Saturday, 31 July 2010

Welsh Cakes and Bara Birth

Continuing with the cooking theme, I have had a busy week baking. Most of the baking has been for the freezer as my husband has a big birthday coming up soon and we are having ‘a bit of a do’.
But also I have been making Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes. When our guests arrive at our B&B, if it is an appropriate hour, they are offered Tea (or Coffee) and either Welsh Cakes or a piece of Bara Brith - although sometimes it is only a biscuit if the cake tin is empty.

Having lived in Wales for so long it’s easy to forget that for many of our guests it is their first trip to Wales and they haven’t any idea what a Welsh Cake is – let alone a piece of Bara Birth.

Welsh Cakes are a bit like normal scones but much flatter and have spices in. They are also known as griddle scones, and bakestones as they are traditionally cooked on a bakestone or a cast iron griddle. However I use a heavy based frying pan which works just as well. They are very easy to make and lovely served warm with butter and jam but equally nice just dusted with caster sugar.

Bara Brith (speckled bread in Welsh) is a cross between Fruit Loaf and Fruit Cake. The fruit is soaked in tea overnight and then mixed with flour, eggs, sugar and spices and baked like a loaf. There are recipes which have fat in and those with yeast. However mine has neither and surprisingly always rises and is delicious. A slice spread with butter is yummy.

So there you have it – two delicious Welsh delicacies for those who aren’t lucky enough to live in Wales.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker

I have written before in my blog about the varied and interesting guests we get at Celyn Villa. This week we had a chap who stayed with us who was a baker. My husband Les is very proud of his daily bread that he makes and was somewhat nervous before breakfast knowing that the ‘I’ve been a baker for over 20 years’ was going to try his ‘homemade toasted bread’.

Admittedly the bread is made in a bread maker, but having had many trials and errors at first the ‘secret’’ mix that is used produces a really good loaf. I would urge all of you that have bought a bread maker and keep in a cupboard somewhere forlorn and forgotten to persevere with it because the end product when you get it right is delicious. Les occasionally makes a ‘real handmade’ loaf for our own consumption but it would be difficult to keep up with the requirements of our guests with traditional methods.

Having delivered the toast to the table the verdict was a resounding thumb up. What a nice chap he was. We didn’t really need him to tell us it was good as it is always complimented on – but an endorsement from a professional is always gratifying.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Dressing up as Victorian Servants

For the past four years I have travelled to Erddig House, the beautiful National Trust Property near Wrexham and worked as an Education Volunteer. I try and go as often as I can, sometimes once a week or less frequently when I am busy with guests.

Erddig House is a truly unique place built in the early 18th century with wonderful rooms and magnificent grounds. It is on the must see list of many who visit our lovely area. Erddig is renowned as a real ’upstairs downstairs’ house. The servants’ quarters and outbuildings are exceptional and really give the true feel of what life must have been like in service. The contrast of the ‘upstairs’ is of noticeable opulence but do not feel too sorry for the servants’ at Erddig. When you walk through into the basment and servant quarters you can read all about how well they were treated by their masters, and there are many paintings of them at work. Although life was harsh by today’s standards – they were much better off than many in service.

As an Education Volunteer I help to teach children – mainly primary school age - some of the duties of a Victorian Servant. They arrive eagerly, some already having an idea what the day will bring. First they are shown a DVD of what life was like for Servants at Erddig. Afterwards they are given their ‘uniform’ for the day. For the girls long skirts, aprons and frilly mop caps and for the boys waistcoats, aprons and caps. Of course the girls have no idea where their waists are and try to have their skirts on the hips and similarly the boys try to turn their caps around with the peak at the back – but none of the Educations Volunteers or permanent staff allows any of this unacceptable behaviour! After all they are now Victorian servants. The teachers are also given their uniforms and sometimes a bit of persuading is needed for some to dress up. The children are then told a little about greeting Ladies and Gentlemen; with the girls practicing their curtsies and the boys doffing their caps ‘With Good morning Sir or Madam ’.
The boys then are told that Victorian manners will prevail and that ‘Ladies First’ is the order of the day. This is greeted with much glee from the girls but grunts of disapproval from the boys. It seems so strange to me that they have no idea about such manners. Being brought up when good manners were so brainwashed into my generation, and equality didn’t exist. I’m not sure if we have lost or gained anything with the changing attitudes that exist these days.

The children then go off into groups and have to ‘work’ and learn about life as a Servant; washing in the Laundry – hand washing, rinsing and using a mangle; making lemonade in the Kitchen – learning about working without electricity, how to grind sugar and grate lemon. In the bakery they learn to make bread ; all help to weigh flour, mixing and kneading the dough; learning about the bread ovens and the chimneys – many of the boys volunteering to be chimney sweeps as they think it will be just like Mary Poppins. My favourite though is the Bothy attic. Here the children learn about leaving home at 12 years old to go to work, sleeping in a room with other servants’, making beds and cleaning. They all seem to love the part where we explain about Victorian hygiene, bathing once a week and using the chamber pot!

The children really enjoy their day at Erddig and learn such a lot from a time of when there was no electricity or cars and when working class meant working very hard for little reward.
We are a jolly bunch of volunteers and all have to dress up too, some ladies (and a few men) have been volunteering for many many years, some even have their own home made outfits. We assist the permanent Education team who are a dedicated group with a wealth of knowledge between them that we volunteers rely on for ongoing help.

I love my days at Erddig and although I come home exhausted I always feel very grateful for the opportunity to pass on my knowledge and experiences to the children. Two days are never the same and the enjoyment you get from seeing just one child engage with your stories is very rewarding indeed.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

It's just a new cupboard!

It’s funny how ‘things’ can change our lives.

I have put ‘things’ in quotes because on this occasion I do mean a ‘thing’. My new kitchen cupboard to be precise. I don’t consider myself particularly materialistic (though others may not agree) and have always believed that life changing events need to be rather more dramatic than having a new cupboard.

However I have to say that my new cupboard has changed my life. Let me explain a little. We have lived in our home for 24 years and during that time have extended, improved and decorated on what seems like a continuous basis. Although still our home it was transformed somewhat when we started offering Bed and Breakfast to guests in 2002. Gradually we started having more ‘things’ about the place. Extra linen, china, pots and pans etc as well as keeping stocked up on fresh provisions. Added to my love of gadgets (maybe I am just a bit materialistic) the kitchen cupboards in particular became overcrowded: pots fighting to get attention over pans and cups demanding to be matched to saucers.
A few months ago I had had enough of my overcrowded cupboards and decided I needed a new something for this overflow of equipment. I sat down at my computer – my preferred way to do my initial shopping these days – and started searching for big cupboards. Needless to say nothing was suitable because they came in two categories 1) not the right size and 2) too expensive.

My very lovely husband Les then offered to make me one. Of course I jumped at the chance knowing what a handy chap he is with a bit of wood, hadn’t he already made our lovely Welsh Dresser over 10 years ago. Although it would be a lot of work I knew he would enjoy the task. So began the weeks of work, the drawing up of plans, the hunting down of old pitch pine, hours in his ‘shed’ cutting, planning, tapping, banging and generally ‘wooding’. He was in his element and I was going to get a new, purpose built cupboard made to measure. I have now been using my lovely new cupboard for a couple of weeks and it has literally changed my life. All my other cupboards have been sorted, cleaned and refilled in an organised way. I can see everything easily, everything I use daily is in easy reach and I am no longer searching for that dish that I know is somewhere. What’s more I know my cupboard was made just for me with love.

Maybe it’s a stage in life where contentment seems much more attainable or do we just appreciate things more – but my cupboard has literally changed my life. Thanks Les xxx.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Convent Girls

Running a B & B is an interesting and rewarding way of life. You welcome strangers into your home and the majority leave as friends that you look forward to seeing again. For the last few years during the first weekend of July we have been welcoming to our B & B a very jolly group of ladies affectionly refered to as the ’Convent Girls’. This is the weekend when Pantasaph Friary and Retreat hold their summer fair, and visitors arrive to spend a few hours looking around the hallowed grounds and enjoying the beautiful surroundings, spending their pennies on cake stalls and tombola’s. It is a happy and reflective time for many. The Friary is a beautiful peaceful place where you can go on retreat to get away from the rigors of modern day life. It is run by just a few Franciscan Monks these days.

Opposite the Friary there used to be St Clare’s Convent. For those of you who know Pantasaph you will have seen the conversion of the old Convent into luxury housing and apartments. It was closed in the 1970’s and for many years the old buildings were an eye sore, as you looked at it from the A55, but now it has been beautifully restored and converted.

The ‘Convent Girls’ now only number a handful as they are all in their 70’s and as time goes by their numbers diminish but not their memories. The ‘Convent Girls’ spent all or part of their childhoods at St Clare’s Convent during the second war and post war period. Some were evacuated, some were orphans and some were from families who had fallen on hard times and couldn’t or wouldn’t look after them.
Last year we accompanied two of our guests June and Margaret on an emotional walking tour of the old convent and they painted a picture, as we walked around the converted buildings, of their life there. Their stores were at times very funny, extremely interesting, but mostly harrowing and incredibly sad. They weren’t treated well and had to work hard in harsh surroundings, often hungry and cold. What they did have was each other and their annual pilgrimage back to Pantasaph is a chance for them to see their ‘family’ and revisit their childhood.
Living history is so rewarding and this year we have been lucky enough to listen to more stories about their lives. What is so incredible it that all the ladies we have meet who were ‘Convent Girls’ are really lovely, happy, well rounded human beings who having left the Convent went on to self educate and have full and rewarding lives. Most have married and have families of their own to be proud of. Cruelty and hardship didn’t turn any of these lovely ladies into embittered degenerates or set them on a path to crime. Yes they all have regrets, issues to deal with and a past that for some have questions that will never be answered. But they are not victims and are proud to have risen above their cruel start in life; they are a real credit to their generation. They spend most of the weekend laughing and really enjoying themselves.

Nobody should endure what these lovely ladies went through during their childhood but today’s generations could learn a lot from them.