Monthly Archives: May 2012

New workspace

Apologies for the overly HDR-ed picture, but… tadaaaa! I’ve been muttering for some time about converting an area of the landing into an extra workspace, and now it’s done (well, apart from a bit more accessorizing, that is).

I’ve had the sofa there for some time and really, really didn’t want to have to move it significantly or – heaven forbid – get rid of it from that corner, as it’s a wonderful place to read in full daylight. But the way it was arranged meant I was always sat opposite a blank white wall when I was there, and that wasn’t all that inspiring. Now that I’ve rearranged its constituent elements, including the main cushions to lean against, I can stretch out at either end and either look out of the window or have daylight coming from behind, which is fantastic if I’m working on correcting a load of things by hand, or simply reading. I’m convinced it’s the best window in the flat for light, as it’s more or less north-facing and you only get the feeling of a few direct rays shining in at sunrise – the rest of the time it’s very “easy” light, plus the area seems to stay cooler than the southern side of the flat in summer (hence my original office space downstairs not being such a great place to work when it’s hot).

The desk is very simple indeed, but I was very much guided and restricted by what would fit in the space: there is a cupboard door just off the right hand side of the picture which certainly meant the desk couldn’t be too long. However, I definitely wanted as much surface area as possible, as I’m often simultaneously using my laptop as well as several piles of papers and/or a couple of open books for a lot of the things I do. It also definitely had to be real wood rather than some plastic or MDF monstrosity, and it was essential that it provided some storage for stationery and a few craft supplies. In fact, this desk has four drawers down the left hand side, which is great as the slope of the ceiling means you can’t sit at that end anyway.

I only ordered the desk last Wednesday evening, so I was amazed when it arrived on Friday morning as the estimated delivery date wasn’t until at least the 29th, and I hadn’t got around to tracking it online. What a bonus, I thought, and set about putting it together late Friday afternoon. This was a bit of a challenge given that although the box contained (as it turned out) all the necessary pieces of wood, runners for the drawers and pull-out keyboard surface, plus a heavy bag of bits of dowelling, screws and other metal fasteners I wouldn’t know the name of, it had NO INSTRUCTIONS!! In the end, though, the only thing I didn’t realize before tackling it is was that the fronts of the drawers needed to have their dowelling pegs glued in. This became apparent only when pulling one of them open resulted in the front coming off in my hands, but at least I was able to put my hands on the wood glue within a matter of minutes and this minor setback was fairly quickly forgotten (except for the glue I got in my hair, but never mind – true craftsmanship leaves its mark ;-)).

I didn’t want a vast desk chair because, although it might be comfortable, it would again take up too much space. I have a lovely old dressing table stool that belonged to my grandmother which I want to restore – it’s just a question of redoing the webbing that supports the removable cushion, so an easy DIY task. For the moment, though, I have discovered that it was possible to unscrew the back from a funny old red chair on wheels I had, and that’s turned out to be the perfect height and pretty comfortable, too.  It fits tidily under the desk when not in use. Maybe I’ll find a different place in the flat for Grandma’s dressing table stool at a later date.

So far I’ve got as far as putting up a couple of pictures to get away from that blank wall feeling – Paul Klee’s Revolution des Viaductes, and a modern photo-on-canvas picture of some glass bottles in just the same shades I have elsewhere in this alcove – lots of orange, green, blue, pink. Other than that, I’ll probably bring up a plant from downstairs and maybe a simple ornament or two, but the plan is to keep it simple and uncluttered (famous last words, I know…).

And it’s here that I sit typing this blog post. The window is wide open and I can smell the herbs outside on the roof terrace. I was going to say that there is barely a sound to be heard as the window looks out onto the rooftops above an enclosed courtyard that is not a thoroughfare. However, the cathedral (located 200m from here) has just started up its Whitsun evensong bells. Hey ho! But I wouldn’t be without them for the world…

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Goat’s cheese and asparagus quiche

I made this quiche this week, and very nice it was too. When I posted a picture of it, several people asked me for the recipe. And so, without further ado, here it is…

Ingredients

  • Enough pastry to line an approx. 30cm round flan dish (or equivalent)
  • Oil, for frying
  • About 12 spears of green asparagus, trimmed
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 80-100g cubed bacon or ham (optional)
  • 3 eggs
  • 300ml milk
  • 1 tbsp cornflour*
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • Fresh herbs (I used thyme but might try sage next time for a punchier flavour)
  • 120g “goat log” cheese (preferably smallish diameter), thinly sliced
  • Salt & pepper

Method

1. Roll out the pastry and line the greased dish with it. Allow to rest briefly before trimming the edges (do leave enough excess for shrinkage, though), pricking the base with a fork, lining with foil, putting some baking beans (or equivalent) in the base and baking blind at 200C/fan 180C/gas 6 for about 15 minutes. Lower the oven heat by 10C / 1 gas mark  after this period and remove the beans and foil from the pastry case.

2. Meanwhile, fry the onion gently, together with the bacon (if using). Slice the asparagus diagonally into lengths of 3-4cm and add to the pan once the onions and bacon have had a chance to take on some colour. Continue to fry gently until the asparagus has softened and any excess liquid has more or less evaporated.

3. Beat the eggs together with the milk, cornflour and mustard. Add some pepper, plus salt if you feel it is necessary (bacon / ham and the goat’s cheese also contain a fair amount of salt, normally).

4. Arrange the asparagus mixture evenly in the base of the pastry case. Sprinkle with herbs; ham cubes could also be sprinkled over at this stage, if you are using them instead of bacon. Pour over the egg mixture carefully to just a fraction below the upper edge of the pastry case; do not overfill, though. Arrange the slices of cheese evenly on top.

5. Bake at the slightly lower oven temperature for about 40mins. Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving with crusty bread and a green salad, though something tomatoey might also go well with it.

* Quiche purists (if there is such a thing!) might not approve of adding cornflour, but it did prove useful in binding any remaining moisture in the asparagus and thus stopping the quiche from getting a soggy bottom! ;-)

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Herbs galore – now what to do with them?!

Several weeks ago I planted some very small herb plants, and the combination of April showers and quite a bit of sunshine with mild to warm weather since then has led to them exploding. Most of them have now reached the stage where they can be used liberally in cooking, and it’s fantastically rewarding, I find, to have all these fresh flavours so readily available throughout the summer.

I’m determined to make the very best of what’s out there this year, and for that reason I’d like to use this post to ask about your tried and tested favourite recipes or tips for cooking with fresh herbs. Yes, I do have recipe books and (obviously) an internet connection, but over the years it’s been almost always the case that my true favourite recipes have come as a personal recommendation from friends, family or acquaintances. ;-)

The picture shows just what’s outside the french windows in the living room – at the top there’s coriander (l), oregano and tarragon (r), in the hanging pots there’s an aubretia (just for decoration – not planning on eating it!) and a nasturtium (now with a stonking orange flower), then at the bottom there’s a jungle of (l-r) rosemary, sage, Moroccan mint, thyme, lemon thyme and lavender. Upstairs on the roof terrace outside the landing window there’s more lavender, parsley, lemongrass, strawberry mint, Thai basil and some (still very small, grown by M from seed) chilli plants.

The herbs I seem to be harvesting most of at the moment are coriander (curries and Mexican food), thyme (anything Mediterranean), tarragon (great in salad dressing and with fish) and that old stalwart, parsley. There are a couple of others, though, for which I’d be particularly grateful for culinary tips…

Sage advice, anyone?

I adore sage and use it relatively frequently with pork, and it also combines well with olive oil, garlic and parmesan to make a simple pasta sauce or (in greater concentration) pesto. I also love sage tea, though I have a very big pack of dried sage bought during the winter that I’m ploughing through for that purpose. The “problem” this year is that the sage plant has already grown to be absolutely mahoosive, with the biggest leaves I’ve ever seen on such a plant. And for that reason I’d like to extend my repertoire of dishes that call for it.

What shall I do with all this (lemon) thyme on my hands?

M is a big fan of lemon thyme, and I have to say that whatever he cooks with it does indeed taste very good. However, my preference is clearly for the more ordinary variety – if I want something to taste lemony, then I’ll put some lemon juice or zest in it. However, maybe someone out there knows of a dish (or a drink or other use – it doesn’t have to be “food” per se) where lemon thyme works really well and has a definite advantage over its more down-to-earth relative.

Anyone got recipes that are worth a mint?

This is where my German friends are expected to say “But you eat mint sauce with everything, don’t you?” and I roll my eyes skywards and grimace. Asterix has a lot to answer for! In actual fact, I really went off mint at some point after childhood, and it’s only now that I’m really appreciating it. Yes, it IS good with lamb, and I use it a lot in Indian cooking (various curry sauces and raita) and Middle Eastern / North African dishes (e.g. tabboulé). However, that still seems a bit of a narrow palette and I’d be glad if I could extend it somewhat. Tea made out of fresh mint is also delicious – I sometimes also mix it with fresh root ginger for a really zingy drink – but I’m looking for more strictly food-based ideas in this case.

Why are there no bad puns on “oregano”?

Oregano seems to be another of those staples everyone has in their herb and spice rack, but I can’t claim ever to have done anything very memorable with it. I tend to use it mostly in combination with other herbs, sometimes in salads or with Italian and Greek food. It really doesn’t have a strong profile with me, though.

~~~

I’d be really delighted to receive some tips and tricks for the herbs I’m a bit stuck on, and indeed on any of the others mentioned. And now I’m off to cook a curry!

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When great grandfathers turn up in unexpected places…

As anyone who has traced their family tree will probably know, a great deal of success in genealogy comes as a reward for being methodical – trawling through archives and indexes, noting down carefully every resource, area and date range covered, searching online for every possible permutation of the spelling of a name, painstakingly decrypting old handwriting, scouring historic maps, and looking into the history of places, ways of life and occupations. Every scrap of relevant information becomes a potentially valuable lead, a piece in the jigsaw, a clue in a never-ending detective novel of enormous complexity.

Often, though, this data alone can be quite dry, and in many cases it’s down to more unexpected or unassuming places to provide those things that turn out to be of the greatest personal value. An oddment found in the attic, at the back of a drawer, a photo or letter between the pages of a book, a newspaper cutting that reveals more than the census about someone’s everyday life.

Sydney Everson’s snuffbox (picture: John Everson) (click for larger image)

This morning on Facebook I read a lovely story told by a long-standing genealogy contact of mine, John Everson. We’ve been in touch on and off for years as we both had Everson ancestors in Machen (old county of Monmouthshire, South Wales). One day not so very long ago – he says he was bored at the time – John had typed “Everson” and “Machen” into Google to see what hits it would come up with. Normally, he says, such a search yields mainly his own old postings on various genealogy sites, but lo and behold, one of the hits this time was an eBay listing which turned out to be this old brass snuffbox (dated 1917) which – from the name “Sydney Everson” and the address “Westley Buildings, Machen” engraved on it – quite clearly belonged to John’s great grandfather (further genealogical details – for anyone who might be interested – can be found at the end of this post).

Initial delight, however, quite quickly gave way to a rather distraught feeling as it transpired that the item had already been sold. Not giving in to despondency, though, John decided to contact the seller in any case to see if he could find out who had bought it – possibly a long-lost cousin, he thought. In fact, the snuffbox had been sold to someone who restores and re-sells them, and the original seller kindly set up contact. In the end, John was offered his great grandfather’s snuffbox at what he thought was a reasonable price, and he says it is now one of his most treasured possessions.

This reminded me of a chance discovery relating to my own paternal-line great grandfather, Cadwaladr Davies, made by my father some years ago. On one of his occasional visits to a not-so-far-away town, Newtown in Mid Wales, Dad decided to pay a visit to the small museum located above the WHSmith shop in the town and dedicated to the history of the well known chain. His father’s father (the aforementioned Cadwaladr) had managed the Smith’s branch in Ross on Wye (Herefordshire) for much of his working life and so there was a long-standing family connection with the company.

Cadwaladr Davies – framed colour reproduction of the original (click for larger image)

Even so, Dad was pretty surprised when one of the exhibits turned out to be a beautifully illuminated document  that bore his grandfather’s name emblazoned in gilt-decorated letters. It documents his transfer, in 1898, from North Wales to Ross and reminds one along the way that the high street store that now sells magazines, stationery and the odd book came to the fore with the development of the railways in the nineteenth century by setting up bookstalls at railway stations.

No doubt in his inimitable understated way, Dad approached the museum staff to say that he found this exhibit rather interesting and explained why. As a result of the communication following on from this, several high-quality colour facsimiles were made of the original and distributed among close family members, and a fascinating article came to light from the archives of the company magazine, documenting the personal story behind this presentation document and giving a further glimpse into Cadwaladr’s later life in Ross.

Regardless of the fact that it is “only” a facsimile of the original, my framed copy of the document is definitely one of my most treasured possessions and has pride of place hanging in the living room.

I wonder what accidental and exciting family discoveries any of my readers have made – maybe some of you will be inspired to leave a comment or write your own blog entry on the subject… ;-)

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Acknowledgements and further genealogical details…

Thank you to John Everson both for inspiring this post and for being so willing for me to share the snuffbox picture and details of his great grandfather. As he put it, “the Everson name needs lots of publicity”, and who knows who might stumble upon this blog entry while doing a Google search of their own…

Sydney (or Sidney) Everson was born in Machen in 1859, the seventh of ten children of William Everson (1822-1898) and Mary Green (1823-1889). He married Mary Mattock (1863-1923) in 1880 and according to the 1911 census they had a total of sixteen children, twelve of whom were still alive in 1911. As a young man Sydney worked in the tinplate industry and was later employed in a colliery. He died in Machen in 1930.

Cadwaladr Davies was born in Penmachno, Caernarvonshire in 1868, the youngest of five children of Thomas Davies (1823-?) and Jane Williams (1826-1894). Most of the men in his family were slate miners, but he went to school and became a clerk before getting into the book trade. Following his move to Ross in 1898, he married Lizzie Newitt (1882-1947) there in 1903 and they had three children. He died in Ross in 1960.

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