Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Welcome to the Tea Party

I’ve decided that if I don’t crack it as a novelist, I’m going to offer my services as a professional tea party organiser. I love it all: the baking of delicious goodies, choosing and arranging flowers, sourcing decorations, using objects I already own to prettify the room and table. It’s a silly lot of fluff really, but a ridiculous amount of fun. The Headmistress of the young ladies’ college I once attended would have been proud that I am finally putting my skills to good use. (I actually considered creating a category called “Entertaining” to describe this post, but managed to restrain myself for fear of sounding too much like a Fifties housewife.)

So this weekend, I hosted a baby shower for a friend who happens to be having a baby boy. I once attended a baby shower where the mother-to-be had to “apple-dip” for a chocolate bar floating in a child’s potty full of orange juice while her arms were tied behind her back. With that horror in mind, I did some research as to the kinds of things people do at baby showers, and these were three suggestions that cropped up:

* Squash different kinds of chocolate bars into disposable nappies and then pass around the room for people to sniff and guess which nappy holds which chocolate bar. The winner is the one with the most correct answers.

* Each person gets a jar of baby food and a plastic spoon. The winner is the person who can eat their jar the fastest.

* Divide into two teams and equip each team with a roll of loo paper. See which team can construct a nappy on one lucky individual without using glue, tape or pins.

Having digested these, I decided a tea party was in order. Something dignified, pleasant, with good things to eat, champagne for those who could, punch for those who couldn’t, lots of tea and coffee. No apple dipping or chocolate bars in sight.

Instead, there was bunting:

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I am hysterical about bunting. I love it. I was quite sad when after a few days my family requested that I took the bunting down because it was “embarrassing”. I looked on Etsy and there are a few people making bunting, but there’s a big gap in the market for lots more of it. I would prefer to use it for children’s parties than the plastic rubbish I buy at the supermarket and then throw away after three hours.

Want a close-up? Here it is again:

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There was cake:

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Victoria sponge with lemon curd

Lots of it:

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Lemon cake

My personal favourite, carrot cake muffins with marscapone icing:

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Rose-scented macaroons:

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And champagne:

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There were also some savoury snacks brought by friends, because I like to focus on the sugar. However, when I have my fantasy tea-party company, there will also be cucumber sandwiches and very fine slices of rare roast beef.

Need any catering done?


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Just Call Me Martha

Should you cook brown rice, carrots, broccoli and chicken breast in a lemon and honey glaze for lunch,

And should your children be sick with ear infections, strep throats and a “big auwa in my toof”,

And should they be – for reasons known only to themselves – unable to eat the meal you have prepared for them,

And should this irritate you because the food is bloody delicious,

(You know because you ate it),

Yet you don’t want to eat it all yourself,

And you really, really don’t want to throw it away,

Then slice and dice and julienne it all down to within an inch of its former size,

Douse it with soya sauce,

Stir-fry it in sesame oil,

Serve it in a blue and white bowls with chopsticks,

And call it “Chinese Supper”.

There. That’s all I’m going to say about that.


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39 Things I Have Learnt

Next week, I will be 39. I am thrilled about 39. Really, I am. I’m convinced that my fortieth year is going to be the most exciting year of my life. I feel it in my bones. I sense adventure, success and happiness and I’m embracing it all with joy.

To celebrate my birthday, here are 39 Things I Have Learnt:

1. If you don’t have the time or inclination to polish your boots with polish and a brush, a baby wipe will do just as well.

2. Cooking, if you have time and sufficient inclination, is not drudgery. It is relaxing, calming, recuperative, creative and feeds people.

3. We all breathe too shallowly.

4. Walking is better for our bodies than jogging, but swimming is best.

5. The only way to keep weight in check is to balance input and output. Eating fewer carbs helps too.

6. We can’t all be famous, but if we blog, we can pretend we are.

7. Writing every day leads to writing every day.

8. There is no such thing as “finding your other half” or “being completed” by someone else – the only way to have a successful relationship is to be a whole person already.

9. Living for your family, while satisfying at the time, can be pointless if you carry on doing it after they have left home.

10. Even very old people want to have sex.

11. Empathy is more useful to another person than sympathy.

12. No one person can be “everything” to another person. We get what we need piecemeal from all the people around us.

13. Love is all around, actually.

14. Children need time and laughter from their parents far more than they need expensive stuff and trips to fun-fairs.

15. Women should stop judging each other’s choices and stand up for each other – if someone’s anti-fashion or obsessed with her looks or works or stays home with her kids or breast-feeds or bottle-feeds or eats local or eats vegetables from Kenya, you don’t have to be her friend but don’t judge her.

16. We can’t protect our children from every little hurt or wound, but we can provide a safe place for them to come home to and talk about it.

17. I am scared of global warning and the aftermath of AIDS, but I am angry about patriarchy.

18. I don’t think any woman anywhere will be truly free until no woman is raped, abused, forced to wear clothing to hide her body from the gaze of men, prevented from getting educated or expected to carry out all the home and child-care in exchange for men’s benevolence.

19. Getting out of bed to care for the children when you’d rather lounge there, eating chocolates, filing your nails and watching Friends reruns hurts, but is also rewarding.

20. Speaking your truth is brave.

21. When you do speak your truth – without the intention to wound or hurt – you are not responsible for the reaction of others.

22. Fear is a bad philosophy of life.

23. Children get far more joy out of paper, glue, scissors and paint than they do out of big shiny plastic things from the toy-shop.

24. Being passive-aggressive is abusing the truth.

25. Whether you’re a man or a woman, earning a salary is only a small part of your responsibilities.

26. Whoever earns the most money does not own the remote control.

27. Partners who ask “What can I do to help you?” are very, very sexy.

28. What goes around, comes around.

29. A half-finished household task makes a job for someone else. Always complete.

30. We don’t have “one chance to accept God into our lives”. God, or the divine, is already there – whether we like it or not and whether we believe or not. And if you don’t believe me, climb a mountain, listen to music or hear a baby’s gurgling laughter.

31. Gossip hurts both the gossiper and the gossipee.

32. Using children as a weapon is low.

31. Having good friends, even if it’s just one or two, is essential to a happy life.

32. People who use others as audience, or mirrors in which to view their own reflections, are bores and best avoided.

33. It’s better to have a warm and friendly home than a perfect one.

34. Money, while great to have, is not the be-all and end-all. Love is.

35. Shopping destroys, in more ways than one. It’s soulless, bad for the planet, addictive, pointless and far too much fun for its own good.

36. Those who abuse apostrophes should apologise.

37. People who have benefitted from an iniquitous system – Apartheid, patriarchy, national socialism – should find a way to give back.

38. There is no such thing as too many books.

39. The only way forward is with love, and a sense of humour.

(I pinched this idea from the lovely Sognatrice of Bleeding Espresso, who recently turned 31.)


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Italy Unplugged

(Written sometime in August …)

I’m writing this post on paper with the plan to transcribe it when I get home in – oh – a few days’ time. I’m not missing my computer or being permanently plugged in to the information tsunami, but I do miss the regular writing.

We are staying in a lovely campsite on the Italian coast, above Rome and below Pisa. The weather is mild – warm enough for beach and pool but not hot enough to require the air conditioning in our mobile home. It’s dry and dusty here – testament to the heatwave we have missed – but the campsite is situated in a lovely forest of parasol pines with tall trunks and gracious canopies that provide shade.

One of the many joys of being in Italy is the food. Why does everything taste better here? A salad of beautiful Tuscan tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella anointed in olive oil tastes like heaven, whereas in Germany it tastes like it’s trying too hard. We’ve enjoyed fine slices of Parma ham, chilled sweet melon, olives with a bite of chilli, olive paste on grissini, baby yellow tomatoes, succulent grapes the size of plums, spicy Tuscan sausages, calamari and daily doses of creamy icecream. Make mine a pistachio.

This part of Italy – Livorno – is supposed to be one of the centres of the Slow Food movement. I don’t have Google so I can’t check that for you, but it certainly feels that way. Aptly enough, while enjoying very slow food, I am also reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a wonderful book detailing her family’s attempt to spend a year eating both seasonally and locally. She defines local as within a 70 mile radius, but in the end the family grow and harvest most of their own food – even chickens and turkeys.

In the West, we have grown so distant from the source of our food, that just to witness Kingsolver’s attempt feels like watching a miracle. Not that I imagine for a second that I could “harvest” my own chicken or remember to water the vegetables that would feed my family for a year, but the work they do in conscious eating is inspiring.

Kingsolver is knowledgeable about the state of the protein production line and it does not make for easy reading, but it does make me want to never buy any factory farmed meat again. She is voiciferous on how farming corporations have undermined American farmers, forcing them to grow single crops in order to stay solvent. She decries non-seasonal eating, saying that food flown from China or other far-off lands merely to satisfy appetites costs not only the environment in terms of fossil fuels but also our bodies, because by the time it reaches our plates it is no longer nutrient-dense. She talks openly about how obesity is a function of capitalism:

No cashier ever held a gun to our heads and made us supersize it, true enough. But humans have an inbuilt weakness for fats and sugar. We evolved in lean environments where it was a big plus for survival to gorge on calorie-dense foods whenever we found them. Whether or not they understand the biology, food marketers know the weakness and have exploited it without mercy. Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve, with no acknowledgment of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme. People actually did sit in strategy meetings discussing ways to get all those surplus calories into people who neither needed nor wished to consume them.

She makes an interesting point about the gap left in kitchens when women went out to work, and how corporations happily filled that gap with non-nutritious, calorific ready-meals. These full-time jobs that women now gladly have are:

… organized around the presumption that some wifely person is at home picking up the slack – filling the gap between school and workday’s end, doing errands only possible during business hours, meeting the expectation that we are hungry when we get home – but in fact June Cleaver has left the premises. Her income was needed to cover the mortgage and health insurance … Eating preprocessed or fast food can look like salvation in the short run, until we start losing what real mealtimes give to a family: civility, economy, and health.

Kingsolver says cooking is the great divide between good eating and bad. But the pressure to find the time to select (or as she does, grow) ingredients, plan a meal, cook it with joy and not under stress, and then eat it in a civilised and peaceable way with your family is great. I feel that pressure on a daily basis, and I do malign myself when I slap down another meal of fish fingers and peas in front of my sweetly uncomplaining children. However, what her book is doing for me is making me feel more committed to making better food choices for my family when I get home and continuing the journey of more conscious eating. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in doing either or both, or who would like to witness one family’s bold attempt to go against the grain. There are also some great recipes, which I am going to try out. I may not actually make my own cheese, though.

Now where’s the buffalo mozzarella? I’m feeling peckish.


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Eight Food Things

There’s a lovely food blogger in Seattle, called Tea, who writes the Tea & Cookies blog. She’s done a food meme, which I’m stealing, since I’m obviously not done with making people hungry and wanting to come and live with me. Those of you who’ve requested adoption might look to Tea, who is a seriously foodie food person. Compared to her, I’m an amateur, a dabbler, a mere hobbyist.

Eight Food Things:

What are your favourite foods?

Green asparagus. We recently discovered (thanks to Loren) that this can be grilled on the braai. A revelation! A quick weekday supper, now that we have our electric grill, is a steak each and a pound of green asparagus braaied to perfection. In Baden, where we live, the white asparagus is a kind of white gold, but in comparison to the green, I find it flabby and tasteless. Plus, it requires peeling which is a horrid bore. I’m a green Spargel gal.

Soft fruits – raspberries, blueberries, strawberries. I’m eating them by the punnet at the moment.

Avocado, preferably squashed onto nutty brown bread with tons of salt and pepper. Apologies Herschelian, I know you loathe it.

What foods do you hate?

Offal in any shape or form – please no kidneys, livers, hearts or tongues. Don’t do ’em. The only possible exception is chicken liver pate, but only in very small doses.

The mere thought of eel makes me gag. That scary combination of two legless beasts – snake and fish – is too much for me. I’d rather eat grass.

Slimy, pink, overprocessed meats. As my children say, bah!

Foods you like but are embarrassed to admit:

Salty popcorn. There’s tons of it in The Post-Birthday World and it made me salivate. When I was a student, a friend and housemate introduced me to her family tradition of emptying a packet of Smarties into a cinema bucket of salty popcorn. I was immediately hooked on the combination of salt, sugar and chocolate. I won’t countenance sweet popcorn though.

Treats of my childhood: orange chips called Niknaks, Peppermint Crisps, Zoo Biscuits and marshmallow fish. These are things I always buy when I’m in South Africa.

Salami sticks. Mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Strangest food you’ve eaten and enjoyed?

Warthog and crocodile. Warthog is like pork but better, and crocodile tastes like chicken.

Cooking failures that still rankle?

Nigel Slater’s Demerara Lemon Cake from his Kitchen Diaries. I made it recently in an attempt to move away from the Lemon Drizzle Cake, and it was an abject failure. The syrupy lemon slices that were meant to brown delightfully on top the cake sunk into the middle and the mixture near them remained raw. The whole lot had to be consigned to the bin.

The first meal I ever cooked for my husband, long before he was the husband. I called it Pasta Arrabiata, but it was really just pasta, tomato sauce and whole green olives. Very yucky. Bravely, risking never seeing me again, he told me he couldn’t eat it. I admitted I couldn’t either. We had toast instead.

Ingredients you don’t want to consider living without?

Lemons, olive oil, lemons, limes, lemons, flat-leaf parsley, lemons, chocolate, lemons, basil, lemons, cinnamon, rosemary and lemons.

Cuisine you’d like to know more about?

Moroccan, Iranian and Egyptian. I need to use up my stock of rosewater.

Foods you’ve hated but have grown to love?

Peas! I used to swallow them down with water as a child, or gather them in my mouth and later spit them in the loo. Now I love the little darlings.

Tomatoes – South African tomatoes are watery and floury compared to the firm, juicy, sweet European varieties. Barely a day passes without me eating a tomato.

Underdone beef and lamb used to make me shiver with horror, but now after 15 years of hanging around with my husband’s family I have grown used to pink juices. Especially good with tons of mustard.

Current kitchen conundrum?

Space. My three kids really want to help in the kitchen, and I really want to encourage them, but the kitchen is so small that I feel claustrophobic when one other person is in there with me. One day I will have an enormous kitchen with a farm table, lovely chairs, a sofa, a huge workspace and bookshelves.

If this grabs you, consider yourself tagged!


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Cream the Butter and Sugar

These are my five favourite words in the English language (apart perhaps from “let me take the children” or “you go and lie down”). All my favourite recipes start with these words. I love the action of putting sugar and room temperature butter into a mixing bowl and taking a fork to them. I could use my mixer, but there is something inexplicably satisfying in doing it myself. My kids are getting pretty good at the action too, which does remove some of the fun for me, because then I have to do something dull like sieve the flour or line the tin. I want to be creaming the butter and sugar, kids. You do the boring bits.

I had a bake-a-thon this weekend. First of all, it was raining on Friday and there was a gang of hungry children rattling around the house. I love baking on a Friday; filling the house with good smells before the weekend starts. I made Bindi’s Tangy Yogurt and Oatmeal Muffins. This recipe does not involve any creaming of butter and sugar, but they are so good and packed with such wholesome ingredients that they have the same psychological effect. I love watching the children eat them and all the while I’m thinking “you’re eating oatmeal, oatmeal and plain white yogurt, and you don’t even know it”. It gives good smug. Bindi suggests putting banana in them. On Friday I did plain chocolate chips.

Then on Saturday we were invited to a very South African event – a braai and a rugby match on TV. I was asked to bring a salad but because my salad recipe did not start with my favourite words, I also spontaneously made a batch of shortbread to take, which we ate with fresh strawberries. Shortbread contains no yogurt and no oatmeal, but it does contain a ton of butter, which you cream along with a ton of sugar. I used the recipe from Cook with Jamie, which he describes as the “best shortbread in the world”. Jamie recommends using some lemon or orange zest for extra zing, but I scraped out a vanilla pod instead and made vanilla shortbread. It was delicious.

Today we were also invited out for lunch and I promised to bring dessert, because I knew that would mean I could cream the butter and sugar again. This time I had some “help” and we made our family’s favourite cake – V’s Lemon Tea Loaf. Although V is American, this is actually a British lemon drizzle cake, but a superior version thereof. When the cake is hot from the oven, you spear holes in it with a piece of dried spaghetti (I love that part too) and then pour over a sticky syrup of lemon juice and water. When you eat it, it’s moist, sticky, soft and delicious. We had it with fresh raspberries and cream. I felt both were extraneous. The cake speaks for itself. It requires no back-up.

Having been deprived of creaming the butter and sugar by my kitchen assistants (who sweetly offered to wash up afterwards), I took the chance while they were out of the kitchen to make some biscuits from How to be a Domestic Goddess. There was absolutely no need to take anything more along to our lunch, but because the helpers had deprived me of my chance to cream the butter and sugar, I was forced to get my fix. I chose what she calls “Granny Boyd’s Biscuits”, which contain all of four ingredients – butter, sugar, flour and cocoa. I was able to quietly and meditatively cream the butter and sugar all alone in my kitchen. The biscuits turned out well. As Nigella says, they are dark and smoky and would go nicely with vanilla ice-cream.

So. All that sugar making you feel sick yet? Me too. Let me leave you on a lighter note, with the salad I took to the braai. It’s one I’ve been looking at for a while in Nigella’s Forever Summer and I at last got to make it. The main salad ingredients are feta and watermelon, which you chop into large chunks. You slice a red onion very finely and let it seep in lime juice. Then you pour the onion and its juices over the feta and watermelon, adding chopped fresh mint, flat leaf parsley leaves (not chopped), black olives and some olive oil. It’s scarily delicious and looks beautiful. Eating it on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a winter rugby scene on the TV and wet German hills outside made me think of Greece. I believe they have sugar there too.


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Back, With Books

I’ve been away on Planet Grandma for a week and have been neglecting all blogging responsibilities. The one thing about having house-guests, particularly those of a certain age, you can’t really sit down at your computer of an evening and say, “Sorry I have a blog post to write” or “My 22 favourite blog pals have all posted, so entertain yourself while I just make some comments”. Instead you have to drink red wine, eat heartily, talk family and ignore any tempting Webbery.

I did manage to get some reading in. That’s still considered good behaviour on Planet Grandma. Reading is good stuff. Lurking behind a computer screen telling people what you’ve read is not. Anyway, luckily for me, Grandma has a way with books. She brought me Stef Penney’s prize-winning The Tenderness of Wolves and JM Coetzee’s Slow Man. I finished TToW this afternoon so that she could take it and read it on the plane. It’s remarkable in many ways – firstly, it’s a first novel that has won a major prize (the Costa Award), Penney was agoraphobic when she wrote it and struggled to get out of her home to the British Library to research the book, and, at the time of writing, she had never been to Canada. So the novel is a feat of excellent storytelling, force of will and imagination. Also, if you like a good murder story, it’s a gripping read.

Set in the frozen backwoods of Ontario in the 1860s, it tells of immigrants and natives, pioneers and trappers, farmers and townspeople, who are all struggling to make a living. The book is peopled with a large cast, and Penney races around everyone’s point of view, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third. This threatened to become exhausting, and at some points I was nervous that the threads would untangle themselves, but she held it all together. It’s interesting to learn that she is agoraphobic because her settings are claustrophobic: small houses, tiny tents, falling-down camps, all set against a backdrop of the freezing, engulfing, deadly snow. However, the story rackets along, the twists are suitably surprising and the characters varied and interesting.

If I had been a Costa judge last year, William Boyd’s Reckless would have been my first choice for the prize, but The Tenderness of Wolves would probably have been my second.

Then, while on Planet Grandma, I finally managed to finish Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia. I had been dying to get my hands on it since I like blogs, and cooking, and blogs about cooking, so I was thrilled when Kerryn kindly offered to put it in circulation. Julie & Julia is about one woman’s attempt to cook 524 recipes from one Julia Child book in 365 days – and blog about it at the same time. Having never read a book that originated as a blog, I was expecting J&J to be a collection of blog posts, but it isn’t. She’s written the story of her project as a book, with occasional reference to the blog. I spent the first third of the book feeling disappointed about that, but once I gave up and allowed the tide of Powell’s writing to carry me onwards, I grew to enjoy it very much. She writes amusingly and vividly about her attempts to cook insane food (Eggs in Aspic, anyone?) in a minute New York kitchen, alongside plumbing disasters, job ennui and her friends’ disastrous love lives. Powell herself is married to the saintly, long-suffering Eric, who endures her tantrums and strops when the Creme Brulee turns to soup or bandages her gently after she stabs herself trying to de-marrow a bone.

The book is delightful, fluffy as an omelette, but not for the squeamish: she murders live lobsters, discovers maggots in her kitchen and does quite a lot of stuff with hooves. Powell discovers that she is a fan of offal (who isn’t?) and writes movingly about liver. Often when I read food blogs (this one by the lovely Kathryn springs to mind), I find myself thinking, “Ooh, I want to cook that, let me bookmark this at once” but I didn’t have that experience with Powell’s book. I think it’s possibly that our delicate twenty-first century sensibilities may clash with that of Child’s bold derring-do, as she fearlessly boils hooves in order to make aspic, makes sauces out of bone marrow and arranges quivering kidneys on plates. So you have to admire Julie Powell’s – dare I say it – guts for getting up to her elbows in the yucky stuff and then having the sense to turn it into a project, a blog and a book.

Give me a roasted pepper and rocket salad, any day.

(Helen has first dibs on J&J, but in case she isn’t ready for it yet, please signal in the comments below if you’re also interested in Kerryn’s copy, and I will send it on.)