Light my fire!

This welcoming fire is in a cosy Cornish pub!

I know it hasn’t been that cold this winter, but it’s been so wet and miserable I think we can all do with a bit of treat now and again. Sitting in front of a log fire, or a log burner has to be classed as a real winter treat! While not all of us have real fires, we all seem to love it when we enter an ‘olde worlde’ pub and see logs blazing in the grate. We are lucky here in the Westcountry as there are plenty of such pubs about.

Sadly, I’ve always found that the romantic ideal of putting a match to the kindling and settling back with a book and a glass of wine on the sofa (oh and with Richard of course!) while it blazes away is very far from reality. Lighting a fire is an art… and an art that has so far escaped both of us!

Sofa, wine, fire… perfect!

There is always much debate about what is the best way to light a fire. Should you use firelighters (smelly), or is that cheating? Everyone has their own idea about how best to do it, but after extensive research online and consultation with some friends who are successful firelighters, this is my definitive guide:

  1. Make sure the grate is clean, so sweep away any ash from the hearth if it is an open fire or if a log burner, clean out the tray. You need airflow to get the fire going, flames feed on oxygen.
  2. Scrunch up balls of newspaper and lay them in the grate. Don’t skimp, and make sure the paper is dry. Some people swear by making the newspaper into a tube and then knotting it – I am told this is a lot of faff and makes no difference!
  3. Plenty of kindling and newspaper are essential.

    Place very dry pieces of kindling onto the newspaper. Kindling is small pieces of wood or twigs that are essential to get the fire going. Again, don’t skimp on these, and poke them in amongst the newspaper to ensure a good base.

  4. Place a couple of well-seasoned logs (small to medium-sized, don’t swamp it with a whopper) on top of the pile and then light the newspaper with a match. If you are using a log burner, close the door, and make sure the vents are open to draw in the air.

Ta-da! That should be the perfect recipe for a blazing fire! If it doesn’t work either paper or wood are very probably damp, in which case… cheat, and use a firelighter or go and have a hot bath, or simply snuggle up under the duvet!

PS. Don’t throw your ash away, mix it into your compost!

 

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The chandelier – a touch of glamour in the gloom…

Goodness – I am glad to see the back of January – what a wet and miserable month it has been. February is our shortest month… so before we know it we’ll be in March and spring will be well underway! In an attempt to avoid the gloomy weather, I’ve been distracting myself with some very fanciful ‘window shopping’ although these days, it’s more a case of ‘screen shopping’ as I sit in front of my laptop. I have been cheering myself up rummaging around websites full of lovely bits and pieces for the home. Do I need anything new? Of course not, but it’s fun to look and it’s free!

A snazzy pink number from Next.

One of the areas that seems to have undergone a massive change in the last couple of years is lighting, both indoor and out. Solar powered fairy lights are brilliant and mean we can all light up our gardens without any need for an electrician or any DIY skills at all and they are quite cheap to buy too and cost nothing to run… although it’s true they do need sunshine to charge! For interiors, there are some absolutely stunning lights around and metallic effects seem to be very ‘in’ at the moment and there are some lovely copper lampshades and light fittings to be had. Copper is lovely and warm and would give a soft light for winter.

A dramatic smokey style from B&Q!

But if you want to really ‘go for it’… what about a chandelier? Years ago, a chandelier was the height of opulence and only really wealthy people with large, high ceilinged rooms could have them. But not any more! There are some terrific ones available now from as little as £20 and they come in all shapes, sizes and colours. Dunelm, B&Q and Next (to name but a few) have an amazing range and most of them just fit onto your light fitting like a normal lampshade. Their twinkling light cannot help but cheer up the dreariest winter day.

Originally, chandeliers were made from expensive materials such as rock crystal and bronze so they were well beyond the means of anyone except royalty. The name ‘chandelier’ comes from the French ‘chandelle’, which means candleholder. It was that modest monarch, Louis XIV of France, who really bought into the chandelier when he filled the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles with them. It must have been the most breath-taking sight in an age (1600s) long before electric light, and when the soft glow of a few candles in a candelabra was normally all you could have of an evening. Louis’ massive crystal chandeliers were themselves lit by candles, but their light was reflected both by the thousands of crystals and the mirrors on the walls so it must have been an absolutely dazzling spectacle – can you imagine!

What an amazing spectacle the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles must have been, lit by hundreds of candles, their light reflected thousands of times.

Murano glass tends to be a very ‘Marmite’ design, either loved or loathed!

During the 18th century, glassblowers developed more elaborate creations with bevels and facets. Then the Venetian glassblowers of Murano got their hands on the chandelier and transformed it, yet again, into a sprouting profusion of flower-festooned stems and leaves. You can still buy this style of chandelier made in Murano, but they will set you back a bit!

After candles came gaslights and then electricity and the chandelier has continued to evolve. The development of plastics and Perspex in any shape and colour today gives us inexpensive chandeliers that are lightweight and just plain fun. And why not? I’d quite like a natty little aqua blue one to hang in the bathroom… but I’m waiting for just the moment to suggest this to Richard!

 

 

 

 

 

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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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