Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Our Winter Festival 2013

Fire, candlelight and warm winter spices wafting from mulled wine, lanterns and sparklers these are the elements of our winter festivals.

We started them to make an occasion for all those winter things that I missed when we moved here from England. In South Africa the celebration times are summer – Christmas, long holidays, braais, beaches. Bonfire night, lanterns, mulled wine and all those cheerful things that  add a dash of colour and brightness to the long dreary winter in England just don’t have a proper niche over here.

So we started with a bonfire and making of lanterns our very first midwinter on the farm and that is how our seasonal festivals began. That first year we built our bonfire down in front of the cottage, but first carried our lanterns on long poles to the sandpit, where we stuck the poles in the form of a circle right in the middle, which is how the circle began. Our children were still toddlers and needed help to balance the lanterns on the ends of their poles, but were thrilled to be outside in the dark on an adventure.

From then on the whole celebration took place in the sandpit; we added sparklers to the list of essentials, an avenue of brown bags with candles to make a pathway, an extra braai fire to cook sausages on. And in all the twelve winter festivals we’ve had, only on one occasion were we driven inside too soon by rain. All the rest have been blessed by a window of still, clear weather.

Saturday was no exception – Friday’s wind had blown itself out, a storm was forecast for Monday, but there we were with an almost-supermoon rising and taking on an absolutely brilliant wide corona in the hazy sky.

The girls had spent hours in the sandpit in the afternoon and came up with two fabulous ‘Winter’s sculpted out of sand, which they then lit with candles.

The sculpture the next morning, after a dog had added to the detailing

There was one deputation tidying up the circle and straightening out poles, which come adrift or get blown over in between times, a bag filling and positioning party, the men on bonfire building as they discussed matters of global importance.

Then the last two families arrived and there was a flurry of lantern-making, candle distributing, as the spices from the mulled wine pervaded the house with (to me) Christmassey smells.

There was also butternut soup, a mildly spiced ‘Persian’ bean soup (I’m waiting to share the recipe with you until I manage to take a half-decent photo of it, and there was no way I had time for food photography right then!), my plaited loaves, puddings hiding in the fridge until our return from the circle and a cooler of sausage and boeri to be cooked outside.

Candles were lit in lanterns and brown bags, food ferried down wrapped in towels to be ready, warm and waiting and then finally everyone was ready, our gaggle of older children still not too old to enjoy being outside in the darkness with fire and flame our only light, and the youngest members of the party at three and four keeping the excitement and wonder of it alive.

That wonderful moon with its glowing corona felt like the ultimate blessing on the celebration. We stayed our by the fire long after the mulled wine was dispatched, the soups and sausages eaten, only being drawn inside by the puddings when the fire had collapsed into a heap of hot embers.

For the first time we had a few little fireworks  - the Catherine wheel

The next morning, still clear and cold, the fire a heap of ashes with a faint plume of smoke from the last end of log, lanterns still bright and unfaded by rain.

And later in the afternoon, after a brunch that is more of a late lunch, energies fade further!

Two more winter festival posts if you'd like more pictures of lanterns and bonfires: our 2012 winter festival and winter festival 2011. And my mulled wine recipe if you're tempted to fill your home with spices aromas!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bracken the Kitten

All our animals make it onto the blog sooner or later and I’ve been admirably restrained in waiting six whole weeks before indulging in a flurry of cute kitten pics!

Bracken came into the family as a very appealing and fluffy little 6 week old.  Normally that would be a bit young to be taken away from his family but our vets had rescued a whole litter that were unwanted, they were already separated from their mother and needed homes quickly.

The children and I rushed in to town after school to have a look at the kittens and they spent almost an hour getting to know them and trying to decide on just one kitten, as I determinedly kept my heart hardened and resolute in the face of pleas to take home two or three.

Eventually they all agreed on the fluffy ginger one, who was playful and not too shy and was happy to be cuddled. For the first two nights he slept in the girls’ room, until we found that they were being woken several times in the night. Then we took him on for a couple of nights, feeling that he was still too little to be all on his own. After one particularly broken night, we banished him to the bathroom, where he was happy to curl up in the laundry basket all night and, as long as the lights were off, no more disturbances were forthcoming.

Our two older cats were not happy to make his acquaintance. Fluff hissing like a pot boiling over on a hot fire, Socks ignoring him totally.

Fluff is a scary, grumpy old man

The poor little me look after meeting Fluff
So Bracken resorted to playing with the dogs and now chases Amy the Jack Russell all over the place. He’s fascinated by the ducks, who also seem curious about him and gather round him when he’s out exploring.

Dogs, I can handle

Devoted acolytes grooming for fleas

They even made me a pompom!

Now of course he has grown tremendously, into a lanky twelve week old and is climbing trees and falling out of them, stealing the older cats’ food, pouncing on their tails and getting into mischief. But he still curls up under our chins when we sit on the sofa and purrs like a motorboat, so therapeutic in times of stress. A purring kitten has to be top of the list when it comes to relaxation aids!

When the kids are at school he 'helps' my husband or I by sitting curled against us purring away, between our hands and the keyboard, so that we automatically de-stress as we work. Or else he tries to help us do the work itself, which is less successful!

Exploring the stoep in the winter sunshine

Catch that tail! Socks having his siesta interrupted.
He’s brought much joy and life to the farm, much needed when we’ve lost both Horror and Badger this year, as well as Toffee the rabbit, and the aunts have also lost one dog each. They are dutifully doting aunts to Bracken, instigating searches of the whole house when he’s not to be seen during their evening visits and being terribly anxious about his well-being whenever we are out for the evening!

Now Fluff is mostly tolerating him, unless he is especially annoying, and Socks has been known to play with him once or twice. And that crazy fur still looks like he's had an electric shock, whenever you see him back-lit!

Saturday, June 01, 2013


Natural sea salt

 “He’s the salt of the earth” 

Salt has been the most essential addition to our food for thousands of years. It was valued and, in some eras, so prized that it attracted heavy taxes, making it too expensive for the common man to use every day, which is why even today, when the salt tax is long gone, much of Italy still bakes its bread unsalted, having acquired a taste for it more than a hundred years ago.  Salt has always been so much a part of our food heritage that it is a little strange that it has become today’s scapegoat of the food world. Fat is back, butter is once more safe to eat (did you ever switch to marg? I certainly didn’t!) but salt is now the demon.

The biggest part of the problem lies with packaged and processed foods and a fast-food culture that relies too heavily on them. Salt is a fantastic preservative, so tends to be used quite heavily in complex foods with a long shelf life.  It’s all too easy to eat too much salt and that can result in health problems such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Another problem is that our taste sensors build up a tolerance to salt, so that if we get used to the taste of a certain amount, any less tastes bland. We end up adding more salt to our food than is good for us. But ruling out salt altogether isn't the answer. Our bodies need salt to function properly, ultra low sodium diets can cause health problems just as much as  diets too high in sodium.

I think I add just the right amount of salt to my cooking. I add to my own taste levels...  my husband’s taste buds are differently calibred and he tends to add salt at the table. I’ve noticed that the children are following suit, our son in particular being a little too lavish with the adding, so when I got an email from Nestle mentioning a Salt Awareness week and offering to send me the ingredients and their recipe for a low salt but tasty meal I thought this would be a good thing to try out.

Expecting some new low-salt products and seasonings, I was a little taken aback when their box was delivered to find packs of stew granules, Worcestershire sauce and 2-minute noodles alongside some flavoured evaporated milk cook-in sauces. It was as if the person packing the boxes hadn’t got the memo that this was a low-salt challenge. The ingredients list on the stew granules was headed up by salt, which didn’t give me much confidence in its health credentials. However it did result in my salt awareness jacking up a notch, as I dug out the magnifying glass, scrutinised the labels and started doing calculations in my head for daily salt allowances. 

The recommended upper limit of sodium per adult per day is 2300mg, equivalent to one teaspoon of salt.

The stew granules had 4600mg of sodium in a 30g packet, intended to go in a recipe to feed four, so basically that is half your entire daily salt allowance used up in one dish. These were intended for the butternut and lentil bobotie recipe, so I gave that one a miss and went for the beef stroganoff, which actually only had two packaged ingredients, the Worcestershire sauce and the mushroom flavoured evaporated milk, both of which were fairly reasonable in salt content.  The cook-in milk came in at 140mg per 100ml serving which puts it just into the official low-salt category and the Worcestershire sauce has 119mg per 10 ml serving.  For the recipe provided this added up to 707mg of sodium in total, giving about 176mg per person if no extra salt is added, which is much more reasonable. To give Nestle their due they had also sent a voucher to purchase the fresh ingredients for the recipe, so I had some lovely beef fillet, red peppers and mushrooms and parsley lined up on the counter.

However, at this point I started to have a logic problem with this exercise.  Normally when cooking a recipe like this from scratch with fresh ingredients I would probably only use about 1/3 teaspoon of salt anyway. A little seasoning in the flour dusted on the meat, a couple of twists of the mill over the whole dish as it cooks and a quick check at the end to correct the seasoning to taste... to my taste that is!

“Take it with a pinch of salt”

And I have to confess to being a food snob when it comes to packaged sauces, so I was already having doubts about smothering luscious fillet steak and fresh peppers and mushrooms with something out of a tin. Why use a ‘mushroom flavoured’ sauce (containing no real mushrooms) in a dish that already has mushrooms in? I tried to stick with the recipe, I really did try, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pour the stuff on. This was supposed to be our family supper after all. I decided to split the dish at the point when the sauce was added and try one part with the cook-in sauce and one part with sour cream, as is more traditional. The two tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce in the recipe seemed outrageously overpowering to me, so I reduced the amount considerably.

I went ahead and cooked the meal and we all enjoyed the treat of tender fillet steak strips, but I have to admit that the dish as a whole was a compromise. The cook-in sauce version, I imagine, would have tasted fine to those who like to use packets of mushroom flavoured soup in their recipes, but needed the whole amount of Worcestershire sauce to give it enough salt, which would have completely overwhelmed the rest of the spices and the meat itself. The version where I used cream instead of the sauce ended up being bland because I hadn’t added any real salt during cooking and there wasn’t the salt from the cook-in sauce to compensate. I would have been far better off from a low salt point of view just cooking from scratch with only fresh ingredients and using judicious pinches of natural seasalt as I usually do.

So as a salt awareness exercise it was in a way a success – it made me think, scan labels more critically, and it made me even more determined to cook from fresh, use salt wisely and in moderation.  However as a taste test it failed completely. It did nothing to make me want to buy or recommend any of the products ever and I still can’t understand why 2-minute noodles and very salty stew granules made it into a press pack for food bloggers for a salt awareness week. No food blogger worth their salt is going to be thrilled with receiving these products. I’m feeling more than ever cynical about big brands disguising  (not very subtly) a product promotion as a health drive . The best thing they could do for everyone's health is take 2-minute noodles and stew granules off the supermarket shelves altogether.

Three different sea salts
Three salts in my kitchen: KhoiSan sea salt, Khoisan seaweed salt, FalkSalt seasalt flakes with chilli

If you want some more facts about salt here’s a 2009 report on salt usage from Harvard.

And my salt aware path forward?
Continue to cook with fresh foods, avoid processed foods even more and check labels, check labels, check labels!
Use a good unrefined sea salt. When I switched to using KhoiSan salt from regular table salt several years ago, I found that I needed far less salt to get the same intensity of flavour. Plus there are no artificial additives and chemicals so it’s healthier in every way... as long as you use it in moderation of course!

What are your feelings on salt? Do you have a favourite cooking salt in your kitchen?

Sea salt
Natural sea salt crystals like jewels