Monday, April 14, 2014

Chocolate Makes the World Go Round

Organic cocoa beans at CocoaFair
Or if it doesn’t it certainly makes it a better place. Especially if it is artisan chocolate, made from ethically and organically grown beans. It was a Monday, the start of a short, one-week, pre-Easter school holiday and I decided that this was the perfect ‘take my girls to work with me’ opportunity. I was writing an article on artisan chocolate producers in the Western Cape, and CocoáFair invited me to come and look round. Usually all my kids see of my work is me sitting in front of the computer all day, so what better way to bring the world of writing to life than to see me gathering its raw material, in this case chocolate!

The first thing to greet us is a warm and velvety smell drifting alluringly up the steps to the doorway. It doesn’t take the glance through the glass walls to a tap splurging a stream of chocolate into a gleaming stainless steel machine to know we’re in the right place. CocoáFair is at the trendy Old Biscuit Mill in Cape Town’s Woodstock, where on Saturdays the Neighbourgoods Market is a bustle of flavour and hipness. On a Monday it is quieter, but there is still quite a vibe going on. The premises is under the old silo and the old grain chutes are incorporated into the decor.

We are whirled through the chocolate finishing room, through the chilly cooling room and to the start of the process, the inside room where the beans are first transformed into chocolate. Our guide is Marlon, who has been involved  in CocoáFair right from the start 4 years ago, acquiring that sixth sense needed to coax the cacao beans to perfection. We meet his babies and his mother-in-law, the shining specialist machines imported from Scotland that are one reason that there are so few artisan bean to bar producers. Besides the fact that the machinery is a huge investment in itself, the level of skill need to roast the beans to the exact point where they are warm and nutty without a shred of bitterness, isn’t something that can be acquired overnight. And that’s only the first stage of the highly skilled operation.

Marlon with his 'mother-in-law'

Marlon talks us through the process at a chocolate- fuelled pace and the kids and I learn all about the various processes. We crunch a roasted bean, see how the beans are separated out into nibs (the cocoa-loaded bit in the middle) and husks (which are then used by an ex-employee to make an exfoliating body-scrub, all part of their no-waste ethic). We taste the liquor (chocolate liquid and nothing to do with alcohol) mixed with cocoa butter and organic sugar in the process of being refined, which can take a couple of days, and promise faithfully not to drop anything into the mother-in-law, the imposing machine that refines the chocolate and which costs R35,000 just to open, drain and service once a year. It’s only ever used to produce dark chocolate and it’s a feat of mathematics to work out quantities when switching from 71% to 95% varieties.

A peek into the luscious swirl inside the machine

By the time we leave the inside room, with its chemical-free fly strips to catch any exotic bugs that might hatch out of the hessian sacks of beans (don’t worry any bugs and bacteria are naturally dealt with in the roasting process, without any need for contaminating chemicals), the chocolate has reached the stage of being big blocks ready to work with further. Big 1 kg slabs are sold on directly to hotels and restaurants and the rest is moulded into bars, Easter eggs and other delights. We meet Zuki, who has a delicate hand in making luscious chocolate truffles, and the four employees currently busy wrapping bars by hand. Part of the social enterprise aspect is creating jobs and training new employees gradually in the skills of chocolate. They start sweeping floors, move up to wrapping and then gradually become absorbed into the actual making.

Moulded Easter Eggs hand-painted by the CocoaFair team

Now we start to taste the finished chocolate. I hurry to taste, take notes and compare, but find that it all goes by in a flurry of Mmmmms. The 95% is incredibly smooth and not at all bitter, my girls both like the 71%, when they find most dark chocolates too strong. There’s also an 85%, a 65% and a sweet but still satisfyingly dark 56%. The percentage indicates the amount of cocoa solids and cocoa butter, the other part of the equation being pure organic sugar.

Then there are bars with added flavours, all of which have been carefully created to complement and not overwhelm the chocolate. The mint comes from Marlon’s garden to ensure it is organic, the bruised leaves then being infused in the chocolate for a clean and aromatic flavour. The chilli flavour was worked on for 3 weeks to get exactly 10s delay in the chilli glow coming through. There’s an espresso coffee, a hazelnut, a sea salt and some milk chocolates, the surprise hit being a subtle liquorice milk chocolate which is interestingly moreish. And the white chocolate has a warm creaminess that is more than just sugar, being made with a substantial amount of pure cocoa butter, no other vegetable fats, just milk and sugar added.

The staff are given a free rein on decorating the moulded chocolate Easter eggs and encouraged to experiment on developing new flavours of truffles and pralines. These are sold on the market stall and if they are a success become part of the range on offer.

Filling the chocolate moulds...chocolate on tap!

We receded out through the last room to the intense scent of orange and the sight of moulds being filled quickly and deftly with the molten magic. Then we were left with the hardest decision of the morning. Which of the bars we had tasted to buy for the rest of the family at home?

Thank you so much to Heinrich for inviting us, to Marlon for the fascinating tour and to the whole CocoáFair team for producing such delicious chocolate!

CocoáFair is at: The Old Biscuit Mill (under the silo), 373-375 Albert Road, Woodstock
Open: Mon-Fri 8-5pm  Sat 8-2pm
Tours: Saturday 10-2pm R50 pp and groups by appointment during the week
Tel: 021 447 7355

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

In Defence of Carbs

My name is Kit and I love carbs. There I’ve said it... I’m not doing the paleo thing, I send my kids to school with sandwiches made of bread and cheese, and I love baking. And it may be crazy to feel you have to defend a love for what has always been a staple part of our diet, but there are so many articles out there now demonising the simple slice of bread that it is time for me to speak out!

Let me just say that I eat meat, vegetables and dairy too. I stuck with butter throughout the many years that Flora reigned supreme. I use cream in my cooking and sometimes buy whole fat milk as well as low fat, so I don’t only love carbs, my devotion is shared between all the major food groups.

The ‘paleo’ diet sounds great for those who can afford to buy good quality meat and dairy products in decent quantities; and for those who really do have medical reasons to go low carb, such as diabetes. I’ve heard from several friends, whose opinions I respect, that going paleo has really made a difference to them. But why does a food trend have to swing so violently one way or the other. Suddenly all the information I’m bombarded with says carbs are bad, carbs are poison. Can’t we have some sensible middle ground here?

For most of us (and I mean those without medical problems, intolerances and allergies) a balanced diet is one that includes all the food groups. Carbohydrates give us energy, they are filling and satisfying, they are feel good foods. Yes it’s better to go for complex carbohydrates, like brown rice, wholewheat flour, oats and so on, but even white bread is fine in moderation. Moderation being the operative word here; a diet disproportionately heavy on carbohydrate isn’t going to be good for anyone.

 Moderation, middle ground, middle of the road sounds so dull... it’s not as interesting, dramatic or colourful as being at one of the extremes, but I really believe that when it comes to food it makes sense. Too much or too little of anything can be bad for you. All those claims for thirty years that low fat diets were the answer for a healthy heart now seem to be being refuted. I’m vindicated in my championing of butter. Who knows what research will find out about carbs in thirty years? That they actually are essential after all?

I want my children to enjoy food, to eat sensibly and not get stuck on the latest food fad. I’d like them to be able to travel the world when they’re older and eat with their local hosts without having to cross reference the menu against a long list of foods that they don’t eat.  I’d love it if they ate more vegetables. I’d love to be able to afford ethically raised meat to feed them several times every week. But as long as they are eating a fairly broad spectrum of home-cooked foods, I think that they are getting adequate nutrition.

If we are going to have any food issues in the house, I’d rather banish processed foods and focus on home-cooked. But even that I can’t take to extremes; I still feed our son on baked beans, which he loves, and eat bought peanut butter with marmalade myself as a lunchtime snack.

I have an unsubstantiated suspicion that it is modern methods of preserving and farming foods that is at the bottom of the mainstream reaction against certain foods; that it is the preservatives and traces of agricultural chemicals in flour that may be a factor in many cases of gluten intolerance; that it is hormones and chemicals in intensely farmed meat that may result in meat or animal fat causing health problems.

So my idea of a culinary utopia would be us all sitting down together and dining off a laden table of organic fruits and vegetables, cheeses and cream, organic pasture-reared meat and breads made from organic stoneground flour, without counting a single calorie, and living healthily ever after... with a generous serving of organic fair trade chocolate to finish off with.

But until that day dawns I will just do the best I can with the freshest and most ethical foods I can source and afford on a variable budget. I will bake bread, crunchies, cakes and pastries without feeling guilty about it, and I will happily cook for paleo friends, vegetarian friends, vegan friends and gluten intolerant friends (although perhaps secretly hoping that they are not all present at the same meal!)

How about you... are you finding that paleo is right for you? Or are you an unrepentant carboholic like me!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Autumn, School, Pies, Pasties and Lard

Autumn moonrise

Autumn has set in early this year. Already the children are shivering as they set off for school, still in their summer uniform, their winter rain jackets and woolly tights not even bought yet. Summer has disappeared in a blur of homework. Projects have been laboured over on weekends and it seems like we’ve hardly swum since school began.

Middle Daughter's pre-industrial farm project

The two girls have both started at our son’s school, one in high school and one in primary, both making the transition from Waldorf system to conventional, from cosy home school group to busy, bustling classes, even though it’s a small school by any other standards. I’ve gone from believing homework was something that the kids should be able to manage themselves, to being on hand every day after school to go through Maths, consult on ideas for English, test spellings and rack my brains for any fragments of knowledge to do with Accounting and EMS. Luckily for Middle Daughter, her big brother is a whizz at Accounting and Maths, so she can rope him into helping her. And Afrikaans is my husband’s department – he can get by in it, but the grammatical demands are challenging and this is the area where the girls both need to catch up, so there is much angst over orals and essays.

Homework, for once without parental intervention needed!

All this to say that life has been fairly taken over by school and work, with little time left over for blogging or thinking up new food ideas.

Peach Pie

I’ve been running on autopilot in the kitchen, except for an inspired excursion to Pomegranate Days where I found this delicious recipe for peach pie, that I’ve since made twice, to get in quick before the end of the cling peach season. You really do need the firm flesh of the cling peaches for this one and it was a hit with the whole family, so it’s worth all the hassle of peeling the peaches and fighting the flesh from the stone.

My other new cooking venture was Cornish pasties, a bastardised version that uses mince instead of steak, but is delicious nonetheless. I’m still working on the best pastry recipe to use. I know real Cornish pasties use lard, but does anyone know where you get lard in South Africa? It used to be a bog standard ingredient that you found in any supermarket in the UK, but I have never seen it on the shelves over here. Seems like it’s a speciality ingredient rather than a cheap and cheerful staple. Anyway, I’m going to get hold of some and try again soon. We’re visiting my mum in the UK in July and will actually be going to Cornwall for a few days, so I’ve got some motivation to get my version as authentic as possible before we get there and my culinary cover is blown!

There have been pear muffins too.

Anyway term is with a sigh of relief drawing to a close at the end of next week and we have a brief respite of a week’s holiday, followed by a topsy turvy April with a long weekend break for Easter and then a whole week off at the end of the month when two public holidays fall in the same week. And hopefully our autumn will be long and serene to make up for our briefer than usual summer, so that we can picnic, go to the beach and maybe even fit in an open air movie before the end of the season.

Edited to add: I tracked down some lard.... at a trendy butcher's, in a jar, organic and oh so chichi! Designed for those doing the paleo thing. Lard, a gourmet ingredient and priced to match... can you believe it, my UK readers!!!

And an autumn sunset just to finish off with.

Have a happy weekend everyone!

Friday, February 14, 2014

5 Ways to Use Up Overripe Bananas

Smoothie ice lollies with banana and berries
I don’t know about you but in our family bananas are an all or nothing thing. Either the whole bunch gets eaten within two days of my weekly shop or else it sits there, forgotten, until it quickly crosses the line that my family consider to be no longer edible; i.e. skin slightly freckled, flesh slightly soft and sweet, what anyone else would consider perfectly ripe.

But once it reaches that point of perfect ripeness no-one would even consider slicing it onto their cereal or even mashing it into yoghurt for breakfast. I have to resort to cunning and stealth before the poor rejected fruit dwindles into a soggy weeping pulp in the bottom of the fruit bowl.

Luckily there are so many things that you actually need overripe bananas for that it isn’t too hard to use them up. However I’m often too low on brain power to remember them just at the right time, so I thought I’d share those 5 ways with overripe bananas here, in case you also get stuck.

Banana bread
Yes the same old, same old, answer when the whole bunch turns black and you have to use up four bananas all at once. But it’s good and easy and delicious and you can use up bananas that really are on the verge of translucent and liquid (don’t tell my kids that though!) This is the banana bread recipe I’ve been using for years, one of the first recipes I posted on this blog, and without a photo too.

In berry season we go mad with smoothies, using up all our slightly too ripe strawberries in lashings of smoothie goodness. Bananas are the perfect foil for the strawberry acidity, giving the resulting smoothie a thicker smoother texture and a full sweetness that doesn't need any extra sugar. Out of berry season I use the stash of berries from the freezer more sparingly, both strawberries and youngberries, adding them to whatever other fruits are in season and about to go past the point of perfect ripeness, including those squishy bananas of course.. Today it was a mango that needed bits cutting out of it, the other day some nectarines.

Nobody needs a recipe for a smoothie, but ours tend to have a good dollop of natural yoghurt and some milk to bring them to the right drinkable consistency. This picture is from when the girls had friends over and they decided to go the whole hog decorating their smoothies. They were more of a dessert to eat with spoon, but that makes them even better!

Fruit ice lollies
Home-made fruit ice lollies are great to have in the freezer when the kids get home from school on a hot summer day. If I was super-mom I’d have them ready every day, but as I’m not it’s an occasional flash of brilliance rather than a regular occurrence. But I made them today with my berry smoothie mixture and am just keeping fingers crossed that they’ll have frozen hard enough by the time the kids are home as a Valentine’s Day treat.

This batch of five lollies was made with 1 ripe banana, ½ an overripe mango, ½ cup of frozen strawberries, ½ cup of frozen youngberries, ½ cup of yoghurt. Whizzed till smooth in the food processor and spooned into ice lolly moulds. That's the picture of them up top, and they froze hard in two hours, just in time to counter the back from school snack desperation.

Yoghurt muffins
Muffins that include yoghurt and oats have to be healthy, even more so with a mashed up banana and some berries or apple chunks inside. These are one of my snack stand-bys for when the kids have friends over, as they’re easy to throw together and are good and sustaining too. I like them best on the day they’re made, but they last well and don’t dry out. The only downside is that they only need one mashed banana. Here's the yoghurt oat muffin recipe and this is from when I first discovered the joys of these outrageously healthy muffins.

Buttermilk pancakes
These are my only concession to making cooked breakfasts, usually brought out when the kids have friends sleeping over, or for weekends when I’m feeling all halo-ish. The banana really does have to be nice and soft for these little pancakes, so you positively want them overripe. Here is the pancake recipe, which originally comes from Nigella's Feast

What do you do when you have a bunch of overripe bananas? Do share your favourite recipes in the comments. I'm always looking for new things to try!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Rock Buns at the River

A cup of tea, a rock bun and a canoe - relaxing by the Breede River
Ever since the dawn of time, holidays at the Breede River have been synonymous with rock buns. In my husband’s family at least. 

Nostalgic memories of long ago winter holidays snug in a caravan on their family plot with an apparently endless supply of the fragrantly spiced buns (how did they manage that endless part?... any time I bake them they disappear within 24 hours!) are part of his family history, enduring long after the plot was sold, the family grown up and scattered.

The River continues to exert its pull and our family holidays have been taken there ever since we moved back to South Africa, albeit in a series of rented houses, so the family rock bun recipe has been added firmly into my repertoire, to be baked several times over the course of a holiday, as long as the ingredients last.

Nutmeg and mixed spice, dried fruit mix and a light cakey mixture, they have some of the flavours of Christmas without the heaviness and are perfect to go with early morning tea when a swim or canoe ride are planned before breakfast, or to go with a cup of tea anytime really.

Rock Bun Recipe
Makes 12

2 cups (500ml) self-raising flour (or plain flour + 2 teaspoons baking powder)
pinch salt
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon mixed spice
125g / 4 oz butter
½ cup sugar
¾ cup mixed dried fruit / fruit cake mix
1 egg
2-3 tablespoons milk

Preheat the oven to 175˚C / 350˚F

Sift together the flour, salt and spices.
Cut the fridge- cold butter into dice and rub them into the flour, until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
Stir in the mixed fruit and sugar.
Beat the egg and milk together then stir it into the dry ingredients.
Mix till it starts clumping together. Use a bit more milk if it is still too dry.
Place in rough heaps on a greased baking tray.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until light golden brown.
Cool on a rack or eat warm.

And best bake a double batch while you’re about it, as they will disappear in a trice.

I thought I hadn’t put this old family favourite recipe on the blog yet, but I proved to be wrong. I wrote about baking rock buns on a very hot summer night back in 2009 for a class bake sale, and once at the very beginning of my blog in 2006 for my husband to take to a family wedding. I was rather light on photos back then, so hope you don’t mind the re-run with the ultimate river rock bun pics taken on our recent flooded holiday there. Just goes to show that the best recipes stand the test of time!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

George's Big Adventure - River Holiday

All our other dogs have been farm dogs. We go places, they stay at home and look after the house. They were happier that way, we were happier that way; who wants to share a car with a whimpering, shivering wreck more often than they have to? Right from the start with George however, he was going to be the family dog, the one who comes with us to the beach and ultimately on holiday to the Breede River. The first trip to the beach was a resounding success and from then on we knew he’d love the river. We just weren’t quite sure how we were going to fit him, no longer a puppy but a large, lanky dog, and our luggage, including food for ten days, in the car for the four hour journey.

In the end it was fine. The food and bags went on the roof, George and his cushion squashed in the back and drooled over Middle Daughter, who drew the short straw and got the very back seat. As a variation he panted down the neck of our son and tried to see out of the window clearly enough to count cars, sheep and telegraph poles, in between whining “Are we nearly there yet?” He was duly hushed by the teenagers, who with the diversion of iPods and earpieces tune out for the duration of the journey and no longer ask that dreaded question.

Exploring the sand bar in the afternoon at low tide

The reward for such patience, a steep grass hill leading down to  a wide stretch of water, a shallow sandy beach and, joy of joy, a sand bar that had shifted into perfect place since we’d last visited, allowing us to walk out into the middle of the river at low tide and creating a huge, relatively safe water play zone for dogs and kids.

As soon as we’d done all the regrettably essential grown-up things, like getting all the cool boxes off the roof, checking that the cool blocks had successfully countered the bright sunshine and stowing food into freezer and fridge, it was time to cool off from the hot journey in the river. George plunged in with joyous abandon, swimming and swimming between each and every member of the family, trying to keep tabs on us all. To start with we worried about him getting over-tired and sinking, but he just kept going.

"Hurry up, there the whole river to swim in!"

George heading out for an early morning swim at high tide

"It's hard work herding kayaks."

George's first voyage in the canoe with Youngest and me.

It soon became clear that he wasn’t going to be left behind when we took the canoe out either, as he leapt in after us next morning and started followed us up river. In the end we paddled back to shore and let him climb in with us, but made a shorter trip than usual, as he kept dipping a paw over the side, trying to drink the river and seemed likely to dive back in any minute. Over the next few days he got more used to being a canoe passenger and it became a slightly less hazardous under-taking.

We had four days of perfect summer holiday: swimming before breakfast, canoeing and the kids making their first attempts at water-skiing behind our friends’ boat. George regarded this activity with deep suspicion and it took just a few splashy failed attempts by the girls getting up on the skis, for him to become convinced that they needed rescuing from the persecuting noisy monster circling around them. He kept jumping in to swim out to them and in the end he was becoming so distressed that my mum had to put him on the lead and take him off for a walk to distract him.

In between times there was much baking of bread and rock buns (essential fodder in the river family tradition), and generous meals conjured up by each of the two families in turn. And croquet, can you believe that with such limited space we still found space for the croquet set on the roof?! Middle Daughter devised a complex course worthy of golf that kept the game going for hours.

A rainy day was forecast and we looked forward to huddling in bed late with books and cups of tea,  long games of Catan or cards, perhaps just a bit more baking. That was Monday, duly wet with storms and rain showers. Tuesday dawned with rain reduced to drizzle and looked set to clear up, but at breakfast I noticed that the water level was just creeping over the high tide mark onto the grass. Ten minutes later we were sure of it. The river was rising.

Suddenly we were at action stations, dragging the canoes higher up the lawn and taking the motor boat out of the water, just in case. We swam in the rising water as we did so and within an hour were able to paddle the canoes over what had been the bottom lawn. A slight check came when my glasses, carefully removed to avoid losing them in the river, were no longer when I’d left them with shoes and hats on the kayak, well above  the waterline. Our son had taken the things off the kayak to paddle it into the flood waters and hadn’t noticed my glasses. After much crawling around the ex-lawn in the rising water, we gave them up as lost and retired up the hill to tea, rock buns and to watch the still rising waters creep alarmingly quickly up the hill.

That clump of green mid-stream is the willow tree from previous pictures.

Luckily the house we stay at is high up the hill, so unlike the family several plots down, we weren’t having to move furniture and pack our bags. There were several meters of hillside in reserve. My husband had planned to go into Swellendam, but got as far as the dip in the access road, where water was already lapping at the edges, and changed his mind. Lucky that he did as the water kept on coming and halfway through the afternoon the road was at least a meter under water.

Watching trees float by on the flood
George was used to high and low tide by now, recognising that sometimes he could walk out onto the sand bar and others it was swimming all the way. But he knew that here was something wrong about the water this time and wasn’t nearly as happy letting us swim in it. There were some rather painful rescue attempts, as his idea is simply to grab hold of an arm in his mouth and drag you to shore.
That night there was more thunder, more rain and next morning we watched as the river rose even further until we could paddle the canoes right around the milkwood tree halfway up the hill between the house and the river. The main flow of the river was fast and deep brown, all memories of tidal cycle forgotten, carrying branches, logs and whole trees rapidly past. Our lawn became our own private lagoon just enough removed from the strong current, where we could swim, hold canoe races and explore the jungle of trees on the adjoining plot by canoe, an adventure in itself.

P restraining George from leaping in to the rescue

Heading off to explore uncharted jungle waters

Middle Daughter practising fishing casts, and the water now round the milkwood tree
Kayak vs canoe, racing across the lawn. That wisp of green is the willow again!
We had four days of being officially marooned, luckily without any real hardship, as we’d all brought enough food with us for the whole holiday. At last on Friday the waters began to recede, leaving a stinking carpet of mud behind them. George needed a hose down after each river foray, as did our feet after we finally braved the main river in our canoe to explore the aftermath. Even then the current was strong and violent eddies every now and again would knock us off course, so it was a perilous adventure!

By our last day the river was almost back to normal levels, but the tide hadn’t quite resumed normal play, and the sand bank we’d so enjoyed at the beginning of the holiday seemed to have been shifted bodily into the reeds. The kids never did get to work any further on their water-skiing, which was disappointing, but we had had an adventure that we’ll not forget and plenty of relaxation and down time to set us up for the new school year. George enjoyed his holiday and was just as happy to get home again and back to chasing hares every morning.

A promise. The waters at their highest.

Happy 2014 to you all! I hope your holidays were relaxing and free of floods and other natural disasters!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Tree Lights, Candles and A Roaring Fire

Our family Christmas Day follows a fairly predictable pattern, so that by the time we finally sit down to a late lunch, I know it is just a matter of free-wheeling through the meal, a few more presents to open, before I can put my feet up on the sofa in a replete stupor and make up for the sleep deprivation of all the last minute present making, wrapping and stocking-stuffing that is Christmas Eve.

This year, Christmas morning was hot with hardly a breath of wind stirring. My sister-in-law cooks the turkey first thing over at her house, so we don’t have to turn our kitchen into a sauna with too much roasting and basting. I just have to glaze the gammon, make a couscous salad, finish the last stripes of the jellies and boil some baby potatoes with mint.
Stripey jellies are an entrenched family Christmas tradition

But my eyes are feeling heavy already as we finish the main course. It takes a minute for me to identify the smoke that accompanies the last few mouthfuls. Burning custard, no...not toast burning...not the oven left on...the bonfire smell is an immediate warning bell in our dry summer landscape.

It’s wafting in from outside and my husband heads swiftly upstairs, from where we have a 360 degree view of our farm, to see where it’s coming from. Usually it’s far enough away for there to be no need for immediate worry, but this time the smoke is rising from behind our trees on our neighbour’s farm right on the border of ours. The wind is starting to blow and its bringing the fire down the hill towards us.

Pudding is put on hold. Kids have to wait for the rest of their presents as adults switch into action mode. My husband and one sister head off in the 4x4 to see how serious it is, calling our Malawian farm worker as they go, who is luckily not too far away. The rest of us stand by, clearing the table, putting the puddings back in the fridge, until we know how things stand. The sight of the blazing red and green candles on the table is a bit too much fire for me and I quickly blow them out until that other blaze feels less threatening.

The drama unfolds quickly. The wind is sending the fire downhill, towards our neighbour’s huge expanse of shade-cloth, which starts not 50 m away from our house. Our border beefwood trees aren’t going to be much of a barrier, as they are likely to go up in a blaze themselves once the fire reaches the shade cloth. The fire brigade has been called but is not yet on the scene.

Simon arrives with three Malawian friends to help fight the fire and gets to work with our chain saw to cut down any trees too close to our border and create a better fire break. Our neighbour, who lives down the road on another farm, arrives with her father fresh from their Christmas lunch. Those of us still at home drag hoses around the house and start sprinkling all the trees and dry bush between the border and our house.

Smoke is filling the air now and there is a crackling roar from the fire which seems to be getting closer. The kids are inside the house, out of the smoke, reading their Christmas books, playing on Christmas computer and wishing that we could get on with pudding. The dogs and cats are also inside out of the way.

The fire truck at last - photo Patrick Heathcock

Taken from our fence with our Malawian friends holding the fire at bay - photo by Patrick Heathcock

The fire truck eventually arrives, our four Malawian friends work like Trojans. At one point I change my Christmas finery for old clothes and remember to cover up fair skin which has no sun screen on, before returning to my hose to continue misting trees and bushes, in case the wind veers a degree and brings sparks flying over our border trees to threaten our house, our children and our Christmas.

About two hours or so after the initial alarm, the fire is under control. They stop it just before it reaches the shade cloth, catch it before it jumps the track to our border trees. I put the hose down with relief and go inside to tell the children we can have pudding now. Eventually we collect everyone together again. My mother and two sisters-in-law have been hosing my SILs cottage which is also close to the border of the farm. The dogs are released to a smoky outside and we bring the summer pudding and jelly back out of the fridge, the now lukewarm Christmas pudding and custard with skin on top, to be attacked with unusual appetite, in our smoke-infused clothing, red-rimmed eyes and heartfelt relief to find our home and Christmas intact.

There are hardly any leftovers of pudding. Our Malawian friends came, smoke and all, and shared our Christmas table, drinking iced water and sampling summer pudding for the first time ever, then we sent some back with them to their wives, to thank them for sparing their men to us and letting their Christmas meals go cold. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate their generous and energetic help, as without them the fire would have spread far more quickly, perhaps before the fire truck made it. And thanks also to those Christmas angels who prevented the drama from becoming a crisis.

After that there was nothing more to do but fall into the swimming pool and soak the smoke out of our hair, before broaching our Christmas cake with a cup of tea in lieu of supper and watching the second half of The Family Stone, (our every year must-watch Christmas movie) all squashed onto the sofa with the kids, before an early night for all. A night spent by my husband with several wake-ups at the smell of smoke, going outside to check for any new fire, and by me dreaming of fire on the border and innumerable fire-fighters and neighbours to find food and first aid kits for.

I hope your Christmas was less dramatic and full of joy! Despite the drama we really did have a lovely Christmas, full of beautiful hand-made gifts from the kids, and lots of love and togetherness.

Joy to the World and many blessings on 2014!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Youngberry Blondies Recipe - The Season of Berries and Jam-Making

Youngberry Blondies
For the last few days I’ve been leaping out of bed before 6 o’clock, even without the tyranny of the school run to blame. This time it’s the berries that are dragging me out, berries that urgently need picking while it is still cool. This recent blast of summer has 8am feeling like noon, and berry picking in the heat is no-one’s idea of fun.

So the dogs and I sneak out while the others are still dozing, sometimes while there is a veil of sea mist wafting over the hill behind us to take the edge off the warmth of the rising sun. It's delicious to feel a shiver of cool air and I don't bother taking a jacket. We walk around our ring road for dog walk exercise and then stop at the veggie garden to fill an ice-cream container of youngberries.

At least I do that, while George flattens the carrots by rolling on them or digging for moles, or tries to roust out a hare or two to play chase. The older dogs find a shady spot to loll in, occasionally give up on me, as I switch from youngberries to strawberries, and wander back home. Then I grab a bunny bouquet of rocket, nasturtiums, milk thistles, cabbage leaves and spinach, along with the George-flattened carrot tops and walk home laden with good things, to swirl through the kitchen door virtuously, as the sleepy family is dipping into breakfast.

Strawberries are made into jam and youngberries are frozen to make berry muffins and summer pudding for the rest of the year. In fact we’re only just reaching the end of last year’s berry supply, so I’ve been generously baking muffins on every social occasion.

And I’ve found an absolutely irresistible new baking way with youngberries. It started off as Nigella’s Blondie recipe. Hers had chocolate chips in, which I haven’t tried despite my chocoholic tendencies; but I can tell you, that with youngberries instead of chocolate these are truly sublime and horribly moreish. They would work with any berries, but the sharp/sweet jamminess of the cooked youngberries is hard to beat.

Youngberry Blondies Recipe
(adapted from Nigella's Blondies recipe)

200g / 7oz porridge oats
100g / 3.5 oz plain flour
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
150g / 5oz soft butter
100g / 3.5 oz muscovado sugar (I mix treacle sugar and brown sugar)
1 x 385g / 13oz tin condensed milk
1 egg
1 cup frozen youngberries

Baking tray or pyrex dish 30x20x5cm (12x8 inches)approx, lined and greased
Oven 180°C

Mix together the oats, flour and bicarb.
Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in condensed milk.
Add the oats mixture.
Beat in the egg.
Carefully mix in the frozen berries. If they are already de-frosting they will make gory splashes of red in the mixture, so it’s easier to do this straight from frozen. Or else you can use fresh berries.
Dollop the mixture into the tray and level it out roughly.
Bake for about 30 minutes until the top is a deep gold, but the middle is still slightly wobbly. It will firm up as it cools. You want it to be moist and almost gooey inside and deliciously crusty on the outside.
Once cool, cut into squares and devour without restraint.

These are perfect for the festive season, whether you are celebrating in winter or summer, the only trouble being that there are hardly ever any left for the next day!

Youngberries are like blackberries but with a livelier flavour

If you prefer chocolate chips to berries, here is Nigella's recipe on Gorgeous Gourmet's blog.