Monday, December 31, 2007

Wishes for 2008

It's time for New Year's resolutions again. I can't remember if I made any last year, but I do remember that we always used to make ones that were doomed to failure within a week and thus were discarded as a bad job for the rest of the year.

So this year I had another idea of what we could do to mark the change of years without over-facing ourselves. We're making paper streamers. On one side we write a thank you for all the good things that last year brought and on the other a wish for all the things we hope for in 2008. Then we'll pin them to a stick in our circle and leave them to flutter there, fading in the sunshine, dissolving into the rain.

This way they aren't resolutions that we feel bad about if we fail, they are wishes and we can keep on trying at them until we get close, or they can evolve through the year - there'll be no stark lines of writing to remind us of our shortcomings, as they'll have long ago weathered away, but our hearts will bear an imprint that is kind enough in its interpretation to allow us a whole lot of leeway and multiple tries.

At least that is the idea!

The children have already done theirs - their thank yous are simply for the happiness of last year and wishes for more happiness in the year to come, Middle Daughter's phrased as 'I wish for more happiness to come to earth', which touched me in a melting, gooey mother kind of way! Mine is filled with reams of detailed personal thanks and wishes - far less universal and altruistic than hers …

For all my blog friends I wish you a 2008 filled with love, joy and abundance, with plenty of new opportunities for creativity, work and play!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Puddings in a Hot Climate

Our Christmas Day feast has to end in far too big a choice of puddings! Summer pudding has become our traditional pudding for Christmas, made with our own berries, frozen specially so we have some left for the big day. And stripey jellies have become an essential component of the pudding spectrum - I have to start at least a day before to have time to build up all the layers and take great pains to get random colour combinations, so that each one is different! A real Christmas pudding always appears, but is usually barely nibbled at on the day, leaving me with a big bowl of brandy butter to find a use for. Has anyone got a clever way of using up brandy butter, once the Christmas pudding is finished? I'd love some ideas ..besides just eating it with a spoon on surreptitious visits to the fridge!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The end of an era

Father Christmas has officially been rumbled in our family.

I've been anxiously expecting it for the last three years, unsure how I was going to handle it, worried that our son would feel a sense of betrayal, that we'd tricked him. He was six the first time he heard rumours of parents putting presents in stockings and asked me about it. The younger girls were around at the time, so I placated him with a half truth and ever since then he has happily made cards for Father Christmas and left carrots for the reindeer.

He is nine and a half now though and I was beginning to fear the other extreme - him getting mocked at high school for still believing in Father Christmas!

I made the tactical error of buying some glittery mosaic pens, that they'd been admiring in the crystal shop a couple of weeks ago, to put in their stockings. This, combined with our son's friend and his family coming to lunch on Christmas Day, he who was bursting with the knowledge of the Father Christmas conspiracy, meant that before the day was out, just as we were waving off our friends, our three children went into a secretive huddle.

Middle daughter emerged and made a bee-line for me:

"Did you buy the pens and crystals in the crystal shop?"

I deflected her with a "What do you think?" and a quizzical look, not quite ready to start explanations in the middle of all the goodbyes.

A hurried confab with my husband ensued and we decided to wait for any more questions, rather than make them face bald truths that they weren't sure they wanted to know.

I felt a bit sad that Youngest had also been disillusioned when she is still only five, but I guess that is the way it goes in families where the children share everything, knowledge included.

Nobody asked questions at bed -time to my relief, but I couldn't quite relax, trying to work out an explanation that would make sense to them.

In the end the questions came the next morning, when I came through bleary eyed at 6.30 to find them all sitting on the sofa, not watching a video as usual, but individually playing with their favourite Christmas presents or reading.

Middle Daughter was the one determined to get a satisfactory answer. She repeated her question of the previous day.

I looked at them and asked if they wanted me to tell them more. A solemn "Yes" came from them all.

I launched into my prepared speech: about how St Nicholas was a real man who lived a long time ago, who started the tradition of secretly leaving presents for the children of his town around Christmas time. That after he died the parents decided to carry on his tradition. That the story of Father Christmas comes from him and is all about the spirit of Christmas, of loving and giving. That younger children have the whole Father Christmas story but when they are old enough to ask questions they are also old enough to understand what Christmas is all about. That Father Christmas may not be a real person but his spirit is out there - just like with angels, you can't see him. That even though parents have to do the actual buying of presents, the spirit of Father Christmas is still a part of it.

What amazed me was how comfortable they felt with the angel comparison - they could relate to that and it helped them understand.

Youngest has said a couple of times that she hopes she forgets so that she can enjoy it all next Christmas and our son would also rather forget and keep the illusion going. It is our seven year old Middle Daughter who, in the scientific spirit of investigation, keeps coming back to me with questions about whether I bought everything and was it Father Christmas who took their thank you cards.

All in all it was easier than I feared and I hope they manage to let it all settle into the nether reaches of their subconscious and enjoy their stockings next year too.

I'm wondering how long it'll be now till the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny get their cover blown!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Spirit

I've achieved a measure of Christmas spirit at last! I've finished the last bit of work, told my clients I'm having a break till New Year and I actually baked the Christmas cake yesterday despite the sweltering heat!

We always go and cut our tree on the Saturday before Christmas, so that everybody can be there. The week before, we stroll up to the top of our property, where there are innumerable self-seeded pine trees - alien invaders that it is our positive duty to clear - and we choose the prettiest small one to be our tree.

Yesterday we waited till the end of the day, when the heat was beginning to fade and inspected our short-list of trees. The thing about looking at a tree outside under the sky is that it always looks too small. Our house has high ceilings, but even so one year, the monster tree we'd lugged down the hill had to have a couple of feet trimmed from the base before we could stand it upright. This year we had to vote three trees and the adults managed to sway the kids towards the smaller one, that was a nice shape and a whole lot easier to carry. They were a bit concerned that it would be too small and not have enough room for all the decorations, but lo and behold, when we got it into the house, relieved to be carrying a lightweight rather than a back-breaking monster log, it was the perfect size!

Then comes the traditional sense-of-humour-failing struggle with the Christmas tree lights. It is always supposed to be the Dad who has steam pouring forth from his ears, as one bulb blows the whole string, but in our family it is me. I climb the ladder, keeping the kids in check in their eagerness to pile on tinsel and decorations, get the lights perfectly balanced, yell for extension cables and adapters to test them out. This time they worked fine, looked great and I let the children loose on the tree, while I cooked a belated supper. After supper I couldn't resist fiddling - I put the star on top of the tree and noticed that the bulb behind the star, which ought to highlight it, wasn't working. No problem, I thought, I'll simply change it with another one lower down that doesn't show so much. I promptly managed to tear the bulb wires loose from their socket and the whole string was rendered useless. AAARGH! I couldn't leave things alone till morning. I had to get it right that night, a half dressed tree is too a depressing a sight, so I spent an hour fiddling with bulbs, looking at all the spare strings of lights to find the same type of bulb as a replacement. Nope. This was the only string with that particular shape of bulb. There was no alternative. The children now long gone to bed, I tore off all their carefully arranged tinsel, took down the lights and started again. There was a certain grim enjoyment of all this, at last I got the tree to myself and once the lights were sorted I spent the rest of the evening, half watching Shall We Dance, but mostly re-arranging tinsel and baubles to my satisfaction.

I'm now sitting at the computer once more, this time printing off endless blank calendar pages, for the child sweat shop/elf calendar production team, who have decided that this year's presents are going to be drawn rather than sewn. Present making is a last minute business this year - whereas we usually start making things for Christmas in November and I have plenty of time to help sew, untangle knots and thread needles, this year I've been leaving the children to their own devices, while I try to be a WAHM.

Middle daughter has set to drawing with speed and a light touch and has made two and a half calendars of twelve drawings each, is working on a picture book with plans to make her brother and sister something too.

Youngest battles, with her abilities not quite meeting her high expectations of herself, but is persevering and has nearly finished one calendar. Our son is painstaking with his pictures but tires after one or two and dives back into his latest book He has decreed that this one calendar is for posting off to his name-parent (godmother), so has nothing to give the family here. I've dragooned him into agreeing to make lemon curd for the rest of his presents, as I can't see him producing anything more than a card before Christmas and we have two aunts, a grandmother and an uncle besides our little family to provide for.

I also need to make marzipan for the cake, start on making stripey jellies, wrap presents besides feeding us today and keeping the house clean what on earth am I doing blogging now, when everyone else is too busy doing their own Christmas preparation to read it!

Happy Christmas to all my blog friends - have a lovely family time and may 2008 bring you all good things, peace and happiness!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Colour Coded

I wanted to share this little snippet that happened on my son's class camp a few weeks ago.

Towards the end of the camp my son's teacher was brought a form to fill in by the education centre's admin. It asked her to give the statistics for the racial make-up of the group. She looked at it distastefully and our guide apologised but said they were obliged by government regulations to keep records, presumably so they can make sure that "previously disadvantaged" groups are adequately represented.

Some of the nine-year old girls were hanging out with the grown-ups and were interested in the form, helping count up the numbers of black, coloured and white, boys and then girls. At one point one of the Xhosa girls reached a different total to the teacher and started naming each white boy that she had counted to make her total of four. My son and the twins who live at Camphill (a village community for slightly mentally disabled adults, down the road from us, with quite a group of the children of the co-workers living there), were counted off and then she added Danny to the list. Danny is the adopted son of one of the (white) Camphill house parents, his skin a dark brown, but he has grown up with the same cultural background as the twins and she saw him as white, even though his skin was no lighter than hers.

The teacher and I looked at each other, secretly thrilled that this pigeon-holing for the sake of statistics had been cancelled out by a child's perception of how things are.

It really seemed to illustrate that for our children's generation culture is more of a racial identifier than physical colour. It also give huge hope that our country can eventually become more unified as our children grow up and share their cultures with each other and a solid middle-class of all colours gives us a foundation on which to build.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Our Summer Festival

While the top half of the world is shivering and wrapping up warm, we've finally achieved some summer heat, gently glowing in cars that have lost sight of their air-conditioning, the kids having up to the three swims a day and food simplifying to salads for every meal.

Today was officially Midsummer's Day here, hardly even recognised in the run up to Christmas, but we'd already had our Summer Festival last Saturday, giving us enough time to recover and get into gear for the next big celebration.

Last Saturday started off as a real scorcher and after the unusually cool start to the summer we've had, it took us by surprise. We wilted around the house, as I fired up the oven to bake two huge plaited loaves of bread and only in slow motion got into the making of windmills.

I pinched Jenny's idea for word birds from her Prairie Farmeress blog, birds being creatures of the air and fitting in with our Air theme at a stretch, and the children got completely into them, begging to do more than one as they got inspired by new words. The idea was to take a word that is positive and made you feel good, write it in gold on the bird and then decorate it. By the end we had a fine treeful of positive energy!

One of our friends is an incredibly practical engineer and constructed an amazing windmill, with cogs and all, intended to churn out industrial quantities of bubbles, but as all mad inventors discover things never go quite as planned and the bubbles had to be hand blown after all.

We also got ambitious and decided to string a line of streamers right across the whole sandpit, involving major feats of engineering to secure poles and line.

Earlier on in the day we thought our Air festival was going to be windless, with hardly a breath of wind to turn the windmills and waft the flags, for the first year ever. Around five o'clock though, some cloud drifted over bringing a north-westerly breeze, which is the direction that rain comes from. By the time we were ready to carry the flags to our circle it was blowing merrily and we were all peering skywards going "Tut tut it looks like rain" à la Christopher Robin.

One thing that struck us all was how much the children have grown. A couple of years ago the tall poles, that we tie our gauzy flags to, were too heavy for most of them, needing adult intervention to avoid others being bopped on the head by falling lengths of wood. This year we had a fine show of flag-bearers reminiscent of the Palio in Siena.

They proudly processed with them into the circle and planted them around the edge of our sandpit, clutching paper windmills and pots of bubble mixture as well.

After we'd read all our blessings and returned to the house for supper the last lingerers called us back out onto the lawn. The sun had set, turning the overcast sky to fire and the most amazing rainbow I've ever seen was suspended high in the sky against this background of glowing clouds. It's ends didn't touch the earth, the sun had dipped below the horizon and was projecting it way up high. We all felt like the universe was smiling down on us in affectionate amusement and joining in our thanksgiving.

We then went back inside as the rain started to pour down and addressed the serious business of food and whether or not there was enough chocolate pudding…there wasn't quite, for the first time ever there were no leftovers to be consumed for brunch the next day, but a fine evening was had by all nonetheless!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bowled Over

Our son's career aspirations have shifted, for the first time in several years. As his dad was tucking him up tonight he confided that he is going to be a cricketer until he's 40 and after that a film-maker… the game ranger scenario seems to have been ousted for the moment.

He is surrounded by a glow of exhilaration, brought on by the final morning's match of his four day cricket clinic, where he distinguished himself among the group of nine-year olds by bowling two boys out, almost catching out two more (but the ball escaped his grasp at the last moment) and hitting two balls for four, thus winning the match for his team!

This was only the second time he has been to a holiday cricket camp and he doesn't play at school, (though he had some great coaching when Grandpa was visiting recently and practises bowling and batting at home with Dad), so he is doing really well. Visions of playing for South Africa are floating rosily in his eyes.

The girls were less enamoured of the cricket groupie scene. Sitting beside a grassy field, being blasted by the wind for three hours had them grumbling madly, even though I'd had the forethought to bring a book to read to them. They put up with it as patiently as is possible for five and seven year olds, and made it through the rather lengthy prize-giving and certificate presentation afterwards. We redeemed ourselves by going out for a pizza afterwards, hitting the heady heights of Kloof St and a smart pizzeria instead of our usual chain pizza place. I was away from my computer for the whole day and it felt like a complete holiday. Relaxed into wind and sun blasted languor we only got home in time for a late supper.

Tomorrow is a full day of work, some shopping and baking in preparation for our summer festival on Saturday, when we're going to have a house full again, so I might not be back on the blog till next week. Next week I'll have to make that Christmas cake, I've left it till the last minute yet again. Will I ever be organised enough to bake it in November, or even October? Maybe one day!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Snowed under in Summer

Oh! I've just remembered I have a blog - one on which of late I seem to spend my time writing posts apologising for not having written posts, instead of actually getting on and writing the posts I meant to write in the first place.

Things are starting to calm down a bit now after a hectic end of term last week. One where I almost single-handedly produced the school annual 10 page newsletter, burning the midnight oil, having squeezed the content from the teachers drop by drop, whipped it into the printers and dropped off 100 copies at the school as if by magic just in time to go home with the children. Phew!

My school photographer career also kept me busy printing off last minute photos, as children desolate that they didn't have one persuaded their parents to pay up.

And I had a new writing client, needing copy for her website, which is an ongoing job that I'm enjoying.

We also had our end of year belly dancing evening, where we performed, strictly just for our own families, our two dances that we have almost mastered, and then were able to relax over supper. It was at our house, so our children got prime position on the sofa and I was able to hear Youngest's partisan remarks, "Mummy looks the nicest". Nice to know that there's a fan club out there! I'd thrown together a quiche in the shortest time ever for me - we'd been invited out to a neighbours birthday braai for 1pm onwards (I should have been suspicious at the onwards part). We went expecting to eat maybe at 3, as they are always on the late side. The kids had a great time playing and we were all chatting, so we hardly noticed that it was already 5 by the time we actually started to eat, and the belly dancing crowd were due at 7 and I hadn't made the quiche or pudding that I'd planned on…. just before 6 we dragged the kids away protesting, only by dint of asking to take some of the pudding with us, and rushed home to tidy up, wash up and cook, hoping that everyone would arrive late. They were 10 minutes early… but the quiche was in the oven and the floor swept, dirty dishes clean and draining, so we heaved a sigh of relief and had a nice evening.

Sunday I had scheduled for collapsing in a wobbly heap on the sofa, which I duly did, armed with the end of a Rosamunde Pilcher and the latest Dick Francis.

So now here I am tiptoeing back into the blog world and hoping that I'm not going to be told off for staying away so long. Regular service will be resumed shortly!

Friday, November 30, 2007


The 1st of December means two things to my children: advent calendars and the Christmas carol CD. Every year Granny seeks out beautiful advent calendars (the ones with pictures inside the doors, glittery nativity scenes and snowy villages) and either brings them or sends them in time for December.

For the last week the children have been sporadically wondering whether Granny remembered to send them in time, until yesterday I relented and revealed that they were already stashed in the spare room from her last visit. Of course then there was no peace until I got them out and much poring over them was done. Youngest has a clever one with a different sticker for each day, which gradually puts all the animals into the nativity scene, but was eying the others' glittery ones too, trying to weigh up glitter versus stickers and work out if she'd been short-changed! (She does like it Granny, don't worry!)

Ryan (our farm employees's son, who goes to school with the children and spends his afternoons here) was looking puzzled at the advent calendars, so my son explained the whole idea to him. I'd mentioned making them for people when I was at school and he was seized by the idea of making a calendar for Ryan, so that he'd have one too. All yesterday afternoon he drew the main picture, marked out the windows, drew little pictures for inside the windows, carefully cut the sides of the window flaps with a Stanley knife, then today he glued it together and presented it to Ryan, with careful instructions of when to open each door.

The Christmas carol CD will no doubt be tunefully playing in the background several times a day from tomorrow, to get us in the right mood for making presents, cakes and mince pies now the weather has finally turned summery.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Posts to post

There are so many posts mulling in my mind but a faulty connection between my head and my computer has left them there, probably marinating nicely, but the blog cupboard has been sad and bare this last week.

I wanted to tell you about the school photos that I took again this year, coaxing smiles out of all but the coolest kids in the older classes; of my newly discovered Photoshop skills, whereby the spotty foreheads of the newly teenage girls have been smoothed gently into the background like a miracle acne cure, still discernible but not glaring out angrily in the spotlight - if only we could apply Photoshop to real life spots and wrinkles!

I've been meaning to post about my first ever attempt to cook artichokes - and still will, soon, soon, soon.

I've missed several food blogging events that I meant to write for - Apples and Thyme at Vanielje Kitchen, a lovely idea celebrating the food heritage that mothers pass on to daughters and shared kitchen moments, but we get another chance in December, so I'll make sure I do then; Cooksister's WTSIM topless tart has a deadline soon - I baked quiches last weekend and an apple tart today and, sin of food blogging sins, forgot to photograph them - maybe I'll write them up anyway.

Then Middle Daughter wanted her dolls house family to have their own story, so ideas have been swirling in my head for that. Her dolls house is currently occupied by a two-by-two procession of animals and the dolls have moved all the furniture out, with leopards prowling past the bunk beds, so I'm sure there is plenty of material there.

My son's first ever Class camp happens tomorrow - the whole class is spending its first ever night away at a nearby National Park and I blithely offered to go along as a helper.

I also undertook to bake enough bread for everyone for the two days and then added crunchies and muffins to the list, because I can't bear to think of the possibility of us going hungry. So this weekend I have been turning our kitchen into a bakery and churning out the loaves, as I also need to put enough in the freezer for the family while I'm away - for one whole night!

In a minute I'm going to tear my son away from the cricket and we'll set about the serious business of packing - the park has a gorgeous lagoon and we're supposed to have plenty of relaxed time on the beach …only there's a cold front predicted, so we need to pack minimally for all eventualities.

So I'll leave you with Youngest's latest work of art

Christmas is coming and the Princess and her Child have been decorating!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Story of a Doll's House

Once upon a time there was a family of dolls. They dressed in their brightest, best clothes and lay in a box and waited. They knew that sooner or later they would reach the top of the housing list and their real life would begin. In the meantime they just dozed and wondered where that would be.

A rustling of tissue paper woke them; bright light made them blink. One by one they were lifted out of their box and caught a first glimpse of their new home: dazzlingly white with a smell of new paint and five spacious rooms, all empty.

They stood bemused looking around them at all the space.

"Where are we going to sleep?" asked the son, already missing the cosy box that had been his life so far.

"There'll be furniture soon" reassured his mother "They wouldn't give us a house unfurnished, not when they know we're new from the box and haven't had a chance to get our own."

Sure enough, huge hands began bringing in bunk beds and cupboards.

"Ooh there's a rocking horse" screeched the daughter in excitement, "Can I go on it Mum?"

"You have to wait until you're put on it by our Child," Grandmother said, "she's the one who decides everything around here."

"But how will she know to put me on? ..and she's so big..I'm scared!"

"Don't worry" said Dad, "I can see she'll be gentle with us and look after us well. She doesn't look the type to leave us outside in the rain. You'll have to learn to 'think' your wishes to her, so she catches them and puts you where you want to be. Of course at night when she's asleep we can do whatever we like, but in the daytime she's in charge"

Soon the house was all sorted, with a lovely children's bedroom and kitchen. The children were excited to find that they now had a pet cat and a new baby brother.

However the white walls were getting their parents down. "We really must see about a more exciting colour scheme. Can't we get our Child to do some interior decorating, maybe have her watch Changing Rooms or something?"

No sooner had they thought their wish, than they found themselves hustled off on a camping trip, babies and all.

"I do hope it won't rain" said Grandmother, anxiously looking at the grey sky.

"Did you wish for some nice tasteful colours?" asked Grandpa, "you know what they do to houses on TV programmes these days, need sunglasses to live in some of them!"

"I thought a bit of colour would make a nice change from being inside our box" responded Mum, a tad defensively," Anyway I've always liked bright colours and your yellow shirt isn't exactly subtle is it?"

Dad came back slightly apprehensive from supervising the decorators. "I think they're new to the job." he whispered to Mum.

"Well I shouldn't worry, they always seem to pull it together at the last minute on the telly, I'm sure it'll be fine." she replied as calmly as she could. Her precious first house meant a lot to her and she did so want them all to be happy in it.

The weather held fine for their camping trip, but finally it was time to make the journey back to their new house. As it came into view they gasped.

It was bright indeed and it had been moved. There was now a house next door, neighbours who also favoured a bright décor. Mum heaved a sigh of relief , she did like a bit of colour - it was just what she had dreamed of when lying asleep in her box - her own house, her family around her and friends next door for her children to play with. She was sure they would be friends - after all anyone who liked bright pink and red walls was bound to be a soul mate.

Photos of Youngest's doll's house that her Dad made for her birthday and of the doll family that flew all the way from the UK to live in it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Dividing Conquered

Today my nine year old son taught me how to do something that I've had a mental block about for years. Something that, though I've always been good with numbers, slipped under the radar and which I never ever figured out how to do, even though I got my Maths O and A levels.

I confess I made it the whole way through school without knowing how to do long division properly. I knew a way of doing it that worked, but only if the dividing number could be separated out into single digit factors - like 24 into 6 and 4 - but I was lost if I needed to divide something by 23.

So when I realised that my son's class had started on long multiplication, I enquired if he was doing long division too. Today he came and kindly asked me if I'd like him to show me how to do it.

Armed with pencil and paper he asked for some numbers, with the proviso that the dividing number was a single digit. I called some out and he set to work on what looked like a fiendishly complicated series of workings for a single number.

I glazed over some of the explanation and, slightly disappointed that my problem with 23 wasn't about to be resolved, asked if it worked for 23 too. "Oh yes", he said and proceeded to work out the twenty three times table so that we could work the process through ….

Hurray! I finally know how to do long division, which should come in handy, if I ever need to work out how to divide 930 canapés between my 23 guests and want to know how many will be leftover for me to scoff myself.

OK - they get 40 each and there are 10 left over for me and I didn't use a calculator!!

My son, on a roll after his teaching success, generously offered to show me how to do big minus sums too. I reassured him that I could remember how to do those. I don't want to sink too low in his estimation of my mental abilities, just yet.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Computers Then and Now

Dick Francis is another one of our authors to turn to for a good escapist read. I've just been re-reading 'Twice Shy', which was first published in 1981. Some of his books don't date that much, the world of horse-racing carrying on pretty much as it always has, but this one has at its centre a betting system on computer tapes. It had me glued in reminiscent wonder, as it mentioned the computer they were to be played on - a Grantley Basic with a 32K hard drive, the Basic language taking up 12K in memory so you were left with 20K to work with. Each character, space or comma that you typed would take up one of those 20,000 slots of memory, so all your programs were on cassettes to be loaded only when needed.

In 1981 I was in my O'level year. The year below me was the first group to be taught on the one computer that the school had just acquired. They learned how to write a basic program and play Space Invaders, by repetitively pressing the space bar to shoot and the arrow keys to manoeuvre. Computers seemed then to be on the periphery of life, I played Space Invaders once or twice myself and went on my way.

Five years later computers had advanced enough to be more useful. At university there was a computer room in our faculty building, where we could sign up for a 'Word Processing' course. Some of the more forward-looking did and were able to present essays and theses beautifully typed. I carried on with my fountain pen, tormenting my professors with essays written in turquoise ink.

I slightly regretted not taking advantage of the computer room when I graduated and tried to earn my living from temping. I started as the lowest of the low: doing data entry - names and addresses punched into the membership list of a big company, whereas if I had mastered Word Processing I could have earned double… but anyway eight months later I drove off to Italy in a Mercedes minibus with the world of computers just an inconvenient blip, no longer necessary to master.

I eventually did get to grips with them. By 1995 PCs were affordable and essential to any business and I started doing our accounts on them and typing letters. They had evolved into glorified typewriters and calculators - e-mail was becoming a normal way of communication. My new husband learned about the innards and started dropping motherboards, megs, gigs and ram into the conversation. Computers had edged into our lives and were now indispensable.

Dick Francis' novel has a second section 14 years on, where the computer betting system again rears its ugly head. He would have boggled back in 1981 if he had seen the extent of the shift in computer usage that would actually have taken place by then. His vision encompassed a few boffins with banks of gleaming equipment in air conditioned rooms, complicated programs still in basic that had to be comprehended to make any use of a computer, cassettes still loading programs onto computers and telexes the height of communication technology.

What would he have said to the internet - in fact what would we have said back then if somebody had told us that we would be sitting at computers for fun, blogging late at night? That Microsoft had made sure that we didn't need to learn Basic to be able to use the computer, that most of our communication would be dependent on a temperamental machine deigning to be cooperative and that international boundaries would shrink to nothing in the face of a virtual world.

So now here I sit in my dressing gown with two screens in front of me, so that I can read something on the internet on one and type on the other, behind me my husband's two monitors, both connected so that we can send each other things, though we mostly Skype them to each other, and I write insignificant musings on retro computer culture shock to share with blog friends on the other side of the world. Who would have thought it back in 1981?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

On Italian Food and Seasons

I've been writing a series of articles about Italian food recently. I used to work in Italy and for years I was steeped in the local specialities of the different regions I travelled to. I haven't been back though, since my son was born.

After a wedding we went to today at a wine farm restaurant, where the food was fashionably stacked in towers, encircled by drizzles of intense sauces with fanciful ingredients, I thought back to meals I've eaten in Italy.

How can I be so sure that what I'm writing about Italian food is still current ten years later? Why do I know that I could walk into any one of the restaurants I used to eat in with my clients and eat the same wonderful meal, as long as the season was the same? Why is it that good Italian restaurants don't feel the need to reinvent their dishes with the latest jus or garnish to entice their regulars back once more?

I think the main thing that separates gourmet Italian food, or any traditional European food, from the fads and trends of haute foodiedom, is the seasons. Italian food (or rather each different regional cuisine, for each small area of Italy has its own traditions), is closely linked to the seasons. Italian gourmets will drive for hours to taste the first wild mushrooms of the season in a small mountain trattoria, or to feast on the first truffles. They will happily travel many kilometres to the best fish restaurant on the coast - one owned by the cousin of their neighbour, who can be guaranteed to produce the freshest fish in all Italy.

When your palate is refreshed every month by a new seasonal speciality, you never do tire of those delicacies. Chefs don't have to tempt jaded plates with ever more outlandish combinations. You can stuff yourself every day for a month with asparagus in every possible variation from risotto to pasta, as antipasto or in a sformato, but then it will be out of season, you move on to artichokes and by the time asparagus season comes round again you will welcome it enthusiastically anew.

It's not just that Italians are conservative in their tastes, they are that, but they know a good thing when they have it on their plates and see no reason to mess with it. Good ingredients are cooked simply so that their flavours are enhanced. Plus within in Italy there are so many variations in the cuisines of the different regions that, if you travel around, you can eat the same dish cooked in a thousand slightly differing ways.

So the ephemeral trendy restaurants may have moved on in the last ten years from 2D pictorial arrangements on enormous plates to intricate towering stacks of food that need several lines on the menu to identify the ingredients, but I am as certain as certain can be that I could walk into a favourite restaurant in Le Marche tomorrow and eat the same fantastic pasta dish scattered with a myriad of tiny wild mushrooms collected by the father of the restaurant owner that morning. He may be ten years older but the mushrooms will be from the same secret collecting places at the edge of the woods. In spring it will be the wild asparagus that make a wonderful delicately flavoured risotto.

The seasons provide the variety and rhythm that keep our fickle human palates from satiation, presenting us with treat after treat through the year, all we need to do is tune back into them and accept their gifts, something that the Italians have never forgotten.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Michelin Star Imminent

As you know this is a gourmet establishment with high standards. The other night we scaled new heights in gastronomic discovery and probably need to find a new name for a previously unknown food combination.

It was one of those last minute evenings, no time to cook anything except pasta or rice and I am starting to get murmurings of unrest among the young natives on the pasta front. Youngest still loves it, but the older two must have ODd on it as toddlers and now grumble like mad when I insist on keeping it on the menu.

So I thought I'd diversify a little to maintain at least some semblance of giving them enough nutrients to exist on. As well as the pasta I got out the few remaining fish fingers from the freezer and cooked them. I looked guiltily at the overwhelmingly brown and red colour palette of the proposed meal. The fridge was empty of salad, but there was an exceedingly rip avocado, so I mashed it up into guacamole (but not too spicy) and threw it on the table as a token green stuff.

My son as predicted declined the pasta but fell on the fish fingers. He demanded a slice of bread and proceeded to make a fish finger sandwich …. I pushed the guacamole hopefully towards him and he tentatively tasted it, approved and spread it thickly into his sandwich.

It was enthusiastically pronounced delicious.

Middle daughter followed suit, while youngest tucked into the pasta, the fish fingers and the guacamole but kept them all separate.

So a new gastronomic experience has been born: the fishfinger and avo sandwich on wholewheat. Any takers?!

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Goodnight Kiss

Youngest has developed her own individual goodnight routine. Whereas the older two submit to a goodnight kiss and hug from us and just about whisper 'night night' under their breath back, occasionally treating us to a perfunctory hug, she has an unbreakable ritual that has to be gone through.

First I give her a kiss, then she solemnly kisses me on each cheek alternately, three or four times over, moving my face with her hands to get the right angle. Then come two kisses on the lips and then we have to rub noses. At the end I get a hug and a "mama, I love you" delivered in dramatic rendition, possibly taken from a Victorian melodrama. To which I have to reply "I love you too".

If she isn't completely happy with the delivery of her line the first time round, she will then give it another go, drawing out the syllables in a die-away manner. Then she will snuggle down contentedly, satisfied that we have suitably communicated our love.

I have no idea where this all came from - the kissing on alternate cheeks has a definite continental flavour and I often experience that flicker of uncertainty about how many times we should meet cheeks, just as when moving between Italy and France and their different conventions, I used to end up miscalculating and bumping cheekbones or else thin air. She makes no bones about it though and grabs my face firmly with her hands, to make sure that I don't get it wrong or cut short the performance.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

WTSIM Strawberry Cake

Belatedly catching up with the food blogging world I checked out this months wtsim at SpittoonExtra today, to find that the theme is cakes - a subject after my own heart - in particular layered cakes. This immediately brought to mind the strawberry sponge cake that I made for youngest's birthday, which I unfairly tantalised you with here a little while ago. So I thought I would risk repeating myself and give you the recipe this time too.

Her birthday falls at the beginning of our strawberry season, and apart from the year she was two, when overindulgence in strawberries had given her an allergy rash, she has demanded a strawberry cake for her birthday every time.

When you have good strawberries to lavish on a cake, all you need is a simple background to frame them. A plain sponge cake with just a hint of vanilla, proper cream whipped with just a smidgen of sugar to enfold the strawberries and relieve any residual tartness …no more. Anything else would be overkill and distract your taste-buds from the strawberry stars of the show.

Any Victoria sponge recipe will do, as long as it is a generous one and not too dry. Here is the recipe I used for a good basic sponge cake. It comes from Nigella Lawson's 'How to Eat' and takes advantage of her propensity for using a food processor to whip up a cake batter in a few hassle free moments - just what I needed in the last minute rush of getting a birthday ready, when I was thoroughly disorganised and still had the treasure hunt to think up and presents to wrap. The cake turned out light, moist and springy and completely restored my faith in sponge cake recipes after a few bad experiences.

Strawberry Sponge Cake Recipe

For the Cake
200g self-raising flour
25g cornflour
225g caster sugar
225g soft butter
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 eggs
4 tablespoons milk

For the Filling
250ml cream
500g ripe strawberries
1 tablespoon caster sugar
icing sugar to dust

Oven 180C/360
2 x 21 cm cake tins (I used slightly smaller ones than this but it worked fine) greased and lined.

Put all the cake ingredients in the food processor, except the milk and blitz until smooth. Add 2 tablespoons of milk and mix again. Check consistency - it should be of a soft dropping consistency. Add the rest of milk if needed. Pour equally into the two tins and bake for 25 minutes until the top feels springy and a skewer comes out clean. Cool for 1 minute in the tins then turn onto a rack to finish cooling.

When cool, whip the cream till fairly stiff with 1 tablespoon of sugar. Prepare the strawberries. I usually cut half the amount into quarters or chunks to go with the cream inside and just halve the rest to go decoratively on top. Spread a bit over half the cream in the middle and spread over the strawberry chunks, press the top layer on gently, then decorate the top with the rest of the cream and arrange the halved strawberries on top. If you like sift icing sugar on top, but don't over-do it, you want the scarlet strawberries to shine forth in all their glory.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Eating out with the kids

Taking the children out to a good restaurant is something we only do occasionally ... well we only go out to good restaurants occasionally ourselves, so they pretty much go when we go, apart from our once a year wedding anniversary escape. We have never been anywhere that is too posh to admit young children and they usually behave well, as long as there is somewhere they can play once they've finished eating.

Groote Post, where we went for our anniversary, came up trumps last weekend, as a place to visit in a mixed group of adults and children. They'd laid three places appropriately for the kids, without wine glasses, had thought of a few child-friendly options to propose, even though they had no 'kid' menu, and asked what the children would like to eat at the drinks ordering stage, so that they could start their food cooking while we were still leisurely perusing our menus and chatting.

This must be the first time I've had such thoughtful service with kids in tow. Usually restaurants are only to happy to comply with requests to divide adult portions on to two plates etc. but to have a solution already thought of and swiftly executed was great, leaving us to relax and enjoy our meal too.

We'd been given the big table in the Voorkamer (the entrance hall), so the children were able to run outside to play on the lawn and the jungle gym and feed dry leaves to the chickens in the run, without disturbing any of the other diners, plus we could still keep an eye on them through the open door, as we savoured our starters. It felt like we had our own private dining room and we were surrounded by beautiful antique furniture ...I'd love to move in there tomorrow!

The kids all chose steak rolls with hand cut chips and salad - the steak was the tenderest I've had in ages, pink in the middle and seared on the outside. They tucked in appreciatively, but a few adult eyes glanced acquisitively toward their plates and were eventually rewarded with the leftovers, when they ran back outside to play.

Our delicious lamb pie with mashed potato, butternut puree and vegetables and a wonderful gravy

We were able to enjoy adult conversation over our main course and then call them back in for chocolate brownie and ice cream, while we went for a berry tart that was refreshingly tart but finished us off completely. I was ruined by my motherly tendency to clear the kids' plates as well as my own, which had me finishing off corners of brownie as well as my own dessert!

The kids' chocolate brownie.
Please note in the background that our son has inherited the family trait of taking a book along, just in case...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Late October

Late October means late spring here in SA. A rash of warm weather has sent the carpets of flowers to seed and dried out the fields to a parched gold in a matter of a couple of weeks.

Late October means a sudden outbreak of gardening fever, and wondering why it's been so long, when I enjoy it so much, only to be forcibly reminded by spasms in my back, just why I so rarely weed my herb garden.

Late October means that the sun steals through our bedroom windows and tickles the children awake before the morning alarm clock sounds, sending us forth bright and early to arrive at school five minutes before the bell, instead of two minutes after as we too often do in winter.

Late October puts paid to weekend lie-ins - a recent innovation in any case, with winter darkness having lulled the children to sleep in at weekends until the luxurious hour of 7.30.

Late October means braking to avoid tortoises crossing our dirt road.

Late October means a visit from Granny and Grandpa bearing a crop of new children's clothes harvested from the end of season sales in England.

Late October means that mulberries and strawberries are ripe and juicy begging to be picked from trees and plants.

Late October means a bucket of Biotex in the bath in the forlorn hope of soaking purple juice stains from brand new primrose coloured T-shirts.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


I've been stuggling to balance my life recently. My clear three hours work slot in the mornings, isn't really enough, when I get a client with a big proofreading and editing job and a deadline of yesterday.

My blog has been an abandoned space recently, with a crazy week last week of trying to get ahead with my work blog, prepare the house for my parents' arrival on the Thursday, think ahead to Youngest's birthday the next day and make enough time to spend with them all.

Charlotte's post came to mind, when the very evening of their arrival, I got an urgent e-mail from a potential client with an e-book that needed editing …preferably yesterday. I put aside Saturday to do it in, relying on my parents to keep the children entertained and vice versa.

Friday was the birthday - sacrosanct, devoted to presents and baking cheese biscuits for the party, picking strawberries for the birthday cake and oops! thinking up a treasure hunt. Middle daughter's birthday had been a triumph of inspiration and planning, at least in retrospect. Youngest's was a case of last minute winging it.

We had to go and sign some papers in our local town, just before the party and, all the way in and back, I was mulling over stories for the treasure hunt, working out possible clues, hoping for inspiration - it duly arrived, enough at least to keep a five year old happy, and I ran about like a mad thing on my return, fifteen minutes before the guests were due to arrive, to put the clues round and hide the treasure.

On Saturday with my dedicated in-house baby sitting service, I managed to spend seven clear hours at the computer and finished the editing and proofreading of the e-book, setting aside Monday morning for any revisions. Sunday I kept myself away from the dreaded machine, except to decorate my poor sad blog with some strawberries to cheer it up.

Monday was when my precarious balance toppled. The e-book had come to me in multiple files and now needed formatting, plus there were some more separate files to edit. I was enjoying the project, (a really useful book on breastfeeding) and liked the clients, so wanted to do my best for them.

But computer time is completely intellectual, your physical body gets no recognition. By the end of the day, when I had taken just a lunch break and a tea break, (after having forgotten about picking the kids up from school and having to phone up to say I'd be late), I was chilled to the bone. All my energy had been focussed and directed into my computer. I was irritable and snapping, muttering savagely under my breath, when an email wouldn't send, a veritable prima donna at her first performance!

I'd done the work, but had had to abandon all the other parts of my daily routine, the physical things, the nurturing things, the emotional and spiritual things. It amazed me how physically wiped out I was, it was like I'd had a fever - my head ached, my digestion had shut down! I went to bed with a hot water bottle and my winter pyjamas.

So now I need to find ways of balancing crazy deadlines with home life and being realistic about how much work I can do in a day. The trouble is I enjoy the work, I was feeding on the buzz of getting it done and creating a pleasing, integrated book from a jumble of differently formatted files.

Anyway today, I enjoyed sauntering over to my sister-in-laws house to do the laundry, looked at the flowers, tasted some ripe mulberries from her tree, edited some copy for another client, set some bread dough to rise, wrote a bit, sat with youngest as she had her snack ..that is balanced. Hopefully I'm learning to pace myself. Any tips on keeping your sanity and your family intact under pressure of deadlines are gladly welcomed!

P.S. I think under the circumstances I'll give NaBloPoMo a miss this year, no need to add more deadline pressure to my fledgling professional balance!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Strawberry 'stravaganza

Sorry I haven't been around for a while ...I've been unavoidable detained in our strawberry patch. Strawberry season has arrived with a fanfare!

Youngest asked for a strawberry cake for her birthday and a fairy treasure hunt.

Strawberries inspired me to bake my first pavlova of the season.

and there were no leftovers!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Muggles Beware

I try to keep my blog a cheerful place filled with flowers and flavours, so it goes against the grain to keep reporting when the really newsworthy gories happen. I have to confess now that my posts about our wedding anniversary, though genuine, cover up a deeper, darker subsequent week of doctor's visits. But how to report it?

Dragon Attacks!?!

It has come to our notice, that below the seemingly untroubled waters of Suikerbossie Farm, disturbing events have been concealed. Popular lore states that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, but then why has this family been detected twice this week at the doctor's surgery needing emergency treatment?

"It wasn't lightning, it was hot coffee" insists harassed mother of three, who had to be taught how to dress her daughter's scalded arm last Monday.

In the light of subsequent events, we wonder if dangerous and restricted magical creatures are being reared at this 'farm', where the inhabitants refuse to comment.

That same mother drove herself to the surgery needing stitches for wounds, allegedly caused by her own border collie, but which might just as well be dragon attacks.

'He lashed out out me, when the vet was taking out his stitches' she asserts, denying any connection with illegal magical creatures.

Could the seven-year-old girl have been burnt by too close contact with a dragon? Further investigation will uncover the truth.

We are all recovering well, though the doctor did offer to reserve a suite for us at his surgery, and are keeping our fingers crossed that the third accident was the flat tyre that stopped my husband in his tracks on the way to a meeting on Monday.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Spring Flowers - a Photographic Road Trip

Gorgeous mature coral tree at Groote Post

Not only did we eat a wonderful leisurely lunch in a beautiful place for our wedding anniversary, we then indulged ourselves by going for a pottering drive along the quiet, dirt roads and stopping every kilometer or so, whenever I saw a flower I just had to photograph.

Wind, wispy clouds and wheat

It's been a long time since we've done that - with kids in the car we're generally trying to whisk ourselves to our destination before grumpiness sets in. We've also temporarily switched roles, it is usually my husband the photographer, screeching to a halt on the verge to catch the moment. This time I was in charge of the camera and it was me shrieking out to him to stop, whenever a new flower flooded my vision.

It is nearly the end of the flower season on the West Coast, the carpets of daisies already gone to seed, but there were plenty of bright patches of colour. So I've put you together a photographic flower road trip for you.

There were so many chinchirees everywhere that is was hardly a crime to pick five, one for each member of the family.

Wild watsonias make spots of hot colour in a dry field by the road, with Table Mountain mistily in the background.

Banks of pink daisies massed along the road side, and trust me Table Mountain is still there in the background!

More pink daisies washing towards the sea.

Pink vygies cluster into the dark rocks at Grotto Bay.

Pretty aren't they!

Wild orange gazanias set the hills on fire.

Wild flowers trying to emulate a municipal planting. Vygies and Chinchirees.

A river of purple winding along the valley.

Pink vygie bushes like confetti along the verge.

I had to put in an arum lily, even though this shot isn't the best as they were still gallantly flowering in all the damp places. I stopped to pick three to take home to remember our wedding day - these were the flowers I carried twelve years ago, freshly picked from a ditch that morning.