Saturday, 20 February 2010


It's odd how often this sort of thing happens. You start thinking about something or someone and then all of a sudden the very thing you are thinking about pops up in the wider world. There's probably some theory in quantum physics to explain it. Quantum physics or Buddhism.

C. is currently contributing to a book on the women about whom pop songs have been written. Sweet Caroline, Maggie May, Lola and so on. His plan on Monday was to write about the 'Sharona' in My Sharona by The Knack.   We awake on Monday morning to hear the announcement of Doug Fieger's death, the lead singer of The Knack and writer of the song - not to mention lover of the Sharona in the title. Spooky. My Sharona is definitely a defining song from my teenage years - and we were actually dancing to it in the living room 2 weeks ago, during a ridiculous, drink fuelled, impromptu '80s disco' with a couple of friends.

Then after recently blogging about The Railway Children, I hear the news that the director of the film,  Lionel Jeffries has died. Not only did Lionel Jeffries direct one of the best loved children's films, but of course, he played Grandpa Potts in another favourite,  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - remember him in his outhouse, being winched into the sky by The Baron Bombhurst's airship, whilst singing 'P.O.S.H'. Who can forget that!

I can look forward to a pleasant afternoon knitting and weeping infront of the tv soon, as the BBC will presumably show The Railway Children as a tribute. Or maybe a double bill with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!

So farewell Lionel Jeffries and Doug Fieger and thank you.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Sunday in Edinburgh, Part 2

I can't describe our stroll through Edinburgh on Sunday, without introducing you to an Edinburgh institution. South Clerk Street  in Newington is the home of The Edinburgh Bargain Store. It is an  enormous shop where you can buy all possible kinds of household goods. And all at absurdly cheap prices! C used to come here for props when he worked as a stage manager in Edinburgh 25 years ago. It's the sort of place you wander in , just to marvel at the absurd range of items available. Admittedly, much of it is tat.  I don't think John Lewis or Habitat are worried about the competition - but there's plenty of perfectly acceptable, if ordinary household stuff here as well. Every student flat in Edinburgh is equipped from EBS I suspect.

Multi-coloured tights? Fancy dress costumes? Sledge? Look no further.

Need some kitchenware? Try Lane 4 - glasses, crockery .....

....... Saucepans? Enamel bowls? Still in Lane 4. Note stepladder in picture above for scale. The picture below was taken beyond the stepladder.


Not enough choice? Don't worry. Just turn to your left and look .......

I am sure you can find what you want somewhere here.

Need any towels, sheets, knitting wool, haberdashery, stationery, coffee pots, tea pots, small electrical goods, wastebins, ironing boards, linen hampers, baskets, artificial flowers, tools, toys, picture frames, lights ... well you'll find them in Lanes 1-3.

Want to stock up on old-style lightbulbs, now they've stopped making them? Here are a few.

And finally, the Great Wall of Kitchen Utensils. And yes. It can be seen from space.

Just to get a sense of the real scale of this wonder, here's my 6'3" husband standing infront of it. And please note that the wall stretches three times as far as this picture shows. And then round the corner a bit.

It is impossible to come in here and not buy anything. The other weekend we came in here with some friends, 'just to look', and I came out with 12 coloured water glasses, a tub of Astonish oven cleaner, and some wet wipes.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Sunday in Edinburgh, Part 1

I'm going through one of those periods when I am intensely aware of the pleasures of living in Edinburgh. We've had a few weeks staying home, after a period of being busy or being away and we've had a wonderfully relaxed and self-indulgent time. Living in central Edinburgh, it's very easy to while away the hours just wandering around the city. All too easy really. On Sunday , C and I were full of good intentions to go and have a bracing walk in the country and try and shake off the winter lethargy - not to mention the winter flab (although in my case, the flab is much longer established than that!). What did we end up doing? A short walk to one of our favourite cafes for a lazy brunch while reading the paper, then a stroll across the city to the cinema for a double bill matinee! This was hedonistic, even by our standards. Blame it on Valentine's Day.

This is just a taste of some of the sights on our Sunday in Edinburgh.

An early (well earlyish) walk through the streets of Marchmont. A few people out walking dogs, or picking up ingredients for breakfast - and as it was Valentine's Day, one or two young men clutching red roses. Aw.

For those of you not familiar with Edinburgh, these 'tenements' are very typical of the inner suburbs of the city. Long sandstone terraces of buildings, each containing 8 or so self-contained flats sharing a stairwell, all built in monumental late Victorian style. We live in a block very similar to this. Tenements were first built much earlier in the city, in the old town - from 16th century I think. I always think this style of building, which Glasgow shares, has more in common with european cities than other British cities.

Walking down a back street we must have been on many times before, we suddenly noticed these graves behind iron railings. Turns out it's the historic Jewish cemetery. The land was bought for the burial ground in 1816 and it was in use until 1867, and, according to some of the sources I came across, the first dedicated Jewish cemetry in Scotland.

The cemetry is opposite Sciennes Hill House, which is apparently where the only meeting of poet Robbie Burns and novelist Sir Walter Scott took place, at a dinner party held by Enlightenment philospher Adam Ferguson. You can't move for history in Edinburgh!

On a less erudite note, this is the fantastic cafe Metropole. We've recently rediscovered it. It's one of those easy-going places where you can sit and relax, read, chat or work for as long as you like. The food, while nothing fancy, is homemade and good. I can personally vouch for the french toast with bacon and maple syrup!

This is the cafe noticeboard - which is always a mine of information about all things 'alternative' going on in Edinburgh.

After our hearty breakfast we headed up South Clerk Street, which is a really vibrant part of Edinburgh. A bit studenty, a bit arty, a bit 'ethnic' and even a bit chi-chi in parts. You can buy anything on South Clerk Street: fish, meat, fruit and veg, second hand records, bicycles, drums, hookas, artisan bread, ice cream, etc etc etc. And vintage clothes, from one of the branches of Armstrongs, who have Edinburgh's vintage clothing market pretty well sewn up (no pun intended).

Even after brunch, there's always room for chocolate:

(I love the fact that the woman in the shop just happened to be wearing a red jacket that complements the display of valentine's hearts!)

Phew. After brunch and chocolate shopping, what next in the list of self-indulgence?  It was time for a bit of arty cinema. A brisk walk across The Meadows (past a gang of teenagers rehearsing for some kind of performance/demonstration, singing a rowdy version of 'Footloose'! Honest!) to our favourite Edinburgh cinema, The Cameo.

One of Edinburgh's oldest cinemas, built in 1914 as the King's Cinema. A bit scruffy now, but with many of the original art deco features intact, including the main, large auditorium. It's programme is largely independent cinema, but not unremittingly highbrow. We went to see a Valentine's double bill of 'Before Sunrise' - set in my favourite city, Vienna, and the follow up, 'Before Sunset', set in Paris, which is pretty good as well I suppose. And as a bonus, turned out the second film had a happy ending.

I suppose you're expecting me to tell you that as a finale to our Valentine's Day, we spent the evening eating oysters and drinking champagne at a candlelit restaurant. But no. We went home and ate spaghetti bolognese infront of the tv.  Much more our style.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Auntie Flo in town?

In complete contrast to my romantic post yesterday, I thought would share this, a poster seen on the back of a loo door at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh yesterday.

" A week long foray into menstruation ..... with a varied mixture of interactive workshops, gigs, talks, zine stalls, spoken word performances, art installations, photo art and much, much more..."
Great to reduce the taboos associated with perfectly natural female processes. But menstruation workshops??? Interactive menstruation workshops??? Ugh. But then I suspect that I am not really an 'anarchafeminist'.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Call me sentimental .....

I went to see The Sound of Music on stage last week. It was great. Laughter, tears, more tears. There are two reasons I cry at The Sound of Music. Firstly, because my mother loved it and we used to watch it together when I was a child. I even had the sheet music and I would bash away at the songs on the piano, whilst my Mum sang (I could never sing and play at the same time).

Secondly, I am a little embarrassed to admit that The Sound of Music contains the nearest thing C and I have to 'our song'. Not long after C and I got together (a mere 21 years ago) we confessed to each other that we both loved the song 'Something Good' from The Sound of Music. (C is straight, honestly!). So The Sound of Music is one of the films we can't watch together without blubbing. That and The Railway Children. But then everyone cries at The Railway Children ("Daddy, my Daddy ..." - you all know the bit).

I am slightly abashed to admit that we even played 'Something Good' at our wedding. It wasn't in church, I should add. Although it would have been quite funny to hear a church organ thundering out hits from the shows. Our wedding was one of those hotel jobs. We played it while we signed the register. I realise that sounds quite cheesy, and it probably was, but we enjoyed it.

When I'm feeling annoyed with C I have been known to amend the lyrics to 'Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something BAD!', and sort of spit it at him. You can imagine. But mostly the song makes me feel fond of C and reminds me how very grateful I am to have him in my life.

As it's Valentine's Day, in an act of shameless sentimentality, here it is.

Happy Valentine's Day to my lovely husband.

Please excuse the lack of multi-media sophistication in this video. It is my first attempt!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Carry a Poem

There was a hint of spring in the air today in Edinburgh. And in St Andrew's Square gardens, the shrubs were sprouting poems.

Friday, 12 February 2010

I 'heart' cake

When it comes to food, presentation is not my strong point. I know my cooking usually tastes good but it doesn't get arranged artfully on carefully chosen platters.  I don't put it in neat stacks. I don't create swirls of 'jus'. I just put it in piles on a plate.

You will therefore excuse this little exercise in showing off because, for once, I produced something culinary that looked beautiful. It was even more of an achievement because it was created for my friend S, she of the  effortless style. Usually, my sense of inferiority around S in matters visual means I just don't attempt anything meant to look pretty. But I was experimenting with possible desserts for her wedding, and wanted to try something out when she and her partner R visited last weekend.

Unsurprisingly, we were still riffing on the theme of violet and rose cremes. This stimulated the thought that I could amend my tried and tested rose petal ice cream recipe and use up some violet syrup I once bought in a deli. The addition of chocolate could come from the failsafe chocolate cake recipe from Nigella Bites. I could also, finally, justify the purchase of crystallised violet and rose petals from Waitrose.

Ta da!

OK. I realise that it should probably be on a plain white plate, which I don't possess. And my 'quenelles' of ice cream are a bit ropey - I made a half-hearted attempt with a couple of dessert spoons as I'd seen on Masterchef, and then gave up and just spooned out lumps. But for someone who doesn't do presentation, I think it's a good attempt.

By the way, the plate that the heart shaped cake is sitting on, pictured above, is the Wedgewood Mirabelle dinner service that I inherited from my much loved Auntie B last year. It is very her and reminds me of her on the rare occasions that I use it. It might not be particularly fashionable, but who cares.

But never mind the presentation. What about the taste? Well, the verdict was, in the main: delicious. No surprise really as I knew the rose petal ice cream and the chocolate cake recipe worked. The only disappointment was the violet ice cream.

I was trying to recreate some violet ice cream I ate in the Tuillerie gardens in Paris last summer, which was possibly the most sublime substance I've ever tasted. Velvety and oh so delicately perfumed. In my version, the taste of the violet didn't really come through. I suspect the violet syrup isn't strong enough. If anyone knows where I could get violet essence please let me know. We did discuss the possiblity of dissolving parma violets in alcohol or syrup, and I may yet experiment with that.

Violet Ice Cream in Paris (sounds like the title of a trashy romance!)

Let me give you the recipes that worked though.

The Rose Petal Ice Cream comes from Jane Newdick's Book of Herbs, which my sister gave me for Christmas years ago. It's a herb book, rather than a cookbook and is full of lovely ideas for home-made potions and cordials as well as foods. You are supposed to use real rose petals to infuse the ice cream. For years I only made the ice-cream once a year, when a certain richly scented rose was flowering in the garden. Then it dawned on me that I could just as easily use rose water, and make it whenever I felt like it. You can't beat the romance of using real rose petals though. I used to make this ice cream before I had an ice cream maker, using the freeze and beat method. It is the only ice cream recipe that ever seemed to work well using this method. It was always silky smooth with no ice crystals. It has relatively few egg yolks for an ice cream recipe and maybe this is what helps.

Rose Petal Ice Cream
375 ml/12 fl oz whipping cream
125ml/4fl oz whole milk
4 scented roses, rinsed and dried (or 3tbsp rose water)
2 egg yolks
75g/3oz white caster sugar
2 tsp runny honey
pink food colouring

If using rose petals, put the cream, milk and rose petals in a saucepan and bring to just below the boil. Remove from the heat, cover and leave to infuse until cool. 

Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and honey together in a large metal or china bowl until pale and creamy.

Strain the rose flavoured milk into the egg mixture (or if using rose water, add it to the milk and cream now and add to the egg mixture) and place bowl over a pan of simmering water.

Cook very gently, stirring all the time, until slightly thickened (it doesn't thicken all that much). Add a drop or so of pink food colouring so that it is very pale pink.

Chill then churn in an ice cream maker or freeze the mixture in a tupperware box until just beginning to freeze, remove it from the freezer and beat, then return to the freezer. When just beginning to freeze, remove and beat again, then leave to freeze solid. Take it out of the freezer to ripen for 15 minutes before serving.

Chocolate Fudge Cake - Nigella Bites
This is soooo easy and sooooo delicious. I am a competent baker, no better than that, but this always tastes fantastic. Moist, chocolatey with a soft, dense crumb. I think  the fact that this is an oil based batter, like American cakes and muffins, rather than a creamed mixture makes it easier to do well.

For the cake:
400g plain flour
250g golden caster sugar
100g light muscovado sugar
50g best quality cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
142ml/small tub sour cream
1tbsp vanilla extract
175g unsalted butter, melted then cooled
125ml corn oil
300ml chilled water

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.
Butter and line 2 x 20cm sandwich tins.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugars, cocoa, baking powder, bicarb and salt. In a wide-necked measuring jug, mix the eggs, soured cream and vanilla until just blended. In another bowl or mixer bowl, beat the butter and corn oil until blended, then beat in the water. Add the dry ingredients and mix gently to blend, then mix in the egg mixture. Pour the mixture into the 2 cake tins. (It's quite a runny batter - not a dropping consistency). Bake the cakes for 50-55 minutes, until firm and a cake-tester (i.e.a cocktail stick in my case!) comes out clean. Don't overbake them. You want them nicely moist. Leave to cool in the tins for 15 minutes, then turn them out on a rack to finish cooling.

For the icing:
(In the Nigella version, she just uses buttercream. I think that's too much, so I use the amount of buttercream here to sandwich the cakes together, and then cover it in the chocolate ganache below).

115g good dark chocolate (70%)
165g unsalted butter
180g icing sugar, sifted (yeah right - but you know you're supposed to!)
2 tsp vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate in the microwave, or in a bowl above a simmering pan of water. Leave to cool slightly. Cream the butter and icing sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and melted chocolate and mix well. Sandwich the cakes together using the butter cream icing. (I've sometimes added a thin layer of good strawberry or damson jam as well, just to cut the chocolatiness slightly with something a bit tart).

Chocolate ganache:
150g good dark chocolate
150ml double cream
1tsp vanilla extract

Chop the chocolate into little pieces. Put the all the ingredients into a heavy-based saucepan and heat gently until the chocolate melts. (I confess I have had problems with splitting doing it this way recently for some reason. For added safety - chocolate and cream are too expensive to waste - I would recommend doing this in a bowl over a pan of simmering water.) Remove from the heat and immediately whisk the mixture vigorously as it cools slightly, and it will become thick and glossy. Spread it luxuriously over the cake and leave to cool.

[ Added later: Watching Raymond Blanc on tv reminded me of a far easier and more foolproof way of making a ganache. Chop the chocolate very finely -if you can be bothered, whizz it in the food processor. You want it in crumbs/flakes not chunks. Bring the cream to the boil, then chuck in the chocolate and the vanilla essence and whisk like crazy. The chocolate will melt in the hot cream, and as it all cools slightly whilst you whisk, it will become thick and glossy. There's no risk of the chocolate separating and spoiling if you do it this way.]
Truly magnificent and - trust me - very easy.

I once had the audacity to make this cake for a wedding. Our lovely friends C & A were getting married. It was a small wedding, and the cake was a surprise rather than a planned centrepiece, so the decision wasn't quite as hubristic as you might imagine. And as I've said, it really is a failsafe recipe, which reduced the risk factor.  The cake isn't weirdly misshapen, but in a heart-shape, which you can't really make out because of the angle of the photo. Nice though with the flowers, and turned out, the bride was wearing red, so it all looked carefully planned!

Close knit

I've picked up my knitting again. It's not unusual in the winter months although I don't really class myself as a 'knitter'. Since childhood my craft of choice was sewing and dressmaking. But over the years the dressmaking fell away and I was left with a 'craft vacuum'. So I started trying to knit. It's not as satisfying as dressmaking. It's slower for a start. And you can't amend your mistakes as you go along. Hence the number of unfinished failed knitting projects lurking around the house in some kind of knitting purgatory. Not quite finished, but not quite allowed to die. If you made a mistake in sewing, as long as it didn't involve scissors, you could usually rescue things with a new seam or a bit of a tuck, or even a 'gusset'! If you finish a knitted garment and discover it doesn't quite fit all you can do is throw it in the bin and mourn the wasted months of your life spent knitting the damn thing. But there is a tactile pleasure in handling the yarn and seeing the colours, so I persist with my half-hearted knitting. It's also a lot more portable than a sewing machine and I can do it on train journeys or sitting infront of the tv (alas, the latter being more important than I like to admit).

Before Christmas, I attended a 'fairisle' knitting class to kickstart my knitting habit again. I've never knitted with colour, believing it to be too difficult, but I love the look of fairisle knitting. It was a delightful few hours, spent in the delicious surroundings of K1 Yarns.  Beautiful yarns in a cosy little shop and biscotti available along with the knitting. It was a tiny class - me, the teacher and one other pupil.  I don't know whether it was reassuring or slightly disappointing to discover that rather than there being some secret, magic knack to coping with all the different threads in fairisle, the only technique seems to be: 'do it carefully'.

What struck me most was just how much of a leveller and social lubricant knitting is. When we first sat down, I felt very self-conscious. I was quite a lot older than the other people in the group. I thought, we'll have nothing in common - except knitting of course. Before long we were chatting away about our lives and left the session as chums. I don't know whether it's the magic of knitting, or just what women do when they get together, but it was a welcome reminder of the ease of social contact when you switch off the tv, get off your arse  and go and do something with other people.

And now I have joined a knitting circle and can be found every Thursday in a cafe in Edinburgh, knitting along with a growing group of women. I confess that not a huge amount of knitting gets done. The discussion isn't really confined to knitting techniques. And sometimes the knitting is disrupted by wine drinking. But it is definitely good for the soul. And my sometimes slightly self-contained life as an emigre in Edinburgh is starting to feel a little more sociable. Thanks to knitting.

Do you want to see my first fairisle knitting attempt?

Ta Da! Isn't it beautiful! The yarn is a divinely soft alpaca, sold at K1 yarns. Can't remember its name, sorry. It's so soft that holding the balls of yarn is like having a little kitten nestling in your palm. But  what are these beautiful fairlisle objects I hear you ask? Are they the cuffs of gloves or socks, or the sleeves of a sweater? No, they are ................

Wrist warmers!?! I can't honestly imagine any occasion on which I would wear wrist warmers. I suspect 'wrist warmers' were invented so people would have something simple to knit at knitting workshops.  Still, they are sitting around my house looking very 'fairisle' and I feel a little burst of pride every time I see them. And they're finished! An achievement in itself. Perhaps I could make little tiny cushions out of them.

I have been sticking to small knitting projects, in the hope that I would actually finish something and so far it's working. 

These are socks for C in a softly marled sock yarn. Knitted using my favourite toe up sock knitting method. This method makes a nicely neat toe with no need for gathering up that little hole you get when working from the ankle down. It also lets you feel smugly skilled and competent using 'wrapped' stitches, a technique I was at first so baffled by, I had to find various instructional videos on the internet. It's easy once you know how!

My current 'knitting circle' project. More socks, from my new Socks from the Toe Up book (because you can't knit for long without needing a new book ...!). This is my first pair of lace patterned socks, with a very satisfying mock cable pattern, which you can't see properly on the picture. The yarn is 'Castle' in the shade 'Ethie', a lambswool/silk mix, spun in Scotland by Rennie  and bought from the rather wonderful Woolfish Yarns near St Abbs, whilst on a little seaside jaunt last year.

End of 'show and tell' session. It always makes me laugh that I am so proud of a few knitted socks. I have no desire to parade pictures of my PhD thesis, or my CV. But my knitting. That I want you to see!

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Rosie's Health Tips #1

Please note the irony in this title.

Have just read in my new cookbook Darina Allen's Forgotten Skills of Cooking that cinnamon is supposed to reduce cholesterol. Which means that the Norwegian Cinnamon Buns are actually health food! Or at least, maybe the cinnamon will cancel out the effect of all the butter, sugar etc. Do you see where I'm coming from?

Ah, the joys of self-deception. Bon Appetit!

Parcel pleasures

I have been lucky enough to receive a couple of parcels recently, containing exquisite handmade offerings. Adding to the joy of receiving such items is the fact that they were totally unexpected. They were both proper parcels - wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string (do I hear a song coming on ..??).

The first was in fact a wedding invitation. But not just any wedding invitation. These were lovingly hand-crafted by my friend S, she of the handmade bath products and violet creams. I think you will agree that this is the most beautiful wedding invitation ever.

Here it is, wrapped in its brown paper. There was also some fine, burnished string stuff around it, but unfortunately I've lost that.

And here it is. It's about 10 inches long. The colours in the photo have come out slightly darker and cruder than they are in reality. The palette is very delicate and 'antique rose'. Also, what you can't see from the photo is that it is quilted, with the pictures transferred onto silky fabric. The smaller pieces have little pictures of things that are significant for the happy couple.

Adorable isn't a word that comes often to my lips, but I think it is apt on this occasion.

Of course my immediate reaction was that S should set up in business making bespoke wedding invitations for wealthy people. I had to be restrained from rushing into a nearby, very chi-chi wedding shop and dangling it infront of them. S pointed out that hers is a very small wedding and she'd only had to make 6 of them. It would be a different proposition taking on a 150 guest society wedding. Fair enough.

The second parcel was hand delivered yesterday. At first I thought it was a premature Valentine's gift from C, based on his slightly defensive description of how it had arrived. Then I remembered that I was due a gift, as part of the Soul Quest workshops I have been attending over the last few months. This is a course that mixes 5rhythms Dance - which I have dabbled in on and off for the last 15 years (eek - is it that long?!) - with all sorts of expressive arts activities, such as painting, collage making, writing and performance. It is a heady experience, and one which I don't have time to go into right now. Maybe I will later. Anyway, at the last session we were all given the name of one of the other participants and asked to send them an anonymous present before the next session. A sort of secret soul santa. Unsurprisingly, I haven't got round to sending out my gift yet. Ahem. But this little parcel is my gift from an anonymous Soul Quester.

Here's the parcel - out of focus unfortunately, as I seem to be having trouble with the autofocus function on my camera, and frankly, life's too short to take all these photos again.

Inside, a little gold box tied with glittery ribbon.

In the box, wrapped in scarlet tissue, an egg-shaped casket, embellished with flowers, glitter, and pink and red designs.

Ta Da! The casket contains a rose silk pouch with a tiny, heart-shaped quartz crystal within. Aw. It's like something out of a fairy tale. The quartz crystal apparently: Activates and enhances pineal and pituitary glands. Stimulates brain function. Amplifies thought forms. Dispels negativity in one's energy fields.

Sounds perfect as I am currently suffering from a deep, winter lethargy and existential angst about life in general. Fingers crossed.