If you can’t take the heat…

In a long and quite epic career of culinary failures, I am proud to announce that I think I have possibly reached my zenith of under achievement in the kitchen.  It is only fair to admit that it was at the end of a trying day, using completely different ingredients than I have ever used before – but this should not detract from the unappetizing look and sheer inedibility of supper tonight.

It was pancakes.  Simple pancakes that I have made many many times before and which my family have, perhaps not with relish, eaten.  It is a comfort food – or as near as I can get to string the words ‘food’ and ‘comfort’ together. 

The twins are ill, again.  Georgie with a very sore throat, Ben with croup/asthma.  As many of you know, Ben is very prone to all things chesty due to his allergies and weakish chest – which brings me to the ingredients of tonight’s fiasco. 

So a pancake is made of three basic items: flour, milk and egg.  Pretty plain stuff that most of us (even I) have in our pantries/fridges.  However these are the self same ingredients that extort raised eyebrows and tut tutting in the (dare I say) new age healthy-eating fraternity. So I substituted cow’s milk for soya as I have had dire warnings about old-fashioned milk.  Apparently our bodies are not made to deal with cows’ milk and this can cause huge problems for everyone – especially Ben.  I also substituted the flour with gluten free flour as I have been told that Ben could be allergic to gluten and this can cause any amount of behaviour issues.  Lack of concentration is one and right now I am a little desperate.  So out with the gluten as well.  

With apologies to my vegan friends, I did not go so far as to substitute the eggs and fully admit that a chicken (or two) may or may not have been exploited in the making of tonight’s pancakes. 

Of course at this point I must say that I use the word pancake in its loosest form – for what I served up this evening had no real relation to the world of pancakes, as we know them. Jim.

I probably should have been alert to a disaster in the making when the ingredients had a really hard time getting to know each other.  The ‘flour’ positively repelled all moisture.  Which you would think would make it excellent in the non-stick department.  Alas not so, once I had got the divergent parts to form a weird glutinous mass – that every now and then disconcertedly burped a huge air bubble -and put a blob of it in the pan, it proceeded to stick with a tenacity that was nothing short of admirable. 

Once I managed to dislodge the blob with a crowbar and flipped it, the sides burst open (have I mentioned that it had puffed up like a very puffy thing?) emitting white goo that spat in the pan.  As it has taken me some time to flip and it was indeed smoking rather alarmingly by the time I did, I was surprised to note that the flipped side was still a whiter shade of pale and hadn’t browned at all.  I pressed down the puffiness and it smoked and spat happily.  Flipped it – white.  More heat. Flip. White.  Press down.  Flip.  White.  Suddenly, one push too far, black ash.  Vaporized…Jim.

It was around about then that I began to wonder what the hell manufacturers do to flour to make it gluten free….?  The stuff I was dealing with seemed holy unnatural, defying the basic laws of nature.  One additive that seems to be needed in most shop bought gluten free flours is xanthan gum, and I quote bobsredmill.com here:

“Technically speaking, xanthan gum is a polysaccharide, which is just a fancy way to say “a string of multiple sugars.” To create xanthan gum, the Xanthomonas campestris bacterium is allowed to ferment on a sugar. The result is a gel that is then dried and milled to create the powder substance.

“Xanthan gum has a number of powerful properties. First, it works as an emulsifier, encouraging liquids that normally don’t like one another to mix together. Second, it works as thickener, increasing the viscosity of liquids and batters. Third, it can create a creamy texture.” 

Emulsifier?  Not so much.  Thicker with increased viscosity? Check.  Check. Creamy texture?  *Sigh* maybe it was the soya ‘milk’ that I used….? 

Seems I am not alone in worrying about the shop bought stuff.  One wholesome looking – possibly Amish? – mother suggests making your own by grinding various nuts or legumes.  I don’t want to be negative, really I don’t, but seriously?!?  Grind your own?? Yeah. Cos that’s gonna happen.  Even if I didn’t have a job, had thrown in the towel on our commercialized world and lived in the middle of butt-f-nowhere in a mud hut, I can’t see me grinding my own flour.  Really.  I just can’t.  By the way, she can’t be Amish; she posted this dangerous propaganda on the Internet. Oh and of course it’s a bit of a pill if your child happens to be allergic to nuts as well.

I digress hugely.  At the end of all this hilarity I was left with a plateful of pale and interestingly shaped, puffy…things.  I tried one.  Huh! It tasted quite literally of nothing.  Nothing at all.  Not cardboard as I first suspected.  Not disgusting (that was left to the texture). Just. Nothing. 

Well it was what it was, I had hungry five year olds to feed, time to whip up the magic and disguise the hell out of the things.  With, with, with….what?  Cheese?  Nope, that’s dairy.  Honey? That’s high GI.  Cinnamon and sugar?  Sugar, are you mad?  Do you want to kill your child??  Jam?  More sugar.  And preservatives.  So I guess it is fruit (not too much as that is sugar too) or vegetables.  With a sprinkling of Xylitol (that most natural-sounding sugar substitute*) because that is going to get your children champing at the bit at dinner time.

As I said, it has been a long day.  Perhaps I will feel better in the morning as I face the non-dairy, no sugar, low GI, gluten free smorgasbord that is out there to entice five-year olds.  But somehow I doubt it.  If there is anyone out there who knows of, or is willing to write a cookbook that covers the above, and doesn’t involve giving up work in order to have time to prepare meals, or a map to find the forsaken store miles away run by an interesting-looking beatnik, or costs you a kidney to buy the ingredients once you are there – I will BUY your book.  In a healthy (?) heartbeat.

*Apparently this is a natural product found in low concentrations in the fibers of many fruit and vegetables, and can be extracted from berries, oats (does that mean it has gluten??) and….birch.  Taken from my good friend Wiki: “industrial production starts from xylan (a hemicellulose) extracted from hardwoods or corncobs, which is hydrolyzed into xylose and catalytically hydrogenated into xylitol. A study in rats found that xylitol had reduced or nonexistent side effects compared to other artificial sweeteners, and lower caloric value and carcinogenicity than sucrose.” Well that’s a relief, I must say.

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Dire Warnings

This morning Georgie asked us what the word ‘warning’ meant.  After we had explained the general concept, Paul got a little more complicated.

“In some sports you also have warnings.  Like in cricket, when a ball goes high in the air, they shout ‘HEADS!’ and everyone looks up to make sure the ball doesn’t hit them on the head.

“Then in golf, when someone has really wacked the ball, they shout ‘FOUR!’”

“That sounds a bit daft,” say I, “surely ‘BALL!’ would be better?”

“No” says Ben, “they should shout: ‘AAAUURRRRGGH’” as he jumped up and down and waved his arms about furiously.

And right there, my friends, is why my son is a genius.

16th July 2013

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Georgie (four and a half) brings me a picture that she has coloured in.  I am super impressed – not only with her colouring (which is fabulous, natch) – but with Paul’s rendering of a dress for her to do said colouring. Which also brings me to ponder why she has asked for a dress drawing when she still refuses to wear one…but I digress.

Georgie: “is it lovely Mummy?”

Me: “oh sweetheart, it is wonderful!  Can I have it?”

G, after some thought, “you can have it when you like it more.”

She walks towards the door and turns in explanation: ‘Ben likes it a hundred.”

I think I have just been set my first KPI…

A change is as good as

ImageThe weather has changed.  In the few short weeks that we have been away from our ‘home’ in Puglia the air is crisper, the sun lower, the leaves are chattier.  There is expectancy in the air – something is about to happen; and it is a little bit sad and a little bit thrilling.

Six months ago we started this journey. We wanted a break.  We wanted to be with our children.  We wanted to immerse ourselves in a new culture.  We wanted to learn a new language.

What we actually discovered was that you can’t break with yourself, but you can break your mindset.  We discovered that we have bought two amazing people into the world and they need us almost as much as we need them.  We scratched the surface of a country’s culture and in the process discovered the foundations of our own family culture.  And whilst we seem to know less Italian than when we arrived, we have discovered a new language of love and acceptance and understanding through our children.   It has indeed been a voyage of discovery.

We went to the beach on our last day.  Our beach.  The Castle Beach.  Things have changed here too.  A seaside town in the process of winding down after a hectic summer season.  A feeling of folding up the summer memories and bundling them up with ribbon.

After lunch, the children and I played at ships.  We clung onto the railing that looks out over the sea with the new, colder and more urgent wind snatching at our clothing and whipping our hair.  We agreed on a destination, solemnly pulled up our anchors (I had to be reminded) and off we went.  Ben and Georgie started up an easy-going conversation that is now so much part of their playtime.

“Are we there yet Captain?’ asked Georgie squinting out to sea.

Ben gave one of his favourite answers: “not quite.”

“How long will it take to get there, Captain?”

“About six months ago…”

Cycle (n.) meaning: series. synonyms: rotation, succession, phase, progression

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My father died a month ago.  Exactly three weeks ago today we bade him farewell as his three teammates rowed his empty seat around the sanctuary of Wemmer one last time…

As they sculled past, sweep oars making the slightest of pleats in the fabric of the water, a fire suddenly started to rage in the reeds enclosing the nearby side of the lake.  We could smell the burning dryness and hear the fire eat its way towards the water.

Exactly three weeks ago today, whilst I was saying goodbye in South Africa, a fire raged through our land in Italy. Many of the trees survived, but some did not; the fire razing all of the grass and most of the smaller plant life.

I came home to a blacked, dead outlook – a shocking contrast to the hope-filled life the garden held only a short week before.

Today I took some photographs in the garden, exactly three weeks to the day when the fire ate up everything good.  It appears that a new phase of life is starting again…

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A funny thing happened on my way to the sofa

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So I was lolling on the sofa today, trying to ignore how deplorable the book I am reading is, trying to ignore the heat, trying to ignore the whispered, nearly hysterical giggling coming from the twins’ room.  It is after lunch and siesta should be taking place.  Paul is certainly taking part.  I am on grumpy twin-watch.

The scrabbling, scuffling and thumping is getting harder to ignore, as is the guffaws of total delight.  As any parent knows, a three-year old that has managed to delight themselves is not necessarily a good thing….

Muttering to myself I get up, walk over and push the door quickly open, hoping to catch them at whatever mischief they are obviously up to.  I was not prepared for what I saw.

Firstly they are both stripped of the clothes they had on when they went for their nap.  I am ok with that.  Read a previous paragraph regarding the heat.  Sensible really.  It is the addition to their nakedness that gives me pause for thought.

Clearly, judging by the split open bag and contents all over the floor, they have riffled through the draws and found a stash of pull up nappies.  And are wearing them.  And not in a conventional way.

Both of them are sporting a nappy on each foot – ‘nappy shoes’ Ben later explains; a nappy on each hand (gloves I assume); and finally, and with no little flair: they are both wearing a nappy on their head.

I carefully pulled the door closed and went back to the sofa.

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‘different’ headgear has always been a passion….

Market day

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Today, Saturday, is market day in Ostuni. We head over fairly late, but confident that what we are after – fruit and vegetables – will still be in plentiful supply. We buy the usual mezzo (half) kilogram of cherries for me; huge and firm with a hint of tartness. Tomatoes on the vine, the smell of earth and sun and green growth. Vegetables of every shape and description, some we have never seen and have no idea how to prepare. Fruit bursting with colours, smells and juice. Soft piquant cheeses; crunchy bland taralli, a circular small bread typical to the area. And olives: luscious glossy black and deep (dare I say it?) olive green. Buckets and buckets of them…too many to choose from.

As usual, the hawkers shout their wares, the town folk ebb and flow in the shimmering heat. As usual ‘gemelli!’ twins! is whispered as we pass and small tokens are pushed into the children’s hands – an orange here, a biscuit there; pats on the head and pinched cheeks. It’s Saturday and it’s market day in Ostuni – as usual.

Fresh produce from the market

Still on the vine

Arrivederci

Had a party tonight with my girlfriends to say ‘see you’ in six month’s time. Originally we were going to have a big do at the house, but frankly I just couldn’t face the PT of putting it together whilst in the middle of packing.  And, sorry guys, but it is really my girlfriends that I am going to miss.  I don’t see them nearly often enough, but damn they are so special to me.  I managed to grab the odd moment between all the laugher and serious talk that woman seem to so effortlessly to put together and look at each one around the table.  So many good times, bad times and mad times shared over a lifetime.  So many more times to come.  What a blessing.

And of course for those that couldn’t be there…you were missed and thought of.

One of the girlfriends who was there sent me an email the other day – a good ending to a very, very good evening.

“Sisters are there, no matter how much time and how many miles are between you. A girl friend is never farther away than needing her can reach.”

See you all soon…

Chances are

This is not going to be a well written piece.  I don’t want to go over it and polish it and make it reader friendly.  I just want to get it out…

So today, I met a lady.  A broken woman. A traumatized mother. A lady that I could really offer no comfort to other than to listen to her, hold her hand, and let her weep out her grief.

10 months ago she lost one of her newborn twins.  To NEC* – the same affliction that so nearly took my Magic Man.  At a week old, like Ben, her little girl’s tummy started fighting itself.  Like Ben it distended until you could see through the skin.  Unlike Ben, it took her away.

I sat on the floor holding her hand.  We had the same pediatrician – a man I love because he saved my baby.  A man she hates because he didn’t save hers.  She was so grateful to hear that it wasn’t her choice in Doctor that caused the death of her child.  She wondered if her daughter had sent me to her today, when she was struggling so much, to let her know it’s alright.  I don’t know about that.  But strangely, particularly for me, I don’t feel uncomfortable with that thought.

I’ve had some doubts about going to Italy.  The sheer self indulgence of taking off six months to just be.  The concern that I won’t cope being a 24/7 mother.  Listening to others doubt our abilities as a family…

So today, I think I was in that room at that time for a reason for me as well.  I will not waste one more second doubting this.  If we are truly blessed,  realistically we only have our children for 18 summers. I’m taking this one.  Every last fucking minute of it.

*necrotizing enterocolitis – a gastrointestinal disease that affects mostly premature infants, it involves infection and inflammation that causes destruction of the bowel.

 

The Italian Job

Finally the year has dawned when we are really going to do it.  We are really, really (plane tickets booked and everything) going to go and live in Italy.  The goalposts have shifted some.  It is now six months as opposed to a year.  There are varying reasons for this, all good, all acceptable and accepted.

 To those of you for whom this is news, you are probably asking: “WTF?” and “Why?”  I hate to use a cliché in my response, but pretty much because we can.  We have saved, we have planned, and (albeit with a healthy dose of nerves) we really want this.  We want it for us, and we want it for our children – even though we have been repeatedly reminded by the well-meaning that children of this age don’t like travel and won’t remember anything.  But we will remember.  And we will record it.  And we will remind them on days when we forget – that we love them so much that once upon a time we ran away from ‘real-life’ and went and really lived.  With them.  For six months.  In Italy.

 La dolce vita baby!