Sunday 29 March 2020

Last gasp of freedom.....

Three weeks ago we attended our last group social event. We didn’t take public transport and drove into the City, paying the congestion charge and parking - the Covid-19 writing was already on the wall. 

The Master Needlemaker organised a visit to the Drapers Hall in the City of London.  We had a fascinating tour of the Hall and a delicious lunch with fellow Liverymen, always a joy, always entertaining and always the warm glow of fellowship. It was a fitting last gasp of freedom – yes, I know that is a bit over-dramatic but sometimes it feels like it!!

The Drapers Company is one of the early Livery Companies, or Guilds of the City of London. It was founded in the fourteenth century and The present Hall, situated in Throgmorton Street, was bought from King Henry VIII in 1543. What was particularly interesting to me is that this had been the house of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and Chief Minister to Henry, but had been forfeited to the King on Cromwell's execution in July 1540.

This was very timely for me as I am currently listening to an audiobook of The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – a continuation of her brilliant Wolf Hall series. This is the period when Thomas Cromwell was living in this house and it makes many references to the house, the garden and the location.  It is nearly 900 pages and about two days of solid listening so entirely appropriate for the current situation.  The reader is delightful and I love it.

Sometimes when I walk through the City or attend events there I can’t quite believe that I am walking the same streets as Cromwell and many others before and since.  There is something quite awe-inspiring about it and the Civic City will survive our current situation – it has survived great fires, plagues and wars. I am sure that the financial City will also spring back – it too has survived much.  

I attach a view of the much reduced garden since Cromwell’s time and one of the beautiful rooms. If I am not misremembering that glass office block is on what was part of the garden - and is now no doubt contributing to their considerable charitable funds.  

Friday 27 March 2020

Comfort food…..

Our comfort foods often derive from childhood.  Mine certainly do, with a few more added. Chopped liver is an essential part of our Jewish Holiday celebrations but I rarely make it otherwise. However special situations call for special measures. This is taken from a blog I wrote a few years ago – with a recipe this time.

My mother died nearly forty years ago after a long and difficult illness.  She lived with us the last few years of her life and I greeted her death with very mixed emotions: sadness at our loss but relief that she was no longer in pain.

No matter how ill she was she always insisted on making the chopped liver for Passover and New Year and to break the Fast on the Day of Atonement.  There was no recipe, she made it as her mother had made it – and although I helped her I never consciously took much notice. Even when we all knew that her life was limited I didn’t take notice – perhaps it was my form of denial. 

There are strange moments when grief strikes you unexpectedly.  The first Jewish holiday after her death was Passover. There is no thought that has to go into the menu planning– it is the same year after year and of course there is chopped liver. I suddenly realised that this now fell to me to make - would I be able to take over this minor task but somehow central role that my mother had played over many years? It is part of handing down traditions through the generations. I sat down and wept. 

Of course it isn’t difficult, especially with modern kitchen gadgets to do the chopping.  It is chicken or goose fat, chicken livers, onions and hard-boiled eggs.  Then decorated with more chopped hard boiled eggs, whites and yolks separated and put in stripes and garnished with parsley.

There is still no fixed recipe but I will have a go having just made some:

2 – 3 tablespoons of chicken fat or vegetable oil 
about 600 grams of chicken livers
3 medium sized onions
3 eggs 
salt and pepper

Chop the onions coarsely and fry in the fat until translucent. Turn up and heat and sear the chicken livers and then reduce the heat and let them cook until done. It is important that they lose all pinkness.

While they are cooling hard-boil the eggs, cool and peel

Put all into a food processor and pulse until there are no big lumps left but the mixture is quite coarse.  Taste and add seasoning.  

The photo below (Number One Daughter’s contribution to a communal Seder in different times) is of our traditional decoration.  Not today!

Thursday 26 March 2020

Good advice, misinformation, jokes and memes – the internet.

I included “memes” and thought I would check what it actually means: apparently “Meme” was coined by the (often controversial) evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. ... The Greek word “mimeme” he derives “meme” from comes from the Ancient Greek word, meaning “that which is imitated” / “something imitated” / “something copied”.

You learn something every day.  

Between crap so called advice (yes we have toilet paper thank you) the internet is flooded with jokes, photos and, memes.

Between Government advice, which in the UK is measured, evidence based and doesn’t pull its punches and wall-to-wall media coverage of all the awful things that are happening you must make time to connect with friends (thank you internet) and laugh.  

The most recent message I saw did make me laugh – wish I had thought of this when my children were small. “If you want to have a break tell your children that you are going to nap for half an hour and then you are all going to clean the house”.

There used to be a saying – their house is so clean you could eat off the floor. I never saw the point – fortunately I have never needed to eat off the floor. I have a fairly laissez faire attitude to house work.  Number One daughter once said that her friends liked coming to our house because it was a mess.  A cousin once told me that her abiding memory of staying at our house was Sunday morning with the newspapers all over the floor.  

Console yourself – if I stay in my pj’s, don’t put on make-up or make the bed – in Afrikaans – wie sal weet?  Who will know?

PS This does not apply to the kitchen and toilets that I do keep clean – even the floor! The latest hand-washing advice was wasted on me – wash, wash and wash again, especially in the kitchen. Cross contamination from raw meat and poultry to cooked foods can be lethal. Ah for those halcyon days when we used to go out to eat – the Food Standards Agency recommends you check the “Scores on the Doors” three out of five means that their hygiene leaves something to be desired anything below that is salmonella city.

More recipes tomorrow – too busy baking. 

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Recipes in the time of Corona

As I have said before, I never baked much until I retired and now find it quite therapeutic.  I felt so stressed yesterday that I ransacked the store cupboard and baked most of the day.  We have a neighbourhood WhatsApp group so left boxes of biscuits at the front doors this morning – rang the bell and ran away…….

The challenge of collecting family recipes is documenting things which are created from memory and when the instructions are vague to say the least. The only cake I ever baked for years was a fruitcake. Susan was my mother’s cook and I never saw her look at a recipe.  She never measured anything either – just put ingredients in until it looked correct. She was an excellent cook. 

The fruitcake was wonderful. I asked her if I could have the recipe and then stood with her in the kitchen trying to weigh every handful before it went in the bowl. My addition was piercing the baked cake with a tester and basting it with brandy. I have used brandy, rum and whisky at different times – not all together!

If you don’t have fruitcake mix you can make your own with chopped candied orange and lemon peel as well as a few raisins.

Susan’s Dark Fruit Cake

Place in a saucepan on the stove:

250 ml water                       250 g butter
500 fruit cake mix               140 g sugar
100 g cherries                      3 teas cocoa
75 g broken pecans             1 teas ginger
1 teas cinnamon                  100 ml brandy

Boil for about 15 minutes or until dark and syrupy, stirring frequently.  Cool.
Add 3 eggs one by one beating well

Sift together:
350 g plain flour with 2 level teaspoons bicarbonate of soda and mix in a third at a time.

Place in a 2lb loaf tin lined with baking paper (can be a round or square tin) and put in a 230°C oven then immediately reducing it to 130°C and bake for 2.5 hours.  Cool in pan for a few minutes.  Remove and prick with a cake tester and baste with ½ cup brandy.  Turn and repeat. It can be eaten when cool or wrapped up in foil and stored for a while - don't know how long - usually eaten in a week!

Monday 23 March 2020

Socially distancing becomes more distant – so let’s bake

As of tonight the UK is almost in lockdown. I say almost because we can go out for food shopping, as seldom as possible; for medical reasons and once a day for exercise, all the time remaining at least six feet away from others. No groups of more than two people unless you are all living in the same household. We have been doing this anyway for two weeks but it was still chilling to hear the Prime Minister say it.

So let’s bake!  And at the same time you can give the children a science lesson. What is the effect of adding salt to water that is brought to the boil?  What is the effect of adding salt to ice in water?  I remember doing this very early on in science class never thinking I would need it in cooking!

This is a traditional South African dish: it can be bought in any South African supermarket (at least when I was living there) and will totally destroy your diet and your teeth – but it is worth it. Koeksuster literally translated means “cake sister” because the two pieces of dough are twined together (like my sister and me!)

A lovely man called Karl de Jager gave the recipe to my mother. He was of Afrikaans heritage so this would have been a family recipe - and a dress designer – he made my wedding dress.  This is usually made with a yeast dough but this works just as well. 



800 g sugar                                         600 ml water
2 teas ginger
couple of tablespoons rum/brandy

Boil until thick and syrupy and then chill in a bowl. Place the bowl in a larger bowl half filled with salted water with ice in it to keep cold.

450 g plain flour                   4 teas baking powder
½ teas salt                            60 g butter
2 – 3 eggs, beaten                milk – about 200 ml

Mix all dry ingredients and rub in butter until like crumbs.  Add eggs and as much milk as is necessary.  The dough should be stiff but pliable and easy to roll out.  Roll out quite thinly and cut into strips and plait.  Drop a few at a time into hot vegetable oil until they are golden and float to the surface, turn if necessary. I usually test a couple of pieces to make sure that the temperature is right.

Plunge one or two at a time into the icy syrup for a few moments.  Leave on a plate to dry.

This was the last batch I made for visiting grandchildren.

Sunday 22 March 2020

We are learning a new vocabulary and I don’t like it!

The year 2020 will go down in the history books and not in a happy way.  We are learning a whole new vocabulary and completely changing our way of life.  Given our seemingly advanced age (I don’t feel very old inside) we have been “socially distancing” for about two weeks. The only time we leave the house is to go for a walk – we are fortunate to live in suburbia where and we are seeing very few people and if we do we are all being very polite and giving each other a wide berth.

No one comes into the house. We can go to the pharmacy and for occasional food shopping. The delivery services are fully booked and are not taking on new customers.  Our weekly vegetable delivery from which you could pick what you wanted has changed to a set box – this will stop me from cooking the same things over and over again. We have adequate supplies.

The pubs and restaurants have been closed by the government and many department and other stores have closed: still there are people who don’t feel that any of this applies to them – some of the parks were very crowded today – children still going on play dates and older people “just popping in” to the neighbour.

I suppose the next stage will be lockdown…

I am not going stir crazy – I have TV to watch, books to read and music to listen to.  We can FaceTime or talk to family and friends on the telephone but I feel some sadness knowing that I can’t just pop in and see my son and his family in London or get on a plane to see my daughter and her family in Switzerland. We flew to Switzerland at short notice once when our granddaughter went into hospital and have travelled to our son in the early hours of the morning when someone has similarly had to go to hospital. I know in the big picture of things this is minor and we speak every day – but it saddens me to know I can’t.  I suppose that is being a parent. 

Saturday 21 March 2020

My mother-in-law’s recipe book

My mother-in-law was a fabulous baker as were all her friends and relations.  Having grown up in Upington in the Northern Cape, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert life was quite spartan. She was born early in the 20thcentury and grew up in what we would consider very primitive circumstances. The family owned the general store which dealt in everything from karakul skins to wedding dresses.  The farmers would run up a tab which they would pay when the harvest was in.

So whatever you wanted you had to make and they were all fabulous bakers.  She would say that she was a very plain cook – which meant that she took excellent fresh ingredients and didn’t mess them around – something I sometimes wish there was more of today.  

She and my father-in-law moved to Cape Town and that is where we used to visit them, and latterly, her, after he died.  No only were all the biscuit tins full of her baking, but all the family and friends would bring something and our children were in sugar heaven for the duration of our visit!

Over the years I used to copy out a recipe or two when we visited, with no real intention of baking anything – who had the time? When she died her recipe book vanished but reappeared a few years later.  When I retired from full time work I decided to have a go at baking some of her recipes and they have become firm family favourites.  One recipe I found in her book that had clearly been cut from a newspaper and which I don’t remember ever having was the one below. 

It has been a great success with grandchildren and friends alike. I have all these things in my store-cupboard but then I do bake rather more than my waistline can take. (g = grams; ml = Millilitre)

150 g butter                          150 sugar
25 ml golden syrup               150 rolled oats
150 g self raising flour    
3 ml bicarbonate of soda

Makes about 32.  Slowly melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a saucepan.  Stir in flour mixed with oats and bicarb and beat well.  Spread into a lined 23 x 33 cm swiss roll tin and bake at 180C for 15 minutes.


100 g dark chocolate           50 g butter
60 ml golden syrup              50 g plain flour

Over a low heat melt the chocolate with the butter and syrup. Stir in the flour and spread carefully over the biscuit base.  Bake for a further 10 – 15 minutes or until bubbling.   Cool in the tin for a few minutes then mark into bars.  When firm enough move to a rack to cool.

Friday 20 March 2020

Irrational behaviour in times of stress

When I grew up in Johannesburg the car was always kept full of petrol.  My father was a surgeon and he never knew when he might be called out and where he would have to go. Fuel efficiency wasn’t that great then either.

I cannot bear to let my fuel level go much below half (Number One Husband waits until the gauge is on the red) and for absolutely no good reason I went to fill up a couple of days ago.  Don't know where I think I will be driving but rationality had nothing to do with it.

I came to live in London when we married and then in 1970 we decided to go back to Johannesburg for family reasons. Going back to Johannesburg wasn’t that stressful – we had few possessions and Number One Daughter was a baby – and after all I was going “home”.  Number One Husband had a job to go back to as well.

By 1976 it was time to return to London and we did so the following year.  When we returned to London it was very different – family and friends were gradually leaving and spreading out all over the world. We had two children and my mother was going to follow once we were settled and also spend time with my sister in the USA.

There was great uncertainty in terms of jobs and schools and where we would live. I did some vaguely sensible things such as buying underwear, t-shirts etc for the children for a couple of years and one hundred pairs of tights for myself (they were incredibly cheap!) 

The one action that was completely irrational sticks in my mind:  on the day the packers came I suddenly felt the need for a wicker basket.  I still have it and I use it for storage – but I could have lived without it. Still not sure what it represented……

Thursday 19 March 2020

First embarrass your children….

When both my children were at university, Number One Daughter developed chicken pox.  I tasked Number One Son with doing food shopping for her and delivering it.  This he dutifully did, leaving it on the doorstep and crossing the road to wave at her when she picked it up. We laughed about it at the time – not so funny now.

Daughter lives abroad so can only offer advice (and plenty of it) but Son phoned to see if there was anything we needed. We haven’t stockpiled but having never quite got used to catering for a household of two we have plenty – especially as we won’t be doing any entertaining. However, today his sons have been sent home from boarding school as a housemate has tested positive for the virus – the whole household is socially distancing as well. I have volunteered my services to deliver stuff (driving in my car, no passenger, only I travel in it) and leaving it on the doorstep and running across the road to wave…..

Tuesday 17 March 2020

Grandmothers don’t know everything….

I am an experienced grandmother: I know important things such as how to make Barbie cakes and favourite biscuits; tell embarrassing stories about their parents and read the same Mr Men books over and over again. I provided rescue monkey when teddy had been forgotten for a sleepover and especially “Grandma’s house, Grandma’s rules”.  That applies to sitting properly at the table as well as not having to finish your broccoli in order to have ice cream….

When the Corona virus advice started to come in I was resistant to changing behaviour. My adult children started to nag: we have an epidemiologist in the family and I am conditioned to believe evidence rather than anecdote so we reluctantly caved in. By the time the UK government recommended “social distancing” we were ready for it.  

Never mind pandemic, pandemonium ensued around us. People were bulk-buying toilet paper. As far as I am aware diarrhoea is not a consequence of the disease.  However I do realise that in a situation where we have no control (!) to be able to control something ticks a box. We always need toilet paper, it doesn’t date or go off – but the supermarkets can’t keep up with supply. There have been scenes in the supermarkets reminiscent of the first day of the summer sales. 

Some pharmacies have been charging extortionate prices for disinfectant hand gel. We are going to move to another pharmacy when all this is over as the one we usually use is doing this – an increase in price during a shortage I can understand but almost ten times? I have half a dozen bottles of barely used hand gel because every time we go away I forget to take it and buy a bottle at the airport. 

And then there’s soap - I confess I am a hoarder. A French market visits our area every quarter and I am always tempted by the lovely fragranced soaps. They are scattered around in drawers and on shelves and in wardrobes. Perhaps time to repurpose.

Wash your hands!