Nursery tour

Although we plan to have our baby sleeping in our room for the first six months of her life, we recently spent a bit of time organising our spare bedroom into something of a “nursery”. A place for her clothes to live, somewhere to change her, and a quiet space for me to feed her during the night. Luckily, our spare bedroom was was already painted pink – very handy when we discovered we were having a girl! So all that was left was some sorting and clearing out, adding shelves for my craft books (rather than the, ahem, pile on the floor) and children’s books and toys, and folding away some tiny lady clothes.

We bought an antique chest of drawers for storage, and I succumbed to the lure of Elisabeth Dunker’s famous Pirum Parum poster, which I’ve been lusting after for years! It also happily ties in with the loose pink and grey colour scheme of the room. We made shelves out of the original floorboards from our house, and used antique brackets to attach them to the walls. I have already amassed a small – but growing – collection of adorable knitted cardigans, some gifts and some vintage. I think I need that pink cabled wonder in my size!

I have an old pretty nursing chair, and paired with a sheepskin rug, it will be a cosy place to sit with our baby. I love this room, and although the nursery will also double as a guest bedroom for now, we’ve made the most of the limited space in our little house. I sometimes find myself standing in the doorway, just looking around and taking in the quiet calm before the baby storm. Not long now, my due date is 16 days away!

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Two years on

Following my post almost a year ago, in which I reflected on our one year chicken-keeping anniversary, I thought I’d write a bit about what’s been happening since. Basically, not much. All is cool. In fact, we’re pretty obsessed with chickens now.

It surprised me how easily the chickens fitted into our lives. In fact, a couple of months ago we decided to get three more, and went back to the lovely Home Farm in Overton to pick out Sybil, Hatty and Ghosty/Navin/Pig Eye Jackson (don’t ask). They have settled in well, and despite regular squabbles over food and territory, are all laying eggs regularly. We’re eating a lot of omelettes and pavlova at the moment…

We’ve been spending a lot of time in the garden lately, tidying, weeding and preparing for a new shed. Being around the chickens every day, even if it’s just ten minutes, has meant that they are as used to us now as we are to them. They are excellent at “helping” in the garden. They follow us round, getting in the way. They are nosey, and peck at anything they deem to be food (wellies, fingers, lips!).

We’re very fortunate to have lovely friends to act as chicken-sitters when we go away, for which I am very grateful. There are always things going on with the chickens – Hatty has a habit of scaling a four foot fence, and Queenie currently has a cold – but I wouldn’t change them for anything. It dawned on us recently that we’re probably always going to keep chickens. And that’s totally fine with me. Turns out we’re just chicken people.

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Let’s do this 2013

I don’t usually set myself goals from year to year – instead, we have a small notebook in which we write aims for each month of the year. This lives next to the calendar in our kitchen and we mark off the aims as we complete them. It’s a great way to get things done, and makes our aims seem more manageable. If something isn’t completed in its designated month, it rolls to the next, which is very useful for seeing what we’ve been putting off (ahem, making curtains).

But recently I’ve been inspired by Fi and Me to write myself some goals for 2013. I don’t want to go mad, but think it will be good to have some ongoing goals to accompany my monthly lists. It will be interesting to see how many I can achieve! So here goes…

Take up yoga and go to classes on a regular basis
I don’t do a lot of exercise – in fact, the most I do is my 10-minute walk to work and the occasional gentle stroll. So I’m determined to get into a routine where I do something energetic and feel like I’ve actually had a workout. When I lived in Manchester I went to a swing dance class, which I loved. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be many in the Wrexham area…maybe I should set one up…!

swing dance
Finish sewing curtains for all the rooms in our house
This task seems to turn me into one hell of a procrastinator. I know I can make curtains, because I made some for my sewing room last year. But there’s something about them…the endless measuring and calculations, maybe, or the concentration involved? Either way, it’s one craft project I could happily put off forever, but as one window in our house is currently sporting a blanket for a curtain, it’s something I need to push myself to do.

NB: It’s a very nice blanket, by the way, and I don’t think many people notice…but still. A blanket.

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Sew myself some clothes from vintage patterns
Although I’m pretty proficient with my sewing machine, sewing myself a piece of clothing is something I’ve never tackled. And after being inspired by the wealth of dressmaking blogs around, I think 2013 is the year to make myself some good old fashioned homemade pieces. I’m hoping this will also tie in with my next goal…

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Buy more vintage clothing, and less from the high street
I love a good shop, I really do. High street, vintage, secondhand; I love them all. And I do buy a lot of secondhand and vintage clothing – but I’m aware that I could cut down on my visits to high street shops. I would also like to be more ethically conscious when buying clothes, not just reverting to the usual shops because they’re easy to buy from. And with ebay, Etsy and various local antiques shops on my regular rotation, I have no excuse not to kerb my high street spending.

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Do monthly recipe posts over at Manchester Cake Club
In autumn of last year, I was asked to contribute to the Manchester Cake Club blog, a great resource for recipes and cake-related events in the North-West England area. I was very flattered, and jumped at the chance – but although I posted recipes in October and November, I missed December. My excuse is that Christmas took over, but still. I will be posting there once a month from now on! And to make up for my missed month, I will be sending in two recipes for January. Hooray!

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Blog at least once a week
As above, Christmas hampered my wintery blogging. I may be busy, but how hard is it to write a piece once a week? I really enjoy blogging, and need to make time for it. So I will be challenging myself to post something here at least once a week this year. I’ll definitely be blogging about those curtains I’ll definitely be making…

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Cook a new recipe for tea once a month
Although my true passion is baking, I also love savoury cooking. There’s something so fun about sourcing interesting, exciting ingredients for a newly-tested dish, and watching it come to life in the kitchen. And even if these recipes don’t get added to our regular rotation of meals, it’s always fun to try something new. So in 2013 I plan to cook one new recipe for our evening meal once a month. Recipes I plan to tackle include: roasted onion soup, exciting curries, bread and pies!

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Set up a recipe website
Last year, I inherited my aunty’s old recipes. There were hundreds of them, typed or handwritten or torn from magazines and newspapers. They were organised in card folders, and I sorted through them and have been scanning them onto my computer. This year I plan to set up a website so people can try them out.

White chocolate mousse
Photo credits: here and here

Lately: feeling festive

It’s been quiet around here lately – Christmas took over for a while there! I hope you had a lovely one. Mine included…

Enjoying: time out and about with frosty nature

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Listening: to our favourite Christmas records while decorating the house

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Finishing: off Christmas presents – for myself, and others

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Indulging: in a spot of Christmas baking with Jim (his is the Christmas cake)

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And, of course, spending: Christmas the best way I know: with family

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A good meal

We recently invited our friends Ben and Sue over for tea, and I decided that I wanted to make something I’d never attempted before. One of my “to-do list” meals was the thai curry from Nigel Slater’s book The Kitchen Diaries. A lovely book, it’s great for inspiration all through the year. I ended up making a never-before tried recipe for pudding, too, which was the caramel banana split from Leon’s Baking and Puddings book. Both recipes turned out better than I had hoped, everyone loved the food and there were full and happy bellies all round. Such a good result that I couldn’t resist sharing them with you.

These recipes are a great combination. The curry is surprisingly easy to make but does require buying some specialist ingredients and a bit of faffing about to make the green spice paste. After that, the banana split can be whipped up while your guests are working off their full stomachs in the living room with a glass of wine – or, in our case, finishing off a round of the ‘Jurassic Park: Lost World’ board game (yes, it’s as good as it sounds). The banana split only took me about 15 minutes to make, and sent inviting smells wafting through to our guests. It’s an old-school, kiddy dessert, but is delicious and a lot of fun to devour. It’s also light and refreshing after the rich curry: a perfect combination.
Mmmm, just thinking about that meal makes me want to make it all over again. Anyone fancy dinner?

This version of the curry recipe includes a few adjustments which we made on the evening. For example, we weren’t able to get certain ingredients, like Thai and pea aubergines, so we them replaced with courgettes and peppers. You could of course use your own preferred veg in this curry, but to make the original Slater version you should definitely check out the book.

Green curry of prawns, peppers and courgettes
from Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries


Ingredients:
about 150g shallots
3 tablespoons groundnut oil
2 red peppers
1 courgette
12 cherry tomatoes
400ml coconut milk
a tablespoon shrimp paste
a teaspoon vegetable stock (we use this one)
300g large prawns (we used frozen ones)

For the green spice paste:
4 green bird’s eye chillies
2 large stalks of lemon grass, chopped
6 lime leaves (we used dried ones)
3 large cloves of garlic
50g lump of ginger
6 heaped tablespoons of coriander leaves

First, make the spice paste: discard the stems from the chillies, then chop the flesh and tip it into a blender (or a bowl if using a handheld blender). Add the chopped lemongrass. Crunch up the lime leaves, peel and chop the garlic, then peel the ginger and cut it into shreds. Tip everything into the blender/bowl. Add the coriander leaves and blitz to a paste with enough water to make the mixture come together – two or three tablespoons. Continue to mix until you have a coarse paste.

Peel and finely slice the shallots. Warm two tablespoons of the oil in a pan, then add the shallots and cook them over a moderate to high heat until they are golden and soft. Once they have softened, slice the peppers and courgette and add them to the shallots, letting them soften and colour slightly. Scoop the shallots, peppers and courgette out of the pan, then add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan.

When the oil is warm, add the green spice paste. Let it fry briefly – the water will evaporate – and then halve the cherry tomatoes and add them to the pan. Continue cooking for a few minutes, then return the shallots, peppers and courgette to the pan and pour in the coconut milk. Season with the shrimp paste and vegetable stock, adding more if you wish, along with some salt and pepper. Fry the prawns separately for a couple of minutes until they are pink, then slip them into the sauce and leave everything to cook for a minute or two.

Serve the curry with white white rice, and top with coriander and lime leaves. Then tuck in!

Then on to the banana split…this really is a doddle to make, the perfect dessert for minimum effort/maximum impact on your guests. My only issue was that when it came to making the caramel, I heated the sugar and cream to quickly and ended up making toffee! It was still delicious, though, and we enjoyed toffee lumps instead of gooey caramel. If that happens to you, just go with it – it’s not a bad thing. The recipe below has been altered slightly to feed four, instead of six, so adjust accordingly if you are feeding more (or just feeling greedy).

Leon caramel banana split
from Leon Baking and Puddings


Ingredients:
100g flaked almonds
2 tablespoons icing sugar
4 bananas
500ml double cream
100g caster sugar
couple of scoops each of strawberry and vanilla ice cream
50g dark chocolate

Heat the almonds in a non-stick frying pan with the icing sugar until they turn golden and the sugar has caramelized. Put into a bowl and set aside. Slice the bananas in half lengthwise and lay the halves on a large serving plate. Whisk 350ml of the cream until it is thick and set aside.

Heat the caster sugar in a pan until it has melted and caramelized – not too dark. Add the remaining 150ml of cream and stir well; it will froth right up. Heat through the make sure all the sugar has melted into the cream, stirring occasionally. Place the dark chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water and stir until it has completely melted.

Scoop the ice cream onto the split bananas, drizzle the ice cream with the caramel and scoop on the cream. Sprinkle on the caramelized almonds and pour over the melted chocolate. Serve and DEVOUR!

‘Animal Stew’

After graduating from University, I went on to do an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. I had a great time, studying part-time alongside my job and through the MA I met some really lovely people. One of these lovely people, Iris Feindt, contacted me late last year to ask if I wanted to contribute to an anthology of stories being published by MMU. The anthology was the idea of Sherry Ashworth, author of teenage books and one of our tutors on the MA. The stories would be all be about animals, and were to showcase not only writers from the MA course, but also illustrators from around the UK, such as my very talented friend Suz Hughes. Of course I said YES!

I had a think about which animal I wanted to write about, for maybe about a minute, because it was obvious that I should write a tribute to the cutest chicken I know: Pearl. If you’ve read this post you’ll know how much I love our chickens, and Pearl is an especially sweet example. I mean, come on!


So I set to work writing a story about how Pearl has a crisis of confidence and goes on a journey to make herself more beautiful. I sent the story, entitled ‘A Precious Pearl’, off to Iris and Helen, the anthology organisers, and happily they paired me with the delightful Gwen Shackleton, artist extraordinaire. I knew she would draw me a wonderful Pearl.

A couple of months went by, and we were asked to edit and format our stories, and to submit author biographies and photographs. None of it seemed real until a couple of months after that, when we finally got to see the front cover of the anthology. And then soon after that, I got my copy in the post. Very exciting!


Animal Stew was launched on Saturday 30th June at the Family Fun Day at Manchester Children’s Book Festival 2012. It was lovely to meet the other writers and illustrators who had contributed to the book, and to chat to them about their work. My family and friends showed up in force, and we rallied round handing out flyers and publicising the anthology.

Each of the writers read an extract from their story out throughout the day, and I was on in the final 3pm slot of the day, with Iris and Helen. Although we clashed with Steve Cole, we still had an excellent turnout! I was nervous at first but once I was reading it was all fine. I even enjoyed myself! Most of my audience completed the Pearl-themed colouring-in sheets which I handed out. I did have some props with me which seemed to help…


It was a wonderful day, full of laughter and fun. Iris, Helen and Sherry worked extremely hard to make the anthology happen and I’m very grateful to have been included! Here are some photos from the day…


Our stall for Animal Stew


Me and the lovely Iris…oh, and Pearl!


Me reading an extract from ‘A Precious Pearl’


Me with Gwen Shackleton, my brilliant Pearl-illustrator


“Decorate Pearl” colouring-in activity…


You can see more photos from the day here.

I am so proud of our little book, which is full of humorous, touching stories about tap-dancing turtles, very clean pigs, time-travelling cats and letter-writing dogs, to name but a few. And if you would like to know what happens to Pearl, the anthology is available to buy on Amazon right here. My friends, family and work colleagues have been extremely supportive about the anthology, and it feels great to say that I am a published author!

I was very flattered to find that I was also featured in local press: wrexham.com, on the Wrexham council website, in the Wrexham Leader and on librarywales.org. I was invited onto Wrexham’s community radio staion, Calon FM, to talk about Animal Stew and the creative writing group I run in the library, which was lots of fun. You can listen to my interview right here.

Phew! It’s been a crazy time, but thanks to Iris and Helen, a thoroughly enjoyable one. I couldn’t have wished for two more organised editors! And it was lovely to be a part of this year’s Manchester Children’s Book Festival. Do hop on over to the website for more information – it’s on until 8th July and there are loads of exciting events taking place.

In the meantime, I have been inspired to return to the full-length children’s novel I wrote for my MA. And maybe Pearl will crop up again in the future. I think she might just be my little, feathery, adorable muse.

A year on

This week, we will have been keeping chickens for one year. Although to some this won’t seem like a momentous occasion, we have learned a great deal and have had such a lovely time with our little friends that we will certainly be celebrating this small anniversary. Our chickens have become a huge part of our lives so that now it would feel strange not to have them with us.

A year ago, we agreed that as we had a nice big garden, and had both wanted to keep chickens for a while, we should go ahead and get them. We worked hard to level the garden and planted grass seed in preparation for when the chickens were grown and would need lots of space for frolicking.


Around the same time my parents were getting a new shed so we gratefully took their old one away…re-assmbled it in our garden, gave it a lick of paint and a chicken shed was born!


After some research, we decided to buy our chickens from nearby Home Farm in Overton. This place is really idyllic; ducks, geese, chickens and pigs live happily side-by-side, with lots of space to play and run around in. I truly felt that the animals on the farm were living decent lives and being treated extremely well, and the owners were delightfully welcoming and helpful.

We explained that we were after three hens and a cockerel and the lovely farmer helped us pick out a Black Rock, a Rhode Island Red and two bantam silver-pencilled Wyandottes (one of which was the cockerel). They were all around eight weeks old so small enough to travel together in a box! Then they were introduced to their new home…


That ramp took a bit of negotiating!


It took us a bit of time but we finally agreed on names…


Queenie the Rhode Island Red and Verena the Black Rock.


Homie the bantam cockerel…


…and little Pearl, the smallest of them all.

The chickens’ first run was only small, as they themselves were tiny, and we wanted to make sure they were safe from the neighbours’ cats. We used chicken wire, bits of wood and bricks to make a small standing attached to the shed…


The photo above demonstrates what a chicken looks like when it has heard a train. Living right next to a railway, the chickens had to get used to hearing noisy trains thundering up and down the tracks, and for a while there was a lot of running around and hiding in the shed. But they got used to their new surroundings pretty quickly, and began to show us their funny personalities…


Here are Verena and Queenie doing what they do best: being nosey.


Pearl and Homie; flightly and cautious, and much less likely to be eaten by a fox!

We spent a lot of time with the chickens during the first few months, getting to know them and letting them get used to us. I realised just how funny, silly and incredibly cute chickens could be.


They lived in the small run happily for about three months, when a bout of feather-pecking made us realise they were growing fast and needed more space. Happily our big bare garden had, over the summer, become a lawn!


We quickly installed a high chicken wire fence along the garden next to the shed, and added chicken wire all the way around the garden. Then we released them into their new plot of land…


Needless to say, they loved it. Grass! Lots and lots of delicious new grass, which they loved scratching around in for grubs, and digging holes in to take dust baths. They also very much enjoyed the peas and beans we had recently planted around the edge of the garden. Hmph!


As Autumn approached they began to grow from young chicks to proper grown-up chickens, and we learned that they loved pasta, cucumber, mashed potato, blackberries and damsons…


Then, in around October, Queenie started laying! A month later, Pearl joined in, although her eggs were a lot smaller.


Throughout the Autumn and Winter, we continued to spend time in the garden with the chickens. This was easy with all the space they had, and they would often “help” me to collect eggs and clear out their nest boxes…


Then, without us really noticing, it became apparent that Homie had grown into a beautiful cockerel!


As cockerels go, he’s not very authoritative – probably because he is a bantam and has two large chickens to contend with in Queenie and Verena. But he does his best, and I love to see him gallantly clucking for the others to come over when he finds something delicious to eat. What a little gentleman!


In the Spring, Verena joined in the egg party, and began to lay green eggs! Here they are altogether, with a Lego man for scale…


The next development came a couple of months ago, when we decided to give the chickens a little bit more room again, and different things to jump onto and explore. Although they love grass, we felt that they should have more space to investigate; trees, rocks and branches. So we sectioned off a further part of the garden with chicken wire and let them in…


At one point we thought we’d lost Verena, but we eventually found her nesting in the privet!


We began to find eggs not only in the nest boxes, but also dotted around in the undergrowth. The chickens certainly settled into this part of the garden very quickly, which we think means they like it there.


And that brings us up to now. Chickens are certainly a challenge; we are currently negotiating with a broody hen and trying to ensure that Queenie doesn’t eat all the food. We have to keep an eye out for the neighbours’ cats and have fashioned a homemade water-squirter. But the benefits of keeping chickens far outweigh any negative points. We currently have eggs every day, and are eating a lot of cake and omelettes. They are incredibly funny, and excellent company. There is nothing better on a sunny day than taking a chair into the garden and relaxing with them. They even have a little friend, who we often see hanging out with them of an afternoon…


We are planning to get more chickens in future, and thinking about hatching some of Pearl’s eggs into tiny little grey-and-white bantams. I am very grateful that we have the space and time to keep them. If you have that, too, I highly recommend getting some. You’ll be surprised at how attached you become. They may even be your new best friends.