Welcome to my Country Days Blog!

I’ve lived in Devon for over 30 years and while I spend most of my time working in my studio, or in front of a TV camera or on an exhibition stand, country living does give me some time and space… to think about my next project!

A crafter in the country is never bored – nature is a huge treasure trove! Beachcombing, walking on Dartmoor, or rummaging about in hedgerows (while Richard pretends not to notice) produces all sorts of goodies. Shells, feathers, wildflowers, leaves – natural things are so often the ‘light bulb moment’ that gives me an idea for something new!

I have hundreds – actually, make that thousands ­– of ideas and projects from crafts to cookery to flowers that I thought I could share with you through a weekly country-inspired blog.

I love hearing from fellow crafters and swapping ideas and useful hints and tips, so do please feedback your comments on my blog, I’m sure it will be a lot of fun!

TiredDog

It’s a tiring business…

Tablet“Goodness, I am tired!” I hear myself and my friends say this on a regular basis. While I tend to laugh and put it down to advancing years, today’s world is actually much busier than it used to be with technology sneakily eating into our leisure time making us more stressed and tired. Many of the things we think are pick me ups, or relaxers actually have the reverse effect! But don’t despair… there are all sort goods of small things we can do to help improve our energy levels.

TVs and tablets
I don’t think anyone will be surprised by this appearing at the top of the list as it’s had a lot of publicity of late. Both TVs and tablets give off blue wavelengths that suppress your brain’s production of melatonin (the chemical that makes you feel tired and helps you fall asleep), so you’re more likely to have shorter, disrupted sleep, causing you to be tired the next day. I, for one, am very naughty about putting my iPad down at bedtime – grr!

TiredMessySort it out
A messy unorganised environment means you expend mental energy on stress, which increases your exhaustion. I know when I have had a really good sort out in my craft room and got everything properly ordered and stored, I feel so much happier and my mind less muddled.

The coffee kick

Even though many people find the kick of coffee essential in the mornings, come the afternoon or evening it might be the reason you’re nodding off. While caffeine is a stimulant and increases your energy, the effect wears off over time and leaves you feeling worse later.

TiredCoffeeCheers – not!
While a nightcap might help you fall asleep faster, the quality of sleep you’ll get after a glass of red wine is not good. You can expect a restless night and to wake up more often, leaving you tired the next day.

Let in the light
A study of workers with offices with windows, verses those without, found that people who enjoyed natural light all day long on average slept 46 minutes more at night. The same goes for your home – the more natural light you have will help you sleep better at night and feel more rested the next day.

Feeling blue…
This is a bit of an odd one, but a study by Travelodge (the motel people) investigated bedroom colours in 2,000 homes and found that blue walls help slow down your heart rate, reduce your blood pressure, and make you feel sleepy. So while this is great news in your bedroom, it isn’t ideal anywhere else in your house!

Naughty snacks!
Foods loaded with simple carbs and sugars result in frequent blood sugar spikes, followed by sharp drops that will make you feel tired over time. This is something I can certainly identify with and I am feeling a great deal better following my healthy eating and veg growing regime! I’m not saying I never hanker after a handful of crisps, but…!

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Vintage Containers

CoffeeBeanSome call it clutter, hoarding or just plain rubbish. However, I love my collection of ‘useful’ pots. I save and buy quite randomly – I might see a basket in a charity shop, or a vase in a local gift shop or florist. But my squirreled away treasures also include things like Camembert boxes (come on, you can cover them or just use them as a ‘useful pot’) and, when I have seedlings in mind, even the yogurt pots are not immune to being well washed and stored away in a cupboard.

As a crafter I have worrying tendencies to clutter my life with things that will ‘come in useful’. But they bring me a lot of pleasure and when you find a brilliant use for something you had hidden away, it can feel really rewarding. If I have to defend myself I will play the eco card and talk loudly about recycling but …. the truth is I was obviously a hamster in a previous life and just like storing all sorts of goodies!

On the desk that I use for crafting I have several recycled items used for storage. I adore Jo Malone perfume and was given a set of their smellies for Christmas and the box – well, I was almost as thrilled with that as with the perfume! So that has all my ‘too small not to get lost’ in a drawer oddments. Then I have an old enamel pot that my Mum decorated with barge art when we were both going through ‘a phase’! That sorts my scissors and Japanese screw punches. I also have a pretty little handmade box that a crafter called Alice gave me one NEC that I treasure and also use for my stash of cocktail sticks.

So I understand only too well when my little toddler granddaughter holds tightly onto the box of an expensive toy and disappears off to play with that leaving whatever the present was languishing on the floor! Maybe my children can blame that on her Granny as an inherited trait!

This image caught my eye as I love the collection of vintage bits and pieces filled with flowers, I may even try and recreate something like it one day – if I do I’ll post it here on the blog!

Lily of the Valley card

Ingredients

Method

  1. Start by trimming some of the paler hessian backing paper to 7 ¾”, then the darker coffee sack paper to 7 ½”. Layer these onto the card with double sided tape.
  2. Cut out the main image from the cardmaking sheet. Also cut the decoupage pieces.
  3. Attach the image to the card using tape and then build the decoupage with Pinflair glue gel.
  4. Make the embellishment of lilies of the valley by cutting the die multiple times in soft green, cream and white. Finish the bunch with a bow tied in bakers twine.
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Thatch – much more than just picturesque

Victoria farm

Victoria Farm

I am fortunate enough to live in an old farmhouse with a thatched roof. Another house in the village here was being re-thatched recently, and it was fascinating watching the thatcher at work whenever we drove past… and it set me thinking about thatch and how, even in 2016, there are still so many thatched roofs around.

When I started investigating, the first thing I discovered is that although thatch is popular in Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, parts of France and Ireland, there are more thatched roofs in the United Kingdom than in any other European country. On top of that, I found that Devon has more thatched properties than any other English county, so no wonder they seem quite commonplace to my eye!

Thatching materials can include heather, gorse, broom, flax, reed, rye and wheat straw. These light, but incredibly durable, materials were particularly used in areas, such as Devon, where buildings were made of cob or clunch that are less able to carry the weight of stone, tile or slate.

North Bovey

North Bovey on Dartmoor, a pretty thatched village.

The materials used for thatching were local and cheap. As I so often discover in my research, this ancient tradition was also very efficient and, while today we rush around being ‘green’ and insulating everything, thatch was doing a great job and ticking all the ecologically sound boxes from the outset! It is naturally weather-resistant and is also a natural insulator, and air pockets within straw thatch insulate a building in both warm and cold weather, so a thatched roof ensures your house is cool in summer and warm in winter. Thatch also has very good resistance to wind damage, so no flying slates to worry about!

Good quality straw thatch can last for more than 30 years when created by a skilled thatcher. Traditionally, a new layer of straw was applied over the weathered surface, and this ‘spar coating’ tradition has created thatch over 7ft thick on some very old buildings! The straw is bundled into ‘yelms’ before it is taken up to the roof and attached using staples, known as ‘spars’, made from twisted hazel sticks.

Thatching

Thatching, a highly skilled trade.

Technological change in the farming industry had a huge impact on the popularity of thatching. The availability of good quality thatching straw declined in England after the introduction of the combine harvester in the late 1930s and the switch to growing short-stemmed wheat varieties. Increasing use of nitrogen fertiliser in the 1960s–70s also weakened straw and reduced its longevity so thatched roofs became expensive to build. Since the 1980s, however, there has been a big increase in straw quality as specialist growers have returned to growing older, tall-stemmed, ‘heritage’ varieties of wheat… as ever, the original way is so often the best!

Thatchers themselves, highly skilled tradesmen and much in demand, all have individual ‘signatures’ that are often seen in the way they treat dormers, eaves and gables. If you have thatched properties in your area, you might be able to spot these fascinating little details! You will also often see little thatched figures, such as a pheasant, created on the ridge of a new thatch. I think these are charming and really add to the appearance of a property.

ThatchedEco

A modern eco-house… with thatched roof!

Today, with the enthusiasm for energy conservation and minimising one’s carbon footprint, eco houses are being built with thatched roofs and hay bale walls… rather like ‘going organic’ and growing your own veg, nothing is new in this world!

 

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Easy salmon & pinto bean pâté

Here are a couple of recipes that have proved useful for me when I have friends or family round for a meal. As I have mentioned before I am currently dieting with Slimming World and it’s certainly helping me come up with family-friendly alternatives to the higher calorie, more traditional recipes that I have been used to.

Both recipes could be thinned down with more liquid if you wanted to turn them into dips instead of pâtés – depends what you want them for really!

EasyPatesSalmon, lemon and parsley pâté
Here I used fresh salmon that I cooked in the microwave (only takes 2 or 3 minutes) – but you could use tinned salmon or bought ready cooked salmon.

  • 200g salmon
  • 200g quark (or light Philadelphia, or fromage frais)
  • Handful of fresh parsley
  • Juice from half a lemon
  • Few tablespoons water
  • Salt and pepper
  • Teaspoon (or more) Waitrose crushed chilli (a cooks ingredient in a jar, but other brands would be fine)

Method

  1. Make sure the salmon has no skin or bones – then chuck (technical term) all the ingredients into a food processor and whizz until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking – if it seems too solid then add more water (tablespoon at a time and whizz).
  2. If you don’t have a food processor then a stick blender would work or even just forking it all together.
  3. Serve with toast, or brown bread and butter or as a dip (add more water) with crudities.

Pinto bean, chickpea and sweet chilli pâté
This recipe is ideal for any vegetarians you may have to feed, or just for meat eaters that love chilli!

  • 1 tin pinto beans, drained
  • 1 tin chickpeas, drained
  • 3 cloves garlic (or less if you aren’t a garlic fan)
  • Juice from half a lemon
  • Salt and pepper
  • Few tablespoons of water
  • Blue Dragon light sweet chilli sauce
  • Waitrose cook’s ingredient crushed chilli (or any other brand)

Method

  1. Drain beans well (I usually rinse them quickly in the sieve) and then put all the ingredients into a food processor except the last two. Whizz until smooth – then decide how much chilli sauce and chillis you want to use – I would suggest one or two teaspoons of the chillis and then several tablespoons of the sweet chilli sauce.
  2. Whizz again and check the taste – alter the seasoning and if necessary add a little more water.
  3. Again this could be thinned with more water to make a dip with crudites – or served as a pâté with warm rolls or toast.

 

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OnionsGrowing

Dry your eyes!

OnionChoppedI use onions in cooking most of the time. However, it can be a very tearful experience, as I am sure you all know! I find red onions seem to catch me out more than most and I can be found sobbing over a Bolognese sauce if I get a really strong one.

So why do onions make us cry? I decided to look into it, after a recent tearful stir fry experience, and discovered something I hadn’t known before – much of it is linked to the sharpness of our knives!

Apparently, chopping onions with a blunt knife makes tears much more likely. When you chop onions with a blunt knife, the blade bruises the surface of the onion rather than slicing straight through. This means enzymes are released that can irritate your eyes. Using a very sharp knife when cutting onions can reduce that as it’ll slice right through, rather than crush the skin.

But what is it in onions that causes our eyes to water? It all starts underground as onions absorb sulphur from the earth. This creates a class of volatile organic molecules and when you push a knife through an onion it crushes the cells and releases amino acid sulfoxides to form sulfenic acids.

OnionsThese then react with the air to create a volatile sulphur compound that, when it comes into contact with our eyes, creates a burning and stinging feeling. The tears are our eyes trying to wash the acids away. Most of the acidity is concentrated in the onion’s root.

But dry your eyes and try some of these helpful tips the next time you’re making Bolognese or any other onion-based delight.

  1. Use a sharp knife
    As identified above, make sure you use a sharp knife – this will cut through the onion more smoothly and cause less crushing which will release less acid.
  1. Put it in the fridge/freezer
    Try putting the onion in the fridge 30 minutes before chopping it or in the freezer for 10 -15 minutes – the cold will inhibit the release of the gases. But don’t keep them in the fridge all the time as this will soften them and make them go off quicker.
  1. OnionGogglesOpen a window
    Chop your onions near an open window so the breeze can waft away the acidic fumes – or even a fan or vent if you have one.
  1. Leave the root
    Chop the onion while leaving the root on so as not to release fumes from the most concentrated area.
  1. Soak it in water
    Chop the end off the onion and then put it straight into a bowl of water to soak. The water will draw out the acid making you tear up less when you chop it. However, this could make your onion taste slightly weaker.

And if none of those work… why not treat yourself to some very fetching ‘onion goggles’ now widely available on line!

 

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