Alison Crowther-Smith

2018 Courses

September 16th, 2017

The events for 2018 are now all decided and in the diary and I will add them to the website in October.  If you are on my mailing list, you will automatically get an alert as they go live.  If you want an alert and you’re not on my list, please contact me.

The schedule goes like this:

  • New. Moons and Stars:  a new Fairisle course with the option to knit a Moons and Stars blanket (steeked) or a Moons and Stars cowl (not steeked). Learning to steek, if you have not tried this yet, is a built-in option for the workshop.
  • New. Socks:  two events, one for toe-up socks and one for top-down socks.  Learn all the elements of sock construction for either or both.  They will run back-to-back.  If you want to do both and plan to stay locally overnight on the Saturday (email me for some suggestions), I will be in the Puriton Inn on the Saturday evening if you want to have supper with me.  If not, I probably won’t bother!
  • New. Slip-Stitch Colour Work:  a great alternative to Fairisle, intarsia or brioche.  Only one colour is worked at a time, rows and rounds are worked only once, and it is easy yet effective.  There will be two designs, one knit flat, one in the round.
  • New. Design Weekend.  Design weekend is back with a new design brief.  This is a two day event, back to back.  If you want to come to the event and plan to stay locally overnight on the Saturday (email me for some suggestions), I will be in the Puriton Inn on the Saturday evening if you want to have supper with me.  If not, I probably won’t bother!
  • New Moebius.  There will be a new Moebius design knit in two yarn weights.  I will also take bookings from those new to Moebius knitting and we will split the class.
  • Gift Knits.  New festive gift knit ideas.
  • Christmas at Court Cottage.

In the meantime, here is one of the designs for Cables, Bobbles and Beads.  This is Fable (a beaded fake cable) knit as a luxurious wide scarf, and as a beaded neat cowl/neck warmer.  This will also be knit in a chunky yarn, not beaded.  And there will be a further design with real cables and bobbles. I am teaching this on four dates in 2017 and 2018 and the classes are all full except for the one on 4 March, 2018 which has one place.

 

 

Knitting Code

August 18th, 2017

 

Recently I have been writing and editing a lot of knitting patterns.  I am always doing this anyway but this year there is Knit Camp and also we have had the busiest year of teaching ever, and because I over-cater, there are usually 2 – 4 patterns for each new event.  So this year I have so far designed 18 new things not counting Christmas which I have not started yet.  This is paltry stuff compared to the output of a Proper Designer with a Proper Yarn House – but I do not have the software to generate patterns and if I did, I would not use it.

Anyway, Dr Donna is pattern checking my Knit Camp designs and we are almost done with them.  However, there is one pattern that has a lot of ‘tech’ content and so we’ve been very focused on that.  *I write the pattern.  Kath and I and sometimes someone else knits the pattern.  We find the bugs, I re-write the pattern, rep from * to about 2 months later…then they go to Donna.  Donna edits them with pink notes.  She corrects my errors, she checks all the data, she re-measures and re-states tension, and she suggests style/wording edits to make it more accessible to the knitter.   As with many things, there are often several ways to express the same line of a pattern.  They all add up to the same outcome, assuming the maths is right.  So for example, you may get a line expressed with the use of * to end, or * to *; or it can be written in full; or you can have ( ) with a number after to give you the number of repeats.

Add to this our shorthand.  Tbl, k2tog, psso, skpsso, sl1, k1, psso, tog, M1, B1, rep, cont, RS, inc(s) C6B, TL, MB  and so on, with the punctuation and * and ( ) etc that goes with it.  As a new knitter (stretches hands back through the mists of time) I used to ask Old Knitters: why, oh wise one, do we have all this CODE?  why can they not be written in English?  And the wise one would say:  just look it up and shut up.  Fair enough.

This week Kath and I have been wrangling a Knit Camp pattern.  So there is Donna’s pink edit, then my blue edit with highlights and insertions to query points, plus hand-written calculations and notes in the margins.

Code

This sheaf of documents was on the table when Mark came in, bearing tea.  He looked at the notes.  He doesn’t touch them because he knows that there be dragons in these pages but he went as far as putting on his glasses and peering. And he said:

Mark:  Knitters would have made incredible code makers – or code breakers, like at Bletchley Park.

Me:  They would.

Mark (looking in some bewilderment at the many hues of type, the squiggles and the abbreviations):  I mean, this looks like a code.

Me:  Well, it is sort of.  There are lots of words in there but it is a stream of code that will equal a shawl, for example, when put into practice.

Mark:  I imagine the CIA would think it was dodgy…

Me:  Ummm…(think but do not say:  I bet lots of the CIA operatives are awesome knitters!)

Mark (warming to his theme):  They would assume it was a code within a code!  Cleverly hidden coding concealed in a knitting pattern!

Me:

Mark:  A plan to invade somewhere!

Me:

Mark:  A knitting army!

Me (putting down pen and rubbing eyes):  Where would we invade?

Mark:  Oh, I don’t know (desperate but brief mental search follows) – say, Japan!

Me:  Japan?

Mark:  OK not Japan.  Israel!

Me:  Surely, Sherlock, we’d be more likely to invade a country with a known excellence for goats, lamas and alpacas?

Mark:  Why?

Me:  Well, the knitting army would need supplies of fine fibres.  What is the point of knitters invading a fibre desert?

Mark: Ah. OK.  Peru…?

Me:  Peru is a peaceful land (I think).  So ‘invade’ is not really the right word.  Maybe ‘visit’ would be better.  ‘Visit’ and ‘go shopping’.

Mark (pointing at a long string of pink, blue and black ‘writing’ on a page):  Does this say:  the invasion is on tonight!  Prepare and meet at dawn!’

Me (reaching for the pattern):  Yes.  Impressive skills.

Mark:  What does it say?

Me (after short struggle with wish to make up some sorcery):  It says – and I am just going to copy and paste this now for you, dear reader as it will be quicker for us both:  Row 32 (WS): With B, P1, yrn, *p2, (B1, p1) to last st before next M, p1, SM, rep from * once more, p2, (B1, p1) to last 2 sts, p1, yrn, p1. (105 sts)

Mark:

Me (sensing his disappointment):  OR, in other words:  we strike at dawn! Operation Thumb Gusset is GO GO GO!

This satisfies him and he leaves.

Knitters would never form an army but if they did ‘organise’ it’d be for peace. It is sad that knitters do not run the world. Peace.

Winter is Coming…

August 16th, 2017

Zig Zag scarf 4

Without wishing the summer away, I have completed the design and knitting (almost) for the Christmas Gifts events in September.  These are the days that kick off the autumn term – and I can’t wait to get back to the workshops!  Having the summer ‘off’ enables me to focus on some other designing, notably this year finishing off the last two designs for Knit Camp and the Christmas Gift events in early September.

The concept for this teach is to produce some fairly easy (but not boring), and economical accessories – so none use more than three balls of wool, and none will take an average knitter who also has a job or a busy life, more than a week of evening knitting to complete.  For example, Kathryn can knit the hat pattern in one night; I can do it in two-point-five nights.  Kathryn can knit a pair of the mittens in two evenings; I can knit a pair in four evenings.

 

Zig Zag hat mink close up

This year I have taken one stitch – a zig-zag rib that looks like a little cable, but is not – and used it in both flat and round knits.  There are hats – womans (beaded) and mans; a split scarf; and a pair of mitts with a beaded peplum detail. I am really happy with the finished items and I will definitely be making some myself as gifts this Christmas.

Zig Zag hats collection

I love this concept, because for one thing it frees up the Christmas at Court Cottage events and allows me to just focus on festive decorations.  Also, mid-late November is possibly too late for you to make a few hats, scarves or mitts.  But early September is plenty of time.

The courses are both full but I have three names on a waiting list so if you are interested, let me know – we may be able to set up an extra date.

Zig Zag hats male edge

Another knit that would make a great gift-knit is my Brioche in the round cowl, which I am teaching again in Devon at Spin-a-Yarn (fully booked but I am trying to fit in an extra date or two) and also on 4 November, at the Totnes  ‘Stitchfest’ – more details on this will follow soon. I can accept up to twelve bookings for the Totnes gig, so contact the organisers if you fancy a place.  This is the same event that I taught here, but slightly abbreviated.

In the meantime, here is the split scarf for the September events, which I love and it makes me feel all Judy Garland in ‘Meet Me in St Louis’.

Zig Zag scarf 3

 

Allotment Up-Date: should I stay or should I go now?

August 13th, 2017

I am well into year two of Project Allotment. This year has been much better than last in many ways.  First, almost no digging. Second, I have learned a lot and it shows in terms of how I plan things and how well they turn out.  Third, I have just about managed to keep the brassica cage free of cabbage white fly with the use of diatomaceous earth.  This is an organic dusting powder.  It is a faff to apply it and it isn’t 100% successful but it has made a big difference.  Last year, by now, the cage was infested, but this year they are just beginning to be obvious – so I have re-applied the DE.

I have maintained an organic approach – no pellets, no poison.  I do lose a bit of stuff here and there but I think it is worth it.

There have been failures.  The potatoes were poor.  Not worth the effort.  The carrots were also poor in terms of germination.  And I planted the squash way too close together so it is very crowded.

On the other hand, the kale and cabbage are 90% better, and I have had (and am continuing to have) amazing bean crops, good courgettes and interesting and delicious new squash types.

So, it seems a bit counter-intuitive to tell you, dear reader, that I am thinking of giving the plot up.  Not in October 2017, probably, which is renewal time.  But maybe at some point in the following year.  I have not decided for definite but I have it in my mind.  There are pros and cons.  As I am powered by lists, here is my pros/cons for giving up the allotment list:

Pros:

  • I find it incredibly time hungry, as it is very labour intensive and in spring and summer I do go to the plot at least 3 times a week, often more.
  • It is not inconvenient as it is only 1/2 mile away but that is an issue when pushing a loaded wheel barrow, or riding an over-loaded bike.
  • It is basically still trying to be a pasture field and so despite the efforts of the previous plot holder before he gave up a year or so before I got it, and mine, if you turn your back for more than 3 days, the bind-weed and other invasive, pernicious weeds just move back in and bring all their mates.
  • Someone has taken some of my Japanese squash – which are big and heavy, and some of the black French beans. These are not things birds could or would take.  That was upsetting. It won’t be anyone on the allotments or our local badgers who do steal fruit and sweetcorn.  But the field is not secure at all so I guess it is inevitable, sometimes. Jo has also had fruit taken and last year someone had his brassica cage vandalised.
  • It has really set off my always lurking OCD nerve. I can’t just cut the grass, for example.  I have to cut the grass and then edge the whole plot and then pick up all the clippings and then hoe it neat – this is just the edges.  I wish I could be more relaxed but I can’t.  So, it’s a bit obsessive. Obsessions are, basically, my one weakness.
  • I am very allergic to a lot and an increasing number of things and many of these are down the allotment.  I am bitten by all the insects despite my spraying myself with jungle strength insect repellent, and I react very badly to these bites, both at the site of the sting or bite and also all over. I am allergic to soil on my bare skin, so I have to garden in gloves – but I am also allergic to most gloves so I have to line the gloves with cotton gloves, soaked in E45.  Despite this, my hands are in an awful state.  (I think I am also becoming allergic to some animal fibres but anyway…). My new allergy is to the plants themselves especially courgettes and squash leaves, raspberry leaves and runner bean leaves.  Spiders bite me whenever I go into the cage even if I wear long sleeves and trousers, and then I get blisters.  To be honest, it is just miserable to be so allergic to my allotment.  The garden can, of course, set off reactions but rarely so extreme.
  • The garden is suffering neglect.
  • I worry about it if I have to miss a few days and kind of dread the return to what I know will be a lot of hard effort.
  • I am often very tired.
  • I have learned a lot and some of this could be translated into my garden here.

Cons:

  • I actually love my allotment and I am very proud of it. I know I would miss it terribly. It is often a place of great happiness and peace for me.
  • After all that work (and this is not a response I am proud of) I can’t bear someone else to just walk onto the plot and take it on.  Is the answer to let it go to pot for a few months and then quit, I hear you murmur?  Frankly that thought is unworthy of you and I am disappointed, I shall pretend you didn’t suggest it.
  • I have invested in some equipment but mainly the cage which I think I can bring home.
  • Related, I have a plan (very provisional) to turn part of my garden here into a mini-allotment. It is at the thinking stage only but I do believe it may have merit.  There will be a lot of work associated with this initially and some cost, but still, it would be a realistic alternative.
  • We love the food I grow.  I have not thrown money at my allotment and not really bought much at all, so it really is a thrift project for me which has given us so much produce that you just can’t buy anyway.
  • I might be able to go down to a half-plot. But you see, the OCD nerve would kick in then, if the partner plot-holder left his/her plot (joined onto my MY plot) in a state.
  • I am not a sociable person in any way but I have slowly and quietly made some very nice ‘acquaintances’ down there. But on the whole it is just me there and I like that.
  • Whilst it is very hard work, it is really away from it all as there is no internet coverage and very poor phone signal. So, audio books are marvellous for allotmenting.

What do you think I ought to do? Give it up, or keep it?  You are wise, advise me.

 

Two Courses at Spin a Yarn, Devon

July 26th, 2017

If you missed my Brioche in the Round courses here and you fancy having a go at this technique I am teaching it again at Spin-a-Yarn in Devon on 19 October, 10 – 4.  This is an easier way to knit Brioche than the flat version so it’s a great entry-level to a fantastic new skill.  I have designed three cowls, all variations on the same theme, in a range of yarn weights.  To take part, you need only know how to cast on, knit and purl and follow a fairly straight forward pattern – I will do the rest!  the Brioche cowls are the ones along the top of this gallery.

I am also teaching the Lined Fairisle Cowl on 9 November, 10 – 4.  I have taught this here and the courses were sold out so if you missed it, come along to Spin-a-Yarn and learn how to make this reversible cowl – a modern twist on a traditional Fairisle look.  To take part, you need to be able to knit, cast on and off.  If you have never knitted Fairisle before, the charts for this are moderate – I am happy to teach you how to read and knit from charts and how to hold the yarns in both hands for perfect and even stranding.  Other skills include picking up and knitting which again, I will be able to show you on the day.  The lined cowl images appear on the bottom line of this gallery.

For both events, you will receive the patterns for all the designs on the day, plus full tuition and notes.  Be great to see you there.  Please contact the shop for details on availability and to book.

 

A Knitted Time-Line

July 12th, 2017

The Knitting Archive (image shows 5 of 8 boxes):

kniting archive boxes 2

This summer I am taking some time to sift through things. Physical things.  I began because we are having some decorating done and this means moving things around.  This became a good chance to clear out some clutter and sort other things.  The art of minimalism (not so much an art in my opinion, more a commercially successful device for selling books, DVDs and life-style blogs) has and always will pass me by.  I am happy to wave a fist full of memories at it as it slides effortlessly by.  I sometimes think I’d like to be minimalist but then I go to somewhere that has almost no trace of human life being actually lived there, such as a hotel and I know it is just not for me.  In fact, I don’t think I have the personal discipline to be a minimalist, or the heart.  I am too fond of my comforting things, especially books, family items and pictures.

I once read that to practice minimalism you should pick up and hold each object (I am assuming that old Welsh dressers, sewing machines, sofas etc are exempt) and if it does not bring you joy, you should get rid of it.  On that basis, I would keep all the books, yarn and needles, my iPad, my iPod, my iPhone, my gardening tools, a spoon, a bowl and very sharp knife.  But the thing that gives me most joy is of course the iPhone/Pad/Pod charger.

Well, this blog can never be accused of, or congratulated on, being minimalist and I digress, as ever…

But the knitting needed a good sort.  This is knitting that I count as ‘work’.  Not things I use, or have given to others as presents, or keep about the house.  This  knitting does not pre-date the start of knitting for Rowan, or not by much.  These items are from my time as a Design Consultant, then my books, and my many years as a teacher of our craft.

So I gathered all the knitting into one place.  One big, very crowded place. I am not a diarist.  This blog is fairly close in some ways, but it misses out a lot of events and emotions because I assume you don’t come here to hear things that may be reminiscent of your own bitter and silent battle with the recycling regime where you live, or a boring account of each meal I had on holiday – obviously that is what Face Book is for; or just things that may be…triste.  But as I unpacked all the knitted things, going back more than a decade which is when knitting became a ‘job’ for me, it was an oddly transporting experience.

Each thing was a conduit back to that period in my life, the period in which I designed and often when I knitted it.  As one item was retrieved, I remembered being on a cycling holiday with Mark in mid-Wales and completing it, the last-but-one item in my third book.  Holding it, re-folding it, settling it into its new archive box, I remembered a lot of sudden flashes of that week, really vividly.  Falling off my bike, twice (it was the first time I cycled with clip-on cycling shoes).  The absolute blackness of the sky at night, with no light pollution at all, save the stars and the eerie moonlight:  it is silver and light enough to walk outside with no torch.  The odd, wooden bathroom side-room.  The happiness at being away, with Florence looking after the house and Lily, for our first ever full week away since – forever.

I also noted as I sorted the work, how my focus shifts.  You may never have noticed, but a tendency to become slightly obsessed with things is probably my one weakness.  Here they were, my phases of intense interest.  Felting, Shibori, Kidsilk Haze, lace, beads, form – especially Moebiuses, texture, edges, colour and Fairisle. One constant factor is mittens.  I appear to have been, and remain, obsessed with hand-wear.  So I felt happy that in this, at least, I am not fickle.

Nor, I noticed, am I and appear never to have been a follower of knitting ‘fashion’ or trends. This year, for the first time ever I think, I coincided with a resurgence in a trend – an interest in Brioche knitting – and if I am honest with you, it did thoroughly irritate me.  I much prefer it if I am not designing and teaching things that everyone else is Instagram-ing about until its five minutes passes, again.  I think I began my felting odyssey at about the time when wedding-ring shawls were all the rage.  I adored Kidsilk Haze when the whole world was backing away from it and making crossed-fingers-ward-off-the-devil gestures at the yarn display in Johnny Lou Lou’s.  I (not very secretly and in the absence of any corroboration from the manufacturer) do think I am responsible for this yarn’s amazing reign as the queen of yarns. You’re welcome, Rowan Yarns. This was achieved by simply teaching every knitter I ever met, to learn its ways, and how to knit with beads.  Job done.

There were some painful memories in those boxes too.  After my father died, and this happened 9 months after my mother died, I frogged and later gave away the yarn, from the project I was knitting as I attended his dying weeks.  So it wasn’t that project.  It was the project I most clearly remember knitting after that.  For all that I have experienced and witnessed the restorative, soothing, even healing properties of knitting, after my father died, I did not – could not – knit for many weeks.  I didn’t work for Rowan, so I had no imperative to knit, as I would now.  Working for Rowan came the following year and so in a way, I think it was part of the knitting-healing process.  But after many weeks when I didn’t knit – and now I do not know what I did do, other than work, tend the children, do the garden I suppose – I finally felt the need to knit again and I designed one of my earliest things. When it came out of the box, it trailed behind it a painful, bitter-sweet train of memories of the months that went before it.  I fervently wish I had not frogged and given away the yarn from the scarf I was knitting when dad died.  Do not ever do as I did, and pull the knitting out, then hide from you the yarn, as if you can pull out and hide the pain, for you cannot.  And if I had carried on, I’d still have that scarf and I’d wear it – easier now, now that the years have soothed the hurt somewhat.

Some things evoked the most mundane – but happy – memories.  I remembered meals I had planned, cooked and eaten as the item evolved.  Some of them made me recall their creation as a blissfully easy process from pencil to needle to book; others still had the taint of making me swatch, swatch again, and then yet again, to finally bring forth a thing of worth.  Sometimes I looked at a thing and thought:  ah!  that thumb-gusset (an example) was, after all, worth the torture of maths and placement.   Sometimes I looked and thought:  why on earth did I design that?

They are all now packed up, not in their stitched time-line, but in an orderly, categorised way, though this does often coincide.  The boxes are sealed and labelled.  There are 8 of them and they are hefty.  It has been a good thing to do, this summer.

One oddity:  the long-lost sock years.  Oh yes!  I too had sock years, my child.  I have rarely taught sock knitting, perhaps because when I first knitted socks, literally everyone was doing the same, or they were teaching it.  It felt as if the knitting universe had invented this ingenious foot-covering.  So of course, I could have nothing to do with it.  Also, I had a (now inexplicable) taste for socks in pink, orange and grey.  And for every pair I made, I also knitted a small pouched, draw-string matching sock-bag.  Why?  Answer came there none.  I unearthed 4 such pairs still in the special matching bags, all perfect (aside from the colours).  I also knitted some pairs as gifts back then including my first and last ever pair of man-socks, in Fairisle, which I gave to a friend.  I am unsure if the gifts of socks were fully appreciated and for these and other reasons to do with Marks and Spencer stocking lovely socks, I gave it up.  But I think I may design some new socks – not bed-socks but real socks for going out in – and teach it in 2018, for the entire world is either still teaching Brioche or will be teaching double-reversible-entrelac-intarsia top-down night-caps, which is what I was going to do…here is a shot of one of the long-lost socks, also proving how hard it is to shoot a picture of your own sock-clad feet.  You have to pick a foot and go for that one.

Sock solo

 

Knit Camp 2017

June 26th, 2017

The designs for my Knit Camp are now all complete, and the final two items are on the needles.  Those people who are coming to Knit camp have been seeing monthly Knit Camp Bulletins from me with news and glimpses of the five featured designs.

So here are some of the images of things I have been working on.

The theme is Bath – its culture, history and architecture.  This has proved a rich seam for me.  Next month all the designs go off to the pattern checker, the inimitable Donna Jones, and then I will do the photo shoot.  If – and I very much hope it will be – the event proves to be fun, exciting and packed with knitting time, we may well run another Knit Camp again, in future years.  Let me know if you’d be interested in that.

Quiche Recipes

June 10th, 2017

quiches 2 quiches

You probably don’t need a quiche recipe but a couple of people have asked for some so here goes.

The pastry is shortcrust and I make 2 lbs at a time and freeze it in 2 batches.  1/2 lb lines one quiche dish generously.  My quiche dishes are quite big and they are ceramic. I think metal dishes are better but these look nicer for serving in workshops.

I make the pastry with plain flour, very cold water, and all butter. If I was making them for just us and I had any in, I’d make it with 50% lard for savoury things but it’s not veggie so I can’t for workshops.

I line the dishes with the pastry and then make sure it is not dead level with the top sides; I sort of make it stand up a bit round the edges. This is because the egg batter rises.  I guess the pastry is rolled to about 2 – 3mm deep.

I never bake them blind.  I usually line the dishes 24 hours ahead, then cling-film them and chill right up to when I make the quiche.

These fillings are all made with this batter:

  • 4 medium free-range eggs
  • A small size pot of single cream
  • Full or semi-skimmed milk to make the batter up to c700 ml in total volume
  • Pepper

I usually make the fillings 24 hours ahead and cover in cling-filmed bowls in the ‘fridge until just before I want to cook them.

I usually make the quiches between 7 and 10 am on a workshop day and then sit them on a rack until they are cool.  I cover them with a cloth and serve at kitchen temperature.  Even if I was making quiche for home-consumption, I do not serve them hot, just barely warm. They taste a lot better like this.  In all cases except the courgette and the spinach variations, I put the filling in the bottom of the dish, evenly spread, and pour the batter over it before sprinkling with grated cheddar.

Mine take about 50 minutes to cook.  I start them in the middle of the baking over (gas mark 4 or 5) and turn twice as my AGA does not cook evenly.  I pop them in the bottom (usually directly onto the base) of the top roasting oven for the last 10 minutes or so (gas mark 7 or 8).  Putting the dish directly on the base helps to dry out the bottom, but you could get a metal baking sheet very hot and then pop the quiche dish on that – same result. Letting them cool on a rack is crucial to the avoidance of soggy bottoms but still, sometimes it happens.  So the best tip is make sure your fillings are cold when they go into the case, and not wet/slimy.

Fillings

Classic Quiche Lorraine

  • 1 pack of smoked, streaky bacon (or c8 – 10 slices), chopped quite fine
  • 2 large brown onion, chopped quite fine
  • 1 clove of garlic, very finely chopped
  • 4 generous handfuls of strong cheddar, grated

Fry the onion and bacon in a little oil until cooked and browned.  Add the garlic at the end.  When cold, make up as above, adding a lot of cheddar to the top. There is a lot of cheese on this.  I often lay a sheet of paper-toweling on the top once it is not bubbling anymore and this absorbs the ‘loose’ oil nicely.  It only take a moment.

Salmon and Leek

  • 2 small or medium salmon fillets preferably with the skin still on
  • 4 leeks or fewer if huge, sliced into penny shapes about 1 – 2 cm wide
  • Soya sauce
  • 1 or 2 handfuls of grated cheddar

Put about 3 tablespoons of soya sauce and a dash of oil in a non-stick frying pan and get it hot.  Add the salmon, skin side down and sear.  You can watch the fish cook by looking at the side of the fillets.  Turn.  I don’t cook them through at this stage as they will continue to cook in the oven later, so I remove them when the fish is still a bit pink (rare) in the middle.  Once cool, remove the skin and feed it to the dogs/cat.  Pull the fish into chunks, not too small.  In the same pan, add a ounce of butter and gently saute the sliced leeks until tender, then more heat to colour them a bit. Cool this and gently mix with the fish.  Once cold, lay it in the quiche lining and add the batter (see above) plus 1 or 2 handfuls of grated cheddar.

Goats Cheese and Spinach or Courgette

  • 2 packs of soft goats cheese broken into lumps
  • 1 medium pack of washed and dry young spinach OR 2 medium courgettes, sliced like slant-wise pennies, about 1 cm deep
  • Butter
  • Oil
  • 1 or 2 handfuls of grated cheddar
  • 4 teaspoons of mustard seeds (if using Courgettes); or a scant teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg (if using Spinach)

If using Courgettes, saute them in butter, oil and with the mustard seeds.  Once soft, add more heat to sear them a bit.  At the end (optional) add 1/2 a clove of very finely chopped garlic.

If using Spinach, wilt with butter, very briefly, and then drain/gently squeeze/pat dry.  Garlic always an option, just not much of it. Once cool stir in the nutmeg.

Both:  dot the lumps of goats cheese all over the base of the quiche lining.  If using Courgettes, add about 2/3rds to the case now.  Both:  pour in the batter and then add the other slices of Courgette or the all the spinach to the top of this batter – spread out.  Add 1 or 2 handfuls of grated cheddar.

Variations on the Goats Cheese:

  • Broccoli and Stilton
  • Roasted peppers
  • Other cheeses – any blue cheeses, or feta.  Whatever is left over basically.

Macmillan Afternoon Knit Club, 15 June and 23 November

June 5th, 2017

These dates could do with a few more knitters.  Based on the current bookings, everyone will have to eat 3 slices of cake and a plate of savouries – and that’s just not fair, even by my feeding standards.

All the fees (£15 a head) will be donated by me to Macmillan Cancer Support.

So it would be awesome (overdone phrase, but in this case, justified) if you could see your way to coming along.  They start at 2, and finish at 5.  You can come/go at any time around these points.

It is just a knitting session, with afternoon tea served basically all the time.  I am making a couple of cakes and some sarnies and if you want to bring something to add to the tea table, that would be marvelous but not by no means compulsory.  Just bring your knitting and crochet.

Here is the link, where either date can be booked.

Please come. Thankyouplease.

A Bruising Encounter with Honeymead Hole

May 30th, 2017

Honeymead Hole is a small, spiky cave on the Mendips, near Maesbury.  It is unlocked, situated in a shallow depression in a field and guarded by a heavy metal hinged cover.  This cover is too heavy for me to lift!

Here is a short film of the opening (digging, as opposed to a champagne reception) of the cave in the ’90s, by Wessex member, Pete Hann.

It was a new cave for me, so I was glad to go with Florence and Will who had been there the week before on a club trip.  I like new caves.  I don’t cave as much as I did at the start of my caving adventures but I do still go and when I go, I (mainly) really enjoy it.  However if you don’t go fairly often, you do lose your cave fitness and also become slightly softer.  Honeymead Hole is not for the soft.

It is a short network of largely vertical passages.  The entrance is a lovely smooth-sided concrete shaft with a thoughtful fixed metal ladder.  No rope/belay needed, you’d be hard pressed to fall off, even me. This is about 25 feet long, and this shaft gives way to cave at the bottom; there is another very short metal ladder that gets you past an awkward bit and then you’re climbing down cave walls.

Basically, it is a very small cave, tight in places.  The interesting thing for me is the shale-layers that you can see as you descend, and within this, fossils.  There are a few sections with fairly pretty small formations and I think if it was less muddy, there would be crystals to be seen on the walls here and there. The rock is not smooth as is often is in some caves in the Mendips.  Maybe it doesn’t get a lot of traffic, (this wears the passages smooth in some places) but I think it is just different from many Mendip Caves.  It is jagged and spiky.  The dark rocks grip your suits and gloves and it makes maneuvering yourself through small spaces quite tricky and painful.

There is a series of fairly easy climbs down and a couple of places where you need to post yourself through gaps on the floor, with low ceilings so you are on your back or your side and thrutching.  The main area of this sort of frankly joyless activity is shortly after the first electron ladder pitch.  I think this pitch would be free-climbable even by me if I had a hand-line.  As it was, we pitched an electron ladder that we took with us but didn’t bother to belay anyone.  I am not a big fan of these wire ladders but this was easy.

This gets you into a small chamber and then on, downwards to some other climbs.  Then a short section of tight tubing, only very sharp and pointy.  The first bit is fine, it is small but you’re able to wriggle along on your back fairly easily.  The end, however, narrows and though it’s not a true squeeze – you never had to man-handle your boobs or hips and force yourself past a rock as you do in some squeezes – it is tight and constricted – and slightly on a down slope.  The lower part of this tube-like section  – so about the lower 12 inches – is really narrow so you need to be above this height – but you can’t crawl or stand, obviously, you have to be lying down, on one side.  So you have to hold your body weight up on one arm and then sort of thrutch forwards.  I was advised to go feet first and I ought to have done so but I wanted the extra control I felt I would have by being able to see (you can’t turn your head once committed to this bit).  This was an error.  I could not support myself on my left arm for long enough, or turn over, so I collapsed. It was fine, I slowly dragged myself on, but you must beware getting the leading arm trapped under your body.  I eventually hauled myself onto Will who was waiting for me at the end, where it opened out into a lofty 4 feet of space.

Onward, to a further little climb, some pokey bits, over a pitch (which we didn’t do but if you do it, it does need a ladder) and onto another pitch that goes down to Blood Alley or up to The Gods.  I watched Will free climb up and down to all of this but did not go.  If I was to go back I would probably be able to get up and down to these with just a hand line I think.  There is a bolt if you want to rig.

This point is not far off the end of the cave; there are other bits and pieces, much of it smaller and probably even spikier than what we encountered. My little mini-meltdown in the squeeze meant I needed 3 glucose tablets and a drink of water.  Then the return trip.  I was dreading the squeezing passage but as is almost always the case, it was easier doing it up and I went head first and managed to stay up on my arm for the really tight part. Fear is a great trainer. The climbs back up were all easier – the cave, whilst really pointy and sharp, does offer excellent hand and foot holds for climbing about.  The issue is really that the climbs are also quite tight, so you have to climb and post yourself into small spaces.

This cave sometimes has ‘bad air’ – low levels of CO2.  I had a bad headache for much of this trip and was breathless at times.  It is normal to be breathless if you exert yourself, especially in very small, hot spaces where you have to use a lot of energy to make a little progress, but I was much more breathless than usual.  I was also unable to recover, which I generally do very quickly, so Will thought maybe there was c0.5% – 1.00% CO2.  In places.  It was fine in the first sections. So if you go there, read up on the signs of CO2 intake and beware.  My headache more or less went away on exiting the cave.

The wire ladder up was great with a dead easy exit, and then, after one or two more climbs and a narrow, short thrutch, you are back at the climb up to the metal ladders.  A strong person needs to go up first to push the lid, I could not have done it.

I was exhausted by this 2.5 hour trip because it was all really physical.  No walking passage at all, and very little crouching passage.  It is you, in an extended series of vertical or horizontal hugs, from start to finish.  On returning home, I found an impressive array of bruises, mainly on my elbows and arms, but also on both hips.  This is testemony to the way I forced by body through the tiny spaces and also my lack of cave hardiness.  However, I loved it! Will go back.

The Allotment in Year 2

May 26th, 2017

I am so glad I kept the allotment on.  Year 1 – The Year Of The Great Dig – was good, but very hard.  Year 2 is proving to be far nicer.

This is day one, 18 months ago:

Allotment Day 1 1 Allotment Day 1 2

The lessons I learned from the first 12 months have stood me in good stead.  Mainly, this is about recognition and hopefully control of pests, and knowing what to plant that will probably do well and we will enjoy.  And when to plant/sow of course.  These images are from this year, about 3 weeks ago – the plants are further on now and the spaces have almost all been filled up:

allotment beans mid may 2017 Allotment cage mesh and beans allotment top - with new planter Allotment early May 2018 1

I had a lengthy and boring debate with myself and anyone who would listen about netting for the brassica cage.  Yes, you read that right.  Mere mortals can only gaze in wonder at my utterly fascinating rock and roll life style, I know.  If I am not debating super-fine mesh netting, I am probably Googling ‘ways to kills twatting pests on my allotment, only organic and preferably not too horrid, please and thanks’.

Anyway, to replace the netting that the cage kit came with would have cost upwards of £250 – maybe £300.  As Mark was heard to murmur, we could buy brussels and cabbages in That Waitrose for several years and still have change…I agree.  It contradicts all the ‘rules’ (mainly self imposed, it is true) that I have applied to being an allotmenteer.  The main rule is that it ought to be economically viable.  But the old netting is not fine, and it admits little aphids and pests, chiefly cabbage white fly.  The cage was infested with these little sods in 2016.  I didn’t know what they were so by the time I got around to trying some incredibly ineffective organic control, it was too late. I am trying to be organic.  But sometimes I do wonder if I might as well sit in the cage and chant/clash finger cymbals/light incense. It can’t be less effective than fatty acids and nematodes have been…

This year, I am combating them and any other insect pests, with my new organic weapon, Diatomaceous Earth (DE).  This is a powder, slightly coarser than talcum powder and off-white. It is ground up fossils.  River fossils to be exact.  You sprinkle this onto the plants/earth/critters and the tiny but deadly razor-like structure of the powder particles damages the exoskeletons of the insects if it touches them. Then they die.  So I think that if I see any of them, I will sprinkle them directly and as a precaution, I am lightly dusting the plants and the earth in the cage, and also the potato towers – for I am having another go at growing potatoes in tyre-towers, despite the miserable failure in 2016. I think that if I break the cycle of the cabbage white fly, I may prevail.

DE is organic and harmless to humans though you are advised not to inhale it or get in in your eyes.  If it rains, you have to re-apply it, and if there is any on your crops when you harvest them, you just give them a good wash.  But you have to beware getting it into your eyes or breathing it in.  So I have to wear a surgical mask and my cycling glasses in order to apply it.  If anything could further single me out as a bit of a weirdo, it will be this. One problem is that as soon as I put on the mask thing, the glasses completely fog up so I have nudge them off my nose slightly.  I try to do it when there is no one else about…anyway, I will let you know how this goes!

Old crops from 2017 that I am repeating are:

  • Broad beans
  • Garlic (2016 fail)
  • Potatoes in towers (2016 fail)
  • Runner and French beans
  • Pea shoots
  • Carrots
  • Raspberries – absolutely thriving this year!
  • Rhubarb
  • Strawberries – to be frank I have the sulkiest, meanest strawberries I have ever seen and this is their last chance. I have taken runners from last year so these are Year 1 plants.  2018 is your cut-off year, guys, put out some of the good stuff or you’re compost.
  • Courgettes
  • Japanese squash
  • Kale*
  • Brussels*
  • Chard*

*All victims to a greater or lesser extent of the Great Twat-Off Festival of 2016.

So I have ruthlessly cut out Kohl Rabi, broccoli and purple sprouting.  All pointless.

New for 2017:

  • Giant Red Mustard leaves
  • A red curly kale called Scarlett
  • Red cabbage
  • Summer cabbage
  • Various different squash

Here is the red mustard.  It needs a lot of space, it is far bigger than a lettuce crop:

allotment red mustard

 

This is good picked small and eaten as a salad leaf – not that mustardy, less spicy than wild rocket. It is also nice wilted like spinach when the leaves are much bigger.  I cut out most of the stem and then chop the leaves into slices, and wilt it with butter and salt and garlic.  I love it.  The people for whom I have cooked this are less impressed.

Here are the early 2017 harvests of pea shoots and mustard:

allotment pea shoots and red mustard

 

 

 

 

 

Workshops in 2018 – again!

May 22nd, 2017

Well, we had a fabulous weekend of teaching here.  Two new groups of nascent Steekers have now been released into the wild, and they all did amazingly well.  What I love about people who latch on to new skills like this is the open-mindedness that they come with.  It is so refreshing and I do thank all the students in 2016 and this year who have embraced this.  I think they will agree that, broken down into logical stages, steeking is not frightening, but rather the gateway to even more enjoyable and yes, even more ambitious and beautiful knitting.

We have now taught this Bee Design Steeking class 7 times and still I love it each time we do it.  However, that has now drawn to a close and I am looking ahead to the new designs for 2017 and into 2018.

I now have a pretty focused but still draft plan for 2018’s events.  I am not going to blog these in detail now.  But if you want to hear about them as they evolve, please contact me and I will add you to my email alert list.  That, rather than the blog, will be the forum where I will pre-announce or at least ramble on a bit.  Once it is all set up, I will pop it on here.

Of course, 2017 is far from over.  In the next 5 weeks we have 3 further days here which is the conclusion of the busiest Spring Term ever at Court Cottage. There will have been 13 events since late February.  There are 7 in the Autumn Term and I won’t be adding any as far as I know, although the Lined Fairisle Cowl event has sold out and been very popular so we’d be happy to re-run that – if you fancy it, let me know.  I have 3 names on a waiting list so if there are a few more I will have a go-er!  We could do it in early 2018 or in November 2017.  It’s a lovely, easy-going Fairisle knit with an option to line the cowl in plain silk stocking stitch.  No steeking, no homework, just lovely fast Fairisle.

Brioche Cowls

May 19th, 2017

I have two events in June on Brioche Cowls.  This is Brioche knitted in two colours, in the round.  It is stage two of our 2017 Brioche events.  You do not need to have attended the earlier Brioche course to come to this one. In fact, knitting Brioche in the round is rather simpler than when knitted flat, but of course, it is knitted in the round which is not something everyone is comfortable with.  However, it is possible to knit these (in fact, it is preferable) on a single circular needle, either 40cm or 60cm long, depending on how wide you want the cowl to be.

In the round, Brioche is a simple two round process and with no ‘ends’ as you have with flat Brioche, there is no sliding, turning or edge stitch business.

Brioche is a stitch that will reward your efforts.  And by effort, we are not talking about the feats of Hercules.  No, this is rather more tame than that. It really requires you to open your mind and leave some old knitting habits behind, just for a while.

As with any new skill, it can take a while to assimilate the unusual – or rather, new – technique but none of it is at all difficult as it is of course only knitting, purling, slipping stitches and moving your yarn back or forth.  And you can do all these things already.  Brioche is just a stitch that re-arranges the order somewhat.

I have designed three cowls.  One is chunky and it is knitted in a luxurious silk wool yarn; I chose a soft grey and a sweet, subdued yellow.  This uses one hank of each.  Another is colourwashed and is in Kidsilk Haze plus a DK wool – I used Felted Tweed.  Finally, an aran Brioche cowl for which I used grey and navy blue.

The classes are limited to 6 participants only.  There is 1 place available on each of the two days – the 24th of June and the 25th of June.  Use the links if you fancy having a go at this rather lovely new skill, and whipping up a Brioche cowl in double quick time.

Brioche Cowl In the round - aran

grey and yellow silk Brioche cowl

Brioche Cowl Colourwashed

 

Workshop Planning

May 17th, 2017

Brioche Knitting:  The Marmite of the knitting workshop except that I think about 50% of people hate Marmite whereas only about 3% of people gag on Brioche (knitting). It has been very interesting teaching this recently, and we have taught it quite a lot. And I have been reflecting on what it has taught me.

Personally I love Brioche, partly because it is pleasing to look at and to wear.  Partly because it is different.  And partly because it is soothingly rhythmical, assuming you enjoy that rhythm of course.  Here is some of the Brioche in the round cowls for the next batch of workshops – easy and so elegant:

Happily many participants, like me, enjoy Marmite – but I do understand that some prefer jam.  For example.  I suppose the key thing for me is that it is a new challenge.  However, while most people do like the end result and a majority enjoy getting there, it is not for everyone and I began to think of knitting categories which are not for me.

I hate knitting intarsia for example. I admire it, often and in the hands of designers such as Donna Jones, it is very beautiful and a long way from the deadly picture jumper with which it is often (sometimes unfairly) associated.  But I can knit it.  I even knitted a whole intarsia blanket, once.  I hated the knitting of it and I will never fall in love, I just know it. I am also glad I gave it a more than fair crack.  A single bed sized blanket is a good effort, isn’t it?  Many years ago I basically taught myself to do it from a book.  I cracked it, job done, move on.

Socks are another area that I do not love. I like them more than intarsia (but then, I like going to the dentist more than that).  I just get so bored.

Very Hard Lace.  That’s a mystery to me.  I love lace.  But the monastic silence type of lace is just awful.

Finishing off.  I like doing this.  I hate teaching it and I won’t ever teach it again.  When I worked as a free-lancer for Rowan – and in those days, you were basically working solely for Rowan but self-employed – we had to offer a range of workshops to retailers and you signed up for the ones you could/would teach and they picked from that menu.  I taught finishing off for years.  This workshop is great and really, everyone ought to go on one or at least learn about how important tension is and how to mattress stitch.  But not here, with me.  It was the deadliest teaching day ever.  It is good for you – but not very enjoyable.  Frankly, that’s what yoga and sorting out the freezer are for.

My workshops are planned months ahead.  This begins about 9 months ahead of the next year with a theoretical discussion with Kathryn, and formerly with Millington, about what we think is possible, would be do-able, might be fun.  It also draws upon the experience of the current or last programme.  Because I think of it as a programme.  Otherwise it might end up being all about Kidsilk Haze, knitted in the round and beaded. It needs to offer a range of things:  new skills, new ideas, some ‘foundation’ skills, new designs, new concepts – and they all need to be translated into real, live projects because whilst I am a big fan of swatching, as you may know, I also know that a workshop based only on swatches is unleavened, unseasoned and far from satisfying for both the student and the teacher.  In the old days, my approach of almost always having a workshop that was based on new techniques (or old ones) but was layered into a real, live project was quite unusual.  I plan to continue with this approach, though for my sake, it needs modifying.

Some decisions have been made already and others are forming into fairly firm objectives. These are, in order of importance:

  • There will be fewer events in 2018; associated, partly, with fewer projects.  This is my key decision I suppose.  I plan to teach no more than five topics or new projects for 2018, with only one or two days for each. I don’t suddenly have a bigger room, as if by magic.  No, it will still be small and intimate.  There will just be less. I hear it’s the new more.
  • Some renewed emphasis on design – from the participants.  I think I will re-introduce one design-based teach, similar to the Design Weekends. Your vision, encouraged, facilitated and enabled by us.
  • One, maybe two, ‘back-to-basics’ topics.  This will depend largely on if I like teaching it, to be honest.  So crochet which I am frankly awful at, and finishing off are out.
  • A new colour-work topic.  No, intarsia, we have established that it won’t be you haven’t we? Put your hand down.
  • New pastures in new places.  Where this will take me and Kathryn…well, as yet we are not sure, but they are on our horizon. You are welcome to come with us.

One thing I have loved teaching, designing and knitting in the last three years is Fairisle.  My own take on this, from colour-washing small accessories through to the huge monochrome beaded Fairisle cowl for Elements and culminating in the Bee Blanket and Cushion, which included steeking, has been a joy from beginning to end.  I am not a traditional Fairisle designer although I am fervently traditional when it comes to the use of more than two colours in one row – that is beyond the pale.  Fairisle is my great knitting love.  I see more of it in my future, and it won’t be all zig-zags and diamonds, great as they are as a starting point…

If you have any feedback, suggestions for topics or techniques – or just a tale to tell, do comment or contact me.

Spring Sportive: competitive queuing and me being grumpy

April 13th, 2017

Last weekend, I rode in the New Forest Sportive.  This is road bike event. I have done this event several times and I really like it.  This time was the first time in about three years though, partly because I got a bit bored of it, partly because I got very bored with training for them, and also because the venues they use have got worse over the years.  This year, encouraged by a friend who had just taken up road cycling, I entered the moderate length race – 66 miles.  That’s too far for me, really.

My training was not ideal. I don’t like riding in cold, windy and wet weather and default to a run or the gym.  It’s been a while since I rode over 60 miles and although this course is fairly mild, it does have some testing bits, one quite hard climb – and it’s a long way, so you have to keep pedalling for several hours.  Or at least I do.  Because I had no training run that was over 50 miles and I needed to drag out a 66 miler preferably without getting all knackered and messy, I worked on the basis of it taking us about 5 hours.  You have to stop, eat, drink, have a wee, get your sorry arse off the knife-like saddle, un-knot your knotted shoulders, triceps and biceps etc.  I also do much better in the mornings so I calculated a 9.00 am departure thus getting back to the venue at about 2.00, maybe 2.30 pm.

And it was a new venue so I thought it might be better and more cheerful than the last place which looked like a set for filming a 1970s gritty UK police drama – think abandoned banger-racing murder scene. Or the one before that, which was very pretty but terribly prone to flooding/trapping cars on the mud-plains if it rained.  And it rained.

This new venue is really attractive, with a pile of stately home, park-lands and sweeping drives.  Not that you get anywhere near the stately home.  But, the little tracks and limited pathways cause the venue to clog up completely when you add in (estimated)  2 or 2.5k cyclists and their cars.  So, we left home at 6.15 am, arrived at the venue at 8.05 am, as instructed (Do Not Arrive Before 8!).  Then we queued to park for about 20 minutes, then we trailed all over the field to the porta-loos (vile, no paper at all, all day), then seeing how far the registration area was, we decided to ready the bikes and take them with us to register which we don’t usually.  This all took another 30 minutes or so, which is pretty standard for a big event.  I would have been happy to start the ride before 9, which is what I had planned.

However, there was now a massive queue for the starting line.  Groups of cyclists are released across the start in order to have an orderly and safe exit from the venue.  It is usual to have a little wait.  But this was well over an hour of slowly shuffling up the paths, making agonisingly slow progress towards the gate.  Luckily it was sunny and warm.  So you know, pretty good natured.

Behind us in the queue was a couple who struck up a conversation with a lone-cyclist just beside them.  Maybe it was being forced to listen to this for AN HOUR that made me a bit ragey.  What I don’t know about Rex and Sonia’s cycling, kids, holidays, breakfast choices, pet-names for each other/the kids, really isn’t worth knowing.

In summary, Rex and Sonia live in another bit of Hampshire with Maximilian (or Max-Bunny as his mummy calls him) and Frederick (yep.  Freddie-Bunny).  These probably adorable boys are old enough to be left at home and fend for themselves, so I am just guessing that they are early to mid-teens with Max-Bunny being the youngest, as he was up and about, ready to answer his mother’s ‘phone call, which went roughly like this:

Sonia (to Rex and Random Lone Cyclist/the entire queue):  I’m going to give Max a call.  This is ridiculous, we’ve been in this queue for ages and we will be here for an hour longer so we will be very late.  I need to let them know.

Rex:  it’s too early.

Sonia:  mmm, maybe you’re right.

A pause of possibly 2 minutes.

Sonia (on her mobile ‘phone):  Oh! hello Max-Bunny!  It’s mummy!  … yes I thought you might be up … yes I thought Freddie-Bunny would still be asleep! (adorable laughter, like gently babbling brooks) … anyway, look darling, it’s taking for EVAH to get off on this race so we will be at least an hour later back than I said … I don’t know exactly… What? No! goodness me, it certainly had better NOT take us 4 or 5 hours to get round!  I jolly well hope we can do better than that…(darling rippling laughter, like gently blowing breezes).

(Mark and I exchange bitter glances.  I know he is willing me, with all his might, not to turn round and kick off.  I heed his silent plea and stare fixedly at the almost see-through lycra clad, straining arse of the cyclist in front of me)…

(Sonia resumes)…have you had brekkers? … Oh! Darling! I am sorry I am not there to make your muffins! … yes … blah, blah, some more stuff about muffins and alternative breakfast options, the dog and Granny…(rings off).

Sonia (pointlessly, as we all got the gist):  relays all the above to Rex and Random Lone Cyclist.

In the meantime I text Lily and say:  such a long sodding queue, will be ages, probs an hour or so later than planned, FML x

Random Lone Cyclist:  so…have you done a Sportive before?

Sonia:  No!  and it looks like we won’t be doing another one if this is anything to go by! (girlish tinkling giggle, like trilling larks).

Random Lone Cyclist (despite me willing him to shut up and stop feeding her):  what distance are you doing?

Sonia:  the 66 miles.  Didn’t want to go for the longer one just yet.  Actually, this is really a warm up event for us – part of our training.

RLC (like he had read the script, bless him, personally I’d have walked off, forfeited my place in the now half-mile long queue and joined the back of it):  Oh?

(Mark actually smacked his own forehead with his fist at this point).

Sonia:  yes!  We are cycling in the Italian Dolomites next month, and (heavy sarcasm)  I hear it’s a *BIT* *HILLY*! (low, adorable and self-depreciating laugh like someone gently riffling a pack of cards).

Silence.

Sonia:  yes!  And I only dragged my old road bike out last month!  it’s been ages since we did any serious cycling, isn’t it (Rex)?

Rex:

(At this point I have to summon all my inconsiderable will power not to turn round and look at her ‘old road bike’ which I am sure is a £4k full carbon limited edition brand spanking new bike, probably red…but I will never know as for once, will power prevailed).

Sonia:  But it’s all going very well so we thought we’d try this one as it looks rather easy and not too long…though this delay is a nuisance, we will just have to cycle much faster, won’t we (Rex)?

Rex:

Sonia:  oh my goodness! We won’t get back here until about 1.00 if we don’t get away by 10.30, will we?  I certainly hope it won’t take us five hours! Something will have gone very wrong, if we take five hours, won’t it (Rex)?

Rex:

RLC:  I reckon it’ll take me about four and a half.

(I warm to RLC though still wish he’d stop talking to Sonia).

Sonia:  yes, well, we’re just going to pedal that much faster, to make up for this terrible delay, aren’t we, (Rex)?

Rex:

With the sun now beating down and it being very hot, me having donned three layers of wool-based jerseys, I have to ask Mark to balance my bike so I can take the top layer off which is quite big and has a wide hood.  I then can’t get this jacket in my little ruck-sack which is of course full of Tupperware containers housing nuts, cheese and mini cocktail sausages.  Because I don’t want to expose this food to Sonia’s gaze, I decide not to un-pack/re-pack the bag and instead, tie the top layer round my middle.

Finally, we get to the bit where we are being readied to cycle and I try to clip onto my bike, but I struggle as my shoe cleats, which need to clip into the receiving cleat on the pedals, are full of crap and mud and gravel from the sodding parkland and mud paths.  So there is an ungainly struggle between me and my bike as I wrestle my feet into place, and then realise that I can’t unclip them easily as they are kind of stuck, on account of the mud and grit. Finally, I get clipped on and we mount and cycle – only I can’t get my bum on the knife-like saddle because the effing hood of my blasted jersey is round my saddle. I have two further attempts to haul myself onto the bike and get seated before veering off to the grass verge in order to tear off my waist-adorning jersey and generally have a much-needed low-key swearing session.

And Sonia pelts past me, head down, bent on the Yellow Jersey of The New Forest, while her frankly adorable warbling laughter bathes my burning ears…

It took us over five hours. I imagine Sonia was at home stirring the risotto long before I hauled my sorry behind over the finish line. It was lovely, mainly.

I’ve decided not to do any more sodding Sportives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Recipes

April 4th, 2017

Here are a some new recipes for things I have been serving at workshops.

Short Bread Biscuits

New in my repertoire.  I like short bread but I hate making it with my actual hands.  Sure, my hands are going to get involved at some stage but with this recipe, that is only at the end. These look, if I say so myself, pretty good, almost like the ones in M&S or that Waitrose.  I imagine.  This is because I have some lovely flower shaped biscuit cutters from Lakeland (All Hail) that make them perfect. This makes about 50 biscuits.  That is too many for one go, even for 10 at a workshop, but listen, this is not a recipe that even I, with incredibly high levels of tolerance for cooking, want to make often, and you can roll out, cut and freeze the biscuits you do not need and defrost and bake them later!  Genius.

  • 500g of salted butter (Yes.  Five. Hundred)
  • 750g of a mix of white, plain flour and cornflour. I use about 200g of cornflour
  • 250g of white sugar – normal or castor

Cut up the butter into small bits and place in a big mixing bowl.  Add the sugar.  Let this get all warm by the oven or somewhere but not too melty. Don’t miss out this stage and use cold butter. You’ll thank me later.

Arm yourself with a hand-held cake mixing device (you may have a kitchen aid, and if so, good for you, get it in there, instead, but I don’t.  I only have my hands, some wooden spoons and my hand-held mixing device).  Get the mixer into the butter/sugar mixture and say goodbye to about 10 – 15 minutes of your life in which you can’t hear the radio or anything over the row made by the mixer.  Keep on mixing.  Ignore it when it clumps up and starts to get all mashed into the round bits of the mixer – ignore it until the butter/sugar paste begins to travel up the beaters towards you.  Then stop and get it all back in the effing bowl, and off you go again.

Just carry on until the clumping sort of gets less bad and it’s all pale.  Have a drink of water and limber up for Round 2 – the flour round.  Add the flour  – which you must sieve – into the bowl of clumpy stuff, in doses.  I had about 6 goes.  Each time you add a few spoons of flour, prepare for a cloud of flour to rise from the bowl and settle almost everywhere when you first re-introduce the beater.  This process is quite tiresome and the dough will vacillate between buttery crumbs that may fly at you/all over the kitchen in general, and even more clumpy dough than before.  Also, the quantity of flour will seem ridiculously huge and you will say (maybe just in your head, or if you are like me, out loud):  there is no way this bastar&ing flour is all going to amalgamate with that butter/sugar axis of doom.  But, it will.  You just have to keep on and have faith.

I did this until all the flour was in and stopped once I thought that my hand and arm might be about 2 minutes short of permanent vibration damage. I then floured the dough a bit more, and my hands, and the surface and did some fairly firm kneading.  Tip it all onto the surface and just have a good old mix with your hands. You need a lot more flour.  Now at this stage, I realised I wasn’t going to cope with it all so I cut it in half and tackled it half at a time. It goes smooth when you roll it, but also a bit cracked at the edges – as I was too, by now – but if you roll it out and ignore the very edges, you can cut perfect shapes.  I cut mine about 7mm deep.  That sounds nerdy.  Fair enough, I am a nerd, but the thing is, you need this incredibly dense dough to cook without really colouring, for once it goes brown-ish, it is in fact slightly burnt, and you can taste that, so don’t cut them too thick.

What I love is that as there is literally no raising agent at all, they do not melt into a nasty cookie-lake as my attempts at biscuits so often do.  They just stay exactly like the shape you started with.

I then freeze the cut out raw biscuits in a Tupperware between layers of baking paper.  These can be defrosted for an hour or so and then baked, at a moderate heat (I used the Aga baking oven, so I guess that is about gas mark 4) for no longer than 17 minutes.  My Aga is hot in places so I often had to get them out and turn the tray.  Once they are done – slightly coloured, so subtle – and a bit cooked-looking, get ’em out and sprinkle the hot biscuits with a little bit of castor sugar.  They may feel a bit soft.  It’s OK, they will crisp up as soon as they cool down.  Once they are cool enough to handle, cool them on a rack.

They are absolutely yummy. My advice is to make 100s and freeze them so you only have to go through this every now and then, but it is so worth while.  Lily said they looked shop bought but she didn’t see the flour-drenched kitchen on the day I made them.  I think small ones, served with chocolate mousse or lemon posset would be lovely.

Roasted Ratatouille

No Picture, sorry.  This serves 10, so scale down. I *think* it will freeze well, but have not tried that.  I make it 24 hours ahead.  I think it is better that way.  The pre-roasting is the key part.

  • 6 large red peppers
  • 4 large yellow peppers
  • 4 red onions
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 3 cans of chopped tomatoes
  • 2 jars/cartons of really good quality passata
  • (optional, I leave this out for workshops) 1 – 2 de-seeded finely chopped red chillies
  • 4 large courgettes
  • 1 butternut squash
  • Rape seed oil and butter
  • salt and pepper

First, cut the peppers in half, remove the core/seeds and place in a big roasting tin.  Roast in a hot oven, or under the grill.  If you are grilling, first get them tender and then turn the grill up to char the skins.  If roasting, just blast them for about 30 – 40 mins, turning as they will fill with liquid.  Once they are done, and while they are piping hot, put them all in a large food bag and seal it up. Leave it to go cold.

Wash but do not peel the butternut squash.  De-seed it and cut the flesh including the skin into small cubes c 1 cm-ish.  Pop these in a non-stick frying pan with some oil and  butter.  Roast them/saute them until they begin to caramel and are cooked through.

Do the same with the courgettes but slightly bigger chunks and do not let them go soft.  More heat, less time.

Do the same with the red onion, which I slice long-ways like at the fair when they serve onions with hot-dogs.

Take the peppers out of the bag and try and peel the skin off each bit of pepper.  This is something I have mixed success with so I don’t stress too much if I miss bits.  Chuck the skins away.  Cut the remaining pepper into strips or chunks.

Peel and crush the garlic so it’s finely minced.  Heat some oil in a big, deep pan and add the garlic and the chilli if using that.  Then add all the pre-roasted/saute-ed veggies, and give it a bit of a stir so the oil gets on it.  Add the tomatoes and the passata.  Get it to a simmer – watch it ‘cos it spits hot lava like a ratatouille volcano.  Do not let this boil or simmer for long, the veg is all cooked really and it will start to disintegrate if you over-cook it now.

I serve this with masses of grated cheddar to stir in.  I also serve it with the next recipe…

Chilli Peas

This is invented by me, based shamelessly on the Macho Peas served in my beloved Nando’s.  Nando’s is the best place to eat.  Evah.  I wanted to re-create my favourite side dish and I am delighted with my version.

This serves 10, so as ever, scale. Downwards, probably. I am sure it will freeze OK but I never have.  For workshops, I make it 24 hours ahead and gently re-heat it for an hour before serving.

  • One-and-a-half packs (the big ones, not sure how much they weigh) of frozen petit-pois
  • 4 – 6 cloves of garlic, still with the paper skin on (this will be pre-boiled so will be much milder than usual)
  • A fair bit of rape seed oil AND very good quality olive oil
  • A big handful of fresh, finely chopped mint
  • 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of hot chilli flakes (I usually use one rounded for this amount.  Be careful if you are not sure.  I use hot flakes which are very fiery so less is wise if you don’t like too much heat)
  • Salt and pepper

Put the garlic cloves in the water you intend to cook the peas in.  So when I make this, that is quite a lot of water.  Get it to the boil and then simmer with the garlic cloves in there for about 5 minutes. Now your kitchen and indeed the entire house/street smell of garlic.  You’re welcome.  Add the frozen peas.  Get it back to the boil.  Boil the peas for 3 – 4 minutes.  I add 1/2 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda as it begins to boil as this keeps the peas greener.  Up to you.  Once tender, drain and rinse with warm water.  Let them continue to drain. Fish about for the garlic and slip off the papery skin. Roughly chop the garlic which will be tender and much less garlic-y now you have boiled it. Put the garlic and half the peas back in the big pan.

Put some rape seed oil – I add a big BIG slug of oil here – in a small pan, and add the chilli flakes.  Let them gently sizzle but not really fry or colour. Remove from the heat and pour onto the peas/garlic.  Mix it all up then with a potato masher, smash the pea/oil/garlic mixture so it’s quite squished. Add the finely chopped mint and stir it in.  Add the whole peas that you didn’t smash.  Add a surprisingly large amount of olive oil, you need it to be a bit oily, not swimming but you should see a slick of oil, even a little side-puddle.  Season well with salt and pepper.  The salt is important.  You can gently re-heat this now in the pan and serve, or let it go cold, cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.  I serve it warm, not scorching.  I think room temp would also be fine.  This is delicious with chicken. Obvs. And it is also lovely with the rat (above) mixed into the rat is even better, topped with masses of strong cheese of your choice. It is also lovely with a gurt big roasted goats cheese round (one each, please) plus chutney.  I also eat these peas with steak, salmon (the best combo after chicken), quiche and roast dinners.

Potato Cakes

These are simple and delicious.  I serve them warm and buttered as a non-sweet alternative before workshops with morning coffee but they are also great with eggs and bacon.

This makes enough for three workshops – so about 60 – 70 cakes.  I freeze the raw dough in batches for up to 1 month.

  • 3 lbs of potatoes – old, floury ones are best
  • 1 lb of plain white flour
  • About 6 oz of butter plus extra for frying and buttering
  • Milk
  • Rape seed oil
  • Salt and pepper

Peel and boil the potatoes – they need to be very tender.  Drain and mash them with the butter and a generous dash of milk.  Now you need this to be not sloppy but not really stiff and no lumps, needs to be smooth and fine.  Maybe more runny than if you were serving mash as you have flour to add yet.  Season well.   Let this go cool, almost cold.  Add the flour and work it in really well.   I guess at this stage you could add fresh or dried herbs, maybe chives. If you need more flour to make an elastic dough, go for it.  Tip it out onto a floured surface and give it a good seeing to.  Chill the dough. You can freeze it now if you want in food bags.

Roll it out to about 1.5 cm thick.  Cut out shapes – I used the scone cutter.  It won’t really stay in shape, it’s too elastic so it’s also OK just to cut it into squares or triangles if you prefer, that is what my mum always did.  In a non-stick frying pan, melt some butter with a bit of oil and gently fry the cakes.  The potato is cooked but the flour is raw so it needs to be allowed to cook properly, not too fast or it will taste raw and glue-y.  You want them golden brown.  I set them in a dish to keep warm in the oven as I fry the next batch and so on.  I then lightly butter them and serve hot or warm in a covered dish.

Note about freezing the dough:  this works well in food bags but the dough comes out very sticky once de-frosted so you have to add more flour and knead it all again.  After that it’s fine.

Cheese and Herb Scones

I serve these warm, buttered. They are also good as an accompaniment to soup instead of bread or balanced and baked on top of a stew as a cobbler-topping.

This makes about 24 which is enough for 2 workshops.  I mix up my metric and imperial, sorry.  (Not sorry).

  • 1.5 lbs of white self-raising flour
  • 250g of butter, cold (Note:  as you are also adding fat in the cheese, you can reduce this by 25 – 50g but I don’t)
  • about 6 – 8 oz of strong cheddar, grated plus a bit extra to top the scones (or other cheese in small chunks such as Stilton or goat cheese but I never serve these at workshops as a lot of people don’t like that sort of cheese which is sad as I love them)
  • 3 eggs and some milk
  • A big handful of finely chopped fresh chives (optional but delicious)
  • A small handful of very finely snipped fresh rosemary or thyme
  • Some rosemary or other edible flowers if available to top each scone

Add the chopped butter, cold, to the sifted flour and make a fine crumb by rubbing it in for an improbably long time – try and keep your hands mainly out – finger tips only – so it does not get hot.  Stir in the herbs and cheese.  Beat the eggs and the milk.  How much milk?  This is a ‘feel’ thing.  It needs to be spongy and moist, not stiff and not wet.  You also need some egg/milk mixture to paint the scones so either make some more with another egg or keep a drop back.

Amalgamate this – light touch, no pounding and tip out onto a well floured surface.  Firmly but gently, knead this but not for long.  Roll out to about 3.5cm high or a bit higher.  Cut the scones out with a well-floured cutter and place on a papered tray.  Paint with the egg/milk.  Pop some grated cheese on each one and then a sprig of rosemary flower or chive flowers or thyme.  Bake for about 20 minutes gas mark 4 or 5 or Aga baking oven.

The baked scones freeze brilliantly. I have never frozen the raw scones, but I think they’d be OK. I make this many before each group of workshops if I fancy serving them and they do 2 events. I only freeze them for a maximum of 2 weeks though.

The plain scones I serve are the same except I obviously omit the cheese and instead add about 3 oz of white sugar instead of cheese and herbs. I just paint them and add no topping. I make them a wee bit taller as I usually want these for cream-teas. That is very little sugar.  But it is plenty.

 

 

The Cowl is Done!

March 20th, 2017

The Felted Tweed Fairisle Cowl is now complete and it’s a beauty.

FI Cowl greys 1

There are also Kidsilk Haze and silk-lined versions of this fully reversible neat neck cowl. I have designed it to be fairly snug so there is minimal gappage at the neck but it is very easily sized up.  The ‘lining’ is in fact a mirror image of the other side but it is basically knitted in one piece, in the round and there is no sewing up.

FI Cowl greys 5

There is one place left on the Fairisle Cowl workshops and this is for the 3rd of June – you can see the event and book it here.

Several people have expressed an interest in the event, but cannot make the dates so if you would like to go on an event to make this, please let me know and maybe we can organise another date.

 

Fairisle Cowl

March 12th, 2017

I am currently working on the final details of the design for the Fairisle Cowl event in a few weeks time.  The concept for this is a little bit different, in that the cowl will be lined with a mirror-image of the Fairisle pattern on the outside.  Here is an image of the cowl in its first colourway:

FI Cowl grey and cream

The main area is closely patterned and is in fact a fast and easily memorised knit.  It gives a warm feel of tweed fabric and I love it.  So the workshop will revolve around knitting this – it is quite small, and then the technical challenge of knitting a mirror-image lining – but basically it is knitted in one piece and is not at all difficult.

An option at the event will be to knit it in Kidsilk Haze, colourwashed. Again this will be lined with a reversed lining, or with a silk-wool lining so that people who like Kidsilk Haze but who cannot wear it next to their skin can also make and wear this.

There is just one place left on this event – here are the details.

 

 

 

 

Some Of The Things I Am Still Doing

March 3rd, 2017

I am still:

  • allottmenting
  • caving
  • running
  • cycling

Today:  CAVING!

It is fair to say that, though I am still caving, I do it a lot less frequently and consequently even less well that I did a couple of years ago which is really saying something.  I caved a few times in 2016 and then last month, we went to South Wales to cave in Aggen Allwedd, a cave often nick-named Aggy.

We stayed at the hut of the Chelsea Speleological Society – they own this cottage, which is called White Walls (misleading; it is grey) which they acquired in the 1960s and renovated from an almost complete wreck.  This is the hut, with me wearing three layers under TWO winter coats:

White Walls - ACS outside hut

I am not someone who does well in cold conditions.  I like heat, sunshine, open fires, central heating, hot showers, electric blankets etc.  So going to South Wales in February, to a hut I had been warned was ‘basic’ in terms of mod-cons was a gamble.  And it was a very cold weekend – but it was OK! The place has central heating which though basic, does really warm up the sitting room; and we found a fan heater too.  The kitchen has no heating, and there is no door between it and the sitting room so that was tricky; and the scullery off the kitchen is unheated, cavernous and absolutely freezing.  This is where they keep the crockery, pans and the fridge – also this is where you wash up.

It is a tiny cottage, and the extensions they have done are (I think) all for the kit/shower/drying areas which are excellent in terms of space.  So upstairs there is just a landing, loo, library/office (members only) and a bunk room, sub-divided into a larger area for guests and a smaller members bunk room.  It’s cosy.

The sitting room, the kitchen, and the drying/shower room:

White Walls sitting room

White Walls shower and drying kit room

White Walls kitchen

The setting is just stunning, with perfect views over the valley and across to some other hills.  It is very remote but on good, tarmac roads and there are inhabited cottages nearby.  I loved it.  In summer, and at £5 a night, it would make an amazing base for walking.

This was the view that evening:

White Walls view

On the first afternoon, having arrived with about 2 hours of daylight, we walked to the cave entrance which is just over a mile away via a level, easy footpath.  This is a beautiful walk and dead flat.

The next day, we woke to snow and for a few hours it snowed quite hard.  But it didn’t cause any real problems as we were walking to the cave anyway. So off we set and entered the cave at about 11.00 am.  The entrance is a locked steel solid gate, through which you crawl and then this gives out into a low rocky passage which is a hands-and-knees crawl to bigger passage.  This is the entrance to the cave. Note icicles:

White Walls cave and icicles

White Walls - cave entrance

From here, you quickly encounter a rift passage which I did not like as it wasn’t wide enough to have your back on one wall and knees or feet on the opposite wall; nor did I think it was quite wide enough for me to drop down and squeeze along at floor level.  Florence just climbed up and shimmied along with knees and elbows out to rift over the drop at about 6 feet up.  I had a mini-melt-down.  But I did it in the end, with a lot of help, though there were actual tears.  The next bit of cave is the same, only this time I just dropped to the floor as it looked marginally less tight, and with one arm out and moving sideways, I shuffled through – and it wasn’t really tight, there was just one bit where I had to squish my boobs up and down to get past a tight-ish rock (my biggest body-measurement!) and then a little climb up at the very end.

Then you are just in climby, bouldery passage where you can walk, crouch and crawl with a few bits of flat-out belly crawling where the ceiling is really low – though at no point is there a tight squeeze and the low bits are nice and wide so it feels OK, even though there are two places where you have to have your head on one side or your helmet will get stuck. It is (or was in the tiny section I did) dry-ish with some pools and you do encounter a stream-way but I only heard it. There is just a lot of climbing, nothing really horrid but the boulders are massive and very slippery.  It was tiring.  In the rest of the cave, there are extensive areas of stream-way which Florence and Will have done to reach The Courtesan.  This is a spectacular formation which I will never see.

This rocky passage then begins to climb and you enter the boulder choke (do NOT go into the dig!) and then you are in Main Chamber.  Our destination was The Music Room, but this is c30 minutes of what I believe is easy walking passage on from Main Chamber.  I never made it. I was tired, largely I think due to my early panic in the first rift, which releases adrenaline and then I get very shaky.  This has not happened for a long time but I remember and know the symptoms.  I had two glucose tablets which really helped but I was thinking about getting back through the choke, back along the climby passages and of course, the last rift, so I had to tell them I was fine to cave out – but might not be OK for another hour plus on top of that.  So we turned back and caved out.

It was, of course, so much easier on the way back.  We were underground for just over three hours and I found it a physically very tiring trip but that may just be lack of cave-fitness and the full-on panic attack early on.  I thought those days were behind me.

When we pushed open the heavy metal gate and wriggled out, the snow had almost stopped and the day was very cold, but bright and beautiful.  I will be back, Aggy, and this time, I will go to the Music Room and even venture a little way along the Southern Streamway…

 

The Afternoon Tea Club 2017 – in support of Macmillan Cancer Care

February 17th, 2017

This year, there will be two Knit Clubs, and the proceeds from these will go Macmillan Cancer Care.  Here is the page to have a look and book your places. All you have to do is book, turn up with your knitting – and a tea-time contribution. I will do the rest.

Tea, cake, knitting, raffle for knitting prizes – sounds good, right?

Please come!