Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Repairing the house for the winter

Since we moved to Suffolk last year, we've been trying to repair the house ready to bear the brunt of the winter weather.

A great cause of excitement last week was a new downpipe. No, really - I was delighted to get some guttering fixed.

Such are the joys of living in an old house, which may have stood for hundreds of years but could do with some help to keep it standing for several centuries more.

During the summer, one of our new neighbours asked me what the funny brown handprints were at the bottom of my white-painted bedroom windows.

Turned out she was referring to a couple of the many rotten patches on our wooden window frames, not something that could easily be washed away!

We noticed before we moved in that assorted repairs were needed to various window frames, external painting, slipped tiles, patches of repointing and all the climbing plants that are hell-bent on growing round the gutters and under the roof.

So this summer we finally bit the bullet.

First of all Matt and Godfrey came round to cut out the rot and fix the woodwork. They also sorted out windows that were painted shut, added new lead weights to rebalance the sashes and replaced broken sash cords, so our windows now work hurrah!

Along the way Matt was also a source of words of wisdom on our garden and wildlife.

Sample exchanges include: "Matt, I'm assuming this is a weed, the one growing out of the bottom of the garden steps?" "Yes, that would be a buddleia." and "Matt, what's this 5 foot tall plant with leaves like a cabbage?" "Judging by the flowers, that would be a poppy". Ah well, so much for me thinking I should be able to recognise poppies and buddleia.

When they came to repair the kitchen window, Matt also pointed out that we had a couple of baby collared doves nested above it.

Matt repairing the kitchen window.Spot the nest above it.

I'd noticed that what I thought was a dozy pigeon had constructed a hammock in the vine, but hadn't realised anything had hatched. Lovely.

Two baby collared doves, nesting above our kitchen window

Once Matt and Godfrey had worked miracles, the painters, Paul Chappell (strapline on his sign: "Only Constable painted Dedham better") and his colleague Martin, came round to repaint all the outside woodwork.

Martin & Paul: miracle workers in action

Paul and Martin also had to double up as expert gardeners, pruning their way through assorted wisteria, vines and roses to reach the windows that needed painting.

Here's an example of how the vine had grown over the kitchen in window in just a month between Matt's repairs and Paul's painting:

Rampant vine climbing over the kitchen window.
NB: One day I'll get round to planting herbs in those pots...

...or maybe I should be making wine from all the grapes?

Paul and Martin really made the outside of the house look immeasurably better. Now, when I walk down the garden path, I can smile at the nice new paint work rather than worrying about what might leak.

It's a great relief to have the window frames fixed and repainted, assorted gaps and holes in the brickwork repointed, slipped tiles replaced and guttering repaired.

Finally we can hunker down for the winter and let the weather do its worst.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Stretching sausages

Mini toad in the hole in all their glory

Unlike the World Health Organisation, I am a rather a fan of sausages.

I tend towards an "everything in moderation" approach when it comes to food, rather than WHO's highly entertaining categorisation of sausages alongside plutonium due to their cancer risks.
(Obviously it must be true, I read it on the BBC website here).

Whoever does the PR for British Sausage Week this week must have been banging their head against their desk when the WHO dropped their anti-sausage stats a few days beforehand. Fun and games.

Anyway, if others are spurning sausages it means all the more for me, and if they're really lucky, my family too.

I do have reservations about value range sausages, which might have as little as 37% meat, so instead I pick up occasional packets of fancy chipolatas from the local Co-op if I spot them in the reduced section. The sausages can then be hoarded in the freezer until the kind of dismal November day that is calling out for comfort food.

The warm glow from half price fancy sausages,
that may even have met an actual pig.

So today I whipped some sausages out of the freezer to defrost, and got cracking with recipes to stretch a single packet across a family of four.

Staring at three small sausages each marooned in the middle of plate would be rather depressing.
Instead, my approach is to make mini toad in the hole for the children, and a sausage casserole with jacket potatoes for my husband and me, accompanied by whatever veg we happen to have handy.


Mini toad in the hole is super easy. While I'm grilling the sausages (or boiling some frankfurters if my daughter has any say in the matter), I make the batter for the Yorkshire pudding,

It just requires mixing together 80g plain flour, 2 beaten eggs and gradually adding 275ml milk, plus a touch of salt. This makes enough mixture to use in a 12 hole bun tray.

The real secret is to use a little knob of lard in the bottom of each of the holes in the bun tray, and make sure the tray goes in a ferociously hot oven for at least 5 minutes, so the fat gets really hot. The oven needs to be at least 220 degrees C / Gas Mark 7.

Then whip the tray out, pour in the batter to about half way up each of the holes, add half a sausage to each and get it back in the oven asap.

I only added sausages to 8 of the 12 holes, as my daughter requested some plain Yorkshire puddings alongside the mini toad in a hole versions.

Mini toad in the hole before...
...and afterwards!

After about 15 minutes you should have some lovely puffed up mini toad in the holes, ready to whisk to the table and serve quickly before anything can collapse. I added some boiled carrot sticks and gravy to make a meal suitable for a November evening, and tried to resist the temptation to snaffle too many myself.


I think this harks back to fond family memories of the elegantly named "Sausage Thing" that my mother used to make. The main idea is to stretch out a few sausages with tomatoes, vegetables and a tin of baked beans for extra protein, all simmered together into a rich casserole.

It involves chopping an onion, crushing a clove of garlic, grating a chunky carrot and softening the whole lot in a couple of teaspoons of oil in the bottom of a saucepan.

After 5 or 10 minutes, chuck in a tin of chopped tomatoes, a tin of baked beans and the remaining sausages chopped in chunks. If you have any mushrooms handy, they would be great sliced and added. I didn't, so I couldn't.
Pour in about 200ml of fluid, whether stock made with a beef stock cube, or some red wine. Adding some paprika or even caraway would be great too.

Then just let it hubble bubble away on top of the hob while you wander off and do other things, cook the baked potatoes, hustle the children into pyjamas, watch some fireworks or whatever else.

Give it a stir from time to time, and top it up with extra stock, wine or water if it's looking a bit dry. I usually let it simmer away for 40 minutes to an hour or so.

When you're ready to eat, rustle up some veg and serve the sausage casserole with whatever combination of jacket potatoes, mash, rice or crusty bread that you prefer.

Sausage casserole with a jacket potato and broccoli: bonfire night on a plate.
In theory, these quantities should feed two people plus an extra portion left for a packed lunch the next day, but this only works if you have any degree of self control.

Anyone else have favourite recipes with sausages?

Friday, 6 November 2015

Mourning the changes to Morrisons Match & More card

Dark days for Match & More. 

Currently I am mourning the changes to Morrisons Match & More card, which no longer matches and now doesn't give me more.

Since Monday, Morrisons has abandoned any attempt to price match the discounters Aldi and Lidl using its loyalty card.

Previously, I could shop at Morrisons safe in the knowledge that if my shopping would have been cheaper elsewhere, Morrisons would refund the difference in "Match" points on my loyalty card. This was good news for me, as Morrisons is much nearer and easier for me to get to than branches of Aldi or Lidl. 

I was particularly pleased because the price matching applied not just on branded goods, which I don’t buy very often, but also on supermarket own brand products and fresh produce.  I could hardly believe my luck when it was introduced last year - a loyalty scheme perfect for cheapskates like me.

Now however Morrisons have wised up, ditched the price matching and introduced a new scheme. 

Under the new scheme, shoppers are rewarded based on how much they spend at Morrisons, rather than how much they might have saved when shopping elsewhere.

The "Match" points, that refunded the difference compared to prices at Aldi and Lidl, have been scrapped, but Morrisons will continue handing out "More" points if you buy specific promoted products.

Morrisons is keen to point out that the shiny new scheme is much simpler, and also rewards shoppers for all spending, not just the price matching when the total tips over £15. 

I remain unconvinced. You can read my rant on the topic when the changes were first announced on Mirror Online over here

In fact I was so cross that I went away and dug out my receipts, checked my points online, and attempted to work out how much I'd benefit under the new scheme rather than the old version.

So cross I checked the receipts. 

Old scheme: £50 Match & More vouchers. Hurrah!
Since I started using a Morrisons Match & More card in December last year, I calculate I've spent just over £1,080 at Morrisons on shopping trips worth more than £15 (the threshold when the price matching part of the old scheme kicked in), plus another £280 that didn't count, because each shopping trip was worth less than £15. 

In exchange, I racked up enough points for Morrisons to dole out £50 in Match & More vouchers to spend on shopping, plus another £32 in coupons like "£3 off a £30 spend".

So the good news is that membership of Match & More has saved me 6% on my shopping so far (£82 divided by a total spend of £1,360).

The bad news is that the vast majority of the points that generated my £50 Match & More vouchers - more than 85% - came from the price match promise that has now disappeared.

New scheme: Only £10 in Match & More vouchers. Boo.
Under the new scheme, Morrisons customers earn 5 points for every £1 spent, and get a £5 voucher for every 5,000 points. The agile mathematicians will have spotted that this means you need to spend £1,000 to get a £5 voucher. 

My £1,340 spend would therefore have generated one single £5 voucher under the new scheme, plus some points towards another one.

Customers will continue to earn "More" points on promoted products. However, looking at the points I earned under the old scheme, once I scrap all the "Match" points from price matching, I am only left with enough "More" points from promoted products to earn one £5 voucher and get half way towards another.

So rather than the £50 I received in Match & More vouchers under the old scheme, I would have received just £10 under the new rules - £5 based on my total spend, and £5 from points on promoted products. Ouch. I'm missing that £40 already.

Even assuming I was still given the same £32 in random other coupons, my savings are halved to 3% (£42 divided by a total spend of £1,360).

Of course Morrisons reckons that they will be offering lots of extra points tied to promoting specific items in store. 

However, I'm willing to bet there won't be too many extra points offered on the kind of products I buy most often, like loose fruit and veg and a weird and wonderful array of Morrisons Savers stuff.

From my perspective, the only good thing about the new scheme was that I uncovered a few receipts when I went shopping without my loyalty card with me. I took the receipts along to Customer Services, and got credited with enough extra points to generate another £5 voucher. Small consolation.

Anyone else irritated by the changes to Morrisons Match & More? Or just me then?

Stand by for a further enthralling post in future, about which high street loyalty card is the most generous.
Clue: I don't think Morrisons Match & More is going to be in the running.