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!

Nashville – Home of Country Music

I know country style music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – but I am a massive fan and would happily convert the world! Richard and I have just been over to Nashville for a few days for some concerts and we had the time of our lives.

The home, or heart, of country music is the Grand Ole Opry – a lovely building that has seen performances from almost all the late, great, current and climbing stars. The thing that made me so happy to be there at the concerts was the feeling of family, warmth and massive respect for talent whether old or new.

One night we were there, the age span of artists performing went from 20s to 90s – Little Jimmy Dickens popped up on stage and at 92 gave a rip roaring performance and told some funnies… and his voice was still lovely. He said his latest album had been released in 1967 (!) and made fun of his age, but everyone stood and applauded his continuing talent.

The ladies performing were all pretty – whether they were 80+ or in their 20s – and their singing made some current stars look a bit dull. The ladies in the picture, right, range in age from early 20s through Crystal Gayle, who is 60, to Loretta Lynn, who is 80 … they look fabulous, don’t they!

The southern states in America are full of charming, warm people and Tennessee was no exception. We made new friends waiting in bus queues and in bars and were always waited on with a smile. The main lesson I came home with was just because you are 60, 70 or 80 – you can still look wonderful (OK skip the page 3 career maybe!) but the country artists we saw were still loving every minute of life and I would like to remember that if I am ever lucky enough to make my eighties!

Now maybe I should take up line dancing ……. yee-hah!

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My Lethal Christmas Pudding!

As you all know, I am a bit of a Christmas-aholic! I am already thinking of presents, some decorative ideas and, of course, the Christmas pudding! I always make mine in October so it is suitably steeped, so I thought you might like my recipe now so it gives you plenty of time…!

Joanna’s Lethal Christmas Pudding

The Christmas pudding carried into the dining room with flames licking around its base is a very traditional and exciting climax to the Christmas meal. Using Calvados instead of normal brandy has worked well for years, including one year at a friend’s house when she was rather too generous with the Calvados and it refused to be put out!

You will need:

  • 100g (4oz) currants
  • 175g (6oz) sultanas
  • 175g (6oz) raisins
  • Juice and rind of one orange
  • Juice and rind of one lime
  • 50g (2oz) dark brown sugar
  • 50g (2oz) chopped walnuts
  • 175g (6oz) granary breadcrumbs
  • 5g (1oz) ground allspice
  • 2 large free-range eggs
  • 100g (4oz) melted butter
  • 30ml (2tbsp) brandy
  • 45ml (3 tbsp) port
  • 45ml (3 tbsp) Calvados
  • 150ml (1/4 pint) brandy for adding later
  • 300ml (1/2 pint) Calvados for serving

Combine the grated orange and lime rinds, breadcrumbs, walnuts, allspice and brown sugar with the dried fruits. In a separate bowl, whisk together the orange and lime juice, melted butter, eggs and alcohol. Do not add the large amounts of brandy and Calvados at this stage. Stir the two mixtures together until well combined.

Butter a 1.2 litre (2 pint) pudding basin and pour the mixture over it. Leave to stand for half an hour, then cover with a double layer of well-buttered greaseproof paper and secure it around the basin with string. Take a large piece of muslin and wrap a double thickness around the pudding basin and again, secure with string or tie in a knot at the top.

Half-fill a very large saucepan with water. Place the pudding basin inside, keeping its top clear of water, and steam for between 7-8 hours. The saucepan must never be allowed to boil dry. Once the time is up, remove the pudding and leave it wrapped until it is completely cool, then remove the muslin and greaseproof paper. Using a skewer or knitting needle, make some holes in the top of the pudding and pour over about 75ml (3 fl oz) of the remaining brandy. Wrap the pudding securely in buttered greaseproof paper and aluminium foil and store in a cool place.

Approximately one month later, open the pudding and, using the same skewer technique, pour the remaining 75ml (3 fl oz) of brandy over the pudding and wrap it up again securely. The pudding will keep for up to one year in a cool place. I usually make mine mid-October, so the second dose of brandy has plenty of time to do its work before Christmas.

To serve the pudding, either steam it for about 2-3 hours or microwave it for 5 minutes on high, and then allow it to stand for a further 5 minutes. Remember to remove the aluminium foil first if you are microwaving.

Once the pudding has been reheated, place it on a decorative service dish, warm the 300ml (1/2 pint) of Calvados and pour it over the pudding so that a small puddle accumulates all round the bottom. Place a sprig of holly in the top and set light to the Calvados. Take care – this is not called ‘Lethal Christmas Pudding for the amount of alcohol involved as much as for the spectacular flames of the Calvados! Serve with cream, custard, brand or rum butter… or all of them!

 

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Chickens and eggs…

My blogs about chickens always seem to be popular – what is it about hens that makes them so appealing? Look in any gift shop and there are ornaments, cards and pictures of chickens everywhere! Is it their fluffiness? Their perceived ‘homeliness’? Or their clucky motherly nature?

Any of you who have hens will know, it’s all those things and more – their fun characters, their daft habits and their lovely noises. Years ago when Julia, my Hen Pal, first had hens, she made the mistake of putting a newly planted half-barrel garden tub inside their run to make it look pretty!

However hens, it seems, don’t appreciate beautiful tubs of annual plants… on returning home, she found four hens closely packed in the tub having a whale of a time! Clucking and ‘pocking’ merrily, they had thrown all the plants out and proceeded to enjoy a luxurious dirt bath of epic proportions, gossiping and chucking dirt at each other in the best ‘hen party’ tradition. Once she’d stopped laughing and grabbed a camera, she managed to catch two of them still in the tub! Their luxury bathing tub remained, but Julia didn’t bother to re-plant it!

Eggs too are a popular image, but what is the shape of a chicken egg? It’s not round and it’s not oval either. Apparently, to be technically correct it’s an asymmetrical mix of oval and tapered, with one end bigger than the other which helps them fit together quite snugly in the nest, with only small air spaces between them. This means the eggs radiate their heat onto each other, and keep each other warm. And of course, you can fit more eggs into the nest. And finally, let’s not forget another reason that eggs are tapered – so that they can get pushed out of the hen more easily!

I wish I had a friend with ducks too – the local farm sells duck eggs sometimes – they’re amazing if you have never tried them, we had a duck egg omelette last week and it was just delicious. However keeping ducks on our stream with a small but manically bouncy spaniel is just never going to go well!

 

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Raspberry easel card

Easel cards have been really popular for the last year or two – and I can understand why – they really do show off all the work you put into the design and aren’t too hard to make.

The cover of this card is made using a design from our Fun and Games decoupage set. The mice are cooling off under the rose of the watering can – so sweet!

The backing papers have been printed from our House Mouse Inserts CD.

The basic card measures 150mm square. The cover is made by layering some raspberry pink card with some backing paper and then adding the finished decoupage image at an angle. The sentiment is also on the sheet and the embellishments have been cut from backing paper.

Make a plain square base card and fold halfway across the front, then attach this cover to the base of the folded front only. This creates the easel effect.

Inside the card, you layer more backing paper over the raspberry pink card and then create the “bumper” – or stop – that enables the easel card to stand up. The little image of the mice is layered and then stuck to the card with foam tape.

In this case we have used inserts to create the backing papers – it’s always worth having a flick through any inserts on one of our CDs as there are lots of extra ideas for designs hidden in there!

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Autumn leaves…

The drop in temperature this week confirms that Autumn has definitely arrived. Crisp Autumn days can be absolutely gorgeous and the beauty of Autumn leaves always makes me feel… well, what? Nostalgic? Romantic? Sad? All of those things I suppose, but there’s also a peaceful, ‘snuggly’ feel and the promise of wood smoke and conkers and fireworks… and then Christmas – one of my favourite times of year!! And then the cycle starts all over again…

But why do leaves change colour so dramatically before they fall? Leaves contain chemical pigments, like chlorophyll, that makes leaves green and help in the process of photosynthesis. The leaves also contain the chemical carotene which has a yellow colouring.

Carotene is in the leaves all year, but is hidden by the green of the chlorophyll. As autumn approaches and temperatures, especially those at night, begin to drop sharply, the chlorophyll breaks down and reveals the other pigments within the leaf (such as the carotene) that aren’t affected by the cooler temperatures… and hey presto, the beautiful reds and golds we love start to appear.

Autumn leaves are very beautiful and a joy to press. If you don’t have the time or patience to press them conventionally, you can always try ironing them between sheets of blotting paper. Iron them on a low to medium setting and then get creative!

A friend of mine wanted to replace the glass panel in her Victorian-era front door. She couldn’t find any etched glass to her taste, so she pressed some leaves, bought two panels of glass to the correct size and ‘sandwiched’ the leaves in between sealing the sandwich with some clear silicon sealant, the sort you can buy in any hardware store.

Once dry, she put her ‘double glazed’ panel in place and careful tacked the beading back. The leaves have been replaced once over the years, I believe, as they do fade in the sunlight, but it’s an unusual idea and one that has earned a lot of compliments!

I’d love to hear your ideas for Autumn leaves. Do you press them or simply mulch them to put back into your garden? Quite often, I’ll collect the brightest, plus a few conkers and cob nuts and put them in a bowl on the table just to admire such lovely natural beauty…

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