Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sharing a home: The Life of a Biographer



Ah, the break between Christmas and New Year. A perfect time to sit down - regularly - with a good book. For this book it would make sense to enjoy it with a good wine... and a good meal to follow.

What’s it like to inhabit the home of another person? A person you have never met and has already died? This is the parallel universe biographers have to absorb themselves into, but what happens when they return to their own homes? Do their subjects travel with them?

Anne Zimmerman recently published a biography about the great American food writer, M.F.K. Fisher titled An Extravagant Hunger: The passionate years of M.F.K. Fisher. She never set out to write a biography. Instead, while looking for a subject for her thesis, she stumbled upon one M.F.K. Fisher book in the library and was fascinated.

‘First, I fell in love with old black and white photos of her. I remember shots of her lounging in a hammock by Lake Geneva, at the World's Fair in Paris, or travelling through Italy. Very soon after I discovered that her writing was even more evocative than those beguiling photos. I quickly realized that I wanted to know everything about her and her life. Needless to say, what I found in her life and her work was so inspiring, I wanted to share it.’

‘M.F.K. Fisher led me to a love for food and wine -- sort of! I grew up in a family that valued food. My mother is an amazing cook and we sat down to dinner together every night. But I was a picky eater until I studied abroad in my early twenties. I was just discovering food and wine when I moved from Portland, Oregon to San Diego, California for graduate school. I was very lonely in San Diego and missed my friends. Fisher's work inspired me to take care of myself. I'd cook elaborate meals each week even if I had no one to share them with. It really made me understand that food is love, and that it's possible (and advisable!) to nourish yourself if you are lonely.’



Before realising she would write a book, M.F.K. Fisher already had a strong influence on Anne.

‘I used Fisher as a writing tutor of sorts. I would come home from a long day and write food focused mini-essays. I wrote about peaches, about making an onion pie, about eating alone. I think I was vaguely lonely and unsatisfied at that time, and writing helped. It also helped me realize that the dramatic events of M.F.K. Fisher's life definitely inspired her prose.’

Anne says that working on the biography only made her feelings about how much she loved food and wine, ‘and the conviviality that comes from sharing meals with people’ stronger.

‘Cooking is my daily hobby -- finishing up with work and walking into the kitchen at the end of the day is one of my favorite things. And of course, food and wine are a magic pairing. Nothing makes me happier than to sit down to a home cooked meal and open bottle of wine. It doesn't matter if it is a Tuesday or a Saturday, this is always a great ending to the day.’



‘The other day someone asked me which room we spent the most time in (aside from sleeping!). When I said the kitchen, the person looked surprised. But I'm surprised by people who don't spend time in the kitchen! It is undoubtedly my favorite room in the house. I like cooking and [husband] Sean does too. At the end of the day you'll usually find one of us prepping dinner while the other one sits and watches (or helps). Next we're in the dining room eating and then it's back to the kitchen to clean up. It's an essential part of our home and married life.’

But what was it really like for Anne to inhabit the world of someone she had never met so intimately? Did Fisher’s world ever filter into Anne’s?

‘It was a great gift to be able to spend 18 months writing about M.F.K. Fisher almost every single day. And it's funny -- I don't ever think that her life encroached on mine, but I will say that I went through a very major heartbreak when I was mid-way through the book. Many people close to me have commented that my own writing became richer and better afterwards, and I was definitely able to "tap" some of that emotion when writing about the end of M.F.K. and Al Fisher's marriage.’

‘I've heard that a lot of biographers end up hating their subjects by the end of their books and I feel very lucky that this did not happen to me. The best part of book writing was writing. I loved waking up early and working hard till midday. Even when I was exhausted, hungry, and in my pjs in mid-afternoon, I was still insanely happy to be doing the work.’

‘Surprises only added to the fun. I'd done so much research prior to starting the book that there weren't any big surprises about M.F.'s life -- the big surprise came when I traveled to Smith College to do more research on Al Fisher. It turns out that after the two divorced he became quite a lothario. This image of Al as a sexual beast was quite different from the pensive poet I'd grown accustomed to -- and the book is richer and more dynamic because of it.’

‘Writing a book is hard, much harder than I ever thought. I'd argue that writing a biography was "easier" -- only because I knew what would happen next! Still, as challenging as it was, it was such an amazing time. I was totally focused on one thing -- my writing, my book -- and got to be very selfish. Even if I write another book I am not sure it will ever be quite like it was that first time.’

So how did it feel when it was all over and Anne had to completely slip back into her own life without sharing it with her subject?

‘Ha! I carefully timed my wedding to coincide with the end of my book tour. Thus, when book events started to putter out, I immediately had a new creative project to focus on. It was nice to have something to work on that wasn't related to books or to writing -- it took some of the pressure off. When people would ask me about my next book I could always say, "First, I have to get married...!"

‘Looking back at my wedding photos it is easy to tell that Fisher inspired my day. We had a small wedding with a long, luxurious lunch. There was lots of wine and amazing food. My dress and other details were inspired by the 1930s. It was a beautiful day.’

While Anne felt it very ‘bittersweet’ to finish the book, she has managed to continue her relationship with M.F.K. Fisher.

‘I selected some lesser known Fisher essays to be included in a book called Love in a Dish... And Other Culinary Delights. This Spring, I have another book coming out: M.F.K. Fisher's Musings on Wine and Other Libations (Sterling Epicure). M.F.K. Fisher is an amazing subject -- I think she is sort of like a first love. It will be hard to find someone to top her!’



For more information about Anne Zimmerman and her writing, visit her blog
Poetic Appetite or her author website, here.

All photos © Anne Zimmerman

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merry Christmas... & Luck?!



One recent midweek night, while making spinach pie for dinner and compiling boring lists in my head – check if there are clean school uniforms; don’t forget to put the bins out – I mindlessly started cracking eggs into a bowl.

And suddenly, not so mindlessly, I noticed a double yolker. Not one double yolker but three. Three double yolkers in a row. I stupidly decided to Google what such a finding could mean. Great luck or dreadful luck it seems, depending on which ‘yolk-lore’ you choose to follow.

I hope it’s a sign of luck and good things to come. With that in mind, I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a lucky 2012. Thanks for continuing to read my slightly sporadic 2011 thoughts!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How organised are you?



Have you ordered the turkey yet? Written the Christmas cards? Bought the presents? I haven’t. It just doesn’t feel Christmassy yet. Perhaps that is due to the unseasonably cold weather in Sydney at the moment but then I look at the calendar and realise we are hurtling towards the middle of December! School breaks up next week!

Instead of writing lists, ordering the turkey, braving the shops or buying those cards I recently chose another way of getting into the Christmas spirit. Sitting – alone – in my favourite bookshop / cafe I picked up a copy of the newish book Cooking for Claudine by John Baxter.

For anyone who loves food, wine and armchair travel, this is the book for your Christmas stocking. John Baxter is the acclaimed Australian film critic who, many years ago while living in America, fell in love with a French woman and followed her to Paris.

For the last 18 or so years, he has also cooked Christmas lunch for his French in-laws, a French family ‘with roots so deep in the soil of medieval France’, living in a ‘country house dating from before Australia was even discovered’.

This memoir collects vignettes from previous Christmas lunches and journeys around France to source ingredients for the big day. Throughout are wonderful observations of this family’s love affair with food:

“ ‘We could pick up the cheese.’ Even as I said it, I recognised I’d made an error. The French approach cheese with the reverence the Spanish accord the corrida, Americans baseball and the English their tea. It is not to be ‘picked up’, or grabbed, snatched, or scored, nibbled, scarfed, or snacked on...”

In fact, Baxter has a whole chapter devoted to cheese, including this piece of trivia:

“To Charles de Gaulle, the diversity of French cheese was evidence that France was in robust political health and in no danger of becoming, as some people feared after World War II, a Communist nation. ‘How can one conceive of a one-party system,’ he asked, ‘in a country that has over two hundred varieties of cheese?”

And what happens if the piglet you decide to roast for Christmas lunch is too big to fit in your oven?

“No meal of this magnitude would fail over a few centimetres of snout.” Baxter says. But does it?

Family heirlooms are brought out for the day – the generations old silverware, the linen tablecloth bought at a market for 10 euros – the ceremony and ritual that preparing the Christmas meal brings that every reader will relate to.

As Baxter writes, “Proust was right. Any house or garden or town existed only as the sum of the feelings experienced there. It was remembering history and maintaining tradition that kept the material world alive.”

An enjoyable, tasty read. Enough to get me to the butcher to place that turkey order.

Cooking for Claudine
by John Baxter
Faber, $22.99

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Was a Casserole enough?



Ah, it seems Matthew Evans and my chicken & sage casserole has finally broken the curse of the infamous duck risotto.

Not only did my sister's date love it, he asked her for the recipe.

I like the sound of him even more.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Reliable Recipe – I hope



My sister has been single for a couple of years now and a whole new world of dating has opened up for her (and me, vicariously). At different times she has met very different men, gone on a few dates, cooked a meal for them and – despite how different these men have been from each other – all dates have ended after this meal. The same meal she has cooked each time – once her signature dish, one could say – until she saw the pattern emerge.

‘I can never cook it again,’ she laughed, ‘unless I want to get rid of someone.’

What is it, you are probably wondering?

Duck risotto. A very rich, very tasty duck risotto that she has even cooked me. Restaurant quality I thought. It didn’t ruin our relationship (and hopefully this post won’t either).

She’s a great cook and it’s an impressive meal so we have decided it must just be a funny coincidence... but as superstitious as our family is I know she will never cook that duck risotto for a man again.

That has been fine the last few months, but not now. She has met someone; someone who (big sister thinks) sounds better than all the others put together.

There have been numerous dates and now we have reached the home-cooked meal one. I say ‘we’ because I have never really been in this position. When Stuart and I started ‘dating’ my mum cooked him dinner. That’s how young we were.

Late yesterday, I received a text from her asking for my chicken and sage casserole recipe. Perhaps you could call it my signature dish. I’ve cooked it so many times that Stuart is over it. That minor point aside, it’s a really easy, simple dish that does looks impressive.

I had given my sister the recipe a few years ago but she couldn’t find it anywhere.

‘Maybe it’s a sign you shouldn’t cook it for him?’ I text back.

‘Don’t say that?!?!?!’ came the swift reply.

Fair enough. I went to find it in my recipe scrapbook. I tore it out of Good Weekend magazine years ago when Matthew Evans had the ‘Weekend Fare’ column. I hadn’t looked at the recipe for a while either, given it’s one of only a handful I know by heart.

As I started typing the method out, I noticed the introductory paragraph he’s written above it.


“Love. As fragile as meringue. Women. As tender as slow-cooked chicken thigh. Feelings. As easily bruised as fresh herbs. Memories. Lightly salty, like tears. A good casserole. As reliable as an old friend and as warming as a hand on your shoulder.”

It has to be a sign...

This and the fact that on their first date he mentioned a strong dislike of risotto.

Only time will tell.

Chicken casserole with mushrooms and sage
(serves 3-4)
25g butter
8 chicken thighs
Flour for dusting
1 leek chopped
1 cup white wine
200g button mushrooms
15 or so big sage leaves
Salt and pepper

Method
Preheat oven to 150°C
Dust chicken with flour.
Melt butter and brown chicken in an oven proof dish.
Remove chicken and fry leek until it’s softened.
Return chicken, add wine to deglaze bottom of pan and simmer for a minute or two.
Toss in mushrooms and 10 sage leaves, salt and pepper.
Cover and put in oven for an hour or so.
Add remaining sage leaves and serve.

*Recipe by Matthew Evans, torn from Good Weekend circa 2004

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Writing



Before we went away I was busy reading. Reading some of the best books I’ve read this year and two were the work of first-time authors. Their stories filled my creative needs and I realised a pattern – when reading takes over I just don’t feel like writing. Does this make me a fair-weather writer? Sometimes I wonder.

On previous family holidays I stole time away from everyone to write and think; walks alone along the beach, jottings in cafes and many sentences composed in my head. The urge didn’t appear this time. Five weeks, two countries, countless new experiences, conversations, observations and not one moment of wishing to jot it all down.

Anaïs Nin once said “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” But sometimes I find that writing in the moment takes me away from living it.

For the last few months not writing has allowed me to taste life more fully.

Reading has allowed me to taste other lives more fully.

Wind in the Willows took on a whole new dimension when read overlooking the willow trees on the banks of the Thames.

Beginning The Diary of Anne Frank while flying between London and Amsterdam and finishing it the night before visiting the Anne Frank Museum made Anne’s presence even stronger as I walked through every room of that secret annexe.

The chiming of the Westertoren clock as I arrived at the museum at 9am took my mind straight back to the pages of her diary written nearly 70 years ago:

‘Father, Mother and Margot still can’t get used to the chiming of the Westertoren clock, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. Not me, I liked it from the start; it sounds so reassuring especially at night.’

And all this time later I found that chime, loud and resonant, just as reassuring. The same clock bringing past and present together for a moment. A moment I was fully part of. I walked around those rooms, now unfurnished, knowing exactly where each piece of furniture would have sat. Her bedroom wall, still partially papered with postcards and film-star pictures, did look ‘much more cheerful’ as she wrote.

The museum was full of people yet no one spoke and we all seemed to tread lightly. Is that because tasting life in such a way is almost overwhelming?

Or perhaps it’s because we all need moments of stillness; time for experiences to settle, ideas to percolate and distance to experience life again in retrospect.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Home



Home. Is it a house, suburb, city or country? Or is it a state of mind? Such thoughts have occurred to me many times during and since we returned from travelling as a family of five for five weeks.

For someone for whom the physical home is so important, I expected to miss my bed, my kitchen, my bath quite a bit. I hardly thought about them the whole time we were away.

Of course, there was the superficial fun of trying on different homes for size: the Wind and the Willows fantasy of living on the Thames riverbank; the canal house apartment in Amsterdam; the 17th century Cotswold cottage; and the Mansion flat in Knightsbridge, just around the corner from Harrods. All of them so very different, yet all of them feeling as much like home as the other.

Why? Because maybe I’m starting to realise that home now, for me, is the little family that Stuart and I have created. This tiny, insignificant group of five people in an overwhelmingly large universe is all I need. It wouldn’t matter where we were – even in row 60, 15 hours into a 24 hour flight – I still truly feel home with them.

This was such a different experience from the times of travelling alone when those interminable long-haul flights felt like limbo-land; life on hold waiting to reach someone else on the other side to take me home.

Homesickness also felt different. I missed people rather than places. You only need time away to realise how often you want to speak to close friends; to discover how closely they are stitched into the fabric of your daily life.

And family. There were times when I felt acutely homesick for the past. Watching my children’s eyes widen as they walked the streets of London for the first time reminded me of my sister and I many years ago. To go back there, to a time when my father was alive; when home was simply him, my mother, sister and I walking these same streets.

While staying with my uncle I found myself able to close my eyes and hear my father’s voice through my uncle as he talked about their childhoods and told stories about my grandparents. His mannerisms brought my father back to life for brief moments and for brief moments that feeling of homesickness was almost unbearable.

It wasn’t until we attended a wedding at the end of our trip that I fully understood how much my feelings about what represents home have changed.

It was a simple reading about love yet it resonated so deeply that I pocketed the order of service and carried it all the way home. Or was home actually travelling along with me all that time?

'Love is a temporary madness;
it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides.
And when it subsides you have to make a decision.
You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together
that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.
Because this is what love is.

Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement,
it is not the promulgation of eternal passion.
That is just being in love, which any fool can do.
Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away,
and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.
Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground,
and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches,
they find that they are one tree and not two.'

An extract from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When Home is... not taking the Dishwasher for granted



Do you find you often take the everyday appliances in your home for granted? I do. And when something goes wrong I panic. Then I realise how little I actually understand about how these machines actually work. And then I feel guilty that the thought of living without a dishwasher is so depressing. Really, I scold myself, we’re lucky we have running water.

During my lifetime, particularly my time as a mother, household appliances have made life at home so much simpler. Throw in a cleaner once a fortnight and I am hardly in an apron chained to a kitchen sink for any long period of time.

So this morning when I was loading the dishwasher and the piece of plastic under the top drawer that helps the water spray around the machine suddenly fell off, I became curious. After realising I could screw it back into place and not have to worry about washing by hand, I decided to do a bit of research.

Thinking that the dishwasher was a modern day invention, I was surprised to learn that it was first patented in America in 1850. Joel Houghton invented the wooden machine with a hand-turned wheel. While not really a working machine, it was not long before an automatic machine was developed in 1886. Josephine Cochrane designed it and included racks to hold plates, cups and saucers. According to Wikipedia, she never washed dishes herself but was sick of her servants chipping the fine china. Her design gained much recognition and she soon started her own company: KitchenAid.

Dishwashers certainly weren’t fixtures in middle-class Victorian England – they had an entire room for washing-up. While kitchens were for cooking, the scullery across the corridor was for washing-up. Scullery maids would be busy just travelling between the kitchen and the scullery. Imagine every pot and dish would need to be taken out of the kitchen to be washed, dried and stored before being brought back out of the scullery into the kitchen next time it was needed.

In Bill Bryson’s book At Home, he writes about the Victorians’ eating habits.

‘A popular book of 1851 by a Lady Maria Clutterbuck (who was actually Mrs Charles Dickens), gives a good impression of the kind of cooking that went on in those days. One suggested menu – for a dinner of six people – comprises “carrot soup, turbot with shrimp sauce, lobster patties, stewed kidneys, roast saddle of lamb, boiled turkey, knuckle of ham, mashed and brown potatoes, stewed onions, cabinet pudding, blancmange and cream and macaroni.” Such a meal, it has been calculated, could generate 450 pieces of washing-up. The swing door leading from the kitchen to the scullery must have swung a lot.’


450 pieces of washing up from ONE meal! Washing up two plates, three bowls, a couple of knives, spoons, teacups and glasses this morning wouldn’t have been such a big deal after all.

Friday, July 29, 2011

When Home is... Eating Well. An Interview with Cookbook Author Kathleen Gandy



It’s Sunday morning, you’re about to face the weekly grocery shop but you are 10 weeks pregnant, feeling sick and tired. You love cooking and food but you can’t bear the thought of meat or standing over the stove for hours preparing meals. You barely have the energy to make it through a week of work, let alone a week of cooking dinner.

Or, it’s Sunday morning and you have to somehow squeeze in the grocery shop between kids soccer games, ballet classes and birthday parties. You remember the days when you spent weekends reading through cookbooks, preparing dinner parties and meandering through farmers markets with a coffee in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other. Now you are struggling to think of meal ideas beyond spaghetti bolognaise. Anyway, who has the time?

It’s a dilemma everyone faces during the years of pregnancy and raising a young family; even cookbook editor and author Kathleen Gandy who has always loved cooking and turned her passion into a career.

‘I always loved reading as a child, applying for my first library card when I was five and I always loved food. My mother is Cantonese and I grew up surrounded by that food culture. Later when I went to boarding school the food was awful: boiled chicken, boiled potatoes, boiled cabbage. I’d look at it and cry. When I’d go home in the holidays, mum and I would plan our days around meals rather than activities.’

After working as a recipe developer and food writer, Kathleen joined Gourmet Traveller’s food team. Then she fell pregnant with her first child. While researching what she couldn’t eat she decided to focus instead on all the foods she could eat.

‘There were so many different cuisines. I had never been a “food is fuel” person and even though I suffered morning sickness I still looked for pleasure in my cooking. As Nigella Lawson once said “there is no excuse to eat a bad meal”. I kept a food diary of all the meals I ate and felt like during the different trimesters of pregnancy and realised, while looking for different recipe ideas, that I wanted a book that celebrated all you could eat during this joyful time. I was completely overwhelmed by the What to Eat When You’re Expecting-style regimen of calculating and combining units of food groups.’

So the idea for a foodlover’s guide to pregnancy developed. Kathleen’s first book, Eating for Two, was published last year in Australia and will be published later this year in Germany.



‘The recipes were developed from the perspective of flavour first. All are simple and quick to cook as I found cooking smells difficult to deal with during both my pregnancies. I wanted the book to speak from a shopping list point of view rather than units of food, so at the beginning there is a list of pregnancy superfoods that form the basis of the recipes. They are the superfoods I still buy weekly.’

While all the recipes and information were checked by an accredited practising dietitian and written within the Australian food safety authority pregnancy guidelines, Kathleen emphasises that this is not a ‘health’ book as such.

‘It’s more a celebration of that exciting time in your life by highlighting all the fabulous things you can still eat. I approached my dietary needs of pregnancy through the eyes of a guts. I love eating; why should pregnancy be any different?’

And why should mealtimes with a young family be any different as well?

‘The recipes are very "family friendly" and have come to form the basis of my ongoing weeknight repertoire, as they are healthy and generally fast to prepare. My kids have particular favourites (I guess they got a taste for some of the flavours during pregnancy).'

Pregnant or not, particularly helpful are pages such as ‘Ten things to do with a packet of pasta’ or ‘Ten things to do with a can of tuna.’ Who has ever stood in front of their pantry wondering what to do with a lone can of tuna or realised that the pantry is bare aside from a packet of penne?

But if you are pregnant, it’s hard not to go past the ‘Ten quick fixes for morning sickness’ page.

‘The book is authentic to my food experience of my two pregnancies – I kept notes of recipes I created to deal with the different phases such as morning sickness, carpal tunnel syndrome, heightened sense of smell; and cravings (citrus was big, hence the citrusy salads). I also went through a protein phase, where I just wanted to eat loads of meat.’

After the book was published, Kathleen began a blog titled Next Week’s Dinner which tackles the stresses of menu planning. Working fulltime as a senior cookbook editor with a six-year-old and four-year-old who need to eat by 6pm, Kathleen quickly realised how organised she would have to be to get dinner on the table every night.

‘The blog came about as an extension of my life now,’ says Kathleen. ‘I am lucky to have 45 minutes to prepare dinner. There are no shops on my way home, so I have to know what I’m cooking beforehand.’

As she writes on the blog’s ‘About’ page, ‘On the spontaneity–stress-relief continuum, meal planning literally saves my bacon every week.’ The blog acts as a food diary, recounting the family dinners eaten each day and also how sometimes the plan goes straight out the window.

‘Rules are made to be broken – if my train is cancelled it might just be that we eat pasta on Thursday night instead of Friday, or say there’s a school event in the middle of the week, I may just dish up the re-purposed Sunday night leftovers then instead of on Monday.’

The blog is a great read for anyone who is sick of worrying about what to cook for dinner or has stood in front of a full fridge or pantry and feels like there is nothing to eat...

‘What is most important to me about the book and now the blog is that they are authentic and capture my everyday experience; how the daily act of nourishment and a love of good food intersects with family life,’ says Kathleen. ‘The two are not mutually exclusive.’

For more information about Kathleen’s book, Eating for Two, click here.
To read Kathleen’s blog, Next Week’s Dinner, click
here.

Author Image by Richard Birch
Cover image, Eating for Two by Kathleen Gandy, photography by Mark O'Meara, published by Viking, RRP $35


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When Home is... Fiction

I’ve been busy writing book reviews for Good Reading magazine lately. It is always fun to dwell in the world of fiction for ‘work’ when the books are ones I would choose to read for pleasure anyway.

So was the case with the following two books. Both, appropriately, are about what ‘home’ means to the characters. Very different – one literary, one mass-market –both explore the ideas of what we need in life to make us feel safe, nurtured and at home.

And what more do you need to feel at home on this windy, wet and cold night in Sydney than a good book, glass of wine and pasta sauce simmering away on the stove-top?



Too Close to Home
By Georgia Blain
Vintage
RRP: $32.95

Georgia Blain has crafted a page-turning story of a generation and a moment of time in Australia’s history that will resonate deeply with anyone in their 30s or 40s.

Freya and Matt are living with the ‘Real People’ in an inner western suburb of Sydney, while their friends – writers, editors, artists and actresses – have stayed in the East. Set during the period that saw the Labor Party fall out of favour, the ousting of Kevin Rudd and culminating with the election that marginally kept Labor in power, Blain navigates the sometimes messy and complicated lives of this old circle of friends.

When Matt discovers he may have fathered a child 17 years ago, his and Freya’s world is turned upside down. Both are tested and forced to look at themselves and the choices they have made in a new light. It’s this tension between them and how that affects their relationships with their friends that makes this story so absorbing.

It’s easy to relate to the characters and their moral and ethical dilemmas of living in this modern world. Blain has created an excellent work of fiction and years from now people will read this novel to understand life in Sydney during this period.



Sing You Home
By Jodi Picoult
Allen & Unwin
RRP: $32.99 (Paperback)

Jodi Picoult’s greatest strength has always been her exploration of moral dilemmas and she excels with the moral minefield she presents in her latest novel, Sing You Home.

In this absorbing work, readers will be faced with the complex emotional issues of a couple facing infertility, IVF, stillbirth, divorce, alcoholism, adultery, homosexuality and the religious opposition to it. Yet, perhaps the most fraught dilemma is that of frozen embryos: after a divorce who has the right to choose to use them, give them away or have them destroyed? Who gets to decide what constitutes a family unit today? Church or State?

Picoult manages to present a balanced view; sympathetic to both sides of the debates at all times and ultimately will leave readers feeling satisfied with her resolution. The courtroom drama that always unfolds with her novels will not disappoint. She continues to weave tight, suspenseful plots and her main characters are well-developed.

Readers will empathise with the plights of Zoe and Max, the main characters, regardless of their personal views of such contentious issues.

Yet again Picoult has created a world that will keep people turning pages long into the night.

*Reviews originally published in Good Reading magazine

Monday, July 11, 2011

When Home is... Boarding School. An Interview with Author Jacqueline Harvey



I think I have reached my favourite moment of motherhood so far... Lily and I reading the same book and both of us loving it. After reading at bedtime, Lily has started bringing the book downstairs so I can continue reading it while she’s asleep.

‘But don’t go past Chapter 29,’ Lily cautions, ‘because I don’t want you to find out what happens before me.’

Secretly I do read past Chapter 29, not out of competitiveness but because I really do want to know what happens next and I can’t wait until tomorrow night. I write her a note and paperclip it to the front of the book, returning it under her pillow where she will find it in the morning.



‘I can’t believe what Miss Grimm said!’ one note may exclaim. Our notes continue to shuffle back and forth over the nights until we come to the end. But it’s not really the end as today we plan to walk to the bookshop together and buy the next instalment.

The Alice-Miranda series written by Jacqueline Harvey has been a delightful surprise for me; finally, a well-written and crafted story for parents and children alike. A chance for Lily and I to talk about the magic of books and reading; of characters feeling like friends and talking about them as though they really are. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t get lost inside the pages of a book so it is extremely satisfying to see my daughter skipping off to bed because she can’t wait to keep reading.

But what is it about the first book in this series, Alice-Miranda at School, that has captured us both so?

Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones is seven-and-a-quarter years old; a determined and optimistic little girl she has decided she’s ready for boarding school. All is not as it seems at the Winchesterfield-Downsfordvale-Academy for Proper Young Ladies and so begins Alice-Miranda’s adventures at her new home.



Throughout the generations, boarding school adventures for children have always seemed popular favourites. But why?

‘I think that’s probably because most people don’t attend boarding school so it does hold a degree of mystique and perhaps even romanticism,’ says Jacqueline. ‘I know whenever we were naughty my mother and father would threaten to send us to boarding school – so there is also that idea that it could be a rather nasty and foreboding place. I never actually went!’

Instead Jacqueline became a teacher and has always worked at schools with boarders, some with children as young as nine living there.

‘I always admired the courage of the little girls who were away from their families often as a result of difficult circumstances like parents working overseas or a family breakdown. I thought that the concept of boarding school would allow a lot of freedom to set up the characters and really show Alice-Miranda’s independence, her courage and generous spirit.’



The idea for Alice-Miranda first began as a concept for a picture book.

‘I had at the time recently won Honour Book in the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards (2006) for my picture book, The Sound of the Sea and I remember thinking that maybe I was destined to be a writer of picture books. I’d also had another series of junior novels published earlier and was a little confused about my writing identity. So the idea of a little girl who takes herself off to boarding school was born.’

‘But the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that this was longer than a picture book – and in fact had potential as a series. Initially I envisaged 4 books but now there will be at least 8 and possibly more.’



Setting the book inside a boarding school allowed Jacqueline more writing freedom.

‘I love the quirky characters. Writing about boarding school lets me invent a whole ‘family’ of people who look after the girls. There’s a certain freedom in not having the parents around all the time.’

Throughout Alice-Miranda at School, there is a strong feeling of home, belonging and family despite mean girls, a principal who hasn’t been seen in 10 years and a garden bereft of flowers. How did Jacqueline manage this?

‘I think the food is a big part of creating that feeling of home. The fact that poor long suffering Mrs Smith has now had a holiday and returned a new woman – and also become firm friends with the Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones’s cook, Dolly Oliver who has superb culinary skills, means that the children look forward to their delicious meals together.’

‘Howie, the Housemistress is a very firm but lovable character and after Miss Grimm’s personal epiphany she too becomes very important in creating the homeliness of the place. The children have animals at school too (Alice-Miranda gets to take her pony Bonaparte in the third book) which creates a feeling of home.’

Perhaps it’s also because Alice-Miranda feels so at home at school.

‘I think Alice-Miranda loves being with her friends and she certainly adores her clever teachers and all of the things she gets to do. Right from the beginning she said that boarding school would be helpful to her parents as well because they are both busy people and they didn’t need to be running around after her all the time.’



Ultimately, Alice Miranda’s strength of character is such that she would make a home for herself no matter where Jacqueline decides she has to go.

‘Alice-Miranda is such a joy to write because she takes everything in her stride. She looks for and usually finds the good in everyone. There is nothing that’s too much trouble for her and she delights in helping people,’ says Jacqueline. ‘Of course she comes from a family with vast resources but she is in many ways blissfully unaware of her privilege but at the same time realises that not everyone lives the same life.’

‘I guess she really challenges the stereotype of a spoilt little rich girl.’

And thankfully ignites the imagination of my very own seven-year-old without a fairy, princess or ballerina in sight.

To read more about Jacqueline Harvey and her books, click here.
To read more about the Alice-Miranda series, click
here.

Author photo & book cover images © Random House Australia

Monday, July 4, 2011

When Home is... Living with Environmentally-Friendly Solutions


When Paula Cowan first started buying the Solution Living brand (environmentally-friendly household, personal care and baby products) four years ago, it wasn’t just about helping the environment.

‘I did like the fact I was buying an environmentally-friendly choice that worked, but more than that I liked the way the products looked and smelled!’



After her daughter arrived nearly two years ago, Paula realised how much more waste you can easily create having children and began to think of ways to reduce, recycle and reuse at home. Combined with the opportunity to buy the Solution Living business in December last year, she was forced to clarify even further her thoughts about consumerism.

‘Owning the business has made me research more environmentally-friendly ways to live and question the choices I make. What really are the benefits of using these household products? I needed to understand the science behind it which has led to a re-education.’



This re-education has also led to learning more about the manufacture of products before we even buy them.

‘I like to think of it as upstream and downstream,’ says Paula, ‘We’re all well-educated to what happens downstream; we know what certain chemicals do to our skin and we know how to recycle plastic and paper packaging, as well as the consequences of washing these products down the sink.’

‘Slowly we’re becoming better educated on what happens upstream: what actually goes into our products. We already understand more about what really happens to our food before we eat it and now we are learning about what goes into our laundry, dishwashing, cleaning and personal care products.’

What goes into the Solution Living products are plant extracts and renewable sources so the overall impact on the planet is small in manufacture, use and disposal.

Today, Paula thinks we are all on a path of understanding our environmental impact and is always interested in listening to the range of understanding her customers have. Some have specific reasons for wanting to buy the products – perhaps they have sensitive skin or have a family member with allergies – while other customers are actively looking for as many environmentally-friendly alternatives as they can find.

In her own house, aside from using any environmentally-friendly alternative for cleaning, personal hygiene and nappies, she and her husband have also made the choice to buy a diesel car. They compost and recycle and plan to get solar panels and a water tank installed.



They have recently moved to a larger fixer-upper house and these changes will all be made slowly. As Paula says, ‘trying to live completely environmentally-friendly is overwhelming whereas incremental changes are more sustainable.’

Paula and I both grew up during a time when environmentally-friendly products were expensive, didn’t work as well or smell as good. Recycling was only just starting to be considered important and I don’t even remember the word ‘organic’ being used in relation to food or cotton or anything.

Today our children are growing up with separate bins for waste, paper and glass at home as well as in their parks and other public spaces. They know which food scraps go into the compost bin and despite living in the middle of a city understand the concepts of worm farms and vege patches.

But, unlike Paula, I hadn’t really become a conscious consumer when it came to household products. Ned and I recently visited her Solution Living stall at Sunday’s Frenchs Forest Organic Market and he spotted the bubble bath. At home we were still using Johnson & Johnson soap free and I hadn’t really thought about changing over.



Ned insisted we try the lavender bubble bath and that night the kids enjoyed more bubbles from one squirt than I would have thought possible. They were happy, clean and smelled good too.

The J&J bottle still sits half full on the side of the bath because every night the children ask for the ‘really bubbly bubble bath’. No wonder it is Paula’s biggest seller.

Yes, incremental changes are happening in this house too... one bottle of bubble bath at a time.

For more information about Solution Living, visit the website here.

To read about how Paula and her family live in an environmentally-friendly way at home, visit her blog
here.

All photos © Paula Cowan

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

When Home is... Not an Old Desk



I spent half-an-hour fighting with a piece of furniture this morning. I never thought I could feel so angry with an inanimate object but when I stood with the intention of going to get a hammer to smash open the stuck drawer I realised the battle was over and I had to walk away.

This desk has been with Stuart and me throughout our entire relationship. It was his childhood desk and before that belonged to one of his uncles. It’s not an heirloom piece with the veneer increasingly chipping away, the ink stains and the many engravings Stuart made with a compass when he was 13. When both uncles visited a couple of years ago they spotted it.

‘What are you doing with that old thing?’ said one.

‘I can’t believe Germaine has let you keep it,’ said the other.

We laughed. It is awful but until now has been very practical.

It can fit into small spaces: hallways in previous apartments and a room barely two metres wide in this house. Fitting perfectly under the window in our study / laundry / utility room it has always been a piece of furniture we keep meaning to replace but never get around to.

Not any longer. The relationship is definitely over now. I could deal with the shabby appearance but I can’t deal with its unpredictability.

Last week I couldn’t find my Dictaphone even though I knew it was in the drawer. I had to leave the house with a notepad instead to interview Paula Cowan, the owner of environmentally-friendly cleaning and personal care products, Solution Living. She was very patient with my stilted questions as I wrote down everything she said.

The next day I found the Dictaphone, right at the back of the drawer, under crepe paper. I have no idea how crepe paper got in there and what it was ever used for.

Anyway, I had no such concerns this morning of finding my Dictaphone on my way out to interview author of Eating for Two and cookbook editor Kathleen Gandy. Sadly, the drawer had other ideas. It was completely jammed shut and no amount of pulling, rattling and screaming at the stupid thing would open it. It can’t be the crepe paper as I’ve thrown that away.

Just like I’m planning to throw away something else... I may miss the Smurf wrapping paper Stuart lined his drawers with when he was 10, but as I can’t open them anymore it doesn’t really matter.

****

On the upside, my note-taking skills are improving and I will be posting the interviews with Paula and Kathleen soon. Once I find a desk.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When Home is... Old Plates



It started when we dug up a broken piece of a plate in the back garden late last year. The pale blue floral pattern captivated me and I couldn’t help but wonder which owner it belonged to. It looked old, the pattern delicate, but surely it wasn’t a plate of John and Elizabeth Liddell’s?



Or was it? After all, they had seven children back in the 1890s so I imagine there were many broken plates over the many years they lived here. The kitchen/scullery would have been out the back, near where we dug up this piece of china, but who knows.

It could just as easily been from the owners who lived here in the 1990s and, from what I can work out from old plans, added the back living / kitchen room. After our recent renovation I have realised how many bits of rubbish – nails, screws, cigarette butts – can inadvertently end up buried under the rose bushes and gardenias... Yet, I like to think of this broken plate as a link from the present back to where it all began. The first family who called this house home.

When I found this bit of china I had already been thinking that we needed new dinner plates. Ours were all white and increasingly becoming chipped and crazed. I hadn’t been able to decide on the style of dinner set I wanted but now I knew.

While it was pure fantasy to try and find the exact match for this dug up piece of china, I knew I wanted old, English style plates and serving bowls.



It didn’t take long to start my new collection... finding a couple of blue and white china plates at the markets one weekend, some green ones at the same market another weekend. And once you start a collection it’s hard to stop really, isn’t it?

Collections run in our family and when my mother turned 40 she decided that for her party she would ask everyone to bring a plate. Not a plate of food but a plate. A plate of her friend’s choice, she would display on the lounge room wall. I think some of her friends were dubious, worried about whether they would find one she would like, one that would match the others but that wasn’t the point.

It had to be a plate her friend loved. Perhaps it was one they already owned or one they found at a garage sale or junk shop. That way it would become a plate representing that person. Instead of a wall of photos of her closest friends, she would have a wall of plates.

What none of us anticipated was how much those plates would come to act like photos. It’s amazing what a pattern, colour choice and age of a plate can tell you about someone’s personality. To this day I can stand in front of those plates and know the story behind each one.

It’s these stories behind objects that make them feel so precious. When I brought home a stack of old, slightly crazed, square dessert plates with a faded gold border and little green flowers painted around the sides a few months ago, I washed them and left them to dry on the side of the sink.

While talking to my sister on the phone, I noticed the children kept coming perilously close to them. Our conversation was punctuated with me shouting across the room ‘Watch those plates!’



My sister laughed, wondering how much I had paid for them to make me so nervous.But it wasn’t the fact they cost me $1.50 each (!) that made me nervous. It was the fact that I was already attaching myself to the story behind them; the morning spent fossicking at the market and finding them stacked unlovingly in a plastic tub was just the beginning of our life together. I was already imaging the future meals with friends and family when they would make their appearance. But what about the life they already had?



How did they end up as someone’s rubbish when once they would have looked quite grand? They may have been a part of someone’s wedding china. China only brought out for Christmas or birthdays for a family long, long ago.

A family like the family who first lived here.

And now a family like ours.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

When Home is... not so secret



Have you ever reflected on your life thus far and not been surprised, as though there was a predestined plan you have actually known all along?

I know there are many times in life when you don’t want to be where you’re at – whether it’s your physical or emotional home – but there are other moments in life when everything just seems to fall into place; when you feel content and know that everything is as it should be.

I’ve been thinking about those moments a lot over the rainy long-weekend after reading a particularly insightful and eloquent post from author Rebecca Woolf on her blog Girl's Gone Child.

Rebecca began her blog in 2005 after the birth of her first child, Archer. Hers has been quite a journey to find home: falling pregnant and marrying her partner after only knowing each other for a matter of months meant adjusting to marriage and motherhood at the same time. There were many ups and downs, which she chronicles with humour, wisdom and insightfulness, before the birth of their second child, a daughter Fable.

Now she is pregnant with twin girls. A place she could hardly have imagined to be seven years ago. Or could she?
“...suddenly everything felt so completely right. Like overhearing a secret you already kind of knew, heard somewhere before.”

Have you ever ‘overheard a secret you already kind of knew’? While I have never thought of these moments in this way before, it expresses so perfectly such life changing moments you know deep down you’re meant to make.

There have been three such moments for me:

I was only 19 when I met Stuart. I know, ridiculously young, but anyway. We became friends first and while I didn’t know where our friendship would lead I had the strongest feeling that he would always be in my life. Not necessarily my life but somewhere on the periphery, always. It was the oddest sensation, one I have never had since, at a time when university friendships and flirtations came and went regularly.

Years later when we came to inspect this house, it felt like ours from the moment I walked inside. Even though, on paper, it wasn’t the house I was looking for. I was sure we had already found that house, around the corner.

Here I was, with the man who I thought would be an acquaintance forever, living in a house I loved but didn’t think I wanted, with a little girl and baby boy by my side. The two children I always imagined we would have living in a house the perfect size for the four of us.

The previous owners moved because they were having a third baby. Stuart laughed, ‘that will never be our problem’ he said to the real estate agent. So sure we were complete.

Then one day, a couple of years later I was driving along with Lily and Ned giggling in the backseat. A moment of contentment until a little voice in my head interrupted and spoke very loudly.

‘We’re not all here yet.’

Surely we were?

But those secrets you accidentally overhear do come true it seems. And when they do you truly know you’ve arrived home.



Click here to read more about Rebecca’s life at Girl's Gone Child.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

When home is... mindless housework



Or should this title be ‘mindfulness housework’? I have always struggled with housework. I think my teenage arguments with my mother were always about the state of my bedroom and more specifically making my bed. I have the bed making under control these days but my mother still can’t help but sweep my kitchen floor whenever she visits.

I have no problem dealing with filling the pantry or washing machine, keeping the kitchen tidy, folding the washing and putting it away but for some reason I have always found scrubbing the bathroom, vacuuming and cleaning the floors... overwhelming.

The more I talk to friends, I realise I am not alone. One friend recently told me that she volunteers at school as a way of avoiding doing housework, another tells me that her mother offered to look after her daughter for the day so she could ‘do something about her house’. My mother hasn’t gone that far... yet.

I think my problem with housework lies with my looking at the bigger picture rather than the detail. What’s the point of sweeping the kitchen floor after breakfast when we still have lunch and dinner to get through? And what’s the point of sweeping up after dinner when it will be covered in cereal again by 7am?

Lily learnt this lesson first hand on the weekend. There is a tree right outside our house that is dropping all its autumn leaves. The yellow leaves on the driveway and pavement look very pretty but seeing the ‘mess’ had been upsetting Lily all week. Finally, on Sunday morning, armed with a broom and her father, she went out to sweep all the leaves up. In the afternoon, on our way out to the park she proudly showed us how tidy the driveway now looked. ‘So much better after all that sweeping’ she said.

On returning from the park, however, there had been a strong breeze and – surprise surprise – many more leaves had fallen.

She was shocked. ‘What was the point of all that sweeping if the leaves are just going to keep falling and ruin my work.’

So true, so true.

BUT, that night while reading the wonderful Buddhism for Mothers of Schoolchildren by Sarah Napthali, something shifted for me. Sarah interviews a woman about housework:

‘I wish all the world’s problems were as simple as housework because with housework you get a result. Compared to really difficult world problems or even problems with our children’s behaviour, the solutions for housework are very immediate. I have this whole load of dirty dishes: I wash them and here they all are clean.’

So, instead of resenting the work because I’m too busy thinking about how quickly I will be faced with the same task again, I should enjoy the moment of achievement.
Shouldn’t I?!

After all, life really is made up of the little moments. Here and now.

Friday, May 20, 2011

When Home is... a completed kitchen reno



Not long ago I interviewed Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan about her kitchen. As the founding editor of the great USA site, The Kitchn, it was exciting for me to hear about Sara Kate's views on the kitchen as the heart of her own home.

Not long after, the managing editor of The Kitchn contacted me and asked to see some pictures of my own kitchen, the heart of my home. So it was with great excitement, while standing in the kitchen of a rented holiday home in Byron Bay this week, to see our finished kitchen on such a website.

If you are looking for renovation inspiration from around the world and haven't looked at The Kitchn site or any of the Apartment Therapy sites, it's worth the visit...

Kitchen Tour: Germaine's Renovated Sydney Kitchen

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When Home is... One You Once Lived In



I know we’ve talked about revisiting childhood homes and fantasy homes but we haven’t talked about revisiting a home you once lived in as an adult. This thought struck me yesterday as we accidentally revisited one such home and I was surprised by the emotions it conjured. Well, actually I was surprised by the lack of any emotions.

We took the kids to the Museum – a good rainy day solution for the end of a long weekend – and parked in a nearby side street. We parked about three doors up from a flat Stuart and I once rented before we were married but neither of us mentioned this as we got everyone out of the car. It was raining and the museum was in the opposite direction.

On the way back to the car we walked down the hill, passed this old flat, to get coffee.

‘Look kids’, I said pointing across the road, ‘see that tiny balcony near the top of that tree?’

‘Um yeah’, said Lily squinting slightly.

‘What tree?’ asked Ned looking in the opposite direction.

‘Banana bread’, said Louis pointing down the hill towards the cafe strip.

‘Well, mummy and daddy once lived there.’ I said, not quite believing it.

‘What’s with those purple curtains?’ asked Stuart as he turned to walk away.

Everyone walked on quietly. I wondered why I didn’t feel happy or nostalgic seeing that little Juliet balcony again. We only lived there for six months but a lot happened during that time: Stuart proposed, I found my first job in book publishing, we’d just returned from a big overseas trip and the future had really changed direction. It was a good time; fun to live in the middle of the city and work there too. Yet none of those memories came flooding back as we stood outside the building.

‘What number house was it?’ asked Lily as we got to the cafe.

‘Ummm. I have no idea,’ I said and looked at Stuart. He shrugged his shoulders.

As we walked back to the car, we stopped outside the building so Lily could see the number.

‘There you go, you lived at number 17,’ she smiled.

‘That must mean we were unit 6,’ said Stuart as he looked at the side door we used to enter through. Still, those numbers meant absolutely nothing to me.

‘Well, there you go,’ I said, ‘you guys weren’t even born when we lived here. Isn’t that strange?’

‘I’m glad I never lived here,’ replied Ned, ‘this hill is too steep for me. I can’t make it up to the car.’ He started whining.

Lily and Louis were already up at the car, ready for home. Their home, not this strange little balcony in this inner city street.

Perhaps while our homes shape us they also don’t become us. While they can be an external expression of who we were at a particular stage of our lives, we don’t need to recognise them in the same way we recognise old friends or distant relatives. We don’t need those buildings to remind us of the person we were then... and that, for some reason, surprises me.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When Home is... Full Bookshelves



This happens every year. The bookshelves are filled and no more books can be stacked sideways on top of others. It’s time to be ruthless and work out which are worthy to stay and which are on the way to Vinnies or the School Fete.

Usually I do this job alone and it doesn’t take too long to pick a pile of paperback fiction that I can live without but this year something different happened... Stuart. While innocently out having coffee, unbeknownst to me, he was busy making piles – ‘suggested’ piles – of books to give away. The suggested pile was chosen with common sense in mind but no emotion.

It was then that I realised books not only give a room its soul but they also act as markers of our history, they help shape the story of the people we become. They are yet another expression of making our homes truly ours.

Ok – I know I will never need to use my pregnancy books again or Robin Barker’s bible Baby Love but I still want to see the bent back spines of those books on the shelves, remembering how thumbed through they were. I like seeing the folded back pages in Baby Love reminding me that, yes, at three weeks old babies properly wake up and cry for substantial periods of time and that’s normal. It was hell at the time but now I fondly remember turning down the corner of that page at 2am one morning with three-week-old Lily screaming in one arm while I held the book in the other.

And as for fiction; I agree that my shelves filled with Virginia Andrews complete collection – and dare I mention Penny Vincenzi – may cause visitors to wonder how I became a book editor or why any magazine would ask me to write book reviews, but these books are such old friends. At least my Sweet Valley High collection is hidden under the bed...

I haven’t read Flowers in the Attic since I was 14 but it was within these pages I discovered the power of reading and the pleasure of escaping into another world. I like remembering that excitement and I don’t mind that it’s on display for all to see. They may take up nearly a whole shelf but they are staying.

So while Stuart’s ‘suggested’ pile went straight back on the shelves I still managed to get us back to full capacity rather than over capacity.

Interestingly, my ‘suggested’ pile for him also went back on the shelves. Funny how common sense goes when it’s about pulling apart your own story. I don’t think he’ll be reading Tuning a Racing Boat, Three Sheets to the Wind, They Ran with the Ball or The World’s Best Rugby Book Ever again but there they sit.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

When Home is... a Gatehouse, a Palace... no actually a Water Tower



How is it already April, the end of first term, the start of Autumn and the first quarter of the year already gone? And how is it that we will be heading off to the other side of the world before the year is out without having had any thoughts of booking flights or accommodation?

For all these reasons, the last couple of weeks have seen me think very little of ‘home’ here in Sydney and panic about a temporary home in the UK in many months time.

Oh yes; with me it’s always about the accommodation. And knowing me as well as a certain English friend does, it’s not too surprising that she sent me the link to The Landmark Trust website...

We’re in London – rain hail or shine – for a special friend’s wedding. Not the royal wedding, obviously (although her father did tell me recently that my friend is a descendent of King Edward I) and while accommodation is sorted for that weekend, we aren’t flying all that way for two days. So where to stay for a couple of weeks either side?

Well, thanks to the Landmark Trust, I can see a few options.



Wolveton Gatehouse caught my eye first: built during the reign of King Henry VIII. Thomas Hardy came to tea here in 1900 and the towers were thought to have been built during the fourteenth century. The fourteenth century! The Jacobean fireplaces still work; actually they still may be the greatest source of heat with the website suggesting to light the fires and wear an extra layer as the ‘Dorset nobility would have done hundreds of years ago’.

But wait! Where else in the world can you say you stayed in a water tower? After future King Edward VII fell ill with Typhoid in 1871 and his son with the same illness three years later at Sandringham, an investigation into the water supply was ordered. It seemed the castle was built upon numerous cesspools and new waterworks needed to be designed. Part of this design needed to include a service reservoir: this is the 32,000-gallon cast-iron tank that tops the Appleton Water Tower.



The engineer responsible for the design realised the tower would command superb views and the second floor room was made for the royal family and their guests ‘when shooting parties or picnickers required a base during the day’.

Today not only this room, but the whole tower is available for a family of four – and I think Louis could squeeze into a bed with either Lily or Ned too.

But if we really want to feel what it was like to be royalty, why not stay in a palace? Why not, indeed, when Hampton Court Palace offers a two bedroom apartment for rent?

Well to be truthful, it wasn’t ever an apartment that King Henry VIII visited. It was actually built for the Officers of the Pastry and lies in the service wing of the Tudor palace.



It was enlarged, though, by Henry VIII who enjoyed entertaining lavishly and even had extra kitchens built, one solely for the baking of pies.

Imagine, a kitchen just for pies... I think I’m leaning towards a few nights here.

Suddenly I don’t mind the year running away from me.

All pictures © The Landmark Trust website

Thursday, March 31, 2011

When Home is... your Grandmother’s Kitchen. An interview with authors Laura Clarke & Claire Wallace



With Mother’s Day just around the corner many of us will be planning to spend time with our families; sharing a meal with our mothers at some point that weekend. But really, how often do we talk to our mothers – and if we’re lucky enough our grandmothers – about their lives and our families stories?

There may well be a favourite family dessert we have been enjoying all our lives but how many of us know the origins of that recipe? Why our mothers or grandmothers used to cook it, who gave the recipe to them and why it has become such a family favourite? We may never think of how these stories began. It’s just a fact that this is our family’s cheesecake recipe; or our family always glazes a ham at Christmas time.

Usually by the time we reach an age when we want to know more; when we’d appreciate the wisdom and seek the comfort of the older generation, our grandmothers aren’t here anymore to give it. It was this realisation that gave Laura Clarke and Claire Wallace the inspiration to record grandmothers stories from around the world. The result is the just published, beautiful recipe book My Grandmother’s Kitchen

.

Both women had recently met and both were at turning points in their lives when the conversation about this joint project began: ‘My grandparents brought me up’, says Laura who lived with them in England from the age of 11. ‘When my grandmother died she left me three things: her engagement ring which I wear every day, her kitchen table which we used on the cover of our book, and her recipe book filled with her handwritten sheets of recipes.’

'A couple of years ago, after my grandfather died, I missed them both horribly. I realised I was working in a job I wasn’t passionate about and thought what am I doing? They didn’t raise me to be unhappy so I quit my job and thought about collating my grandmother’s recipes during my time off work.’



‘It was around this time that we met,’ continues Claire, ‘My grandmother had died many years before Laura’s, when I was only 19. Laura and I were talking about our grandmothers and their cooking and I realised I didn’t have any of her recipes written down at all.’

The conversation moved on from their cooking to a desire for both women to talk to their grandmothers again; to ask their advice about all aspects of their lives. ‘It felt like we realised too late how much they had to teach us,’ says Claire.

‘They had lived such amazing lives already and we have so much to learn from them. I remember my grandmother saying just before she died that she still felt 19 and that it was only when she looked in the mirror she realised differently.’

The concept from the beginning was always to include other grandmothers in their book. ‘It was never to be just about our own grandmothers,’ says Laura, ‘We were both passionate about the importance of grandmothers in the home and how great an influence they can be.’



‘So much importance is placed on youth in today’s world and I remember my grandmother saying to me in her 80s that sometimes she felt invisible. We were inspired to find everyday grandmothers for the book who were inspirational because of the lives they have led bringing up their families.’

This book was always going to be much more than just a collection of recipes from around the world. ‘We wanted to fill the book with the kind of information we knew we’d want from our grandmothers if we’d had more time with them,’ begins Laura, ‘we wanted to share these women’s life stories, we wanted them to pass on their wisdom.’



Both women interviewed the 17 grandmothers and their families for up to four or five hours each. They spent numerous hours cooking with them, spending time with their children and grandchildren, calling them constantly to ask more questions and in all cases Claire and Laura cannot emphasise enough how welcomed they were into each household.

It was a hugely emotional journey for them. ‘These women were so positive,’ says Claire, ‘despite some of the stories they shared. It was a reminder of all the things you don’t ever know are behind a face. You don’t know what anyone has been through and you certainly can’t judge their life journey by looking at someone’s face.’



The most emotional part of this journey for Claire and Laura was the death of one of their grandmothers, Cherie Keetley. Cherie died nearly a year ago and while she didn’t live to see the book’s publication, she loved being a part of its creation.

‘Cooking, like love, should be undertaken with wild abandon’, was a piece of wisdom Cherie shared and after her death her family were so grateful as they realised that without this book they would never have written Cherie’s story down. ‘Her recipes were completely embedded in her head’, laughs Laura.

‘I have notes and notes from cooking with Cherie,’ continues Claire, ‘as she had no idea about measurements cooking purely from instinct. Of course, we needed measurements to write the recipes so there was much laughter and trial and error!’

‘This project was so fulfilling,’ continues Laura, ‘we had no idea of the journey this would take us on and we realised again through Cherie’s death how important it is to capture your own families stories.’

The end result is a beautiful tribute to grandmothers everywhere with a chapter at the end to capture your own family’s story.

‘We wanted every page to be unique,’ says Claire, ‘we wanted it to look like a real grandmother’s recipe book with fingerprints, remarks and drawings by kids, splotches of jam.’

And intertwined within it all: those longed for comforting and inspirational words gained from years of perspective, endurance and experience.

No matter what your age who doesn’t need to be reminded that ‘things seem worse in the moment’ or ‘do not always think about your problems: you will see one day they are not so important’ and, finally, ‘Friends are like elevators. They either take you up or take you down. Hold on to good friends and let go of the rest.’

Recipes not only for food but for lives lived well.

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As the seasons in Sydney begin to turn and the weather is cooling down, Laura and Claire thought it would be fitting to share with us a wintry recipe from their book. And a drizzly, cool day like today is the perfect time to try it a warming pumpkin soup...

Rosa Munoz's Pumpkin Soup Serves 6
A friend gave me this recipe many years ago and I have been making it for my family ever since. Over the years I have adapted it and added the nutmeg and coriander. It is a delicious, warming recipe in the winter months.

Ingredients
1 whole Queensland or other pumpkin (it should be approx. 2.5 kg when peeled, deseeded and cubed)
3 medium potatoes
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon oregano chilli flakes to taste
1 teaspoon cumin
1 pinch nutmeg
½ bunch fresh coriander
1 litre cold water or vegetable stock
salt and pepper to season
chives and sour cream to garnish

Start by peeling and deseeding the pumpkin. Cut the flesh into cubes. Then peel and cube the potatoes, thinly slice the onions and roughly chop the garlic. In a medium pot, heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil over a high heat. Add the onion, garlic and coriander and cook until the onion is lightly browned. Add the spices and stir well for about 1 minute. Add 1 litre of cold water or vegetable stock and then the potatoes. Bring to the boil. Turn heat to low, cover pot, and simmer until potatoes are almost cooked. Add the pumpkin and season to taste. Cover and simmer until the pumpkin is cooked. Remove from heat. Remove half the liquid from the pot and put aside in a bowl. With a hand blender, purée the pumpkin mixture and add the reserved liquid until it becomes a soup (thickness to your own preference). Pour into bowls and garnish with chopped chives and a dollop of sour cream.




For more information about Laura Clarke and Claire Wallace, or to buy a copy of the book visit http://www.mygrandmotherskitchen.net/

Their Facebook page also reports on the latest book news and gives you an opportunity to ask questions or contact Laura and Claire direct. Visit www.facebook.com/mygrandmotherskitchen

All photos © Laura Clarke and Claire Wallace

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