Monday, 21 April 2014

Childhood memories and baking a cake

Now to get it out of the tin in one piece ... 
I've been missing my Mum a lot over the past few days. She always loved big family gatherings, having grown up surrounded by dozens of aunts and uncles in London, so looked forward to times like Easter when we would all visit for the day. Plus her favourite bright springtime flowers are everywhere at this time of year - daffodils, primulas, crocuses. In a sudden flash of nostalgia this afternoon, I dug out my copy of an old recipe book we used to use together when I was a child - the wonderful brick that is the Good Housekeeping Cookery Compendium. (The link goes to Amazon where there's a few copies available second-hand if this tome is on your memory lane too!) My party piece recipe was always the Farmhouse Fruit Cake and that is what's currently baking in the oven and delicately scenting the house. Even the raw cake mixture had an evocative taste.

Ingredients:
1 lb plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp mixed spice
6 oz butter or margarine
6 oz sugar
9 oz dried fruit and peel
2 eggs
cup of black tea

Preheat the oven to about 200c. Grease a 2lb loaf tin and line with greased greaseproof paper if you have any. This is supposed to make the cake easier to remove from the tin. Sometimes it works.

Sieve the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and mixed spice into a large mixing bowl. I can rarely be bothered with sieving so just 'put' and stir together.

Rub in the butter or margarine until mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Stir in the sugar and dried fruit.

Beat the eggs together and whisk into the dry ingredients. Slowly add the tea and keep mixing until a soft dropping consistency is reached. (The original recipe calls for milk but we always used cold black tea. Today I used fairly warm tea as I wasn't prepared far enough ahead of time.)

Spoon mixture into the loaf tin and place in the centre of the preheated oven. Bake for about 1 1/2 - 2 hours, lowering the temperature slightly towards the end of the cooking time. I use the metal kebab skewer method of checking - pierce the centre of the cake with the skewer and if it comes out clean, the cake is cooked.

Serve still warm in crumbly chunks or cold in slices.

While you're waiting for your cake to bake, you could take a listen to this +YouTube track that Dave discovered recently has been uploaded. It's from his John Peel session at the BBC, recorded live in the 1970s, and is the band Shoot with their beautiful song Ships And Sails. Dave is playing guitar and singing backing vocals. And if you want to know what he looked like back then, he is the guy on the left in the fab photo at about 30 seconds in!


Friday, 18 April 2014

Happy Easter!

Did you manage to catch some of the sunshine this week? It was even lovely this morning, despite being the start of a Bank Holiday weekend which normally means continuous rain! Dave dusted off our elegant garden table and chairs set for the decking. I love the blue colour against the green of the plants and especially the pinks of the crab apple blossom, but by the time I took this photo the sun had gone in so it doesn't quite have the full effect. If the cloud clears away later, I might take another picture. 

I've had two weeks of part-time work now and was pleasantly surprised to be paid today seeing that it is Good Friday. But the money arrived at +First Direct this morning so well done to Recruitment South East for that. I think I've only got two days work next week but hopefully something full time will be offered soon. In the meantime, I'll just enjoy the sun! By our standards, we've been in quite the social whirl since we got back and the pace shows no signs of easing up yet. Three 'engagements' this weekend alone so I'll be drained by Tuesday! 

We had managed to avoid all Easter spending until this morning when I was diverted from my search for octopus (In Hailsham. There wasn't any and we want to make the Italian Stewed Octopus we enjoyed while were away.) by bunny-eared crumpets at +Asda. So cute! And only a pound for four! I know I am far too easily influenced by seasonal food gimmicks. +Will Torrent tweeted a recipe for making a pudding with left-over hot cross buns yesterday. Looks delicious but I'm have trouble with the 'left-over' concept. Not in this house! I found the pictured Spring flower cupcakes last weekend where @Jillscupcakes had taken a stall at St John's in Polegate as part of a craft fayre for +St Wilfrids Hospice. Lovely cakes and eaten in aid of a great cause. Jilly is often to be seen selling cakes at various fairs around this area. The link goes to her twitter feed so you can find out where she'll be next!

A query to finish. Does anyone know of a cafe or coffee shop in Hailsham that has a book exchange shelf? There's Central Eating and Beanzz Coffee in Eastbourne but I could have done with one in Hailsham today and couldn't think of anywhere. Not that I've managed much reading this month. April's Month In Books post is going to be sparse.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

How time flies when you're not paying attention

Huss and chips at the Holiday Inn 
Back in the UK for two weeks already! We've been eating some of the meals that we missed while we were away and, in the case of Roast Chicken, discovering that they might not be as great in reality as we had remembered. Oh well! We did go for an excellent fish and chip supper at our favourite place in Eastbourne, the Holiday Inn Fish Restaurant in Carlisle Road. Dave baked a tasty steak and kidney pie last week too.

I've been back to the Devonshire Park Theatre for the first time since last year. My friend and I saw an interesting Talking Scarlet production of Terence Rattigan's In Praise Of Love (my review in the Comments) on Tuesday. George Telfer and Jo Castleton in particular put in very moving performances. Then today I found out that I've won a pair of tickets to see the Creative Cow production of She Stoops To Conquer at the end of the month. Very pleased about this as I was hoping to go anyway! 

It's not all wine and roses though. The full-time job that I was excited about in my last post has turned out to be very part-time and, as of today, I've only worked 10 hours - having walked 4 hours into Eastbourne back in order to do so. Grrr! Fortunately, apart from Monday morning, the weather has been good so at least the walks have been enjoyable. They've probably contributed to my now being able to fit into these size 14 jeans too! Yay me! I discovered Willingdon Post Office too which also houses a lovely small shop with local(ish) jams and a more unusual range of greetings cards. 

We're still doing a lot of sorting out and decluttering. This Spring cleaning bug is addictive if you avoid the actual cleaning part of it. I've been ousting more stuff via +Freegle. Dave has been mowing lawns and started on The Shed. I've put up some more +eBay auctions - I think the widget should still be showing at the end of this post. Most of the lots are DVDs, foreign language with a smattering of musicals amongst others, but I have also listed some Art. There's one lot of 15 ACEO art cards and a pair of Laura Milnor Iverson prints. Interested? Please click through! 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Settling in and sorting out

Shiny new slow cooker 
It's hard to believe that we've not yet been back in the UK a week and in our house for even less time than that. We've got so much done although it's not all been what you might call 'fun'.

In good news, I've replaced our slow cooker already. Do you remember it died while we were staying in Ourique? I was in Hailsham yesterday to visit my Dad while Dave was playing his first tennis of the year. I popped into Smythe & Barrie, a friendly and helpful electrical retailers on the High Street. They had exactly the 3.5L size cooker that I was looking for so we are now the proud owners of a Morphy Richards Accents 48703 Searing Slow Cooker in black. Dave has already used it to make the filling for one of his delicious steak and kidney pies. As well as having a choice of three heat settings and a light to show it is on, I was pleased to discover that the whole unit is much lighter than our previous one due to it's pot being aluminium. This will be perfect for the caravan where weight allowances are at such a premium.

However, there was bad news too because we had to call out a plumber. Something in the central heating had gone a bit screwy so it would either be full on or off but there was no way to have it clicking on and off with the thermostat as we used to do. Fortunately Chris from Graphite Plumbing was able to get to us very quickly and the problem now appears to be fixed. He thought the switching mechanism had probably seized up due to it having been in the same position for five months.

Red cloche! 
More good news yesterday. (This is starting to remind me of an exercise we tried at a Storytelling Group I was attending when I started this blog. We created a story in pairs, alternating to add an event that began either 'fortunately ....' or 'unfortunately ...' The photo is of me at the group wearing my red cloche hat from Austin, Texas. I can't remember why we wore hats that week?) Anyway! Yesterday two of the crowd-funded albums I pledged to came to fruition and we were able to download our digital copies for first listens. The albums are Silver Ladder by +Peter Mulvey which was on +Kickstarter and Flo by +Sunday Driver UK which was on +PledgeMusic. They are very different styles of music from each other and I am listening to Flo now as I type. It is beautifully chilled out and perfect to accompany blogging!

A second bad to finish unfortunately, but it (hopefully) will have a happier twist at the end. Dave is off to work today having been offered his hours back as soon as we got home. I, of course, didn't so I'm at home at the moment awaiting an opportunity. I've signed up with an agency and Catherine at Recruitment South East is encouragingly positive so fingers crossed. In the meantime, I'm having a big spring clean and sort out of STUFF. I seem to have lots of STUFF that I don't need. Today I have listed a few DVDs on eBay. If you like arthouse cinema, there's French, German, Spanish and New Zealand films on offer including a boxed set of Jean-Pierre Melville films. I think I've got a widget at the end of the post to show the listings but if it's not there, you can Click Here Too! Please share and bid! I'll be putting some unpostable bits on +Freegle too. Does anyone need a Stepper like this one or a large quantity of variously sized plastic flower pots?

Monday, 31 March 2014

A month in books - March

Remembering sunnier reads in Portugal! 
Fourteen books read or heard in March including classic Vonnegut on audio, a Japanese collection of short stories, my first ever Jodi Picoult novel and a brand new steampunk adventure. Two five star reads and no book got the dreaded one star! The choices get further from my usual reading as bookswap shelves closer to home had much more limited selections. I had my fears confirmed by some titles, but was pleasantly surprised too.

I need to find out where my nearest BookCrossing venue is to Polegate now we're back. There's a cafe in Eastbourne mentioned on the website but I'm pretty sure it's closed down. If anyone knows of an OBCZ around here, please let me know.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut ****

My copy of Cat's Cradle was audio from +Audible.co.uk, narrated by Tony Roberts. I'm sure that there's still more layers to this novel that passed me by, but I enjoyed its wicked humour and sharp observations of human behaviour. The storyline is wonderfully outlandish and I would be interested to know if the science of Ice Nine is even feasible? However, it is the calypsos of the Bokononist faith that I think will be the most memorable for me. The astute comments on religion, power, learning and life are so true.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa *****
There is nothing excessive or extraneous in Ogawa's writing. Every word is precise, restrained and elegant yet she manages to conjure up haunting and gruesome images out of initially everyday situations. I love the interlinking of the eleven stories which, in several cases, hinged on a seemingly insignificant detail - a deceased hamster for example. There is much sadness and poignancy to this book but Ogawa's imagination and gift for communication is wonderful and I would definitely read her full-length novels on the strength of these stories.

Two Pound Tram by William Newton **
Judging by other reviews on Amazon, this is a Marmite book that people either adore or don't get at all. Personally, I'm in the 'underwhelmed' camp! The story is an fanciful tale of two boys running away from home and buying an ancient horse-drawn tram with which they make their living. So far, so good, but I found the book so lacking in emotional detail and depth that the events described were unbelievable. The boys seem to easily float from one town to another and when crises do occur, there's always a helpful adult on hand to make everything OK again. I lost count of how many chickens the boys stole with no comeback at all! I did enjoy the local interest aspect as much of the story takes place in Worthing which I know quite well, but this wasn't enough to redeem the book.

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith ****
This is the 2nd in the Leo Demidov trilogy. I read them in the order 1, 3, 2 which didn't really spoil any of the over-arc for me as purely by the existence of the 3rd book, I knew Leo would live through this one! Secret Speech refers to a speech made by Krushchev denouncing Stalin's regime which led to the beginnings of change in Soviet Russia. Much of the novel focuses on how this affected those who had been involved at 'ground level', at one point a character states that more Russians were guilty than innocent. An interesting look at this period of Soviet history because, although much of the thriller storyline is outlandish, the historical detail of suspicion, gulags and the Hungarian uprising is believable and real.

Missing Joe by Stephen Thompson ****
An interesting insight into the lives of various members of a Jamaican family, some of whom had emigrated to the UK, and their friends and lovers. I wasn't sure about the mystery aspect of what had happened to Joe because this was very underplayed. However it was a good device to enable his twin, Neville, to encounter a variety of people. Excellent character portrayals meant that each person was immediately real to me and the more 'damaged' people made for fascinating reading. Missing Joe was a fairly quick read and a good novel.

Hope and Glory by Stuart Maconie ****
A very different history book to my recently read Elizabeth by David Starkey, Hope And Glory reads more like an informative chat than a serious lesson although I'm yet to see if this approach is more successful in making information stick in my brain. Maconie has chosen 10 significant days in 20th century Britain as jumping off points to discuss a wide range of topics that influenced our popular culture. Politicians and Royals get a look in but he concentrates more on the input of ordinary citizens from Suffragettes to Live Aid viewers. I like the humour in this book, particularly Maconie's scathing remarks on contemporary chav and celebrity Britain, and I discovered common ground in our shared loves of walking and toasted teacakes. However, for once as I usually ignore them, an index would have been helpful. Several mentioned places inspired me to visit them, but I now have to read through again with notepad in hand to find out the wheres and whys.

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler *****
Fascinating novel about the delinquent son of a rich American family who has reformed and found his place in the world, but still believes himself to be a failure because he doesn't meet up to his family's ideals. Anne Tyler writes wonderfully believable dialogue and every one of her large cast of characters are real people, even those who might only appear for half a page. She's becoming one of my favourite authors and I'm pleased that I still have so much of her back catalogue to discover!

Discovering Aberration by +S.C. Barrus ***
I saw Discovering Aberration marketed on Google+ as a 'steampunk adventure' which intrigued me so I downloaded a copy. The story is inventive with an interesting plot and a strong steampunk feel. It doesn't have a particularly fast pace but Barrus' wordy style is reminiscent of true Victorian authors so I found that this helped to add atmosphere. The varying viewpoints of the narration is a clever touch and nicely done. I did like the cheeky derivation of some characters' names although why 'The Misses' is named in the plural escaped me. On the down side, at the time I read it, DA did suffer from the indie curse of Needing a Good Proofreader as there were irritatingly frequent typos and errors, otherwise it was a fun read. However, I am told that a revised version will be available as of the end of March 2014 with no more distracting typos! "I'm always homesick for the journey" too!

Faraway by Lucy Irvine ****
I picked the right time to read this book as it is ridiculously hot in Spain at the moment, although perhaps still cooler than the Reef Islands. Lucy Irvine's 'biography' of one, Pigeon Island, is fascinating due to her detailed and honest descriptions of its complete clash of cultures. I have scant sympathy for the Hepworths' troubles, seemingly caused primarily by obsessively forcing their style of English life onto an island people who neither wanted or needed it. The Irvines' own successful integration was an interesting counterpoint and it would be nice to know whether Diana Hepworth actually liked this book, resulting as it did from her original commission.

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman **
Another +Audible.co.uk download and, this time, one that I struggled to get through even though the collection of eight 'strange' short stories is marketed as Aickman's best. The author wrote subtle, creeping horror rather than out and out gore but unfortunately several stories are so subtle that I remained unmoved. Reece Shearsmith's odd narration doesn't particularly help either which surprised me. He sounds unrehearsed, continually halting mid-sentence and putting emphases where they don't seem to fit. The fifth story, The Hospice, is the best of a so-so bunch as its spooky atmosphere does build up nicely, but I wouldn't read any more Aickman after this experience.

Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris ***
A weird mish-mash of ideas in this novel which is irritatingly narrated by a bottle of wine. There are other 'magical' bottles too but fortunately they fade out as each is drunk. The two-part storyline describes Jay's teenage summers of rural 1970s idyll and I enjoyed these sections, particularly his relationship with Joe who is by far the best character in the whole book. However, young Jay's chapters alternate with those of adult Jay, a self-obsessed alcoholic who emigrates to rural France in a fug of wine fumes to discover the true meaning of life among comfortingly familiar stereotypes in the Chocolat village. I guess this novel was aspirational for Brits still dreaming of Peter Mayle-type escapism a decade ago but, for me reading now, Blackberry Wine mostly felt dated and twee.

The Path to the Lake by Susan Harris **
My first Susan Sallis novel and on the strength of this tale, probably my last too. I chose it as the main character, Viv, was described as a runner. As a runner myself, I thought I would identify and it's not often novelised women get such an independent and active interest. However, it soon became clear that running was purely a symptom of Viv's grief at her husband's death and as she began to recover, she swiftly gave it up in favour of babies and obsessional Victoria Sponge baking. 'Proper' things for a woman to do. The Path To The Lake does have a few good minor characters, particularly Jinx and the monosyllabic Mick Hardy, but the leads are flat and difficult to sympathise with. The supernatural element didn't work at all for me and I didn't understand the door knob at all. Oh, and the tying-up of loose ends at the end is so contrived as to be laughable. Except it's not funny.

Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult ***
The central storyline of Picture Perfect is an accurate and moving portrayal of domestic abuse which manages to understand both the abused and the abuser and gives frightening insights into both worlds. However, the tale is shrouded in a lot of superfluous description of movie star, Alex Rivers', wealth, houses and possessions which I didn't need to read about again, and again. The detail of Native American lives was interesting, especially as seen in contrast to the rich white enclave. Overall, I felt as though this book hadn't really decided whether it wanted to be styled as a serious literature or a frothy romance. Ultimately it falls between the two stools which detracts from its important message.

The Summer Of Secrets by Martina Reilly ****
I was pleasantly surprised by The Summer Of Secrets having expected a lightweight chick-lit novel and ended up with something much deeper and, in places, darker. Whoever chose the cover art really isn't doing the book justice! The three friends, Hope, Julie and Adam, are well-written and nicely flawed (from a reader's point of view!). Hope's bickering with new neighbour Logan did become a little tiresome after a while making him seem flat by comparison. I liked the story's pace which kept me interested throughout and, although the ending is predictable, it is also satisfying.

I'm currently listening to Celia Imrie's autobiography on audio so my review of that will be the start of April's A month in books post. I'm also planning to revisit favourite books that have languished at home while we've been travelling, some of which I haven't read for several years and none of which I've previously reviewed. It will be interesting to see how many are still as good as I remember.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Home is where the Bailey is

Bilbao port through the ferry window 
24 hours on a +Brittany Ferries Santander S.L crossing is a bit too long, especially when the boat is delayed. The first part of the journey wasn't rough but uppy-downy enough for me to not want to do anything more than lie on my bed occasionally groaning for effect! Fortunately I had a good audio book lined up - The Happy Hoofer by Celia Imrie, her autobiography - so I spent most of the crossing listening to this. Good news was that my queasiness meant we didn't need to buy any meals on board the boat and got by with what we had taken ourselves. A travel kettle is a must-have in this situation!

We're now at +Horam Manor Touring Park for the second of a couple of nights as we wanted to make sure our house was OK before giving up Bailey to the new storage place. It's a lovely campsite and busier than we were expecting. The showers are roomy with lots of hot water and the hardstanding pitches are a good size too. The grass area is very soft so we're glad of the hardstanding. I think we could be stuck here for several weeks otherwise! The staff are friendly and helpful and there's a small bookshelf in Reception. We took a stroll around the nearby fishing lakes this afternoon and I was delighted to see primroses and daffodils growing on the banks. We saw a brief flurry of peacock butterflies as well.
Primroses in Horam 

We visited home this morning and it is perfectly habitable although the central heating is behaving oddly and the television can't find a signal. There was a huge pile of post from just the last two weeks as well as the remaining important correspondence set aside for us from the previous months. A letter to me thanked me for my resignation (Huh? What resignation?) and enclosed my P45. So that was a nice Welcome Home from my apparently-now-erstwhile employer. Ironically, the company's name is BeValued! Neither Dave nor I felt particularly 'at home' while at home though. I looked around at everything I haven't missed over the last five months and was surprised at how much stuff I actually own. I thought I was far more minimalist than this. Perhaps being back in Polegate will grow on us as we get used to it again? As we drove back to Horam, Dave said 'Home is where the Bailey is' and I certainly concur. Bailey feels much more homely right now!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The rain in Spain falls mainly in Navarrete

Camping Navarrete as it is not at the moment! 
We're at our last Spanish campsite now and I'm feeling quite sad that our great expedition is nearly over. Camping Navarrete was recommended to us by a couple at Camping Navajas who were former +Citro├źn Berlingo owners. The sunny photo is pinched from Camping Navarrete's website as it's a nice site and I didn't want to show it grey and miserable. We had previously planned to stop over at Haro, but that town was forecast 30mm of rain tonight and Logrono (10km from Navarrete) was only supposed to get about half as much so we rerouted. It's been raining on and off since we arrived at lunchtime and, setting up, we were seriously cold for the first time since Serro da Bica! I'm taking some comfort that Spain is crying about our leaving!! 

And we do need to start getting acclimatised to British temperatures. On Saturday we went for what will probably turn out to have been our last walk of the trip and saw a swallowtail butterfly and baby almonds in furry green pods on the trees. We also glimpsed a black and white woodpecker and saw the cutest brown and white cow. She had four brown 'knee-high socks' which I thought made her look like some chic girl in the 1960s! It was breezy, but the sun was shining and we did most of the walk in t-shirts and shorts. I don't think our shorts will be needed again for several months. We are trying not to think about how cold Polegate seemed when we got back from Louisiana/Texas last March.

We spent last night at Camping Zaragoza which is the municipal campsite for the city. Do not go here if you can possibly avoid it. It's not got a nice vibe and is expensive. We paid €19 and that was without electricity for which they wanted an extra €4.50. There wasn't even a bookswap shelf in Recepcion!

Now our thoughts are turning to +Brittany Ferries Santander S.L and our return voyage which starts on Thursday afternoon. I hope the sea in the Channel is calmer than it was on our way out. And that the Bay Of Biscay isn't any rougher!
See you all soon ... !