Several things have happened this week which I recognise from previous years as the signposts for winter. Rather than weigh into a long post, I thought I’d just note a check-list. I wonder which of these markers are on your mental list too?
So. It must be winter when…
1. We are late for school in the morning because, despite leaving the house in good time
for once, I discover a thick layer of ice on the windscreen. The de-icer and scraper are in the boot of the car. The boot is frozen shut.
2. The central heating breaks down. Putting on moisturiser feels more like smearing on yogurt straight from the fridge. The cold makes my lips sore, but also turns my lip balm brick-hard. I try to remember where I packed away my long-johns last spring.
3. Heading home down the drive between beech and oak trees, I have to brake to avoid a woodcock which hurtles out of the dead bracken and off through the woods, jinking through the bare branches. These beautiful birds are seasonal visitors, fleeing south from Russia and Scandinavia ahead of the advancing snows: true heralds of winter.
4. The boiler-man arrives to fix the heating. Warmth again! Then a winter storm sweeps in, rattling the roof slates and stripping boughs from the trees. Our power lines are snapped in several places by falling timber. We have a power cut. This is fine: we are used to it and are half-expecting it, so the torches and candles are at the ready. Except that we didn’t expect it to last quite so long….from before dawn on Thursday, at the height of the storm, until after lunch on Friday. As the house cools down, the long-johns come in handy. Hundreds of engineers were working flat out to repair damaged lines all over the country. While they labour, we discover again just how little daylight there is at this time of year, and just how simple and quiet life is without electricity. I make pumpkin soup by candlelight in the morning. We sing carols at the piano. We go to bed early.
5. Once the power is restored and the water has heated up again, I have the best, long, hot bath of the year.
6. ‘Messiah’ is this weekend: the Christmas concert by the city choral society in which I sing. It’s an old chestnut, I know, but it has been my great favourite since learning it under an outstanding choirmaster in my first year at university. I absolutely love singing it. Except that…
7. The seasonal bugs are sweeping through the population and I have had a chest infection for a week. An attempt to run through a few choruses with my husband this afternoon made it quite clear that there is no possibility of my being able to sing in the concert tomorrow. I am bitterly disappointed.
8. On the positive side, it was St. Nicholas’s Day yesterday, which in our family tradition has become the day when I allow Christmas decorations to come creeping into our Advent, starting this year with the children decorating the little Christmas tree in the family den.
9. The beginnings of festive feeling are helped by the arrival of the first snow, just as predicted by that woodcock. On Thursday, in the power cut, the blizzard outside didn’t seem too appealing: today, in a warmish house with the Christmas lights twinkling on the tree, it looks very pretty out there.
10. Christmas is coming, ready or not. Today was ‘Santa Day’ in Dunkeld. Crowds in festive jumpers gathered in the snowy town to see Father Christmas arrive, pulled on his sleigh by real reindeer from the Cairngorm herd. The stalls run by local craftspeople and charities did a brisk trade. We bought chocolate flavoured with Scots pine, Christmas cards from the Friends of the Cathedral and mugs of steaming hot chocolate made by the Girl Guides. Friends were met, festive window displays were admired, reindeer were coo-d over. Finally, when we could no longer feel our toes, we stumbled over the bridge to our car and home, while faintly over the river came the strains of the brass band playing ‘Joy to the World’.
I’d say winter is here, wouldn’t you?
At this time of year it can feel here as if it is always sunrise or sunset.
We wake on weekdays in the dark grey early morning. (Many people are getting up earlier in the pitch dark: we are lucky that my husband usually works from home and that school is only a few minutes away.) It is not until we are having breakfast that the sun first touches the tops of the hills, making the dead bracken glow red like Ayer’s Rock. The sun seems to spend much of the rest of the morning struggling to get out of bed. There are two or three hours of proper daylight; then by lunchtime it has given up the struggle and is sliding back under the duvet again. (I know how it feels.)
Yet what we miss in proper daylight is compensated for by the beautiful effects of low sun. Winter light is much more interesting than summer light. Slanting frost shadows and skies tinted apricot, plum, lemon, tangerine: there is a whole fruit salad of colours in the light of an ordinary December afternoon.
Last Thursday, however, the sunset really excelled itself. People all over Scotland were posting their photos of it on Facebook. By half past four, the sky seemed to have turned into a molten river of fire. Strange beams of light and fingers of shadow suggested otherworldly events in the offing. Now, this really was worth getting out of bed for.
The past fortnight has seen an intensity of frosty nights and sunny days, showing to brilliant advantage what glorious colours there are in a November landscape. When the weather turns to damper, darker days, as it did yesterday and in previous Novembers, it is a tonic to remember just how beautiful this month can be.
P.S. To all of you visiting from the States, may I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving! I’m off to make pumpkin pie now.
Just before Sunday slips away, I realise that I can’t let it go without marking it here. Today has been a special Sunday for me. It is a first anniversary: a year ago today, I was Confirmed into the Catholic faith.
I hesitate always to mention matters of faith in public. I read the papers like anyone else, but I am no politician and am not here either to criticise or to defend the government of the Church. For me, faith is intensely personal. It is also instinctive, which makes it hard to articulate (and thus pretty baffling for anyone without it). All I can say is that, after many years of searching for faith, arguing over religion and running from the hounds of heaven, I finally stood still and listened long enough to hear the answer which had been waiting all along. Faith is a gift, not an intellectual decision or a personal attainment. The only way I can describe it is that it came as an outpouring of grace. It felt like falling in love: on my confirmation day I felt rather as I did on my wedding day.
Now that the honeymoon period is over, I am beginning to learn how to live in my new relationship. It’s the same old me with all my faults. And yet the same old me has somehow been made new. As I read and reflect and try to live out my (still new and rather fragile) faith, I am beginning to realise that the difference – as in a a marriage, to continue the analogy – comes down to love: love both given and received, absorbed and radiated. Just like Jesus said, in fact.
To explore that central idea further I would refer you to far more lucid and knowledgeable writers than myself: especially Robert Barron, whose writings on faith are scholarly, accessible and so inspiring that I want everyone to read them! On the other hand, sometimes it takes a child to perceive the heart of the matter. Unprompted, my younger son sat down this afternoon and made me a card. His spelling is a joy – but really his drawing says it all. This is what today’s anniversary, and every day, is all about.
Contrary to first glance, this is not a forest fire; just a blustery afternoon sunset with a hint of snow on the way. The sun sinks down behind a ridge of trees with a blaze that reminds us that it is, in fact, a vast ball of flaming gas and not merely a nice yellow circle in the sky.
Forest fires are not unknown in Scotland, by the way. As the temperature drops below freezing, however, and an icy rain starts to slick the roads, the risk feels very distant indeed.
Compare a stormy sunset in midsummer (more than five hours later than today’s dusk) in After a storm.
Frosty mornings and woodsmoke on the darkening afternoon air make me long for hearty comfort food. If it is made with local, seasonal ingredients, it is all the more satisfying. Here is a very easy recipe for just such soul food: a venison stew where you more or less chuck everything in together and let the oven do the work.
Venison is increasingly available in British shops. It is a low-cholesterol red meat which is quite delicious and needs no special reverence in cooking. I think that some of us are put off cooking game from the old idea that you needed to treat it differently from farmed meat, and perhaps also the worry that it might taste terribly strong. But you really don’t need to follow the old traditions of hanging game until it turns green (!), then washing it in vinegar and marinading it for days before you even start on the cooking process. I am lucky enough to get cuts of wild roe deer venison fresh from our gamekeeper but, if you buy fresh cuts of venison from the butcher or supermarket, you too can get on with cooking without any arcane preliminaries.
I should warn you that I am an ‘ish’ sort of cook: that is, I cook in approximations of weight, time, temperature. ‘A good-ish slosh of wine’, ‘a hottish oven for about an hour’; that sort of thing. This is my working recipe, not a professional one!
You want to set the oven to a fairly low heat, say about 160 -170 degrees C. If you have an Aga, the low oven (top left in a four door) is perfect.
To serve four people, you need the following:
About 1lb/ 450g venison off the bone, cut into bite-sized strips or chunks
4 rashers of streaky bacon, diced. (Venison is usually pretty lean, and the bacon adds fat for cooking the meat)
I onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
6 to 8 good-sized field mushrooms (or a couple of handfuls of small ones), chopped
Liquid: about 2 tablespoons of concentrated tomato puree; a small glass of red wine; about half a pint/ 300ml beef or vegetable stock. To give the sauce a certain depth and sweetness, I always add a good slosh of fruit vinegar or a couple of tablespoons of jelly. Blackberry or redcurrant seems to work especially well.
Seasoning: salt & ground pepper, half a teaspoon English mustard powder, a pinch each of dried thyme and rosemary, and a bay leaf. As a classic seasoning for venison I also like to add a few juniper berries, crushed in a pestle and mortar; although just to be on the safe side I leave out juniper when cooking for friends who are pregnant. (Did you know that juniper was used as an abortificent in the Middle Ages?)
1. Heat a little oil in a heavy saucepan or casserole dish. Brown the venison all over, and add the bacon. (I give this stage about 10 minutes.) You could add a tablespoon of plain flour to the meat to help thicken the sauce later: however, I made this dish without flour last week for a guest with a gluten allergy, and it was just as good. Long slow cooking thickens up the sauce anyway.
2. Add the crushed garlic and the mushrooms and fry gently.
3. Stir in the tomato puree and then add the rest of the liquids, stirring well. Don’t let it be too runny: you want the meat covered in sauce but not drowning.
4. Add the seasonings to your taste.
5. Now put the lid on the pan and stick it in the oven for, um, about two to four hours, depending on your oven. And that’s it!
When I made this dish for a lunch party of eight last week, I made it the day before and left it to simmer in the low oven of my Aga for four hours, while I got on with the rest of the chores. The following day I reheated the stew for about 20 minutes in a hot oven (about 200 degrees C) followed by 40 minutes in the low oven. It was, I think, very tasty, and the guests seemed to think so too. Perhaps you agree that stews, for some reason, usually taste better when made the day before and reheated.
I served this stew with home grown boiled potatoes with a bit of butter, and green peas. (A simple blackcurrant fool afterwards made for a delicious complementary taste.) This basic recipe is very adaptable, however: you could stir in creme fraiche at the end and turn it into a kind of stroganoff, to serve with rice; or you could add sliced carrots and parsnips to the stew and make it a really hearty meal to serve with mash or baked potatoes. The main thing is that it is very easy. And, at this dark and chilly time of year, it is a dish which warms both body and soul – with thanks to the beautiful deer from whom we source this food.
You might enjoy the easy recipes for salmon and for pear and elderberry crumble in Harvest Thanksgiving.
It has been windy today, a westerly that has filled the sky with leaves whirling from the trees. The colour is being whisked from the landscape, leaving the bare branches of winter.
My life has been in a bit of a whirl too these past couple of weeks. I apologise for writing less than I’d like here recently: other concerns have pushed out blogging. Since Dancing Beastie claims to be about life in a Scottish castle, however, here is a taste of the very varied goings-on which have been keeping us busy.
The week after half-term, we hosted a concert in the family chapel. An unusual and beautiful building, the chapel formed a wonderful setting for a concert of folk songs by a well-known local singer. The event was sold out and we are full of great memories. We love being involved in the local folk scene, if only peripherally: it’s a friendly and laid-back group of people who are a pleasure to work with. Plus we then get to sit and listen to some of our favourite music!
Last week we were back to more core business, with the Fishings AGM. Salmon fishing is an important part of our estate business. When the factors, accountants, laird, beat representatives and so on congregate here for their annual meeting, it is my job to provide the lunch. I am told that this annual lunch at the castle is their favourite business lunch of the year, so the pressure is on.
As my husband found with putting on the concert, a one hour event can take two days to organise. I made life as easy as possible for myself, cooking a casserole and preparing the vegetables the day before, so that on the day I needed only to make the pudding and lay the table and do the flowers and walk the dogs and prepare a tray of coffee and cook the main course and finally whip off my apron and appear, calm and smiling, in the drawing room to welcome our guests in to lunch. And then run back to the kitchen again once the visitors had gone, to get started on the clearing up before the afternoon school run. Oh yes, an awful lot of paddling goes on beneath the surface to keep life in a castle running smoothly!
On the morning of the concert, I had opened the back door to the man delivering my groceries when I discovered a puddle on the floor made by one of the dogs. So I was busy with mop and bucket, as well as boxes of groceries, when a stranger with a Canadian accent appeared, looking for the concert venue. I wiped my hands on my pinny and used the mop-free hand to point out the chapel to him. Later that afternoon – after he had sung a couple of rousing songs in the concert, for he turned out to be the guest artist from Cape Breton – I spoke to him again and introduced myself properly. He simply could not believe that the dishevelled woman at the back door with the mop was also the lady of the castle, and that we have no house staff. ‘Nope, just me and my mop,’ I insisted cheerfully.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. My husband is also a dab hand with a mop when necessary. In fact he is brilliant at knuckling down to anything that needs doing for events, from mending fuses to scrubbing loos. We have a stalwart clerk of works whom we rely on to co-ordinate any building repairs which are needed, and a hard-working and unfailingly cheerful cleaning lady who comes on Mondays to do laundry and general cleaning. But we have no permanent house staff and, while we like it that way on the whole, it does make it frankly impossible to run the castle in the style to which it was once accustomed. Downton Abbey we are not. Hence the paddling.
This week I am occupied in family events, as we have been looking at new schools for our elder son (for the next stage of his education) and preparing for younger son’s birthday this weekend. The daily round of family life takes up a good deal of time, and unpaid work outside the home seems to swallow a fair bit of the rest. In addition to my regular work (how did that happen?!) on behalf of our parish church, I have also been much taken up recently with collaborating on an article for the national press aimed at raising awareness of the brain injury charity Headway. The article was finally published today. Within hours, Headway told me that someone had already contacted them for help as a direct result of the article; which makes all the effort worthwhile. It is very satisfying to be able to bring something positive out of my own experience of head injury.
Before you think I have become a cross between a saint and a Stepford Wife, let me reassure you that I do still manage to think for myself sometimes. Even if one of the things I found myself thinking wryly last week was, ‘Here I am come full circle, cooking business lunches just like I did in my first full-time job when I was eighteen. Whatever happened to (quote the newspaper article) my ‘high-flying career’?’
I have to let you in on a secret, however. I’d rather be paddling at home than flying high in an office: I feel very lucky to have the choice. And if that does, after all, make me a bit of a Stepford Wife, here’s another independent thought. I don’t care.