Wednesday, 20 November 2013


Sometimes it is just enough to be 100% alive and 95% sane.



Monday, 18 November 2013

Pull a chair closer to the fire, turn your back on the dark.

Yesterday was the most Novemberish Sunday as yet, a dry breezy morning tumbling with drifts of golden, russet and amber leaves into a misty drizzle of a darkening afternoon. The lamps are lighted early and I am rummaging for candles to bring a glow to gloomy corners.

The children refused to leave the warmth of the house and have played old-school board games and read stories most of the day. We had spiced pear and apricot porridge for breakfast and will have a great bowl of Mr S's sausage casserole for dinner. Food is an important source of comfort and sustenance this time of year.

I like this period of calm retreat, post Halloween and far enough from Christmas (despite all the decorations in the shops) to delay all the hectic preparations for that holiday. It is a time for fire lighting, and curling up with the family to drink hot chocolate, read the papers and bar the door to the elements. The papers have been gleefully full of this sort of weather forecast.

Some of us in 'the best book-club in the world' have been attempting to compile our top ten must reads, our desert island essentials it is a very hard list to construct I can tell you. What are your most favourite books? I am on my second attempt and will probably have to do a third definitive list as I forgot to include a book that I adore and one book that I love re-reading at this time of year. This is Frank Delaney's 'Ireland', a beautiful book full of the mythology of this island, retold by vibrant authentic characters and brilliantly evokes the noble tradition of storytelling and the role of the Seanachi and the art of a living oral history.

 (image from

The Seanachai is a wandering journeyman who hones his or her craft of storytelling as they travel the length and breath of the country re-telling old stories and collecting new ones. Open your door and offer your hospitality to the Seanachai and together enjoy the comfort of your fireside and perhaps a wee hot whiskey and the stories you will hear will send you off to sleep with many voices added to your dreams. At this time of year as dusk gathers quickly and as bare branches scape against your window, what better way to indulge this most spooky of seasons than with a few wee ghost stories. Have you heard the one about the headless horseman, The Dullahan? Remember that all strange travellers in the countryside are not so benevolent as The Storyteller.

The Dullahan rides a wild black horse after sunset, he travels with his own head under his arm and he encourages his steed with a whip made of a human spine. The Dullahan is said to travel so quickly that the very hedgerows burst into flames as he speeds by, there is not a locked door or gate in the land that can prevent him entry. If you are unfortunate enough to hear him passing by turn your gaze away or a bucket of blood will be thrown into your face but if he pulls up, stops and calls out your name then there is no hope. He is calling out your soul and you will surely die.

Well now, they say that the Dullahan is mortally afraid of anything made of gold, I think that with this recipe containing warm golden Irish Whiskey served with your evening tea, you will have nothing to fear from our headless harbinger.

Sticky Toffee tray bake with Irish Whiskey Sauce
(I think I first seen this recipe on the Great British Bake-off but I cannot find the original recipe and the caramel sauce is adapted from

200g pitted dates, chopped
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
300ml boiling water
80g unsalted butter, softened
160g light brown sugar
2 large free-range eggs, at room temperature, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
175g self raising flour
good pinch of seasalt
75g walnut pieces
300g  caster sugar
250ml cream
75g  unsalted butter
1 vanilla pod, split with seeds scraped out
splash of whiskey
  1. Preheat oven to 180oC. Grease and line a 25.5cm x 20.5cm x 5cm tin. Put the dates into a suacepan, add the bicarb soda and pour over the boiling water. Simmer over a low heat for a minute, then remove from the heat and leave to cool and soften for 15 minutes.
  2. Put butter into a mixing bowl and beat with a wooden spoon or an electric beater until creamy. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy, then gradually add the eggs. Beat in the vanilla. Sift the flour and salt into the bowl and fold in with a large metal spoon. Add the cooled date mixture and the walnuts, and fold in.
  3. Transfer the mixture to the prepared tin and spread evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the sponge feels springy when gently pressed in the centre. Cool for 15 minutes in the tin, then carefully turn out and leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
To make the caramel whiskey sauce,
  1. Place the caster sugar in a pan with 300ml (1/2 pint) of water.
  2. Bring slowly to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes until golden brown.
  3. Stir in the cream, butter and vanilla seeds until well combined, then swirl in the whiskey and continue to cook gently for another 8-10 minutes until shiny and thickened.

Here, I am using up our wee collection of Scottish miniatures and a fine selection they are too but I think The Dullahan would only settle for the Irish. ;)

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Comfort of Books.

"Good morning, Pooh Bear," said Eeyore gloomily. "If it is a good morning," he said. "Which I doubt," said he.
"Why, what's the matter?"
"Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can't all, and some of us don't. That's all there is to it."
"Can't all what?" said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
"Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush."

One of my most vivid memories is running home from primary school with my new reading book tucked away safety in my bag. I could not wait to get settled down beside my Grannies fragrant turf fire and devour it from front to back while munching banana on hot buttery toast. Sometimes there would be an exciting pile of second hand paperbacks that she had gathered for me in one of her favourite charity shops, The Famous Five, Anne of Green Gables, The Treasure Seekers, Nancy Drew, Heidi and Jane Eyre. I lived in these books, they had a vivid cinemagraphic clarity; the characters leaping from the page, beckoning and beguiling.
My Dad used to read to us also, at bedtime but I can only remember listening to The Wind in the Willows and The Water Babies. Perhaps I could read on my own quickly because after we would be packed off to bed, lingering summer evenings would be spent squinting in the poor light trying to surreptitiously finish just one more chapter.
For ever books have been my comfort, solace and escape, they have kept me alive in bad times and enhanced the good. I have developed a bit of an addiction to their acquisition; great piles totter beside my bed, bookcases groan overloaded, library books long overdue and a stack of shabby boxes still litter my Dad's house waiting to be brought to my house eight years after being left there temporarily while Mr S and I went travelling. Every-now and then I find some more, like the hidden stash of the alcoholic, they emerge into daylight to be re-united with me like some dear old friends from way back.
The children have thankfully inherited their mothers passion, we love reading together, Julia Donaldson, Lauren Child, Oliver Jeffers are just some of the brilliant authors that we read over and over again. Oh and the illustrations! I just love buying children's books and seeing their little faces concentrate on a wonderful story. So if ever there was a time for an escape into the world of books, this Halloween was just that time. E came down with the most violent bout of eczema she has ever had, all over her wee self it is.
So she has been itchy, sore, grumpy, distraught and listless, the nights have been particularly disturbed and enduring. On the Winnie the Pooh scale of happiness, she says she is only on Eeyore. Sticky buns managed to get to the Piglet level but we have yet to reach Tigger. Steroids, antibiotics, antihistamines and three different creams have not so far manage to diminish the horrible itch/scratch cycle. What else to do but read to try and take our minds of it all, between the pages of 'The Wind in The Willows and in the company of Ratty, Mole, Toad and the formidable Badger.

Re-reading the book, it strikes me that while it still stands as a classic of children's literature and is full of excitement and emotive imaginative language, it is in parts a strange little book. The chapters dealing with the exciting exploits of the insufferable Toad (E's favourite) are interlaced with quite contemplative dream-like chapters like 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn' and 'Wayfarers All'. I love the tale of how Ratty gets seduced by the alluring adventuring tales of the Sea-Rat and has to be restrained by the loyal Mole  and returned to mental health by poetry. It is a book while slightly antiquated and tells of a disappeared or even imagined English pastoral idyll, can on return be read on a number of different levels.