My sister’s a great fan of all things quince. The first time she tasted it was when she was living in Angola many years ago. She was out shopping and bought a tin of what she thought was marmalade. The tin was labelled in Portuguese and, as she was still learning the language, she understandably thought that marmelo meant marmalade. As it turned out, it meant quince paste – also known as quince cheese.

She was an instant convert and went on to track down the raw fruit, finding the flavour astringent, rather tart and very much to her taste. I, however, had only ever tasted quince jelly (jam) until fairly recently and wasn’t overly impressed with it. But that was before I tried my hand at all things quince…

It all came about because friends of ours (Don and Ann) have nine mature quince trees on their property down in Collie, about 200km south east of Perth. A few weeks ago, when the bulk of their fruit was ripe, they decided to put a halt to trail of destruction that the local bird life was inflicting on the crop. To this end, they spent a couple of weekends stripping the fruit off all nine trees – and ended up with a LOT of surplus-to-requirement fruit.

So, one Sunday evening, the phone rang. It was Don, and the conversation went something like this: ‘Hello? Nik? Are you guys interested in some quinces? I have a few in my car and I’m half way back to Perth…’ ‘Sure, why not?’, said I, somewhat naively. ‘I’m sure I can do something with them…’

Don and his fruit-mobile arrived a couple of hours later. When I exclaimed at the quantity of fruit he presented us with, he just laughed – then told me I should see what was still in his car! Our share was four large carry bags of fruit, each bag containing about 45 quinces. This equated to approximately 9kg per bag (we weighed them!), which means we had in the region of 36kg of quinces in our fridge… and no idea what to do with them.

The fridge smelled terrific but I found that I don’t enjoy the fruit raw. Since I can’t bear to waste food, it became my mission to find out how to prepare it. I started by researching quinces and quince trees in general. I discovered that they’re related to roses, apples, pears, almonds, plums and apricots – that was a surprise. The trees are deciduous, hardy and drought-tolerant. They don’t require much maintenance (such as pruning, spraying, etc.), are self-pollinating and thrive in wide variety of climates – from temperate regions all the way through to the sub-tropics.

Quinces can be stored for up to three months in the fridge. They’re strange-looking fruit – a little like a cross between an apple and a pear in shape. But they’re slightly knobbly and their skin is both waxy and slightly furry to the touch. As the fruit ripens it goes from a light green to a lovely golden yellow and becomes surprisingly strongly and sweetly perfumed. It’s a very solid/dense fruit, but I’ve found that it bruises surprisingly easily – so some care is required when handling and preparing it.

I managed to offload about dozen or so fruit to DaughterDearest and saved a few for my sister, but have managed to process almost all the rest (we have about ten left). I discovered that the flesh, which starts off butter-coloured, turns pink and then a deep red when cooked – that was a surprise. My first adventure was quince paste – this was an epic endeavour that took thirteen hours all up. The slicing, dicing, cooking, stirring, pureeing and reducing took about seven hours. After this the mixture it went into a low oven for a further six hours to finish setting. Wow. The upside is that quince paste makes a great addition to cheese platters and keeps really well – which is lucky, since we now have a freezer full of it!

Next I tried two varieties of fruit leather – one spiced with cardamom, cinnamon and so forth, and the other with honey and lemon. Both turned out really well and we have a whole heap of that in the fridge.

We’ve also been eating slow-poached spiced quince on our muesli & yoghurt every morning for the past couple of weeks and I even made a quince (and almond) cake at the weekend. That was super-tasty too and well worth repeating. A big stride forward was to find that the fruit can be pressure cooked to save time, although I only found that out towards the end of the production line. I’ll know better next time.

All in all, I feel I’ve conquered quinces and done justice to Don and Ann’s gift of (36kg!) of quinces – but it’s definitely time to move on to other culinary adventures 🙂

Neil Gaiman  is one of my favourite authors. I find his stories captivating, and the audio versions – read by him – are a delight. So when I came across a memoir/manifesto by Amanda Palmer, I bought it simply because she and Neil are a couple. Yup – fangirl – I admit it.

gaiman and palmer_Screen-Shot-2015-11-02-at-8.50.29-AM

The other reason I bought the The Art of Asking was that the title caught my attentionIt’s catchy and I was curious as to what this punk-cabaret, folk singing, ukele-playing, quirky artist had to say.

In order to relate to Amanda and her story more personally – and order to hear her voice and her music – I got it as an audio book. I also tracked down her very popular  Ted talk  (as have about 7,732,843 other people!), and gained the following insights from the combination:

  • Amanda is a great story teller, has worked hard to be a successful artist, and has a strong fanbase.
  • I’m not crazy about her music, but find the lyrics thought provoking and often very moving.
  • Audio books are fabulous – especially when read by the author 🙂
  • Direct interaction between the fanbase and artists, with fans deciding how much they’re prepared to / able to pay for merchandise of various sorts is the way forward. To quote Amanda, “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, How do we make people pay for music? What if we started asking, How do we let people pay for music?”  Whilst no longer new, this a terrific (although underutilized) concept and one with which I wholeheartedly agree – but more on that another time.
  • Finally, the core topic of the book: it’s important to learn to ask for help – not demand it or expect it to magically arrive.

Amanda’s story of the difficulties and successes she’s had in this area is an excellent vehicle to get this last point across. She talks about the ongoing struggle with allowing herself to be helped and, more specifically, with asking for help as a constant negotiation between ego and need.

Her solution is to trust, both in herself and others, and to allow herself to “give and receive fearlessly”. It’s sound advice – but it still left me pondering why I often find asking for help so darn difficult.

mumMy siblings and I were raised by an uber-Mum. We loved, respected and, to some extent, feared her. She was a strong woman in a time when being a strong woman meant survival. She never asked for help, she just got on with things and bent the world to suit her. She didn’t acknowledge fear and  appeared completely invulnerable.  At least this is what our childish perspective led us to believe, and this belief shaped the people we became.

Years later it occurred to me that my mother simply didn’t have the leisure to allow herself to sit back, or the opportunity to seek out emotional support. She worked hard to make our lives comfortable, navigating her way around an unreliable spouse, frequent upheavals as he changed jobs/towns/directions, a gaggle of children, an alienated extended family, a full time job and a very limited income.

Unfortunately, what it took far longer for me to understand is that never asking for help tends to make people appear unapproachable. No-one wants to risk offering help if it’s going to be brusquely rejected. And no-one wants to ask such a person for help for fear of being judged as inadequate in some way. It effectively isolates people from one another.

As a society we are enculturated to believe that asking for help reveals weakness, neediness, incompetence – or all three. We fear being perceived as selfish. We fear that asking for help might result in us incurring a debt that we will be called on at some future date. We fear loss of control. We fear.

We meander through life, sometimes directionless, sometimes with a plan. In many instances we really could do with a helping hand, a willing ear, a visit from a friend, a small kindness to ease the load we carry. But we don’t ask. We soldier on – fearful, or not wishing to impose a burden on others, or too proud to show our vulnerabilities.

Mum did eventually lean on us a little when she became too ill to manage alone. It was only then that she allowed her vulnerability to be glimpsed. Did she think we’d see it as weakness, that we’d think less of her? This was so very far from the truth. Instead, my admiration and respect for my mother grew exponentially. Every shadow brought her more clearly into focus, allowed me to get to know her a little better.

Nevertheless, my mother’s carefully controlled vulnerability has continued to influence my choices. Fortunately I’ve had the leisure to make different choices and to make them far earlier.  It comes down to being acknowledging the baggage and then setting it aside,  a bit at a time. Then work towards falling into trust by asking for, accepting and offering help graciously when it’s needed. After all, who will ask me for help if I allow fear or pride (ego) to – actively or passively – send out the message that asking equals weakness?

It’s my hope that my children find this process of allowing people to help them, to care for them and to share with them a less complex one than I did. It’s also my hope that my siblings have managed to find their own way through this shared socially constructed minefield. It’s never too late to learn to ask for help – in big or small ways.

I’m pretty sure we all have at least one guilty pleasure – that thing we do or enjoy, but we’re not sure that other people would approve of if they knew about it. Mine has lasted most of my life.

I can’t remember a time when books were anything but a core part of my environment. Our parents’ bookcase(s) provided us with an early introduction to fiction, fact, travel and poetry. Titles I remember in particular are 1000 Beautiful Things (Authur Mee), Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (ed. Francis Palgrave), The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde and The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. We all learned to read before we went to school and were encouraged to join the local Public library at an early age – both great strategic parental moves to keep children entertained and occupied.

However, even once I could read, I always enjoyed listening to one or other parent reading stories or poems out loud. They both had a gift for it, their voices clear and their delivery paced for our enjoyment. So it’s not surprising that, when my younger brother and I were given Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland first story records1965 Disneyland read-along storybook records, I was hooked. Each title was on a 33⅓ long-playing vinyl record and came with an illustrated Disney read-along book of the story.

They all started with a similar preamble: This is the story of <Alice in Wonderland>. You can read along with me in your book. You’ll know it’s time to turn the page when you hear the chimes ring like this: <the sound of Tinkerbelle’s chimes would ring here>. Let’s begin… It was a very effective format, enabling children of any reading age to follow the story via a combination of words, sound and pictures. They were narrated by Robie Lester and mine included the songs Alice in Wonderland and I’m Late (which I still sing to myself when I am running late).

Several years later I was given a small cassette tape recorder and, soon after, found that some libraries stocked ‘talking books’ for vision-impaired readers. Feeling more than slightly guilty, I tried adding one to my selection of books. To my surprise, the librarians simply issued the cassette like any other book. It was the start of my guilty pleasure. I call it that because, as an adult, I do sometimes feel slightly sheepish listening to stories instead of reading them – as though I’m taking the easy way out. In some instances, such as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, this is actually true. I’ve tried to read this classic on a number of occasions, but simply couldn’t get past the first chapter. As an audio book, however, I could finally tick it off my bucket list.

This is because I find it enormously satisfying to sit and listen to a story, to have a tale narrated by someone who can bring the characters alive the way my parents used to when I was a child. The difference is that I can pause, rewind and replay these stories at will and can listen to them whilst gardening, knitting, driving, doing mosaic and so on. Audio books (and headphones) are also an insomniac’s best friends at dead of night, when turning on a light to read a physical book might disturb other family members.

Although I now subscribe to a paid audio book service, I still regularly borrow talking books (at no charge) through the public library system. A few of my recent favourites are the Girl Genius series (Phil & Kaja Foglio), Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman), The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion), A Conspiracy of Friends (Alexander McCall Smith), A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki) and Nation (Terry Pratchett). All are beautifully narrated, either by the author or by talented voice actors, and each provided me with hours of enjoyment.

I suspect that my slight feeling that talking books are an indulgence simply adds to their attraction, as with most guilty pleasures.

I’ve noticed that many adults appear to believe that being an adult means giving up things they enjoy and determinedly getting on with the business of being an adult. Somewhere along the line, the ability to enjoy child-like fun seems to be left behind. University, courting, working, family and bills happen – and the not-very-merry-go-round takes over, often with little fun in sight. How very sad – and how very boring!

There’s actually no compelling reason not to have fun or, indeed, not to do at least some of the fun things one did as a child. Admittedly bills do have to be paid, families call for attention, meals require planning and preparation – but surely this need not preclude enjoying the simple pleasures of childhood. Building sand castles, playing on the swings in the play park, jumping in puddles on rainy days, drawing and colouring-in, wandering around barefoot – these are just some examples of things we seem to forget to enjoy.

Last week was Adult Learners Week and our local library organised a morning of colouring-in for adults. The event booked out so quickly that they had to arrange a second session – also booked out – and have gone on to add colouring-in for adults to their ongoing programme of events. It turns out that colouring-in is now widely considered to be a beneficial pastime for adults. It stimulates areas of the brain related to motor skills, the senses 47802-5-beaglesand creativity and this in turn reduces stress and improves general health and wellbeing.

22 people turned up to the first event at the library – and, yes, I was one of them. Colleen, the branch librarian, told us that this pastime apparently emerged in France, where so many adults have taken it up that sales of colouring-in books now outrank those of cookbooks. Indeed, five of the 20 best selling titles on Amazon are currently adult colouring-in books! This information resonated with several people in the group who had purchased books for themselves, although most hadn’t been game to actually put colour on any of the pages as yet. The fear of making mistakes or colouring outside the lines, combined with the long-held stigma attached to writing in books, had made them too anxious to try.

Luckily the library staff had provided printouts of a number of open-source pictures found on the internet, along with a wide selection of brand new pencil crayons. In no time at all everyone was colouring away happily, chatting and laughing, reminiscing about the last time they had used coloured pencils and about life in general. By the end of the session, anxiety – about colouring-in at least – appeared to have fled completely. All the participants left for home relaxed andfun with colour_3sept15 smiling. Those who had had their own colouring-in books said that they felt much more comfortable about putting pencil crayon to paper; others took the librarian’s advice to heart and said that they’d print free designs off the internet and use those. Most people said they’d be back the following week, both for the colouring-in and for the company.

I fell into all three categories – and am delighted that colouring-in for adults is a trend that’s here to stay, for now at least. I’m feeling pretty chilled, my colouring book is on my desk (instead of in a drawer), I’ve unearthed my watercolour pencils and I’m eyeing off some gel pens at the local newsagent… If you’d like to reclaim a little of the fun you had as a kid, why not print off a picture (from one of numerous free sites) and try colouring it in? Don’t judge – just use whatever pencils, felt pens or whatever you have to hand and enjoy the process. Feel the serenity 🙂


Cumquat trees are native to south Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, where the plant apparently symbolises good luck and prosperity. Our tree is surrounded by camellia trees in full bloom and bordered by rosemary bushes that have become a little overgrown – a very pleasing corner feature of our rather ragamuffin garden.

A year ago we spent an intense weekend pruning and moving plants so that our garden wall could be repaired. I know it was a year ago, because our cumquat tree was at least as burdened with fruit then as it is now. We’d recruited a few people to help with the garden rampage – and a couple of these industrious ‘garden gnomes’ were kind enough to collect all the fruit for me before pruning the tree back. I duly turned the harvest into bottles of rather delicious cumquat chutney at a later date and rewards were issued.

Since then, the tree has bushed out and fruited even more prolifically than ever. Unfortunately the garden-gnome-recruitment-scheme hasn’t worked quite as well this year, but I have a couple of likely characters coming to stay  for the weekend soon… I’m fairly sure I’ll be able to bribe them with baked goods to deal with the cumquat harvest then.

cumquats at #10

cumquats at #10

This does beg the question of just what I’ll do with hundreds of tiny, bright orange, pip-infested obloid fruits this year. In the past I’ve candied, spiced and brandied them, made jams, marmalades, chutneys and cakes, used them when baking fish and as accompaniments to roast meats. However, the darn tree appears to be getting more and more prolific as the years go by and many of the cumquat recipes I’ve found use only a handful of the fruit.

These muffins, for example, whilst undoubtedly very yummy only use up ten cumquats in total. Ten. In the grand scheme of things, I’d need to make about 20 batches of muffins to use anywhere near the number of cumquats I have on hand – and I really don’t think my waistline would appreciate that very much! Nevertheless, having found the recipe, I’ll give them a try this evening. I’ll also try this delicious-sounding cake over the weekend. It uses 750g of cumquats – and since one cumquat weighs approximately 19g, that makes about 40, which sounds more promising. I’ll reassess the cumquat situation after that

grapfruit harvest @#10

grapfruit harvest @#10

Meantime, we harvested 170 grapefruit today and there are more on the tree. This is our third harvest this season and we’re just about grapefruited out. So, if anyone would like some, please give me a shout and we can arrange for a pick-up or delivery 🙂