Born on a Tuesday in the early evening, on a beautiful Indian Summer's day, Imogen brought a bright vivacity and a tender heart into our family. My dark-haired, home-birthed vbac baby arrived a little late to her own party, but made sure we knew she had finally made it! Such a gentle little soul she has grown into...sometimes a dreamer, sometimes a scamp, but always - always - full of wonder and love for everything around her.
I am thrilled to share some exciting news with you. I have had the great honour of being asked to join my dear friend in launching a new online community space for families interested in living more naturally.
Rebecca and me at the Staverton Fayre last summer.
Rebecca Watkins, who I have had the pleasure of knowing for the best part of 20 years, is the person who first introduced me to the ideas of living more simply, of taking greater care over the food I eat, and of parenting by instinct. We met when our eldest children were newborn babies (those 'babies' are now approaching adulthood!) and we now have seven children between us. Through our families' emigrations - us to America and them to France - and subsequent returns to England, our friendship has remained strong, and we have continued throughout the years to share a yearning for a simple, natural lifestyle.
A few months ago, Rebecca and her husband John realised that whilst there are plenty of parenting websites and communities on the net, there was a definite lack of social networking geared towards families choosing to live gently and parent gently. A seed was germinating.
John, me and Rebecca at their wedding in 2001.
Natural Mothers Network aims to provide a place where families can come together and share the parenting journey. You can start a blog (perhaps you already blog but would like a space where you can concentrate on another aspect of your family life - gardening, health or education for instance), there's a chat cafe, a webzine and the facility to network with like-minded families. For a lot of us, it's easy to feel a little isolated sometimes; I have friends who are the only person they know of in their local area using cloth nappies, for instance. The internet has provided the opportunity to connect with like-minded friends wherever we are in the world. We are hoping to create a space where you'll find lively debate and discussion about the topics that are important to families, whilst still being a supportive, friendly environment.
For some reason, Blogger is not allowing me to post comments - on this blog or any other Blogger account. When I go to sign in, it just redirects me to my 'anonymous' comment and the whole process starts over again. So I am not ignoring you! And if anyone knows how I can fix this, I'd be grateful for advice.
My grandparents had a little cabin in the North Woods of Minnesota. As a child, I did not realise how lucky I was to have the experience of spending long, lazy days on an unspoiled lake at the edge of an endless forest. It wasn't fancy. 'Having a shower' meant slinging your towel around your neck and descending the hill to the lake, where you'd hang your head over the edge of the dock, counting to ten before plunging it into the icy water. 'Using the facilities' meant picking your way through brambles to the little leaning-over outhouse, praying that you would niether collect splinters in your bumcheeks nor become the victim of a marauding bottom-biting spider.
But it was the stuff memories were made of: learning to play gin rummy, baking kolaczki with Grandma, canoeing out to the island and toasting s'mores on the campfire. And there was a special treat for a child growing up in the tropical heat of Florida - blueberry-picking. Those dusky, purplish marbles we plucked from scratchy bushes seemed so exotic to me. I savoured every berry, popping each one into my mouth and rolling it around on my tongue before squishing the juice out sharply between my teeth.
When I first came to England, blueberries were hard to find. But now, like most things, they are readily available in the supermarket (during the summer months, at least). I bought two punnets the other day. When the impatient children had given up on begging to eat them right away, I sneaked a round little berry into my mouth. Pop! Not quite as sweet and juicy as I remembered. But close.
Blueberry Herman Pancakes with Blueberry Syrup The sour Herman starter, buttermilk or plain yoghurt balances the sweetness of the syrup and the sharpness of the blueberries. makes about 16 4-inch pancakes
for the pancakes
2 C plain/all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp white sugar/honey/barley malt syrup/sweetener of your choice
1 C Herman starter (if you don't have any starter, you may substitute buttermilk or live yoghurt)
2/3 C vegetable oil
1 C milk
1 C blueberries
Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl. Mix the wet ingredients, including the Herman starter, in a large glass or ceramic bowl. Stir dry ingredients into the wet mixture, mixing well - don't worry if your batter is lumpy. The batter may be used right away, but it improves if left for at least half an hour and can be kept, covered, in the fridge for a couple of days.
Preheat your pan (I like to use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet) to a medium heat. You should not need to oil your pan because there is oil in the batter. Drop 1/3 of a cup of batter into the centre of the hot pan. Right away, drop 6-10 blueberries into the batter in the pan. When the top of the pancake is full of little bubble holes, use a spatula to turn it over and cook on the other side for 30 seconds or so. Pour syrup over and eat immediately, or keep warm in the oven until all your pancakes are ready.
for the blueberry syrup
1/2 C blueberries
1C golden syrup (or maple syrup if you're feeling indulgent)
1/8 C water
Place the water and the berries into a small saucepan on a medium heat. Cook until the berries begin to break down. Reduce heat to lowest setting and add the syrup. Stir and keep warm until needed.
In England, most people's homes don't sit on enough land to support a large fruit and vegetable garden. As early as 1000 years ago, people were clearing and cultivating pieces of land held in common: these were the first allotments - land that is owned by the government, local authority or parish and is rented to individuals who wish to grow food upon it. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, allotments were provided for the landless poor who might otherwise die of starvation. Food shortages during the First and Second World Wars once again proved the importance of these parcels of earth - an estimated 1.3 million tonnes of food were produced on allotments during the 'Dig for Victory' campaign of WWII. Through the 1980s and '90s, high housing and land costs led to a decline in the number of plots available, and 'growing your own' fell out of fashion. However, recent concern about genetically modified produce, a desire to eat more organic, locally-produced food and a yearning for the simple life have all led to an upsurge in the provision and use of allotments.
We took on our first (and second!) allotment plots last March. Our two plots sit alongside each other at the bottom of the hill. We had a choice of plots throughout the field, but I chose these because they get little passing traffic; I didn't want to become famous in the village for my inability to build a bean wigwam or grow onions in straight lines! Back in wet, gray March, I had visions of the whole family, elbow-deep in soil, munching our way through various heritage varieties of fruit and veg that are normally too expensive for us to buy in the shops. I envisaged row upon row of Kilner jars, full of home-canned produce. Yes. Then I came to my senses and realised I would be happy to just produce something! Somethat that lived and that we could eat.
Well. Call it beginner's luck, but we haven't done too badly so far. We started with the leeks we inherited from the former allotmenteer. We've savoured the sweetest, juiciest, reddest strawberries; picked blackcurrants till our fingernails were permanently stained purple; pulled more radishes than one family could possibly eat; popped pod after pea pod in our mouths and freshened our breath with tickly fronds of fennel (or, as the girls call it, 'children's chewing gum'). In short, we done good.
Taking care of a patch of dirt has proved much harder work than I - who have only ever grown food in boxes, pots and bags on concrete patios - ever imagined. Digging through wet clay for ten inches' worth of dandelion root is not exactly fun. But this little rectangle of earth has also proved to be very good for the soul. I have spiked my anger and hurt into icy mud after a particularly unpleasant conversation. I have wondered at the tenacity of pigeons and spent weeks trying to outsmart the crows, who seemed to beat me to every ripening strawberry in the early days of June. I have observed a four-year-old struggle, heave and eventually conquer the weight and sloshingness of a full watering can. I have chuckled at the suprised delight on the face of my littlest as she pulled her first radish from the dirt. I have sighed, knowing childhood is dancing away before my very eyes, as I watched my eldest daughter carefully plant her own tiny seeds, tucking them into their earthy beds and whispering prayers for growth. I have loved my husband more fully, knowing that as he dug potatoes from the soil, he was recollecting a time when he followed at the heels of his grandfather, himself a potato farmer. I have swelled with the pride of a new mother as I've harvested peas, beans, chard and beets: I made you. I grew you.
Many months ago, I declared that my word of this year would be 'grow'. We are indeed growing so very much in this rectangle at the bottom of the field on a hill.
Perhaps not a subject I would normally discuss in this space. But, having learned a little about it, I cannot not talk about it.
I know a woman who has spent many years of her life documenting child marriage, a practice which takes place in at least 50 countries around the world. Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair, whose work is regularly published in National Geographic, Newsweek and Marie Claire, has now distilled eight years of her work into a film that - beautifully, hauntingly, frighteningly, shockingly - reveals the human face of this tradition.
I encourage you to watch the film (scroll down to find it at the end of this post). The images and words of young girls who have been given, traded and sold into marriage do not make for easy viewing. As a mother of three little girls myself, I was deeply moved.
A few months back, when it was still cold and grey outside, I spied this sweeeeeeet little crocheted flower garland. Swoon! It had me dreaming of Spring when the weather was still quite frightful. Sadly, I don't know how to crochet (other than a simple chain stitch). Fortunately for me, my friend Kate does. And very well! So I proposed a swap. Here's what I got:
That's a heart in the background.
The orange flower makes me think of my home state's flower - the orange blossom.
But my absolute favourite is the rainbow! Kate had remembered that I had once said I heart all things rainbow-ish, and she searched out a pattern just so she could include one in this garland. I am totally head over heels in love with this garland, and it has been hanging across our back door ever since it arrived.
I was a bit stumped as to what to make Kate in return. She had asked for something 'housey'. I know how important food and mealtimes are in her family, and I considered making a table runner and napkins. Union Jack bunting? Luckily, she had a request. A peg bag. I had to laugh, because a peg bag has been on my own list for about two years, but for one reason or another I have never made a start on one. To be honest, I've been a little daunted for some unknown reason. But now I had to just get on with it.
I trawled through Flickr. I Googled. I searched Cath Kidston's site. Finally, I found this tutorial. Just kitsch enough to be cool. And for modern homemakers like Kate and me, just ironic enough to inject joy into the task of pegging out of wet washing. (I know that pegging out washing is enjoying something of a revival in America. Here in England, where tumble driers are less common, smaller and inefficient compared to their Yankee cousins, hanging out the laundry is, for most homemakers, a necessary task. And it's often a thankless one, thanks to the fickle nature of the weather here. I can't count the times I've hung the washing in bright sunshine, only to look out the window half an hour later to see rain re-dampening everything!)
So here's what I made:
I altered the pattern slightly in that I lined the bag with muslin. I think she's quite cute. Needless to say, I still haven't made myself one.
It's funny. I hated Chemistry when I was at school (except for the teacher - he was newly qualified, only a few years older than us and quite dishy, heehee), but I am absolutely fascinated by it now. If only we had studied the chemistry of fermentation, of baking and of getting the right pH levels to grow blue hydrangea instead of pink, I'd have been hooked.
This week, in preparation for making the first batch of elderflower cordial of the season, I read up a bit on the process, and I'm happy to say I finally understand the role of citric acid in the recipe. If you have a look at the comments on this very informative blog post, 'The Elderflower Man' explains exactly why it is so important. The other thing I hadn't realised is that it can be difficult to find citric acid. I buy mine from an independent grocery shop in Totnes called The Happy Apple, but I understand it is often available in chemists, and sometimes from larger chain grocery stores. I have made elderflower cordial without citric acid, and I wouldn't recommend it. The resulting cordial is not only far too sweet, but it lacks that refreshing tartness that enhances the elderflower flavour so beautifully.
As always, if you are foraging, look for elders that are unsprayed and are away from pollutants such as busy roads. We try to collect on a dry day, picking the flowers with about four inches of stem left on them, and using them within 24 hours (though they should keep for a couple of days in the fridge).
Here's the recipe I use (no idea where it came from, as I first used it about 16 years ago!):
Elderflower Cordial yield: approximately 3 70cL wine bottles
75g citric acid
1 orange, zested and sliced
1 lemon, zested and sliced
1.2 litres water
When I am ready to make the cordial, I prepare my flowers by snipping off as much of the stem as possible and giving them a quick sluice in a bowl of water to remove any bugs. The Elderflower Man says you shouldn't wash them because it is the pollen that imparts the most flavour, but unless you are picking flowers from your own garden you might be happier giving yours a quick dip. I certainly haven't noticed the flavour to be any less full than commercially prepared cordial.
Put the water in a saucepan on a low heat and pour in the sugar. Turn off the heat and gently stir until all the sugar has dissolved. Place the elderflower heads, the sliced lemon and orange and the zest into a large glass bowl and pour your sugar syrup over it all. Stir in citric acid. At this point, I use a very clean wooden spoon to press all the flowers and fruit under the syrup. Cover the bowl loosely and leave to infuse overnight or up to two days.
Strain the mixture through muslin (I boil the muslin for a few minutes before this step to ensure it is very clean, though this is probably not necessary). Pour strained cordial into sterilised bottles. Again, you don't *have* to sterilise them, but it never hurts to be scrupulously clean when preserving anything. I save screw top wine bottles for this, as I think the green glass helps to prolong the life of the cordial and both the bottles and the screw tops can be sterilised and re-used again and again. My hubby certainly doesn't mind helping me to procure bottles! Label with the contents and the date. Try not to give too many bottles away as presents, which is what I did last year.
For a refreshing, summery drink, add 1 part cordial to 8 parts still or sparkling water, or to taste. Drizzle cordial over ice cream. Whisk cordial into salad dressing or marinade. Add cordial to vodka, gin or champagne. Just try to restrain yourself from swigging it straight from the bottle!
Bad blogger! I've been neglecting this space again. But on a positive note, we've had twelve straight days of sunshine - a run not to be sniffed at in this part of the world. We took advantage of the long Easter weekend and went camping with a group of friends at this campsite. What a fantastic time we had! Campfires, sing-songs, a hike up White Horse Hill to admire the breathtaking view and plenty of good eating.
We were blessed with the hottest April weather any of us could remember, and laughed about being woken by the crowing cockerel and singing birds every morning. The ten children in our camp took turns whacking homemade pinatas full of Easter treats, and on Sunday we had a field-sized Easter egg hunt. Truly a magical weekend.
We did miss out on some of our usual Easter traditions, though, being away from home. So we are planning another small family celebration of the season this weekend. We will be dying eggs (naturally, with turmeric, beets, blueberries, onion skins and dandelions), and I'm sure the little ones' Easter baskets - filled with little treasures - will be making an appearance. There won't be as many handmade goodies as last year, but thanks to my Four Seasons Exchange partner, these delightful bunnies will be in the baskets.
Thank you very much, Andreja!
Here is the Spring package we sent Andreja:
A needlefelted bumblebee, knitted eggs and nest from The Purl Bee, a birch card-holder, postcard and a dandelion-dyed playsilk. We really hope she liked it!
Well, the sun is gloriously shining again, this morning, so I need to get out and make the most of it - I have a backlog of seedlings that need attention. Happy day to you!
I love to sew, but I wouldn't claim to be very good at it. My mother letme use her machine when I was quite small, and certainly that is how I learned to thread a machine and do basic stitching. She was a very handy sewist, herself, but must have stopped sewing at some point, as I don't remember her doing any as I grew older. Like all middle-schoolers at the time, I took a semester of home economics. I made an apron. The only real skill I picked up (and still use today) is taking two or three tiny stitches to anchor my thread at the beginning and end of a piece of hand sewing.
A few years ago, full of the feeling that I wanted to sew, I finally took the plunge and bought myself a sewing machine. It was cheap and cheerful, from an ebay seller who proudly displayed photos of the amazing Japanese factory in which her machines were manufactured. It worked, and I found that I do actually enjoy sewing. I made bunting flags, some minor (albeit fairly unsuccessful) garment alterations, lots of pouch slings for my own babies and for other people's, and took a stab at small-scale patchwork quilting. What I didn't do was get any real instruction on how to make the most ofmy basic machine or indeed any ofmy other tools.
A couple of years ago I decided to invest in a better quality sewing machine, a Janome DC 3050. It's still a fairly low to middle range machine, but the difference between my inexpensive, clunky thread-grinder and this purring, whirring beauty was instantly apparent. Rather than fighting with tangled thread, intense tensions and broken needles, I was able to just sew.
I am ready to learn. I have sewed enough now to know that there are ways of doing things, and then there are better ways. I've picked up a few skills from reading through tutorials, but I would love to take a class, particularly in dressmaking and quilting. My big handwork goal for this year is to make a patchwork quilt; I'd like to make one for each ofmy girls, but the idea of making THREE quilts in a year is rather overwhelming. I've done some patchwork and even some basic, amateurish quilting in the past, but my perfectionist tendencies - as well as my intended material - suggest that I will be happier with the final product if I take the time to learn the 'right' way of doing things. (I plan to use the girls' outgrown baby and toddler clothes for this project, so don't want to make too many mistakes as there is so little fabric.)
As practice, I've been working on a number of little projects, each one hopefully building on my abilities. Bias binding holds a pretty impressive fear factor quotient, so I've been working on projects that use binding. I've tried using readymade bias tape and I've made some ofmy own. I picked this little top from the Japanese pattern book Girly Style Wardrobe (pattern B) because of the bound neckline/tie. It's so darling! (Though my own went a little wrong somewhere along the line - I cut what I thought was Eva's size, but it ended up fitting Esme! And even then, I had to let the pleat out to get it to fit across her chest.) I machine-stitched the binding to the front of the garment, then hand sewed it on the inside.
I'm quite proud of this little top - I have very little garment-making experience, and the book from which this pattern comes is written in Japanese! I have sewn from another Japanese pattern book - though that one is translated into English - so I was familiar with the way the patterns work and sew up. But still!
(Special thanks to my Freecycle friend, Lorraine, who gave me another big bag of pretty fabrics, along with all sorts of other notions.) I made six of these in a row, and it was amazing how each one was better-constructed than the last. At first, I couldn't even make a circle, but the last one (the one closest to us in the above photo) was quite good! These gave me the chance to try for tiny, even stitches on the back; I love the way those tiny stitches look.
And just for fun, I made Esme a pair of summer trousers.
These came from Carefree Clothes for Girls. I added some lace around the cuffs and a little bow at the front of the waistband so Esme would know which way to put them on.
So, there you have it. My attempts to teach myself how to sew. After 36 years of pushing thread through the eyes of needles, it is only in the last couple of weeks that I have begun to think of myself as someone who sews.