Pwll Nofio


Cardiff International Pool, in which I have recently been training with the Hong Kong women’s Olympic team.

Oh, alright: I have been swimming in the lane next to them and wishing desperately that I could keep up. Those ladies are fast.

Ratatouille

For a long time, I had no success with making ratatouille: it always turned out disappointingly watery, no matter what I did. I tried varying the amount of olive oil I used, cooking the dish for a longer or shorter time, salting the courgettes and aubergines, not salting anything… Nothing seemed to make any difference. For a while, I pretty much gave up on the dish, but then the vegetable box stepped in to give me a prod in the right direction. Over a couple of weeks, I received a surfeit of peppers, aubergines and courgettes, which is really the closest an inanimate object like a vegetable box can come to giving you a good shake, and shouting at you to get over yourself and just make a ratatouille already.

I pored over Elizabeth David’s recipe (in A Book of Mediterranean Food) and Nigella Lawson’s (in How to Eat), among other versions. I also spent some time swooning over the version of Thomas Keller’s Confit byaldi so gorgeously depicted in Pixar’s Ratatouille, though I knew that, realistically, I was never going to have the patience to recreate such a delicately-made version of the dish.

I’m not sure what serendipitous impulse possessed me to add a small carton of passata into the pot when I did make my ratatouille, but it turned out to be the secret ingredient which turned the dish from a wappit, watery failure into a rich, unctuous success. Clearly fresh or tinned tomatoes on their own were not going to cut it: they needed the extra boost. I’m not sure how authentic this addition is (a quick trawl around google suggests that many recipes use passata or chopped tomatoes, but not usually both), but it has now become a staple in my kitchen. Eoin loves it, and will mainline bowfuls at a time: this is a relief as he is developing a toddlerish fussiness about many vegetables, and it’s good to know that ratatouille remains a reliable favourite.

Ratatouille

I realise that it’s beginning to look as if I work for Cirio, but I honestly do think they are the best tinned tomatoes out there. When the tomatoes are a major focus of the dish, as they are here, I think it’s worth splashing out.

You will need:

  • One large onion, or two small ones, fairly finely chopped
  • One or two large peppers, sliced (ideally, I’d suggest red peppers, but I’m using small orange ones here, because they were all I had in the kitchen)
  • An aubergine, cut into smallish chunks
  • Three or four medium-sized courgettes, sliced
  • A couple of cloves of garlic, crushed
  • A 400g tin of chopped tomatoes, or an equivalent weight of strongly-flavoured fresh ones
  • 200g passata
  • Plenty of olive oil

As an aside, there’s a lot of chopping involved in this recipe, so you may want to stagger the preparation of the vegetables: slice the onions and the peppers first, as they will need to be cooked for the longest time, then get to work on preparing the aubergines and courgettes while they are cooking.*

Heat a generous slug of olive oil in a large saucepan, add the chopped onion, let it soften a little, then add the peppers. Cook gently for about ten minutes, then add the aubergines and another splash of oil (they’ll soak up any liquid in the pan in double-quick time, and you want to keep everything lubricated). Continue to cook gently, adding the courgettes and the garlic as soon as the aubergine has absorbed some of the oil and is getting soft. Regarding the garlic: ordinarily, I would add garlic towards the beginning of cooking a dish, but, when you crush it, I find it has a nasty tendency to burn and stick to the bottom of the pan before you’ve even had a chance to get your wooden spoon to it. Adding it at this stage means you don’t risk this happening, but the flavour still has plenty of time to penetrate. Finally, add the chopped tomatoes and the passata: rinse out the tins/jars (as appropriate) with a little water and add this to the pot for a little extra lubrication. Turn the heat down so the pan simmers gently, cover and cook for about half an hour.

This keeps rather well in the fridge, and is, I think, nicer when served at room temperature than when it is hot. We ate this batch alongside baked whiting and new potatoes (cut potatoes into wedges, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, bake at 200C or gas mark 6 for about 20 minutes, then lay the whiting fillets on top, season and continue to cook for 20-25 minutes more). Well, I say “we”. This is how Stephen and I ate it. Eoin got both hands in the dish immediately, and tried to climb in after them. It’s good to know that your cooking is appreciated, at least some of the time.

*As an added bonus, slicing the vegetables for the dish gives me an opportunity to come face to face with my culinary nemesis: the Ikea kitchen knife. Following an unlucky incident in the washing-up bowl, and another with a resilient onion, which left me partially nail-less, it is clear that it won’t be satisfied with just a taste my sweet human flesh.  Fortunately, I came out on top this time, and Mr Choppy was consigned back to his knife-block without having drawn any blood.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Purple

This is my “purple” entry: my surprise passion flower, with its splendid purple corona and violet stigmata.

Why was it a surprise? It turns out that a climbing plant in the garden, which I initially thought was a boring old Clematis, is in fact a passiflora caerulea, which automatically makes it far more exciting. When I first saw a passion flower, years ago in Fiesole, I thought it was the most exotic flower I had ever seen (I know: I’m easily pleased). They’re also rather fascinating: having been informed that the parts of the flower symoblise elements of the Crucifixion, I now have an almost irresistible drive to count the petals to check the number of disciples represented (as you can see, it’s ten: Judas and Peter don’t make the cut). Unexpectedly having a vine covered in these lovely blossoms just outside my kitchen window gives my mood a little lift each time I see them.

St Fagans: Esgair Moel Woollen Mill

Living close to Cardiff, we are lucky enough to be within easy reach of one of the National Museums of Wales, St Fagan’s.* It’s a huge open-air museum of Welsh life through the ages, complete with reconstructed buildings, gardens, farm animals and working craftspeople; as you can imagine, it’s a really fabulous place to go with small children, as well as with historically-minded grown-ups. Eoin and I made took advantage of the current glorious weather to make our first visit there yesterday afternoon, and we were not disappointed with what we found.

We spent several hours wandering around the grounds, taking far too many photographs, and, in Eoin’s case, lobbying loudly for ice-cream any time we passed somebody with a cornet in their hand. We even managed to finish off with a small-scale picnic in the hayfield, which gave Eoin a chance to ogle the high-speed trains whizzing by on the nearby line into Cardiff. I don’t want to make this post too picture-heavy, but I’ve added a little gallery below with some of the better general shots in it.

For both of us, though, the highlight was undoubtedly a visit to the Esgair Moel Woollen Mill, which neatly combined a whole raft of yarny goodness for me with more big yokes with wheels on them for the little fellow. The first hint that there was something good on the horizon was when we arrived at the building to find several tarpaulins covered in freshly-dyed fleece, drying in the sun: clearly this was not going to be a dull peek into a dusty building, but rather an interesting hands-on experience.

Esgair Moel, a mill dating from the eighteenth century, was originally located in Powys, but was moved to St Fagans in the middle of the 1900s as part of the living history element of the museum. It is in full working order, with a nineteenth-century carding machine, a spinning mule and two hand looms on display. When we visited, the museum’s weaver was hard at work producing his next batch of yarn: as you can see below, he has already spun a substantial amount on the mule, and is in the process of carding a second batch on the carder: In addition to all these industrial-age delights, we were able to have a close-up look at a great wheel, the first I had ever seen:

As you can imagine, I found this fascinating: I have never before been able to work out how Sleeping Beauty might have pricked her finger on a spindle, the flyer of my Ashford Elizabeth being neither the sharpest nor the most pointy thing known to humankind. The spindle on the great wheel, however, was another matter: it’s attached to the whorl which you can see at the right of this image, and, as it is lengthy and rather sharp, the whole wheel has been turned to face the wall, presumably to avoid unwary museum visitors impaling themselves on it. As interested as I was in the wheel, though, I’m sure you can guess who was even more excited.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that’s an enormous wheel there! It must be mine, all mine. Can we fit it in the car?”

After I had managed to persuade Eoin that he was not allowed to take the exhibits home with him, even if he did want to love them and take care of them and call them George, we had a chat with the weaver about all things fibre- and yarn-related. I was sorry that it wasn’t possible to buy skeins of the plied yarn for knitting with; although there are some lovely woven fabrics on sale, I was really hoping to be able to create my own project with some of the mill’s produce. It turned out, however, that that day was a lucky one for me: gesturing at a huge pile of teal blue roving, the weaver told me I could take as much of it as I wanted to spin at home, as he didn’t need it. I may have let out a small “eek!” at this point, grabbing an armful of the stuff and tucking it safely under Eoin’s pushchair with many expressions of thanks. It’s now safely in my kitchen, awaiting a meeting with Jenny or the drop spindle. I’m very excited about the possibilities, though Eoin might have prefered if we had left it behind: he did seem to feel that the car was more than usually sheepy on the drive home.

While the whole museum is a fascinating and fun place to visit, I’d really recommend Esgair Moel to any Cardiff-based fibre fans: the small scale of the place, and the personal interaction with the weaver, made it a really fascinating visit for me. I’ll certainly be going back, and I may be lobbying Stephen to let me attend one of the other fibre- and fabric-related events later in the year. After all, there can never be too much yarn in your life…**

*Sadly the National Wool Museum, up in Carmarthenshire, is a bit too far away to justify an afternoon potter. However, as you can imagine, I am planning to get myself up there soon.
**Well, obviously this is not strictly true, but I think that, provided you can still get in and out of your front door without too much trouble, your stash is at a perfectly acceptable level.

I do cast off sometimes, you know: Tempest cardigan

Back when I started this blog, I promised that there would be knitting and plenty of it. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I haven’t really delivered on this. To explain myself, I swear that it isn’t that I haven’t been knitting (I’ve been wielding those pointy sticks rather a lot), but rather that I haven’t been finishing any knitting. I’ve cast on plenty of things, and I’ve knitted like a demon when I’ve had the chance. It’s just that I have the attention span of a yarn-obsessed goldfish: I invariably get bored half-way through a pattern repeat and wander off in search of something newer and shinier, while the works in progress pile up reprovingly behind the sofa.

My startitis must now be the stuff of legend. A friend recently commented on my Ravelry project page, “you don’t finish very much, do you?”, while another smiled indulgently as I outlined my future knitting plans, and then suggested that they might take a bit of time to complete, given my current progress. I may not be the world’s fastest knitter (I’m no Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, that’s for sure), but I could keep up a pretty respectable output if it weren’t for all the distractions. The garden, the kitchen, the sewing machine, other knitting projects: they all exert their siren call on me, no matter how good I am trying to be about finishing that pair of socks I started two summers ago, and which still consist of one solitary ankle-cuff. You don’t need to reproach me about this: the UFOs do that all by themselves. I can feel their little wooly minds boring into mine through the sofa cushions as I sit watching terrible comedy on E4 and casting on yet another shawl.

Photograph by Stephen Lynch

Sometimes, though, I do manage to get to the end. I cast off, seam, block, and proudly change my project’s Ravelry status to “finished”. I’m happy to report that I have just managed to get to this stage with a cardigan which I originally started in the wake of Knit Nation, pretty much a year ago now. It’s Ann Weaver’s Tempest, knitted in a combination of Old Maiden Aunt merino superwash 4ply (colourway: Baobhan Sith*) and Wollemeise merino superwash 4ply (colourway: Maus Jung). If you’re on Ravelry, you can find my notes here. If you’re not on Ravelry, and you have an interest in things of a yarny nature, get yourself over there forthwith: it’s really a marvellous place. Here I am, anyway, modelling my Tempest in the garden yesterday, and staring fixedly at some Japanese anemones while trying my hardest not to look at the camera.

It’s a lovely design, well written with interesting and thoughtful details. The sewn hem, the interplay of the waist-shaping with the narrowing of the stripe pattern, the placement of the buttonholes: all the elements are well thought out and add up to a garment which, though it looks simple, is both interesting to knit and stylish to wear. I’d be keen to knit this again, as I’m very happy with the way it turned out, but I think next time I would make the next size up: the garment is intended to be worn with negative ease, but I do feel it is a tiny bit on the snug side (obviously this is not so much the fault of the instructions as it is of my congenital inability to refuse cake when it is offered).

The yarns were both rather decadent purchases, and I was determined that I was going to use them for an actual garment this time. Not a shawl, not a pair of socks, not an accessory of any kind. A full-sized, honest-to-goodness top in which I would be willing to be seen in public. I was so concerned about getting things to work out properly that I even swatched, which, as any knitter who knows me personally can attest, is a rare thing indeed. I already had the Wollmeise in my stash when I bought the Old Maiden Aunt yarn from the splendidly be-kilted Lilith at Knit Nation, but I was confident that the pewter-ish Maus Jung would set off the sombre red-brown of the Baobhan Sith well. Indeed, it does seem to have turned out rather nicely: Lilith’s yarn has a black/grey element alongside the predominant red and brown: this ties in nicely with the variegated grey of the Wollmeise. The colours of both yarns are gorgeous, and, although I’m unlikely to get my hands on more Wollmeise any time soon, I’m going to be haunting the Old Maiden Aunt website for materials for future projects.

I found the buttons in Claire Grove Buttons in Cardiff, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of buttony goodness, which really deserves a post in its own right to do justice to the delights on offer. After a rigorous search of the packed shelves, I settled on these pewter-ish metal ones with a domed top and shank: as I needed twenty of them, I not only had to be rather careful about the price of each button, but also their combined weight on the button band. I couldn’t face using plastic ones, given the quality of the yarn involved in the project, so the left button band is now somewhat weighter than the right, but I’m really happy the overall effect.

Having cast my Tempest off, I’m now diving happily into an o w l s jumper, made from the classic pattern by Kate Davies. I’ve been hankering after one of these since I knitted an Owlet (the baby/child version of this pattern) for Eoin last winter. As I’m using a bulky yarn, and I’m already half-way up the body, I’m hoping that I’ll manage to finish a little quicker this time. We’ll see…

*It’s pronounced “bah-van shee”, in case you’re wondering, and it’s the Gaelic name for a female vampire in Scottish mythology.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Dreaming

I read the title of this week’s challenge, and blithely started taking photographs before reading the full post. This means I have utterly failed to do anything involving a long exposure, for which, please accept my apologies. I did, however, do almost the exact opposite. This is an example of speedy photography of the most daring sort: I hardly allowed myself to breathe the whole time.

He’s dreaming about wheels or blackberries, or possibly both.

Stitchery: two cut-and-sew skirts.

I’m pleased to report that the Passport dress was a success: I wore it to the wedding as planned, and I had compliments from strangers who, unlike my friends, were not obliged to be polite about my efforts with the needle. Buoyed up by this initial accomplishment, I turned to two skirt kits which had been sitting in my stash until I built up the confidence to tackle them. I’m very glad I did: both turned out to be wearable, pretty, and a good opportunity to practise my new-found sewing skills.

The first kit I tackled was the Big Birdie skirt, designed by Jane Foster for Clothkits. Like many children of the late 70s, I spent my early years clad in a variety of Clothkits pinafore dresses (with co-ordinating jumpers and tights, naturally). Though my memories are hazy, the photographs testify to the fact that those were some awfully cute prints, and I’ve always had a warm feeling towards Clothkits as a result. When I found the skirt kits for sale in Cardiff, I couldn’t resist getting in touch with a piece of my past.
At first, I thought that £39 was rather expensive for a sew-it-yourself skirt. However, if you bear in mind that this includes the outer fabric, lining, notions and pattern, it all looks an awful lot more reasonable: being far away from the fabled Jo-Ann’s sales of the US, I’m used to shelling out anywhere between £5 and £8 for a pattern, and fine wale corduroy would set you back at least the same amount per metre, if not more. Add in the gorgeous design, and it all starts to look rather bargainous. As with all Clothkits designs, the pattern is printed directly onto the fabric, which makes for a very straightforward sewing experience. The instructions are very straightforward, offering alternatives for the absolute beginner and the more experienced seamstress.*
One note, though: the instructions suggest leaving the facings off if you aren’t confident of your ability to apply them, but I would urge you to persevere. Not only will the waistband sit better, you won’t have to miss out on the gratuitous loveliness of the facing design. I mean, look at it! Those cute flowers are there for your eyes and for your delectation only, you know! Doesn’t it tickle you to know that they’re there? It is a bit fiddly to pin the curves of the fabric together, but if I can get there, anybody else can.

The end product looks lovely, and is very comfortable. The only criticism I would make (and a large part of it is down to my own carelessness) is that, while the pattern has a range of sizes printed on it, it isn’t clear whether these are high-street clothing sizes or pattern sizes, and to what actual measurements they correspond. I fell foul of this, cutting out my “pattern” size, and ending up with a skirt which was substantially too large. In fairness to Clothkits, they did encourage you to pin and try on the skirt before sewing, and I, hubristically, did not do this, but a table of sizes with corresponding measurements in inches and centimetres would be a nice addition to the instructions. It’s not the end of the world: I took the side seams in by half an inch on each side, and the fit is now much better. The skirt still sits pretty low on my hips, but it’s a much more wearable length. Below, you can see it as it was (left) and with me gathering in a couple of inches of spare fabric prior to making the alterations (right):

Excuse the bizarre picture quality: I had to take self-portraits in the mirror in the spare room.

The length is better and the legs definitely look less stumpy in the right-hand picture, don’t they? I’m afraid I was too lazy to take a new photo post-alteration, but the skirt now looks almost exactly like the second picture, the only difference being that the hemline is now even, as I’m not holding a handful of scrunched-up corduroy behind my back.

I loved making the skirt, and I’m very pleased with the end result. If I were to make this or another Clothkits design in the future, I’d definitely measure more carefully and aim for my high-street size rather than my pattern size. However, I’m undaunted by a little hiccup this time around: I’m certainly going to keep haunting the website and suggesting kits to Stephen as possible Christmas presents. I’m awfully tempted by the Rob Ryan and the cassette tape designs…

The second kit I put together was Nancy Kers’s box-pleated dandelion print skirt, which I spotted when it won Spoonflower‘s Fabric of the Week contest a while ago. Nancy is a freelance illustrator based in the Netherlands; she has designed a wide range of fabric prints available through Spoonflower, which are well worth looking at. There are several fun but not over-cute prints which would be ideal for garments for small boys, and, as a knittter, I’m particularly fond of the Incredible Super Sheep toy pattern. The dandelion skirt is a really lovely design: I was also extremely tempted by the poppy and gerbera versions, but these weren’t available to buy when I placed my order. Next time, next time…

I have to say I was glad to be making this after having put a couple of other garments together: Nancy’s English is great (certainly a heck of a lot better than my Dutch), but there isn’t much space left on the fabric for the instructions after the pattern pieces have been printed, which means the directions are, of necessity, a little perfunctory. It’s also a rather more complicated construction than the Clothkits skirt, involving as it does darts, pleats, patch pockets, and binding to finish the waist.

Dandelion skirt details

The first thing to say is that this is a really lovely design with a beautiful colour palette: it has had several compliments already, including one from my mum, who is can be a hard woman to please when it comes to fashion.

I’m standing in a rather weird pose, but it’s just to show the box pleat off, honest.

I changed a few details: I left off the ribbon belt, as my stomach really doesn’t need any more attention drawing to it. I also bound the waistband with contrasting bias binding instead of the printed binding in the kit, and bound the edges of the patch pockets with the same stuff. I used an invisible zip instead of a the regular one suggested; I also top-stitched the box pleat in addition to pressing it, and finished the top of it according to the directions in my sewing manual. This was a bit of an elaboration of the instructions, but it seemed to work well, and the pleat is staying put. As with the Big Birdie skirt, I’d love to make another of Nancy’s designs up, but I think I’d add a lining next time: without it, the skirt is definitely summer wear only, as the fabric is on the thin side, and it tends to cling to leggings or tights if you try to layer it.

I’m not in the business of writing reviews, but I have to say that I’d highly recommend both of these kits. Where else could you get such lovely results for so little effort?

 

*Or seamster, of course: there are no gender-based restrictions in my sewing room.

Obsession

Eoin’s wheel obsession is pretty well-known by now: if a circular object can be spun or rotated, you can be certain he will find it and spin it until either a bigger, better, shinier wheel comes along or he is reluctantly removed from the area. The boy is a veritable rotamaniac.

Imagine his delight, then, when he realised that the t-shirt he was wearing was absolutely covered in wheels. Of course, he had seen the motorbike design when I dressed him that morning, and there had been much excitement. One doesn’t look down at one’s stomach too often over the course of a normal day, though, and he soon forgot about the printed delights on his top. That is, until he decided to show his tummy off to the room in general…

My friend Eileen captured the moment of delighted recognition when he realised that there were wheels everywhere!

Photographs by Eileen Dye

That gesture he is making in the bottom two pictures, drawing his thumb down his wrist, is his way of saying “wheel” in his own personal sign language. As you might imagine, it’s something we see rather a lot in this house. Plates, buttons, coasters, snails… all are greeted with the “wheel” sign and an interrogating look. I’m not sure how long this obsession will last, but it shows no signs of abating any time soon.