Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Tree Lights, Candles and A Roaring Fire

Our family Christmas Day follows a fairly predictable pattern, so that by the time we finally sit down to a late lunch, I know it is just a matter of free-wheeling through the meal, a few more presents to open, before I can put my feet up on the sofa in a replete stupor and make up for the sleep deprivation of all the last minute present making, wrapping and stocking-stuffing that is Christmas Eve.

This year, Christmas morning was hot with hardly a breath of wind stirring. My sister-in-law cooks the turkey first thing over at her house, so we don’t have to turn our kitchen into a sauna with too much roasting and basting. I just have to glaze the gammon, make a couscous salad, finish the last stripes of the jellies and boil some baby potatoes with mint.
Stripey jellies are an entrenched family Christmas tradition

But my eyes are feeling heavy already as we finish the main course. It takes a minute for me to identify the smoke that accompanies the last few mouthfuls. Burning custard, no...not toast burning...not the oven left on...the bonfire smell is an immediate warning bell in our dry summer landscape.

It’s wafting in from outside and my husband heads swiftly upstairs, from where we have a 360 degree view of our farm, to see where it’s coming from. Usually it’s far enough away for there to be no need for immediate worry, but this time the smoke is rising from behind our trees on our neighbour’s farm right on the border of ours. The wind is starting to blow and its bringing the fire down the hill towards us.

Pudding is put on hold. Kids have to wait for the rest of their presents as adults switch into action mode. My husband and one sister head off in the 4x4 to see how serious it is, calling our Malawian farm worker as they go, who is luckily not too far away. The rest of us stand by, clearing the table, putting the puddings back in the fridge, until we know how things stand. The sight of the blazing red and green candles on the table is a bit too much fire for me and I quickly blow them out until that other blaze feels less threatening.

The drama unfolds quickly. The wind is sending the fire downhill, towards our neighbour’s huge expanse of shade-cloth, which starts not 50 m away from our house. Our border beefwood trees aren’t going to be much of a barrier, as they are likely to go up in a blaze themselves once the fire reaches the shade cloth. The fire brigade has been called but is not yet on the scene.

Simon arrives with three Malawian friends to help fight the fire and gets to work with our chain saw to cut down any trees too close to our border and create a better fire break. Our neighbour, who lives down the road on another farm, arrives with her father fresh from their Christmas lunch. Those of us still at home drag hoses around the house and start sprinkling all the trees and dry bush between the border and our house.

Smoke is filling the air now and there is a crackling roar from the fire which seems to be getting closer. The kids are inside the house, out of the smoke, reading their Christmas books, playing on Christmas computer and wishing that we could get on with pudding. The dogs and cats are also inside out of the way.

The fire truck at last - photo Patrick Heathcock

Taken from our fence with our Malawian friends holding the fire at bay - photo by Patrick Heathcock

The fire truck eventually arrives, our four Malawian friends work like Trojans. At one point I change my Christmas finery for old clothes and remember to cover up fair skin which has no sun screen on, before returning to my hose to continue misting trees and bushes, in case the wind veers a degree and brings sparks flying over our border trees to threaten our house, our children and our Christmas.

About two hours or so after the initial alarm, the fire is under control. They stop it just before it reaches the shade cloth, catch it before it jumps the track to our border trees. I put the hose down with relief and go inside to tell the children we can have pudding now. Eventually we collect everyone together again. My mother and two sisters-in-law have been hosing my SILs cottage which is also close to the border of the farm. The dogs are released to a smoky outside and we bring the summer pudding and jelly back out of the fridge, the now lukewarm Christmas pudding and custard with skin on top, to be attacked with unusual appetite, in our smoke-infused clothing, red-rimmed eyes and heartfelt relief to find our home and Christmas intact.

There are hardly any leftovers of pudding. Our Malawian friends came, smoke and all, and shared our Christmas table, drinking iced water and sampling summer pudding for the first time ever, then we sent some back with them to their wives, to thank them for sparing their men to us and letting their Christmas meals go cold. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate their generous and energetic help, as without them the fire would have spread far more quickly, perhaps before the fire truck made it. And thanks also to those Christmas angels who prevented the drama from becoming a crisis.

After that there was nothing more to do but fall into the swimming pool and soak the smoke out of our hair, before broaching our Christmas cake with a cup of tea in lieu of supper and watching the second half of The Family Stone, (our every year must-watch Christmas movie) all squashed onto the sofa with the kids, before an early night for all. A night spent by my husband with several wake-ups at the smell of smoke, going outside to check for any new fire, and by me dreaming of fire on the border and innumerable fire-fighters and neighbours to find food and first aid kits for.

I hope your Christmas was less dramatic and full of joy! Despite the drama we really did have a lovely Christmas, full of beautiful hand-made gifts from the kids, and lots of love and togetherness.

Joy to the World and many blessings on 2014!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Youngberry Blondies Recipe - The Season of Berries and Jam-Making

Youngberry Blondies
For the last few days I’ve been leaping out of bed before 6 o’clock, even without the tyranny of the school run to blame. This time it’s the berries that are dragging me out, berries that urgently need picking while it is still cool. This recent blast of summer has 8am feeling like noon, and berry picking in the heat is no-one’s idea of fun.

So the dogs and I sneak out while the others are still dozing, sometimes while there is a veil of sea mist wafting over the hill behind us to take the edge off the warmth of the rising sun. It's delicious to feel a shiver of cool air and I don't bother taking a jacket. We walk around our ring road for dog walk exercise and then stop at the veggie garden to fill an ice-cream container of youngberries.

At least I do that, while George flattens the carrots by rolling on them or digging for moles, or tries to roust out a hare or two to play chase. The older dogs find a shady spot to loll in, occasionally give up on me, as I switch from youngberries to strawberries, and wander back home. Then I grab a bunny bouquet of rocket, nasturtiums, milk thistles, cabbage leaves and spinach, along with the George-flattened carrot tops and walk home laden with good things, to swirl through the kitchen door virtuously, as the sleepy family is dipping into breakfast.

Strawberries are made into jam and youngberries are frozen to make berry muffins and summer pudding for the rest of the year. In fact we’re only just reaching the end of last year’s berry supply, so I’ve been generously baking muffins on every social occasion.

And I’ve found an absolutely irresistible new baking way with youngberries. It started off as Nigella’s Blondie recipe. Hers had chocolate chips in, which I haven’t tried despite my chocoholic tendencies; but I can tell you, that with youngberries instead of chocolate these are truly sublime and horribly moreish. They would work with any berries, but the sharp/sweet jamminess of the cooked youngberries is hard to beat.

Youngberry Blondies Recipe
(adapted from Nigella's Blondies recipe)

200g / 7oz porridge oats
100g / 3.5 oz plain flour
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
150g / 5oz soft butter
100g / 3.5 oz muscovado sugar (I mix treacle sugar and brown sugar)
1 x 385g / 13oz tin condensed milk
1 egg
1 cup frozen youngberries

Baking tray or pyrex dish 30x20x5cm (12x8 inches)approx, lined and greased
Oven 180°C

Mix together the oats, flour and bicarb.
Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in condensed milk.
Add the oats mixture.
Beat in the egg.
Carefully mix in the frozen berries. If they are already de-frosting they will make gory splashes of red in the mixture, so it’s easier to do this straight from frozen. Or else you can use fresh berries.
Dollop the mixture into the tray and level it out roughly.
Bake for about 30 minutes until the top is a deep gold, but the middle is still slightly wobbly. It will firm up as it cools. You want it to be moist and almost gooey inside and deliciously crusty on the outside.
Once cool, cut into squares and devour without restraint.

These are perfect for the festive season, whether you are celebrating in winter or summer, the only trouble being that there are hardly ever any left for the next day!

Youngberries are like blackberries but with a livelier flavour

If you prefer chocolate chips to berries, here is Nigella's recipe on Gorgeous Gourmet's blog.