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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End Of An Era

This is a tough post for me to write but I need to do it.

I started this blog in September 2011, exactly six years ago, pushed by an indeterminate urge, a sense that I was at a sort of crossroads and it would be interesting if not useful to keep some kind of record. I never intended this to be a journal, just a place where I could muse and ramble and ruminate on all the things that catch my short span of attention without boring my interlocutor to tears. Readers can skip the boring bits, whereas listeners just doze off. So a blog serves a useful purpose.

In the event, it has been a lifeline during a period in my life that I could not have anticipated. And now, that period is drawing to its close and I am embarking on the final phase of my life. At least, that’s what it looks like from here: what Germans call “Lebensabend”. I hope that I am sailing into a beautiful sunset.

My parents’ house, which has been home to us all for the past eight decades, has been sold. I flew the nest in the early sixties, but then in December 2011 my mother needed my assistance and I returned – initially for three months, thinking I’d set up some kind of care system for her, and then, when I realised that wasn’t going to materialise, my three months turned into four and a half years. This blog fortuitously coincided with that time span so I don’t need to repeat here what I have already published.

This is the one place I have always returned to no matter where I was currently residing, the house my parents moved into, a young couple aged just 24 and almost 22, in April 1938 even before the plumbing had been connected, so that they had to use a tap in the garden for the first few weeks. They could have bought it for £200 but they rented first, unsure if they would stay. After the war, they bought it for about £700 as sitting tenants.

This little house has always drawn me as if I were attached by an elastic umbilical cord; it’s where I was born and grew up, where my parents lived – forever it seemed – and where they both wanted to die; where they left their mark as they painted, decorated and furnished it over the years; the home I left and returned to when my mother could no longer manage on her own; the ancestral home for my daughter, her children and their families. And now it’s going to be home to someone else.

This is a home that has always been full of love, a happy, hospitable home, with WELCOME! not only on the mat but pervading every room. “…in need of some improvements but holds much character…” says the estate agent’s blurb. I pray that the new owners will make the necessary improvements without losing the character, that they will feel and respect the spirit of this place, the gentle and generous genius loci, and I pray a blessing on them, that they may be as happy and contented as all those who ever lived here have been.

I am relieved that the new owners are people I have known for several years, good people, kind and caring. I feel I owe it to our long-suffering, big-hearted neighbours to ensure that someone decent comes to live next door. And even though this sale marks the end of my own official link with my childhood home, I look forward to returning some time to see how they are getting on.

The bond between this place and me will, I think, endure: after my birth the midwife gave my father my placenta to bury in the garden! No wonder I feel the pull of the umbilical cord!

 

Not My President

You can accuse me of mixing my metaphors and wallowing in clichés, but there surely can’t be many decent, intelligent Americans still stroking the synthetic fleece of the tweeting creature and claiming it really is a sheep, can there? I quote the old saying that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, chances are it’s a duck. But this Donald is no spluttering squawking harmless toon. Ducks don’t disguise themselves as sheep, either.

In fact, this wolf in sheep’s clothing was hardly disguised at all because he is doing more or less all he said he was going to do, but too many people were too busy loathing Hillary to listen and take such drivel seriously. Except that it isn’t drivel and it is serious. And even those who hoped he would surround himself with experienced, wise, intelligent advisers and staff have to admit that this has hardly been the case.

I’m glad he isn’t my president.

Unfortunately, his words and actions are having repercussions in the rest of the world and so impinge on my life, too.

I wish him no personal harm, but for everyone’s sake, can’t you Americans DO SOMETHING to remove him, render him impotent? Maybe just lock him up in Mar el Lago or Trump Tower with a toy phone so he can continue tweeting without being heard. Please, before Armageddon?

 

English As She Should Be Spoke

Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve seen many strange messages written on the back of lavatory doors, and as a translator and former language teacher, I’m super sensitive to quirky formulations in any of the languages in which I’m proficient, so when I saw this in a public toilet I just had to snap it for posterity.

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Rhyming couplets are a popular form of humorous doggerel in German, but sadly, a literal translation into the other languages with no rhyme or rhythm just results in puzzlement. The humour is also lost. Are you supposed to sweep the place? Not deface the walls with graffiti?  No, just look back at the lavatory bowl and if necessary, use the brush to wipe it clean in consideration of the person who will be following you here. A request to leave the place as you would wish to find it. But I wonder how many English, Italian or French speakers actually understood this, if they didn’t speak German? Did anyone attempt to clean the toilet with a broom (scopa, balai)?

Through the years, I have acquired a small collection of these awkward translations. One that made me giggle was on a menu in Brittany, where croque-monsieur was translated fairly adequately into English as “ham and cheese on toast” and then into German as “Schinken und Käse am Trinkspruch”. For non-German-speakers, the word “Trinkspruch” is indeed toast,  but refers to raising your glass to drink to a person’s health – “toast” in the non-bread sense.

Another one from Brittany:

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Here the sense is clear enough, and I trust that any English speakers on “earing the audio signal” were not drowned. Someone must have commented on this sign, as it was later removed and replaced by a version in perfectly correct English.

The following label adorned a pair of jeans I once bought:

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I was never able to confirm whether the expert ‘s tasting was accurate, as I don’t ride, but I don’t recall deriving any particular pleasure in the street from wearing this garment!

Finally, a notice enclosed with a packet of tea, beautifully calligraphed in Chinese on the reverse, that did indeed afford my mother “exceedingly noble enjoyment”. She wasn’t so impressed by the tea, but did like the idea of “merrily drinking” it. We never discovered if it really did enlighten drunkenness and cure sunstroke.

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The Catalyst

Brakes screeched, the dog yelped, the woman screamed and the driver swore.

As he leapt out of the car, prepared to wring her neck for letting her stupid mutt dash out like that, he was almost incandescent. But he saw at once that she was already so overcome there was no point in piling obscenities onto her. The dog was shivering and trembling, but there didn’t seem to be any blood. He took a deep breath.

“Shall I run you to the vet’s with him?” he suggested, with an apparent calm mastery of the situation he didn’t feel. “It’s the least I can do, under the circumstances.”

She blinked and swallowed hard, and he saw the tears welling up. She nodded. “Please.”.

An hour later, with the welcome news that the dog had only superficial injuries, they stood outside the vet’s office again. “Let me take you home,” he offered, “I don’t think either of you is really fit to walk any distance. Where do you live?”

She hesitated, then told him. It was indeed a couple of miles and the dog was still limping.

He seemed a decent chap in spite of the amazing string of epithets he had flung at her at the scene of the accident, and she felt he certainly owed her some kind of recompense for the distress he had caused.

On arrival at her house, he picked up the dog and carried him to the door. It seemed churlish to simply say thank you and goodbye so she invited him in for a cup of tea. As they chatted, they found they had much in common and it was a couple of hours before he left her cosy home, not forgetting to ask for her phone number so that he could check on the dog’s progress.

Six months later, they were married. The dog, of course, was also present, since he had been the unwitting cause of their acquaintance, wearing a large white bow on his collar. Both bride and groom bore scars from previous unsuccessful relationships, but they agreed that Providence had brought them together and as time was no longer on their side, they might as well make an effort to follow the path that Destiny was laying so clearly before them.

Their daily walks with the dog took them past the scene of their first meeting, and the route became a blessed pilgrimage trail for them. One particular house located right next to the place of their accident drew their attention.

“That would be my dream home,” she said one day as they strolled past the garden gates, peeking inside. “Isn’t it just perfect?” He acknowledged that it was indeed a beautiful place and very desirable residence, and they continued their walk. About two weeks later, as they approached their sacred spot, they noticed a For Sale sign outside the dream house. What if …?

When the owners heard their serendipitous story, they felt they had no choice: this was obviously a scenario being written by a divine hand, and the sale went through without a hitch. A year to the day of their first meeting, they moved into the house overlooking that momentous place.

On the other side of the road, stationed at her post in the garden of the house opposite, the cat watched with interest. She didn’t show herself until the woman let the dog off the leash. Then she ducked under her garden gate and sauntered provocatively along the grass verge. The dog dived straight through a gap in the hedge, rushing full pelt at his feline target.

Brakes screeched, the dog yelped, the woman screamed and the driver swore. The cat purred.

 

Bed-hopping Challenges

Nowadays, it isn’t the alarm clock but my bladder that rouses me from my dreams. Sometimes in the early hours, my brain still asleep, my body knows I need to get out of bed and autopilot myself to the bathroom. Normally these moments of somnambulism pose no problem, but in the last week I have slept in four different beds in various houses, most confusing for my inner sat-nav.

At my mother’s house and at my daughter’s, I need to get out of bed on the right-hand side (though depending on which room my daughter has put me in, there may be stairs to negotiate), in my own place and at my friend’s it’s the left-hand side. To complicate matters further, I arrived back from my mother’s (right), stayed one night at my daughter’s (right), spent one night in my own bed (left) followed by a night at my friend’s (left), back to my own home (left), two nights at my daughter’s (right) and back home again (left).

In the pitch-blackness of 3 am this morning, it took me a good five minutes to figure out where I was, which side of the bed to climb out of, and which direction to go in. As I attempted to walk through the wall where the doorway wasn’t, orientation returned and I was able to accomplish my mission with no further mishap.

There’s something to be said for the old custom of a chamber-pot under the bed!