Monday, 31 March 2014

Trugs, 21st Toasts, Tries and Waddling Woollies

Our two trusty trugs
 The recent spate of spring-like weather (interspersed, it has to be said, with weather more reminiscent of mid-November) has inspired us to rummage around in the garden shed and unearth (metaphorically speaking, of course – eccentric we may be, but we don’t keep earth in our sheds…) various horticultural accoutrements in anticipation of getting the garden “sorted out”. Obviously, we are kidding ourselves here, as the weeds that inhabit our garden are generally more than a match for HunterGatherer and his shining hoe, but he likes to consider himself a valiant slayer of chickweed.

Seeds of hope
At least the spinach is growing well!
Nectarine bush in full bloom - Vinnie the vine looking dead!
One of my personal favourites when it comes to garden equipment is our duo of wooden trugs. Now here I have a confession to make. When we received these trusty trugs as a wedding gift (24 years ago, as you may remember if you read last month’s blog post), I wasn’t exactly smitten by them. Granted, I am very fond of wood, so I liked the feel and look of them well enough. However, in those days, I didn’t ever envisage actually using them. How wrong I was! Ironically, since we took up residence at The Sparrowholding nearly 17 years ago, they have turned out to be one of our most-used wedding gifts, regularly transporting homegrown produce from polytunnel or veggie patch to kitchen.

My favourite kitchen appliance
Another wedding gift which is still in active service nearly quarter of a century down the line is the electric orange squeezer that we received from the (then) Free Church Minister on the Isle of Mull and his lovely wife. It’s a simple wee device, but it’s so much quicker than doing the job manually. I’m a massive fan of fresh orange juice, so every time I pour the glistening orange nectar into my glass, I silently toast the donors.

Talking of toasts, we had occasion to raise a glass to DD2 a couple of weeks ago, when she popped back to the Sparrowholding during a whistle-stop visit to Scotland. I suspect that she was secretly counting the minutes till she could get on the plane back to Aix-en-Provence, where she has been spending a pleasantly warm and dry (meteorologically speaking at least…) ERASMUS exchange year. 

The cosy bar at The Grouse and Claret
We seized the opportunity of her presence in the “hameland” to stage a belated celebration of her 21st in the form of a meal for twelve at the relaxed, cosy setting of the Grouse and Claret near Kinross. A lovely, laughter-filled evening ensued, during which we were looked after impeccably by Vicki and David Futong and their team. As we chatted in the comfortable lounge over a Cava aperitif, we were treated to a fabulous array of canap├ęs, before heading through to the dining room for a splendid repast.  Our feast was finished off with an appropriately Alpine-themed cake, topped by an icing model of the birthday girl complete with skis, which was created by Celebration Station in Perth. Another slight setback for the diet, of course, but it was worth it…

Canap├ęs in abundance... Don't mind if we do!
A mountain of cake
Just days later, DD2 shed her thermals and fled back to France where temperatures were in the mid-20s …. Meanwhile, DD1 was warming up in a slightly different fashion – for the much-anticipated clash of the Titans that is the annual Oxford vs Cambridge Women’s Rugby Blues Varsity match. HunterGatherer and I, plus my dentist sister-in-law and teenage nephew, headed down to Oxford for a weekend to watch the match (and were first treated to a very thorough and enlightening tour of the dreamy-spired city by DD1’s ever patient boyfriend). The match was a tense affair, and parental nerves were fairly frayed; however, it proved to be the dark blues’ day in the end, with the Oxford girls triumphing 17–12 (even if three of them – including ours! – were sporting black eyes).

The dark blues on the advance

Tired but happy :-)
A further exciting trip awaits later this month, as ever-thoughtful Supergran’s Xmas present to Yours Truly was a return flight to Marseilles for a long weekend, allowing me to soak up a few rays of southern French sunshine with DD2. OK, so three days won’t exactly see me bronzed and beautiful (not much chance of either, even if I stayed for three years, the truth be told…), but the prospect of not being rained upon keeps me perky on precipitation-filled days – of which there are many hereabouts…

Fortunately, I am also cheered up, even on the dreichest mornings, by the visitors to the bird feeders outside the office window. My spirits are quickly uplifted by the antics of the feathery five thousand whom we seem to be feeding on a daily basis currently. There is a strict pecking order as to who gets to eat when. The sparrows seem to rule the roost, with blue tits, coal tits, great tits, robins and yellow hammers snatching seeds slyly as soon as the sparrows’ backs are turned. With such a continuous flurry of activity, it’s a miracle I get any writing done at all!

When I’m not being distracted by things avian, the 11 things ovine in the adjacent paddock also contrive to prise my gaze away from the screen. Our Shetland breeding ewes certainly share one thing in common with Yours Truly at present, i.e. their girths are increasing with every passing day. There is, however, one major difference: hopefully most of them are carrying lambs – whereas my last “lamb” will be 19 years old next month... I do feel rather sorry for the poor girls: their pace has slowed down considerably in the past couple of weeks, and there is a lot of cumbersome waddling going on.

If HunterGatherer has calculated correctly (five months from the date he unleashed our tup/ram, Mungo, on the woolly harem) then lambing should start around the middle of April, so perhaps by the time I write my next post there may be a few additions to the (ovine branch of the) family. Will keep you posted!

Ready for some lambing action

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Birds, birthdays and cat burglars

Of course, I blame my mother (aka SuperGran) for my obsessive hoarding. At the bungalow where FarmerBruv and I spent our entire childhood, the rafters used to creak (and still do!) under the weight of all the sentimental essentials stashed away in her attic.

And guess what? Here at the Sparrowholding, the attic is no less stuffed. Indeed I often wonder if we were both squirrels in a previous life.

Perhaps the seriousness of my hoarding compulsion will become evident if I confess that the picture above is of the lipstick and powder that I wore when HunterGatherer and I got married 24 years ago today, on a blustery but dry February afternoon in 1990.

I very, very rarely wear make-up, which probably explains why the lipstick and powder are still not finished! However, a friend did send me into a slight panic lately by pointing out that the chemical constituents have probably long since become toxic and that I’m no doubt risking some nasty skin complaint by wearing them, albeit occasionally!

So, by the time I write my next blog post, I resolve that I will have dispatched my antique pampering products to that celestial make-up counter in the sky. Or at least I might have – alternatively, they’ll have travelled marginally less far in a heavenwards direction and joined one of the burgeoning boxes of baby mementos, student memorabilia,  photo albums, books, music, etc. in our attic…

After 24 years of marriage, I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that HunterGatherer has recently started observing other birds… How liberal of me to be so understanding, I hear you cry. Perhaps I should explain that these birds are of the feathered variety. A few weeks ago we took the radical decision to move our bird feeders round the back of the house – and what a difference the new location has made to the number of avian species who pop in for an all-day breakfast.

Feeding time!
Excuse me - where's the snack bar?
HunterGatherer is transfixed by our chirpy wee visitors and, on the rare occasions when he’s home during daylight hours, is now to be found standing at the window, his gaze alternating between the merry band of breakfasters and his “Fool’s Guide to Birdwatching”. He is not the only person to be entranced – FatCat is mesmerised by the “breakfast” whirligig…

FatCat enjoys birdwatching too...
Still on the subject of auspicious days, tomorrow is another family landmark: DD2’s 21st birthday. It’s hard to believe that a whole year has passed since her inauspicious 20th birthday, several hours of which were spoiled by a rather unpleasant CrossCountry train guard. I’m pleased to report that on that occasion, the outcome was a happy one, as the customer complaints department was quick to respond and sent her complimentary travel vouchers to compensate – hats off to them!
She was quite cute back then ;-)
Sadly, the unfortunate incident that has marred DD2’s 21st birthday celebrations is not likely to be so easily remedied… In the (less than) five minutes that it took her to pop from her room at Aix University student residence to the kitchen (she was there and back in under five minutes), someone forced their way into her bedroom and stole not only her laptop but also her precious iPhone.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the theft was that it was carried out so slickly that it almost had to be an inside job – especially since someone had propped the door of the fire escape open to allow the thief to escape quickly. As you might imagine, this leaves DD2 feeling less than comfortable as she surveys the other occupants of the corridor…

Still, before we all feel too sorry for her (say “AAAHHH!"), I should point out that the upside of being a student in France at the time of her 21st is that she is going to be skiing on her actual birthday. Our family celebrations will have to wait for early March, when she abandons clement Mediterranean climes and returns for 10 days in not-quite-so-balmy Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, here at the Sparrowholding, there are definite signs that winter is winding up and that spring might come eventually…

The polytunnel is like a canvas awaiting paint...
(or rather plants!)
The ewes are due to lamb in 6 weeks so
are lying down more often
Our snowdrops are in full bloom
The crocuses (or croci!) aren't far behind
Even the daffodils are sallying forth
Finally, in other news, Yours Truly is seriously chuffed to have been asked back as one of the guest bloggers for this year’s Crail Food Festival. As you may remember, last year’s assignments took me to two very different (but equally wonderful) local food producers, Seriously Good Venison and Pittenweem Chocolate CompanyNeedless to say, this eager foodie is on the edge of her seat waiting to see where she’ll be assigned in 2014. Bring it on!

The fruits of my labours at the Chocolate Workshop...
Appropriate decoration in the Seriously
Good Venison office

Friday, 24 January 2014

Chocolate cake, lots of cheese more chocolate cake!

My New Year's resolution was to eat more fruit  surely
raspberry chocolate counts as a fruit?!
And we're off  racing headlong into another year... In fact to my horror, I realised tonight that we’re almost at the end of the first month of said year and not a single post has graced this blog. The following will, therefore, be a shamefully quick synopsis of the past few weeks in and around the Sparrowholding.

Of course, I should love to report that Yours Truly has been existing, since the New Year dawned, on a diet consisting solely of limp lettuce leaves and ultra-ultra-low-fat salad dressing. That would, however, be a blatant lie, as the photos below will testify. 

OK, so I know January is supposed to be a month of complete culinary abstinence after the excesses of the Christmas period, and I genuinely had such good intentions… However, they have been soundly thwarted this month by invitations to two 50th birthday parties, an evening of Indian indulgence with my bridesmaids (thanks to Chatni in Methven!), plus a Scottish-themed girls’ supper in the nearby town.

So, in short, I lay full responsibility for my failure to fast firmly at the door of my lovely friends – possibly aided and abetted by the lack of exercise caused by my dodgy heel, which has seen me out of “proper” sporting action (i.e. hockey) for months. 

Needless to say, I’ll be making a huge effort on the healthy eating front for the whole of February (which will be less of an ordeal, because there are three days fewer on which to be good – a cunning plan, n’est-ce pas?).

But for now, here’s a snapshot record of the eclectic comestibles that have come my way during January…

One of our best wedding presents, nearly 24 years ago, was
an electric raclette grill from a kind German friend. A
brilliant way to enjoy cheese with family and friends :-) 

The Swiss way: just melt the raclette cheese (ours came
from Loch Leven's Larder near Kinross) and serve with
baked potatoes, gherkins, pickled onions and salad. We
also had home-made chutney (see below for photos
of the making of said savoury delight!).

Keeping up the continental theme... This lovely French cake
arrived in the post after Christmas  an edible New Year's
greeting from friends in France. Most welcome :-)
As the old year closed, I had the privilege of attending an old
schoolfriend's 50th birthday supper, prepared and served
by her four children. After a delicious stew, our choice was
 banoffee pie, lemon posset or a platter of cheese. Wow!
And of course, there was birthday cake - better still, a
chocolate birthday cake. The sponge was as light as a
feather (so it was definitely safe to have two pieces!).
Within a week, yet another good friend turned 50, so undaunted I set out in the dark for the 90-minute drive to Montrose, to meet up with the rest of the party-goers at a restaurant I'd never frequented before: "Roo's Leap". As the name suggests, the "tucker" was essentially Australian - though there were also oriental, European and South American influences. The food was great, though even this very hungry horse struggled a tad at the size of the portions!
Roo's Leap certainly believes in kicking off the way they mean
mean to go on: this giant plate of  nachos was just for starters!
Chicken satay for main? Don't mind if I do...
And of course no meal is complete
without a hot fudge sundae...
Oops! Mustn't forget the gorgeous
birthday cake (rude not to try a piece...)
And talking of chocolate cake, DD1 made this one for
one of her best friends at Uni this week. Just as well they're
safely down in the deep south, or I'd have been tempted!
Continuing the theme of delicious dining in January (which will conclude next Friday night with the local Church Burns Supper, just to round things off nicely!), I was lucky enough to be invited to a local friend's house for a girly supper just two nights ago. Fortunately for the seven guests in attendance, our hostess is blessed with the culinary equivalent of green fingers (floury fingers?!). The meal was absolutely superb  and the dining-room looked pretty darned good, too...
No table I have ever set looked as lovely as this: the centre-
 piece was comprised of twigs decorated with white flowers
and tiny tartan bows. What a hostess!
After sampling Arbroath smokie on oatcakes for starters, I
tasted quail for the first time in my life: it was served in a port
 jus, with  chestnuts and skirlie. Fiddly to eat, but delicious!
This orange and fig trifle was simply one of the best deserts I've
ever tasted. Fabulously fruity (large chunks of fresh orange),
with the cream nicely complemented by the slight tartness of
 the pomegranate seeds on top. Pudding heaven on earth...
You may remember I mentioned serving home-made chutney
with our raclette supper. We'd had a glut of green tomatoes
from the polytunnel, so it seemed criminal to waste them.
And in go the raisins...

Here's the finished result  it doesn't look anything special,
but (to my incredulity!) it tastes pretty good!
Last but not least, here’s a brief summary of what the furry, hairy and woolly critters hereabouts have been up to of late…

What a wuss of a puss! FatCat slunk away, tail between his
legs when new cat on the block Horace arrived "in town".
FatHorse and the chocolate sheep enjoyed a little winter
sun on their backs - their paddock is a mud-bath most
 of the time at the moment, thanks to relentless rain.
Breakfast's been served up, so it's heads down at the trough!
To our amusement, the new kids next door (owners of
Horace!) have nicknamed  Mungo the tup (ram) "No go"
because of his fearsome horns. 

"You just can't get the staff these days,"
reckons FatHorse each breakfast time.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Smoked Salmon Roulade - an easy-peasy starter

This simple starter would be ideal for New Year's day lunch with family and friends. DD1 made it for our starter on Christmas Day this year, and it went down a treat with all three generations present round the table.

All you need is: around 450g of smoked salmon slices; lemon juice (and lemon slices to garnish); a large pack of Philly cheese (the deep container); greaseproof paper and clingfilm.

Spread about three-quarters of a 300g pack of salmon
out flat over a sheet of greaseproof paper.

 In a food processor, blend a large pack of Philadelphia 
cheese (plain)with several teaspoons of lemon juice (to taste) 
and 150g smoked salmon. Place the mixture in a large 
oblong shape on the carpet of salmon (see above).

Carefully use the greaseproof paper to lift the salmon
carpet up and roll it over in the same way as you'd
assemble a Swiss roll, with the Philly in the middle.

Keep rolling until a long sausage shape is formed (see 
photos above and below).

Roll the completed salmon roulade up in the greaseproof
sheet and then wrap the resultant parcel in clingfilm. Place
in the fridge for an hour to allow to chill.
Remove the clingfilm and unwrap the salmon roulade from
 the greaseproof paper and slice as shown below. 
Slice the salmon roulade - Be very gentle, as
otherwise you'll end up flattening the roulade!
Serve two slices of roulade per person, with a half moon of
cucumber slices and a scattering of salad leaves. Garnish
with a small slice of lemon.