A Christmas cracker!

You can’t have Christmas dinner without Christmas crackers – well, that’s my view anyway! We groan at the awfulness of the mottos, we laugh at the pointlessness of the ‘gift’ and we feel silly wearing the paper hats… but it is a tradition and we stick to it every year.

In moments of great industriousness, I have made my own crackers and spent ages thinking of appropriate gifts and jokes to go inside. They always go down well, but they take a lot of planning.

This will be my first Christmas without my parents, Diana and John, so this year will be tinged with sadness for all the family. But Mummy’s enthusiasm for a traditional family Christmas is firmly entrenched with all of us and I shall be filling stockings, dressing the table and fussing about the sprouts just as always.

I love decorating the table, I think it makes such an impact with pretty napkins, candles and, of course, a special Christmas table centrepiece. I have produced so many over the years and always find myself getting excited as I add the finishing touches. If you don’t have a large table, you can still make it look lovely with a table runner ­– cheap enough to buy even in supermarkets these days – or run up one of your own very simply. Table sprinkles are also great fun and really do add a touch of glitz and sparkle… but you’ll be hoovering them up for weeks afterwards!

Returning to the Christmas cracker… did you know they were invented in 1847 by a London sweet maker called Thomas Smith? Rather unromantically, he devised the Christmas cracker as a money-making idea when bonbon sales slumped. They originally contained love messages and a sweet. The enterprising Mr Smith then went on to the snapping strip to replicate the sound of a crackling log fire!

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The sweet smell of rain…

We have enjoyed the most beautiful October here in the Westcountry, in fact, I think most of the country has too. The Autumn colours have been fabulous and it has been unseasonably warm and dry ensuring lots of lovely crisp leaves and breathtaking sunsets.

Today, we have had rain for what seems like the first time in months and, as I went outside, I was struck by the ‘smell’ of the rain. Seriously! It’s rather like that wonderful smell you get when you brush against geranium leaves, an earthy richness, a sense of, well… nature!

As is my way, I looked up ‘the smell of rain’ on the internet… and was delighted to find it has a name – petrichor! I am now working at dropping this word into casual conversation at least once a week! Petrichor is ‘the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil’. The word comes from Greek ‘petra’, meaning stone, and ‘ichor’, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology, all rather lovely I thought.

Before it hits the ground, rain is just water, it has no smell. But after the drops hit the ground and interact with soil, the fresh and almost sweet fragrance of rain is released. Now, scientists think they’ve identified the exact mechanism that releases this aroma into the environment. When a raindrop hits a porous surface it traps tiny pockets of air. These bubbles then speed upward, like bubbles in a glass of champagne (hic!), before breaking the drop’s surface and releasing microscopic particles, called aerosols, into the air. The researchers think it’s these aerosols that carry the ‘rain like’ aroma.

This set me thinking about a farmer friend who has a very sensitive nose (he does not like all the stinky cheeses I enjoy!) and he always says he can smell rain coming. Pah, I thought, a Devon farmer’s yarn… but no! Following on from my discovery of petrichor, it seems weather patterns really do produce distinctive odours that sensitive noses can sniff out.

Before the rain begins, one of the first odours we may smell, as winds pick up and clouds roll in, is a sweet, pungent zing in the nostrils. That’s the sharp, fresh aroma of ozone — a form of oxygen whose name comes from the Greek word ‘ozein’, to smell.

After a spell of heavy rain has passed, what’s often left is an earthy, musty whiff of wetness. This is the aroma of geosmin, a metabolic by-product of bacteria or blue-green algae. Ok, not quite so romantic, but interesting, nonetheless.

So, what’s the point of all these strange smells? As you may have guessed, Mother Nature doesn’t do anything without a reason and all these chemicals stirred up by the weather carry messages. Some biologists suspect that petrichor running into waterways acts as a cue to freshwater fish, signalling spawning time. Microbiologist think that geosmin’s fragrance may be a beacon, helping camels find their way to desert oases.

Although humans don’t appear to have a built in response to these odours, we do learn to associate them with our experiences. Flooding may forever scar us with moist, ‘mildewy’ memories, but for many of us, the smell of rain is cleansing and refreshing.

So, if I am spotted running around the car park outside the Create & Craft studios, skipping and shouting “Yippee!” in the rain, I haven’t gone mad, I am simply enjoying the scent of petrichor. Well, that’s what I shall tell everyone anyway!

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Salt of the earth

There’s been a lot of publicity over the past few years about cutting down salt intake as it is ‘bad for you’, especially with regard to blood pressure… but let’s not get too panicky about it. Salt is actually absolutely vital for our bodies to function.

Salt – whether it’s the stuff they spread on the road in winter, common table salt or an exotic pink one from the Himalayas – has the same chemical composition, an equal amount of sodium and chloride. Salt is essential for life and, as the body can’t produce it itself, we have to add it to our diet in some way. Without it, our bodies become chemically unbalanced, our muscles and nervous system cease to function and eventually we will die.

If you think about it, all our body fluids are salty – blood, sweat, tears and saliva. The general consensus among experts is that a healthy adult should aim towards a daily intake of five or six grams of salt to maintain a good balance. It seems the biggest problem with controlling our salt intake is through eating convenience foods as these often contain astonishing amounts of salt – and that’s in both savoury and sweet dishes! If you prepare most of your meals fresh and from scratch, you can govern how much salt you do, or don’t, add and your intake is probably absolutely fine.

Salt is all around us. Underground and on the earth’s surface in the dried up residues of ancient seas. Some salt has even arrived from outer space in meteors. But our biggest source of salt is in our seas and oceans. With an average of 26 million tonnes per cubic kilometre, seawater offers a seemingly inexhaustible supply that, if extracted, would cover the world’s total land mass to a depth of 35 metres.

Apart from its essential health benefits, salt is also a fantastic flavour enhancer. It is one of the key five tastes that we experience on our tongues, the others being sweet, sour, bitter and umami. It can reduce bitterness and enhance sweetness – salt just makes things taste better!

And what an amazingly useful thing it is too. Think how we use it as a preservative (and have done for thousands of years), it improves texture and colour and is an abrasive too. It’s soothing – we take salt baths and my Mother used to make me gargle with it as a child if I had a sore throat and if you spill any, do remember to chuck a pinch over your left shoulder and it will ward off evil spirits too!

Salty facts:

  • Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt – which is where the word ‘salary’ comes from
  • Every cell in the body contains salt – an adult contains about 250g
  • Salt is used to remove traces of water from aviation fuel after it is purified
  • Salt was used to preserve Egyptian mummies
  • Salt removes red wine stains.
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Putting the ‘festive’ back into Christmas shopping!

In my opinion, Christmas shopping – whether you are battling a busy high street, overwhelmed in a mall or sitting hunched over your keyboard shopping online at 3 in the morning – none of it is as festive and fun as it should be! So why not take the stress out of your festive shopping with a visit to a Christmas market?

I’m going to start with a fairly local one in the very pretty town of Tavistock on the far side of Dartmoor.

Tavistock Dickensian Christmas – 25th November 2016

The Dickensian evening includes the switching on of the Christmas lights, and an opportunity to start your Christmas shopping and enjoy the festive atmosphere. Be transported back to the ‘olde world’ with shop owners and staff wearing Dickensian dress, stalls selling roasted chestnuts and even steam engines adding to the atmosphere. You can find out more here.

Blenheim Palace Living Crafts for Christmas fair 17th – 20th November

On a rather grander scale… stock up on stocking fillers at the Living Crafts for Christmas fair in this stunning Oxfordshire stately home, where you’ll find more than 150 selected designer-makers, including artists, milliners and jewellers. Indulge in some hot chestnuts or a hot chocolate, then choose handcrafted decorations to adorn your home. Magical! Click here for more information.

Bath Christmas Market – 24th – 11th December

I love Bath any time of year, but this magical Christmas market makes it extra special. There will be more than 170 traditional wooden chalets lining the streets of the centre of beautiful Bath, transforming Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths into a wintry wonderland. Along with stalls from craftspeople from all over the South West, there is also the chance to go ice skating, ride on a carousel or enjoy a glass of mulled wine in the Après Ski Bar.

Find out more here.

Edinburgh Christmas Markets 19th November – 7th January 2017

If you really, really enjoy Christmas markets, then Edinburgh is the place to go as this lovely city has TWO markets, one Scottish and one European and they run through into January! The Scottish Market in St Andrew Square showcases food and drink from the country, including seafood and sausages, chocolate and cakes, plus handcrafted items. The popular European Market has been running for 20 years and is held in East Princes Street Gardens, offering traditional toys and gifts.

Click here for more information.

And finally… another Dickensian market. The trouble is the Victorians and Mr Dickens, did Christmas so well that, for many of us, it has become the ideal Christmas!

Ulverston, Cumbria Dickensian Christmas Festival – 26th & 27th November

Ulverston puts on a tremendous show every year marking the start of the Christmas season and bringing a little Christmas magic to both young and old. The historic market town is full of fantastic shops, great pubs, cafes and cobbled streets. The Dickensian Festival boasts a huge variety of free entertainment, free events for children, fabulous Christmas market stalls with lots of unique gifts and festive food, costume competitions, horse-drawn carriages, music and dancing. If you really want to get into the spirit of the festival, why not come in costume and take part in the grand parade around the town?

Find out more here.

Photo credits, top to bottom:
tavistockbid.co.uk, nmctours.co.uk, www.bathchristmasmarket.co.uk, Visit Scotland, OxfamBirdsEye.

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The gorgeous gourd!

Alongside the glorious rich colours of autumn leaves, I think one of the most iconic images of autumn is of squashes – those wonderful shaped and coloured gourds or, to give them their proper name, Cucurbitaceae.

A gourd was probably one of the earliest domesticated types of plant as examples have discovered in archaeological sites dating from as early as 13,000 BC. Gourds are immensely versatile and can be found used in all sorts of ways throughout history, including as tools, musical instruments, objects of art, of course, food.

Squashes, pumpkins and gourds belong to the same family as cucumbers, melons, marrows and courgettes. There is an amazing variety of sizes, shapes and colours, and although most are edible, some are used for decoration only. All squashes and pumpkins have a tough outer rind, an inner cavity filled with hard seeds and sweet, rich, well-coloured flesh with a dense, nutty and earthy flavour.

As a child, I remember being served plain boiled marrow (ugh!) and carving pumpkins for Halloween but that was about the limit of my exposure to these vegetables. Now, we veggie gardeners grow courgettes by the ton and regularly shop for butternut squash and spaghetti squash, as well as turban squash, onion squash, acorn squash and even kabocha – this Japanese variety of squash.

Apart from being good to eat, they are also beautiful to look at, and their shapes and colours are incredibly diverse. I love seeing them arranged in a bowl almost as a work of art, and they will keep for ages.

Today, gourds are commonly used for a wide variety of crafts, including jewellery, furniture, dishes, utensils and a wide variety of decorations using carving, burning and other techniques. The Chinese developed a technique of tying a two-part mould around young gourds, or a part of them, so that the gourd grew into the mould and took its shape. Shaped gourds had various decorative uses, especially as boxes, bottles and other containers. And, don’t forget, that good old bath time companion the luffa (or loofah) is also a gourd!

Mini gourds are wonderful when included in floral decorations, such as wreaths, or table centres and you can buy a huge range online. Or you could grow them yourself, but drying, or curing, them takes time… let me know if you already grow them and I’d be interested to know how you use them!

Curing Ornamental Gourds

Curing or drying ornamental gourds requires time. There is no shortcut, like microwaving.

  1. Start by cleaning the surface of the gourds with soapy water and allow them to air dry.
  1. Place in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight, for about 1 week. The skin will begin to harden and change colour. After a week, the outside of the gourd should be well dried.
  1. Move the gourds to a well-ventilated, dark area where they can remain for at least 6 months. Spread them in a single layer and be sure none of the gourds are touching each other. Allow for airflow under the gourds by placing them on a screen or vented surface. It may be easier to hang larger gourds for drying.
  1. Check your gourds every few days and discard any that begin to decay, shrivel or get soft. If mould appears, see if you can wipe it off with a dry cloth or one dipped in bleach. If the gourd is still hard, it should be fine. Drying gourds is not a pretty process!
  1. Turn the gourd every couple of weeks, so it will dry evenly and to prevent rotting.
  1. When the gourds become light and hard to the touch, and you can hear the seeds rattling inside when you shake them, they are ready for use. At this time you can carve, paint, wax, shellac or decorate your ornamental gourds any way you wish. They should last indefinitely.

Gourd luck (sorry!)!

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