Categories
Leisure Outdoors

Mainly Yellow Flowers, on Shetland in July

We normally try to visit Shetland in the summer. The islands extend about 70 miles from north to south and lie either side of latitude 60 degrees north. Days are very long in summer and on the whole the weather is kind, although summer fog and misty drizzle are common.

In the past we have visited in May and June and have seen sheets of bluebells, followed by fuchsia and montbretia which thrive. In gardens hostas are huge and completely free from slug and snail attack. So there is plenty to enthuse about for us Cambridgeshire gardeners, used to fairly dry conditions and hungry pests. This year we visited in July and discovered that it is a superb month for wildflowers.

The quantity and variety was huge and yellow flowers were particularly impressive.

The photo below is a typical roadside view. As we drove from place to place this is what we saw either side of us. On this occasion we were walking down the road (in an east-north-east direction) towards Levenwick Beach. You can see the cluster of houses in the distance that were once the homes of a fishing community. On the right is the typical profile of many of the cliffs on the east side of Shetland’s South Mainland.

Here we have buttercup and monkey flower.

And this next photo is of monkey flower, in its preferred watery habitat. The actual flowers are substantial and on many occasions the plants were growing profusely along small steams and ditches. It was possible to use the abundant yellow flowers to track the water courses.

We visited a lovely exhibition, ‘Bigton and Birds’, in Bigton Hall. It included poetry, paintings, music and film, all created locally and organised by Bigton Collective (https://bigtoncollective.org/). We were delighted to have the opportunity to visit and enjoyed it so much that we went two days running. The exhibition was brilliantly curated, including vases of wild flowers. Here are two photos of one of them – more yellow monkey flower in the centre of the vase and buttercups trailing in the second picture.

The next four photos show:

Silverweed

Yellow flag (yellow iris)

Meadow buttercup

Meadow vetchling

If possible we visit parts of Shetland that we have not been to before – and this time we went to Fetlar. This is one of the three north isles and relatively small compared with Yell and Unst. To get there we have to use ferries – which meant careful timetable checks and advance bookings, made online from Cambridge before we set off on our trip.

Fetlar is known for its red necked phalaropes and also for being relatively green (The Garden of Shetland). We set out to see as much as we could of the island and in about 4 hours we managed a wonderful range of activities (short moorland walk, museum visit, RSPB reserve + picnic lunch, church, beach and a restoration project). The photo below shows bog asphodel with tormentil in the foreground which we saw on moorland in the north east of the island.

We saw a lot of tormentil. The next photo shows slender St John’s wort with tormentil nearer the top of the picture.

And below, more tormentil.

There were many other flowers in addition to the profusion of yellow ones. Here is an eye-catching angelica.

And below is a sheet of flowers at Norwick Beach on Unst – tufted vetch and purple clover.

Throughout Shetland we came across a profuse and highly scented light mauve flower, which we identified as dame’s violet. Here it is in the foreground of this photo taken in the garden of the Old Haa, Burravoe, on Yell.

Collecting these photos together brings back the wonderful profusion of flowers that we saw. Next summer maybe the focus will be on blue and purple given the tasters in the last three photos here.

Categories
Home Leisure

Zooming OR how to be sociable and busy when going out isn’t convenient

This blog is the first of mine with no illustrations. After a year of using virtual meetings I doubt very much whether anyone needs to see screen-shots of how to schedule a zoom meeting or yet another screenful of participants’ faces in their individual rectangles.

I first heard of zoom in April 2020 when a friend told me that it was a possible way for her daughter to continue her music teaching. This was a total surprise to me for a variety of reasons. Firstly, how do you play music with other people online? And secondly what is zoom anyway? Is it another version of skype or what?

In no time at all we were all trying it out.

But there were so many things to learn. Do you need to pay? What does ‘turn on original sound’ mean? How do you avoid having one person (the one who made a noise, maybe you even) filling up your screen when you want to see all the people in the zoom call? Don’t all speak at once – raise a hand. Use chat, etc. etc.

Here are a few familiar scenarios: ‘you’re muted’, ‘we can’t see you’, ‘you’ve frozen’, ‘you’re sharing your screen’, ‘you’re still not sharing your screen’, ‘sorry, I was distracted and forgot to let you in’. In some groups faffing about with unfamiliar buttons can cause a big delay but I have been in other zoom calls that have run incredibly smoothly. It depends partly on the confidence and skill of the person running the meeting and also on their ability to manage (or even sweep aside) the problems that others are experiencing.

At the start I printed out an article from The Times that explained the basics of all the online meeting platforms. The zoom section told me about background view (messy kitchen with washing up in sight versus neat study lined with erudite books!), angle of the screen and distance from it etc. It also provided details on setting up a (free) account, then scheduling meetings. So in theory all was set for a successful first meeting. But two thirds of my life passed without using computers at all so getting zoom right first time was not instinctive. It is incredibly impressive how many over 65 year olds are now totally competent zoom users when previously many of them failed with simple operations such as accessing emails on their phone.

My two sisters were also learning to use zoom so it was possible to test it with them before something more time critical was scheduled. They also helped when I decided to change to zooming on my iPad after a long spell of only using my laptop. Most importantly, at an early stage they pointed out that they could barely hear me when I used my laptop (admittedly it is 8 years old now), so IT savvy son Jim immediately lent me a hand held mic. I now have a fully functioning system with a choice of (hand free) mics depending on whether it is just me (headphones) or Patrick joins me and we both participate.

That’s enough background….

So what do I use zoom for? First and foremost, I do not sit and listen to lectures and talks, although I could as there are plenty available. My two main uses of zoom have been to keep in contact with people who I’ve not been able to meet and to play and sing in music groups.

Over the months I have had zoom teas and coffees with friends. We log in and have cake/biscuits and tea/coffee. This is a good relaxing starting point for talking about whatever we like, from books, to families, to walks we have done and so on.

As for my family, zoom has been an excellent way to keep in touch whether with those living far away or locally (when lockdown and/or weather means we can’t meet, even in the garden). One of the highlights was a zoom session on Boxing Day afternoon with 27 members of the family, including 8 children who made intermittent appearances. Henry and his family in Canada were travelling in the car on the way for a day of winter outdoor activities so we could see them bowling along as we all talked. The rest of us in the UK were in our respective homes. We have never had so many of us ‘in one place’ at Christmas.

Now for music – this normally depends on having people in the same room so they can see and hear each other as they play or sing together. When we are all housebound, as we have been during the covid months, this cannot happen.  Over zoom it is possible to hear people, as long as it is one person at a time. So playing or singing together in the normal way is impossible. However it is possible to play duets as a friend and I discovered. One of us plays, unmuted and the other one mutes and plays their part at the same time which creates a feeling of playing in the normal way. The significant difference of course is that the unmuted player cannot hear the other part and has to lead fairly confidently so player two can follow. That is why swapping over works – each person has a chance to lead (unmuted) and to play as though it were the real thing (muted). It takes a bit of practice but after a while it works.

With more than 2 people playing or singing the arrangement has to be different. Basically there has to be a ‘backing track’ to play along with. Now we have had over a year of this all the ‘backing tracks’ are relatively sophisticated. For the madrigal group that I sing with the organiser has perfected her IT skills and has collected a large number of pieces many of which are backed by accompaniments that she has created herself. We mute and sing our own parts as the music plays. It is a golden opportunity to try other parts too. I am normally soprano (top line, often with the tune) but have taken this chance to sing an underneath part, generally alto.

The recorder group that I help to run started with some fairly unsophisticated short zoom sessions. They were short because, with three or more participants, a ‘meeting’ held by someone without a zoom licence is restricted to about 40 minutes. They were unsophisticated as the best ‘backing tracks’ that we had were from choral wiki so we were adapting madrigals etc for recorders to play. However things swiftly changed thanks to two members of the group who became skilled making backing tracks and producing properly written out music for recorder ensemble on their computers. To add to this one of the country’s leading recorder players decided to produce pieces for recorder ensemble on a weekly basis that she conducted and assembled by playing all the parts. There is now a stunning collection that has made playing the recorder via zoom a really enjoyable (albeit different) experience.

There are other groups that I have joined via zoom over the past year. Two of them (a book group and a discussion group on biographies) are part of U3AC, an organisation that quickly took to zoom with a very large number of most successful courses, events, talks etc. Although some people do not like meeting online, there has been a very high level of attendance for many activities such as lectures (which previously involved travelling to the venue then the nightmare of finding parking). If we have to be locked down then it is wonderful to have some way to see and meet the members of each group even though it is virtual not face to face. There have been several initiatives to replace real socialising such as an informal zoom session instead of going to the coffee shop with friends after the ‘biographies’ discussions.

I have also been involved in a weekly discussion group (7-10 members) that focussed on outdoors.  It was a collaborative arrangement where everyone contributed their thoughts and ideas. We all became skilled at screen sharing our presentations as well as photos and videos. A group this size meant that there was time for everyone to speak in the 90 minutes sessions whereas very large groups can be less interactive.

There have been several one-off zoom sessions that I have joined over the year including a talk by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, a local quiz and a concert. It is a remarkably good way to keep in touch with what is going on and to enjoy a variety of activities that otherwise would be unavailable when venues of all types are closed.

Many people I know have done zoom exercise classes for pilates, yoga, dance etc. My exercise has taken the form of working in the garden and allotment, and when possible some walks – so nothing on zoom. Nor have I used zoom for teaching or playing games with friends online, useful/fun though that can be.

I am very keen for the benefits of zoom to continue after the constraints linked to this coronavirus pandemic have gone. When it is difficult to travel, whether long distances or just locally, zoom can be great. It is also a very good way to interact with people with no risk of any infection, whether a common cold or something more serious. And using zoom to keep in regular ‘visual’ contact with people is a definite improvement on phoning.

So what will happen in future?  Will zooming continue once it is permissible to resume face to face contact? I hope so.

Categories
Home Outdoors

Using our coppiced hazel

We have a hazel between the shed and the compost. Normally it is a large bushy plant as it has been coppiced at least twice in its lifetime. This year I coppiced it again.

The rather unusual picture below was taken one summer to show the morning glory climbing the tomato plant!  As you can see it was when the hazel was in full leaf, to the right of the shed.

This is what it looks like now.

Seriously hacked down. But it will recover quite soon.

We have kept the stakes to use as supports. They live propped against the shed.

One of our three compost bins disintegrated so when it came to making a new one I took 4 hazel stakes and some wire netting and here it is.

The idea of recording this only happened after I finished the coppicing and the new compost bin had been built. Normally I like to record every stage of destruction/construction, but not this time!

Categories
Leisure Outdoors

The Backs in Spring

In Cambridge there is a line of beautiful college buildings that have their main entrances (facing east) along streets in the centre of the city. At the back of these colleges (on their west sides) are gardens and open spaces that slope gently down to the river Cam. An area, accessible to the public, of grass and trees, criss-crossed with paths, lies to the west of the river separating it from Queens Road which is a north south route from Westminster College to Fen Causeway.

The view across the river Cam from Queens Road is fantastic with beautiful buildings, gardens, fields and meadows. The area is known as The Backs and there are gorgeous spring flowers which is why I visited it by bike a week or so ago.

First I had to get ready, starting with helmet and high vis jacket.

Then the bike, in the shed where I checked the tyres which were well pumped up this time.

The first leg of the journey could be in any town i.e. a residential 1930s street with the usual semi-detached houses and parked cars that you can see below.

However once I reached the river things changed. The photo below is downstream from the centre of Cambridge (north-west of the Backs), with a view towards Jesus Green, and houseboats, bikes propped against a tree and a gorgeous display of daffodils in the foreground.

I cycled on and reached the stream behind St John’s College.

My photographic technique is basic so I was pleased to notice the railings and bike wheel shadow, as I was putting my phone away.

And here are some of the wild flowers, anemones and primroses, growing there.

The next photo is the back of Trinity College with the Wren library through the trees on the left.

And below is a view with Kings College chapel on the skyline.

I cycled a little further on and turned east for a short distance along Garrett Hostel Lane where I took the next two photos, the second one giving a good view of the Wren library in the centre of the picture.

Here is the wrought iron gate into Clare College. Normally this college has a very open attitude to visitors and it is possible to walk through but a combination of current restrictions and construction work meant this was not possible. The flowers are always beautiful in the spring with sheets of crocuses to start with, then daffodils.

Turning through 180 degrees to face Queens Road I noticed the dramatic catkins on this tree. My guess is that it is alder.

The next photo (not brilliantly in focus…) is the famous tourist view of Kings College chapel with Clare College to the left.

Then I arrived at the back gate to Kings. As I was taking the photo I was surprised how many pass holders were going through despite the online arrangements for many of the students at present.  

Next stop was looking across to Darwin College from the back of Queens College.

Then a view from Silver Street Bridge with Queens College on both sides of the river (newer to the left/west, and old to the right/east) and the mathematical bridge visible in the centre.

I cycled home by a different route, through the centre of Cambridge and, as I rode up Silver Street there was St Botolph’s church catching the sun on its stone.

I took the last photo from the foot/cycle path along the side of Jesus Green where a stream (covered in duckweed!) flows past the back of Jesus College.

Categories
Cooking Home

How to make Hot Cross Buns

First find the recipe – last used a year ago and very old.

It involves making bun dough first and at that point the spices go in (which I forgot one year and had to add later).

Assemble ingredients and weigh out the flour, adding dried yeast (unlike the recipe which says fresh yeast), salt and spices. I can’t remember whether I put the sugar in at this stage or added it when the butter went in; it wouldn’t make a difference.

Weigh flour       add butter   rub in the butter to form…..a breadcrumb texture

Add warm water/milk mixture and stir in a circular way to start the kneading process

Knead by hand for 7-10 minutes until the dough pulls away from the bowl and is springy. Put in a warm place to rise, covered in cling film. After about an hour or so it should have doubled or trebled its size.

Making the crosses

Flour and butter to make pastry. Only a small amount. Roll out and cut into strips.

Now for assembling the buns

Break down risen dough and add fruit, then knead together. Divide into buns and space out on greased baking trays.

Paint beaten egg on the top of each bun then stick on pastry strips to form crosses

Put buns in a warm place to rise again; as you can see they have risen and will get even bigger once in the oven.  While they cook boil up sugar + water = bun wash.

Here they are out of the oven with bun wash brushed on. And finally – cooling on a wire rack.

Tempting to try one at this stage as they are always best straight out of the oven!                                                                         

These buns do not keep well so eat on the day and freeze spares once cool. When defrosted they are as good as the day they were made.

Categories
Home Outdoors

Improving the terrace

In summer and autumn 2020 our gazebo sat on the terrace just outside the conservatory doors and was a great success, astonishingly. But it covered several, admittedly rather poor quality, flower beds, so a month or two ago we decided it was time to plan some improvements to boost the overall quality of the area.

There were plenty of ideas floating around but eventually we decided to turn some of the flower beds into hard standing using bricks. Without the gazebo these will be perfect for pots, that we hope will be burgeoning with blooms from March onwards – fingers and toes crossed!

This is stage one – a quick drawing and list on a piece of scrap paper.

The terrace looked pretty drab in late January as you can see below so we decided to lay bricks over the area where the bench stands. This includes removing the old tree trunk and the ‘pond in a bowl’, and only keeping plants that climb up the fence.

The first stage was clearing the soil and moving the pond.

Then we brought bricks from the allotment that had been used as paths (now replaced by chippings between rows).

And here are some of the bricks in a pile waiting to be used.

The process of laying the bricks looks like this – below. It is tricky to make sure that the surface is aligned with the existing paving and that it is level and relatively smooth.

It doesn’t take too long to build up the area of hard standing.

And brushing in earth between the bricks is astonishingly effective.

The photo below is the other side of the terrace before any improvements were made.

And here it is with the bricks laid and a space for one of the paving slabs that we found at the other end of the garden.

The slabs are propped up waiting for Jim to move them into position – they are too heavy for me to handle.

One slab is in place below – getting the earth totally level and settled before it goes down is half the battle. I stood on it and rocked the corners – some slack so Jim had to lift the slab for me to add more earth underneath.

And in the picture below it is finished.

And the next photo shows the same on the other side of the terrace, where the bricks and new paving slab are level enough for the seat to stand on them without wobbling – a pretty basic requirement but often harder to achieve than you’d expect!  

Below is the same patch after rearrangement of pots etc to make it all look as nice as possible.

On the other side of the terrace there are more pots – which will look lovely when they are in flower and the wintry looking strawberries are producing fruit (we hope).

Last but not least the ‘pond in a bowl’ is looking better in its new location than it ever did in its old position so I am looking forward to an abundance of aquatic creatures sometime.

Categories
Home Leisure

Books that I have read during 10 months of lockdown

I normally read quite a lot, mainly fiction, whether on kindle or hard copy. I am a member of a monthly book group which keeps me supplied with titles that I would not necessarily have chosen myself which is interesting. Otherwise I read favourite authors and books that come my way via recommendation. Friends quite often lend me books too. So I am never short of something to read. Also we have enough books in our house, collected over the years, to last me for the rest of my life!

Since the first 2020 lockdown I have continued reading and from mid-March 2020 to mid-January 2021 I read 57 books. Of these 9 were chosen by my U3AC book group, all fiction based in a real world context so no sci-fi or fantasy. 10 of the 57 books were non-fiction or mixed (for example Christmas anthologies) and 7 were children’s fiction.

When and where do I read?

It is a total luxury to read during the daytime. Sometimes I manage it especially in the autumn and winter as the days get shorter. It is also something I do on holiday but this year holidays have taken the form of three weekends away during the summer non-lockdown periods so not much reading time in total then.

Usually I read in bed before (or while!) going to sleep. Recently I have read first thing in the morning while drinking a cup of tea before getting up – a good way to start the day. The photo below includes a lovely picture of an albatross, taken by Will when he was in the Falklands. The bedside table is laden with books several of which I have yet to finish such as Clive James’s version of Dante, and Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 objects.

During the daytime the conservatory is a good place to read. There are comfortable chairs there, the place is full of plants so the air is often fragranced with hoya and scented-leaf geraniums, and most importantly, the light is good.

In winter the conservatory is too cold to sit still for any length of time so I retreat to the sitting room. The selfie below (a mirror image – one day I’ll learn how to stop that happening) shows a favourite spot on the sofa, adjoining the piano. Note the lockdown hair – hairdressing salons have been out of bounds off and on for months.

Now for the books……

I keep a record of the books I have read with a comment/note to remind me what each was about. It’s very easy to forget the authors and titles of books I have read and also the subject matter, hence the list!

Book group

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins

Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Violins of Saint Jacques

Simon Mawer, The Glass Room (my choice and presentation to the group)

Simon Mawer, Prague Spring

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

Hannah Rothschild, The Improbability of Love

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

Olga Tokareczuk, Drive your plow over the bones of the dead

Salley Vickers, Grandmothers

Children’s Fiction

Monica Edwards, Wish for a Pony and There’s No Mistaking Corker

Anne Stafford, Five Proud Riders

These three pony books were ones that I had as a child and the paperback copies are on the tatty side as you’d expect after 65 years!

And at Christmas, regular favourites:

Raymond Briggs, The Snowman, Father Christmas and Father Christmas on Holiday

Shirley Hughes, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas

Non-fiction

John Julius Norwich, An English Christmas

Rosemary Sutcliffe, The Iliad

Ed: Simon Rae, Faber Book of Christmas

Aida Edemariam, The Wife’s Tale

Bill Bryson, The Body – A Guide for Occupants (serious content but really good fun to read!)

F. Mistral, translated by George Wicken, Memoirs

Howard Goodall, Big Bangs (a fascinating read about five major developments in the history of music)

Jan Struther, Try Anything Twice

Mary Anne Ochota, Hidden Histories

Ann Baer, Medieval Woman

Fiction

Here are a few snippets of information about some of the fiction books I have read.

Location is very important to me so I really enjoyed:

Anne Cleeves, Dead Water and Thin Air – two detective stories set in Shetland

Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice

Salley Vickers, Miss Garnett’s Angel (also set in Venice)

Rory Clements, Corpus (a thriller set in Cambridge)

Fiona Valpy, The Skylark’s Secret (1940s and 70s Loch Ewe – the naval base for the Russian convoys)

Classics

Elizabeth Gaskell, North & South, Wives & Daughters. We have dvds of films/TV series of both of these books so I read them before watching the films.

George Eliot, Mill on the Floss. I first read this in an abridged version aged about 9. It is definitely an adults’ book – I have no idea why anyone thought it was suitable for children.

John Galsworthy, Forsyte Sage vols 1, 2 and 3. I bought my paperback copies after the TV series in 1967, with photos of Susan Hampshire and Eric Porter on two of the covers. We didn’t have a television and this was the start of my habit of buying the book of the series I had not seen on TV!

Tolkien, The Father Christmas Letters

Historical and/or political

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. I read the first two in the ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy a few years ago and lockdown was a chance to read the third.

Victoria Hislop, Those who are loved (Civil war in Greece). I enjoy Victoria Hislop’s books partly because they are set in southern Europe in specific political periods.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings (USA, anti-slavery and feminism). I read this for my book group and was fascinated by the fictional representation of the abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké.  

Robert Harris, Pompeii; Archangel. These two historical thrillers are set in 79 AD and modern, 20th century Russia – quite a contrast.

Simon Mawer, Prague Spring and The Glass Room (Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the 1920s-50s) both pf which I read for the first time before my book group chose them. 

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire (Islamic radicalisation based in London)

Books ‘floating’ in the sitting room to dip into

What to do Today? – an account of zoom based studio activities from April to August 2020. I was involved in one of the ‘studios’, My Outdoors.

Future – a Scottish Book Trust compendium of writings; it is a free book with an introduction by Val McDermid and the first entry is by Annie Sturgeon.

Birds in Norfolk – Andy Brown and James McCallum. This is a gorgeous book beautifully illustrated with James McCallum’s lovely paintings. The text is written by Andy Brown and provides a wealth of information.

Shetland Wool Week 2020 annual. This is a fascinating book all about wool in Shetland and includes a brilliant selection of knitting patterns. The model this year is our daughter-in-law, Jenny Sturgeon.

So this blog is a whistle-stop tour round some of my reading matter in lockdown. Being stuck at home for most of the time has not been that arduous for me because I enjoy doing things myself, like writing this blog, as well as reading.

Categories
Crafts Outdoors

Advent Wreath

A few years ago I signed up for a course at a local church on making an advent wreath. It was brilliant. We started from scratch with a bale of straw from which to pull handfuls that we steadily twisted and bound (with wire) into a ring about 30 cms in diameter. The next step is to cover the ring with greenery, using ivy, yew, holly etc as long as it is evergreen and fairly pliable. The idea is to lie the stems in the same direction to give a tidy look.

This process is quite time consuming as the stems have to be secured by sticking the ends into the straw ring and binding them down with wire. The ring must be totally covered so when it sits flat no straw shows.

After 4 weeks or more the greenery can become rather dry and dull but regular spraying with water helps to keep it refreshed. When the festive season is over the advent wreath has to be dismembered and the reusable ring, decorations and wires put away for next year.

So that is where I started this year.

In the photo above you can see the straw ring, spare wire, red ribbons and 4 new white candles. The strong wires in the base of each candle are from the original candles that came with the wreath making course. I use the wires most years, pulling them out of the old candles, heating the ends over the gas cooker and forcing them into the new candles. Sometimes this has been tricky to do, depending on the nature of the candle wax, so in 2019 I bought a set of spiked candle holders that I used instead, as can be seen in the final photo in this blog.

I chose a fairly dry day to cut greenery from the garden – we have far too much holly and ivy!

The evergreen below was bought as a tiny plant over 30 years ago. We keep it well chopped and it is excellent as the first layer on the straw ring. Each short stem curves easily over the ring. After two or three circuits, tied down with wire, the ring is covered.

Below the greenery is piled up on the floor.

Unfortunately I was so carried away with covering the ring with evergreens that I forgot to take any photos.

The course leader all those years ago was very keen that we should divide the ring into four – 4 advent candles and between them red ribbons. Last year I tied the ribbons below each candle and added decorations between.

I decided this year to put a Christmas Day candle in the middle so, for the first time there are five candles. Thinking about it, the central candle should be taller than the four advent candles so I may stand its holder on a small block of wood.

This photo below is the 2019 advent wreath with all candles burning. So that means I took the photo on the fourth Sunday in Advent.

The candles are different heights because the one that is lit first (on Advent Sunday) is lit again on each of the successive Sundays. The same applies to each candle in turn and the tallest is the candle that was lit for the first time on the fourth Sunday in Advent.

Categories
Cooking Home

Making Mince Pies

Mince pies are wonderful in November. We often start making and eating them then as the weeks around Christmas are overloaded with other traditional (and substantial) food.

This year Christmas has started really early with lights in people’s gardens, prolific online present buying and other jolly activities which are all part of cheering things up in the middle of the second English lockdown. It is not clear that we will be doing much with family and friends over Christmas as travel restrictions are in place at present. No-one knows if it will be wise (even if it is allowed) to hob nob with all and sundry. Forecasts of another peak after Christmas make a nonsense of anything that allows us to share germs more easily, although people who believe they are immune wouldn’t agree.

Back to mince pies….

The ingredients are so simple – mincemeat from a jar and shortcrust pastry. I make the pastry using these proportions. Fat (butter or marg) 2 : caster sugar 1 : self-raising flour 3. Stir flour and sugar together; rub fat into the dry mix until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix with small amounts of cold water until it forms a firm ball. Then dust a flat surface with flour and roll out quite thinly. Stamp out large circles of pastry to line the bottom of the pie containers.

This is the first time I have used paper cases – it solves the problem of getting the mince pies out of the tin (especially if they have boiled over slightly and stuck). Each pie needs a decent dollop of mincemeat. The jar I used had ‘booted up’ written on the outside which means I had added more dried fruit and some brandy a while back, to upgrade it.

I normally stamp out slightly smaller circles for the lids. In theory they should be sealed by damping the rim of each lid. I just plonked them onto the mincemeat and gently pressed down round the rim of each mince pie to seal.

They go into a fairly hot oven. You can see the dimples round the edge of each pie where I had sealed it.

While they were cooking I did the washing up! This included the mincemeat jam jar and its lid – I have a huge collection of them waiting for the next lot of home-made jam, jelly or marmalade.

After 15 minutes or so the pies were getting slightly beige/brown on top which means they are done.

The pastry cools quickly but the sticky mincemeat stays very hot for quite a long time – warning for anyone who wants to tuck into one straight out of the oven!

Once I could handle the tins I put the mince pies on a wire rack to cool properly.

At this stage it’s a good idea to give them a dusting of sieved icing sugar, especially if they are going out on a plate to offer to friends and family. Ours were destined to go into a tin ready for us to eat over the next week or so, and icing sugar loses its good looks then.

We both tried them with a cup of tea in front of the fire. The paper cases are doubly convenient – ‘look no plate’!

Mince pies make a good seasonal pudding too.  Patrick and I both like them warmed and served with brandy butter (there’s a new batch in the fridge which we have already tasted).

Categories
Leisure

‘The Glass Room’

A novel by Simon Mawer

I belong to a book group that meets once a month. We take turns to choose and present a book and my name came up soon after lockdown, for the May 2020 meeting. The book I chose was Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glass Room’ that I first read, and very much enjoyed, in 2019.

Normally we meet for a face to face presentation and discussion in a church hall, but since March 2020 everything has been online. To make things easier, presentations go out to the group via email about a week before the online meeting. Knowing this, as I re-read the book I made notes, not on paper but in the form of an email to myself. This formed the basis of my presentation much of which is included in this blog entry.

I chose the book because I had enjoyed reading it and because I am fascinated by the house, a real house, in Brno. The modern construction appeals to me combined with the sloping site, looking west across the city towards the Spilas fortress, with the entrance upstairs and open plan living area downstairs. Of course from the novel we don’t know the real details, just what Mawer has introduced. Where the idea for this house (the ‘Landauer house’ in the novel) came from, and who had the technological know-how to make it work, are questions that the book answers, but are they true in the context of the real house? Unlikely.

The real house is Villa Turgendhat in Brno, Czech Republic.

The Wikipedia entry on the house gives plenty of details and includes photos. Its history is replicated one way or another in the novel so it is hardly surprising that the family who built it, the Turgendhats, took exception to much of what was written in the novel.

It is now a museum.

THE BOOK

The story starts with an introductory chapter set in the 1960s, then goes back to 1929 and ends in 1990.

Some of the characters:

Hana  ‘That woman’, married to Oscar a Jewish lawyer. She was a perpetual, close presence, worldly wise, modern, and a survivor, obsessed with relationships and jealous too. During the German occupation she met Stahl in a cafe (1941), chatted him up and was invited to be ‘surveyed’ at the Landauer house during which she made witty/provocative and even subversive comments. Later Hana was ‘the woman from the heritage committee’. Hana’s focus was on love, but she came over as a complicated mixture.

The family – father Viktor Landauer, mother Liesel, two children, Ottilie and Martin who were brought up speaking German and Czech (and later became through and through Americans). They were not religious, but Liesel came from a Catholic family (hence her church wedding and the christening of Ottilie). Viktor was Jewish by background so he moved ownership of his company, Landauer cars, into the hands of his father in law when Jews were threatened by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Lanik the chauffeur and general factotum, was devious. Once the family left, he was the caretaker still living in the house in the mid-1940s. He hoarded potentially valuable items such as food that formed the basis of a black-market business as the Soviet invasion occurred. By the late 50s/early 60s Lanik was Chairman of the district committee with responsibility to the party in the local district.

Viktor’s first meeting with Kata/Katalin Kalman, subsequently his mistress, was in Vienna, followed by visits to the flat where she lived with her daughter Marika. The coincidence of Kata being one of the small group of refugees that visited the Landauer House was not realistic nor was moving in as the nanny, but it is a story.

The house:

My main interest when I read the book was the house itself, the Glass Space, der Glausraum. It was known in the book as the Landauer house but also referred to as the Glass Dream, the Glass Tranquillity.

The windows of the open plan living area could be lowered down into the basement, ‘Viktor pressing the button to lower the windows’. But there was only one further mention of these amazing windows.

The house was described as a work of art, but traditional views were that it was ‘like an office, not like a home’ in contrast with older style towered and turreted houses, similar to the ones where the Landauers lived as the glass house was being built and in Switzerland.

There were interesting construction details – load bearing steel girders, ‘angle beams riveted back to back to make pillars with a cruciform cross-section’ like a factory; modern materials and heating from a boiler in the basement. Then there was the onyx wall ‘polished like glass’ – very expensive and with amazing light reflecting properties. This wall really exists and amazingly, given the actual history since 1938, is still intact.

Mawer also described interior fittings (tiles, white paint, ivory linoleum, fitted items) and furniture (specially designed chairs eg the Venice chair, the Landauer chair, the Liesel chair, and an extendable circular dining table). Apart from black and natural shantung curtains, woollen rugs and a sculpture of a female torso there was no decoration.

After the family left, the house was appropriated by the council, then transferred to the Third Reich to be a laboratory/biometric centre with 12 scientific staff investigating racial characteristics. It was visited, in the story, by Heydrich SS3 (who was assassinated in May 1942 – Wikipedia). The lab was closed down and machines taken to Auschwitz, then draughtsmen from Messerschmidt lived there for a year. Russians took over the house and after the war it became a gymnasium for children with physical disabilities providing recuperative physio.

The State committee for Architectural Heritage wanted to turn the house into a museum.

Place:

Mesto was the name Mawer gave to the city where the house was built, and where much of the action takes place.

There are some lovely descriptions of scenery, cities and journeys, as well as the weather (misty, raining and damp when visiting the site of the house; heat in Cuba; November fog and snow). 

The flight to Switzerland involved no check in, no hanging about before boarding, just an announcement ‘will be departing in 15 minutes’ and a walk across tarmac. Then there was the noise as the aircraft took off, shaking etc.

The family lived in a villa in Zurich then, after a week or so, in Geneva. To travel/escape to Cuba they left Switzerland by train through France to Spain.

After 20 years we meet the family again, in the US, near Falmouth, Mass. (Gardiner Road, Wood’s Hole which can be found on google maps!).   

Time:

Mawer gives very little detail on when events took place. However, much of the book is closely linked to real history and it is possible to pin down dates eg. Chamberlain’s 1938 speech. The family leave Mesto during the first half of 1939. The architect who designed the house visits them in Switzerland – it has to be late 1939 or 1940, inconsistent with a later reference to the fact that he apparently ‘fled to the United States in 1938’.

The only chapter with a date is ‘1990’, the last. This is when Marie Delmas, Marika, who was brought up by ‘sisters’ and lives in Paris, visited post-Soviet Czechoslovakia. Liesel tells us some dates when she is invited to Czechoslovakia and writes to Hana. The family became American citizens in 1948 and Viktor died 1958 in a boating accident.

Politics:

Politics underpin the whole book. The characters are caught in the ebb and flow of different powers during the first half of the 20th century, and beyond for those remaining in Czechoslovakia. Before the Second World War the women lived in a ‘protected world’ while the outside world ‘battled with recession and political unrest’. Oscar and Viktor talk about pogroms.

The new country, Czechoslovakia formed in 1918, contained a mixture of people, Czech and German in particular leading to tensions. Kata, from Hungary, was trapped in Slovakia and ran away with no papers to Vienna, which she was forced to leave when the Nazis invaded, so she became a refugee in Mesto. In the book there was an awareness, by some of the characters, of what was going on but irritating naivety by others about the reality of potential disaster.