Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Getting my own back on the self service check out...

Generally I avoid the self service check outs at our local supermarket. It never runs smoothly, for countless reasons: bar codes not being accepted on reduced items, the machine not liking library books already being in my own shopping bag, stuff being accidentally scanned twice, unexpected item in the bagging area...All of which then entails standing around waiting for an elusive shop assistant to come and bail me out.

Instead I prefer dealing with a human. (I am that annoying middle-aged lady in front of you in the queue who likes to chat to the shop assistant and pay with the exact money, spending hours ferreting around in the dark recesses of her purse for that final penny.)

Husband can't be doing with all that. He brings all his loose change home. Some of it goes in our Wallace and Gromit Grand Appeal collection box and some of it gets dumped in a pot.

And every now and again, when I'm feeling stony broke and I've got just a few items to buy I empty the contents of the pot into a bag and take it to the supermarket and use it all in one go at the self service check out.

This was the highlight of my day today (I know, I know, I lead a very exciting life). A whole £5 of what feels like 'free' money!

It is not an activity to be done in a rush. I make sure I pick a quiet time in the store so I can savour feeding the money in a few coins at a time. It's like being at the penny arcades on a rainy day at the seaside, especially when the machine spits a few coins out.

Sometimes it all goes smoothly and my small act of defiance goes unnoticed. Other times the machine cottons on to what I'm doing and starts to get annoyed. It puts its cash gobbling conveyor belt into reverse and makes unpleasant mechanical noises because it knows I'm sticking it to The Man, to all those soulless automated procedures everywhere that put real people out of a job, and to all those Coinstar machines that change your coins into notes but take a fee for doing so. I won't be beaten. I always win this particular battle, however many shop assistants I have to enlist onto my side, and you know what? I'll be back with a bagful of coppers another time..

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Stir Up Sunday - Super Scrimpers style

Two years ago I blogged about Stir-up Sunday here. I'll quickly recap for those who have got better things to do than flit around blogs reading old blog posts. 

It's the last Sunday before Advent and the Collect for the day (the 25th Sunday after Trinity) gives Stir-up Sunday its name, serving as a reminder to church goers to get the pudding ready so it had time to mature before Christmas:

'Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord,
the wills of thy faithful people, that they plenteously bringing forth
the fruit of good works,
may be of thee plenteously rewarded.'

Other Stir-up Sunday traditions are that the Christmas pudding should have thirteen ingredients to represent Jesus and the twelve apostles, and that the mixture should be stirred in an east to westerly direction - that in which the wise men travelled.

This year I was not sure whether to bother with making a pudding. We're on a tighter budget than two years ago and if you're buying in the full list of pudding ingredients it does not come in cheap. Although I love all the rich, spicy, fruity Christmassy stuff, the rest of the family are not that bothered. I could go and buy a ready made pudding for a couple of quid and nobody would mind.

But you know what? Although there's plenty that I don't like about the typical 21st century Christmas one of my favourite parts is sharing the traditional celebratory foods with family and friends. And I enjoy preparing that food. Quality rather than quantity. I'd rather spend more on the ingredients for a good Christmas pudding and less on biscuits and chocolates.

So I set about looking for a budget Christmas pudding recipe. I didn't have to travel far. There's a whole thread devoted to the topic in a forum on Martin Lewis' Money Saving Expert website. And Channel 4's Super Scrimpers has a Christmas pudding recipe. I ran with the latter as I already had most of the ingredients.

Here's Dev demonstrating the method:


50g breadcrumbs
50g plain flour
2 tsp mixed spice
150g sultanas
150g dried fruit
50g flaked almonds
2 grated apples
rind and juice of one lemon and one orange
100g butter
100g brown sugar
2 eggs
6 tbsp brandy
4 tbsp milk
2 tbsp treacle

Mix all the ingredients together well, and put into a greased pudding bowl. I made two small puddings.

Puddings waiting to be steamed.
As ever, I deviated from the specified ingredients; I purchased a bag of mixed fruit and used that rather than using half sultanas and half mixed fruit. 

I downgraded the alcohol content (if you don't have brandy or rum to hand, buying a bottle will bump up the cost of a Christmas pudding hugely) to the cheapest fortified wine I could find - a drink called Scots Mac , which is a blend of British wine and whiskey (it's only a fiver so don't get too excited about the whiskey content). The idea was to hide the bottle, once I'd extracted six tablespoonfuls for the pudding, until Christmas. However there's no point in doing this if it tastes foul, so we've had a couple of sherry glasses each - purely for scientific reasons, to see what it's like. (Very drinkable, it transpires). To cut costs further you could leave the alcohol out completely.

Dark brown sugar happened to be in the cupboard rather than soft brown, so I used that. Similarly I used golden syrup rather than buying a tin of treacle. 

Ooh and I didn't have an orange so I left that out...Actually this epitomises my entire approach to cooking - if it's not going to make too much difference to the end result, exclude ingredients or substitute with what I already have. It makes good sense if you're keen on reducing your food waste.

One reason for making your own Christmas pudding is that you get to enjoy the waft of Christmas spices while it steams for hours, so I ignored Dev's microwave instructions entirely (plus we don't have a microwave) and steamed my pudding in the slow cooker (medium heat for 7 hours).

Written down it all sounds like a real faff. What a lot of fuss just for a Christmas pudding. Actually it's really easy and one of those things where, anyway, it's the process rather than the product/journey rather than the destination.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Trying to recreate a little bit of Leicester in Wiltshire...

There are no Afghan restaurants around here, so my trip to such an eating establishment in Leicester last week was an experience I won't forget in a hurry. Aubergines (eggplants) were a key feature of the menu - when I found one lingering in the cupboard back at home, it seemed fitting to give it the middle eastern treatment.

I'd never made it before but have always loved the name: Baba Ganoush.

It's simple to make this yummy dip. Roast two medium aubergines (or one large one in my case).

(I realised afterwards that although slicing the aubergine seemed a good idea, it does leave some dry edges when it comes to the mashing part of Baba Ganoush.) The roasting takes about half to one hour in a hot oven.

Baba Ganoush sprinkled with paprika

Peel and scoop out the flesh. The instructions in the recipe I used advised letting the flesh drain, but this would would have resulted in barely any aubergine, so I ignored that part.

I went straight to blending it in the food processor with 2 tablespoonfuls of olive oil, 2 tablespoonfuls of tahini, a tablespoon of lemon juice and 1 garlic clove with some parsley and mint (I used dried but fresh would have been better). I've always liked tahini but it might not be everyone's idea of a store cupboard staple - I guess you could use a spoonful of natural yogurt instead or a handful of sesame seeds. 

Serve with some flat breads. I make these A LOT. Especially when we've run out of other bread. I discovered I've saved lots of flat bread photos in my blog photo folder over the months. It's about time one of them reached the light of day at last. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe works every time for me:

250g plain flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp oil
150ml warm water

Mix together and briefly knead. I can get 8 small flat breads out of this amount. Divide dough into 8 balls and roll thinly. Cook for a couple of minutes on each side. I use a griddle frying pan.

Everyone enjoyed the Baba Ganoush but we decided it's probably not an everyday recipe - it takes an awful lot of aubergine to make a small amount of dip...

Aubergine facts:

  • Low in saturated fats and cholesterol
  • High in fibre, potassium, vitamin B1 and vitamin B6
  • Rich in antioxidants

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Bicycle, bicycle...

This weekend Husband cycled over to Bradford-on-Avon to watch the film Bicycle which is described on its website as a "humorous, lyrical and warm reflection on the bicycle and its place in cycling and its place in the British national psyche". 

Here's the trailer for the film:

The reviews I've heard are good - Husband says it's an upbeat and inspirational film depicting all aspects of cycling from Britain's Olympic successes to ordinary people using bikes as everyday transport, and Richard from our local community bike project rates it highly too - you can read his review here.

The film looks at the history of cycling in the UK and considers why the enthusiasm for cycling waned in the 60s and 70s when cars became more affordable, train services were axed by Dr Beeching, and the first motorways were being built.

Britain was not alone in facing such transport changes but did not foresee or forestall the possible impact in the way that other European countries did - Holland, for example, continued to invest in infrastructure for bikes. Even today in the UK, spending is weighted heavily towards car drivers - £70 per head is invested in roads and only £2 per head on cycling, as opposed to £20 per head on cycling in Holland and £30 per head in Denmark.

It definitely feels as if there is a sea change at the moment. Cycling is gaining in popularity; when Husband spent a few days in London cycling from Hanwell into the city every day earlier this year he was overawed by the number of commuting cyclists - in places they are so many that they control the road.

And yet, despite all the environmental, social and health benefits of cycling there is still much to be done to make cycling feel like a safe option for everyone in the UK. The film supports those such as Chris Boardman, who are lobbying the Government to raise spending on cycling to £10 per head.

If you'd like to watch the film, it's showing at a few selected UK venues before the end of the year. Or you can purchase the DVD (it would make a great Christmas prezzie for the cyclist in your life!). Check out the Bicycle film website for more details here. 

I couldn't think about the title of the film without humming the Queen song in my head, but I'm told that obviously the film is of such quality that it would never feature such a glaringly obvious link on its soundtrack.

I still can't help humming it though...

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Crafting inspiration

One of our half term treats was a trip to the American Museum in Bath to see the Kaffe Fassett exhibition, just in the nick of time before it finished. (Thank you Jean at Shrimpton and Perfect whose blog post about the exhibition jogged my memory).

An American-born artist, Kaffe is known for his colourful designs. He started out as a traditional artist but after a trip to Scotland fell in love with yarns, learned to knit, and since then has worked across many crafts including knitting, patchwork and needlepoint. Kaffe is the primary knitwear designer for Rowan Yarns.

You couldn't not love this exhibition. 

Outside we were greeted by a tree of pom poms, decorative lampshade thingies and some yarn bombing.

A colourful medley of Kaffe's books, rugs, artwork, wool and cushions began the exhibition enticingly.

Need I say more? The photos speak for themselves...

This one's for my sister - she loves tatting!

Beautiful quilts

Even the beige section was fun 
A huge Hollyhock needlepoint

Gorgeous knitting
Although the Kaffe Fassett exhibition is over now, the museum and grounds are well worth a visit in themselves; they are in a fantastic location - high up on a hill at Claverton, on the edge of Bath, with views to die for. 

We last visited the museum when Daughter was in her Pocahontas phase as the museum has a good section on the Native American Indians but there are many interesting displays about the development of America and replica rooms from different periods of American history, featuring authentic furniture and artefacts. The museum also boasts a spectacular collection of quilts. 

My knitting mojo did resurface after this in the form of a purchase of a big ball of wool in Aldi (Kaffe probably doesn't source much of his yarn there but if he doesn't mind the high acrylic content he'd love their colourful yarns, I'm sure...) This is for knitting a present for my sister.

If she's lucky it may be completed in time for her 50th* birthday.

* She's currently in her early 40s

Monday, 3 November 2014

Half term holiday romance...

Firstly, many thanks for all the helpful comments on my last blog post about jam-making. I have only just caught up with blog business as I've been busy rekindling some old loves over the half term holiday...

Me and the Youth Hostel Association go back a long way - about 33 years in fact. I've blogged about my Youth Hostel love before, when we camped at a couple of Welsh Youth Hostels in summer 2013. When my sister bowed out of the long drive southwards to our house from Sunderland this half term and suggested we meet half way instead, for an aunties' and cousins' two night mini break, where better to stay than a Youth Hostel? Especially when you can book a 6 bed family room for all of us for £50 a night. That's cheaper per head than some campsites these days.

If it wasn't for the green YHA sign,
it could pass for a country hotel...

Hathersage Youth Hostel, in the Peak District, served all our needs. Comfy bunk beds, a large self catering kitchen, dining room and lounge. And lots of other friendly guests amenable to sharing tea/a bottle of wine/playing board games/cake (delete according to your age and the time of day). 

Our room did have a faint whiff of school changing rooms but we couldn't decide whether the smell was already embedded or if the trainers belonging to the runner in our party were to blame.

Stepping stones across the River Derwent

From Hathersage we were able to explore the local area without needing any transport other than our legs. We walked a couple of miles up the River Derwent for a flat walk when the weather was misty, and on the clearer day we walked up to Stanage Edge, the largest gritstone edge overlooking Hathersage. We made sure that one of our walks included a detour to see the grave of Little John (Robin Hood's fellow outlaw). Even legendary figures have graves you know.

Stanage Edge
Being able to do most of our exploring on foot was important, as the Wiltshire contingent had indulged another of our loves - trains. By booking in advance through thetrainline.com with our Family and Friends railcard, it was just about affordable (twice the price of our room - eek) and made for a much more pleasant (and environmentally friendly) journey than the five hour drive would have been. The railway line across the Pennines between Sheffield and Manchester even stops at Hathersage itself, so we could walk to the Youth Hostel from the station.

My new love this half term is most definitely for Hathersage itself. A no nonsense village (unlike some of its touristy neighbours such as Castleton), in beautiful surroundings. I'd definitely visit again - for one thing I'd like a dip in the heated outdoor swimming pool (that is still open at this time of year, but only at weekends so we didn't get to try it out), and for another, the waffle menu at the Hathersage Social Club needs further investigation... 

(All my own opinions here - no sponsored links.)

Do you have any favourite Youth Hostels or places in the Peak District? Any suggestions for other good places to visit that are half way between Wiltshire and the North East?