Sunday, 31 January 2010

Friday, 29 January 2010

Fun films for dull days ~ or nights

An enjoyable movie, like a good book, provides a gateway to another world for a time.  Here are four lightweight movies I enjoyed this summer:

"Intolerable cruelty" (2003) starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones:
This is a farce about divorce, a subject which will not be to everyone's taste but is nonetheless rich in dramatic scenarios, and if we can laugh at this usually painful subject, I say so much the better.
    Older viewers may remember Zeta-Jones as the seductive Mariette in the television series "The Darling Buds of May".  In this movie she is more beautiful and seductive than ever and an alluring match in looks and temperament to Clooney.  Her character, Marilyn Rexroth, is diligently working her way to financial independence by way of serial divorce.
    Clooney's character, Miles Massey, is the divorce lawyer acting for her husband.  They each have some marvellous lines!  Mr Rexroth confides to Miles that his wife has him between a rock and a hard place, to which Miles responds crisply "That's her job - you should respect that," which is, shall we say, refreshingly unexpected!  He's the man in charge and no one is likely to forget it.  I'm not easily impressed by good-looking men but was very much entertained by Clooney's interpretation of this quick-witted, dental-hygiene-obsessed and somewhat supercilious character.  Clooney clearly enjoyed the role and sends it up just enough to make Miles funny rather than aggravating. And I must confess that the sight of him in green and red tartan took even my breath away. Must be my Scottish ancestry getting the better of me!
    During the course of the story Miles and Marilyn take turns at stalking each other like a pair of wary yet designing felines, with the predictable drawing of claws and flying of fur.
    One disappointment was that the movie was not longer and more complex but I found it fun all the same, and was pleased to be able to watch portions of it several times over.

Note: I've seen Clooney in two other movies, "Burn after reading" which was supposed to be funny but which I found so dull I watched only about a third of it, and "Up in the air", which I thought started with brilliant opening credits, footage and music and went downhill all the way from there.  Clooney didn't seem to have much to do in either movie, a waste of his talent.
    The biography of George Clooney in Wikipedia is an interesting read, especially his comments about the Iraq war which you can read under the heading Politics and Advocacy.

"Mad dogs and Englishmen" also known as "How to kill your neighbours dog" (2000) starring Kenneth Branagh and Robin Wright Penn:
I liked Branagh in this movie.  His character, Peter McGowan, is a playwright in the doldrums, and at this point in his career he doesn't seem to be able to write, sleep or satisfy his wife, and then the neighbour gets a dog - which barks at night.  I think most of us can identify with at least one of these problems, possibly more.  As an Englishman domiciled in the leafy suburbs of Los Angeles, our thwarted playwright vents his frustrations in a blisteringly un-American manner very much at odds with those around him.  Clearly he has a sufficiently substantial reputation and wealth not to be inconvenienced by those he might offend!  The scene in which he is interviewed on television is one to treasure!  Coming the other way, his chance meeting with a dis-affected screenplay writer shows the boot on the other foot.  McGowan, while surprised and taken a-back, takes it in his stride.
    There are interesting theatrical devices used, such as the doppelgänger character who stalks him, and is fittingly believable.
    The sub-plot about the little girl who comes to live next door added a softer touch without becoming mushy.
    What I particularly liked about this movie was that Branagh and Penn portray a couple who clearly love each other and want to be together despite their difficulties, which you don't often see in movies - usually the storyline is either entirely given over to the chase, or it's all on - or all off.  This is a very nicely crafted movie and of these four seemed the closest to real life.

"Something's gotta give" (2003) starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton:
I should think that any fan of either of these actors would enjoy this movie: Nicholson, as Harry Sanborn, is his flamboyantly womanising and satirical self, and Keaton, as Erica Barry,  is as nervy, engaging and ambiguous as ever - edging awkwardly between laughter and anger, stormy tears and enchantment.  Harry sets her all on end, and visa versa, and yet...
    By chance I watched this movie after the one above, and it is also about a languishing playwright! This time that role goes to the woman.  While I enjoyed watching these two great actors I never forgot I was watching a movie made up about two fictional characters, so it lacked the realism of the Branagh movie.  Good entertainment though.

"Whatever works" (2009) written and directed by Woody Allen; starring Larry David (of "Curb your Enthusiasm" fame) and Evan Rachel Wood, supported by Patricia Clarkson:
I loved this movie - it's so Jewish, so Woody Allen.  He's scathingly intelligent, determinedly depressed, tied up in anguished knots about the meaningless randomness of life, yet still possessing an off-beat generosity - if of a morose variety!  Woody expresses himself through the character of Boris, played by Larry David, a man of advanced middle age and decidedly knobbly knees, who invariably sings Happy Birthday as he washes his hands, an eccentric.
    An essential feature of any Woody Allen movie is the innocent and as yet unformed young woman, in this case played by Evan Rachel Wood, who is the perfect foil for this disaffected older man.  She carries off the role with an ingenuousness as convincing as it is delightful.  By slow degrees she invades his world, and then, surprise, surprise, his heart.  All goes well until the entrance on the scene of her mother, splendidly portrayed by Patricia Clarkson, at which point upsets occur in many directions one after another.
    As with the Branagh movie I enjoyed the use of theatrical devices such as the repeated use of the opening chords of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony which heralds especially dramatic moments. The deliberately stagy quality of some of the acting is another case in point, as in Boris' recollection of a row he had with his first wife, which is precisely the manner in which we mentally re-enact our memories of difficult situations, time after time after time - like set pieces.
    Woody Allen has a lot to say, and he is determined not to leave anything out, so this is a movie packed with his particular style of intellectual content and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to how he has reached the conclusion that the best way to live is to do "whatever works".  His characters as lined up at the end are so far removed in disposition and circumstance from where they started out that I laughingly agreed!

Book store links for interested NZ viewers:

"Mad dogs and Englishmen": also entitled: "How to kill your neighbours dog"
(It's okay, the dog is fine!)
Fishpond.co.nz
The locally available version is entitled: "Mad dogs and Englishmen" - much more civilised!
 Mad Dogs and Englishmen

"Something's gotta give"
Fishpond.co.nz
 Somethings Gotta Give

"Whatever works"
Fishpond.co.nz
Whatever Works

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Music for maladies ~ and good times

Over the years music has been not only a pleasure but a way of staying sane, and of keeping in touch with the best in myself.  That hasn't always been easy and music has been a big help.

Just a few days ago I returned from being away.  I had overdone things rather and as I relaxed exhaustion closed in accompanied by depression.  There didn't seem to be any point in anything at all, not even in the things that usually give me pleasure.  Rest is always good of course, but having done that and finding myself still out of sorts I got out Stan Walker's album for background music. I was doing some dull work at my desk and needed some nice sounds to keep me company.  Ordinarily I enjoy the album, and this time it was okay, but when he got to 'Hallelujah' by Leonard Cohen, I really woke up and the clouds rolled back, bless him. I've listened to this album, "Introducing Stan Walker" a lot since buying it soon after he won Australian Idol, and there's only one track on it I don't especially care for, which is a good measure of success in my view. 

Other favourite albums which have kept me going over the years have been: 
"Tranquility - A Real Music Sampler" which I have listened to countless times and don't tire of.

"Eagle Spirit" by Medwyn Goodall, and also

"Medicine Woman" by the same artist.  His style of music does vary quite a lot from one album to another.

"River of Stars" by 2002

Almost anything by George Frederick Handel, especially his concerti for organ and orchestra

"Evening Services" (etc) by  Charles Villiers Stanford which is of choral music.  Here is a link to "Stanford: Sacred Choral Music, Vol. 1" ; a similar collection of his music.

And from time to time, a good blast of disco music.

Oh and that wonderful gutsy rock classic "Whiplash Smile" by Billy Idol!

I'm very sensitive to sound which seems like both a blessing and a curse - a blessing in terms of beauty and pleasure, and a curse in so far as so much of modern life is pervaded by a cacophony of sound.

I'll let you into a little known secret - if you need to block out heavy bass the best thing in the world is classical organ music: wind it up and you're in a world of your own.  I discovered this one evening when I was nearly out of my mind with the neighbours interminably exploding fireworks.  I think it was Virgil Fox's recording "The Virtuoso Organ" that saved me that time.  I have very strong associations with this record from my childhood when it was played with splendid effect many times over but which I didn't fully appreciate at the time - it is rather overwhelming if you listen to it properly, and even if you don't!  Although that particular Virgil Fox recording doesn't seem to be available now, there are others, such as "Virgil Fox Encores". This particular album isn't quite what I was thinking of, but does have wonderful music on it.

On the other side of the equation, the performance of music can be transformational.  When I was younger I sang in the city choir and loved it.  It has given me a special appreciation of the singing of others - I find myself instinctively singing along with them, even if only silently, which is often uplifting.

I have to wave a flag here for Adam Lambert: it was after watching his performances on American Idol last year that I realised how important self expression is, and how little most of us allow ourselves.  I found him fascinating - not only his talent, but also for his self confidence and exuberance, discipline and imagination.  I was amazed at how he always seemed to know exactly where the camera was and the candour with which he let others see what they would.  The other contestants seemed pale and insubstantial in comparison. I thought, good on you, Adam, and I think I should let out a little more than I do.  It was at that point that I decided to set up these web logs, which have been the source of much pleasure - for me anyway.  I'm grateful for that.  Thanks Adam!

Book shop links for interested NZ listeners:
These links are all (intended to be) to CD's.  Keen listeners may wish to check for other versions and compilations.  "Whiplash Smile", for example, seems to come in a range of different  (additional?) tracks.
"Tranquility: A Real Music Sampler"
Fishpond.co.nz
Tranquility: A Real Music Sampler

"Eagle Spirit" by Medwyn Goodall
Fishpond.co.nz
Eagle Spirit

"Medicine Woman" - by Medwyn Goodall 
Fishpond.co.nz
Medicine Woman

"River of Stars" by 2002
Fishpond.co.nz
River of Stars

"Whiplash smile" by Billy Idol
Fishpond.co.nz
Whiplash Smile

"Virgil Fox encores"  
Fishpond.co.nz
Virgil Fox Encores

"Introducing Stan Walker" - The Amazon stores do have this but at vastly inflated prices. For buyers outside New Zealand and Australia, it's available from itunes via the link in the text above.
Fishpond.co.nz
Introducing...Stan Walker

Monday, 25 January 2010

Jam-making ~ fruit, sugar and water ratios, preparation and miscellaneous notes

This article continues on from the previous one which gives information about the process of jam-making in general.

For jam the ratio I often use is around six parts of prepared fruit to five parts of sugar.  If you're not used to dealing with ratios, consider that if I applied the six to five ratio to six kilos of fruit, I would then use five kilos of sugar.  This may seem excessive, especially when you're measuring it out, but many recipes suggest equal quantities of fruit and sugar, sometimes more.  Tastes differ and it's important to get this right according to your own preference as it does make a considerable difference to the flavour. 

Working out ratios for any quantity of fruit:
Sugar: using the six to five ratio as an example, take the weight of your fruit, divide it by six to get one sixth, and then multiply by five, to get five sixths.  The five-sixths is the amount of sugar you'll need - easy!
Water: my rule of thumb for jam is half a cup of water per kilo of fruit - see below.

GOOSEBERRIES: The only preparation needed for this fruit is topping and tailing and then washing.
    I use six parts of fruit to five parts of sugar. With gooseberries the amount of sugar used is particularly crucial as the flavour is delicate: not enough and tartness over-rides it and too much and the sweetness drowns it out.  
Revised notes from December 2010: Half a cup of water per kilo of fruit is ample as although the fruit seems hard when first put on to cook it rapidly liquefies.  The danger is that it may catch on the bottom before it does so.  This is easily avoided by starting the cooking process by first placing your total of water in the pot and by adding the fruit to it gradually, allowing the fruit to contribute a good portion of its  moisture before adding more.  The fruit will go to a complete mush during the jamming process so this is fine.  This is how I did mine this year and it was the best I've yet made: it set beautifully and is mostly a delicate pinkish jelly.  That it is delicious goes without saying!
Note: Green gooseberries turn a fairly dark pink when cooking.  This is to be expected when making jam but indicates over-cooking if you're making preserves.

RASPBERRIES:  Make as for gooseberry jam. 

I was given a kilo for Christmas (2011) and after we had eaten our fill and they were about to spoil I still had 300 grams left, so having consulted my recipe for gooseberries...

...I decided to use the same method: a ratio of 6 parts of fruit to 5 parts of sugar (in this case, 250 grams),  and just enough water on the bottom of the pot to prevent the fruit from catching before they made their own juice.

In what seemed like next to no time I had a lovely jarful of jam and a little extra in a jam pot!  Perfect colour and as good a flavour as you'd find anywhere!  The fruit is fairly costly though, so this is a special treat.

Raspberry jam on toast.

PLUMS:
(Notes revised, January 2011)
I use a ratio of five parts of plums (with stones and skin still intact) to four parts of sugar.
The ratio of water is half a cup of water per kilo of fruit.
     I don't remove the stones prior to cooking as the plums used have been small and it would be too fiddly.  They float free in the cooking process, and can be removed either by fishing them out with a slotted spoon, or by sieving the pulp.  It's a matter of personal taste if you also remove the skins.  I do.  This does make it quite a long process but I've found the results worth it.
     I start the cooking by placing the total water required in the pot and then gradually add the fruit to it so that the fruit mush can build up slowly as it cooks.
     Once the mush is done you can break the jam making process overnight if you want to but do be sure to keep track of the quantity of fruit you started with so that you know how much sugar you'll need when you set to work on it again!
     Do be sure to remove stones and skins before before adding the sugar to avoid wastage as well as all-enveloping stickiness!
     I've found that discarded stones and skins amount to about a fifth of the original weight of the fruit, meaning that essentially the fruit to sugar ratio is about one to one, which is to say, equal in quantity.
     When the sugar is being added take care not to let the sugar sit on the bottom of the pot as it can rapidly caramelise which will spoil your jam.  If it catches, empty the pot into a clean one and continue on from there.  If left it will spoil the flavour of your delicious jam.
     Once the sugar has dissolved the heat can be turned up as the jam needs to boil briskly before it will be ready to set.  Test for readiness in the usual way.
    
APRICOTS:
(Notes revised, January 2011) 
I have an aversion to finding large pieces of fruit in jam or indeed any preserves, so I cut the fruit into the sized pieces that please me, removing the stones and any blemished skin, weigh the fruit,  and then work out how much sugar I'll need.  

Sugar: I usually use a ratio of six parts of fruit (once de-stoned) to five parts of sugar, however, the sweetness of fruit does vary so experimentation can be important as indicated in the additional note below:.
15th February 2015 - Additional note regarding the sugar ratio: this year I used quite a lot less.  The fruit was very sweet, so I experimented with the amount of sugar: I started by working out the sugar in sixths, ie: I had 4 kilos of prepared fruit in my big stock pot so I divided 4 by six which equals .666 of a kilo; then multiplied it by three to get three sixths, which is 2 kilos; then working out additional steps in sixths, ie: four sixths equals 2.7 kilos; five sixths equals 3.33 kilos.  I had that written down before I started adding the sugar so that I knew exactly where I was up to at any point!  By the time I got to four sixths I had the flavour I wanted - perfect, so stopped right there!  (Four sixths is of course two thirds, but for the sake of adding sugar by degrees to get the flavour just right working it out in sixths is sensible as it gives smaller steps for adjustment.
   
Water: the amount of water used is half a cup per kilo of fruit. 

Repeat the next part of the process as for plums above:
      I start the cooking by placing the total water required in the pot and then gradually add the fruit to it so that the fruit mush can build up slowly as it cooks.
     Once the mush is done you can break the jam making process overnight if you want to but do be sure to keep track of the quantity of fruit you started with so that you know how much sugar you'll need when you set to work on it again!  
     When the sugar is being added take care not to let the sugar sit on the bottom of the pot as it can rapidly caramelise which will spoil your jam.  If it catches, empty the pot into a clean one and continue on from there.  If left it will spoil not only the colour but also the flavour of your delicious jam.
     Once the sugar has dissolved the heat can be turned up as the jam needs to boil briskly before it will be ready to set.  Test for readiness in the usual way.
 
Most people prefer Moorpark apricots for any kind of preserves.  The first lot was in 2009 and were Ettrick Gold, a variety which no doubt has its origins in an Ettrick orchard, which is where these ones were from.  I found both very good, but the first batch was especially pleasing.  I wrote in my notebook:
"Flavour could NOT be bettered - !!! - SCRUMPTIOUS !!!"  No kidding!  I was surprised at my own success as this was the first time I had made apricot jam.  Since then I've used Moorpark, simply because they were available and the others were not.  All of it has had that superb sun-ripened flavour which is so rare in shop bought fruit.  May yours be as good! 

MIXED FRUIT AND OTHER JAMS: Some fruit combines very well, such as various berry fruits, and once you get comfortable making plain jam you'll feel confident about experimenting further, I'm sure. 
    Last summer I had some crab-apple jelly that wasn't all that flavoursome, so I simply added it to the pot of plum jam I had on the stove and it became delicious. I didn't need to work out any additional sugar as it had already been 'jammed'.  
   Some weeks ago a neighbour gave me a big bag of yellowish-green plums which someone had given her.  She'd used what she wanted but there was still a lot left.  Not having any idea how they would turn out but wanting to have a go, I gratefully accepted them. It's all food! I duly cooked them up, and got nineteen pots of golden jam!  It's yummy actually, and tastes a bit like lemon honey!

MARMALADE: a sound and flexible recipe can be found in my article:
As I've said regarding other recipes, my aim in sharing these notes is not to present perfect formulas but with the hope of encouraging others to have a go - and to have more clues to start of with than I had!

More of my articles about jam and preserves as well as other food articles can be found listed together via the link below:

Monday, 18 January 2010

Making Jam ~ general instructions

Notes revised, 2nd February 2011
Making jam is straightforward but somewhat time-consuming.  It also requires a reasonable amount of attention so I allow a few hours each time I cook up a batch in a stockpot-sized saucepan. That sized pot will take about four kilos of fruit, which is enough to make the effort worthwhile. The reward is that you then have a supply of a dozen or so jars of jam which will last the household for weeks and weeks!

It's a good idea to write down your quantities and ratios in a notebook so that you can be sure of being consistent, or of being able to do it differently if you want a different result next time.  For this reason I always label my jars with the type, batch number and date.  It has turned out to be surprisingly useful.

For the bottling process itself refer to my article about using pop-top jars.

Here is a general method: 
  • Get your jars all clean and lined up.  I've found that one kilo of fruit will make between two and three jars of jam of the sort that originally held about 400 grams of whatever it was they first contained.  This will give you a rough idea of how many jars you'll need. 
  • Wash and prepare your fruit for cooking, removing any stones, cores or skins that you don't want to eat.  An exception to this is plums, the stones and skins which I remove after they have floated free in the cooking process - refer to notes below. Make sure you also remove any 'bad' bits.
  • Weigh your fruit once you've prepared it as much as you are going to prior to cooking, and write down your total.
  • Work out the sugar needed according to the ratio you decide on.  Again, refer to the following article for the schedule I use.  Mostly, five parts of fruit to four parts of sugar is about right, or if you prefer it a little sweeter, six parts of fruit to five parts of sugar. Write down the ratio you decide on and the total needed. To check your sums, the quantity of sugar should usually be less than the amount of fruit.
  • Weigh your sugar and put it to one side as you won't need it immediately. 
  • Work out how much water you'll need and put it in the pot.  Generally speaking jam requires only a very small amount, say about half a cup per kilo of fruit.  More than that and you'll find it takes a long time for the liquid jam to reduce enough to set. Most fruit turns into a watery pulp very quickly, and can then cook in its own juice. 
  • Add your fruit to this small amount of water bit by bit.  This gives the fruit time to contribute its own moisture and get mushy before adding more, which makes it much easier to manage and reduces the possibility of it catching on the bottom of the pot. 
  • Keep stirring it so that it doesn't catch. If it does catch, immediately decant fruit into another container and clean the burnt area out of your pot before putting the fruit back into it as the burnt flavour can easily ruin your jam, which should taste delectable.
  • Remove any stones and skins that weren't removed prior to cooking, such as with plums. These float free in the cooking process. Remove them either by fishing them out with a slotted spoon in conjunction with a dining fork, or by sieving them. I put the waste stones and skins into a sieve placed over a large bowl to collect any residual juice. You'll note that I haven't yet got to adding the sugar; this is because it's wasteful to discard sweetened stones and skins but also because everything can rapidly become very sticky, and yes, I've made this mistake!
  • Your fruit will now be a fairly even liquid. Bring it to a nice boil.
  • Add your sugar - gradually.  It will look an astronomical amount but if you have done your sums correctly you will know that it is the right amount - which demonstrates the value of having written everything down! Stir briskly over a medium heat taking care not to allow undissolved sugar to sit on the bottom of the pot where it can easily catch.  Again, if it does catch, immediately empty the pot and clean as above.
  • Bring it back to the boil and keep it there, making sure to keep stirring it while the sugar dissolves.  You can turn up the heat at this stage to keep up that brisk simmer.
  • Add a knob of butter to reduce any foam that forms on the surface.
  • The fruit will need to simmer at a rolling boil for some time before it becomes ready to set. The length of time can depend on the amount of water used as well as the amount of natural setting agents in the fruit.  Keep it moving. This can be a good time to catch up on some reading while keeping the fruit moving or of watching something on the tele if you have one in the kitchen. 
  • As your jam nears readiness for bottling put your jars into a sink full of really hot water, and the lids into a heatproof bowl filled with the same so that they are ready for action. 
  • Refer back to the guidelines in the article on pop-top jars
  • Testing for setting readiness: the usual test is to put a small spoonful onto a saucer and leave it to cool somewhat; once cooled, you draw a spoon across it and if it's ready to set the surface of the jam will have formed a 'skin' which will wrinkle as you do so. However, I've never got the hang of this! I go by the look and the sound of it. The bubbles begin to resemble ball bearings, which get bigger, some approximating marble size, and will hiss and 'plup' a little. It can take quite some time for it to reach this stage, but it will.  The boiling jam will still look unbelievably runny.  Later note: this is certainly true for plum jam whereas apricot and gooseberry jam need to become somewhat more porridge-like before they are likely to set properly.  If you're doing this for the first time you might want to do a smallish batch first to get a clearer idea of what works best for you. 
  • Once this point is reached your jam is ready to bottle, so go to it! You needn't fill the jars to the very top, but near to it is good and the pop-top lids will click down more readily. I stand filled and capped jars straight back into the sink of hot water but do not immerse them above their shoulders, so that no water seeps in before they properly seal.
  • Wash the jars as soon as possible as they will be sticky!!!
  • Your jam should set overnight. It can be useful to put a small quantity into a jam dish which will enable you to see easily whether it has set of not.  The whole batch will be much the same.  The jars can be tested by tilting or turning them upside down. The jam shouldn't slide around too much, or may set completely.  If it does, this can usually be rectified by re-boiling it.  Some recipes recommend the addition of Pectin to address this problem, which I haven't used, but it is available at supermarkets, so it is not difficult to get or mysterious.
  • The only thing left to do is to label and store your jars - well done!

More of my articles about jam and preserves as well as other food articles can be found listed together via the link below:

Jam and Preserves ~ the bounty of summer fruit ~ receive it!

Making jam and preserves is easy, basically line up your jars, fruit and sugar, clean the fruit, chop it up in the way that pleases you, and cook it.  Once it's cooked to your satisfaction, pack it into really hot clean pop-top jars, screw the lids on carefully and that's it - well, pretty much.  I'll give more detailed instructions in the following article but that's the basic routine, so don't be put off by not having done it before or not having anyone to help you.  The main thing is to give it a go. It really isn't difficult.

A big motivator for me in recent years has been economy: our small income has needed to go a very long way, and I became aware of loads of fruit that was just going to waste in other people's gardens because they had more than they needed or didn't want it at all.  It's staggering how much fruit simply rots on the ground for lack of interest!  Last summer the fruit I came by for the price of polite enquiry and careful thanks included the following: gooseberries from the gardens of friends, windfall plums from the tree at the end of the property here, pears from the neighbours of my sister, and apples from the back garden of someone down the road who was going to mow up what I didn't take (!), and black boy peaches from my mothers tree.  Of the years supply of jam and preserves I put away last summer, I bought only the apricots and nectarines, and even they were local!  What bounty!

Supporting local growers was another strong motivator, even though it was only the apricots and nectarines.  Did you know that 'Oak', one of the main producers of canned apricots in this country doesn't use any New Zealand grown apricots at all?  What you buy at the supermarket will come from one of three places: China, the Mediterranean, or South Africa.  This is completely mad, when we have the best apricots in the world, sun-ripened within a hundred miles of here! Apparently there are not enough, and growers are progressively taking out apricot trees and other stone fruit and replacing them with grapevines.  This shows how vital our purchasing from local orchards is if we want to be able to continue buying New Zealand grown fruit.  I adore apricots!  Which would you rather have?

This week I priced New Zealand grown apricots at the supermarket, and they were $7 per kilo, rather a lot.  Last February I purchased them by the box at the Farmers market direct from the growers.  From memory each box contained 7 kilos, and the boxes cost $18 each, a lot less, so it helps to know when they come into season properly and to look around for the best price and / or greatest opportunity.

I include here a quick schedule of when fruit comes 'into season' - this is summertime in the Southern Hemisphere of course.
December: berry fruit, including gooseberries, currants, raspberries, etc.  Currants and gooseberries have the shortest season and you won't see them in the shops for long if at all, so if you like them cultivate a good source, which may include planting some in your own garden!
January: Plums - towards the end of it.
February: Apricots, nectarines and peaches.
March: Apples, pears and black boy peaches.

Making your own jam and preserves is not only wholesome, as these things go, it's also using what's to hand, thrifty, and absolutely delicious - enjoy it!

More of my articles about jam and preserves as well as other food articles can be found listed together via the link below:

Thursday, 14 January 2010

A fair cop!

The combination of summer and festive gatherings brings many out of doors to party.  Which is fine up to a point, and then not.

An all day session at a household up the road was fairly well contained til evening when it seemed that tempers frayed and judgement blurred.  Out backed the ever-noisy car - noisier this time; the air filled with screaming tyres and clouds of smoke - burnout!  Oh God, not again!  Off he went down the street, ripping the inside out of his engine and the outside off his tyres.  Back he came, slung the car through a U-turn, crashing across the side of the footpath, paused, then made an attempt at turning in the gate.  Missed.  Crunch.  Tried again and made it, sort of.  Turned the engine off and sat in his car, the stereo blaring.  A woman came out of the house and talked to him with the evident intention of calming him down, her hand on his arm.  Well good, but this man is obviously drunk as well as dangerous - to use a car with that degree of misjudgement and violence puts others at risk.

Fearful that he would take the car back out on the road I phoned the police.  They took the details but didn't have 'a unit' in the area at the time.  Half an hour later they phoned back and asked how things were.  All quiet at that point.  The light faded and the evening drew on.

I was about to settle down to watch tele when the front door of the said house banged and argument erupted.  I turned out the light and pushed back the curtain.  The man got into his car.  Eek!  I picked up the phone.  Out he backed, across to the wrong side of the road.  "Yup, there he goes again" I informed.  Tyres screamed once more.  "He's not moving; he's disappearing in a cloud of smoke."  The advice down the phone was to lay a complaint in the morning, and that was it.

I kept watching.  Unbelievably, tyres continued screaming, then died down though the revs continued.  A car glided from around the corner behind him and paused.  Was the driver waiting to see if it was safe to pass?  I couldn't see much in the gloom.  Then the Christmas lights came on: red-blue-red-blue-red-blue.  Beautiful!  People poured out of the house, rowdy.  Another car growled up the street from the other end and more Christmas lights came on.  Even better.  Our usually quiet street was full of people: loud laughter, angry outbursts, bad language, excuses and commentary, pleasant but stern directives from the police.  "No burn-outs here" came the boastful disclaimer.  The driver became progressively less cocky as tyre marks were photographed, the tow truck arrived, and finally he was handcuffed and put in the back of the police car.  Off they drove.  Good.  Off drove the towie, laden with the offending car.  Everyone else went back inside and quiet settled on the street once more. 

We won't see that car for a while: thanks to sensible legislators and competent police there will be automatic impoundment for a month for 'sustained loss of traction'.  The driver will probably be set back about a grand and a half, and loose his licence for a while.  All this for wont of a little moderation and self-restraint.

Too heavy?  I don't think so.  Having nearly died myself from being hit by an out-of-control car, I am only too well aware of the disaster that can be the consequence of this sort of behaviour.  Far better that such drivers and their vehicles are off the road for a time and carry the consequences themselves rather than inflict them on others.

In fact, putting a stop to this sort of thing before it results in car crashes, injury and the like is a net saving - to insurance companies, the police and justice systems, hospital and other medical bills, the sanity of our communities, and most of all the lives and welfare of innocent bystanders and their families.  The cost to all of us of this sort of drunken and irresponsible behaviour is very much more than a fine and a new set of tyres.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Renting ~ when someone else's house is home

Since leaving home at the age of twenty I've moved so many times I sometimes wonder if I'll ever settle down.  The longest I've stayed anywhere was about eight years and the shortest just weeks, but for the time I lived at each of these places they were 'home'. 

The most common length of time I've stayed put has been about two years; stretching it out to three has more than once come to seem like overstaying the value of the place.  It's nearly two years since we moved to this place - uh-oh, I wonder if the green light will be coming on soon, meaning the green light 'to go'.  I am even a known customer of an especially good-to-deal-with removals company, Conroy Removals, which has handled the job for me four times now, and I know to within a couple of metres exactly how much stuff I have to move from one place to the next.  I have the whole routine down pat, down to the boxes stacked flat in the end of the garage all ready for next time...  What a lot there always is to do, and once moved such a lot to adjust to: new place, new landlord, new neighbours, new places to explore and get the hang of...  

I've been a tenant all this time, not by design, but rather from the lack of it, because for many reasons, some practical, some mere distractions, I've never been sufficiently motivated to buy my own place.  This is a pity because the opportunity to do so has now passed, for the meantime.

All this has left me with a lot to say about renting, and given that I'm looking back over several decades it's taken me a while to pick my words.  I want to talk mostly about renting a whole dwelling rather than being a flatmate as this is the situation I've been in most frequently in recent years.

Overall I've been relatively fortunate in that I've usually found something suitable when I've needed to, but there have been times when it has seemed like a close shave between that and nothing as most rentals I've looked at have been impossible, to put it mildly.  

I have my list of requirements of what a place must provide even to be considered: proximity to shops and transport, good access, the right number of rooms, and it must be clean, sunny, warm and quiet.  And have a garage.  Then there's the landlord requirement: if I don't like him or her it's a 'no' as this is one relationship that needs to go well.  It's all a lottery, but if I start out by having gone through my list to my own satisfaction it does increase the chances of us being comfortable there. 

Thank God and the previous Labour Government for mandatory standard tenancy agreements, yet even with these in place there are always details to be worked out which can test the nerves of an anxious tenant or wary landlord.  I've had my share of tense moments and had to argue about what seemed to me to be very basic issues.  Fortunately so far these problems have been able to be worked through.

For me by far the greatest area of difficulty and disagreement has been to do with different perspectives about maintenance, but as I said in my earlier article, this priority has been bred into me.  What's important to me may well seem insignificant to a landlord, not worth bothering about or an unnecessary expense.

However, from my point of view as a tenant these things may be the cause of daily annoyance and / or concern.  Here is a random list of things I've encountered which I've had trouble getting attended to: first the small stuff: stiff taps, kitchen drawers that stick, windows and doors that either bind or rattle, deteriorating paintwork in critical places, toilet seats that come off (it's true!), cisterns that don't work properly, door handles that fall off, curtain track that doesn't run properly, not enough towel rails, and never enough house keys, to name a few.

On the level of requiring more significant financial outlays I've been confounded by out of date locks which really aren't considered secure any more, decaying bathrooms, and not enough power points or phone jacks.  Then there is the question of dĂ©cor in which tastes differ so greatly: awful curtains, depressing light fittings, ghastly carpet, and so on and so on.  

Over the years I've got better at handling this sort of thing, of making changes where possible, such as replacing curtains and light fittings, and doing what maintenance I can myself, and in the face of landlord indifference, have attempted to disregard the rest.  

But this is silly.  Why isn't the landlord seeking me out and asking me what needs doing, what would make a difference to me?  I'm actually paying him (or her) and yet relentlessly get the distinct impression that despite my best efforts of communicating with politeness and tact that my point of view and my needs are acknowledged grudgingly, or worse, drift off into some kind of void.  I find this extremely irksome.  I hate having to ask for anything, even directions.  I'd far rather own my own place, but since that isn't possible I have to make the best of what amounts to someone else being much more in control of my home than I am happy with.  And yet when I leave they are happy to write me glowing testimonials in which they volunteer that we treated their place "as if it were their own home".  This is a compliment, by the way, a fairly large one. So why haven't they been coming to the party a bit more significantly while we were living there? 

From what I've seen of other tenants carryings-on being a landlord can carry quite high risks: a smallish portion of tenants are rowdy and disruptive, dirty or simply stop paying the rent, all of which is onerous, yet those of us who are careful, clean, considerate and always pay our rent on time get charged the same amount, and seemingly receive the same level of service, if you could call it that.  I would call it the 'as little as possible' service.  Sigh...  And yet on the whole, we've done okay; there has been and is much that is good.  I'm just being realistic about these particular points.

Of all the landlords I've had over the years, one set stands out: R and E: have a bouquet, you know who you are!  If only there were more of you. You could show the rest a thing or two!  

In three instances in which home owners have generously rented me room in their homes I have been more than fortunate and indeed have formed lifelong friendships: V and J, a bouquet to each of you also.  And Rewi, well, we just keep on being friends, for which I'm grateful. You've been getting your bouquets!  Thanks to all of you for all the laughter and good times as well as for your kindness and generosity in the less rosy patches.  

Perhaps because our daily lives were more closely entwined there was more of a sense of us doing things together, not just revolving around day-to-day living, but also doing things for the property, making it nicer.  I felt included, which felt good.  I would like to see a great deal more of this approach in landlord-tenant relations generally.  I've always contributed a lot to the places I've lived in; now I want more back for me.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

House on the hill ~ an early education in what makes a place 'home'

I've been interested in housing from an early age.  I used to watch Dad as he worked on rebuilding our family home bit by bit.  He had already built one home and the renovation of our place was to continue over many years.

I became accustomed to thinking about room size, proportions, orientation to the sun, and spatial arrangement generally.  I was fascinated by how building plans could show the basis of what was to come later.  I also became interested in what materials were used and how, their durability.  I loved to watch Dad as he exerted his strength and skill to build the structures which had first taken shape in his mind.  He was not easily satisfied with his own efforts or those of others.  Sometimes I was permitted to help but mostly I just watched, taking in the way his body moved as he swung the hammer, or the rhythmic smoothness with which he planed a length of timber, the sensitivity with which his big strong beautifully shaped hands caressed surfaces, searching out alignment or imperfections.  I became accustomed to considering how things worked and whether maintenance would be straightforward or awkward.  I learnt the need for regular and timely maintenance as well as cleaning which keeps things in good working order.

Dad had a keen sense of aesthetics which made him careful with design, proportions and finishes.  He liked large windows to maximise the view and interesting ceiling lines for a sense of space and airiness; he favoured the light uncluttered lines and tones characteristic of Swedish design and as a result that house was certainly gracious if rather chilly. Dad wasn't susceptible to cold whereas I am.  In hindsight the addition of some Swedish thinking about insulation could have made a difference, but for what it was it was unarguably an attractive and unusual house!  I learnt from my father's mistakes as well as his successes.  It was a great education. 

When looking at homes now I notice all these things. I am also rapidly aware of whether a place functions in a healthy way or not as I've always been sensitive to settings and affected by noise and atmosphere, so for me to feel comfortable in a place it has to be harmonious and satisfying in a wide variety of ways.  

Our home was set on a large tree-clad hillside property, and as the years passed the gentle wilderness of the garden which I had always loved became even more of an influence than the house; it became a retreat from a household of teenage tensions as well as a creative outlet.  Contact with nature provided nurture.  Both were vital, however, and my interest in the twin subjects of house and garden is firmly intertwined in my sense of what constitutes home.  

The Maori people have a special word for the place where we belong: it is turangawaiwai (pronounced 'too-rung-ah-wye-wye), which means place of standing.  It is the place not only where we feel that sense of belonging, but also where others know we belong.  It may include the surrounding land and landmarks as well as the nearest body of water such as a river, beach or bay.

My sense of belonging certainly included both the hill on which our home stood and the vast bay of the Pacific which it overlooked. In a way that might seem odd it also included the sky, which from that place seemed more vast than anywhere else I know, touching the edge of outer space as well as the distant horizons.  The prospect of the nearby hills, the village below, and nearer still the leafy groves of our own garden anchored me in the landscape and provided the balance of human scale.  That was the place in the world where I knew I belonged, how I oriented myself, where I felt safe.  If everyone had such a sense of place how very different the world would be.

My life changed dramatically when I left home as a young adult and some years later that property was sold. I lost this anchor and have yet to find another such place, or indeed any sense of having my own place of standing.  I feel dislocated, not in an everyday sense, but at a deeper level.

I have often dreamt of being back there, but in these dreams I am usually an interloper.  In other dreams I do belong there but other people are there who shouldn't be. In others I decide to buy it back, and when I've woken up I've seriously considered it, but even if I could it would be fruitless - that property and the surrounding landscape is different now and would not suit me at all.  The resulting undercurrent in me is one of unease and reflects the deeply troubling concern of where I belong, a vexed questions which remains unanswered.  My only solace lies in recognising that for the time my family owned that place it does still belong to me; for that portion of history it is my home and that remains unchanged.  All the same, I'd like have another such place to call my own to live in - now!  The search continues, but it would seem that like True Love it is not there simply for the plucking, but must come in its own time...

Friday, 8 January 2010

Thinking about housing ~ a preamble

Housing is a central interest of mine, and because it is a big subject I will write about it in parts.  I want firstly to describe this aspect of my childhood, secondly, to air some thoughts about renting versus property ownership along with some ideas about different ways property could be managed and / or owned, and thirdly I'll look at the issue of poverty.  Housing is a matter of primary importance to all of us, and I am still looking for solutions.  Any contributions on the subject will be welcomed.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Tequila Sunrise ~ a resplendent rose & some vegetable afterthoughts

This glorious rose is a prominent feature in our front garden and the source of much pleasure.  When I pruned it last winter I left it fairly leggy hoping it would grow to a good height, and it has - at present it stands at least six feet tall and is flowering more abundantly than ever before.  For the first time I've managed to get a worthy likeness of it with the digital camera:


I wish you could smell its perfume which is equally beautiful being reminiscent of apricot with a touch of lemon.

It's just as well I have it firmly staked as we've had a lot of wind here lately.  Each day it seems to have come from different points of the compass: yesterday it was from the north and nor' west and very hot, and today it's been gusting to gale force from the south and really chilly.

Today, not feeling much inclined but seeing the need, I went outside at intervals to uproot silverbeet plants which had gone to seed, and with great regret cut the flowery spires out of the rhubarb plant.  These spires have been wonderfully sculptural, but I do want to have actual rhubarb for making those yummy rhubarb and ginger muffins!  I also secured the tomatoes with stakes and string which I'd been putting off for ages.

My disinclination to pull plants out or otherwise interfere with them makes me a somewhat unproductive vegetable gardener, but we generally have enough greens to keep us going, a selection of herbs and some other seasonal vegetables to choose from.

I long for the scope of a bigger garden so that I have the space to indulge my love of flowering plants and shrubs as well as enough room for all the edibles I'd like to grow!  As it is the flowers keep creeping in: this spring I took out a big clump of Shasta daisies to make room for climbing beans, only to replace it with a burgeoning younger bush of my glorious Tequila Sunrise, the product of the only cutting I've ever managed to 'strike' from the parent plant. It had been in a pot and needed planting; I had been wondering where to put it! So the bean frames are flanked by Shasta daisies at each end and embellished by a rose bush in the middle.  I must say they all look beautiful, but it remains to be seen how many beans we harvest!