Sunday, June 28, 2015

Stonkingly good

Yesterday four friends came round for dinner and at the end of the evening one of them thanked me for a "stonkingly good dinner".  What a lovely word.  And yes, it was a pretty good dinner.

The friends were two couples who hadn't met before, but they are the only friends currently on my eating together list who will eat - and enjoy - any kind of food at all.  My other friends range between only needing to avoid one or two things they don't like to one who is a gluten-free vegetarian, with various levels of 'can't eat, won't eat' in between.  In the event, the dinner I cooked would probably have been eaten happily by at least one other friend, but when I was planning the meal I enjoyed having total freedom in what to cook.

We began with a bottle of cheapo French supermarket sparkling white.  I still have half a dozen bottles, although I will no longer be able to obtain them once they run out.  It currently costs about £1 a bottle, but is so drinkable.  I will miss it when I no longer have access to it.  My guests had finished theirs by the time I served the starter.

The starter was individual salmon and asparagus tarts served with a garnish of asparagus spears and buttery fried breadcrumbs.  I finished my white fizz while others had a little white wine (brought by one of the guests) and one started on the red.  I avoided soggy bottoms in my tarts by brushing the blind baked tart bases with a little beaten egg before pouring in the filling to bake.

The main course was duck breasts with a red wine jus, served with small roast potatoes, braised red cabbage and French beans.  I'd never cooked duck breasts correctly before, since when I have cooked them, there have usually been people there who would not like them left correctly pink.  Would I be able to pull it off this time, with no experience?  I think they're one of those things where you have to just trust the instructions and cook for the length of time stated, so I put the duck breasts skin side down in the pan and went back to the dining table, ignoring the increasingly loud sounds of spitting fat coming from the kitchen for 7 minutes.  Success.  Perfectly crispy skins.  Into the oven for 8 minutes, rest for 5 and slice ....  to reveal slightly pink.  The cabbage was delicious, in spite of my trepidation at using a whole tablespoon of fennel seeds and the jus was a triumph.  I adapted the recipe, having found some actual home-made duck stock in the freezer and using lots of juniper berries and redcurrant jelly as well.  Most of us drank red (again, brought by guests) while one prefers white with everything.

I love a good dessert wine.  A search in the less-used wine rack in the larder, right under the stairs, revealed a bottle of 2002 Sauternes.  I know very little about wine, not least how long a dessert wine is likely to remain good in the bottle.  It went in the fridge for a few days.  When I brought it out, my guests, at least two of whom know a bit about wine, were suitably impressed.  I noticed (from a secret code written on the label) that it was the most expensive wine I have ever bought, costing about ten euros about 7 years ago.  In the UK, of course, it would be a lot more expensive.  To go with the wine we had individual brown sugar pavlovas and little chocolate pots.

For once, my cheesboard did not hold any cheddar.  Instead I chose goats' cheese, blue Stilton and a cheese I had not heard of before.  To my surprise none of my guests had heard of it either; one friend I think of as knowing most of what there is to know about food and two of the others have a house in France.  Still, none of us had heard of Vallage, from the Champagne region of France.  It's a soft cheese which tastes like butter.  Doesn't sound appealling?  The taste is so much better than the description and I noticed that it was the one people kept picking at after they were full.

Three coffees, two teas, and the evening was over.  As I expected, everyone got on well and there was plenty of interesting conversation.  And a stonkingly good dinner.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Letting go

If you're a regular reader or know me in real life, you'll know that my working life has been disrupted over the past couple of years by one thing after another and particularly in the last 9 months.  I seem (fingers crossed) to be ok now and able to work in the pottery once more.  It's just as well; stock is very low in both shops where I sell and my showroom here at home is getting emptier too.   But here's the thing: I'm letting go of the idea that low stock means more work to catch up.  It's scary.  But it's also right.

Since last April, when I turned sixty and started receiving my small teaching pension, the idea has been that I can now afford to work part time, which should mean the work/life balance improving a bit in favour of life (in the garden, in the kitchen, with friends, etc).  In practice there was catching up to do at first, and then life went pear-shaped, but when I was able to work I was still doing so more or less full time.  Now, though, the complications seem to be over.  I'm back from my travels and have no plans for any long trips in the forseeable.  There are some nice events coming up but nothing that takes over.  I was looking at throwing myself into the pottery all day and every day in order to try to catch up with stock and orders.  But that way, when would I know it was ok to actually work part-time?  In reality, one never seems to have done enough, so it was unlikely to happen.

So this week I have drawn a line.  I now work part time.  I am still alarmingly low on stock and working part time means it will be even longer before I progress through my usual cycle of throwing and drying and then having a batch of firings, but I am letting go of all those thoughts.  Letting go of the worry that I won't have enough work to sell.  Letting go of the lists of pots I should have made.  It's done.  Life happened.  I wasn't able to work.  But now I am.  Part time.

It's a bit scary.  But I've been self-employed (part time and then full time) for 31 years and I've done ok so far.  I'm letting go of previous pressures and putting my faith in my work, whatever direction that takes me next.

Monday, June 22, 2015


I have recently taken part in a Facebook meme - to post an archive photo on six consecutive days.  It was a really interesting exercise.

To begin with I searched through all the photos I am pleased with and made up a short list. The first one I posted was this.  I love this picture and wish I could print it out, but unfortunately it no longer exists in any except compressed form as it was part of a big computer disaster which included losing a batch of images.  I had uploaded them onto Facebook so am able to retrieve the compressed version but the original is lost.  Since then I don't remove photos from my camera until they are saved in at least two places.

The second picture is another personal favourite, taken at Westonbirt Arboretum.  After this I began  to think about the fact that it was a photo archive challenge and not necessarily about the photos I consider to be my best ones, so I moved from digital photos, which accounts for the last ten years, to those I have in my many albums.  Most of these have not kept well.  I do have all my negatives (yes, even from 1962) in a filing cabinet and could in theory scan them in to create clear versions of them once more, but I'm probably not going to!

This photo at the Snake Temples on Penang, Malaysia was taken with my first ever roll of film, when I was 8.  It doesn't have a huge amount to recommend it as a photo but I wanted to mark the beginning of my interest in photography.

Having got into different types of subject, I looked for a still life.  I haven't taken many, but this one is one of my favourites.  Getting photos printed in the eighties (and beyond) often resulted in distortions of colour because machines don't like an image to be more or less one colour range and they compensate.  This still life was green and white (even the wallpaper was white with a hint of green) but the machine compensated with a pink wash.  The print has probably deteriorated in the album as well but I managed to Photoshop it into something I still rather like.

My family first started saying I was a good photographer (which was kind of them) when I got a zoom lens and managed to capture family members unaware because I was standing some distance away.  You can often, though not always, get some great shots of people if they don't know you're taking a photo.  This one was taken in 2001 and shows a dinner at my house.  The two people central to the photo were very close friends who both died within six months of each other in the last 18 months.  This is such a happy photo, showing them both 'au naturel', oblivious not just to me but everyone else. 

And finally ...
This photo from 2009 was an accident because I initially set out just to photograph the window I had just painted, however it is now one of my favourites.  I like the composition of the photo but it is also a picture of a place and time that are very important to me.

Searching through all my old photos has given me yet another nudge to make sure I do more photography.  I have ideas.  The next task is to set aside some proper time for them.