Nutty and nice

I seem to be coming across more and more really delicious gluten-free recipes which I cook even though I’m fortunate not to have difficulties with gluten. I started baking them when  a new person joined my writing group two years ago and after buying some gluten-free biscuits which were disgusting, I started to find recipes which I could make. Just today, at another group, someone had brought a really yummy orange cake which I was amazed to find was made without flour! I haven’t yet got her recipe, but I’ll share it when I do… meanwhile here is a very nice, incredibly easy, with only two main ingredients… yes two…

Gluten Free Peanut Butter Loaf Cake

  • 280g peanut butter smooth or crunchy
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp cider vinegar
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 2 dessert spoons sugar (brown or white whichever you prefer)
  • (for a Christmas version add 2 tbsp mincemeat)
  1. Beat eggs and peanut butter together until really smooth and mixed in (and mincemeat if you’re feeling festive)
  2. add the other ingredients and beat again
  3. pour into a well-greased small loaf tin (or a larger one and have a shallower loaf!)
  4. cook for 30-40 minutes at 350°, 180°, gas mark 4

You might want to add a little more sugar – not to make a sweet loaf, but just to elevate the taste. I also found it a little dry and put butter on it – or maybe I’m just greedy!

Dancing shoes!

Clean shoes

I’ve mentioned before that we have so many ‘products’ and the materials and fabrics we have are so designed to be ‘easy-clean’ that many of the chores which our parents and grandparents did as a matter of course, we re totally ignorant of. A stain on our trousers – some squirt or foam will sort that out! A mark on our trainers? A quick scrub with a baby-wipe (yes really, baby-wipes are just the job!) and the mark disappears. Something like grass, mud, wine is in evidence on some item of clothing and in a trice it is gone!

In the past, cleaning involved actual effort… and in fact, that effort could be enjoyable, for its own sake, but also because the end result was so pleasing. Ruth Drew, writer and journalist, found a great deal of pleasure in ordinary domestic tasks – and that, no doubt, is why she wrote  her articles and scripts, later brought together in the posthumously published book, The Happy Housewife.

Shoes: – Anyone can do the job,providing they’re prepared to spare the time and trouble. But only the enthusiasts know what a pleasure show polishing can be. The clean fresh smell – the rhythmic to and for movement – not too hard – just a steady loving massage – and then the satisfaction of seeing the leather come to life. Very rewarding.
What are the essentials for successful shoe cleaning? To begin with it’s worth investing in proper equipment – comfortable-to-grip brushes – really soft dusters – and perhaps a velvety pad for finishing touches. And of course it pays to buy the best quality polish and to keep the lids properly on the tins and jars. otherwise you’re faced with cracked dried-up stuff which drops crumbily on to the floor instead of sliding creamily over the shoe leather. But – and it’s an important but – it’s a common mistake to use too much polish. You need just the light dip of a duster-covered finger-end for a whole shoe. And then plenty of steady light rubbing. On the whole it’s best to use coloured polish – brown for brown shoes, blue for blue and so on. But a tube of white cream is worth having because it does for all colours and it’s easy to pack when you’re travelling.

I often think it was a different world… packing shoe cleaning equipment never even occurs to me when I’m going on holiday!


Annoying people

Even the most harmless and pleasant people can be really… really… really annoying… It’s a fail on my part to be annoyed, and in the end I was so irritated that I actually moved places so I could no longer see them… although I could still hear them. Them… actually it was only one…

We were in the pub – we don’t always go in on a Friday night, only occasionally, Tuesday quiz night and Sunday the 2 T’s is our regular visits (2 T’s – two friends whose names begin with T)

So tonight, friends at bar who we greeted and exchanged news, couple of blokes, sitting fairly silently side by side, so we took our drinks and sat just by the door which is usually known as George’s place (after an ancient regular who has been coming in for years) Also in the bar was a party of six people, five women and one man… we guessed it might be a works’ do. There were about five dead prosecco bottles, and a few ‘live’, and other drinks too. We could only see three of them, the others were sideways to us; in the far corner was a woman, who unlike three of the others who were blond, and the other who was auburn, had brown hair. It was cut short in a very attractive style, and she was wearing a quite dressy but not ostentatious dress.

So far, so cool… but after about half an hour, even though we were about twenty foot away from her, all we could hear was her voice. Where I was sitting was in a direct line of vision to her, so I couldn’t help but see her as well as hear her. Four of the group were chatting to each other, but the blond woman sitting next to the short-haired woman was trapped and was having to listen to all the extraordinary tales she was told, along with dramatic gestures and the acting out of the stories….

We moved to a different place, and although we could still hear her, at least we couldn’t see her…


Luck and being lucky

My most recently published book is ‘Lucky Portbraddon’; as you might guess Lucky Portbraddon is the name of a character, however, he doesn’t actually appear in the novel except as a portrait hanging in the family home up on the moors. As old Mrs Portbraddon explains to the new girlfriend of one of her grandsons: “Lucky Portbraddon… a rather rascally ancestor of my late husband, or so family legend has it, was a favourite friend of the Prince Regent, apparently, but Lucky made, not lost, his fortune…

The family does in fact seem ‘lucky’ – as they get together for Christmas they reflect that each is more or less successful in his career, and they all have happy marriages with kindly wives and lovely children.

This is the rest of the ‘blurb’:

A few days before Christmas, as the Portbraddon family gathers at their grandmother’s big house up on the moors, the last of the cousins drives through a blizzard to join them.
…There was a severed dog’s head stuck on the gatepost. There’d been a few seconds pause in the driving snow and in those few seconds, lit by their headlights, she glimpsed the wolf-like creature, maw gaping, tongue lolling, teeth bared in one final gory snarl. Then the blizzard obliterated the stone beast and everything else in a seething maelstrom…
A near-death experience does not seem an auspicious start to their family get together, but the cousins determine to celebrate as they always do.
However as the old year ends and the new begins it seems their good fortune is about to run out. An unexpected death, a descent into madness, betrayal… and as the year progresses other things befall them, a stalker, attempted murder, a patently dodgy scheme for selling holiday homes in a dangerous part of the Caucasus… Maybe the Portbraddons are not so lucky… except there is also love, a new home, reconciliation, a spiritual journey, music.. .
One thing remains true, whatever difficulties arise between them, whatever happens, family is family, family first… “They’re like a big bunch of musketeers, all for one and one for all!”

man_18_2 (2)

So the idea of luck and being lucky has been on my mind since I have been so immersed in writing the book and the story of this family. A couple of days ago there was an interesting interview on a radio programme called ‘Thinking Aloud’ with  Laurie Taylor; he was talking to Robert H. Frank, Professor of Economics at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management, in a feature called ‘Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy’. They talked about the role luck in life’s successes and failures. Professor Frank argued that chance is much more significant than people give it credit for. Lynsey Hanley, a writer and the Visiting Fellow at the Research Centre for Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University also joined the discussion, and if you are able, try to listen to the podcast:

It was a very intellectual argument put quite clearly in this programme, and I’m interesting in getting the Professor’s book. He was discussing whether some people are ‘lucky’, or whether success is attributed to hard work, perseverance etc. If I understand it, he was saying that few really ‘lucky’ i.e. successful people, have achieved their eminence without really hard work, but there is an element of chance which allows one hard-working person to succeed more than an other equally hard-working person. He interviewed many successful people, and if he asked them if their attainment was due to luck, they mostly said no quite strongly and said it was because they worked hard. However, if he went through their different steps to success, then they might admit that a lucky chance had sent the to a certain school, succeeded at a particular interview, met the right person at the right time, and so looking back in that way, then yes, they were lucky.

As the golfer Gary Player said: ‘People ask if I’m lucky, well, yes I am, but do you know what is very strange, the harder I practice, the luckier I get!

Here is a link to ‘Lucky Portbraddon’ and you can read about the changing fortunes of the Portbraddons:

Here is a link to Professor Frank:

… and his book:


Mushroom soufflé

We often used to have cheese soufflé at home – it was one of the regular things my mum cooked, and although it was delicious, as all the things she made for us, it was just an ordinary dish. It was light, it was fluffy, it was yum, but so was everything she made – especially the yum. However, I don’t ever remember her making a different soufflé, not even something like ham – it was just cheese, and we would have Heinz tomato sauce with it, and probably jacket potatoes.

I’ve made soufflés, but not often as my mum did, I’m not sure they would be a thing my children remember eating, as i temember… Yest they are so simple, so economical, so easy! And even if they go a bit wrong and are a bit flabby, they still taste good! – I hasten to add that mum’s never went wrong, only mine!

Here is a recipe i am sure my husband would adore as he loves mushrooms – it’s very simple, just five ingredients plus salt and pepper, I must try making it! It’s from the National Mark Calendar of Cooking, written nearly ninety years ago:

  • ½ dozen large mushrooms, finely chopped (the recipe says peel, but these days no-one peels mushrooms – I guess it was when they were gathered from the wild and could have all sorts of not nice things on them!)
  • 4 eggs, separated, whites whisked
  • 1 oz butter
  • 1 oz flour
  • 1 gill milk (¼ pint)
  • salt and pepper
  1. melt the butter, add the flour and cook for a minute, stirring well
  2. add the milk, bring to the boil and continue stirring to make a smooth sauce
  3. take off the heat (off the fire the recipe says) and beat in three of the yolks one after the other
  4. beat in the mushrooms and seasoning to taste
  5. fold in the beaten egg whites
  6. pour into a greased and lined (with a collar of paper above the edge of the tin)  soufflé case and bake for about an hour, gas mark 6, 400º F, 200º C

As I mentioned – I haven’t actually cooked this yet – we have mushrooms at home and lots of eggs, but everything else from this little book has worked, and the thing with soufflés is that even if they go a bit wrong, they still taste good!


A pretty little dish

I was having tea with a friend at her house and we were talking about all sorts of things; we have known each other for about three years, but met through a shared activity with other people so today was the first time we’d just sat the two of us nattering. We were talking about our lives, and as we are a similar age there have been a lot of similar experiences. We were talking about homes and houses as both of us are going through the process of getting rid of unwanted things – many of which we like but have no use for or have no room for or are only holding on for sentimental reasons.

We were talking about how lifestyles have changed and she jumped up and said she was going to show me something and I followed her into another room. On the window sill were three little dishes, about four or five inches long, narrow, shallow, a pretty greeny glaze – and at the back side of each was a miniature vehicle. There was a horse-drawn omnibus, and old-fashioned engine driven omnibus, and a red London bus. They were made from metal and attached through the lip of the ceramic dish. The buses had adverts on appropriate to the age of the transport and were each painted red. They were utterly charming.

I knew exactly what the little dishes were, but how many young people would – I say young people, because since the smoking ban in public, and the large number of people who have given up smoking, not every house has ashtrays – these were ashtrays. When I was a child every household had ashtrays because so many people smoked – gosh, how it must have smelled! My friend and I talked about going to the cinema and seeing the screen through a pall of smoke, going into pubs and the walls and ceilings were yellow with nicotine, going to a restaurant and have people all around smoking while you ate.

I know people still do smoke, but in general the air is much cleaner, and you no longer go out socially and come home with your clothes stinking. It used to be totally socially acceptable, and at Christmas I remember gifts (not to me – I was a child!) of tins of cigarettes. There were smoking related gifts for children though – a ‘smoking set’ made from licorice or a sort of icing, with toasted coconut as tobacco.

I guess junk shops must be full of old ashtrays, and I guess many people buy them not knowing what they are – as they might ones like my friend’s little dishes!

River Ouse under a Norfolk sky

More on mythic voyages

I mentioned the travels of St Brendan of Clonfert, and referred to that other trans-Atlantic voyager from early times, Nicholas of Lynn… who may, or may not have travelled across the ocean; I mentioned him in my 50,000 word challenge, somehow I had travelled from my own story, to the tales of others and their relationship with rivers, seas and oceans.

The voyages of St Brendan may be more famous, but are they more true than those of a lesser known monk, Nicholas of Lynn, mathematician, astronomer, monk.

Nicholas of Lynn, (Nicolas de Linna) was born in 1330 in the Norfolk town of King’s Lynn, on the edge of the Wash. He became a Franciscan friar and an academic at Oxford University and is believed to have travelled to the Arctic Circle in about 1360. He is known to have written  a book describing his voyage and adventure,  but unfortunately there are no copies still in existence. It was called Inventio Fortunate,  ‘Fortunate Discovery’  and it was an account of his travels and journeys north.

However, two hundred years after he supposedly went on his adventure, Thomas Blunderville,  an English humanist writer and mathematician, well-known and well-regarded for work on logic, astronomy and education did not believe that Nicholas of Lynn could have made his voyage. More recently some weight has been added to the argument that in actual fact, Nicholas did indeed visit the Arctic, as Inventio Fortunate seems to have been a reasonably accurate description of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Whether Nicholas himself travelled to Greenland and Iceland, or whether he just rewrote the tales he heard, there are parts of ‘Fortunate Discovery’  which almost  conclusively indicate an Icelandic or Greenlandic source.

It may be that although Nicholas wrote about the voyages as if he himself had made them, he might have heard them from another sources; it seems very likely to some, that he got his information, not first hand by travelling through the Arctic, but from a priest named Ivar Bárdarson. Bárdarson was actually the  administrator of the See of Gardar in Greenland, from about 1340 to about 1360. He had obviously travelled around these very areas and would have known – from his own experience or from talking to other travellers, about the eastern seaboard of the Canadian Arctic. He wrote a description of Greenland which had a wide circulation and was translated; the explorer Henry Hudson took it with him on some if not all of his voyages.

Hudson was an interesting man too, who met a tragic fate; he was born some time between 1565-1570, and made two attempts on behalf of English merchants to find a prospective Northwest Passage to China, then known as Cathay. It was believed that there was a route above the Arctic Circle and Hudson also explored the region around modern where New York now stands  while he was looking for this supposed western route to Asia. He was actually under the employ of  the Dutch East India Company and explored  and gave his name to the Hudson River; it was mainly thanks to him that there was a Dutch colony there for a while – New York, famously was originally called New Amsterdam.

Hudson went on to discover the Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay on his final expedition. However, these harsh and dangerous conditions bred harshness and danger for Hudson and his son. They overwinterd on the shore of James Bay, named not after King James I for whom Hudson was not working, but Thomas James, a Welsh captain who explored the area two decades later between 1630 and 1631.

 Hudson wanted to continue to the west, to continue his search, and maybe just to explore and see what there was. However, all but seven of his crew mutinied. Hudson, his son and seven men were set adrift and were never seen again or heard of again. Unless they were fortunate enough to meet some friendly Inuit, they must have drowned, or starved, or maybe were even attacked by some creature, a polar bear maybe.

Meanwhile, one hundred and fifty years earlier, Ivar Bardarson returned to Norway, possibly between 1361 and 1364; this is where Nicholas of Lynn may have met him in person. From their meeting he may have written his ‘Fortunate Discovery’ .