Saturday, 27 February 2010

Signs of Spring....

Our garden is waking up at last from the long, long Winter. Monday is March (already!) and I know for sure now that even if - or when - it gets cold, snowy & frosty....nothing will hold back the forces of Nature now showing everywhere...
little blue scilla flowers will soon be here...
my oregano is re-emerging.....
camellia buds ready to burst...
and the snowdrops are in their full majestic beauty in between the lavender twigs...

Also, we were given the most beautiful birdfeeder I've ever seen by Paul's daughter, Jess, and her husband. I put it up today...
Isn't it gorgeous? It's made by a Swedish company called Wildife Gardens and they make so many other wonderful bird & nature feeders and homes I can see myself having a spree! Our birds are still a little suspicious of it but will soon realise that house=tasty treats!
I hope you can just see Mr Greenfinch through the little heart hanging? He and his family are the most regular visitors to our feeders. Usually one eats while the others keep watch in the tree, then they all swap places!
I'll leave you with a last look at our new birdhouse, as seen from my kitchen window...
It'll soon be here! With my love and dreams of Spring xox

Friday, 26 February 2010

Some more Mozart's Girl...

I'm so thrilled & touched that my blog-friend Blair has passed this Kreativ Blogger award on to me! I find these awards quite difficult, as I always want to pass them on to people who already have them! So if I don't pass this one on to you, please be assured that it's not because I don't think you deserve it....just that I'm trying to spread the love around a bit in this beloved blog-world of ours! But my recipients are very special to me & I'm so glad to be able to recognise them in this way!

First, I have to reveal 7 things about myself that you probably don't know.....this actually kept me awake last night,as I was trying to think of suitable confidences that would also hopefully be interesting! It turned out to be 8! Here goes...

1. Although I've been to Austria (mainly Salzburg!) nearly 30 times, I'm very ashamed to say that I hardly speak any German at all - something I hope to correct this year! But I can speak quite good French, Spanish & Italian so I am not too bad a Citizen of Europe!

2. I have a totally irrational fear of men in monkey suits! I adore real primates, no trouble with them at all. But fake gorillas make me freak out & I even find it difficult to watch Planet of the Apes! I totally embarrassed myself once, while I was cheffing at my first restaurant job when a 'kissogram' gorilla decided it would be funny to take a detour through the kitchen! Let's just say that they had to remove the kitchen knives from my view!

3. I had a minor heart attack just over 3 years ago. I have an inherited heart disease (Familial Hypercholesterolaemia to be exact!) and my Dad had a much more serious coronary at 39 too (but he's now 73 & fine!) so it was always on the cards really. I look on it as a weird sort of blessing, as it made me take my health much more seriously & get myself checked regularly. I wouldn't recommend it though, as a wake up call!!

4. For over 12 years now, I've been a nude model for a life-drawing class. I was absolutely terrified the first time I walked out & dropped my gown! But when I realised that I was no more to the students than a curvy bowl of fruit, I lost the fear. It's still a bit bizarre if I think about it too much, but I really love doing it  and helping people create beautiful works of art!

5. I have been married before, very disastrously & very young! I don't regret it at all, because I wouldn't be where & who I am now without that experience. But I went through many dark times and it's made me feel even more lucky & grateful that Paul & I found each other. To paraphrase a line from one of my favourite movies 'Shadowlands' - "the pain then is part of the happiness now"

6. I cannot stand beer in any form, it is just disgusting to me. I mainly drink very dry white wine, but I enjoy a gin & tonic sometimes and I LOVE a good cocktail (not the creamy ones, yuck!) preferably an icy Margarita with a salty rim to the glass...I don't drink alcohol during the week though, except on holiday!

7. I - in common with my darling sister Esther - am seriously affected by good movies. So much so that I take some of my mannerisms from movie characters & even imagine I am them in certain circumstances! For instance, I always peel my oranges like Meryl Streep does in 'Falling in Love' & when I saw Atonement (the first time....) I was so upset by it that I couldn't bear anyone to talk to me for about 2 hours as I felt so raw! Paul & I adore 'Brief Encounter' too and often use quotes from it in our real life...he will often say 'have it your own way, old girl' when I'm sure I'm right about something, for example....weird? Probably - but I think that's what the movies were made for!

8. Not being able to have children (so far....but I'm 43 now so...) is the greatest tragedy of my life and I'll never really get over it I know. I have to grit my teeth when people I don't know assume I'm a career woman who didn't want them. I never,ever thought that I would be in this position. BUT - I love my life, I try never to live with regret or bitterness as I believe it eats away at you, and I am so lucky to have love in all it's forms around me. I am also able to do many things that having children would have made difficult - travelling, going out to dinner or a movie on a whim, no babysitter to arrange. And we have Alice and I am so blessed to have a niece and nephews who are as near to mine as anything can be, and sisters generous enough to share their children's lives with me in every way. But no one will ever call me Mummy, and I have to somehow come to terms with that.

So there you have it! More of me than you had before - I've tried to hit a balance between serious & light and hope I've succeeded!

And the recipients of my Kreativ Blogger Award are wonderful writers who cheer my day and make me think in a different way....always a good thing!

Ce from Half Sweet Half Salty
Morwenna from Bluebells & Butterflies
Silke from Metamorphosis
Marta from m.writes
Guillaume from Vraie Fiction
&
Jaz from October Farm

Have a wonderful & happy weekend everyone! xox

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Tiny Collections...

The beautiful & creative Dawn also known as Country Girl has encouraged her followers to display their tiny nature collections. A beautiful idea. Except of course that, despite the fact that I'm out walking with Alice every day, I keep forgetting to collect anything. I'm far too busy checking that she isn't rolling in something disgusting or keeping an eye on the Dartmoor ponies that roam the hill. And I always return cross with myself that I've yet again not picked anything up!

So today, inspired by her latest post, I offer you a tiny collection from our garden to enjoy....


Two views, because on the left of the bottom picture is the beautiful ghost of a hydrangea flower that I loved so much I had to show you....but it was a little large in comparison to the rest!
Our garden used to be farmland (our house was a farmhouse once, in the 1700's) and so we're forever finding wonderful fragments of what must once have been lovely plates & pots. I show you three little examples here, together with a glorious snowdrop, a winter jasmine blossom and - bane of my life in summer - a (thankfully empty) snailshell. The picture is a little unfocussed as you may just be able to see the little ladybird who decided to model for you too! She was hibernating in the hydrangea, and I've returned her safely outside. A pretty little addition I thought!
It set me thinking about other tiny collections around our home. I love to put objects together:

just because I like them!

I also have, for years and years, collected matchboxes & cards from all the restaurants and bars we've been to...

this is just one bowl of them, so I suppose it can't strictly be called a tiny collection at all! I love to look through them though, and remember wonderful meals and happy times.

And since we've had Alice, we've started a collection of Fox Terriers too

although the large one was inherited from Paul's parents, so we had him already. When Alice was a tiny puppy she was smaller than this, and was terrified of him...woofing at him most bravely and refusing to pass him where he stood in the corner! So we moved him to this shelf, and the others have slowly joined! They're quite hard to find, but so satisfying when we do!

I'd love to know about your collections too - tiny or otherwise!

With love to you this last Thursday in February.....x

Friday, 12 February 2010

A Story of Three Rings.....

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh no! It is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Times's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved....

As I cannot play you the music of Mozart that runs in my head (although if I could it would, today, be 'Dove Sono' from The Marriage of Figaro) I wanted to give you a gift for Valentine's Day from the Wolfgang of Words - the incomparable William Shakespeare. His Sonnet No. 116 is so wonderful that a lump comes to my throat whenever I think about it! And if I need further illustration of it's beauty, I watch the fragile & lovelorn Marianne Dashwood - so beautifully played by Kate Winslet - reciting it in the cold, driving rain while looking down the hillside at the house of her lost love Willoughby in Ang Lee's 'Sense & Sensibility'. Pure magic.
But I like to think that Valentines are not just for those we love romantically...I always send my niece and three young nephews a card each - handwriting suitably disguised, of course! And I remember the joy of receiving a card from my Grandfather each year (signed from 'Snowy', which was the colour of his hair!) and, once, my Dad. It made us feel so special and loved.
The rings above are the three that I always wear, come what may. As you can see, I'm a silver girl! The one on the left is engraved with the words 'Come back, come back to me' and was handmade by the wonderful Kathryn Riechert. My sister & I both wear the same one. The quote is from one of our favourite movies, Atonement, and it symbolises our love for each other & the fact we're apart in body but always together in spirit. The one on the right is engraved with my motto 'Carpe Diem' and was a birthday gift from one of my very best friends. Looking at it reminds me to try & live by it's sentiment and also brings her close to me each day. The middle one is my wedding ring - no further explanation necessary, but so so dear to me. I didn't have an engagement ring as we decided to get married only 3 weeks before the ceremony...so the little diamond stands for that too.

My very favourite rings may not be the most expensive or even the most beautiful that I possess. But they are the dearest to me. For they represent the three types of love that I want to always have close: marriage, family & friendship.

Wishing every one of you love and happiness this St Valentine's Day & always xox

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

On gardens & gravestones...

How I yearn for my Summer garden! Here it is last June.....

I can smell the lavender, feel the sun warming my winter-white skin & hear the blackbirds and the bees humming lazily.....
This, however, is what it actually look like now! Hard to believe that in 4 months time it will be a thing of such beauty again. Spurred on by the wonderful Sharon Lovejoy I did wrap up warmly, put on my old, faithful gardening gloves & prune all the rose bushes & clematis - so at least they now have room & energy to send up those vital green shoots that I crave so much!
As many of you already know, we live in a wonderful old church square - which means that the graveyard is, in effect, our front garden. It stopped being used in the late 1800's, so all the headstones are really old and interesting....
I'm still finding new ones to read after all these years! And because it's all largely left alone, there are wonderful wild flowers, yew, laburnum & lilac trees...all bending with age...clumps of snowdrops right now - and these sweet things...
tiny, vibrant aconites shining so brightly in a vast carpet under my favourite, ancient, twisted huge beech tree that stands in one corner. Their sunny faces cheered me as I photographed them this afternoon. It will come, the sun, the warmth, the beauty. It will come! xo

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Baked on Sunday

This morning I woke with a real humdinger of a cold...blocked nose, sore throat, scratchy eyes, the whole works. The thing I've always especially hated about colds is that they're so very common that there isn't really any excuse for getting into bed & pulling the covers over your head (which is all I yearn to do) You're expected just to dose up & get on with life!
So I took my paracetamol, ate a couple of hot, buttered crumpets with divine blueberry jam, drank a strong cup of hazelnut coffee and decided to bake something delicious.
One of my best customers is our local coffee shop. I've supplied them for nearly 6 years, and the lovely thing about them is that they don't exactly order from me - they just let me bring them whatever I feel like each morning. This is such a gift, because I get to try out recipes for my book on the general public & I can cook just what I want to according to the season & my mood!

And when I needed inspiration & comfort this morning, I turned to one of my books of the moment:

The wonderful Baked - New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito. A while ago, a very good friend sent me a set of baking cups - something I'd resisted for many years, being firmly entrenched in the British psyche of weights & scales. What a revelation! It's opened up a whole new world of baking to me & totally rejuvenated my repertoire...and it's so easy! It also helps that Australia uses the cup system too...so my sister can send & recommend books to me from there too - and Aussies DO baking like Americans do! The only problems I had to begin with were in translating sticks of butter. But I've worked out that 2 sticks are about 250g or 1 pack of butter...so using that (which seems to work fine) I've been able to cope!

For more recipes & words about the book, try the wonderful Marzipan 's blog!

I've tried most of the recipes now  all wonderful although I must admit that I sometimes 'play around' with the methods & ingredients as I've been doing it so long now. But it's a great source of inspiration!
And deliciousness - take this Malted Milk Chocolate Cake for instance:

one of my all-time favourites. The Salted Caramel Cake is just to die for too...irresistible..and the Red Velvet Cake with Cinnamon frosting

mmmm!
This morning, I needed to make some sort of bars though. I've taken the image below from Tracey's Culinary Adventures because mine are still in the fridge & not fit for photography just yet....I hope she won't mind, because they look fantastic & she has a great, fun blog too..

but I've made them before & they really DO turn out like this!

Peanut Butter Crispy Bars - makes 9 greedy portions!

For the crispy crust:
1 3/4 cups crisped rice cereal
1/4 cup sugar
3 tbsp light corn syrup (for those of us in the UK, you can get the Karo brand online or at Selfridges Food Hall - lasts for ages!)
3 tbsp melted unsalted butter

For the milk chocolate/peanut butter layer:
5 oz good quality milk chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup creamy peanut butter

For the chocolate topping:
3 oz dark chocolate - 60 to 72% cocoa solids, coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp light corn syrup
4 tbsps (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

Line an 8-inch square baking pan with non-stick baking paper. You can also use a glass or china dish for this as there's no baking involved - but GREASE it well!

Put the cereal in a large bowl. Pour 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan. Gently add the sugar & corn syrup & stir until just combined. Cook over a medium high heat & bring to a boil; cook until the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage, or reads 235F on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat, stir in the butter & pour over the cereal. Working quickly, stir until the cereal is thouroughly coated, then pour ionto the prepared pan. Press the mixture into the bottom of the pan - you can use your hands, as it will cool quickly. Leave to cool while you make the next layer.

In a large bowl, combine the chocolate & peanut butter. The book says, at this point, to set the bowl over a pan of simmering water & stir until the chocolate is melted & the mixture is smooth. You can do this of course...I used the microwave to save time & washing up, but melt in short bursts & don't stop watching it! Pour over cooled crust & put in the refrigerator for 1 hour to harden. I must admit that, gilding the lily as usual, I scattered over a generous handful of salted, roasted peanuts at this stage too - up to you! x

Again, for the topping, mix the ingredients together & melt using your preferred method until smooth. Pour over chilled peanut layer & return to the refrigerator to firm up. Cut into squares to serve. Devour!! Bars can be stored in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for up to 4 days (if they last that long!)

If you love peanuts & chocolate - or know someone who does - try them. Absolutely gorgeous!
Ok, now I'm off for a hot bath & a day of DVDs & cuddling on the sofa.
Find time to relax this Sunday....have a wonderful day xox



Saturday, 6 February 2010

Golden Boy

This post will probably only mean something to British readers so I apologise but....I've just watched England's victory over Wales in the 6 Nations Rugby, and I had to say something about the amazing Jonny Wilkinson. Now, I honestly don't fancy him - but there's something about him, his sportsmanship, his dedication...and the fact that his brilliant kick won us the Rugby World Cup in 2003....that just makes me melt whenever I see him & feel so damned proud to be English!! He's also lovely to look at!
Go Jonny! xox

Margaritas, mum & more!

I didn't mention that my dear Mum came with us to Salzburg. Dad can't bear the cold (he was born in the Southern Hemisphere & it still feels depressing to him!) so he stayed in the comparative warmth of home. But Mum, who loves Mozart very nearly as much as I do, loves the city & needed a break and she's great company. Here she is walking across the Mozart Bridge...it was so freezing that morning, and I think it shows in this picture!
One of my favourite 'special occasion' drinks is a Margarita....so I treated myself on our last evening. When my darling sister was still here, we lived together for a while and occasionally made up a pitcher of Margaritas to drink while we watched a favourite movie....usually 'The Full Monty' in those days! Happy memories.....x
This is the restaurant we ate in that last night (the bar was downstairs) . It's a gorgeous place with wonderful, contemporary food called Carpe Diem (which also happens to be my personal motto!) Highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Salzburg (& everyone should at least ONCE to my mind!)
One of the things I always order in Austria is Pumpkin Soup. The area of Styria is famed for it's healthy & delicious pumpkin seed oil, which is dark green & thick & so tasty. Thsi soup usually comes with a little drizzle of that nectar on top (this bowl did too but I'd stirred it in before I took the picture!) It's divine.....never tastes the same when I try & make it, but that makes it more special!
One of the things I love most about Europe is that, like the UK, it has such an ancient history. This restaurant for instance zum Eulenspiegel...the building dates from 1414 & it's been feeding people for over 100 years! It has a maze of little rooms, very dark & romantic and candlelit. Thick, thick walls & leaded windows that overlook the river on one side and Wolfie's house on the other. I like to think that he may have sat in his room and peeped in at the windows here.....and it's certainly possible with a place this age...

Having visited the city so often over the past 20 years, we've made many friends. One of them is the lovely Verena who owns a wonderful art deco jewellery shop (no website but it's called Deco Art if you're ever visiting!) We've known her for several years and she's great company. This time she invited us to her beautiful house, just outside the old town for the traditional Austrian kaffeejause. This is a little like English afternoon tea....but continental style. So there's a glass of prosecco to start, and then you sit at a table beautifully laid with a lace cloth & linen napkins...fine, bone china cups & saucers....polished antique silver teaspoons & knives...a huge plate of Austrian pastries (krapfen which are like jam-filled doughnuts, hazelnut linzertorte, dobosztorte...absolutely mouthwatering!) and little glasses of cold,cold water. Then you drink gorgeous coffee, EAT!! & talk over the day & life in general. I could certainly get used to kaffeejause....oh yes!
So that evening, to say thank you, we took her out to dinner. That's her on the left of the picture, my mum is beside me. Making friends in a country you love adds an extra dimension, makes you feel a part of it somehow and not just a tourist. And extra friends, as I've learnt through this blogging experience, are always wonderful and always welcome!
Enjoy your weekend, everyone. And thanks so much for visiting and leaving such heart warming comments. xoxo

Monday, 1 February 2010

Dog Days

Forgive me for yet another post about the dogs, but thy are such a part of my everyday life that I have to include them! As you can see, China has made herself quite at home....! I've put her bed by the heat as she's a big dog & feels the cold. She has no inhibitions when it comes to stretching out and being comfortable, I'm pleased to say!
and this is a typical view from my evening vantage point..
After supper, China loves to lie down & have a good chew. And in true 'dog in the manger' style, whatever delicacy I have given Alice for her treat the grass is always greener on China's side of the fence!! Luckily, they're both good natured and nothing goes further than a bit of yearning on Alice's part....like any only child, she has to learn to share!
And when she gets tired of that....tired of everything, she loves to doze sitting upright, which always makes us laugh. then she is in position to move quickly if anything really interesting happens. Bless her.
I'll leave you for today with a picture I took an hour ago. The snowdrops are almost fully out in the churchyard that is our front garden. Spring is around the corner for sure!

Happy February everybody xox