Saturday, 27 April 2013

French comfort food

One of the advantages of having a French husband (and perhaps particularly, one hailing from the South) is that his attachment to his maman's cooking means he is compelled to recreate it in our kitchen. A case in point is perhaps one of my favourite ever comfort dishes: the classic daube. Since I'm at home at the moment, he persuaded me to try my hand at it, and it was surprisingly easy! I thought I'd share his (mum's) recipe here (with apologies to vegetarians: traditional French food tends to be rather meat-centred.)


500g casserole steak beef, in small pieces
1 onion, finely sliced
3-4 carrots (I didn't peel them - I think the French would though) cut into 2
punnet of mushrooms cut in half
new potatoes, larger ones cut in half
1/2 bottle of cheap red wine
1 tbsp of flour
3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
salt & pepper
2 bay leaves

How to:

Warm the olive oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan or casserole dish, on medium heat. Add the onions and cook till they are soft and golden.

Turn up the heat a little, add the meat and turn quickly to sear all over, keeping the juices in. Add salt and pepper to taste. Then add your tablespoon of flour and mix really well.

Cover with a mixture of red wine and water in the ratio 3/4 wine to 1/4 water. I made up about a pint of this but when the Mr got home he added about a glass more red wine - I think it's a case of judging it to your taste really. And it works just fine with the cheapest available wine!

Now add your carrots, mushrooms and potatoes - yep, it's as simple as that, you just plonk them in! And that's 2 of your 5 a day right there.

Finally, add the super-important bay leaves to infuse their lovely flavour. The next instruction is "simmer for hours". My husband's wisdom is that the longer you cook it, the better it is. Just bring to the boil then turn it to a low heat and leave for as long as you can, stirring to stop it sticking to the bottom of a pan.

It's the simplest beef stew you could imagine but there's something about it that is just so heart-warmingly delicious. And yes, we eat this even in Spring and Summer!

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

vintage embroidered linens

I love vintage embroidered linen. I started collecting it to make heart-shaped lavender sachets, and now I can't stop. My usual hunting ground is eBay. But I'm not very good at finding real bargains on eBay. The sellers all seem so savvy and price-aware. However at an otherwise disappointing attic sale this weekend I managed to find a couple of pretty pieces for the very reasonable price of £3.

What I love about pieces like this pretty handkerchief and tablecloth (below) is the skill and beauty of the hand embroidery. I can imagine some 1940s housewife (that's my guess at the era they date from) painstakingly stitching the motifs, revelling in the colours of the thread in a time when colour was hard to come by. My mum was born in 1941 and she remembers an age where everything was scarce, including colour: even cars and vans were often just grey. Paint was a luxury, as was fabric. Embroidery was the perfect way to bring pattern and colour to plain linen.

There's a part of me that feels bad about repurposing these lovely linens. But the simple truth is I know I'm not going to use a linen handkerchief or tablecloth. It would be far sadder to keep them folded away in a drawer. Instead I want to give them a new lease of life, and have them used and on display.

I have a great idea for the tablecloth. This Sunday I took my little boys to visit a dear friend of mine and while we were there she was working on her latest patchwork quilt. She is a queen of quilting, handstitching the most beautiful and vast hexagon flower quilts. She is so neat and tidy and patient, whereas I love projects I can finish in one evening! I noticed she was using rather a fine paper bag from Paris to keep her ongoing work in. But I'm sure she'd be even happier to use a large tote made from vintage embroidered linens. I'm planning it out in my head already - another project for my ever-growing list!

And just in case with my £3 bargain I'm giving the impression of being a properly thrifty type, I feel I ought to share a little sneak peek of a very expensive 1970s fabric haul from Etsy, destined to be transformed into curtains for my boys' room. Much as I love the idea of picking these up from some charity shop or car boot sale, it just doesn't seem to happen, and when I find the perfect pieces, I can't resist spending out on them from my favourite Dutch and German Etsy sellers... My love of vintage materials is strong - but I probably should work on my thrifty sourcing skills.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

fresh from the mill

On the second Sunday of every month, Foster's Mill in Swaffam Prior, Cambridgeshire, opens to public visits. I've been wanting to go for ages, but the right time never seemed to come. Finally on Sunday we made it! Our little boy calls our newly-reconfigured family a "circle", so when we go out together all 4 of us, we call it "going out as a circle". I think it's when we're happiest.

Our 2 year-old (well, he'll be 3 in July - I can't believe it!) was excited to see inside a real, working windmill. He saw how the mechanism turned and ground the flour from the grain, and how it slowed down when the wind dropped. I was wearing the baby, so I only went up to the first level, as the stairs were more like a ladder. I loved the great roaring hum as the grindstones moved.

They were making Spelt flour that day, and we were able to buy a bag of the very flour we had seen being ground. The friendly volunteer got our little boy to help him scoop out the fresh flour from a sack and into our bag. Then we whisked it off home to make bread with it.

I use a breadmaking machine to make bread. It's addictively easy and really does make very good bread, if not as aesthetically appealing as hand-kneaded and shaped bread. This loaf certainly is delicious, and it's nearly finished already! I've never tried Spelt flour bread before. I think I prefer rye or wheat, but the taste of this loaf is about so much more than molecules hitting the tongue: it's the memory of a windy Sunday, out as a circle, spotting the big white sails across the flat Cambridgeshire land and breathing the dusty air inside, with the sound of everything turning and moving.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

practice makes something

I can't really be doing with practising purely for the sake of perfecting a new skill. To motivate myself, I have to be making something. I have to learn on the job. The result is that a lot of things I make are highly imperfect, because I'm practising and learning by making them. This little 'dude doll' is a prime example: really he was all about taking my knitting to the next level, practising purl stitch and trying my first stripes. But I also got him at the end of it, not just a purposeless piece of knitting to unravel!

In my last post I wrote about my "guilty pleasure" love of kid's craft books. Well, this cute little idea came from the same one I mentioned last time, Jane Bull's Stitch by Stitch. I can't recommend it enough for its appealing simplicity. It really makes needlecrafts seem approachable - and you don't have to be a kid to enjoy it.

As soon as my little boy saw the above pictures of the "dude dolls" in the book, he asked me to make one for him, and he was so delighted when I presented him with his own little dude! Never mind that I accidentally knit 2 consecutive rows and then unwittingly knitted back-to-front for a few rows (see the bobbly bits on the knees), or that I kept losing my place (I have to find a way of knowing where I am now that there are 2 little guys in the house to keep an eye on!) This little guy can still bring a smile to my little dude's face, and I'm feeling much more confident about my knitting now too.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

cross-stitch doudou

My French mother-in-law gave me this sweet little "doudou" for Christmas, with the new baby in mind. It's particular stroke of genius is that it has a little bib made of open-weave fabric, just calling out for some cross-stitch embellishment. Very thoughtful of her, as she knows of my addiction to stitching. But cross-stitch is something I've never tried before.

So, here it is, my first ever attempt at cross-stitch. I really didn't know what I was doing and I'm not sure it's properly symmetrical (though a fold in the fabric in this picture makes it look more out of whack than it really is, I think... hope!) My thanks have to go to this book which, perhaps appropriately, is aimed at children.

I love craft books for children (and recipe books too!) I caved for this one after seeing that appealing appliqu├ęd cover one too many times in the children's section of my local department store. I half-convinced myself it was for my son... for when he's a little older (sadly it does seem pretty squarely targeted at girls, but that's ok). I knew really it was for me. It really helped with the whole trying cross-stitch for the first time thing!

I guess that, not being very good at spatial awareness, and definitely not good at anything maths-y, I can be a bit simple when it comes to various aspects of craft. So simple instructions work really well for me. Seriously, I found this easier than anything I came across on YouTube! And I must say, this tiny little foray into cross-stitch has me itching to try more... Happily, for now at least, it seems to be just about possible to do it with a tiny little baby in my arms (I'm super-careful, I promise!)

Monday, 1 April 2013

hexagons full circle

Way back in July last year I tentatively began piecing my first hexagons. I put a hexagon patchwork on my list of 34 things to make. But somehow, in my tired, uninspired summer, the project got put on hold, shoved to the back of the drawer. In the weeks leading up to the birth of my second little boy, however, I suddenly re-discovered - and fell in love with - the calming process of paper piecing hexagons. I also became determined to finish what I started.

I didn't quite manage to finish my cushion before baby #2 arrived. In fact I planned to finish it the day he was born but my older son was ill and in need of attention from mama. Then my contractions started...

But 6 days after the birth, with my husband out at the park with our fully-recovered and very energetic 2 year-old, I found myself in a haven of calm with my new little bundle and sat removing basting stitches on the sofa with him gently snuffling in my arms.

And so, here it is finished: a project started in the exhausted, bleary-eyed early days of pregnancy and completed in the exhausted, bleary-eyed early days of new motherhood. I feel like I've come full circle somehow. This cushion - odd and random as it is (filled with meaningful scraps from other projects) will always be very special to me.

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