Saturday, August 23, 2008

Salt and Shopping

Ever since we've been here, I have done our grocery shopping once in week in our local town. All the main supermarket chains of South Africa are represented here - Pick n Pay, Checkers, Shoprite and Spar but they are all on a small scale, suitable for the size of country farmers' town it is. I've always shopped in Spar as it has the best selection of fruit and veg, a good butchery section and a decent on-site bakery. I know many of the staff there by sight and always say hello to Johanna, ever since five years ago she held a crying five-week-old Youngest for me at the till, so that I could pay and manage the other two.

We can get everything we need here… with the emphasis on 'need' as opposed to 'would impulse buy if we had the chance'. Fancy ingredients we'd have to make a trip into Cape Town for, but I usually just adapt my recipes to what is possible. It was never limited to the very basics though: imported pasta from Italy (a staple on my list), soy sauce and a whole variety of exotic foodstuffs have been well represented for years, but our town being a practical sort of place, without any extravagant foodies in evidence, Spar has always restricted its lines to the affordable, to what a sensible shopper would be likely to buy.

Until the last two months that is... When I came back from England, with its over abundance of choice in the supermarkets, its acceptance of organic foods as a basic necessity available pretty much everywhere, I was resigned to returning to my shopping cart of bog standard groceries, (just as well really with the price of everything sky-rocketing), only to find that Spar had upped the ante.

Secreted around the store were little traps of excellence, the kind of ingredients that Nigella recommends in her recipes and that I laugh at as flights of fancy that have no bearing on my real world: genuine good quality vanilla extract (a bargain at R89! yeah right!), good quality cocoa, esoteric oils and vinegars and, the one that proved to be my Achilles heel, Khoisan sea salt. I was tempted by the vanilla extract, I have to admit, but the price tag made me banish it resolutely from my thoughts - Moir's ersatz but edible vanilla essence is good enough.

The Khoisan salt though is hand-harvested locally in natural salt pans not too far up the West coast from us, by a small family company. We've had their special seaweed and herb salt mix before - full of flavour and trace minerals and absolutely delicious, but hadn't been able to get it for a while. Now right there on the shelf, next to the Cerebos - 'see how they run' - processed table salt, sat bags of the various Khoisan salts.

My frugal self warred with my health conscious foodie side. R4 for a bag of Cerebos iodated table salt or R20 for the natural Khoisan salt. It was a tough call but I'm glad to say that the extravagant foodie won out. I made mashed potatoes last night and it tasted so much better - I was amazed that you could really taste the difference. I'm now addicted to extravagance in salt and since reading their site I can understand why it is so much more healthy than the industrially produced stuff. Just what I need to help my inner foodie triumph over the budget conscious cheap-skate every time!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sponge Bob Lament

I thought I was safe from Sponge Bob. I'd heard his name mentioned around the blog world of course, but as the addiction of toddlers and young children. Now mine are all at school I wasn't anticipating his name being uttered in our house….ad infinitum.

As first time parents we started off with high ideals around TV watching. We knew we didn't want our baby to have a square box as a baby-sitter, it was damaging to their development, their creativity suffered…we'd read it all and knew we could bring up our child without it. Until our son was about 18 months that is. He started waking up every morning at 5.30. Wide awake, ready to go. We'd take it in turns to sit on the sofa and read him stories while the other caught got a bit more sleep till a more civilised hour. In self-defence, my husband discovered that Sesame Street was on at 6am on BBC2, which meant that after half an hour of stories he could doze off on the sofa, next to an avid toddler, who was quite happy for the next hour.

The rot set in. Soon we'd acquired a Thomas the Tank Engine video set - two tapes that played in succession, filling our early mornings with the repetitive theme tune every ten minutes. Our daughter was born to its sound track, as he was kept busy upstairs with watching it, while she emerged into the world.

A routine evolved of watching first thing in the morning and then a little at bed-time, before stories and tucking up. We kept to our resolution of no TV during the rest of the day, the only exception being if a child was sick, when they could be lulled into a coma by watching the flickering screen. Gradually Thomas collected friends from the Disney collection, one by one we built up a library of classics, that salved our conscience by keeping our children to the quality end of TV watching. Tom and Jerry managed to join the throng, but otherwise cartoons were kept at arms length.

For years the only TV channel the kids knew was Animal Planet. The choice was Animal Planet or a video. They recently extended their viewing to some grown up movies - The Sound of Music, Dreamer, Princess Bride. We could sit down and watch with them and enjoy most of the things ourselves.

Until now.

We returned from our trip to England to find that treacherous DSTV, our satellite Tv provider, had shifted all the channels around. Now right next to Animal Planet was a selection of cartoon channels. It took the kids no time to figure this out, and now they know all there is to know about the mating habits of the warthog, all they want to watch is Scooby Doo… and Sponge Bob SquarePants! Scooby Doo I can cope with. It takes me back to my childhood, when it used to terrify me. My kids just sit and giggle hysterically at it. But Sponge Bob Square Pants? Maybe if I took time to get to know him I'd find out what they see in him, but do I want to? I'm hoping he'll be a flash in the pan fling, a novelty with no substance that will wear off so that they will return to their old love Animal Planet, but I'm not holding my breath!

If you have found deep meaning and a lovely soul in poor old Sponge Bob, please let me know and I will try to find some consolation for the fluff that I'm letting my kids fill their heads with!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

WTSIM picnic basket

Picnics and I have a complicated relationship. I love them, I really do. Going to a beautiful spot and unpacking a simple but delicious meal, to eat in the fresh air, looking at a beautiful view…what could be better?

However, and this is a big but… I spent most of my twenties in beautiful parts of the Italian countryside, making picnics for sixteen people, every day for many weeks at a time.

My previous incarnation of picnic-maker extraordinaire

After about nine years of that, even though ten years have since passed, I am still totally saladed out. I've done the tomato in every possible computation. I've produced cannellini beans in a hundred different disguises. I've arranged prosciutto and salami in attractive presentations on just about every hilltop between Siena and Montepulciano.

Now when I make picnics for my family they get sandwiches.

So with Johanna's latest WTSIM theme being picnic fare I had to think long and hard what to make. Mini quiches were my first option. I love anything with pastry and don't often make it, so they are a treat and their small size means you get more pastry per portion, which is even better. Except I forgot to buy cream, and cream for the filling is a must in my quiches.

One good thing about my Italian culinary past is that it never included baking. I was catering for the five thousand from the side of a Mercedes minibus. At the most I had a gas camping stove in the colder months. Sometimes I could cook something up quickly in a hotel kitchen before heading off to my picnic spot at a picturesque abandoned farmhouse on a hill, but never ever did I even think about making bread. Who needs to anyway in Italy, where even the smallest town has a bakery wafting enticing smells of fresh bread into the morning air, where school kids stop off first thing for a slice of rosemary topped focaccia to get them through the rigors of the school bus ride.

With the deadline tomorrow I had to think quickly and decided to go for the simplest thing I could. I was making white bread anyway, to get a head start on the week. I diverted half the dough, divided it up into about six balls and flattened them into disks pressing my thumb down hard in about seven places on each. Once they'd risen again, I sprinkled them with sea salt, a generous brushing of olive oil and several rosemary leaves each and baked them for 15 minutes.

They made the perfect fake focaccia and are ideal as rolls to fill for the picnic-fatigued. I can guarantee that any filling, however plain, tastes a hundred times better with the rosemary and salt zing on top, cheese being a particularly good combination. They are just normal white bread inside, so are less oily than real focaccia. Next time we plan a picnic I'm going to make these the night before and add a bit of class to my sandwiches. You never know, I might even get around to making a salad to go with them one of these days and serve them on a red checked tablecloth!

P.S. Apologies for the photo of my fake focaccia. I had to photograph it under an electric lamp as there were only seconds to go before the lot got gobbled up for supper. My son found the perfect filling to be ... baked beans!

Daisy Chains

Spring has arrived! We know it's more spring than winter when there are enough daisies to sit and make daisy chains, without having to move from one spot, just reaching out to choose another flower with a stem of the requisite thickness and length for optimum daisy chain production.

This weekend the sun has been shining and waking up all the flowers. They're late this year as we’ve had a lot of rain and a relatively cold winter, but now the daisies have signaled the wake up call and the pypies are also flowering, the almond blossom is out, the ducks are chasing each other all over the place and we've emerged from layers of clothes into T-shirts, whenever we're out of the still chilly wind.

My husband lured me away from the chores yesterday to wander the property and take the first ceremonial photos of the children frolicking in fields of daisies. Each year we try to get the ultimate shot and are usually defeated by the ferocious glare of the carpets of white flowers under a brilliant sun, a white that digital cameras struggle to do justice to. Each year we keep trying. The children are tolerant of our efforts, becoming child models with varying degrees of complaisance. Our son opted out this year, with his forced grimace that is the only expression the camera can catch these days and his eyes squinting against the glare. The girls were absorbed enough in making their daisy chains to oblige and Amy, the dog, posed prettily in between them without even being told to.

It's still cool enough for a fire in the evenings and I'm cooking a Sunday roast as we speak, so there's a long way to go till summer is here, but the daisies are the first sign of an emergence from winter and we revel in them at the only time of year when our landscape is green and flower-filled, lush and richly embroidered with colour.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Catch-Up Meme

How to fill the hole of a whole month's absence from my blog? Instead of wringing my hands and apologising madly for being such a bad blogger, citing reams of extenuating circumstances, I should of course take a leaf from Special Agent Gibbs' book in NCIS, his rule number 9 being 'Never Apologise'. So I shall just swan in and borrow Meredith's meme designed for catching up with friends you haven't seen for fifteen years in ten simple bullet points. Fifteen years/one month... the answer has to be bullet points:

1. The rest of our time in England was packed full of seeing old friends, most of whom we hadn't seen at all since we moved to SA. It was wonderful how easy it was to pick up the threads again as if no time has passed and so great to see them all. Each of our children got to meet one of their name-parents (our equivalent of god-parents) again for the first time in about three or four years, and it was amazing to see that they still had an instant close connection with them, following them around and climbing all over them as if they'd seen them every day of their lives.

2. From a quiet Somerset village we went to stay for one night in a friend's North London flat in a street full of take-aways. The novelty of pizza and Chinese, the thrill of nipping down to the shop two doors down at eight o'clock in the evening for milk and butter for breakfast had me bouncing around like a kid playing house, but after a noisy night filled with London traffic and pub closing time I was very happy to be moving on - even though I was leaving my husband to several more nights of take-away food and noise, while he stayed in the big smoke for some work meetings.

3. We went to North Norfolk to a typical seaside town. The children invested their pocket money in shrimping nets and we had one perfect sunny morning on the beach, building castles and looking in rock pools. The other windy, cool and rainy days we spent riding on a steam train, walking in some amazing rhododendron woods, playing croquet and trawling the souvenir shops in an agonizingly slow pocket-money spending-spree.

4. We discovered the joys of Satnav borrowing our friends' Tomtom to talk us into and around South London. Apart from the fact that I was concentrating so hard on it that I missed a turn that I used to know off by heart, it worked well and the novelty of it kept us all entertained for ages. It did have a major wobble once on our return journey when it tried to send us back into London again, instead of the road we knew we were supposed to take. We almost followed it and then rumbled its cunning plan and got ourselves back on the right road again, much to its annoyance.

5. We had a totally touristy day out in central London and introduced the children to the joys of trains, the tube and London buses, took in the dinosaurs in the Natural History museum and ate ice cream in Trafalgar Square. We even took a cab and asked the driver to take us to Victoria Station via Buckingham Palace, thus underlining the fact that we are no longer cool Londoners. The children were rather disappointed by Buck House - not their idea of a palace at all.

6. The first thing that struck us when we reached home was how enormous our house felt after all the houses we'd stayed in in England. It has since shrunk back to its normal size and feels just right again now.

7. Role reversal on the domestic front as a big re-writing and editing project has chained me to the computer for the last two weeks and my husband has been doing the school run both ways to give me more time to work.

8. Middle Daughter's birthday that she had in England this year still had to be celebrated with a party at home complete with treasure hunt and cake, so last weekend was spent composing a butterfly treasure hunt and the weather co-operated with sun-shine and the first white daisies flowering.

9. Middle Daughter finally had the dental surgery that we agonised over for so long and then postponed for months because she had a cold every time it was booked. The whole general anaesthetic thing was majorly stressful for both parents and not something that I want to have to do again with any of my children if I can possibly help it, but she is fine, her teeth are fine now and it's over.

10. We've been ODing on NCIS watching series 3 at a rate of two episodes per night, every night and then being so horrified at Gibbs' apparently retiring that we had to go out and buy the next series for my husband's birthday present. Nothing like a bit of stress, drama, corpses and tension to make you look forward to your evenings on the sofa in front of a fire.

Normal blog service should now be resumed and I may even get round to posting some photos, I've hardly even looked at them yet myself. Lots of love and thanks to everyone we saw, as well as those we didn't quite manage to meet up with this time. It was great to go back to England and after the initial disorientation it's great to be home again too.