Sunday, March 29, 2009

Candles for Earth Hour

Candles, lots of them... for Earth Hour we got out all our most colourful candles and candle holders and lit them all along our big table, before going round the house, switching off all the lights, the TV, the computers. Our eyes adjusted to the low light, the gentle glow of yellow candle flame reflecting off our red clay walls, and then we each took a candle and went out to our circle. As we walked along the path the lights went out in the other houses on our property until they were just dark silhouettes outlined against the starry sky.

The children were in pyjamas and winter jackets and the cool breeze kept blowing out the candles, until only Youngest's was still alight. Amazingly there was enough glow from the stars to see quite well, even though there was no moon. The sand was cold under our feet after the first autumn rains the night before, so we didn't stay out long. Just enough time for each of us to say some positive intentions for saving energy in the future and put out some hope and love for the future of the planet.

Then we headed in to make hot chocolate (with the electric kettle) and sit around our candlelit table enjoying the reflection of all the different colours.

Soon the children were yawning and we carried candles through to the bathroom for brushing teeth.

We've had plenty of practice at going to bed by candlelight, with the power cuts we've had now and then over the last couple of years, but this time it had more of a magic through being intentional. We weren't fretting for the power to come back on, just sitting back and enjoying the calm. And experimenting with candles as camera flash!

After the children were in bed three of us sat on the sofa chatting. In the pauses in conversation the silence seemed absolute. No background hum of music or television, no computer whirr or dishwasher swoosh. We ended up going to bed early once our hour without lights was up, there was something soothing about the quiet of dim candlelight that didn't want bright lights and loud noise to chase it away. We'll definitely take part in Earth Hour again next year, if we even wait that long.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Wine Cubes in a Steamy Kitchen

A frantically domestic kitchen mood overtook me this afternoon and I found myself baking rusks for the first time in ages. I used to keep a tin on the go at all times in those days when I was ‘only’ a full time mother and didn’t have the distraction of work and computers. It used to be one of those things that would keep me and two toddlers busy and flour-dusted for half the afternoon, a huge juggle to get them in the oven before the baby woke up and needed feeding.

Today, after I’d thrown together a batch of ginger oat biscuits too (domestic halo gleaming!) with visions of full tins of home-made rusks and biscuits on the counter ensuring domestic goddess status for at least a week, I progressed onto something I’ve been meaning to do for about ten years and never have…

We are beset by half bottles of leftover wine. I like wine but don’t drink more than a glass at a time and my husband hardly ever drinks it any more, so any occasion like our festivals will leave a line of unfinished bottles on our kitchen counter until they are too vinegary to drink, and the depressing waste of once-good wine going down the drain always annoys me.

In one of those annoyingly efficient household tips books, I once came across the idea of boiling up leftover wine, reducing it by half and freezing it in ice-cube trays, so that whenever you need a dash of wine for cooking you can just add one, without needing to open a bottle of wine especially. Brilliant idea, I thought, and promptly ignored it for the next decade. Until the line of bottles left from this last festival looked back reproachfully at me today and I finally took action.

I nearly overdid the reduction, returning to the pan just before it caramelized the wine completely by boiling it dry, and from just under a half bottle I'm now left with four big ice cubes of deep red wine flavour to freeze. Perfect for adding to gravy or the mince for shepherd’s pie or something.

So now I resolve never to waste good wine by pouring it away again. It’s all going to be stashed away in the freezer and my halo will gleam and smell gloriously bacchanalian in the steamed up kitchen. What are your best domestic goddess tips? Just in case this mood lasts and I need more inspiration!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Earth Hour

Tomorrow is Earth Day. In an event called Earth Hour, millions of people and organizations are going to be turning off their lights at 8.30pm local time for an hour, to make a gesture towards awareness of energy use, global warming and saving the planet. Major monuments like Table Moutain and the Pyramids are going to be turning off their spotlights for an hour and thousands of communities and organizations are joining in.

We only heard about it this week but are all going to join in, have a candlelit evening and sit outside looking at the stars shining even more brightly with less light pollution out there. Yes, we do get light pollution, even here 50 km from Cape Town there is a dirty orange glow on the horizon.

Middle Daughter was really excited about the idea, even though we get plenty of candlelit evenings courtesy of Eskom, who are doing their bit towards saving the planet by inadvertantly giving us compulsory energy saving hours on a regular basis. When she heard it would be after her bed-time she was disappointed, so maybe we'll have to start earlier and read a story by candlelight tomorrow evening.

I'm excited about the amazing energy (sustainable of course!) this will put out into the universe, if everyone is part of it.

Are you going to join in too? Sign up if you haven't already.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Two Trips to Town

It was an average Thursday that kicked off with car no.2 refusing to start for the school run. I’d breathed a sigh of relief having successfully dispatched all three kids out to the car, fully equipped for school, hair brushed and plaited (except for our son!), and was just about to take my first sip of tea, when the door blew open again and they all trooped through on the way to borrow my sister-in-law’s car to take them to school (Car no.1 is still, after more than three weeks, at the garage in Cape Town). Once the children were duly dropped off, my husband returned to resuscitate the Toyota with a bit of borrowed energy from SILs car battery….

But this wasn’t supposed to be another car post. Suffice it to say that both of our cars are now out of action in vehicular intensive care, with no prospect of a cure until some time next week, and no fuming or fretting or storming or ranting is going to help. Luckily we share our property with my two SILs and with some juggling of their cars we can function, almost…we hope.

So with one sister in law working from home today I could use her car and thought I’d better do the weekly shop while I could. The children had been fractious and squabblesome on the way back from school, so not feeling patient enough to drag their unpredictable mass energy around the supermarket, I set off after lunch with just Middle Daughter in tow, as she urgently needed new shoes having grown out of them all overnight.

We had an unhurried shopping session and really enjoyed the rare one-on-one time, choosing her shoes quite quickly and getting two pairs, as they were in the sale and very cheap and cheerful. I suppressed any twinges of parental guilt left over from having grown up myself in good quality leather Clarks sandals that are fitted for width and good for growing feet. They don’t do Clarks or any sort of width-fitted shoes over here and they would be way too expensive if they did, especially at the rate the kids are growing at the moment.

We did the grocery shopping amicably, with her pushing the trolley and practising her reading on the labels of the cheese biscuits, working out which brands were cheaper and trying to decide whether to buy the better brand for slightly more or the cheaper one that wasn’t quite so nice. All in all we enjoyed ourselves doing the routine shop without the usual crowd control measures and drove back home happily.

At home the new shoes were duly admired by all, and we in our turn admired the frog that had been caught and the elaborate house constructed for it by Youngest and Ryan in our absence. Fifteen minutes later, while I was still unpacking shopping, before even getting a cup of tea, a howl erupted from outside.

My husband returned from investigating, hand clamped round Middle Daughter’s left arm, where a deep cut was oozing all over the floor. She’d been climbing over the remains of the rusty metal jungle gym that we’d taken down because it was getting dangerous, but not yet carted away.

One makeshift bandage later and she and I were retracing our path in a reversal of the afternoon’s shopping trip. Twenty-five minutes back down the same long road into town, that we’d driven only half an hour earlier, and into the doctor’s surgery, where he’d very kindly waited for us after surgery hours had finished.

It was a deep cut, right close to the elbow and she was frightened by the idea of needles sewing her up, confiding to me that she felt like screaming. I told her to go ahead and scream but she didn’t and was very brave, managing to keep still enough while he put in local anaesthetic and then eight stitches to close it up. And then after all that she still had to have a tetanus injection.

So the day closed its second shadow cycle, as we drove back down the main road once more, watching the sun slide down behind the horizon, turning all the clouds pink and orange. Table Mountain in the distance had a delicate shawl of lilac draped around its shoulders, and my daughter and I had had even more one-on-one bonding time than we’d expected, sharing both the joys of successful shopping and the growing-up experience of bearing pain and discomfort without kicking up a fuss or refusing to co-operate.

So after a day like today, with Mary Alice's Thankful Thursday in mind, I’m thankful for several things:
  • living on a shared property where there is always someone happy to help out in an emergency
  • having sisters-in-law who are more than happy to share their cars
  • having a kind family doctor who stays behind after hours to stitch up an arm, so that we don’t have to run the gauntlet of the hospital emergency room
  • and even the one on one time spent with my daughter however it came about, which doesn’t happen often enough in a family of three children
  • last of all for the colours of sunset holding out beauty and hope.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pumpkins and Angels in Autumn

Another equinox has been and gone, signalling shorter days and colder nights for us, and the spring surge of energy and lengthening days for all you Northern hemispherites.

We celebrated our autumn festival yesterday. It’s our harvest festival, with the theme of Earth, where we give thanks for all the fruits of the earth and the children build and decorate sandcastles in our big sandpit.

After a really cool week, where it felt more like winter than the end of summer, it warmed up to a perfect early autumn day, with blue skies and warm sunshine.

We make straw angels too.

The first time they were made of lengths of straw from wheat that had seeded itself from the straw bales used to build our houses and we wove it into angel shapes to hang around our circle. Subsequent years have lacked the long straw and pressed us into more creative ways of making angels, with materials like the restios that grow wild here, lavender, flowers and raffia.

This year the angels were more creative than ever!

This is also my chance to carve pumpkins, which for some reason I really enjoy, and make pumpkin soup with the contents.

One of our friends made a fantastic mandala in the sand around the circle, radiating out in glorious sun rays the whole way round.

The kids lose no opportunity of combining sand and water and had a full on sand castle water feature.

We carried all our creations and harvest offerings of almonds from our trees into our circle at sunset, lit pumpkins glowing, and said some blessings and gave thanks for all the fruits of the earth and the harvests of the year.

And then we feasted on the pumpkin soup, bean stew, salad and homemade bread followed by plum quiche, apple pie and chocolate pudding and all the children ran around outside in the dark, playing hide and seek and jumping on the trampoline way past their bedtimes, with only two doses of Arnica required!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Four Legs Good

I’ve never really been a horse person. I learned to ride as a child, because that’s what all the other girls did, when I was growing up in the English countryside, but I had a largely undistinguished career, the main memories that linger being freeze frames: me left hanging from the branch of tree when the pony decided to take a shortcut home and the steering failed; me on ‘my’ pony that refused to go over the jumps for me but obliged for more determined riders; the loss of my big toenail when a horse I was holding leaned on my foot without noticing. I hit adolescence and left ponies behind without a backward glance.

Once in Italy as an adult I joined some friends on a gentle country ride and was quite enjoying it, thinking that there was something to be said for horses after all, until on the homeward stretch a pheasant rocketed from the verge, startling the horse, who bolted for home and, my leg muscles having turned to jelly from the unaccustomed exercise, I gracefully slid to the ground, breaking a rib or two. My new found appreciation of the delights of riding was promptly doused, as I spent the next two weeks trying to make picnics for my clients without sneezing or laughing.

Now we live on a smallholding and have plenty of space. Youngest has been dreaming of having a pony for years. Last year I took the girls riding with their friends for the first time and they had about 5 minutes each on a pony. Youngest’s face was beaming the whole time and I felt guilty for my reluctance to associate with these big four-hooved creatures. Finally at the beginning of this year I organized proper riding lessons for her and told her that when she’s big enough to look after a horse entirely by herself then perhaps we can give a home to one.

She immediately loved riding, taking to it like a natural and trotting comfortably on her first lesson. It was a huge confidence boost for her, as she settled in to her first term in big school.

Ginger and Youngest

Within a couple of weeks of her starting riding lessons, the extra murals we’d found for the others dwindled (our son didn’t enjoy the cricket club, which was too far, too late and too boring; Middle Daughter found photography something she could do anytime, so was looking slightly enviously at the riding lessons) and the older children both tried out riding too. Our son was OK but not enthusiastic enough to continue, but Middle Daughter also took to it like a natural, so I found myself being drawn into the world of ponies.

Roxy and Middle Daughter

And then my husband took the girls to their riding lesson one week. By the time he returned home he’d signed himself up for lessons too! He’d never been on a horse in his life, but has wanted to learn for a long time, so that one day he can go riding on horseback through the forest or along the beach into the sunset.

All three of them have turned out to be naturals at it, according to their teacher, picking up the rising trot easily and with a good seat. My husband’s muscles were jellified after the first lesson, but he is determined to get fitter.

So this leaves me having to become acquainted with horses again, if only to hold reins and feed carrots, and dredge from my memory all the terminology I acquired as a child studying the points of the horse and the names of all the straps on the bridle. The ponies and horses at this stables are far more friendly and obliging than the ones I remember from my riding days. They seem to allow themselves to be caught and saddled without cantering to the far end of the paddock. They usually trot when asked and steer in the right direction, and ask for carrots very politely without pushing you over!

The girls have been in for their riding stable show(best walk and trot on the leading rein, with Dad on the leading rein as Mum bottled out) and won rosettes already, and a pony camp is threatened for the holidays and then another show. Soon we’re going to have to go out and buy them jodhpurs and their own riding hats and riding boots …it’s a bit like being caught up in an inexorable fast flowing current, but I’m standing firm on one thing. We do not give a home to pony, even if it is a gift horse, until they are old enough to do all the looking after themselves... the age is rapidly decreasing ...I thought I was safe for at least five years!

Their first rosettes

If family riding holidays are going to be part of our future I need to do something about my thigh muscles too. I wonder if belly dancing exercises the right ones to help stop me falling off again?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Blog Awards and Addictions

Thanks Robyn for this fabulous blog award!

Now it's my turn to pass it on to five other fabulous bloggers that I read with pleasure every time their name pops up on my Bloglines reader. Seeing as it's the time of the SA Blog Awards, I thought I'd make this an African theme and nominate my own five top African blogs

Planet Nomad for wonderful writing from the top of Africa.
Reluctant Memsahib for evocative musing from the middle of Africa.
Homemade Heaven for loads of recipes from just down the road in Cape Town.
Charlotte's Web - great writing by a South African in a small town in Germany
Cooksister - fabulous recipes and writing from a South African in London.

To accept this award, these lovely bloggers need to follow these rules:
1 Pass it on to five other Fabulous Bloggers in a post.
2 Include the person that gave you the award, and link it back to them.
3 List five of your Fabulous addictions in the post.

So my five addictions ...
1. Chocolate has to be at number one, the darker the better, but in times of stress even Smarties will do.
2. A novel, the more escapist the better, but it must be well written with believable characters and not have too many spelling mistakes or it will drive me crazy.
3. Rooibos tea - it's doesn't have the caffeine that coffee pulls you in with, but it is a habit, and now I take teabags with me when I travel, just in case.
4. Bloglines - I try not to open it first in the morning, but the minute my attention wanders from my work, there it is with lots of tantalising posts lined up for me to read.
5. Marmalade - I can live without it, but why even try when it tastes so good on a piece of fresh homemade bread.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Nubivagant Words

A nubivagant post off in lala land, wandering among clouds… I’ve adopted a word and have to use it to keep it alive and protect its dictionary listing. Nubivagant (means: moving through and around the clouds) is one of the three I chose from a great site that I was pointed to by Robyn of The Egypt Experience.

The site is called Save the Words and is huge fun – click on any weird word and find out its meaning. With some of them you can quite understand why they are in danger of losing their place in the dictionary, but there are some great ones which will extend your vocabulary, besides giving you an erudite air if you ever find yourself in scholarly company.

My other two chosen words were quibbleism (the act of beating around the bush) and frutescent (having the habit or appearance of a shrub) lots of garden references there – it must have been on my mind last night.

Both of us spent almost an hour surfing and choosing words to adopt yesterday evening. My husband found five he couldn’t resist, so we now have a family of eight words that we have pledged to use whenever possible.

I got a certificate of adoption too. I have a feeling that several others have adopted these words , as I came across a few poems using nubivagant in conjuction with daffodils when I googled it.

Save the Words is as much fun for word-lovers as FreeRice, though you don’t get the kick of feeding the five thousand with your word prowess that you do with FreeRice. I spent several evenings there when I first discovered it and still go back and visit sometimes whenever I need a wordy diversion. But maybe Save the Words has a more short term appeal. After all there are only so many words you should adopt, in order to devote enough attention to each one, and of course remember its meaning.

Have a look and let me know if you adopt any words yourself – they could have a play date with mine – abstruse poetry anybody?!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Flower Fairies on Hot Days

On hot days flower fairies make rose petal ice cubes to float in their spring water spritzers.

My girls made several ice cube trays of flower fairy ice cubes, back in January, while the roses were in bloom. One or two petals per cube, water poured over and frozen. They stayed in the freezer for ages, almost forgotten until this last run of hot weather sent me looking for cool inspiration. We got out the fairy ice cubes for lunch one day, one per person. And I couldn’t believe how much flavour one petal gave to the glass of water. It was delicious, like sipping fairy nectar!

The nasturtium flower cubes of course had a slightly peppery flavour, but were still good and refreshing. Anything that brings fresh flavour into the doldrums of hot summer lunches has to be good. Next summer when the roses bloom I’ll be buying more ice trays. I can’t help thinking how gorgeous they’d look in a big, tall, clear, glass jug of water. I wonder if the girls are still going to want flower fairy birthday parties – it would be such a perfect showing off touch for the tea table!

We’ve finished all the flower cubes now. Just have to wait for spring now or think of some other edible winter flowers to freeze. Can you think of any other edible flowers that would work?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Paying by Numbers

My numerology for March said that money would be flowing out fast…. I wasn’t too surprised, as it does that most months. The first week was true to form: bill for son’s OT treatment after breaking a finger playing football (he saved a goal but it cost over R1000 in all, and it wasn’t even a major league match); filling at the dentist for Youngest (where she was hugely stoical and put up with it without a murmur); fairies purchased as a reward for the above (and middle daughter was owed one too for dental treatment previously unrewarded – I reckon this is the one area where bribes are essential!).

What I hadn’t been bargaining for, and what the numerology was obviously talking about was our car: our beautiful car, new to us last year and only a mere spring chicken at 2 years old, still under warranty. It took my husband into Cape Town last week and promptly overheated, dumping him at the side of the road. Annoying, we thought, a pain as it had to be towed to a busy Cape Town garage instead of our friendly local one, to be fixed under the warranty. Irritating, when two days later they hadn’t even looked at it. Infuriating, when yesterday they called us with the diagnosis and said that it probably won’t be covered under the warranty, and by the way it will cost R15,000 to fix. Foot-stompingly rage-making, when they tell us that a bit of mud had covered the heat sensor so the fan hadn’t worked, hence breaking that fan, this pipe and the other something else and perhaps it has a design fault.

Mud is a part of our lives here in winter. The 3km dirt road that leads to our smallholding is un-tarred and any amount of rain is enough to turn it to a clay ploughed field. So if the mud from one summer rainstorm is enough to wipe out the car, then it is never going to survive a winter here. It’s a design fault, they tell us and perhaps you’ll just have to clean the fan every time you go out in the car. Well that is three times a day in the school week. We realize that even if we get it fixed we will most likely have to trade it in and get something else less mud-sensitive or the winter will be a nightmare.

So here we are stomping our feet and trying to make our case with the dealer and then the manufacturing company. Eventually they say they will send an inspector …next Thursday, in ten days time and it has already been at the garage for a week …(hair tearing and steam boiling from ears at this point)

So we don’t know what will happen next week – I’m keeping fingers crossed that they will cover the repair costs. But if they don’t, I’m going to tell everyone not to buy an Opel Zafira, unless they are city creatures who never go near a speck of mud in their lives, because the Zafira doesn’t like mud and is very expensive to fix. Anyone have Jeremy Clarkson’s contact details here? I’d like to register it as a crap car, even though it has a nifty way with extra folding seats in the back.

Luckily the numbers said that money would flow in nicely from May onwards!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Rock Buns on a Hot Summer's Night

It’s hot. It’s dark. It’s nearly nine o’clock on a fierce summer’s evening and I’m in the kitchen, next to a hot stove, baking rock buns. Is this early onset dementia or just plain madness? No, it’s just yet another class bake sale.

With three kids in the school we now have a bake sale just about every other Friday and we’re supposed to send them in with some sort of marginally healthy baked goods or fruit or yoghurts to sell to the other children to raise funds for their class trips at the end of the year. Usually I get the children to bake something themselves, but today it was just too hot. After a schizophrenic February that couldn’t decide whether to be autumn or summer, March has decided to go all out to compensate, with a series of 40C days.

So instead of setting my son to work baking this afternoon, we staggered down to the pool to cool off and then couldn’t tear ourselves away. Late supper and then bed straightaway, meant that the baking was down to me.

Still there is something soothing about rubbing cool squares of butter into silky smooth flour in a gentle repetitive motion, when not even a breath of breeze enters through the gaping open doors to cool the house down after the heat of the day. Hot fingers seek out the fridge-cold chunks and it takes less time than usual to rub them in.

Rock buns are a very undemanding baking recipe. A little bit more or less butter or flour and they still turn out fine. I even completely left out the baking powder one time and they still tasted good. They don’t take too long to mix up and only 20 minutes to bake, so are a good solution to late night baking and their gentle spiced aroma is calming, with reminders of cool Christmasses that seem very far away.

I might have posted the recipe before, (I’m coming up to my three year blogaversary and my first ever post was about baking in the heat of a late March day, so I’m beginning to suffer from déjà vu here) but I’m sure it could bear a repeat if I have, so here it is.

Rock Buns Recipe

2 cups self-raising flour (or plain flour + 2 teaspoons baking powder)
pinch salt
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon mixed spice
125g / 4 oz butter
½ cup sugar
¾ cup mixed dried fruit / fruit cake mix
1 egg
2-3 tablespoons milk

175C / 350F

Sift together the flour, salt and spices. Cut the fridge- cold butter into dice and rub them into the flour, until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the mixed fruit and sugar. Beat the egg and milk together then stir it into the dry ingredients. Mix till it starts clumping together. Use a bit more milk if it is still too dry. Place in rough heaps on a greased baking tray. Bake for 15-20 minutes until light golden brown. Cool on a rack.

If you don’t have fruit cake mix you can just use any combination of raisins, sultanas and candied peel or try experimenting with some variations that include nuts if you like.

Please excuse the flash photo here. I know I won’t get around to it in the morning and the whole batch will be whisked off and devoured at school, so this is the only chance to record them!

They’re cooling on the counter now, to a sound track of whirring ceiling fans in the children’s room, frenetically revolving sprinklers on the lawn outside, passionately chirping crickets somewhere in the house and dogs panting heavily in an attempt to cool down. This is the kind of evening where a midnight swim wouldn't go amiss, but I think I'll probably just melt elegantly into the sofa with my book now, before the mozzies hound me to seek the solace of the mozzie net and ceiling fan in our bedroom.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Pine Nut Gatherers

Pine-nuts have always seemed to be the stuff of delis to me, expensive sachets of delectable morsels that vanish in no time and add interest to salads and seed mixes. I had never even tasted them until I went to Italy as an adult and discovered them as an ingredient, used them in loads of invented salad recipes and tasted them on innumerable versions of torta della nonna in restaurants all over central Italy. Now in South Africa they have returned to my doorstep.

The girls, via some kids’ grapevine that totally passed me by, have discovered the rewards of pine nuts for themselves. They seem to know exactly which type of pine cones to look for and after every riding lesson come back with two or three trophies and then set about harvesting the pine nuts for themselves. I then set about sweeping the loose pine nuts and pine cone bits from the car seat.

In case you also grew up in a deprived country that didn't grow and harvest its own pine nuts, with the help of my children, I have put together an illustrated guide to the intricacies of harvesting them:

This is the right sort of pine cone!

Bash it firmly on the ground, upside down, to loosen the nuts inside.

They look like this, a hard shell encasing the delicious pine kernel.

Sophisticated tools are needed to extract the pine kernels.

For just twenty minutes hard work, you have your own deli sachet of fresh pinoli for free! Now I just need to work on the children to harvest some for me, so I can cook with them. I can see accusations of slave labour being heaped upon me very soon! These were all consumed within minutes for their snack time.