Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Catch of the day - science and cooking

Apologies to my veggie followers, this is a post you may want to skip.  I am 'mainly vegetarian' - I think the term is flexitarian.  I pick the veggie option where ever possible, and mainly cook veggie myself, but I do include some ethically sourced seafood for variety and because the kids adore it.  My own reasons for being a veggie are mainly based in animal welfare concerns and an attempt to reduce our impact on the environment, but I do understand that many hard line veggies don't want to see any animal products used.  We're quite 'middle way' in most of our lifestyle choices, and this is my 'middle way' approach to dissection.

I have dissected  a few creatures at Uni, and can see that as a learning tool these dissections were useful, but I don't feel quite comfortable with using animals solely for this purpose at home.  My solution is to do edible dissection.  We go down to the fishmongers on the sea front and select a locally caught fish from our excellent local sustainable fishery - the fish is all caught using small beach landing boats.  I ask for it to be scaled since this is a bit that results in scales flying everywhere when I do it at home, but no other preparation to be done by the fishmonger. 

When we get home I let the boys have a thorough look at the fish, answering questions as they have them and asking prompting questions about form, function and lifestyle.  For example with this Grey Mullet we observed dorsal spines and discussed their purpose, investigated the mouth and discussed the lack of big sharp teeth, looked at the streamlined shape of the fish and the purpose of the gills.  We talked about the habitat of the fish and how it was caught.  The grey mullet is a bottom feeder, and once you know that the lack of large sharp teeth and the dorsal spines make sense.

After a good look at the outside, I opened the fish and we had a look at the organs.  I then showed the boys how to fillet and debone this fish and Matt pan fried the fillets, which we had with mashed potatoes and local wild samphire.  We hadn't tried mullet before and the taste was interesting, more like salmon than a white fish like cod.

This is about as ethical as I can make a dissection and if the boys want to eat meat I think it's important they know what it is and how to prepare and cook it.  As a society we have got so used to chunks of something that could be anything, wrapped in a coating and served in a bucket like pig swill, eaten without thought or respect.  I'm not advocating total global veganism, but maybe we can slow down and raise kids who know enough about their food to want to be active consumers who eat things out of choice rather than just convenience.  I also think that you can't beat hands on learning and that the combining of subjects such as science and cooking makes for a rounded experience that makes it easier for our brain to understand and retain the information that it is gathering.

Safety bit:  clean hands, work surfaces and utensils to avoid getting food poisoning.  Also, some bits are sharp, e.g. scales, spines, teeth in some species so take care.  Knives for filleting need to be really sharp, so I don't let the kids near when I'm doing this bit - they watch from a little distance.  As kids get older they could help trimming fins with scissors and eventually be taught to use a knife for filleting, but as mine are 4 and 2 this is a long way off. 

If kids are really squeamish, don't force the issue - a light tough of the fish first time is enough and then sit a little way off to watch the rest.  With repetition kids will generally lose any discomfort, but if they don't it's not a big deal - we're all made differently and maybe you have a little vegan on your hands.  I discourage mucking around with the fish - a part of what I'm trying to instil is respect for the animal.



Friday, 22 August 2014

Nature Explorers at the Seven Sisters Country Park

On Tuesday night I texted a lovely friend I hadn't seen in a few weeks who I owed a phone call to apologise for my rubbishness in the phoning department.  She messaged back with the comment that she had been just about to phone me on the off chance I was free to meet up the next day.  Since we live at least three hours drive away from each other we agreed a mid point would be good, and since she was dog sitting for a friend I suggested that the Seven Sisters Country Park would be an ideal venue for our catch up.

So on Wednesday the boys and I packed up our lunches and headed off to the far reaches of the county to a park threaded through by the meandering Cuckmere river, which is featured in just about every geography textbook I have ever seen (and since I taught geography A Levels for four years that's quite a few).

There are many things I love about this park.  Getting there takes a bit of a long time from where we live, but it is on a bus route should you need it, and if not the parking in the forest car park is £3.50 for the whole day, which is refreshingly cheap since we went right in the middle of the Summer holidays when everywhere else jacks up its parking charges.

There are good facilities near the forest car park, including a tea room, toilets, bike hire and a discovery centre.  The boys loved the discovery centre, stencilling sea creatures and investigating the hands on display materials of locally found objects.

They both had a great experience holding a variety of materials including fossil bearing chalk rocks, whelk egg cases, mermaids purses and a selection of skulls.  We looked at the differences and similarities between species of deer skulls and antlers, a sheep skull and even a badger skull.  Ollie was fascinated articulating the jaw hinge of the badger skull and seeing how the antlers attached to the deer skulls.  Toby understood immediately what the antlers were, holding them up to his head (although his deer noise and cow noise are suspiciously similar).

We indulged in a couple of new Field Studies Council fold out identification guides to add to our collection.  These provided a great deal of interest as Toby would point to something and say 'what that' and Ollie supplied the name of the object, plant or animal.  Ollie liked the poo identification page on the back of his animal tracks guide.
 An ice cream van supplied us with unsurprisingly overpriced ice lollies which kept us all busy while we waited for my friend to arrive.  We also spent the time watching blue butterflies flit around the wild flowers and crouching to peer into the drainage channel near the river, spotting a leech.  When I explained what leeches were and how they sucked out animal's blood, Ollie exclaimed loudly 'well I don't want one of those bloody things on me' just as a shocked-looking elderly couple walked past us.  Oops.


 After my friend arrived we enjoyed a stroll down to the sea (slightly hampered by Toby trying to insist I carry him and Ollie wheedling to hold one of the dog leads, while said doggies pulled in different directions).  We did manage to get our catch up chat in between 'Ollie get down from there', 'Mila stop pulling', 'CARRY ME!!!' and extracting Toby from the thick back mud in a puddle which sucked his shoe right off his foot.  At the end of the walk we sat on the shingle bank overlooking the park on one side and the sea on the other, with the spectacular chalk cliffs to the side of us.  I think the shingle might have been hard for less ample behinds than mine because I ended up with both dogs and Toby cuddled up on my legs.

If you want a great day out with plenty of opportunities to experience and learn about landscapes and natural history, the Seven Sisters is a great choice.  It's never lonely due to the high footfall of visitors, which is handy if you are taking small children out on your own.  On this visit I was able to supply a sticky plaster to another family, but if it had been us in difficulties there were plenty of people to help us out too.  It is also fairly flat and is accessible for wheelchairs and pushchairs up until you get to the shingle beach at the end of the walk. 

Even the huge rainstorm brewing in the black clouds waited until we were safely back in the car before it unleashed a deluge, so all in all a pretty perfect day out.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Is real altruism possible? (Ipswich Maritime Festival 2014)

I try to live my life with a generous spirit and an altruistic outlook, and hopefully this spreads out into the community around me and is picked up by my own kids.  However I'm questioning whether I can ever be truly altruistic - the act of helping without reward - when rewards come unexpectedly one way or another, whether it is in the glowy feeling of having completed something I set out to do to help out, or more concrete gains.
 A few weeks ago a friend from the Vikings was asking for volunteers to help out at an event at Ipswich Marina.  It was a bit close in time to another event, a long way to travel and financially a burden because of the cost of diesel, but it was important to have a good number of reenactors there so I offered to help.  I then found out that this particular event came with diesel money and a free two night stay in a Travelodge hotel!  So much for altruism.  We kept other costs down by taking porridge pots and other food with us for breakfast and lunch so we would only need to eat out for dinner.

Matt had been on a business trip to Edinburgh earlier in the year and had been taken to a Loch Fyne fish restaurant.  He had been so impressed that when he got home he really enthused about it, so when we saw one near the hotel he offered to take me to try it.  We were concerned about cost as it looked very nice, but Matt wanted to treat me so we went in.  Then the anti-altruism struck again because it turned out that kids eat for free before 7pm, and Ollie and I got free oysters to try as we hadn't had them before (Matt hadn't either, but he had a good idea he wouldn't like them).  In the end the meal was cheaper than if we had gone to the pizza place down the road.

The event itself, with our Vikings being one of the attractions at the Ipswich Maritime Festival, was tiring but brilliant.  An estimated 60 000 people attended last year, and I think at least that many must have come this year.  I had so many people watching me narlbind socks and lucet weaving cord on Saturday that I woke that night convinced someone was standing by the bed staring at me (my sleep addled brain then thought 'tired, don't care so long as they're quiet' and went back to sleep).  As well as demonstrating my crafts and learning a great deal from listening in to other Viking's talks, we also saw some superb street performances, including a lady performing gymnastics from ribbons hung inside an inflatable dome which led to Ollie attempting to recreate the effect by swinging off me.

I'm so tired after the weekend I feel hollow, and it isn't getting the OU assignment done, but overall I think we had far too many rewarding experiences to count this attempt at being helpful as true altruism.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Are cafe's a waste of money?

I have to hold my hands up and say I love a good cafe.  However it can be tricky eating and drinking out with kids - places you used to love are suddenly inaccessible because your pushchair takes up too much space, or out of limits because it is now even more ridiculous to spend nearly £3 on a cup of coffee than it was before you had children to consider.  Plus now it's not just one coffee any more, it's packets of juice and food that are demanded by hungry small people.

I save the pennies most days by taking food and drinks out with us, but every so often it's nice to sit on a proper chair with a pot of coffee instead of perching on a park bench or on the ground and trying to get the kids to stop giving all of their lunch to the seagulls.  I also think it's no bad thing if kids are used to eating out and get the hang of the idea that cafe's are not play parks and it's nice to sit quietly and be civilized for 20 minutes every so often.  The challenge then is to find somewhere that isn't too expensive, or inaccessible, and that serves a menu that you are happy with.


In Hastings our favourites are the two Eat@ cafe's - one in Alexandra Park and the other on the seafront at the Stade.  The food is all locally sourced and is superb,the staff are great and it is really easy to access, plus there are children's books and toys provided, but you are getting what you pay for because it isn't the cheapest so it is very much a treat.  In Bexhill we are big fans of Di Paolo's on the seafront opposite the Delaware, but you walk in past their mouth watering array of home made ice creams and this makes it also an occasional treat to go to because I haven't the heart to deny the kids such amazing ice cream when we do go there.  I was really pleased therefore this week to find a new cafe that we hadn't noticed before on our walk between the library and the play park.

The Wholesome Cafe  was well priced (£1.20 for a filter coffee and £3.50 for a children's mezze platter) had a lovely menu of real food and, much to my delight, vegetarian options were just as prevalent as meaty ones.  I have no problem with going to places that serve meat, but it is annoying when there is only ever one or two things on the menu for me to choose from.  The kids enjoyed their visit there, cleared their plates with no complaints and we also had a chance to rest and read some of our haul of library books before going on to spend a couple of hours at the play park.

I know a lot of parents who stay away from cafe's because they quite rightly feel there are better things to spend their money on, and I used to feel guilty about eating out when I could have just packed more food to take with us.  Now though I have decided to let go of that guilt and say well, I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't buy fancy shoes, or handbags or even get my hair cut by a professional, so I'm blooming well going to enjoy a coffee made by someone else from time to time.  And if that coffee also comes with a pitta full of falafel and hummus then that's just something else to not feel guilty about.  So I guess the answer to the title question is 'maybe' - throwing money at a big brand overpriced takeaway coffee feels like a waste, but sitting down in a nice family owned reasonably priced cafe for me feels like a needed respite and worth every penny.

This post isn't sponsored, I just really like these places and I know a lot of my local to me readers would like them too (although maybe I should keep quiet so I can always get a table in them)


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Themed activities day - Australia

This month the lovely storyteller at the Delaware Pavilion in Bexhill was an Australian and used Australian animals as props in her session.  This gave us a great opportunity to theme the rest of the days activities around learning about Australia.

We pulled out our new Atlas and book of World Flags, both by Collins, and had fun finding the animals that had been in the storyteller's tales.  There was an image of Sydney Opera House in one of the books which the boys recognised from the film Finding Nemo.  Then we looked at the flag of Australia and how it was similar and different to some other flags such as the British flag and the New Zealand flag.

I gave the boys the option to then either try to paint an Australian flag, or to make up one of their own. They decided to make up their own and we spent a fun afternoon making up flags and names of countries, plus where in the world our new countries would be and what they would be like.  We also practiced writing the word 'flag'.

We read 'A bigger digger' by Brett Avison and Craig Smith because it is based on a farm in Australia where a boy and his dog discover a dinosaur skeleton.

At bedtime we finished off our themed day by reading an Australian creation story about the Sun Mother from our 'Barefoot Book of Earth Tales'.

We obviously just scraped the surface of all the Australia based activities we could have done, but other things we could investigate include Australian art, food, history and much more about the wildlife.  The boys certainly had a lot of fun and went to bed singing the 'g'day' song the storyteller had taught them.

The benefit of having a themed day is that it makes working out activities for the day easy, and so many learning areas and skills can be covered without it feeling like you are sitting down at a lesson.  We developed fine motor skills and creativity in our painting, did some writing and lots of reading together, sang, danced and learned about geography, wildlife and culture all with no more preparation than the idea that we would theme our day around whatever we found the storyteller was basing their activities on, a box of craft materials and well stocked book shelves.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Vikings at Abbotsbury Children's Farm

 This weekend we were being Vikings at Abbotsbury Children's Farm in Dorset.  The heavens opened as we set off, and the weather warnings made us wonder if we were doing the right thing, then ten minutes out of Abbotsbury the rain stopped so we could pitch our tent in the camping field without getting everything soaked.  Abbotsbury is one of our favourite shows, but this is the first time we've attended as re-enactors.  Last year we paid to get in and visited our friends as MOPs (members of the public).
 The children's farm is a fantastic place to visit even when there are no Vikings present, with pony rides and a petting corner, a huge play barn and lots to see on a small footprint of land so it's easy to keep track of little ones.  Historically it's a really interesting site, with old monastic buildings and the massive tithe barn having been ruined and eventually re-purposed after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

I spent most of the day demonstrating nalbinding socks for the kids while the boys defended their straw bale fort with the help of enthusiastic viking and MOP kids working together to repel the invading force of Matt.  I really enjoyed listening to the talks given to the public on weapons, armour and clothing given by the hugely knowledgeable Chad the Grym who was positioned opposite me.  Re-enactors are not just people dressed up in funny clothes, every one of them is a mine of information on different areas of history.  Some are combat experts, others can tell you everything that is currently known about diet and cooking, and since most people make their own kit there are a lot of craft skills to learn from each other and from research.

After a gloriously sunny day (and a cheeky ice cream in the cafe) we waved goodbye to the visitors and headed for an evening walk up to the atmospheric St Catherine's Chapel which sits on top of what looks like an iron age hill fort before heading back to our tent for the night.  The storm then hit pretty hard, but we were snug in our tent and the rain stopped for an hour in the morning to let us pack up our tent and head off.  Good times, good friends and a dry tent - what more could we want from a weekend.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Blackberry jam and making memories

Toby's sleep patterns have altered in the last week so that come bedtime he spends his time arguing with us 'not bedtime, morgning time, me go downstairs, eat toast'.  I guess this would represent a bit of a stress for a lot of parents who find they manage best by adhering to strict daily routines, but for us we find that being flexible and living seasonally works.  So while Toby is going through a growth spurt and the evening are light and warm we are making the most of it by heading down to the beach, to the play park or, as we did last night, going foraging.  Since we both study with the Open University this does put pressure on our evening study time, but the trade off is that we are spending time together as a family and that is time well spent.

As we headed out with our basket and buckets (the 1kg plain yoghurt buckets making another appearance) the boys were all really excited and jumping around like Spring lambs.  This was especially impressive given that Ollie had already walked all, and Toby part, of the 6km up and down hills to get to a play day in the park and back.
 A big part of foraging is remembering where you found the goodies last year, and Ollie has this skill nailed as he charged ahead taking us straight to our best blackberry patch 15 mins walk away.

Another important part of foraging is listening to the locals, so courtesy of the boys asking very politely to stroke a dog they met, the dog walker volunteered a great tip about where to find an apple tree we didn't know about.

We ended up with a couple of kilos of blackberries and about the same of apples, plus a scattering of nettle stings as foraging tends to mean free food only up to a given definition of 'free'.

We picked lightly over the bushes, leaving plenty behind.  As we each pick at our own chest height or above we end up picking in layers which means there are plenty that the kids can reach (never from below their chest height to avoid ones dogs might have peed on).  Ollie was especially helpful in reaching the apples as he uses his gymnastics skills to stand on our shoulders.  Both boys also ate their own body weight in berries judging by how long they spent picking compared with the six berries each that they put into the basket at the end.

Matt was then our master jam chef, turning all that fruit into these nine jars of heaven.  Here's how he does it:

Wash your jars in hot soapy water, put them in the sink and pour boiling water over them, then put them in the oven at 180oC to thoroughly sterilise them, then set them on a heatproof board (all this is obviously a burn risk, so take care and keep kiddies out of the kitchen)

Weigh your fruit - you need to know because you will add roughly the same weight of sugar as fruit.

Soak blackberries to float out any bits of bugs and dirt (picking before September seems to mean you don't get maggots in them)

Core the apples and chop into chunks with the skin left on (pectin in the skins helps the jam set)

Put the berries and apple chunks into a very large pan with a tiny drizzle of water to stop them burning - not too much as they will juice down really quickly.

Bring to the boil, then turn down and simmer until it's a big mush, then strain out the pulp so you are just left with the juice.

Add sugar (we were about 300g short but since we had a lot of apples this hasn't affected the set) and bring to the boil again, then simmer.

Put plates in the fridge and periodically bring one out, drop a teaspoonful of jam onto it, wait a minute or two then draw a line in the splodge with a spoon - if the line disappears as jam run in to fill it, you need to keep cooking.  It's ready when the line stays visible.

Pour into your sterilized jars, allow to cool for a little while and then lid while they're still fairly hot.  You can use waxed disks too but we never have because the jam is usually eaten up (or given away) too quickly to be worth it.  We keep it in the fridge once opened.

Blackberry jam, and blackberry and apple jam, are usually a good set so you don't need to add pectin or use jam sugar.  Even if it all goes a bit wrong and you end up with blackberry syrup, this is not a problem because it is perfect drizzled over porridge or whizzed up with milk for a delicious milkshake.

Safety:  When foraging make sure you drill it into your kids not to put anything unfamiliar in their mouths without showing you and getting your OK first.  Pick away from busy roads and watch out for the inevitable dog dirt, nettles and blackberry prickles.  Old clothes that cover arms and legs and proper boots are the best outfit.

Keep small kids well away from the actual jam making since every part of it is a burn/scalding risk.  Jam is a particularly nasty scald as the sugar content means it gets incredibly hot and the stickyness means that it sticks on and continues to burn until you get it under a tap, so exercise caution yourself too and I would recommend wearing shoes while you make it in case of spills or dropped jars.  Making the jam at night when the kids are asleep is a lovely way to end the day as you fill your home with amazing jam smells and the little ones can wake up to home made jam on toast for breakfast.