Ding-Dong Merrily Mince Pie

There’s snow on the ground, and the mountains are dazzling in the bright sunshine, with a deep blue sky behind them. Yesterday was St Nicholas’ day, my little wooden nativity and angels inherited from Mom are up, and the Advent candles are all ready. What’s missing? Seasonal fare.

IMG_1960The supermarkets are full of Germanic Weihnachtsgebäck and Stollen, and my granddaughters are baking their own, but I’m on a high fat/low carb/low sugar diet. Supposed to be. I have resisted making or buying any gingerbread, cakes or biscuits and am feeling fairly virtuous.

However, nostalgia urges me to produce something British for Christmas. I didn’t feel up to making a rich Christmas fruit cake this year, and as I’m the only member of the family who enjoys Christmas pudding there seems little point in running around trying to get suet outside of the UK. The absence of suet here also led me to think that I wouldn’t be getting any mince pies, either, although the family do share my love of those calorie bombs and if I could make some, they would happily eat them. But like suet, ready-made mincemeat is not generally available here.

Then – Mary Berry to the rescue! She has an online recipe for mincemeat made with butter, and indeed, goes so far as to say that she (the queen of baking) actually prefers the taste of butter, and then adds: “I no longer use cellophane tops or wax paper. I simply use clean sterilised screw-top jars saved from bought marmalade or jam.”

For some reason, although we can get dried cranberries and several kinds of raisins and sultanas, here in Switzerland currants are not so current and we have to go to the health food store for those. I couldn’t find muscovado sugar, either – but does it really make such a difference? I spent a small fortune on all the other ingredients, and a very happy half hour mixing it up and making it nice, then pop went the weasel into the jam jars that had fortuitously avoided being recycled.

I’ve made mincemeat before, many years ago, to an old recipe that I believe is at least 100 years old dating from the days when you had to stone the raisins and chop the suet yourself. It also has orange marmalade in it. As I recall, it involved putting the jars of mincemeat in a slow oven to ensure it wouldn’t go mouldy. Mary Berry’s version is made in a large saucepan and simmered for 10 minutes, which she maintains is adequate to prevent any deterioration. I’m not quite sure about that, so mine is being kept in the fridge.

My idea was to make a few mince pies for a potluck Christmas party coming up, and some more for our family Christmas Day, and maybe give a jar or two away as presents. However, the quantities in Mary’s recipe only stretched to three jars, and of course I have to sample my product before thrusting it upon the world at large.

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NOTE that I deliberately abstained from adding a dusting of castor sugar!

Personally, I prefer shortcrust pastry for my mince pies because puff pastry leaves little room for the filling, as it tends to ooze out as the pastry puffs up: I can squeeze more into a shortcrust pastry case. Unfortunately, while I could always produce melt-in-the-mouth pastry in England, here in Switzerland the flour is less refined (or something) and the pastry turns out heavier. So I cheated and bought some readymade puff pastry from the supermarket, and made a dozen pies. They looked good, but I had to make sure they also tasted right. Yes, though they could have done with a more generous filling. I had to eat nine of them to be sure my mincemeat was OK. So much for my low carb/low sugar diet.

Tomorrow, I’ll make another batch of mincemeat so I can give some away.
Thank you, Mary Berry! (How do you stay so slim?)

 

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Beanies, Minnie Mouse And Pompoms

My newest great-granddaughter was one year old last Monday: so what should I give her as a present? She’s the second little girl in the family and the youngest of four, so has more than enough toys and clothes. I want my gift to be something useful, something she needs. What doesn’t she have?

IMG_2788I look at her, and know immediately; the only thing she lacks is hair. This pretty blue-eyed baby is perfect in every way, but she has only the finest covering of down on her head, not a single little curl! No, no, I didn’t give her a wig – but the next best thing. I crocheted her three hats.

First, these two simple beanies from wool I had in my bag – I can’t call it a stash. You should see what my daughter has tucked away in drawers and cupboards! That’s a stash. You may recognise the wool in the white/grey hat as it’s the remnant from my cardigan and cobweb shawl. Perfect for a bald baby, very soft and light but warm. The blue one matches her eyes and has flaps to keep her ears warm.

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I was inspired to find a pattern for a Minnie Mouse bonnet with pompoms (two black ones on top for ears, and pink ones at the end of each braid) and a big pink bow on top. The bow looks rather sausagy on this photo, because of the angle – the hat is a shade too big – but in real life it looks cute.

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Thank you to my Dear Daughter for her invaluable assistance here. We have a knitting shop in my village, but I had only ever walked past it and never gone in. I decided about a fortnight before the Birthday that I’d support local trade, and get my wool there but unfortunately it was closed. The sign in the window said “On vacation till 25 November”. That was annoying, but it still left me a week for my project.

However, when I struggled through the rain and wind to the shop on Saturday, 25 November, it was still closed. At this point DD stepped in and offered me wool from her stash, so I was saved. I managed to make the little hat in the couple of days still available to me while I was staying at her house, and once again it was DD to the rescue when it came to making the pompoms, as we went out together and bought pompom makers (that’s a new invention since my youth: we just used cardboard cut into circles). That inspired me afresh. I have a few beanies I made last year that would benefit from being crowned with a pompom.

After I got home, I ventured out once again to the knitting shop in my village. This time, it was open. It’s very tiny, with some flashy hand knits on sale, a limited selection of extremely expensive wool, and an intimidating lady running it. I poked around a bit, but didn’t find anything that appealed to me so when SHE challenged me (I can think of no better word for the tone in which she asked me if I was looking for something special) I just stuttered that I was looking for white wool to make pompoms.

With that withering look sales assistants in boutiques cast at anyone over a size 0, she produced a plastic bag with several small balls of yarn, obviously leftovers. Yes, there were two skeins of white virgin wool. Fifty cents each. I paid and crept out.

To cheer myself up, I decided to learn some new crocheting skills from YouTube tutorials, and am now proficient in making fancy cables. However, cables use up a lot of wool so a whole 50g has gone into this little piece. That’s 100 metres of wool. What will it become? I’ll let you know when it’s finished. One thing is sure: though I shall need more wool to complete this project, I won’t be buying any from the village shop.

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Tribute to Miss Sophie

I have this little poem, written long ago, on my Cats and Catterel page – a typical example of my catterel, I think. It’s a tribute to our dear departed Miss Sophie:

Miss Sophie, grande dame par excellence,
Has an air of distinction and elegance,
As she daintily poses her purposeful toes
Neatly and carefully under her nose.

A toss of the head, a disdainful stare,
If you haven’t brought supper, a dismissive glare;
She sits on the staircase and looks through the rails
Listening to gossip and storing up tales.

Oh, how could you think that she’s Little Miss Snooty?
A cat white and ginger, a soft-hearted beauty,
Never was any so misunderstood
As Sophie, who really is gentle and good.

Just look how she dotes on the people who love her;
Remember, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Miss Sophie, The Sophisti-Cat

See those wise and wonderful eyes peeping out in my header? That’s Miss Sophie, my daughter’s cat, who could be aloof and proud or affectionate and fussy, as the whim took her. I’m very sad to have to announce that Miss Sophie is no longer with us. She was sixteen, a good age for a feline, and finally just too tired and fed up to go on. Her end was peaceful, gentle and stress-free. Such a small animal, but such a great character, and though she was by no means a noisy cat, it will seem strange without her presence in the house.

She was clever enough to avoid the street and its traffic that passed next to her garden, and so she survived. She was also clever enough to figure out that by jumping up and hanging onto the door handle, she could open most doors that barred her way. And she was authoritarian enough to keep that pesky cocker spaniel in order: after all, Sophie was there first. Now, there will be no more disputes about who occupies the dog’s bed.

Even as a kitten, she knew she was superior to dogs. The dog in the house at that time was a big Bernese mountain dog, and one of Sophie’s favourite games when she was tiny was to cling onto his tail, flinging her to and fro as it wagged. By the time she grew too big and heavy for that, she had secured her position in the pecking order. She never, ever used her claws – the only cat I have ever known who simply didn’t seem to realise that she possessed such a weapon.

Whenever I stayed overnight at her house, she would join me when I went to bed, purring her lullaby till she was sure I was asleep, and then, mission accomplished, return to her usual place. I had to be careful when my hair was long, as she tended to roll herself up in it and then I didn’t dare move my head until she had untangled herself.

Sophie wasn’t anybody’s cat. She was very discriminating, and it was a privilege and honour to be selected by her for her attention. She attached herself very early on to my dear middle granddaughter and was  the recipient of many confidences; when DMG married, Sophie was equally devoted to her new husband.

Yes, we always grow very fond of our pets and they become valued members of the family. Losing them is always hard and tears will be shed. I’m sure that even the dog will be wondering where she is.

Sophie’s staff wil miss her very much.

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Schooldays, Schoolmates

Mr Russell's class 1952

Every now and then, I try to go through the thousands of photos on my laptop and get rid of duplicates and any that really are a waste of cyberspace. And thus I came across this old class photo from my primary school, taken in June or July 1952 when we were all about 11 and about to depart from the safety and security of our little junior school, to start “big school”: following the 11+ exam, around half went to the local Secondary Modern, about a dozen to the Secondary Technical School, and nine of us to the Grammar School. That should have been ten, but the parents of one bright little boy said they couldn’t afford the uniform and all the extras that went with a Grammar School education, so he went to the Secondary Modern instead.

Being split like that meant that we generally lost touch with one another, especially once we had reached the age of fifteen or sixteen, when most left school for good.

All the more amazing, then, when I look at this picture and realise I still know everyone’s name! What’s more, in spite of having spent nearly fifty years outside the UK, sixty-five years on I am still in touch with eight of these former classmates and know the whereabouts and something about the present lives of at least another three. One other, for sure, has died; maybe more. We’re getting on a bit now.

But five of them came to my mother’s hundredth birthday party and six to her funeral, and others sent condolences. I suppose that is the key: although we have all moved away from the place where we grew up, even to Cyprus and Australia, my mother stayed put. When I went back to visit my parents, and especially in these latter years when I stayed with her, I would occasionally hear from an old school pal or we would even manage to meet up. They knew where to find me when I didn’t have a clue where they had gone, and the grapevine meant that even if someone had disappeared completely from my radar, someone else might yet be in touch.

A Grammar School centenary reunion in 2002 was instrumental in a couple of cases, where we really hadn’t seen each other since we were sixteen and were delighted to rekindle old friendships. Another occasion was when four of us who had lived next door to one another and had all been born within the space of two months (three of us in this photo), were reunited for our seventieth birthdays. That was a very joyous occasion, since I hadn’t seen two of my old playmates for over fifty years.

So I look at these innocent young faces, mentally trying to superimpose wrinkles, paunches and grey hair (or, in the case of the boys, bald heads – the good-looking lad standing on the far right is still tall but completely and shiningly bald) and wonder if, during the five years recently when I was more or less resident in my old home, we had unwittingly passed each other in the street or sat next to each other on a bus.

What would we have had to say if we had recognised one another, after all these years? We probably would have little in common, but I know for certain that one topic of conversation would have been the elderly gentleman who was our class teacher, and there is no doubt that someone would have said: “He’d never have got away with that today!”

He was a strict and harsh disciplinarian. Classes were large. Corporal punishment was standard fare in those days so most of us, girls as well as boys, had felt the flat of his hand or been caned. Yet he taught us well, and even if he didn’t manage to make silk purses out of pig’s ears, he produced very serviceable leather pouches, metaphorically speaking.

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Here are three of us who were partners in crime together throughout our primary and secondary school days from the age of five, and are still good friends (l-r: P, N and me in 2011). Can you spot us on the school photo?

We’re all on the second row, seated: N is 3rd from the left, I am 3rd from the right and P is last on the right. I think we were deliberately separated!

 

A Trip To The Village

Very seldom nowadays do I actually sit down and write a letter or card. Even birthday greetings are despatched digitally in most cases. However, yesterday I wrote to an old friend who disdains e-mails. I addressed the envelope and affixed two stamps, to make sure the postage was sufficient, placed my letter inside the envelope and sealed it. I then placed it on the shoe cupboard by my front door together with my mittens to make sure I wouldn’t forget it.

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Today, I put the letter in my coat pocket and set off for the post office. On the way, as I was negotiating some steps, I was hampered by my hair falling in my eyes when I looked down, so I decided to pop into my hairdresser’s and get her to cut me a porthole in my fringe. This “pop” developed into a brief social visit, and as I left her salon and was passing the grocery store next door, it occurred to me that I needed to replace the milk that had turned out to be sour at breakfast this morning.

So into the little supermarket I went, remembering in my tour of the shelves that I also needed butter, eggs, mayonnaise and some fruit. I had to hunt for the mayonnaise, which drove the butter out of my mind, but I did get milk, eggs, mayonnaise, apples and pears so four out of five – that wasn’t too bad.

Next door to the grocer’s is the butcher’s.  Aha, my grandson-in-law is celebrating his birthday next week, and I know he likes this butcher’s homemade smoked venison sausage called Salsa. Salsiz is a kind of Swiss salami-type sausage, a speciality of the region where I live (Graubünden), and is listed in the database Culinary Heritage of Switzerland. 

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Photo from Wikipedia

Switzerland may be small, but my grandson-in-law lives in the canton of Thurgau more than 100 km away, separated from me by mountains and lakes, in a canton where they don’t make Salsiz. Six delicious Hirschsalsiz, please – and I can tick his birthday present off my list. A lovely local red wine – maybe a Bündner Herrschaften – will go well with that. Perhaps one of our local mountain cheeses, too? GIL will be very happy, and there should be enough Salsiz to share one with his children.

My little shopping bag is getting heavy, so I decide to leave the wine and cheese till tomorrow since the shop I want to get it from is on the other side of the village. My feet turn towards home, and I am ready for a nice cup of tea when I get in. Shoes off, hang coat up, unpack, kettle on, tea in pot – ah, that’s good. Sit down with my cuppa and – hang on, wasn’t I supposed to be going to the post office? What for? Oh dear. The letter is still in my pocket!

Case Closed

Just to spoil the fun of speculation, here – at last – are the facts. And the moral is that just because something is written down in black and white, it ain’t necessarily so.

Two old men, brothers, one of them a farmer and the other his labourer, are working on the harvest. Joe, the elder, dies. I don’t have his death certificate, so I don’t know the cause, but he was 79 and in 1859 that was a ripe old age. Maybe he simply over-exerted himself. He’s buried a couple of days later, on 14 August, and no doubt younger brother Sam was upset at losing him. But the harvest has to be brought in, so Sam and Joe’s son Charlie get on with it.

Maybe Sam is grieving and his concentration isn’t so good that morning. After all, he’s 72 and he’s had to get up at 5 am to start loading the wagon. It’s a big wagon, and with a full load needs 3 dray horses to pull it. Sam takes the rein of one of the shaft horses, and off they go. At a bend in the road he stands back to make way for the horse, but there isn’t enough space and the horse steps on his foot. That’s a few hundred kilos of horseflesh, and Sam doesn’t stand a chance: he falls, and the wagon runs over his chest. An inquest is held, and two days after the accident, on 24 August, Sam is buried. In the parish register, his burial immediately follows that of brother Joe ten days earlier.

The newspaper reporter got the results of the inquest right, but he conflated the brothers and got the name wrong. To add to the confusion, the clerk who copied the details of the Probate inquiry into Joe’s estate six months later wrote the date of his death as 12.9.1859 instead of 12.8.1859. Easily done. And there we have it.

I’m sorry to disappoint my readers: no foul play, no conspiracy to rid the village of its Hardwicks, no evil characters lurking in the hedges to push old rustics under the wheels of wagons. Just a sad way for an old man to end his days.