Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Tree Lights, Candles and A Roaring Fire

Our family Christmas Day follows a fairly predictable pattern, so that by the time we finally sit down to a late lunch, I know it is just a matter of free-wheeling through the meal, a few more presents to open, before I can put my feet up on the sofa in a replete stupor and make up for the sleep deprivation of all the last minute present making, wrapping and stocking-stuffing that is Christmas Eve.

This year, Christmas morning was hot with hardly a breath of wind stirring. My sister-in-law cooks the turkey first thing over at her house, so we don’t have to turn our kitchen into a sauna with too much roasting and basting. I just have to glaze the gammon, make a couscous salad, finish the last stripes of the jellies and boil some baby potatoes with mint.
Stripey jellies are an entrenched family Christmas tradition

But my eyes are feeling heavy already as we finish the main course. It takes a minute for me to identify the smoke that accompanies the last few mouthfuls. Burning custard, no...not toast burning...not the oven left on...the bonfire smell is an immediate warning bell in our dry summer landscape.

It’s wafting in from outside and my husband heads swiftly upstairs, from where we have a 360 degree view of our farm, to see where it’s coming from. Usually it’s far enough away for there to be no need for immediate worry, but this time the smoke is rising from behind our trees on our neighbour’s farm right on the border of ours. The wind is starting to blow and its bringing the fire down the hill towards us.

Pudding is put on hold. Kids have to wait for the rest of their presents as adults switch into action mode. My husband and one sister head off in the 4x4 to see how serious it is, calling our Malawian farm worker as they go, who is luckily not too far away. The rest of us stand by, clearing the table, putting the puddings back in the fridge, until we know how things stand. The sight of the blazing red and green candles on the table is a bit too much fire for me and I quickly blow them out until that other blaze feels less threatening.

The drama unfolds quickly. The wind is sending the fire downhill, towards our neighbour’s huge expanse of shade-cloth, which starts not 50 m away from our house. Our border beefwood trees aren’t going to be much of a barrier, as they are likely to go up in a blaze themselves once the fire reaches the shade cloth. The fire brigade has been called but is not yet on the scene.

Simon arrives with three Malawian friends to help fight the fire and gets to work with our chain saw to cut down any trees too close to our border and create a better fire break. Our neighbour, who lives down the road on another farm, arrives with her father fresh from their Christmas lunch. Those of us still at home drag hoses around the house and start sprinkling all the trees and dry bush between the border and our house.

Smoke is filling the air now and there is a crackling roar from the fire which seems to be getting closer. The kids are inside the house, out of the smoke, reading their Christmas books, playing on Christmas computer and wishing that we could get on with pudding. The dogs and cats are also inside out of the way.

The fire truck at last - photo Patrick Heathcock

Taken from our fence with our Malawian friends holding the fire at bay - photo by Patrick Heathcock

The fire truck eventually arrives, our four Malawian friends work like Trojans. At one point I change my Christmas finery for old clothes and remember to cover up fair skin which has no sun screen on, before returning to my hose to continue misting trees and bushes, in case the wind veers a degree and brings sparks flying over our border trees to threaten our house, our children and our Christmas.

About two hours or so after the initial alarm, the fire is under control. They stop it just before it reaches the shade cloth, catch it before it jumps the track to our border trees. I put the hose down with relief and go inside to tell the children we can have pudding now. Eventually we collect everyone together again. My mother and two sisters-in-law have been hosing my SILs cottage which is also close to the border of the farm. The dogs are released to a smoky outside and we bring the summer pudding and jelly back out of the fridge, the now lukewarm Christmas pudding and custard with skin on top, to be attacked with unusual appetite, in our smoke-infused clothing, red-rimmed eyes and heartfelt relief to find our home and Christmas intact.

There are hardly any leftovers of pudding. Our Malawian friends came, smoke and all, and shared our Christmas table, drinking iced water and sampling summer pudding for the first time ever, then we sent some back with them to their wives, to thank them for sparing their men to us and letting their Christmas meals go cold. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate their generous and energetic help, as without them the fire would have spread far more quickly, perhaps before the fire truck made it. And thanks also to those Christmas angels who prevented the drama from becoming a crisis.

After that there was nothing more to do but fall into the swimming pool and soak the smoke out of our hair, before broaching our Christmas cake with a cup of tea in lieu of supper and watching the second half of The Family Stone, (our every year must-watch Christmas movie) all squashed onto the sofa with the kids, before an early night for all. A night spent by my husband with several wake-ups at the smell of smoke, going outside to check for any new fire, and by me dreaming of fire on the border and innumerable fire-fighters and neighbours to find food and first aid kits for.

I hope your Christmas was less dramatic and full of joy! Despite the drama we really did have a lovely Christmas, full of beautiful hand-made gifts from the kids, and lots of love and togetherness.

Joy to the World and many blessings on 2014!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Youngberry Blondies Recipe - The Season of Berries and Jam-Making

Youngberry Blondies
For the last few days I’ve been leaping out of bed before 6 o’clock, even without the tyranny of the school run to blame. This time it’s the berries that are dragging me out, berries that urgently need picking while it is still cool. This recent blast of summer has 8am feeling like noon, and berry picking in the heat is no-one’s idea of fun.

So the dogs and I sneak out while the others are still dozing, sometimes while there is a veil of sea mist wafting over the hill behind us to take the edge off the warmth of the rising sun. It's delicious to feel a shiver of cool air and I don't bother taking a jacket. We walk around our ring road for dog walk exercise and then stop at the veggie garden to fill an ice-cream container of youngberries.

At least I do that, while George flattens the carrots by rolling on them or digging for moles, or tries to roust out a hare or two to play chase. The older dogs find a shady spot to loll in, occasionally give up on me, as I switch from youngberries to strawberries, and wander back home. Then I grab a bunny bouquet of rocket, nasturtiums, milk thistles, cabbage leaves and spinach, along with the George-flattened carrot tops and walk home laden with good things, to swirl through the kitchen door virtuously, as the sleepy family is dipping into breakfast.

Strawberries are made into jam and youngberries are frozen to make berry muffins and summer pudding for the rest of the year. In fact we’re only just reaching the end of last year’s berry supply, so I’ve been generously baking muffins on every social occasion.

And I’ve found an absolutely irresistible new baking way with youngberries. It started off as Nigella’s Blondie recipe. Hers had chocolate chips in, which I haven’t tried despite my chocoholic tendencies; but I can tell you, that with youngberries instead of chocolate these are truly sublime and horribly moreish. They would work with any berries, but the sharp/sweet jamminess of the cooked youngberries is hard to beat.

Youngberry Blondies Recipe
(adapted from Nigella's Blondies recipe)

200g / 7oz porridge oats
100g / 3.5 oz plain flour
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
150g / 5oz soft butter
100g / 3.5 oz muscovado sugar (I mix treacle sugar and brown sugar)
1 x 385g / 13oz tin condensed milk
1 egg
1 cup frozen youngberries

Baking tray or pyrex dish 30x20x5cm (12x8 inches)approx, lined and greased
Oven 180°C

Mix together the oats, flour and bicarb.
Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in condensed milk.
Add the oats mixture.
Beat in the egg.
Carefully mix in the frozen berries. If they are already de-frosting they will make gory splashes of red in the mixture, so it’s easier to do this straight from frozen. Or else you can use fresh berries.
Dollop the mixture into the tray and level it out roughly.
Bake for about 30 minutes until the top is a deep gold, but the middle is still slightly wobbly. It will firm up as it cools. You want it to be moist and almost gooey inside and deliciously crusty on the outside.
Once cool, cut into squares and devour without restraint.

These are perfect for the festive season, whether you are celebrating in winter or summer, the only trouble being that there are hardly ever any left for the next day!

Youngberries are like blackberries but with a livelier flavour

If you prefer chocolate chips to berries, here is Nigella's recipe on Gorgeous Gourmet's blog.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

George - Puppy not Prince

George, just arrived at 8 weeks

After Badger died earlier this year we were a dog short in the household. All the car-greeting and barking duties fell on Indy’s shoulders while Amy took care of keeping the sofa warm and barking from the comfort of her personal chair. It was obviously time to bring in the next generation. My husband kept an eye on Gumtree, torn between wanting another border collie and a slightly bigger dog to be a fierce protector of the family. Every now and then he’d call my attention to an ad and I’d grunt non-commitally. I wasn’t really in a hurry to bring a demanding new creature into our lives and we’d just been through sleep deprived nights with Bracken as a new kitten.

Finally he showed me a picture that softened my reluctance. A fluffy pup, offspring of a chance encounter between a border collie father and the owner’s Dogue de Bordeaux (French mastiff). The owner was vetting all potential new owners and was obviously reluctant to part with the last two puppies of the litter, but her husband insisted. Living on a farm, with kids and other animals in the family, we passed her initial criteria and the whole family including my mother, who was visiting, piled into the car and set off to the other side of the world from us, Noordhoek ( for non-Cape Town readers, it’s a lovely little beachside village over a long pass from the main Cape Town sprawl).

He was a fluffy bundle, quite calm and gentle, but already quite big at 8 weeks and was immediately picked up and cuddled by all the kids. It seemed he was ours.

Bracken and Amy check out the new arrival

On the way home in the car as he wriggled over laps, a long discussion about names ensued. None of the ideas quite fit. My husband suggested George and I poo-pooed it, thinking he was joking, as the latest member of the royal family had just been named George. It turned out he was serious and really liked the name, and it seems the puppy liked it too, now it doesn’t seem like he could be called anything else! And apologies to young Prince George, but our George is slightly older than him, so must take precedence!

George was like a little bear cub when we got him all fluff and roundness, but he soon started growing longer legs, even though he still thought he was a cute lap dog.

Max, my sister-in-law’s dog started off  playing wildly with him and to start off with was top dog, but he lost some of his ebullience when George quickly grew bigger than him and started rolling him over instead. They’ve worked out an equilibrium now.

Max and George at play
The best thing for me was that having George gave me an inescapable motivation to walk round the farm twice a day, rain or shine,work or none. His house-training period... let's just say it took a while, and making sure that he came for a long walk, besides giving him exercise, made that much less to clear up in the house!

George at 13 weeks

"So much interesting stuff," as he wipes out the pretty dew spangled cobweb I was photographing!
A sandy nose from snuffling in mole heaps
The evening dog walk

Bracken, our kitten has an amazingly tolerant relationship with George. The puppy play continues and I think George looks on Bracken as his personal squeaky toy, putting a casual paw over him and chewing him, with hardly a protest or a scratch from Bracken.

My squeaky toy!

At five months George is now a big lolloping youngster, bounding around full of energy then crashing out in between times. He’s very sweet-natured and has a resoundingly gruff bark, which is most often directed at the perplexing mysteries of life such as tortoises and dead mice. He takes a keen interest in Bracken’s duties and my husband was woken several times in the last week by galumphing noises and crashes of chairs falling over in the kitchen. Turns out Bracken was sharing his mouse with George and they were playing with it together... at 3 in the morning!

Almost a model dog on the lead.

 Our first two border collies always hated going in the car, so we determined to get George used to it early on. He started taking the girls to school a couple of times a week, whining all the way. Eventually it got better, but he still wasn’t enthusiastic.

The breakthrough came when we took him to the beach a couple of weeks ago. He loved it: the sand, the sea, people, bounding and chasing waves and running. Now we can’t keep him out of the car. He leaps in any time we’re going anywhere, on the off-chance it might be going to the beach again!
This Atlantic ocean is jolly chilly on the paws

Got to have Table Mountain in the background as George lollops.

At five months George is well established as a travelling member of the family

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


When we built our house I knew I wanted a lavender hedge along the front. There is something about lavender bushes all in a row that feels good. Think how we love those pictures of Provence with fields of lavender stretching in the distance towards ancient abbey buildings. Part of me was after that heart-lifting feeling, the other practical part fixed on lavender’s antibacterial properties as a justification. Because it is a very useful plant in herbal medicine and household remedies.

According to Margaret Roberts, my favourite South African herb guru, lavender helps ward off fleas, flies, fishmoths and cockroaches – there was a reason for our grandmothers using lavender bags tucked into drawers of clothes and linen. I’ve been tucking bunches of fresh lavender behind books on shelves and into drawers for years now, except I’m not patient enough to sew it into bags, so tend to end up with lots of dried lavender flowers sprinkled all over the bottom of drawers months later. But it smells nice, so I don’t mind.

Lavender Tea
One of my favourite ways to use lavender is as a relaxing tea, when I’m stressed or anxious. It has a lovely calming effect and I quite enjoy the rather perfumey taste. Try it for insomnia too. It’s also a good antispasmodic, so eases headaches, muscle aches and stiffness. Plus lavender has antiseptic properties, so a tea is useful for washing out scrapes and scratches, and for cleansing oily skin. And it’s good as a hair rinse for hair bothered by the oily scalp of adolescence!

To make lavender tea, simply pick quarter of a cup of flowers, pour over a cup of boiling water. Leave to steep for five minutes. Then remove the flowers (or leave them in if you prefer) and sip.

Lavender Play
Our lavender hedge, ten years on, is getting very ragged and uneven with bare patches here and there. Youngest found it a perfect place to play with her horses and figures, creating gardens and landscapes in the shady secret gaps. A few months ago, when it was still winter, I announced that it was time to dig out the hedge out and start again with new little bushes. She was horrified, “But that is where I play.”
I let it rest for a week or two before bringing it up again. She then, in a very grown-up way, suggested,
“Can’t you leave it till next year. This is probably the last year I’ll be young enough to want to play in the lavender and if you plant new ones now they won’t be big enough to play in before I’m too old.”

How could I argue with that poignant plea. The lavender hedge remains. The fairy/horse landscapes haven’t been refreshed for a while now, but the space is still there for her last fling with childhood. Sigh.

Wild forests in the making
for these guys to explore and roam free
ancient twisted trees and magic groves
and they make great places for kittens to stage ambushes from
Lavender recipes
Here are two recipes that use lavender flowers for a subtle and elegant flavour, perfect for something different at Christmas, something that’s not spice, chocolate or rich dried fruit, to give your tastebuds a spot of light relief!

Note: There are lots of different varieties of lavender. The best to use for medicinal and cooking purposes are the varieties usually sold as English lavender Lavandula angustifolia or lavandula intermedia.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Birthday Without Treasure

Youngest always has a strawberry birthday cake
This is the first year since our son turned four that there has not been a single birthday treasure hunt. Eleven years of treasure hunts. No clues to think up, no story to invent around a unicorn, a pirate or a fairy princess. No suitable treasure to find and package, no chocolate gold coins to ransack Woolies for.

I don’t know whether to be relieved or regretful. Relieved because treasure hunts involve a lot of last minute winging it and running around in circles, regretful because my kids are growing up so quickly.

Youngest turned eleven a couple of weeks ago. What she wanted for her birthday was to go riding with her friends in the morning and come home for an afternoon of play and then a sleepover. I thought I’d have very little to do. Just sort out with their riding teacher to move their Thursday lesson to Saturday, so that there were only two extra lessons to pay for, lay on some food and that’s that.

Of course having six girls for a whole day requires just as much cooking, if not more, than having twenty little kids for a tea party, so it turned out to be a procession of cooking: from soup and fresh bread for lunch, when they came back starving from their ride, to a strawberry cake for tea, and home-made pizza for supper... and then pancakes for breakfast next morning. I was kept just as busy as of old.

Youngest was rather dismayed to wake up to wind and rain on the morning of her birthday. The forecast was for drizzle and clearing up in the afternoon, but the ride was at 11... and this was way more than drizzle. We drove through a downpour to collect her friends, but used willpower and positive thinking in spades and by the time we reached the stables the clouds were lifting and the rain had stopped. Phew!

They had a lovely ride – what could be better than all your favourite friends and all your favourite ponies gathered together however windy and un-springlike the day?!

Then it was an afternoon of the next best thing to real ponies – endless games with Schleich ponies, and luckily the older girls haven’t yet become too grown-up to play too.

Our strawberries have been so late this season with the long late winter, that we only just had enough berries for Youngest’s traditional strawberry cake, but there were plenty of mulberries and the girls just ate those straight from the tree.

The birthday finished off with pizza and the movie I’ll be There, with that classic scene of Craig Ferguson riding a motorbike through the upstairs window of a beautiful old country house into a pond. One of the lovely things about the kids being older is that they enjoy many of our favourite movies.

And even without the treasure hunt, there was a wealth of treasure in memories and wonderful birthday experiences - I think it was one of her best birthdays yet!

Friday, October 04, 2013

Our Spring Festival and A Rainbow

Every year at our spring festival one of the things we are thankful for is the winter rain, filling up our reservoirs, re-stocking the ground water and giving all our trees a chance to grow. This year there was an awful lot of rain to be thankful for, as it had hardly stopped raining between my rather rose-tinted winter in South Africa post back in August and the festival itself on the 21st September. It had rained solidly for several days before and sharp showers continued through the day. The long dirt road to reach our farm was waterlogged and pot-holed: passable, but I was already thinking about starting work building a boat of some sorts, even if not an ark just yet.

Once again I left all the cooking to the last minute, not even getting my meringues done the night before for the pavlova and having to do the shopping in the morning too, probably the least prepared I’ve ever been. But of course it all came together in the end, quiches and potato salad, joined by roast chickens, other salads and potato bakes brought by friends, and the meringue cooled down just in time for the cream and berries to go on top. There weren’t any elaborate water sculptures this year, most people arrived towards the end of the afternoon, so there was just time to make flower crowns,

decorate the archway,

for the younger boys (and dogs) to attempt an elaborate construction for the toboggan to go down.

and to create a river of light from candles in brown paper bags.

And with true serendipity there was a beautiful rainbow to bless the occasion.

Every festival has its own rhythm and I’ve gradually  learned to go with the flow, not stressing about timing and details – it always works out perfectly in its own way.

Our flower crowns have changed and evolved over the years. When the kids were little we used to make tissue and crepe paper flowers fixed on to card crowns. Then we plaited raffia and now most of the children's crowns are made with real flowers, plaited into the raffia, which is a painstaking and very individual process.

Then there is the arch to decorate with flowers - pincushion proteas, bougainvillea and cable ties.

Because the theme is water, we have water bowls filled with flowers both in the circle and at the south end of the sand-pit. Amy thinks this is very convenient.

By the time we are all ready to carry our jugs of water and flower garlands into the circle the sun has set and it is dusk, but there is a glow in the sky still and a wonderful smell of fresh flowers and growing things in the air.

Blessings on the coming of spring!

More flowery spring festival posts for a little bit of nostalgia and seeing our kids growing up over all the years. 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, and our blessing from 2006.