Stormy Sunset

There are many official dates that mark out the passing year but one of my favourite personal markers of the coming spring is the first day I can drive home without using my lights. Yesterday the horrendously wet weather we have been having took a little break and I found myself driving in beautiful sunshine.

A brilliant sunset but this photo does not show the howling wind!

A brilliant sunset but this photo does not show the howling wind!

After picking up my husband Alex at home, we drove to the beach to see this recently very unfamiliar sun set below the sea. It was a very windy day and the air was full of sea spray but the light was beautiful. The wind was stacking the waves up so high, they seemed to tower over the beach and the water at some moments looked almost solid.

A shot taken along the beach shows the air full of spray

A shot taken along the beach shows the air full of spray

I got busy with my camera and got some nice shots despite the howling wind freezing my fingers and having to fight to avoid being blown over. I ended with wet frozen feet too because my wellington boots were leaking and I was caught by a few fast moving waves.

The waves were towering over the beach

The waves were towering over the beach

We stayed until the sun sank below the horizon, then, as the sky darkened we decided it was a special day – to be marked with takeaway fish and chips rather than the healthy dinner waiting for us at home!

All too soon, the sun was gone!

All too soon, the sun was gone!

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Cold Weather Clearout

A snowy day in North Cornwall

A snowy day in North Cornwall

You may have noticed I have not been active on this blog for a while. A cold, miserable January has never been my favourite time of year, or my most productive. This year I decided to put all my efforts into carry out my New Year’s resolution – to de-clutter my life.

If you live in the same house for over 20 years you accumulate a lot of things; if you are by instinct a hoarder (in a family of hoarders and collectors!), things can become ridiculous. Now that our children have grown up and left home our house should be far too large, yet every space seems to be packed full of stuff.

I took a hard look in my wardrobes and found clothing that stretched back twenty-odd years. Some things had not been worn in all that time but I always planned to find a way to remake or reuse them. This type of recycling is something I was brought up with but I have now come to realise that I will never find a use for everything in a couple of lifetimes.

Our children may have left but I still seem to have rooms full of their belongings, with great piles of children’s books, toys, games and knick-knacks that I have found it hard to sort through and dispose of.

Books are a real problem too; every member of the family collects books and this Christmas brought a few more; yet we have far too many to give them all shelf space and that means making hard decisions about which ones are no longer wanted.

The last and perhaps the biggest problem is all the fabric, dyes, paints and many other materials I have amassed to support my creative work. It is the source of my work and I never quite know what I will want to use next but I again I have more than enough for several creative lifetimes.

These hedges show where the wind comes from!

These hedge trees show where the wind comes from!

So how am I doing? Well it is still a work in progress but I now have sorted many sacks of rubbish and even bigger quantities for the recycling collection; the local charity shops have already received some new stock and are set to get more, while I have a growing list of items that are headed for eBay. I am not sure I will ever really change my habits and learn to shun possessions but at least I should have some space free for a while.

I must now try very hard to remember the Taoist message that we enter the world with nothing and that possessions are just baggage that ties us down.

Our hamlet in the snow

Our hamlet in the snow

Fantastic Fungi

As a child I was always fascinated by mysterious old Chinese medicine shops with all their weird and wonderful bits of dried and shrivelled Nature. Most interesting of all were the different dried mushrooms that, depending on type, could be used for correcting health problems, or added to an unusual and healthy-giving dish in the kitchen. I still love the look of fungi today in both their living and dried forms. (Or more accurately, as my husband tells me, the fruiting bodies of fungi.)

Lingzhi - The mushroom of immortality!

Lingzhi – The mushroom of immortality!

The last time I visited Hong Kong I photographed some fungi in a health shop which stirred up even more childhood associations. These were the mushroom known as “Lingzhi” which featured in many of the books I read in my youth. This rare fungus (Ganoderma lucidum) has been used in Chinese medicine for 2,000 years and many accounts attributed it with life extending powers. In more recent times it has found a regular place in literature as a fabled elixir of life, and featured in many of the Martial Arts novels I read in my teens. Seeing them lying in a shop, piled in an old cardboard box, rather spoiled the myth!

Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum) Legend of my youth

Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum) Legend of my youth

Another type of dried fungus

Another type of dried fungus

I also love fungi growing in nature, where they can suddenly appear like exotic aliens overnight. I have now tried to start photographing any new types I see, though our voracious Cornish slugs seem to attack and disfigure many before I get there.

Decorating Christmas Cakes For Gifts

This year I made and decorated small Xmas cakes to give as gifts. Rather than the marzipan and fruit decoration I used last year, I went back to using icing to make the flowers and leaves for this year.

Here are a few photographs showing how I did the decoration.

A finished cake

A finished cake

Levelling the top of a cake using marzipan

Levelling the top of a cake using marzipan

My first step was to level the uneven tops of my cakes using a little apricot jam and small pieces of marzipan.

Cake coated with marzipan

Cake coated with marzipan

Next, a layer of marzipan was added over the whole cake.

Cake after icing

Cake after icing

The marzipan was followed by a nice smooth coat of icing.

Basic flower shape cut out of icing

Basic flower shape cut out of icing

Using a suitable cutter I cut basic flower shapes from thinly rolled icing. To prevent sticking I make liberal use of cornflower.

Re-shaping flower

Re-shaping flower

I added some 3-dimensional form with the aid of a toothpick.

Adding colour to the flower

Adding colour to the flower

I have both liquid and powder forms of cake decorator’s colours. Here I used a little of the powder type to colour the flowers.

Creating the final flower shape using foil

Creating the final flower form using foil

The final form of the flowers was set by placing the soft icing shapes into a pre-shaped bed of kitchen foil. The flowers were then allowed to stiffen before adding them to the cake.

Making flat leaf shapes

Making flat leaf shapes

Flat shapes such as leaves are much quicker and simpler to make.

Adding all the individual parts

Adding all the individual parts to the cake

When all the pieces are ready they are attached to the cake using drops of icing.

Another finished example!

Another finished example!

With a little dusting of icing sugar to provide a “snow effect”, the cake is complete.

This may seem like a lot of work but I found that it did not take too long provided I stuck to variations on a simple theme and did not get sucked in to exploring design possibilities!

Technical note: I made my own gelatin icing for decorating these cakes. This is probably a little easier to form 3-D shapes with but regular fondant icing could also be used.