Saturday, 27 August 2016

Top tips for thrify packed lunches


Sometimes my summer holidays come straight out of a Victoria Wood sketch: "72 baps Connie - you slice, I'll spread".

Yup, it's all about sandwich making.

Summer is high season for packed lunches in our household, in our quest for living on less and making the most of it.

Almost every time you read an article about saving money, it mentions packed lunches - at work, on outings, on holiday. That's because packed lunches really do represent serious savings. 

Think about it - even if you only spend £5 a head in a cafe or sandwich shop, that's £20 for a family of four. Try that for four days a week, for six weeks of the summer holidays, and suddenly you've shelled out almost £500. Ouch.

So if you'd rather spend your cash on the fun stuff as opposed to food stuff, here are my tried-and-tested tips for thrifty packed lunches.

Time vs money
As with much of life, it's a trade off between saving time or saving money.
Buying pre-packaged food is quicker, but will almost always cost more than if you make it yourself.
Splashing out on a box of quiche, fancy crisps, dips, packet of biscuits, can of Coke and a pot of melon and grapes is going to set you back a lot more than throwing together a ham sandwich and adding an apple, own-brand crisps, bottle of tap water and home-made cookie.

As an example, a quick and basic kid's packed lunch can cost less than 75p:
(prices from Morrisons, just because it's near me)

20p for a couple of thin slices of sandwich ham (£1 for 125g with 10 slices)
10p for a couple of slices of bread (if splashing out £1 for a loaf with 20 slices)
5p for a bit of butter (250g own brand butter for 87p)
14p crisps (pack of 6 own brand crisps for 85p)
20p apple (bag of 5 for £1)
6p for a couple of raisin cookies (blog post with costing here, using 50g raisins in recipe here).

Prefer buying to baking? Grab a pack of Clubs, Penguins or Kitkats when they're on offer at £1 for 8, so 12.5p each, and it would still cost less than 82p.

Multipacks are your friend
As you can tell from the example above, I'm keen on multipacks for producing packed lunches.
Bulk buying is almost always cheaper than buying individual items.
I stock up on multipacks of crisps, yogurts, fruit, fromage frais tubes, juice cartons and biscuits (anyone else get nostalgic when faced with a Penguin or an orange Club biscuit? Just me then?).
A stash in the cupboard also means you can grab stuff quickly for any last minute outings.

Child-friendly fillings
Making our own sandwiches means that everyone in our family gets something they actually want to eat.
The only acceptable sandwich for one child involves medium cheddar (not mature), grated, with none of that pickle nonsense. Dead easy to make at home, tricky when faced with a menu that only offers artisanal cheddar cheese on rye with rocket and lovingly crafted chutney.
Yet if my husband feels like eating salami and blue cheese, that's fine and dandy too.

Cheap and cheerful sandwich options
I try to ring the changes with assorted different fillings (apart from the grated cheese fanatic): ham, tuna, hummous, egg mayo, salami or on special occasions soft cheese & smoked salmon (look out for value ranges, smoked salmon sandwich slices or offers).
Additions like mango chutney, mayonnaise, onion chutney, pickle and mustard can liven up the taste for the adults.

Bring out the bread
Sure, the mainstay of our packed lunches is sliced bread.
But if we're off on holiday, and doing a lot of packed lunches, I'll throw in alternatives like rolls, burger buns, pitta bread, value range part-bake baguettes, bagels, wraps and sandwich thins. My sister's children love oatcakes. Mine don't.

Sandwich alternatives
If you can't face another sandwich, other options that work for us include;
- sausage rolls or mini sausages
- cheese scones. Cheap, cheerful and quick to make. Best baked on the same day you want to eat them, or bake and freeze.
- quiche, if your kids will eat it. One of mine will, one won't. Curses.
- pasta salad with tuna, mayo and assorted chopped veg like tomato and peppers
- greek salad pasta (pasta with tomato, cucumber, olives and value range feta aka "greek cheese"). 
- couscous with roasted veg like peppers, red onions, courgette and butternut squash, topped with more chopped feta
- chicken drumsticks, roasted the day before then chilled

My kids aren't overly keen on sliced veg in sandwiches, but they'll chew on a chunk of cucumber or some cherry tomatoes if offered separately. 
As a nod to health, I also take along a bag of chopped veg like carrot sticks, celery sticks, sliced peppers and even apple slices. 

When it comes to fruit, apples and satsumas travel well, and I take melon slices, grapes and strawberries in boxes. When on offer in summer, soft fruit like peaches, nectarines and plums can be good, even if messy. I've given up on bananas, after one too many squashed brown disasters. 

Even multipack juice cartons soon add up, so often we take refillable water bottles. If your kids are clamouring for variety, fill them with some sugar-free squash. My children love Fruit Shoots, but I'm only prepared to buy them on special offer, and have been known to substitute own-brand squash (shush, don't tell them). 

The odd pack of ready-salted isn't going to hurt anyone, but you might not want to take some every day. One super-cheap alternative is home-made popcorn, shovelled into freezer bags.

If you want to avoid warm yogurt, stick a few yogurt tubes in the freezer. Bung them in the packed lunch bag in the morning, and they'll defrost by lunch time, while keeping everything else cool too. 

Treats aka rampant bribery
Adding something sweet can provide an incentive to eat the healthy stuff, and will also help beat back demands for the tea shop.
I genuinely like baking, so often include quick and easy stuff like choc chip or raisin cookies, fruit scones, lemon drizzle cake, banana cake, flapjack or muffins. I also keep a bag of hot cross buns or teacakes in the freezer as back up.
Sometimes I even get organised enough to make jelly in little plastic boxes with lids, left over from weaning.

Max out the microwave
Microwaves can unleash a whole new world of packed lunch options, although admittedly they're a bit tricky to take on a family outing.
However, if you're taking a packed lunch to work, take advantage of any microwave available. Soups, pies and stews provide welcome relief from a sandwich treadmill.
I often cook extra food for dinner, so my husband can take a box of leftovers for lunch the next day.
One caveat - best to avoid strong smelling curries and fish pie for the sake of office harmony.

Caught short?
If you're out and about without a packed lunch, search for a supermarket.
Buying a meal deal or assorted rolls, filling and fruit, will almost always cost less than in a cafe or sandwich shop.
Nipping in for multipack ice creams or lollies can also cut costs on hot days.

What are your favourite packed lunch items? Any suggestions for more frugal food?

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Drumroll recipe index

Recipe inspiration! (although in the interests of full disclosure,
only one of those shelves is actually cookery books)

Just a quick one, to let you know that I've added a page listing all the recipes on this blog.

In a triumph of technology, there is now a whole second page on the website. Yes really. 

And then I got even more carried away, and added a third page called "In The Press", in case anyone wants to see what I've been writing elsewhere.

So if you look at the top of the blog, under the big "Much More With Less" headline, you should see the innovation of tabs for "Home", "Recipes" and "In The Press".

This means that if you've been racking your brains thinking: "I'm sure there was a recipe for cookies/ kedgeree/cordial" or even pizza/roast pork/pancakes, there's an easier way to track it down.

I've arranged the recipes into Savoury, Soups, Sweet and Live Below the Line, rather than a mish mash of everything, so fingers crossed that's helpful,

As I say on the recipe page, I'm a big fan of quick and easy recipes, using low cost ingredients. 

Some recipes I chuck together myself, but I also love trying out new recipes from a whole hoard of books, blogs, websites, magazines and supermarket recipe cards.

Where I've cooked other people's food, I've tried to include links to both my blog post and the original recipe where possible.

Over to you now - anything I've mentioned cooking where you'd like the recipe? Or just areas where you're keen to track down cheap and cheerful, fuss-free ideas?

Friday, 19 August 2016

Top 10 frugal things we did on our holiday

Hurrah for holidays

We're now back from two glorious weeks in Dorset, for a full-on bucket and spade, bring on the beaches, add ice cream kind of family holiday.

If you follow me on Instagram, you might already have seen a few flower photos from places we visited - do come over and say hi.

Holidays can be really expensive, when you add up all the food, outings, tickets, toys and the sack of coins just for parking.

Sure, with all the family outings we spent more than a normal couple of weeks at home. True to form however, I still took a money saving approach.

I intended to write a nice, quick post, but then got a bit carried away.

So here's a summary list of the top 10 things we did to cut the cost of a fun family holiday, with more below if you'd like extra details and pics!

Top 10 Tips for a Frugal Family Holiday

1. Prepare for packed lunches. Save a small fortune compared to eating out every time.
2. Bring on the beaches. Fun for hours with waves, sand, shells and games - when sunny.
3. Bag board games from charity shops. Stock up on entertainment at pocket money prices.
4. Go to the cinema for less. Plan A for rainy days, with inexpensive children's showings.
5. Locate the local library. Warm & dry with wifi, plus borrow books on a visitor's card.
6. Make the most of membership. Joined English Heritage or the National Trust? Use it.
7. Save with vouchers... Swap loyalty points for tickets & look out for "kids go free" vouchers,
8, ...and book online in advance. Save by booking beforehand, don't just rock up on the day.
9. Hang on to annual tickets. Just in case you do get the chance to return.
10. Check out church fetes. Cheap books, cheaper toys, cream teas, brass bands & raffles. Fab.

Yummy flapjack for packed lunches.
It's got oats and raisins, so pretend it's healthy.

1. Prepare for packed lunches
Yes even on holiday - especially on holiday - I made packed lunches whenever we went out for the day.
Taking your own food can save a small fortune, compared to the cost of eating out every time.
Cheese sandwiches, ham baguettes, bagels with cream cheese and hunks of quiche - we tried them all. (Post with top tips on thifty packed lunches here)
Taking packed lunches also left more in the budget for ice creams all round afterwards.
Plus it made the one lunch out with the grandparents, at the highly-recommended Hive Cafe, particularly special.

Sun, sea and shingle at Lulworth Cove. Just beautiful.

2. Bring on the beaches
Even the most screen-hardened, tech loving children might still be prepared to enjoy themselves on a sunny beach.
For the cost of a few pounds for parking, we spent hours on assorted beaches along the truly beautiful Dorset coast, from Lulworth Cove to West Bay via Charmouth, the Hive beach and Church Ope Cove.
The kids could paddle, jump over waves and even occasionally brave swimming. We lugged along buckets and spades for essential sandcastle building, hole digging, human burial, mermaid creation, beach decoration and stone collecting, with the odd attempt at fossil hunting. Add in a ball, a kite or a frisbee and you're away.
Thank goodness the weather was kind.
And thank goodness my children are now 6 and 8, so I could sometimes take a break with a book, rather than leaping up every two minutes to rein in toddlers set on certain death.

Bridport: a fine source of charity shops.

3. Bag board games from charity shops
The beaches were fab, but as ever with a holiday in England, it's not realistic to rely on constant sunshine.
Charity shops are a great place to stock up on low-cost entertainment for rainy days.
Before we left, I picked up a new board game, Othello, for £2.50 from our local Sue Ryder shop, which generated much family rivalry.
While away, doling out a couple of quid to your kids to spend in charity shops can be a great way to keep them busy, and get much more for their money.
We spent a happy morning pottering round the fine charity shops in Bridport, where my son insisted on buying a travel version of Connect 4.
Best 75p ever spent, as it kept us all quiet for ages and even came in handy on car journeys.

Finding Dory: the joys of marketing campaigns for children

4. Go to the cinema for less
Our plan A for a rainy day is always to head to the local cinema.
If you can lever yourself out of bed, tickets for early morning children's film showings can be super cheap. Think from £1.80 a ticket at Cineworld Movies for Juniors, £1.99 at Vue's Mini Movies or £2.50 with Odeon Kids, for films a few months after their initial release.
We headed into Dorchester, and splashed out an entire £3 a head to see a current release - Finding Dory. Bargain.

In Burton Bradstock, even the library looked picturesque.

5. Locate the local library
Libraries are another great option when the weather is rubbish - warm and dry with wifi, and plenty of books and comics to keep the children (briefly) occupied.
Even if you're on holiday, most libraries will issue a temporary card so you can borrow stuff too. Admittedly, it does help if you can remember to take along ID like a driving licence, and proof of address such as a recent utility bill.
We borrowed a shedload of books from Bridport Library while my husband did the Palmer's Brewery tour, and acquired a family friendly DVD (We Bought a Zoo) for 50p donation to the Burton Bradstock branch.

Posing up a storm in dressing up clothes at Portland Castle

6. Make the most of membership
If you've forked out to join English Heritage or the National Trust, it's worth checking if there's anywhere to visit near your holiday destination.
Once you've paid the subscription, you can rock up at whatever combination of castles, forts, country houses or gardens you fancy. The National Trust also owns great chunks of the coastline, so that car sticker can bring free parking, handy for Burton Bradstock, the nearest beach.
I negotiated a cheaper rate when renewing our annual family membership with English Heritage (£74 rather than £92.50), and we visited Lulworth Castle and Portland Castle while away. Tickets would otherwise have cost £16 and £13.70 respectively, for a family of four. If we visit Audley End now we're home, we'll have covered the annual membership, and any other visits to English Heritage sites will then effectively be free.
If you're signing up for the first time, always check if there are online discounts on offer, and see if there is any cashback on offer via sites like TopCashback and Quidco.
(More details about cashback in a previous post)
Thankfully, many English Heritage and National Trust properties are immeasurably more child-friendly than my memories of dusty guy ropes and guided tours. Loads nowadays have trails to follow and lots of stuff you can touch, push, play with or dress up in. We particularly liked the interactive booming cannon exhibit at Portland Castle and the bat hunt and exhausting spacehoppers at Lulworth Castle.

Anyone found Nemo yet? Nope? Moving on...

7. Save with vouchers...
There are only so many worthy castles and libraries two children can take.
One of the highlights of the holiday for our offspring was a trip to the Sea Life Adventure Park in Weymouth.
Luckily, you can often get cheaper entry to theme parks and assorted Merlin Attractions like the Sea Life centres by using Nectar points, Tesco Clubcard points or vouchers from branded food. Kellogg's, Birds Eye and KitKat have all run promos in recent years.
Last year I hoarded "adults go free" vouchers on cereal packets so we could go to Legoland (post about visiting Legoland on a budget here).
This year, we invested in Kellogg's cornflakes to get two free adult tickets to  Sea Life.
It's hardly a cheap day out, as even with the vouchers, the tickets still cost £47 for the four of us. This compares to prices from £75 when booked in advance, or from £94 if you show up on the day.
However, we did spend a good 5 hours there, and entry includes a trip up the Jurassic Skyline tower on Weymouth sea front.
The Sea Life centre itself is part aquarium, part theme park.
The children ran around gathering stamps in a little booklet at all the different exhibits of fish, sea creatures and other animals, including seals, otters and penguins. They were also given cardboard goggles and a sheet about spotting "Finding Dory" characters.
The site also includes a few gentle rides like a crocodile splash roller coaster, some seaside amusements like 2p coin drops, and a big water play area with slides, squirters and a large barrel that empties cold water down your neck.

Sarah Jane, the flying trapeze artist, with the ringmaster.

8. ...and book online in advance
While we were out and about, we picked up a voucher for Chaplin's Circus which was visiting Bridport during our holiday, and decided to splash the cash on a family-friendly evening out.
By booking online beforehand, and using the voucher code for free children's seats, our tickets cost £28.
If we'd rocked up at the box office, the same tickets would have cost £50 including booking fees.
The circus was tiny but lovely, with 1920s costumes and no animals.
The acts included glamorous ladies on a slack rope, spinning hoop, silks and flying trapeze, plus a fire eater / juggler, a ring master who was also an escapologist and the endearing clown, Twiglet.
My daughter was particularly delighted to win the raffle after the interval, and the inflatable beach ball and plaster animal moulds were particularly successful.

Mish mash of re-enactors when we used our annual ticket to Bovington Tank Museum

9. Hang on to annual tickets
Some attractions charge an arm and a leg, and then justify it by selling you an annual ticket, and encouraging you to come back lots of times (London Transport Museum, I'm looking at you).
Fine if you live down the road, not such great value if you're only in the area on holiday.
My advice: hang on to the ticket, just in case.
Last year during our solid week of rain, we ended up at Bovington Tank Museum. This is about the nearest you can get to tank heaven, if you are that way inclined. We paid £35 for the privilege of seeing tanks in the dry, and an all-action tank display while somewhat damp.
Anyway, I not only managed to unearth the ticket before this year's holiday, but we also squeezed in a trip before it expired.
We rocked up on a Saturday afternoon and walked straight into the middle of a surreal pick'n'mix approach to armed conflict.
They were holding a "Warfare through the Ages" day, so the whole place was pullulating with tents and re-enactors, everything from Roundheads and the Cavaliers and the American Civil War, via Napoleonic cavalry soldiers to the First World War.
It was most odd seeing sixteenth century characters trying out sten guns, and some rather fetching waistcoats worn in the gift shop.
We were also presented with free copies of Britain at War magazine on leaving. Bonus.
PS My husband informs me that two of the tanks we saw driving around and firing their guns were Canadian Leopard tanks "and well worth seeing".

Grand haul from the church fete

10. Check out church fetes
Church fetes, school fairs, village shows - I love them all. So I was particularly delighted that the Burton Bradstock Church Fete took place during our stay.
I'm putting this under a money-saving activity because we came away with a fine haul of second hand books, toys, games and a belting £1 investment in the tombola which won us two bottles of beer and a fruit shoot.
It was a truly trad fete complete with bat the rat, white elephant stall, cream teas by the WI and a big brass band. Fabulous.

Brass band from the Burton Bradstock fete. Fabulous.

If you've managed to get this far - congratulations.

We really did enjoy our holiday, and even if wasn't super cheap, we did make some savings here and there.

What are your top tips for a thrifty family holiday? Best ideas for frugal fun? I'd love to know.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

What to pack to cut the cost of a self-catering holiday

What to stash from your store cupboard for a self-catering holiday

Currently I'm bracing myself for the start of the school summer holidays, and our annual fortnight away.

We always go on self-catering holidays, to help keep the costs in check. Aside from stuffing the boot with swimming costumes, sun cream and sandals, I also pack a box of provisions.

If you really want to cut your shopping bill while away, it pays to take some storecupboard essentials from home.

I try to do a meal plan based on quick and easy family favourites before we leave. Then I can identify the crucial ingredients where I only need a teaspoon here, or a couple of ounces there.

I'm not suggesting surviving on a suitcase of Pot Noodles.

It's more that food bills soon rocket if you have to buy a whole jar, bag or packet, when you only need a single tablespoon of chill powder, a teaspoon of cinnamon or just one stock cube.

Also, much as it might be fun to visit local markets or delis, I'd rather spend less time slogging around a big supermarket with a couple of bored children.

So I book an online supermarket delivery for the night we arrive, for fresh food, and bring some long-lasting ingredients with us. Then we only have to do top up shops here and there.

Here's my list, in case it sparks any ideas for your own holiday:

- salt and pepper grinders
- salt for grinding
- black peppercorns
- vegetable oil

Stuff to perk up sandwiches
- mango chutney
- caramelised onion chutney
- light mayonnaise
- whole grain mustard

Fish & chip supplies
- malt vinegar (I reckon they never add enough in the chippie)
- tomato ketchup

Salad dressing stuff
- white wine vinegar
- balsamic vinegar
- olive oil
- dijon mustard
- garlic

Recipe essentials
- chilli powder
- curry powder
- ground cinnamon, for pancakes
- golden syrup, also for pancakes
- dried oregano, to give home made burgers a kick
- dried paprika or smoked paprika, for sausage stew on a cold day
- fajita seasoning
- parmesan equivalent like grana padano or Italian hard cheese
- soy sauce for stir fries
- Worcestershire sauce for spag bol
- tomato puree
- couple of bay leaves
- couple each of chicken, beef and veg stock cubes
- couple of chicken gravy stock pots, that make the gravy my daughter adores
- fish sauce

Baking supplies, for packed lunches & rainy day activities
- baking powder
- bicarbonate of soda
- couple of fast action yeast sachets, in case we have a go at bread or pizza bases
- vanilla essence
- ground ginger
- assorted sprinkles
- assorted food colouring
- soft brown sugar
- icing sugar
- 50g popcorn kernels
- 50g cocoa
- 50g raisins

I buy a big box of tea bags and fancy coffee, but bring stuff from home where we're unlikely to use much:
- Nescafe for the grandparents' visit
- decaff Nescafe (ditto)
- sweetners (ditto)
- few peppermint teabags
- hot chocolate, for returning after rainy days

Survival essential
- gin

I bunged this list into, and had a look at Morrisons as a reasonably low cost supermarket.

Even sticking to own brands and offers, it still came to more than £60, without the gin. Ouch.

I'd rather take the stuff from home, and have more to spend on the holiday.

Any suggestions for other food it pays to pack when you go on holiday? I'd love to hear.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Wild strawberry muffins

Wild strawberry muffins

On one side of our house, wild strawberries are set on world domination.

The little white flowers are so delicate, but they tend to pop up in unlikely places - like bang in the middle of the garden path.

Wild strawberry plant right in the middle of the garden path

They lull you into a false sense of security and then - kapow - they spread.

Fraction of the all-encompassing wild strawberry plants at the side of the house

Looking on the bright side, last week I did manage to nip out and pick a bowl of teeny tiny wild strawberries before the birds stripped the lot.

Whole bowl of wild strawberries. May look small, but it took a while.

Once picked, I was keen to find a recipe that would stretch them as far as possible. Wild strawberries have a more delicate and less sweet taste than normal strawberries, so I was pretty sure the children wouldn't eat them unaccompanied.

In the end, thanks to the wonders of Google, I found a quick and easy blueberry muffin recipe by St Mary of Berry to tweak.

The recipe only uses a limited amount of sugar, so the end result is quite light but not super sweet. It also uses vegetable oil rather than butter or marge, but give it a whirl, they still taste good.

I took a batch along when we went to visit friends at the weekend, and they disappeared almost as fast as they hit the cakestand. I'll count that as a success.


Golden brown muffins, cooling on a rack

250g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
150g caster sugar
175ml milk
150ml vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
90g wild strawberries (or blueberries or whatever you fancy)

12 muffins, if you use great big muffin cases. I managed to eke out 24 in small size cupcake cases.

5p each for 24, 10p for 12, plus the cost of the fruit. The wild strawberries from our garden were free.
Based on: Morrisons for 1.5kg Savers Plain Flour for 45p, 170g Dr Oetker Baking Powder for £1.31, 1kg Caster Sugar for £1.48, 2.27 litres milk for £1, 1 litre vegetable oil for £1.20, 15 mixed-weight free-range eggs for £2.
I use pricey Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Extract, which costs £5.55 for 118ml from Lakeland, although it's currently £4.53 in Waitrose. You only need to use small amounts for a great taste, so it lasts for ages.

1. Line a muffin tray or couple of cupcake trays with paper cases, depending on which size you use.
2. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C / gas mark 4.
3. Weigh out the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder and sugar) in a mixing bowl.
4. Measure the milk and oil in a measuring jug, then add the vanilla extract and eggs, and whip it all up a bit with a fork.
5. Pour the liquid from the measuring jug into the dry ingredients, and stir together with a metal spoon until smooth. It makes quite a sloppy mix.
6. Remember to add the wild strawberries, blueberries or whatever fruit you fancy, and mix together.
7. Divide the batter between the paper cases, filling about two thirds full.
8. Bung in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until the muffins look golden brown and the top bounces back when touched lightly.
9. Leave to cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.
10. Beat back raiding children so you actually get a few for yourself.

Aga cooking
Using our elderly Aga, I put the tray on top of a rack on the bottom of the roasting oven, with the cold shelf above on runners about half way up.
Once one tray was cooked, I took the cold shelf out and ran it under the tap to cool it down (oven gloves are essential!!), then replaced it and cooked the second tray.
Yes, this is more faff than a fan oven. Sigh.

Anyone else got a recipe using wild strawberries to recommend?

Saturday, 9 July 2016

How to make cheat's marmalade

When we moved to the country, I had idyllic visions of making jam, bustling about bottling things with great big pans bubbling away on Aga.

We'd harvest the plums from the tree in the secret garden, have family outings to go blackberrying, snap up Seville oranges and then come home and cram it into delicious jewel-bright jars.

I duly hoarded jam jars like the worrying subject of a Channel 4 documentary, and insisted on a special trip to Aldi when preserving pans and jam thermometers were on special buy.

Somewhere along the line, life intervened. The shiny new pan has spent a year stuck at the back of the shelf.

But I still had the best of intentions. My grandmother made marmalade. My mother still makes marmalade. I wanted to make marmalade too, even if I did try to gloss over memories of quite how much chopping, straining and swearing was involved.

As the Seville orange season came and went, I resigned myself to another year without attempting home-made marmalade. So when I saw a battered jar of Ma Made on the reduced shelf in the Co-op, I had to buy it.

The list of ingredients was reassuringly short - seville oranges, water, citric acid aka lemon juice and pectin, as a setting agent. My £1 purchase promised 6lbs of home-made marmalade in 30 minutes, just by adding sugar and water. I only had to follow the instructions on the label.

No peeling and chopping of reluctant oranges would be necessary. Hartley's had done all the hard work for me, and put it in a tin. (Of course, Hartley's could do even more of the hard work, and put it into jars of marmalade, but don't knock the dream here).

It took a mere two months for me to buy the sugar, use the sugar for something else, buy more sugar and finally get round to cleaning the jars and actually making the marmalade.

Here's my report from the marmalade-making coal face.


Ma Made, sugar, water. That's it.


Handy jar of Ma Made
425ml water
1.8kg sugar
er, that's it.

£1 for Ma Made, plus 80p for the sugar needed, so £1.80 for 7 jars, making them 26p each.
I reused jars from jam we'd already eaten.


1. Do lengthy calculations to work out how many jars will be needed, based on normal jars of jam containing 454g and the tin of Ma Made promising 6lbs of marmalade. Only realise that normal jars contain roughly 1lb, so that means 6 jars, after resorting to a spreadsheet. Doh.

2. Liberate some of the massed ranks of hoarded jam jars, with a sense of relief that they are finally coming in useful. Demand your children return some of the jars filched for potion making so you can have matching lids.

3. Remember previous attempts at making cranberry conserve, and running out of sterilised jars. Add an extra one for luck.

4. Bung the jars in a hot wash in the dishwasher, lids and all.

5. Retrieve enormous jam pan from the back of the cupboard and give that a wash.

6. Battle with tin opener to opened dented tin of Ma Made. Somehow succeed in getting the contents out.

What Ma Made looks like, when you've finally got it out of the tin.

7. Try a tiny bit of Ma Made. Regret tasting a tiny bit of the Ma Made. Realise the recipe requires adding a truckload of sugar because the starting point is very bitter.

8. Add the 425 ml (3/4 pint) of water. There's even a handy measuring mark on the side of the jar.

9. Add the truckload of sugar. Feel pleased that Morrisons were selling massive 2kg bags for 88p.

MaMade + water + a whole lot of sugar

9. Stir in the sugar, and bring it to the boil.

MaMade with the sugar mixed in.

10. Wait for the damn stuff to boil.

11. Curse the bit of the instructions that says "stir continously" while bringing to the boil.

12. Decide intermittent stirring will be sufficient.

13. Realise that if you use an elderly Aga, and have just put an enormous pan of cold stuff on top, after already cooking two sets of noodles and two sets of stir fry, the chances of there being enough heat left to bring it to the boil any time soon are approximately nil. Curse the Aga. Pause for short day dream about modern hobs that actually, you know, heat things.

14 Realise the final of the Great British Sewing Bew is about to start. Remove mildly warm marmalade mixture from the hob, cover the pan with a tea towel, and abandon marmalade-making attempts for this evening.

15. Charlotte won! Hurrah.

16. Resume marmalade making attempts the next day. Marvel when the marmalade finally does come up to the boil.

Marmalade, boiling. Why couldn't you do that the night before, eh?

17. Officially: "Reduce heat, maintain boil for a further 15 mins, stir occasionally". In practice, attempt to supervise stirring by children briefly keen to help, to avoid super-heated sugar syrup disasters.

18. Note instruction on tin to "Add a knob of butter during boiling to disperse foam". Realise have run out of butter. Decide to ignore any foam.

19. Get excited about testing for setting for the first time (I don't get out much). Tin says "Put half a teaspoon of marmalade onto a cold saucer and put in a cool place.". Assume if it meant the fridge, it would say the fridge, so maybe not that cold. Compromise with putting the saucer on the back stairs, as one of the chilliest places in the house.

Setting test, with a few wrinkles in the marmalade if you look really hard.

20. Officially: "Test after 2 minutes, by drawing a finger over the surface. If it wrinkles, setting point has been reached. If not, reboil for a few minutes. Test again." Well, I tried the finger business after two minutes, and it seemed a little bit wrinkly, so I kept the marmalade boiling for a few more minutes, then took it off the heat and had another go.

Finished marmalade

21. Fend off child who has returned just as I am retrieving a pan of clean jars from the roasting oven, where they've been heating them for 10 minutes to destroy any remaining bugs. Suggest they taste the setting point sample.

Washed, heated jars. They'd better be clean now.

22. Am informed the marmalade would benefit from a touch of lemon juice. By my six-year-old. Sigh.

23. "Leave marmalade to stand for a further 2-3 minutes, before pouring into warmed jars." The wide mouthed metal funnel I was given years ago came in really handy here, for transferring hot marmalade from an enormous pan into the jars with minimal mess.

24. Feel relief about cleaning an extra jar - the mixture filled 7 jars rather than 6.

25. The instructions reckon that if the peel floats, stir contents of each jar. Am unsure about level of floatage. Stir anyway.

26. Put the lids on. Or parchment or film, whatever you fancy.

27. Search for the small sticky labels suitable for jam jars. Fail to find them. Resort to enormous parcel labels instead.

28. Gaze on your seven jars of marmalade with great pride.

Love the glowing orange colour when the sun shines through the marmalade.

29. Sit in the sunshine eating toast and marmalade, even if you have run out of butter. Lemon juice? Pah. I think it tastes just fine. Paddington would be proud.

Anyone else enjoy making marmalade? From scratch, or with Ma Made? Or is it just too much faff?

Sunday, 3 July 2016

A flower a day over on Instagram

#floweraday: aquilegia by the back door - my first photo on Instagram

Earlier this year, I finally joined the 21st century when I got my first smartphone.

Previously I rejected new-fangled touch screens in favour of a phone with buttons, so I could make calls, send texts, and not a fat lot else.

New phone, old phone. 

Despite my Luddite tendencies, I am now a complete convert.

Turns out I love checking emails, blogs, Facebook and Twitter on the move. I've become evangelical about apps that pay me to shop and walk (of which more another day). Without a smartphone, I don't think I would have started running and staggered through Couch to 5K.

However, I don't spend my whole time glued to the screen, ignoring people and tripping over the kerb. It's actually helped me take a closer look at the wider world.

One of the big things that finally propelled me to make the leap was the photo-sharing app, Instagram. I do love taking photos, and used to potter around with a small point and shoot camera in my bag. Instagram however has no truck with digital cameras. You can only upload photos from smartphones, and not computers.

So, although I'm rather late to this particular party, I've started posting a flower a day on my Instagram feed.

Aside from my delight in capturing images, it's making me notice what's coming in to flower when.

I can scroll back through the pictures for a record of the development of our garden, the passing of the seasons and the places we've visited.

I've been pestering people to help me identify assorted unknown plants, although much is still at the level of "pale pink rose".

#floweraday: raspberry ripple in rose form

Thinking about photos to post has made me much more aware of sunlight through leaves, the shadows in the house and the beetles and bugs pointed out by my children. It means I actually take the time - even if it's only a few minutes in the morning - to focus on the small beauties around me.

Looking more closely at our garden costs nothing at all, but provides enormous pleasure. In these times of chaos, it provides moments of calm.

It's also given me new connections further afield. An unexpected bonus is the international nature of Instagram. Surprise, surprise an image sharing site is much more accessible to people who speak different languages than the likes of blogs or Twitter. I've stumbled across truly beautiful photos from anywhere from Finland to Guatemala.

So do come over to Instagram and follow me, if you're into that kind of thing:

I'd been meaning to post about my "flower a day" efforts on Instagram for a while, but was finally prompted to do so by Sadie's post over on "A Life in the English Rain" about acquiring her own smartphone, and starting out on Instagram, so do go over and check out her photos too:

Anyone else into Instagram? Let me know so I can come and look!

#floweraday: iris in the front garden