Time for tea – part two!

There’s nothing most of us like more than a hot drink and, in the midst of this wet and gloomy January, I am sure everyone’s kettle is in very regular use! A hot drink revives, comforts and warms you all in one go – can’t be bad! I wrote a blog about tea a couple of years ago and lots of you responded and said you’d enjoyed it… so here are a few more thoughts on what is, surely, Britain’s national drink.

I can remember when tea bags first became popular (yes, I am that old!) and loose-leaf tea was suddenly regarded as old hat and rather a lot of faff. In my family, we still used a teapot, but with the new-fangled bags. Nowadays, most people tend to just plop a tea bag into a mug, dunk it a bit – and there you have it. But tea times are a-changing… just as coffee has become a huge industry, with bean grinders, expensive coffee makers and exotic types of beans, so tea is reinventing itself as a healthy ‘on trend’ beverage. Actually, trendiness aside, the amazing range of teas that are now available to make tea drinking a lot more interesting and, in health terms, it’s pretty good for you.

 

Freshly picked tea leaves.

Returning to loose leaf tea isn’t just a trendy thing, you actually get better quality tea. Loose-leaf tea is made from whole leaves or large pieces of leaf that still contain aromatic oils. As you wait for it to infuse, or brew as we used to say, the flavour is slowly released into the water. Commercial tea bags are filled with small pieces of the lowest grade tea, making them quick to infuse. Like so many things in life – what you gain in time, you lose in quality. There are better quality tea bags around now, some with the pyramid shape that gives the tea more room to brew, but loose-leaf tea is still the best for taste.

Going back to brewing your tea properly will also help give you a better cuppa. Just as with coffee, there are now books and websites on how to do this, plus oodles of fancy equipment. But let’s be sensible here – we don’t all have time for an elaborate tea ceremony – so here are a few simple tips for how to get the best from your tea.

  1. Treat yourself to some loose-leaf tea
  2. Use fresh water in your kettle. If you live in a hard water area, filtering your water would be good but it’s an added faff.
  3. Get your water temperature right – black tea (the sort most people drink, like English breakfast, Assam etc.) wants boiling water, as do herbal teas. If you are making green tea, oolong or white tea, use cooling water. Boiling water burns the leaves of these delicate teas, making a bitter taste. Now I know where I have been going wrong with green tea!
  4. Make sure you get the right ratio of tea to water, read what it says on the packet, or do what my mother always did – a teaspoon per person, plus one for the pot! Then leave your tea to brew. Black teas need about three minutes.

But let’s not forget something very important… if we went back to loose-leaf teas we’d be able to see our fortunes! Tasseography is the art of reading tea leaves or fortune-telling. As a child, I remember my grandmother doing this and I was always enthralled! Make a pot of loose leaf tea, pour yourself a cup (ideally a white cup) sip your tea, leaving the tea leaves and a little liquid in the bottom. Then, swirl the contents three times and upend your cup carefully over a saucer, getting rid of the last bits of liquid. You then need to squint closely into your cup at the tea leaves still clinging there and look for the symbols. The common ones include stars for good luck, spirals for creativity and parallel lines for travel or change. Just think what we have been missing all these years!

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Burns’ Night cometh… the mystery of the haggis!

While wandering down an aisle in the supermarket last week, my mind on other things, I came to a sudden halt and I found myself staring at some alien looking things in the meat department. After the initial shock, I realised I had come across a pile of haggis, all ready for Burns’ Night on 25th January.

In my younger days, the prospect of a Burns’ Night Supper was quite fun as it usually involved plenty of energetic Scottish dancing and a jolly evening perfect for livening up a cold and grey January. But haggis? It has never been high on my list of likes. Oh, be honest Joanna, it’s high on your list of dislikes! But the whole Burns’ Night Supper always sounds so wonderfully wild and Scottish that it appeals to the romantic in me. Served alongside the haggis you have the marvellously named ‘rumblethumps’ (potato, cabbage and onion) or ‘neeps and tatties’ (swede and potatoes), followed by the magical sounding ‘Clootie dumpling’ (a suet and fruit pudding). If all that wasn’t enough to fill you up and keep you warm through a freezing Scottish night, you can always add a few drams of whisky!

As decreed in Burns’ great poem, the haggis is slit with a dagger!

So what is haggis? It is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s ‘pluck’ (heart, liver, and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach although nowadays, an artificial casing is often used. A cheap dish designed to waste nothing and use up scraps and offal; it isn’t something many people would choose today as they try to eat less meat. But if you want to enjoy the whole Burns’ Night atmosphere there are lots of vegetarian haggis (haggi?) on sale and plenty of recipes online if you want to make your own.

Haggis is Scotland’s national dish, thanks to Scots poet Robert Burns’ poem ‘Address to a Haggis’ of 1787, a Scottish dish through and through, you would think. But wait! The name ‘hagws’ or ‘hagese’ was first recorded in England in 1430! And it gets worse…

There’s evidence to suggest that the ancient Romans were the first known to have made products of the haggis type. Even earlier, a kind of primitive haggis is referred to in Homer’s Odyssey. The well-known chef, the late Clarissa Dickson Wright, said that haggis “came to Scotland in a longship” (from Scandinavia) even before Scotland was a single nation. So that’s another ‘tradition’ shattered!

We looked for the reclusive wild haggis but couldn’t find any photos, so here’s a gorgeous Highland cow instead!

Even though there may be evidence that the Scots didn’t invent haggis after all… they have come up with an alternative history that I think sounds perfectly reasonable. The wild haggis is a small Scottish animal, a smaller hairier version of a sheep. According to some sources, the wild haggis’s left and right legs are of different lengths, allowing it to run quickly around the steep mountains and hillsides that make up its natural habitat but only in one direction. It is further claimed that there are two varieties of haggis, one with longer left legs and the other with longer right legs. The former variety can run clockwise around a mountain (as seen from above) while the latter can run anticlockwise. The two varieties live happily alongside each other but are unable to interbreed in the wild because, in order for the male of one variety to mate with a female of the other, he must turn to face in the same direction as his intended mate, causing him to lose his balance and fall over!

PS. According to one poll, 33% of American visitors to Scotland believed haggis to be an animal

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Natural winter tonics

What a winter it has been for coughs and colds! I think almost everyone I know has suffered from some sort of nasty lurgy. I’ve seen people on Facebook sharing all sorts of remedies, both traditional and slightly more eccentric – I think my favourite was rubbing Vic’s Vapour Rub into the soles of your feet before bedtime! Um, can’t say I tried that one myself! My partner in crime writing, Julia, cannot take any cold remedies as she has an allergic reaction to something in their ingredients so, apart from taking paracetamol, she just has to grin and bear it! This year, she had a stinker of a cold and ended up trying a couple of natural winter tonics to see if they helped. Here, she shares them with you. I hope you manage to escape cold-free, but if not, you might want try some of these.

“Whenever I had a cold as a child, I always remember my mother making me sit hunched over a bowl of very hot water with a towel draped over my head forming a lovely warm tent of steam. I think she used to put Friar’s Balsam into the water and it was a great way of clearing a blocked nose. I tried this again a few weeks ago, minus the balsam, and the effect of the steam and the generally lovely warm cocoon did make me feel a bit better. I also got a free facial, which was quite soothing!

My foraging friend from Wales who knows a huge amount about natural remedies, sent me a recipe for Ginger & Garlic Soup. This certainly woke up my senses, big time! This recipe is referred to as ‘medicine in a cup’. The mix of ginger and garlic should help protect you from cold, flu, sinus infections and many other diseases that can be easily caught during the cold winter months. I will be a little more cautious with the chilli next time!

Garlic & Ginger Soup

Ingredients:

  • Two cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
  • Four spring onions, also finely sliced
  • Seven cups of chicken stock or vegetable stock
  • 50g of grated root ginger, finely sliced too
  • And last but not least… one finely diced hot or medium-hot chilli
  • Chopped or whole mushrooms (optional)

Method:

  1. Put the Garlic, onions, mushrooms (if you are using them) and the ginger in a big pan and put it on low heat for a few minutes, and sauté them.
  2. Add the stock and bring to a boil.
  3. Turn to a simmer and stir gently, until all of the ingredients become soft.
  4. Last add the chopped chilli, and stir for another 5 minutes. Then you can serve the soup while it is warm. Combine it with lemon water and crusty bread. This will provide more anti-bacterial effects and improve your digestion too.

Winter Tea

The final remedy I tried was a Winter Tea. Herbal teas are good for all sorts of things and boost our physical and mental health. Fresh herbs are full of antioxidants, which help reduce inflammation. Keeping yourself hydrated when you have a cold is important, I loved this and found it very soothing.

Ingredients:

  • 300ml water
  • ½ a lime
  • ½ a lemon
  • 3cm piece of ginger root, sliced
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • I sprig each of fresh mint, thyme and rosemary
  • ½ a cinnamon stick
  • Honey to taste

Method:

  1. Boil the water in a saucepan.
  2. Squeeze the lemon and lime into the pan, then lob the whole pieces of fruit in as well.
  3. Add everything else – except the honey. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
  4. Add honey to taste before straining to serve.

 

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New Year resolutions!

Just the one glass!

I always have a positive start to January with happy optimistic New Year resolutions and ‘things are going to change this year’ themed hopes and dreams. Then often they come crashing down when I mess up whatever my new intentions were.

Well why would that be I wonder? I suspect it’s because I set ridiculous targets. Unreachable changes are never going to happen in an instant. Habits like overeating, smoking or drinking are unlikely to magically change after the stroke of midnight on the 31st December.

I’m lucky in that I only have my ‘eating too much’ demons to conquer – smoking went out of the window nearly 40 years ago and I managed to slowly cut any alcohol I drink to a teensy minimum a year or two back. So I have hopes for 2018. The main thing for me is to eat healthy food and ‘behave’ 80% of the time and then hopefully the remaining 20% will be tolerable!

Learning Japanese… er, no.

One new year’s resolution many moons ago was to learn Japanese, I did try… however, I am not expanding my languages this year or any other year for now. I am also not planning to climb more than a local hill, so the climbing Everest and swimming the channel thoughts have been binned too!

There are other things that matter to me as resolutions though. Whether it’s an age related thing and my ambitions have mainly been met – my only thoughts and resolve right now are to help my family as much as I possibly can. To see if I can help shepherd granddaughter Grace though childhood and support my girls.

Mount Everest? I think not.

So I think this year my resolution is to pick up the phone, get in the car and generally stop relying on emails and Facebook for communicating with family – you only get one 2018 – so make the best of it and I want to feel happy next December that I did everything I could towards having a happier, well rounded life.

Happy New Year everyone, I wish us all health, contentment and laughter.

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Don’t go Christmas crackers!!

It is so easy to go overboard at Christmas (I have been guilty of it myself many times) and buy far too much food and even excess presents – just in case a surprise guest turns up! I do try and rein myself in these days and especially so at the moment when the world seems so horribly divided between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. In the event that you do find you’ve overdone it, why not have some recycling ideas ready to hand to make good use of excess and ensure nothing goes to waste… and no, I don’t just mean making a turkey curry!!

Leftover veg – Bubble & squeak

Any uneaten veg can, of course, be turned into the fabulous bubble and squeak that we all know and love. It is traditionally leftover mashed potato and sprouts squashed together and fried in a pan, but you can of course add other veg as well. To ring the changes, why not make individual patties and add some additional flavours – make some spicy ones with a dash of curry power, or chilli?

Oven-roasting your bubble and squeak uses less oil and also means you don’t have to stand over a hot pan flipping individual patties. Add any leftover roasted squash or beetroot too for some extra sweetness and serve with a fried or poached egg on top.

Left over chocolate, sweets & fruit

Yes, OK, I know this is unlikely – BUT… let’s just imagine we have behaved and not hoovered up every sweetie in the house. This tiffin recipe is great for using up any leftovers from Christmas such as plain chocolates, Christmas tree chocolates, biscuits such as biscotti, amaretti, or lebkuchen. It is a really easy recipe (perhaps one to try with children or grandchildren?) it’s quick and easy and no cooking!

Ingredients

  • 100g butter
  • 25g soft brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp cocoa
  • 4 tbsp golden syrup
  • 225g digestive biscuits, amaretti, biscotti or whatever you have, crushed
  • 150g raisins or add in chopped dried fruits such as apricots, glacé cherries, cranberries, coconut, nut etc. Experiment!
  • 225g milk chocolate – left over tree chocolates etc.

Method

  1. Add the butter, sugar, cocoa and golden syrup to a bowl and either microwave or heat on hot for a couple of minutes until melted
  2. Add the crushed biscuits, raisins and any other dried fruit and mix well (crunch some of your biscuits finely and leave some in bigger chunks, this gives a really good texture)
  3. Next press into a 20cm square greased tin
  4. Melt 225g milk/plain chocolate, pour on top and smooth over the mixture
  5. Mark into squares and chill in fridge for an hour or so before cutting

Used wrapping paper & tissue paper

I am sure all you avid crafters are already tuned into snaffling any nice wrapping paper that gets cast off and these days, with posh present wrapping, there’s plenty of tissue paper around too.

Here are a few quick suggestions that you, or younger members of the family, might like to have a go at to save all the lovely paper going to waste:

  • Create your own pretty wrapping paper DIY bunting
  • Shred wrapping paper into paper confetti
  • Make pretty drawer liners
  • Wrap your favourite hardback books or diary – again another one youngsters will enjoy
  • Create pretty envelopes
  • Make tissue paper pom-poms – great fun, especially if huge!
  • But if you want to reuse your tissue paper for another gift wrap… give it a gentle iron and it will be as good as new!

However you are spending Christmas day, I wish you all a happy and peaceful time, smiles Joanna.

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