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?!