Thursday, 28 April 2016

Monthly Munch: April 2016

Long ago, at school, I had to write a haiku for each month of the year.  From memory (and why do I even remember it?), the one for this month was:
Changeable April
Rainy and sunny by turns
Weather for rainbows

This April has taken that to extremes, by being sunny, rainy, hailing, sleeting, T-shirt warm, frost-on-the-grass cold, and most things in between.  We have been working hard while it's sunny and going out when it rains - or occasionally the other way around.  Cafes with Kids has been keeping me busy and taking us to a few new places, but we've also fitted in some work around the house and garden, enthusiastically helped by the boys (especially the bits which involved lots of MUD).

Toby



 - rather liked the idea of April Fool's Day.  He tried out a few comments like "There's a spider on your foot!" and "Your hair is turning green!"

Look at my tree!

- has been doing some really good drawings (in my completely unbiased opinion).  This is a fairground, with rollercoaster, dinosaur helter-skelter, carousel, and coconut shy.


- got to bring home a bagful of Paddington Bear books from school.  He'd read the lot before bedtime.  Wonder where he gets that from?


- doesn't like any change we make for the first two days.  We bought new cushions for the living room today, and got, "What!  What is this?  It looks ridiculous in here!"  Give it a week and he'll love them.

Theo


Next mantelpiece photo, I think
- came home from church last Sunday with a pretty good rendition of "Our God is a great big God".  Something obviously sank in at creche.

-  loves eggs.  He and Graham will often have boiled eggs after they've taken Toby to school.

Mmm, eggth!

- always wants to know what's cooking ("wegables?") and usually drags out a saucepan to create his own concoction - lately plastic car wheels have been the dish of choice.

It was all going so well until he got hold of the herbs...

- is remarkably polite - where did that come from?  Please, thank you and excuse me with no prompting at all!

- except when he's gleefully shouting "Poo poo pants"!  Not so polite.

Look at my stick!

Thankful for:


- our first barbeque of the year!  The weather was beautifully warm for a few days, but now it's freezing again.

Look at us pretending it's summer.

- finally getting some more of the garden sorted out.  OK, we still need loads of gravel, but we got a lot of weed matting down and some new planters for veg, so it looks much tidier.

 - discovering that kiwi fruit in a cake actually works!  Graham bought lots because they were cheap, so I chopped some up and used them as the fruit in this cornmeal cake recipe and it tasted good.

Recipe of the Month: Apple Custard Muffins


I have a confession.  This is not so much the best recipe of the month as the thing I happen to have in the cake tin right now.  Because I have been rubbish about trying new things and remembering to take photos of them.  But these are pretty good, and prove that meringues are not the only thing you can do with egg whites.  The original recipe (from The Australian Women's Weekly Muffins) was obviously meant to be healthy, with half wholemeal flour and skimmed milk.  I de-healthified it simply because I didn't have the ingredients; I'm sure they're great either way.

385g / 2 1/2 cups self-rising flour
30g / 1/4 cup custard powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
100g / 1/2 cup packed light brown soft sugar
2 egg whites
250 ml / 1 cup milk
60 ml / 1/4 cup vegetable oil
410g can pie apples
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon, extra
2 tsp caster sugar

Preheat oven to 200°C.  Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases.

Mix together the flour, custard powder, cinnamon and sugar.  Stir in the egg whites, milk and oil, then 3/4 of the apples (don't you love muffins?  so easy.)  Spoon into the paper cases.  I think this book used bigger muffin tins than mine, because they always go over, sometimes by a lot.  In this case it would have made about 14, but I put the extra in a mini loaf tin.  Top with the remaining apple, and sprinkle with the cinnamon and sugar mixed together.  Cook for about 20 minutes until springy.  As with all muffins, eat as soon as possible.

A word on the apples: the ones I got were canned unsweetened apple slices.  I would think of pie apples being those ones in a kind of sweet syrupy gunge, but I'm not sure if that's what the recipe meant.  Anyway, the type I used worked fine, except for needing chopping up a bit.  You could probably dice a couple of apples from the fruit bowl if that was handier.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Hardwick Hall

Imagine finding out you owe the government £7 million.  Seven million pounds!  It seems an impossible amount.

Even when it was reduced to £2.5 million, it was still far too much for the Cavendish family to pay.  They were forced to give their house to the government in lieu of the taxes.  This house wasn't just an average suburban semi, however.  The head of the Cavendish family was the Duke of Devonshire, and the house was Hardwick Hall.


The story of the break-up of many great estates in the 20th century is a fascinating one, of which I only know snippets.  Two world wars had an irreparable effect on the wealth of many landed families, of course, but the change in taxation seems to been at least as big a burden.  The amounts charged are so enormous (the Cavendish estate was taxed at 80%!) that I assumed the tax had been brought in on purpose to destroy the gentry's power.  Interestingly, that doesn't appear to have been the case.  The death duty, or inheritance tax, in question dates back to the Finance Act of 1894, which was enacted - why else? - because the government was running a huge deficit and needed more money.

Presumably the government did not particularly want historically valuable houses which would cost a fortune to keep up.  Fortunately, the National Trust was formed in the early years of the 20th century, and many of these relics of the past were slid into the charity's lap.  It has done quite an amazing job of caring for them.

And so, one sunny Sunday, we found ourselves at the house built by the formidable Bess of Hardwick.  Her proper name was Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, and she became one of the richest women in Britain.  Hardwick Hall was clearly intended to make a statement.  On top of a hill, it proclaims "ES" (for Elizabeth Shrewsbury) proudly in all directions.  Elizabeth I's advisor Robert Cecil described the building as "More window than wall", another extravagance in the days before double glazing and central heating.



This was actually our second visit, so we vaguely remembered the sumptuous wall hangings and enormous rooms.  The boys still don't have much patience with touring stately homes, so we didn't get much time to admire the furnishings, but this inlaid table definitely stood out.






Toby and Theo enjoyed making paper daffodils in the Hall kitchen, and then we went back out into the sunlight to look for a picnic spot.  We found deckchairs!



The air wasn't too warm, so we had a game of hide and seek around the gardens to warm ourselves up, and peeked into the fairy houses.

1..2..3..4..
 

Graham and I would have preferred a brisk walk, but we found it hard to drag the boys away from the woodland play area.  They were perfectly happy searching for bugs underneath fallen logs and throwing wood chips in the air.  We compromised by doing one short walk each.  One day we'll have to explore a bit further.

It's difficult to evaluate the rights and wrongs of the estate duty that crippled the Cavendish family.  On the one hand, it seems unfair to tax anyone so harshly, no matter how wealthy they may be.  On the other, the social order was changing dramatically, and the power of the old noble families may well have been coming to an end anyway.  And when it means that we get to spend a day looking at an amazing house, I find myself thankful for the consquences, however unintended they may have been.

I'm sure the makers of the 1894 law didn't expect this!

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Public Footpaths

It was too nice to stay in today.  The sun was shining, the air was warm, and Graham had taken Theo out for the day, so I was on my own.  I managed a few hours of working on the website, then slammed the laptop lid and headed out to find some sunshine.


I recently read a book entitled The Wild Rover, about walking Britain's footpaths.  In the first chapter, the author, Mike Parker, draws a 3-mile radius circle around his Welsh home, noticing how many footpaths within that area he has never walked.  When we got out the map for our own area, we noticed the relative paucity of paths; hemmed in by major roads, a railway and a river, many rights-of-way simply dead-end a short distance away.

However, a few minutes' drive down the road, the village of Repton is surrounded by a spider's web of pink dotted lines.  I parked outside the tall-spired church and set out, OS Landranger map in hand.


Considering how strongly Ordnance Survey maps and rights of way are linked in my mind - it hardly seems that you could have one without the other - I was surprised to learn from The Wild Rover that the latter were only marked on the former in 1958.  Before then the Ordnance Survey mappers had side-stepped the whole debate by avoiding any mention of a route's legal status.  And debate it was.  Britain's network of public access, which we fondly imagine to have been solidly signposted since time immemorial, was the subject of numerous Bills in Parliament and a few bitter fights between those who owned the land and those who wanted to walk across it.  Fortunately the walkers won and the paths were protected.


There is something intoxicating about setting out and knowing that you could walk to the other end of the country, if you wanted to.  The paths will go as far as you will; you aren't tied to a circular route, or hemmed in by the boundaries of a park.  Of course, one of the problems with family life is that someone's usually expecting me home to cook their dinner, but today I had longer than usual, and I was keen to make the most of it.

Don't be expecting big thrills, though.  At their worst, paths dissolve into a muddy mess in winter and are overgrown by nettles as tall as your head in summer.  They tramp you across endless dismal fields and then abandon you in one with no obvious means of escape.  They squeeze between grubby walls and fences, and place you nose-to-nose with the local sewage works.

But at their best - and a warm spring day is one of the best times to walk them - they open up hidden pockets of countryside you never knew existed.  They allow you to go for miles without seeing another human being, and eat lunch in an open field surrounded by skylarks.  They wriggle past streams, through woods, and up hills, and then drop you back into a village where you can peer into everyone's gardens as you stroll past.



And if you're in the mood for small thrills, there are plenty.  Today mine were: a perfect little brook lined with ancient pollarded willows; a giant pig snoozing in the sun; a buzzard circling overhead at lunchtime; a stoat dashing across the track and vanishing instantly into a field of young wheat; and most unexpected of all, a pair of pure white peacocks in someone's back garden.

They were a little way away, but look at that tail!

Now, of course, I'm back at the laptop.  There's always work to be done.  But sometimes you just have to get out and enjoy the sunshine, and I'm glad I was able to.

Now that looks like a good day's work!

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Monthly Munch: March 2016

By the time you get to March you start feeling like it really should be warm already.  Apart from a few tantalisingly spring-like days, it has stayed stubbornly chilly.  Between sniffly noses, headaches, and fevers; job-hunting and website construction; rain and cold and missing mittens, we haven't always been in the best of moods this month.  But we managed our usual few outings to beautiful places like Carsington Water and Beacon Hill, spent a few days with each set of grandparents, and of course, enjoyed a bit of Easter chocolate.  So we're still smiling!



Toby

Front view


- was Peter Rabbit for World Book Day - in a home-made costume!

Back view!
- did a lovely Mother's Day assembly with his class at school.

- rode his bike through all the puddles at Carsington Water, proudly asking Graham, "How do you think my bike looks now, Dad?" as it (and he) got muddier and muddier.

By the lake at Carsington Water

- spent several days curled up on the sofa with a high temperature, and missed the last week of term at school.  Glad he's better now (even though he is lovely and quiet when he's ill...).

Bunny face for the Sudbury Hall Easter egg hunt

Theo

Sticks...
  - loves to carry things around - gravel, stones, sticks, cereal boxes, shoes...
...and stones

- is the cutest now that he's learning to be polite: "Milk, pweese", "Sowwy.  Toby."

- comes up to Toby's shoulder already.
On the rocks at Beacon Hill

- loves spotting Minis.  I never knew there were so many Minis driving around before I got alerted to every single one.  "Miniiiiiii!!!"

Thankful for:


- lighter evenings.  It's lovely when it's still light after the boys have gone to bed.

- the launch of my new website Cafes with Kids after a lot of hard work (and plenty more to come).

- Easter Day!

Oooh, money!  (Thanks Auntie Rita and Uncle Stuart!)


Recipe of the Month: Super-Easy Vegetarian Lasagna


After trying Nigella's Calabrian Lasagna, I realised that the problem with the ones I had been making was a lack of liquid.  Having remedied that, I think I've now perfected my easy lasagna.  And the boys will even eat it, despite the spinach.  We had it for dinner last night, but I didn't take a photo, I'm afraid.  Quantities are rough and ready, and you could probably throw in some sliced mushrooms or hard-boiled eggs if you happened to have some, too.

About 12 sheets of no-pre-cook lasagna
300g tub cottage cheese
250g-ish chopped frozen spinach (maybe 10 lumps if it comes in lumps like mine does)
1 egg (optional)
20g grated Parmesan or Grana Padano
nutmeg and pepper
1 500g jar pasta sauce of your choice

Defrost the spinach.  Don't bother to drain.  Mix in the cottage cheese and about half of the grated Parmesan.  Season with nutmeg and pepper, and a little salt if you think it needs it.  Beat in an egg if you have one (I forgot it yesterday and it didn't seem to make much difference).

Pour the pasta sauce into a jug and add maybe a quarter as much water.  Stir to mix.  Pour a little of the sauce into a baking dish, and add your first layer of pasta.  Slop a bit more tomato sauce over that, and spread a third of the spinach over the top.  Repeat twice: more pasta, more sauce, more spinach.  Finish with a final layer of lasagna sheets and tomato sauce on top.  Pour the rest of the sauce carefully around the edges.  Sprinkle the other half of the Parmesan over the top, and cover with foil.  Put in the oven at 160-180°C for an hour or more, until nice and soft and bubbly.  Leave to sit for a few minutes, then enjoy.