Wednesday 9 July 2014

In Which "The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse" Comes to Life Unexpectedly

Those of you familiar with Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse" will know the delightful watercolour illustrations of Mrs Tittlemouse, peeping beadily out of her front door, falling asleep, in a heap, in her rocking chair and setting off for market with her wicker shopping basket. They are as ingrained in me as any images from my childhood and they instantly capture the essence of the busy, "particular little mouse" that is my "alter ego". As images, I am familiar with them appearing on cards etc, but a few weeks ago a shallow box came through the letterbox containing these:

These are not pages from a book, or cards, but iced gingerbread biscuits! I know, I couldn't believe them either! Amazing aren't they? They are the work of the very talented Stephanie Seeney of Ice My Biscuit. Too delightful really to eat but then it would be too sad not to! So, with careful and appreciative rationing, I am. (Eating them, that is!)

The biscuits were a birthday present from a dear friend and there was even a "Happy Birthday Mrs T! " biscuit plaque. Stephanie does all sorts of themes on her biscuits, from Roald Dahl's "The BFG" to corporate logos. Have a look at her website here. The biscuits came beautifully packaged in a very Beatrix Potter-esque "boxful of shavings" with each biscuit individually wrapped in cellophane and the artwork is exquisite. The biscuits themselves are the bees' knees - homemade gingerbread at its best - aromatic and fragrant, spicy and gingery, not too dry and not too moist - absolutely perfect! If you want a personalised way to celebrate a birthday or special occasion, I recommend them unequivocally. And only partly because, in the guise they came to my notice, they brought to life unexpectedly, Beatrix Potter's dear Mrs Tittlemouse!

Those of you familiar with Mrs Tittlemouse's fictional doings, will also know that she had issues with bees.

Despite the unwelcome "large, wet footmarks" left by Mr Jackson and his unwillingness to depart, that means he has to be asked by Mrs Tittlemouse, (slightly reluctantly), to stay to dinner, Mr Jackson is  really Mrs Tittlemouse's hero, very helpfully, (if messily), removing the bees' nest that has got established by Babbitty Bumble and her family in Mrs Tittlemouse's storerooms. (Mr Jackson "seemed to have no objection to stings"!)

Like my fictional counterpart, I, too, have been having issues with bees. If you've been reading these pages for a while, you may remember that we host a beehive in the garden. You can read my post about it, fairly early on in the proceedings, here. I don't do the bee-keeping bit, but we have been very happy to have the hive sitting among the blue geraniums and the purple spikes of lavender, offering hospitality to the bees from a judicious distance.

Earlier in the summer, we had a bit of an episode when the bees got disturbed by Martin, the hive-owner and bee-keeper, doing his routine maintenance, and they didn't like it. For a week or two afterwards, if you went within a few yards of the hive, a noticeable buzzing would start up, "Zizz, Wizz, Wizz!" replied Babbitty Bumble in a peevish squeak." Only it was less of a "peevish squeak" and more of an ominously menacing, throaty rumble.  And before you could say "I am not in the habit of letting lodgings; this is an intrusion!", a vanguard of irritable bees would come your way and "bump" you, as a warning to retreat, before they got crosser.

We retreated. Hastily. D, pottering in the garden, had to keep a hosepipe with a jet of water on standby, just in case. After a few weeks, things calmed down and we and the bees settled back to our previous, serene existence, living alongside one another without interfering with, or bothering, one another. Peace reigned. That is, until this last week when Martin fitted a "clearing board" in preparation for extracting the honey. (A "clearing board" is a kind of one-way turnstile for bees so that they make their way out of the honeycomb, but can't get back into it, enabling the honey to be collected without injury, either to bee or person.)

The bees were furious and "came out like a volcano" according to Mr Jackson's human counterpart. Slightly disconcerted, he left in a hurry and then came back a day or so later to collect the honey. If they "came out like a volcano" when the clearing board had appeared, it was nothing to the "hosts of Midian" that swarmed forth to tackle this new assault on their premises. It has been scary, I have to say.

I am not especially afraid of bees (unlike "bold, bad spiders", of whom I am ridiculously terrified.) I am not allergic to bee-stings or anything and had not been unduly concerned about proximity to the bees hitherto. But it's one thing not to be fazed by one or two bees, in a bad mood, when (in all fairness) one has made the mistake, of going too close to their "bee line", and quite another to face fifty thousand of them, all single-mindedly intent on attack, when one is going about one's business, a respectable distance from them. For two days we were effectively prisoners in our own home. I kid you not. You couldn't open the windows or go out, without risking a barrage of angry and belligerent bees, left, right and centre. They got in my hair (a most unnerving experience that I would not recommend); they clustered on the window panes; they besieged the doorways. Not good. In the end the hive has had to go. It appears that the bees have become "Africanised" - the gentler strains bred for centuries in this country, for docility and their peaceable nature, sometimes do mate with wilder, more aggressive bee strains and the resultant genetic mix is not user-friendly in a domestic environment. I am sad as I have really enjoyed having the bees in the garden here but I suspect they will be better off in a more remote location, on the edge of the Downs. And at least we can now go out in the garden without risking mass bee-attack followed by anaphylactic shock.

In the aftermath of this episode, like Mrs Tittlemouse, I have been surveying the remains of their stay with some dismay - "smears of honey; and moss, and thistledown - and marks of big and little dirty feet"  although fortunately, unlike in the story, the mess is outside rather than inside. But, like my fictional friend, I am also enjoying a "little dish of honey"!

Particularly precious this year as there won't be another batch from our own garden, for the time being. But we wish Babbitty and her family well elsewhere and hope perhaps we may be able to host a hive again at some point in the future.

Mostly The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse, as lived out here, is undramatic, but every now and again, as you can see, fiction "Comes To Life" unexpectedly. Which means I had better watch out for the "big fat spider" coming "in to shelter from the rain" who has to be "bundled out at a window" in order to "let himself down the hedge with a long thin bit of string"!

Too many of those here, I fear. And can anyone tell me why it is that they always make a bee-line (sorry, - bad pun!) for me? And worse, my crochet baskets?! Eeek! As in "EEEEEEEK"!! And, as H will tell you, this is not "a peevish squeak" but a downright, ear-splitting scream. I'm sorry, especially if you are across the Atlantic and can still hear me. I can't help it. They terrify me! Fortunately, despite whatever teenage foibles and crankiness pop up the rest of the time, H patiently keeps his cool with his foolish and inadequate mother and calmly removes them for me. God bless him! Please don't leave home for a while, H!

The very thought of tackling eight-leggers, whether big ones or tiddlers, is making me feel panicky - I think I will have a nibble of a Mrs Tittlemouse gingerbread to calm my nerves!

Wishing you all a serene and sunny (and arachnid-free) evening!
E x

Friday 4 July 2014

Summer Stills

1 Sewing in the shade of an old apple tree

I love sewing outside. It is one of life's great pleasures. Although one has to be careful not to lose the needle in the grass!

The top is made from a French pattern  "Zébulon" by Citronille. I've made three "Zébulon" tops over the last few years and love them all. Each is quite different in its own way because of the different fabrics used and I find them incredibly wearable, either with skirts or jeans. You can see one of my previous (more pastel) versions underneath my tulip apron in this pic from last summer. Citronille produce lovely children's clothing patterns too. You can get these in English, I think, but otherwise the pattern and instructions are in French.

The version I've been sewing this year is in a Provençal "Souleiado" fabric I picked up in France last year. I love the clear brightness of the fabric's colour and design. All "Souleiado" fabrics have that bright clarity about them, inherited direct from their roots in "les indiennes" imported into Provence back at the end of the 16th C. You can read about their colourful and dramatic history here. Happily, after a period in the doldrums in the late nineties, they are back in production again.

2 Making mocha frappuccinos. H adores these and they're dead easy to whip up, I've discovered. Which is useful, seeing that they're quite expensive if you buy the ready-prepared versions and H drinks the stuff in some quantity.

All you do is make a cafetière of very strong coffee. While it's still hot, add three tablespoonfuls of demerara sugar to it, stir and leave it to get cold.

Put into a blender the following:
2 cups (500 ml) of the cold, sweetened coffee
2 cups (500 ml) milk - any type; I use semi-skimmed.
4 tbsps (60 ml) chocolate syrup; to my delight I discover Waitrose stock the classic, American, Hershey's Chocolate syrup so this is what I use (to feed my illusions of being a Starbucks barista!), but any chocolate syrup will do
1 cup (about 10) ice cubes

Blitz and whizz to a nice frothy consistency and pour into a bottle / glasses and serve with a summery paper straw (for that essential 70's retro touch!)

3 Experimenting with some more flowery cooking. This is an elderflower sponge i.e. a normal sponge but with some elderflower cordial added. Tastes very good (fragrant without being too elderflowery) but it sank like the Titanic in the middle. The crater was perfect for filling with summer fruit however and although I feared the cake might not have cooked all the way through, it had. The slightly imperfect appearance was more than made up for by the flavour and texture of what turned out to be one of the most deliciously moist sponges I've ever made. May have to reduce the quantities of syrup added though for less of a caldera on the surface!

4 A pink peony. Everything I love about summer is in the poetry of this flower.

5 Back to the flowery cooking. Encouraged by my elderflower cordial-making this year, I thought I would do the same with some lime blossoms whose honeyed perfume takes me straight back to my schooldays. Summer afternoons spent in the shade of an avenue of ancient lime trees in the school grounds which had once been an 18th C landscaped garden.

The lime flower cordial is more delicate in scent and taste than the elderflower version. Although while it's in the process of steeping you might feel the reverse - it has quite a grassy, slightly overpowering smell at this stage. I've used it here to make lime blossom ice cream. The texture is not very good as the motor-arm on my ice cream-maker died suddenly and unexpectedly and I had to stand and churn this by hand for 45 minutes which wasn't as good. But do not let that put you off - it makes a delicate, very English ice cream that partners English summer fruit like a marriage made in heaven. And if, like me, you have a masculine household that's quite sniffy about flowery cooking, don't tell them what's in it and they will never know! If, of course, you want to restrict consumption, you may want to go ahead and tell them it's packed with girly blossom! With the ingredients unadvertised however, this disappeared dismayingly quickly, despite its imperfect texture!

The recipe came from this book

If you want a fragrant summery read that leads to fragrant summery cooking, I recommend this. Frances Bissell was one of the first cooks whose writing inspired me when I was learning to cook properly rather than as a "Sunday driver, never took a test" kind of cook. She's been eclipsed in the limelight by more recent culinary stars but she is worth rediscovering - her cooking is inspirational and adventurous without being "gimmicky"*, her recipes work and she writes beautifully.

*I say she isn't "gimmicky" although possibly her recipe for Elderflower Stone Ice Cream, which involves beating elderflower syrup into vanilla ice cream on a stone slab with a couple of cleavers, is the exception to this! But see for yourself! Page 69, if you're interested!

6 Wearing my summery hooky apron, finished a while back, but waiting for summery days to be deployed in action.

The aran weight cotton - a mixture of Drops Paris, Rico Creative Cotton and Puppets Lyric - is surprisingly comfortable and practical to wear - perfect for drying your hands on as well as protecting your clothes. The pattern is a Dutch one from Claire and Saskia's book Haken En Kleur. You may remember me hooking up the blue and green squares here back in February.

Wishing you all a very happy and summery weekend - can't believe it's July already!

E x