CeLLo cEllO CellO

I started playing the cello when I was already in my forties.  And every time before an exam or concert I am just shaking with nerves.  This is ludicrous I tell myself then.  I am only doing this because I have always loved music and wanted to try and play another musical instrument to widen my own musical horizons and challenge myself, push myself that I don’t become lazy and scared of challenges.  There is no competition with anyone else playing the cello.  Rather the opposite because I am more than double the age of most of the other students who study at the Music School.  They are mostly in school still.

So then my pep talk starts again….I am seriously doing this for fun as well.  But to push myself to practise and to get better, because ultimately it is about playing better and getting a better sound  from the cello, I do these exams and performances where possible.  And I am not talking about Carnegie Hall-performances (well if they came up I might consider), I am talking about playing at different Church Christmas Services (so with many other people playing at the same time, not talking about everyone singing!), school concerts and at these pre-exam-get-togethers just to play in front of the other students….those kind of thing!

The exams are stressful, that is true.  But I suppose your steel has to come out some way, you can’t only do things which you are not scared of where there is no fear, which is within your own boundaries…you have to push yourself I always tell myself…. because  otherwise  you’ll die being a wimp, die wondering why did I never try.  And that is one thing I never want to be – somebody who never tried.  At least on my grave stone they can write – she tried her hand on the cello, she wasn’t the best, but hey she had fun and could pull a few party songs out of the bag!

But to practise for this dreaded exam I am almost a cello-zombie.  I drink, eat and sleep cello.  And in my mind that is ridiculous!  Seriously.  It feels if all my grey matter has been transferred to the cello, I cannot think about doing any other creative thing.  And to be creative  is something I need to survive.  It relaxes and focuses me, so I need urgent creative therapy….

But tomorrow is D-day, so maybe after the exam my other creative sides can come alive again.

Slán

Keep Sinterklaas and his helper – Zwarte Piet

As a child I loved the Sinterklaas celebrations we had at the beginning of  December.  Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (St Nicholas and Black Pete) were a highlight of my year.   I suppose it was mainly because it is a celebration for children –  toys, sweets and ginger biscuits (pepernoten), children being the centre of a festival!  What more can a child ask for?  But now it seems that Sinterklaas and especially Zwarte Piet are in a bit of a pickle …..

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Before I explain why let me give you some background about this festival. Although I grew up in South Africa, my parents taught us the Dutch traditions and culture they grew up with, so Sinterklaas was one of them.  Sinterklaas is celebrated on the 5th of December in the Netherlands when Sinterklaas and his entourage arrive on a steamboat from Spain (Belgium celebrate it on Dec 6th).  His helpers are called Zwarte Piete (Black Pete). Zwarte Piet would check if you were a good child and did what your parents told you.  If not you wouldn’t get any presents, if you were good you were rewarded with sweets, toys and chocolate.  So from Sinterklaas emerged Santa Claus, and not the other way around.

Maybe when my mom and dad grew up in the Netherlands (1940’s) Zwarte Piet was depicted as a more scary character who would beat the naughty children with a bunch of twigs.  These days Zwarte Piet is mainly characterised as a clown or entertainer I think.  And yes he or she is always painted black.

As children we were told that Sinterklaas was a very good man.  He gave all his money to the poor and loved children very much.  This I believe is based on the Saint Nicholas who was born in the fourth century somewhere around Turkey and whose parents raised him to be a devout Christian.  He was also very religious from an early age and devoted his life to the poor.  He used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering.  Eventually he became a Greek Bishop and dedicated his life to serving God.  Bishop Nicholas became known for his generosity to those in need, his love for children and his concern for sailors and ships.  He died on December 6th 343 AD.

And now for the dilemma …. A UN working group is currently investigating this Dutch custom where white people dress up as Zwarte Piet, with the leader of the group, a Jamaican Academic, Verene Shepherd, condemning it as “a throw-back to slavery”.  Now the Netherlands is one of only a handful of countries who strife very hard to be a country of inclusion, of integration and combating racism and discrimination in every part of life.  So surely they should be able to sort this out amongst themselves – if it is a problem?

Over the weekend I also read an article in the Irish Times written by Donald Clarke where he mentioned that Dutch people were ‘blacking up’ for Christmas.   The writer is really off the mark. In the first place Sinterklaas and Christmas are actually two totally separate events.   The one has nothing to do with the other.  Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piete is a children’s festival where everyone gets toys, sweets and cakes if they were good.  Christmas is about the birth of Jesus.   Surely it can’t be that hard for the writer to establish certain facts before putting a column together?   Zwarte Piet is definitely not to offend.  It is a custom, a tradition, a festival.  On  social network there  is a petition (Pietition) where the ‘likes’ to keep the Sinterklaas-festival featuring  Zwarte Piet are already over 2 million.

So why all the commotion?  Does the blackness of Zwarte Piet make the tradition racist?  Are we not becoming a bit too sensitive here?  This is a tradition and a debate for the Dutch people to handle, not for some working group to decide, a group who might have no idea what the culture involves or is about.  Even if the Dutch decide that Zwarte Piet must be in all the colours of the rainbow, won’t  it just be so sad to crush a tradition just because we are thinking RACIST in capital letters.  Do we need working groups  to decide about all the different traditions  just in case something is too racist, too sexist, too chauvinistic, too blasphemous, too violent, and so forth?  Imagine a world where all traditions and cultures were revised to make sure nobody’s feelings got hurt!  A bland little world to keep everyone happy with no spices to make different cultures stand out and keep us excited and interested in other nations, to learn about other cultures and respect them.

I for one hope that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arrive safely on December 5th in the Netherlands and that this tradition will live on!

Slán

RED velvet cupCAKES

Cupcakes.

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I just love cupcakes because eating them means you have a little cake all to yourself.

And it seems many people join me in my affection for cupcakes because when you google  ’cupcake’  it comes up with more than 83 million results……so indeed  cupcakes are pretty popular.

Apparently the first mention of the cupcake can be traced as far back as 1796, when a recipe mentioned  “a cake to be baked in small cups”.  A New York Times article called the red velvet cake the cake that can stop traffic.   It said:  “The colour, often enhances  by buckets  of food colouring, becomes even more eye-catching set against clouds of snowy icing, like a slash of glossy lipstick framed by platinum blond curls. Even the name has a vampy allure: red velvet.”

So the other day we made these absolutely delicious red velvet cupcakes.  I include my daughter here since she is passionate about baking …. especially sweet things…and is pretty good with doing it as well!  We got this recipe from the Irish magazine for teenage girls, Kiss.

Ingredients

120g butter

290g caster sugar

2 large free range eggs

50ml red food colouring (we used less but it depends on the redness you want to achieve)

25g cocoa powder

1.5 tsp vanilla extract

240ml buttermilk

320g plain flour (sifted)

1 tbsp white wine vinegar

1 tsp baking soda

 

–          Preheat the oven to 190 degrees.

–          Beat the butter and sugar together until they form a paste, then add the eggs one at a time and beat until the mixture is creamy and pale.

–          In a small bowl stir together the food colouring, cocoa powder and vanilla to form a paste.  Add this to the butter mixture.

–          Pour a third of your buttermilk, followed by a third of the flour.  Keep alternating, making sure you finish with the last of the flour.

–          In the same bowl you make the food colouring paste, mix the baking soda and white wine vinegar.  Be careful as the ingredients will froth and bubble when combined.  Fold this into the mixture.

–          Spoon the mixture into cupcake cases and bake in the oven for 18-20 minutes.  A cocktail stick should come out clean if inserted into the centre of one of the cakes.

 

Frosting

50g butter

125g full fat cream cheese

2 tsp vanilla extract

350g icing sugar

–          Beat the butter, cream cheese and vanilla together.

–          Add the icing sugar in two batches and continue to beat for 3-4 minutes on top speed.

–          Spoon into a piping bag and swirl the icing onto the top of the cupcakes.

–          Decorate to your heart’s content….

–          And for those who don’t like cream cheese that much, we also made some icing without the cream cheese, adding a bit of milk.

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Enjoy – they are a delicious treat!

Slán

Poet’s Corner

It was a cool autumn day when we went out for a walk with our dog.

We live in the countryside on the outskirts of a small village.  Usually we would walk into the village and pass the church before taking a right to walk along the river Maigue.  We did exactly that.  The path next to the river is beautiful and peaceful with an old stone wall and big trees along the way.    Long ago this was the main road to Cork, but now it is a well-known walking space.  Before you get there though, you have to pass the old water mill on your left and an old pub on your right.

This old pub is called Poet’s Corner and I always imagine that hundreds of years ago writers and poets would get together at this pub where they would read out their latest poems or written offerings and get some divine inspiration from similar thinking souls.  The smoke from the open fire would be heavy in the air, maybe also from them smoking pipes, and the place would be all cosy and pleasant.  They would have a pint maybe and sing a song, laugh a good bit, maybe cry, but they would all have been kindred spirits.

Well apparently in the mid-18th century this village was a meeting place for Gaelic poets.   The story has it that this School of Gaelic Poetry was actually just a convivial gathering in a pub owned by  one of the poets.  They were known as the Poets of Maigue, the Maigue Poets or Fili na Maighe where the poets always wrote in their native Irish tongue.  They wrote songs, elegies, drinking songs, songs of a patriotic nature and songs of farewell.   I’m unsure if Poet’s Corner was the pub they used for their writings, but it is an inspiring thought.

These days Poet’s Corner houses a Chinese Restaurant where many people from the village and beyond come to get a take-away or eat in.  So as we were walking towards the river we suddenly realised there was something very wrong with the place.  The indoor chairs were outside, a gas bottle was lying outside, there was a lot of glass and it dawned on us that the place had been broken into and was vandalised.  Really badly vandalised.  All the windows were broken.  With no regard or respect for another’s property the furniture and everything inside had just been demolished and destroyed.  We were shocked that this could happen in our sleepy little village.

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Because the restaurant only opens a bit later in the day those poor people who own the restaurant definitely didn’t know about this when we walked past.  Horrible.  Soon and as is custom when living in a small village everyone knew about it.

Although the incident was shocking the outcome was amazing.  According to a local newspaper the whole community were behind this Chinese family and appalled by what had happened.  Everyone was in favour of supporting  the Chinese restaurant proprietors to get back on their feet as soon as possible. The community took action.  Events took place in all the local pubs with raffles and spot prizes and was hugely successful with the funds to be used to get the restaurant restored and in working condition again.  So within days the windows were gleaming again and there was the usual ‘OPEN’ sign on the door.

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I just love it when a story ends well….

Slán

PIzzA homemade piZZa

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like pizza, who has a pizza-aversion so to speak.  I suppose it is a pretty easy food to love because it is so versatile and can be so delicious and even healthy!

The origins of the pizza is not as straightforward like we would like it to be – it all came from Italy.  No.  Apparently foods similar to the humble pizza have been prepared since the Neolithic age (last part of the Stone Age) and in different countries.    There is  the Greeks’  flatbread consisting of  large round and flat breads covered with some oil, salt and herbs.  Then the focaccia, the pita bread, the paratha (Indian), the naan (Asian), the roti, the rieska (Finnish) and many more!  And throughout Europe there was also the flat pastry with cheese, vegetables and seasoning such as the Flammkuchen, the Zwiebelkuchen and the lovely quiche which I have already written about in a previous blog.

In some parts of Italy a flatbread was referred to as a pizza and was known as the dish for poor people and not considered a kitchen recipe for a long time.  Only later – in the 19th century – oil, tomatoes and cheese were added.  Interesting though was that the dish was sweet, not savoury, to start with!

A bit tired of the bought-type pizzas we recently followed one of Rachel Allen’s recipes for Homemade Pizzas and it was a huge success I might add.  Not only was everyone making his or her own pizza, but it was a very sociable evening in the kitchen with  lots of fun and laughter.

Her basic recipe for pizza dough makes about six pizzas.  I doubled the recipe and that worked out fine.  This is the basic recipe:

350g strong white flour

1 tsp salt

2 tsp caster sugar

50g butter

1 x 7g sachet fast-acting yeast

2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for brushing

175 – 200 ml lukewarm water

Plain flour, semolina or fine polenta for dusting

–          Place the flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl.  Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs, add the yeast and mix together.  Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, add the oil and most of the water and mix to a loose dough.  Add more water or flour if needed.

–          Transfer the dough from the bowl to a lightly floured work surface, cover with a clean tea towel and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

–          Uncover and knead the dough for 10 minutes or until it feels smooth and slightly springy.  You can also do this in an electric food mixer with the dough hook attachment for half the time.  Let the dough relax again for a few minutes, covered with the tea towel.

–          Shape the dough into six equally sized balls, each weighing about 110g.  Lightly brush the dough balls with olive oil.

–          Cover the oiled dough with cling film and place in the fridge for 30 minutes.  The dough will be easier to handle when cold but it can also be used immediately.

–          Preheat the oven to 230 degrees Celsius (450F), Gas mark 8.

–          Place 1 or 2 baking sheets in the oven to heat up.

–          On a floured work surface, roll each dough ball out to a disc about 25cm in diameter.  Place each pizza base on a cold baking sheet (with no edges so that the pizza can slide off) that has been dusted with flour, semolina or fine polenta to prevent it from sticking.

–          Spread the tomato sauce on and scatter with your own toppings (see below).

–          Slide each pizza off the cool baking sheet onto a hot sheet in the oven and cook for about 5-10minutes, depending on the thickness of the pizza and heat of the oven.  The pizza need to be golden underneath and bubbling on top.

–          Enjoy!

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Toppings we used:

–          Tomato puree as a base or you can make your own tomato sauce with tomatoes and garlic or onions.

–          Chorizo or any salami thinly sliced

–          Mozzarella cheese mixed with cheddar or Gruyere or on its own

–          Pesto

–          Basil leaves

–          Cherry tomatoes cut into half

–          Pieces of ham

–          Spices and herbs

 

Our youngest had an interesting take on his pizza.  He would spread tomato puree as the base, add some slices of chorizo and top it with….wait for it….syrup!  So maybe the sweet idea of the pizza isn’t so bizarre after all.

Slán

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Final day – Seven days in ISTANbul

For the last time we took the ferry to one of the Princes’ Islands.  This time we went to one of the smaller ones, Kinaliada, also the closest to Istanbul.

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Kinaliada is much smaller, far less touristic, quieter… we could walk to a suitable place to swim and had lots of time to meander around the village where we saw interesting things.

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No comment

No comment

 

A good ending to a wonderful time in Istanbul.  It was time to say goodbye.

 

I leave you with pictures of Istanbul, its people, its places and its scenery.

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Taksim Square - still unresolved

Taksim Square – still unresolved

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by night

by night

 

Sunset

Sunset

Slán

SEVEN days in ISTANbul – day 6

ON day 6 we decided to wander to the Asian side of Istanbul.  Actually just the fact that this city is situated on two continents is a pretty cool idea. 

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We went with a ferry to the district of Üsküdar, one of Istanbul’s oldest established residential areas on the Asian side. Üsküdar has a long promenade along the coast which you can walk from the centre.  You have wonderful views of some of the beautiful palaces and mosques on the European shore. 

The promenade is also lined with cafes and restaurants, with probably one of the most prominent restaurants not on the coast but in the water – Maiden’s Tower.  It is just a small tower off the coast in the Bosphorus strait that has existed since Byzantine times.  It was used as a toll booth, but now it is  an upscale restaurant and even a venue for wedding parties. 

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Different legends exist about the tower, its location and how it came into existence.  The most popular Turkish legend is about a sultan who had a much beloved daughter.  One day an oracle (a person who made certain predictions) prophesied that she would be killed by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday.  In an effort to prevent this from happening the sultan built this tower in the middle of the Bosphorus so she would be away from land and thus away from any snakes.  She was placed in the tower and would remain there until her 18th birthday.  She was frequently visited, but only by her father!!  Then on her 18th birthday the sultan brought her a basket of exotic fruits as a birthday gift, delighted that he was able to prevent the prophecy to be fulfilled.  But upon reaching into the basket an asp – venomous snake – that had been hiding among the fruit, bit the young princess and she died in her father’s arms. Hence the name Maiden’s Tower.

Back on European soil we went to have a look at the Basilican Cistern.  This enormous underground cistern (or reservoir) was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian(527-565). The cistern is 140m long, 70m wide and is a giant rectangular structure. Once you have descended the 55 steps you’ll walk into this amazing cathedral-like structure – 336 columns in total, each 9 metres  high.  There are 28 columns  spread over 12 rows.  Some of the columns are solid marble and they are made in the Corinthian or Doric style. The cistern had the capacity to store 100 000 tons of water and during the time it was used, water was brought through over 64km of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea.

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Also in this cistern are two Medusa heads used as bases of columns which are actually masterpieces of sculpture art from the Roman Period.  Although it is unsure where these pieces of art came from, they will – unsurprisingly – attract the most visitors.  Researchers in general believe they were brought to the cistern to be used simply as column bases, but maybe not….there are many myths about Medusa.  And they are intriguing….DSCN5406

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During the Byzantine period the cistern covered the water needs of the imperial palace and residents living in this area.  It was apparently used for some time after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453 when the gardens of Topkapi Palace were watered from this cistern.  But it seems the Ottomans preferred running water to stagnant water and after they installed their own water system they gave up using the cistern water.

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Amazingly the cistern was forgotten about for centuries until somewhere in the middle of the 16th century  a Dutch researcher, P Gyllius, came to Istanbul to conduct  research on Byzantine remainders and discovered the cistern again.

Comprehensive renovation work has taken place until as recent as 1987 to restore the cistern and open it to visitors. 

And like those times long ago the cistern is hosting fish again!

 

Slán

 

PS.  Day 7 and our final day in Istanbul coming up soon….