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