Friday, 23 December 2011

For those unhappy at Christmas...

The Christmas season is such a joyful time - families gathering together sharing food, memories and good cheer...

...or is it?

For many it is a time of tension, hurt and pain – those expectations, hopes and dreams lying in tatters.  There are families with members who don’t really get along during the rest of the year who come together determined that it will be different but, fuelled by too much alcohol and food things go totally pear shaped as the cabin fever hits.

The streets are full of people hurrying about their tasks; shopping for presents, the special Christmas outfit, festival food and drink.  This is the image the advertisers want to promote - buy this, buy that and all your dreams will be realised with everyone happy and smiley.

...but there are those who struggle to  drag themselves out of bed,  those who wonder where their next meal will come from, those whose families are far away, whose friends have all left for the holidays. Most cultures and religions have festivals and rituals in the middle of winter for a reason – to bring light and hope to the darkest and bleakest time of the year. For those unable to participate it can be hard to see that as we have just passed the Winter solstice on 21st December, the days will begin to lengthen, as the darkness gradually retreats.

For many, this is a time of despair, loneliness and sadness.  It is important to recognise the danger signs of dark winter days, cold nights, and dashed expectations. There is less opportunity to get out and about into the fresh air, to meet with friends who may be busy with their own families, to take part in the usual activities that keep us healthy and focussed and in touch with people to help and support us.

If you know someone who is suffering, alone or vulnerable, keep an eye on them.  Call them up, invite them over and remember to listen to the thoughts behind the words – I’m fine.

Remind them that you care for them, they are not alone and there is hope.

Here are some resources both for you when you want to help or for you needing it.  Lots of help and advice for coping at this time of year.  Blogs from people who have been there  Someone to talk to when you are feeling low

NHS Direct 08454647 This is a 24 hour helpline

Monday, 19 December 2011

Happy Christmas!!

It’s Christmas week and I am so looking forward to a lovely sociable time and a good break.  I finally finished my stained glass windows and installed them on Friday morning before my last client sessions.  It is such fun to finally see them in place.  When working with stained glass panels you only know what they will look like when they are up and the light can shine through.  It feels like such an unveiling and then I have to keep looking at them at different times of the day because the light changes depending on the time and weather.

Blue window

Pink window

This was my first peek at the windows all finished

Here they are installed.  What you can’t see are all the black fingermarks everywhere from the lead blacking stuff!

Then it was time to do a major mucking out of the house ready for the Open House we hold every year.  We serve mulled wine and mince pies and the alternative of spicey apple juice and satsuma cake / fairy cakes / bread and cheese.

Mince pies :)

I brought a satsuma cake into the Enquiry Unit last week and everyone loved it so much and demanded the recipe en masse, as did those who attended the Open House ... so here you are!  It is one of my favourite cakes for this time of year when satsumas are so plentiful.  My friend Carey wrote it out for me and maintains that it so healthy you can eat it for breakfast without feeling guilty!

Satsuma Cake
For the cake:
5-6 satsumas  (weight about 375gm)
250g ground almonds
225g caster sugar
6 eggs
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder

For the topping:
Crème fraiche with lemon or orange zest stirred in
1.     Place satsumas in a saucepan of water with lid on.  Boil then turn heat down to gently simmer for 1.5 - 2 hours until soft and pulpy. Check every so often and top up water as necessary so they don’t boil dry. Don’t heat them or boil them too rapidly or they will burst.  
2.     Drain the water off and leave them to cool.  You can leave them overnight if you haven’t got time to make the cake immediately.
3.     Either mash with a potato masher or blitz them in a food processor - skin, pith and all - until pureed. (There will be some bits of skin left but I find these just add to the flavour.)
4.     Beat the eggs then add them and the other ingredients. Blitz or stir until smooth.
5.     Cook in pre-heated oven at 190oC for about an hour, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean. For a fan oven use temp of 175oC
6.     Leave to cool on a rack.
7.     Apply topping.
It tastes even better the next day! You need to store it in the fridge but it is nicer at room temperature or just cut off a piece and zap in the microwave for 30 seconds.  I made this for my friend Melody’s birthday and decorated it with bright pink crème fraiche and holographic edible glitter.

My other achievement this week is that I have finally mastered making WI standard fairy cakes.  After much internet research I found that the trick is in the mixing in of the eggs after creaming the butter and sugar together.  Although it is so much easier and cheaper, I really hate using margarine in baking as it is so processed and never tastes as lovely as buttery ones.  It has taken me so long to achieve this miracle that i am going to share it with you!

Fairy cakes:
4 oz butter
4oz caster sugar
4 oz self raising flour
2 large eggs
A little milk and a few drops of vanilla

Make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature. 
Heat the oven to 180oC (175oC for fan ovens)
Prepare your cake tins – either lay out the little paper cases on a tray or wipe some butter paper around your fairy cake tins.
Beat the butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon until creamy and soft.
Beat the eggs just until, no more.
Now for the tricky part.  Add the egg to the sugar/butter mix a teaspoon full at a time and beat it in alternating with the flour.  It is crucial not to add the egg too fast or the mix will curdle. That’s the bit that is missing from so many recipes! You should end up with a lovely creamy mixture if you are patient and mix the egg in small enough quantities.  Add a few drops of vanilla and a dash of milk and put a spoonful into the centre of each fairy cake paper or holder.  Don’t bother smoothing it out – it will do that itself in the oven.
Bake in the centre of the oven for 10-15 minutes until golden brown.  Place on an airing tray (or just a spare oven slide) and cover with a tea towel to cool.

When the cakes have cooled – go mad and creative with your icing, decorations and glitter!

So you probably think I am fairly food obsessed!! Well this time of year food and ritual is so important and symbolic of family, relationships and culture. I love watching my children creating their own rituals, incorporating those from their childhood with new ones they develop with their partners.

We have been enjoying the online Advent calendar my Oz big sister Jackey sent me.  Jacquie Lawson does the most amazing London one and each day I click on a new number to open a wonderful little scene accompanied by different Christmas music.  I was quite amused that it was sent to me from 12,000 miles away but it originated in Jacquie’s studio in Lurgashall about 2 miles away from my daughter Kate’s house! If you want some wonderful Christmas cheer, download it!

The calendar is all snowy with all our familiar London sights.  First thing in the morning I have to rush in, stick on my headset and click on the snow globe icon to see today’s scene.  You can’t cheat and look at the next day as the whole thing is connected to the computer clock.

The Enquiry Unit is looking very Christmassy with far too much food and treats to keep us going answering all those last pre-Christmas enquiries.

EU Christmas tree
Sam's Christmas tree

I am working the last Friday before the university is shut down until the New Year and luckily I have the next few days off as I really need to get out and do my Christmas shopping! I also need to have a few days off to keep me away from all the food here in the office! I hope the weather does something more interesting than the dreary drizzling happening just now.  At least last year we had the drama of snow.  The temperature in Melbourne is expected to be 30oC on Christmas Day so I would like it to be lovely and snowy here – but only after my daughter gets to us from West Sussex.

Santa must get very hot by the time he has finished in Oz!  It must be quite a relief to get back to the Northern hemisphere!

Surfing Santas 

So all that there is left to do is to wish you a Very Happy Christmas and see you in the New Year when I will continue to regale you with my epistolary** account of my student life at Greenwich.

**this is my new favourite word as explained to me by Cherie – my fellow blogger.  I had to keep writing this blog until I could figure out how to get it in!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

My Diamond Blog!

People can have diamond anniversaries for 60 years of marriage so I’ve decided that as this is my 60th blog to make it a diamond one!

Yesterday was our second last week in college and the last day of hand-ins before Christmas.  I had a particularly busy week writing two case studies; one for presentation in my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Option and one for my Integrative Option.  I have also had to obtain reports from both placements and submit them by the 4pm deadline.  Now I can relax and get ready for Christmas.  I still have to send off cards and start shopping. I have put myself under slightly more pressure by deciding that I must complete my stained glass windows and install them ready for Christmas Day.  It has taken me three months to come up with my design and I have been doing samples of fusing glass with fern leaves between.  They have come out so well that I am able to use them in my design.  Last Friday, after a particularly challenging session at my placement, I needed to give my brain a rest from anything to do with counselling.  I got out my window design and started cutting glass pieces. I only meant to do an hour or so but before I knew it midnight had come and gone!  I probably should have put it aside on the weekend to focus on this week’s readings but I had been having so much fun that I carried on until I had finished all the glass cutting by Saturday afternoon.  It is a good thing that I have to wait to go to my class on Thursday to get lead or I would have kept going doing all the leading up!

14th December

My diamond blog has become a two parter.  I have been so busy working on my stained glass that everything else has taken a back seat but I am nearly finished and am looking forward to installing it this weekend.

This pic shows all the glass cut and I have started ‘leading up’  we use a special lead knife with a flat end which is used to hammer in the horse shoe nails to hold it all in place ready for soldering.  The red thing is called a fid and is really handy for opening up the lead channels, and pushing the glass into place.

The leading up is completed all the joints are then soldered on both sides. It is always a bit hairy turning the panel over to solder the second side.  I have visions of all the glass falling out and having to start all over again

I love making a mess and this is one of my favourite stages>  The  soldering is done and black cement pushed into all the gaps between the glass and lead to stabilise and weather proof the panel.  Whiting is then sprinkled all over to set the cement.  It feels really soft and silky to smooth in.

I am now waiting for it to dry ready for the final stage of blacking the lead and polishing the glass. I should be able to install it by the end of the week so my next blog will be pics of the unveiling.  I wonder if the queen would agree to do it for me?

My Kate came up on Sunday to have a mummy -daughter session of Christmas baking.  When she was younger it was impossible to keep her in the house.  She spent every spare moment out with horses; mucking out, cleaning their tack, grooming and riding.  I didn’t have the time or energy to deal with the agro, so cooking lessons pretty much went out the window until just a couple of years ago when she started getting bored with takeaways and realised how expensive ready meals are.

She phoned me two days before with her wish list.  It included crackle cakes, gingerbread, shortbread and, to my horror, fairy cakes and chocolate truffles. 

I have never made perfect fairy cakes, always heavily disguising my rather solid offerings with ‘extreme’ icing, attempting to dazzle people with lairy colours so they ignore the dodgy cake beneath! This session was no exception.  Although not meeting the exacting standards of the WI, once covered in girly pink icing and holographic edible glitter our fairy cakes looked very pretty and Kate was delighted.

Our gingerbread people came out very squidgy because the kitchen got too hot but the chocolate crackle cakes were perfect and sparkled with bronze glitter!  I was very nervous attempting truffles for the first time but thanks to Jamie Oliver’s online recipe they came out perfectly. We had a lovely girly time together while him –at- home escaped to his manly, glitter- free office and submerged himself in techy stuff.  We were ably assisted by Kate’s Murphy who arrived in his country style Sherlock Holmes tweed jacket, and kept the floor sparkling clean by licking up any of our dropped crumbs.  Murphy has acquired quite a reputation for his ability to sniff out food and devour it in record time.  Memorable occasions included Christmas two years ago when he scoffed the remains of our three bird roast and a camping trip where he stole a one pound block of cheese and  all our ham sandwiches while we were pitching the tent. We managed to keep everything safe this time and rewarded him with his second favourite meal – sardine porridge.  His no 1 favourite is dried pigs ears – yum!

Monday, 28 November 2011

Christmas is coming – that means cooking!

I thought about telling you all about my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy module and my fascination with Attachment Theory but I think it will have to wait for another time because …it’s time to get out my special recipes and begin my Christmas cooking – hurrah!
Growing up in Melbourne, I could never see the point of rich fruit cakes, Christmas puddings with brandy butter, and big roast dinners  in the middle of summer  which is when Christmas falls in Australia and the rest of the southern hemisphere.  If you have never been south, imagine eating like that in the middle of July here and you’ll get some idea of how weird it was.  However, I grew up in a family that originated in the northern hemisphere  - my mother’s father came from Ireland, her mother, although born in Oz, had English parents, while my father’s father was English and his mother American.  Our family tradition dictated that we celebrated Christmas with all the northern hemisphere traditions, the only concession being to serve chicken instead of turkey that my mum considered to be tasteless and dry.  In those days chicken was a luxury that we ate only at Christmas day and Easter Sunday, one bird carefully carved to feed all eight of us accompanied by roast vegetables, many of which had been lovingly grown by my dad in the backyard.
Since I was little, traditions have changed so much in Australia. Back then the indigenous culture was pretty much ignored and non-indigenous Australians looked outward to their ‘mother country’ for validation and tradition, taught in school that our arrival in Australia was the start of the civilisation and taming of this wonderful country. How wrong we were.   
Now Christmas cards often feature Father Christmas as a surfie in shorts, singlet and sunnies with Oz kangaroos, echidnas and wombats instead of reindeer.
People gather for barbies and salad on the deck or the beach, well armed with Aerogard to fight off the hoards of mozzies and flies* while others celebrate this mid summer festival with a beach holiday or wonderful cuisine originating from our Asian neighbours - China Vietnam, Japan, the Pacific Rim – and given that special Australian twist. Then there is that wonderful and new tradition of Christmas in July where those who love all the European rich food traditions of their ancestry gather together for a feast in the middle of winter down under – July.  How sensible it that? Besides - what a great excuse for a party!

Coming to England, I finally got the mid winter celebration thing of eating, drinking and making merry in the bleakest, darkest time of the year.  It isn’t just a Christian tradition either; so many other cultures and religions have festivals of lights, feasting and gatherings at this time.
..So here I am and I love it!  This week I got out all my recipe books stained with little blobs from the years of turning pages with sticky fingers and marked with scribbled notes of when I cooked the recipe, who was with me and what we thought of it –  such comments as “yumbo” “scrumptious “ “cooked this with currants instead of sultanas ‘cos he forgot to buy them” and “bit of a disaster - we forgot to put the timer on” .  For the last few years I have got together with my lovely neighbour Gill, originally from Zimbabwe, for our cooking sweatshop.  It is so much more fun to cook with someone else.
As I type this my mincemeat is cooling in jars and I am waiting for the Christmas cakes to cook.  I am feeling rather nervous because Gill is the cake expert and she has left me in sole charge of assessing when they are cooked.  Mincemeat is so easy to do – a matter of bunging all the ingredients in a pan, leaving it overnight to suffuse and then cooking for 3 hours in the oven at 150  the following morning.  You then give it a stir, spoon it into jars and leave it to mature until you’re ready to make mince pies closer to Christmas.  I am absolute rubbish at making pastry so I have given up trying! I just use the ready-made stuff from the supermarket instead.  In my opinion, no perfect looking bought mince pie comes anywhere near a wonky old home made one with attitude!
Now making Christmas cake is whole different animal and thank goodness for Delia Smith’s Christmas book and my mentor Gill.  Gathering all the ingredients together is fairly simple and, like mincemeat, you soak the fruit, juice and alcohol overnight and then mix in all the other ingredients.
It is the preparation of the cooking tin that is quite a technique but lots of fun if you have a friend with you and lots of gossip to catch up on.  The cake tin has to be lined with four layers of buttered greaseproof paper, and after adding the mixture, is wrapped with a further two layers of brown paper and tied up with string.  A loose cover of brown paper is laid gently on the top of the mixture to stop it burning and the cake cooked for about 4 ½ hours at 150 .  I had always been scared of cooking a Christmas cake until Gill and I did our first joint session three years ago.  I love the whole ritual of it now – so any of you out there who want to give it a go – Delia is the queen of recipes that always work – so long as you follow the instructions perfectly!
I have taken so long writing this blog that the cake is now cooked and cooling on a rack.  When completely cold I have to ‘feed’ it before wrapping it in greaseproof paper and re-feeding it weekly. Feeding involves pricking it all over the top and bottom with a darning needle and spooning brandy over it.  As I ‘feed’ my cake I am reminded of when I was a nurse so many moons ago, and every ward would be given a Christmas cake to share amongst the staff.  Those rock hard tasteless cakes must have been bought as a job lot but by filling 50 ml syringes with the donated alcohol from grateful patients and injecting them (the cakes, not the patients!) at regular intervals we  rendered them (the cakes, not the patients!) wonderfully tasty!
This time of year is, for me, about gathering with friends and family and celebrating with wonderful seasonal food and drink.  I am totally not bothered about presents – if you can’t eat it or drink it I am sooo not interested!  Maybe it’s old age creeping up on me – or I am just weird!
…so my next cooking venture will be gingerbread, shortbread and chocolate truffles so watch this space for updates…and I might even tell you a bit more about my course!
*Translation  Oz  - English
Barbie = barbeque    Sunnies= sunglasses    Surfie=surfer     Mozzies= mosquitoes     Aerogard= an insecticide roll-on to (hopefully) detract  the flies and dissuade  the mozzies’ from treating you as their Christmas dinner

Friday, 18 November 2011

That ‘Heads Down’ time of Year

Everyone is so busy getting stuck into their studies, with deadlines looming and Christmas fast approaching – too fast for me! I am extra busy with my new clinical placement.  I see four clients on Thursday morning in the placement I started at the beginning of my second year. On Friday I see three in my new placement in an inner London Borough.  I also have extra supervision to attend and all those extra notes to write up.

The two placements are very different.  My first is set in a leafy outer London suburb above a GP surgery.  It is a charity funded solely from donations and fund raising activities.  Clients can either refer themselves or be referred by their GPs.  It is in a quiet suburban road with only the sounds of birds and the occasional train to disturb the silence.  It is a very new building with new furniture, walls painted in tasteful shades of soothing lilac with calming prints on the walls. When there is sunshine, it streams through the windows. I greet clients in the waiting room and bring them through to our counselling room.  My other placement is part of a GP surgery with 12,000 patients on its books located in a huge old stately Victorian former bank building set right on one of the busiest intersections in South London.  All clients are referred by their GP’s, or another professional. The paintwork and furnishings have seen better days and none of the chairs match.  The waiting area walls are liberally sprinkled with notices requesting people to stay away if they have the flu and urge them to come for a flu jab if they haven’t.  I work in the basement where the sound of police sirens, ambulances, and the general hurley burley of the outside world is somewhat muffled by the thick walls that still house the huge former bank vaults and block out any vestige of sunlight. There is a sense of real calm there with every effort being made to soften the harsh environment with subdued lighting and soft furnishings. Reception notifies me of my clients’ arrival by computer system, and I then  pop my head outside the door to call my client patiently waiting with the patients booked for blood tests, walking frames etc.  As soon as I show my clients in, I have to notify reception by computer system and ask them to complete a monitoring form – and only then are we able to settle into the work. Although the settings are so different, the clientele still come with the same concerns and my role remains the same – to be the best counsellor I can be. It is wonderful experience working in such contrasting settings.

There are only eleven in our year group now, it feels much more intimate.  After three hours of theory we split into two case discussion groups and then those who are doing the long research project are free to go where the six of us who are studying the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy pathway stay for a further two hours for theory and practical work. We are all now qualified to diploma level and are referred to as counsellors rather than as students or trainees.  We are expected to be even more self- directed with our studies this year and our tutors seem different – more like mentors guiding us towards that time we will be leaving Greenwich as fully fledged counsellors – a scary thought!

In between my two clinical placement ‘slots’ I still attend my weekly stained glass evening class.  Sometimes it feels such a struggle to get it together after a busy, tiring day but once there I become lost in the joy and wonder of working with glass.  It is incredibly important for me to balance my academic work with practical projects such as my stained glass work, gardening and house renovations.

Walking through Autumn woods followed by indulging in a big bowl of warm homemade soup, watching David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet series with its stunning photography, browsing in my local fabric shop with my senses bombarded with colour and texture, a warm bubbly bath filled with gorgeous smellies, are some of my favourite things for renewing my flagging spirits!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Presenting under duress!

I’m now in week 6 of first term - half way through already and time seems to have flown. I had a nasty shock on receiving an email from the course tutor to say that I needed to prepare a presentation about my Personal Development Project(PDP) , an 8,000 word piece due in on 1 October next year. This is meant to be a research project with the subject being ME and how I have developed as a counsellor over the three years of my course.  The problem is that most of the course involves reflection on practice, keeping personal and professional logs, case discussions, supervision about my practice etc so there is quite a lot of thinking about me, writing about me, talking about me... to the point where I’m getting very bored with the subject of ME!  I have already written four 3000 word professional logs about ME and my response to taking part in the experiential group relating it to theory, my practice and my cases. I feel like I have been reflecting on practice and ME for the last 30 years -  aaahhhh!
 Of course I had done nothing about beginning it at all.  I have been feeling so uninterested I had  gone into ostrich mode – if I don’t think about it for long enough it might go away!  
Unfortunately my strategy was never going to work so with deadline looming accompanied by a rising level of panic I downloaded the handbook then emailed my project supervisor to arrange a meeting.  That was enough to concentrate my mind and I started by looking at the seven points that had to be covered by the project.  I figured I treat this quite mechanically and just write 1000 words on each point and use the last 1000 to tie it all together into a conclusion.
I went to my meeting feeling thoroughly grumpy and laid out my plan for a straightforward ploddy piece only to be told that I would be very bored with it and find it ‘difficult to engage’.  My tutor knows me only too well and can easily detect when I am in tantrum mode – digging my heels in and screaming “nooooo”!  So we began to talk about my thorough resistance to doing the project and why I have decided before I start that I am going to be bored, find it too difficult or make it as unpleasant for myself as I possibly can – ie if it isn’t painful I am not working hard enough!  It is often my default position – dread it for ages, use avoidance behaviour, ie procrastination,  get grumpy at everyone around me ...then finally settle down to it and get it done.  Then I, and everyone else around me who had suffered as collateral damage, wonder what all the fuss was about!

So there we have it - my working title is ‘Doing a counselling course from the back foot’. The two students presenting before me were really positive with wonderful power point presentations  and I began to feel worse and worse.  I had written one page that seemed to be completely negative and had visions of everyone feeling like slitting their throats by the end of it.  I was pleasantly surprised to have my proposal received very positively.  Blimey – you could have knocked me down with a feather!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Autumn soup time!

Winter is truly on its way with the clocks going back tonight, less than two months until Christmas and the alarm clock going off in the dark. I feel so ambivalent about this time o the year.  It is such a beautiful season in England with the glorious colours of Autumn, the fun of fireworks night and snuggling up around a cosy fire with a big bowl of Autumn soup.

Autumn has arrived in our tiny back garden and him-at-home has been very busy preparing it for winter. 
Autumn in Miniature
My new favourite plant this year is the heuchera.  They come in such an amazing variety of colours from bright green through all the colours of Autumn to the deepest of deep reds.  They keep their colour all through the winter when my other favourites – hostas and ferns -have tucked themselves under the soil, to hibernate until spring comes again.  Heucheras, winter pansies and cyclamen brighten up our wintery garden and make me smile on those dull grey days.
I love my food to be as seasonal and ritually relevant as I can get it.  I hate eating salad in the winter and avoid those horrible tasteless imported strawberries when the wonderfully fragrant English ones are out of season.  I won’t eat hot cross buns on any other day but Good Friday and mince pies and mulled wine are only for Christmas.  I love looking forward to those special occasions – the first asparagus, spinach time, Apple harvest,  and pumpkin time.  Not only does it make food so much more special to eat it seasonally, it is much cheaper.  I’ve decided this blog is the perfect place to share my autumn soup recipe with you.  It can be made in vast quantities, with endless variations and each batch tastes different!  When I am stuck on an essay or fed up with reading some impenetrable paper where every second word has to one of at least 4 syllables to demonstrate the author’s impressive vocabulary, making my soup is a perfect distraction.  Nothing needs to be measured and there is no special equipment needed. We are a walk away from Lewisham Market and we just pick up vast quantities of whatever veg is going cheap.  Be warned though – don’t use green veg in it – I tried and it was awful.
Alice’s Autumn Soup – the perfect fuel for course work writing!
·         2 onions roughly chopped (wear swimming goggles if you are worried about tears!)
·         Garlic (as much as you like – I stick in 3 or 4 cloves and never have trouble with vampires!) either chopped or crushed
·         Root vegetables e.g. carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, parsnip, swede all chopped up about the size of dice.  I prefer to have more orange veg than the white veg.
·         Pepper, salt, mixed herbs.  If you want to go more exotic you can spice it up with a bit of  paprika, coriander, curry  powder – whatever takes your fancy
·         Stock – make it up with a stock cube either chicken, vegetable or beef.  You may need two if you make a huge quantity. 
·         Tinned tomatoes – one or two tins depending how much you make.
·         Oil – I always use olive because it is so good for you  - and it tastes the best!
·         ….and Alice’s secret ingredient – a teaspoon of vegemite!  But don’t worry if you haven’t got it!
·         Chop everything up but keep the onions and garlic separate.
·         In a large pan pour about a tablespoon of oil, warm it up and then add the onion.  Stay with it, stirring it gently over a low heat until it goes clear.
·         Add garlic and stir it for another couple of minutes
·         Add all the other vegetables and stir them around to coat with the oil. Turn the heat down very low, cover the pan and leave it the vegetables to ‘sweat’ for about 10  - 20minutes.  Be really careful not to have the heat too high or they will catch on the bottom of the pan and burn – that tastes disgusting! Keep checking them and stir occasionally.
·         Meanwhile mix up the stock cubes with warm water - about a pint will do for now.
·         Add the stock, tinned tomatoes and seasonings and stir around.  Add more water if you want.
·         Bring it all to the boil then turn the heat down until it is all just simmering gently.
·         Depending on the size of your batch it will take between 30-60 minutes for everything to go lovely and soft. Plenty of time to get another couple of articles read or an essay mapped out!
·         Taste it and add more seasonings if you wish.
·         Take it off the heat and when cooled slightly mash it all up with a potato masher or use a food processor if you have one.  If it is too thick add more water.
·         Serve it up just as it is or add cream, cream fraiche, parmesan cheese, croutons chopped up coriander &/or parsley, a swirl of Worcester sauce
·         This soup freezes really well but remember to just freeze the basic soup, not the serving add ons.  If you freeze it really thick it will take up less space in the freezer and thawed it can be thinned with more water.
Autumn Soup
So there you have it - my autumn soup recipe.  I always eat it in my special soup bowls I made at school in Oz .They are old and chipped but just completely perfect to wrap your  chilly hands around on a cold wintery day as you indulge!  Enjoy!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Open Day and a trip to the loo

Saturday was a beautiful day – chilly but bright and sunny. This is my absolute favourite sort of Autumn weather. The UoG Open Day started at 10 o’clock and all the ambassadors had to arrive at 8am to help set up. That always feels so early as I prop my eyelids up with matchsticks during my early Saturday brekkie!  This time we were trying a new set up – instead of leading tours of visitors we were allocated to ‘tour points’. These were marked by red balloons with tour routes marked by red stars on the ground and blue balloons.  The balloons looked lovely all along the fence between the two campuses – unfortunately they were very appealing to the locals and had disappeared by 10.30!
Open Day balloons

I was stationed at tour point no 7 on the Mansion site, with Dan, a first year student paramedic. We had to memorise a script about the history of the mansion site and show people the common room, (formerly the drawing room), the winter gardens and an area I had never visited previously – the Victorian ladies’ loo. Well, dear reader – that was the highlight of the day for me!  This hidden gem was part of the original mansion constructed on this site by the immensely rich Colonel North in the 1890’s. Bombing in the second world war destroyed much of the building including a full set of Turkish baths, but the entrance foyer, the ballroom  (now the library) and the wonderful, glass houses of the winter gardens are still here. They give a good impression of just how over-the-top the whole place must have been – quite an ostentations display of wealth and privilege. His backyard was Avery Hill Park and there was plenty of space for his regiment 250 men to camp there!
Unfortunately he wasn’t around for long after the building was finished and after his death it had to be sold. any way back to those loos! The corridor is like any educational institutional corridor and you go through a door marked ‘Staff only’ and enter another world!
Marble basins

“Harry Potter loos!”  exclaimed some of our visitors delightedly.
And all that marble! Imagine popping in here to powder your nose between dances in the ballroom!
And only the best in porcelain! Royal Doulton no less! I love the attention to detail – the soap dish carved out of solid marble and those gorgeous Victorian taps.

...and then we get to the windows! The detail is beautiful. Luckily I had two architecture students who shared my interest so that I could wax lyrical with them! They are designed and manufactured by Campbell Smith & Co., well known church window makers of the time.
Windows and ceiling
The ceiling is quite amazing also. It is fully tiled using a technique known as Burmantoft’s faïence, praised in British Architecture as “the best of its kind we have seen”. I discovered Burmantoft’s pottery works was near Leeds in Yorkshire. now you know!  I wonder where I will be next Open Day?  Am I going to be privy to some more hidden treasures, I wonder!

Friday, 14 October 2011

Oh Glorious Vegemite!!

Being such an international university the Enquiry Unit is like a mini league of nations.  We all have our favourite national dishes and enjoy swapping notes.  We had a debate the other day about which was better – marmite or vegemite.  As I consider there to be no contest, I thought it was time to write in defence of my national icon.

A recent news article caught my eye.   In August the Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd was flying to New York from Mexico when he was stopped by authorities suspicious of the jar of dark brown liquid in his cabin baggage.  He tweeted that it ‘required foreign ministerial intervention’ to explain that it was his breakfast and was good very good for you. This followed another story about an encounter between the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and Barack Obama.  He had the audacity to describe the hallowed substance "a quasi-vegetable by-product paste that you smear all over your toast", then pronouncing it "horrible". I must say – I thought Obama had impeccable taste until I read that – he has now gone down in my estimation somewhat!
…and woes betide anyone that dares mess with the special recipe. Kraft, the makers of Vegemite, developed a new, creamier, cheesy version and asked the public to suggest a name.  Web designer Dean Robbins won after submitting the name iSnack2.0. However, Kraft had to scrap the name after public outcry that it was "the worst name ever" and "unAustralian".
One respondent demanded that poor Dean should be forced to run down the main street of Sydney "wearing nothing but a generous lathering of old-fashioned Vegemite as retribution for his cultural crime".

Vegemite was invented in Australia in1923 as a way to utilise yeast extract left over from the beer brewing process.  My dad told me that they had the idea of naming it Pa-wont in response to the (in any self respecting Aussie’s opinion) far inferior British product Marmite!  It is an acquired taste like coffee and olives and for true acclimatisation, one needs to be raised on the wonderful stuff.  My mother used to make rusks for us when we were babies and flavour them with vegemite.  She also used it to flavour stews and soups and every time she added it would warn us not to tell Dad or he wouldn’t eat it!
Whenever I have a guest arriving from Oz who asks what to bring – my answer is always the same – a decent sized jar of vegemite!  How sublime to dip my knife into a whole 1 kilo jar of the wonderful stuff! Him- at- home cannot understand my love of the stuff and as I prepare one of my all time favourite snacks of ryvita or oatcakes with vegemite and extra mature cheddar cheese, he never fails to remark that, once again, I am spoiling a perfectly good oat cake/ryvita!  I sort of have to forgive him because he is British and pretty perfect in every other way!
The Vegemite Girls
I thought I would see what else has been written about the lovely stuff and these were some of my favourites from the Urban dictionary:
·         Very potent in strong doses, able to render your taste buds on the verge of withering up and dying. If you've grown up around Vegemite then this will have no effect on you.

·         Thick brown brewer's yeast paste from the Land Down Under. The slightest dollop on the end of a toothpick touched to a slug's back will incapacitate it in a matter of seconds, and render it a salty and torturous pool of black ooze in just under a minute effectively creating another couple ounces of Vegemite to dab on one's toast.

·         A semi edible dark brown paste. Traditionally used by Australians to disgust foreigners. Highly effective on North Americans.
 "Try this Chip, It's called vegemite. It tastes like nutella".

spread THINLY on toast or bread, with or without butter.
If spread too thickly, vegemite is inedible, even for Aussies.

When I left Oz so many centuries ago, being such a well-prepared traveller and a former girl guide, I made sure I packed two very important items – my vegemite and my snake bite kit.  I still have the snake bite kit, but still haven’t had a chance to use it. Maybe snakes, being very wise, know that I am so well fortified by my daily intake of vegemite they wouldn’t get near me!