Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What I've been doing:

  • Reading on Kindle.  I like it but not for everything, not for collections of poems, where I need to be able to get my fingers in and out of a solid, three-dimensional book.  It's better for narratives, it's a little like reading from a scroll (or so I imagine, never having read from a scroll), a small section at a time appearing and disappearing and making way for another, you can roll back and review but you can't hold more than one thing in front of you at once, so it's kind of concentrating but constraining.  What it is good for, for me, is reading in French, something I'm rather dilatory about doing.  So for example, I've had Flaubert's Un Coeur Simple with an English translation, not a very good one but serviceable and fine for a crib, kept open on the menu in parallel, and then with the built-in French-to-French dictionary, which is much better than resorting to a French-English one, I can fairly zip along, without the need for a cumbersome and discouraging pile of volumes in front of me, and by the end I was hardly flipping back to the English at all except occasionally to confirm things.  This system works best for classic out-of-copyright stuff that can be got in both languages free from Gutenberg.  Truth is I can't quite bring myself to pay for much on the Kindle as it just doesn't seem like a real thing for my money, if you know what I mean - the exception to this being the wonderful Words on the Street, from Bauble Tree Books ( Dave and Rachel, sitting in a tree... ) which works very well in this form.  
  • reviving old projects and thinking about new ones.
  • eating cock-a-leekie and drinking whisky macs for Burns Night.  Our old quasi-Scottish friend who died last year was the pretext for celebrating Burns Night in the past, so it looked like that was that, but then we remembered about it late in the day and decided spontaneously just to do the bits we always liked best, which were the cock-a-leekie and the whisky macs.  In the chilly grey wet and western fringe parts of the world it seems a good idea to have a festival in late January, especially one involving boiled fowl, leeks, ginger and malt, if not sheep's stomachs.
  • holding warrior poses.
  • emptying two kitchen drawers and filling them up again, more tidily and with less crowding. They won't stay like that.  

  • making marmalade from clementines, bitter oranges having once again eluded me.  A patriarchal family of glossy jars, father (a full litre), mother (.75l), firstborn (.5l), triplets and a baby now occupy the shelves out back. It looks a bit runny, mind...

  • worrying about our young neighbours' beautiful border collie, who I found some ten days ago by their gate, his hind leg broken by a hit-and-run driver (an event I was an ear- but not eye-witness to, but I don't want to think about that more than I must).  They came home shortly afterwards after we'd already arranged to take dog to the nearest available vet, and mother, father and very small boy all piled into the car with injured dog for the trip to the surgery.  We rather feared that when they learned how much it was going to cost to fix it would be curtains for the poor dog, but they seemingly didn't hesitate to have him taken further afield to a surgical vet and operated on.  And it will cost a lot, especially for a young family with a small child and new mortgage.  I was really touched and impressed by the concern and compassion the little boy, who can't be more than two, showed for the dog, both when he came home and in his absence; his dad said that the morning after when the dog was staying at the vet's the boy went outside and was calling him and asking in some distress where he was. In my observation not all small children are so kindly disposed to their family pets. Dog is now home, wearing an e-collar and confined to the conservatory while the limb heals.  By French country standards, they are caring and responsible owners; they have fenced the garden quite carefully so he didn't have to live on a chain, even though they were only renting the house at the time, they've given him comfortable accommodation, and he is clearly part of the family.  The trouble is you can't really expect a border collie to stay put on its own in a garden all day unoccupied, and he found a way out. Even that I can't reproach them for; Ludovic found him as a stray, presumably dumped, where he was working, and begged his girlfriend to let him bring him home, so saving him from impounding and a more uncertain future. 
  • baking potatoes on the fire.
  • sleeping on new Ikea fast pillows, buy one get the other half-price.  Hoping to help Tom's shoulder, which maybe it does. It's good, really posturally much better but somehow not all cuddly and kindly and welcoming like the big squashy square French pillows we have grown used to.  Probably worth persevering with. 
  • waking up to just the right amount of snow.

  • digging over the veg beds, planting early broad beans, finding the compost heap alive with very busy tiger worms, which had done a fine job of turning everything within an inch or two of the top into excellent rich brown compost.  I cannot adequately express my joy at this.

The black coffee they serve out of doors
among tables and chairs gaudy as insects.

Precious distillations
filled with the same strength as Yes and No.

It's carried out of the gloomy kitchen
and looks into the sun without blinking.

In the daylight a dot of beneficent black
that quickly flows into a pale customer.

It's like the drops of black profoundness
sometimes gathered up by the soul,

giving a salutary push: Go!
Inspiration to open your eyes.

( I was that pale customer...)
  • whistling Dixie.  Literally.  Driving myself mad.  A persistent tune on the brain like an old bit of chewing gum you can't spit out.
  • looking at the atlas and dreaming of Scandinavia.
  • counting birds for Bretagne Vivante, (thanks to Setu for putting me onto it), though I fear not very accurately. I couldn't resist including the sparrowhawk I looked out of the window to see mantling menacingly on the laurel hedge outside on Sunday.  Feeding the birds, feeding on the birds... I don't think it caught any of our precious blue tits.
  • deciding not to enter into on-line discussions.
  • Watching Tom make chicken stock:                                                    


On which note I shall close this at last.  Probably I should have posted one of these a day rather than in such a welter, but it's ever feast or famine hereabouts.  

Saturday, January 28, 2012


I've not seen this before here, lemons sold with their stems and leaves on.  Large, rather uneven, a little rough and dirty compared with the featureless clones sold in nets, they beguiled me into buying them very easily - they were inexpensive and I needed lemons anyway.

Taking a leaf between your palms and rubbing it rewards you with a scent of lemon peel and petitgrain.

But it's easy to see why they don't often sell them with the stems on; the thorns are quite fierce. They spiked me a couple of times and tore the bag they came in.  Unfriendly things, on the whole lemons, thorny and sour to the taste, yet we treasure them anyway.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

More frosty stuff

Ajuga, ivy, Japanese anemone, plantain, chestnut.

I ate a pennywort leaf today.  It tasted like a rather musty leafy green leaf from a plant in a wall.  I can see why it hasn't become a wild-food must-taste menu item.  Or perhaps it has.

The frost seems a long time ago now.

(The photo above reminded me of a Roman tile from the museum of Verulamium at St Albans, near where I grew up.  The tile had a two thousand year old dog paw print in it, and a stone which, one imagined, was thrown at the dog two thousand years ago to get it off the wet clay tiles.  I haven't searched the website yet to see if it appears there...)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wall pennywort ...

... or navelwort.

Turns out this stuff is edible, supposedly with a flavour somewhere between lettuce and mangetout peas, which doesn't sound bad.  All this time I've been living surrounded by it and I never knew, Richard Mabey doesn't mention it either.  It may be diuretic, however, as many comestible wild plants are.  For some reason we got the idea into our heads it was called stone pennywort, which actually sounds prettier, I think, though navelwort is also good and very descriptive of its form, which has always appealed to me as being almost closer to that of a larger-than-life lichen.  The tumbling repeating circles of it have a rather art nouveau look, and I think it has been used as a design motif.

Anyway, that's it for a Saturday night post.  Off now for my weekly rendez-vous with Clint Eastwood, for whose westerns I have lately conceived an unusual enthusiasm, and the last glass in the bottle.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Through a glass smearily, or otherwise, with an inconsequential glimpse of domestic ordinariness.

Sitting at the table playing with the camera, trying to find what could be done with different settings.  'Glass envy' my friend called her passion for lenses;

Glass can come in many forms, and I wondered what other glasses one could look through.

Or sometimes inspiration can come from the bottom of a glass, they say.  Though I was only drinking tea, from a cup.

This old blue cup is, remarkably, still going.  It chips and chips again, and the handle is cracked at the base, so I'm taking a risk using it really, but the stoneware and glaze seem to be so soft and friable that the chips quickly smooth down to a familiar wornness, and as long as no one else uses it they are nothing to worry about, and the cracked handle seems to be holding up all right by friction.

So here is the whole scene.

Foreground:- my very small notebook computer, on which I was trying to find forums and help pages to give me advice on the use of the camera;
- my reading glasses, which I have to take on and off, alternating with distance ones - ah the joys of middle age! - between screen and camera;
- pen pencil and notebook with the intention, rapidly abandoned, of noting which settings I was using for later reference;
- teacup, as aforesaid.

Middle ground: - Tom's reading forelimbs;
-his teacup, which is even older than mine and was a free gift from the Folio Society, which I am, truly, ashamed to admit we were lured into joining at a time Before Internet when English language reading matter was at a premium (unbelievable now, when there are more interesting things to read immediately to hand than can successfully be accomplished in both our remaining lifetimes).  The Folio Society entrapped us with introductory offers of good reference books then subsequently forced us to buy those awful pretentiously bound overpriced things which are their raison d'être. Still, Tom got a free mug out of it which is still going;
- salt and pepper, we sometimes try to acquire and get into the habit of using classier s&p sets but always seem to return to a plastic pot and a very scuzzy old pepper mill which still seems to grind better than any other, I don't care for coarse sea salt at the table, it's a foody pretension too far IMHO;
- paper napkins and foil takeaway/freezer containers - paper napkins are the scourge of drawers and cupboards, I've decided, once out of their silly ineffectual cellophane wrappers they scatter and bung up every available space, rendering themselves crumpled and useless in the process. These were waiting to be removed, along with the scores of lidless plastic containers and containerless lids, to to a secondary holding facility, a Curver® storage unit out the back, where their movements will be monitored and contained, or that's the plan;
- the large candle glass, an object which I believe truly fulfils Morris's Golden Rule.  The Molés gave it to us years ago and we use it all the time (this is the glass through which the first two pictures are taken, it could probably do with a clean but maybe the smeary bits add interest);
- a yellow cellophane bag of Grenoble walnuts, Tom's current favourite treat and better for him than sweets, plus he gets the exercise of cracking the shells;
- a pink azalea in a pot from B the German Doctor just after Christmas, she said it might grow in the garden afterwards, though I have my doubts, but a flowering plant growing is always nicer than a bunch of cut ones, I think, even if they all wilt and die in the end.

Background: - a tub of glucosamine tablets, a book of 365 sudoku puzzles, and a packet of Victory V lozenges, yes, I know, it sounds like the contents of a Saga Holidays goody bag (that's a thought, since turning my half-century I guess qualify for Saga now...);
- barely visible here but you can see it in the first pictures, a wineglass with a couple of stems of winter flowering honeysuckle and wallflowers, picked for their fragrance, the frost will have nipped the wallflowers now;
- tray with some oddments of fruit, apples and oranges, which as we all know are incomparable, and a Christmas bauble found on the floor after its companions had been packed away on Twelfth Night;
- and beyond that, window on the world outside, also smeary, but irredeemably so, since Tom applied some silicone product to it in the hopes of stopping it leaking in the unremitting prevailing wildness and wet of the weather on the south-west facing front of the house, and we have never been able to clean the stuff off. Baked dry as driftwood in summer, pelted and soaked at most other times, we almost wished we'd kept the horrid old PVC windows and never replaced them with wood. We've remedied the water ingress as best we can (the silicone didn't work, new seals did to a point), now we just mop up and shut up.

What an untidy table we have.


Then I went out and played with the exposure, or was it the shutter speed? Perhaps it was. Or are they one and the same?  Anyway, the terrace and garden in ghostly over-exposure, somewhat tweaked, which for some reason I rather like.


So this is the way life goes just now, peaceful, with little of excitement or remark.  I wonder if there's really a place for this kind of 'chatty letter' trivial blogging, which rather gives the activity a bad name, and presumes on one's readers' time and patience, but not to worry, there are few rules, or obligations on either side.  In truth I tend to think that this is inevitably a time of dormancy, of clearing space and making order, of catching up and conserving and waiting.  I've a great yen to read, all over the place, to satisfy curiosity and browse, more than to try to make anything much of my own.

The frost has gone, but there are still some frosty photos to go over, so more of those anon, I guess.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Frosty morning # 2: relief, foxgloves and artichokes

We've been shrugging and shaking our heads at the mild weather.  Fine and warm, everyone agrees, and we thank it for the still full oil tanks and still high wood piles.  And yet ... 'C'n'est pas normal...' we could really do with a bit of ice to kill les bestioles, the bugs, the microbes...

On the first crisp bright day of frost, people were out and about with a bright, braced look, greeting one another cheerfully, relieved.  Things were more as they should be.


Foxgloves are an abundant weed hereabouts, but largely a tolerated one in our garden.  It seems somewhat of a misnomer to call something so massive, fleshy and imposing a weed.  They are  biennial of course, so their rosettes of leaves keep going through the winter to throw their flowering spikes late the following spring.

Frost does them no harm. 

'Nature' sniffed Francois Boucher ' is too green and badly lit'.  Funny thing, green, too little and you grow tense and cramped and miserable, yet too much of the same flat, dull tone of it becomes oppressive too.  Greenstuff persists plentifully through the year here, but it can grow samey and wearisome, till spring fire sets it luminously alight again in the trees and hedges.

So frost is welcome, for the relief, the picking out of line and form and texture which it provides, and for its muting and shading of dully even colour (and why not give it a hand here and there and click the B/W button?)


Artichokes are biennials too.

These plants we brought back from our B&B friends at Morlaix last year.  We like artichokes, though in season they're ever so cheap here, they're still worth growing, as the foxgloves are worth sparing, for their substantial beauty, with their Arts and Crafts foliage and heraldic, Fibonacci-structured flower heads, whether you eat the latter or not.

More frost today, more frosted things tomorrow, perhaps.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Frosty morning # 1: birds

At last, proper winter mornings, with frost, and the camera is happier.  

In truth, I was seriously chasing a second hand Canon like I used to have.  It seemed to me, looking back, that I could never quite recapture the  kind of shallow depth of field, contre jour, shots I got with it, and though the zoom on the Panasonic is great, and the extra megapixels enable plenty of cropping potential, the speed on auto left a lot to be desired, the shots were less sharp and dynamic, the macro never seems to quite cut it... I just felt fings weren't what they used to be. 

So I started mooching about on E-bay, and learned a bit about how that works, which might well be useful life skill in parsimonious times to come, if we actually had anything worth selling.  One of the things I learned quickly is that what looks like a marvellous bargain is just a hook, and despite their being very old models, Canon Powershots like I had are apparently still quite sought-after, which at least seems to substantiate my view about the camera.  

In the end, I can't justify collecting another, older camera that might break down at any time (after all my old one did) just out of nostalgia, when I have a perfectly adequate one, and that I really ought to find out more about the that and what can be done with it.

I've concluded that nothing much can be done about the depth of field.  I reluctantly applied my far from mathematically or optically gifted mind to the question of apertures and DoF.  It's no wonder I'm confused.  Shallower DoF - ie the area, field, of the photo in clear focus is small, hence those nice sharply stand-out  objects with the blurry back- and closer foregrounds which just popped out 'naturally' with the old camera on auto when I held it at the right angle to the light - requires a larger aperture.  However, a larger aperture is defined by a smaller number, so a 2.4 aperture is larger than a 8.0 one. This has some bearing on the shutter speed which I've not yet quite worked out and everything is further confused by the apparent fact that many of the nerdy photo people on the forums, Flickr groups etc are no clearer than I am and frequently refer to 'more depth of field' when what they really mean is shallower depth of field.

Then I was further exercised by the mechanics of the Panasonic, with continual references to its 'joystick'. I finally grasped that this was the little wiggly menu button I'd never taken much notice of, and eventually sussed how to apply it to changing the aperture size.  Only to find that it enabled no greater range in this than the auto managed on its own anyway, which isn't much. 

However, I was encouraged to try the outdoor sports setting for birds and other fleeting things, which the Intelligent Auto often isn't very intelligent about, and the couple of whiz-and-click actions this requires are certainly worth making.

The frosty weather brought the birds in close to the house again.  We must have saved a fair bit of money on fat balls and sunflower seeds with this mild winter, we seemed to be buying then hand over fist the last couple of years.  But we have plenty in stock,

for the small flock of greenfinches,

and the blue tits which appeared and waited expectantly by the empty feeding area.

I almost ditched the above blue tit shot as he (or she) was turning away, until I noticed that he was caught sharply in mid-poo, which I feel confirms the effectiveness of the speed of the setting for wildlife action shots.

So I'm staying with what I've got, self-indulgent and whimsical spending and the collection of more really quite unnecessary stuff isn't on the cards just now, or ever. I need to get on with taking and editing more pictures rather than midering about how they aren't as good as they might be if only... I might see what I can do with Tom's old titchy Nikon compact for macro shots, which compacts are often quite good for, and perhaps get back to Photoshop and the blur tool for faking shallow DoF.  And they do say some interesting macro effects can be achieved with a magnifying glass in front of the lens.  A new set of rechargeable batteries for the compact and a magnifier will come in a lot cheaper than a secondhand Powershot.

Some further experimental and plenty more frosty shots to come.  Hooray for cold and frosty mornings.

Friday, January 13, 2012


OK, it's another food post, but just a quick one.  Essentially a large tin of peaches, with the stones in to boot.  But what a difference a jar makes, so that they become golden, luminous globes of voluptuous loveliness.  I  bought them for their beauty as they were reduced after Christmas; I'm not even sure I like tinned peaches all that much, though when we were kids we thought them a sublime treat, so maybe they'll bring about a Proustian moment.  They don't have to be eaten till 2016 anyway.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Flowery desserts

Noma's 'Dessert of Flowers' has been haunting me, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it; perhaps it's something to do with craving for the spring. Though it feels as though spring is prematurely with us anyway - all kinds of things are putting out diffident flowers, there is alkanet blooming and I even saw a bramble blossom today.

I lifted the photo above from Julochka at The Domestic Sensualist, who  presumably lifted it out of the book.  (It's well worth visiting Ditte Isager's website though, for more of his photography - yes, OK, some of it is somewhat horrible lifestyle-porn, but much is also gorgeous and sumptuous and painterly; especially his photos based around food, like that for the Noma book, or the stuff for Copenhagen Food, or the page called French feast, or any of the things in the Meals section...)

The flower dessert is quite simple as Noma recipes go, no liquid nitrogen, refractometers or musk oxen involved, only two types of sorbet made from skyr and involving acetate film and pacojets but we can get round that. Oh, and teeny-tiny pink meringues hand piped and made with pickled rosehips. and something called 'thyme fluid gel' which involves agar-agar.  But I think I've twigged (qv) that the idea is not that you try any of this at home, it's rather about an idea.  The idea being translated for me into a longing to eat fairy food.  So I made my own much simplified version, using what I could find in the garden and hedgerows in a mild dank January in Brittany. Oh, and in the fridge, freezer and cupboard as well, for the dairy and sugar-based bits. 

I'm afraid I didn't stop to photograph it, on account of how the ice cream was melting.  Instead I drew it from memory afterwards.  It's an awful, infantile drawing, and the crinkly bits are because I had no fixative so wrapped it in plastic to avoid getting bits of pastel crayon on the scanner, but it will serve as a diagram, to which end I have numbered its parts.

I used:
  1. a small scoop of vanilla ice cream
  2. a scoop of very ordinary cheap plain yoghurt.  I did follow a tip of theirs and strained it - no need to use muslin, just a nylon sieve and stand it over a bowl for ten minutes.  It makes it much softer, thicker and less acid, and the whey you collect is oddly pleasant to drink, or could probably be used for something else.  
  3. some little meringues bought from a shop in a packet with Christmas in mind and forgotten about in the cupboard.
  4. rose hip syrup (or gel, if you will).  There are some hard rose hips on a shrub rose in the garden.  I pared off some of the outside flesh and cooked it in a syrup - I used some quince syrup I made earlier but apple juice, concentrated or otherwise, would be good too - then I threw the whole hips in, but was careful not to let the itchy powder stuff loose.  The shreds of rose hip flesh never softened (if they'd been rugosa hips at another time of year they would have, and the pulp could have been used, but these are evidently winter hardy ones and tougher characters), so I squeezed the nearly caramelised syrup through a bit of kitchen muslin.  It really looked, and tasted, quite a bit like Delrosa syrup (remember that?), and was quite strongly flavoured from just a handful of hips. Rose hips are an interesting balance of rosy fragrance and apply fruitiness, I always think.
  5. Sweet sorrel sauce.  Years go by and wild sorrel is such a ubiquitous commonplace on the roadsides here that I ignore and despise it as food (and it doesn't do to eat too much of it because of the high oxalic acid content), then occasionally I enjoy rediscovering it.  Usually I add it to soup or make it into sauce for fish, but this time I wondered about using it as a sweet flavour, after all, it is not unlike tart apples and plum skins in taste.  Here it's blended in with sugar syrup and swirled with some single cream, and very zingy it was.  The problem I've never been able to get round is stopping it turning a muddy olive colour (and it's such a lovely emerald when it's fresh too) but it didn't look too bad with the other things. Both flavour and look were lifted with the addition of
  6. fennel, which keeps splitting fractally into smaller and smaller dainty feathery sprigs.  A little aniseed taste goes a long way, for me, but was just a little, and it did look pretty.  
  7. Now the flower bit.  In the garden I was able to find a very fragrant white double petalled Winchester Cathedral rose, a carmine red floribunda with no perfume at all, but in bud and very crisp textured, and a few small single pale pink ones, name unknown.  Mixed up and sprinkled over the plate.  In addition I managed to find a very few
  8. scented geranium buds (the geraniums are still flourishing in the outside beds) and
  9. some rosemary buds and flowers.  These gave a surprisingly woody, aromatic flavour, which nicely offset the general delicate sweetness of the dish.
I sprinkled the last two flowers on the yoghurt, and also some scented geranium leaf sugar.  I've made this for a long time: you keep a few leaves in a jar of sugar, as with a vanilla pod, and the oils seep into it.  I'm experimenting with other more unusual flavourings, like rosemary, lemon thyme, and maybe bay leaves, and seeing what they go with.

So there we are, and it really was a delicious symphony of flavour and perfume, despite the sparseness of the floral bits.  I know what you must be thinking, this woman clearly has too much time on her hands, not only to fiddle-fart around making something like this but also to draw it and blog about it in exhaustive detail afterwards.  It makes pressing flowers look quite serious and worthy (though you can't eat pressed flowers, so to my mind that's a step down).  But what is this world if full of care we have no time to fanny about doing something totally playful and pointless?  I actually collected and put the elements together over a few days, while doing more virtuous and necessary things like walking the dog, clearing out the kitchen cupboards and making proper food.

Now I've got my eye on the primroses, dog violets and mimosa that are coming along...

    Monday, January 09, 2012

    Winter woods: beech, spruce, chestnut.

    Occasionally, some sunlight fell upon the path, which was ... scattered with the mysterious dried-up fruits of various trees fashioned into little brown toys and emblems, which crackled pleasantly underfoot.

    (Iris Murdoch, The Good Apprentice - 
    Can't say I remember a huge amount about this novel, except it's based in part on the somewhat unlikely premise that someone on LSD would throw himself out of a window in the belief that he could fly.  But the little crackling toys and emblems on the forest floor have always stayed with me).

    There's so little for the camera to play with at this grey-green-brown time of year, though the light can be good when it shows itself.  Despite mounds and layers of gently majestic cloud, and flocks of larks and lapwings (fewer of these than other years), I tend to keep my eyes down, looking at sepia shapes of leaves and husks, livid, waxy discs and domes of late fungi, thick bunches of emerald sorrel.  There have been no frosts to speak of, though; flakes of gold and bronze leaves still hover on the trees, and fuchsias and roses keep on flowering in the garden, along with the hellebores opening and the daffodils coming up.

    Old things, still lovely, linger, new ones emerge beside them. The light lengthens.