Friday 20 December 2013

A weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious dawn

'A weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious dawn'. 

Those were the lines that filled my mind as I drove out the school gate today. I love my work, really I do; and, I love all the students I teach. Especially today, as I watched tiny Year 7 students crane their necks to see their teachers behaving like fairytale simpletons on the stage of the school pantomime. We laughed today, we laughed as a community, together. It was joyful. But, we were also weary. My, we were weary. Everywhere I looked I saw sleepy, tired faces. People doing their best to just get to end. There were frayed tempers, emotional moments, and a few tears shed. All part of the end of term at Christmas. 

When the last bell sounded, and I was free to jump into my car and drive through the gate for the last time in 2013, it was relief mixed with tiredness and delirious joy. A new and glorious dawn of rest time with those I love more than anything in the world is just around the corner. I think that dawn will sneak up this year, for a different Christmas is planned. My dearest Da is going to be in hospital, and I will be with him and my Ma. I am sure I will sit and chat with them both in the quiet wards. I'll crochet the blanket I should have finished by now, a present for my Ma that has been on the go since this time last year. I am sure my brothers and sisters will appear, and we will catch up and tell jokes. I'll cuddle up with my loved one and laugh with my friends.

That's the thing about Christmas, see? LOVE is the new and glorious dawn. And, no matter how weary we might be now, no matter what challenges we have yet to face, it is love that will creep up and redeem us, energise us and grant us peace. That love is, of course, revealed in the Gospels: God chooses to become a vulnerable baby born to refugee parents in a cold cave-stable in an occupied land. You can't say the Gospels are innocent of the cruelty of  life. But, the child brings love, tenderness and hope to the world. The child brings joy where there was none, and laughter where there were tears. The child brings a new and glorious dawn - to rich, to poor, to good and bad, to employed and unemployed, to Christian and those of other faiths, to everyone.

The child will bring such a dawn again. 

Monday 16 December 2013

The Tender Time of Advent (repost)

When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defence. It is not selfishness; it is not egotism. It is absorption into the life within, a folding of self, like a little tent around the child's frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish, and some day bring forth, the life. A closing upon it like petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in its heart. This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation.
By his own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: he was absolutely helpless; he could go nowhere but where she chose to take him; he could not speak; her breathing was his breath; his heart beat in the beating of her heart. Today Christ is dependent upon us.
This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. During this tender time of Advent we must carry him in our hearts to wherever he wants to go, and there are many places to which he may never go unless we take him to them.
The Road of God - Caryll Houselander, 2006

I thought of this reading the moment a friend of mine posted a striking and completely absorbing image of the visitation on her Facebook page. It has taken me this long to dig it out. I love these words - I love their tenderness, and their femininity. I love the gentle grace of which they speak.

Saturday 7 December 2013

In a nutshell

I have had cause to think about hazelnuts recently. I see their fallen shells crushed on the woodland floor beneath my feet as I trudge through late autumn trees, admiring colours, kicking leaves, stopping to watch a hungry squirrel find his secret stash. Every time I see them I think of a passage from Julian of Norwich. In a vision Julian sees God holding something insignificant in his hand, it turns out to be the whole of the universe.
"And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God."
I love that passage. It has made the hazelnut the most romantic nut I know. I can never see them, nor even their discarded shells without thinking about love and eternity. It makes a walk through an autumn forest quite an emotional adventure. It lasts and always will because God loves it. 

Another quote has been haunting me recently. All This Life And Heaven Too quoted it in a beautiful peace about waking before the dawn. Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. For me this expresses completely those moments when you celebrate the future before it has come to pass. The quote resonates profoundly with me. I long for peace and rest, and I long to be less busy, but in the same moment I am truly rested and at peace because I know my time will come. Advent is always busy, yet soon I will rest with those I love, and celebrate Christmas and New Year, quietly and simply. I sleep deeply at the moment, perhaps because I am so tired, but when I come home from work I am quick to completely forget the stresses and strains of the day. My weekends are jam packed with appointments to work, care for those I love, do chores, drive around half the country (average weekend mileage, err 300 ish?). Yet, amidst all that I am happy, full of hope for the future and walking steadily towards it. Like I say, my time will come.

Next time I see a hazelnut I am going to pick it up and keep it in my pocket. Unless I give it to someone I love. And it will last forever. So many things last because of love.

I am looking after the my niece and nephew tonight, and they are sleeping soundly up the stairs. Whilst they have been dreaming I have been making a chicken curry to give to my parents tomorrow. They are under the weather at present, and I thought they would need a meal or two in the freezer to see them through the week. I am going to make them a bolognese sauce too. I'd share the recipes for these things, but that they are so simple and you can look them up anywhere. Why not just make a quick treat for someone you know affected by the winter lurgies? I have a few cures recorded here and here

Sunday 24 November 2013

Incense in the air

As I stepped out of my parents home this morning, ready to make the journey to morning Mass, I sniffed the air. At this time of year I am used to smelling the sweet smell of woodsmoke in the cold winter air, but this morning there was a sweeter tinge yet still. Frankincense? Could it be? Burning on a wood fire? Unlikely, I thought, but appropriate. Perhaps it was my imagination.

Today is one of my all time favourite feasts. I have written about it before. The Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. The Gospel today (Year C) surprised me. I have stuck in my head that on the Feast of Christ the King the Gospel will be taken from Matthew, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Perhaps that is a history of too many youth Sunday 'performances'. Today though, the Gospel was taken from Luke's account of the Passion. It sounds at first as though it should have been read on Good Friday, as though the priest has turned to the wrong page in the lectionary. But, no. This is Christ, on the verge of death, heralding new life in a new kingdom. Yes, he is a king, but his kingdom is not of this world. But, to the repentant thief, 'today, you will be with me in paradise'. Christ is dying, but he is on the verge of resurrection. He is judged by those around him, 'If you really are the Son of God, save yourself and us as well!', but is about to become the judge of all peoples. He is mocked as the 'King of the Jews', but is the King of the Universe. The one with, to quote Graham Kendrick (*unusual*), 'hands that struck stars into space to cruel nails surrendered'. The servant king.

After a few moments thought I fell in love with this reading. How reflective is it of the time of year we are now in? The trees are ablaze with colour: red, yellow, auburn, purple, orange. The sun sets low in the sky each afternoon, turning the horizon a dramatic range of warm reds and oranges. Nature is dying. Soon, as we move into Advent, the trees will turn barer still, the ground will freeze. Everything will gain that quality of stillness only ice cold temperatures can bring. It will seem as if everything is dead. As the weeks go by, and days get shorter still, we will begin to decorate our houses with signs of hope that life will come again: evergreen holly with deep red berries, fir cones, lights, poinsettias, mistletoe. Then, finally, at Christmas, we will welcome the eternally youthful king incarnate, and behold, he will make all things new. Meanwhile, in the frozen earth nature will be doing her thing, slowly preparing for her resurrection, her time to make all things new too. It will not appear that way though. For months we will be deceived into wondering if spring will ever arrive, and not even the best gardner will be able to tell you the day or the hour. 

And so continued my thoughts about the feast of Christ the Universal King, the one who was, and is, and is to come. The one seen and unseen: 'the image of the unseen God, and the first-born of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible' (Colossians 1: 12 - 20). 

After Mass I came home and made the most almighty fry up. I toasted some fluffy bottom of the oven barm buns, and covered them with lashings of butter. Then I served bacon, sausages and fried eggs on top. I made a big pot of tea, and we all sat round and chatted the morning away.

Friday 22 November 2013

How does a wordle change?

Periodically I make a wordle of my blog. Not regularly. I do not blog regularly. But, periodically, when I feel that something has shifted, changed.

When this blog started in 2007 I was a teacher. From 2008 until 2011 I studied in Oxford, and now I am a teacher again. I wondered in an idle moment if this had any effect on my thoughts and writing, so I did a wordle. As you can see, children are 'completely everything', teachers are the 'best community', but 'students support children'. We 'teach saints' but are 'true nuts'; the 'journey is never done', but for the most part, deep down, I am 'delighted', full of 'joy' and 'love'. Also bananas.

So, returning to teaching has had no effect at all!

Wednesday 13 November 2013

A fist full of everything makes a nice cake....

'A fist full of everything makes a nice cake' is a saying I primarily associate with my Ma. It comes from a story we read together as children, 'Little Grey Rabbit's Birthday', which I am glad to see is still in publication. My Ma always used to say it when she was cooking up a boiled fruit cake. I was reminded of this phrase recently when, in half term, I went home for a few days with the chief intention of cooking the Christmas puddings. With my Da sitting at the table as guide and supervisor I began the process of weighing and measuring a range of ingredients, sultanas, raisins, mixed peel, cherries, grated carrots, grated apples, bread crumbs, brandy, etc. The list went on forever, but there was no definitive recipe, or none that I could share with you. Our family Christmas pudding recipe is a combination of recipes from my Nana in Ireland, Delia, an old Irish cookbook and what my Da remembers goes in. So far as I can work out, you read / remember all the recipes, add everything and take out nothing. A fist full of everything makes a good Christmas.

Alongside my Ma's other best sayings: 'A little bit of what you fancy does you good' (food and health); 'never date a man you don't fancy' (romance); 'never make a promise you can't keep' (teaching); 'praise the Lord and pass the contribution' (ecclesiology); 'God helps those who help themselves' (theology), the saying 'a fist full of everything makes a nice cake' contains an awful lot of truth. I am the youngest of six children, all of whom used to come home from school ravenous, pass through the back door into the kitchen and miraculously arrive in the front room with a fairy cake in each pocket and one in each hand. My Ma could make a bag of flour feed us for an age.

This evening I came home to my flat to discover a few things. Firstly, Abel and Cole had delivered the organic fruit and vegetables. Secondly, I hand a glut of extremely ripe bananas, including ones I had stored in the freezer and defrosted* especially for today's recipe adventure. And, thirdly I had loads of eating apples. Wasted food is a crime in my book, so something had to be done. Only one thing for it, banana and apple cake bread.

* a little known fact: if you have bananas that are going over, put them in the freezer skin and all. They will blacken, but the insides stay fresh. When you are ready you can defrost them and put them in smoothies or cakes.

200g self raising flour
2 eggs
150g Demerara sugar
85g butter 
4 over ripe bananas
2 apples
a handful of raisins (optional)
grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
vanilla essence
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven at 180C and butter a bread loaf tin. Cream together the butter, sugar and eggs. Peel and slice the apples, and add them to a saucepan with a little water from the tap. Heat until softened. Leave aside to cool. Add the mashed, ripened bananas to the cake mix and whisk well. Then add the apples, using the whisk to break them up further. Carefully sieve in the self raising flour. Add the vanilla essence, cinnamon, salt and grated nutmeg. If you have them, throw in a handful of raisins or sultanas. Spoon the mixture into your loaf tin. Place in the oven for 30 - 40 minutes. Take out and cool for the same period of time. Serve in thin slices once completely cool.

So you see, it is true, a fist full of everything does make a nice cake.

Friday 1 November 2013

Seven Rays of Hope

The feast of All Saints really is one of my favourites. It is something about the time of year, as well as the significance of the feast. The smell of a damp, late Autumn - leaves scattered wet over the wet ground, wood smoke in the air, darkened evenings. Everything about this time of year breathes life into me, which is kind of ironic considering many things in nature are dying off, and the feasts of the Church are turning our attention to the life hereafter. 

Last weekend I was in Yorkshire. Weather wise it was a typical few days: dark, damp and windy. But, the sunshine was also battling through. Over the course of my stay I glimpsed seven rainbows arcing through the sky. Seven! A personal record! I was delighted.

Rainbows, of course, always fill me with joy and hope. They have even been known to make me grin from ear to ear and giggle. Rainbows are full of promise for the future, the reassurance that 'all shall be well', the symbol of God's protective and caring presence 'in all things'. Julian of Norwich and Ignatius of Loyola aside, rainbows remind me of the joy to be found in the pilgrim journey. In parts of France a rainbow is named Porte de Sant Jacques, whilst the Milky Way is named chemin de Sant Jacques. Legend has it that the rainbow is the arc of heavenly light that shines down on earth when Peter opens heavens' gate to a new saint. Those who follow in the footsteps of the saints, The Way, find themselves welcomed into heaven at the end of the journey. Perhaps this legend is also responsible for identifying rainbows with bridges, paths the saints followed: bridge of St. Bernard, St. Martin or St. Peter are common, the idea being that the saints are company on the way to heavens' gate. Basque Pilgrims have named rainbows the puenta de Roma; I've also heard them called the pont du St. Espirit and croix de St. Denis. In Italy the name arcu de Santa Marina is relatively familiar. All these colloquial names are just little reminders that God promises to be present on the journey, but he does not promise everything will be easy, the lives of the saints are testament to that.

Now, based on my assumption that seven very good and holy people did not pass from this life to the next in close proximity to South Yorkshire last weekend, I am pretty certain the rainbows I saw were the complicated outcome of a combination of rain and sunshine. That does not stop me thinking more romantically about them. I was delighted to see them. They filled me with hope and happiness for the future. Today, All Saints, reminds me that we never have to do anything alone. We not do even have to learn to be good alone, or live a life of faith alone, or pray alone. We do all these things with those we love, with friends, family, loved ones. Hurrah for that! Seeing all those rainbows in the sky over such a short period reminded me of all the very special people I share my life with and the journey we make together. That made me smile. What made me smile more was that there needed to be even more rainbows. I'm putting in an order for more.

A recipe for All Saints? How about some soul sustaining bread to share with a simple supper, tucked up next to the fire.

Any Apple Bread
This is a cakey, soda like wholemeal loaf. Good with lashings of butter and honey. Excellent with lashings of butter and jam. Did I mention lashings of butter and soup? Very good with lashings of butter and cheese. Serves 6 - 8.

150g plain flour
200g wholemeal flour
1/2 tsp salt
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 large or two small apples, grated coarsely
50g of butter melted, plus butter for greasing
2 tbsp honey
1 egg whisked
250ml apple juice
a few handfuls of chopped nuts or dried fruit (optional)

Preheat the oven to 180C

Brush a 1ltr non stick loaf tin (approx 20x10) with butter. Coat with a dusting of flour - the old fashioned way to prevent it from sticking.

Combine the dry ingredients. Fold in the grated apples (leave the skin on). Top with wet ingredients and nuts and/or dried fruit. Save some nuts to scatter on the top.

Gently fold all the ingredients together (remember to whisk your egg first). Be careful not to over mix.

Spoon the mixture into the tin. Sprinkle the reserved nuts over the top.

Bake for 30 mins, or until a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean. Let it cool for 10 - 15 mins before removing from the tin and serving.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Tell me why....

On Monday morning my Head Teacher, as always, gave an assembly to the whole school. It was a powerful assembly, and an assembly that reflected the nature of my school as a community of faith, prayer and mutual support.

It was also a sad assembly.

My Head Teacher was appealing to the students of my school to support their teachers in a decision of conscience. This Thursday, 17th October 2013, the teaching unions of the NUT and NASUWT have called for a day of strike action. They have done this for many reasons, but what drew the attention of our Head was this, teachers want to go on strike because they are deeply worried for the future of education.

You will hear in the news tomorrow that teachers have been on strike because they are upset about pay, working conditions and pensions. And, that is true. But, teachers are also on strike tomorrow because they are worried that the children of tomorrow will not have professional, qualified, experienced teachers to help them through their education. There is already a national shortage of qualified teachers in some key subjects. It is already common for a school to have to 'set cover' for GCSE examinations groups because no qualified teacher can be found for that group at present.

The appeal my Head Teacher made was this: some of your teachers will go on strike, some will not. Whatever choice your teachers make, they have thought long and hard about their choice. They have made their decision because they love teaching you, and because they want the best for your future and the future of the children that come after you. Support your teachers. You know how hard they work. You know how much they care for you. Talk to your teachers about the decision they have to make. Take an interest in what they have to say. Tomorrow, I hope that some of you will be teachers. Listen to what is at stake. 

 My Head Teacher was asking my students to take the time to research, listen and seek the truth of the situation. I cannot offer any better advice than that. A fellow teacher and fellow blogger has outlined very carefully why the NUT and NASUWT are taking action tomorrow here. Do read what she has to say. The biggest lie I will hear on the news tomorrow is that teachers work 9am to 3pm and have 12 weeks holiday a year. That makes me angry and shows ignorance of a profession that looks after the future of our country. The details about pay, conditions and pensions are important, but secondary. The purpose of teaching is to provide a decent education to all students, regardless of their ability, social background or special educational needs, and to give every child the best start in life. When attacks on teaching become an attack on the ability of teachers to perform that task, trouble is ahead.

I'll be in school tomorrow. This is not because I do not support the strike, but because, as part of the position I occupy in my school, I am a 'key worker' and must be in school to protect the health and safety of the pupils in our care. I'll be in school tomorrow to support my colleagues on strike, and hope, ever more dearly, that politicians will come and see what is at stake, take time to see what the education of our young people involves, and help ensure that tomorrow's children have excellent, healthy, enthusiastic and happy teachers.

Please think carefully about what you hear about teachers on the news tomorrow. Your children, or your future children,  depend on them.

Friday 11 October 2013

Educating Yorkshire and emotional teaching

I do not normally watch programmes on television about education. I spend all day at the chalkface and like a little variety, so ordinarily stories about schools are on the last resort list.

That said, Educating Yorkshire is completely compelling, and has, without exception, made me cry every week. I love those students, and it is obvious that their teachers love them too. And that is the crux of the 'I do not know how you do your job' conundrum. Teachers teach their students well because they love them. I am lucky enough to work in a school in which OFSTED inspectors said as much in their report about our work, but it is true the world over. It is impossible to teach anyone anything without love.

This week, Mr Steer, Deputy Head Teacher of Thornhill Academy, was seen dragging his leg behind him through the corridors, afflicted by some awful allergy. He did not take time off work because there was an exam on that week, and, as every teacher knows, time off work affects your students. Time off work, incidentally, is not time off work, because you spend your time at home setting the work to be done and worrying. Teaching and parenthood have many similarities. Some people might watch Mr Steer at Thornhill and think he is the exception to the teacher-sickness-dedication rule. Not so. In every school across the country there are teachers who care so much about the people that they teach that they will do anything to help them achieve their potential. Many people, when they choose to teach, choose to give their lives to the job they do.

Educating Yorkshire makes me cry every single week because it is all so familiar. The struggles, battles, victories, tears, laughter and joy are all in there. They have even shown the challenging moments when students are affected by devastating family circumstances and teachers attempt to help teenagers grieve, process anger or seek justice. I have never seen a programme so accurately reflect the day to day reality of spending daily life with a community of young teenagers. I should also mention that, in my experience, although teachers often help children grieve the loss of a loved one, the reverse is also true, and when a teacher loses someone, students are also good at helping an adult through this process. Teachers and students spend more of their waking hours together then either party spends with their family, so that is not so strange. Educating Yorkshire inspires me.  I have never seen a programme that so carefully reflects the dynamic relationship between teacher and pupil, everything from 'I hate effing Geography and I hate yer...' to 'I didn't think I could do it, and I went and did it,  and I got an A. I am an effing genius.' That's what it is all about. It is the reason I get up in the morning. It is one of the many reasons I am glad to get up in the morning.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Guardian Angels, Francis, Bruno, Our Lady, Newman...

October, the beginning of Autumn, the month of my birthday. A month that begins well. Look at that list of Feasts! Guardian Angels is by favourite and my best. Unless of course, Francis is my favourite and my best. Bruno could be too. Who could leave out Newman? And, well, without Our Lady of the Rosary none of us would ever manage.

In years gone past I have written about each of these days separately. There is much to learn from each. But, taken collectively they speak a message too: You are looked after, cared for and protected (Guardian angels), look after others in return (Francis), take time for God and for yourself (Bruno), be prepared to think things through and change your mind when necessary (Newman), and, everyone needs help (Our Lady of the Rosary).

In response to all of these good lessons I can offer the following: you deserve to be looked after, cared for and protected - make sure you are; show that you care for those around you - your loved ones deserve to be looked after too; take time for yourself and for God - know yourself;  think carefully about the choices you make - you only live once; ask for help when you need it - living in community has a purpose.

Part of all this living the faith lark leads me to do something I can be tempted to not bother with - to cook well for one. It is tempting to 'not be bothered', to heat something quick or eat junk food. It is just not on, and to some extent, it is immoral. To some extent, let's not go overboard, I love a bit of junk on occasion. But, to regularly cook good, healthy, tasty food that you can look forward to is part of caring for yourself, being happy, self respect and self esteem.

Here are some recent, recipe free (apologies), simples suppers I have made of late:

Baked Cheesy Leek and Mushroom Chicken:

This was borne of having leeks and mushrooms that needed using. I seared and coloured a chicken breast with the skin on. Then in a pan I sauteed leeks and mushrooms in butter, adding flour and milk to change to a white, 'bechamel' sauce. I placed the chicken breast into a tiny baking dish, poured over the leek and mushroom bechamel and grated enough parmesan on top to ensure a cheesy crust. The whole lot went into an oven at 180C for 25 minutes to cook the chicken and crisp up.  I served this with crusty bread.

Autumn Sausage Bake

I had a set of autumn vegetables bought with good intentions going to waste in the fridge. It happens. I chopped or crushed, shallots, garlic, a red pepper, new potatoes and baby carrots and added them to a non stick baking tray with three lovely, organic, free range, delicious sausages. I drizzled the whole lot with olive oil, added fresh rosemary and thyme, salt and pepper. The whole glorious mix took 30 mins in a preheated oven at 180C. It could have been beetroot, butternut squash, celeriac, parsnip, turnip or anything. It was yum. I still have three sausages left - they're in the freezer.

Burgers and Bits

The key thing here is delicious burgers and good bread, everything else is optionsal. I like fresh sweetcorn on the cob, tomatoes, good cheese, gherkins, salad. Homemade chips, or baby roast with fresh rosemary are not out of the question.

Burgers and Bits and Autumn Sausage Bake  both deserve a glass of red wine. FACT.

Poverty Chic Daal

There are a thousand ways of making a daal. On this occasion I boiled red lentils and baby carrots in vegetable stock. Fried onions and garlic with a delicious curry paste (not a bought sauce); added tomato paste to the onions with the cooked carrots and lentils, and finally added winter greens for a few moments before serving. I ate the whole lot served on top of a warmed naan. Simple, delicious, cheap.

There, a few weekday survivors from this first week of October. I loved them, and they made me feel happy.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Monday 30 September 2013

Lead Kindly Light....feeling a little ‘October’

The lyrics of this are beautiful, and very ‘October’ to me. For the record I should say what little I know of it. It was written by Blessed John Henry Newman in 1833, or thereabouts, during a journey home from Italy. John Henry had been unwell and homesick, but rough seas added to his plight by making him sea sick. He wrote this poem, entitled 'The Pillar of Cloud', a reference to Moses' path from Egypt, during a becalmed period of travel between Marseille and the Straits of Bonifacio. Some say the last two lines are a loving reflection upon his relationship with his sister, Mary, who had passed away in 1828, aged 19. Newman had loved her very much.

"Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

via Tumblr

Sunday 22 September 2013

Not Forgotten

Some might say that I have forgotten the saints these days; that recently my blog has not linked the laughs I have, the food I cook, the life I lead with the lives of those that have gone before me.
I have not forgotten.
I started looking into the lives of the saints, and celebrating the lives they led through the food I prepare and eat when I was at a turning point in my own life. I did not know where to turn, what to do, or what work would come around the corner next. I was unemployed for 4 months, then took work as a seamstress, vegetable picker, domestic servant, sales assistant and office worker before my first temporary teaching post came along in January 2011, 7 months after I left my DPhil study and moved home.
By the grace of God, and the generous hospitality of the RSCJ Sisters in Oxford, I found myself back in the arms of an educational career, and for this reason I wrote the post about inspirational educators. After that temporary post had finished I left the hospitality of the sisters, although I kept them in my heart, and found a flat in the centre of Oxford and a new post in a non-Catholic Comprehensive school in Oxford. There were challenges there, too many to mention, but by the June I had secured my current teaching position in a place where the prayer of the Office seeped through the the seams, and the saints of the calendar lived in the corridors and on the walls. I started in September 2011.
Since then the lives of the saints have been part of my everyday. Who’s this? What did they do? I am sorry they don’t make more of an  appearance on the pages of my blog, with matching food to rejoice in their faith, but I am not sorry their prayers have brought me where I am. Unemployed I used the lives of the saints to occupy my mind, I read about them, thought about them, cooked for them, enjoyed their lives with friends and family through food, wine and time. Employed as a Head of RE I call upon their lives as inspiration for my classroom, anecdotes, examples, and yes, sometimes food. I still rely on their prayers. I have not forgotten the saints, I just have less time to cook for them. I am sure they do not mind. I hope you do not either.

A cure for cold filled pagans (reprise)

A cure for cold filled pagans (reprise)

via Tumblr

A little bit of what you fancy does you good

 A little bit of what you fancy does you good. That's what my Ma says. This phrase is used especially when you are feeling under the weather. I have been terribly under the weather this week. All I have had is the common cold, but it feels like a disaster. I get frightened of the return of the throat-chest infection that plagues me each winter, and even once this summer (cheeky bugger of a thing). 
Still, I know how to treat myself. My Ma taught me well. Mid week, after a long, cold filled, headachy day at school, I knew what I fancied: I wanted something sweet with custard. Only one problem, there was nothing sweet in the house. I had little energy and could not be tempted from the sofa without the thought that something could be achieved within minutes.
Enter the fruit flapjack, served warm with custard. I did not look for, and did not have a recipe, but it has all worked out very well. I used those American measuring cups and made things up as I went along. There was no exact science, so if you are making this, go with your instinct: if it looks right, it probably is.
4 cups Irish Porridge Oats (the Irish was important to me - a reminder of family, home, strength and vitality)
As many sultanas as you can find. I think I found almost 4 Cups!
2 Cups self raising flour

1 cup soft brown sugar (I admit to pouring this in with no regard for a measure)
Mix all the dry ingredients together. I added a little almond essence for fun. Then in a saucepan I melted:
250g (that’s a whole pack) Kerrygold butter (see the Irish Cure coming in again)
A massive squeeze of Honey (I have one of those squeezy bottles of honey, I must have put a little more than a quarter of it in the butter)
I added the melted butter and honey to the dry ingredients and mixed them up thoroughly. I then spread the mixture onto a buttered baking tray, evenly and thickly. I put the flapjack in the oven to back on 180 - 200 for 15 - 20 minutes, until golden brown.
When I took it out of the oven the flapjack was golden, soft and squishy. Whilst it cooled in the tray I made some Bird’s Custard up. Then I sliced the flapjack up and served myself some flapjack and custard. It was delicious. The rest of the flapjack I cut into neat little slices the next day, and popped them into the biscuit box for storage. They’ll last for ages in a air tight container, and as long as I’m ‘recovering’ I’m allowed steal a slice every time I fancy.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Zemmy ‘Brittle Pieces’ - Telegraph live session (by...

Zemmy ‘Brittle Pieces’ - Telegraph live session (by Zemmy Momoh)

Just played on Radio 4 and was beautiful. I loved her voice, the lyrics, simplicity.

via Tumblr

Monday 2 September 2013

A Grateful Grace

It has been the most beautiful summer. I am not sure that I can ever remember one as bright, light, warm, gentle and happy. From the outside I am sure that my summer has been fairly uneventful: I looked after my parents’ cat, I was ill, I moved house, my parent’s celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, I walked the Chiltern Hill’s, basked in the sunshine, baked cakes, cooked meals, revelled in the love and companionship of my friends and family. In reality everything happened this summer, and I began to see light shining on the future.

Last year I wrote a post about a formal grace that had been traveling around my head: The eyes of all people look to you. It was a grace that made me happy, it was a grace that made me laugh. I knew the words and had applied them to my life. It was all about rooting around the fields and hedgerows, butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers. The beautiful harvest brought home to make home.

This year I am grateful for an informal grace, a grace said by a friend. It was a prayer for blessing, for love and friendship, for happiness and health. I am always envious of people who have the courage to pray freely, the courage to leave the script and say what is real, true and ‘on the mind’. Such is the nature of real prayer. Such is the nature of truly living in faith. I aspire to have this courage.

The summer holidays are a time for carefully prepared meals with those we love, heartily consumed dinners that follow long walks in the open air, up hill and down dale. This year I have enjoyed cooking beautiful meals and snacks for beautiful people. To be sure, I messed a few up: mea culpa. But, for the most part, I did my best, often working with those with whom I would eat, cooking together our sustenance, food gratefully received following days of work and pleasure.The end of August and the beginning of September, despite the return to school, remains my favourite time of year. I keep my habit of lighting candles at meal times, offering a quite prayer for those who help to prepare food, the farmers, packagers, growers; and those loved ones with whom I share the meal.

The tree in the pictures above is rather special. It grows at Chenies Manor, Buckinghamshire, where King Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I, sat under it during their tumultuous reigns. They probably thought it a very fine tree, for it was 500 years old then. Elizabeth lost a jewel under it - it has never been found. That’s right, this tree is over 1000 years old. It predates 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. It is a Saxon Tree. How much that venerable Oak will have seen, how many conversations it will have heard, how many picnics it will have looked upon. History sometimes baffles me. I cannot imagine such expanses of time. It awes me. Time for us is always either too long, or too short. We are never content....except in those last weeks of the summer holidays, when the body and mind has relaxed and recovered enough to help one feel at ease with the present. That 'feeling at ease with the present' is a gift, and one I long to hold on to and treasure as the term speeds along. I am quite sure the tree at Chenies was always happy to be in the moment, and always longed to just be where it was and grow with time, never regretting the past, never wishing its time away. I would like to be the same.

This year, on a quiet day, I made the best of all finger food one night: chicken wings. There was plenty, and the leftovers made for a beautiful picnic on a long walk in the hills the following day. This little delicacy was a last taste of summer, a shared happiness. It was warm and sticky, salty and full of pepper and spice. No need for a knife and fork. I am, as usual, indebted to Nigel Slater.

Chicken Wings - 12 Large
a large juicy lemon
bay leaves - 5
Black peppercorns - I heaped tablespoon
olive oil
sea salt flakes

Set the oven at 200C. Put the wings into a roasting dish, halve the lemon and squeeze it over them, then cut up the lemon shells and tuck them, together with the bay leaves, between the chicken pieces.
Put the peppercorns in a mortar and bash them so that they crack into small pieces. Of course, I do not have a mortar, so I wrapped them in tinfoil and hit them with a rolling pin. They should be knubbly, like small pieces of grit, rather than finely ground.

Mix the peppercorns with the olive oil and toss them with the chicken pieces. Scatter with salt flakes. Roast for 40 - 45 minutes, turning once. The chicken should be golden and sticky, the edges blackened here are and there - they should be nearly stuck to the roasting tin.

PS: You might be wondering about the Red Kite and the Boar. They are just creatures I have met hereabouts recently and I liked them. xx

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Trees, woods and stones

Believe me, you will find more lessons in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you what you cannot learn from the masters. - Bernard of Clairvaux
I wanted to learn about where I live today. I found out many things, see above.
Apples and blackberries are amongst the wild treasures of this place. I learnt a High Wycombe Cake, my first.
125g butter, softened, plus extra for the tin
125g caster sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
50g ground almonds
100g self raising flour
3 apples
100g blackberries
For the topping:
1 pinch cinnamon
2 tbsp Demerara sugar
25g butter in slices
25g peeled and toasted hazelnuts
Icing sugar for dusting
Heat the oven to 160c. Butter a 22cm round, loose bottom, cake tin.
Beat the butter and caster sugar together until light and fluffy. Slowly add the eggs ensuring the mixture does not curdle. Sieve the flour onto the top of the mixture, add the almonds on top. Gradually fold in, keeping the mixture light.
Peel and slice the apples, add them to a dry pan with a little sugar and a splash of water. Soften ever do slightly. Allow to cool. Add two thirds of the apples and the blackberries to the mixture. Turn the mixture into the tin. Arrange the remaining apples on top.
For the topping sprinkle cinnamon and sugar over the surface of the mixture. Add small slices of butter.
Bake for 55 mins, of until a sharp knife comes out clean.
Gently toast your hazelnuts in a dry pan. Allow to cool. Add hazelnuts to the top of the cake. When all is cool, dust with icing sugar.

Saturday 20 July 2013

For peace comes dropping slow...

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade. 

And I shall have some peace there,
for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings. 

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.  - WB Yeats

'And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow'. With these words the best verse of my favourite poem begins. 

It is the beginning of the holidays, and peace does indeed come dropping slow. I lay worries and concerns aside, one by one. 

I went on holiday to the Aran Islands off the West Coast of Ireland. Twice. On the first occasion I went with my older sister and twin. The second time just with my twin. We walked the length and breadth of the island, that was all there was to do. That and look at the horizon, the cliffs and the sea, our legs dangling over the edges of drops measured in miles. I loved it there. Gemma and I staying in a tent with the cows, we listened to their lowing and chewing of the cud; there were crickets. One day we came across a clutch of kittens sleeping in the heather, they were beautiful. We imitated them and slept for hours each day, curled up the the heather under the sunny clouds. Aran remains to this day the most peaceful place I have ever been.

Soon I am going to move house, leave Oxford, the scene of many life changing adventures these past few years, and move on to territories new. And, whilst I dream of the house where I will have nine bean rows and a hive for the honey bee, a coup for the chickens, a cosy corner for the cat, a hearth rug for the dog and a view of the horizon for the children running free, my life has not reached that dream just yet. So in my new home, 'while I stand on roadway, or on the pavements grey', I will continue to hear peace, dropping slow, in the deep heart's core.

I am deeply grateful for the friendships I have made in Oxford, and the good times I have had in this beautiful city. I am happy to be moving on and accepting the unknown path that lays ahead. I am looking forward to new horizons, new adventures, a continued pilgrimage.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Preparing a meal

I go to the kitchen!


Loving Lord,
May You who nourishes and sustains all things, bless me as I prepare this meal.
Bless the ingredients I call to hand, and bless the hands of those who brought such gifts to me.
Grant to my soul Your peace and Your joy, and help me to feel the importance of my task.
May this meal be a reflection of Your love, and may it bring peace and joy to our table.
May it nourish, comfort and restore. 
Through it, may those I serve be blessed in body, mind and spirit.
Thank you.

As part of my work I am often asked for prayers to suit different occasions. Today I was asked for a prayer for our school cooks. I couldn't find one, so this transpired. Perhaps some of you know prayers suited to those preparing meals. I was surprised one did not come immediately to hand. Do share if you know one. I'd love a little collection.

Friday 24 May 2013

The Holy Trio

 It is that time of year again: the feast days of three saints that occupy pivotal importance to the lives of good friends of mine occur this week. Friends who have freely given their lives for what they believe in.

So, what do St. Dominic, St Madeleine Sophie and St. Philip have in common? The congregations they  have founded and inspired have markedly different and beautiful charisms. Born in the 12th, 16th and 18th Centuries, they are spread across history. What strikes me is that each of them are born, live and die with symbols of fire surrounding them.

The earliest sources recording St Dominic's arrival into the world are from Jordan of Saxony. His parents are not named, but his mother made pilgrimage to Silos in Spain and dreamt that a dog with a flaming torch in his mouth leapt from her womb and 'seemed to set the world on fire'. That is exactly what he went on to do with his life, example and preaching.

Madeleine Sophie is born on the night of the 12th December 1779 in the midst of a raging fire in Joigny, France. The terror of the blaze sent her mother into labour. She founded a congregation that battled for love in the midst of a France caught up in the hateful fires of the revolution.

St Philip Neri was born in Florence, but he died in Rome having experienced a Pentecost of his own. In 1544 he had a vision in which he saw globe of fire descend from heaven and penetrate his heart. He continued to live out his priestly life sensing the burning love of God within his heart. An examination after is death revealed that his heart was indeed abnormally large, so much so that it had forced two of his ribs apart to accommodate it.

Three saints, three visions and experiences of fire, three feasts after Pentecost. Perhaps the message here is passion. Each of these saints lived passionately, uncompromisingly dedicated to love. They were not afraid and we should not be afraid either. 

This weekend I am not sure what the weather will do, but I know what I will do. I am going to cook, walk, chat and be with those I love. And, for those I love I cannot be with, I am going to hold them in my heart. I am going to use my rest time from school to think about how to live in love through my work. I adore teaching and there are exciting syllabus developments ahead. This week my adorable Sixth Form bought me chocolates, champagne, flowers and a framed quote from Aristotle as they bid adieu before their examination leave. I shall be thinking of them, and their journey towards examinations and the future beyond. I will be praying that whatever they do in the future they will choose to do something they have a fiery passion for, and that they will do it with all the love they have. So far as I know that is the only way to spread the Gospel.

This might seem odd, but I am going to make a different take on burgers.....

Pork Burgers with Thyme and Mozzarella

Serves 3 - 4

4 Spring Onions (Scallions) 
2 Cloves Garlic
25g Butter
50g Cubed Pancetta
A good handful of Thyme
750g Minced Pork
The grated zest of a Lemon
One ball of Mozzarella

Finely chop the spring onions and cloves of garlic and fry them gently in the butter, allowing them to colour slightly. Add the pancetta. Strip the thyme leaves from their stalks, finely chop them and add them to the pan, letting the mixture cook a little. Leave the pan off the heat and cool for a while.

Mix the pork into the onions, add the grated lemon zest and season it generously with black pepper and a little salt. Cut the mozzarella into small cubes and stir these through the mixture. Shape into pork burgers about the size of a digestive biscuit and leave to settle for half an hour. Fry in a non-stick pan, browning on each side, and cooking through for 8 - 10 minutes.

Serve with fresh swiss chard, spinach or asparagus, sauteed new potatoes and your favourite mustard concoction. 

I am planning something beautiful for dessert. I think it might be based around lemon, but my flatmate might cook something beautiful with apricots. Oh, of course, I'll be testing the champagne and the chocolates!