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Out and about in autumn: Beating the Street

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I am going to gloss over the fact that the Curiously Creatively premises have been rather quite for the summer months (as indeed has its sister blog Tales from the Landing Bookshelves) and simply push on with a little creative activity to get us back on track before the winter. It is merely a question of finding inspiration, getting curious and getting back on track creatively. So, what better way for getting back on track than getting out and doing a bit of walking? I shall explain…

While browsing in Rathmines Library recently, I came across a leaflet advertising a Dublin City Council initiative called Beat the Street. In true Curiously Creatively fashion, I stopped and read the leaflet and the idea instantly hooked me. I like challenges, especially walking challenges. And this one had a neat little smart card that you could ‘tag on’ to record your progress. That way, you really feel that you are achieving a target on your walk. The only problem was that I was late coming to the challenge  (which ran from 13 September – 1 November), so I couldn’t really hope to rack up much distance. I only had a few days to pound the streets of Dublin. I tried to remember to take pictures on a couple of the routes, to make a mini Beat the Street gallery.

The whole Beat the Street system was beautifully simple and it worked very well. Having said that, I found it a bit frustrating at times if I didn’t immediately spot the Beat Box, usually attached to a lamppost or similar. I realise that this was partly because of using the fold out paper map as opposed to using a map online where you can get details that are more precise. I also have to confess to the occasional map reading error (it does help to be looking at it the right way round I find) which hinders the finding of the nearest Beat Box.

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I was pleased to discover that Beat Boxes were to be found along two of my favourite walking routes, the river Dodder and the Grand Canal. It was particularly nice to do a canal walk as I picked a lovely golden-y typical autumn day for it. High lights of that walk were managing to get a couple of photographs of swans (including one beautiful youngster not yet in full white) and spotting that Patrick Kavanagh had acquired a second hat from some thoughtful person. On the downside I spotted a bench along the Mespil Road stretch that had obviously played host to a party of drinkers who were too lazy/thoughtless/anti-social to gather up the empties and find a bin. It spoils such a lovely situation and yet these people clearly don’t give a damn for that.

It wasn’t all walking for pleasure as I learnt from the map that I could Beat the Street on my way to work too. In the end, I went slightly off my normal route to hop from box to box but that was probably a good thing. It made a change of scenery and was a little longer than usual so I gained some more exercise. I enjoy walking in an urban/suburban landscape as much as in the countryside as there is so much small detail to see if you take the time to look around as you walk. Now, I admit that I am probably guilty of merely strolling sometimes as I surreptitiously study someone’s garden planting, a dubious extension or browse a shop window, but I do pick up the pace afterwards.

Now, I am hoping that the walking and the thinking done while walking will encourage the creative activity and the regular blog posts. I just have to keep remembering that all I need to do is to hop from box to box and I’ll get there, sooner or later.

If you tried the Beat the Street challenge, do let me know how you got on!


Window Boxes from Upcycled Fruit Boxes

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I have been busily brandishing a paintbrush for the first time in many months, returning to an idea that I blogged about on Curiously Creatively last year. You might recall that I wrote about picking up discarded wooden fruit boxes from Lidl in the spring, with various ideas for transforming them into something useful. Well, the months went by and nothing happened to the boxes, which meanwhile, were getting dustier and dustier out in the shed. Recently on a shopping trip to Lidl I noticed an abandoned orange box left in the bagging area by the checkouts and I had to force myself not to pick it up, aware that I had four at home already. It was time to take action and get painting! Only then, I told myself, I could allow myself to go collecting more…

My plan is to paint and decorate a couple of the boxes ready to contain some herbs or salad leaves for the summer. I will probably locate them on the windowsills at either the front or the back of the house. The house is roughly east west oriented so there are advantages to either side for sunlight. We were toying with the idea of building some window boxes anyway, so up-cycling these boxes should be a good alternative. They are slightly wider than the outside sill, but I don’t think the overhang will be enough to cause a problem (they won’t be either heavy or high enough to land on an unwary head). The dream of being able to open the kitchen window and snip some basil leaves as I cook is carrying me away! Let us see whether my fantasy can be made to meet reality.

The box painting process has had a somewhat piecemeal quality to it (not only because of it having taken so long to get started) because I have been using up left over match pots to clear out a cupboard. I began with two boxes and covered the outsides with a basic coat of some stone coloured matt emulsion paint. Amongst the odds and ends of mini paint pots, I found two green ones (left over from Verity’s pallets and from my kitchen shelf project) and a sunny yellow shade that was once used on a dolls’ shop front. Not all of the paints are robust enough for outdoor use, but a) I am in a using up and de-cluttering mood, b) I will coat the boxes in yacht varnish anyway and c) the paint would end up being thrown away if I didn’t use it up on a small project of some sort.

So, to report on the painting stages:

I have done at least two base coats of paints on the outside and two coats on the inner sides. I did not have enough paint to cover the inside of the base, but that doesn’t really matter. My plan is to use a lining cut from an old compost bag for the base and sides, so that will help to protect the wood on the base. As you can see from my photographs, I have used up the green paint on the shorter sides and corners, while the rest is covered in the ‘Sunshine Yellow’. I decided to have a bash at stencilling some garden themed shapes on the sides after discovering some leftover red paint, which I also used to edge and top the corner pieces. The final stage was to give the boxes a couple of coats of yacht varnish to make them more weather proofed. Ideally, I will have more than merely one season of use from them.

My stencilling efforts were not wholly satisfactory; the thickened paint and my lack of experience of using stencils with anything other than felt pens on paper both contributed to a less than perfect finish. However, I am pleased with the general effect and I think the decorated boxes will look well on the windowsills. I am looking forward to getting them planted up soon, I just need some more of our seeds to sprout so I have something to plant!

Now, all I need to do is to decide what to do with my remaining orange boxes! Any suggestions from the floor?

April Garden Activity

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In this long-delayed Curiously Creatively update, I will be telling you about this year’s spring preparations in the garden. Over the autumn and winter months, I have been trying to continue doing odd jobs and not to let the garden become a bleak no-man’s land. It is all too easy on cold days to ignore the garden, except for fetching in another bale of peat or tipping the vegetable peelings in the compost bin. During the last couple of years, I have tried hard to be less of a fair weather gardener; I cannot say that I have completely succeeded, but I think there have been improvements. As we never entirely stopped gardening after the summer activity, it has been easier to pick up the work again in the spring.

So where does all this industry leave us then? Well, I am forced to say that we are never as far forward with various jobs as I would like to be at this time of the year. However, many seeds are a–sprouting and we have plenty of spring colours on the ground. Much of the colour comes from the very productive self-seeding forget me nots which have scattered themselves liberally around the garden. We have blue ones, but I do want to add some different colours to the mix this year. These little flowers are so useful for brightening up odd corners and filling in gaps. We have plenty of nasturtiums self-seeding again and this year I am determined to try to use them in the kitchen as we usually have a plentiful supply. Cheerful yellow Welsh poppies are also poking their heads up all over the place.

I am delighted to report that it looks as though we will have some lily of the valley this year, on the third attempt at raising them. I paid a visit to Homebase recently and succumbed to the temptation of having one more go at these lovely flowers. The shoots looked healthy, so I was optimistic of success, though the roots were imperilled when some nocturnal creature decided to dig in my newly planted patch. Fortunately, the roots survived being dug up (by said strange creature) and then being roughly stuffed back in the soil (by me). I have long wanted to have some lily of the valley plants because I remember them fondly from my grandparents’ garden, growing under the hedge. Fingers crossed that I will have flowers in a few weeks time.

While in Homebase, I had a rummage in the marked down section and bought seed potatoes in two varieties. As you might imagine, they were already considerably chitted. I have five each of Kestrel and Nicola, which have sat around in the shed awaiting my attentions (and becoming even more chitted into the bargain). Finally, I am pleased to say that my seed potatoes now nestle snugly in my new Dealz potato bags (€1.50 each). We have been able to use our own compost for some of our planting so far; with careful attention, I am hoping that our compost bin will yield a good supply this season. I do however have the perennial problem of an over abundance of eggshells in the mixture. Still, I suppose there are worse horticultural problems to have.

Look out for a further garden update soon, and do let us know how your garden grows…

Dr Chase’s Squash Pie (more or less!)

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For this Curiously Creatively post, I am back in the realm of old recipes (or receipts as they were called back in ye olden times). If you remember we have previously featured vintage recipes from writer Juliet Greenwood and The Llangollen Ladies, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. This time I have ventured across the Atlantic with a small book containing a collection of recipes by Dr Alvin Wood Chase, Buffalo Cake and Indian Pudding, (Penguin Great Food, 2010). This series from Penguin comprises several tempting titles, containing extracts from the work of Eliza Action, Alexis Soyer and Alice Waters to name but a few. This looks like a good series to introduce new readers to classic food writers, so I am only sorry that it has taken me a while to discover it. I now need to check whether any of the other titles are still available.

But who was the good Dr Chase (1817-1885) I hear you enquire. I have to admit to never having heard of him either until I chanced upon this small volume recently. The book offers some biographical information from the publishers as well as containing a fond memorial piece from a Rev L Davis, dated 28 November 1886. Alvin Wood Chase was born in Cayuga County, New York and eventually married and settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was a collector of folk remedies and recipes as well as being a travelling physician. According to the ‘In Memoriam’ piece, Chase didn’t begin his medical studies until 1856, studying in Michigan and Ohio. As he travelled dispensing medicines, he collected recipes along with folk remedies. All this valuable information formed the basis of his publications, which apparently were welcomed by pioneers and settlers who were keen to have a ‘multi-purpose how-to-guide to assist them in everyday life’.

Chase published his first book, A Guide to Wealth! Over One Hundred Valuable Recipes for Saloons, Inn-Keepers, Grocers, Druggists, Merchants and Families Generally (1858). By the 1863 edition, Chase’s handy guide contained over 800 recipes. Hs final book came out posthumously in 1887, entitled, Dr Chase’s Third, Last and Complete Receipt Book. Dr Chase seems to have been well respected by the citizens of Ann Arbor where he worked for many years for the good of the townspeople. Rev Davis says that Chase’s ‘real and ever-enduring monument is seen in his life, devotion and usefulness to his fellow man’.

The upshot is that I couldn’t resist trying out one of the recipes from the good doctor’s collection. As I have been threatening to have a go at a pumpkin or a squash pie for years, this was as good an opportunity as any that I could find. In the pie chapter, I found two possible alternative versions to try. In addition, I discovered the useful tip (quoted from Ruth H Armstrong of the Housekeeper) that it is better to bake your fruit first, rather than boiling to avoid the problem of having watery pumpkin/squash. I chose the following version to attempt to bake:

The ingredients

Squash Pie, Very Rich – Stew a medium sized crook-necked (or other equally rich) squash, and rub the soft part through a colander; butter, ½ lb; cream and milk, each 1 pt., or milk with the cream stirred in, 1qt.; sugar, 2 cups; 1 dozen eggs well beaten; salt, mace, nutmeg and cinnamon, 1 teaspoonful each, or to taste.

The directions follow along similar lines to Chase’s previously noted recipe for Pumpkin Pie. After rubbing your squash through a colander, add, ‘the butter, sugar and spices, and make hot, then the beaten eggs’. The squash recipe contains milk, so you’d add that next (it’s flour in the pumpkin version). The directions continue, ‘mix smoothly together, and while hot put into the dish, having a thick crust to receive it, and bake in a moderate oven’. Henry Crane, Frost House, Eaton Rapids, Mich.

Dr Chase recommends baking the pastry before adding the filling, if the cook is ‘fearful of a soggy crust’. He also goes on to note, ‘I think good squash makes a richer pie than pumpkin, while some persons claim the reverse’. He also mentions two different varieties of squash, the crookneck and the Hubbard; as Lidl could only supply butternut squash I made my first tweak to the recipe. I had to resort to Google to determine the appearance and qualities of the first two varieties, as they were unfamiliar to me. I can only assume that they are not readily available in either Ireland’s or Britain’s supermarkets, but maybe in specialist food shops.

My second recipe tweak was to scale the quantities down, since I am neither a saloon owner nor an innkeeper. I decided to make a quarter of the amount but despite this, I still had some filling left over after filing my 9” ceramic flan dish. My major recipe alteration was to cheat and buy some readymade pastry so that I could focus on dealing with the squash filling mixture. As Chase recommends a pastry with a light and flaky crust for all types of pie, I bought flaky pastry (Tesco brand).

I baked my squash, as recommended, by cutting it in half lengthways and laying the pieces cut side down on the baking sheet. I also baked the seeds in a separate dish at the same time since they make a great lunch box ingredient. When the squash was nice and soft, I left it to cool slightly before scooping out the interior. My estimation was that the small sized Butternut would produce about the correct quantity of flesh for my scaled down recipe. I mashed the tender flesh into a very smooth pulp with a potato masher so I decided that it didn’t need pushing though a colander as given in the recipe.

One inescapable fact of recipes of this vintage is that directions, cooking times and temperatures are rarely precise. For instance, the instruction to ‘make hot’ is vague to say the least. I took it to mean that you should heat up the squash mixture to a moderate temperature, but not to boil it. Similarly, the recipe has no oven temperature save ‘moderate’ so I baked the pie at 180c (gas mark 5) which seemed reasonable. I did bake my pastry case blind, following Dr Chase’s advice, to avoid a soggy bottom (so to speak).

The verdict

I was quite pleased with my first attempt at a squash pie and the rest of the household seemed to agree with that verdict. I served slices with plain Greek yogurt (we sampled the pie both warm and chilled on separate occasions) which worked very well, though cream or ice-cream would work equally well I think. I enjoy tackling vintage recipes, so look out for some more samples to appear on the blog in the future.

Has anyone else got any hits and tips on pumpkin or squash pies? I would love to hear them!

Picture credits: Curiously Creatively

Bite Food Festival 2016: Tasty Samples

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Food Display from Bite

Tempting goodies!

The Curiously Creatively team has had a couple of recent visits to exhibitions at the Royal Dublin Showground (RDS). The latest one was to Bite Food Festival 2016 featuring all things food related, thanks to a free ticket offer from Cooks Academy, which was passed on to us by a thoughtful food-loving friend. I am sorry to say that the biggest lure (apart from not paying to get in) was the thought of lots of lovely free samples to… well, sample of course. Also we are rather keen on attending cookery demonstrations and talks. Therefore, the Bite event promised to tickle our palates in more ways than one.

We did indeed find plenty of opportunities to try new tasty products but we also walked around making mental note of ideas that we could try out at home. So what were the results of our tastings and cogitations? After sampling a couple of different lemon curd brands, we decided that we still preferred our own version (more sharpness) but we did buy a brownie that gave our own Waitrose recipe a run for its money. Maybe we should have eaten a second one just to make sure of the verdict. One idea that we spotted was a pesto made from kale, and judging by the taste that we had, it might be worth trying to make some at home.

As you might have gathered, we go to these types of markets and exhibitions with the main purpose of gathering ideas for things that we might have a go at making ourselves. Not, I hasten to add that we don’t occasionally treat ourselves to a few things and support small producers, but we are DIY kind of folks at heart. We spend much of our time trying to deconstruct craft or food products at markets, coffee shops and festivals, to figure out the ‘how’, the ‘what’ and ‘could we do it ourselves?’. This habit produces many scraps of paper upon which are scribbled cryptic notes, which find their way into the recipe drawer for future reference.

One item at Bite that we didn’t do that with (however, the recipe drawer does come into the picture), was some tasty roasted almond butter that we sampled and then purchased. Fiona’s Nutterly Nutritious spread tempted us because it tasted great on biscuits. The next morning, I did also try the Nutterly spread stirred into porridge as suggested by the stallholder, but I have to admit that I prefer my regular dose of honey or fruit compote. Where the recipe drawer comes in to the plot, is that I had the idea that I could bake my peanut butter cookie recipe, using almond butter instead for a variation. I have a feeling that the roasted almond flavour could actually work much better than the usual peanut version. Watch out for a future report on that culinary experiment. From other stalls we also bought a tangy basil and lime dressing, a cheddar flavoured with beetroot and some rather tasty chocolate made with Ecuadorian beans. The dressing has almost gone already and I also tried adding some to my usual salmon pate mixture for a little extra oomph. Needles to say, the chocolate vanished extremely quickly once it arrived home!

So what was our verdict on the visit to Bite? It was more commercial than I had envisaged, as it seemed that many of the products were already available through shops and supermarkets. Having said that, we found plenty of items and brand names that we hadn’t heard of before, hailing from various parts of the country. My fellow blogger pointed out that there should have been a good range of fresh fruit and vegetable produce on show, as there are plenty of options for tasty eating to be explored there. Fresh poultry and sausages found a place, so why not the veggies? The cooking demos and workshops were a good idea, especially the workshops. Though I don’t think I would be willing to take a cookery lesson in public. Anything could happen and it probably would! And did we mention the free samples…?

If anyone else visited Bite 2016, we would love to hear what you thought about it!

Picture Credits: Bite Festival website, with thanks.


Ib Jorgensen Fashion Retrospective (NMI)

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Ib Jorgensen exhibition flyer

Two fabulous dresses!

On a sleety morning last week, I decided to take refuge from the weather in the Decorative Arts and History Museum, as I happened to be nearby in the Stoneybatter area. It has been far too long since I last paid a visit to my favourite part of the National Museum, so I was glad of the excuse given by the inclement (well, vile) winter weather. Doing my usual leaflet prowl in the foyer, I spotted information about the Ib Jorgensen fashion retrospective. Delighted to find something cheerful to view, I headed off in that direction. After all, what better way to spend a cold wet morning than gazing at some fancy couture frocks?

For any non-Dubs who may not know the layout of the museum, based in the former Collins Barracks buildings, you might not realise the amount of walking often required to find your destination. However, this is not a complaint by any means, as I love walking around the building complex, through galleries full of fascinating objects. I went early in the day, just after opening time and I felt as though I had the museum all to myself. I have written about the Reconstructed Rooms gallery previously, for the Irish News Review so it was with pleasure that I once again fantasised about what furniture I would take home with me. It is my regular game and I rarely tire of indulging in it. Today however, I would be fantasising about vintage couture outfits.

I had heard something of Jorgensen’s work before and I knew that he had retired from fashion design and opened an art gallery in his former salon in Molesworth Street. That was the extent of my knowledge of his career, so this exhibition was an excellent introduction. What I didn’t previously appreciate was just how good a reputation he had gained for his tailoring and finishing, something that I admire. My mum taught me to look at the finishing on garments before purchasing them. I still do this even though I know that sadly, I am often likely to be disappointed to find loose threads and dangling buttons.

The exhibition does not merely feature dresses, but coats and suits as well so you get a good idea of Jorgensen’s range as a designer. Jorgensen produced some of the outfits in collaboration with his talented wife Patricia Murray, a textile designer. Her hand beaded and embroidered pieces were stunning. Apart from the design work involved, it was amazing to consider the sheer dedication and skill involved in the physical production of the clothes. The practical side of me was wondering how you would maintain and clean pieces made up of sequinned fabrics. Maybe if you were wealthy enough to buy such clothes in the first place, then that would not be your primary consideration.

The exhibition flyer (see above) shows one of the sequinned dresses, ‘Casino Royale’ from the 1988 spring/summer collection. This is an evening dress made in deep pink satin brocade and wild silk. I think you would need to be an expert to distinguish between wild silk and any other variety, but the finished garment is beautiful, if not really my colour. Much more to my taste is a sequinned coat ‘Suleyman’, again from 1988 (donated by Anne Heseltine) with gold and pearl beading designed by Patricia Murray.

I sat and watched a video of a fashion show from 1993, the models parading to the mellow sound of Sade’s Smooth Operator. The show looked as stylishly produced as the clothes; a sense of humour was also in evidence, everything refreshingly un-egotistical. Perhaps that is because Ib Jorgensen seemed to be a modest and unassuming person, or at least that is how he came over in the interview clip. More a dedicated craftsperson than a prima donna type of the fashion world, he designed and made some wonderful clothes in his forty-year long career.

The Ib Jorgensen couture exhibition is on for the remainder of the year and it is well worth a visit. Given that I have latched onto it rather later than I should, I will certainly be fitting (pun intended) in another trip before it closes.

Let me know your favourite piece if you have been to see the exhibition!

Picture credits: Curiously Creatively and the National Museum of Ireland website (link above).

Autumn Leaves: Putting the Garden to Bed…Again

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Yes, it is that time of year again. Time to empty out pots; lift and divide plants; prune hedges and shrubs and generally to do all of those little autumn gardening jobs that need doing before winter really takes hold. Moreover, let us not forget about endless sweeping up of fallen leaves. I have managed to assemble four large sacks of leaves so far. Casting an eye over both front and back gardens tells me that the whitebeam tree is now winter naked, but that the sycamore has yet a frustratingly leafy appearance. If I am being truly conscientious, I will wash out all of the plant pots and tubs ready for spring. Oh, and tidy the shed, throw out anything broken or unnecessary and put the garden furniture somewhere dry.

My autumn resolution (my own innovation) has been to make myself take advantage of every mild, dry hour to do odd jobs, because I know from experience that when the bad weather really sets in then I might not set foot in the garden for days (OK, weeks). So far, this is working out, which is just as well as I still have bulbs to plant out. I do also need to lift and divide the miniature strawberry plants that have expanded over the summer. You might recall from a previous post that I have divided and re-planted some large clumps of chives, now settled in nicely before the winter. Also remaining on the ‘to do list’ is to find a home for two pots of campanula, bought weeks ago (marked down to clear) at the Airfield Estate garden shop. I hope it isn’t too late to tuck them into the ground; ideally they will go into our bulb/wildflower patch to add some gorgeous purple tones.

Returning to the topic of fallen leaves, I have been checking on the state of the compost bin before I run out of steam with the advent of winter. Our compost is improving all the time, I am glad to say. I cannot say that we are up to Monty Don’s standard yet (and anyway he has a much bigger space to play with) but I am pleased that we have been able to use compost for at least some of our planting for the last couple of seasons. Some of the bagged up leaves will gradually make their way into my compost mix, while the rest will mulch down for spreading directly on the borders. I am even contemplating acquiring a second compost bin. Sometimes, I am not sure whether I look rather eccentric, earnestly giving my compost a stir round with a stout stick at regular intervals. As it seems to be working, I think I will just have to risk it!

One of the lovely things about the garden at this time of year is the colours of the seasonal berries adorning various shrubs. For practical reasons, my favourite of these are the rosehips. Once again, we are planning to make some rosehip and apple jelly so I have been risking scratches to gather in the harvest. If there is a plant not to trifle with, it’s a dog rose; it takes no prisoners. At present, the fruit safely tucked away in the freezer awaits a jelly-making session. Thinking ahead to summer colour, I am anxiously watching my young foxglove plants, hoping that they survive their first winter and then bloom next year. My final mention goes to the lavender plants. We have three now, and I trimmed the oldest one back recently. The saved lavender flowers are awaiting attention. If we can find some suitable fabric tucked away, then I will be sewing up lavender sachets for the linen trunk at some point. That sounds like a cosy occupation for those cold, wet winter days when my gardening mojo falls by the wayside.

How are your autumn tasks going? Do drop us a line.


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