Christmas cooking

I’m not quite sure why, but this year I decided I’d make a lot of edible Christmas gifts for people. So since the end of November I have been busy each weekend baking a range of things, and then being inspired to dig out more recipes when I had ‘spare’ ingredients (bananas; chocolate; egg yolks…). I’ve had classicfm on in the background – their christmas playlist is lovely – and even had a request read out one morning as I was making carrot cakes.

Many of the recipes came from my Scandinavian Christmas book – I think the guaranteed snow in most of Scandinavia and the fact that Father Christmas probably comes from Lapland (as opposed to the North Pole, where of course there is only ice and no land) somehow makes the Scandinavians the experts in ‘christmas’, or at least in ‘winter food’. And of course there’s lagom, and fika, and hyyge…

So without any further ado, here is a pictorial list of what I made, with some comments I’ve tried to keep brief.

These first few did not come from the Scandinavian book; the Clementine and Mustard Seed chutney was in the Waitrose Christmas magazine (slightly adapted); I can’t remember where the Orange and Fig wine and white Mulled wine came from. The other chutney is a very similar one but made with apples. I’m going to my neighbours (they’re my bubble) on Christmas Day, and they’ve assured me they love chutney… I have a feeling this could keep them going a while, so I hope they don’t have too much in stock already. And when someone’s letting you share their christmas dinner you have to take something to drink with you. The mulled wine needs to be served warm; the orange and fig wine like an apertif, really cold.

Cake is always popular, and M&S had a nice recipe for carrot cake in their christmas food brochure (again, slightly adjusted). I had some bananas left, so an old favourite out of Cake (the recipe book by Rachel someone) got made, and then topped with chocolate and stars to make it more christmassy. The spiced Christmas cake drizzled with white chocolate which is meant to look like a christmas tree, came from the Scandinavian book – I think the Cardamon cake did too (the Scandinavians seem to love cardamon – it was in SO many of the recipes – I’ve now run out of cardamon).

These are probably two of the things I was most pleased with. The Brown Cookies (containing spices and candied peel) were really popular – it’s a recipe I’d definitely make again – and my macarons could be improved but weren’t bad. Booths supermarket posted an extremely good video by ‘chef Paul’ on how to make macarons; for mine I actually used an Italian meringue rather than a French meringue, but I made some before these to try out his method. The only problem was that a lot of them stuck to the greaseproof paper, and they’re so delicate they of course broke. Oh well – it meant that I was able to taste test them…

The stollen, surprisingly, wasn’t from the Scandinavian book but from Raymond Blanc’s Christmas, a recipe book I’ve had for years and used several times. The Honey cakes were from the Scandinavian book, but what the recipe didn’t say was ‘DO NOT use runny honey’: my mixture was impossible to roll out and cut into shapes which could then have been covered in tempered dark chocolate. I understand that the cakes tasted good though. One of my favourites however was the Venetian Focaccia above, from Venezia – a beautiful recipe book by the Tessa Kiros, the same author of Like Apples for Jam and Falling Cloudberries. It creates an incredibly light cake, something of a cross between panatone and brioche (probably more like the former), and lemony. I doubled the amount of lemon zest in it but you could easily triple it if you love lemon (as I do).

Almost equally as light was Pulla Bread (Scandinavian again). I don’t like raisins but it seems to me that you could easily make it without raisins – or alternatively if you want an alcoholic version, you could cut down the amount of milk in the recipe and add brandy-soaked-raisins (which, by the way, are in my carrot cakes).

Finally, one of my friends said she didn’t like spiced cakes particularly: and I know she loves chocolate. So here is a dark and white chocolate cake (with actual chocolate in the sponge as well as on top). The recipe is from BBC Good Food, which is a great resource if you just want to find a recipe for something online and be fairly sure it will work (the Waitrose website is also good. I used to use Great British Chefs and Great Italian Chefs, but they now charge).

The only things left for me to make now are Honey Roast Parsnips and roast potatoes for the main course on Christmas Day, and bruschetta/crostini (of various types) as a starter.

Happy Christmas!

Variations on the theme of Apples

My apple tree produced some tasty apples last year, but most years they’re small, hard and rather sharp. However friends have trees which produce tons of apples of various varieties, and so I’ve benefitted from generous bagsful of Bramleys and other types.

One of the pleasures of having plenty of an ingredient is researching the recipes. I have a fairly extensive collection of recipe books, many relating to cuisines from around the Mediterranean and further afield; some by some of the chefs whom I admire the most.

I haven’t made many recipes from my Simon Rogan book: for anyone who doesn’t know, he runs L’Enclume, a restaurant at Cartmel in the south of Cumbria and one of the four or five Michelin-starred restaurants in the county. I decided I’d try his Fig and Apple Chutney, with a few variations. I’m not a great chutney fan but it went down well with the people I gave it to, even though it came out a bit runny despite cooking it for ages. I also made some cheese scones for it to go with (always best fresh from the oven).

I also decided to make a very complex Raymond Blanc recipe, which entailed making about 6 different elements. As I wanted to get it right I took two days to do the entire thing. He calls it Apple Mousse birthday cake; it’s a slightly spicy sponge base with creme cremeux, caramelised apple slices and apple mousse on top, then a layer of apple glaze as the finishing touch. There was a bit of calvados in it too…

I then managed to sprain my ankle running, so decided to rest it one weekend. Although I went to the swimming pool – which was a far better experience than I’d feared it would be – this meant I had plenty of time to do some more cooking. I made a bacon and broccoli flan (with excessive extra cheese – it was yummy); an apple tart which had a sort of vanilla custard on it; and then something out of my French cookery book which was called Apple Fondant with a Pommeau sauce. The latter would have been better made with thinner slices of apple but the pommeau was lovely (cream, calvados and sugar syrup, basically).

As more apple supplies arrived, I started looking for recipes that were a bit different. Monica Galleti’s Apple and Blackberry bake was OK – better served hot than lukewarm – but I think I’d have preferred the topping if it had been a bit lighter (there was no flour in it, just ground almonds). The Chocolate Apple cake out of the Green & Black’s recipe book didn’t taste that great when it was straight out of the oven – the apple filling tasted a bit sharp and the dark chocolate topping went well with the sponge but not the filling. The following day however it tasted rather good. I think the addition of cocoa nibs rather than grated chocolate to the sponge was an improvement – there were also chopped hazelnuts in the sponge (and on the top of the cake) which the cocoa nibs complemented.

Finally I made a Swedish apple cake. It uses a brioche-type dough flavoured with cardamon, and is topped with apple slices tossed in cinnamon and rosemary, and pine nuts. I’ve made it twice now and I’m not convinced by it: I think using bread flour might be better and also the apple should be mixed into the dough rather than just put on the top. It also took longer to cook than the recipe said and in fact today was still a bit soggy in the middle. The flavours were good though.

As you can see from the photo, I also made French sticks. I’ve been given more apples – I think it might be time for more chutney in time for Christmas.

Lockdown 8/Furlough 5

At the beginning of this week I’m still struggling with sadness, and waking up in the morning feeling purposeless. My biggest worry is not in fact coronavirus but the future of the planet – we have an incredible opportunity to make something better of our world at the moment (and to pull together more than ever), but instead some people are becoming more isolation-ist, on all sorts of levels, and I’m not sure that the improvements to the environment will continue. On a global level it is, as usual, the really poor who will suffer – the refugees and the crowded shanty towns – and I just don’t know what to do about them.

Making cake sounds superficial in comparison, but allowing my creative baker some rein – now I have flour, yeast, etc. – makes me feel that at least I’m doing something that’s a very small treat for people. It’s nothing in the overall scheme of things but for me there’s something therapeutic about cooking (funnily enough I have just been asked to quote for catering for a hen party in August – I wonder if it will actually happen…).

‘On order’ are Rum Babas (bouchon) for Clare and Colin, a chive and cheese loaf for Clare’s Dad, and another St Clement’s drizzle cake.

I also got out on my bike today. After 3 days of not doing any exercise and not spending long in the open air, it confirmed my belief (and the scientific research) that one of the best things for people is to be outside and exercising. What with the bike ride and then delivering the cake to Jo and Jerry, my mood has been quite restored.

Saturday 16th May

Sometimes I just need to speak to people, and to stop analysing and worrying about whether or not I’m a good mother. Kids can be rotten: and whilst mine don’t seem anxious at all at the moment, they are out of their usual routine and (like me; like us all) not able to see their friends and family. Not only have I been outside exercising, but I’ve also had a socially-distanced walk with my lovely friend and neighbour Laura today, and that was also uplifting. We came across an enormous bank of wild garlic – unfortunately I didn’t have a bag to collect any but I think there will be lots in Gelt Woods for a week or so yet.

I’m going to write elsewhere about yesterday’s 8-mile (13km) sight-seeing run along Hadrian’s Wall but in the meantime the Rum Babas/bouchon are soaking in rum syrup and the cheese and chive bread rolls have been delivered (after I’d tested one just to make sure they were OK). I now have more orders for another St Clement’s Drizzle cake, and am going to make Drunken Raisin ice cream and oatcakes for a friend. Very satisfying.

Pub quizzes and chats

You know how it is when you chat to people: you realise that actually you’re not alone in your thoughts and there are plenty of other people out there thinking along similar lines.

Chatting to my friend Kath on Thursday evening she said “I don’t want to go back to how we were before: I don’t need shops and all this overwhelming stuff”. It reminded me of walking through a store in Bristol around Christmas one year in my pre-children adulthood and feeling swamped by Stuff; it reminds me of shopping in Oxford St. and not being able to find what I wanted because there was too much choice. And, like Kath, I haven’t missed shops: my type of shopping tends to be when I have a specific list and I zip around trying to find exactly what I want before then dashing away again. I don’t particularly enjoy window shopping, and although I like to be able to see some clothes and books in a shop rather than online – and shoes need to be tried on – I do order things online and I enjoy waiting for the postman to arrive.

Having had a chat with Kath I then tried out an online pub quiz in aid of Alzheimer’s Research. I felt quite emotional as the amount being raised went up and up, matched by thousands by a wealth management company; but I also felt sad that charities such as Alzheimer’s (and Cumbria Mountain Rescue, which I have just donated to as well) are having to furlough staff and are struggling financially. It made me think that charities which deal with human life and death are perhaps far more important to society than those which are heritage-based. Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud to work for English Heritage and I absolutely adore (most) old buildings, and love the stories they tell – but at the end of the day, whilst our heritage is important (and an integral part of who we are), struggling human life is more important. On the other hand I also feel that the National Trust and similar ‘landscape’ charities are important from an environmental point of view.

I’ve struggled this week, in my glass-half-empty-this-week mindset, to see how on earth humans will ever change or make the world a better place. We need more kindness, more calmness; less greed and less speed and pressure; but as soon as lockdown was even slightly lifted we were all back in our cars and there was footage of people commuting to work as if life hadn’t changed in the slightest. Easy for me to be critical from rural Cumbria, however.

I will know by Friday 22nd whether I’m being furloughed for longer – potentially until October. Meanwhile a bunch of us from work, all furloughed, met up over Zoom: we’re feeling guilty that we’re being paid to have a lazy time but also finding it hard not to be involved in making things happen and in decision-making.

Whatever happens, I’ve decided I really need to get my ‘glass-half-full’ head back on and enjoy myself. If I’m furloughed for even longer I’ll definitely be ready to do a triathlon to celebrate my 60th birthday – if not before.

Lockdown 5/Furlough 2

I forgot that my ‘major’ problem last week was cat fleas. At least, I think that’s what it was: it might have been something I picked up out running. Every-so-often I seem to get this problem where my ankles get bitten (whatever it is seems to get just inside the top of my socks, where I get the impression that it goes mad because it can’t get out and bites me in frustration).

Last week it seemed to be worse overnight and I got to the stage where I was wondering about not sleeping in my own bed, but in the spare bed. However having sprayed various rooms in the house, washed tons and tons of bed linen (and my younger son’s duvet – just in case), vacuumed like a loony, stuck extra flea-stuff on the cat and slept with a bowl of washing up liquid under my bed, the problem doesn’t seem quite so bad. Fingers crossed.

I’m really enjoying my daily Yoga with Adriene. Having started on her 2015 30 days of yoga but added in a couple of other classes, I’ve just now done day 23 on 22nd April. Next I’m going to do some yoga for the lower back as I have a feeling that might also help my shoulder – I’ve had some sort of shoulder problem (stiffness/pain) which seems to have been exacerbated by doing Duolingo on my phone on the train on the way to work: definitely doing less of that plus some shoulder mobility and stretching exercises helped (and I should probably do more), but yoga and not travelling so much definitely seems to be the real key.

I keep wondering what the world is going to look like; what things we’ll go back to and what we won’t go back to after this virus is ‘over’: if it ever really is. I was doing a CPD webinar yesterday about Permitted Development rights – I don’t know about the planning system in other countries, but over here there are certain changes you can make without planning permission. One of them is changing offices to residential, which has apparently been somewhat contentious as it’s resulted in some very poor quality (and small) residential units. I asked the question at the end of the webinar about why we didn’t, and whether we should, have similar legislation helping the change from retail to residential: our town and city centres years ago suffered from office uses moving out to cheaper and more car-friendly locations on outskirts (a mistake, to my mind, for all sorts of reasons, though you can see why economically it suited people). But nowadays retail is also under pressure and I really think the answer is to bring more residential uses into town and city centres (parking will need some creative thinking, including some way of trying to get us all out of our cars, especially in towns and cities which don’t have good public transport. My aunt, in London (zone 2, so fairly central but not right in the middle), has a car but rarely uses it – but then she also has a bus pass and there is great public transport in London (and a congestion charge)). I’m attending a webinar on the future of the High Street this evening, and am also contributing some questions and thoughts on the subject: I’ll get back to you on this later. Meanwhile I’m off out for a bike ride in the sun (I’m not feeling very motivated to run at the moment).

Later

It was quite breezy out on the bike but yet another glorious sunny day (in fact I think we probably could really do with some rain, or at least the gardeners and farmers could). I was on my triathlon bike, which I haven’t cycled for ages. I’d been wondering how different it would feel from my other road bike – the answer was, surprisingly so! The gearing means it’s faster on the flat, but harder work uphill – but on the other hand the wheels/tyres are also narrower, which helps. What surprised me – as I’m not terribly technical about bikes – was how different it felt size/shape wise – the frame geometry is more different than I’d expected. And also the saddle is a lot more comfortable – mental note to self to get a different saddle for my other bike, which is overall a more comfortable ride for longer distances (you don’t feel the bumps quite so much).

I loved being out on my bike and decided that I’d cycle this week rather than running – although not tomorrow as I’m ‘at’ an all day online conference and then it’s theatre night, so I shall just go for a quick run at some point. It’s a real luxury having the time to be able to cycle at the moment, so I may as well make the most of it.

When I got home I then finished moving the paving slabs in the garden and planted some pea seeds. I also noticed that loads of lovely tulips are coming into flower: and the african violets are spreading well around the garden!

English

I definitely have more time for one of my favourite pastimes, reading, at the moment: I ‘treat’ myself each morning to some time reading while I drink that so-important first coffee of the day. Fortunately I had a pile of books by my bed and a friend has now also dropped a boxful of books off, so I’ve had plenty of reading material.

A book which was recommended to me was The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, and I’ve just started it. I’ve always been fascinated by language but also by history – I loved the period of history, the so-called dark ages and early medieval, that I did at school. I’d always felt that we (the English) fought so much with the French because we were closely related to them – like brother and sister. In fact we’re probably more closely related to them by going back to Celtic times than through the Normans – but what Melvyn Bragg’s book points out is how closely related the two languages are, and how English very nearly ‘lost’ out to French. I knew that French had carried on being the language of the aristocracy for hundreds of years (rather, I would assume, as it was in Russia?), and I’d always thought that despite being a so-called Germanic language, English actually has a lot in common with Romance languages. I hadn’t fully appreciated or considered just how much of the vocabulary of current day English comes from French, nor that French was, in medieval times, the language of trade (which is how words from Arabic have also come into our language). It’s amazing really when you think that English is now the language of commerce for the entire world.

The other thing, harking back to when I read The Origins of the British, is that English was actually brought into the country by a minority elite, and a minority who only initially ruled the south of the country – who almost lost out to the Vikings. That this language was then nearly overcome by another ruling minority – the Normans – and that they then became almost more English than the English, makes for a fascinating read.

Perhaps rather appropriate that I’m writing this on St. George’s Day – though in fact he was born in Turkey and became a soldier in the Roman army. Perhaps his heritage in some way reflects the rich mongrel mix that is English.

Running vs. cycling

I mentioned that I’d be going for a short run today as there wasn’t time to cycle. In fact my short run turned into a nature walk as after a couple of km I started feeling weird – I get this low blood sugar thing where I start to feel light headed/dizzy, a bit sweaty and a bit shaky – at its worst I get so dizzy that everything goes black; if the kids are around I can also get quite short-tempered and snarly (“stop winding me up and get me food NOW!”).

As I ran/walked I was thinking about the different aspects of running and cycling. What I really love are my long runs with my friend Penny – they’re not in order to get fit, although we do challenge ourselves, but are as much about getting out and exploring places. Having run the 16 biggest lakes of the Lake District for her 50th, I’ve suggested we run 60 of Cumbria’s tarns and small waters for my 60th: we could do some lovely long exploratory runs which would take in 3 or 4 tarns at a time.

Unless you’re a completely dedicated ultra-marathoner, you can’t run really long distances without the odd break for photos, flapjack, etc.: and that’s part of the pleasure of these runs. Cycling, on the other hand, is more relentless somehow: it’s not quite as easy to stop to take photos, and I’m often tempted to stop but instead just keep bowling along – especially if I’ve got up a good pace.

They’re both great in their own way: if I want to start doing triathlon again I’m going to have to get quicker and more consistent with my running; but for now just getting out and about every day is far, far more than I’ve been doing for years! Meanwhile I notice that the wild garlic is beginning to come out: this year I really must collect a load and make soup!

Monday 27th April

So that’s the end of another slightly strange week. Compared with the end of last week (or slightly before), my mood is far better: and from talking to other people I think a lot of people have had a bit of a low this past 10 days or so. It’s maybe just getting used to this different pace of life. I went out for another, longer bike ride – up to Bewcastle. It’s incredibly isolated up there and as I cycled back an amazing panoramic view opened up into the far distance – across to Northumberland, the northern Pennines, the Lake District. I wish my words could describe it better and that a camera could portray it better. You’re not particularly high up at Bewcastle, but you feel far away both in space and time, and as if you’re at the edge of something. The sky is gigantically huge, the sheep spill out on to the road as if cars didn’t exist and it feels as if it wouldn’t be surprising if Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons or Vikings suddenly appeared: or a bunch of marauding Border Reivers (English or Scottish) driving cattle.

At the end of this week I am close to having finished my 30 days of yoga; I have had some video singing lessons; I have spoken to friends, some of whom I haven’t spoken to for ages; I’ve done a bit of Italian though not as much as I intended; and I have tried to do home-schooling (surprisingly hard when you’re also trying to be a mother and when the children are actually far more interested in the xbox). I’ve also mused over many things, and whilst I’ve tried to get some of those thoughts down here, as with so many thoughts which are emotional in basis, some of them are less relevant today than they were on the day I had them, and it’s probably as well that transient grumpiness or paranoia doesn’t get written down in a blog.

What am I aiming to achieve in this coming week? Do I really ‘need’ to achieve anything, or is life currently about enjoying what I can, and doing so contentedly, rather than pushing to achieve all the time?

Ladies of the Lakes (1)

I announced recently that I wasn’t going to do any more charity dinners, but that I would carry on having friends to dinner. As I only had a couple of ‘donating’ guests for the most recent dinner, I cancelled it as a charity do and instead invited friends to dinner. There ended up being 9 of us.

I kept the menu much the same – there are a host of recipes I wanted to try from Antonio Carluccio’s The Collection (which my Mum had kindly bought me when we went out for lunch to Carluccio’s at Cribbs Causeway) so I chose a 4-course menu from that book:

Insalata all’Abbruzzese (vegetable and tuna salad – basically an italian version of Salade Nicoise, which is one of my favourites)

Manilli de Seta (Silk hankerchief pasta with pesto – I was very proud of the pasta I made, which came out beautifully thin due to my Imperia pasta rolling machine: but I was really lazy and despite buying the ingredients for pesto I actually used Sainsburys fresh pesto, even though it would have been dead easy to make)

Stracotto (which means ‘overcooked’ – beef brisket cooked slowly in stock, a mirepois and white wine), served with Patate e Porcini (potatoes and ceps, except I used ordinary mushrooms. But a few of the potatoes came from my garden, as did the sage leaves)

Zabaione con salsa di cioccolato amaro (zabaglione with bitter chocolate sauce. This turned out well except the bitter chocolate sauce could have done with being lighter – it turned into solid lumps of chocolate and had mostly sunk by the time I served the desserts. I think the ratio of cream to chocolate needs to be different – and perhaps adding a bit of butter might help?)

It was one of those fantastic evenings which went well from the beginning, with 3 or 4 lively conversations at all times. The atmosphere was great.

Three of us had already arranged that we would go wild swimming in Crummock Water the next day. The weather forecast had looked a bit gloomy and damp but in fact the sun was attempting to come out and although the air felt slightly cool (if you were standing out in a swimsuit), the water was lovely – two of us even took our wetsuits off and went in just in swimsuits, although my fingers had turned green by the time I got out. As previously, it was great to be swimming at water surface level, the fells around dwarfing us. You feel completely part of nature and, as Jo said, ‘it’s very calming’. It was her first time ever wild swimming – but I think she’s hooked!

We discussed how we should go about celebrating Anne’s 60th and her goal to swim in all 16 lakes: we decided we needed to be in the water for at least 30 minutes each time in order to be able to make it ‘official’. The next lake we’re aiming to swim in is Ullswater, and as we drove back we picked our name: Ladies of the Lakes. Crummock Water was our first ‘official’ one – so 15 more to go!

Ageing and such like

I have come across various quotations recently, including one today which said ‘it’s never too late to become the person you want to become’ and another – an advertisement by the Sanctuary Spa – encouraging women to relax and to ‘let go’ .  As I am just starting a college course, aiming for a change in career and it’s my birthday next week, both got me thinking.

Changing career is both exciting and daunting.   I am old enough to be the mother, if not the grandmother, of some of the other students.  But for some while now I have wanted to do something more creative.  Singing and writing were never going to pay the bills; cooking on the other hand, although at most levels not as well paid as surveying, could do.  I am torn between wanting to do something which is fulfilling for me; having to provide financially for my children; trying to balance work with looking after my children (picking them up from school, not too many hours in after school club, trying not to ask their father to look after them more than I do, etc. etc.).  I don’t know whether I’m doing the right thing – I’m definitely stepping out of my comfort zone in many ways – but I do know that drifting along as a surveyor is not satisfying, not fulfilling and, ultimately, doesn’t seem to be providing the right opportunities to make of it either a career or a vocation any longer.  I’ve applied for jobs and got nowhere, whereas already opportunities for catering are coming my way.

The other issue I’m debating in my head is whether it’s selfish to find something which is fulfilling, career-wise (which is why being able to provide for my children financially is an important factor).  The Sanctuary advert popped into my consciousness at just the right moment: my Thursday evening run had been cancelled (partly by me – the weather was atrocious) and I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and a bit low.  Straight away I was thinking about my ‘to do’ list and how, as I wasn’t going running I then ‘must do… singing practice; learn/practice Italian; sort out my college folder; write all the features I’ve been meaning to write; go out for a run anyway…’ as if the suddenly empty time had to be filled.

The Sanctuary advert pulled me up short.  I roamed around a bit on Facebook, finding an inspiring clip about a man who had started running at 95 and long jump at 97; I lit some candles and had a bath (I normally have a shower as it’s quicker), lying there for ages not even reading but with bubbles about a foot higher than the surface of the water, just day dreaming; I eventually did some singing; and then I roamed around a bit more on Facebook and pinterest before writing this post.

I haven’t done all the things I could have done; but instead of feeling sad and sorry for myself I’ve enjoyed having some contemplative, peaceful time on my own.  I’m happy that I’m following my dream of being more creative, and excited about my change of career and where it might lead me: and I’m glad I’m doing it before I’m too old.

I still have a list of things to do, or that I wish to do, and I don’t want to live to regret not doing anything – but at the same time I know that sometimes it’s OK just to take some time out and do nothing.  As the Italians say, “la dolce far niente”.  And at those points, when you’re happy enough and confident enough to stop – to have a break from the rushing around we all do – you can look into yourself and see who you really are.  And you know what?  I like who I am (phew!).

Comfort Zones

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I’ve never really been one to stay in my comfort zone for too long: though people’s attitude to me has varied between ‘what the hell are you doing that for – are you an idiot?’ and ‘good for you’.  Funny, isn’t it – how people’s reactions to the things we do can be so diametrically opposed.  Just confirms that you have to do what your own heart/ head/ senses/ conscience tell you to do, not what other people think you should do, as some people will think you are right and some – probably, if it was analyzed, about 50% – will think you are wrong.

I can’t remember the first time I stepped outside my comfort zone and did something someone thought I shouldn’t, but I do remember my father saying something along the lines of daughters doing incomprehensible, rash things like switching to degree courses in subjects such as music.  I also remember a musical friend saying with surprise, about one of my music essays, “you sounded as if you knew what you were talking about – even though I knew you had no idea what a diminished 9th was” (actually, I might have known what a diminished 9th was – I probably looked it up purely for the purposes of the essay).

Later on of course I went for a safe-ish option and became a chartered surveyor.  At that point the unemployment rate for surveyors was very low, although to become chartered as a non-cognate graduate and as a woman (shock, horror – ‘they’ didn’t even approve of women wearing trousers to work when I began my surveying career in 1986!) was more unusual.  Someone from one of the long-established West End firms wrote in response to my job request, that they might have a job going managing their fleet cars – and that they (he) thought that often it was best if people ‘stuck to their own last’.

That sort of comment was, of course, guaranteed to make me stick to becoming a chartered surveyor rather than giving up – as with the guy who I had worked with previously who said what on earth made me think I’d stick to it when I’d stuck to nothing else work-wise up until then… what made me stick to it was that I had something to prove, not only to other people but also to myself.

After about 8 years in surveying I’d had enough however and decided to chuck it all in and go to work as a holiday rep., firstly in France (where I would have liked to have stayed) and then in Norway.  My father said “You’re not to give up a well-paid secure job to become a holiday rep.”.  Did I take any notice?  I had no mortgage, no children… and left a job paying £30,000 pa for one paying about £3,000 pa.  I had a great time and have seen bits of rural France that I shall probably never see again – and I could also speak fluent French when I got back.  My French is no longer fluent, but it gave me a confidence in speaking it which I think probably also helped with, later on, learning Italian.

I fell into a comfort zone after that though – my career progressed; I bought a flat; I earned (compared to my mortgage) a lot of money.  Then I met David, settled down, had children, moved to Cumbria… life was steady.

Or was it?  Don’t you think Life has a way of surprising you?  I am well aware that it really cannot be planned for – some things you wish for do indeed happen, but the effects of them are never quite what you expect and there are all the other things which happen which you didn’t even dream of (or the things you wished for happen, but turn out then to follow a different path from the one you’d expected or hoped for).

So there I was, plodding along, doing a job, taking redundancy as I hated the job and assumed I would just walk into another one as I always had… and I ended up pregnant, aged 48/49.  The creative side of me, which had been somewhat under wraps since graduating, had started rearing its head as well: I was singing and writing and started doing more of both.  The baby arrived, and provided a huge amount of joy and a fair amount of media interest.

Then my husband left.  After a few months of adjusting to it and having unexpectedly inherited a bit of money, I found I wanted to spread my wings and enjoy my new-found freedom and my 45% child-free time.   About a year later I got a job as a surveyor again, having thought I’d never go back to it, and had the most passionate and intense love affair of my life, with a guy who tapped right into the essence of me – the creative, free me which had been trying to escape the comfort zone for so long.

And now… after the pain (I still miss him); the acceptance (my kids have to come first) and the realisation (I am a creative person, and a people person)… I am about to step out of my comfort zone again.  I have a new job as a part-time chef, and am about to start a catering course in September.  Because of time restraints it is unlikely, come September, that I shall work as a surveyor again – after 30-odd years in the profession.

But, as I said in my college interview, I have 12 to 15 years of working life left.  I want, and intend, them to be enjoyable and (therefore) successful.  On an emotional level it feels as if I’m doing the right thing; on a practical level it also makes sense as there is far more demand for chefs than there is for surveyors and I have experience (e.g. in management and also in promotion) which is transferable.  I may go ‘backwards’ initially (in terms of starting again at the bottom, having to retrain, and not earning much) but it’s in order to go forwards more.  And the opportunities and openings are enormous – I wanted to live and work in France but didn’t manage it – becoming a chef my only restraint to where I work is my children.  There’s also a whole history to how I got to this stage, but it’s not necessarily relevant: suffice to say that when a friend suggested I get a job as a chef I mulled it over and eventually realised that she was talking a lot of sense and picking up on something which had been within me for a while.

She also suggested I start a supper club, so that’s exactly what I’ve done, with the profit going to charity.  If you feel like ‘sharing’ this and encouraging friends who live in or who are visiting Cumbria to come along, it would be great if you could – I would love to get really booked up.  And guess what… my new website also has a blog!

Visit: Brampton Supper Club

(and on Facebook: Facebook page for Brampton Supper Club)

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties

– Erich Fromm

flowers for courage

Half term with the kids

Half term has been and gone in a flash.  Last weekend was David’s turn to have the children, although I had them on Friday night and Saturday night, which meant that I had time for a run on Askham Fell with Penny on Sunday.  Both of us had work to do so after a late lunch at the cafe at Askham Hall, it was time to head home.  I drove back over the hills rather than up the motorway, and came to the conclusion that one day I shall live in Penrith or Kirkoswald, high up a hill and with a view.

On Monday Edward and Bella were keen to go to Energi, the new(ish) trampolining place in Carlisle.  I jumped too… I’m not very good as whilst I don’t mind jumping high, I’m not very brave at jumping over on to the next trampoline – though I did manage it a few times.  I also landed on the hard bit in between a couple of times, which is rather jarring on the ankles.  I wonder if I was the oldest jumper in the place?  I’m now thinking it would be good to go to one of the ‘Energi Fit’ classes.

Tuesday I had a conference and choir, so the children were with David Monday night and Tuesday night and back to me on Wednesday morning.  We had various dentists and opticians appointments all week, Edward had a swimming lesson every afternoon, and Bella was booked on to a Robotics course on Wednesday.  She found it boring as all they did was make robots out of cardboard, but at least she didn’t learn how to hack the school computer and write rude things on it, which was what happened after the Coding course… we also did some cooking that afternoon – she made a flourless chocolate cake and I made banana cake.  As nobody wanted to eat the banana cake (none of us is a fan of bananas, it seems) we gave it away, and I understand it was enjoyed by the recipients.

On Thursday the ‘treat’ was the Lego Batman movie, along with popcorn and hotdogs.  It hasn’t been a particularly healthy week food-wise, the more so as the kids seem to be rebelling against my tendency to want to eat fish as my main protein rather than red meat.  So this week we have had spaghetti bolognese, chicken curry, and chilli with tacos – I’ve also made lamb tagine which I’m going to add butternut squash to before serving it with couscous, but I’m not sure what the trio’s reaction will be to that.

I had arranged to meet a friend at Whinlatter on Friday and as we drove down there the weather was colourful.  The sky was bright azure blue, the main central lakeland fells were covered in snow, and the plantlife was a mix of golden russet brown and vibrant-about-to-be-spring green.  The kids had a good time running around in the playground, although Alex tried to be too old and too cool for it.  Judging by my garden, spring is definitely on its way, and despite Storm Doris (a bit of a non-event up here in Cumbria), the weather hasn’t even been particularly cold.

Not until today, that is – and even then it was only cold on Talkin Fell.  Alex had a friend, Luke, to stay for the weekend.  We had a militaristic day yesterday with a visit to Carlisle Castle and the Regimental Museum followed by the Roman Gallery at Tullie House and then today decided we’d walk up Talkin Fell.

It all started well enough but became windier, wetter and wilder the higher we got.  Bella then fell over in some mud (as happened last time we went up there as well – spot the brown-ness of her black jeans), and the happy mood of the day changed to grumpiness.  As by then we were all getting colder and wetter we decided perhaps we wouldn’t go all the way to the top and eat our picnic up by the cairns: and the two older boys suggested sensibly that we should walk back to the car and eat the picnic in the car.

Edward has got happily filthy every day this holiday week; they have all eaten a lot of rubbish food (as well as plenty of good food as well) – and despite the inevitable arguments, anger and tellings off – it’s been a fab. week.

Restaurants

I haven’t had much money for eating out this year – it’s been a difficult year emotionally and financially, although both have improved as time has gone on.  Unfortunately with the latter, as soon as I think things are improving they seem to go pear-shaped again – the latest being an unexpected tax bill which has arisen not through my error but due to HMRC’s ineptitude with my PAYE… that having been said, I have no doubt they will still want me to pay it (bang goes the lump sum from one of my pensions, which was going to pay for some house repairs and garden maintenance).

Still, despite that I have been on some brilliant trips this year and therefore eaten out in some fantastic places.  There isn’t really any one restaurant which stands out in Italy – all the food is so fantastic, and as everybody says, the ice cream is out of this world.  But I’ve mentioned The Bridge restaurant in St Asaph, North Wales and Bella and I enjoyed Carluccio’s in London.

Then in Lanzarote recently a friend and I came across what is possibly one of the best restaurants I have ever eaten in in my entire life: Alma tapas & + (Alma tapas y mas) in La Santa village on the north west coast of the island.  We’d been a bit disappointed with most of the food on-site at Club la Santa and had tried the restaurant Verde Mar in la Santa village one evening – which was good, as was The Plaza within the Club la Santa complex itself.  We had decided we’d go back to the Verde Mar and so walked into la Santa village on the penultimate night of the holiday.  For some reason when we got there we thought we’d look to see what other restaurants there were – Penny had spotted a tapas bar one day when we’d been cycling through, though neither of us was particularly keen to have tapas.  We spotted the restaurant and liked the decor and the look of the menu… and headed in.

Alma tapas & + is a tapas bar during the day and a fully fledged restaurant at night – and Wow is it some restaurant.  The service was excellent with friendly, good-natured staff who seemed to be happy in their jobs and who were attentive without being intrusive but who were quick to respond when customers wanted something – they even seemed to like my attempts to speak Spanish, which as usual I got muddled up with Italian.  The freshly baked bread rolls were not made in house but were local, and were served warmed up with the local ‘mojos’ – a green and an orangey sauce/dip which we had been served each evening that we’d ordered bread and which are delicious (I’m just not totally sure what’s in them!).

Our main courses that day were Lamb for me and Fillet Steak for Penny – despite the fact that both of us tend to eat fish rather than red meat.  Both dishes were beautifully presented, cooked perfectly and served with a delicious selection of ‘al dente’ vegetables.  For dessert I chose a hazelnut mousse with a crispy coffee base and I think, from memory, also a layer of dark chocolate.  It was incredibly light and foamy and absolutely fantastic (and I don’t normally go for desserts).  Then, just as we were about to pay and to leave, we were offered a liqueur on the house – as they didn’t have any limoncello they offered us a grapefruit-based liqueur which again was delicious, partly as it had a lovely sharpness to it as well as the sweetness of a liqueur.

The meal was so fantastic that we opted to go there again on the final night.  This time we both had a starter as well as the bread and mojos and I ordered the Thai lobster bisque which had tempted me the day before.  This was a light, spicy soup served with some pieces of lobster, which is something I haven’t eaten since I last ate it in Capernaum bistro over a year ago, but which I love (I first tried lobster in Greece, where you could pick your lobster out of a tank where it was swimming around…).  The blend of flavours worked perfectly and I adored the fact that it wasn’t a creamy, cloying soup.

As Penny had sung the praises of the fillet steak so highly the evening before I was torn between tuna and steak, and in the end opted for the steak.  It was really melt in the mouth stuff, and later when the Brazilian owner came round she told us how they ensure it remains so succulent and soft.  Despite being full by then it was difficult to resist having a dessert, and this time it was an airy, foamy mango mousse with a white chocolate ‘cream’ beneath it.  I seem to remember the creamy base was made with yoghurt so again it was not too sweet and was of a heavenly lightness.  Desserts that light and foamy seem just to slip down as if they have no calories at all!

Despite being far busier on this second evening the service was again excellent, and we left feeling a little sad that we hadn’t discovered this superb restaurant sooner.  But I hope very much that it prospers and continues to excel.  You can be sure that next time I’m on Lanzarote I know exactly where I am going to eat.  I’m just sorry that despite taking my camera with me, I completely forgot to take any photos as I was enjoying my food so much!  You can see some of their creations on their Facebook page though – click here.

Cooking and Cadets

Alex has joined the Army Cadets.  He’s taking it very seriously – yesterday he insisted on having a very short hair cut when it wasn’t that long ago he was objecting to having it cut short at all – and he has been polishing his boots (fingers crossed the new-found discipline being instilled in him will expand into all areas of his life and will last – though he doesn’t yet seem to have applied it to his homework).

Today was Remembrance Sunday and the Army Cadets, along with Air Cadets, Air Force Personnel and some others, paraded through Brampton to the church.  Alex was with them, trying to keep his face straight when Edward wanted to run up to him and give him a high five, and was then running alongside the marching parade (earlier he – Edward – had been shouting.  He was a match for the sergeant major!).  It was a pity about the weather when it’s been so gorgeous recently, but perhaps appropriate for Remembrance Sunday – rather as Good Friday should really always be a rainy day.

It’s sad in the photos seeing Capernaum.  It started to close on Sundays about a year or more ago, but now it’s closed permanently every day.  I hadn’t been in ages for a variety of reasons, including lack of money, but the children still ask if they can go in there even though they know it’s closed.  It means however that I have rediscovered my enjoyment of cooking myself – when David left and I had some inheritance I started living a bit of a single, ‘party’, life again for a while, and having a good restaurant at the end of the road was a bonus.  I have always enjoyed cooking though and having helped in the restaurant and then also more recently been to Italy, I’m trying out new things or trying to improve on things I’ve made before.

Today was therefore a bit of a cooking-fest: I was in the right mood to get creative in the kitchen and the weather was the sort to make you want to stay indoors rather than beckoning you out into the hills.  Bella made a victoria sponge, adding almond extract and orange zest, while I had a third attempt at Panna Cotta.  It always seems so heavy when I make it, whereas the one we had in Carluccio’s last weekend was so light… I thought I’d try single cream and sheet gelatine, but although it was better it still wasn’t light enough for my taste.  Bella suggested trying less gelatine and I think she may be right.

I then made Ricciarelli, but this time made them larger than last time and with orange zest rather than lemon zest.  I think I prefer them with lemon zest – they’re slightly sharper – and I very much want to try making them with almond flour rather than ground almonds (the health food shop has some on order for me).  I wasn’t totally sure that they were cooked through to the middle as they were so much bigger than the first batch I made, so I left them in the oven once I’d switched it off, to dry out a bit more.  Later I opened the door and left some bread dough to rise while Edward and I went out to watch Alex in his parade.

I then cooked roast pork for dinner (it’s the second time I’ve bought it from Sainsburys and both times I have been very disappointed with the crackling), with all sorts of side dishes: the kids did their usual thing of eating some bits and being very fussy about others, although it was nice to see Alex produce a clean plate.  But then he hadn’t eaten since breakfast time.  He also appreciated a panna cotta, some cake and a Ricciarelli biscuit.

And soon I shall be off to Lanzarote where I shall no doubt enjoy some Spanish food!