Thursday, 26 November 2009

Book Review: Divas Don't Knit

Divas Don't Knit, by Gil McNeil
Since moving to this new place I've rediscovered the joy of a library. Public libraries are nothing like the university library, but somehow over the last few years I had forgotten this. I had grown to visualise all libraries as dull, sterile places full of 'worthy' books on dry subjects, that would give me a headache just to carry home, never mind actually read.

No more! I have found shelves full of trashy chick lit and craft books. All my knitting books are from the local library and I have been racing through some truly great awful fiction (Georgette Heyer anyone?)

My fave so far was a bit of modern chick lit entitled 'Divas Don't Knit'. Jo becomes a widow on the same night her husband reveals he is leaving her. A new start seems not only desirable, but imperative so, packing up her knitting and her two small boys she high tails it to the small seaside town where her granny runs a yarn shop.

Taking over the shop gives her a new focus as she buys in new stock, redecorates the shop front and creates a workshop where she can host a regular stitch and bitch. Attracting new custom whilst maintaining her regular granny trade is a delicate balance and on top of all this she has a house to unpack, two small boys to get settled into school, a movie star demanding knitting lessons and a love interest hot on her tails.

I refuse to be shamefaced about my choice of comfort reading - I like 'em trashy with something of my own life recognisable in the mix if at all possible and this was perfect. Funny, sarcastic, warm and with a positive ending that wasn't a happy ever after, this is the perfect pick-up for those sofa days you have no real excuse for!

It is obvious that the author knows small children and has a keen eye for the comedy in the everyday. I absolutely guarantee that you will enjoy this book and get a lovely warm feeling from it, usually only induced by a sneaky bar of chocolate - and this is far better for the waistline! Even better - the storyline, whilst comforting, is not utterly predictable. I'm good at predicting storylines on TV and in books, but love it on the rare occasions I am surprised or confounded! Apparently the author is working on a sequel to this book, so I'll have to see if she's finished it yet and request it from the library. I do love a series :-)

ps- we've even picked up lines from the book which have infiltrated into out everyday dialogue. Bramble the cat is referred to as a Grumpy-potamus when he's in a strop. A perfect comedy insult, outstripping by a long way my baby sister's favourite insult as a toddler: "poo bum".

pps- Hurrah - Just found out that the sequel, Needles And Pearls, has been released - time to ring the library!

Official Knit Wit

So last night was my official debit as a Coventry Knit Wit. I was a little nervous at first, not because of meeting new people per say - I'm a sociable sort of person and I love chatting to people... anybody really, just ask Adam. It was more the - not knowing the conventions, you know? Like, do we just whip out our knitting and go at it (that would be a 'yes', incidentally) or do we have a chat first or what.

In the end it was very relaxed and easy. I wasn't sure whether I should have my pattern book out on the table or not, but that didn't matter, because I was on an easy bit where I had 18 rows to knit, no increase, decrease or general faffing about, so all I had to do was keep a tally and I was sorted.

The women were friendly and kind, they barely laughed at all when I asked stupid questions because, let's face it, I was far and away the most junior knitter there in terms of ability. Still, we don't get better unless we practice and I'm going to keep practicing - Adam wants a woolly hat for Christmas, so I'm going to have a crack at that as soon as I find a nice yarn, something blue and chunky I think. If that goes well I'm starting on woolly bed socks - nice and chunky, so they progress quickly and keep your feet snuggly when you're lounging around the house. If I do well at that, then it's boot socks for Daddy's birthday in February, something in sludge green would make him happy no doubt.

For now, however, I'm determined to get this current project finished - currently nicknamed the wobbly ghost project! :-D You'll find out more eventually ;-)

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Winter Workshop

Now I know I should have written this up sooner, but usually I write my blog on the same day as an event, only my mum was staying with me, so it would have been a tad anti-social to sit there, typing away, while she twiddled her thumbs... plus, I don't get to see her so often that I want to waste a moment of her company when she is with me, so I put this off and then other things happened that I wanted to blog about, or just kept me so busy I didn't have time to write.

However, I have time now, I've even been organised enough to process the photos I took to accompany my account, so here we are: a fully fledged post!

Last Saturday my mum and I (she's the one in the turquoise sweater a few photos in) went along to a herb workshop run by Sarah Head, whose blog, Tales of a Kitchen Herbwife, is in the list of my fave blogs on the left somewhere. I started following Sarah's blog originally not just because it was fascinating and well written, with great photos to boot, but also because Sarah is, in comparison to many of the blogs I follow, local to me! If it hadn't been for the Christmas traffic we got stuck in it would only have been a 25 minute trip by car, which is nothing really.

Anyway, Sarah told me about her workshop on teas, syrups and cordials for winter when I sent her a message complimenting her on her blog. It really seemed too good an opportunity to miss, so I went along, and dragged my mum because a) I thought she might enjoy it and b) I wanted her to learn a little bit about the subject I had been exploring recently and I thought she might take it in more if someone other than her own offspring was giving her the information!

When we turned up (late, due to the aforementioned Christmas traffic into Birmingham – ugh) the other members of the class were already putting the finishing touches to a Syrup of Figs (more on that later).We were quickly absorbed into the group, the small numbers and cosy atmosphere engendered by Sarah's higgledy-piggledy kitchen creating a great environment for easy chatter. [Photo: Syrup of Figs being decanted into jam jars for us to take home]

The large wooden table was strewn with homemade wooden bowls laden with various leaves, nuts, berries and bark and a large pot on the stove was bubbling away. It was brilliant – like the magic of creating something homemade always is, but multiplied by the number of people and squared by the number of ingredients just laid out for you to rummage through.

Sarah encouraged us to touch and smell all the bits and bobs she had laid out. Some of may have even tasted one or two things, like the dates, a personal favourite of mine ;-)

[Photo: Sarah explains the properties of some of the ingredients in her cordials]
My mum and I were set to work creating a Rosehip and Sloe cordial, whilst around us a cough syrup and various teas came together. Whilst the cordial boiled away on the stove we all adjourned to the sitting room to try some of Sarah's wide range of cordials and syrups. One of the prettiest was the Greek Rose Syrup for weary travellers, a very pale translucent pink with dark pink petals floating through it. The photo below doesn't really do it justice and certainly doesn't even hint at the taste, which was like taking a deep inhalation of a richly scented rose and you know that hint of a taste you get at the back of your mouth when you sniff something strongly scented? Like an intense, sweet version of that. I had it diluted in water and the sensation was almost overwhelming, but very calming – wonderful!

Sarah encouraged us to try everything that took our fancy, try and analyse the flavours and research what it might be good for, using her collection of herbals. Once we had spent a little time at this, a selection of teas were brought in that everyone had made – spiced nettle latte, nut tea (my favourite!) and a flax seed and orange tea that tasted of Christmas and mulled wine without the alcohol. I think I'll have to write at more length in separate posts about each of the things we made, else this one will turn into a forbidding tome of a post that no-one will bother reading till the end. [Photo: taking notes with a glass of cordial in hand!]

Once the teas were consumed and Mummy and I had hurriedly composed the Rosehip and Sloe cordial, Sarah encouraging us to taste the cordial before and after adding the honey – very bitter!- we all sat down to a magnificent feast of a lunch. Sweet potato and nettle soup, with nettle salt to season, homemade wholemeal bread and a selection of cakes, biscuits and even fruit that everyone had brought to share. The lunch went on for longer than originally planned, simply because the conversation was flowing – food, books, herbalism, nature, health, law, cars, music and more food – no topic was left uncovered. It was immensely congenial and I am looking forward to Sarah's future workshops. The photo below shows Sarah surveying a table full of her creations as one of the 'students' takes notes.
I also took some photos of her astounding larder, filled from top to bottom, wall t wall with homemade goodies – honeys, tinctures, seeds, dried petals, cordials, syrups, you name it! I'm going to do a new post with those pictures in so you can enjoy them in all their glory. When I grow up I want a larder just like it!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Composting for beginners

No, sorry, this isn't a 'how to' for those of you want to learn how to compost - Hubby and I are still trying to figure that out ourselves! No no, I just wanted to share a funky little web page I found recently - a way of composting even the most dodgy of items, like meat scraps and fish skins, that would allow pretty much all biodegradable waste to be put on the garden. It's something I'm going to be looking at pretty carefully, at any rate.

Bokashi - even better than a wormery, apparently. I'd love to hear from you if you've had any experience with this!

New Horizons

One of the problems of being a housewife w/o paid employment, children or a dog is that I very rarely get to see anyone other than my husband. Twice a week I volunteer with a young persons' organisation, oh sod it, I may as well name it, The Air Training Corps, which gets me out of the house and interacting with other people, as well as keeping my CV looking vaguely lively.

However, two evenings a week does not a social life make and, with no close friends in the locality, I spend an awful lot of time on my own. Now, I'm a creative person and a quick glance through my blog should be enough to show you how many ways I find to fill my time, once the basic chores are out of the way and the boys (my cats) are a wonderful comfort during the day, but just lately I have come to the conclusion that this is just not good enough and I need to find some way of meeting people with whom I am likely to have some things in common, with the ultimate goal of finding a few local girlfriends to spend time with.

Last week, whilst wandering round Coventry town centre on a sort of window-shopping dérive, I came across a yarn shop (at last - hallelujah!) and they told me to look up the Coventry Knit Wits, a local knitting group that, it says in a local news article, has women of all ages from 26 - 80. Well, I'm 26, so that age range suits me quite well... they meet every Wednesday, so I've sent an e-mail to ask what I need to bring other than myself and I'll hopefully be able to report back next Weds... esp as, very conveniently, that's the evening hubby spends with his dad. Yup. We live 'visiting' distance from the in-laws. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I wish it was my family who lived so near. I know it sounds pathetic at my age, but I miss my mum :-)

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Tis the season to make soup - again!

I know I know - second soup today, but what can I say? I'm the head space for soup making, plus it means I can freeze some for early next week... and it's great for using up a few random veggies... So -

Spicy Sweet Potato Soup

2 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic
2 cm fresh ginger, chopped or shaved
1 tsp dried red chillies (adjust to suit tastes)
2 pints stock (chicken or veg)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 3 or 4 coriander seeds
4 Tbsp double cream


Fry onion and garlic till soft, add the sweet potato and fry for 5 mins, then add the chillies, ginger, coriander, cumin, stock and seasoning. Boil for 10 to 15 mins, till the potato is tender, then blend till smooth.

Add the cream, adjust the seasoning, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve :-D

Tis the season to make soup

So the weather has turned cold and, almost constantly, grey. That's right, November is here and it can be a dreary time for all of us. One of the few consolations is the food. Rich, hearty soups and stews, with meaty tastes and bold flavours that nourish and comfort you when the view outside the window is less than appealing.

In this spirit I decided to have a crack at making a mushroom soup, packed full of immune supporting shitake mushrooms and tasty herbs. As usual when I'm making soup I had a look at a few recipes, then cut my coat to fit my cloth and work a new recipe of my own around the ingredients I happen to have. As such, the recipe I'm about to give you is not set in stone, so feel free to play around with it. I do wonder whether a few toasted walnuts would make a nice topping to it, or even a bit of mild grated cheese? I'm going to sprinkle with parsley and serve with homemade wholemeal lunatic bread (full of nuts). Delish. Unfortunately hubby wanted more soups because he sees them as a good, low fat, high nutrient dinner, but I kind of missed the point and added more than 1/2 a cup of cream (my hand shook and a whole load more than intended splurged out - whoops!) Oh well, I'll make him some healthy soup, too, for tomorrow :-)


Milla's Mushroom Soup


1 large punnet mushrooms (I used Sainsbury's Basics range, but the chestnut mushrooms might add a nice nutty taste)
small handful dried shitake mushrooms
2 sprigs lemon thyme, chopped
small sprig rosemary, chopped
½ tsp grated nutmeg
½ pt chicken stock
cup warm water
2 medium onions
2 cloves garlic
½ cup double cream
Lemon juice


Soak the shitake mushrooms in the warm water for at least 20 mins. Whilst they're soaking, chop and fry the garlic and onions, then clean, chop and fry the fresh mushrooms. When they start to release water add the soaked mushrooms and strain in the mushroom stock. When this has reduced by half add the chicken stock, herbs and seasoning and allow to simmer for at least ½ hour, or until all mushrooms are softened.

Liquidise to a rough consistency, return half to the pan and blend the remainder till smooth, then return to pan, add ½ cup double cream and a good squeeze of lemon. Taste and adjust lemon and seasoning.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Never Too Late

So here I was thinking that all the hedgerows were bare by now, all wild produce the province of birds and beasties, but I'm never afraid to admit when I'm wrong and, in this case, I most certainly was. Hubby and I went for a little walk in the countryside, since the weather was about as perfect as it can get in November - cold and clear with blue skies and sunshine. Wandering along down a narrow lane we came across bushes bare of all but a few withered, yellow leaves and clusters of perfect, cloudy blue berries: sloes.

Hurrah! Enough for a second bottle of sloe gin, the first of which has already infused to a deep, beautiful pink in our drinks cupboard, with some left to make spiced sloe and rosehip cordial. Just call me the hedgerow Queen! ;-)

Coming soon: photos and an account of my Saturday spent at Sarah's, learning more about hedgecraft and herbs.

Thursday, 12 November 2009


So I don't know if I've moaned enough about the horrible lurgy I've been suffering from to make you properly sorry for me, but I'm finally feeling like I'm on the mend at last, despite the fact I'm still coughing my guts up... Anyway, was sitting having breakfast this morning when an unexpected wave of melancholy washed over me, most peculiar, I couldn't understand why. Only one thing for it though, hot shower and loud pop music - I'm not having any of that feeling sorry for myself nonsense. It's sunny outside, I feel better enough to go out by myself - Party time!

"Heaven must be missing an angel - everybody sing along now!"

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


So I don't remember if I had a whinge here about the fact that my sewing machine was broken. I probably did, it was such a disappointment to me, when I'd been waiting so long to have the room to use it. Anyway, the in-laws popped over for a cup of tea the other day and F-i-L, who's handy, heard me telling M-i-L about the machine and offered to take a squint at it.

I'm still not entirely certain what was wrong with it, but long story short: he fixed it - huzzah! The light works and everything! Am so so excited, planning all sorts of stuff to sew with it, including at least one more apron in the same style as before (post on that to follow soon), but a different colour and maybe a couple of full-body ones. Ooh - I'll have to get my mum to bring up the apple print plasticised fabric with her when she comes to visit on Friday!

Now, to plan my Christmas present projects!

Friday, 6 November 2009

Soap Making: The long awaited picture essay!

400ml rain water
158g caustic soda
400g coconut oil
400g olive oil
300g rice bran oil

First Things first - I needed some moulds to put my soap in once it was made. Not wanting to spend a fortune on fancy moulds until I'd had a taster of the results I decided to construct my own out of old juice cartons. I cut one side off the carton and removed the stupid plastic pouring spout that (more often than not) sends a torrent of juice cascading down over your hand, the glass and the surface the glass is standing on. Once this was done I lined the carton with baking paper, then got to work on the rest of the cartons.Once this was done we carefully measured out all the various ingredients and added the caustic soda to the rain water in a large, plastic washing-up bowl on the table outside, so neither of us would be overcome with fumes. The cats had been shut into the living room previously, so they wouldn't stick their curious little noses into anything, not that that stopped two pathetic faces watching us out of the window occasionally punctuated by a piteous mewl.Having mixed all the oils together I put the bowl of oils into a sinkful of hot water to dissolve the hard oils and bring the temperature up to between 40 and 50 degrees - in parity with the lye water which had heated itself up and was cooling itself off on the table outside.Once the oils had all melted we poured the lye water into them and I mixed them together using a stick blender - do admire the homemade apron modelled by me in the photo showing this! The soap reached trace quickly, looking very similar to Birds' Custard, though I wasn;t tempted to try it as it was still caustic at this point!Note the thick gloopiness of the mix (and the protective rubber gloves) as I carefully direct it into my hi-tech juice carton mould!This is the soap-making paraphernalia left outside whilst we dealt with covering up the soaps upstairs in the guest room.
24 hours later: the bars of soap, now turned out of their moulds look a little rough and ready... Very Homemade...
I chopped the blocks of soap up into bars, trimmed off the rough patches and stamped the tops with a rubber stamp I'd bought for sale a few days before. This was only partially successful - perhaps I should chop the soap up a bit sooner so it's softer in the middle and the stamp 'takes' better...
Ta Dah! The results of our labours! All my beautiful bars of soap. This excludes the shampoo bottle mould full of soap which refuses to release its bounty. I'm thinking of melting it down with all the trimmings (in the carton on the left, below) and adding some scent, maybe a bit of extra coconut oil for superfatting and rebatching it into small bars for babies' or face soaps.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Remember Remember...

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Yes, it's that time of year again when us strange English gather in a muddy field, usually in the rain, to enjoy overpriced junk food commodities served from a dubious vending van whilst watching with apparent enjoyment a 5 minute fireworks display and uttering "Oohs" and "Aahs" in massive unison, all to commemorate an attempt on the government some five hundred years ago.
Now don't get me wrong, I actually love fireworks and Guy Fawke's Night and every year until this one would find me out on that selfsame muddy field. The only reason I'm not going this year is because I'm still coughing my lungs up and hubby is still a bit wobbly from his gastroenteritis: neither of us in a fit state for the long walk, even longer time standing still and long return walk afterward that a big fireworks event entails.

Instead, for the first time since we've been together, we'll be at home, perhaps watching fireworks through the windows, or possibly ignoring it all together. This, however, is not the focus of my blog today. Instead I want to spare a brief moment to think about the cruelty some people inflict on animals. I know, I know, a bit of a non sequitur, but stay with me here.

Years ago my mum worked with some people who lived in a very affluent area on the outskirts of London. They had a sweet cat who was very much loved and all the neighbours looked out for each other. One day the cat didn't come in for his dinner, neither did he appear by bedtime. By morning the enxt day they were frantic, calling the neighbours, the vets, putting up posters - anything they could think of.

Later that day they had a call from a local vet. After confirming that they owned a cat, and that it was currently missing, he gently broke the bad news to them. Their cat had been found in a very bad state after a group of youths had captured him and affixed a number of rockets to his tail using Gaffa Tape. The poor cat had, in desperation, tried to remove the lit fireworks and had been so badly injured on his face as well as his tail that the vet had had to decide on the kindest route and put him down.

To this day I dislike seeing fireworks in the hands of anyone but official events organisers and, when one went off erroneously behind our garden earlier I freaked out and called the cats in. They're not fond of the noises, though they bear them with more equanimity than my mum's rescue cats ever did, but I want them inside the house if people are going to let off fireworks nearby.

Too protective? Maybe, but I couldn't bear for my little boys to suffer the torture that that other poor cat went through. No matter how kind most of this nation is towards animals, there are a few people who are downright sadistic.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Sick Days

Eurk - both hubby and I have been struck down by lurgies. First he got a bad cold, so I was running round after him, then I caught the cold, so he did a bit of running around after me and now he's got some stomach bug or gastroenteritis and I'm still coughing like a consumptive in a smoke house, so we're a bit of a pathetic pair at the moment.

On the plus side I managed to get two pills down each of the cats with no casualties sustained on either side, so someone must be on my side!

Whilst dropping hubby off at the doctors' for a check up I wandered into the library and got out a few really trashy books to read while I'm ill. One of them is a Georgette Heyer, another one is called 'Divas Don't Knit' -- I'm going to try and expand my brain while this cold runs its course ;-)