Wednesday, 28 November 2012

This woman's work: Limoncello and amigurumi

Just a quick post tonight, as its late and I am exhausted. Its been a busy day at the cottage. The baby fed, quite literally, all night and I woke with a sore back from twisting around her slightly in bed. Thankfully I feed her lying down an night, so I managed the odd doze. I awoke late, so Charlie was late for school and, because I'd had to wake her abruptly (and she hadn't had enough sleep either,) the baby was grumpy. Just as I'd poured myself the first cup of tea of the day, Jonny appeared and said he'd missed the school bus. 15 minutes later I'm driving us all the 15 mile round trip to school.

I've tried to work today, honestly I have, but the darkness and the horrible, cold rain has conspired to prevent me from being too motivated. I cut up some paper, and finished my hand and footprint tiles, which I will share with you another day. I am pleased with them. Then, right on cue, Florence woke up and I spent most of the rest of the time baby wrangling. Or baby wrestling, as my friend calls it. Florrie's a big, heavy baby now who won't sit still. She's prone to suddenly arching her back and flinging herself around. Wrestling is an accurate description.

Still, the baby went into the sling and that gave me chance to work on the next stage of the Christmas alcohol - home made Limoncello and Blackberry vodka. I spent a relaxing couple of hours mixing up sugar solution, sterilising jars and pottering about.



The now sweetened lemon vodka will now retreat back into the fridge for a week to infuse some more, before I strain the lemon zest out and bottle it. 

Here's the recipe in case you fancy having a go. There's still time before Christmas


6 small unwaxed lemons

1 litre bottle vodka - cheap will do

750g caster sugar

750ml boiling water


1. Wash and sterilise a large Kilner jar by putting into a cool oven for 10 mins (gas mark 1/ 140 degrees C)

2. Wash the lemons, then grate the lemon zest finely, taking care not to take the pith (ha!)

3. Put lemon zest into sterile jar and pour over the vodka. Secure well and store in a cool, dark place for one week. Shake everyday - it looks like a snowstorm of yellow snow (nice)

4) After a week has passed, measure out the sugar into a large bowl. Add freshly boiling water and stir carefully until the sugar dissolves.  You can tell when the sugar has dissolved as it goes clear, and if you put a spoon into the mixture, you can't see or feel any granules on the back of the spoon. Stir the lemon infused vodka into the sugar syrup.

5) Wash the Kilner jar, along with another of the same size, and sterilise both. Pour the combined mixture of lemon vodka and sugar syrup into the jars. Store for another week, shaking every day. Strain the Limoncello through a clean muslin cloth and decant into pretty, sterilised bottles.

Store in the freezer and drink neat, use in cocktails or pour over ice cream.



The blackberry vodka is proving to be more of a challenge as we've gone a little off piste with this. We wanted to use the blackberries left over from the railway jelly, so we bundled them into a demijohn and added vodka. I've been keeping notes. I'll share them with you at a later date.


I also wanted to share this little dude with you. Well, dudette. It's Cactus Jacqui!


How I enjoyed making her! The pattern was free, enjoyable to crochet, and I made her up in a night! a perfect project. You can find the pattern here.

Cactus Jacqui is part of a gift I've made for a handmade Secret Santa. I need to post her tomorrow, hopefully the postman will deliver her safely to her new home on the other side of the country.


Well. That wasn't quick, was it?! Thanks for hanging out with me again, though, its always fun.

Claire x



Tuesday, 27 November 2012



I do love making preserves. There's something about the alchemy, and how much nicer home made jams taste than shop bought, that makes me feel all domestic goddess. It's quite simple, really (but don't let on to anyone else...) As part of my Christmas series, I am making jams and jellies this year for my nearest and dearest to go in their stockings.

If there is a secret to jam making, then I think it is this: use the right tools. My jams and chutneys have been a hundred times better since I bought a jam thermometer and use jam sugar. The thermometer was a fiver from Lakeland, so its not as though these tools cost a lot, either. Jam sugar, unlike granulated, has added pectin  - the stuff that makes the jam set. You can just use granulated sugar, and its a lot cheaper, but I had a lot more failures. I say failures, the jam still tasted delicious, but it was runny and only really good for adding to ice cream. Jam sugar has so far meant that every jam or jelly I have made has set beautifully.

I save jam jars throughout the year, and get our relatives to pass theirs on too, which not only is good from an eco point of view, but also saves a substantial amount of money. Just make sure reused jars are thoroughly washed and dried before storing - the dishwasher does a great job for us.  Alternatively, I have heard that Asda sell value Lemon Curd for 22p, which is cheaper than you can buy the jars for online. You can ditch the Lemon Curd (although that feels a bit wasteful to me) and just use the jar.

My other tip is to use turps to get rid of all those old sticky labels - it cuts through the old glue like nothing else, and believe me I have tried EVERYTHING. Be very careful to wash it off thoroughly though, because turps is poisonous. I rinse and wash my jars six times, using fresh water and neat Fairy liquid straight onto the glass each time to ensure that the turps has been properly washed away. You then just need to sterilise the jars and their lids by putting them onto a baking tray and putting into a low oven (gas mark 1, 140 degrees C) for about 20 mins. This kills off any bacteria hanging around that would otherwise ruin your jam.

This year I used old pesto jars and teeny, tiny Kilner jars that cost £1 each from The Range - what a bargain! Not only do they look pretty, but they are fabulous for single people who may not use a big jar quickly enough - and they make your produce go further, which is a bonus when economising. The Union Jack jar labels were from Lakeland in the summer - 49p for the lot in the sale after the Jubilee! Unfortunately they've sold out now, but I do keep an eye open on their site as they have some lovely things.

I made Lemon Curd and marmalade (from this brilliant kit; it was easy and delicious, and I didn't need to remember to buy Seville oranges in January.) I also made blackberry and apple jelly, which I called "Railway Jam" as the blackberries were picked from our local disused railway line in September. Dom's Grandad, who is almost 90, drove the very last train along that line. We asked him how he knew it was the last train, and he said it was the one pulling the machine that pulled up the lines! The blackberries were delicious, and it has made lovely bittersweet, jewel coloured clear jelly. Dom got a few war wounds picking them in the first place, though, but thanks to his valiant effort, we got 4lb of free fruit! The jelly is also suitable for some of our older relatives who have false teeth and don't appreciate jam with little seeds.


I'll admit to a disaster - I tried to make the delicious sounding Apricot and Champagne conserve. I found a recipe in a lovely preserving book I have, peeled the 4lb of apricots and soaked them in sugar overnight, as instructed. However, despite following the recipe to the letter, the fruit burned on the bottom of the pan before we'd even got to the rolling boil stage. I later found out that this is quite common with apricot jam. Delia recommends buttering the bottom of her pan - I tried this and it worked beautifully second time round. The butter also meant there was no scum on the top of the jam.

They say necessity is the mother of invention and, in this case, it's true. I didn't have anymore fresh apricots and I needed to finish the jam that day. I raided the cupboard and came up with two cans of apricots, and two of peaches. I decided to risk it - and it worked beautifully. The fruit kept its shape well, and didn't need soaking overnight either. I used Asda's Smart Price peaches and apricots and, at 28p a tin, it was much cheaper too!

The end result was delicious - sweet and tangy, with golden slivers of fruit suspended in the clear jelly. I decided to call it Bellini Jam, and I am happy to share the recipe with you.

Bellini Jam

Makes 2 x 1lb jars

2 x tins of apricots (approx 225g drained weight of fruit per tin)

2 x tins of peaches (approx 225g drained weight of fruit per tin)

630g Jam sugar

Juice of one lemon

200ml dry sparkling wine or Champagne

A little butter, for greasing


1) Put a couple of saucers into the freezer

2) Wash and dry your jars, then place into an oven at gas mark 1 / 140 C for 20 mins.

3) Butter the bottom of your pan thickly.

4) Strain the fruit from the juice. Chop finely.

5) Add the chopped fruit to the pan with a couple of tablespoons of cold water, the lemon juice, the Champagne and the jam sugar. Put in the jam thermometer whilst the mixture is cold.Heat gently until the sugar has totally melted - you can see when this has happened by checking the back of your spoon - there should be no granules visible. It'll probably take about 10 mins.

6) Once the sugar has melted, turn the heat to high and bring to a rapid, rolling boil. Keep boiling until the temperature reaches 220 degrees. Around this stage test regularly to see if you have achieved a set. Get the frozen saucer out of the freezer, and drop a teaspoon full of the hot jam onto the saucer. Bring the saucer up to eye level and slowly push your finger through the jam smear. When the setting point has been reached the jam will wrinkle up.

7) Once the setting point has been reached, turn off the heat and use a slotted spoon to lift off any scum that has formed. Carefully pour the remaining jam into the hot jars using a ladle and jam funnel. Be careful, it's REALLY hot! Put the lids on tightly and leave to cool for a few minutes. Using oven gloves or a tea towel, turn each jar upside down momentarily - this will heat your lid and create a vaccum, keeping your jam fresh for longer.

Enjoy over luxurious breakfasts and lunches.


Claire x

Monday, 26 November 2012

This Woman's Work: Christmas



Christmas has a touch of the Marmites about it, I think, you either love it or hate it. My husband hates it with a passion. He thinks its overpriced, enforced consumerism - which, I suppose it is. I tend to swing, like a pendulum, between the two extremes. I think it is important to punctuate the year with traditional celebrations, as they are cast-in-stone ways of ensuring that we keep up with our friends and family. I think I actually prefer the concept of Thanksgiving, though. I do not have a strong (public) religious belief, and I do not actually believe that God cares all that much whether you pray on special or ordinary days - so the religious aspect of Christmas does little for me. I like the idea of noticing, and appreciating the good things that surround us all. Christmas, all too often, can become an exercise in The Wanties. I am not exempt from this myself.

I am starting my series 'This Woman's Work' with Christmas, as I think its an excellent example of the hard work that women do that often goes unnoticed. My husband is a 21st century man, he does a lot of housework and believes that relationships should be 50:50. However, he does have a tendancy to arrive at Christmas expecting that everyone should have thoughtful gifts chosen, made or bought, beautifully wrapped and delivered on budget. He does the food shopping, but I do most of the cooking. He couldn't care less whether Christmas cards were bought, written and sent, or who is invited and what type of food is served when they arrive, but he doesn't want anyone in the family to feel that we don't care about them. Work commitments mean that he can't attend school plays and decoration afternoons, magic shows, pantomimes or school fayres. So he doesn't get involved with finding costumes, raffle prizes, taking the children to various Christmas events and making sure they don't get too much of a sugar rush, visiting Father Christmas and encouraging the suddenly stage-struck child into the grotto, or helping clear the classroom of PVA glue and millions of pieces of paper from the classroom carpet. Nor does he think of the classroom politics of ensuring that everyone in the class has a card, posted into the right box and addressed in the right way, and of remembering other children in different classes who invited Charlie to their birthday parties over the year, and ensuring that anyone we might have left out has a card written and delivered the very next day. My husband is amazing and I love him, but Christmas really is MY work. He's busy doing the important paid stuff.

I start to plan Christmas in the preceeding January. We are both from quite small families, but that means that we need to buy presents for everyone, adults included. This may not be what other families do, and some of you will think that this is excessive and that the adults can do without gifts. Not so for our families. This is one of the unspoken challenges of Christmas that women deal with. Do you give to receive? What happens if someone turns up at your door with an unexpected gift? Do you have a few extras wrapped and ready under the tree for such eventualities? What if you buy a present for a person who can't afford to buy one back for you - is this a treat for them that they can't afford themselves, or are you encouraging them to reciprocate your gift unnecessarily, leaving them out of pocket? Do you buy things of equal value for all relatives? Or do you make sure that people have an equal AMOUNT of gifts (I especially struggle with this one with the children. It comes from Jonathan's younger days, when he had a friend with extremely generous parents. "Why does Father Christmas love Mark more than me?" he cried. Ouch.) What happens if you buy someone a gift in the sale? Does that mean you buy someone else a gift of the same amount that you spent, or the same amount that the gift is worth? And on, and on and on, Ariston.

Women try to work out all of this emotional, hidden crap. I am sure men do too but, in conversations with men I know, I find that they tend to care less what other people think.

I make gifts because I like it, and because it makes my money go further. However, if you make to sell then this is not a great use of your time. It doesn't make sense, from a financial point of view, to make items if the cost of your labour, plus the materials, is worth more than the amount you would spend on a gift. Besides which, do your friends and family actually LIKE handmade gifts, anyway? I once made a handmade blanket that cost almost £100 in yarn and hours upon hours of my time. I could have cried when I saw the disappointment on my recipient's face, and they said (much like Andie Macdowell in Four Weddings) "Oh. A blanket." 

This year I AM handmaking gifts for some people but not others; I have learned the hard way! Besides which, it gives me the opportunity to experiment with some new ideas for my newly re-launched Folksy shop that I plan to give an overhaul to in January 2013.

So, the picture above is a note book for our lovely Aunty Pauline. She's hoping to move in 2013 and is a great maker of lists. She's buying a house that looks much like this so I tried to interpret it in fabric. I REALLY enjoyed this project - fabric books are fabbity anyway, but trying to represent a home was lovely. I'm going to have a go at doing ours once I've finished the Christmas presents, but I intend to frame ours. I really hope she likes it.

SO, sneaking the Christmas joy where I can, then, with the odd bit of crafting, and some Christmas spirit (and chocolate. Oh, yes.) I'm trying not to worry too much about the other stuff.


Claire x

This Woman's Work


Recently I was listening to a podcast of Radio 4s Woman's Hour in which a female historian (Mary Beard, I think) was talking about women in Rome. She made the point that women's lives don't generally make the history books unless they do traditionally male things, like start wars (Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc, etc). In fact the very word, HIS-story, excludes women. I knew this, but I hadn't thought about it enough recently.

By total coincidence I did an unusual thing (for me). Someone contacted me about depression, and I read back some of my earliest blog posts. I never re-read what I have posted if I can help it as it makes me cringe. However, in reading back my early posts I realised that what this blog, and I, have lost is writing about the tiny, day-to-day details of my life. These days, days can go by and I think to myself "what have I got to write about? All I do is look after the baby, the boys and my husband. I craft, meet up with friends and watch the telly in an evening." Which is true. Who would be interested in that? But why do I find the details of my life and my day to day thoughts from days gone by compelling? Is it just self centredness? But if I don't record the details of my life, who will? Will I just pass, unrecorded, dead in the ground and without a voice? Is my life is less important than, say, my husband who is out in the real world doing paid work? Even though, to be fair, he's not starting wars, everywhere I look I see men like him represented. I have my own voice; why don't I use it?

I wondered how and when I lost my confidence, and I realised that it something a man on a forum said. He laughed that people who write Facebook statuses about their children are boring. Not just a bit boring either, terminally boring.

Now this is a nice bloke, of whom I thought quite a lot. Somehow I have internalised this message. Who wants to be considered boring? But, the thing is, when I write this blog then I am not writing for people like him - confident, media types who live a very exciting life in a man's world. I write for myself, and for women like me, who may or may not want to read about women like them. I am interested in the daily lives of other women too. I am respectfully probably not very interested in the things he likes to post about (although I don't know, for we are not Facebook friends).

I made a decision. For a year, I am going to write regularly about my domestic life and photograph it. I am, for now, a stay at home mum. I haven't always been a stay at home mum, and I won't always be. I don't care if other people find it boring. I have the right to record my life, in this little part of the internet that belongs just to me. One day, I will wonder what it felt like to be a stay at home mum and what my thoughts were. I will wonder how I filled my days. One day my daughter may well be a stay at home mum, and I want her to know that that's OK. It's a time where you give a lot of yourself, and a time where feelings can run high - but that's cool. It is many things, and it may be boring, but it does NOT make you boring.

I think having a daughter is going to be good for me.

Claire x

This Moment


I must confess that, with a baby, I'm struggling to blog as much as I once did. I spotted a lovely feature on another blog I follow though, and I thought I might borrow it, at least until the baby is bigger and I have more time. The blog in question is Soule Mama - do visit her, if you get chance, as its a really lovely blog. I hope that you will, and then I shan't feel as bad about borrowing her style of blogging.

Soule Mama just uploads a picture, that she calls {this moment}. I like the concept of mindfulness, of noticing *this moment* as otherwise they all too quickly whizz by. I am wordy, so I expect I may add words to my moments too - at least from time to time.

Anyway. This is my moment for today. Florence, all bathed and dried and smelling delicious and clean, in her pretty dress. She always wants a feed after a bath, wants with such an intensity that she cannot focus on anything else, even when she's bathed in the daytime. When she feeds, she buzzes her hands about busily, eyes dark and satiated, liking to stroke my top, or hold my finger, milk drunk.

I will never, ever stop counting my blessings for this wonderful little bundle. My new start. 

Friday, 2 November 2012

The role of social media in healing depression


Hello again! I thought I'd check in and let you see an article I recently wrote for a pharmaceutical industry blog about how I used social media to help me manage my depression. I think its an interesting area. I used blogging, Facebook, Twitter and various online forums instinctively, because they helped educate and inform me about depression. I also found it difficult to find accounts of other women's depression online, which was the impetus for starting this blog (that, and because I find writing cathartic, but whether that realisation came first, or whether the catharsis became apparent once I started writing, is unclear).

To quote an old cliché, 'information is power' and, as a result of my research, I believe I became a better informed and more empowered patient. However, what I also experienced was unparallelled support from strangers, who listened to me, supported me and helped me recover. In the article I call them my "cyber angels" and, if I live to be one hundred, I will never fail to be grateful for their generosity. In my experience though, there are dangers. I'd be interested to see if you agree.

Claire x

from:, published 29.10.12

I remember, with mortification, a conversation I had when I was in my 20s and a newly promoted manager. I was talking to another manager, equally green, about a mutual colleague:

 “I just don’t get this depression crap” he said to me. “I mean, dude, if you need a holiday, just take one.” I remember agreeing enthusiastically.

How the Gods of fate must have laughed. Little did I know that, less than ten years later, I’d be one of “those people” myself.In my case the breakdown snuck up on me a couple of years after my (retrospectively diagnosed) postnatal depression. I was running my own business – which was surprising successful at first, yet quickly diminished by the new recession. I was working more and more hours, expanding the business, trying to trade out of trouble. I watched my costs rise exponentially and turnover fall. Believe me when I say that way madness lies.

When my head broke it felt much like a fuse had blown. I felt hot, unbearably hot. I couldn’t concentrate, my ears were ringing, I felt sick, like the oxygen had been sucked from the air. My heart was beating too fast. There was lead in my chest. I made a mistake – something pretty insignificant, looking back - but it felt crushingly catastrophic. Driving home I started quietly crying, but once those floodgates were opened, it quickly swelled into a tsunami of racking sobs. They were harvesting peas; the smell was cloying.

It was six months before my tears subsided.

Once that fuse had blown, I could put thousands of watts of effort through my brain, but the circuit would not – could not – link back together again. I cried through days and nights, alone and in the company of my patient but worried husband. I cried through doctor’s appointments, waiting lists and ineffective NHS counselling sessions where the counsellor had little interest in me; she’d seen it all before.When I wasn’t crying, I was zombie-like, a lump of dough, brain numb and slow. I abhorred myself.

I always imagined that suicidal feelings would present themselves in a rush of brightly coloured drama; that one would turn up at A&E, confess one’s desire to slash, or strangle or jump, and that someone would hold your hand and take away your personal responsibilities until you were feeling better (possibly with some dramatic extradiagetic music for effect). For me, feeling suicidal was as mundane as can be. I was certain I would die, no doubt about it, absolutely certain. It was simply a question of when. I used to make little deals with myself. Just one more row of knitting, then I’ll hang myself. Let’s get to the ad break of Midsomer Murders, then I’ll do it. Then it’ll be time to go. Just a couple more minutes. Hang on till then.

Looking back, there were two things that got me through the endless moments of depression: knitting and writing. There were bigger things, obviously, like my children and my loving husband, but I didn’t see the importance of them at the time. I thought that my death would do them a favour. It was lonely work passing those endless moments of deathly thoughts. I didn’t have a great deal of attention to use, but what I wanted to read, and what I couldn’t find, was the experience of other people going through the same thing. I wanted to see how this journey ended.

I have always found writing cathartic, and it was this that drew me to writing a blog. If I couldn’t read other people’s experiences, I could tell them about mine. I used my knitting as the excuse for the blog, but it hid a much more vital need. Writing filled my moments as I poured my agonising emptiness into the void. It didn’t matter that people were reading; I was expressing. But they were.

I started to receive emails from people all over the world. They said I had reached out and touched their painful place. They told me their stories. Sometimes I just listened and reflected. Often I wrote back and encouraged them to keep getting to the end of their row, whatever form that took. I learned that mental illness is about health and wellness rather than weakness; that the strongest people can push themselves too hard, way beyond the point when most people stop. Eventually I also realised, like Esther Greenwood in ‘The Bell Jar,’ the unpalatable truth: no-one would cure my depression but me. Unless I started to play a more active part in my own recovery, my life would continue to be a string of voids, mirrored and endless and stifling.People would give up on me as I had given up on myself.

Unlike Esther Greenwood / Sylvia Plath, my depression was played out in a very 21stcentury arena: the Internet. From the practical - ordering medications - to the expressive, my experience was played out through the fitting nothingness of the ether. I gained medical information from mental health charities on Twitter.I followed those who tweeted about their depression in real time, and could helpfully compare it to mine, nano second by nano second. Measuring time. Sitting with the demons. I listened whilst other people talked about which medications had worked for them, and which had made things worse. I read, came to my own conclusions about my healthcare, and went to my doctor empowered and better informed.

The anonymity of the virtual world helped me to overcome my depression. They say it’s good to talk, and sometimes it’s good to talk to strangers. Its easier to be honest, to not consider the feelings of the person you are talking to, and its easier to give advice when there is no agenda. People are kind, much kinder than you might imagine. My experience is that other people were genuinely generous with their time and wisdom, and that really helped. The dark places of my heart were not what I wanted to share with my nearest and dearest: from them I wanted familiarity, routine, security and forgiveness. My depressive pain was worked through with cyber angels. And a bloody good therapist. But the angels weren’t on £50 an hour.

I have one word of warning amongst all this praise for social media. There were times that I found forums distinctly unhelpful. What helped me to recover from the depression, alongside the therapy, medication, self expression and generosity strangers was wanting to get better, genuinely wanting it. It took time, and I had to sit with the tumultuous feelings and uncomfortable thoughts for far longer than I imagined. Platitudes were enraging - and there were a lot of those on Facebook from my nearest and dearest (who, to be fair, probably had no idea what on earth to say.) On some forums it became apparent that the same people sat and bleated the same problems over and over, like depressive Eeeyores. The world is dreadful, I will never recover, my pain is worse than yours. There is little more depressing than competitive illness, even on a forum for depressives. Maybe those people are not at the stage where they see that they can move forward through their illness yet. However, when you get a group all feeling hard done by, it’s easy to let a particular mindset creep in; its easy to start to see yourself as a victim. Group think is a scary and creeping phenomenom, like the lady behind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper and its something we need to be mindful of.

If you’re reading this and you’re suffering from depression, then I would say that social media can be a very helpful tool for recovery. Use it, take the good things; give back as much genuine goodness as you can muster. Be mindful that, once you start making excuses for your illness, you’re entering the terrain of the mealy mouthed little sadsacks whose self pity conspires to keep them trapped. Recognise them for what they are, for they exist in the real world too, but they rarely have the opportunity to congregate together like they do in cyberspace.

Depression is a path that most of us walk over and over. One in four of us will suffer at any one time. As long as you watch out for Eeyore, there is no need to walk that path alone."