Saturday 24 September 2011

The Angels are Coming

'The Angels are Coming' - That is what it says on sheets of paper all around my school at the moment. This is a new one on me. I am used to celebrating the Feast of St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael and All Angels on the 29th September, and Guardian Angels on the 2nd October heartily, but relatively quietly. 

Not so this year. 

My school used to be cared for by religious sisters. The entrance is dedicated to The Guardian Angels. Over years of their care a tradition developed whereby each year students chose the Friday nearest the  feasts of St Michael, St Gabriel, St. Raphael and All Angels and Guardian Angels to recognise the love, care and hard work of their teachers, the sisters, and those who kept the school together body and soul (the cooks, the cleaners, the ICT technicians, the office staff). Secondary students being as they are, this recognition came in a unique form. Thus, this week, for the Feasts of St Michael, St Gabriel and St Raphael and All Angels and Guardian Angels, girls will wear their hair in bunches, and steal a tie from a boy; everyone will wear Angel wings; Mass will be celebrated; students will bring teachers a gift; staff will play students at both netball and football; there will be free time and, in the afternoon, a play, led by Year 13. The play is a skit on school life - often a gentle humorous critique of teachers by those pupils who know them best. I've only been there a few weeks, so I am hoping to get off lightly!

I have not seen this anticipated tradition in action yet, but already I like it. What better way to celebrate All Angels than to acknowledge those angels we see everyday? The people that stand by our side to protect, help and guide us? If you forget to acknowledge the visible help you receive in daily life, how can you ever begin to recognise the work of those who are invisible, and hard to see? Begin at the beginning. The Angels are Coming. The Angels are already here.

I do have a recipe in mind for this feast. Something I have missed of late. I will publish it later. In the meantime, I am off to think of ingenious ways to recognise, over the course of the next week, the angels in my life. If you are hungry, check out the cake I made last year. I do hope the weather prediction I made last year does not hold for this. There have been acorns down for three weeks here in Oxford - it bodes for a long, cold and frozen winter. Dare I say it now, I think I do. There will be a white Christmas, and I will make a snow angel in the garden.

NEWS FLASH: It was announced today the OFSTED would be paying school a visit this coming Thursday and Friday. Yes, that is in time to join our community in celebration of Guardian Angels. Please pray for us all. I am not sure how the inspectors will take to watching the staff play football and netball with the students, or what they will think of Year 13 managing the school for the day. We are going to need every Guardian Angel in the building to be working their very hardest: Archangels, Cherubims, Seraphims, Powers and Dominations - register order, please. Thank you.

Monday 12 September 2011

Fast Friday Friendly Hug

Little Juniper on my cosy Norwegian blanket
I have a Norwegian Blanket on my bed. This deserves the capital letters I give it. Norwegians know what they are doing when it comes to blankets. My blanket has polar bears on it. It is made of Norwegian Sheep Wool. I think Norwegian Sheep are special because I have never been so toasty cosy warm as when I am in my blanket. It hugs.

I mention all of this, in part, because I have been meaning to write a post about the Bishops of England and Wales bringing back Friday Abstinence. I have been meaning to think of something profound about penitence, penance and fasting for days. No luck though. It seems I am not talented at that sort of thing. My general praise of my best blanket kind of illustrates this point. I am creature who values comfort.

As it happens, there has been no hot water in my house. We are trying to get this fixed as soon as possible. This is penance enough for me. I have been braving freezing cold showers for the best part of a week. The worst part is washing your hair. I can just about cope with getting wet enough to get the shampoo and conditioner in, but rinsing it out is an act of determination. I get out of the shower shivering cold, put on pyjamas, wooly socks, a jumper and a fleece, then wrap myself in my blanket and set about making hot milk for cocoa. I nurse my hot chocolate gratefully on the sofa, and thank my lucky stars for the warmth it gives. I always, always appreciate being cosy and warm again.

This Friday (16th September) the Bishops of England and Wales have officially asked all Catholics, from now on, to abstain from meat every Friday. It is hardly a big ask. This is the re-introduction of a public tradition marking the memorial of Jesus' crucifixion. Christians have always marked the day of Christ's death by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It is a good tradition. I was not really aware that it had fallen out of fashion. It is certainly a practice that helps people like me, comfort seekers, to appreciate the good things we take for granted in life. The act of consciously choosing something different to eat has a remarkable effect. I am not someone who eats meat everyday, or even nearly everyday. I was vegetarian for 20 years, or thereabouts. However, thinking about what to eat on a Friday Fast Day brings a certain element of simplicity to my choices; it highlights the difference between need and want.

I am a sucker for good comfort food, particularly on chilly autumn nights. Take last Friday, for example.  I came home exhausted. I had promised faithfully to make dinner for my flatmate. My flatmate is a saint, who cooks for me so often I am embarrassed. She is also not a Catholic. I explained to her ages ago about not eating meat on a Friday. I am still trying to persuade her that vegetarian food is fun and exciting, and that a tradition of fasting every now and then can bring great joy. She remains accepting but unconvinced about the culinary wisdom of such a practice. So, I come home and need to magic up something quick, comforting, warming and Fast Friday Friendly: a culinary hug that will impress my flatmate. She does not like fish or seafood. For this type of mission, let's face it, you can't beat a good pie.

I reckon the new rules in the UK about Friday Fasting are a gift. They provide an opportunity for us to think more simply about the food we eat. And, being the comfort seeker I am, I do not believe that leaving meat off the menu means I have to miss out on the culinary equivalent of a hug in a Norwegian Blanket.

Potato, Leek and Smoked Cheese Pies

Just Roll Puff Pastry (yes, you can make your own, but you are not going to on a Friday, are you? No. So, shut it.)

400g Potatoes peeled and cubed
large knob of butter for frying
1 onion, finely sliced
2 leeks, finely sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon wholegrain mustard
200g smoked cheddar (I used Applewood), coarsely grated

Boil the potatoes in a large pan of salted water until soft, and then drain.

Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the onion, garlic and leeks and fry until softened. Season well and drain on kitchen paper.

Combine all the fried vegetables with the potatoes, cheese, mustard and salt and pepper to taste. I use lots of wholegrain mustard, more than I recommend in this recipe. If you are a wholegrain mustard fan, go wild! Leave to cool.

Roll the pastry out to desired thickness, and cut into rounds using a saucepan lid.

Into the centre of each pastry round, place a spoonful of filling mixture. Brush the edges of the round with milk, fold over and seal using a fork. The end product should look kind of like a Cornish Pasty.

Place each pie on a well oiled baking tray, and bake in a pre heated oven at 180C for approximately 15 - 20 minutes.

Serve with salad, walnuts, pickles, beetroot, watercress, etc.

Or with beans and chips (you know you want to).

Sunday 4 September 2011

She brought all things new

This morning I got a text message to tell me that Juniper, the cat, was missing in Shipton under Wychwood. She had not come in for the night. I was worried, but thought little of it, assuming I would find her later in the day, when I went out to visit. I did find her. I found her within moments of arriving at the house, but, sadly she was dead. She had been hit by a car. 

Juniper was only just over a year old. She was born in August, in Herefordshire. Last year, having lost my accommodation with the university, left my DPhil and broken up with a 'significant other', I moved back with my parents. I was a bit of wreck, to be honest. But, six days after I arrived, I booked an appointment to go and see Juniper. In the October, she arrived, a tiny bundle of fun. She did what many people had tried and failed to do in recent times: she made me laugh. Not a polite, shallow, I am pretending to be happy laugh. A proper laugh. I was really grateful for that. It was with Juniper chewing my pen, that I began to put my life back together again. She purred support through a thousand applications, and created distractions when the inevitable rejections came. After 12 hour shifts sewing buttons on posh coats for the minimum wage, or filing the private correspondence of peculiar millionaires for the same, Juniper helped me wind down and relax. When I did get set up with good teaching jobs, Juniper congratulated me in her own special way. She licked my nose. At the start of the summer holidays this year, I went to cat-sit. Juniper brought in mouse after mouse. She was a good hunter. She loved chasing cotton reels at a very high speed around the front room. She used to catch them, and then hide them behind the curtain - a secret store. Later, usually when the house was quiet, she would find them again, and raise an almighty racket chasing them across the floor again.

Juniper brought all things new. Once she arrived, a house became a home. Everyone loved her.  Today, five of my nieces and nephews were in our house at Shipton. Their parents were trying to think of different ways to explain the news. What do you say?

I am sad that Juniper is dead. I will always remember her as the cat that helped me get my life back. I hope she finds some decent cotton reels in cat heaven.