Thursday, 26 December 2013

Blowing Away The Boxing Day Cobwebs

I do hope you all had a lovely Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and were in the place you like to be, with the people you like to be with, doing the things you like to do at Christmas!

Due to work commitments we did not travel to see relatives this year but remained at home, which is just as well as the knock-on effects of the poor weather just before Christmas has contributed to a lot of travel chaos this year with many people not reaching their chosen destination.  We stayed home and counted our blessings for all the things we are grateful for.

This year though, the Christmas weather has been so varied and unpredictable its untrue.  Yesterday alone, we had heavy rain, thunder and lighting, wind, sunshine and a particularly noisy hail shower (we had no snow but the hail turned everything white for about 10 minutes!). 

Today though, we awoke to glorious sunshine and decided to get out for a walk on the South Downs for a bit of exercise and fresh air.

The sunshine and lack of wind has shot the temperature back up again and I was sweating in my new Christmas fleece.  Talking of fleeces, we came across these sheep who were enjoying grazing on a field of turnips.

My camera angle managed to capture a rare, two-headed sheep!

After the recent rains, there is still a lot of water about and flooding in the fields on the lower levels of the Downs, especially in the areas closest to the river.

But also some muddy footpaths which required careful negotiation.

I was reminded how much I love being on the Downs - the sunlight, clouds and shadows constantly play with the light and shapes of the hills and many local artists use this as inspiration for their work and crafts.  

I find it so uplifting to be amongst nature and its almost like a meditation in itself to be temporarily removed from the busy-ness of every day activities and traffic.  We certainly came back feeling uplifted and refreshed and vowed to return again soon.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas Popcorn and Mexican Mince Pies

Christmas Popcorn

One of my favourite childhood memories of Christmas is of helping my mum to make mince pies .  Nowadays though, I tend to buy our mince pies as they are more readily available in the shops and there are some good ones to choose from.  My sister though, living in the USA, finds it difficult to track down supplies of mince meat (which doesn't involve any meat at all - remember the episode of Friends where Rachel puts minced beef in the trifle?) and so makes her own, soaking the dried fruit in generous amounts of rum.

With my time freed up from mince pie making, I like to try out new Christmas recipes and caught Kirstie Allsopp learning how to make Christmas Popcorn on Kirstie's Crafty Christmas on tv this week-end.  I made my first popcorn earlier this year and am always on the look out for new flavours so I just had to try this one, which includes stirring in mince meat once the corn is popped, so its a good way to use up the mince meat if you've some left over from making mince pies.

The recipe was very casual: heat some oil in a pan and throw in the popcorn (I usually sprinkle in enough to just cover the bottom of the pan.  Heat up until it starts to pop (make sure the lid is on!) and turn down, only removing the lid once the popping has stopped.  Pour the popped corn into a big bowl and with your hands,mix in a couple of dollops of mince meat.  Spread out onto a baking tray and bake at 190 degrees for about 6 - 10 minutes (depends on your oven, so you may need to keep checking).  The popcorn will then have caramelised and you need to keep stirring it until its cooled properly otherwise it will stick together in big chunks.  Kirstie's popcorn included the addition of almonds but as I didn't have any of these to hand I threw in some dried cranberries, which worked well.  

There you have it, a reasonably healthy festive snack for when you're curled up on the sofa watching those old movies!

Mexican Mince Pies

My sister (or rather her husband!) has come up with this quick and clever way of using mince meat for a Christmassy dessert.  You just need to spread a thin layer of mince meat onto a tortilla or plain wrap, roll it up and microwave for about 15 seconds.  Cut in half so that it fits into a bowl, and serve with cream, custard or ice-cream. 

Finally, if you want to have a look at the Friends minced meat trifle scene - here's a link:

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Christmas Market Time - part two

You'll never go hungry visiting a Christmas Market, and as the aromas of hot chestnuts, grilled Bratwurst sausages, potato pancakes, gingerbread and cinnamon fill the air, it can be very difficult to resist!  

In addition to the warming street food, there's always a good choice of beautifully wrapped delights to buy as gifts, such as home made chutneys and cheeses, chocolate hearts, marzipan figures, stollen, lebkuchen (a type of gingerbread), handmade chocolates and other delights.

Lebkuchen Hearts

freshly baked pretzels

There are plenty of opportunities for hot, festive drinks too such as flavoured hot coffees, hot chocolate and spiced mulled cider and apple juice.  

But probably the most favourite stand of all was the Gluhwein stand, serving a traditional mulled wine - red wine combined with spices and other ingredients (such as cinnamon, vanilla, cloves, citrus and sugar).  Never quite the same when you try to recreate it at home, but I'll give it my best shot!

 Mmmmmmm, that smell is just wonderful and is the smell of Christmas! 

Not sure if Gluhwein is meant to be that frothy...

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Christmas Market Time - part one

Until a few years ago, German Christmas Markets took place in Germany but in recent years, they have become very popular and are now popping up in other cities around Europe too.  As we were in Birmingham last week-end, we visited the Frankfurt Christmas market (Birmingham is twinned with Frankfurt) which has now been running for 12 years and is the largest outdoor Christmas market in this country (with around 190 stalls).

Not all of the produce actually come from Germany, but the market itself is based on the traditional German markets, where the emphasis is on hand-crafted gifts and home-made style food.  The markets in this country are perhaps becoming popular because many people still like the idea of tradition and romance at Christmas and there's a feeling of less emphasis on commercialism and mass produced items (although that's not to say some items here aren't mass-produced!)

There are many stalls offering a range of handmade toys, Christmas decorations, jewellery and other crafted goods.

As a feltmaker, I particularly liked the colourful stall selling hand-felted bags and accessories, and particularly liked the "bobble" bags for their texture and colour.

Click here to find out more about Brimingham's Frankfurt Christmas Market

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Christmas Is Coming And The Geese Are Getting Fat

With apologies for my recent absence, but we have just returned from a trip to the Midlands, visiting relatives before Christmas and I haven't yet got to grips with "blogging on the move" - that should be one of my goals for the new year....

Yesterday, just before our return, we visited Sutton Park in Birmingham.   It is said to be the largest urban park in Europe and is a designated National Nature Reserve. It has wetlands and several lakes, hosting a variety of waterbirds.  

There are 7 lakes/pools and we visited Wyndley Pool where there was a whole row of black headed gulls sitting along the rails (apparently they're not very black-headed in the winter, when they have white heads, but they are still referred to as black headed gulls!).  The gulls were sitting in a very long row, relaxing, enjoying the view and having the occasional conversation with each other.  It was a very mellow scene until Mr Cocopopia did the loudest sneeze ever and scared the living daylights out of them, causing a mass take-off and sudden migration across the lake!

The Canada Geese, however, have no fear and were not going to be put off from going about their business by the sound of a very loud sneeze.

The geese did look very healthy and yes, they do appear to be getting fat.  But that is probably due to a combination of naturally building up their fat layers for the winter and being well-fed by the locals.  Being a vegetarian myself, I don't go along with the idea of fattening up geese for Christmas and, in my opinion, geese are for life and not just for Christmas!

They are very handsome birds and although this bird seemed particularly friendly, I suspect he (or she) was only interested in me because there was a chance I might have brought along some tasty snacks....