Friday, September 28, 2007

Fevered Words

How many words are there in me? I'm challenging myself to find out at the moment. I know that there have been too few words left over to flow onto my own blog this week. They're all being diverted at source and filling up other pages.

I've just started a writing job for a new food web site. They want a blog post a day and an article every week, so I'm just trying to get into a regular flow for that. The site's not live yet but I'll give you a link to it once it is.

I've also started another blog on Just the Planet, a luxury travel web site that launched recently. It's full of all sorts of gorgeous places that I can only dream of visiting. My blog there is about the years I worked in Italy and my food memories of picnics and gourmet dinners and is called Pecorino and Pears. I haven't got very far into the story yet, but do come by and visit.

With my first foray into freelancing in full flow, I got brought down by the flu this week. At least it was a fever that had me shivering and clutching hot water bottles on an extremely warm spring day, when the girls were demanding to be taken swimming. Having taken them swimming I retired to the sofa for the rest of the day, downing tools and losing myself in a Georgette Heyer, the perfect panacea for all ills.

The girls were great. Having established that I was out for the count, they just got on and played together for the whole afternoon. The next day I had planned to take them out for a holiday treat, while their brother was at his cricket course, but I was still too weak and feeble, super-glued to the sofa. They bore the disappointment well and enacted innumerable four act dramas with their toy animals, middle daughter helping youngest with making sandwiches at snack time, as I dozed through the sound track of their play. I slept through lunch time with never a complaint from them, when usually they tell me they're hungry about twenty times a day.

I'm much better now. Having disposed of a Katie Fforde yesterday and used up my reserve stock of blog posts, I got back to work on the computer today, under the guise of resting. My husband was the one who had to go and attend the 'prize-giving' of our son's holiday cricket course and then he took all of the children to see Ratatouille. They came back full of it, so now we need to add it to our DVD collection. They are so used to watching things on video or DVD that they expect to be able to re-watch everything about a hundred times, until they know it by heart.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


The girls' games mostly seem to be derived from their watching of Animal Planet at the moment. They assemble pairs of toy animals and enact family life with them. The facts of life hold no mystery, at least in the animal kingdom. Yesterday I gathered that their Bambi video is just as influential in forming their vocabulary.

Youngest with a pair of toy zebras: "They're twitterpating and now they're having a baby and everybody is really happy to see the baby."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Spring Festival and Fever

We were in two minds whether or not to postpone our spring celebration this year. It being spring, that change over season of alternating sultry warmth and chilling winds, everybody has succumbed to the latest cold and flu virus. Our son missed the last day of school on Friday, as his chest was so wheezy and tight and he'd been coughing half the night, the girls were both full of colds and my husband was also not feeling so great. I was the only one still germ free.

By Saturday morning people were all ready to come, the children were feeling better and though my sister in law was now prostrated with cold and overwork, we decided to go ahead with it. Far less exhausting than dealing with the children's disappointment had we put it off.

So I set to baking and ignored the suspicion of a sore throat that tickled insinuatingly about my tonsils. Quiches, white bread plaits, two chocolate puddings, a crustless milk tart and a batch of crunchies all succeeded each other in and out of the oven. The rugby world cup was duly watched and dissected, and the phone rang at intervals as more guests reported in sick until we were down to twenty-five.

The surviving friends, albeit most of them with sniffles, came and set to work cooking and making flower garlands, some with real flowers and rosemary, some with tissue paper and card or raffia. Others rebuilt the archway and decorated it with flowers from the garden and the children made little posies of flowers to go round the circle and then got digging to make a water feature. Sprinkles of rain sent everyone pelting inside at intervals but by the end of the afternoon it was clearer though cool.

The theme for our spring festival is water, water and flowers, so we carried brimming jugs of water down to the circle to the ethereal tune of a recorder duet, smelled the rich jasmine scent from the flowers around the circle, and gave thanks for all the rain we've had this winter, for friends and family and we sent our thoughts back out to all those who couldn't be with us.

Back in the house the loaves and fishes principle was in full force. The table stretched to fit us all, chairs and stools enough, a veritable feast spread out from everyone's contributions. The children ate, disappeared outside in to the darkness for their favourite festival activity of playing chase outside at night, until mindful of colds and coughs still lurking we summoned them back in far too soon with the lure of pudding. They then settled down to watch Narnia while we dallied over pudding and coffee and my sore throat made a bid for domination.

This morning after a night of more rain, a beautiful rainbow stretched over the hill behind our house as if in blessing of all our activities. And my throat is better, reduced to mere cold status with hot water bottles and tissue salts liberally applied through the night.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Spring means Snakes

Spring is triumphing over winter, yellow and pink daisies have succeeded the white ones, two balmy days in a row have woken up the flies, the miggies (pronounced muchies with a nice phlegm-raising rasp for the ch(!), those irritating gnats which in England we called midges) and the fiercely biting horseflies. At lunch the snake warning was solemnly pealed over our children.

All winter they are free to run about among the restios and the bushes, barefoot if they please, the snakes are hibernating then. Once spring warmth wakens them to emerge sleepily into the warm sun, we sternly have to curtail the children's exploration. Every year at about this time we gather them together and announce that there is to be no more bush whacking, shoes are to be worn, they are to play in the clear areas.

The snake bush code has been drummed into them since they were tiny. Stick to the paths, don't poke in any holes, wear shoes, if you do see a snake, FREEZE! Most of the snakes that we have in our area - the Cape cobra and the mole snake, will escape rather than attack, as long as you give them space. It is only the ugly puff adder, that stays still pretending to be a stick, that doesn't get out of your way if it can.

In our five years, touch wood, I haven't had any close encounters between the children and the snakes. I think it helps that we are usually escorted everywhere by a phalanx of dogs, whose snuffling and foraging will have given adequate warning of our advance.

Our farm worker Leon though, with his quiet tread through the bushes, frequently encounters the cobras. A couple of times one has made its way in to my sister in law's house. The huge kerfuffle, as armed with sticks and long boots they tried to persuade it back outside, sent it slithering up a convenient roll of thick paper that was leaned against the wall. They were able to fold it over at the ends and carry it carefully a long way from the house to be released. It was the aftershock of discovering that they had been sitting on a sofa, underneath which a snake had been cosily ensconced for several evenings, that left its mark.

The mole snakes are actually beneficial. They are not poisonous and keep down the rodent populations, in particular the enormous moles that excavate our whole farm into a desert of sandy heaps. Unfortunately when people see a snake they don't stop to enquire it's name and many of these are killed mistakenly for a cobra. We have a policy of relocating cobras rather than killing them, if they are making their homes too close to ours, though the atavistic urge to dispose of the threat succinctly with a stick is hard to resist.

I always feel sad when I find another dead snake in the road and the population explosion among the moles also makes me feel more kindly towards the snakes… as long as that don't try to share my house with me and they keep away from my children.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Playing with Fire

A sudden realisation came to me the other evening, that I am no longer the mother of small children. As I was getting supper ready I called to the children to help. "One of you go and light the fire and the others come and lay the table, please," I yelled.

A few years ago the idea of actually telling my child to help himself to matches and apply them to paper and pine cones would have horrified me. Matches resided on high shelves in those days. Maybe once my son was nearly six we allowed him light the candle for supper, as we cautiously hovered over him.

Now in winter it is one of the older children's chores to build and light the fire in the evening. They served an apprenticeship of watching Dad build the fire and being allowed to put the match to the finished work of art. Now they are learning for themselves how to stack the wood for it to catch, but often I find them stuffing in a second batch of newspaper, when the first lot burned itself out without affecting the logs in the slightest.

The secret is in the pine cones. Once in a while we take a sack and wander up to the top of the farm, seeking out dry cones. We then stagger back heavy laden with enough free, non-toxic, fire-lighters to keep us going for a few weeks.

This year the older two have also become interested in learning how to cook supper, so they were initiated into the art of lighting the stove gas burners and using oven gloves to pick up hot pans. I carefully showed them how to do it all safely, told them in advance that if ever they burned themselves to go straight to the cold tap and hold the burn under the water for a long, long time.

Sometimes I wonder whether I've got too laid back though. A few days ago Youngest, who isn't quite five, wandered through from the sitting room with the box of matches, asking for help as she couldn't quite get the match to light. She'd insisted to her brother and sister that it was her turn to light the fire and wouldn't let them help her. A four year old attempting to light the fire, unsupervised by an adult?! Please don't tell the social services in Europe or they'll be there at the airport to meet us when we go home to visit!

I went back with her and lit the match holding it in the middle, so that I could pass it safely to her. She touched it to the newspaper in a couple of places and was quite pleased with herself for accomplishing another of the grown-up tasks that her brother and sister now do routinely.

Now I know how it was that my husband, who is the youngest of six, has so many hair-raising tales of the things he got up to as a child. Once a mother has been broken in by the first couple of children, the younger ones are free to experience life with far less cotton wool tucked around them!

Whether its weariness, or the realisation that children are far tougher than you initially thought, when you returned from hospital with your first precious bundle, or just that your expectations of normality are set by the oldest child, I've come to realise that in our family at least the youngest child gets to try new things at a far earlier age than the oldest ever did.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Apple and Lavender Cake TGRWT #6

Apple and Lavender Cake

Over at Vanielje Kitchen there is a culinary challenge afoot, to combine the flavours of apple and lavender into a recipe that works. I love a challenge and I love lavender. Our bushes have flowered throughout this wet winter of ours despite what we soft South Africans consider the relentless cold. The lavender bushes regard us bemusedly as we shiver. They keep on flowering until a hard frost lets them know winter is here, rain, rain and more rain just encourages them to new growth.

The lavender flowers were there and the fridge was groaning with apples, so on Saturday I decided to have a mega baking day and make up for empty biscuit tins that have reproached me from the counter whenever I tore my self away from the computer in the previous week. When it comes to working from home the baking is the first thing to go - the bread has to be done and gets fitted in somehow, but cookies and rusks have been in short supply recently.

Once I'd tried out the crunchie recipe from Vanielje Kitchen (it's a good one, try it!) and turned out a batch of rusks, I gazed musingly out at the lavender bushes. I'd made some lavender cookies before, rich in butter that mellowed the strong lavender flavour. My thoughts then turned to a rosemary cake recipe from Nigella's Feast that I love. It is a simple plain loaf cake kept moist with apple and flavoured with rosemary. Quite simple to adapt to use lavender instead and I thought it would work well. It did!

So here is the recipe:

Apple and Lavender Cake

1 large or 2 small eating apples
1 fresh lavender flower with stalk
juice of half a lemon
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon butter

For the cake batter:
225g / 8oz butter
150g / 5oz caster sugar
3 eggs
300g / 10oz plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 or 2 more lavender flowers

Preheat the oven to 170C / 340F and grease and line a large loaf tin (450g / 1lb capacity).

Peel core and chop the apple and put into a small saucepan with the lemon juice, teaspoon of sugar, teaspoon of butter and the lavender flower. Cook over a low heat with a lid on for 4-8 minutes until the apple is softened. Leave it to cool so that the lavender infuses the apple with its flavour.

Once it has cooled remove the lavender flower and process the apple to a pulp in the food processor. Add the rest of the butter, sugar, eggs, flour and baking powder and blitz to a thick cake batter. Spread half of the batter into the lined loaf tin, sprinkle some of the tiny lavender florets over it, then put the rest of the batter on top. Scatter another sparing amount of lavender florets on top then sprinkle another tablespoon of caster sugar over the whole surface. Bake for about 50 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in tin.

We're just about to finish the end of the cake with our tea today. It has kept really well with the apple moistening it and the delicate lavender aroma lent it an elegance and interest that has turned every tea-time into a treat.

The rustic, less elegant angle

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Of Pelicans and Potatoes

I don't usually feel like I'm living in a foreign land. The little part of South Africa where we live has integrated into my personal landscape and feels like home. There are no lions or giraffes in our back yard to declaim that this is Africa with a capital A, nor even any baboons in our sandy hills, to raid the house every time we leave a window open.

Just last week though, every morning as I drove down the 3km dirt road to take the children to school, we have been treated to a pelican fly-past. Pelicans still manage to seem exotic to me - their disproportionately huge beak and ungainly body in flight seems like an illustration from a children's book, their huge wings flapping solemnly out of an Animal Planet documentary. And here they were every morning at the end of our road. One of our neighbours has a dam that for the first time in years is brimful with the winter rain and the pelicans have been spending their spring break there. Then just as suddenly they were gone.

One thing that has been more English than African this winter has been the weather and we have even been talking about the weather just as much as the English are supposed to. We've been used to winters spent tut-tutting about the lack of rain, dire statistics about the dams being half empty, warnings of summer drought, all the while enjoying the clear winter sunshine. So a real winter with proper rain that goes on and on with a few sunny days scattered in between, dams 100% full for the first time in many years, we don't quite know what to do with.

One thing I thought for sure, the farmers will be happy. But no! Doing my weekly shop today, I saw that the price of potatoes had gone up yet again, a 10kg sack now costs almost double what it did a month ago. In horror I asked the fruit and veg manager when they would be back to a normal price again. There's a national shortage of potatoes, he told me. The weather has been too cold and wet, the farmers are struggling with all the vegetables, onions too.

On Monday it looked like spring was finally here to stay. It was so warm that the girls insisted that they wanted to go swimming. However much I told them that the water would still be freezing, they were not convinced. So to keep them quiet I took them down to the pool to see for themselves, sure that they'd put a toe in and leap out again in horror. They then spent fifteen minutes happily frolicking in 16C / 60F chilly, chilly water, while I photographed the carpet of daisies that is lush after all this rain, and I had to drag them out protesting, in mean, mother mode, fearing that they'd catch something old-fashioned like an inflammation of the lungs.

The next day we were back to lighting fires and filling hot water bottles as yet another cold front passed overhead. I'm sorry Melbourne but we seem to have got your share of winter rain as well as ours this year, I wish we could send you the overflow.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Middle Angel

I always used to say we'd have either two children or four. I had an idea that three was an odd number, that someone would always be left out, that the middle child got lost in the no-man's land of in between. Lo and behold, we have ended up with three children. Not really by design, we just ran out of stamina before we reached four.

Our middle child seems quite happy with her position in the family. In fact she is the one who most often doesn't get left out. She can go off with her older brother to do 'big' kid stuff, leaving youngest clamouring behind. Or she can do girl stuff with youngest when big brother has his nose firmly entrenched in a book.

I've noticed recently though that she is woefully under-represented on my blog. Older brother steals the limelight with his role of breaker of new ground in the family. Parental admiration for the latest brilliant achievement does tend to be freshest for the oldest child. Relief that our child has made it through another of life's hurdles gives a poignancy to the applause, whereas with the second child we have no doubt that she'll follow in his footsteps and be equally brilliant, so our enthusiasm is tempered by experience. Youngest makes the headlines of the cuteness front, she is the last connection to baby and toddlerhood and we record it lest we forget.

So today I thought I'd write about her, our precious middle child.

She loves drawing and produces a prodigious volume of pictures, all of which are given to someone in particular, their name painstakingly inscribed on the back. Her page is filled with colour and light. Images of angels and fairies imbue her vision with magic and an awareness of spirit. Their luminosity comes in part maybe from her Waldorf education, where they are taught to fill the page, and use colour in an emotional way, but for the most part it is her beautiful soul shining through.

A few vignettes from the last couple of weeks:

She is standing just inside the door, waving a pink,sparkly fairy wand and declaiming 'Wingardium Leviosa'. She looks out and sees a beautiful rainbow stretching across the sky. A look in her eye that says she knows she didn't really do that, but just perhaps there is some magic about.

She and youngest have been busy outside for hours. We are going across to my sister-in-law's house for my birthday lunch and call everyone. The girls appear carefully holding a mini Smartie box. I look quizzically at them, as they know not to eat sweets before lunch. She quickly explains that they've got some ants in the box. They've been building them houses and feeding them with Cream Cracker crumbs and now they're going to 'release' them. We are taken on a guided tour of the ant's houses, beautifully decorated with flowers and liberally sprinkled with cream crackers.

A half hour at her aunt's house that she dedicatedly spends hopping out the shape of every letter of the alphabet one after the other.

An earnest conversation one evening before bathtime: she is saying that sometimes she is scared in the night, but doesn't want to wake us. She is the quiet one who keeps everything in, any emotional trauma being dealt with face down on her bed, only allowing us to comfort us later once the worst is over.

If our son has a bad dream, he has no qualms in demanding our attendance, if he goes to the loo in the night, no idea of muffling his footsteps, we all know about it. She on the other hand glides silently through our room to the bathroom and muffles her sobs in bed if she is frightened by a dream or a noise.

I told her that it was fine to wake us up or come into our bed if she needed to, but she remained unsure. Then she said that sometimes she couldn't feel her angel, when she was scared. She seems to be poised at some sort of emotional and spiritual watershed, finding the parameters of her own life space. As I tucked her up and kissed her goodnight, I reassured her that the angels are there even if you can't actually feel them. An emphatic nod from under the duvet.

Of course there is all the prosaic stuff of being seven, the hilariousness of her friend being 'in love' with one of the boys in her class and her emphatic declaration that she doesn't like any of the boys in her class. The fact that she can talk in an endless stream of consciousness when the mood takes her. Her instinct for colour and fashion putting her clothes together with style even with no role model to follow in her mother. The dexterity which meant that as a baby she could undo childproof bottles now enables her to chop garlic finely for me and construct wonderful 3D paper pictures.

She has a phenomenal memory for songs and stories and it is her that we all go to for help when we lose something. She can usually remember seeing it somewhere and track it down. She has sparkling blue eyes that see the stars, with a sprinkling of angel dust in them.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Dog Decisions

'how to decide when to put down an old dog'

This showed up as a search term that found my blog last month. It was eerily prescient, because though I don't remember writing about the issue at all before, during the last two weeks we have had to make the decision ourselves for our ancient and doddery border collie, in previous posts mentioned as Senile Dog.

She had got wobblier and wobblier, struggling to heave herself up off the floor, occasionally falling over, and has even lost interest in her blood feud with her daughter. She would bark loudly, for form's sake, whenever Poppy ventured near our house, but the light and enjoyment of battle had gone out of her eye. Her meek granddaughter also sensed that the time was approaching, when she would become alpha female of our house and has on several occasions bowled her over snarling and snapping.

Being the procrastinators and moral cowards that we are, we put off the decision for as long as possible, hoping that nature would take its course and she would just go in her sleep one night. It is the first time that either of us have had to take this final responsibility for an animal of ours and it feels a little like playing god, do we really have the right? How do we explain it all to the children?

The final straw came last night. She had been fairly incontinent for several months now, and clearing up poo had been a regular chore. A stomach upset turned the chore into a health issue, so we took the decision and I drove her to the vet this morning.

We'd talked to the children about it already. Told them that when an animal is very old and in pain and not enjoying life any more, it's kinder to put them down. That the vet gives an injection that sends her to sleep and she dies in her sleep. Youngest wanted to know if that happens to humans as well. I told her not. A discussion on the rights and wrongs of euthanasia would have been way too much. They were fairly phlegmatic about it all. After all they're veteran watchers of Animal Planet, plenty of vets have crossed the screen and made hard decisions in front of the camera.

We lined the back of the car with an old blanket, reversed it as close as we could get to the door. As I led her tottering along the path to it, I felt like I was leading her to the gas chambers. Common sense banished the emotional overreaction and we heaved her in. The older two children were at school but youngest came with me, everybody else was out at work or meetings and she wanted to be part of it.

The vet had said that Vygie (the name of a spring flower, roughly pronounced fakie) could stay in the back of the car to do the deed, as we wanted to take her back home to bury her. She used to belong to a dear friend of the family, who died of cancer five years ago. We'd looked after her two dogs while she was sick and then they became ours. Vygie was always Ursie's dog though and we felt sure that her spirit was just waiting to take off and find hers, so we planned to bury her near the white stinkwood tree that we had planted in memory of our friend.

The vet was lovely, very kind and explaining exactly how it all worked. We stood outside, sheltered from the drizzle by a canopy, with youngest holding my hand. We were both amazed by how quick it was. Five seconds and she just relaxed completely and peacefully.

Back home we'd chosen the spot for her grave and asked Leon to dig the hole for us in the afternoon. We were waiting for everyone to be back from work to hold a little ceremony for Vygie. The children had picked a bouquet of fragrant flowers and herbs to go in with her, rose scented geraniums with their enveloping aroma of massage oil, wilde daggas spiky orange flowers, rosemary and lavender.

At the end of the day, during a lull in the rain we went out to the chosen spot. Leon's hole was cavernous and big enough for a small pony, the soft, golden sand of our farm heaped high around it. Some vygie plants stood by to plant over her once the enormous mound of sand had been replaced. We lowered her in as gently as we could, threw down the flowers and then took turns wielding the ceremonial spade. Youngest had decreed that we should sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing, so a cheerful tune rang out as we worked. Ding Dong Merrily on High followed and we felt Ursie's spirit laughing uproariously with us.

Later on my sister-in-law rang our friend's daughter to let her know that Vygie had gone and described our ceremony. She amazed her by bursting out with 'But Hark the Herald Angels Sing was Mum's favourite song!'

So Vygie is at rest, her spirit cavorting and frolicking in the joy of reunion with her mistress and we feel our connection with Ursie is still strong too.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Colours of Spring

Sunshine emerged triumphant today, after being smothered by grey and blustery clouds for the school spring fair yesterday. A Sunday Roast followed by this wonderful fruit and almond tart, that I read about on Herschelian's blog, left us groaning under the weight of good food, so after a slothful half hour on the stoep we set out for a walk around our farm.

Walk isn't really the word for our family's progress in spring. It's more of an erratic leap from flower to flower, exclaiming, summoning others to witness its splendour, then competition among photographers to get the best angle and light, with children and dogs vying to get in the shot.

White daisies and fiery gazanias compete to invade what we used to call a lawn.

The daisies furling petals as the sun gets lower, but these wild gladioli shine on.

These tiny flowers must have escaped from Teletubbyland!

The deepest pink pypies we have ever seen are flowering this year. All the rain has got the flowers in a frenzy of blooming.

Delicate wild lobelia.

In our circle a tiny almond tree that grew from one of our own almonds, left there after the autumn, harvest festival over a year ago, having survived summer against all odds, puts out new leaf to welcome the spring and is joined by a single, self-sown daisy.

All this perambulation leads us back to my sister-in-law's house for tea. Luckily lunch has been shaken down just enough for us to sample her newly baked swiss roll, filled with home-made apricot jam. And we wonder why we never feel like any supper on Sundays!

The children still manage to be hungry for supper, so I go home and cook them plain rice and baked beans, our son's favourite meal.