Thursday, 31 October 2013

The best hallowe'en song ... ever!

Happy Hallowe'en!

If everything has gone according to plan and that big storm the Met Office was forecasting didn't get in our way, we should be docking in Bilbao right about now. Tesco Mobile may also be in the process of changing my tariff - they'd better be - so I won't have internet access again until tomorrow but have blogged this special festive post in advance. 

I hope you all have a fantastic evening, especially Michelle who has put so much effort into her fantastic costume. Sorry I'm not there to see the final ensemble!

Please raise a glass to the start of our big adventure and enjoy Are You Happy Now by Richard Shindell, my favourite songwriter and the best Hallowe'en song in the world, ever ...

Monday, 28 October 2013

Jambalaya recipe

Today's the last evening before our departure and I'm catching up on things I meant to do but haven't quite gotten around to - one of which is posting this recipe. We spent a few hours earlier stowing away as much as we can in Bailey. It was surprisingly straightforward and we do have some space left, although there's only grams remaining on the weight allowance. (Note to BeValued staff: there's not enough room for stowaways!) So I've got time this evening for a bit of blogging.

This jambalaya recipe is my interpretation of a recipe card from Waitrose and Tilda Rice. Dave says it's a waste of prawns because they don't add much to the flavour but I think the seafood and meat combination is essential. We agree to disagree. It's not essential to sing the Jambalaya song as you cook, but I usually do. I've put a YouTube of Hank Williams singing it at the end of this post in case your memory needs refreshing!

Ingredients (serves 2):
as much rice as you usually serve yourselves
pinch of turmeric
chicken stock
olive oil
2-3 shallots or a small onion, finely chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
offcuts of chorizo (about 60g), chopped
1 tbsp Schwartz Cajun Spice blend
2 tomatoes, chopped
100g large prawns
fresh chopped parsley

Add the turmeric to the rice and boil in the chicken stock until the rice is cooked. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and cook the shallots/onion, pepper and chorizo until the onion has softened. Stir in the spice mix, tomatoes and prawns and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the pre-cooked rice and continue to fry until all the ingredients are cooked through and piping hot. This should only take another 2-3 minutes but double-check the prawns. Stir in the parsley and serve immediately.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Two new 75 word paragraphs

random photo of a dead tree seen during a walk
this summer, probably not relevant to the post
unless you see a hidden meaning! 
Did you read my Paragraph Planet post in July? I'm planning to do a lot more writing during our travels and the discipline of this kind of literary exercise is great for honing skills. I've been reading +M. A. Barr on Google+ recently. He has set himself the task of completing a 100 word piece of writing every day and I am finding the project fascinating from a reader's point of view as well. I remember Eastbourne poet Laura Crean undertook a similar writing marathon back in the Spring when she wrote a poem a day for National Poetry Month. I'm not so ambitious, yet, but have composed these two 75 word pieces over the last few days. 

This first is an autumnal paragraph and was inspired by being left high and anything but dry during yesterday's early morning downpour.

Is it always the way that the first raindrops fall near to the bus stop, my dry house with its umbrella left several minutes behind? The next stop along has a shelter. My bus may arrive any time. Do I race through the downpour, risk being stranded between signs. Do I wait, slowly soaking through. Is it always the way that the bus is cancelled when the rain is heaviest, the decision hardest to take?

I have tried to make the second more like poetry in style although it's subject matter, a simple noticeboard, is pretty unpoetic. Thanks to Nathalie for the pomander inspiration!

The wall is boldly orange, garish, brash, attention grabbing;
pomander studded with rusted drawing pin cloves;
advertisements, announcements, promises;
many losses, nothing found;
a horizontal heap of curling corners, ripped and worn;
notice me, I’m unbelievable value, notice me, I’m cheap;
maniacally grinning stick men; gaudy colours, competing fonts;
lose lbs and pounds, play a game, join a class, meet new friends right here;
you alone can save the world for just £3 a month.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Irises in a coffee pot

Our friends, Kim and Chris, gave us a lovely bunch of irises yesterday which are just beginning to bloom. I was already using my favourite Dorothy Hafner vase  for a few of our anniversary stems that had dried, so needed to look around for a substitute. 

I enjoy seeing flowers in unexpected containers and so chose this coffee pot for the irises. It's Royal Worcester and is just plain white. The design name and age are unknown. Mum gave it to me a few years ago when I moved in with Dave and I think it might originally have belonged to my great aunt, Ada. It has a little flattened dome lid and I love its simplicity and elegant lines.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Not long now

Dave and Bailey at Orchard Farm
I’m having trouble believing that in two weeks’ time we’ll really be setting out on our Big Adventure!

At last!

In fact, we’ll already be on our way having parked up nearer Portsmouth overnight Tuesday to hopefully prevent any last minute rushing for the ferry. We think we’ll go back to the Bosham campsite we stayed at for our Anniversary, Orchard Farm. Every possible thing will be packed in to Bailey and the car, I’ll have checked our passports at least half a dozen times and I’m pretty sure neither of us will be sleeping too much for nerves. Let’s hope that overtiredness doesn’t lead to bickering before we even set sail! Dave’s already volunteered to be the one to drive onto the boat. He found a YouTube video and actually it doesn’t look too awkward. I’m sure the crew are used to jittery caravanners, but I’m sure I’d be so concerned about not delaying everyone else that I’d panic and make a hash of it (thereby delaying everyone even more). I’ll do the return voyage - I’ll be an old hand by Spring.

A Google+ acquaintance was the most recent to post a photo of his car and caravan just before he set off to Europe a few days ago. I’m starting to get a sense of being part of a bigger movement, this mass exodus to the sun, even though, in the best British tradition, our plan is to avoid as many of our countryfolk as possible and ‘discover’ somewhere new. We will, of course, conveniently ignore that the Spanish/Portuguese have already done the discovering!

We’re in a strange kind of limbo state at the moment. We’ve done all the ‘in advance’ chores and are now waiting for enough time to pass that we can launch into the last-minute things too. There’s no point me packing up the kitchen stuff when we’ve still got a fortnight’s meals to cook! It’s so frustrating though because we just want to get on with it. Dave, in particular, is starting to roam aimlessly about the house. He says he doesn’t want to get into anything that he’d have to leave part-finished which I quite understand. I’m blogging as far ahead as I can for Theatrical Eastbourne to keep its posts trickling through during the Winter. I don’t want to have to start building all the visitors again from scratch next year.

Only 7 full working days left!
I must cancel my dentist appointment.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Cauliflower and lentil soup recipe

A real end-of-the week recipe this one as we had half a cauliflower to use up which I paired with the end of a pack of lentils. This was our Saturday lunch yesterday, served with slices of hot buttered toast. The lentils make quite a thick soup that's perfect comfort food for chillier autumnal days.

olive oil
6 shallots
1 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp dried oregano
half a cauliflower
60g puy lentils
1 pint chicken stock
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the shallots, roughly chopped. Add the herbs and fry until the shallots have softened and are beginning to brown. Meanwhile cut the cauliflower into small florets and rinse the lentils. Add both and stir to coat with oil before adding the stock. Cover the pan and simmer until the lentils are soft. Set aside to cool and then blend until smooth. Reheat until the soup is just starting to bubble. Season to taste and serve.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Old Man and The Gauntlet, a fairytale written by me

photo by Dave Greene 
I was inspired to write this fairytale while we were on holiday in Iceland last autumn. We were visiting the Thingvellir National Park which has been home to Iceland's open-air Parliaments for centuries. (This link goes to +Wikipedia if you'd like to learn more.) As well as the political history, the site is also the only place on Earth above the sea where tectonic plates meet - the North American and Eurasian plates - which we were both excited to see. There is this imposing cliff, huge fissures and crevasses, waterfalls and the river, and we had the place almost to ourselves. It was bitterly cold and the white on the rocks in this first photo really is frost. Check out the blue sky though!

Returning to the fairytale, I have started several versions in the past twelve months but none were quite right until now. I'm happy with this version and believe it's time to stop editing and put the story 'out there'. Big thanks to Dave for the gorgeous photographs.

I hope you all enjoy reading my tale of The Old Man and The Gauntlet ...

Tiny purple heather flowers huddle together low to the ground, clustering around the bases of dry bleached stems which spear upwards, white as old bones. Dark leafed shrubs lean over at crazy angles. They have all been trained into similar silhouettes by constant winds, their branches reaching for the setting sun. A sheer rock cliff rises imposingly maybe half a mile away and continues further than sight both to right and left. Its few threads of tumbling water appear stationary with no clue as to the force pushing them on. The wide valley is surprisingly silent. A lone bee absent-mindedly hums to itself as it potters from flower to flower, but there are no engines, no conversations, no birdsong. The summer is over and, although the sun is still warm at noon, shallow streams and pools freeze to their banks at night. The waterfalls will soon freeze too, their spray already treacherously frosting any rocks close by.
An old man skips across hassocks. Tall and slender, he nimbly leaps each crevasse that waits to trip him, knowing instinctively where his feet will land safely. There is joy in his dance as he descends from the road towards the river. He has come to this ancient place almost every year of his life, as a child and as a young man, with his own children and after they had moved away. He has seen the place packed out with thousands of people and he has been here alone. He is nearly alone today. A tourist couple are wandering on the other side of the river and, at the base of the cliff, a woman is packing away a camera with a ridiculously oversized lens. The old man cannot see anyone else. The woman will soon leave but he thinks that the tourists will stay a while longer. They are only half way to the Parliamentary Stage, avidly reading every informative placard and pointing out sites to each other. To the old man they are a vintage silent movie. He cannot hear their words but can tell the gist from the direction of their gloved fingers. He judges that they have around four hundred years left.
A flash crossing the path ahead catches the old man’s attention and he cautiously steps closer, softly crunching small gravel chips. His watery brown eyes flicker and dart until they spot his prey. A solitary ptarmigan stares out from beneath a shrub. Oblivious to its already whitened plumage, it believes itself invisible, perfectly camouflaged and therefore safe from the human towering above. While it does not move, it cannot possibly be seen. The old man is amused and copies the bird. Both remain absolutely still for several minutes. Eventually the ptarmigan decides that danger has passed and struts away confidently into shadowy undergrowth, its white tail as obvious as a flag.
photo by Dave Greene 
Chuckling to himself, the old man selects a patch of coarse grey grass and settles down to wait. He eases worn rucksack straps over bony shoulders and fumbles with a rusted clasp. The bag is not much younger than its owner and is faded and patched. He extracts a garish plastic lunchbox, outgrown by his daughter, and pops its lid to reveal an apple, a slab of pale cheese and several sweet biscuits. He will have the cheese now and save the biscuits. The apple is bruised and wrinkled. It won’t be eaten today, but will soon be discarded and replaced with a fresher one, the doctor’s advice to have more fruit being wilfully misinterpreted. Then the old man snoozes until he is sure the place is deserted. It is wise to be discreet. By dawn, he will have more money than he could hope to spend in his lifetime. He will fly south like a bird and never be miserably cold again.
Awoken by a barking fox, the old man huddles into his parka. The night is perfect. A bright moon shines strongly from clear skies. Millions of stars are breathtakingly beautiful and the old man lies gazing up into them, hypnotised, until dull pains in his back become too insistent to ignore. Rubbing his joints to ease their stiffness, he pulls himself to his feet and retrieves his rucksack. His cropped grey hair reflects glints of moonlight as he walks silently beside the path making his way towards a stone bridge over a deep dark pool. Sited at the entrance, between the car park and a rebuilt white church, the pool is a dead-end offshoot of the river that snakes away from the cliff. Already stately as it flows past, no movement at all can be discerned under the bridge. English visitors do not think to play Poohsticks here. But everyone must cross the bridge and most cast a coin into the water, a traditional splash for good luck.
The pool is perhaps ten feet wide. Perfectly clear and delicious, its glacial water is dangerously deceptive. Jagged rocks many feet below the surface appear only inches away. Glittering treasure cries out to be snatched but childhood experience taught the old man respect for this optical illusion. He still clearly remembers a sudden toppling, ice clamping his lungs and his mother’s desperate shrieks. He still feels the same overwhelming desire. The wealth here is more than anyone could carry but only the oldest, deepest coins are his prize. They must be incredibly valuable. No one cares if he stoops to grab a discarded krone from a busy Reykjavik pavement. Is this remote wishing pool any different?
Previous night visits with long and longer handled nets had been virtually fruitless. He had retrieved pocket money precariously balanced near the banks, but the deep rich well remained untapped. Unguarded by dogs or alarms, the pool is safer than a vault. The old man needed a new idea. Setting his mind to invention had resulted in hours of reading and days of deep thought. False starts and failed experiments littered his home and the old man had almost abandoned hope before the answer finally fell at his feet, a slim Victorian book of electricity and magnetism tumbling from a dusty bookshop shelf. For its author, the then new power was exciting and limitless. Anything could be achieved! The old man believed every word and eagerly set to work. He bought fine leather and cut it into curved shapes. He twisted shiny copper wire into coils. He sewed and hammered, riveted and soldered, and finally his creation was a reality – a thick leather gauntlet, as long as his arm from fingertip to shoulder, lined with soft wool and supporting a magnificent array of buckles and coils. Thick wires led away to a squat black cube, the store of power with which the old man would work his magic. The gauntlet was perfectly moulded to his arm and even jointed at the elbow, although not the wrist. Double-stitched straps secured it across his shoulders and he was confident that it could not fall off.
By the pool, the old man loops a blue rope around his ankles and ties it off around a slim tree. ‘Safety first’ he thinks, parroting his daughter. He kneels on the bank and cautiously leans forward, balancing himself and taking deep calming breaths. Braced and secure, the old man reaches to the black cube and flips a switch. Every nerve tingles with anticipation as he gazes into the dark pool. He leans further and the gauntlet breaks the surface of the water. Now his whole hand is submerged, now his wrist, now his forearm. The limb appears gruesomely distorted at the water line. Are the wire coils shining in the moonlight or glowing with electricity? The old man cannot tell. The coins remain still. The old man reaches back and twists a dial. The black cube begins faintly to hum. He returns his intent stare to the pool, placing the gauntlet a little further in, a little further. Then it happens. He sees coins jump! Just briefly. Twitch and settle. The gauntlet works!
Amazed at success, the old man starts back. He uncurls his stiffening spine and heaves the gauntlet from the water. His heart is racing and his eyes sparkle like a child’s. Giggling impulsively, he rocks himself on his heels and gleefully hugs his chest with his bare left arm. The gauntlet really works! Unable to wait any longer, he twists the dial up to 'eleven'. The hum rises to a protesting whine. Returning to the pool, he thrusts his arm downwards. Ripples career across the surface to upset low-lying plants on the farthest bank. Coins flash, silver and gold. The old man stretches but cannot reach far enough. He jerks his body, now lying flat instead of kneeling, but his long arm is still not long enough. He wriggles forward. First his head overhangs the pool, then his shoulders, then his chest. Then disaster. With a sickening lurch, the old man feels the bank crumbling beneath his waist. His arm is too heavy to pull back. The gauntlet drags him forwards and he plunges headfirst into the pool. Thick wires drag the cube in too, doubling the weight on the old man’s arm. He screams in silence, ice water filling his lungs, his eyes bulging in panic. Strung tightly between the gauntlet and his roped ankles, he scrabbles with freezing fingers. He cannot unbuckle the gauntlet. The slim tree is bent almost double as the taut rope quivers.
photo by Dave Greene 
The young tree is strong and it holds firm against the strain. The rope is weaker. It snaps. As the tree is flung back and frayed rope slashes through the air, the old man has no choice. He dives, flying like Superman, but thrashing his legs and churning the water to froth. Dislodged coins dart alongside him, leaping and tumbling. He crashes to the bottom of the pool amidst a tumult of silver and gold, and lies perfectly still, unaware of having reached his goal. The water calms and the coins slowly sink. They land all over the old man, a blanket of treasure that gently and completely obscures his body. If anyone looked, they might discern his shape but would believe it to be a trick of the light, a coincidence of nature. By morning, the only signs of anything untoward are a frayed blue rope around a tree and a discarded old rucksack. No one comes to discover them. Inside its lunchbox, the apple rots.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

I've made a new book-related discovery

or actually maybe not so new. I think I remember finding BookCrossing a few years ago but didn't really get into it. However, the site was recommended to me on Google+ recently and having checked it out again, I signed up. You might have noticed the widget that appeared on the side of this blog?

The idea of BookCrossing is to create a kind of World Library. People recycle books they have read by sending them out into the world and tracking their progress. Sounds a bit whimsical but it's a fun idea and a potential source of free reads. As readers finish a book, they can register it on the website, assign it a unique code and start its travel journal. The book is then labelled with this code and left 'lying around' in a public place for other readers to find. The finder can log onto BookCrossing to add their own journal entry before reading the book and then setting it 'free' to find its next reader. So far I've 'released' two books 'in the wild' - Chinese Cinderella in Hampden Park and The Midnight Palace in Willingdon - and have a third, The Sea, on its way to Hampshire. I haven't 'caught' any books yet but it's early days and there are several BookCrossers registered around the Eastbourne area so plenty of potential. Books have recently been released in Western Parade and near the Seven Sisters Country Park.

The BookCrossing team is based in Idaho but the site is popular across Europe and I'm hoping to be able to catch some titles while we're away. Germany has the most BookCrossers in Europe but there are participants in Spain and Portugal too. Campsites usually have bookswap shelves too and our Kindle is loaded so there should be enough to keep me going - fingers crossed!

Monday, 7 October 2013

Grape Sauce recipe

The grape vine in our garden went mad this year and produced so many grapes that there was no way we were ever going to be able to eat them all straight off the plant. I searched around for some good recipes but, surprisingly, there weren't many that appealed. Wine-making is far too much faff. Hmmm.

Then I stumbled across this Concord Grape Tart recipe on a website called Splendid Table. The instructions looked weird as I didn't think I'd actually want the skins in the filling. They have a bitter taste even when the grapes are very ripe. So I changed the recipe to make the filling in the way I would have made crab apple jelly, had any crab apples grown this year.


2.5 lb grapes
grated zest and juice of half a lemon
5 tbsp caster sugar

I put the grapes into a saucepan and cooked them until they had all softened and burst. This took about ten minutes. I put the result through a fine sieve and added the lemon zest and juice. I then boiled the grape liquid and added about 5tbsp of caster sugar. There was a lot of liquid from the grapes. I wasn't expecting them to be so juicy! I misjudged this stage because I hoped the grapes would set as they cooled. They didn't so I poured the liquid back into the pan and boiled it again for a good twenty minutes. This time it started to set ... however having made the pastry in the same way as for the Pear Tart, rolled it out and poured in the grape filling, everything went wrong!

The oven was set to 200C and I baked the tart for 20 minutes. By this point, the grapes were boiling (again) and the pastry was getting very dark. I took the tart out of the oven and left it to cool but, an hour later, the filling was still liquid. Grrr. 

The coated pastry was quite tasty - waste not, want not. And we put the filling into the fridge with a plan of changing its purpose to a fruit sauce. Today we bought a block of vanilla ice cream from +Sainsbury's.  I didn't know that it was still possible to buy blocks, wrapped in card instead of tubbed in plastic , so that brought back childhood memories. And the combination of ice cream topped with tangy grape sauce is delicious! 

Saturday, 5 October 2013

After a week in which I was too busy to blog

and also extremely overtired after our unexpectedly late return from Porto, I'm catching up by having a lazy Saturday afternoon. I meant to do loads of things today but fortunately there's always tomorrow. I'd have more energy if I hadn't gone out every night this week, but then I'd have missed some amazing theatre and music performances so I'm glad I persevered. Dave's knackered too - he's snoozing in his chair as I type although I know he'll adamantly argue he was awake all the time!

First up was Tuesday's The Private Ear and The Public Eye at the Devonshire Park. Of the two, I thought The Public Eye was the stronger play and the fantastic scene change in between was almost worth the ticket price alone. The plays are funny and quirky and Original Theatre have done a great job. The last Eastbourne performance is tonight - in just a couple of hours if I get this post published quickly enough - and I hope their final audience will be able to hear over the fireworks of the Bonfire Procession.

Sound issues unfortunately masked the end of Everything Between Us at the Little Theatre on Thursday. The electricity created by the play combined with the static in the air from a thunderstorm passing overhead proved to be just too much for the theatre's hardware! I met up with +Kerry Potter which we've done for a couple of Green Room plays now so we caught up with what each other has been up to recently before settling in to be entertained. Everything Between Us is a powerful drama of two estranged Belfast sisters. I love that Green Room choose challenging works to perform and am disappointed that I will miss their next - David Harrower's A Slow Air which will be at The Under Ground Theatre at the end of November.

I've just realised sound is to blame again for issues at the Chiddingly Festival Talking Heads production that was held at the Six Bells pub on Wednesday and starred Jo Castleton and Ian Jervis. Dave had difficulty hearing the monologues due to practically all the seats being restricted view and the actors sitting for most of the time. I got lucky, although I was just in the next seat along, and could hear ok. I hadn't seen any of the Talking Heads live before, only a few on TV, and the cosy pub setting suited the plays perfectly. Perhaps just with the addition of microphones next year?

The week went out with a bang last night, or rather the many bangs of amazing drummer Winston Clifford together with saxophonist Tony Kofi and Hammond organ player Anders Olinder. Together they are the Future Passed trio and this is seriously good jazz. Usually the chairs at the Chiddingly Festival are the worst part of any event, but I was so caught up in the rhythms and melodies that I hardly noticed my numb bum. Praise indeed! It was good to catch up with +Tim Church and Linda Bailey too.

So now it's Saturday evening and I'm glad that the people who were supposed to be coming to dinner have put us off until next week! We'll be much better company then anyway!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Pear and almond tart recipe

Having baked little Blackberry bakewell tarts intending to use up blackberries in our garden, I was left with a redundant part-bag of ground almonds. Not to worry, I thought, something will soon come along to suggest itself and what did was a windfall pear! Pear goes beautifully with almonds, even the very unripe pears that our tree always produces.

For the pastry:
4oz plain flour
2oz butter
2 tbsp cold water

For the frangipane:
100g butter
100g caster sugar
1 large egg
50g ground almonds
50g and 1 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp almond liqueur

For the topping:
2 pears

I started by peeling and coring the pears and sliced each one lengthways into 8 segments. I then put these into a saucepan of barely simmering water for about half an hour until they were softened but not slushy. They kept their nice pale colour and ended up pretty much like you'd get with tinned pears. I ran them under cold water and popped them in the fridge until needed.

Next the pastry. I wanted one large tart this time so made only half the quantity I had for the blackberry bakewells. (It was still too much and 3oz flour with 1.5oz butter would have done.) I cubed the butter and rubbed it into the flour until the mixture resembled breadcrumbs. Then I mixed in the water with a knife, clingfilmed the dough and put it into the fridge too.

The oven went on at 180c because it's a fan (200c/Gas 6 otherwise). Then I beat all the frangipane ingredients together in my lovely +Mason Cash mixing bowl. I hadn't thought of it before but this is something else that I might miss. I realised with a jolt of dismay that there was only 50g of almonds left, not another 100g of almonds as I had previously used. I made up the difference in weight with extra flour and added a (slightly) larger tbsp of almond liqueur to compensate the flavour.

Retrieving the pastry from the fridge, I rolled it out thinly to line an 8 inch pie dish. The dish has holes in the bottom to aid pastry crisping so I didn't bother with blind baking. Then I spooned and smoothed the frangipane into the pastry case and arranged the pears on top. I baked the tart for 35 mins nearer the top of the oven and it turned out beautifully! Again, it tasted much almondier when cold than when hot.