Monday 26 January 2015

West London garden birds ...

I've only gone and got myself a brand new hobby ... .

 I've become a twitcher!

Now let me quickly clarify exactly what this new passion of mine consists of ... before you start thinking I've developed some sort of itchy skin complaint or an embarrassing nervous condition.

I've started to watch the birds in my back garden ... obsessively.

It all started innocently enough with a vague feeling that my poor little feathered friends must have been suffering from a serious case of the January blues when the frost froze the ground to the point where normal food foraging became impossible.

I trooped off down to the garden store and bought some bird feeders, which I strung up on random branches around the back garden. Well I say random, but to tell the story straight there was nothing random about it: the branches were all strategically chosen so that the little critters wouldn't poop-bomb my decking and garden furniture.

And thus began my obsession with what was going on outside my kitchen window.

I've had all manner of furred and feathered visitors.

A ravenous flock of these cheeky green chaps seem to live hereabouts.

I think they're parakeets. And let's just say that I was more than a  little surprised when they showed up en masse to raid my feeders. I boasted about them to my chum, the Whippet Mummy, at the school gates. Whippet Mummy was not impressed.

They hang out in her garden, raid her cherry tree and kick up a merry racket like a bunch of teenage delinquents at their first cider party. I have since learnt how eloquently her words sum up the squawk-along antics of our green-feathered friends.

Luckily we have some other very well-behaved native birds. 

The pigeons love, love, love the berries on my ivy. 

And, being British pigeons, they form a nice orderly queue to take their turn feasting on the vines.

I got very excited when I saw this handsome chap, and had to follow him around the garden with my telephoto for ages before I could get a decent angle on him. I think he's a great spotted woodpecker.

Great spotted woodpecker
Next up was this very handsome fellow, who came with one of his chums. If I knew how to sex a starling I might have been able to say whether it was his girlfriend or not. In any event I'm pretty sure he's a starling.

Now this little man has got to be my favourite. I have a great, big, soft spot for the robin. Here he is, balanced on top of Emi's swing, waiting his chance with the peanuts. What a well-mannered little boy he is.

These birds were rather splendid. Sadly they're not really in focus. I think they may be some type of sparrows. They came in a big feathered gang.

I have a lovely little blackbird who sweetly serenades me with song before she partakes of my back-garden bounty.

And then there's old Cheeky Paws, who's not even a bird, although he thinks he's cock of the walk in this garden. He usually arrives over the garden wall, pausing on his way past to have a good look in through the kitchen window. 

He went to investigate the peanuts first ...

... hmmm ... very nice! Very nice, indeed. Don't mind if I have a few of these. 

... in fact, why stop at a few? After all I am trying to store some fat under this fine fur coat of mine.

... Aha ... and what's this other thing she's hung up for me? 

... I'm not sure, but it tastes good ...

... really, really, really good. 

Like why don't I just take this baby back to my drey, and have it all for myself ... . 

A serious amount of pulling and tugging ensued, accompanied no doubt by some mild squirrel bad language, which doesn't bear repeating.

I've done it! Eureka! I'm so outta here!

 And this little fat ball's comin' with me. It's got my name all over it!

And that was the end of one of my fat balls. 

It's a circus out there, and I seem to be spending an unhealthy amount of time watching it. In fact I'm beginning to wonder whether I'm freaking the neighbours out. I mean how would you feel if there was this weird woman with a telephoto lens that seemed to be trained on your bedroom windows all the time ?? ERRR... 

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Thursday 22 January 2015

Les oeufs en cocotte à la crème ...

I've got a bad case of the January blues. A very bad case indeed.

I do try, but I just can't get enthusiastic about the month of January. It's my bleuch month, something to be endured, rather than enjoyed. And that's coming from someone who's hardwired to be positive and look on the bright side, but January defeats me. I hate her cold, grey skies and hard, unforgiving weather. I hate all those New Year resolutions that only serve to suck the joy out of life and leave us all feeling slightly inadequate. And I hate the fact that she doesn't even offer us an excuse for one good party. Heck I've been reduced to pulling out my Scottish ancestry - that's about three hundred years' removed from the present day - and rolling in my friends for a Burn's Night party. And, to be very honest, I don't even like the great man's poems. Promise you won't tell.

So what to do? Well my answer for today is ... comfort food, and it doesn't get any more comforting than this:

I give you oeufs with a side order of soldiers. It's got to be the ultimate fusion food, combining a great British food idea (soldiers to dip in your egg and mop up the runny yolk) with a lovely French one (pseudo steamed/ baked eggs in a cup).

I'm a great fan of scruffy old second hand book shops, and the other day I happened upon a lovely volume of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking. Of course it had to come home.

It's a real classic. Elizabeth David was one of the greats. Her books are wonderfully wordy, written in a light conversational tone that frequently wanders away from the recipe to tell anecdotes and sound forth on issues that mattered to her. They give you a window onto what it must have been like to live here after the War. From their tone I'm guessing that her readership at the time were respectable ladies in twin-sets and pearls who subscribed to improving publications like Reader's Digest and were Ottolenghi-ed by her wonderful Mediterranean-inspired offerings

Now, to get back to the point in hand, what surprised me about Elizabeth David's account of how to make oeufs en cocotte was that she suggested the à la crème was an add-on. In our house a big dollop of double cream always came as standard. And, in my considered view, there's no way this baby could pass for proper comfort food without it.

If you'd like to make some you'll need some eggs (duck eggs with their great, big, orange yolks are really, really good, but hen eggs will do too), some double cream (or, if you prefer, you could use crème fraîche) and a knob of butter.

The first thing to do is turn your oven on to about 200 º C/ 390º F/ Gas Mark 6, and allow it to heat up.

Next boil the kettle, and pour the boiling water into a heavy-bottomed sauté pan. I use a cast iron oven-to-table casserole dish because its dimensions are just right and it fits easily into the oven. The water should be to a depth that will not flood your ramekins when you place them in the pan.

Place the ramekins in the pan of boiling water with a knob of butter in each. When the butter melts brush it around the ramekins and add a big dollop of fresh cream or crème fraîche. Then crack an egg into each ramekin. Season your eggs and put the pan with the ramekins into the preheated oven.

Leave in the oven for about 10 to 12 minutes (15 to 18 minutes if you've got great, big, gorgeous duck eggs) or until the eggs are cooked to your liking.

The eggs are ready for most people when the white has set and the yolk is still nice and runny, but if you don't like them that way you can always leave them to cook for longer.

Enjoy with some nice crusty bread toast, lashings of butter and a good cup of tea. As you can see my New Year/ New Me diet has been postponed until ... February!

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared on Friday Finds

Tuesday 20 January 2015

Egyptian goose ... in Chiswick

Isn't it a beauty?

We were out for a walk on Sunday when it sailed by on the Serpentine in the grounds of Chiswick House. My first reaction was to admire the patchwork duck. A quick Google-around later, however, persuaded me that my patchwork duck was in fact an Egyptian Goose.

This native of the Nile Valley was once considered sacred by the Ancient Egyptians, by whom they were first domesticated. And like all nicely brought up ducks, they tend to pair with a mate for life.

It seemed strange that it should look so very much at home on a frosty morning in a London park. But then London's full of folk and fowl who come from strange and exotic places; that's a big part of its charm.

All the best,

Bonny x

As shared on Texture Tuesday

Thursday 15 January 2015

How to press flowers at home ...

It's a funny old time of the year to think about pressing flowers ... . I'll grant you that.

The thing is I've been very efficiently killing my lovely poinsettias all over the holidays. They've been left at home, all alone, and the deficit of love, care and affection has taken its toll ... .

Or, to put it another way: if that sad little poinsettia had any civil rights I'd have Social Services all over me like a bad rash. 

The truth is that, even if I had been at home, actively taking care of it, it would have still ended up looking more or less the same. When it comes to pot plants indoors I'm a bit of a homicidal klutz. 

But, out of all this Christmas carnage a few bright rays of positivity shine through the cracks of disaster. You see I was able to salvage some rather lovely red petals - or, are they really leaves? I never know with poinsettias. 

So what? Big deal!  I hear you saying to your computer screen.

Well, fair enough. Green-fingered maven I am not, but I do have a cunning plan, a very cunning plan indeed... .

Let me introduce my super-duper, home-made flower press: 

Can you believe I made it myself? (!!!)

I know it's all a bit Heath Robinson. I'm a regular wizard with one of those jigsaw thingimigs. 

OK, so I may not be about to knock Thomas Chippendale off his perch as the making-things-out-of-bits-of-wood supremo, but believe me this baby works. It presses flowers with the best of them. Just look at my lovely flower girl in the opening photo of this post to see what I'm on about.

You could go down to the shops and buy one for yourself, but there's no fun in that when you could spend a death-defying afternoon playing with a jigsaw thingimijig, and then have full boasting rights about how you not only survived the experience, but also made a super-duper home-made flower press.

Assuming that I've persuaded you to take up wood-work all you need to make the press are a couple of squares of strong marine plywood, drilled in each of their four corners to take long bolts. Just to give you an idea of dimensions, my plywood squares are 9"/ 23 cm each side and my bolts are 1/4"/ 1/2cm diameter and 5 1/2"/ 14 cm long.

When you've got all your bits made and drilled you simply put square A on top of square B, insert your bolts and screw them down, one on the other, to exert a wonderfully even pressure on all the lovely flowers you're going to press between the two. It's a good idea to splash out on a few large washers so that your bolts on the top won't cut into and contort the wood that they close directly down on (have a look at the photo of my press above to have a decko at my washers - ow my golly gosh that sounds pervy!). 

Then you just sandwich your flowers - and/or leaves - between sheets of old newspaper, which in turn you sandwich between squares of cardboard to keep the whole thing stable and tidy. It's so easy.

 I have a stash of squares of cardboard and old newspaper that I keep for the job.
And here I am laying my lovely poinsettia remains out to be pressed. I find that the dark coloured flowers press best. Whites, delicate pinks and yellows all tend to emerge a few months later in various shades of brown and drab. Bleuch!

Anyway, once you've got them all nice and flat and dried - about a couple of months after you've put them into the press - you can start to have fun.

Have a look at some more of my lovely flower girls:

Aren't they a bunch of sweeties?

I was short of a few thank you cards so I made some up.  All you need to make your own are a few blank cards, your pressed flowers, some paper glue that dries clear, a fine-line pen and some colouring pencils.

I've got a many thanks stamp that I used to write many thanks on the front. Then I had a go at figuring out how my lovely ladies would look. Petals to drapery is such an easy, fun thing to visualise in your head. 

Here's a work in progress that's been stamped many thanks and has all the lady's bits drawn in minus her pink cheeks, which I'd forgotten about at that stage. Note to self: flower girls need pink cheeks.

All I had to do after that was give her a hat and a nice twirly skirt. Here she is fully dressed, and wearing some pink cheeks.

Here's her friend as a work-in-progress:

And here she is after she's got dressed: 

Would you like to see my line-up? Well, ok, here they are: 

So now you know my cunning plan and how I'm plotting to snatch a small victory from the jaws of defeat that are my poinsettias!

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared on Friday Finds

Monday 12 January 2015

My Grandma's old Singer sewing machine ...

A long time ago when I was a little girl I had a wonderful Grandma who loved to sew, and another equally wonderful Grandma who loved to knit. I was truly blessed.  The two of them were good friends, but you know how they talk about people being chalk and cheese? Well that whole notion of folk being so very different from one another that they belonged in different elemental groups might have been coined for my grandmas.

Sewing Grandma was very musical. She played the organ at church on Sundays. Knitting Grandma was a born raconteur, who loved parties and dancing and young people. Sewing Grandma liked to have her friends over for dinner. She made her own preserves and baked a mean Victoria sponge. Knitting Grandma loved street markets and bargain-hunting. She liked stand-up comedians, soap operas and a good night out with her friends.

I loved them both, and I miss them more than I have words to say.

One day several months' ago my father came upon Sewing Grandma's old sewing machine. It was in a very sad state. It had been left exposed to the elements when a roof had collapsed and wasn't looking any the better for the experience. Someone who didn't have any emotional attachment might have described it as a piece of old junk.

When he told me about it my father was slightly taken aback by the depth of my sadness to hear of its demise.

You wouldn't want that old thing, would you? he'd asked, looking at me as though he'd never get his head around how my head worked.

Well, of course, I'd have loved to have it. It was the sewing machine on which I'd learnt to sew as a little girl, way back in the happy, sunshiny days when I'd had the kindest, sweetest, dearest teacher in the world initiating me in the mysterious ways of the Singer bullet bobbin. This old sewing machine had been one of my grandma's most precious possessions. It was something that she'd sat at for weeks of her life, making clothes for her family and soft furnishings for her home.

And my kind and generous father went off and quietly restored it for me. He's a wizard when it comes to fixing things. On this occasion his work was clearly a labour of love. And what he's done is nothing short of miraculous. Would you like to see my new/ old sewing machine?

Well. OK. Here it is:

Isn't it a stately thing of beauty? A real dowager duchess of a sewing machine.

It feels so steady and safe to work with. Amazingly after all it's been through it goes like clockwork. It's got none of the fancy schmancy stitches that are downloaded as part of the standard software onto a new machine. Heck it's only got one stitch and it can't even do that in reverse to create a backstitch lock, but I love it. And you can bet your bottom dollar that this is the machine I'm going to be working on from here on in.

I love the solid integrity of it all. Just look at the way the bobbin threads:

And the bobbin! Well it's such a delicate, Edwardian-looking little slip of a thing:

And you know what? It really is Edwardian. The serial number just beside the bobbin threader possesses a special magic all of its own. The Singer company have kept very clear, very detailed records of all the machines they've made over the years. With very little on-line detective work I was able to date my Grandma's machine to the year 1910, and to learn that it had been manufactured at Singer's Clydebank factory during the first half of that year.

If you've got an old sewing machine and you'd like to find out when it was made the International Sewing Machine Collectors' website is a pretty good place to get the low-down. You can find them here: Ismacs serial number list. It also lets you know which model number you've got, and the year in which it was made.

Sewing Grandma bought it as a pre-owned item at an auction in Belfast sometime in the late 1930's, so I doubt that it came with an instruction manual. None of us can ever remember seeing one. These days, however, if you know which model you've got you can download a manual from the Singer website. You can find them here: Singer Manual downloads. Amazing! Sewing Grandma would have been very impressed.

And now all I've got to do is put this grand old lady back to work again.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared on image-in-ing

Saturday 10 January 2015

Peanut butter and Clementine biscuits ...

Jeepers, creepers what weather we're having!

It's blowing such a gale outside that none of us have had any appetite to go out for our usual Saturday afternoon walk. I can't imagine what it's like for the folk caught in the Atlantic gales up in Northern Scotland. I loved the coast guard's description of how his window panes up in Stornaway were inhaling and exhaling with each gasp of the storm on the news the other morning.

So, in a bid to hide from the weather, we've cosied up indoors and done a spot of nesting. There's nothing to beat a cosy time on the sofa with a good book, some hot tea and nice stash of crunchy biscuits. My tea of choice these days is Punjana, which is what just about everyone in Ulster drinks.  It's a wonderfully strong, copper coloured beauty that's a delight for anyone who enjoys robust Indian teas.  And these little mamas were my biscuits of choice this afternoon. They're wicked!

If you'd like to make them they're also super quick and easy, and the ingredients are all work-a-day things that you're likely to have in your larder already - so, with any luck, you can avoid going out into the horrible weather.

Here's what you'll need to make about 14, 3 inch/ 7.5 cm diameter biscuits:

100 g/ 4 oz salted butter 
75g/ 3 oz soft, dark brown sugar
25g/ 1 oz golden syrup
1 tablespoonful of crunchy peanut butter
grated rind of 1 large clementine
100g/ 4 oz of plain cake-making flour
1 teaspoonful of baking powder
50 g/ 2 oz of rolled oats
25g/ 1 oz of finely chopped salted peanuts

And here's how you make them: 

1. Pre-heat your oven to 160º C/ 325º F/ Gas Mark 3.
2. Line a couple of baking trays with some baking parchment.
3. In a small saucepan over a very gentle heat melt the butter, sugar, syrup and peanut butter, stirring the mixture gently to get an even liquid consistency. 
4. Sift the flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Add the finely grated clementine rind and the rolled oats. Mix everything together until it is uniform.
5. Add the wet ingredients from the saucepan to the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl and give it all a good old stir to get a consistent, uniform mixture. 
6. Using a teaspoon divide the mixture into 14 or 15 round balls. Place each ball onto the baking parchment and push down gently with the back of the spoon to make round discs of about 1 cm thickness. They will spread a bit during cooking so leave a space between the biscuits that's at least 3 or 4 cm so that they can stretch out without conjoining.
7. Sprinkle the finely chopped peanuts on top of the biscuits, pushing them very gently into the biscuit dough.
8. Place the biscuits in the oven for about 20 minutes, until they've reached a lovely golden brown biscuit colour. Remove and leave to cool on a wire cooling tray.

Now go and put the kettle on for a nice cup of Rosie Lee. You've earned it!

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Thursday 8 January 2015

dried orange slice pot pourri ...

Today I'm busy up-cycling my Christmas decorations. No, really ... I'm not joking.

Do you remember how I made dried orange slice and cinnamon stick Christmas tree decorations back in the heady days of December?  Well I've up-cycled them into some pot pourri. Take a look at this:

It smells amazing.

I took the orange slices that had been hanging on the tree over the holidays and are now perfectly dried, de-threaded the hessian strings that I'd use to hang them on the branches, unwrapped their ribbons and did the same with the cinnamon sticks.

Then I found a great big plastic box that Emi had taken to school filled with sweets for his friends on his birthday. It's nothing special; just something that I'd got on my shelves.

I placed the orange slices and cinnamon sticks in my plastic box, and remembered some sweet little pine cones that I'd picked up on my travels during the summer. I'd got those stashed away in a glass jar to save and intensify their lovely pine smell.

Then I tipped in the remains of my jar of star anise, and had a sniff. It was already beginning to smell lovely with the liquorice notes of the star anise blending with the fresh, clean smell of the pine cones. 

I remembered a bunch of flowers that someone had brought for a dinner party back in May. They were lovely: all kinds of exotic thistle-like flowers with sea lavender. I'd thought at the time that they'd dry nicely, so, when their water reservoir had dried up, I placed them on a shelf and just left nature to take its course. 

I harvested a few thistle-like flower heads, some sea lavender and a rather lovely, faded rose to add to the mix.

It was starting to look nice, wasn't it?

But I needed to add something more in the fragrance department, so I got out a neat little bottle of Sweet Orange Essential Oil and added a few drops of that to big up the smell.

Mmmh ... now it was smelling much better.

Next I added a level half teaspoonful of Orris Root powder, my fixative of choice when making pot pourri. It adds a slight violet-fragrance of its own and helps preserve and stabilise the scent of any other essential oils that you use. You can buy it on-line.

I had another little play to check how all the bits looked when they were displayed together.

And then I put it all back in the plastic sweet box and closed the lid so that the scent can infuse and mature for several weeks before I take it out to use it for real.

As you can see it was a super easy thing to make, and it looks - and smells - just as good as anything you'd buy in the shops.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared on Friday Finds and Creative Mondays