Monday, April 26, 2010

The Bookshelf

A funny asymmetrical book shelf, bought in a antique/junk shop long ago, before I had a house, before I’d found my man, before I had children, way back in that misty time when the nesting instinct was starting to take hold, feathers and twigs busily collected, the ingredients of a home put together in a hotch potch, ramshackle way without a recipe.

Once we met, we found we had a love of books in common, a shared history of favourite children’s books to explore: a list that often overlapped, but also brought each of us great new stories to explore. Any second-hand bookshop was a magnet. We’d dive in and head for the children’s section, finding old favourites and starting a collection for children that weren’t yet born. Unthinkable that our future offspring should grow up without the joy of exploring Narnia, Pridian, Green Knowe and Earthsea. We were eager to share the treasures of Susan Cooper, Ursula LeGuin, Geoffrey Trease, Cynthia Harnett and so many more.

By the time our first child was born we had assembled a fine library, re-read most of them more than once and filled the book-shelf to capacity and beyond.

My memory of our son’s first introduction to the library we’d so painstakingly assembled for him is set in our rented flat in South London. The bookshelf stood just inside the sitting room door. He was fascinated with it. For weeks his favourite activity was to pull all the books joyously off the lower two shelves and distribute them around the doorway. His first lesson in appreciation of fine literature was to learn how to put the books back on the shelf again.

A toddler view - no wonder the books are irresistible.

We were encouraged that he was an avid listener to stories. The very hungry caterpillar was succeeded by Herb the Vegetarian Dragon as prime favourite by the time he was two. The bookshelf moved house with us and took up a less precarious position out of the firing line by the time our daughter was born. She cut her literary teeth on the well chewed edges of the hungry caterpillar and his ilk, with only the occasional incursion into the gems awaiting her on the Bookshelf.

Yet another move and a third baby saw us in South Africa with the bookshelf. It stayed swathed in packing materials for a year, its books in boxes, while our house was built. Then it took up its rightful position in the centre of our living room to be raided in turn by the Youngest toddler of the family, following her brother’s earlier example of pulling books off shelves.

All this time it was patiently awaiting the time when it could share its stories. It began slowly. Bed-time stories for the oldest child took him to Pridian, battled the Dark with Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising series, while the girls were still listening to fairy stories. He was selective though when choosing books for himself to read from the book shelf. Fantasy worlds and adventures were his preference. All those stories set in historical times so beloved of his mother were overlooked. They waited their turn.

In this last year, the pace has picked up for the book shelf. The same bed-time stories now enthral all three children. Victor Canning’s The Runaways trilogy was so absorbing that evening DVD watching was frequently abandoned, to have a longer reading of the story each night. Some choices are more magnetic than others. Oldest often has his own book in hand, especially if he’s read the story we’re reading before or thinks it’s too young for him, but the good old classics can lure him back into the story fold. A Little Princess, ostensibly being read to the girls, had him asking questions to be brought up to date whenever he’d missed a bit. Heidi had them all glued despite its simplicity. So now I’ve slipped in my own choice, a Geoffrey Trease set in Ancient Greece that I’d tried to interest our son in a while back when he was looking for something new to read, but which he’d never taken to. Two chapters in and he still seems to be listening.

The bookshelf is now regularly despoiled of its contents, no longer the random pulling off the shelves of toddlerdom, but a focussed raid by Youngest and Middle Daughter, competing for the easier books to read to themselves. At the moment they still go by the size of the type, anything too small is rejected as too difficult. Any minute now they’ll discover that they can actually read anything on the shelf to themselves, a world of stories, adventures, poignant tales, humour, history, fantasy and old-fashioned moral tales all theirs to explore at will.

A visiting toddler looks set to repeat the pattern

What are your old childhood favourites? Any other essential reading we should add to the bookshelf?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Season of Soups and Mellow Fruit

Autumn is well installed here on the farm. The last vestiges of late summer are gone, a few tomatoes left clinging on the vine, but no longer bursting with ripeness, rather sulkily deciding whether to make the effort or not. A few early guavas have ripened on our trees, too fragrant and sweet to be cooked, they were eaten long before thoughts of guava parfait came to anything. But more are ready to harvest, enticing with crystal scent of fruit and flowers.

The patchwork blankets, knitted by my mother-in law, are back on the beds, after a summer of sleeping under sarongs and ceiling fan. Slippers and dressing-gowns are dug out of cupboards and soup at lunch time has become a life-saver after a morning spent with sluggish circulation labouring at the computer. Warm sun outside never quite banishes the chill from inside the house in the day time and, though we haven’t yet been desperate enough to light our first fire of the year, there is wood stacked by the front door in case. The time is getting nearer.

My two old faithful soups were getting a little jaded even before we really got into the cold weather. The kids aren’t too fond of soup anyway and can only tolerate a few basic recipes: the clear one with the pasta and the lentil one, though that is fast falling from favour. This year, all three of them are at school with sandwiches for four lunches a week and I felt inspired to make soup just for us, getting more adventurous with flavours.

So with a glut of tomatoes still to be processed last week, I came upon this South African tomato and onion soup recipe of Juno’s. Roasting the onions and tomatoes gives a far richer and more intense flavour than your average tomato soup, and with the addition of some Tabasco sauce, it was warming and suitably grown-up. I have to confess to not following all instructions and quantities to the letter and ended up creating a huge mess in the kitchen, as I used both food processor and mouli to get the texture I wanted. I didn’t leave everything softening in the oven quite long enough, as I had bread impatiently queuing up to go in at a higher temperature. The end result was superb though and kept the two of us happy and warmed for three weekday lunches.

Inspired by this success I put some white beans on to soak, intending to find a new exciting recipe for them. Google didn’t come up with just the recipe my tastebuds had in mind, so I ended up putting together elements from several, and my new creation is bubbling on the stove for lunch today. Now I’ve just got to taste it and decide whether it’s worthy of entering into Taste magazine’s soup competition in which case it might have to stay a secret… except that now you know it’s got beans as an important ingredient!

This afternoon, spring bulbs need planting, it’s a still, sunny, warm day, the first oxalis are peeping out of the dry looking earth, the watsonia leaves way ahead of the rest of the pack of spring bulbs, even though they won’t flower until September and the sun birds are merrily flitting between the wildedagga flowers and the tekoma, glittering iridescent as their wings catch the sunlight, making time to play in between the busyness of living.

Autumn on the farm is pretty good.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Autumn Festival - Pumpkins, Sand and Straw Angels

Preparations in the sandpit

Our Autumn Festival combines sand and water, pumpkins and straw angels, toddlers and big kids in a fine celebration of harvest and earth. Mix them all up and you have a recipe for sand strewn around the house, a carpet of cut restios and raffia over the floor and a new generation of small kids discovering the delights of limitless space out on the farm.

Our kids are now the big kids. It seems not long ago that they were the littlies, loving chasing around after older kids after supper, playing hide and seek in the mysterious darkness of the stoep until way after their bed-time.

Now they are the ones who know what is what, spend hours constructing elaborate castles and try to stop the little ones from destroying them too soon. They can make their own straw angels without any help now, and they are no longer just straw but weave flowers and and all sorts into the making.

They are also very gentle with the toddlers helping them bounce on the trampoline and making sure not to leap too wildly themselves when a delicate little fairy of a toddler who has only just found her feet on solid ground decides to wobble precariously in their midst.

This year I gladly left the carving of pumpkins to the first volunteers to arrive and they cheerfully produced some gorgeous grinning lanterns.

Instead of pumpkin soup I’d planned on doing a baked pumpkin dish to go with the bean stew that my sister-in-law specializes in. I couldn’t find a recipe for what I had in mind, so just made it up and it turned out pretty well. Wedges of red onion tossed in with the pumpkin bits rescued from the lanterns, a sprinkling of cumin and cinnamon, olive oil, salt and pepper and then afterwards a generous scattering of Nomu egyptian dukkah. It was good, gentle enough in flavour to be a side dish and not steal the lime light, but interesting in its own right too.

One of our friends took the straw angel theme and went way beyond our usual creative efforts to produce a stunning restio/straw woman and man to go on the top of our archway. When the almost full moon came up behind them, it created a wonderful mystical energy that seemed to link back to the age-old harvest traditions of ancient Cornwall or Scotland, evoking fertility for the land and prosperity for its people.

This year our festival coincided with Earth Hour, and the prospect of switching off all the lights and appliances and lighting the house with candles with a bunch of toddlers on the loose was just a little unnerving. In the end it was fine. We just remembered to put out the lights at 8.30, by which time several of the little ones were drowsy anyway. Tea lights in glass cups glowed on low tables and high, and though we kept a weather eye on them there were no incidences of pyromania. That had already been indulged in by the big kids with the pumpkin lanterns in the circle, so no doubt the little ones will soon learn the joys of fire.