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heralds

February 18, 2011

It’s still quite definitely winter here in Sheffield, but I’m loving the two things that are for me a definite sign that spring is on its way. First, the snowdrops in our garden – quite my most favourite flowers (along with all my other favourites) – and second, the marvellous Yorkshire forced rhubarb.

I wrote about this last year and offered a recipe as well. But eating it again at the weekend, I realised that one recipe is just not enough for this superlative vegetable (yes, it is a vegetable, although it seems to me to behave more like a fruit). So if you are lucky enough to be able to get hold of some, can I suggest you try Delia Smith’s simple rhubarb compote, which really makes the most of the flavour and ensures the rhubarb stays chunky rather than disintegrating into pulp? I served it with some melt-in-the-mouth preserved ginger and oat biscuits, also from Delia. Say what you like about her headmistressy style, her recipes always work.

the view from the gym

February 12, 2011

It’s just over a month since I resolved to resist taking out another gym membership and try, instead, to make use of the amazing landscape that is within reach of our corner of Sheffield.

In that month it has rained more days than not. Mornings that would have been fine for a quick run were definitely not OK for tramping through dripping woodland or across boggy moors.

But the days that I have been able to walk have exceeded all my expectations. Sometimes I can only manage half an hour – enough to get to some nearby stepping stones and back.

Other days I have been able to explore further afield. This flagged path on the very edge of the Peak District beats a treadmill any day.

Even though I try to walk fast in order to maximise the fitness effect, there is still time to stop and notice details like a frozen puddle or a patch of lichen on a drystone wall.

In time I think this will benefit my fitness, although it’s not a quick fix.

But something else is happening too, something I didn’t anticipate. Slowly and surely this landscape is imprinting itself on me, becoming a part of who I am. I have a sense of possessing it – or perhaps it is the landscape that is possessing me.

To return again and again to the same place, to see it in all weathers and at all seasons, to walk across it at times of joy or to shout frustration and anger into the wind – all this builds a sense of connectedness.

It’s something like falling in love. The more time I spend in this landscape, the greater my hunger for it and the less I can imagine ever doing without it.

FO: a Christmas rose

February 1, 2011


This may be my favourite of all the things I have ever knitted. Everything came together: gorgeous yarn, brilliant pattern, perfect match of the two. Oh, and the recipient loved it! What more can you ask for?


The pattern is Rose Red by the wonderful Ysolda and the yarn is Rowan Kid Classic. Neither of them are particularly original choices, but let’s just say there’s a reason why they’re so popular.

The yarn was a Christmas gift for my daughter Susanna who, being a crafty type herself, does not remotely resent the fact that I get at least as much pleasure out of her present as she does. The pattern was one I’ve had my eye on for a while and I have to say again that it was an absolute joy to knit. With lace and cables working together, it takes just enough concentration to make it absorbing but not so much that you don’t dare to have the television on.

Even better, it only took one of the two balls of yarn I’d given Susanna. So I was able to whip up a quick pair of Fetchings to match.

I’ve called it a Christmas rose partly because it was a seasonal present but also partly in honour of one of my favourite plants, the hellebore, commonly known as a Christmas rose and one of the few things worth looking at in our garden at the moment.


reading challenge: Heartstone

January 27, 2011

So I finished my first book for the reading challenge. CJ Sansom’s Heartstone falls into the ‘Willpower, what willpower?’ category: I simply cannot resist Sansom’s page turners.

This is the fifth of the Matthew Shardlake novels, set in the England of Henry VIII and featuring Shardlake the hunchbacked lawyer who regularly gets asked to turn detective in the wake of murderous events. I love these books for their skilful interweaving of multiple plots, the detailed and unusual historical research, and the characters, especially Shardlake, courageous defender of the marginalised and cheated.

It is probably Sansom’s deft handling of the plots that makes Heartstone so difficult to put down; nevertheless there are several places where description goes on for a couple of pages or more but the narrative does not flag. The sights and particularly the smells of Henry’s turbulent reign are evoked vividly, but what really impresses is the sheer breadth of Sansom’s research. I learnt about the history of iron foundries, the claustrophobia of life aboard the magnificent Tudor warships, the importance of archery and the evil Court of Wards, which is the source of Shardlake’s main investigation.

The Court of Wards was, as Sansom puts it in his afterword, ‘yet another scheme for extracting money from the populace devised by Henry VIII’. Set up to deal with the affairs of wealthy orphans, it was a byword for corruption. Shardlake is asked to investigate one of its cases by none other than Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr. Not that it would have taken a Royal to persuade him to fight against exploitation: defending the weak is Shardlake’s passion, perhaps because, as a hunchback, he understands what it is like to suffer prejudice and abuse at the hands of the powerful.

The terrible ways that adults can take advantage of children is a theme that runs through each of the separate plot strands in this splendid story. Shardlake fights for them at every turn, often at considerable risk to himself. This highly sympathetic central character is another reason why the book works so well. Other characters, too, are likeable and distinctive. The brash but faithful Barak is at Shardlake’s side again, this time with worries of his own about children. I was only disappointed that the gentle apothecary Guy Malton did not feature more strongly. Here’s hoping Sansom has plans for several more Shardlake stories.

Incidentally, this was also the first book I read on my Kindle, about which more later.

it was 20 years ago today …

January 26, 2011

… that this amazing young woman entered the world. Part of me is still reeling with the miracle of it.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been a favourite for most of those 20 years …

… but I love it that she is almost as enthusiastic about the reading for her degree.

FO: striped yoke pullover

January 22, 2011

There’s actually been quite a lot of knitting this winter, but the skies have been so dull that I didn’t manage to photograph anything until this week.

Can you tell I hate having my picture taken? Look at that tensed fist!

I started this sweater at the end of November when the Met Office was forecasting a really hard winter. I wanted something that was fast and would keep me warm as the snow piled up outside. Obviously it had to be a thick yarn with a high wool content. The green is Sublime merino tweed chunky and I enjoyed its slight fluffiness and the vivid flecks of colour.

The pattern is from The Knitter’s Handy Book of Sweater Patterns by Ann Budd, a wonderful resource that offers 16 basic designs that can be adapted in an infinite number of ways. It’s a kind of halfway house between following a pattern slavishly and designing your own.

I started in such a hurry that I wasn’t even sure what I was going to do when I got to the yoke, but the further I got the more I yearned for stripes. In this I was inspired by a sweater that the amazing Kate, one of my very favourite bloggers, knitted some time before she designed the now world-famous Owls (scroll down). I’d seen her Razzle Dazzle Rose ages ago and it had stayed in my mind. Not that my knitting skills come anywhere near hers (if only).

I didn’t think any of the other Sublime colours would go with the green so I bought some wonderful Felted Tweed from Rowan and held two strands together.

I’m really pleased with how this came out. It’s easy to pull on over a pair of jeans and keeps me warm and cosy whatever the weather is doing outside. And it only took about a week to knit!

the plastic wars: part 2 (and a recipe for yogurt)

January 16, 2011

Once we had got rid of the evil plastic milk bottles, I started to notice the yogurt pots. Piles and piles of them. With two teenagers eating at least one yogurt a day, that’s 14 per week, perhaps over 50 in a month. I didn’t want to stop buying the stuff but felt sure there was a way to consume it that used less plastic.

I started to investigate glass jars and found an excellent online store. In fact, five minutes on the site had me longing for the time to make oceans of marmalade, jam and pickles and then arrange the neatly labelled jars on wooden shelves in the cellar. Funny how attractive fantasy housekeeping can be.

Back in the real world, I ordered a pack of 120ml jars and then wondered how to fill them. The teenagers in question are particularly fond of those rather expensive, vanilla-flavoured yogurts that come in square pots with a large triangle of yogurt and a smaller one of fruit puree.

So for my first effort, I defrosted and pureed half a bag of frozen mixed fruits from the supermarket, carefully put a layer in the bottom of the jars and then topped up with shop-bought plain yogurt to which I had added a few drops of pure vanilla extract.

Of course the plain yogurt comes in plastic pots too, so I have now progressed to making my own. This basic method comes from my tattered and bespattered copy of the Cranks Recipe Book and involves no pesky thermometers or heated airing cupboards.

Joanna’s favourite yogurt recipe

1 pint milk (I usually use skimmed, but it works with any kind)

I tablespoon natural yogurt

You also need a thermos flask with a wide neck.

  • Heat the milk in a saucepan until it is just beginning to boil. Remove from the heat.
  • Fill your thermos flask with boiling water. Put the tablespoon of yogurt in a bowl.
  • Allow the milk to cool until it is just above blood heat. I dip my (clean) finger in: it should feel just warm.
  • Add a little of the warm milk to the yogurt in the bowl and stir very well.
  • Whisk this yogurt mixture into the milk in the pan.
  • Empty the hot water out of the thermos and replace with the contents of the pan.
  • Screw the lid on your thermos, leave overnight and in the morning you will have a pint of yogurt!

 

The teenagers love the mixed fruit puree, but stewed apple works well as a base layer, too.