family

Wanderlust - France In Autumn

Now I know I'm very lucky to have an Aunt who lives deep in the French countryside but I felt even luckier last autumn when son and I escaped for a few days in France during the half term.

And really, we couldn't have been more fortunate with the weather if we'd wished for it. Blue skies, autumnal sunshine and all manner of glorious colours and seasonal beauty awaited us.

Not far from Aunt's house is Le Bois du Tay, a wooded hill that always reminds me of something from a fairytale - a deserted hilltop chapel, mineral water springs, a pretty arboretum, twisting paths through the trees and even horses in unexpected clearings. We love wandering round because you really never know what you're going to find when you round the next corner.

Son loves it there too. Aunt's dog and he run and run through trees and up and down hills for hours. You know where they are simply by listening for the combination of excited barking and happy laughing.

At the end of Aunt's garden is a field full of cows. This soft-eyed creatures amble up to their fence when we appear in the garden and moo gently until we pay them some attention. When you walk up to them, they back away until one or two brave cows edge forward and push their noses into your hand, hoping for some kind of treat.

For some reason known only to the powers that be, the airline we fly with stop flying to Aunt's local airport at the end of October so we had to sail home. I admit that I loathe boats but the opportunity for this history-loving girl to call in at Pegasus Bridge before boarding the ferry made the ridiculously long journey home bearable.

With our batteries recharged after a few days of French living, we made it back home with smiles on our faces and a last touch of sun-warmth in our bones.

Do - On The Scarecrow Trail...

Whilst today is a pressing mass of grey cloud and rain, yesterday was really rather lovely and so we sallied forth under blue skies to the Sonning Scarecrow Trail. Sonning, for those of you that don't know it, is a picture postcard village on the banks of the Thames near Reading. It's just down the road from us and happily, every other year they hold a Scarecrow Trail where the whole village get a little bit silly and a little bit creative and gardens become full of papier mache figures while the roads fill with happy people wandering around, asking strangers if they've found scarecrow number twenty-seven or where the nearest tea stall is. It's all a bit lovely and a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon while the white clouds race overhead and the sun shines on...

 Mr Bump, 101 Dalmations, Warhorse & Quadrophenia...

Mr Bump, 101 Dalmations, Warhorse & Quadrophenia...

 Eeyore, Spiderman, an accident prone decorator and Kitchener - warlord & bell-ringer...

Eeyore, Spiderman, an accident prone decorator and Kitchener - warlord & bell-ringer...

 Wallace & Gromit, Tom & Jerry, The Great British Sewing Bee and a pensioner with road rage...

Wallace & Gromit, Tom & Jerry, The Great British Sewing Bee and a pensioner with road rage...

 Captain Mainwaring, Willy Wonka, Gru & Minions and some busy bees...

Captain Mainwaring, Willy Wonka, Gru & Minions and some busy bees...

 Del Boy & Rodney, Champagne Charlie, An ark in the bus stop and Strictly in the cricket pavilion...

Del Boy & Rodney, Champagne Charlie, An ark in the bus stop and Strictly in the cricket pavilion...

Celebrate - Easter

Unbelievably, the kids are finally about the return to school after what seems like almost a month off school. It seems like a month because, well, it has been a month. That's quite a long time and at the risk of sounding like a whining old woman, the juggling required to entertain kids, spend time with them and run your own business is not the easiest thing in the world. It feels like juggling vintage china whilst bouncing on a pogo-stick with no hands and joining in with a serious conference call all at the same time.

Anyway, that simile aside, now their attention is being diverted to the imminent arrival of summer term, I've actually got some time to blog again - hurrah. So, here's a little look at our Easter celebrations.

My Mum and Dad came round for Easter lunch and we feasted en famille. Of course, to me, celebrations offer the happy opportunity to craft with undeniable purpose so I got a little stylistically excited...

 As we've got a right mix of food allergies and intolerances among the kids here, it's hard to get things 'off the shelf' that they can all have. So, I packed individual egg boxes with a mix of things to suit the recipient - no-one could complain that their gift didn't look the same as someone else's and no-one looked like their were 'different'. Result.

As we've got a right mix of food allergies and intolerances among the kids here, it's hard to get things 'off the shelf' that they can all have. So, I packed individual egg boxes with a mix of things to suit the recipient - no-one could complain that their gift didn't look the same as someone else's and no-one looked like their were 'different'. Result.

 Stripy straws and bunny cups from  The Hambledon  - easter essentials

Stripy straws and bunny cups from The Hambledon - easter essentials

 And I didn't forget Mum & Dad either - their boxes looked slightly more 'grown up' though!

And I didn't forget Mum & Dad either - their boxes looked slightly more 'grown up' though!

 Mini-egg place settings - pile a handful in a cupcake case and popped on plates for lucky diners.

Mini-egg place settings - pile a handful in a cupcake case and popped on plates for lucky diners.

 A bit of Easter decoration - iconic spring flowers in a painted tin, painted egg-shells in an egg box, pretty pastel buttons scatter around and sparkling elderflower soda, bringing a hint of the summer to come. {the paints are  Farrow & Ball  'Lulworth Blue' and 'Nancy's Blushes'}

A bit of Easter decoration - iconic spring flowers in a painted tin, painted egg-shells in an egg box, pretty pastel buttons scatter around and sparkling elderflower soda, bringing a hint of the summer to come. {the paints are Farrow & Ball 'Lulworth Blue' and 'Nancy's Blushes'}


The Little Things - Camping Out

One of the things I really like about the long Easter holidays is the opportunity to do things that are a little bit out of the ordinary an I'm being reminded every day that it's not the expensive outings or the uber-planned excursions that seem to get the kids really excited. Oh no, it's the little things...

At the moment, in our house, son and step-daughter are totally obsessed with 'Swallows & Amazons'. They're listening to the audio-book, I'm reading it at bedtime and they're dreaming of a summer holiday in the Lake District where they can paddle about on the water, eating cake and avoiding the natives.

So, with this in mind, last night, they camped out.

 Even the hardiest of campers need a decent tent...

Even the hardiest of campers need a decent tent...

After putting the tent up themselves, they furnished it with sleeping bags, blankets, torches and those other essentials that make nights under canvas fun/bearable* (*delete as appropriate depending on your point of view here).

So, when bedtime came, they made their way out to the tent with much giggling and laughter. Warm socks, jumpers and pyjamas were visible as they crawled into their home-from-home and soon the light from their torches could bouncing around in the sides of the tent like a very small, very quiet rave.

Back inside, I was planning a little stealth raid of my own into enemy territory, under the cover of darkness, to deliver a little package to the adventurers...

 The midnight feast - an essential for campers everywhere...

The midnight feast - an essential for campers everywhere...

Juice and water, popcorn and biscuits, chocolate bars and sandwiches were all packed into a big bag and carried out to the campers along with hot water bottles and hot chocolate with marshmallows. A film was gifted to their iPad and the book that inspired it all, 'Swallows and Amazons' was tucked inside the bag and I crept down the garden to find them...

I was, however, totally let down by my comrade during the tent incursion - the dog galloped down the garden and launched herself into through the little gap left in the tent's door. Cue much more laughter as she tried to wiggle her way into the sleeping quarters.

So, as I say, it's the little things. The memory of two excited children peering into their midnight feast back, torches flashing in the dark to see what goodies have been delivered to them, smiling and laughing, is proof of that. It's also proof that the old childhood classics can still inspire and fire the imaginations of children now.

And it must have been fun because they're doing it again tonight...

Review - 'A Girl Called Jack'

As you might have gathered from the amount of food related content on this blog already, as you might have picked up from my comments about step-kids with food allergies and as I'm sure you can imagine - cooking for the five people in my house is not a simple or straightforward task. Most nights, we have the hectic rush to get food ready in that tiny window between the arrival home from school and the departure of people at various times to various evening activities. It's a juggling act for sure.

I guess we're slightly unusual in our house that we sit together pretty much every evening to eat together and the kitchen is definitely the hub of the house. I'm typing this now at the kitchen table and my step-daughter is sitting opposite me. I love that we do the family food thing but I am always on the look out for quick, healthy, relatively simple, child-friendly meals to cook on weeknights when time is short.

So, imagine my delight with 'A Girl Called Jack' from budget-conscious food blogger Jack Monroe. For those of you that don't know Jack's story, the short version is that whilst she was unemployed, she had a budget of just £10 a week to feed her and her son. Despite hitting rock bottom on a few occasions (one blog post recounting this is reprinted at the start of her book and it absolutely chilled me), Jack's recipes, full of 'value' range ingredients and bearing all the hallmarks of that particular type of ingenuity that is only born from having no other option, were posted on her blog and the snowball of interest started. Anyway, do read her blog, it's absolute genius.

Anyway, let's get on to the book itself...

 All the little page markers make me smile - so many recipes to try!

All the little page markers make me smile - so many recipes to try!

Firstly, for a great cookbook, £6.49 (today's price on Amazon - 5th April 2014) is a bargain. I have recently become very fed up with my monthly foodie mag and frankly, there are many many more recipes in here that I am likely to try than have caught my eye in any of this magazine's last five issues. So price - tick.

Another major plus is the short ingredient lists and the really great use of store-cupboard ingredients. And when I say store-cupboard, I mean the kind of stuff that everyone has in their house, not the kind of thing that food editors like to think that people have just laying around when they're trying to justify those ingredient lists that look more like a novella. I have been left with more jars of spices and herbs, more odd flavourings and more crazy ingredients than I care to mention after trying a recipe only to see the kids grimacing manfully as they struggle to eat something that hasn't properly rewarded me for the time I've spent cooking it. So practicality - tick.

The recipes themselves are very simple, a couple of short paragraphs of instruction at most and Jack provides little notes at the foot of each one to suggest alternative options and replacement ingredients. With that in mind, despite the fact the book cover says '100 recipes', with all these extra details, you're actually getting way more than that.

And it absolutely does what it says on the tin - these recipes are really budget conscious. We've been experimenting by 'Going Jack' when we shop and the food bill has taken a dramatic plunge, even without using value ingredients which would slash it even more. 

It'll come as no surprise I'm sure when I say I love this book and here are a few more reasons why...

  • the portion sizes are really generous and we've had leftovers from every recipe I've tried without skimping on the size of dinners. 
  • the leftovers have all, without exception so far, re-heated brilliantly.
  • the photography is great - the food looks deliciously real, not styled to the point of abstraction.
  • there's no need for hundreds of bits of equipment.
  • the actual cooking itself is simple so it's really easy for kids to follow the recipes too.
  • Jack is pretty flexible on the quantities of herbs and spices so it's easy to adjust things to suit the palates of your diners!
  • there's a great mix-and-match feel to the book with Jack suggesting side dishes to accompany main meals.
  • it feels real. It is the perfect antidote to those books that assume everyone has hours to spend shopping in chichi delis/preparing/cooking/cleaning/wafting around a dream kitchen in a silk kimono. I love cooking and I love food but I also have a life that needs living.
  • it's a perfect 'travel' cookbook - we took this book to The Hut and as you don't need loads of equipment/time/huge store of ingredients, it was excellent and we feasted royally the whole weekend.
  • it is a great family cookbook and my gang has tried things from this that I never thought they would.

As a little heads up, some of our favourites so far have been: peach & chickpea curry, mumma Jack's best ever chilli, lentil bolognese, sag aloo, roman pasta with mandarins, vegetable masala curry, spanish style chicken, mixed bean goulash and smoky red lentil burgers. And we've still got loads we all want to try - result!

Well played Jack. You've got this spot on.

The Day I Found My Family

"Excuse me, I think you're my Uncle Laurie's grand-daughter..."

When we booked our Dorset trip, I was hoping to find the time to visit somewhere that has been calling to me for years. Tucked almost at the tip of the Isle of Purbeck, within sight of Corfe Castle and the sea at Swanage, is Langton Matravers. It's a small and insignificant little Dorset village, like many others scattered along the coast and to most people, it's a blip on the journey from sea to scenery.

For me, its meaning is almost indescribable. My grandfather, my adored Grandad, was born in Langton Matravers, on a dairy farm to be precise. He left, became a pilot, flew throughout World War II, dropped paratroopers on D-Day, met my Gran who was nursing in India and returned to England via a three week boat trip down the Suez Canal in the late forties with the baby who became my Mum in tow. I love my Grandad - his medals hang above my desk, my son has his Grandad's name as his middle name and when I was looking to change my surname after my divorce, it was his name I chose.

So today was a pilgrimage of sorts. I wanted to see the church where he was christened and where my great-grandparents are buried. My great-uncle who also joined the RAF and was killed in action in World War II was returned to Langton Matravers after his death and his grave also sits in the cemetery. This was all I hoped for - a visit.

We found the church quite easily - it stands on the high street in the village, built of solid local stone. We wandered through the churchyard, unable to find the headstones I was searching for so we went into the church and there, by the door was a memorial.

 Richard Eastment, RAF, remembered.

Richard Eastment, RAF, remembered.

I felt incredibly content - my great-uncle was remembered, his sacrifice was recorded and as long as the church in Langton Matravers stands, he'll always be there.

At this point, we thought our journey was complete. We were walking down the steps from the churchyard, back to the car, looking at the headstones again, just in case we'd missed something, a inscription hidden over time, when a man's voice called out "Are you looking for someone in particular?" I explained my story, my family connection with Langton Matravers. "Oh yes," he said "I knew your Grandad."

My heart almost stopped beating - this man who just happened to see us knew my Grandad. A moment later or earlier, and this meeting wouldn't have happened. "Come with me," he said "we've got things in the museum about the family." We followed him to the little village museum and there was my family - photos of my great grandparents on their farm, photos of my grandad, of my great aunts and uncles and a book written by my great-aunt. This man, this amazing ninety year old man, told us stories of my family. He told us where my great-grandparents and my great uncle were buried - in the cemetery further along the high street.

We walked down the street, lifted the latch into the cemetery and there they were...

 Ernest and Amelia, my great-grandparents

Ernest and Amelia, my great-grandparents

 My great-uncle.

My great-uncle.

I wished I had taken something to leave on their graves, to show they hadn't been forgotten. I had nothing with me but I was thinking of them in that moment and had been for a long time. It was a good place to be for eternity - looking out toward the sea, surrounded by the village you knew so well.

 Langton Matravers cemetery

Langton Matravers cemetery

Outside the cemetery, I stood for a while, looking at the village map, trying to find my family's farm when I heard a voice, a warm voice, saying "Excuse me, I think you're my Uncle Laurie's grand-daughter." I turned around to see a woman, not unlike my Mum, smiling at me. My second cousin. My relative who I've never met, who I barely knew existed was there, right in front of me.

We hugged, we talked, we stood by the side on the road on the high street in Langton Matravers, clasping each other's hands with mistily moist eyes and we found each other. We kissed goodbye having made arrangements to meet again.

So, today I went to Langton Matravers, today I fulfilled a long cherished ambition to connect with my grandad and today I made a bit more sense of me, of where I came from and who I am.

So, today, I found my family. 

 Me. In Langton Matravers. After all this time.

Me. In Langton Matravers. After all this time.

 My second cousin and me. Do we look really rather shell-shocked at finding each other? We were.

My second cousin and me. Do we look really rather shell-shocked at finding each other? We were.