Thursday, 22 November 2012

Business beginnings

Gosh. November. Is it really?

Hello.  Once again I begin a post with a feeble half-apology, half-excuse, entirely-unnecessary explanation as to where I've been since my last post.

Where haven't I been?  Woof!*

Not on holiday somewhere sunny, for a start.  We've been discussing the possibility of going across to visit Mother in law WithaY in the South of France by train, but it hasn't got any further than a couple of conversations and Mr WithaY doing a bit of train time Googling.  I quite fancy it, though.  We  could get on the train in London, go to Paris, then all the way across France to Perpignan, where Mother in law said she'd come to meet us.

I came in from work last night and Mr WithaY said "I rang my mother earlier."

Me: Oh yes?  How is she?

Mr W:  Oh, fine, fine.  She climbed a volcano today."


I think there's a lot to be said for the Mediterranean lifestyle. If I feel like climbing volcanoes when I am in my 70s, I will be delighted.

If I list all the places I haven't been in the last month, we could be here a while, so I will give you a list of what has been occupying my time of late.

1)  Developing the new business.  We're official, we have somewhere to work, and have done our first "proper" catering job.  It was a 40th birthday party for the daughter of a neighbour, and as it was the first one, was a bit of an experiment.  Our neighbour had no objection to being a guinea pig for us, and as a result we were able to deliver a successful party.  It was a sit-down meal for about 40 adults and a dozen or so small children, with as much gluten-free food as possible, as several of the guests are coeliac.

We are fortunate in that we can call on a specialist gluten-free cake maker, so she was able to provide a fantastic selection of cakes for the event:

The party was held in the village hall, which looked really pretty with all the decorations up:

We even decorated the kitchen:

A good time was had by all, especially those people who like cheese:

In fact, the only thing we provided which wasn't gluten free was the selection of cheese biscuits; next time we will probably make our own.

I made some chocolates too, which we served with coffee after the meal.  They contained macadamia nuts, almonds, coffee beans and crystallised ginger, although not all at the same time.  This week I have been experimenting with truffles.  I have high hopes.

I'm proud to announce that my home made Chinese plum sauce and spicy tomato chutney went down a storm, served with the cheeses.

Which leads us neatly to the next catering event we did.  Last weekend there was a Christmas bazaar in the village.  It's run in aid of Save the Children, and is hugely popular.  They serve light lunches and tea and cake and so on, and there is always a good range of stalls selling all kinds of stuff.  We went along with a selection of our canap├ęs  biscuits, sweeties and preserves, and a huge stack of business cards, and hoped to bring our new enterprise to the attention of some potential new customers.


Readers, we succeeded.

Our table was upstairs in the Food Emporium, which was also the Bric-a-Brac Emporium and the Tombola Emporium, so we were guaranteed a lot of interested visitors.  We handed out many business cards, and were asked about our ability to do several other catering jobs, so with any luck we'll get follow-up enquiries and hopefully some more work from that.

We sold almost all the chocolate ginger I took along (mental note: cover it all in PLAIN chocolate next time, milk is less popular), 90 percent of the delicious canapes and mini quiches my business partner made, and about half of the biscotti I baked.  We also sold all the rest of the Chinese plum sauce, and several jars of chutney, which was encouraging.

Mmmm biscotti.  I will definitely be making that again.

That big jar at the back was full of little taster biscotti pieces, and the few remaining scraps that went back home were devoured by Mr WithaY like a ravening beast.

2)  Working.  That's all very dull really, suffice to say that I am still doing both part-time jobs, and looking forward to the New Year when the situation at one of them is due to change quite significantly.  With any luck and a following wind I could be doing something very different, but still part-time.  We'll see.

3)  Being domestic.  All the usual stuff; you know, washing, ironing, cleaning, a bit of garden maintenance when things threaten to overwhelm us.  We've been sorting out the still-unsorted stuff in the back garden, left over from having the garage converted into the catering unit and workshop, but I think we're winning.  The latest cunning plan involves turning the log shed (previously the dog shed) into a storage area for Mr WithaY's bushcraft equipment that doesn't need to be locked away securely, and the logs will be moved closer to the house so we can refill the log basket in the dark without risking life and limb in the process.

This will all require a lot of heaving and hauling of the assorted shite behind the garage, to clear a space for the logs, which will in turn clear a space for the bushcraft stuff, which will in turn free up space in the shed and Mr WithaY's study, which will allow us to move all the junk in the garden into the shed (or take it to the tip if that's the best place) as well as reorganise his study so that there is more usable space for him.

If you followed that, well done.  If not, the gist is: We need to move stuff around.

4)  The dog.  She's still lovely.  This week has been a momentous one, as she no longer has to go in the puppy crate at night.  And hey, guess what   She sleeps right through till 7am!  No more middle-of-the-night barking to wake us up so we take her out into the garden.  I suspect she was just bored or uncomfortable  rather than actually needed to go out.  So, she's eating big dog food and sleeping on her big dog bed.  Awwwh.

Life is still good.  We are still happy.


*(c) Lord Flashheart

Saturday, 13 October 2012


Hey, hello!  Remember me? I used to post stuff on here fairly regularly.  More than once or twice a month, anyway. I hope at least some of you are still hanging in there, waiting for something to appear.  I'd still do it even if it was into an empty, echoing void, but it feels somehow friendlier to imagine one or two people reading what I write.

So. What's new with me, I hear you ask?

I now have TWO part-time jobs, as well as the fledgeling catering business, so my spare time is far more limited than it has been for the last 18 months or so.  I'm really enjoying both jobs, one as a cook and one as a waitress/barmaid in a pub, both within walking distance, both of which get me out of the house and allow me to interact with lots of people.

The new business progresses slowly but steadily too.  We've had some business cards printed, have advertising arranged in a local publication, and have a few jobs already in the calendar. We have to get some dull statutory stuff sorted out before we start "properly" but we've got plans for that too.

One of the things that needed doing was setting up an account with the local Cash and Carry store.  For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a Cash and Carry is a huge warehouse full of enormous ENORMOUS boxes of foodstuffs and catering/hospitality supplies which you buy at prices far below those charged in supermarkets.  The idea is that businesses are able to effectively buy in wholesale quantities and thus make a profit when they retail the products, or use them in their hotel, or pub or whatever.

You have to have joined the organisation and have been sent a membership card before you are allowed to shop there, and in order to join the organisation you have to be able to prove that you have a business.  So.  It was a big day when I was able to go to Trowbridge and fill in all the paperwork which allowed me to take my giant industrial shopping trolley round the aisles.

Well.  It's like Aladdin's Cave in there.  If you imagine Aladdin's Cave to be full of 100kg sacks of rice, and giant multi-packs of cotton wool, and mustard in vats you could bathe in.  We scampered round the warehouse in high glee, exclaiming over the things we found.  Huge pots of jam.  Teeny tiny pots of jam in packs of 100.  Gallon jars of pickles.  Ickle teeny tiny individual plastic containers of pickle, sold by the box of 250.  Bazillions of napkins.  Booze.  Varied and interesting catering equipment.  It was fantastic.  Honestly*.

We loaded up the trolley with about 200 different things, including antibacterial hand-wash (pack of 6), a catering first-aid kit, some smart white aprons, a box of bars of dark chocolate**, assorted flours, sugars and butters, and headed to the checkout.

The system is basic but effective.  A cheerful man with a hand-held scanner swiftly beeps everything in on the trolley, hands you the bill, and then you go across to a lady behind a glass screen to pay for it all.

The temptation is to spend far more money than you need to because everything is a BARGAIN.  I will go infrequently, armed with a shopping list, otherwise any money I'd save on low prices will be negated by the sheer quantity of things I buy.  They have ENORMOUS jars of Nutella.  I'm only human.

I've also been buying BARGAINS at the farmers market.  Most recently it has been ginger.  I picked up a 12 kg box of fresh ginger for £2.  TWO QUID.

Once the thrill of cornering the Wiltshire ginger market faded, I had to decide what to do with it all.

I've crystallized a lot, for sale as part of the catering business:

I made a batch of Japanese style pickled ginger, which I hope will turn pink in due course.  The recipe promised that it would:

And, ahahahahahaaaaaaaa clever, I grated a lot of it, froze it in ice cube trays in 1-teaspoon portions, and now have them all bagged up in the freezer for when I need fresh ginger for something.

Some of the crystallised ginger has since been richly enrobed (oooh, get me) in dark chocolate, and I have to say it is pretty spectacular.  I think a lot of people will be getting ginger-related gifts for Christmas.  

One thing I learned: if you chop and peel a lot of ginger, it makes your fingers burn, and if you later rub yourself in the eye, it REALLY burns.  So try not to do that.

Top tip there.

I've also made plum jam - 2 types - and my first ever batch of Chinese plum sauce.  Readers, it is delicious; tangy, not too sweet, heavily scented with star anise.  I will definitely buy another box of plums and make more.

As part of ongoing business development  I bought a box of proper matching jars (and lids) in two different sizes, and it's amazing the difference it makes to see chutney or jam or whatever all in the same type of jar, rather than in recycled (as in the ginger above) pickle or mayonnaise jars.

What else?  The dog, of course.  She continues to be a delight, despite the occasional bout of stomach trouble.  The colitis has cleared up now, and she seems to be back on top form. Although we did have The Day of Vomit the other week.  I gave her her breakfast, which she scarfed down in a matter of moments, then promptly brought the whole lot back up again, in its entirety, onto the rug in the sitting room - the only carpet in the whole of the downstairs.  Perfect target identification, dog, well done.

So, I thought "Ah well, she can wait till lunchtime now," and we carried on with our day.  She ate her lunch and seemed fine for a few hours, dozing peacefully at the top of the stairs outside my study.  I was working hard*** on the computer, and I thought she was fast asleep, until I heard odd wet slurping sounds.  I went out onto the landing, and was greeted by a thick rope of dog vomit, consisting predominantly of grass, which the horrible, horrible animal was about to try and eat.  Re-eat?  Whatever.

I cried out in disgust, then (in even more disgust) picked up the solid lump-o'-vom and carried it outside to the bin.  Gah.

Again, she'd managed to barf it all up onto the carpet, rather than either the tile, stone or wooden floors in the rest of the house.  Well done, dog.  She's so clever.  I'm very proud.  Here she is, placing her order for a walk.

"I'll take this one please.  With extra cowshit for me to roll in, and a plentiful supply of grass to eat.  Oh, and some partridges to startle.  Make it so."

Good job we love her.   She likes to sleep like this, stretched out against the sofa.  It can't be comfortable, she's twisted like a corkscrew.  That white thing under her head is her fleecy blankie that she brought with her from her parents' place when she moved in.  She goes and fetches it from her bed when she wants to go to sleep.

I recently loaded Instagram on my phone.  I can take brown 1970s stylee photos like a pro now.  This is from one of our favourite walks:

Other news:  I have had a drastic haircut.  I know I mentioned it before, but here are photos.  You lucky people.

I'm fortunate to have naturally thick, wavy hair, which has (mostly) retained its natural colour, apart from the occasional brilliant white one.  As my hair is very dark, the buggers really show up.  Bah.

For about the last 10 years I have had it fairly long, which I liked.  However, a few weeks ago I was sitting reading a book, and I realised that my hair was irritating me.  It had got long enough that when I leaned back in my chair, I leaned on it and pulled it, and when I leaned forward it fell over my face and got in the way.  I went to put it up, and as I did so I thought "I always wear my hair up nowadays."  It had got too long to wear down, so it was always clipped up off my face.  And in a blinding flash of inspiration, I thought "Hey!  I could have it cut off, and wear it loose again!"

I had 10 inches cut off.  Look, here it is:

And here's the end result, please note the extra-attractive red anxious face.  Hair is much shorter, and I think rather excellent.  It's easier to manage, only takes 5 minutes to blow-dry rather than 25, and if I brush it upside down it looks like I've spent ages styling it.  So. Hurrah for impulse decisions that pay off.

It occurred to me several days after I had it cut that I could have saved all the cuttings (clippings? trimmings? whatever) and donated them to that charity that makes wigs for children who've lost their hair.  I was really cross that I hadn't thought of it at the time, as my hair was un-dyed, un-permed and in jolly good nick.  Next time I have a lot off I will do that.

Other head-related news: Mr WithaY made a fox hat.

He worked very hard on it, cleaning and treating the skin to make sure it wasn't going to rot or shed, and then designing the hat, cutting it out, and sewing it together by hand.  I refused to let him use my sewing machine, I have to admit.

Anyhoo.  One evening when I was working in the pub, he came in for a drink and was telling the chaps at the bar about his new hat.  They encouraged him to go and fetch it to show them.  He did so.

They, being farmers and robust Wiltshire country chaps, were very interested in how he'd turned a dead fox into an item of attire, so Mr WithaY was explaining the process.  I and the (much, much younger) barmaid listened in.

Mr WithaY: once you've cleaned the skin, and dried it a bit, you have to tan it, which takes ages.

Farmers:   Oh yes.  Yarp.  Oo-aarrrr.  (etcetera.)

Mr WithaY:  ...and once it's been tanned you can start cutting it out.

Youthful barmaid: Tanned??  What....with fake tan?  Why did you do that to it???

I think she was imagining Mr WithaY trying to do a makeover on the fox.  Some fake tan.  Eyelash implants.  Painted claws.  Vajazzle the tail a bit.

I'm afraid I bellowed with laughter in a most unladylike manner, and had to go and stand far away till I'd stopped.

Continuing the wildlife theme, the mole has been wreaking havoc in the front garden.  Not content with building a scale model of Silbury Hill in the middle of the lawn, he seems to have reconstructed the entire Western Front trench system in the flowerbeds, and thrown up several smaller hills around the edges.


Life is, in the main, very good.  We're both still enjoying life away from the full-time rat race treadmill thing, and are finding plenty to do to occupy ourselves.

*We don't get out much
**For making cakes. No, really.
***Playing World of Warcraft.  I know, I know.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Cheese. Thousands of them.

Autumn is definitely here. The misty, cool mornings.  The evocative smell of woodsmoke on the air.  Birds massing in the sky in a slightly menacing manner.  Hedgehogs and that.

And what happens at the start of Autumn, lovely readers?  Why, the Frome Cheese Show happens.  And I was there.  Well, me and Mr WithaY.  And the dog.  We were all there.

Last time we attempted to go, we left it a little too late in the day - about 11am, as I recall -  and were thwarted by ridiculous traffic tailbacks which went on for miles and miles.  We turned tail and came home, disappointed and annoyed at our lack of forethought.

This year it was different.  I bought the tickets in advance, saving us 6 quid in the process, marvellous, and we were up early, turning our shining morning faces to the sun, dog all fed and brushed and ready to go, cheese money burning holes in our pockets.

We do like a bit of cheese in our house.

The dog was very excited.  Well, we all were really.  We left home at 8am-ish, drove the short distance to the showground - no traffic - and in we went, unimpeded by queues or hassles of any description.  It was quite misty, and the grass was soaking wet, making everyone* pick their way through it, grumbling about wet feet.

The first thing we spotted was this:

I think it's a tribute to Thelwell.  The children were all fiercely determined, grim-faced and focused as their teeny ponies trotted back and forth in an endless competition of some kind, more or less under control.  It was just lovely.

As you can see, the mist is already burning off, and the blue sky behind it can be glimpsed.  We decided to go and look at the cheese tent.  We took it in turns, one of us standing outside with the dog while the other one went in and admired the cheese. And by Swansea it was admirable.

This one looks like the winner of the CSI Somerset Crime Scene Reconstruction section.  I was tempted to draw a chalk outline round the grisly remains, but there were many burly cheese officials wandering the tent, and I lost my nerve.

Some of the cheese categories were baffling.  At least to the uninitiated.

Lemon meringue?  Really?

I did like the shy mozzarella, which is like a badger cub on Springwatch, needing to be coaxed out of its bag.

I expect the judges used high-quality crackers to lure it.

Competition categories were inspired.

I wonder who the cheese-judging celebrity was this year?  And how do they phrase the invitation.

"Hello - Elton?  Are you busy on the first weekend in September?  No?  Would you like to come and judge a huge tent full of cheese in Somerset for a morning?  No?  Really? Are you sure?  Hello...?  Hello...?"

This sign leaves little to be queried:

I assume the competitors have to make up their "cakes" before they arrive, rather than forage around helping themselves to cheeses which look the part.  But I do like the idea that there are people casually pocketing cheeses as they go round, thinking "This one is shaped just like a teeny bridegroom! Perfect!"

This cheese captured my heart, just because it's so completely mad.

It was big, too.  About the size of a watermelon.

This category was nicely specific.  I imagine the judges measuring each entry and flinging those on incorrectly-sized boards out into the pony-competition ring in a fury.

Some cheeses had the look of a cheese which had been made to take part against their will, under protest.

"But Muuuuuuuum!  All the other cheeses are way bigger than me!  I'll be laughed at!"

I bet they were told, "Oh, you'll be fine, stop making a fuss."


Exhausted by so much dairy produce, I went and watched the dog obedience teams while Mr WithaY went and looked at the cheese.  The dog was supposed to watch and learn.

I don't think she was taking it all in, to be honest.  She certainly didn't seem too keen when I suggested she had a go jumping through the hoops of fire.

The day was heating up by now, and we had bought quite a lot of cheese - which gets heavy - so we decided to go and look at the animals for a bit, where it might be shadier.

I love the Tent Of A Thousand Goats.  Sadly, no dogs allowed, so I popped in and admired the poultry tent while Mr WithaY took the dog to see some tractors.

Again, a wide selection of competition categories, some stranger than others:

Gosh, that's a bit, well, harsh.  Surely beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and one man's ideal egg is another man's marginally less ideal egg?  Although that one is a corker, I must say.

It's an EGG.  What do they expect to be inside it?  A previously undiscovered novel by Dickens?  A jewelled clock?   Shergar?


I suspect foul** play here.  Not only has an element of the category title been redacted in a professional, indeed an almost FBI-like, manner, the eggs themselves are missing.  Where are they?  Stolen?  Kidnapped?  Currently making up part of a prizewinning Victoria Sponge?   I demand answers.

How Victorian.  A freak show.  Again, note the sinisterly empty egg plate in the top left corner.  I hope the hens who laid these at least got a cup of tea or something afterwards.

This is just a very pretty little decorated egg which I wanted to photograph. Awwh.

Ah, even here, the cult of shallow shell-deep beauty permeates.

Mind you, if I was brought a boiled egg or two on a tray looking like this, I'd be thrilled.

Fantastic.  I wonder if they all came from the same hen?  And if so, what are they feeding her?

Personally I preferred the one with the blue eggs, but hey, I'm not an egg judge.  Ohhh, I've wasted my life.

By the time I had finished wandering through the poultry tent, making admiring noises and chuckling to myself, it was getting really hot.  I went and found Mr WithaY and the dog, and we all sat in the shade having a drink and a bit of a nice rest.

A little bit more wandering through the show, and it was time to head home.  I was deeply gratified to see the massive queues of traffic, stretching all the way from the showground, far across West Wiltshire, cars full of hot grumpy people who hadn't got up as early as we had.  Bwahahahahahaaaa.

In other news:  The dog has been a bit poorly, so I took her to the vet yesterday.  He diagnosed a bout of colitis, which apparently is really common in young dogs, particularly the ones which hoover up anything and everything in their path when they are out for a walk.  So, she's got some special anti-squit medicine to help sort her stomach out, and some goopy brown stuff I add to her food to restore her internal bacteria balance.

Last night, for the first time in several days, I only had to get up and let her out into the garden once (at 4am) rather than on the hour, every hour, as it had been recently.  A huge relief for both her and I.

Other, other news:  We've had the go-ahead from the environmental health lady and so our catering business is officially up and running.  We have our first job booked for October, but this week we are going to get some business cards sorted out and some adverts in the local press, and hopefully pick up some more bookings.

Also, I have had my hair cut short.  I decided that I was bored with it - I've had long hair for at least 10 years now - so went into Salisbury last week and had about 10 inches cut off it.  It's quite liberating.  I realised that I almost always wore my hair up, and it seemed a bit pointless having long hair if whenever it was down I just got annoyed because it was in the way.

So, a new look, a new business, a new season.  Oh, and I've lost a stone, thanks to walking the dog.  Hurrah.

*Everyone not wearing sensible boots or shoes with gaiters.  I had fabric shoes on, and my feet were SOAKED.


Friday, 31 August 2012

Do Not Press

I've been on Blogiday.

It's like a holiday, but just from blogging.  Obviously all the other many and various on-line communication systems I use were being hammered regularly, but I never quite got round to feeling like writing anything on here.  I blame Twitter.  If it takes more than 140 characters I can't manage it these days.  Attention span of oooh look!  A squirrel!

Anyway. How is everyone? Not been swept away in the floods, or the gale force winds, or the rains of ash and blood we've been having this summer?  Not yet, at least, I hope.

We've been very busy here at WithaY Acres.  Once all the horrible, complicated but not TOO* expensive plumbing issues were finally resolved we were able to get the back garden into some semblance of order again.  There's still a stack of stuff out there which needs to be found a home, but we're definitely winning.  Mr WithaY's new workshop was completed this week, with some very smart custom-made work benches in there, and all the electric sockets any man could ever need, including a massive "don't you touch that red button now, Father Dougal" for his lathe.

Every time I go in there it draws my eye, compelling me to step closer, to reach out one finger and just have a little go. I will press it one day, I just know it.  It's big and red and looks EXACTLY like something from an old sci-fi movie to stop the launch of a spaceship with bare moments to spare.

In my head.

The other end of the garage is now a proper rain-, bird- and mouse-proof pantry, complete with freezer and ample storage for cooking stuff, pots, pans, jars and so on.  It even has a little double-glazed window, which makes it feel like a Wendy house.  We still need to finalise the "moving stuff around and optimising the space" thing - I want all the giant vices and boxes of carpentry tools out, for a start - but we're very nearly there.

Just as well, as I have a visit from the Environmental Health lady from the Council next week.

She's coming to inspect the kitchen, which has recently been registered as somewhere that will be producing food for commercial use - i.e. cooking for other people for money - and as a result our downstairs doors have blossomed with dog-proof gates in the last week.  I've washed the floor more often than ever before, and all the corners that previously housed collections of esoteric kitchenware have been emptied and cleaned out thoroughly.

I've also started my new part time job, which I am enjoying very much indeed.  It fits very handily around the rest of my life, there's a four minute commute (by foot) and the people I work with are lovely.  So, a fine result.

Can I just say that a four-minute commute on foot is about a billion times nicer than a three-hour one involving a car, a train, a bus and the London rush hour?

If I can find another local part-time job (about 15-20 hours per week) I'll be made up.  Until then, I am enjoying having lots of time to spend with Mr WithaY and the dog.

This morning we all went for a long walk.

I took some photos:

Walking up the hill to the woods, admiring the impressive sky.  Hello trees,  Hello clouds.

The woods themselves were dark and pretty muddy. The dog loved it.  She's very good off the lead, and comes back when we call her, which is more than our last one did most of the time.  Someone told me "Labradors are born half-trained, Spaniels die half-trained" which I rather like.

The river, looking just lovely in the sunshine.  There were some swans but they got a bit lairy when they saw me staring at them, so I thought I'd better not try and get a photo in case they broke my iPhone with a single blow of their wing.  They hate the Paparazzi, do swans.

Mr WithaY insisted - INSISTED - that this was a path.  Yes, yes, yes, it really is.  Stop moaning.  Crawl under that log, then just scramble over this bramble thicket, then through the bog and nettle patch.  It's very straightforward.

He and the dog nimbly hopped and pranced off through the greenwood, I lumbered after them, mud dragging at my wellies, nettles lashing my face, brambles snagging my clothes. It was great.

We're so outdoorsy.

He's off for another weekend of Bushcrafting, I am going to work, and to a party, and will chill with the dog. I might even get some sewing started. I bought a load of fabric and patterns the other week, but have yet to cut anything out.  It's my least favourite part of a sewing project, cutting out, especially if I have to cut the pattern out too.  Once it's all cut out I love to get on and sew it all together, but the start of it puts me off.

Plus I will have to make sure the dog can't wander in and lay down to sleep on top of whatever I am doing. She does like to sleep on top of things - my feet, Mr WithaY's feet, a heap of freshly-ironed clothes on the bedroom floor, a carelessly dropped towel - if it's on the floor it will end up with a small black dog snoozing atop it.

The hoover is earning its keep these days, I can tell you.

*Under £500, thankfully.  And they did a good job of tidying up afterwards, too.