Chestnuts roasting on an open fire

I love chestnuts, we eat them regularly, in stews, nut roasts, cakes… especially since discovering the vacuum packed french version. I heard something on the radio last week about a man who only liked them in Mont blanc pudding (mostly meringue and cream).  (there was also an idiot on Breakfast TV telling the viewing public how to cook sprouts completely wrong, but that is an associated but trivial detail!) I was about to make Chestnut Yule Log (Delia Smith recipe – chocolate flourless sponge, cream and chestnut puree – magnificent… by the way buy the French unsweetened puree for this and sweeten it yourself, the sweet one is horrid and the standard British unsweetened puree available in supermarkets is watered to within an inch of its life and tastes of NOTHING), and I thought, no, maybe something different this year.

I don’t love christmas cake, or christmas pudding. I will eat them, and for years I alternated making them because both in one year is too much: My Christmas cake was another Delia Smith recipe (actually a wedding cake, but who cares) into which I put dried apricots instead of raisins and dried banana instead of sultanas. Delia is a goddess, her recipes are reliable (my copy of her Book of Cakes is in 4 pieces and covered in spillages but nursed carefully whenever it is needed) but she doesn’t understand about dried fruit. Sultanas and Raisins are BORING.

I tend to make a cake for 12th night these days, as yule log is a pudding not a cake, but does excellently for both, and quite enough to last us to new year when we have  a breather. I have, without Delia’s assistance, experimented with making Panettone (unreliable, perfect one year a travesty the next) and Stollen (works every time), both with apricots and ginger in them. A claims not to like marzipan, but eats my Stollen very happily.

A digression: in the spirit of pick something up from the TV or radio and do something else with it, I also made savoury Chelsea buns this year, à la Paul Hollywood. The first lot was cranberry sauce, feta cheese and walnuts and were too dry. The second lot was walnut pesto, smoked tomato and artichoke heart and were fabulous.

I love ginger. Ale, beer,wine, pickled, stem, crystallised, dried, ginger bread, ginger cake, ginger ice cream.

Can you see where this is going yet?

Like the man on the radio I love a good meringue. and I’m fond of Eton Mess.

So let me introduce you to my latest Christmas innovation, Winter Mess.

you will need

Meringues (home-made if you’ve got the patience, but its a waste of a good meringue, use shop bought instead) – as many as you are happy with.

Marscapone (I don’t know whether it’s better for you than cream, but it’s thicker and more fun, so its unlikely) a standard pot as sold in the shop.

Stem ginger –  a couple of lumps and a generous spoonful of the syrup.

Optional: a spoonful of brandy, this tends to take the body out of your marscapone so only use it if you are going to eat immediately or a pudding isn’t a pudding for you without alcohol in it.

Candied Chestnuts  about 10 and as much syrup as covers them in the jar (ours came from the Turkish Deli on borough market, two years ago – they kept perfectly – they don’t have them on their website so this may be the only year we ever have this!) Marrons Glacés aren’t the same – too gooey – but would do at a pinch, or get a tin of chestnuts and candy them yourself, it has to be worth the effort. If you do that, you want to produce lots of syrup, not crystallising.

Whip the marscapone lightly, stir in the syrups from the ginger and the chestnuts (and the brandy if using it), chop the ginger and chestnuts roughly and stir in, then bash up your meringue into pieces about an inch square any smaller and it will dissolve (this is why it’s not worth making them) and stir that in too. put in the fridge for at least half an hour … then eat in front of the TV.

Very rich, so would probably serve 4 people, unless you are greedy in which case three tops.

If you insist on a cake, this year we had banana and pecan cake (another Delia recipe with Pecans instead of walnuts) rather nice with a spoonful of mess on it.

Hmm there’s something about recipes that makes me come over all dictatorial!

© Cherry Potts 2012

Festive Spirits

Christmas is all about singing for me, either performing, or in the audience.  This year was no exception, starting with a superb workshop of traditional folk carols with Lester Simpson on the 1st December. We learnt Adam Lay ybounden (15th Century),  Dunstan Lullaby (very simple, very effective) and a couple of variants of While Shepherds watched, one of which, Shepherds Rejoice was absolutely glorious. Lester is a fearless teacher – here is this group of thirty people most of whom have not sung together before, and he has us in four parts (despite only having 2 basses), with echoes and offset rhythms, and we just rose to the challenge. We hope to make these workshops an annual event (Christmas wise) and perhaps fit in one or two more during the year. If you are interested in attending contact me and I will make sure you are told when the next one is.

Shepherds Rejoice sung at Lester Simpson’s Workshop

The following day we were in the audience for the Trade Winds concert at St Johns in Catford, which we made by the skin of teeth, going straight there from the launch of Stations at the Brunel Museum. We knew many of the songs and joined in happily.

Then there was the Raise the Roof Christmas Concert at the Horniman. The final one under the direction of Melanie Harrold, which made it rather emotional.  We sang a lot of the same songs as Trade Winds, but RtR has always made a raucous, joyous, racket, so the style was a little different even though the same arrangements.

During the rehearsal I started feeling really tired and had to sit on the floor; and by Monday (rehearsal for Vivaldi Gloria at Blackheath Halls) was feeling decidedly below par.

Wednesday rehearsing for carol singing with Summer All Year Long, couldn’t hold a tune or remember a part.

Thursday, dress rehearsal for Gloria, too ill to go.

Friday, performance, got through the Gloria (and it was rather fine) and went home in the interval to nurse my temperature. Not a happy bunny, week-long singing all thrown into a mess by a cold.

Saturday, Carol singing with SAYL at Hills & Parkes – Me A, M and P all with colds or worse, T with a broken rib, not our finest hour, minute audience. Further carol singing at Brockley Christmas Market (in the rain), ditto, though joined by L, and S turned up to help shake the collecting tin.  I don’t think Shelter did very well out of our efforts this year.

So, I had really got to the point where I didn’t think festive spirit was going to stir at all, and we had tickets for Michael Morpurgo’s On Angel’s Wings, in Salisbury Cathedral for the Saturday that all the trains were up the creek due to flooding.  The reason for this overland trek was that the story was being interpreted by Michael himself, with Juliet Stevenson, and Coope Boyes & Simpson (joined by Fi Fraser, Jo Freya and Georgina Boyes) singing carols including the ones we had learnt with Lester, and we really wanted to hear him sing them as they should be sung..

If we get to Waterloo and its even a bit dodgy we are coming straight home we promised each other, coughing fitfully.

And the train was half empty and left on time.

And the Cathedral had an actual donkey and sheep tucked away in the cloisters, to keep the queue amused.

And we got reasonable seats.

And  (once they got all the microphones working) it was lovely – a charming story beautifully told, first class music and one of the best buildings in the country. Festive spirit woke up with a bang.

Quentin Blake’s beautiful illustrations were projected onto a huge screen, there were (rather sinister) angels suspended from the columns, and CB&S and friends sang magnificently.  In particular Shepherds Rejoice, the song Lester had taught us, there was a moment (goodwill to men, and peace and endless love… it didn’t happen like that when we sang it – one day we will be able to match the accoustic glory) when so much was going on it didn’t seem possible it was only six voices, it was worth the journey just for that fleeting, golden moment.

getting a cover for a book

This is a strange way of going about things, but I’ve just chosen a cover for a book that I haven’t finished writing yet.

We’ve been running a competition over at Arachne Press for the covers of the next two books, and I got down to three gorgeous, wonderful designs for the reprint of Mosaic of Air, and couldn’t choose between them. I wanted them all! So I had a bit of a think about other books we have planned, and decided that only one of the designs would only work for a collection of stories, and have chosen that one for Mosaic of Air. So I get to use the other two designs.  for my two novels.  Anyway the one that I’ve not finished writing yet is this, from Kevin Threlfall – you’ll have to imagine a different title for now.

Mosaic of Air-Kevin Threlfall-v2smaller

copyright Kevin Threlfall

The book is a sci-fi novel and doesn’t have a title yet, though it’s going by The Dark Is My Delight, which is a 17th century song about nightingales and sex, basically (words by John Marston, music anonymous); nothing to do with my storyline as it happens, but it has the right feel to it, out of context. The book started life as the lead story in Mosaic of Air, and has grown and morphed into something much larger and more complex. As Mosaic of  (the) Air is a quotation from an Andrew Marvell poem (describing music) it seems right to continue the theme of music and the 17th century by picking another title from the same era. (I had thought about Heavy Time, which is also a 17th century musical quotation, but it’s already been used for an excellent Sci-fi novel by CJ Cherryh – who also nicked my intended pseudonym when I was about 17, at which point I decided to write under my own name and have done with it.)

So, interesting how that all galvanises me to finish the book!

© Cherry Potts 2012

Nostalgia for christmas past

more 70s plasticThere’s nothing like being ill just before Christmas. We dragged round to get the  tree, and left it in the hall long enough for Julian to spray it in protest at the Burnham wood aspects of the yule branch.

I washed the cat pee off, cut the bottom off to get it in the stand, then left it in the living room for 2 days while getting up the strength to get the decs down from the loft, an annual torture as I hate the loft ladder, but given A’s capacity for falls, there’s no way I’m letting her up there.

So it was all a bit gritted teeth, and we didn’t even put on our favourite seasonal record  (Wassail! John Kirkpatrick, since you ask) as we usually do.

firconesAnd then I started unpacking the decorations.

My mum gave me all her tree decorations earlier this year, on the grounds that she and dad can’t be bothered with a tree anymore.

So, in the box are:

fircones on treevery early 20th century decorations rescued from my Great Aunt Mattie’s house when she died – pine cones and berries and a little cottage. (I love that cottage when A & I we first had a proper tree together I bought  a replica).

which is the real cottage?

I’m guessing about the vintage of these things but…

50s angels1950’s cellulose angels

turnipsand what I refer to as the turnips – baubles with points to their bottoms a bit like onion domes on Russian churches.

bullseyes1960s: bulls’ eyes – Baubles that have bites out of them and a bit of a Mod feel, and snowflakes and something that looks like Sputnik.

70s plastic

1970’s: psychedelic plastic tat – all day-glo orange and swirly patterns and bits of card and foil, and most importantly, see-through.

The photo cannot do these glorious things justice, they have to be held in the hand and turned to and fro, to catch and filter the light. I adored these as a child.

plastic on the tree

And then there are the icons of our modern era (relatively speaking) Our first proper tree was in about 1984. We bought the decorations from Lewisham market, and the back-of-a-lorry shop round the corner. a Fanfare please for… kitten-in-a-sock and Pink Bunny, without whom Christmas doesn’t have a hope.

pink bunny

I do occasionally make an attempt at a refined elegant tree, we once had two, one with all the glitz, and another one with nothing but glass on kitteninasockit. (We actually have too many decorations now for only one tree, no matter we get the largest that will fit in the house.) I prefered the glitz.




The crowning glory of our tree (he says) is Cedric. Cedric is a teddy bear in a dress and angel wings who normally sits on the bookshelf with his more conservatively dressed buddies Adrian and Clive, who have matching jumpers and cricket flannels. Cedric lives for his two weeks in the spotlight (or fairy lights) A & C are grateful for the rest from him going on about the view.

cedric's big moment

So tree finally dressed, and in appropriate mood, the final addition to the event is the cherub’s candle driven carousel. This the ultimate kitsch item, which I can remember being entranced by aged about 6. You aren’t the video because A was chatting in the background, so you’ll have to imagine the incredibly annoying tinkling that gets louder as the candles get hotter and send the cherubs flitting about faster and faster, in hysterical tribute. How did I ever find that sound attractive?!

© Cherry Potts 2012