Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Marmalade made simple

After last year's Marmalade mayhem and a catalogue of other runny disasters (including yogurt and fudge) well documented on this blog, I wasn't sure whether I would bother with marmalade-making this year. 

But after using up some of said runny marmalade in a Marmalade Cake recently, three weeks ago I decided I would enter once more into the fray. 

And bingo, the marmalade set perfectly! I abandoned Nigel Slater's recipe which I used last time (although he writes so beautifully about making marmalade) and took up with Dan Lepard from the Guardian and his recipe. It soon became apparent that he was looking for a marmalade maker with a maths degree, so I'm afraid I dumped him too. All that talk of ratios and straining and measuring the cooked juice was too complex for me. I'm a simple soul. Or maybe I'm just a lazy cook who is not very good at following recipes.

So, mostly for my own future reference, here is how I did it, taking Dan's advice into consideration (but simplifying the maths):

1. Weigh the oranges. I used traditional Seville oranges, but now I think I've cracked marmalade making I intend to use the same principles to make some more with other citrus fruits.

2. Squeeze them and put the pips and any stray bits of pith in a small bowl. Pour water into the bowl to just cover the pips and then cover the bowl.

3. Chop the oranges into shreds as thick or thin as you like. Put the shreds and orange juice in a pan and again, pour enough water into the pan to just cover the whole lot. At no point did I measure any liquid; I made sure that the shreds were just about covered and no more. (Last year I think I ended up with too much liquid which is why it didn't set).

4. Leave the shreds and the bowl of pips overnight. Also put some saucers in the freezer ready for testing whether the marmalade has set.

5. Next day, take the pips and tie them into a jam muslin. This is then dunked into the pan of shreds. 

6. Simmer the whole lot for a couple of hours or more until the shreds are soft.

7. Now add at least the same amount of sugar as the weight of the uncooked oranges. For me this was three pounds which worked out as a bag and a half of sugar so I chucked in the other half of the bag (another pound) for good measure (for the mathematically minded I think that makes the ratio of oranges to sugar, 1:1.25). (At this point I deviate from Dan's recipe in that he says preserving sugar isn't necessary. I wasn't leaving anything to chance and definitely did use preserving sugar).

9. Stir the sugar in with the oranges and simmer until the sugar is dissolved and then boil really vigorously for ten minutes or so. 

10. See if the marmalade has reached setting point by spooning some onto the previously frozen saucers.

11. If it hasn't set, don't be afraid to keep boiling it to hell, until it does.

12. While all this was going on, the clean jars were sterilising in the oven on a low heat (gas mark 1) for twenty minutes.

13. When the marmalade is finally setting, pour into the sterilised jars and put the lids on. Leave to cool. My three pounds of Seville oranges made 10 small to medium sized jars of marmalade.
The whole exercise could be seen as a time-consuming and sticky, messy palaver (I always end up dripping marmalade all over the place). And I noticed this week that Aldi are selling marmalade for 23p a jar (I'm sure my marmalade can't match that price). But making your own marmalade is life enriching! If you slow down and enjoy it, it's well worth the time and effort and when it comes to needing a small gift, you can never go wrong with a jar of home-made preserve (whereas a jar of Aldi's best might not be so well appreciated) - four of my jars have already gone down this route. Time to make some more!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Learning to dance in the rain...

"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass - it's about learning to dance in the rain"

I've read that on a car bumper sticker somewhere. Whatever it might be alluding to metaphorically, we're adhering to it literally this year. 

Thankful that we don't have to worry about our house flooding, we were still starting to get cabin fever last weekend. Come what may we'd get out for a walk. 

Finally I've learned to love my condensation-making waterproof trousers, and it turns out my 20 year old soles-worn-thin wellies can comfortably walk 6 miles.

When you're inside looking out it appears to be raining perpetually, but when you're outside looking in, it's not so bad. It even stops pouring every now and again.

Snowdrops looking hopeful

New lakes appearing out of nowhere,
swamp-like with trees growing in them...

"Can I walk through this puddle
without the water going over the top of my wellies?"

Look up and you might even catch a glimpse of blue sky...

Sunday, 9 February 2014

It was National Library Day yesterday...

Libraries..."don't judge by class, race or religion. They service everyone in their community, no matter their circumstances. Rich or poor; no one is denied. Libraries are not simply part of our guarantee to the pursuit of happiness. They are a civil right. If we lose our libraries, we risk losing our communities, our families and ourselves." Karin Slaughter

Yesterday was National Library Day. I celebrated by finishing reading The Library Book (in which you will find the above quote). This book illustrates one of the reasons I love libraries so much: you get to read books you might never stumble upon otherwise. I didn't know of The Library Book's existence but it caught my eye in one of my local library's displays (and not just because it colour co-ordinates with my reading glasses so well).

It's not often I get to the end of a book, and feel that I could read it all over again, immediately, but I could easily have done so this time. And it's one of those books where I couldn't stop myself from reading parts out loud to whoever happened to be in the vicinity. 

We all know what a fantastic resource libraries are (and mostly for free), for individuals and society at large, and that they're not just about the books, but the twenty-three writers (including Alan Bennett, Stephen Fry,  Zadie Smith, Kate Mosse, Lionel Shriver, Caitlin Moran and Nicky Wire) who have contributed short stories, articles, polemic against current Coalition policy and reminiscences about their own experience of libraries, put this into words far better than I can. Many of them assert that they wouldn't be where they are today as writers and journalists, without a particular library and its librarians.

We're lucky in Wiltshire; any cuts in our library service have made little difference on the ground - the opening hours may have been tweaked and it's all become much too self-service for a technophobe like me - but we can't grumble. Others don't have our good fortune; my sister and nieces in Sunderland campaigned unsuccessfully against library closures last summer. I thought of them when I read Alan Bennett's argument that: "For a child a library needs to be round the corner. And if we lose local libraries it is children who suffer."

We must cherish our libraries and our librarians, not just on National Library Day, but everyday.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Dreaming of summer holiday fun (on a budget)

Lovely as this seemingly permanent wet, dreary and stormy weather is, I can't help casting my mind back to sunnier times. Specifically last summer's family holiday, when the sun shone all the time, and I relaxed on the beach or on the verandah with a cocktail in my hand...ahhhhh!

Except it was the UK and the sun didn't shine and I didn't go to the beach, or drink any cocktails but it was a brilliant holiday, never-the-less, especially when viewed from the following February. We specialise in low budget holidays and last summer was no exception.

The first step of the Shoestring summer 2013 family holiday was to upgrade our accommodation; we bought a bigger two bedroomed tent on eBay for £45. Great price and a great tent, but it really had seen better days. (When daylight is visible through the fabric you know you're in trouble). 

We should have addressed this minor detail with the seller but didn't get round to it in time, and anyway the problem was easily overcome by stretching a gigantic tarpaulin over the entire tent. This kept us dry and we survived (although the rain hammering down onto it at night was hardly the kind of soothing pitter patter that is conducive to sleep).

Cycling was the main aim of the holiday, in particular a section of the Taff Trail in Wales. After scrutinising the maps closely we decided not to cycle the trail in a linear route but to base ourselves at a Youth Hostel, Dan-y-Wenalt, near the Tal-y-Bont reservoir, where there is a small orchard for campers. I recommend camping at a Youth Hostel; if bijou campsites with few tent neighbours are your thing then you'd love it.

There is no self-catering kitchen at this hostel, but we had our own camping stove and supplies, and treated ourselves to a reasonably priced meal at the Hostel café one evening. 

Another advantage of camping at a Youth Hostel is that in addition to being cheaper than staying inside the hostel itself, you are able to use all the hostel facilities. When it rained in the evenings and we were simply too overcome with the beauty of Wales in the rain, viewed from a leaky tent, we were able to loll around in the lounge playing board games, reading and chatting with other hostellers. 

Dan-y-Wenalt lies right beside the Taff trail, so we cycled north to Brecon one day, and south towards Merthyr Tydfil another, returning to our tent each evening. The walking is also superb in this area and we hiked as well as biked.

For the second half of our week's holiday, we headed to another Youth Hostel, Llanddeusant. Staffed entirely by volunteers, this really is in the middle of nowhere. No hostel café here - it's DIY food and fun all the way.

The day we arrived coincided with the day that sheep are brought down from the hills; it was gratifying to see my kids (who sometimes have to be prised apart from their digital gadgets) awed by the spectacle of hundreds of sheep trooping past the Youth Hostel.

Here we were able to camp right outside the Youth Hostel, and were the sole happy campers, apart from one evening when a group of Duke of Edinburgh's Awarders pitched up next to us.

Although we hadn't planned to do any cycling in this area, the lure of the deserted lanes was just too appealing and a few miles down the open road we found another off-road cycle trail around the Usk Reservoir.

This area is definitely off the beaten track, tourist-wise, but there is a daily influx of people arriving to see the Red Kites being fed at 3pm in Llanddeusant village, and it would have been churlish not to join them. After an hour long wait whilst the Red Kites circled tantalisingly above the feeding station, they finally swooped down and made off with the meat.  These reintroduced-to-Wales birds are abundant in this area and we saw and heard several soaring and whistling above us whilst we were out and about, but to see them really close up was something we won't forget.

We've never been the types to start planning our summer holiday in the depths of winter so I've no idea where this summer will take us. As long as it doesn't involve too much rain, I'll be happy.

How about you? Are you planning your holiday already, or are you more, or is it a staycation for you this year? Any other tips for low budget holidays?