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Egged on!

Whenever I am thinking about writing a blog, certain topics leap into my mind because they interest me (new craft ideas, gardens, cakes etc.) while others occur just because I’ve written about them before and found them so interesting I have to revisit them! Tea is one such topic, as are chickens and eggs.

Whenever I write about chickens or eggs, the blogs are always popular. Sadly, since she moved house, my partner in crime writing Julia no longer keeps hens, but I do love eggs and manage to buy lovely free range eggs locally. We eat more than 12 billion eggs a year in this country (amazing!), but when you look at how versatile eggs are, I suppose it’s not that surprising.

An egg is just such a wonderful thing – nature at her most clever it seems to me. The design of an egg is so perfect – their asymmetric tapered oval shape means that if you nudge them, they’ll come back to you. They’ll sweep out in a circle around the pointed end, and come to a stop with the pointed end facing uphill – pretty essential if you nest on a cliff edge! In fact, the eggs of birds that have their nests in precarious places are more oval than the eggs of birds that nest on the ground.

Another reason for eggs to be egg-shaped is that they fit together snugly in the nest, with only small air spaces between them so they help keep each other warm. And let’s not forget another reason that eggs are tapered – so that they can get pushed out of the hen more easily – ouch!

An egg contains every vitamin, except C, as well as calcium, magnesium, zinc and selenium, plus lots of other micronutrients. As you may know, all of the fat is in the yolk, but so is most of the goodness. Some terribly serious diet gurus want us to feast(!) on whipped egg white omelettes and, while I’m sure that’s terribly healthy… it’s also rather dull to my mind.

Eggs are so versatile, just think of all the things you can make with them… cakes (now why did that come into my mind first?!), omelettes, meringues and mayonnaise. They can be boiled and used in sandwiches, on picnics and for soldiers at breakfast. Great for glazing baked items and for thickening and lovely when scrambled and served with smoked salmon as a treat! And then, of course, the shells themselves – lovely to decorate, perfect for growing seedlings in and the best packaging ever for a ‘ready meal’!

However, the poor old egg has been through some crises in this country. There was the big salmonella scare in the late 1980s when everyone seemed terrified of eating them. Then we were told their cholesterol content is bad for your heart – it’s not. The egg is also often stated as a cause of constipation but that again, isn’t true, it’s just that they have absolutely no dietary fibre, so you shouldn’t fill up on eggs instead of high-fibre foods. How different from my childhood when I can remember those funny TV adverts with comedians Tony Hancock and Patricia Hayes telling us to ‘Go to work on an egg’ as they were supposed to be so good for you!

 

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The origin of the willow pattern…

I know the most popular colourway relating to willow pattern… is blue, obviously. However, I think it looks good in a black silhouette too.

I have willow patterned everyday plates and blue and white pots and vases galore in my home. I love the romantic feel of the design and like the story that supposedly describes the images – I am quoting here from Wikipedia:

Once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter (Koong-se). She had fallen in love with her father’s humble accounting assistant (Chang), angering her father. (It was inappropriate for them to marry due to their difference in social class.) He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride, bearing a box of jewels as a gift. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossom fell from the willow tree.

On the eve of the daughter’s wedding to the Duke, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. They eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. Hungry for revenge, he sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves (possibly a later addition to the tale since the birds do not appear on the earliest willow pattern plates

So when you are using a willow pattern die or stencil or stamp reflect on the sad demise of a mandarin’s daughter that had the misfortune to fall in love with an accountant … I won’t mention this to assorted members of my family that are either accountants or married to one!

These cards show off how striking the dies can look in black and they have set me wondering what it would look like as white images on black, or how about white on pale or dark blue? Love our craft!

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The beauty of birdsong

The magical song of a blackbird at dusk…

Is there anything more beautiful than birdsong? From the first trills of the dawn chorus to the solo blackbird singing as dusk falls, it is the most magical thing.

I read recently about some musicians holding concerts in woodland in the hope that a nightingale would join in the music – how magical that would be. Sadly, not many people have ever heard a nightingale as they have declined greatly over the past few years. The RSPB says there are fewer than 5,500 now, down from 60,000 a few decades ago. Isn’t that sad? It is only the male bird that sings and what makes the nightingale unique is that they sing many different notes and appear to respond to music made by humans.

A song thrush singing early on a summer’s morning.

The nightingale is the bird widely regarded as the star performer, but I can think of several others that frequently wow me with their musical skills. Many times up on Dartmoor I have listened to the beautiful trills and twitters of a skylark – only visible as a tiny dot, high up in the sky. A song thrush, again a bird in major decline, is also lovely to sit and listen to, it’s song so varied and clear. The gardener’s friend and surely one of our cheekiest birds, the robin, also has a delightful song and a blackbird’s solo at dusk is the perfect end to a day.

Birds use their voices to communicate with other birds. A bird ‘call’ says something definite about the caller – for example, “I’m a robin and I’m worried about that cat down there”. Bird ‘song’ is a specialised form of bird call that is designed to ensure the breeding success of the singer, to indicate clearly that he is healthy and fit and ready to breed.

And yes, as is so often the way, it’s largely a boy thing, designed so that other females of the same species are attracted and males of the same species are repelled.

A cheeky robin serenading us as we work in the garden!

Birdsong is most highly developed in a group of birds called ‘passeriformes’ which include wrens, robins, blackbirds and song thrushes. Basically, it means ‘perching bird’ and it’s an enormous group – around 5,400 of the world’s 8,000 to 9,000 species are ‘perching birds’ and all of them sing differently.

Each species has its own signature song. Some are basic, chiff-chaffs just go ‘chiff chaff’, but many are complex and never fail to lift the spirit – the blackbird being possibly the best example. Each song is different. It has to identify the singer’s species and also say something about the health of the singer. Many species even mimic other birds’ songs just to increase their repertoire, and it’s not unknown for other sounds, such as cats’ calls, to be included as well!

Birdsong is an integral part of the soundtrack in our everyday lives (well, for we lucky country dwellers at least) and when the singing stops – it is quite unsettling. I recall when we had an eclipse about 10 years ago and, as we stood outside, marvelling as the light quickly faded as the sun disappeared… the birdsong ceased. I found that silence along with the sudden gloom, very unsettling. A world without birdsong would be a barren place indeed.

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Time for a Spring clean!

There’s nothing like a nice bit of nesting!

I don’t think I’ve ever yearned for Spring to arrive quite so much as I have done this year. After such a horrible wet winter, followed by the two bouts of snow it really must be just around the corner now… please?

With the final arrival of Spring, many of us seem to automatically go into ‘Spring clean’ mode. Perhaps it’s part of human nature, or animal instincts, cleaning out our nests ready for the year (or new brood) if you see what I mean. I don’t know if it’s my imagination but there appear to be more and more cleaning products coming onto the market. Multi-surface cleaners seem to be a thing of the past and we now need specific products for everything from worktops to shower cubicles, hobs to glass and stainless steel. Add to that all the polishes and liquids for the different types of flooring available these days and our kitchen cupboards are full to bursting point! I can’t help but believe this is largely due to clever marketing, but perhaps I am being an old cynic…

Years ago, we used different products for different jobs but they were things we already had in the house – such as vinegar for windows. Mrs Beeton, the queen of household management, suggested tackling a dirty roasting tin with warm water, baking soda and a hardened crust of bread… Interesting!

As late as the 1950s, research showed that housewives were still spending up to 15 hours a day on household chores… can you imagine!? But then, being a housewife was a full-time job. The arrival of the twin tub probably made the biggest difference and doing the laundry suddenly became a much more manageable chore.

There was a shocking news item a month or so ago that found dishcloths and tea towels often have more bacteria on them than loo seats – ugh! One piece of advice was to put cloths in the dishwasher every couple of days as it steam sterilises them. If you don’t have a

Playing like we used to! Get outside and get mucky, it never did me any harm.

dishwasher I guess boiling them, or using liberal amounts of bleach to soak them will do the job. But then, are we too clean these days and is that why more children have allergies as they are not exposed to enough dirt and bugs at home? Goodness knows, I certainly don’t!

All I can say is I feel lucky to live in an age when I don’t have to spend 15 hours a day cleaning my house!

 

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Cookery for the ‘Middle Classes’!

Sorting my book collection is rather like painting the Forth Road Bridge – it’s a task that never ends! OK, so it’s rather more interesting than the paint job and sometimes, as happened last week, I come across a gem of a cookery book I didn’t even know I had!

I can only guess that this ancient coverless book was one of my Mother’s. It has the wonderful title of: ‘Miss Tuxford’s Cookery for the Middle Classes’. Can you imagine how a title like that would go down in 2018?!

Miss Hester Tuxford M.C.A first published this book in 1925 and several updated editions followed. In the edition I have (dated 1933, I think) she tells us proudly in the preface that the book has so far sold upwards of 200,000 copies – which is a very impressive figure indeed! I haven’t been able to find out any more about Hester Tuxford online, which is a shame, as I rather like the sound of her. She lived in ‘Westwood’, Tattershall in Lincolnshire, but that’s as much as I know.

Offal: Awful!

The book itself is fascinating as a piece of social history. Compare this to a contemporary cookery book and it is hard to believe that only about 90 years have passed since Miss Tuxford was writing her recipes. It seems much longer…

Back then, meat was a staple of all meals – and almost every part of the animal was consumed – from offal, to head to feet! The number of recipes featuring tripe is quite terrifying, including options to stew it, fry it, put it in a pie or make a tripe ragout. Equally, the range of meat eaten would make most of us excuse ourselves from the dining table pretty rapidly – including rabbit, pigeon and rook. Rook pie, anyone?

Miss Tuxford manages only a small section on vegetables and, from the outset, she makes it clear that they need to be treated with caution. She writes:

‘RULES FOR COOKING GREEN VEGETABLES
Green vegetables should always be cooked with the lid off the pan to allow all poisonous gases to escape that are generated whilst cooking. A little salt and a small piece of soda should be added to the boiling water before placing in the green vegetables. All vegetables should be well soaked in salt water for an hour before cooking.’

The section on puddings and sweets is extensive and includes such gems as Puzzle Pudding, Honeymoon Cheesecakes and Canary Pudding. Fortunately, the latter refers to a yellow lemon sauce rather than poor little baked birds as in the Rook Pie! There are no less than five roly-poly recipes and many more substantial puddings, most of which involve a large amount of lard and margarine.

It’s all very well for us to marvel at this stodgy fare but between the wars, life was pretty spartan. Central heating was a luxury and domestic appliances were not that commonplace, nor was car ownership, so calorie-rich meals were essential for warmth and physical energy. Most vegetables were what you managed to grow yourself and many would have been root vegetables. None of the exotic fruits and vegetables that we enjoy today were around, such as avocados, butternut squash and blueberries. Britain was a much greyer place.

Reading Miss Tuxford’s book certainly made me reflect on how fortunate we are today with the food and comfort that most of us enjoy. If you come across a copy of this book, or any others from that era, it really is absolutely fascinating reading…

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