Monday, 28 December 2009

In Which there is Much Merriment

I think I am both fortunate, and perhaps unusual, in that I get on well with my (born)family, and the various component parts of the family all get along pretty well, too. Which is good a lot of the time, but particularly at Christmas, when the idea of being gathered together near the middle of no-where with all of my immediate family is something to look forward to, and enjoy, rather than to view as an endurance test.

I was working in the morning of Christmas Eve (But happily was able to sneak out of work rather earlier than planned) so I was the last of the family to arrive, getting to my parent's house by about 2.30 after a journey which was fairly uneventful, marred only by the large and extremely startling piece of stone which was thrown up by a lorry going the other way, and which left a large and unexpected chip in my windscreen. (Hopefully to be fixed by the man from autoglass, who is due to arrive at any moment)

There was a certain amount of tree-decoration going on - mostly consisting of my mother decking the tree while 4 offspring and one partner-of-offspring offered "helpful" advice and constructive critisism. In the true spirit of Christmas she refrained from decking us too!
In our family, everyone gets a Christmas stocking (not just any children there may be lying about the place) so the evening ended with many of us sitting on the landing stuffing stockings.

On Christmas morning, my parents went off, in a public-spirited way, to ring the bells for Christmas services at 2 different churches, and the rest of us, after stockings, and a breakfast of croissants and bucks-fizz (mimosas, to you Americans) went for a short and slippery walk around the village - it was a glorious sunny morning, but cold, and the hard frosts of the past few days on top of the rain and muddiness which pre-dated the frost meant that the steep parts of the path (i.e. almost all of it) were very icy.

Somewhat to my surprise, none of us actually fell over, although we all came close at different times!
The rest of the day passed with delicious food, lots of gifts, far too much chocolate & alcohol, and several games - K & C had brought with them a perfectly fiendish game, called 'Valley of the Pharoahs' which occupied those parts of the early evening not taken up with watching the 1st part of the Dr Who Christmas Special.
Boxing day involved a visit from more relations, which natuarally meant more food, wine, conversation, chocolate and games.
Then, as members of the party began to drift away we moved on to the more lazy and laid back portion of the holiday weekend. Happily, the one really wet and horrible day came on 27th when no-one needed to go out, anyway!

Friday, 25 December 2009

Merry Christmas, Happy Giftmas,
Happy (Belated Solstice)
Where ever you are, and whatever you are doing today, have a wonderful day - celebrate (or not) the way you want to.
(Posted, with any luck, automatically...I'm probably opening a stocking and thinking about breakfast, just about now)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Let it Snow!

After the isolated snowflakes on Saturday I wasn't really expecting proper snow, but on Monday I woke to find that it had snowed over night - only a little, but enough to make everything look Christmassy for a little while. And, as it had rained/sleeted earlier the roads, at least the smaller ones which hadn't been gritted were very icy.

Happily, the schools broke up on Friday, so there wasn't as much traffic as usual, and I had remembered to wrap the car up so I didn't have to do too much ice-scraping. I was delighted to have an uneventful drive to work. And the snowy fields were very pretty.

The snow was all still there on Tuesday morning, and as I drove to work there was a wonderful clear sky, rose pink shading to duck-egg blue, with all the colours reflecting off the snow, and various pheasants and robins arranged decoratively around the place.

I was a little worried that it would still be icy this evening, as I had to drive over to the village where I grew up, in order to collect our christmas turkey. Some of the roads are quite small, and J&R live up a very steep little lane. Luckily for me, it started to rain mid afternoon, and it wasn't cold enough to freeze.

I was expecting to pop in, perhaps have a coffee, then pay for my turkey and be off, but J & R kindly invited me to stay for supper, which was great both as it gave us a chance to catch up a little, and of course, when the friends who invite you for supper happen to be farmers who grow pretty much all their own meat and vegetables the offer of food is always well worth accepting!

The turkey is one of those I met, back in October I know it had a good life, lots of freedom, and I am sure it will be absolutely delicious - always assuming I can keep it, and Tybalt, apart during my drive down to Devon tomorrow....

Sunday, 20 December 2009

In Which there is Food, and Electricity

Saturday started quietly with a snooze, then I did a little bit of tidying up, with a view to the house looking respectable once my guests arrived, and bed-making, with a view to them having somewhere to sleep.

It was another cold, but sunny day, and when I walked down into town in the afternoon I started to snow - huge, dry flakes, all properly snow-flake shaped, with 6 distinct points! I've rarely seen snowflakes like that, mostly we seem either to have much wetter, sleety snow, of the very fine grainy kind. It didn't settle at all, but we very cold - 20 minutes out doing last minute bits of shopping was more than enough, although the last of the sunlight and the sunset were both beautiful.
Julie & Jason arrived in time for a nice long supper - I had made smoky aubergine dip, so we had hummus, aubergine dip, olives, crudites and warm pita bread, with a rather nice bottle of prosecco which Julies & Jason had brought with them.

We then (despite the very small size of my kitchen) all joined in to cook the main course, which was the Nettle & Chestnut Risotto which I was harvesting and cooking nettles for, earlier in the week.


2 pints nettles (measured when picked), loosely packed
8 tbsp unsalted butter
approx. 1 litre vegetable stock
2 shallots, finely diced
7¼oz arborio rice
8¾fl oz dry cider
8oz peeled chestnuts, chopped in half
lemon juice
2oz fresh parmesan, finely grated, to serve

1. Wash the nettles in a large bowl, allowing any debris to drop to the bottom. Pick out any thick or tough stems. Do not be concerned that the washing water is peaty brown, this is normal.
2. To cook the nettles, heat one tablespoon of butter in a large pan over a high heat and drop in the leaves. Allow them to wilt and cook until they are tender.
3. Strain through a sieve, catching any liquid in a bowl. Squeeze the nettles and remove to a board, chopping them roughly. Set aside in a cool place while you make the risotto.
4. Heat the stock in a pan. Melt half the remaining butter in a large heavy pan, adding the shallots and stirring to soften them. Cook the shallots until they are tender and clear, then add the rice, stirring to allow all of the rice to be coated with some of the fat.
5. Add the cider and stir. While the cider is being absorbed, turn the heat to a medium simmer. Add ladlefuls of stock - two at first, and allow each addition to be absorbed. When two thirds of the stock is absorbed, add the chopped nettles and allow them to continue cooking in the rice. At this stage, add the chestnuts - they will break down slightly in the pan.
6. When most of the stock is absorbed, check the rice - it ought to be just cooked, the sauce still emulsified. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Add the remaining butter and the parmesan, and serve with a sprinkle of lemon juice and a little freshly chopped parsley

The stock I made was partly made from soaking some dried mushrooms, so our risotto had a few mushrooms in it, too. The original recipie which (which I found on the BBC Food website) had dry white wine instead of cider, and suggests using chicken stock, which of course wouldn't be any good for vegetarians.

It really was very nice :-) So much so, that we ate all of it before I thought to take a picture of it!
I cheated on desert, and bought some Gu chocolate puddings. Pure decadence.

We had a lovely relaxed evening, talked, listened to music (Including comparing and contrasting the various 'IKEA' songs, by Mitch Benn, Jonathan Coulton and The Lancashire Hotpots )

I hope that they enjoyed the evening, I certainly did!

Sunday involved a leisurely breakfast, then Jason very kindly fixed the light socket in my WC - I had pulled the cord too hard and it broke, but when he took it to pieces, the socket itself was broken, so we had a quick trip to B&Q, and pausing only to google the changing rules about the colours of wires, and for me to borrow an electric test-y thing (multimeter?) from a neighbour, he fitted the the new socket for me, which was much appreciated. I can do some basic home maintenace - I can wire plugs and change fuses, but I am very nervous about anything connected to the mains, and because of my dodgy shoulder I find anything which involves working with my hands above my head almost impossible, which of course makes wiring in a new lighting socket to the ceiling quite tricky!

Sadly J&J couldn't stay later as they had lots of family to visit, so I wasn't able to give them lunch.

After they had gone, I spent the afternoon wrapping Christmas gifts and then ventured up into the loft to retrieve the christmas decorations, into the cupboard under the stairs for the Christmas tree, and put the two together.

I'm starting to feel a little festive!
I'd originally planned to go out this evening to a Carol Service (I'm not religious, but a carol service is a lovely part of Christmas) but it was so cold, and the road icy, and in the end I decided to stay inside in the wall, and watch a BBC4 documentary about Christmas Carols, instead.
(I also enjoyed a supper of Nathalie's Pumpkin & Almond Lasagna, which turned out beautifully. (I made mine with Butternut Squash, instead of pumpkin, and I have the other half of the Squash sauce in the freezer, so I shall be able to have it all over again, soon)
All in all, a most satisfactory weekend!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

In Which it is Cold

Yesterday was very cold. Unlike a lot of South East England, we had no snow, but it was cold enough, and my day busy enough that by the time I got home, I was not in any mood to go out again. Which was a shame, as it was our office Christmas party so I was due to go out almost immediately.

I had my normal panic about what to wear - it was far to cold for me to be willing to don tights and a dress - but once I arrived at the pub and had a pint of christmas ale in my hand, I did start to feel a little less stabby, although I was more than ready to leave when our taxi arrived at 11.

This morning started badly when, just after getting out of bed, I tripped over Tybalt and into the blanket box, bashing my shin with what felt like all the force in the world. It was (and still is) very hurty. And an hour later I managed to make a hole in the tip of my finger, on the handle to the window (Tybalt was involved in this one, too, as I was opening the window to let him out) I do feel that this required more skill than injuring my shin, as so far as I can see the window handle doesn't have any sharp or pointy bits on it, so I have no clue how I manged to damage myself on it.

I am naturally cack-handed and clumsy (more so at some times of the month than others) but this is worse than usual even for me. Hopefully three in row means I get to not damage myself anymore for a bit, now.

This afternoon we did have snow - not a lot, not enough gto settle, but some very large snowflakes, big and dry enough to see each individual 6 pointed star, which hardly ever seems to happen.

And in a little while, my firneds J&J will arrive for the night, and there will be much talking, and eating and drinking. (although with my track record, I'm not sure I should be allowed near sharp knives or open flames just now....

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

In Which There is a Day Off, and some Cooking

I found out last week that I had a day of holiday left from this year's entitlement, so I booked it for today.

I feel I have used it wisely.

There is, I think, very little which is more pleasurable than being able to lie in bed, and in the smug knowledge that all around you other people are having to get up and go out to work. Not, I hasten to add, that I stayed there all morning, but just an extra hour can sometimes make a lot of difference.

Most of the rest of the day was taken up with various jobs - I went and queued in the Post office to send Christmas gifts to friends and family members: It appears that the last posting date for posting 2nd class post in time for Christmas was yesterday, but I decided to risk it and send everything 2nd class anyway - none of the people I was sending stuff to are young enough to get upset if their Christmas presents are a day or two late, and anyway, I have a vast and touching faith in Royal Mail, and secretly believe that they will get there on time despite the late posting! We shall see.

I also did some shopping (mainly food) and some cooking - mostly the time-consuming stuff for the things I'm planning to cook at the weekend when my friends come to stay. Then I did a second lot of shopping to buy the things I forgot the first time, such as the camembert, which is destined to be studded with garlic, and baked into cheesy submission, and the lasagna dish, as I realised that the only dish I have is fine for making lasagna for one, but that I don't have a dish suitable for making lasagna. Just as well I realised today, and not, say, on saturday morning with a sheet of lasagna in one hand and a spoonful of sauce in the other...

And as it was, after all, my day off, I also found time to watch a little TV (A very old episode of StarTrek TNG, since you ask) and to have a lovely long hot bath accompanied by a murder mystery and and a nice cup of tea.

It didn't snow here, despite the weather forecast. It was however, cold. Tybalt managed to get into my bed, under the duvet (which he knows is not allowed, at least until he learns to wipe his feet first) twice - the second time despite my not only having made the bed, but also most unfairly having tucked the throw in all the way round to stop him... Of course, if he had been paying more attention, he might have noticed that as I was at home, I'd turned the heating on all day, so downstairs (where there are radiators) was much warmer than upstairs (where there are not).

Tomorrow I shall be back at work, and have the questionable pleasure of a meeting with Social Services to look forward to.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

In Which There is Housework

The last week seems to have gone on for a very long time, and I had deliberately made no plans for the weekend, so that I could veg out and do as close to nothing as possible. My plans involved a very long snoozy lie in with the papers, and perhaps a nice hot bath. . . .

The best laid plans....

I slept badly and woke up on saturday morning with a stiff neck & shoulder, which meant I did not, after all, lie in bed reading *sigh*. I did manage the bath, after which I ended up doing lots of house-work type stuff - I should really take Ms Fabulous's advice and find a cleaner, but no luck yet.

I did also go foraging for nettles, with a view to making a chestnut & nettle risotto next weekend, when my frinds J&J, who are vegetarian, will be visiting. I should be able to prepare the nettles and then freeze them, so that I don't have to spend too much time in preparation while they are actually here (My kitchen isn't big enough for social food preparation - it's barely big enough for solo cooking!)

I also did a bunch of cleaning, and re-arranged the furniture in my bedroom, which is something I have been meaning to do for ages but haven't got around to.

It all added up to quite a lot of work, but now I have a nice clean and tidy house, lots of clean laundry and I have now (sunday afternoon) also made and frozen a dessert to take down at Christmas.

I was also delighted to get a call from an old friend who will be in the area, and who is in the area and will be calling by later this afternoon, which is an unexpected pleasure.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

In Which There is Shopping (or not)

I've been doing a fair proportion of my Christmas shopping online. (no change there, I do a fair bit of my non-christmas shopping online, too) So far, virtually all has gone smoothly - the stuff from Etsy sellers arrived promptly, looking just like they did in the pictures, as did various books and so on.

Then we get to WHSmith. I had actually been to my local branch, but they didn't have the particular items I wanted. Nor did the independent stationery shop I normally buy from. Or Waterstones. So, I decided to order online instead. I mean, big retailer, should be fine...

In hindsight, this was my first mistake.

WHSmith's website didn't look terribly impressive, but as I already knew exactly what I wanted that didn't seem to much of a problem.

It was fun to discover that adding a second item to the basket automatically emptied it. As did hitting 'go to check out'

I probably should have given up at that point.

But I didn't. I tried again. This time, I got as far as the checkout. Filled in the details. Pressed 'submit'. And got an error message, apologising that my tranction had not gone through.

I definitely should have given up at that point.

I did. for a bit.

A day later, having failed to find an alternative supplier, I went back. Oh, I was careful. I double checked that the order hadn't gone through despite the message. No confirmation e-mail, nothing showing in orders.

So, I tried again. This time the order went through sucessfully. Confirmation e-mail arrived, all good.

[Pause for hollow laughing]

Next morning, I checked my credit card. And found that there were two, identical, payments. (Well actually there were 4, as bizarrely, each individual item had been separately charged)

So, my first call to Customer Services. Using Lorraine's patented Be Nice To Customer Services approach (which I have to say, is the route I'd go down anyway, in most cases) I got past person#1, who wanted me to accept that the only possible thing I could do was to wait until eveything was delivered, then send some of it back, and then they would give me a refund (but wouldn't refund the postage back) once they received the good.
Person#2 however, agreed that perhaps she could ring dispatch direct, and get them to manually take the ghost order out of the system, and also that she would in any event process the refund straight away, and would give me a freepost address if she couldn't stop the order going out. she even called me back, a few hours later, to say she had managed to stop one order, so I wouldn't need to send anything back.

"Excellent", I thought. All sorted.

As If.

Next morning I checked my credit card again. Partial refund. (remember the whole, each ite,m billed separately? Yup. Only one refunded. I even gave them the benefit of the doubt and waited 24 hours in case it was just a delay with the admin on the card.

So, 2nd call to Customer Services. After a little delay (because after all, just because I know the order number, billing and delivery address and the name of the last 2 people in customer services I spoke to is no proof I'm me....) I was given an apology and assurances that the rest of the refund would be made.
(of course, when I checked the credit card I found they had refunded the wrong amount, then clearly realised this and corrected it by separately refunding a further 76 pence to correct this, but as they managed to correct that one without me calling them it hardly counts as having made a mistake)

OK. So now it's all sorted.
On Monday, my order arrived. Well. Sort of. It seems they cancelled half of each of the two orders. And, just to put the cherry on the top, they sent two of the cheaper item so I'd been overcharged, too.

3rd call to customer services. Mangaged to get person#2 again. She was very apologetic, and promised to sort it out.

So, the current position is this.

I have sent back the unwanted duplicate (freepost)
She is reordering the correct one.
They are going, allegedly, to send me a gift card by way of apology (because, obviously, this experience has been so positive I'll be wanting to shop with them again...)

Given the stunning performance they have managed so far I am on tenterhooks waiting to find out what will actually show up with the 'corrected' order.

On a positive note, despite the truly abysmal performance when it comes to actually, y'know, delivering what I ordered, and charging me correctly, the lady in customer services couldn't be nicer in trying to sort things out. Still, I don't think I shall be using their website again any time soon.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

In Which There is Rain, and Seaside, and Rainbows (but no kittens)

My parents have just (last weekend) returned home having spent the past 7 weeks travelling around New Zealand, a trip which I should like to take some day, and I had arranged to go down to spend the weekend with them, and to welcome them back home.

It was a rainy afternoon as I drove down to Devon, and by the time I arrived, at around 5, it was dark, too. Living alone, I forget how nice it is to come 'home' to a warm, well lit house and have someone offer hugs and coffee!

The evening was spent catching up on conversation, hearing a little about their trip.
Saturday turned out to be intermittently very wet indeed, but having gone to see the sea we decided to go for a short walk despite the fact that it was raining by the time we got there (all of 10 miles from the house!)

We decided not to paddle, however.

After our short but bracing walk and some time spent in our families favourite method of socialisation (which involves everyone sitting in the same room, each absorbed in his or her own book) we cooperated to preduce a delicious meal of roast lamb with all it's tradional accompaniments, followed by a lemon layer pudding. Mmmmm.
This was followed by lots and lots of photos of New Zealand. Did I mention how much I would like to go there? As a nation, it appears to have more than it's fair share of scenery. (And sheep)

Glaciers and beautiful beaches, all within spitting distance of one another.

Sunday turned out to be an even wetter day, so we abandoned any thought of going for another walk.

Sadly, after lunch it was time for me to head back home. I very quickly found myself driving not through pouring rain as at their home, but through a surreal landscape with bright sunshine on one side, and black clouds and rain on the other. It was rainbows all the way! Even when I got stuck behind a large and slow-moving truck, the combination of surface water on the road and the sunlight meant there were rainbows in the tyre tracks.

The rainbows were some of the brightest I have ever seen. I stopped to take a few pictures - there was a glorious double rainbow as I came into Somerset - the inner bow exraordinarily vivid, and even the outer one as clear as most rainbows.
A little later, as I crossed the Levels, coming towards Glastonbury, there was a futher rainbow, and I spent a little time watching the flocks of starling wheeling across the sky.
The rivers and rhynes (drainage ditches) are all incredibly full - I imagine that the moors will flood in the next few weeks, unless it stops raining. Fortunately, the cattle are not generally grazed on the moors at this time of year.
It was, despite the weather, a lovely weekend.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

In Which Winter Arrives

I can't deny that, on this occasion, the whether had impeccable timing, bringing the first hard frost of the winter this morning, 1st December. It is on mornings such as this that I regret the fact my house has central heating only downstairs!

There was a lovely sunrise (and one good thing about this time of the year is that the sunrise comes at a relatively civilized hour of the morning!)
Then there was the less lovely scraping of frost off the car windscreen. Inside and out, as it turned out. Perhaps I should avoid breathing inside the car for the next few months?

Then off out for my drive to work. It was a pleasant change to not be going through pouring rain, and to be seeing blue skies and sunshine sparkling off the silver-grey grass, it was clear that the frost and ice were not confined to the the fields. There was black ice on the road, too. Particularly treacherous as the road had been gritted so mainly felt (and looked) safe.
As I came (thankfully slowly and carefully) around a corner it was to the sight of a car which had been driving in the opposite direction to me, spinning backwards into the hedge - I watched as it tipped up but, fortunately came back down the right way up, and the driver was only shaken, not hurt.

As we waited for her to extract her car from the hedge, and feel ready to drive on, a motor bike came (again, travelling in the opposite direction to me) - as he came level with the car in the hedge he also hit a patch of black ice. His rear wheel skidded and he and the bike went down. Fortunately he had already slowed down a good deal, presumably having seen the accident, so although he was clearly shaken and (I suspect) bruised, he was not seriously hurt and his bike wasn't badly damaged.
The rest of the journey was taken very carefully - and I passed another road-closure (police and all) which I suspect was also related to the weather, and a little later, the sight of another car in the hedge....
I arrived at work feeling very grateful that things weren't worse.
In more cheerful news, my parents are home now after spending the last 6 weeks in New Zealand, and I shall be spending the weekend with them (hopefully they will be more or less over their jet-lag by then)
I have also taken to heart Royal Mail's claim that the last posting date for Christmas, for stuff going outside Europe is this Friday (although I don't really believe it, and strongly suspect that I could post stuff for weeks and it'd still arrive in time) and have been writing cards for various non-european friends.

The frost was pretty, but I shall be quite happy if tomorrow is a little less wintery.