Lockdown has not brought out the writer in me or the painter or the linguist or sadly the exerciser. Instead I have mostly sat metaphorically or otherwise paralysed like a rabbit in the headlights of an ‘unprecedented’ series of events.
I wonder how many others have found themselves observing the weirdness of a life paused while complying willingly to the rules of safety.
My lockdown life has been a gentle one of privilege and access to a garden and to online communications with family, to a job not furloughed and to a cupboard full of toilet rolls and wine, but I have still felt a sense of loss.
I have not had a direct experience of the impact of Covid -19 on a loved one so I appreciate my loss is small by comparison to those experienced by many. But I have missed the easy interaction of city life, a trip on a bus to a cafe or pub, and those tiny observations of others that reminds us of humanity.
While others have found joy in birdsong – I miss the noisy clatter of messy lives.
I can’t quite remember when I started taking pictures of numbers, but I love typography and commercial art and perhaps an interest in these tiny artworks is a by-product of that.
I don’t have any rules as to what constitutes a ‘good’ number – it’s very subjective and there is no formula – it just depends on what tickles my fancy 😉
It might be a carefully painted number in gold leaf above a door, or brass numbers screwed on a bit squint. I love a weathered number on a stone gatepost – but am equally fond of a 70s style ‘stick-on’ decal against a garish painted door.
On doors and gateposts, these tiny numbers sit sentry both welcoming and protecting and while houses are extended and reconfigured over the years – often the house number remains unchanged. Sometimes I wonder about what lives the number may have witnessed, and the tales it might tell, if only numbers could talk.
Some numbers seem to have more of a personality than others – cheeky, austere, whimsical, stalwart and for those, I pen a short caption by way of description.
This is entirely my own interpretation of the number persona and others may not see the cheeky insouciance I see – or the flirty nature of a particular digit as I do. My tendency to anthropomorphise numbers does often depend on the mood I am in when snapping.
Other numbers need no description and their beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
When I was training for a marathon a few years ago, like a trainspotter, I had a notion to collect a full set of numbers 1- 26, but I soon gave up on this when my eye was more often drawn to 2s and 3s and 5s – and never finding a 26 or 14 that made the cut.
As a hobby, it suits me to be free to take pictures of those numbers that appeal and so my collection of number pics will always have doubles and triples and omissions as there will always be some that for whatever reason I just don’t like.
As a photographic subject, it is one of almost infinite possibilities – the world is full of numbers and I am happy to just keep surreptitiously snapping as I encounter those that catch my eye.
I do see the start of a new year as a time to review and reflect. I don’t make resolutions as such but I usually think of a few ‘goals’ or things the old me might like to achieve in the next 12 months. This loose collection of paths to self-improvement might include some new activities to try in the coming year and will always include an optimistic commitment to trying to get better at some of the things I do already.
Practice makes perfect and all that.
Getting back into writing regularly is on my list, having pretty much kicked this blog into the long grass in the past year. I have got out of the habit, and now my writing is reduced to social media posts, work emails, and the odd business report.
Aside from an intention to keep writing, following on from a recent batch of marmalade making – next on my list is a quest to get better at making jam- not with a view to becoming a professional preserver, but more to crack the elusive nut of getting my jam to set.
On paper, making jam and marmalade is an easy process – you combine the right ratio of fruit, sugar and sometimes water, heat it to the temperature of jam setting point then Ta Da! It sounds simple, but while my jams and marmalade usually taste good, they are often very runny and the process of knowing when it has reached setting point is a bit of a mystery.
Some of this is a fear of the pan boiling over – and so to avoid this, I don’t have the temperature high enough – or when it is boiling a fear of letting it boil too long in case it overcooks,( having once made blackberry jam that was like industrial strength glue).
Recipe books offer instructions and guidance, but rarely give much detail around timings. I suppose it is because as with most cooking, there are unknown variables relating to your own kitchen and equipment so success comes through trial and error and accumulated knowledge.
Apparently, there is a magical knack of knowing when the bubbles in the pan have changed – and recognising this I imagine only comes with practice. As I only tend to make jam or marmalade once or twice a year – reading the jam bubble runes is a skill not yet mastered. This year I had to reboil marmalade when after cooling it still looked more like orange soup than a breakfast conserve. So after that near disaster, I bought myself a jam pan and a thermometer.
Today I gave my new pan and thermometer combo a test drive – making scarlet chilli and red pepper jam, a recipe from Diana Henry’s book Salt, Sugar Smoke. Intrigued by the prospect of making the evocatively named scarlet jam, I set forth on a new path in my preserving journey – as I have never made jam with peppers or attempted any kind of savoury relish before.
chopped and cooking
setting point reached
scarlet chilli & pepper jam
It was an easy recipe to follow, with only a few ingredients and it looked beautiful bubbling in the pan as the peppers and chilli transformed from raw ingredients to jam. As always it took longer than I expected for it to reach setting point, but this time I persevered, even letting it rise above the mystical 104.5 C. Using both my thermometer and the wrinkle test as guidance I studied the bubbles, stared into the glossy pot and followed my instinct 😉
I don’t imagine I will ever win any jam making contests – but it tastes good and looks like it will set. Bravo to me !
I was prompted in part by reading Tom Hunt’s Waste not column in Feast in the Saturday Guardian.
Each week in the Feast food supplement, Tom Hunt highlights various ways to reduce waste in the kitchen focusing on a different ingredient each week. This week it was chillies.
To make the most of chilli waste, you can save discarded seeds and dry them to season other dishes, and in something of a revelation to me, it turns out that the green stalks of chillies contain the beneficial bacteria lactobacillus and can be used instead of a starter to make yogurt.
I had chillies that I was using to make Menemen ( Turkish egg dish) for brunch and lots of milk – so was looking forward to trying out this eco tip.
So far so good – except I had not read to the end of the recipe – where I noticed it asks for 10-15 chilli stalks.
While I do like my Turkish style eggs spicy – 10 chillies is a bit too spicy !
Having decided to make yogurt I did a quick trawl of the internet for yogurt recipes – more by way of a reminder of quantities, as I have made yogurt in the past.
In my teenage years, I went through a phase of making soft cheese ( crowdie) and yogurt. I would like to say I was ahead of the artisan foodie curve but probably closer to the truth is that I lived on a farm in a small Highland village & was just a bit of an oddball.
Making yogurt is not complicated – and sometimes can happen by accident as I found out when I left a carton of milk on the windowsill of a Premier Inn hotel room on a business trip a while back. Reader – I ate it.
So back to my yogurt making – having gleaned the essential facts from the internet and reminded myself of the steps and quantities – this is what I did.
1. Gently heated up a pint of full-fat milk.
2. Left milk to cool to the temperature of a hot bath ( 45 degrees C )
3. I then took a couple of tablespoonfuls of Greek yogurt – from an existing tub, to use as the starter.
4. To warm the starter, I mixed a couple of tablespoons of the warmed milk into the Greek yogurt to make it runny and less cold before adding it back into the rest of the warmed milk.
5. I used my slow cooker to heat up the stoneware container so that the mixture went into something warm. If you don’t have a slow cooker – the important thing is to put the mixture into something that can retain heat – a thermos or just a sealed container than will keep the temperature even.
6. Having warmed the container – I put the yogurt ( that I had warmed a bit) into the warm milk then put the starter + milk mixture into the warmed slow cooker pot.
7. I switched the slow cooker off and took the stoneware container up to a warm room where I covered it in a thick blanket and left it for a few hours.
About 5 hours later it was well on the way to becoming yogurt but I decided to leave it overnight.
The next morning TA DA !
It tasted ok – quite mild, but I thought it was a bit runny and as I eat a lot of Greek yogurt I thought I would try straining it to see how it turned out.
I put the yogurt into a muslin lined sieve over a bowl and left it to drip in its own time.
I was heading out to a show at the Edinburgh book festival so I just left it dripping.
We ended up staying out later than planned and going to some more stuff at the Fringe so the yogurt had been doing its dripping thing for about 9 hours by the time we got back.
The result was a small ball of thick yogurt – maybe closer to fromage blanc than Greek yogurt in texture – but with a lovely mild flavour.
As I don’t have any pigs I drank the leftover whey – the strained liquid. No idea if it’s good for you but it was a refreshing slightly tart drink.
To make the yogurt a bit creamier I added back in a couple of spoons of full fat milk and the end result was quite close to the shop bought varieties.
It’s a fairly easy thing to do. I don’t think it gives any better result than buying a tub, but it’s quite satisfying making your own.
I might experiment with different types of milk ( e.g. Jersey or unhomogenised ) and also the length of time I strain it to see if that makes a difference to the end result.
Meanwhile, I have started saving my chilli tops in the freezer ( which I hope does not destroy the lactobacillus) and when I reach 15 I will give the chilli yogurt a whirl.
Unusually for a Monday morning at 9am, I was queueing to get into BBC’s big tent in Edinburgh to watch the recording of Janice Forsyth’s Radio Scotland show. Was a last minute thing to do when a friend asked me to join her.
Each day the magazine showcases a tiny but eclectic mix of what’s on at Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, and I had no idea who we might see. As it turned out – this ‘chaos of delights’ as described by Janice had a loose theme around ‘finding your voice’ featuring – impressionist Jon Culshaw, a Capella singer Kate Dimbleby, all-round Renaissance man and ball of energy Robin Ince, each providing small snapshot of their shows with a light touch and laughter to start the week.
While I knew both Jon Culshaw and Robin Ince – the beauty of this format is discovering something unheard of. Today for me from the official festival Geoff Sobelle’s theatre piece – Home- described as ‘a spectacle and illusion, choreography, storytelling and music’. Geoff and his musical partner Elvis Perkins talked us through the idea behind Home and shared short musical taster.
More music came from the contrasting styles of Super Furry Animals lead singer Gruff Rhys, and blues band ensemble Blueswater – providing toe-tapping playing, stellar singing and a harmonica virtuoso.
A smorgasbord, an amuse bouche, a carefully portioned taster of just a few of the shows on in Edinburgh at the moment.
Janice Forsyth holds it all together with an easy grace and humour. Would be nice if all Mondays could start this way.
Went out running this morning – earlyish. I could say it was with a spring in my step and vim in my vigour but that would be fake news.
The grey mist and drizzly gloom of yesterday had lifted and the air was fresh ( funny how quickly we wish the hot, hot temperatures would return after only a few days of rain). I was listening to a good podcast – an episode of the Food Programme featuring chef Marcus Samuelsson* The story of his life through food is full of twists and turns and distracted me from my niggly knee and cranky outlook.
As I reached the turning point in this 3-mile run – it’s beyond half way and feels like the home straight- I saw a favourite tree against a background of watery sunlight and blue and white sky. On a summer evening, this is a good place to watch the swifts and house martins swoop and glide.
Today as I ran past the tree, I saw a small feather flutter slowly down from the branches above and running, caught it mid-flight and mid-stride in a rare elegant move.
*BBC R4 Food Programme – Episode with Dan Saladino featuring Marcus Samuelsson ‘Keep it Sticky’
After the hurly burly of London life, it’s good to get back home and run in more of a rural setting. I run these same paths all year and have done now since I started running in 2009, but now that they are temporarily reserved for weekend running, I really appreciate the space and peace and realise how restorative time in the countryside is.
And of course to run with friends.
I had slightly fallen out of love with the Dell path and its variations after miles of marathon training. I stopped seeing the tiny changes of nature and instead only saw trees as milestones of intervals and tempo runs.
This weekend was icy cold with temperatures as low as minus 6 degrees on our Sunday run. Face tingling, crisp air gasping, cold runs with chums.
So here we are again – another year is coming to an end and my all time favourite month is here. I say favourite but it is a bit of a love/hate thing. Mostly I love December – it’s my birthday month and I can deal with winter even if the older I get, the more I find the short days a tough gig and increasingly look to December sparkly excess to carry me across to a new year and longer days.
There is something about approaching a year end that makes you even more aware of your unfulfilled life ‘to do’ list and take a reflective view of the story so far. Then for me anyhow, I just end up carrying forward unticked life goals into another year !
Back when my girls were younger – December heralded a kind of rabbit in the headlights – let’s just get through this month kind of vibe. In between badly crafting Nativity costumes, baking for the Christmas fayre and watching the end of year dance shows, I poured flame on the December fire by creating extra, arguably unnecessary, traditions of ‘our family advent’ and Christmas morning baking.
Then as my children became young adults – I switched my December madness to a different focus so for the past few years, I have opted to run every day in December – following a Scottish based challenge – the Marcothon – where you run a minimum of 3 miles every day in December.
And just in case running every day was a bit too easy – the first time I did this, I decided to write about running every day in an aptly named blog Decemberism and found that writing about running every day was almost as hard as running.
Time passes and I am more of an established runner now – but alas not an established writer. It is tough to commit to running every day for sure – but I find it a lot harder to write daily, or even to just get into a writing habit.
So this year I am going to make a big fat effort to write more, and if I can I will run each day in December even if it’s just a run around the block on some days. I will keep to this daft December habit not least because, after 6 years of doing this, it has become a December ritual and maybe like many of us I find comfort in the salve of habits that over time become traditions.