Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Alcoholic Christmas Muffins

Has anyone else noticed how much fun Christmas is for the children? They’re the ones getting stockings filled with treats, presents under the Christmas tree, and, if they live in Germany, daily mini-treats in their Advent calendars. Children get to decorate the gingerbread men, decorate and eat the Christmas cookies and in our house, they even get to decorate the tree. The grown-ups don’t get a look-in.

Here’s a German muffin recipe to console the grown-ups and bring them a little Christmas cheer. It contains amaretto and dark chocolate and is not for children, unless they have very sophisticated palates.

Amaretto and Chocolate Muffins:*

150g flour
100g ground almonds
2 tsps baking powder
1 pinch salt
2 tsps vanilla extract (or if you live in Germany, one packet vanilla sugar)
2 eggs
120g sugar
150g softened butter
2 tbsps amaretto (I doubled this)
60g dark chocolate shavings

Heat the oven to 180°c.
Prepare a muffin tray with 12 muffin cases.
Pour yourself a generous glass of red wine and commence sipping.
Sift the flour, baking powder, salt.
Have another large sip of red wine.
Beat the eggs with the vanilla extract, sugar and amaretto till it’s creamy.
Slowly beat in the softened butter.
Mix the wet and dry ingredients.
Taste, with bare finger.
Taste again, to ensure it’s adequately alcoholic. If not, add more amaretto.
Mix in the chocolate shavings.
Eat the leftover 40g of chocolate.
Fill each muffin case two-thirds full.
Bake in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes.
While you wait, eat any remaining muffin dough and sip your red wine. If necessary, pour yourself a second glass.
Remove the muffins from the oven. Allow to cool (about a minute will do) and then eat with your red wine.

I had one for breakfast this morning with coffee. I think I have a hangover.

* Apologies for the metric measures.


The Fashion Commandments

I am not a fashion victim or slave. Since I was bashed with the blogging mallet, I have almost completely given up my fashion magazine habit – unless I receive them as a gift, in which case, I hyperventilate with excitement. I now tend to get my fashion advice from two online newspapers – The Guardian/Observer and The Times – and those brilliant stylistas at Go Fug Yourself. With forty looming like an overly mascaraed false eyelash, I occasionally give some thought to my own style. Am I showing too much flesh, like a rosemary-scented Easter lamb, or is there a hint of tough-skinned old mutton about me? I recently read the following tips from The Times, which I thought would be important to share with those of you who care. Those of you who couldn’t give a lamb damn, then flick away fast to something less superficial.

Ten commandments, apparently, for mothers with daughters (and all women over 40):

1. Thou shalt resist Abercrombie & Fitch. It’s soft, it’s comfortable. It’s designed for teenagers.

Luckily this is not a problem for me. No A&F in my ‘hood. However there are large sections of H&M I have to avoid.

2. Thou shalt be seen only at the most casual events in hoodies.

Early morning walk? Talking the kids to kindergarten? Apres-ski? Methinks these are all suitable hoody occasions. Otherwise I leave the hood well alone. Of course, the hood on my green boiled wool winter coat doesn’t count here.

3. Thou shalt wear high-tech trainers only in the gym.

Well, what’s a high-tech trainer when it’s home. One that flashes? Or calculates your BMI? I do wear trainers – see above for when.

4. Thou shalt not show thy political awareness by wearing slogan T-shirts. Thou hast the vote. Use it.

I have voted, and I do forswear slogan T-shirts, but I wouldn’t mind a T-shirt that said “Mother. Blogger. Goddess”. That would be good.

5. Thou shalt wear jeans, but not the identical cut and brands as thy teenage daughter.

I do avoid teenage jeans, usually because I can’t get them over my knees. While my jeans do rest slightly below my navel, they also rest quite far above my coccyx, so that I keep my antler tattoo hidden from public view. Some things just have to be kept private.

6. Thou shalt not wear sparkly body powder even in jest. It settles in the wrinkles.

Sparkly body powder, no. Sparkly Dream Mousse Shimmer Porcelain Face Illuminator for special occasions, yes. I am a natural born princess.

7. Thou shalt not wear leggings. Period.

I have lived through two leggings fashion eras. This is not mine. I leave the leggings to the twiglets. Chicken drumstick legs are only for boot-cut pants. Period.

8. Thou shalt not suddenly decide to be edgy, although if one has always been an eccentric dresser, carry on as normal.

Disagree! While I am not edgy, I am cutting-edge for my town (I wear lipstick! and mascara! to kindergarten! with jewellery!) I refuse to stop entertaining the crowds.

9. Thou shalt never do mixy-matchy or themed outfits with one’s daughters.

Absolutely. Too, too tacky.

10. Thou shalt treat thyself to expensive classics. And lock them away.

I’m not good at tailored. Tailored, expensive classics make me feel like an over-upholstered sofa, all puffed-up and full of self-importance. However I have made two investment purchases this year – a beautiful pair of brown leather boots and my Party Dress. Worn together, they are very slightly edgy.

Do any of these rules speak to you? Or do I drop The Times of London as my fashion bible and head elsewhere for tips?


From the Heart

Back in the days when I wore suits, was known to give a presentation or write a report, and even enjoyed some business class travel, I was deeply, thoroughly, scathingly mocking of women who stayed at home and made stuff. To me, crafting and baking and – God forbid – knitting were tragic signs of averageness, for why make something when you can buy something shinier and prettier, why bake something when you can buy something tastier and why knit, period. To me, hand and homemade objects were sad and tatty versions of the lovely objects found in the temples of joy known as The Shops, and spending time making them was wasting hours that could be spent in restaurants, watching films or reading books.

Perhaps it was a partial rejection of where I was from, for most of the women of my family were practioners of genteel arts. My British grandmother was a milliner in Thirties London until she met her dashing young South African lawyer and, on the eve of the war, left her flourishing business to raise children and dogs in humid Pietermaritzburg. While she made herself the odd hat, for the races or for a wedding, she channelled her creativity into sewing, embroidery and cooking. She made entire wardrobes of dolls’ clothes for me and my cousins. My maternal grandmother was a talented seamstress, but a truly wonderful watercolourist. My mother’s home is filled with her beautiful paintings. As children, we would arrive in her home and the painting things would all be set up on the floor ready for us to splatter our artistic energy everywhere. All the women of my family were painters, embroiderers, bakers.

Somehow, though, when I was in my twenties, that was something to mock. I was too busy fighting racism, sexism and the over-arching patriarchy to waste my time with twee handicrafts that were too redolent of the Women’s Institute and getting third prize for the marmelade. There were bigger things to grapple with. Once I started working, I was too busy dealing with temperamental bosses and sleeping off the stress at weekends to do anything creative. When we moved to Germany to work, I made one friend who, puzzlingly, quilted and another who sewed herself clothes. While shopping with the latter (who went on to sew her own beautiful wedding-dress) in London one weekend, we ended up on the fourth floor of Liberty’s and, without knowing how or why, I found myself buying an embroidery kit. Perhaps Liberty’s reminded me of my English granny, who always kept her latest creative project in one of their lovely dark blue shopping bags, or maybe I was connecting to the young, glamorous milliner who had once had London at her feet, but there I was, fighter of the patriarchy, buying some violets to embroider.

Clumsily, lovingly, over many months, I turned those violets into a cushion and, when I next visited South Africa, presented it to my mother, who has a room decorated with pictures of violets and violet-decorated porcelain. She was so stunned she had to sit down, and I think I cried. There was something in that gift that said not only I love you, but I love your love of beauty, and I love the traditions of our family. I think it said fighting the patriarchy and having a great career on another continent is all very well, but my family and where I come from is also important to me.

And now that I am a mother, and have a family of my own, I’m starting to look at handicrafts and the skills that women pass to each other through the generations with new eyes. For me, there’s something about connecting with the women of my family who cooked, baked and sewed for me. There’s something about love, about beauty, about thriftiness and about the pure joy of making something good, whether it’s a pretty muffin or a scarf. I’m finding new levels of friendship with friends who’ve crafted and made things far longer – and far better – than me. While staying at home with my children is my choice, making something for them is my outlet for that energy that I used to give to my career or fighting the patriarchy.

People who’ve known me for a long time are still stunned that I might bake a cake. My husband is terrified that I might start sewing for him, and rightly so, because I’ve knitted everyone in the family a scarf and he’s up next. I expect my produce to be eaten or worn, and he may have to complement his chic working gear with a ratty homemade scarf, but he can always take it off in the car. My mother-in-law almost fainted when I made her a birthday cake last year. My girlfriends in South Africa, who may or may not be reading this, will laugh hysterically at my paean to handicrafts. As I fire up the knitting needles, I do enjoy a postmodernist cackle on my own behalf, because a little bit of irony goes a long way during a not-so-desperate housewife’s day.

However, between finishing one scarf and starting the next, I had the pleasure of teaching Lily to knit. Despite being left-handed, she picked it up quickly and made a scarf for one of Daisy’s dolls. There it was: her satisfaction in learning well and fast, in making something lovely, in giving it away for someone else’s pleasure. And I had taught her a skill that my mother taught me, from the heart. It felt good.


Housekeeping in the Name of Beauty

I see from a recent Dooce post that she has been springcleaning. (And I feel sorry for her, so I’m giving her some link love – she really needs it.) There has been some springcleaning going on chez Otter as well. We have disrobed the Christmas tree, prior to putting it out on the street where, for a small donation, a charity will collect it and give it a humane ending. All the Christmas decorations have been packed away in the cellar. This has inspired other housekeeping action: a severe edit of the children’s art table (I threw out two black bags full of outdated artwork), finally turning Lily’s bedroom from a room with a bed to a stunningly pretty (even if I say so myself) little girl’s room, and some tidying action on the other childrens’ bedroom.

I’m finding the newly edited spaces rather beautiful. I don’t have any real resolutions this year (except to bake bread and write more, you know, just little things), but instead have made a theme for the year. My theme is beauty. I want my eye to light on it and my heart to be warmed by it. If I have to purchase something, it must be beautiful and more importantly, be beautiful to me. For many years, I have subscribed to other people’s asethetics and I’m finally feeling grown-up enough to champion my own. From a style point of view, I think that if you love something it will work in your home. I don’t like homes that look like show houses, or as if they have been lifted straight from a decorating shop. I like houses that are lived in, friendly and welcoming, and that work for the people who live in them. So I have no style, per se, but I do have a house full of things inherited and new, and all there because I love them. If there is anything here that I don’t love or find beautiful, be sure it will move on this year.

There are still spaces that need attention – a nasty little corner in the kitchen where I file pile all the papers we should be dealing with, along with notes from the kids’ teachers, bank statements and bills, and of course THE WHOLE CELLAR. Whether we get to that or not is not yet knowable. We hope, we plan, we intend to, but it’s so large and so horrible (my mother-in-law refers to it as The Dungeon), that we may just sweep it under the carpet and not let anyone go down there in case they get lost and are only found months later having survived on dust bunnies and mouldy rainwater.

Moving on swiftly, I am busy doing some housekeeping here at Charlotte’s Web. I’ve given myself a new tagline, more in keeping with the book that inspired the name of this blog. I’ve created a reading list, more for my own purposes than anyone else’s, to keep track of what I read this year. I’ve also subscribed to Bloglines and moved my entire blogroll there. I’m already finding it amazingly useful for keeping track of what’s new, instead of clicking through my blogroll here, as I used to do in Luddite-style, to see if there are new posts. I will keep the blogroll though, but only for people who write regularly and with whom I’ve developed some kind of commenting relationship. So if you haven’t posted for two months, and don’t find yourself here, I’ve haven’t thrown you out in a fit of tidiness but moved you to my Bloglines list. Or if I read you, but we have no commenting going on (I just don’t know why Dooce doesn’t read Charlotte’s Web), I’ve moved you over.

I also would like to achieve beauty here at Charlotte’s Web. You may find I’ll be experimenting with a new look over the coming weeks. I think I’m ready for something lighter and brighter. Some colour in these grey winter days.

In a brief fit of ego-surfing, I checked on Bloglines to see how many subscribers I have (15) and how many Dooce has (4,009). Sigh. Only 3,992 subscribers to go till I’m a grown-up blogger. But I’m going to be a beautiful one, damnit.


Charlotte’s Best of 2006

As a stay-at-home English-speaking mother-of-three who lives in Germany, I don’t go to cocktail parties, screenings, openings, launches. I very seldom go to concerts, exhibitions or movies. The books I read are found objects; from my book club, happy accidents in German bookshops, presents my husband buys me in the airport. I don’t know are what the latest hip happening restaurants, clubs or bars are. I’ve almost completely stopped buying fashion magazines, so my fashion sense is honed by what I occasionally see in H&M or Zara.

I am in no way qualified to offer a round-up of the zeitgeist 2006. Instead, I give you Charlotte’s Best of 2006:

Best Taste Sensation (Outside the Home)

Lavender ice-cream at Norfolk Lavender. It looked … lavender, and tasted … lavender. A heavenly experience.

Best Taste Sensation (Inside the Home)

Yesterday’s pomegranate pavlova. And the champagne cocktails we made in summer, with elderflower syrup, strawberries and mint.

Best (and Most Fruitful) Shopping Trip

A trip to the factory shops at Stoke-on-Trent with my friend T. I bought an exquisite blue and white cake stand from Portmerion, decorated with flowers and butterflies. I found beautiful blue and white dinner plates at Spode. And at Burleigh’s wonderful red-brick Victorian warehouse, I found smaller plates and bowls in various designs. I now eat off a wildly mixed and matched variety of blue and white crockery. It makes me happy, every single day.

Best Album With Adult Content

Without a doubt, Lily Allen’s Alright, Still. Her lyrics are darkly bitter while the sound is sweet, upbeat, with hints of reggae. It’s British pop at its very best. I’ve only seen her videos on YouTube, webwaif that I am, but I like her style too – she wears ballgowns with trainers and big chavvy earrings. It’s very Charlotte circa 1991 – I was into dresses, with trainers, and tacky jewellery. Her lyrics are explicit, so I can’t listen to it in front of the children. Instead, I like to play it loudly when I’m alone in the car (that in itself is a good feeling) and sing along and pretend I’m 21 again.

Best Album for Singing With Children

Surfer dude Jack Johnson’s soundtrack to the Curious George movie. It’s buzzy and fun, and filled with good messages – share, be kind, recycle. It has a lovely lullaby. We like it a lot. My daughter says he has a “kind voice”.

Best Album for Dancing With Children

Putumayo Kids’ African Playground for its great African rhythms. We put it on when we’re feeling a little crabby or we’re not getting what we want or someone is making us cry (and that would just be me), and it’s an immediate mood enhancer. The children are developing some great “moves” – sometimes accusing each other of “stealing my moves” – and Ollie’s got some real African knee-action going to this one.

Best Re-Read That Turned Out To Be a First Read

Apparently, in my third year of English Literature at the University of Cape Town, we studied Middlemarch. I remember attending some of the lectures, and may possibly have answered an exam question on it. I decided to reread it this year – completely delightful and to my surprise, accessible – but I couldn’t remember a word from supposedly having read it in 1989.

Best Surprise English Find in a German Bookshop

Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness. Reviewed here.

Best Novel Written by a Poet

Finuala Dowling’s What Poets Need. Reviewed here.

Best Film

Die Fetten Jahren Sind Vorbei (in English, The Edukators). This was released in 2004, but I saw it, thanks to’s DVD hire service, this year. It’s a great story: Jan and Peter, two young Berlin anarchists, break into rich people’s houses at night, rearrange their furniture (often to great effect), steal nothing but leave behind messages designed to disconcert the home owners. One night they botch a break-in and end up kidnapping someone. They find themselves on the run, with their abductee and Jan’s girlfriend Jule, with whom Peter is falling in love. As they hide out in a cottage in the mountains, they begin to feel compassion for their victim, the millionaire Hardenberg, and the debate begins – between the idealistic three who long for the passion and anarchy of 1968 and Hardenberg who has become staid and conservative since gathering his millions. It’s a thriller that isn’t, which is often my favourite kind, because it takes you right to the edge where you expect scary stuff to happen, and then it surprises you by doing an about-turn. There’s a bit of wobbly hand-held camera action to lend authenticity and some great acting, especially from Daniel Bruehl (star of Goodbye, Lenin) and Julia Jentsch (of Sophie Scholl fame).

Best Dieting Tip

Thanks to BlogLily, I discovered the Shangri-La Method, which has kept me trim since July. See my post here. I now need to reapply the method in order to recover from birthday and Christmas excess.

Best Style Purchase

A black wrap dress with white polka dots from H&M. It cost all of €15, and I have worn it once a week all year – in summer with flipflops, in winter with a long-sleeve T-shirt underneath and knee-high boots. In honour of Christmas, I glammed it up further with fake pearls. It’s very forgiving when one is carrying a little winterspeck and also very flattering over trousers. Wrap dresses rule.

Best Beauty Mantra

Yesterday’s mascara is today’s eyeliner.

Best Life Mantra

If you speak and act with integrity, you need not take responsibility for the reactions of others. The best decisions are the intuitive ones. Make time to be quiet and go within. Oh, and don’t forget to get up and feed the children.


Writing About Nature

I love nature. And I would love to write about it really, really well. However, having grown up an urban girl I haven’t had that much exposure. I think to write about it superbly, one needs to have been enveloped in it, to have grown up on a farm or in the mountains, and to have had constant, daily contact with the planet, to know how it flowers, and to love the animals that walk upon it. One blogger who writes beautifully about nature is Healing Magic Hands. It was this post that turned me into a fan of hers.

I’ve been trying to think of writers who write well about nature. Gerald Durrell springs to mind for his evocation of the flora and fauna of Corfu in My Family and Other Animals. I also think of James Herriot for his hilarious animal world, Barbara Kingsolver for the bounteous plant life of The Prodigal Summer and Wordsworth for his visions of the holy in nature. I welcome other suggestions.

As a child, my main contact with the wild was the odd safari, which is a very elegant and colonial name for what were just holidays in the game reserve. I adored them. The sensible time for a game reserve holiday is in winter, when the trees don’t have much foliage (so you can see further into the bush) and the animals are forced to go to certain waterholes to drink (where you can see them). For me, the best thing about a game reserve holiday is that you follow the rhythm of the bush: wake early, nap in the midday heat, be busy in the late afternoon and evening, and go to sleep as darkness falls. A jaded city body takes on the rhythm mesmerisingly fast, it is as if it’s how we were meant to live.

So you wake with the dawn, have a quick cup of tea or coffee to warm up, and head into the icy morning to see what you can find. As the sun rises, so do the animals: snuffling warthogs running in rows with their ridiculous tails straight up in the air, unsurprised giraffe watching you stoically from above an acacia tree and skittish zebra flicking their manes and dancing off the road as your car approaches. We once had the incredible luck of watching a family of wild dog waken as the sun warmed their den: first mother, then four or five young. They gambolled for the joy of morning.

After a few hours of game-watching, your stomach directs you home for breakfast. This is always a huge and hearty affair: porridge, eggs and bacon, toast, cereal, fruit. Then, since the animals go quiet in the late morning, so do you. You read, nap, play board games or cards, bird-watch. If you’re extremely lucky, you might get to do some game-watching from your chair: a few vervet monkeys cavorting in the trees, some impala wandering casually into camp, zebra chewing the cud. Some people may need a lunchtime snack, others not. Some grown-ups might have a beer or two, others not. Later, you head out for an afternoon drive.

One afternoon, we were driving through a densely forested riverine valley. As we rounded a corner, we found ourselves in amongst a herd of elephant. Because of the trees, it was hard to tell how many there were, but it could have been up to forty. We immediately stopped the car, held our collective breaths and watched. We were slightly nervous, because elephant can be temperamental; they have been known to charge cars and even crush them. However, this afternoon, they were in a peaceable mood and having a wonderful snack of trees. It’s breath-taking watching an elephant eat: they seem to wrap themselves around entire branches, folding these into their bodies as easily as if they were wafers. We saw elephant babies, clustering around their mothers for safety but occasionally venturing forth alone to feast upon a smaller tree. I don’t know how long we sat there. We were transfixed. Then, with some imperceptible signal, they all turned and melted into the forest. One second we were amongst a herd, the next, they were gone.

An afternoon game drive can bring you upon a herd of buffalo, deceptively cow-like but extremely vicious. If you’re lucky, and in the right park, you could see rhino. Here you also hold your breath and count the exits – they are bad-tempered and can run surprisingly fast. Exceptional luck will bring you a cat: lion, leopard or cheetah. I have an uncle with an odd sense of humour, and once when we were out on a drive with him, he spotted a male lion. I couldn’t see the lion, so to get him closer to the car, Chris rolled down the window, leaned one elbow out and gave a loud and insulting imitation of a lion’s mating call. To the lion, this meant his territory was being invaded, so he roared and charged our car. I screamed and ducked under the seat. It was a mock charge, intended only to scare, and it had succeeded. I didn’t see that lion, but his roar reverberated in my head for days. We drove off with Chris being roundly scolded by the other adults in the car.

You return to camp, where the braai gets fired up and starving from the afternoon’s endeavours, you eat boerewors sausages, steaks, baked potatoes, salad. The adults drink beer and red wine, the children Coke. Everyone falls into bed early, exhausted.

At certain reserves, you can go on night drives. Sometimes these will be in a large open Landrover, accompanied by a guard (with a gun), or if you’re in a private reserve, you might drive yourselves out. Night in the bush is very cold, so on top of the anoraks and woolly hats, you have blankets to keep you cosy. At night, you will see hyena, which are menacing and scary, perhaps lion, leopard, bushbabies, various night birds. Or you can drive for three hours, see nothing and return cold and disappointed. You take a chance.

I look forward to the time when my children are older and I can offer them this experience. The bush is my dream holiday; timelessly relaxing, dreamy and peaceful. It can also be pretty exciting, but those charging lion or rhino stories will fuel many a future dinner-party. To smell, feel, hear and see the wildness of our planet is an experience worth a thousand Disneylands.