Saturday, September 30, 2006

Birdies build their Nests

Outside a friend’s house stands a large acacia tree, its branches loaded down with baubles of weaver bird’s nests. Each Spring it is filled with manic chattering and a flurry of activity as new nests are woven next to the old. Intricate confections of long grass, twisted and turned to make a hanging nest, its entrance at the bottom, yet with a secure inner chamber that safely holds the eggs. The chatter grows more intense as the nestlings hatch and must be fed, quieting only at night.

Below is a treasure trove of discarded nests (last years outmoded fashions), bright sky-blue eggshells that seem too small to have held a baby bird, and the occasional tragedy of an ugly bald chick with bulbous eyes and tiny wing buds, fallen from the nest or pushed by competitive siblings.
For an hour the girls collected egg shells, feathers, held a funeral and absorbed the essence of spring.

The nests came home and provided an opportunity for the toy twitterers to hatch a family.

Youngest's toy bird finds a new home and raises a family

My son's drawings from his school book. They've been studying local animals and birds.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

After the Festival

All the left-overs have been duly dispatched. The last batch of chicken stock made into soup or frozen. We found our praying mantis lying on his side on the stoep today. The girls thought he might be sleeping. He feebly waved a leg at us and when we attempted to put him upright, he fell back over. This evening the girls held a funeral for him, burying him with flowers and ceremony in the circle. For me it symbolised the end of our spring celebrations and it felt rather sad, until I noticed a large, equally handsome one clinging to the wire wastepaper basket in the bathroom. The herald of a new cycle? Or maybe it is just praying mantis season, warm spring weather bringing them out in droves? They do seem to resonate strongly with spiritual life though, the Bushmen had it right. I also have strong memories of reading Gerald Durrell's My Family and other Animals - his memories of life as a child on Corfu with his eccentric family. I still remember his accounts of a praying mantis battling it out with a gecko on his bedroom ceiling, even though from my place in the English countryside I had never seen one. Now they are part of our daily life too, but still seem as mystical as ever.

I was tagged for this meme by Jenny and have been struggling with imagining answers to the ancestor questions but had no trouble thinking of weird things about me! So here it is as far as I've got and as for tagging five more people..just consider yourself tagged if you haven't already done this one..sorry for breaking the rules by not doing it properly!

RULES: List 5 weird things about yourself or your pets.
Tag 5 friends and list them.
Then these people need to write on their blogs about 5 weird things, state the rules, and tag 5 more people.
Don't forget to let the people you tag know by commenting on their blog!

5 weird things about me:

1. I have an irrational hatred of dishwashers. I would rather wash up 40 of everything by hand than give in and get one. My husband differs on this, so it is only a matter of time before I relent in favour of convenience.

2. My long term investment strategy is limited to a belief that it is a good idea to buy a house on a hill, in case of sea levels rising in the future.

3. I save half used birthday cake candles in a tin just in case they are needed for a science experiment one day.

4. I often start reading magazines at the back and work forwards (Meredith’s answer to this meme reminded me of this)

5. I’ve only recently begun to allow dishcloths to re-enter my life. A pathological avoidance of them began after a biology experiment in my teens revealed the amount of germs they harboured. Ever since I have advocated drip drying. It might also have been a convenient ploy to escape drying-up duty as a teenager. Only the enormous quantities of washing up provided by our feasts and the point mentioned in 1. has made a supply of clean cloths seem like a good idea.

Next part of tag: Can’t think of any intelligent answers to these right now, but I’ll leave them in in case any one else wants to have a go.

1. Which famous person would you most like to learn that you're descended from?

2. Which famous person would you hate to learn you're descended from?

3. If you could be an ancestor to any famous living person who would it be and why?

4. If you could go back in time and meet any known ancestors of yours, who would it be and why?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Spring Festival

The praying mantis is a powerful symbol of spirituality in Bushman tradition. My sister in law told me that today, as we were looking over the pictures from our Spring Festival on Saturday. It seems appropriate for it to be hanging out on our stoep that morning as we prepared for our gathering of friends. Our seasonal festivals have taken on a life of their own now, almost happening independantly of any conscious decision on our part. Friends arrive, ideas flow and the celebration evolves each year, to become bigger, better, more elaborate until I am projecting into the future and seeing it turning in to a Glastonbury Festival in a few years time!

The themes for Spring are water and flowers. The last two years we have each made a flower crown with crepe paper and raffia to wear, then carried jugs of water into our circle, ceremoniously taking turns to pour into a bowl then sprinkle flowers on it. We give thanks for the rain and ask for blessings on the new season. This year I thought it would be nice to decorate the sand around the outside of the circle with a carpet of flowers and envisaged the children picking flowers and making patterns with them, as they often do when playing by our braai. Some of that did happen too.

A new initiative spontaneously happened though, that involved the boys to the exclusion of all else. I’d asked my husband to wet the sand around the circle in preparation for the decoration, a simple request that involved much re-plumbing of hosepipes to reach and provided the boys with an endless supply of water. When I went out to start decorating, a major earthworks construction was in progress, with the hose buried in a huge mountain of sand to produce waterfalls and a massive dam. Their creativity carried on the next day to produce a sand seal spouting water into a pool of water.

So next year the idea has been mooted we should create a two tier water feature, lining it with clay and pebbles, that cascades down the slope towards the circle. My flower carpet is still included in the plans. I can see that we’ll need everyone to come and spend the whole day preparing.

The main essence of the day is in the preparation time anyway. The actual celebration is just the finale. People arrive here stressed from their daily lives and take a while to unwind. Getting involved in making paper flowers, digging in the sand, filling paper bags with sand to take candles, picking flowers and decorating with them relaxes everyone, builds an atmosphere and forms disparate groups of friends into a clan.

By the time we are ready to process into our circle, conventional men are relaxed enough to wear their flower crowns without embarrassment and we are all comfortable with a simple thanksgiving and asking for blessings.

This year we had a written blessing open on the computer for anybody to add what they wanted to during the afternoon. We printed off copies and then each person took turns to read their words. This is about as organised as we’ve ever been but it worked really well and there was an amazingly spiritual vibe there.

Then as dusk fell we meandered back up the river of light formed by candles glowing in brown paper bags, towards the house and supper, forty of us in our elastic house, hardly making a dent in the lavish array of quiches and salads that everyone contributed to. My pavlovas were teeth gluingly sticky, so that I could hardly even slice them ( I put the cream on at the last minute, so it had no time to soften the chewiness) but no-one minded and the children ran about till way past bedtime, revelling in the unusual liberty of playing outside in the dark.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Baking Bonanza

Baking not blogging!
Preparations for our Spring Festival and three birthdays today, took up all yesterday afternoon, so I collapsed on the sofa in front of a DVD instead of checking out blogdom. I'll be back tomorrow evening when the festivities drift to a close.
Above: two chocolate Smartie birthday cakes that are standard birthday fare here, with variations in Smartie motifs; one lemon drizzle cake; two pavlovas to be bedecked in whipped cream and strawberries; and two loaves of Nicolle's poolish bread recipe.

The children summoned me to photograph this enormous praying mantis on our stoep. I hope he's praying for fine spring weather today, as well as peace, joy, love and happy eating!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Strawberry Season

Spring is now in full flow. Luscious red strawberries gleam temptingly in the sun, attracting the tiny new tortoises who have a quick nibble of each, just to check for ripeness. Next week we’ll have to get commercial and pick for selling, but now the first week of the fruit is for the family to gorge ourselves silly, make strawberry smoothies, scatter them over our cereal at breakfast and lavish them on our guests.

Strawberries will feature heavily on the menu for our Spring Festival on Saturday. I’ll make some pavlovas to receive them, piled generously atop a layer of whipped cream.

Flowers and water are the themes for this festival. We’ll make flower crowns with flowers of tissue paper, pick daisies for the children to make flower gardens in the sand and bring pitchers of water to our circle to give thanks for the life-giving rain. This winter we’ve had plenty. The dams are full for the first time in years, so there is much to be thankful for. Three of our invited friends will be having birthdays on that day too, so we’ll have a birthday tea with a cake each. Two of them are children, so I think they should each have their own cake to blow out candles on and then how could I leave out the thirty-one year-old, just because she’s grown-up? So much baking planned for Friday.

It is also the end of term on Friday, bringing two weeks of holiday before the last term of the school year. This year seems to be accelerating past at an alarming rate!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Spring Fair Photo Report

Showers and outbreaks of sun for our Spring Fair, but the mood was sunny throughout. Class 3 & 4's choir sang.

Faces were painted with a myriad of wondrous creatures: dragons and butterflies, dolphins and cheetahs, snakes and mermaids.

The braai and lunch stall served great burgers, sausages, chicken, salads, curry bunnies all through the day to children and parents, hungry from their exertions on the bouncy castle and in the races.

The sack races had everyone tumbling in the sand and winning lollipops.

The craft stall provided a quiet retreat in a classroom, where children's work was also on view.

And my family? The older two children had a whale of a time. Armed with loads of R1 tickets they had a go on every game offered by the older children, winning masses of lollipops and bubble gum, to be consumed then and there. They bounced, both chose dragons on their faces, and I hardly saw them till the end of the day. Youngest however was a little overwhelmed by the whole thing and was glued to my side throughout, which got a little hard when it was my turn to be serving lunches. My official photographer role (due to lack of competition, as my husband could only stay a short while) was slightly hampered by the cling-on creature, but we managed fine!

Here's our school's website if you're interested in it. I'm going to put more photos up there in the next few days.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Trees, leaves and blossoms

Today we were trees, my youngest and I.

It started when I was trying to get her dressed. As usual the two older ones were already dressed and outside waiting to go to school. Youngest saw no urgency in divesting herself of pyjamas and was having a nice time playing. I whisked into the bedroom to magic her into clothes in two seconds flat. I wish!

I sat on her bed with a selection of clothes and tried to get her attention. At this stage we regularly have a falling out and get in the car ten minutes later, all hot and bothered, with little black clouds over our heads. Today though I managed to take a breath before losing patience and, as she fell towards me saying “I’m a tree”, I managed to unearth a remnant of sense of humour, which had long been buried under piles of dirty laundry, acres of scattered toys and heaps of unfiled papers. I dusted it off and came up with a suitable response: “Well let's get some new leaves on you then”.

A miracle! Suddenly this recalcitrant pyjama lover was immersed in the game and within a twinkling we’d kitted her out with pink leaves, pale blue bark for her trunk and some blue roots. It only needed another layer of warmer leaves and we were ready to go. Lots of talk followed about saplings and mummy trees and we even bore fruit, which we ate at snack time (I hope that’s not too cannibalistic!). I wish this were a magic formula for every day. I fear though that tomorrow it’ll be something different, keeping me on my toes, making me exercise that errant sense of humour anew.

There is much excitement about tomorrow. It is my son’s school Spring Fair. We have been busy making felt flower badges to sell, bright, smiley, cheap and cheerful. I hope you can tell the difference between my sewing and my children's, but the sad fact is that they are pretty much on a level with my impressive needlework skills already. They are certainly better at threading needles than me - the proverbial camel gets through the eye about as easily as my thread, even with my glasses on, so I generally pass them to my six year old to do.

My son thinks the badges are cool and that we’ll be sold out in no time, my daughter is wondering which connoisseur will come and select her butterfly design as the very thing for them...and youngest was slightly annoyed that she didn’t get to sew any herself for the sale. As this is another area where we can easily fall out, and as I’d spent part of the morning sewing a spring butterfly to her stringent specifications, I felt justified in declining her help.

It’s tough being not quite four – you just can’t keep up. I think this is part of the reason why she has suddenly decided not to go to kindergarten for a while. As well as the newly developed seperation anxiety, there is the constant challenge of keeping up with the older ones, wanting to do everything that they do, as well as them. Exhausting. She is now having a gentle time bossing me around at home and telling her toys what to do. She and her big sister were playing school this afternoon and I overheard youngest saying “..and I’m going to go in a race and I’m going to win cos I’m the biggest and oldest...”.

We’re bringing the craft things home to do, so she doesn’t miss out on her treasure bag and butterfly. She says she is going to go to school again when she is four, which is less than a month away, so we’ll see. Watch out world when she is the biggest and oldest!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Coriander Pancakes Anybody?

Excitement at the kindergarten.
"Tomorrow we're going to make pancakes!"

Each child came out of school bearing a little note of which ingredient they needed to bring the next day. My heart sank just a little. The last time, when they baked bread, I had been allocated the vital element of yeast to send in and totally forgot about it, even though the sachet was sitting ready next to the car keys. The day was saved by ringing a mother who lived close by and hadn't yet left home. The back of her cupboard yielded some ancient but functional yeast.

This time though, I am determined to remember - cinnamon and icing sugar, cinnamon and icing sugar, cinnamon and icing sugar, repeats in my brain all the way home. I put the note in a noticeable place and the next morning I do remember, as I'm throwing the breakfast on the table. I quickly dash to the spice rack, grab the jar with the hand written label that I keep the cinnamon in, rush to find the end of a bag of icing sugar in the larder and put them straight in my daughter's bag. There. It's done.

At the end of the morning, in the car on the way home I ask,
"How were the pancakes"
"Good but that wasn't cinnamon" comes the reply.

"Oh no" I think "have I put the wrong refill in the cinnamon jar? Was it mixed spice?" Well that would still have been OK. Not quite cinnamon but OK.

When we get home I investigate my daughter's bag.. and find CORIANDER!!!!?
I had put a hand written label on the coriander jar too, forgotten that vital fact and in the morning pandemonium had just grabbed for a likely jar, confirmed it started with a C and read no further.

The next morning I apologised profusely to the teacher. She said that she'd thought maybe that's what we liked on our pancakes, a little strange perhaps, but she'd tried a little herself and my daughter too had eaten a coriander and sugar anointed pancake and said she liked it! I think she was loyally trying to protect my reputation and am suitably grateful.

Mum 0 points in the Supermum stakes
Daughter 100 points for dedication beyond the call of duty.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Embroidery with Words

Corey’s posts at Tongue in Cheek, often release an outpouring of words in my head. This post of hers, combined with this one, with Cat's beautiful quilted art, that she linked to, mulled around my mind for a few days then this poem appeared on my screen. I thought I'd share it, though it's neither food nor family.

Embroidery with Words

Silks sewn
Beads glistening
Gold thread
A patchwork planet
Of hope.

Into its seams
For the Angels
Over your dreams.

Embroider flowers
With bright silks of love,
Strew them as you go.
Let the hearts of others
Find the peace of your art
Telling them
They are not alone.

Silver linings
Shot through with gold
Rainbows unfurling
Stories untold
Unpick the chain stitch
Reshape into flowers
Free from their fetters
And we from ours.

The stuff of life
Lived a thousand times
Worn in places
Torn, in holes
Made beautiful and new
With rich fabric from our hearts
Joined seamlessly with care and love
A new design
Stronger, more meaningful
Than before.

by Kit 2006

Friday, September 08, 2006

Magic Mountain

Today we finally redeemed our promise to take the children up Table Mountain this winter. Ever since the July holidays we have been waiting for the right day: clear weather, not too much wind and no other pressing obligations. With only one more week left of the Winter Special, whereby two children get to go free for each paying adult (a necessary condition of going as taking the whole family would otherwise cost the equivalent of half a week's groceries), we gritted our teeth and went for it.

At home it was cloudy, but a phonecall to my husband in Cape Town, whose studio looks out on Table Mountain, elicited the happy news that the mountain top was clear. We piled into the car with our friends, way over European safety regulations (but this is Africa after all) and with only minor squabbles and whinges over the squashed seating arrangements, an hour later we made it to the cable car station. A chill wind blew as we waited for the cable car, but excitement levels were high, so all the jumping up and down kept us warm. The fancy new cable cars, that rotate 360 degrees as you go up so everyone gets the whole view, bore us smoothly to the top. Once there it was warm with a mild breeze, slightly hazy and a sea of cloud over the ocean, wisping around beneath us. Perfect.

The smooth weathered rocks just begged to be clambered over and even distracted the kids, for a short while, from the prospect of exorbitantly priced ice cream. Once that ceremony had been disposed of, more rock clambering ensued. Plenty of opportunities for spotting lizards, sunbirds and other wildlife but the famous rock dassies were absent.

Really it is just one big adventure playground up there, but with the added thrill of knowing you musn't go too close to the edge, as there is a very real risk of tumbling precipitously back down the mountain.

Youngest, for a while, refused to believe that we were really on Table Mountain, as it wasn't completely flat. It was her first trip up since she was a baby, so she suspected that we were trying to pull her leg.

We only came back down a short while before closing, when the last cable car was announced. A real special treat on our doorstep and appreciated all the more for its rarity. When the kids are slightly older we'll be able to walk up with them - an hour and a half for the quick ones up steep steps and rocky paths, then the ice creams will really have been earned!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Abba angels

The children are working their way through our CD collection, finally having decided that grown-up music is as good as the Wiggles or nursery rhymes. Hurray, mostly, except for sticky fingers blurring half the tracks.

We were sitting around the table at snack-time listening to Abba when 'I have a dream' comes on. My eight year old son comments disdainfully:
"Why are they singing about believing in angels? EVERYBODY believes in angels"
He now thinks it is a silly song for stating the obvious so many times over.

He still believes in the tooth fairy and Father Christmas too - long may this state of blissful innocence last.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rusks Revealed

Corey, you asked for photos of my rusks - your wish is my command! First a scenic pic of them packed in the tin ready to bake.
Then the finished rusks, golden and crisp after drying out in the oven for a good while.

I have a confession to make. The in-between photo of them, baked but still in the tin, before being seperated out, didn't make it through the selection process. They had five minutes too long in the oven, due to circumstances beyond my control (howling three year old) and were a rather darker shade of golden than intended (kind of a rich mahogany). So I need to bake another batch to get photos of the whole process! It gets a bit complicated trying to combine baking with photography, a dusting of flour doesn't really do anything for a Canon snappy snap and the extra time setting up a shot exhausts the meagre stock of patience left to a frazzled mother being 'helped' in the kitchen. My career as a food photographer is still a fair way into the future.

My quiet mornings have been put on hold too. Youngest waltzed into kindergarten with barely a backward glance when she started there in April. Since the kids were all sick last week she has developed acute seperation anxiety, even clingy when we're at home, so this week she has refused to stay at kindergarten without me. I'm hoping it will be only a short lived phase and am letting her come home again with me, after we say goodbye to her big sister. I could wrench her howling from my arms and I'm sure she'd be fine after a little while, but it doesn't feel right. She's not quite four, I'm at home anyway, so there is no great urgency to pushing her out of the nest. Besides she is stubborn as anything and the best way to get her to do something is to take away the pressure and feign indifference. I just have to try and work with her around me and she is pretty good at keeping herself entertained for most of the time. But I've had to postpone a birthday massage from a friend that I was going to indulge in tomorrow, sigh. I wouldn't have been very relaxed knowing my child was out there howling furiously at my desertion of her.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Meredith we'll miss you!

I only just heard about Meredith closing her blog Found in France. I missed her last post saying that she had accidently hurt someone's feelings and didn't feel she could continue it. I feel so sad - sad for her, because it must have been a difficult emotional time to make that decision and sad for me, because it feels like I have lost a new friend, that I was just getting to know and love. Our blog community has grown important to me, this delicate web of contact by writing, sharing thoughts and feelings and funny happenings. Losing a vital, warm voice from amongst us is like a friend moving far, far away out of reach of phone and letters. Anyway, Meredith if you ever read this, my thoughts are still with you, I'll miss your writing and sharing of your life and I hope that one day I'll bump into you again, in real life or virtual life.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

South African Rusks -The Recipe

I haven't written about food for so long. My children keep stealing the show, grabbing attention with their doings and sayings. One recipe I've had on my mind to put up here on my blog, is the one for rusks. South African rusks. A hard, crunchy, substantial, sustaining snack to dunk in tea at any time of day or night. Plain or with added texture from nuts and raisins or seeds. These are the backbone of South Africa. The stuff of stalwart settlers. Ouma's rusks are the staple snack here, with the legend of the doughty grandmother's baking saving the morale of a drought-stricken town inscribed on every pack.

My recipe came from a South African cook book, when we were first here on a long visit. I started baking them and was never again allowed to stop. The recipe returned to London with me and I faithfully baked every other week, with toddler son creating castles and moats in the mound of flour. Grabbing the opportunity, while his baby sister slept, we would merrily festoon our small kitchen in flour, the cup measures becoming diggers, the sieve a distribution system. My temper would fray rapidly, when the nap ended sooner than expected and I had to deal with the rusks, hungry infant and flour dusted toddler at the same time. Crumbs nestled in every corner of the sofa, as rusks were morning and afternoon snack material, in the bed from morning tea in bed on the weekend. Friends came, tasted, copied the recipe and sent it winging onward with relations to the far ends of the earth - America, Pakistan, Sweden.

Back in South Africa to live, I carried on baking them, through the third pregnancy, when baking was the last thing I wanted to do - only the rusks managed to sneak through the baking embargo. They used always to have raisins in, until toddler taste alterations resulted in picked out raisins lodging with the crumbs all over the sofa. Self-preservation edited out the raisins and the rusks stayed plain for a couple of years. Recently I have staged a restoration revival and tried the revolutionary tactic of dividing the dough in half and adding pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and raisins to one half, leaving the other half plain, which means effectively that half the rusks have my name written on - hands off, adults only. It also seems to mean however that the kids build up their tolerance levels to be able to swallow raisins in extremis, when the plain ones run out.

Here finally is the recipe that I use. I promised it months ago and have disappointed all those searchers who showed up here with the promise of a rusk recipe, only to find that I never got around to posting the article. A belated apology to all of you, you can come back now, it's here!

South African Buttermilk Rusks -The Recipe
1.240kg / 2lb12oz flour (I use 1kg wholemeal and the rest white)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 teaspoons of salt
250g / 9oz butter
½ cup raisins (optional or add mixed seeds too)
2 eggs
1 ½ cups brown sugar
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup oil
(1 cup=250ml)
Preheat the oven to 190C/380F
Grease three loaf tins of base measurement 20cmx10cm / 8”x 4” approx or any combination of deep baking dish that adds up to about the same.
In a large mixing bowl sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar and salt. Cut the butter into small cubes and rub into the flour. Add the raisins if you are using them. You can experiment with various nuts and seeds as well, though the rusks are equally good plain.
In another bowl mix together the buttermilk, sugar, eggs and oil and beat until well combined. Stir liquid into dry ingredients and mix then knead to a firm dough.
Form the dough into balls about the size of a ping-pong/golf ball and pack them tightly in one layer into the loaf tins. I usually get six rows of three into each of my tins. Bake for 45 minutes.
Turn out onto a rack and leave to cool for 30 minutes before breaking up into individual rusks along the joins of the balls. Dry in a low oven 100C/200F for 4-5 hours until the centre is completely dry. These can be kept for ages in an airtight container.
Warning: crumbs guaranteed on the sofa, in the bed, over the carpet and the car seats!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Spring has sprung, the grass is riz

Today was officially our first day of spring.

Balmy weather, the first horseflies, suncream unearthed, sunhats sought, doors opened to let in the warm air.

It was also the first day of the grape harvest...the children spending a fair part of the afternoon picking the ‘grapes’ from our ornamental vine, which is putting out leaves, flowers and shoots as fast as it can.

They produced a gourmet meal of salad, followed by pudding, with much hard work on the part of the youngest chef.

I celebrated by photographing arum lilies, up to my knees in wet grass, trucks thundering past on the main road as I focussed, composed, recomposed on a prolific patch of the waxy white blooms, casually growing in a ditch beside the N7.

My birthday present behaved admirably. (A Canon Powershot A620, pocket sized, great macro, sharp focus and big enough file size for our photo library). The best thing about it, is that it can see more sharply than I can, so I literally can point and shoot, without having to wear my ever-more-necessary glasses, though I have to wait to get back home to the computer and said glasses before I can see the pictures properly!