Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Testing Testing Testing

For the last year I have been a test subject, well, that’s not quite right because in a way I have been the tester, or at least obliged to say what I think. Lois gave up eating gluten and wheat a year or so ago and has been experimenting with gluten free cooking ever since. Anyone with Coeliac Disease will be familiar with the products that are available through the NHS, but lets face it they taste like medicine.

Lois has set about trying to make interesting food with alternative flours. We bought a small electric flourmill from Switzerland – the Internet is wonderful isn’t it – and can now make flour out of almost anything, peas, almonds, tapioca, even the maise we grew in the garden.

I’m not going to give away trade secrets, because Lois is now writing a cookbook and about to start selling some of her cakes. The rationalle is; why shouldn’t Coeliacs have treats?

So where do I come in? Each new recipe has to be tested, so Lois invented test sheets. Imagine eating a delightful new cake or biscuit and then filling in a form full of terms like:

Mouth feel.



Early flavour.

Late flavour.


You get the idea. In many ways it is a lot of fun. So far she has cracked cakes and pastries and biscuits and now makes versions that are at least as good as anything made with traditional wheat flour. The next step is being inspected by the environmental health folk, hence getting the uniform as seen in the picture. Further excitement will be getting the products tested to be sure we haven’t accidentally introduced any gluten, designing packages, establishing a brand name. Much more fun than getting rejection letters from agents. Watch this space.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

The box in the attic

I belong to a writing group, most times I don't put that writing on here but for a change here is last week's piece. I've posted here before about the old farmhouse I live in and this is another in that series, though written about the early years when we first bought the property and embarked upon a massive renovation.

The box in the attic

I did wonder if it was cursed, or had a spell on it. The jewels inside certainly looked the part. Old dark stones set in tarnished silver, strange trinkets hung on ancient links, and all tangled up in there so we had no idea if it was a necklace or a bracelet or just broken pieces.

There weren’t any diamonds, nothing flashed in the light as we took the lid off, just dull glows and sparkles from amber and jade and who knows what among the tangled chains. It was dirty in there, dark, almost as though the light was being slowed down, reluctant to come out again and tell us its secrets. And then there was the fever. It came on me suddenly. One moment I’m sitting in the one armchair in the house, happy at a good days work all done and waiting to eat the supper I can smell. The next moment I’m shivering, overcome by rigors, teeth chattering, clutching every part of me together to try to stay warm, feeling chilled to the bone on a midsummer’s day.

How it came to be there took time to discover, the house is old so it might have been there a hundred years or more. Perhaps it never should have been disturbed, but there’s no going back now. Everything about this house sucks us in, drags us past a point of no return, one thing leading to another and another and another.

Leaning on a wall upstairs started it. It’s an innocent enough thing, leaning on a wall, until the wall moves. Don’t let me exaggerated, it didn’t set off for the next county, it just moved an inch, and if you leaner harder it moved another inch and came back when you stood up straight. No way a wall like that can stay in a bedroom, so it had to go. After than it was obvious that the ceiling had problems. It sagged. It hung like a blanket, like the roof of a desert sheik’s tent, three inches lower in the middle than it was at the sides. That moved too, not that we tried very hard. Standing under a ceiling and pushing it up and down a couple of inches is hardhat work, and not for the feint hearted. We climbed up in the loft to examine the problem from above. Dirty old fibreglass insulation covered the floor but pull that aside and under a century’s dust you could see where the ceiling had come away from the rafters. All that held it up were the ancient laths embedded in the plaster, that and the woodworms holding hands.

Of course it was worse than that, the rafters were coming away from the joists as well. It all had to go, and that’s how we found the box.

It’s not really fair to call it a treasure chest. That gives the wrong idea about size. This wasn’t some massive structure, weighed down with iron bands around venerable oak planks. Such a thing would have fallen through the decrepit canopy long ago. It was smaller than that, two hands could get around it and barely cover the metal, but it looked the part a sort of shiny pewter colour. As we tore the ceiling down and ripped away the old insulation it came down with the dead spiders and the dust. We almost missed it. I wore a facemask and a respirator and a tyvek suit. As the demolition went on the room filled with dust. It got so dark I could hardly see from one end to the other and the floor disappeared under a carpet of broken laths, torn insulation, archaic horsehair plaster and dust. So much dust – choking, black and pervasive dust.

Sitting in the heap was the box. If it hadn't been shiny we might have missed it, but the dust slid off the metal and even in the fog it gleamed enough, as though it knew the time had come to be found.

The rigors went on for almost an hour. Using every coat and blanket we could find in the house made little difference. Lois took a picture of me huddled in the armchair, shaking and shivering. I looked like an elderly Eskimo swathed in multiple coverings, hooded over as though I was in the arctic and not summer in Worcestershire. I watched her worry. I drank sweet tea and I shook from head to toe. Another ten minutes and she would have called an ambulance but it finally passed and left me weary to the bone.

It must have been some sort of allergy to the dust. Easy to say in hindsight but in the thick of it a spell or a curse was just as convincing. How did the box get there? Like everything else in this house one thing leads to another.

The previous owner had read somewhere that when you go on holiday the best way to hide your valuables is to put them in a box and stuff them under the insulation in the loft. Burglars are unlikely to look there.

It’s easy to do and you just have to remember where you put them. If you are just beginning to get Alzheimer’s disease the remembering is the hard part. It was the Alzheimer’s that made them sell the house and hence we bought it. It was the Alzheimer’s that stopped him maintaining and repairing the house, hence the sagging ceilings and worn out fabric.

We took the box back to the former owners they told us the story. The curious antique jewels were family mementos, trinkets bought to celebrate children’s births and other valued events. Such things have a life of their own and a meaning that comes from memory. The box wasn’t cursed, it was charmed, and it needed to find it’s way home.