Friday, 30 December 2011

books in 2011

My reading rate seems to have gone down in 2011. Unless, of course, I have forgotten to record some of the books as I finish them (always a possibility!).

Steve put up extra shelves this year to accommodate the collection. His own reading has added quite a bit to the bulk. We have both appreciated books as gifts, have bought quite a few second-hand and also from the rather wonderful "Last Bookshop" where everything costs £2. I have also bought full price books from bricks and mortar bookshops, notably Foyles, Blackwells and Waterstones.

I really don't want bookshops to vanish from the High Street and I won't be abandoning proper paper books, but I have also succumbed to the charm and convenience of the Kindle. It was my Christmas gift from Steve and I have read one e-book so far. I'm looking forward to the possibility of travelling with ten books in my bag, but just one rather snazzy piece of kit, resplendent in its own personalised Classic Penguin cover (designed and given to me by daughter no. 2) Here's this year's list with special favourites highlighted:

Sebastian Faulks, A Week in December
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring
Helen Fielding, Cause Celeb
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Book Shop
Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up
Karin Fossum, The Water's Edge
Henning Mankell, Italian Shoes
Helen Warner, RSVP
Penelope Fitzgerald, At Freddie's
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
Sophie Hannah, A Room Swept White
Bella Pollen, The Summer of the Bear
Mary Kay Zuravleff, The Bowl is Already Broken
Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Salley Vickers, Where Three Roads Meet
Steven Benatar, Wish Her Safe at Home
Andrew Motion, In the Blood
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Graham Swift, Out of this World
Victoria Hislop, The Island
Chitra Divakaruni, Sister of my Heart
Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Linda Grant, Remind me who I am again.
John Banville, The Sea
Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and the Unicorn
Maggi Dawn, Accidental Pilgrim
Nigel Slater, Toast
Kate Atkinson, Started early, took my dog
David Nicholls, One Day
Colette Rossant, Return to Paris
David Mitchell, Black Swan Green
Peter Carey, Parrott and Olivier in America
Paul Auster, Sunset Park
Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal
Anna Ralph, The Floating Island
P D James, Time to Be in Earnest
Jason Goodwin, The Bellini Card
Nicola Upson, Two for Joy

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

an everyday miracle

I very much enjoyed spending some time cuddling our latest grand-daughter yesterday afternoon. At less than 48 hours old she was still very sleepy. Just as we were about to leave she woke and became alert – looking around in all directions, focussing and re-focussing. I was forcibly struck once more by the everyday miracle of a new life. Those eyes had very little to look at in utero, but within two days they are searching and processing the world, and the muscles that control their movement are being exercised. From the moment that she emerged from dark into light her senses were bombarded by new stimuli opening up new neural pathways in her brain (not that I know anything about brain development, you understand!).

We have six grand-children now and they’re all just as miraculous and marvellously made. But this little girl would not be with us without the intervention of modern science, because she was conceived through IVF treatment – something that only became available at around the time her mother was born 33 years ago.

We are all profoundly grateful. But we’re also remembering friends who have had a series of miscarriages and a stillbirth and who remain, through the amazing strength of the human spirit, generous, optimistic lovely people. And we are receiving regular updates on the condition of twins born at 26 weeks gestation, who are being cared for in separate hospitals. Thanks again to medical science there is every chance that there will be a happy outcome for them – I am certainly praying for it.

None of it seems quite fair to human sensibilities, but it all fits in with the extraordinary beauty and messiness of the world, which in turn chimes a chord with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s message last week: “The story of the first Christmas is the story of a series of completely unplanned, messy events – a surprise pregnancy, an unexpected journey that's got to be made, a complete muddle over the hotel accommodation when you get there...Not exactly a perfect holiday.”

Happy Christmas!

Friday, 16 December 2011

crab apple jelly

Visiting a local friend recently I was impressed by the abundant crab apples on the tree in the front garden. She confessed to having no time (or inclination) to do anything about them this year and said I was welcome to pick them.

So, last Friday Steve and I went over there equipped with a good supply of plastic carrier bags and spent an hour gathering as much as we could reach. What we brought home filled three big mixing bowls and we still left plenty for the birds and insects to eat.

After washing and picking over I ended up with about 7kg of usable fruit, which I put in pans to simmer.

Making a jelly (as opposed to jam) is new to me, so I spent a bit of time comparing internet recipes and looking at instructions for creating jelly straining bags. I plumped for the recipe on the BBC Food website.

I was quite pleased with the straining device I set up using two chairs, a broom handle and a length of doubled muslin. All the recipes are very adamant that the bag should be left to strain without squeezing in order to avoid clouding of the final jelly. I did experiment a little in my treatment of the fruit in that I mashed one batch to pulp after cooking but before straining it and left the other batch just in its softened, simmered condition. I think the mashed fruit rendered up a bit more juice and I couldn’t see a substantial difference in the end result.

Monday saw me all set to get on with the actual jam-making process. In all I ended up with about 3.5 litres of juice and added sugar in a ratio of 10 parts juice to 6 parts sugar (volumetric measure) as one or two people had commented that the 10:7 ratio in the recipe was a bit too sweet. The juice of one and half lemons also went into the mixture.

Not having a preserving pan, I had to divide the mixture between three large pans. (It’s important to have plenty of headroom in the pan as it has to be brought to and held at a rolling boil for quite some time).

Setting point was achieved relatively quickly. I used an ancient food thermometer that used to belong to my parents and also did the “wrinkle test” with spoonfuls of jelly on very cold saucers. In fact the set was so efficient that when I started potting the preserve a skin had started to form and I managed to get great pre-set blobs in with the still runny jelly, which rather made a mockery of all my attempts to keep the juice completely clear! I ended up with 10 jars of various sizes.

Well it won’t be a prize winner, but it will still be delicious with hot and cold meats and on toast and I may even give away a pot or two.