Thursday, 29 July 2010

Perhaps I am a bit obsessed.....

We're in that limbo phase.  My father-in-law passed away a week ago yesterday, the funeral isn't until next week.  TLH left this morning to travel back to be with his mum and continue with all the arrangements.  I'm going as well in a few more days.  To be honest, I'm not really looking forward to it, but funerals aren't generally things to be welcomed and looked forward to, are they? Unfortunately they are a necessary part of life and goodbyes must be said.

Last weekend we went over for Sunday lunch at my mum and step-dad's new place.  My brother, his wife and three-quarters of my brother's brood came along too.  The lucky buggers had recently returned from a week's holiday in Venice and had very kindly brought back a few small gifts for us all.

When I opened mine I squealed like a Twi-hard when Robert Pattinson appears onscreen - they'd brought me back a cheap stretch bracelet that was covered in small varnished religious pictures!!  It was absolutely just what I wanted!  A few weeks back I had been in conversation on Facebook with friends of friends who had been brought up in the Irish Catholic tradition about the Infant of Prague, and I'd seen photos of just this bracelet and decided I wanted one with all the power of a thousand suns, i.e., A LOT!!!

The Infant of Prague is a statue of the baby Jebus which does miraculous things, apparently.  In Ireland, it seems, if you bury a statue of the Infant in your garden, it'll make the weather better.  Or increase the value of your house.  Or something.

Anyway, I asked my brother how he knew I'd adore the bracelet and he reminded me that he was fully aware of my love, nay, near obsession with religious tat.  Especially Catholic tat because they do it so well, although I actually have catholic tastes (see what I did there?) and collect from more than one religion.  Friends have been getting me small bits and pieces over the years and I've been collecting it myself since the beginning of the 1980s, after visiting Buckfast Abbey down in Devon and being overwhelmed by their gift shop.  TLH reminded me that I'd said on more than one occasion in the past how I'd love to go to Lourdes just for the gift shops - it's still a dream.

Yes, I KNOW I'm a card-carrying Atheist but religion really does fascinate me - I just can't believe in any of it myself but I will be forever grateful that enough people do that they want to make small statues that glow in the dark.

This morning I thought I'd go take some photos (click on them to enbiggen) of my religious stuff in its various locations around the house to show you all. My preference is for the really kitschy and tacky but it seems some tasteful stuff has slipped in somehow:

This is Kuan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, found in a department store.  She's ceramic and lives on a bookcase in the hallway.

This is a stoneware Buddha (charity shop) and a wooden Eastern Orthodox Icon (Guildford Cathedral's giftshop) - they sit on one of the bookshelves in the study, specifically in front of my Archaeological Theory textbooks.  Of course.


A bronze Buddha (gift from TLH) holding an small piece of amethyst, on the windowsill in the study, protecting the precious computer games.


One of my earliest pieces - a wooden letter rack with a 3-D picture of the Last Supper on the front, from a shop in the notably holy seaside town of Ilfracombe.


This is a very large and heavy piece, depicting the Last Supper, carved entirely from coal.  As you do.  It's sitting on the windowsill of my downstairs loo and was a gift from friends.

That's downstairs, so let's go up to the kitchen and sitting room, shall we?

On a shelf in the kitchen, watching over me, I have Jesus and Mary statuettes (Mosta Church giftshop, Malta) flanking an incense-holder in one of the forms of Buddha (gift from my mother, I think).

On the windowsill in the kitchen is a small, plastic glow-in-the-dark model of the BVM (Buckfast Abbey giftshop).  She's getting old now, probably 30 years old and she don't glow so good no more...

In the 1960s hatch between the kitchen and dining area, there is a wooden Thai spirit house that is gilded and decorated with little bits of coloured mirror.  I love this thing.  Got it in Koh Samui.

Inside it (because they're the right size, they fit and they're kind of appropriate-ish) I've put the three teeny tiny brass figures that my brother gave me one Christmas.  There's a Ganesh and two Buddhas.

Also in the sitting room is another bronze Buddha (from Koh Samui, Thailand), this time in the Thai form wearing the pointy headdress.

That's it for the sitting room - I've been quite restrained.  Onwards and upwards to our bedroom and my jewellery room:

Perched on top of the fantastic mirror that my mum made for me is a papier mache depiction of Ganesh (charity shop).

Sitting on top of my Tiffany bangle box is a model of the Ancient Egyptian cat goddess, Bast (gift from The Artist, from the British Museum).  The punk rubber duck in front was a present from my brother and his missus.  They know me so well.

Mary, Jesus and Rover.  Sitting in front of the chest of drawers that my mother made for me is a rather fantastic model of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding an infant Jebus in a fishing boat.  My mates Steve and Carol brought this back for me from Tenerife.  Obviously you can't have a boy without a dog and this one that came from a christmas cracker was just the right size, so I added it for verisimilitude. Please ignore the dust.  Yes, I am a slattern.

In the jewellery workshop (it's okay - we're on the home straight now):

On the top shelf, tucked between my Elvis Cow (gift from brother) and snowglobe Empire State Building (brought back by TLH from business trip), you might be able to make out my glow-in-the-dark Crucifix.  

That's a bit better, isn't it?  This was also bought from Buckfast Abbey giftshop in about 1980 and doesn't glow much anymore.  I went back to Buckfast Abbey a few years ago, ostensibly to go to the gift shop, but they'd shut it down!

Behind my lady's head moneybox (which I've had since I was about 10) and in front of the framed Andy Goldsworth picture and the faintly obscene melted candle is a proper votive candle (from a supermarket in Las Vegas), in a tall glass jar with a (now faded) picture of Jebus on the cross pasted on the outside.  There's also a Union Jack stuck in it. Just because.

Also on the windowsill in my jewellery workshop is a snowglobe with the BVM on one side, and Padre Pio on the other.  It looks like she's holding the baby's head up above the water to stop it drowning.  I think I got this from Rome.  I have to say I was most disappointed with the quality of the religious tat in Rome, seeing as how it's the tentacular seat of the Evil Empire you'd think they'd be knee-deep in the stuff, but I hardly found anything, tat or otherwise.  Very odd.

And finally, the inspiration for this post:

The Bracelet of Religious Iconography.

I really don't know how many of you have made it to the end of this rather pointless rambling but blessings be upon you if you did!  And now you know what to get me for Christmas.....

*UPDATE*

Since publishing this post, TLH reminded me that I had forgotten the poseable Jesus model that my brother gave me one Christmas which, for some reason, we've put in the garage:


And then I remembered yet another item that I'd forgotten, and this one really is nice.  It's a large, handmade brass crucifix that was sent to me by my friend Anna (the one who also gave me the Last Supper coal carving) all the way from Ethiopia where she was working as a midwife for VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas - the British version of the Peace Corps):

And that really is it now!

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Moving on.....

Death comes to us all.   Everything, every single thing, that is alive on this planet right now one day will die.  There's no doubt that's a sobering thought and one that many people - very young children and grown mothers alike - find terrifying.  It's no wonder we don't want to contemplate it.

We are not alive for aeons of time, we're born and live for a few, brief years, and then we're gone forever.  The Anglo Saxons captured this brevity perfectly by comparing life to a bird flying from the endless darkness through a window into the sudden light, heat and noise of the mead-hall and flying straight out through another window back into the infinite darkness again.

I was up early this morning, having been unable to sleep well all night.  It was 5.30am and as I fed the cats, I noticed the morning was unfurling the most magnificent sunrise.  The sky was azure blue and streaked with gorgeous fiery clouds of orange, red and pink.  It stopped me in my tracks and I thought, "This would, indeed, be a good time to merge with the universe".  Then I went back to bed.

At 7am I received the news I had been expecting, that death had indeed arrived and it had been at 5.30am.  The passing had been peaceful - a very long life lived well and the ending surrounded by family; we should all wish for such an exit.

Farewell, D - you lived long and you prospered.  See you on the other side.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

How to make Blackberry Vodka

So - the hair colour post?  Interesting comments.   I shall take them all under advisement and ponder some more how I want to approach this.  There will be some dithering.  But, in the meantime, I'm finally going to get round to doing the post I promised god knows how many months ago.

This is a post that you will (if you're sensible and know what's right) love me for.  That's me all over, see - kind to small animals and generous to a fault (*cough*).  For what I'm about to impart here is nothing less than how to make fabulous Christmas/birthday/whatever gifts for those difficult people.  But only if they drink.  Also, this is a brilliant gift for blokes in general and more fun than any god-awful 'comedy' present that I can think of.

You may bleat that it's a bit early to start thinking of Christmas and to a lazy person it probably is but you, my fabulous readers, are all hardworking and industrious and extraordinarily creative so this'll be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy and not at all difficult-difficult-lemon-difficult.  Actually there are only two things in my life where I'm preposterously well-organised - one is the week's menus that I mentioned in passing recently, and the other is sorting out Christmas presents.  Apart from making Blackberry Vodka (which I actually started in April), I've already got a coupla presents stashed away for relatives.  Yes, I know, you want to stab me - I get that a lot.

However, if you do fancy giving this a go (and I recommend it), then now is a good time.  This is a vodka/liqueur that can be made with practically any soft fruit and it's raspberry and blackcurrant picking time RIGHT NOW.  Strawberries have just gone over, if you're growing them yourself or going to a pick-your-own, that is.  Obviously you can buy them all year round in the supermarket, but there's something a bit more satisfying about making this with fruit you've grown and/or picked yourself.  So, raspberries and blackcurrants are picking now, loganberries and tayberries will be soon, as will early blueberries (ooh, blueberry vodka!).  Blackberries aren't ready until nearer August and September when you can pick kilos of them from the hedgerows so if you want to focus on blackberries, there's enough time to start saving bottles.

WHAT YOU NEED:

Bottles - you can pretty much use any kind of bottle as long as it has a secure cap.  Most wine bottles these days have screw caps rather than corks so they'd be fine.  Personally I'd use clear glass ones so  you can see the lovely colour of the vodka, especially if you're giving them for gifts.  Soak the empty bottle to get the label off.

Sugar - caster is best.

Fruit - whatever kind of soft fruit you fancy using.  I'm going with blackberries for this post.  Actually, I'm using frozen blackberries that I picked last September.  Frozen fruit works well so if you pick too many berries this year, bung the excess in the freezer to make more vodka later on - win!

Vodka - there's no need to buy expensive Stoly or Grey Goose (unless you particularly want to) because you're going to be flavouring it with fruit and sugar anyway.  All you want it for is the alcohol content so you might as well go for the cheap-ass stuff.  For example, in Sainsburys at the moment, 70cl of Smirnoff Red Label is £13.48, whereas their basic range vodka is £7.97 for 70cl. Lidl is probably even cheaper.


Let's get started, shall we?

1.  Get your empty bottle, preferably now label-less (okay, I just turned my bottle round here but then I'm keeping this one for me and TLH to drink, and we don't care that the label's still on it - we're more interested in what's inside the bottle than stuck on the outside but if you want to gift it, as I said, label-less is more purty)


2.  Weigh the empty bottle.  This will become clear in a bit:


This one weighs 343g, as you can see.

3.  Get your washed fruit that you've picked over to remove any yukky bits (small sticks, dead insects, mouldy bits).  As mentioned above, I'm using some frozen blackberries that I picked last year:


4.  Stuff as much fruit as you like into the bottle.  Some of my blackberries were a bit too big but because they were frozen I just left them a second and as they started to defrost was then able to push them down the neck.  I reckon about half a bottle full is pretty good:


5.  Weigh the bottle again:


This is because you need to put in the same amount of sugar as there is fruit.  As you can see, bottle and fruit together weigh 504g.  So by subtracting the weight of the empty bottle (343g) from that, we get the weight of the fruit - 161g.

6.  Weigh out the caster sugar:


7.  Add sugar to the bottle.  When I did this first last year, I'd got to this stage and then realised I didn't have a narrow enough funnel to get the sugar down the neck.  Pouring it straight from the jug doesn't work, it tends to go everywhere so you do really need a funnel.  I compromised by cutting the top off a tonic water bottle, like so:


and then holding it on top of the bottle:


It works well and I don't get sugar everywhere.  So, the sugar has been added:


8.  Add the vodka.  If you've a steady hand you can probably pour it directly from one bottle into the other but I can be a bit spacky so I use a jug as it's easier to control:



Give it a bit of a shake to loosen the sugar up from the bottom and you'll see it start to change colour.  You may have to top it up a bit as the vodka sinks down into the fruit and sugar:


9.  Put a label on it, saying what it is, and date it.  Store it somewhere cool and dark (I use a wine rack in the garage) and - MOST IMPORTANT - shake the bottle once a week for about three months to ensure that all the sugar has dissolved and the flavour is dissipating nicely.  You can shake the bottle more than once a week, if you really, really want to, but once a week is fine.  I got into the habit of giving them a good shake (ooh, matron....) every time I went into the garage.

Now - and this is EVEN MORE IMPORTANT - if you're using blackberries, you need to filter the blackberries out after three months.  If you're using raspberries (and probably other soft fruit as well) you don't have to do this, you can leave the berries in there.  This is because blackberries have a core (raspberries leave the core behind on the plant when you pick them, so you sort of just get a raspberry hat, or perhaps wig.  Yes, I quite like the idea of a raspberry wig) and the blackberry core will make the flavour go woody after 3 months and we don't want woody vodka now, do we? I would suggest making a note on your calendar or diary to remind yourself to do this.

I made a batch of Blackberry Vodka back in the middle of April so that means it's now time to filter them out. This batch are going to be Christmas presents this year and I've used smaller 50cl bottles ('cos I'm a cheapskate).

10.  Tip out the vodka into a jug through a sieve.  It can be a bit of a fiddle getting all the fruit back out, but back out it has to come:


You can see that the berries have had quite a lot of colour leached out of them and are a fairly unappetising pinky-browny colour.  Bizarrely they also don't taste that great so there's no point in keeping hold of them to add to, say, ice cream because it doesn't work (this only applies to blackberries - I was once given a bottle of raspberry vodka that some friends had made, and the raspberries had been left in it.  Once the vodka had been drunk, we tipped out the raspberries and did, indeed, eat them on top of ice cream and they were delicious):


11.  If you want to you can now mash the fruit, either with a spoon or your hands, through the sieve to extract more juice.  This will, though, make the finished vodka more cloudy (although I suppose it might sink to the bottom as sediment) so if you'd rather it was clearer, don't do this.  I did though:


And then chucked the smushed fruit away.

12.  Pour the filtered vodka back into the bottle it came from:


And ponder what to do with the little hairs and stuff at the bottom of the jug - they'll settle to the bottom of the bottle if you pour them back in, but you might as well slosh them down the sink:


13.  You'll find you need to top the bottle up with plain ordinary vodka, but that's no hardship, is it?


The idea now is that you're meant to store the finished product away for a year to let it mature but that's madness.  I made blackberry vodka last August, filtered it in October and gave it away as presents in December and it was bloody fab.

And that's all there is to it.  I hope you decide to have a go because it's unbelievably simple to make and it would be a rare and ungrateful person indeed not to be thrilled to receive a bottle.  So if you've got male friends or relatives who are tricky to buy for, bung 'em a bottle of this instead.  Who wouldn't be excited to get this:


PS.  The delightfully fragrant and fecund Antonia has asked in the comments about labels.  I have a fancy-schmancy Dymo Labelwriter that I use for my jewellery-related activities, so I just use that, but you can get blank labels for jam-making from places like Robert Dyas or Lakeland Plastics, although they might be a bit pricey for what they are.  I've just done a quick bit of searching online and on Amazon.co.uk currently you can pick up a box of 250 self-adhesive white address labels very cheaply (anywhere from 89p to £4.99 for the whole box) that you can just write on, like this:

 Alternatively, Avery do A4 sheets of pre-cut labels that you can print on but I believe that's a bit fiddly as you waste lots of sheets trying to get Word to line it all up properly, so then you have to look for labelling software and you end up wishing you'd just bought the roll of address labels instead.

PPS.  I've also been thinking about other fruit that could be good - peaches, for example.  But then you have to consider the filtering aspect.  Whole berries (blueberries, blackcurrants, raspberries, blackberries) are easy to filter out and you can just use an ordinary sieve, like I did above.  But softer fruit, such as peaches, apricots, strawberries, mango, lychees, might be more problematic.  I've never used them and it may be that you find the fruit dissolves altogether and just leaves a sediment, or the pieces of fruit may stay more whole.  Should you decide you want to filter it out, you could use a jelly strainer (if you have one - it's a bag made of extremely fine mesh that you suspend over a bowl, you use it in jam-making to filter out pips to make clear jelly-type jams):

or if you don't have one of those handy, I imagine using a paper coffee filter might also work:


I do quite like the idea of peach vodka so I might give it a go!  If you decide to try a soft-fruit version yourself, do please let me know how it goes.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Ribena bonce...

Right, while I'm working on the next blog post - which is one I've been promising for a little while - I just thought I'd keep you entertained with my latest hair colour.

I want to go pink.  Really hot, fuschia in-your-face pink.  All over, not just a few streaks here and there.  Trouble is, to get it the colour I really want (which is this colour) I will either have to bleach it first or wait until I go completely grey.  Bleaching is a pain in the hole (and if you've read my previous posts you'll see I'm no stranger to the lures of hydrogen peroxide).  I'm quite grey on top but not so much round the back, but I'm quite keen to see how well the grey will take up the pink (which is semi-permanent, by the way - it washes out after a few weeks).  So I let my current, more purple, hair colour grow out a bit, until there was an inch and a half or so of grey down my parting and, a couple of Saturdays ago, just decided to get on with it and slapped the dye (Special Effects 'Atomic Pink' - it glows under UV light!!) all over.  Let it sit there for 15 mins then washed it off.

I'm quite pleased with the results so far although I do think it's a bit too much Eastern European hooker (i.e. a bit blackcurranty) and not quite enough Dear-God-look-at-her-you'd-think-at-her-age-she'd-know-better.  So I may have to bleach it first, but that would involve having to have most of it cut off first and I quite like the length.

I dunno - decisions, decisions.  I know it doesn't look much different in colour to my profile picture but it is pinker.  I'm open to suggestions - what do you think?