Monday, 21 July 2014

How to Make: Homemade Cassis

Easy homemade Cassis Recipe

If there's one over-riding theme I've picked up from the Christmas in July grocery events I've been to lately it's that Cassis is going to be HUGE this yuletide.  Warming and fruitifying everything from cocktails to mince pies, from sausages to stuffing you can get ahead of the game by making your own Cassis right now.

This is the time that blackcurrants are ripening and you'll find punnets in the shops if you're not lucky enough to have your own bush in the garden like we do.  It seems to be a bumper year this year.

I've only made a small batch since I'm the only boozer in this house, it would be a bit mean to use them all - the rest will be used to make 'beena' squash for the teetotallers in the household.

This is such a simple recipe, it really requires little effort, but it does take time to mature so if you make it now it will be perfect for Christmas, either as a gift or for proving to everyone that you're bang on trend in the kitchen this year!  If you've ever made sloe gin or blackberry vodka, it's basically the same principle so you'll have no trouble making this.

homegrown blackcurrants


400g ripe blackcurrants (wash and remove stalks)
250g caster sugar
500mls vodka (I've used Caucasian Old Vodka)

You will also need a sterilised kilner jar or wide neck bottle.

Easy homemade DIY Cassis Recipe

Wash and remove the stalks from your blackcurrants.  Place them in a bowl and give them a good squish with the back of a a spoon.
Add the sugar and squish up some more.

How to make Cassis
Tip the purple mush into a sterilised jar and add the vodka.

Shake well, and leave out so you'll remember to shake well once a day for a week or so. After one or two days it will develop into a rich, jewel violet shade.
How to make Cassis with vodka

After that you can pop it in a dark cupboard and leave it for 3 months.
After you've allowed it to steep, strain out the fruit through a muslin and pour the liquid into a sterilised bottle.
You can keep the fruit for dolloping over ice cream or adding to crumbles for a boozy treat.
Leave to mature until Christmas time.
Serve with Champagne for a classic Kir Royal, or add it to your cooking.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Ethical and Environmentally Friendly School Uniform Solutions

Ethical and Eco-Friendly school uniform

Last year I reviewed some school uniform from one of the supermarkets and it struck me how incredibly cheap the items were.  Now, I'm all for a bargain, but at what price does a £1.50 skirt come?  How on earth is it made and perhaps more importantly to me, who has made it?

With stories in the press of pleas for help being sewn into the labels of mass-produced clothing bound for the UK, the real cost of cheap clothes has been bothering me even more lately.

Ecooutfitters are breaking the mould for school uniforms and assure customers that every worker in the chain, from planting and harvesting the cotton, right through to labelling and distributing their garments are treated humanely and receive a fair wage.  They have signed up to the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) scheme which assures ecological and social responsibility.

In addition to worries about workplace conditions, more and more of us are worried about the global impact of the clothing industry.  As consumer have 'demanded' cheaper; easy-care; stain-resistant; non-iron garments, the processes and chemicals used on our children's clothing has increased.  Even those of us avoiding man-made fabrics might be surprised to learn that the production of conventional cotton is one of the most chemically intensive farming operations in the world.  Cotton grown in this way uses 25% of the world's insecticides and over 10% of the world's pesticides, having severe and long-term impacts on the soil, water courses and the environment as a whole.

Ecooutfitters use only 100% certified organic cotton, free from chemicals so not only are they better for the planet, they're a better choice to have next to your child's skin.  

Natural cotton allows your child's skin to breath, helps regulate body temperatures in hot sweaty classrooms and the organic cotton has no chemical residues which can aggravate skin conditions such as eczema.

We tried out some uniform items from Ecooutfitters and my initial observation was of the obvious quality and weight to the fabric over cheap, mass produced items.  The fabric to the cotton skirt and pinafore was thick and feels very durable, I'm sure she'll outgrow it before it wears out.  They are beautifully made with little details like ribbon trims and internal adjustable waistbands for a comfortable fit.

Ethical Organic Cotton School Uniform

The skirt costs from £14.95 and polo shirts £8.95 and whilst I appreciate it's more than you'd pay in a supermarket or discount retailer, given what's been said above I don't think it's a huge price to pay.  It's certainly going to last a lot lot longer than the cheap stuff you can pick up for a couple of quid.

Check out their whole range of uniform items including polo shirts, trousers, pinafores, skirts and PE kit.

Ethical Organic Cotton School Uniform Supplier Ecooutfitters

Disclosure: Thank you to Ecooutfitters for sending us a selection of uniform items to sample.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Tips for saving money on your overseas holiday

I've written already about how to save money on day trips in the UK and many of these would apply to holidays in this country too.  for those of you heading further afield this summer, here are my top tips for saving money on your trip abroad.

1. Currency

This can be a big expense and it can be all to easy too get caught out on poor exchange rates or high commission charges unless you spend ages shopping around.  Taking a pre-loaded cash card is a great way to take your spending money on holiday. It's much safer than carrying cash, you can use it just like a debit or credit card in stores to pay for items, or withdraw money from ATMs and there's no need to go somewhere special to exchange it.  You can load up what your budget allows for spending money, and stick to it, leaving your other cards at home.  Of course, there's always the worry that you might have some emergency which requires extra money, but with a card like Caxton FX, you can simply add more via a text from your phone. There's no commission and they guarantee great exchange rates, as well as a host of extra benefits.

2. Airline Resrictions

Make sure  you're up-to-speed with the latest airline restrictions.  Getting items confiscated is not only annoying and inconvenient, but it can cost you money to replace them.  I've seen grown women cry at security desks when they've had to ditch their designer perfume or expensive cleanser.  Most of us are aware of the liquid restrictions now - make sure all liquids, pastes, aerosols and gels are bagged separately in a clear plastic resealable bag.  No liquids over 100mls will be allowed.  Rather than buy expensive holiday minis from the shops, buy a travel bottle set (many discount or pound stores sell them) and decant your products from home.  Or use up all those hotel toiletries you've been stashing!

The newest security restriction which may catch some people out this summer is on battery operated equipment in hand luggage.  You may now have to power up your mobile phone/laptop/tablet/camera etc to prove it has a working battery, so if your phone is flat you risk having it confiscated or missing your flight while you charge it.  Airlines are still coming up with policies on how or if they'll return these items for you, but chances are you'll be out of pocket as well as inconvenienced. 

3. Weight allowances

Check and double check your weight allowance if you're flying. Then check and double check the weight (and measurements) of your luggage.  Don't get caught out with unexpected excess baggage charges.  And if you're planning to bring home souvenirs, remember to leave a weight allowance for that on your way home - or you'll be having to wear 4 layers of clothing!  Yeah, been there...

4. Pack Smart

Speaking of weight allowances, try to pack as cleverly as you can.  Minimise your clothes by packing a 'capsule wardrobe' - mix and match clothes that will work hard for you.  A large scarf for example will dress up a daytime outfit, work as a sarong on the beach and a pashmina in the evenings.  Pick one or two key colours, and work your outfit choices around that. We're probably all guilty of packing too many clothes on holiday, but free up space for other items you'll need but which are expensive to buy from resort shops such as sun cream, swimming goggles - dare I say it, umbrellas?!

5. Be Prepared

Nothing takes the shine of a holiday more than being ill or being involved on an accident, but when it ends up with costly medical bills it's even more of a nightmare.  Make sure you have adequate travel insurance for your family.  Shop around for the best deal and policy for your requirements - remember generally cheaper policies have less cover and a higher excess.  Check if you have cover included on things like your general insurance, your bank account, union membership or as an employee benefit.  The Caxton FX card also offers discounted medical insurance.  If you're travelling within the EU, make sure you sign up for the free EHIC card. Use this official link to apply free, and make sure you do it in plenty of time before your trip.  It will allow you access to free or reduced cost medical treatment (check full terms and details).

6. Be Book Savvy

Travel books, guides and maps are expensive and chances are you might never use them again after your trip, so pop to your local library and see what they have on offer for you to borrow for free.  There are also loads of free apps you can download - tourist guides, restaurant reviews, what's on sites etc.

7. Learn the Lingo

It's always nicer when you can say a few words in your host's language, but did you think that it could save you money?  I went to France last summer with a friend who happens to be a languages teacher and was amazed at the deals she managed to get.  I'm not suggesting you mug up to A-Level standard, but being able to exchange a few pleasantries will certainly ingratiate you with the locals and helps no end at markets, restaurants and most especially at boot sales flea markets.  Learn some key phrases before you go.

8. Kid's Cash

Holidaying with children can be expensive.  Constant requests for drinks, ice creams, inflatable beach toys, various bits of plastic souvenir tat and amusement arcades can soon drain your pockets.  If your kids get pocket money, encourage them to save that up and bring it with them.  It's interesting to see how much harder they think about whether they really want something, when they're paying for it themselves!

9. Dining Out

If you're eating out abroad, try to explore slightly off the beaten track for smaller, better value restaurants. Consult your library-borrowed guides and phone apps. Seek out the ones the locals use rather than the over-priced touritst traps on the main drag.  Generally you'll find better food, better service, less crowds and cheaper menus.

10. Holiday Snaps

Gone are the days of sending off your holiday films to be processed.  Nowadays most of us use digital cameras or our phones, but there's no reason why you shouldn't still get them printed rather than leave them languishing on a memory stick forever.  Check out the latest deals for 50 free prints at Snapfish; Truprint and 100 free with Jessups.

What are your holiday money-saving tips?  I'd love you to share them here.

This post is my entry for the Britmums / Caxton FM #holidayplanmum competition.

The Lorax - our favourite book for Children's Book Week

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It's not"

- Dr Seuss
  The Lorax

It's no secret that we love trees in this house.  Much of our spare time is spent in the countryside or at the forest, and I'm proud to be raising a little tree-hugger.  Therefore you won't be surprised to hear that The Lorax is one of our favourite books.

As relevant today as it was when written over 40 years ago, we need people to speak for the trees, to halt deforestation and preserve our planet.  Trees are our lifeblood. I don't think it would do any harm for all our political leaders and captains of industry to read this tale of greed and destruction.

Dr Seuss is famed for his nonsense rhymes; tongue-twisters and fantastical characters, but behind the Green Eggs and Ham was a man with a strong moral sense and political views. In his children's books he's explored such issues as environmentalism, consumerism, over-commercialisation and racial equality.  

Following the publication of a report in 1954 about literacy levels in American school children, in which it was concluded that children were turned off reading because their school books were boring, he was challenged to write a book which would appeal to new readers. He published The Cat in the Hat in response to this challenge, incorporating key words for early years students.                                                                          
His stories are still frequently in the top ten lists of most popular children's book and in America his birthday is celebrated as the national Read Across America Day to encourage literacy.

To us, Dr Seuss is a hero!    
This blog post is an entry into the Tots100/Heinz competition to support Children’s Book Week

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Caucasian Old Vodka - Lemon and Vodka Cake

A funny thing happened this weekend when we were staying at Church Farm in Ardeley.  As I was perusing the liquor shelf in the farm shop looking for a little tipple to watch the sun go down, a chap appeared and popped a 'locally produced' label right under my eyes.  That was in itself not odd - a lot of the products in the shop are produced on site - the vegetables; meat; eggs and plants.  What was odd was that he'd slapped it across the shelf containing vodka!

I joked that I always like to support local, so maybe I should try some, and before I knew it he was beckoning me into his unit to show me the vodka making set-up.

Caucasian Old Vodka, Ardeley, Hertfordshire

The owner from Georgia was happy to show me around, and generously offered tasters.  It was fascinating to learn of the vodka's history.  Old Vodka is made using a 200 year old family recipe, of which you could tell he was rightly proud.  He was happy to indulge my geeky interest in the still and the sterilising and bottling process - somewhat larger scale than my home brewed wine!  We chatted and he let me try some of his latest flavour experiments using spices and fruits.

Copper vodka still

Caucasian Old Vodka, Ardeley, Hertfordshire

Caucasian Old Vodka, Ardeley, Hertfordshire

Tagged 'the taste of freedom' when you hear the history of the family and how they've been making vodka throughout such political turmoil it's easy to see why.  Even as an independent state, small business owners still have a tough time in Georgia, which is why they've come here to produce their excellent spirit.

I have to admit, vodka is not my spirit of choice - especially neat, but this was like none I'd tasted before.  It was smooth and rounded.  They use pure natural spring water from the farm and triple filter to make a pure, clean spirit that's absolutely delicious.  It convinced me and I bought a bottle.

A drink this good deserves some special treatment so I made it a cake!

Vodka and lemon cake

Lemon and vodka seem to be a perfect pairing, and this cake is rich and moist and wickedly decadent.  Try it at a grown-up tea party, or as an after-dinner treat.  The alcohol is by no means overpowering, and the lemon flavour holds it's own, but  slice or two will leave you with a pleasant warming glow in your tummy!


120g softened unsalted butter
120g caster sugar (plus 1 tablespoon)
120g ground almonds
60g self raising flour
4 large free-range eggs
2 lemons
2 tablespoons milk
50g icing sugar
Old Vodka - depending on taste. I used 3 capfuls.  That's CAPS not CUPS!

Preheat oven to 180 degrees c.  Grease and line a medium cake tin.

Whisk the butter and sugar together until fluffy.  Separate your eggs one at a time, adding the yolk to the butter mix and beating, and reserving the whites in a clean bowl.  Once you've mixed in your final yolk, add the zest and juice of one lemon.  Switch to a spoon now and mix well.

Stir in the flour and almonds until combined and then add the milk.  Don't over work it.

Whisk your egg whites with the spoonful of sugar on high until you form soft peaks.  A spoonful at a time, add it to your batter, gently folding it in.  The rise in the cake will come mostly from the egg whites, so be careful not to knock the air out.

When it's fully mixed, pour into your cake tin and cook in the centre of the oven for approx 40 minutes until it's golden brown.

Leave to cool before removing from the tin. Prick the top all over with a skewer and drizzle the vodka over.

It's best if you wrap in greaseproof paper or foil and leave it overnight before icing.

wrapped vodka and lemon cake

Zest the remaining lemon and set aside.  Then make up the icing using lemon juice and drizzle over.  Sprinkle with zest.

vodka and lemon cake

Tasty Tuesdays on

Camping at Church Farm Ardeley

We decided to squeeze every last drop out of this weekend, it being one of the very few we've had lately on the calender that was gloriously free of kid's parties, sporting events and work commitments.

A couple of weeks ago I spotted this free diary opportunity and booked a weekends' camping at a local site. It wasn't one we'd been to before, in fact we're still pretty novice campers but I'm determined to get the most out of the investment we've put into our tent and all the paraphernalia.  People laughed at us going on holiday 30 minutes up the road.

I didn't care.  It meant Ruby could do a quick change of clothes at the end of her day, I could collect her from school, scoop her up into the packed car and we could head straight off, arriving at tea time with still the late afternoon and the whole evening to enjoy.

Church Farm at Ardeley is only about 10 minutes drive from Stevenage, not that you'd ever know it.  The countryside is so stunningly beautiful, with acres of cornfields, pretty villages and old churches, we really felt we were in the middle of nowhere.

Camping is offered at Church Farm in one of several fields.  You're free to find your own spot and it was fairly quiet so we opted to pitch at the edge of the field, close to the woods and with a stunning uninterrupted view over the pig sties and onto the pretty church beyond.  The centre of the field is left to grow long and has an abundance of meadow flowers, butterflies floating about and the odd sheep wandering over for a graze.

Church Farm bill themselves as a 'free range experience' and we took full advantage of that exploring the forest, the hedgerows, the various farm walks, as well as saying hello to all the livestock who live there.  We booked an egg collecting session on the Saturday, and it was a chance for Ruby to really get hands on with some farm activities.

On the Friday evening, after we'd pitched our tent and made the beds, we tucked into pasta cooked on the camping stove.  This is pretty back-to-nature camping, and although there are toilets and basic showers they are a long way from where we were pitched.  There's no washing-up station so this was done the old-fashioned way by boiling water and washing in a bowl at our tent.  The water for the site incidentally comes from their own natural spring.  It's also a 'leave-no-trace' site, you have to take all your rubbish home with you and this really made us much more aware of our impact on the planet in our day-to-day life.

As the sun started to set, Ruby and her dad played football in the long grass, while I enjoyed a Fentiman's gin and tonic (oh yes, who knew they made that?!).

Tired from the fresh air and a long day at school, Ruby settled in front of the campfire and we toasted marshmallows and read The Magic Faraway Tree to her as bats skitted above us in the dusky sky.

We slept like logs that night, drifting off with the distant sound of another camper playing his guitar and singing Bob Dylan tunes.

We woke the next morning to pouring rain and the sounds of Easyjets passing over (I'd forgotten that this area was on the flight path to Luton), so popped into Stevenage to try out their swimming pool and escape the rain.  Stevenage would not be high up on my list of places to visit, although the Old Town is quite charming with lots of independent shops and cafes.

In the afternoon it was time for egg collecting and a whole gaggle of children met up to pull the cart loaded with egg cartons and we set off to the Walnut Orchard to greet the chickens.  After feeding them, learning how to pick them up and hold them, the children excitedly set about collecting the eggs. The white chook wasn't very happy about being turned off her nest box so we could rootle about to see if she had any eggs under her.  She gave a few pecks, and when we put her gently on the ground, she fanned herself out and it became apparent why she was cross.  We'd obviously disturbed her business and she promptly laid an egg right there on the floor for us.  Ruby was delighted to pick up this brand new, still warm freshly laid egg. They found a staggering 205 eggs in total plus one duck egg!  Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to keep any of these as they have to be washed and graded (on a very cute vintage grading machine which sorts them into sizes), but we swapped our slightly mucky eggs for half a dozen from the farm shop which were turned into gloriously creamy, sunflower yellow scrambled eggs for breakfast on Sunday.

The farm shop offers an enviable array of fresh, locally produced stock as well as all manner of products you might find in a health food store - eco friendly toiletries and cleaning materials, just about every type of herbal tea you can imagine, a tasty array of freshly baked breads and cakes and an in-house butcher's counter. It also has a small but well stocked off-license section offering vodka made on site from their spring water. There are handmade crafts on sale from their social enterprise 'Rural Care' and you can even buy a shorn fleece from their lambs.

Another highlight of the farm is the tea room, dainty and charming, painted in pretty pistachio green and bedecked with bunting and paperchains.  Old-fashioned homemade cakes are served on vintage fine bone china, and delicate plates, cups and saucers are stacked up all around.  The tables are laid with floral oilcloths and decorated with rustic posies of ox-eye daisies and ears of corn in old green glass bottles. There's also seating outside in the courtyard where you'll find a children's playhouse, ride on toys and Tonka trucks, or in the cosy snug and garden room summer house.  It's a dreamy place to take afternoon tea, or indeed if you don't fancy cooking, pop in for a bacon sandwich or poached eggs for breakfast.

On Sunday we had a leisurely stroll around the circular farm walk, taking in the wood and stumbled on the Bush Man lodge, deep in the forest. A small but cosy and secluded wooden shack, there are several of these lodges to hire, furnished with a double bed and a woodburning stove.  From here you could sit out on the veranda, watch the sun setting and wait for the fallow deer and owls to make their appearance.

We continued around the hedgerows, past heritage orchards growing apples; quince; peaches and medlars and on to the pig sties to say hello to the lop eared pigs and the adorable piglets.  The woodland play area provided a cooling stop, and we sat on tree stump benches while Ruby negotiated the climbing frame.

It was a lazy Sunday with no hurry to pack up our tent and check out, so we wandered into the village of Ardeley to take a closer look at its Grade 1, 13th century church and its thatched village hall; village green and its water lily covered pond and watched the moorhen chicks balance precariously on the lily pads.

Church Farm has so much going on with half-term events and activities; a weekly veg box scheme; its own butchery; a huge range of small businesses leasing on site including a florist, a woodburner salesroom and a garage - this is rural agricultural diversification at it's best! There was even a wedding going on while we were there with the bride and wedding party being conveyed to the gathering atop hay bales in a bunting draped tractor-drawn carriage.

It was a magical weekend, far better than I could have hoped for and has made me all the more determined to squeeze the most out of our free time.

Camping at Church Farm is £7.50 per adult per night and £4.95 per child. Optional extras: £10 for permission to build a camp fire and the egg collecting session including half a dozen eggs is £7.50, bookable in advance. Animal feed is £3 per bag if you want to feed the chickens, pigs or cattle available from the shop.

Church Farm is located at Ardeley, between Baldock and Stevenage in Hertfordshire.

Pop over and say hello to them on Facebook.

Disclosure: We booked and paid for our camping trip ourselves.  All thoughts, opinions and photographs are my own.  Thank you to Church Farm for a wonderful stay. 


Monday, 7 July 2014

Magpie Monday - Holiday Memories

Hello Magpies.  Apologies for my absence, life just seems to be getting in the way of blogging at the moment - how rude!  I was thinking of dropping Magpie Monday posts down to once a month, I've been hosting for several years now and I think I need to reignite my spark.  Feeling like I need to post every week is taking the edge of it some what.  What do you think?

Anyhow, I do have something I wanted to share with you today.  We've just been away for a glorious weekend camping.  On a brief escape from the country farm campsite into the nearest town to go swimming and escape the rain, I nipped into an Oxfam shop (obviously).

Isle of Wight by G E Mitton Beautiful Britain book series

This book, not only being so beautiful I was compelled to buy it, holds such wonderful memories of childhood holidays.  We went to the Isle of Wight many times as kids, and the magical names of Shanklin Chine; Blackgang; St Boniface Down and Freshwater still fill me with nostalgia.  The island has such an olde-worlde charm and innocence about it that you can't help but fall in love.

More recently we went together as our last real 'couple' holiday, and it was while staying in 'The Shack' at Cowes, I discovered I was expecting our baby  nearly 7 years ago. Maybe this year or next we'll take her back there to discover the place for herself.

So you see, the Isle of Wight really is a special place for me, and I'm going to enjoy a sunny afternoon in the garden pouring over the contents and pretty illustration plates in this book.

Isle of Wight by G E Mitton Beautiful Britain book series

The binoculars you see were also a charity shop purchase from some time ago. Maybe not the greatest technically, they came in a beautifully battered leather case and they've been on many a trip, country walk and picnic with us. We took them this weekend too in the hope of spotting fallow deer and woodpeckers in the woods.

I love the poetic neatness of finding the book whilst on a holiday which will hopefully remain in Ruby's memory as one of her most enjoyable childhood times.

Do you have any second-hand treasures to share?  Grab the badge and link up, and do let me know what you think of holding Magpie Monday once a month.