider me totally barmy. Like those people that conserve every newspaper they ever bought, or every plastic bag they acquired, and end up being featured on that tv programme about Sheffield bin men. What will the distant relatives burdened with clearing their old Auntie Rosie's house make of my collection of empty boxes, or the moth-ridden bolts of unused fabric and yarns, or the piles of lovely notebooks and journals, too good to use for 'everyday' notes; or the jars of special jams and spices I was 'saving for best'? I suppose it won't matter. I'll be dead. And it probably won't be relatives dealing with it but house clearance people. Or the council. Cheery thought! I think I'll reflect on my fabulous chocolates instead.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Random acts of kindness - and chocolate

My friend S. and her partner are down in Manchester at the moment, selling her beautiful handmade bath and body products at the big Christmas Market. By all accounts it is pretty dismal down there, what with the millenial floods and the recession. She sent me this text today, to post on my blog, relating one of those 'random acts of kindness' that makes life worth living.

Imagine the scene: a damp, discouraged trader standing in a wooden market booth, on the pedestrian precinct in Manchester, in the gloom and drizzle. She has to do this every day for 6 weeks.

S. wrote:
"A customer was saying how my rose hand cream reminded her of rose creams. I said to her that mentioning rose creams made me think of violet creams  [S. has a passion for all things smelling and tasting of violet]. The customer said that Selfridges have a Charbonnel & Walker concession, which sells rose and violet creams and we both drooled at the thought. The customer thanked me and then, without purchasing anything, left. 10 minutes later the lady returns with a single, perfect violet cream for the poor, damp trader. All is now well in the world and the trader has something worth more than the sale of a jar of hand cream."

I suppose S. would have liked to sell some handcream and get a violet cream, but maybe that would be greedy. I wish the mysterious violet cream lady could know just how much her random act of kindness meant to S.

By the way, if anyone is interested in some rather gorgeous bath and body products as a Christmas pampering treat, for yourself or someone else, I can recommend S's products (and no, I am not on commission! I am a genuine fan.). They are all made of totally natural ingredients, and because S is one of those (sickening) people with a real eye for presentation and design, everything looks stunning as well. Funnily enough, she doesn't do a violet range .....

You can buy from her website: Pringle and Fairweather. Or if you are in Manchester, you could go and find her on New Cathedral Street outside M&S. And her partner is in Albert Square, selling her 'diffusion range' (is that the right term???) Fanny and Claude's Fabulous Concoctions, which isn't available on the website. If you do see them, say 'hi' from me. Oh, and take her a violet cream.

And whilst on the subject of violet and rose creams (I am a rose girl, rather than violet), I can't resist raving about Whitakers Confectioners in Skipton. We used to go there as a treat when we were children. It's one of those wonderfully old-fashioned confectioners, with everything from humbugs, to fudge, to champagne truffles. We were too young for fancy chocolates then. What we always got was a sugar mouse - white, pastel pink, or pale yellow, with a string tail.  As a grown up, with pretentious airs and graces, I have graduated to their very sophisticated violet and rose creams. Although you can get Whitakers Chocolates in shops and supermarkets now, including the violet and rose creams, they have a more glamourous range, which you can only get in the shop, in heavy, plain card boxes, with the little crystalised violet and rose petals on top. Unfortunately they don't seem to be available on the website - so you'll just have to go to Skipton for a jaunt! Great market, interesting castle, canal boat trips - as well as violet creams - so well worth it.

And my final word on violet creams. Here's a picture of a print I have hanging in my study. I don't buy many pictures - I don't have a confident taste in 'art' - but this made me smile so much I bought it.
The title of the picture is 'Cup of Tea and Violet Creams'

The print is by an artist called Louise Quirke .
 A picture that features chocolate, dogs and bed, ticks all the boxes for me.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Park life

I have been very lax about taking photos of things recently and also not felt as if I've had much to say (loud, disbelieving guffaws at this remark from C presumably). Hence the lack of blog action of late. However, when trudging back from the city centre in the drizzle last week I was experimenting with the dreaded i-phone (which I think I am keeping ..... probably ..... almost definitely..... unless I change my mind.) I took some photos of the remaining autumn leaves on the trees on 'The Meadows'.

For those of you who don't know Edinburgh, The Meadows is a large expanse of parkland just south of the city centre, lying between the University and Marchmont. We are so lucky to have such a generous green space so close to our flat. The Meadows is one of those great amenities you find in some cities. Yes, it's a park, but it's more relaxed than that.  It does have a children's playground and tennis courts at one end, but generally it's just a big flat piece of grass for people to use.

On summer evenings, it is thronging with people - having picnics, walking, walking dogs, walking children, jogging, playing frisbee, footie, tag, rounders etc, reading, sleeping, talking, sunbathing and smooching. And there's always at least one group of people sporting dreadlocks and playing drums, or juggling or even fire-eating. (There was actually somone walking down the path on a pair of stilts last week! In this wind, I have no idea how they stayed upright.) During the Edinburgh Festival in August, there's a funfair and sometimes a circus, and also, rather wonderfully, it's where the 'Ladyboys of Bangkok'  pitch their tent (I am sure there is some joke here about 'camping' but I can't think of it just now). Even in the winter, at weekends there are groups of hardy - or maybe foolhardy - men playing muddy bouts of rugby or football, and the die-hard joggers.

When I moved to Edinburgh, after years living in a small village in Cumbria, I hadn't realised just how much I'd missed the availability of shared 'civic' space - i.e. parks and areas of countryside, owned and maintained by the local councils, on behalf of the local population. In the countryside, you are always on some farmer's land, so you have to stick to paths and keep an eye on your dog and watch out for marauding cows. Ironically, living in the city, there are green spaces where I feel much freer.

One of the great joys of the Meadows, is the paths lined with cherry trees. In May, they are festooned with frilly, marshmallow pink blossom, which drifts across the park like extravagent confetti. And on a wet November afternoon, in the drizzle and gloom, they were still resplendent in their orange leaves.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

I-phone blues

I am still in two minds about this i-phone. Damn its sleek black and silver lines and its quirky novelty apps. Despite the fact that the things I used my old 'normal' phone for most - making calls, texting, setting reminders, taking photos and listening to Radio 4 - aren't really as good on the i-phone, I find I am still fatally seduced by all its bells and whistles, which frankly, I don't need. Can you ever go back, when you've tasted the forbidden fruit  - i.e. Apple?

I have until Monday to return it and go back to my old phone and payment plan. Decisions, decisions.

Meanwhile I shall spend the weekend exploring my Googlemaps function, my Shazam tune recognition app and my stanza e-books, and tipping my phone screen from portrait to landscape and back again.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Gadget queen

Oh God. I've just got an i-phone. It is totally overwhelming. I feel about 100 years old. My reaction to discovering all its many features reminds me of my grandma when she first saw a video recorder: "eeeh, the things they can do these days". And my fingers are too big for the tiny little keys (I am a big boned lass of peasant heritage). Of course they aren't actually 'keys'. They are magic places on a glass screen, presumably operated by fairies or elves.

I think this might have been a mistake. Do I really want to be an i-phone person? I don't work in meedja. I don't own a Mac (I'm a PC as the advert goes). My life isn't really exciting or dynamic enough to require 24 hour access to the internet. I feel as if I am not cool enough to flash it about in public, so I self-consciously edge it out of my pocket to see if I have messages, rather than waving it about ostentatiously. But what is the point of having an i-phone when you don't wave it about ostentatiously?

Oh dear. Is it too late to put my sim back in my trusty old sony ericsson?

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Shops Ahoy!

When you are on holiday in the Yorkshire Dales in November and it rains constantly, there's really only one thing to do. Go shopping! Well - after you've spent so many hours sitting in the holiday cottage reading that you have a numb bum.

Why is it that whatever shops you have on your own doorstep, everything seems better when you go somewhere else? C would say this is just typical Rosie greed and that I am never satisfied. He may have a point. The grass always seems quite green across the fence. But I think it's about novelty as much as about dissatisfaction. You take for granted what you have at home, so the prospect of different experiences is always stimulating. Living in Edinbugh, we do not lack for shops. Within 5 minutes walk, there are the chic shops and boutiques of Bruntsfield and Morningside, or in the other direction, the food shops of Marchmont - independent butchers, fishmonger, middle-eastern grocers, designer flower shops, delis etc . Within 20 minutes walk there are all the city centre shops. So no, I don't lack for shops at home. You would think I would go on holiday to get away from shops (yeah, right!). It's so pleasant browsing in all the little independent shops you get in small towns, all of them no more than a minute or two's walk from each other. I am a sucker for market towns. Even when there's no market on, there's a bustling, self-sufficient quality about a small market town. When we are on holiday in England, we always check out the market days for towns in the area. In the Dales, and Cumbria, there are weekly markets still in even small villages. I'm not talking about Farmer's Markets, just old fashioned markets, selling everything from sweets, meat, fruit and veg, to all the tat you get on market stalls - cheap clothes and shoes, mass-produced pottery and household goods. And there always has to be  a stall selling CDs for a local musician. It's usually a country musician even in deepest middle england, their unlikely twang wailing out across the market from tinny speakers.

Anyway, here's a quick rundown of the nice shops I saw on my hols - or at least the ones I remembered to take photos of.

This is Reeth Market. A grand total of 5 stalls selling veg, meat, cheese, shoes and sheepskin products. A wet, cold day, and a village with a population of 750 but people queueing up to buy! Not bad. (And yes, it was as dull and miserable as the photo suggests).

As behoves sheep farming country, this is the stall selling sheepskin goods - rugs, gloves and slippers. I suspect they're imported from china rather than having ever graced sheep in local fields, but they look the part.

And here's the wonderfully named Elijah Allen and Son in Hawes, in Wensleydale. A family run business, founded in 1860. How can you resist a shop that claims to sell 'provisions'! It's half-way between a corner shop and a deli. Presumably this sort of shop can only survive because the nearest Tesco is at least 25 miles away.

Elijah Allen's window display of local flours, jams, beer and the red-labelled bottles of Hendersons Spicy Yorkshire Relish. It's the sort of shop that sells about 100 varieties of jam. In fact, jam was a bit of a theme in our holiday shopping. The result of 'farm diversification' schemes I suspect.

Here's the window of the sweet shop in Hawes. Tempting .....

And while I'm on the sweet shop theme, I spotted this shop in Masham.

And no, I didn't buy anything!

On a very rainy day, we were just tootling about, trying to find some blue sky, along the back roads of Wensleydale, when we spotted a sign to 'Stalling Busk only'. C can never resist a sign that goes to somewhere 'only', so we crawled up into the misty, low cloud, to the very end of the road, and discovered a hamlet of about 4 houses, and Raydale Preserves. The shop was deserted, relying entirely on the honesty of punters popping round to the 'Jam Kitchen' to pay for their purchases. Mind you, I don't suppose there will be that many opportunistic jam thieves roaming the back roads of Wensleydale. Probably a wonderful spot to visit in the summer. They have put together a really interesting little local history display and a set of leaflets for walks starting from Stalling Busk - clearly a labour of love.  There is the promise of coffee and cake in high season ......

I bought a jar of 'Fiery Farmer' chilli jam. I think I was hoping it would warm me up.

This is the pretty little Garden House Pottery- a tiny shop off the market square in Reeth - selling really good quality local crafts, ceramics and award winning damson cheese made by the owners, Ray and Jan Davies.

I bought a beautiful creamware colander. When I will actually have reason to use a ceramic colander, I really don't know, but it made me feel very 'Homes and Gardens'. I imagine it appearing on a table, bearing grapes for a cheese course or something. In that imaginary life where I host elegant dinner parties. I got some Damson Cheese as well. I was seduced by the rather lovely 'packaging' - a creamware bowl. It might yet end up someone's Christmas present, so I haven't opened the box to take a photo. But look at their website. It's classy stuff.

Ray Davies, the owner and ceramicist.

A blogland discovery - Milkchurn Cottage in Hawes, which I'd discovered on-line via Karen, the owner's blog and sought out (you can see her sitting at the back of the shop). A really eclectic, personal collection of crafts and housewares, many made locally. Like going into someone's frontroom. There's a fire crackling in the grate.

As a contrast - we saw this wonderfully old-fashioned shop in Ripon. 'Ladies World'. Presumably boasting everything for the Ripon Lady (d'un certain age I suspect): "Quality Footwear and Leather Goods; Cane Furniture and Basketware; Coffee Lounge". What else do you need?

Haul for the week: a vintage mixing bowl from 'RE' in Corbridge, to replace the one I inherited from my mother, which got broken on the move up to Edinburgh; a ceramic colander and some damson cheese; a wooden christmas decoration and a bar of soap from Hawes; 5 jars of jam and 3 jars of chutney. Excellent. All completely unnecessary purchases, for which I have no cupboard space, but I do like to support local traders (well that's my story!).

Monday, 9 November 2009

Sheep Ahoy!

Last week in the Yorkshire Dales, we enjoyed a walk from Reeth in Swaledale, to the very lovely village of Grinton. Grinton is worth a look, mainly because of the perfect little St Andrew's Church, nicknamed the Cathedral of the Dales, with its churchyard dominated by venerable yew trees.

However, our attention was drawn to a very strange sight atop the roof of the village pub.

Yes. It is a sculpture of a Swaledale sheep, with a tuba. No idea why. Nothing on the pub website about it. Marvellous.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Sense of Place

In Coverdale, looking west.

I’ve been away in the Yorkshire Dales for a week, motivated by a longing to reconnect with the area. I love Edinburgh, where I now live and I’ve never actually lived in the Yorkshire Dales. The nearest I got, living in Cumbria along the western edge of the Yorkshire Dales, was a very unhappy time in my life. So why this need to come back? And why does the Yorkshire Dales feel like ‘home’ when I’ve never actually lived there?

I read an article by Madeleine Bunting recently, reflecting on the importance of our personal histories in creating the ‘psychogeography’ of our lives, and how vital this feeling of rootedness in a landscape and in a community is to us in our adult lives, whether or not we still live in these significant places.

I grew up in West Yorkshire, not far from the Yorkshire Dales. I have that typical (and no doubt fairly irritating) pride in Yorkshire that seems to be bred into the inhabitants of England’s largest county (yes – we just won’t accept those boundary changes!). This adds to a sense of belonging and of ownership that enhances my feelings about the Yorkshire Dales. These are my Dales. I experience a breathless delight being back here.

Maybe it’s the memories of childhood pleasures that generate such affection for this place. Although my family never holidayed in the Yorkshire Dales – it was really too close to home – it was the destination for days out at weekends and during the summer holidays (when it was always sunny of course!): picnics by the River Wharfe at  Burnsall, where the river widens out in a lazy bend, the shallows warming quickly in the summer, the river bed sandy and perfect for paddling; ‘proper’ high tea (ham, eggs, bread & butter followed by cream cakes) at a café in Grassington; walks in amongst the ruins of Bolton Abbey;, playing an extended game of hide and seek in amongst the weird rock formations at Brimham Rocks as a teenager, far too old for such things, hoping to be ‘found’ by a particular boy. These memories are as pungent with remembered pleasure as any I can recall.

Maybe it’s the connection with lost people. The love of the Yorkshire Dales was something I learnt from my mother – now dead for 14 years. She was always frustrated by the unavailability of my Dad at the weekend, because of work and golf, and she was limited in the distances she was able to drive herself, because of painful rheumatoid arthritis. As soon as I could drive, my mother and I would go out on our own ‘jaunts’, which would always involve heading out along the A625 to Skipton, and then carrying on into the Yorkshire Dales and ‘tootling about’ as we called it. My Mum loved map-reading and she took great delight in planning our routes. We would seek out the narrowest roads, advancing across the highest fells and moorlands. If we could find a single track road with passing places, we were very satisfied. If we could find a road with passing places and gates – we were beside ourselves with glee. I suppose for my mother, who had loved hiking in her youth, the Yorkshire Dales were part of her ‘psychogeography’. She had been courted by my father on Youth Hostelling holidays there. These outings were a pilgrimage into her past. They were also a form of freedom for her. She couldn’t do these drives on her own and she could no longer walk these dales because of her illness. By heading off along ‘C’ roads, maybe we were getting as close as we could to her memories of hiking in these places.

Heading over into Swaledale - a road my Mum would have approved of!

As you lose people, maybe you need to connect with them through the places you shared. It’s not painful to go back there – rather, it allows for a pleasant intensity of remembrance that increasingly evades me as the years pass.

Maybe, as I’ve moved into middle age and found myself somewhat displaced because I’ve moved around a fair amount, it’s a way of reconnecting with my self, through the places that have made me.

Or maybe, it’s just a beautiful place!

Here are a few pictures to try and show you what I’m talking about. The weather wasn’t that great and my landscape photography skills aren’t really equal to the task of representing the views of Wensleydale and Swaledale. And I suppose, you won’t share the same ‘psychogeography’ as me, so these images won’t mean as much to you. But this place, it takes your breath away. It really does.

Coverdale again - my Mum's favourite of the dales

Swaledale again - my favourite of the dales. Crossing from Wensleydale, via Buttertubs

Walking from Reeth in Swaledale, to Grinton, along the River Swale. A good example of the dry stone walls and field barns typical of the Dales. Not raining for once!

The pretty little village of West Scrafton in Coverdale. Blue sky - briefly.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Off on a jaunt!

Turns out that I have something in common with the artist David Hockney apart from growing up around Bradford. Not artistic ability, clearly, or wealth. But our love of jaunts.

I was reading an interview with David Hockney in the Sunday paper.  He was saying how important it is, as you get older, to try and maintain your spontaneity and your openness to new perspectives. In order to do this, he is very fond of ‘jaunts’. I’ve never thought of my love of jaunts as an attempt at maintaining spontaneity or creativity, but rather as unfettered hedonism. This love of jaunts is something C and I share. As we’ve got older I suspect our ‘jaunts’ have taken on an increasingly ‘Darby and Joan’ flavour. When we first moved to Edinburgh we were so thrilled at the availability of public transport after 10 years in the wilds of Cumbria, we spent a Saturday travelling around the city on buses, making the most of a £2.50 ‘day ticket’. I do wonder at the sight of a middle aged-couple sitting on the front seat of the upper deck of a bus (double deckers – you didn’t get those in our bit of Cumbria!) looking excitedly out of the window. At least we haven’t started taking flasks of tea and Tupperware boxes of sandwiches out with us. Whenever we have taken a packed lunch out with us on a ‘jaunt’, in an attempt to save money, we always end up opting for a nice café instead and bringing our picnic home with us, uneaten. After all, half the joy of a jaunt is the opportunity for a good cake!

Whilst on the topic of David Hockney and jaunts, I should mention that a particularly excellent ‘jaunt’ is to Salts Mill, in Saltaire near Bradford in West Yorkshire - an art gallery dedicated to the work of David Hockney. It’s housed in the monumental Victorian mill buildings of Sir Titus Salt. Salt built the whole village of Saltaire around the mill for his workers – complete with cottages, a reading room, chapels, doctor’s surgery and so on. One of those extravagant schemes so beloved of the non-conformist industrialists of that era - charitable paternalism or economically motivated social engineering – depending on your view! The mill conversion, creating galleries, cafes and shops, has left many of the old mill features intact. I love the unlikely juxtaposition of the great halls, which would have housed the weaving machines and large lumps of redundant machinery, in amongst the art books, the paintings and the chi chi kitchenware and gifts. I was never a huge fan of David Hockney’s LA works, but I love his more recent work now he’s settled back home in Yorkshire – startling, expressionist landscapes of East Yorkshire. The intense and extravagant colours of his pictures and their slightly skewed perspective jolt you into considering landscape with a different eye. Anyway – more info on Salts Mill and Saltaire if you are interested.

I am currently on an extended jaunt, which is a bit of an experiment. I have rented a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales for a week. The first 4 days I am here on my own, and then C is coming down on the train to join me for the second half of the week. I wanted some peace and quiet. I also wanted to reconnect with the landscape of northern England, which I love and which I miss now that we live up in Edinburgh. I will report back on the experiment. I confess, I’m not loving the isolation so far. Not even a mobile phone signal in the cottage! We shall see.

On the drive down I stopped for lunch in Corbridge, in County Durham, near Hadrian’s Wall. Corbridge is a very pretty and historic village. It’s also quite posh – something I hadn’t really realised until I went back this time. It boasts an unusually high quota of independent clothes boutiques, antique and interiors shops, clearly targeting the ‘ladies who lunch’ market.

Corbridge is also the home of what is surely one of the most beautiful shops in the UK. ‘RE’ is a treasure trove of second-hand and new retro-style household items. They have a lot of unusual French goods, which I assume they source direct from French suppliers. They also have really obscure stuff, none of which you need, but all of which looks charming because of the way it is displayed: religious statuary; glass jars of tailors chalks in pastel colours (which I thought was Edinburgh rock until I read the labels!); decorative boxes of matches; a vast array of plastic poppies. It’s very Cath Kidston, but with a lower chintz quotient. My only criticism is that it doesn’t have a café. How can you have such a magnificent array of cake stands, tea pots and tea cosies and not feel tempted to open a café?

Anyway – feast your eyes on these photos – and visit the website if you fancy more domestic eye candy.

French bath stuff and cake stands

Silver rabbit blancmange moulds, wooden rolling pins, wooden bread boards - all vital to any modern kitchen of course!

Every possible size of brown teapot and a small selection of tea cosies

An enormous glass display case of .... glass cake stands - can you see them all?

Lots and lots of lovely boxes of candles

The garden corner

I think I might have got a bit carried away ......

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Quince Pickle

I am proud, if a little surprised to report that the quinces are already transformed into quince pickle. I only got them on Wednesday evening. I’m not sure what has spurred me on to this unusually decisive and prompt behaviour. Maybe it’s the thought of explaining to the kind friend who gave me some of the quinces she'd spent her Saturday morning picking, that they’d ended up in the bin. Or maybe it was the prospect of either spending the afternoon pottering about in the kitchen chopping fruit and stirring simmering pickle, or cleaning the bathroom. Whatever the motivation, a mere 4 hours of labour, a blister on my index finger, numerous bowls full of washing up and about a fiver’s worth of raw materials have resulted in  ......... 3 jars of pickle. But they are my jars of pickle. (Please don’t remind me how little a jar of Branston costs.)

Ta da!

I wanted to do something tangy and savoury with the quinces and something that I would actually want to eat regularly. As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of jam or poached fruit – which has been the fate of quinces in past years (those that have avoided the dustbin). I once carefully poached sliced quinces in a rose water syrup and bottled them in a quaint, French, glass preserving jar. They looked beautiful. Delicate pink slivers of fruit suspended in a blush-coloured syrup. I never ate them of course. They just sat on the pantry shelf gathering dust. After about a year I decided to turn them into jam with instead. So a jar of quince and rose jam was produced. I ate very little of it, but I did feel pleasantly smug bringing it out for guests.

This is a pickle rather than a chutney recipe, so the fruit keeps a bit of texture rather than going completely to mush. You can also eat it immediately, unlike chutney which needs a month or two to mature. It tastes pretty good. Quite sweet and sticky, but with a rasp of vinegar and a definite musky flavour of quince.

The original recipe came from here.

Here’s my very slightly amended version and for half the quantity ( I only had 2lb of quinces). I used brown sugar, because that’s what I usually use for chutney. However, it struck me that the original recipe might have meant you to use white sugar, so you can see the pink colour of the cooked quinces, rather than the brown sludge produced in my version. I don't have a lot of experience making pickles! I added the crushed chillies to the recipe, because I wanted something with a bit of bite. I think if I make it again, I will add a bit more chilli. I was a bit nervous of making it too hot, but I’ve probably erred too much on the cautious side. I would probably also slow the cooking down a bit by simmering it with the lid on for half an hour or so first and then cooking the pickle with the lid off to reduce it. The texture of the pickle was ready - i.e. the juices reduced down to a rich syrup, but the quinces were a bit chewy.

Quince Pickle

2lb quince, cored and diced
1 ¼ cups white wine vinegar
1 ¼ cups red wine vinegar
1 ½ tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp crushed, dried chillies
½ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground black pepper
1lb 12 oz sugar
1 tsp salt

Wipe the quinces with a damp cloth to remove the fuzz, then core and dice them. Don’t peel them. Place all the ingredients into a large, heavy-bottomed pan, and simmer, uncovered, on a constant low heat until the quince is a dark rose colour (or brown in my case!). This took about 1 ½ hours – although the original recipe stated that it might take 3 hours. The liquid will reduce down until it has thickened, and barely covers the fruit.

This is what it looked like when it first went on the heat.

This is what it looked like after 1 1/2 hours cooking. Note that it is now in a pan about half the size of the original. I let the pickle catch a bit - ooops - so I put it into a different pan to prevent it being infused with the taste of burnt pickle.

Bottle in sterilised jars with vinegar-proof lids. Keep in a cool place, for up to 2 years (now that's what I call a shelf-life!).

The friend who gave me the quinces recommended this recipe for Quince Balsamico Chutney  which she has made in the past. It sounds lovely, but I couldn't quite face the faff. Worth a look though.

Oh dear -  do you think I'm in danger of starting to finish things, thereby making the title of this blog redundant? Oh - there's always the bowl of soaking chick peas lurking in the bottom of the fridge which I intended making into hummus last weekend. A fairly unlikely prospect at any time, but considering this was  intended for a 'shared lunch' at a weekend course I was attending, and therefore would have meant me getting up early on the Sunday morning to make said hummus, it was pretty much doomed from the start. Turns out that chick peas develop an unappetising scum very quickly when left in the fridge.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Plot Night

Vital ingredients for 'plot night' baking

Those of you who didn’t grow up in Yorkshire (poor things!) won’t know what ‘Plot Night’ is. It is Bonfire Night, or if you are very posh, Guy Fawkes Night. Looking back to my childhood, Plot Night was one of the highlights of the year. It hadn’t been eclipsed by Halloween in those days and there wasn’t the same health and safety hysteria around fireworks then - although, it should also be acknowledged that the most powerful firework you were likely to light was a roman candle or a slim rocket, rather than the pyrotechnical monsters you can buy nowadays. The most dangerous event I remember was when a spinning Catherine wheel flew off its nail. Dads were blamed of course, responsibility for the fireworks being the men’s job. In those pre-BBQ days, it was the most primal display of virility available to the white collar Dads of my friends.

Plot night marked the start of the run up to Xmas and my birthday, which is at the end of November. It was very much the start of my ‘festive season’. The fact that bonfire night and its associated celebrations could fall midweek added to the sense of slightly subversive fun. Being allowed to be out and about on a school night, with lots of other people, playing with fire and of course eating lots of party food, was a heady mix.

I don’t remember getting involved in the ‘penny for the guy’ run up. I don’t ever remember seeing any ‘guys’ at all. This may have something to do with the fact that Guy Fawkes was a Yorkshireman, so we might not have wanted to burn him in effigy (but that’s just speculation on my part). The night before Plot Night was Mischief Night, the traditional time for practical jokes. Being ‘nice girls’, rather than ‘rough boys’, me and my sister didn’t get involved in that - of course! On the evening of 4th November there would be the sound of bangers being set off in the street and occasionally knocks at the door from people who had disappeared by the time you answered. There were stories about treacle being spread on door handles or gates being lifted off their hinges and hidden, but it was all pretty harmless.

The main reason I loved Plot Night was the food. It was one mouthwatering delight after another. You started with warm pork pies with mushy peas and mint sauce, followed by baked potatoes, cooked in foil in the embers of the bonfire. All this food tasted a million times better because it was eaten outside, in the crisp night air, a sparkler clutched in your hand, the smoke stinging your eyes and the heat from the flames scorching your cold cheeks.

And then came the sweet stuff. My grandma used to make ‘Plot toffee’, treacle toffee by any other name, in great, spiky shards. It was the sort of sweet that changes the outline of your cheek whilst you eat it because it is so big and unyieldingly angular. I have no idea why ‘plot’ baking is so dominated by ginger, but it is.There were  ginger biscuits and gingerbread pigs. But my favourite was always the parkin. Parkin is not gingerbread. Proper Yorkshire parkin, features oatmeal as well as ginger and has a dense, nutty consistency with just a hint of stickiness on its surface.

I was so disappointed when I moved to Scotland to discover that people don’t celebrate bonfire night up here. There are understandable historical and nationalist reasons for this, but what a wasted opportunity for some smashing food (in the Enid Blyton sense) and fire-gazing. This year however, I am going to be in Yorkshire for Plot Night. I am sneaking off for a break in a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. In preparation, I’ve made some parkin to take with me.

The old school recipe book.

It’s ages since I’ve made parkin. I decided to go back to grassroots and use the recipe I was taught at school. The only change I made was to replace some of the golden syrup with treacle. I think ‘plot’ baking needs that dark hit of treacle to give the flavour proper depth. It hints of the smokiness of the bonfire. It also gives it the dark chestnut colour I remember.

You will also note the use of lard. Not a fashionable ingredient these days. I stuck to the recipe, but you may well want to use all butter instead. The original recipe also specified margarine, not butter (it does date from the 1970s!) but I hate margarine.

Parkin should be made at least a week in advance and then left in an air tight tin to acquire the proper sticky texture. If you can hold off long enough!

Yorkshire Parkin

(Source: Bradford Girls' Grammar School, circa 1976)

8 oz plain flour
8 oz medium oatmeal
8 oz soft brown sugar
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 heaped tsp ground ginger
Pinch salt
2 oz lard
2 oz butter
6 oz golden syrup
2 oz treacle
3 fl oz milk
2 med eggs

Preheat the oven to 325F/170C/Gas mark 3.

Grease and line the base of an approx 12inch square traybake tin (I used a 9 inch square tin and it was a bit small – the parkin ballooned above the tin during cooking and then collapsed a bit).

Mix all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Rub the fats into the dry ingredients. Heat the milk and syrups together gently, stirring until combined. Don’t let it boil. Add to the flour/fat mixture and stir in. Add the eggs, beaten, and mix well. Pour into the tin and bake for 50-60 mins until deep brown, firm and shrunk slightly away from the sides of the tin. Don’t open the oven for the first 45 mins, or it will sink – like mine did! Leave it to cool in the tin. When cool, cut into squares and leave it in an airtight tin for 3 days to 2 weeks, to ‘mature’.

I confess, I scoffed a piece, just for the purposes of research of course. Very nice – sticky and nutty with the soft warmth of ginger.

When I was looking for a recipe for parkin, I found one in my old Yorkshire TV Farmhouse Kitchen book. It included this unexpected advice about ingredients: “If you have no treacle add 1 or 2 drops of gravy browning to the mixture to get the true dark Parkin colour”. Please note: there is no gravy browning in my parkin!

I'm getting the hang of this 'food styling' photography!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

I blame Nigella

Did Nigella Lawson invent quinces? I mean, until I read ‘How to Eat’ for the first time, I’d never even heard of quinces. Next thing, I notice them appearing in the greengrocers in October. Before I know it, I’m looking forward to their arrival, as if it’s some sort of long established ritual. As if autumns when I was a child were always marked by the purchase of quinces with my mother. I have somehow taken on Nigella Lawson’s quince habit, as if it were my own.

So for the last 8 years or so, early November has meant the annual buying of the quinces. This is followed, about 4-6 weeks later with the associated annual ritual of the throwing away of the mouldy quinces, or, if I catch them in time, the dumping of the (very) ripe quinces into a jar of vodka with some cinnamon sticks, in order to make some kind of ‘interesting’ liqueur. I have a jar of quinces steeping in vodka which has now accompanied me on two house moves. I finally got round to straining and bottling the liqueur a week or so ago, when I was flushed with the success of my damson gin making. The faded label on the jar said: Spiced Quince Liqueur - November 2003.

I don’t even like the taste of quinces that much. Sorry, I realise this is heresy amongst the Nigella reading public. I’m not really a fan of poached fruit and poached quinces are tooth-screechingly sweet. I’m not a huge fan of jam either – whether quince or otherwise. I’ve also made Nigella’s quince mincemeat, which I’m afraid didn’t taste that different than ordinary homemade mincemeat, and you’ve guessed it, I’m not that fond of mincemeat.

I just like the idea of quinces. I’m driven by some ridiculous self-delusion that I am connecting to ancient Christmas traditions, reaching back to medieval times or tapping into their exotic, middle-eastern roots. Or maybe, in that sad way that people buy celebrity perfumes to try and acquire a touch of their favourite star’s magic, maybe I think buying quinces will make me like Nigella Lawson – beautiful, oozing sex appeal and rich. Instead, I am still just a slightly frazzled, overweight, middle-aged woman, but one with some rotting fruit in her kitchen.

You can imagine the combination of delight and dread with which I greeted the news from a friend that she had discovered a source of quinces, growing here in Edinburgh. Would I like to share the fruit with her? Delight at the prospect of locally gathered, free fruit and magical quinces to boot. Dread at the thought that yet again I would fail to do anything useful with them and just feel even guiltier at the waste this time around, because the fruit had been generously given by a friend. But could I resist? Of course not. It’s quince season again.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

What goes around comes around

Do you ever have those moments in life when you feel as if you are experiencing a kind of living parable?

I am a great believer in the maxim ‘what goes around comes around’ – by which I mean a sort of woolly, secular belief in karma, but in this life, not in the next. At the risk of sounding priggish, I like to think that that putting goodwill or good deeds out in the world makes the world a better place generally. My less altruistic motivation for this attitude is that I believe it results in good things coming back to you. Of course most of the time, I forget to think this way or I am feeling far too full of self-pity and irritation to sustain goodwill to others, but I do try.

Yesterday, I experienced a little incident that attested to my ‘pay it forward’ principle. I could call it 'The parable of the pound'.

 I was rushing from the office to a meeting and I stopped off en route to get a coffee. On the way into the coffee shop, I noticed a sign on the door letting customers know that as a result of temporary technical problems, credit card payments couldn’t be accepted. A couple of students were ahead of me in the queue. One of them was trying to pay for his lunch with a card, not having noticed the sign. He had no cash with him. His companion dug around in her purse and lent him some cash, but he was still a £1 short. He patted his pockets helplessly for a moment and then started saying he would have to go and get some cash. On impulse I said to him I’d give him the £1. He looked at me in disbelief and I repeated my offer, adding that he could put £1 in a charity collection box at some point in return. He thanked me, paid and went off with his friend to sit down. This had all taken place infront of the till, observed by the staff.

When I came to pay for my sandwich and coffee, the guy behind the counter said that they wouldn’t charge me for my coffee – because I’d just given the student the £1 he needed. He then passed me my £1 change.

I thanked him and on a whim, chucked the pound coin into the tip jar.

By my reckoning, the student ahead of me in the queue, the coffee shop staff and I all benefited. The only people who lost out were Starbucks, and frankly, I think they can afford it.

What goes around comes around. Sometimes, surprisingly quickly.