What came first- the chickens or the blog?

Our little grey friend

This winter we have had a daily visitor to the coop, enjoying the wild bird food left for the garden birds who come to call regularly on the Gillybirds. 

The grey squirrel is perhaps one of the most commonly seen of British mammals being highly visible in parks, gardens and woods. Our squirrel is very entertaining, balancing precariously on slender branches, leaping fearlessly from tree to tree, dangling upside down grasping with those tiny little paws to catch hold of the pouches of seeds and nuts left hanging for our feathered visitors. A few years ago we had another regular squirrel we called Stumpy as he only had half of that wonderful twitchy fluffy squirrel tail. We often made up stories of how poor Stumpy lost his tail. 

Gabriel Hemery writes in his blog :

“Grey squirrels are a serious pest and the bane of woodland managers across Britain. They strip the bark of young trees, which can severely reduce their growth, increase susceptibility to disease, cause dieback of stems and branches (often a safety hazard in public spaces), and can kill trees; especially when the bark is stripped right around a stem.  They also eat song bird eggs and have driven out the red squirrel from its native range. The species, that some now regard as a ‘tree rat’, was introduced to Britain by the Victorians about 130 years ago.  It is more aggressive than Britain’s native red squirrel, which has been squeezed further and further north in the country.  Greys also carry squirrel parapoxivirus or ‘squirrel pox’, to which they seem resistant, but which is fatal to reds.  The IUCN has listed the Grey Squirrel in the top 100 globally worse invasive species. According to the Forestry Commission there are 2.5 million grey squirrels in Britain but only 140,000 surviving red squirrels. The Red Squirrel Survival Trust is working hard to promote the survival of the red squirrel by advocating targeted control of the grey squirrel, and has attracted a lot of support and media interest in its work.  If you live in Cumbria, Northumberland or other remaining strongholds of the red squirrel in Britain you can get involved in the RSST’s work in these areas.”

Jamie Oliver has caused a bit of a kerfuffle suggesting that we should help control grey squirrel numbers by making slow cooked squirrel pie. If you are vegetarian or think this is barbaric please just click away from my blog now! 

courtesy of luxphotodigital

If however you have no qualms about sampling a fine textured white meat that tastes more subtle than rabbit meat you can have it delivered oven ready to your door for £4.95 per squirrel. Or you can go all “Hunger Games” and try catch one for yourself. (Good luck) 

In Victorian times squirrels were customarily eaten in the UK, served in many forms and squirrel brains were a delicacy eaten in the USA until very recently when it was discovered squirrels are carriers of Creutzfeld Jakob disease. There are however a few restaurants in the UK which have begun serving this meat over the past few years.

Our little guy (or girl) would certainly be hard to catch even if we wanted to! I think we will leave him to a life of stealing nuts and performing acrobatics around our garden. As for our old friend Stumpy….well we haven’t seen him in quite a while. Oh dear. 

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 I’m always on the lookout for new ways to cook eggs, and while staying a few nights with our hosts in Annapolis, Maryland, we were served a warm dish called Strata. We actually had it for dinner and for breakfast again the next morning. 

To me, having studied geology in school “strata ” is different layers of rock, not a food. Our host described it as “Southern food”, and as she was preparing it I was intrigued by the box of pure white eggs, since here our hens produce brown eggs, I don’t think I’ve ever seen white eggs before. I explained that egg shell colour is determined by the colour of a hen’s ears. I don’t think our host believed me. She told me she would have to pay more money to buy brown shelled eggs, they were considered to be something rare and quite unusual! 

Anyway, Strata reminded me of a cross between cheese fondue and a pastry-less quiche. Definitely winter food. 

I found this recipe online. I will be trying this at home, with my own rather special brown shelled eggs.

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Keeping Christmas Traditions

Red cabbage on our table is one of the changes that have occurred in my house at Christmas since we married 24 years ago.
Every family has its own traditions for this special time of year. Family traditions are all part of the build up to Christmas Day. Christmas traditions are important. Children need to feel they belong and shared memories help reinforce that and helps them to develop their own sense of identity says psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer, an expert in play and parenting and Director of The Good Toy Guide. She acknowledges however that when two people come together to form their own family, they both bring with them their own traditions that might not be compatible with each other.
Mr Gs family had stockings for gifts, we always had pillow cases! We always got a shiny red apple and a mandarin orange as well as other treats in our pillow cases.
Some trees have white lights, others prefer coloured.
We had a Gene Autry Christmas LP that was always playing as we decorated the tree. A few years ago my brother found it on the Internet and I still play it, though I do prefer Michael Bublė!
Our family put up their tree really early in December, Mr Gs waited to the very last minute! We now love to put the tree up early, but once Boxing Day is over I can’t wait to take it all down again.
Though I do prefer a real tree, they have got so expensive that we invested in a really good fake tree, and I burn lots of tree scented candles and rejoice that come July I won’t still be vacuuming pine needles from the carpets.
Some homes must be seen from space they have so many outdoor lights and decorations. This year we have no outdoor lights, must to Mr Gs disappointment, and as a compromise to our boys delight I have put the coloured lights on the tree, with my one remaining working set of white LEDs.
On the Festive table we always had a jar of pickled onions and a jar of those yellow-green mixed pickles. And my dad’s awesome brandy butter.
On Mr Gs family table they had bread sauce, red cabbage, sprouts with bacon and hazel nuts, brandy cream.
Over the years we have combined all that we loved from our two families at Christmas, and added some traditions of our own that we hope our boys will take with them when they have homes of their own.
My mother faithfully stocks to recipes she has used for many years for the Christmas pudding, the brandy butter, the Christmas cake, the stuffing for the turkey. Yes, always has to be Turkey.
I roasted a goose one year and was very disappointed with the results. It was very expensive, and gave very little meat in return. I do find Turkey meat boring and tasteless. But am overruled every year when I suggest any alternatives!
The one thing I do adore is Turkey broth made with the bones.
Although Mr G and I are celebrating our 24th Christmas our own family traditions are still evolving. And as the Gillyboys get older, change is in the air as we no longer have that frenzy of excitement and anticipation of a visit from the red suited gentleman.
A chilled glass of prosecco goes nicely with the Queen’s Speech and some canapés before serving the main course I’ve found, now that we are not inserting batteries into noisy toys and hiding the contents of selection boxes lest some child spoils their appetite.
It’s all very civilised.
A few years ago I made Nigella Lawson’s chocolate Christmas cake. It had prunes in it. It was vile.
This is now the third year I have used Paul Hollywood’s White Christmas cake recipe. Mr G is very partial to Christmas cake and we may well cut into it in the next few days. He hates marzipan. I love it. I compromise with a very thin layer under the delicious pure white icing. However much he insists though I will not leave out the cherries in the cake batter. No way. I am the only one in our house who eats cherries, but part of my Christmas tradition is eating the cherries all the others leave on the side of their plates! Yum.
Christmas cards are becoming much less of a thing. Just as well as I have lost my Christmas card address book faithfully kept up to date since about 2002. Never Mind. There is alway the Internet for keeping in touch quickly and less expensively than posting a card. But I do miss cards for adding further festive decor to our home.
This year though I’m thinking- it’s less about giving presents, more about being present.
Less about wrapping the gifts, more wrapping those we love in a hug.
Less about shopping for food, more about donating food to those whose cupboards are bare.
Less about seeing the Christmas lights, more about being the Light.
In these dark times, when daily there is news of terrible evil across the globe, let’s choose to be present, to show love, to reach out, to be the Light.

I’ve just realised you can spot me in this photo of our hall decorations!

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Seeing Red. Or is it Purple? Or Blue?

Tonight my seasonal preparations continue and a large pot of red cabbage is braising in the oven. It’s a Delia Smith recipe I’ve used for years, freezes well, we will probably still be serving it with baked salmon in Spring time!
The strange thing about so called “red” cabbage is that my hands and chopping board are now stained dark purple, and the food processor in the sink is sitting in deep blue coloured water.
What is going on?
Red cabbage is one of many fruits and vegetables that contain a class of reddish purple pigments called anthocyanins, which is responsible for its colour. Anthocyanins are a type of flavonoid pigment that are responsible for the red, purple and blue colours in most plants, leaves, flowers and fruits. These pigments have a tendency to change colour when mixed with alkaline or acidic ingredients.
In fact, Red cabbage contains at least thirty-six of the over 300 different anthocyanins that exist. These pigment molecules are stored in the cells of the red cabbage leaf. When exposed to heat during cooking, the cells containing anthocyanins burst open and cause the water-soluble colour pigments to bleed into the surrounding liquid. This is why there is immediate colour change in the cabbage and the cooking water, or washing up water.
The colour change can be avoided by adding vinegar which is acidic. I have used wine vinegar in my recipe.
Who knew so much chemistry was involved!
I wish I could send you some of the aroma of spices, vinegar, sugar, Apple and cabbage that are floating round my kitchen just now.

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It’s porridge, but not as we know it

In our house you need to be very careful in the mornings which pot you take your porridge from.
Those with two legs and no feathers get fruity, nutty porridge to keep them going for the day. We love it.
Those with two legs and feathers get porridge with pasta, raisins, sunflower seeds, meal worms, left overs of rice, potatoes, vegetables, bread crusts….
They love it!
In this cold weather, with so little sun light, we need to keep tummies full and warm to keep those yummy eggs coming.

The day starts at around 7.30 am when light is just showing in the sky, and the ladies usually retire for the evening around 4.15pm, earlier if it is very dark and wet. I love peeking in at them all snuggled up in their feathered duvets. I wonder what the chat is about?

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Spotted on Paul Hollywood’s tour blog!

Every night Paul or one of his minions takes a photo of the audience. It has just been posted on his blog, and lo and behold, there we are, me and CC in all our glory.

We are sitting upstairs in the second row of the balcony. I’ve got a green scarf on, and CC wearing a turquoise scarf is in the spotlight!
See if you can find us!

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An Evening with Paul Hollywood

Last night my dear friend CC and I spent two hours with Paul Hollywood – you know-the one with the piercing blue eyes and silver grey beard from Great British Bake Off that isn’t Mary Berry.
It was £32 per ticket. If Mr H had got his way with us we would have spent a shed load more on his recipe book, aprons, tea towels, calendars, t shirts, fridge magnets…
Fortunately I only had my bus money home, and CC kindly bought and shared a minute bottle of white wine which we had to drink in the foyer before the show even started.
Others were not so restrained. At the interval and the end of the show there was a bit of a scrum and a scramble round the merchandise table.
It was a cooking show. However to take home the recipes you had to buy the programme. Oh wait. We spent all CCs cash on a thimble full of wine. So no recipes then. Oops.
Sure we could always buy his new book. Did he mention he had a new book out? Yes. About every sixty seconds.

On the way to the theatre CC casually mentioned that Paul brings people up from the audience to assist him with the baking. Well, dear reader, my blood ran cold. On a previous night out with CC I ended up on stage as a magician’s assistant for the fabulous David Meade. (There are photos to prove it.) So the thought of donning a PH apron and massaging his dough made me feel quite faint. We were sitting in the balcony so I thought we were probably a safe enough distance not to be chosen.
With a nod to Christmas PH demonstrated four recipes. Chocolate roulade, baked brie, mince pies and Stilton, walnut and pear bread.
They looked easy to prepare, and smelt delicious even from where we were sitting. I’m not giving you the recipes. You’ll have to buy the book.
The audience, mostly ladies, were salivating. We were encourage to tweet and instagram (ask your grandchildren) live directly to PH himself on stage. He read out the ones he was able to. It was a family show after all.
At one point Paul accidentally dusted his immaculate black shirt with flour. “Get your shirt off” come a shout from somewhere behind us. I rolled my eyes. This was a baking show, not the Chippendales. But PH gives as good as it gets when it comes to banter from the adoring ladies in the audience. He strode about the stage wagging his rolling pin and those blue eyes looking menacing. The heat wasn’t just from the ovens.
Audience members also had an opportunity to ask baking related questions directly. The giggling ladies brought on stage managed their tasks well. And got to keep their PH aprons as a reward. The winner of the bread dough shaping competition even got a signed copy of…well, you guessed it, his latest book.
Paul spent most of the night telling us anecdotes about his side kick, the fabulous Mary Berry- or Maz Bez- as he calls her. And he encouraged more entries from our fair land for the next series of Great British Bake Off. Provided we didn’t throw our baking in the bin, referring to our local bake off contestant Ian who “lost the bap” as we say in these parts, and chucked his melted Baked Alaska into the trash.
When the bread was baked, Paul cut it into chunks and threw it into the crowd. There was an undignified scramble for a taste in the front five rows.
Us ladies sitting upstairs even got to sample the baked brie. This for me was the highlight of the evening. Made by PH himself. Even eating it with our bare hands off a paper plate it was delicious. Brie cheese, with Parma ham and cranberry sauce wrapped in pastry and baked for 20 minutes. Yum. It would have gone very well with the toothful of crisp white wine we had imbibed in the foyer before the show.
It was all great fun. Not perhaps the amazing baking demonstration I had been anticipating, but an interesting study of how Mrs Joe Public behaves when face to face with a TV baker oozing with charm just like his baked brie.
CC and I are booked for an evening with Michael McIntyre in Nov 2015. I wonder if he will have a book out too?

Mr Paul Hollywood. To misquote Meghan Trainor for me “it’s all about the bake”.

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The Secret of Long Life

Sadly this week in Ireland our oldest resident passed away. Luke Dolan,a farmer from Strokestown Co Roscommon died aged 108. Asked the secret of Long Life (his sister lived to be 106) he said it was eating a boiled egg every day and a spoonful of sugar in his tea.

When I think of the long long life Luke had – born in 1906- how the world has so completely changed – it’s mind blowing!
What’s also interesting that the title of Ireland’s oldest living resident now passes on to Michael Lambert, aged 107, whom lives only 20 miles away from Mr Dolan’s farm! I wonder if he eats an egg a day too?


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Cat Sitting

My name is Mrs Gillybirds and I am a cat person.
As the official owner of two dogs and three hens this may come as a surprise. I love cats. Really love them, but due to Mr G’s cat hair allergy we don’t have cats in the house.
I haven’t been owned by a cat in over 20 years.
So it is very exciting for me to be cat sitting for Miss Izzy and Miss Cookie whilst their lady takes a well deserved holiday.
And since I have opposing thumbs and the ability to open a pouch of cat food they are apparently just as excited to see me.
I had forgotten just how aloof and independent cats are. And how utterly silent.
In comparison if I leave the dogs at home even for ten minutes my return is greeted with a full parade of wagging tails, big doggy grins and loud barking.
When the back door handle is rattled the Gillybirds stop whatever they are doing and look up to see who is coming out and more importantly what treats they may be bringing.
But cats… Not so much.
As every good cat sitter knows, I spent some time last week in their home chatting with their lady about feeding, sleeping arrangements, waste disposal, and home security. (not wanting any cat burglars. Ha)
Cookie and Izzy have met me before, Izzy is a one woman cat, Cookie who is adopted, is more friendly and likes a head rub every now and again. She even let me pick her up, it’s amazing how little cats weigh, no wonder they move with such quietness and ease.
It’s much better to keep cats in their own home where their comforts are and things are familiar. So I’m calling round twice daily, for food and fellowship. Cookie is generally waiting for me, tail twitching, ready for breakfast. Izzy is more cautious, stealthily sneaking by when she thinks I’m not looking.
Izzy loves her lady so much she brings her love tokens on an almost daily basis, so I have a good check around for dead partially consumed wildlife which would not be a pleasant welcome home for anyone!
I chat away whilst they eat with such fastidious daintiness, today I even played the piano for them. Not sure how appreciated that was.
Hopefully we will get along just fine. And I can enjoy being a cat lady once more, provided I remove all traces of cat hair for fear of setting off allergies or alerting the dogs to the fact that for a short while I am reverting to my true self.


Ending term with a Big Pop!

Smallest Gillyboy, number 4, leaves primary education tomorrow. An occasion filled with happy memories, sad partings and nervous anticipation of the transfer to “big school”. And that’s just me, I’m not sure how he is feeling.
Yesterday he came home and dropped the bomb that today his class were to provide healthy fruit based snacks to be sold in aid of charity to the rest of the school at break time.
Some boys were making smoothies, others providing fruit kebabs. Our idea was to make healthy popcorn. Popcorn seems to be enjoying a revival as a healthy snack these days. The Gillybirds just like the Unpopped variety. Having never tried savoury popcorn there was a lot of googling and then a trip out to Tesco for ingredients.
We have a popcorn maker which was an excellent and well used birthday gift many years ago. It works by a concentrated blast of hot air, so there is no oil or butter involved at this stage. It’s one downside it that it is very noisy.
The dogs quickly learnt that not all the popped corn ends up in the bowl, they sat eagerly with their tongues hanging out waiting for a stray piece to chomp.
To the freshly popped corn we added-

Chilli powder, lime zest, juice of 1/2 lime, about 2 tsp of oil to bind, crushed sea salt.
Chopped fresh garlic and rosemary lightly fried in a knob of butter, sea salt, Parmesan cheese.

Nothing was weighed or measured, just chucked in and taste tested until we got it just right.

All very healthy and extremely tasty. Little Gillyboy has quite a mature palette. I was hoping his school chums did too.
We bagged it up and labelled it, fingers crossed that it would stay fresh and crisp overnight.

He came out of school beaming today as the popcorn had sold like those proverbial hot cakes. All for a good cause.



I am passing on these toppings as some of you may be spending your nights watching a certain global football tournament and looking for some lower calorie nibbles.

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