Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Tulips in Amsterdam

I mislead you... there weren’t any tulips (except for masses of artificial ones in the flower market) but we have been in Amsterdam for the weekend. On Friday morning we were up at 4.30 am to catch a five o’clock train into London. Is it just me or is there something exciting about getting up in the middle of the night to go on holiday. I’m sure it goes back to my childhood when we would be bundled into the back of the car before it was light to make an early start down to the West Country for our annual camping holiday. As children I’m not sure we arrived any earlier but on Friday we were on a direct train from St. Pancras by 7.15 and in Amsterdam by midday. So much easier than flying.


I had pre-booked tickets for the Anne Frank house as we missed visiting on our one and only other trip to Amsterdam. I read her diary when I was at school probably at the same age as Anne when she went into hiding but I'm not sure how much it meant to me at the time. However actually seeing where the family spent two years hidden made it seem so much more real. I am always concerned that visiting somewhere like this might feel a little voyeuristic but it was certainly interesting and worth doing, if only to serve as a reminder of the atrocities of the past and how easily it can be for a society to embrace racist and fascist beliefs. A lesson for today I feel.


As with any city break there was also much walking, eating and drinking. Amsterdam is such a picturesque city that there are plenty of spots just to sit with a drink in hand to watch the world and boats go by!


We stayed at an AirBnB, a lovely apartment to the west of the city but withing easy walking distance of the centre. On our first evening we ventured out to a bar for our supper, recommended by our AirBnB hosts. The meal was lovely but we probably raised the average age of the rest of the clientele by about twenty years. We felt particularly old when the waiter asked us if the music was too loud for us! We actually enjoyed the mostly 1960s/70s music and watching the crowds of young people out relaxing and enjoying themselves on a Friday night. When I sent a message to our hosts to tell them we enjoyed their recommendation the response was "Ah yes, Friday night is party night at Cafe Thuys for young people - but typical Dutch experience". Perhaps the fact that our hosts looked no more than early thirties from their photos should have given me a clue, but we enjoyed our evening so much more than if we had gone somewhere touristy.


The following morning was a slow start and after brunch and a vist to the Oude Kerk (Old Church), rather ironically situated in the middle of the Red Light District, we met up with our friends Janet and Pete who moved to the Netherlands about a year ago. With them as our guides we spent another delightful afternoon wandering along canals, exploring markets, stopping for the occasional beer and just generally enjoying a sunny afternoon in the city. 


On Sunday morning we caught the bus out to Janet and Pete's home in Edam, a beautiful small city just 20 km north of Amsterdam.


After sampling some rather good Dutch apple cake, we spent another fine day wandering down to the lakeside, via their allotment, past many typical Dutch homes.


After a refreshment stop we returned via a different route and found ourselves back in the city with time to vist De Knijp (The Nip) a tiny little pub full of character, only open seven hours a week.


Whilst there we sampled the local liqueur... the Dutch way. The little tulip glasses are filled to the very top so full that the only way to move them is to slurp some off the top first... Proost!


On our last day we had a very leisurely boat trip around the canals of Amsterdam and another little wander before catching our train back home. It's been a while since we had a break and it was just what we needed... nothing like some walking, eating, drinking and time spent with good friends to recharge the batteries!

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Second Hand September

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I mentioned I was signing up for Oxfam's Second Hand September - A month of not buying any new clothes. But as I don't buy that many clothes anyway it didn't seem much of a challenge for just a month. So a friend and I have pledged to not buy any new clothes for a whole year, except for necessary underwear. Second hand knickers are a no, no! We both like to do a little dress making so we are allowing ourselves that luxury, although I only intend to use fabric I already own, but other than that is is only going to be second hand clothes or maybe even rediscovering items I've not worn for a long time. I thought it might be fun to document my progress here each month.


The idea behind the campaign is to support a slower and more sustainable consumption. In the UK alone 11 million items of clothing end up in landfill every week - that's 300,000 tonnes every year. More new clothes are bought in the UK than in any other European country. The carbon footprint of producing new clothes is huge, just that of all new clothes bought in the UK each month is the equivilant to flying a plane around the world more than 900 times.
There is also a huge impact on poorer countries (where their carbon footprint is much lower than ours). Their garment workers are not paid a living wage and the textile  industry uses precious water resources making life tougher in poorer areas. And if all that isn't enough the textile industry creates more pollution than aviation and shipping combined.


Something has to change. So I kicked off on September 1st by wearing a new top that I made from fabric from my stash. It is the Camber Set pattern from Merchant and Mills.


To be honest I don't buy much in charity shops but then maybe that's because I don't usually go in looking for clothes. Mostly I go in to take bags of my own things and will usually browse the books or DVDs. I sometimes look at the clothes if I am looking for AmDram costumes or fabric I might use for projects, which is how I ended up with this T-shirt. I bought it for the fabric to cut up for rag rugging as it was reduced to £2 and a nice bright colour. But after giving it a wash I tried it on and liked it and have been wearing it all summer.


But I currently own only two other charity shop finds - a black patterned dress that I love. I wear it in the summer on its own with sandals and in the winter with thick tights and a cardigan. And a Phase Eight skirt that I bought just for the label and because it was only £5. I didn't think it would fit me but reckoned I could sell it on ebay if not. As it happens the sizing is generous and I have worn it for several summers now.


So I shall be perusing charity shops over the next few months, learning to mend and using up my fabric stash... although I probably have more than enough clothes already  as I don't throw much away!

So who's up for joining me in September... or even for the year?

Friday, 30 August 2019

Finding Joy in Painting


After writing three blog posts in the space of a single week I thought I might actually get back into a routine of regular blogging but alas I have been distracted. Instead of  all the things I actually need to be doing such as making blinds for our bedroom (We've been here nearly two months now and no one has actually complained about being able to watch our nightly ablutions... yet) or preparing for forthcoming embroidery classes this autumn, I have been painting.


About three weeks ago I signed up for a free week long art course hosted by artist Louise Fletcher. Several simple exercises designed to help find your unique artists voice alongside good sensible no nonsense advice and teaching. I had no idea that in just one week it would have such an impact.


It is no surprise to regular readers that I have always been creative whether through my textiles, baking cakes and even occasionally painting and drawing... most recently joining in with my Mum's classes. I know I can draw but my problem has always been one of confidence. I can follow instructions or copy a painting but have never believed I was any good at doing my own thing, working in my own style or listening to my own voice.


So at the end of the one week free taster I was so impressed by Louise's teaching, I signed up for the ten week paid course. And I literally have not stopped painting in every free moment. Everything you see here is the result of the exercises. None are meant to be finished paintings, most are just on scraps of paper or in my sketchbook, but instead they are explorations of paint and mark making.


And as there is no finished painting so there is no getting anything wrong. Instead it is just a wonderful voyage of discovery. We have painted to music, painted with limited palettes, even painted deliberately ugly paintings but each of them showing us what we do and don't like.


And so blogging may well take a back seat for several more weeks to come as I continue to dabble with paint.


And the neighbours could well continue to see us getting ready for bed every night as I  have no inclination to sew blinds when I could be painting instead. At least the mornings will be getting darker soon so we won't be waking up with the light at 5 am!


Friday, 16 August 2019

Meat Free Friday

One of the major changes we can make as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint is to reduce our meat intake and change to a more plant based diet. There is plenty of information available  as to why this is  not only essential for reducing greenhouse gases but also if we are to continue to feed the ever growing world population. 
You can read articles here and here if you want to find out more.
In particular the biggest culprits are beef and lamb, because of the way they graze and the additional methane they produce. Obviously it follows that if we are reducing our beef consumption then we should also reduce our dairy intake, although dairy farming is not quite so intensive as raising cattle for beef.

I am aware that drastically changing your diet if you have always eaten meat is not easy so as someone who has eaten a largely vegetarian and pescatarian diet for the past 25 years I thought I would share some of my favourite veggie meals in regular "Meat Free Friday" posts.

One of my favourite books for simple, easy to make but really tasty vegetarian dishes is The River Cottage Veg everyday book. I think I especially like it as it is not intended as a vegetarian cookbook but as a book to encourage us all to eat more vegetables. It's not in the least bit preachy but just full of amazing food that you really want to eat


For anyone who grows their own veg getting a glut of courgettes at this time of year is a bit of a given and over the years I have become somewhat of an expert at creating courgette based meals. I could feed you for a week on courgettes without ever repeating a single dish! So one of my favourite recipes from the book is a Greek inspired Courgette and Rice filo pie. You can tell it's a favourite by the amount of splatters on the page!

Admittedly it does involve using filo pastry which can be a bit of a faff but it's really not that difficult and putting the filling together takes just a couple of minutes.  If using filo is a step too far you could always replace it with a couple of sheets of ready rolled puff pastry. My Greek daughter-in-law makes a fabulous Tyropita (cheese pie) using puff pastry

You can find the recipe by clicking on the link here: Courgette and Rice Filo Pie.

I made it this week but didn't have fresh dill. Well, I thought I had fresh dill but when I took it out to use it had gone slimy in the packet (well before it's sell by date)... all the more reason to ditch the plastic and find sources other than the supermarket. I think my new garden needs a herb patch. But I did have some chives so used those instead and it tasted just as good as ever.

It makes a delicious pie that feeds four generously. It is excellent hot as the centre of a main meal and I particularly like it with some steamed carrots on the side. But it is equally good cold with a salad or part of a picnic. Because the rice magically cooks by absorbing all the  liquid from the courgettes it stays lovely and crisp too... No soggy bottom!


Let me know if you give it a try or you have any tips of your own for reducing your meat consumption. Even if everyone started by replacing just one meal a week or maybe had one meat free day per week it could begin to make a difference. And the added benefit is that a plant based diet is better for your health too. Meat Free Friday anyone?

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Chihuly at Kew

A few weeks ago my friend Jude and I had a long overdue get together. Mostly we meet in central London and visit an exhibition and/or have a meal but this time we ventured west to Kew Gardens to wander, natter, catch up and see the fabulous glass installations of Dale Chihuly. The exhibition Reflections on Nature runs until October 27th and is well worth a visit. Actually Kew Gardens is well worth a visit never mind this wonderful exhibition. Who would thought that until two years ago I had never been, but since visiting for one of my sixty x sixty projects I have now been three times.


The exhibition is a wonderful partnership of art and nature, transforming the gardens into a fabulous outdoor gallery space. My favourite piece of the  installations we managed to spot was this glorious plant like sculpture comprising of wonderfully organic blown glass forms. Nestled in the pond in the newly refurbished Temperate House, against a background of ferns and trickling water, it was truly captivating.


There were several sculptures in the Temperate House, mostly well hidden in amongst the plants but one of the stars of the show was the "Temperate House Persians", large blue flower like forms specially designed for the exhibition and suspended 19m above the ground like a huge chandelier.


Two more stunning pieces were the matching pair of sculptures outside the Temperate House called "Opal and Amber Towers" perfectly reflecting the colours of the house.


"Sapphire Star" was quite breath taking, rising from the flower bed like a giant allium, again made of hundreds of individually blown forms.


And by the lakeside "Summer Sun" also built from individually blown forms... 1,483 to be precise! This one reminded me of writhing snakes just like Medusa's hair.

The Seattle based artist has said about the installations that he wants then "to appear like they come from nature, so if someone found them... they might think they belonged there". Mostly I think he has achieved this with spectacular art forms sitting together with one of the most amazing plant collections in the world. Definitely worth a visit... and we only saw a fraction of the 32 individual installations! That of course is the problem with meeting a friend to visit an exhibition, when you've not seen each other for a while. In fact Jude and I have been known to visit the V & A in the past and not get any further than lunch in the member's room... although if I remember correctly it was a very good lunch!

Monday, 12 August 2019

A Conversation About Climate

We continue to settle into our new home and village finding new ways to join in and become part of the community. Last Friday I dodged the showers and joined a group of like minded villagers for a three mile walk along the surrounding fields and footpaths. We started and finished at the newly refurbished pub, where we had an excellent cup of coffee and pastry at the end of our walk... undoing any good it might have done us. But it was about community, friendships and supporting a local business as well as walking. We are incredibly lucky to live somewhere surrounded by so much natural beauty and with so much to offer.


Another village group we have both joined is a collection of like minded individuals who have become increasingly concerned about climate change, because we cannot carry on thinking this is someone elses problem if we want to continue to enjoy our countryside and be able to leave it for future generations. None of us are experts but we have come together because we all want to learn more about climate change, ecological issues and most importantly to find out what we can actually do about it. We are hoping that by having conversations about it, learning more, spreading the word and leading by example then others will follow. And of course, the best place to start is at home.


We have started by taking some small pledges to ourselves about making changes in our lifestyle. One of these is to reduce our use of single use plastics. The recent programme The War on Plastic with Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall was quite an eye opener on this if you still need convincing. I stopped putting fruit and veg in plastic bags at the supermarket quite a while ago... yes I am that irritating woman in front of you trying to balance and weigh six loose apples as they roll off the scales. I stopped myself asking a man why he was putting his bananas in a plastic bag the last time I was there... but then afterwards I thought why didn't I say something. Probably because you never know how someone might react... You need to be brave to be an eco-warrior! 

But something I have continued to use is cling film. So when the last roll ran out I vowed never to buy another and instead I invested in some beeswax wraps. They are not especially cheap (This pack of three from Lakeland were almost £20) but they are re-usable, lasting for up to a year and when  eventually they cannot be used any more they are compostable. I know I probably could make my own but I really don't have the time, however I have found another supplier BeeBee Wraps who are a small local business (local to us in Cambridge) that I really like the look of, so I intend to order some more from them as they worked really well for wrapping Stewart's sandwiches. Apparently they are not good for wrapping meat but we don't eat meat at home at all so it's not a problem for us... and anyway reducing meat consumption is one of the biggest things you can to to reduce your carbon footprint. But that will be a subject for a whole other post.


The second pledge I have taken is to join in with Oxfam's Second Hand September, and not buy any new clothing for the whole of September. To be perfectly honest this isn't such a big deal as I don't really buy that many new clothes so to forgo for just 30 days is no great sacrifice. So instead, my friend and I have pledged to do it for a whole year starting on the 1st September. Given that the UK alone sends 11 million items of clothing to landfill every week this could make a real difference if enough people signed up. Are you willing to join us?


I will try to give regular updates here on how we are managing but the idea is no new clothing, except what we make ourselves (but that also means no new fabrics bought either in my case... just using what I have). Everything else will need to be sourced from charity shops, or altered and mended. Except underwear... I think I draw the line at second hand knickers!

I would love to know your hints and tips for what you are doing to live for a more sustainable future.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

The Aga Saga

I knew I was on dodgy ground when I said I wasn't sure about whether we would keep the Aga but I didn't expect quite the response I got both on here and on Facebook... there are some strong opinions out there! So just to put the record straight I didn't say it would definitely go and I did say there wouldn't be any rushed decision. Like the garden, we will live with it for a year, keep an eye on the electric bills and see how it goes. I like cooking with it well enough but probably no more or less than with my old fan oven.


Tonight I came in from a day working in London and it was good to put a baked potato in the already hot oven to have it ready in a little over an hour... although to be fair the fan oven only took five minutes to heat up. Of course, everyone was at pains to tell me I need an alternative cooking method for the summer months when the Aga can be turned off, but therein lies the problem. We don't have an alternative and the kitchen has been designed so that there is no obvious space for another oven and/or hob. And remodelling the kitchen is definitely not on the agenda.  I guess I don't really understand why anyone needs two separate cooking methods either... one for summer and another for winter feels a little extravagant! Our other problem is that if the Aga was replaced then we would also have to find alternative heating for the room in the winter. We first viewed the house in December and it was very cosy but without the Aga I think it would be rather cold. This week when the weather has been cooler it hasn't been too much of a problem to have it throwing out heat, at least nothing that can't be solved by keeping the windows open but last week it really was unbearable... although I guess there aren't really many days in the year that are that  hot. So like I say, there's lots to consider, for every arguement ther is a counter arguement and there won't be any rushed decisions, but thank you for your input!


On the positive side, I made my first cake in the Aga at the weekend and it was a resounding success. Just a simple jam sponge - four eggs (at room temperature) were weighed in their shells and then an equal weight of soft unsalted butter (butten softens very quickly near the Aga!) and sugar were beaten together with some vanilla paste until light and fluffy. The eggs were added, beaten in one at a time and the finally an equal amount of sifted self raising flour was folded into the batter taking cake not to over mix. It was divided between two 8" (20 cm) lightly greased and lined tins and baked for 23 mins in my baking oven (180 deg C or 160 fan). When cool, it was sandwiched together with jam, because I have a ridiculous number of pots of old jam that made the move with us, but other fillings are available.. buttercream, lemon curd, nutella would all work.


The result was a light, moist and very evenly risen cake so the Aga might well stay after all!