Friday, August 12, 2022

Into the August Mix

So far in August, apart from staring glumly into our rapidly emptying water butts and asking each other who's turn it is to cook ("I'm sure it's your turn", "Can't be, I did it last night", "we had sandwiches last night", "yeah but I made them", "that does not count as 'cooking'" and so on until we agree to have sandwiches again), we have enjoyed the simple pleasures of a drought and a looming wedding. 

I have discovered that swimming at my nearest salt-water lido early in the morning is a delicious, if breath-sucking, thing indeed. The birds are still yawning, the trees cast elegant shadows over the pool and lawns. Swimming capped ladies of a certain age, knobbly and soft with life, bob alongside each other, chatting. "I told him, it's no good you saying that Steve will fix the tap, we've seen hide nor hair of him for weeks; he'll only show up again when his latest fancy piece kicks him out." "Ooh, you never said that!" "I did, I'll not put up with idleness."

Afterwards, I reward my fortitude with hot chocolate and a toasted tea cake. Sometimes I go in the evening, a welcoming cool down, but the conversation isn't the same - it's more likely to be that Steve and his fancy piece, plus approximately 5 billion kids and a similar number of teenagers casually trying not to catch each other's eye - and the cafe is closed. 

Trees at the Lido park

Bridesmaids dresses have arrived and are hanging in my wardrobe ahead of the Big Try On. A froth of netting, embroidery and chiffon, with a sprinkling of sequins, in blush pinks and creams. I can't decide if it looks like a cupboard some sinister fairy Bluebeard would have, or as though Tinkerbell sneezed in there. Either way, the nieces will look twirly and special on the day, which is all they're really worried about. I have threatened both nephews with a lovely peach satin page boy outfit, complete with dicky-bow, as spotted (and photographed for future sartorial threatening) but am graciously holding back on that reality. 

N and I have started a new Friday ritual where we go for a walk somewhere lovely and rural. After the other week's epic, uphill, flying ant experience, he picked a woodland walk that was on level ground and didn't take 4 hours. It was pleasant, a woodland I'd not visited before, and cool under the shady trees. Huge dragonflies zoomed around a clearing we stopped in for lunch, and there were dozens of butterflies leading the way along the paths. We're undecided about this week - part of me has given a small sob at the thought of 35 degree heat - and may decide to be sensible and forgo it until the following week when it is a sensible 22 degrees and I can move without melting. 

A walk that didn't make me feel like my lungs were about to fall out. Still nice though. 

There's been a new addition to the family this week. Well, 3 new additions. Earlier in the year, I'd pointed at the shubunkin in the pond and said, "that one looks pregnant," which N had scoffed at until Monday when he spotted 3 very tiny shubunkins flitted between the reeds at the shallow end. Babies! This is very exciting and has resulted in much peering over the edge and trying to spot them again. The other fish are too taken up with clopping at unwary flies on the water's surface to bother them now. 

We've also had our first ever dahlia success. Having been handed a bag on anonymous tubers and the vague instruction to "plant them in the spring", we weren't really sure what we'd get. Was it even a dahlia? I'm pleased to say that it was and that they are beautiful. Tiny wee firecrackers of colour, just as the nemesia are giving up the ghost. I can't go out and photograph them for you right now as I'd burst into flames. 

The Kid started a new job this week. After 4 years working in care, looking after adults with physical and mental disabilities, before, during and after the pandemic, dealing with an increase in aggressive behaviours during the lockdowns, struggling on the minimum wage. Excuse me a small amount of anger, but all that clapping resulted in absolutely zero in terms of better wages or better working conditions (fancy a 12 hour awake-all-night shift followed by a 3 hour 'essential' team meeting anyone?). 

All the most intriguing paths were strictly non-humans only

Anyway, he now has a job at the lovely Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, long one of our absolutely favourite places. When I asked him how it was going, he said, in a tone of great wonder, "I can walk into the research room any time I like". Which pretty much sounds like the dream to me. 

We have a trip to the sea coming up shortly. Not having seen our friends in the north for nearly a year, catch up is overdue. After my quick solo break in May, I made a resolution that we would get away more and remember to tell N about it as my finger pressed "BOOK" on the next break. We're going to see Lindisfarne, Bamborough and Alnwick, because he's seen none of them (he hasn't lived!) and then we're having a massive gathering of the clans, plus quiz, food and cake. I Can. Not. Wait. 

Today I did something I've never done before...I complained about a school. Bear with me. I'd been thinking about it for the past 2 weeks, but shied away as I'm not, by nature, a teller of tales or caster of stones. However, after the 4th incident of finding the grammar school were using a sprinkler on their goddamn CRICKET field, I properly lost my temper and did it before I could calm down again. I was, I think, calm and polite, yet unequivocal in how that's really Not On. So there. I am now one of Those People, who write do-gooding complaint letters and twitch their net curtains and write down reg numbers...actually, I draw the line at the last unless a Proper Crime has been committed, however badly the woman at No 1 chooses to park. 

The canal at 7am. Gorgeous and shady. 

So I am a snitch but we are hours away from an official drought announcement and subsequent hosepipe bans. Some places are without water already. The allotment ground has cracks in it wide enough for a finger to fit in. We slop grey water from the house to the garden. Everywhere is tinder-dry. Whole crops have been lost and farmers are caught between a drought and a Brexit. Now is not the time to be scattering water like so much privileged confetti. 

And if they can just wait till Monday, there shall be rain enough to green their pitch. 

This morning I harvested a lot of wildflower seed heads from the allotment, so I can spend this afternoon decanting the seeds into tiny envelopes for our wedding guests. Some people pick sugared almonds (although why? Those things are harder than the science questions on University Challenge with Jeremy Paxman yelling "Come ON!" after 2 seconds); at my cousin's we all got little Burts Bees lip salves and hand creams, which was sweet. I like the idea of wildflower seeds though, and even if all they do is throw them away (as happens so many wedding favours), the seeds will still find a way. So if you'll excuse me, I need to get my shaking hand on. 

Have a splendid weekend, everyone. Hold on in there, rain's a-comin'. 

PS, I'm trying not to bombard you all with too much wedding talk, but it has to be said, the damn things take up a lot of time and attention. Tell me if you're bored and would prefer my hot take on the Tory leadership race. Although no one really needs that. 

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Leftovers Cake

I don’t often bake these days. Whilst being an enthusiastic supporter and consumer of baked goods, there just isn’t the call for it in our house. N will sometimes make sounds of appreciation over a sticky toffee pudding or a crumble, then put his portion in the fridge and forget about it for 2 months, which is no way to live quite frankly, and should, in all right-minded households, result in some sort of jail sentence. 

The Kid decided some time ago that he’s reached an age where my attempts at birthday cakes are superfluous to his enjoyment of the day. These days he likes his birthdays with a side of beer rather than a cake that resembles the leaning tower of Pisa, if the tower at Pisa had been constructed of sponge, cream and strawberries, or that has a strange blobby space monster blobbing it’s green tentacles all over a wonky moon. And the least said about the doughnut cake the better. 

My Nan used to make wedding cakes of 3, 4 tiers. Fruit cake heavy enough to knock out a burglar, stacked on silver paper covered stands, covered with thick marzipan and icing rigid enough to break a tooth. They would be decorated with flowers she had painstakingly made herself from the same icing, rolling it to a fragile thinness, cutting the circles and strips that would then be rolled, crimped, frilled and pressed into flower shapes to adorn the tops. Further icing swags, curls and dots would decorate the sides and the lack of a steady hand could be hidden with a quick design change or swipe of a damp sponge. 

I still have the blurred photographs she took to remember each creation; the flash is too harsh, the background too dark. I can recall the smell of the cake, the sweet grittiness of the icing. I was mmmph years old before I realised marzipan needn’t taste synthetic. 

She was a bakers daughter, my Nan, and I still have the recipe book she wrote when she joined the bakery at 13. I say “joined”. It was more in the way of the family National Service - the only person who escaped conscription was her brother, the great hope of the family, eventually brought down by gambling and ego.

In this hard backed, faded red exercise book, she wrote down the recipes for Eccles cakes, the coconut macaroons that would eventually become my dad’s favourite. Malt loaf made by painstakingly soaking the fruit in cold tea. Bread off every kind, cottage loaves a speciality. Her unsure, looping hand records how the ingredients are scaled up and up for batch baking, the demand in this Lancashire town never quite satiated. 

So when I bake, I’m small again. My own kitchen recedes and I’m stood on a stool to reach the counter, a riot of 70’s daisies spread over the apron that’s been tied around and around my waist. There is the smell of cold tea, coconut and sugar. I can feel the warmth of her oven and heat her telling me to “sift the flour, really lift it.” 

This recipe isn’t hers but it has her fingerprints all over it. 

Leftovers Cake: 

Ingredients - 1 pot of yogurt about to go off, 1 banana that’s too squishy for eating, zest of one lemon, 1 egg, self-raising flour, vanilla, any berries that need using up, caster sugar. 

1. Blend 1 cup of yogurt with the banana, half a cup of the sugar and the vanilla. Chop and add the berries. 

2. Stir in enough flour (to sift or not to sift, you decide according to time) to make it look like a proper cake batter - I think it took about 2 cups but I was ad libbing, talking to the cats and listening to the radio at the same time, so I can’t quite remember. 

3. Remember the lemon zest, grate it over the bowl, Drop the lemon into the batter, curse, wipe it off, continue grating till done. Stir in. 

4. Line the cake tin of your choice - I used a flapjack tin, about 15 cms wide because I appear to have lost all my roundy tins - with baking paper and tip the mix in. Sprinkle with Demerara sugar. 

5. Bakes for 20 mins in a 180 heat oven that you’ve remembered to preheat. If you haven’t remembered to preheat, do it now and make a cup of tea while you wait. Possibly talk to your partner/child/handy pet at the same time. 

5. Test readiness of cake with a skewer or, in my case, a wooden chop stick. If it comes out clean, cake is done. Allow to cool a little before lifting it out of the tin. Allow to cool completely before removing the paper. 

6. Slice according to portion preference. Eat. 

Thursday, August 4, 2022

A Returning

 Last Tuesday I declared to N that I was feeling restless, missing the big long walks I used to be able to do before the arrival of grinding arthritis in my feet. I felt that the steroid injection had done its job so well, that it was possible to tackle my first one in 4 years. And where I wanted to go was a bit of a trip down memory lane. 

You see, I used to live at the foot of this hill. In my dog days, I would walk with him to the very top on a regular basis. We saunter up past the standing stones, up along the crumply fields with their intriguing hummocks and folds, along through the copse full of twisted trees that soared over our heads, and out into the wide open space. 

This place. 

It has air. Big skies. A curiously shaped stone. A tiny whimsical tower. It has the curves and falls of its Iron Age fort. It has my heart. In a way I cannot define, I belong to this place and I’d dreamed these last 4 years of being back up there. 

The old dog is gone now but I still packed an extra sandwich, an extra bottle of water, like I used to do. And we walked and walked, slowly. Not saying much, focusing on each step. Drawing the thick summer air into our lungs. Feeling muscles sit up and say “I remember this”.  

At the top, we sat and drank it all in. Had the place entirely to ourselves - crowds get drawn to the Cotswolds, the Malverns. This is ours. I let myself feel the sheer joy of being back up here after so long, after thinking I’d never get to see it again. There were a few discreet tears of sheer bloody joy. Relief. Thankfulness. 

Buzzards wheel and scream freely up here. The wind tugs at your hair. Memories wave from the corner of my eye. Turn my head too quickly and they shyly hide again. The clouds tumble over themselves in the sky, chasing their own shadows on the ground. 

We walk the perimeter and I can feel the ghosts of the tribes that called this place home jostle beside me. They chatter and laugh, argue and fuss. They cook and craft, look after the beasts they’ve brought in with them for protection. Until one bloody day when their fortress falls. Skeletons have been found in the ditches. Broken weapons. This place holds them and me. 

And then we leave. I look back as much as I look forward. Tired and dusty back at the car. T shirts sticking to our backs, water bottles empty. Feet firmly back on the ground. 

Winter's Tail

Well, we made it. Imbolc has passed with its promise of fluffy lambs, fluffy mimosa, fluffy pancakes on everyone's horizon. The change i...