Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for July, 2013

Food Porn Alert

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

Hello there and welcome to a shameless tarty-food post.  This is just for those people who are coming to any workshops here in the autumn.

We will be serving this:

Millionaire Brownie 2

It is Millionaire Salt-Caramel Brownie.  This was made – or ought I to say created, conjured, coaxed – by my daughters, working as a team in their endless pursuit of The Great Devil-Baker’s handiwork.

Not content with the common, all-garden shortbread version, they have substituted the base for dark, squidgy brownie, just this side of cooked, then added a layer of home made salt caramel, and topped it all off with a peanut butter chocolate ganache.

I am not a big fan of cakes and puddings to be honest with you.  Now calm down, it’s not like I just confessed to knitting with cat fur or liking BBC Radio 5-Live.  I am a big fan of the savoury end of the food spectrum, specifically meat, fish, cheese and vegetables and any things that combine these food groups.  Roast beef, loads of cauliflower cheese and some veg.  Sorted.  Or a short-crust chicken and veg pie.  Now we are in business.

For sweetness, I like plain vanilla cheesecake, Nigella’s Guinness cake and custard tarts.  That is more or less it.  Until I tried this Millionaire Brownie.  It’s good.  It’s very good.

I sometimes feel a bit left out.  For example, I have never watched The Apprentice, Downton Abbey, or any of the Star Wars films.  It’s the same with the current national obsession with baking.  I just don’t get it.  But I guess that is because I’m all meh about 90% of the outcome of this frenzy of flour and sugar and jam.  Maybe now I ‘get’ it.  I think I like it because it has what Nigella (all hail) calls the holy trinity of human taste desire:  salt, sweet and fat.

I only had one square of the new pudding and that is where I will draw the line, but it’s so nice that in order to restrain myself, I had to have it locked in a ‘fridge in the garage with a car parked across the door.  I don’t usually bother with restraint, as you may know.  I think temptation is basically there to be yielded to.  But I have had to be very firm with myself over this treat.

Anyway, for those winners who are attending an event here this autumn, this will be the tea-time offering.  In Spring, it will change to Cornish pasties*.

* It won’t.  Millington doesn’t really like pastry.


Summer Memories

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Why a sudden and longed for summer which features actual sunshine and proper heat should make me rather sad, I do not know.  But it has.

In my garden, I grow flowers in colours that I wouldn’t wear, probably; or knit.  However I do love pink, that is true.  Loving pink may be my defining ‘thing’.  I really hope it isn’t, but I have a feeling that it could be. I do wear pink sometimes. Usually at the gym. One of the boldest flowers in my garden is a bright pink phlox:

phlox (2)

This is my phlox, with a clashy orange flower behind.  I was still deep in my Christopher Lloyd phase.

The scent of a phlox is odd – not unpleasant, but not as sweet as the appearance of the flowers might suggest. It is also one of those scents that has the power to overwhelm you in a tidal wave of remembered days, dragged out of the past and tumbled into your present-day.  An undignified and jumbled heap of memories, conjured by a side-swipe from a flower.

It gives out its strongest scent in the evening, the phlox.  One evening this week I was gardening in the border where the phlox grow. I was in fact uprooting the spent foxgloves and tipping their sand-fine seeds onto bare patches of earth to provide me with more foxgloves next year.  Foxgloves remind me of my father.  A lot of gardening activities and flowers do that because we gardened together, from when I was a small child until the year before his death.  ‘You only ever need to plant one foxglove, Al’, said dad, ‘because it makes a thousand seeds; just don’t pull them out until they are ready and don’t hoe.’  But, if you plant two very different foxgloves – say, one white, or cream, and one purple – over the next few years, they will mingle and interbreed and reward you with lovely, unexpected variations.

So I was shaking the seeds out, trying to remember which plants had been so lovely, for some had come up wearing white ‘gloves’ with deep purple splashes in its throat, and I was as usual when dealing with the foxgloves, thinking – slightly, gently but not deeply – of dad.  And I brushed past the phlox.  It released its odd, clove-and-vanilla scent in a puff, a cloud that caught me totally off my guard.

In a frozen moment, staring down at the soil, I felt I was back in another garden.  Not my childhood garden.  My aunt’s.  Aunt Edith had a suburban garden in Denton, Greater Manchester, with a square front lawn, prone to flooding in the winter due partly to the clay and also the tilt of the land.  Around this small lawn, flowering at this time of year, she grew the most prolific phlox I have ever seen. The tall, more leggy phlox that is less fashionable now.  In whites, pale mauve and pale pink.  Far more attractive than the vivid pink ones I have grown, and far more scented.

Dad and I – and I am about eight years old – are tidying the garden for Aunt Edith in return for which dad will be allowed to dig up small clumps of the phlox to take to our own garden.  As we work, dad tells me about the phlox and why they smell strongest in the evening.  Why the colours are pale and luminous.  And why they are one of his favourite flowers.

Then we soak newspaper and dig up the clumps of phlox. We gently fold the sopping paper around the roots and dad cuts off the flowers and many of the leaves, because this will reduce the shock.  We carefully lay the parcels in the boot of the Anglia, which is marginally less stifling than the passenger areas of the car, and we take them home.

This is a journey of some 200 miles, for we then lived in Northamptonshire.  On the way home, we sing, usually ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes’, ‘Cockles and Mussels’, and some Methodist hymns in which dad attempts to teach me to harmonise with limited success.  On the way, we’ll stop for his favourite motorway snack – coffee and a terrible English version of the American donuts he loved so much.  At Kettering, we’ll ring mum from a coin box, but only giving three rings so she knows we are half an hour away.

When we get home, it’s almost dark, though still hot outside.  The phlox have to be our priority, so by torch light, and before we eat, we heel the plants into the earth of our own garden and soak them with buckets of water, puddling the water around with small barricades of muddy soil.  We are hot, we are dirty, hungry and tired.  I am eight, he must have been in his late forties.  We are delighted.

The phlox from Aunt Edith’s garden lived on in our garden, though dad always said they weren’t as good as hers due to the different soil.  Not clay.

One brush from a far inferior phlox in my garden, all those years later and I am rushed back in time.  I can see my dusty white pumps.  I can smell the wet newspaper.  It hurts so much, I wish I couldn’t.

This garden of mine is the first garden I have ever had that my dad never saw for we moved here, away from Burnham-on-Sea and all its associated memories, after his death.  In all the other gardens I have tended, whether as a tenant or house-owner, dad regularly visited, less so as he aged; and I’d prepare extra-hard for his visits, to show him something lovely and good.  To show him, I suppose, that I had learned so much from him. His delight in my gardens was just as keen as that from his own.

I always just wish – foolish and even maudlin though it it, I know – that I could walk round this garden, the best I think I have ever made, with him.  Just once.  And when it overcomes me, I wonder too, if other people have these thoughts.

Usually I can just let – or more accurately fail to prevent – the foolish, hopeless wish flash through my head, sharp like a blade but swift so it doesn’t register as pain, and it’s gone and I’m fine.  But this summer, perhaps because it’s a proper summer and the foxgloves and the phlox have been so good, I’m not fine.

Here are some other things from the garden this hot proper July.

Angels' Fishing Rods - grown by me from seed

Angels’ Fishing Rods – grown by me from seed


'Lucifer' - fiery, out of my usual garden comfort zone and spreading like wild fire round the garden

‘Lucifer’ – fiery, out of my usual garden comfort zone and spreading like wild fire round the garden


More Lucifer - and the roof of the summer house

More Lucifer – and the roof of the summer house


Pale lemon hollyhock, complete with fat bee

Pale lemon hollyhock, complete with fat bee


I have had this plant for years but this is the first time it's flowered properly

I have had this plant for years but this is the first time it’s flowered properly


The green apples are a sign of the year wearing on. By September these will be red, it's an ancient 'eater'. beloved by the dogs for its fallers

The green apples are a sign of the year wearing on. By September these will be red, it’s an ancient ‘eater’. beloved by the dogs for its fallers

For once, this year, I have spent some time just sitting down

For once, this year, I have spent some time just sitting down

Free pattern available from Rowan

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

I was asked to design an easy summer wrap using Rowan Kidsilk Haze Glamour.  Et voila, here it is:  The Stellar Wrap.  Download the pattern free when you register or log on to Rowan.

Stellar Wrap Cover


Caving is a very serious business

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

OK it is a serious business, you can’t take any risks in caves.  Other than, you know, forcing your body between two planes of vertical rock; or sliding down a corkscrew over a drop-out rift; or climbing through torrents of water on a stupidly narrow wire ladder…These risks are fine.  Apparently.  Other risks are not really a good idea.

It’s been about 18 months since I started caving and almost a year since I joined The Wessex Cave Club up in Priddy.  I caved a lot in spring and summer 2012 and this drew to an abrupt end once it got cold and dark.  I do appreciate that it’s always dark underground and there’s an ambient temperature.  But I can’t deal with the extreme cold of going underground in freezing weather, coming out in freezing weather, when I’m probably also wet through, and nor can I deal with the just-above-freezing temperatures of the water in winter, even though I cave in a wet-suit and of course my canvass over-suit.

Now it’s summer and I’ve resumed caving again, though not, perhaps, with quite as much ardour as last year.  I still really love it but with time and a little experience has come an acceptance that I am not really typical of the caving community – this is fine, the community is also very diverse and actually very accepting of differences.  If I have ever been ‘judged’ for crying, wearing nail-varnish or knitting (latter:  never in a cave.  So far), I am unaware of it.

I also have a pretty low threshold of cave-boredom if I’m honest.  Whilst there are some caves I’d happily do over and over again, such as GB, which I have caved in lots of times; and Shatter which I have only visited once but would like to see on a regular basis, I don’t have the capacity to go back, week after week, to the same cave.  There are exceptions, such as the magnificent Swildons, one cave in name but in fact, so vast and varied it has sections and no one part really feels like the others.

Now this is where I may really part company with the majority of Mendip cavers, certainly:  I quite like Swildons – but I don’t love it.   I have tried to love it but maybe I don’t go often enough or maybe I just genuinely don’t ‘get’ it.  Or it might be the annoying and to me, frightening ladder climb over and down a waterfall drop – The Twenty as it is called.  To go anywhere that is anywhere in Swildons, really, you have to master The Twenty.  I have climbed it four times now, which I know is nowhere near often enough, but I actually hate it.  And I’m rubbish at it.  I appear to be getting worse too and now I’ve been caving in the Mendips since last April, I can no longer claim to be a novice, even if I feel like one.  It’s a bit embarrassing too, if I’m honest.  I know people who bound up and down The Twenty like things possessed, and off they go, into the private party that is the rest of Swildons, while I, uninvited, can only watch the celebs on the red carpet from behind the rope barrier.  Note:  I don’t actually watch them going down and up The Twenty, nor is there a carpet or a rope barrier in Swildons.

So, I avoid it.  Which means that the rest of Swildons, beyond The Twenty, is closed to me.  And since about 90% of this system lies beyond it, that’s pretty much it for me and Swildons.

Also, I recently had my first proper ‘fall’ when caving and this was in Swildons.  It was very frightening and hurt a lot, though I was very lucky not have more than bone-deep bruises and shock.  I was reassured that I had not been doing anything ‘wrong’, I was just climbing in a place I’d climbed before but this time my foot slipped and my hand-grip on the top wasn’t enough.  I guess I fell about 6 or 8 feet.  I’ve had slips, and lengthy slides back down climbs but I’ve never actually fallen backwards before.

I do have a strong belief that, wherever possible, we really ought not to do things that we hate, or which frighten us; or which bore us; or which we approach with a sense of foreboding.  I mean, I wouldn’t knit the same design over and over again.  Or eat the same meal every day.  I wouldn’t knit something that was so hard, technically, that it drained most of the knitting joy out of it.  There is no pleasure, for me, in an activity which has the chief merit of being lovely once it stops.  That is what the dentist is for. Now that is not to say we don’t need challenge.  But as with running, I accept that I will never run a full Marathon, but I’m chuffed to bits to run 10 miles or even a Half Marathon; so with caving, I  accept that I will never have the capacity – mental and physical – to do ‘hard’ things, and I just feel epic about smaller things.

And I prefer to embrace variety. I sometimes repeat trips but I like doing new things in new places.  Mainly, since caving is a hobby, I want to have fun. Recently, we ‘caved’ in an old abandoned mine, reputed to be haunted.  This sounds like fun! I thought.  It’s a super-easy trip and despite there being no evidence of haunting, it was fun and different.

Enlivened by this….

Some hilarious ‘caver’ had placed a severed alien-head model which looks as if it has been wrenched from a larger (I assume full-sized) ceramic alien statue.  Now, and in an aside from this bit of the story, just consider the tiny segment of customers in the life-sized statue demographic and then further refine this segment to those in the market for a life-sized alien statue. In green.  It’s a testament to the manufacturers of these things that they produce them at all.

This head (pictured below) was propped up on a pile of rocks at the far dead-end of the mine.  Now I look at the photo, I accept that it’s a lurid but obvious spoof.  But…walking in the utter blackness, illuminated only with cave head-lamps, the shadows from the rocks and ceiling loom darkly at you, and I, in front at this point, which is the end of the mine passage, saw only an outline of a human-like head shape, giddily lurching slightly as my light moved up and down. I was focusing on the end of the passage, and my feet, alternately.  And then, for just a split second, I really thought it was a head.  With spikes.

Sandford levy alien head

I’m not ashamed of what happened next, because I really do think that anyone, not expecting to see a head-shadow on a pile of rocks at the end of a so-called haunted mine, would have screamed.  Which I did.  But I am very proud of the fact that my first instinct, after this, was to try quite hard to get Florence and Will to turn round and run away.  I am told I shouted:  ‘JUST GO!’ as I tried to push them back the way we had come.  I once tried to do the same thing on a horror-ghost ‘ride’ at Bridgwater Fair with Lily.  In fact you walked round the ‘ride’ and at intervals, masked people with (I assume) fake chain saws, jumped out at you.  I screamed right in the face of the first chain saw operative and then told the whole group to turn round and run back to the entrance.  No-one did, they just all shuffled round me. Lily, to this day, is both mortified and scornful.

One lovely feature of this mine, which is otherwise devoid of much merit to be honest, is that it is being re-claimed as cave and tiny formations can be seen along the faults in the passage ceiling.  But even better, it’s making many nests of cave pearls. There must be several dozen such nests, along with some nicely developing crystal floor. Here are some pearls from the mine:

Sandford levy cave pearls

You’ll need to click on the image and focus on the very white smooth ‘stones’ nestling in the hollow.  If you look at the alien photo, beyond the tape is a nicely developing stretch of crystal gour-pool floor, about 8 feet long and all across the passage, hence being now closed and of course, guarded by its alien-keeper.