Friday 21 August 2020

Shopping Small

Hello, thank you for calling in, it's good to be here.  The weather here has been so unpredictable this week, it's extraordinary.  On Tuesday morning I was sitting in the sunshine counting the butterflies on the buddleia (11 small tortoiseshells, two red admirals, two small whites, a peacock and a comma) and in the afternoon I was trapped in the summerhouse as it rained cats and dogs.  Yesterday was warm, sunny and breezy, a perfect drying day, and today we woke up to pouring rain and a wind so strong that I had trouble opening the door!  I hope you are all safe and dry.

When lockdown began The Teacher decided that as she was saving money on petrol and her children's usual activities, she would spend some of those savings supporting small, independent businesses.  She has bought shoes from two independent children's shoe shops, a t-shirt for Tom Kitten from a local seamstress who makes children's clothes, books from an independent bookshop, a small keg of beer from a pub which is owned by a local brewery and online baby and toddler music classes.  She has asked me to tell you that she spent more on some things than she ordinarily would, £19 for the t-shirt and £46 for a very small pair of sandals, but felt that she could because she and her husband are both in secure employment and she was saving money on petrol and nursery fees.

I love her for this, for her compassion and willingness to look beyond the needs of her own little family and think about other people whose incomes had been hit hard by the pandemic, and so I decided that I would buy from small, local businesses where I could, too.  My first attempt at this was at Easter when I saw that a bed and breakfast business which had been closed by the pandemic was offering to deliver Easter cream teas.  I contacted them and the friendly owner said that she would deliver to my area and the Easter tea would comprise homemade jam, cream and scone with a strawberry tart, with napkins and tea bags, all dressed prettily.  The price was £8 per person and although I would never normally do this, I ordered our tea for Holy Saturday.  The Best Beloved loves a cream tea (actually, he just loves cream) and I wanted to surprise him with a treat.  Come the day, I hovered near the front door just before 2pm, the appointed time.

I had to hover for more than an hour before our tea arrived and this is what the owner handed to me.

There were no strawberry tarts, no pretty napkins, no tea bags.  I asked if there was something else and the owner looked at me quizzically and said, "What?"  I replied that she had said there would be cake or strawberry tarts and she said, "Oh, I gave that to somebody else."  She said that she would go home and get me something else and as she went through the gate she called back, "Eat that today and I'll come back tomorrow."  I had been expecting a special treat and I felt really let down, especially when I opened up the package and found these scones, which were not large, in fact one was decidedly small and overcooked, the one the baker would usually eat herself because she wouldn't serve it.  

The following day, Easter Day, she redeemed herself slightly when she brought us this, especially as the cream was clotted, the Best Beloved's favourite, rather than whipped as we had received the previous day.  I put a £1 coin in the box to give some scale.  Those tiny cakes really were tiny, one or two mouthfuls each and although the meringue was delicious, the other was only a piece of vanilla sponge with cream piped on top.

I still thought it was poor value for £16.  I see that her standard cream tea is now £5.50 per person and includes two scones rather than one, but we shan't be troubling her again.  She didn't even apologise.

My May efforts at supporting local businesses were more successful.  I discovered that the owner of a nearby yarn shop was offering free delivery so I rang her, paid over the 'phone with my card and the wool was on my doorstep the following morning, safely wrapped in plastic.  I was delighted.  There is a little cafe in the park which had to close but they opened up one Friday evening in May to sell burgers and even though a burger wouldn't be my first choice, we ordered in advance and collected them because their food is always good quality - and because we wanted to give them some income.  This time we definitely weren't disappointed.  

In June, I ordered some cards from a local artist and printmaker.  They are so beautiful that I don't really want to send them to anyone so I ordered two sets so that I could keep some for myself!  When I wanted summer plants for the garden we avoided the big garden centres and went to a small independent nursery.  I was nervous about that because I hadn't been in any retail establishment for three months but it was well-organised and I felt safe.  We also bought some beer direct from a small local brewery which is still in our cellar as we are saving it for a special event at the end of this month, but I really don't know how I have kept it out of the Best Beloved's clutches all this time and he's already thinking of buying some more.

In July I bought some potions from a friend who is a Body Shop At Home consultant.  I've used some Body Shop products since the 1980s and I was thrilled when my friend started her business as the products are cheaper than they are in the shops, I don't have to make the trip to the horrible shopping centre as she delivers it to my door and she can make some income from it.  I also ordered a canvas from a young artist and designer, a girl who I have known since she was four years old, who turned one of the Best Beloved's photographs into a painting.

Have you seen that sign which does the rounds on social media which says that if you buy from a small business, an actual person does a happy dance?  I like to think that I have made a few people dance over the last few months, although I know that at least two of the businesses which my daughter and I have supported have now folded.  I appreciate that we need the big corporations too but I don't want to shop in a retail park or high street where there are only branches of large chains, where everything follows the trend and looks the same, where everyone drinks fancy coffee and nobody serves decent tea.  Our household income isn't large but I can make choices, I buy my groceries in one of the large supermarkets but I can choose a free range chicken and make it last for three meals rather than a battery broiler and I can buy cards and bookmarks from an individual who loves her products and cares about her customers enough to wrap their purchases in tissue and ribbon before posting them out.  That picture at the top is how Tom Kitten's new shoes were delivered to his house, complete with a free activity book, the day after his mother ordered them through Facebook.

I was very disappointed by those scones but the experience hasn't deterred me from buying from other independent businesses and I plan to keep on making people dance where I can.

See you soon.

Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Monday 17 August 2020

The Roasting Tin and The Green Roasting Tin

Hello!  Thank you for popping in, I hope all is well.  We are very soggy here following some spectacular storms last week and a deluge of rain, my pelargoniums are really unhappy about it and indicating their displeasure but, unlike them, we are keeping our chins firmly up, despite having to sweep water out of the kitchen and being unable to open the front door because the wood has swollen.

In January a number of bloggers raved about a recipe book called The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer and as it was on offer at £4 in The Works online store at the time, I bought a copy because I liked the idea of hastily chucking some food into a dish, shoving it into the oven and bringing out a delicious meal a little later on.  For the same price I also bought a copy of its companion, The Green Roasting Tin, because I am gently steering us towards a more vegetarian diet and, let's face it, at £4 it might seem rude not to!  Over the last six months I have made several dishes from these books and I'm planning to make more as these have all earned their places in my repertoire.

The first, from the original book, was this very simple tomato and mustard tart with tarragon which I made for my birthday celebration.  Everybody had a second helping, even the confirmed carnivores and the people who say they don't like mustard!  It was a surprising hit.

A couple of days later I made this storecupboard pasta bake with red peppers (chargrilled, from a jar), cannellini beans and blue cheese from the Green book.  It was so easy and I find this kind of storecupboard (fridge?) recipe very useful to have up my sleeve.  I'll definitely be making this again during the colder months.

Rukmini Iyer writes that this leek and puy lentil gratin with feta was a favourite among friends who helped her try out the recipes and I can see why - it was absolutely delicious and when leeks are in season again I intend to cook it regularly.  The recipe feeds four people and we happily ate it on consecutive days.  It reheats beautifully and it's in the Green book.

All the recipes in the Green book are savoury but the original book includes sections about fruit and cakes.  I was looking for a traybake to feed ten of us and made this coconut, raspberry and white chocolate cake.  Again, it was a big hit with the crowd and I shared the recipe with a friend who made it with cherries and milk chocolate and impressed her crowd, too.

This dish is so good that I've been making it once a week and other people must like it too because the recipe is in both books.  Here are roasted mushrooms with artichoke hearts, onion and giant couscous, finished off after cooking with Greek yoghurt, lemon juice and basil.  It takes ten minutes to prepare and twenty minutes in the oven and it's scrumdiddlyumptious.  It ticks every box I can think of.

I think I've made this quiche four times now.  It contains broccoli, red onion, walnuts and blue cheese along with eggs and cream and it's a luxurious treat both hot and cold.  Little Cottontail wolfed it down when she tried it.  I bought a sheet of puff pastry, unrolled it and carefully placed it in the tin so it's easy peasy, although there was more washing up when the Best Beloved, who is largely ignorant of the world of pastry (although adept at eating it), bought a block of pastry which I had to cut down and roll out.  (If I had to make my own puff pastry, I just wouldn't.) There are four adult portions here and we usually eat it over two meals but last week, the Best Beloved thought it looked so tempting that he had half of it for dinner rather than a quarter and he didn't regret it.  This recipe was also in the Green book.

These efforts are not mine but The Mathematician's as I sent her a copy of The Green Roasting Tin and this was her first dish, cauliflower steaks with harissa, goat's cheese and pine nuts.  She ate it with couscous and enjoyed it very much.

There are many more recipes here I would like to try but the Best Beloved is becoming a bit fussy: he says that he doesn't like sweet potato, goat's cheese or feta which rules out about twenty recipes.  He also said that he doesn't know whether or not he likes squash but he's not keen to try it so I pointed out that I used to make a vegetable goulash with butternut squash once a week for several years when our children were at home and reminded him of the lovely butternut squash and lentil stew I used to make sometimes.  He looked suitably chastened.

I have no regrets at all about buying these books but I certainly wouldn't have bought both at full price.  If I had to choose between them it looks as if I have found the Green book more useful than the original but if I only had that one I wouldn't have the tomato and mustard tart, and I wouldn't want to be without that tart now.  I mean, just look at it, even a homely cook like me can make it look beautiful!

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Thursday 13 August 2020

A Fake Holiday During Lockdown

Hello!  Thank you for still being here, and special thanks to those of you who left comments on my last post, I really wasn't sure whether or not anyone would have waited.  It's been hot here this week, too hot for me to be outside (unless I am having a water fight with the Best Beloved and Tom Kitten) but I have a shady nook inside where I can hide out when I need to. 

After the first few days of lockdown, with lazy mornings and late nights and no end in sight, the Best Beloved and I decided that we needed to have a daily routine if we were to retain our sanity.  The only concession we made to the situation was that the alarm was set for 8am rather than 6.20am - we were usually awake well before 8am, but just in case.  There was a mug of tea first and then breakfast, then another mug of tea (I have often said that I am not human until I've drunk two mugs of tea) before we pottered about doing whatever chores needed to be done.  I should admit that my "chores" often included an hour or so of crochet but I justified this by the fact that I was working on a large project and had a deadline.  What a delicious position to be in!  We had lunch together and then at 2.30pm every afternoon we went outside and worked in the garden.  As is typical of Victorian terraced houses, our garden is narrow but very long so we were able to work quite separately because, much as we love each other, being together in a tiny house for 24 hours each day meant that we could very easily have stretched each other's patience.  Those couple of hours of separation each day may well have saved our relationship!  Another benefit for me was that I was able to work in an area from which I couldn't see the house, so I really felt that I had loosed the chains and was unrestrictedly "out".  Sometimes our neighbours were in their gardens too and we would chat across the fences.  At 4.30pm we sat down in the garden and reviewed our labours over a cuppa and just before 5pm we went indoors to watch the daily coronavirus government briefing and I made a start on cooking dinner.  Every weekday followed this routine and I can honestly day that physically, I haven't felt better for a long time.  We ate healthily and well, three square meals a day but no snacks or treats, and I had so much more energy that I seriously wonder if I was deprived of Vitamin D before we began this regime.  On Saturdays and Sundays we let the routine go and so marked the difference between the "working week" and the weekend.  We did this for nine weeks.  

We had booked a camping holiday in Cornwall during the last week of May but campsites were closed due to the dreaded virus.  I was very disappointed, we held on and held on to the hope that we might be able to go but of course, we couldn't.  However, we decided that we would have a holiday at home instead, a staycation.  (I get very cross when journalists refer to holidays in this country as "staycations".  They are HOLIDAYS.  A staycation is when you stay at home and take day trips.)  No chores were to be done apart from bedmaking, cooking and washing up - no laundry, no cleaning and definitely no gardening.  We would relax, loaf around outdoors and have a few outings which were permissible now that we were allowed out of our homes. And that's exactly what we did.  We set up our daughter's little camping stove in the summerhouse and as soon as we woke up, we went outside and brewed a pot of tea, just as we do when we are really camping.  All our meals were eaten in the garden or, if the weather was unkind, in the summerhouse (with the doors open).  I left aside my crochet projects and took a new, holiday project with me wherever I went.  For the first time in over nine weeks we ate a dinner that we hadn't cooked from scratch ourselves and bought fish and chips because that's what you have for dinner when you're by the seaside!  

Facebook told me that our local beauty spots were overwhelmed with visitors that week and cars were being turned away at The Wrekin, Cardingmill Valley and Ironbridge so we thought very carefully about where we would go and our first outing was to Clun, a small village in South Shropshire where there is a river and a ruined castle.  The drive there is picturesque, in fact most of Shropshire is picturesque in May, and having been within my own boundaries for over nine weeks it felt wonderful to be out.  Just out.  We came across very few people in Clun and I felt safe.  I was reminded that it is a lovely village and that when things settle down I should visit again and show you the old bridge, the Norman church and the seventeenth century almshouses with their chapel.  This time I pootled about in the empty meadow by the river while the Best Beloved explored the castle above and then we both settled down in our chairs, him to nap and me to read.  It was blissful.

The next day the weather was even better and we went to Titterstone Clee, a hill in South Shropshire which we visited last year and I wrote about here.  There were more people there but there is so much space that it was easy to keep away from them.  

Our third outing of the week was to the ruined abbey by the River Severn at Buildwas, a place which holds a special place in our affections.  We arrived late in the afternoon and there was one other person there, but he soon left and there we were, alone in one of the most serene and tranquil places you could find.  Two miles along the road, Ironbridge was heaving.

All of these outings were free, the only cost was the petrol we used in the car.  It was the cheapest holiday I've ever had but at the end of the week I felt as rested and refreshed as if I had been away in some luxury resort.  I know that I've learned something from this and I've been mulling it over, trying to grasp what it is.  Apart from the obvious, that you don't have to spend a lot of money to have a good time, it's something about "holiday" being largely down to frame of mind, and possibly expectations.  If you can capture these threads and tie them together for me, I'd be grateful.

The little camping stove has remained in the summerhouse.  We don't use it in the mornings but in the afternoons and after dinner in the evenings we sometimes like to go out there and make what the Best Beloved calls "a wild cup of tea".  It's a holiday habit we have brought home with us.  It won't last forever but it's funny how a small change to routine can feel such fun.

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Monday 10 August 2020

Rainbows In The Clouds

Hello, thank you for popping in, you are very welcome here and I hope you enjoy today's witterings.  The sun is shining here today and my washing is flapping on the line while I hide away in the cool to write this post, with all the windows open upstairs.   

I'm going to backtrack for a bit, back to March.  The prime minister gave his first televised press briefing about coronavirus on Monday 16th March, by which time the school in which The Teacher works had already closed - it's a special school and many of the pupils are extremely vulnerable, clinically, so the headteacher had made the decision early in order to protect them.  There was plenty of work for supply teachers in mainstream schools as so many of the staff were staying at home, either because they had symptoms of the virus themselves or because somebody else in their household did, so the Best Beloved was busy but he wasn't at all surprised when the announcement came that all schools should close on 20th March.  When he came home that evening we didn't know when he would next have any work (and we still don't) or when he would next have any income.  Mothering Sunday was to follow two days after this and the prime minister had asked us not to visit our mothers, households were to stay separate in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus.  I felt anxious about the future and quite bleak and I decided that I needed to do something positive to raise my mood.

During this last week of term there was a call to put images of rainbows in our windows so that children who were going out for a daily walk with their parents could count them, giving them something cheerful to do on those walks.  A woman in Telford had seen that this was happening in Australia and started spreading the word over social media and soon those rainbows were everywhere around here.  The Teacher and Tom Kitten drew one in their front window and I decided that I wanted to decorate my window with rainbows, too.  This was all before the rainbow began to be used as a symbol of support for the NHS, it was simply something colourful and cheery to lift our spirits, although I couldn't help remembering the story of Noah's Ark in which the rainbow is a symbol of God's promise that life on earth would never again be wiped out by a flood.  So on Mothering Sunday, rather than seeing my little family I went to a craft shop and bought seven sheets of card, one each of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo(ish) and violet.  I had noticed that lots of people didn't know the colours of the rainbow but I know that Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain and I'm a rainbow pedant.  That evening I cut out eighty-four hearts and stacked them into seven neat little piles.

The following day I strung the hearts together with cotton thread and sent the Best Beloved up the ladder to hang them in front of the window.  Then I took a large wooden heart, a couple of tester pots of paint and some children's paint sticks and chalk out of the craft drawer and painted a centrepiece.  I thought that if I used chalk, I could change the word in the centre sometimes but in fact, it still says "Hope" because that is still my watchword.  The great thing about this little project was that not only did its creation cheer me up but its existence continues to bring me happiness.  Every morning when I open the curtains I smile as those colourful hearts twirl and dance in the air.  I can't possibly feel gloomy when there are forty-two brightly coloured hearts in my window.  

Soon, crocheted rainbows began appearing in windows too and in the middle of April I received a request from a good friend: could I make a crochet rainbow for another friend of hers, a hospital staff member who really wanted one and was sleeping away from her family while she was awaiting Covid-19 test results?  I couldn't refuse, could I?  So I cast around the internet to get some ideas and found the the Rainbow of Unity at Kerry Jane Designs.  I liked the pattern but I didn't like the pompoms so I kept looking and came across Vicki's Rainbow of Hope.  I did like all those beads dangling beneath her rainbow, and I had plenty of beads left over from last year's Christmas projects, so I brought the two patterns together and made this.

I love, love, LOVE it.  I sent this photo to a group of three friends and my daughters and within five minutes I had been asked to make six more!  I had plenty of yarn and beads so I carried on and I saw a pompom-bedecked rainbow online that I really did like so I embellished one of mine in a similar way.  I used this photo on my Facebook account and people asked if they could buy a rainbow.  I was a bit stunned.

At this point I took stock.  I was running low on yarn and beads and I would need to buy more if I agreed to these requests.  I worked out that each rainbow cost £1.25 in materials and five hours of my time and while I was happy to give the time - we were in lockdown and I like doing things which make other people happy - I didn't want to be out of pocket.  One friend, a good needlewoman, offered to make me some fabric face masks in return for a rainbow and I was very pleased by this creative swap.  So, I explained to my potential "customers" (get me!) that while I wasn't selling rainbows, I would need to cover my costs at £1.25 per rainbow or payment in kind.  The response has been amazing: one person has paid £1.25, one paid £5 for two and I have also received, as well as the face masks, chocolates, jam, a plant for the garden, seeds, a bag of yarn oddments, tea, pamper products, biscuits, shortbread and cakes.  My friends have been SO generous. The bartering economy is fab!  I am currently making Rainbow No.21 and the Best Beloved, who is usually indifferent to such things, has asked me if I am going to make one to stay in our summerhouse!

I shall leave you with this quote from Maya Angelou, "God put rainbows in the clouds so that each of us - in the dreariest and most dreaded moments- can see a possibility of hope."

See you soon.

Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x