Finding work for idle hands: making, baking and more.

For the birds March 25, 2011

Filed under: Nature and wildlife,This and that — lauravw @ 1:41 pm

Other than a short potter around in the garden this morning, I haven’t left the house yet today. So I’m feeling particularly pleased to have seen a swan and a heron fly over our garden. I also had a phonecall from my mother to report that she’d found a baby hare in her garden. This is the not the first time it’s happened, so a couple of years ago we did a little bit of research on hares and their babies to learn more about what they do.

The first time, my parents were sitting in their living room in the evening, watching television. They have patio doors facing out into the garden, and they saw an adult hare come up to the window, stand on its hind legs, and press its front paws against the glass. It watched them for a few seconds, and then hopped off. The next morning they found two baby hares in the flowerbeds – from what we read, hares deposit their young in a few different spots, which seems to be along the lines of not placing all your eggs in one basket.

Those babies stayed in the garden for a couple of weeks or more, so I’m hoping that when I visit my parents next week, this latest baby will still be around.

The other distractions this week have been as follows:

The falcon webcam at Nottingham Trent University. I’ve mentioned this before, but in the past week, there’s been a great deal more activity and it’s really worth a look. One morning I checked on it and saw two falcons, and when they flew off, I noticed they’d left an egg on the nest. There’s now a second egg, and the adult birds are flying back to the next fairly frequently, often staying there for long periods.The eggs take around 30-32 days to hatch.

A new fabric collection from How About Orange – I think my favourite is the tulip print. Jessica has also recently made these Pantone magnets.

Cakespy’s roundup of posts about creme eggs.

I am far too lazy to do this myself, but I am impressed with the polka dot nails and the newsprint nails I’ve seen this week.

A recipe for Nutella cupcakes at Good Life Eats. Nice!


The price of fashion March 22, 2011

Filed under: Fashion,Shopping — lauravw @ 8:44 pm

In Saturday’s Times, there was an article by Hilary Rose on the price limits she sets herself when buying new clothes:

“Obviously we all earn different amounts and place different emphases on how much our clothes should cost, but on my salary (rubbish), with my fondness for clothes (big), and living the life I do (corporate), these are my figures. I’m not saying this is what you have to spend, it’s the top end of what I’ll spend…

“So shoe prices can start with a three or a four, or even, if my life will be incomplete without them, a low five, but £600 or anything close is too much, unless they’re boots in which case anything up to £850 is bearable. A skirt or trousers can never be more than £250, or at the absolute outside £300.  A cashmere sweater  can be up to £250, coats up to £800 and dresses no more than £400.”

My budget is very different to Hilary’s (I tend to pay around 10-20% of these prices!) but the principles are similar for me, even when the numbers are scaled back so far. What she doesn’t mention in the article is a minimum price for clothing: I will not buy any item that is being sold so cheaply that I have reason to supect the person who made it must have been unfairly paid. For this reason I avoid items with lots of sequins on – I know from experience how long it takes to sew embellishments on to a garment.

My father used to work in fashion, and from that I learned that retail shops mark up garments by around 50-60%. So if they buy a dress for £30, they will sell it for £60. This means if you see a dress for £20, you know the shop will have paid around £10 for it, and that cost must include the cost of the materials and the transportation (often from somewhere far away), not to mention design and other branding costs.

But it’s not safe to assume that simply because a garment is expensive, those who worked on its construction have been fairly compensated. There are plenty of stories around about workers producing clothes for very expensive luxury brands in sweatshops. One website I’ve found helpful in this respect is the Ethical Trading Initiative:

“The Ethical Trading Initiative is a ground-breaking alliance of companies, trade unions and voluntary organisations. We work in partnership to improve the working lives of people across the globe who make or grow consumer goods – everything from tea to T-shirts, from flowers to footballs.”

It’s interesting to see which companies make up the list of members – and also which names are missing from that list. Not that you can rely on it absolutely, of course – companies may have their own schemes to ensure their workers are cared for, and companies who are on the list could still make mistakes. And then there’s the American Apparel question: “The company doesn’t use sweatshops – but its owner allegedly sexually harasses his employees.” It’s a minefield…


Bruges March 21, 2011

Filed under: Places to go,Travel — lauravw @ 5:16 pm

On the second full day of our weekend in Belgium, we took a train to Bruges. Travel tip for if you are staying in Brussels: the train station there is big, confusing, and it’s hard to know where to go even to do something simple like buy train tickets. Allow plenty of time! Luckily for us we got our tickets and found our way to the platform in time, and it was very crowded. Bruges is incredibly popular with tourists, and the train was packed.

At first we didn’t get seats, and I was worried: my mother looks well but has big problems with her knees. I wanted to find her a seat but was struggling to work out how to ask the other people on the train if they’d be willing to let her have their place – my French is very rusty, and I don’t speak Flemish at all. Happily, a nice man (who was also standing) noticed she had a walking stick, and he asked the nearest young people to us to move to that she could sit down. Phew. I stood for most of the journey, but didn’t mind that.

When we arrived in Bruges we took a taxi from the station to the city centre, which turned out to be a good move as the taxi driver was very friendly and happy to play the role of tour guide as well as taxi driver, pointing out the sights and the best chocolate shops en route.

Bruges is pretty, really pretty. Lots of lovely old buildings have been beautifully preserved so that now, while they may be major shops, they still look like they always have. As we passed a clothes shop with nice things in the window, we were drawn inside and buying tops almost before we realised that it was in fact a branch of H&M. Not the most genuine of souvenirs to be buying, but never mind. (This photo I took shows H&M, and the old building it occupies.)

There were little Catholic shrines all over the place – mostly statuettes of Mary above doorways. Some of them were very old and looked the worse for wear, while others were new or recently cleaned.

There seemed to be even more chocolate shops in Bruges than in Brussels, and again we tried out a few of them. The sheer numbers of shops made it a bit overwhelming in terms of choosing which one to go in, and then which chocolates to buy. Such were the tough decisions we struggled with that afternoon!

Before heading back to the station, we stopped in a cafe for a cup of tea. It was a welcome surprise when the tea arrived with a little pot of some sort of custardy pudding – a very vanilla-scented pot of goodness. I’m all in favout of cafes over here importing that idea and serving free custard.

And that was it: we returned to Brussels by train, and then the next day took two more trains to get back to Nottingham. It all went by rather quickly, but it was nice to be abroad for a few days.


Brussels March 20, 2011

Filed under: Places to go,Shopping,Travel — lauravw @ 11:42 am

On our first day in Belgium we explored Brussels. My grandfather, who I never met, was from Brussels, and so I found it interesting to look around the city and wonder about which places he liked to visit. Because such a large area of the city dates back to the 15th century, much of it will not have changed since his days there in the 1920s.

The Grand Place is incredibly beautiful and has been so well preserved over its lifetime. Every way you turn, an ornate building looks back at you. I can never understand how these sorts of buildings got built, so many hundreds of years ago and without all the technology and tools we have at our disposal these days.

And there are chocolate shops all over the place! As you’d expect I sampled quite a few different kinds while we were away, and I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that despite my Belgian heritage, I think I prefer Swiss chocolate… I do love the Belgian flaked truffles, and very much enjoyed eating those, but in terms of chocolate bars, I think the Swiss win. I liked seeing how in the supermarkets we visited, most of the bars for sale were Belgian in origin, just like how in Switzerland most of the chocolate they sell is Swiss. It amuses me that countries can be so close to each other geographically and yet they know what they like when it comes to chocolate.

We also made sure to sample the waffles – and again, it became clear that I’m not very Belgian after all. The waffles we had were nice enough, but I wasn’t wowed by them. However, the fries! The fries were excellent – they really know how to cook a nice chip!

As well as walking around the older part of town, we made a visit to a big art gallery to see some paintings my mother has liked since she was in her teens. I think she really liked seeing the originals in person.

Once we’d taken in all the culture and waffles we needed to sample, we went shopping – our hotel was close to a smart shopping district, and there were a few places I wanted to visit. First up was Zara Home. Have you been to one of those? We don’t have one near us, but I think there are a few in the UK. The stock is really nice, and it’s mostly reasonable. I found a quilt I liked but didn’t fancy trying to stuff it in my suitcase to get it home. Another visit was to Hema – a shop I’d read about a few months ago on Decor8 and had been keen to visit ever since. It’s an inexpensive and colourful place, and we bought a few cheap and cheerful goodies while we were there.

But the best shop we went into on our trip was Dille & Kamille, a kitchen, home and garden shop that was a pleasure to spend time in. I quietly took a few pictures while we were in there so you can see what it was like. Products were beautifully displayed and affordable – I wish we had this shop in the UK, it would be such a good place to buy presents for people (and yourself). It was a big place, and one corner sold lots of kinds of loose-leaf tea. Near that was a counter in front of lots of enormous jars of fresh herbs and spices – it seemed that you could take your own spice jars in to have them filled. There were all kinds of kitchen tools and linens, and candles in every colour imaginable. I think we visited three times in all, and goodness only knows how much time we spent pottering around the place.

I bought some sweets, some notebooks, and a bar of handmade soap. My mother returned, as she always does from any decent shop, with armfulls of candles and teas.


Blossom season March 18, 2011

Filed under: This and that — lauravw @ 2:55 pm

I am so glad to see the blossom this year. This picture was taken yesterday, a bright sunny day when we managed to get outside and go for a long walk.

As I mentioned yesterday I’ve been busy with things of late, both fun things and less fun things, and lots of things that I’ve been interested in have unfortunately been passing me by at speed. But here are the things I’ve kept pace with:

Sali Hughes at The Guardian does it again: a video tutorial on blusher, along with notes on her favourites. It’s really good advice, I could see an improvement as soon as I tried out her technique for using a paler blusher followed by a smaller amount of a brighter one.

A few notes on making an emergency kit for your home at Shelterrific. With all that’s going on it the world, this is something I’m looking into. Related: practising a fire drill with your pets.

Flossie Teacakes talks about her favourite pens for marking fabrics.

Tiny Wings is the new Angry Birds – I downloaded this game as soon as I read about it, and it’s a lot of fun. Plus it’s beautifully illustrated.

The Vintage Festival at London’s Southbank Centre sounds like something I would enjoy, even though I can’t quite work out what it entails! I’m overdue a day out in London so perhaps this is the one to go for. It’s a bit on the pricey side though: £60 for a day ticket? Not a very wintage price…

Wishing you a relaxing weekend – let’s hope this Spring-like weather hangs around for a little while longer.






Back from Belgium March 17, 2011

Filed under: Travel — lauravw @ 8:16 pm

So, I was in Belgium, and now I’m back. I got back on Sunday, and already that feels like a very long time ago, thanks to a couple of migraines and a difficult week at work (budget cuts, job cuts and other things that will be familiar to anyone working in the public sector these days). So before I forget all about what I got up to on my long weekend in Brussels, I wanted to write some of it down.

On Thursday morning, my mum and I caught a train to London, and from there we took the Eurostar to Brussels. I’d never been on the Eurostar before, and it was pretty simple and quick. I have to admit I am a little bit afraid of being in a train in a tunnel underneath the sea, but it all happens very quickly before you can start to worry about giant sea creatures and other tunnel-dwelling beings.

We headed straight for our hotel in a taxi (a word of warning if you’re planning a trip to Brussels: we found the taxis to be scruffy old things, and not the most appealing way of getting around). And our hotel was something a bit different: the Pantone Hotel. Our room was decorated mostly in white, with pops of purple on the walls. It was a nice place to stay (though the location is not central, it is actually very close to a decent shopping district), and the staff were all friendly and helpful. Pantone products are in evidence throughout the building: coloured sugar, coloured loo roll(!), painted bicycles, and there are plenty of interior design magazines to read in the reception area.

One of my favourite things was that each morning I walked out to a local deli to buy fresh almond croissants. They were delicious – we soon went from buying one each to buying an extra one and sharing it.

Lots more to tell you about next time!


Brits and baking March 11, 2011

Filed under: Books,Food — lauravw @ 8:45 am

As you read this, if things have gone to plan, I should be in Belgium. So there’s no Friday Tidy this week – but I thought you might like to read about how I got on trying out an American recipe for British baked goods.

I love brownies, key lime pie, chocolate chip cookies, Boston creme pie, and all kinds of other American baked goods. I also love egg custards, fairy cakes, banana bread, millionaire’s shortbread, and many other things that I think of as British. So my collection of books about baking covers both sides of the Atlantic. Some of the recipes I have are all-out British, some are totally American, and some are American recipes adapted by British cooks for British tastes and kitchens.

I think it is the American books I enjoy reading the most: there is something exotic about the recipes for dishes I have not grown up with. But it is usually the British books I turn to when I’m actually going to bake something, in part because I know that I’ll be able to buy the ingredients easily and that I will have the equipment and tools they will require.

For the past couple of months I have been poring over the Martha Stewart Baking Handbook, which Megan very kindly sent me for Christmas. I love how elegant everything looks – it is stuffed full of fattening foods, yet they present the pictures in such a dignified way that you wouldn’t feel greedy if you ate them all. There are a few recipes I’ve had my eye on, but the one I was most keen to try was chocolate shortbread. I struggled a bit with the ingredients – not because they are unusual in this country, but more because they have names we’re not used to. Next time I use an American recipe, I want to look up all the terms first, so that I’m not having to go online every couple of minutes to see what the British equivalent of something is.

For reference next time:

  • Superfine sugar = caster sugar
  • Confectioners’ sugar = icing sugar
  • All purpose flour = plain flour
  • A stick of butter = 113g

I do have a set of American measuring cups, but I just don’t understand why they don’t use scales to weigh everything! I find that filling up the little cups with the right amount of flour/sugar/whatever just leads to a mess all over the kitchen worktops, and it means I can’t simply stick the bowl I’m using onto the scales and add things in as I work. And how on earth are you supposed to measure out a cup of butter?! I also have my doubts about how accurate it is to measure by volume rather than by weight.

Anyway, I set to work and, despite my initial difficulties with translating things, I was soon eating some of the most delicious shortbread I have ever eaten. I don’t have one of those big stand mixers, but I do have a small electric whisk, which I used to bring together the ingredients to form the dough. It struggled a bit as it’s quite a heavy dough, but we got through it OK in the end. And while I may have started to lose my temper somwhere in the middle of the process, the end result was so worthwhile that I would be more than willing to go through it all again.

And by the way, while in a bookshop on Sunday I saw three books about whoopie pies. Two of them were distinctly American, and while they look like very good books, life is a lot easier if the recipes you are using use the language, ingredients and measuring techniques you are familiar with. So I was happy to see that the third book is by an American chef who runs a bakery in London. I bought it, and will be trying out a recipe from it just as soon as I get back from Belgium!