Friday, 25 March 2011

The trouble with trying to write romance is you start seeing love stories everywhere

Am I letting this romantic novel writing business addle my brains? For the past couple of days I’ve been following a tragic story of doomed love that’s had me wiping away my tears on more than one occasion: Romeo and Juliette, Dante and Beatrix? No, more like an x rated version of Sylvester and Tweety Pie. The heartrending tale of two little blue tits who dared to dream of setting up a home high in the top of our birch tree. The villain of the story, as if I had to tell you, our old tabby cat, Bertie.

I swear the two little birds fell in love on Valentine’s Day. Well that’s the first time I noticed them, fluttering their wings and calling to each other, chasing in and around the branches of the old apple tree. Looking into holes and gaps in the ivied fence, they flitted and flirted - will she, won’t she - their love affair carried on for what seemed like weeks, before they settled on a home together in the des res nest box, way above cat height in that most romantic of trees, a silver birch.

Then it was beaks full of feather, cat hair, moss, anything they could find lying around on the ground beneath their tree to make their starter home comfortable. With eggs on the way, they’d no time to delay. All going so well, until yesterday.

A mewing cry was the first warning and Bertie dropped a still warm, blue and yellow bundle at my feet. Please not one of the birdie sweethearts from the top of the birch tree. Alarm calling twitters from outside told me the very worst had happened. One too many forays on the ground meant Bertie had done for one of my favourites.

With my bad cat locked upstairs, watching from a bedroom window and my heart near breaking, I carried the little body outside and, in the vain hope it was just in shock, laid it on an upturned flower pot under the tree, just in case... I waited as its mate sang even louder from a branch overhead, then flew down, in closer and closer spirals, singing its distress all the while. In vain the little bird flew in to tweak its mate’s feathers, pecking and pulling, each time becoming increasingly more desperate. Then in its own little birdie version of despair, it jumped all over its now stiffening mate in what can only be described as an avian attempt at resuscitation. (Okay, I know, this is stretching the anthropomorphism too far, but you weren’t there to see it and I was.)

Finally, unable to bear the little birds grief no longer. I fetched a trowel and with it hopping around my feet, I lined a hole with moss and buried the body of its mate under the birch tree. The memory haunts me as I type. The survivor’s out there now, still calling and calling from its lonely perch. Stopping only to drive off any other blue tit that comes near or to collect small scraps of moss and feathers, even cat hair, and carry them into its now solitary home.

Blue tit females have a reputation for infidelity, but not this one. I swear she's mourning the loss of the one and only bird for her, the very love of her life. Honest!

Monday, 7 March 2011

Let them eat cake (and soup)

It’s often quoted advice to never to volunteer, particularly when you don’t know exactly what you are letting yourself in for. Not long ago an acquaintance – known to me only as a fellow member of a committee I once served on - phoned to ask about my catering experience.

“Oh I’ve sloshed out the odd glass of wine in my time, Why?”

She was all of a tizz, she explained, having volunteered to make tea and biscuits for the forthcoming Village Environment Event, only to find this had morphed into providing a full on service of cake, sandwiches, with soup as well. She was calling me in a desperate hope I might be able to help, or at the very least bake a cake.

Now if this had been an answer phone message, I swear I would have ignored it, but there was an edge of desperation in the poor woman’s voice that had me saying, “Sure, no problem. Well, don’t ask me to bake a cake, not if you want to serve it to paying customers that is, but soup for forty or so, a doddle. Help all day? Love to...”

That’s why, despite my long held mantra of ‘real women don’t make the tea when there’s an able bodied bloke around,’ I found myself driving cautiously with two cling film covered cauldrons of lentil and vegetable soup (one hot and spicy, one Mediterranean style) sloshing around in the back of my car. Though I had to whip off the cling film pretty sharpish when I got to the village centre- very frowned on environmentally is cling film.

Despite my somewhat cackhanded teamaking skills, the Environment Event was a great success, not least because of the quality of the donated baking. All top grade stuff. (Well who wants to be known as the person who made grotty scones when you live in such a gossipy community as our village?)

Out refreshment stall raised a fair sum of money to aid the funds of our Local Flora and Fauna Bio-diversity Group, and I came home with an ‘eco-eye mini’. A wonderful little monitor that tells me exactly how much electricity I’m burning at any one time.

Now my buying this handy gizmo has NOTHING whatsoever to do with the charming salesman asking me for the recipe for my ‘simply wonderful’ lentil soup, no nothing at all. It’s simply because he assured me it’s the smart, eco-friendly way to save the planet. Okay perhaps it’s more likely to save me money, but every little bit helps.

I now have a cute portable monitor that tells me at a glance exactly how much electricity I’m burning and do you know? It takes hardly anything to power a radio all day, but simply squillions of kilowatts to run a vacuum cleaner, boil a kettle or do the ironing. So I’m saving a fortune just by sitting around listening to my favourite programmes and sipping red wine . Should you wish to join me, their website is

It’s pity the lentil soup needs cooking on a stove, but it is only in one pot, so I’ll post that below as well, just in case you’re interested.

Norma’s Lentil Soup serving around 6/8 people depending on how greedy you are

(I’ve done my best to put in some measurements as a rough guide, but it really isn’t that sort of soup. As long as there’s plenty of onions and garlic to start with, and some lentils of course, the rest you put in doesn’t really matter)

For the Basic Soup:

Approx 200 grams split red lentils (soaked for an hour and thoroughly drained)

2 large or 3 small cloves of garlic crushed

2 medium sized strong onions

2 medium carrots

2 sticks celery

About 1 small teacup full of chopped root vegetable, any will do, I usually use swede, but parsnip or even extra carrot will be fine. Don’t use potato though.

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 good quality veg stock cube

Approx 1 dessert spoon of stock powder (Marigold Vegetable bouillon is best – if you don’t have it use another stock cube)

1 tablespoon of good quality olive oil, or use butter – just don’t let it burn

Tiny bit of black pepper

Teaspoon of dark brown sugar

(Additions for spicy soup – Masala curry paste, creamed coconut, extra black pepper if liked)

(Additions for Mediterranean soup – 1 tablespoon of tomato paste, great big pinches of oregano and basil, with a handful of chopped parsley – fresh herbs if you have them, otherwise use dried.)

Method for the basic soup:

Crush the garlic and cut up the onion as small as you can, cook them in the olive oil until they start to go mushy. I don’t mean fry, more a sort of ‘sweat it gently’. Adding a couple of tablespoons of water will stop them going brown. Stir all the time.

Add the celery cut very small and stir and cook gently.

Add the carrot and any other vegetable you are using and cook gently.

Add the stock cube and stir it around until it melts.

Add the drained lentils and sort of stir them around for a bit.

Add the tin of tomatoes, the sugar, some water and the black pepper. Stir the whole thing well, while bringing the pan to the boil. Simmer on a low heat (stirring once in a while), for as long as you can, but at the very least an hour. This is a soup that benefits from being made in the morning and allowed to stand before using in the evening, that way the flavour develops. If it isn’t tasty enough mix the stock powder with a little hot water and add until you think it is right.

For the spicy version add a table spoon of Masala paste (or any other good quality curry paste you fancy) to the garlic and onion mixture. When all the final ingredients are mixed together add 2 walnut sized pieces of creamed coconut and stir in well.

For the Mediterranean version add the tomato paste, oregano, basil and parsley at the same time you add the tin of tomatoes. If you don’t have all the herbs, use any you have, the soup will still be fine.