Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Non-Paris Interlude: Arcadia

Having just finished Iain Pears' new book Arcadia, I had a quick google to find a link to use when adding it to my "Books" list to the left on this blog. I opted for the publisher's listing for the book there, but  then I read Mr Pears' article "Why You Need An App To Understand My Novel." Sadly, the article makes me think a bit less of Mr Pears, in part, possibly, because Scott and I had a brief discussion about his books earlier this evening and eventually agreed that they were on the light side of things. No one could ever accuse me of being opposed to the lighter side of literature, as it happens, but I find it disturbing when light writers think they're particularly profound.

 I really liked Mr Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost when I read it more than a decade ago (possibly close to two decades ago, on reflection). It seemed clever and intelligent and complex and all sorts of things that most books written in the last half a century just, well, aren't. I reread it sometime in the last year or two and it was still a good book, but clearly not the amazing thing I first thought it was. Some books are that way: brilliant the first time through and just good, or maybe not even that, after you've read them once and the tricks have been revealed. Arcadia was a fun read and I raced through it pretty quickly but, well, it's not all that complicated and, frankly, if you need an app--or anything else--to follow the various storylines, possibly you need to go back to fifth grade.

 Because it's really something of a Young Adult novel, complete with a plucky fifteen-year-old female heroine. (That in one storyline--oh, SPOILERS!--she gets married at that tender age, might make it a fairly special sort of young adult novel, but then, I'm not that familiar with the genre.) But the thing is, it's not hard to keep the various threads straight. There's nothing particularly complex going on in the book. There are a few "Oh, I see what you've done there . . ." moments but that's what they are: moments.

 If I had tags or used them for posts, I guess this would get a "disillusionment with an author" tag because it's just sort of painful when an author thinks he needs to explain his work, or when he suggests that it's just hard to understand what he's done. I wish I hadn't read the "Why You Need an App" article. Don't click that link and don't read what the author has written there. Cleanse your mind by looking at these sweet little soldiers and then just read Arcadia itself. It's a fine little book.
Completely unrelated photo: some soldiers from a shop window that I wish I'd bought.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Bienvenue, Paris!

 Hello blahdeblahblah, you old thing! It's been ages, or at least more than two weeks, and a jet-lagged Sunday is probably not the ideal day for our reunion. Scott and I were in Paris for the last couple of weeks and a fine time it was too, despite the regular dumpings of torrential rain. Rain such as I don't know that I've seen since my Bellingham days. There were some blue skies, too, and golden light, and impromptu picnics in the park, with the makings of sandwiches picked up at street markets we happened across.

 What I already miss most is the number of boulangeries/patisseries per square foot that one finds in Paris. I could walk to three, maybe four, quite respectable providers of croissants and baguettes in less than three minutes from our Montmartre apartment. When willing to climb some stairs and add a few minutes to the expedition, I could reach twice that number. This morning Scott got up and went up to Bakery Nouveau but it wasn't the same, no, it really wasn't. Sigh.

 But it's also grand to be home; the house feels so huge and bright--and it also contains Gradka who seems to have gained a bit of weight under the care of the catsitter. The West Seattle farmers market on a crisp fall morning is also a fine thing. I realized that were we so inclined, we could easily put together a nice picnic from what we could buy there. And we could eat it under a clear sunny sky.

My plan is to milk this trip for a number of posts. For this installment, I'm tossing a few photos below and calling it good.

Cat on the Montmartre streets after dark; I'm hoping Scott was correct in believing that her owner would soon be home to let her in.

Head and hand of one of the Burghers of Calais in Rodin's garden
Possibly my favorite day of the trip . . . Monet's water lily pond in Giverny

Sure, I talk about the boulangeries but possibly it's the fromageries that I found it most impossible to pass by.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The not-for-me camera

Osprey that Scott photographed while firmly anchored
A few weeks back I ordered a new lighter-weight camera, sold on it by the various rave reviews it got from, seemingly, everyone. It had something like 300 positive reviews, from people who seemed comparable to me in their experience, ability, and interests. I can only assume that those people have far steadier hands than I do or take photos of a lot of stationary birds because today, sadly, I am packing up the camera to return it. Neither Scott nor I can successfully use the viewfinder and to use the amazing zoom, we found that you really need to be anchored to an immovable object. (Well, Scott found that leaning against a pillar worked for him; I still couldn't get a clear shot, more often than not) It was when I couldn't manage to focus on a flower three feet away that I decided to stick with my heavier but less demanding old Rebel.

The downpour
The Fill itself wasn't entirely up to its usual standard though we were pleased to see both the coots and the cormorants back from wherever it is that they go. There were also a pair of ospreys, doing their osprey thing and about a million chickadees. We watched a pair of Wilson's warblers chasing each other around in the swamp but by that stage I knew there was no point in even trying to locate and photograph the birds. And then we were soaked in the downpour.

Two somewhat more successful photos: Scott in the swamp and a savannah sparrow by the UW Botany greenhouses which area Alex so nicely sketched a few days ago.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Grape Jamly: Now with more details and plenty o' photos!

Such a week it has been that though it is only Thursday night and we made the grape jamly on Sunday afternoon, it already seems like an age ago and whatever fascinating account I intended to give of the experience is quite faded. But I have photos and I'm hoping those will both aid my memory and add interest to this potentially dry report.

Mostly what I remember are the Miracles of Aurora and, on reflection, our inability to recognize them in advance. We were low on jars so we bought another eight at True Value. On looking at the recipe, I saw that five pounds of grapes should fill seven jars. Given that we had a large-ish supply of grapes and some additional jars, we opted to increase the recipe by half and prepare all but one of our jam-size jars. This was our first failure because of course in Aurora's house the number of jars you have is the number of jars you'll need and we ended up having to sterilize that final jar on its own. With it, we ended up with exactly the amount of jam to fill fourteen jars, and I mean ex-act-ly. Where does that happen but in Aurora's house?

I picked a basket of grapes (see above) before we got started without a great deal of concern as to how many we needed for the jamly. After using seven and a half pounds for the jamly I found we had pretty much exactly four pounds remaining--or just enough to whip up two batches of grape pie filing for the freezer. "Oh, Aurora," we cried in gratitude, "truly thou art not only miraculous but also practical!"

 So then. For those wishing to make grape jamly at home, here is how it is done. First off, find a proper recipe--ideally, you won't leave it sitting where the water draining from your colanders soaks it but, if you do, move it to a safely distant surface to dry flat.

This recipe is nice in that it's really simple numerically and involves only three ingredients: 5 pounds of grapes to 5 cups of sugar to 3 tablespoons of lemon juice. We increased it to 7.5 to 7.5 to (and this is where it got tricky and we had to double-check the math) 4.5 tablespoons of lemon juice.

The first step is the somewhat tedious business of slipping the grapes from their skins. Scott and I stood on opposite sides of the counter, each with our own 3.75 pounds of grapes, pot, and bowl and made a race of it. I won.

You then take your grape skins and a cup of sugar and puree them together. Some people likely have full-size Cuisinarts and would be able to process all seven pounds worth of skins (and two cups of sugar) at once; with our plucky little handy chopper, it took a few rounds.

Next, you dump everything into a couple of good-size pots and start it a-simmerin' and a-boilin'. I have no idea why I think this stage requires one to drop one's gs but, clearly, I do. It's a good idea to have your big canning pot of water getting ready to think about heating up at this stage. You should also have a couple of small plates chilling in the freezer.

Once the grape stuff has come to a boil and cooked down a little (about 20 minutes, according to the recipe), it's time to flirt with third degree burns. You dump the steaming mass of fruit, sugar, and lemon juice (the sugar has long since dissolved) into your food mill (see previous post) and mill away until you've got a bowl full of syrupy goodness, free of seeds. Around here we like to pause at this stage to wonder why it took us so long to invest in a food mill. It is really one of the marvels of civilization, that little hand-cranked wonder.

Miraculously free of burns, you dump the seed-free mixture back into a pot (from which you've removed any seeds that may have clung to the sides) and return the pot to the stove top to do some more cooking.
Note mixture is still steaming in this photo; handle with care!
This time around you're cooking it down until a spoonful dropped onto one of those chilled plates and returned to the freezer for a minute moves, when tilted, as a more or less solid mass, rather than dribbling. After a few years in this jam-making business, we rely exclusively on the chilled plate test. This second round of cooking is about half an hour.

Once the jam is jamly, you'd best hope that your jars are done boiling because it's time to to fill them and top them with washed but not boiled lids, that being the way the Ball people would have you do it these days. It seems to be flirting with certain death, but who are we to argue with the officials? Once all the jars are filled and lidded you put them back into the big canning pot, make sure all the jars are have at least two inches of water covering them, and then boil them for ten minutes. Carefully remove them and set them to dry off on the counter and listen to their merry pinging! as you wipe up grape from every conceivable surface in the kitchen.

The recipe advises that the flavors improve after a few days in the jar but we haven't opened any to test this year's vintage out yet, in part because they don't really seem finished until they have labels. Which, soon, they will.