Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Towards the End of the Season, Limply

In the novels of Jane Austen there is usually some reference to The Season – where the gentry head to Town, attend balls, horse-races, the ballet, parties and dinners, and try, to the best of their ability to marry off their marriagable daughters to young men of good fortune and pleasant personality. Today the season still exists, and, according to Wikipedia lasts from April to August, and includes events such as Glyndebourne, Royal Ascot, Chelsea Flower Show, Henley Royal Regatta and Wimbledon. Afterwards, today’s gentry head back to their country piles or to France while their children go to Ibiza, where they club senselessly, get photographed for Heat magazine with no knickers on or topless on the beach, and try to return without a husband.

The only season event I ever attended was the Henley Royal Regatta, to which I was invited by my totally lovely and rather posh cousins. I was doing my gap year of waitressing and partying and having inappropriate relationships in London and they took me under their wing, allowing me to arrive at their beautiful Surrey home, where I would warm my bottom on the Aga, be cossetted, fed and then sent back for another few weeks’ wildness in the capital. Thanks to them I am a whizz at croquet. These were the same people who took me to the ballet at Covent Garden (which I would never have been able to afford), and, despite having had a theatre supper beforehand, produced a picnic hamper full of delicious salmon sandwiches and champagne for afterwards, which we sat down and enjoyed at midnight on the Covent Garden cobblestones. They liked to do things in style. Henley was just the same – we cruised there in their Bentley with its cream leather and walnut interior. I was outfitted in a borrowed dress and a small and very cheap hat that I bought at Brick Lane (dress and hat being the appropriate outfit for ladies at the Regatta) and enjoyed an excess of champagne and watching strong men row boats in the rain.

Less glamorous, but equally demanding, is the Charlotte’s Web Family Season. It is six months long, and lasts from October to the end of March. I am relieved to announce that it is now drawing to a close. Since October we have celebrated the following:

  • One wedding anniversary
    • Cleverly planned for 1 October, so that’s it hard to forget. Thus far, we haven’t done so. We don’t go large but the occasion is marked and thusly the season opened.
  • Five birthdays
    • Two of these require full parties, with guests, cake, games, crafts and dressing-up. Since it is winter they are always, regrettably, indoors. The grown-up birthdays usually also require a party but we bailed this season and gave dinner parties instead.
  • Sundry German festivals, requiring the crafting of objects, the sourcing of costumes, the turning-up at and participating in parades, the eating of festival related baked goods, the singing of festival songs and the smiling and conversing with other festival participants. These include the Laternefest and Fasching (Carnival).
  • Sankt Nicolaustag
  • Christmas: the usual insane cookfest and eatfest and giftfest, plus assorted houseguests
  • New Year: ditto except minus the gifts
  • A week of skiing. One of the reasons we are in Europe is to offer our children chances to do things we which didn’t do growing up in Africa. Hence skiing. Last year, I found this such an exhausting experience, that I have avoided it this time, but my saint of a husband has taken his daughters off with a bunch of friends and they are turning into ski bunnies. Less of the snow eating this year, which is a good thing, both for their digestive systems and for the ski resorts. They need all the snow they can get.
  • Easter – two years ago, Ollie was born on 27 March, which was an Easter Sunday, so we include it in our Season. We celebrated his first birthday while skiing (ie he had a cake) but this year we will have to mark it with a party, a home-made cake and by inviting some of his little friends around. If we are very, very lucky they could play outside.

After Ollie’s birthday, we have six months off. No birthdays, no parties, no festivals for which we are required to craft anything. There will be no need to fashion pirate or Thomas the Tank Engine birthday cakes and no requirements for eyepatches or spangly crowns at the eleventh hour. I am looking forward to it – and summer – enormously. If you are looking for me in the six months starting April, this is where I hope you will find me, physically, spiritually, emotionally. Gin and tonic, anyone?

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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.


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Coming Out of Deep Lurk

We are expert lurkers. Today when we finally emerged from our den to go to the Chinese for lunch, our neighbours – who we haven’t seen this year – exclaimed with relief that we were still alive. Back in the days BC*, Thomas and I could batten down the hatches and stay in all weekend. As long as we had a sufficient supply of books and food, we were happy not going anywhere. We are training our children to be good lurkers too. They are so good that when we finally emerge, a visit to the Chinese is thrilling to them. (Slightly less thrilling to the waitress, who had to deal with rice sprayed in a radius of two metres around Ollie. He really loved that rice. And perhaps not very thrilling to other diners who were party to a high-pitched and excited discussion about whether the thing hanging out of the goldfish’s bottom in the tank near our table was poo.)

Our lurking was not totally pointless. It’s not as if we did nothing. There was the housekeeping I mentioned, which involved multiple trips to Ikea and much building of furniture. There were visits with friends, including catching up with a couple who we haven’t seen for nine years. We now have six children between us, and my girls got very giddy around the two slightly older, rather handsome and friendly big boys. There was reading of books and cooking. Rather a lot of cooking. I made a very hot Madras chicken curry with aubergine and red pepper which impressed my husband with its tongue-scalding qualities, a cauliflower vicchysoisse, a lemon drizzle cake, some gingerbread muffins.

I read Phillippa Gregory’s The Boleyn Inheritance, which follows The Boleyn Girl in charting the short and unfortunate reigns of some of Henry’s wives. It was the perfect lurking reading, washing over me gently, transporting me to another place where I thankfully do not have to live. Sometime between Christmas and New Year, we saw The Boleyn Girl as a BBC costume drama, all heaving bosoms and heavy-handed flirting, so I read the book with these images in mind.

So the deep lurk ends tomorrow. Thomas goes back to work and Lily goes back to school. The time for lingering over my morning coffee while blog reading is over, as is staying in bed till 9am while my lovely husband looks after the children, or having an afternoon nap while ditto, and we’re back to the relentless weekly routine. Without the routine as counterpoint, the lurking wouldn’t be as much fun, but I don’t know if I’m ready to be busy and effective. Not just yet. I’ve still got some lurk in me.

* Before Children


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What Cooking Means to Me

What is it about cooking? When I left home at 18, I could just about make a salad and boil an egg. As a student, I made bland budget tuna casseroles and soups. In my early married years, I made pasta, pasta and pasta. And then at some point a culinary explosion happened in my consciousness and I developed a genuine interest not just in eating good food, but in cooking it too. Perhaps it was moving to London from provincial Germany and being amazed by the variety of foods available. Around that time, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater were starting to publish their cookbooks, and the way they wrote – unintimidating, gentle, with clear instructions – spoke to the kind of direction I was needing in the kitchen. My skills needed to catch up with my tastebuds.

The planning, purchasing and preparing of food takes up an enormous amount of my time. I don’t resent it. It’s a daily pleasure, not a daily bind. I like the idea of the slow movement, of selecting lovely fresh ingredients, taking them home, and preparing something delicious to feed my family. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s just the kids eating I do trot out certain standards – the faithful fishfinger, sausage and mash, pasta with pesto – but I do try to push their eating boundaries often.

With so many people posting about their delicious Christmas and New Year meals, I couldn’t help thinking about how much cooking means to me. It’s gone from being a dull necessity to something approaching a craft, but more than that, as it encompasses a whole range of things that are important to me.

One of the things I love about cooking is that it’s creative – I’m mixing flavours, colours, things that go well together on a plate. I discovered for our New Year’s meal that braised red cabbage and apple is a great accompaniment for grilled salmon. Salmon’s quite oily, and the red cabbage counteracts that heartily. Also the pink salmon and the purplish cabbage look beautiful together. I still love a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, because it’s a threesome that works on the palate as well as the plate. I love putting a wet mess of ingredients into an oven and taking out a cake an hour later. I’ve discovered recently that I can smell when a cake’s ready. I’ve got a nose for cake.

Another thing I love is the pleasure food gives, both to others and to myself. Thanks to Nigella, I taught myself to bake while pregnant with Ollie and now he sees the muffin tin and starts shouting “cake, cake”. He even ate the chestnut cheesecake I made at Christmas, despite its being brown and heavy with chestnuts and slightly tinged with rum. Lily adores soup, and begs me to make it for her. I made a shepherd’s pie the other night – a really bog standard English mince and potato pie – and my husband and father-in-law gobbled it up making appreciative noises all the while.

Cooking is an escape, but a legitimate one, because I’m feeding people. I can say “Will you get these kids out from under my feet; I’m trying to cook a meal here”, but I can’t say “Will you get these kids out from under my feet; I’m trying to write a blog post here.” I love pottering in my kitchen, browsing my recipe books, staring out the window in a half-daze, imagining our next meal.

Living in Germany, I’ve had to learn to love the challenge of sourcing unusual ingredients (things like coriander, mint, halloumi cheese, butternut squash, pitta bread, limes) in a country where supermarkets are small, focus on seasonal food and cater for provincial tastes. If I’m planning to cook something unusual, it takes time and planning to source things – if I can’t find it in the supermarket, I visit a grocer, order what I need and he provides it the next day. It requires forethought. When I first moved back here, I resented the fact that I couldn’t just walk into Sainsburys and say “Oh lamb would be good, let’s pick up some mint and couscous too” but now I find the slight hardship adds to my enjoyment when I finally eat the meal I’ve planned. It’s got to be character-building.

I like looking in the fridge, seeing what I’ve got, reading a recipe, making a match and producing something delicious. I like using things up. For instance, we had half a stale panettone left over from Christmas, and I turned that into a delicious bread and butter pudding for New Year’s Eve dinner. After Christmas, we were all feeling a little queasy from the rich meals we’d been having, so I used a couple of chicken breasts and some sticks of lemongrass to make a lovely, refreshing chicken broth. There is something of the happy homemaker in this, but I don’t deny, it gives satisfaction.

I love cookbooks. In the last few years, I’ve got a bit stuck on Jamie and the two Nigels, the latter both being great writers. A new cookbook that’s started challenging my repertoire is Moro, which is Spanish and Moroccan food. Jamie’s just inspiring – I still learn something every time I read one of his books. Tonight it was how to chop potatoes into matchsticks for rosti. I browsed through a friend’s Elizabeth David the other day and saw how well she writes. She does much less hand-holding than Nigella or Jamie, it’s a more seat-of-your-pants kind of cooking. I want to do some of that. Nigella’s taken me through my apprenticeship, but it’s time to graduate to bolder stuff.

I like that my repertoire and courage are growing. I’ve learnt that if you follow a recipe, you’re likely to have success, and this has given me confidence. My next step is bread. I want to start baking bread. If I can do cakes, surely I can do bread. Perhaps that can be my second new year’s resolution: in 2007 I want to write more and learn to bake bread.

I like the values that home-cooking instills. I’d rather make my kids a tray of home-cooked muffins than buy them the plastic ones filled with preservatives in the supermarket. I love that they are becoming brave eaters, and in our home there is a lot of praise for trying food. They are not required to like it, but they are required to try it. One will eat any soup under the sun, another adores pulses in any form, and my darling baby boy will eat anything his mummy bakes. We sit and eat with our children for at least one meal a day – usually lunch – we light candles, chat, gently impart some table manners and enjoy some family time. They know where their fruit and vegetables come from, they know that their bodies “need green” and they love their food.

I like sharing recipes and talking food. This I do with many of my friends, and also with my blog friends. I’ve made Bloglily’s spice cookies and they were gorgeous, and I’m going to make Kerryn’s white chocolate cheesecake with raspberries when I host my bookclub dinner in January. I’m planning to try Jen’s fudge once I’ve recovered from the Christmas excess.

Cooking is also an act of love, and a way to show caring. I’ll let Kerryn (who puts it beautifully in one of her comments) round up this long and winding post succinctly for me:

I believe strongly that food prepared with love has the ability to pass that love along. I try never to cook while angry and always try to add a dash of love for those I’m cooking for.


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Pomegranate Pavlova Takes The Cake

One may cook one’s goose on Christmas Day, render sprouts edible, time an array of vegetables to be hot all at the same time, or lie gibbering on the couch sipping another glass of champagne, whatever takes one’s fancy, but really the only important part of the festive meal is the dessert. I care not particularly about the bird – I prefer to pass it over to my husband as if it were a rugby ball, saying “Catch this, darling, it’s all yours”. And he obliges by trussing it down, tending it, nursing it and finally carving it up.

It is the pudding that obsesses me (I use the word pudding generically, to mean “the interesting sweet stuff that follows all the other stuff”). I start some weeks before, researching, re-reading all the well-thumbed “dessert” sections of my favourite cookbooks. I don’t bother going the traditional route – no-one, or hardly anyone, likes an old-fashioned Christmas pudding (here I use the word specifically to mean “a pudding cooked in a basin with lots of fruit and nasty stuff”). I rather like mince pies, but no-one else in my family does, and they can only be eaten with tons of brandy butter, so I eschew those too. This year, I narrowed down the favourites to:

Nigella’s Raspberry and Lemongrass Trifle (with vodka)
Nigella’s Chestnut Cheesecake (with rum)
Nigella’s Festive Pavlova (with no added alcohol)

I’ve made the first three times now, and it’s always a raging success, but this year I needed to chart new territory. In a raging fit of domestic goddess-hood, I decided to make both the latter puddings. Now, given that there were three adults for Christmas Eve supper and four for Christmas lunch, this was completely OTT. But I allowed myself the excuse of Christmas excess and sold myself on the plan by justifying that the egg whites could be used for the Pavlova and the egg yolks for the cheesecake. Saving eggs! Saving money!

The pavlova was easy: those aforementioned egg whites, whipped up with caster sugar, cornflour, vanilla extract, splash of vinegar and pinch of salt and tossed into the oven for a slow cook at 150 degrees. After it had cooled down completely – be attentive, here comes the really clever bit – I turned it upside down. This is Nigella’s tip and it ensures that the moist, spongy bit of the meringue amalgamates nicely with the cream. I then layered thickly whipped cream, lemon curd, cream again, and then scattered the pomegranate seeds on top. It looked extremely pretty, as you can see, and tasted light and delicious. Father-in-law and husband were suitably impressed.

The chestnut cheesecake has thus far proved itself to be extraneous. I am the only person who has sampled it. It is subtle and lovely and standing in lonely splendour in the fridge, being elbowed by goose and sprout remains. I shall have to try and foist it on the children tomorrow – cheesecake for breakfast, anyone?