Sunday, 30 November 2014

A Postcard from Bangkok

What a week! Bangkok was so different from everywhere we've been so far that for it took a little getting used to. The heat, at night in particular, was almost more than we could cope with. However, cope we did and as a city it was an interesting one to explore. Worth a mention certainly is the range of transport available, from the lovely air conditioned skytrain to the buses that are barely more than a pickup truck, from taxis that weave in and out of the traffic to express boats that run up and down the river and are often completely cramed with people; moving around the city is an adventure all on its own.

Amongst the hustle and bustle of the city are a plethora of temples and we took time to visit Wat Pho with its collection of courtyards and plentitude of golden Buddha statues. Everything is intricately and elaborately decorated, with gold leaf applied everywhere it can be. The highlight of Wat Pho is the giant Reclining Buddha which, at 15m high and 43m long, is definitely an eye opener! 

We also enjoyed a visit to Ancient Siam. This is a museum, for want of a better word - a large collection of Thai buildings with everything from palaces to traditional village homes. Some of these are the originals which have been transplanted from their locations, while others are recreations. The site is large and green and relatively quiet compared to the city centre. Your entry ticket includes bike hire and we had a great few hours pedalling around, exploring some of the buildings closely and admiring others from a distance. 

Our highlight from exploring the city though had to be the cut flower market.  Stall after stall covered in flowers all of which were incredibly cheap. For less than £1 you could get 50 roses or a large bunch of orchids. Orchids by the bunch was a new one for us and we just couldn't resist them! For an added bonus as we came out of the far side we discovered a wholesale vegetable market with huge bowls of chillis and ginger by the bag. Before we reached Thailand we were a little worried about the spiciness of the food, but it turned out to be absolutely fine. There were plenty of non spicy options all of which were incredibly tasty, they really knew how to get good flavour out of the fresh herbs and ingredients.

Finally to round off long hot days of exploring we went for a massage on a couple of occasions. While described as a foot massage we'd actually sit for an hour as they slowly work on our feet, up our legs, onto our arms and hands before finally working on our head, neck and shoulders. While we discovered a few tendons we weren't sure existed and questioned if we were flexible enough for some of the moves in general it was a very relaxing way to finish of the day.

And that was it. On Wednesday we spent 20 hours travelling to return once more to the UK; three months of travelling all done with, finished. Home at last.
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Friday, 28 November 2014

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Creativity for the Uncreative by Chloe

Until recently I shied away from being described as creative. As an author, I suppose it was a reasonable description, but even when my first novel was published I didn't feel as if the title suited me. Creative people wear smocks and multiple piercings, they practise mindfulness at sunrise and stay up half the night discussing philosophy. They don’t wear jeans and spill fruit juice down their t-shirts just before they have to go out and watch trashy documentaries when they’re tired.

But I think it’s time I re-claimed the word ‘creative’. My university degree – my first love – is science, and I always rejected being ‘creative’ as it seemed to be the opposite to ‘scientific’. What rubbish! Scientists are some of the most creative people out there. If you look at the way inventions were refined, mathematical equations defined and new theories opined, it is a world of rich, extraordinary thinking. Creativity is “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness”. There are no limits as to where you use that creativity.

I’m sure many of you are as creative as Joe and Jenny, Rulers of this Blog, are. I cannot claim to match them in terms of the width and depth of their creativity but I do dabble with knitting and sewing, I love baking and I make up lies for my day job. All these things are, of course, creative, and most of them I’m not much good at. But I've come to believe, that true creativity isn't in mastering these skills. True creativity is in learning new things. You might not be the first person to knit a sock or make a special cushion so you can sit on the stairs more comfortably (OK, you may be the first person to do that), but if it’s new for you then you are creating something in your life – inventing a new part of yourself.

In the last five years I've tried to teach myself all sorts of new things. I taught myself to knit, to touch-type, to write in Teeline shorthand and to use a sewing machine. I've made a Christmas tree out of baubles. Not all of those things would be considered creative by most people, but they have sparked my imagination and enriched my life. Creativity doesn't just mean crafts.

As I write this I have just taken possession of a DVD containing 48 lectures outlining the classics of British literature. This was something of an impulse purchase when I stumbled across the company The Great Courses. Have you heard of them? They provide over 500 courses – from meditation or calculus, to world history or the appreciation of art – given by leading university professors and experts. Is it creative? I don’t know, but it’s new, it’s making me use my brain (as a full-time mum of a young baby this is something I value!) and it’s widening my experience of the world.

I'm no longer scared of being called creative. Somewhere, deep down or on the surface, we are all creative. It’s part of being gloriously human. We just have to decide what we want to spend our time creating. If we never stop learning new stuff, we’ll never stop inventing new parts of ourselves. And isn't that an adventure?

What new things have you been learning recently?

Chloe is a long-standing friend and has appeared on this blog a few times in the last year . Chloe is a teller of tales - some short, some long, some prize-winning. She started writing by accident a few years ago and forgot to stop until it was too late. Her first novel, The Art of Letting Go, was published in July 2014. Chloe lives in Devon with her husband and son, where she makes puddings, avoids spiders and wages war on misused apostrophes. You can catch up with her on her website, or chat to her on Twitter.

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Sunday, 23 November 2014

A Postcard from Sydney

Much of this week has been spent travelling, or preparing to travel. We packed up all we could from our two months in New Zealand and on Tuesday we headed for Auckland and our homewards flights. The first of our two stops on this final leg was three nights in Sydney; not enough to do justice to this interesting city but we gave it a go with a whistlestop tour of the highlights.

We stopped by the harbour a few times as it was a central area in the city with ferry terminals, shops, bars and restaurants and was always buzzing with life. We enjoyed getting up close to the opera house, seeing the details of the materials and textures that it's made from. The harbour bridge was also ever present as we moved around the city and one of the first things we did was to walk its length, enjoying the panoramic views it offered.

Shortly after leaving the harbour we were into the botanic gardens, a wonderfully calm green area in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. Joe was intrigued by an orchid comprised of many smaller flowers in place of the more common larger ones - but it turns out Sydney Botanical Gardens is the only place with one! The water lilies were also just coming into blossom and rather pretty.

On our second day we hopped on the ferry and headed to the zoo hoping to see some of Australia's native animals. Kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and alligators all hit the spot as well as appreciating the usual elephants, giraffes and big cats. The reptile house had interesting collection of snakes and lizards, including an Inland Taipan - the most venemous snake in the world, and we loved watching the spinifex hopping mice in the nocturnal house; they ran at an incredible pace and were happily scarpering about their case.

And that was it. Friday we had another of those extra long days that come from getting up early for a flight and gaining a few hours as we changed timezones. We'll tell you all about Bangkok next Sunday in the final instalment of our travelling diaries.

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Friday, 21 November 2014

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Kitchen Gadget 11. Non-stick Sheets

A long time ago, back when this Kitchen Gadgets series was in its infancy, we talked about pizza. We mentioned in passing that we use non-stick sheets to stop our pizza sticking to its baking tray. It might have been a fleeting reference but the truth is that we have a growing collection of these sheets and we love them. We use them nigh on constantly.

You might then ask why it has taken us so long to give them a post of their own. The truth is that we use them in so many small little ways that it's been hard to think of a recipe to give you that highlights just how useful they are.

You see we baked biscuits on them and popped one in our roasting tin for sweet buns. We've used them for breadsticks and for collecting fresh pasta. The more I looked them more I saw them lurking in the background of bake after bake, blog post after blog post, they are the unsung heroes in our kitchen.

So, here's just one more recipe that we use a non-stick sheet for: Stollen.

This is Joe's modified version of Delia's stollen recipe. We use our bread machine to make the dough and then plait the stollen and marzipan into three strands as this disperses the marzipan throughout the stollen - not just in the middle. Unorthodox, but tasty!

7g Dried Yeast
350g Strong White Bread Flour
50g Caster Sugar
1/4tsp Salt
110g Butter
1 Egg
150ml Milk
Zest of 1/2 Lemon

200g Dried Fruit and Nuts, approximately (use what you have around):
 - 100g Sultanas
 - 25g Glace Cherries
 - 25g Mixed Peel
 - 25g Apricots
 - 25g Flaked Almonds

200g Marzipan

1. Put all the ingredients, minus the fruit/nuts and the marzipan, in a bread machine on a dough cycle. Once finished mix in the fruit/nuts.

2. Split the dough into three equal pieces and then roll these into three sausages of equal length and thicknesses.

3. Flatten the sausages and tweak if needed to make them the same.

4. Roll out lengths of marzipan approximately a fingers width in diameter and lay them along your dough stopping 5cm short of each end.

5. Wrap each length of dough around the marzipan to re-form them into sausages.

6. Plait the three strands taking care not to stretch the dough as you do so (it will want to stretch!). Once you've finished plaiting tuck the ends of the plait under and transfer to baking sheet lined with a non-stick sheet.

Ours turned out to be a little long for the tray...
7. Leave to rise again (until doubled in size if you can be that patient).

8. Bake at 170C fan for around 30mins or until the top is golden and the bread sounds cooked (hollow when tapped - normal bread making rules apply).

9. Transfer the stollen on its non-stick sheet to a wire rack and allow to cool.

10. Once cool turn over and the sheet should just peel away.

11. Enjoy with a cup of tea!

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Sunday, 16 November 2014

Wineries and (more) Waterfalls

So, it finally comes to an end. This has been our last week in New Zealand and I both can't believe that two months has gone so fast and feel like it's been an age since we last saw friends and family in the UK. We started this week with a trip to Lake Waikaremoana; a stunningly large lake set high up in the mountains. We took a long afternoon to climb to the top of one of the peaks surrounding the mountain which was a nicely wooded walk, though often more of a scramble than a walk.

After leaving the lakeside we then continued our tour of the coastline to spend several days in the Hawkes Bay area. The weather has been generally warm and sunny adding to the Mediterranean feel of this famous wine growing area, fields of vines stretching out in all directions. Not wanting to break with any traditions we've enjoyed visiting a couple of the wineries and working through the tasting menus offered!

We've added several more to our waterfall collection this week too, with two particularly tall specimens at Lake Waikeremoana, a walk to visit another couple as we drove around Hawkes Bay and a extra surprise waterfall seen from a parking area as we paused to stretch legs on our way inland at the end of the week.

The two main towns in Hawkes Bay, Hastings and Napier, offer much in the way of interesting architecture. The region was mostly flattened during an earthquake in 1931 and then completely rebuilt in the Art Deco style most of which has been preserved. We've wandered the shops, stopped for coffee and enjoyed dinner courtesy of the Hastings Night Market. 

We've finished the week driving back inland to visit Cambridge and our friends at Earthstead, reminding ourselves of the wonderfully hilly landscape that we saw at the start of the trip and preparing ourselves for the next stage of our journey; the homeward leg. 
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Friday, 14 November 2014

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A Loopy Knit

Shortly after we left our WWOOFing hosts for our tour of New Zealand, Joe decided that he was feeling devoid of a project with which to relax. Noticing that I had progressed far enough through my shawl to prove that I didn't need all three of the balls I'd brought with me, he requisitioned one, plus a spare needle and set about finding an appropriate pattern.

He choose a scarf with an interesting lacy panel, comprised of not one, but four yarn overs which are promptly dropped on the next row to create a very open set of stitches. Once the scarf was long enough - and in this case that meant around 100 inches of scarf - he then set about adding tassels to both the ends of the scarf and along the length of the body for a sheekishly scruffy look. 

It still needs a block which will probably wait for when we get home, but otherwise it's all finished; a nice little travelling project.

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Sunday, 9 November 2014

Hobbiton and Hot Springs

We've had a fairly quiet week exploring the Bay of Plenty for the most part. Life has taken on a slower pace with plenty of time spent reading, knitting and watching the world go by. Each night we've parked the camper up on the sea front, relished the lack of effort needed to get the kettle on and then had a good peer at any sea birds in case we might spot something new hiding among the gulls. Our main successes this week on that front have been seeing NZ dotterels and a flock of lesser knots. 

NZ Dotterel

As well as making our way slowly along the coastline we nipped in land for a couple of days to tick a couple of things off our "must see" list, starting with a trip to Hobbiton. This marvel in set making is now a permanent feature of this stretch of farmland and takes a two hour guided tour to see. The level of detail on each of the 40 or so different hobbit holes was impressive. We were very pleased to find that the gardens outside each hole are real and loving cared for, each giving a different aspect of an English country garden - be it a small vegetable plot or a wonderfully scented lavender. Along with the variety of general hobbit holes, be they to hobbit or human scale, we also got to see the outside of the infamous Bag End complete with "no admittance" sign and a completely fake, and incredibly realistic, oak tree over the top. Our guide was disappointed to find that no one in our tour group wished to propose from the steps of bag end though. 

The only place "real" enough to go inside was the green dragon where they kindly handed out flagons of ale, cider or ginger beer and we happily found a spot by the fire to dry out as it was a rather showery day. All in all a good trip, and certainly gives food for thought as to the level of detail they went to for background shots that might not even have made it.

Steaming sulphurous mud - a Rotorua speciality...
The following day we went for a walk around Rotorua, home to many geothermal sites. We found the sulphurous smell that lingered in the air everywhere a little unsettling but it was fun to see the ground mysteriously steaming all over the place. The boiling mud along the lakeside and the yellow patches of earth, along with a variety of interesting buildings certainly made for an unusual walk. 

And with that we were back to the coast and more beaches. Did I mention we did a lot of knitting this week?

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Friday, 7 November 2014

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

A Guide to Papercutting

I've mentioned paper cutting a few times around here, but often just in passing. As this is something I've grown to love over the last couple of years and have used to make more cards than I can now remember, I thought I'd share with you a guide to my technique - if you can call it that! I'm by no means an expert, and often find myself in awe of some of the delicate pieces of art that can be made out of a simple sheet of paper. Maybe one day I can aspire to more intricate pieces but I think the process I go through here would work on any level, the trick comes down to your design skills and the nimbleness of your cutting.

I use a scalpel for cutting with, along with other drawing tools. 
There are two main ways of creating an image using papercutting - from the positive space or the negative space. For example the owl and flower shown here are created from the negative space (i.e. an owl shaped hole in a piece of paper), whereas the labels are created from the positive space (i.e. the paper is cut away to leave the letters behind). Both can work really well, but it's worth considering from the start which one you're going for as it will affect the way you create your design. Of course you can use both in one piece of art.

I started by defining a border so that my flower would have somewhere to connect to the rest of the card.

1. Start by sketching out your idea. Often at this stage I only have the loosest plan of which bits I'm going to cut out - this is all about having a viable drawing to kick things off. If I'm creating a picture using positive space I'll usually start by marking out a border as then I can make sure my picture touches it in multiple places and is therefore anchored into the rest of the sheet.

I do all my sketching on the back so that I don't need to remove all pencil lines at the end.

2. Once I have my sketch I start working out which pieces I'm going to cut away to create the effect I want. I go over these areas in a bolder pencil line until I'm happy with the design making sure all the details have been picked out. What I'm left with is a series of "holes" and "islands". It's worth checking at this stage that all the islands are connected together, preferably at more than one point for stability.

Building up layers of pieces to cut...

... until all the details I want are picked out.

3. Next it's simply a case of taking a craft knife and cutting away the sections you've marked out. I always try and cut the holes that will create the most instability last - in the case of this flower starting with the inside petal and finishing with the gap between the border and the flower at each point. This is because the thinnest points are when each petal meets the border so I wanted to put these under the lowest amount of strain.

I always work my way methodically round a piece, rotating my paper as I go...

There are three main mistakes I find I frequently make when papercutting:

1. Bad Design: I've created a design where the parts aren't all as well connected as I thought they were and as I'm cutting it falls apart. The only thing to do here is start again, or - depending on what's gone wrong - salvage the rest of it sans the part you've cut away.

2. Cutting through an island. Sometimes you're cutting down a nice long straight or curve and you slip... straight into the next hole. I find this is most likely to happen when my blade is a little dull and I'm having to put more pressure than normal on the knife to achieve the cut. Simplest solution - put a fresh blade on your knife.

Only creating the thinnest part when everything else nearby has been cut...

3. Tearing a part you've previously cut carefully. If you have a specially delicate part of the design you'll often find that it rips as you're cutting somewhere else. The knife has a certain amount of drag and friction to it and this pulls at the paper as it cuts. Partly this is solved by leaving these sections to the end, but what I also do is pin down the paper just above where I'm cutting so that my finger takes the strain, not the paper, paying particular attention to pinning down nearby danger spots.
Here I'm using the middle finger of my left hand to pin down the card just in front of where I'm cutting.

You're done! There's not much to it - just lots of patience and a steady hand.

Finally I add a contrasting colour behind to show off my cut and if a design works well I do it again and everyone gets one!

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