Friday, 27 June 2014

Is It Really Cinnamon?

In the switch to whole, natural foods, it's time for me to hit the spice cabinet.  I grow and dry all my herbs organically, so I have that one nailed.  But, what about the more exotic spices that can't be grown here?

My sister is a fan of cinnamon for it's taste and it's health benefits.  She eats it every day and was shocked to hear a health expert on the TV say that what we eat for cinnamon in North America is mostly sawdust.  What!!! ~

I'm sitting around drinking wine with my friend Wendy, telling her what my sis heard and we decided to do a little research on cinnamon.  I used to talk about boyfriends during a girl's night. Now it's all about the environment and the unscrupulous corporations that are destroying our food supply.  What a fun gal I am to hang around with!

Here's what we learned.  True cinnamon is the inner bark of an evergreen tree, indigenous to Sri Lanka, and is called Ceylon cinnamon.  It is light in colour, forms a continuous roll in the stick and has a delicate, almost citrus like taste.  Cassia cinnamon comes from a similar tree but the outer bark is not peeled off and is extremely hard. I guess that's where the TV expert said it was mostly sawdust. It is a dark orangey red and has a strong, spicy taste.

90% of all cinnamon imported into North America is cassia cinnamon.  Why do we care?  Because cassia cinnamon contains high levels of something called coumarin.  You probably know it better as Warfarin, used to kill rodents.  You read that right, Warfarin!

It's been banned as a food additive in the U.S. since 1954 and in cigarettes since 1997 because it damages the liver and kidneys.  I can't find any data saying it is banned in Canada but we aren't allowed to ship food to the States if coumarin is in it as an additive.

That doesn't mean you are safe from coumarin my American friends.  Cassia cinnamon is allowed in your food. You can buy a whole bottle of the ground stuff or bag of the sticks and sprinkle it all over your kids breakfast oatmeal! If you weigh 135 lbs., 2 grams (0.07 ounces) is toxic if used regularly. A single teaspoon would be toxic to a child. It's in candy, gum, lipstick, herbal tea, flavoured coffee, commercial bakery products, artificial vanilla and pretty much anything else you use that has a cinnamon flavour.  Why is it there? Because it's the most popular spice and cassia cinnamon is cheap.  Organic doesn't mean Ceylon cinnamon either, so be very careful what you are buying.

My friend went right to her computer and ordered a tin of organic Ceylon cinnamon sticks.  For about $25 and $5 shipping, she bought a tin of 50 sticks. They were being sent direct from Ceylon and they arrived in 3 days.

The cassia sticks I had in my spice cabinet were difficult to grind with a rasp and would probably burn out a small coffee or spice grinder.  The Ceylon sticks (on the right) are soft and grind easily. ~

Kept in a tightly sealed container the sticks will last up to two years. ~

There are trace amounts of coumarin in Ceylon cinnamon, 2 to 5 parts per million.  Balance that against the 2000 to 5000 parts per million found in cassia cinnamon and I think you get the picture.

Spend a little more on the real stuff and keep on enjoying that wonderful flavour and the health benefits. True cinnamon is great for regulating blood sugar and cholesterol, relieving arthritis symptoms, inhibiting the growth of yeast and fungi and controlling allergies and increasing blood flow to the brain.

There won't be anything but Ceylon cinnamon in this house from now on! ~

photo courtesy of Wendy.  Thanks!

I'll leave the other stuff to the rats!

I'm sharing this with:  The HomeAcre Hop

Monday, 23 June 2014

What I've Learned About Growing Lavender

The first thing I learned was that I totally suck at it.  Seriously.  I'd plant it and it would live for a year or two, give hardly any blooms and die.  It was embarrassing!  Also, I really wanted my own lavender for projects. This year I went on a mission to find out what I was doing wrong.

That took a trip to a lavender farm with some girlfriends. ~

I pestered the poor owner giving the tour with a million detailed questions and I'm sure he just wanted me to shut up and go home.  I wasn't satisfied with him telling me how to prune lavender, I got him to prune a plant so I could see what he was doing.

I'm pretty sure I have this thing nailed now, but feel free to add any comments that will help me along!

Mistake #1 was trying to grow lavender in my heavy, clay soil.  It won't thrive in wet conditions and that is what you get with clay.

The answer was to create a new bed that was well drained and had good soil.  I was terracing a hill beside my patio and this was the perfect spot for a lavender bed. There's a gravel base and a load of good topsoil in there. ~

My helpers and I spaced the plants 20" inches apart.  It takes 3 yrs. for the plant to mature to full size and will need that much room. ~

Kay and Anne really liked this project and they haven't dug a single plant back out yet.  Keep your fingers crossed!

Mistake #2 was not pruning correctly.  Lavender wants to turn into a bush.  If it isn't pruned properly it gets woody and, since the blooms are on the new, soft growth you don't want that.  I found a great video on pruning for the first three years.  To see the video click A Guide To Lavender. Trust me, I watched them all and this one is the best. Lavender will live for 20 yrs. so it's important to get it right in the beginning.

Mistake #3 was not checking to see if the variety of lavender was hardy to my temperature zone. In my part of Canada there are only two varieties that stand up well to the extreme cold of winter.

I have the plants labelled and we'll see if one variety does better than another. ~

That's one level of terrace done!  The weeds are thriving on the upper level and I'd better pick up the pace on this project.

While my little lavender plants may not be all the impressive right now, ~

I have great dreams of this! ~

I will wear a white gown and dance through my field of lavender.

Of course, the chickens will want to dance right along with me and that may spoil the effect some!

I'm sharing this with:  The HomeAcre HopCottage Style Party

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

I'm Having An Asparagus Festival!

When you try to eat local food, asparagus being in season is worth  a festival.  Or, at least a few weeks of binging!

Today's treat was cream of asparagus soup.  Yummmm.

Grab a pound of asparagus and cut the woody ends off and discard them.  ~

Chop the rest into pieces about 2" long. ~

Chop three green onions into small pieces. ~

I had frozen chicken stock but you could use store bought, low sodium or vegetable stock.  ~

I like a bit of tartness to asparagus soup and add a teaspoon of grated lemon rind and two teaspoons of lemon juice to the stock. ~

Add the asparagus and green onions to the stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to simmer. After about 10 mins. you should be able to smoosh a piece of asparagus to the side of the pot with the back of your spoon.  Yes, smoosh is a culinary term.  If it smooshes, it's done. You don't want to overcook the asparagus or it will go grey and we want this baby to be green, green, green!

My camera lens kept steaming up, but you get the point. ~

At this point I add the seasoning.  I go light on them because I don't want to overpower the taste of the asparagus.

I used 4 good grinds of black pepper, about a half teaspoon of Himalayan salt and the teeniest pinch of saffron.  ~

Take the soup off the heat and use a blender, food processor, immersion blender; anything you fancy to puree the vegetables.  Do I need to tell you the soup is hot, just off the burner, and you need to be careful not to splash any on you?  I thought not.

If you are prepping this soup ahead of time, you can refrigerate it at this point and finish just before serving.

To finish the creamed soup, whisk a half cup of heavy cream into it.  I didn't have any cream on hand and substituted 1/4 cup of sour cream and 1/4 cup of milk.  Worked great!  Whisking is important because you are adding a milk product to warm soup, with the lemon acid in it.  You don't want it to curdle, so keep that whisk moving!

Put it back on the burner on medium heat and warm to just below the boiling point.  Asparagus soup can be served warm or cold and is great for wowing your guests with an elegant opening course for your meal.

Make an artful design on your soup with sour cream and chives and hope it doesn't sink to the bottom like mine did.  Ooops!

Oh well, I stirred it in and it tasted great with some French bread and chive butter! ~

Let's see, last night was asparagus coated with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper on the BBQ. Today was cream of asparagus soup.  Any ideas for tomorrow?

Friday, 13 June 2014

Some Fleeting Beauty

Yesterday, the first of my peonies bloomed.  There is a universal law that says the minute they bloom a torrential rain will fall and the blossom laden bush will lie in a sadly sodden mass on the ground.  It's nice to know the laws of the universe are still in place and the expected thunder storm happened yesterday evening.

Oh well, it's a good excuse to gather the blooms up and bring them in the house.  I think peonies surpass roses for heavenly scent.  ~

What do you think of my new vase?  It's a glass shade from an old outdoor light fixture! ~

It makes a fabulous candle holder as well.  All those crystal cuts sparkle with a flame inside and you can't beat a dual purpose holder that cost absolutely nothing!

Thirty three years ago, when I moved to this house, the many peony bushes were a pleasant surprise in the spring.  But, another surprise would happen in June.  In the middle of a noisy, family dinner I noticed the most wonderful scent wafting in the dining room window.  I jumped up from the table and ran outside to see where a scent that was half citrus and half rose was coming from. A big, old shrub outside the window was in bloom!

I had my very own Mock Orange, or Philaelphus to be more scientific.  All these years later, I was just as excited to find it in bloom yesterday.

As I clipped some branches to bring inside, I wondered how many June brides cut their bouquets from this same bush over the 200 yrs. the house has stood.  They carried the fragrance with them to the church next door and those blossoms were the last gift from the home that had sheltered them until they were ready to venture forward to a new home and a new life.  I'm sure they were just as hopeful as the ancient Roman brides that carried orange blossoms as a symbol of fidelity and fertility.

Tonight, as I write, the scent from the vases on the buffet fills the room. I think back on all the gifts this yard has shared with me and how wonderful it is to have something to look forward to every spring.

So many things in life are fleeting.  My little girls are grown and gone from home; mothers themselves. Beloved pets passed on.  Parents, aunts, uncles and nephews, that once filled this home with laughter, are no longer with us.

The peonies and orange blossoms are all the more special for being here for such a short time. They remind me to gather the beauty of life up into my arms, bury my face in its fragrance and appreciate every moment it is with me!

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Identifying Victorian Era Majolica

Those of you that are collectors of antiques know that you get a sixth sense about whether an item is real or fake.  Having parents that ran an antique store, attending auctions for forty years and living with antiques in my home are a big help in developing that eye for authenticity in me.  I can still be fooled by a good reproduction piece of furniture or a line of pottery that I've never dealt with.  It's a big field and we can't know it all!  We each get our areas of speciality.  Majolica was mine.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Victorian majolica brings a consistently good return on resale and it's worth keeping an eye out for it when you are thrifting and at yard sales.  It's also really fun pottery to collect!

Could you find a prettier pottery basket for roses? 

You need a little understanding of how majolica was made.  Light coloured clay was pressed into a plaster mould.  The mould drew the moisture out of the clay and the soft "greenware" piece was removed from the mould.  Pressing the clay into the mould made for heavier pieces than we see today done with a slip process. So, you want the piece you are looking at to be fairly heavy. Majolica was then fired in a kiln to harden it and dipped or painted with a clear lead or tin glaze, that was left to dry.  This glaze gives it a depth and shine that is not found on most reproduction pieces.  When the glaze dried, workers hand painted the vibrant colours on the pieces and it was fired in the kiln again. Although majolica was mass produced in factories and the decorators were following a pattern, each one is unique in the slight differences from painter to painter.

The first thing I look for is crazing that is not uniform.  Some reproductions have tried to copy the crazing that comes from age and exposure to temperature changes.  The repro crazing always looks too uniform and repetitive to me.

The crazing on this pitcher is random, indicating the piece is genuine. ~

I check out the usual indicators of a pottery piece that is antique.  The base will show wear and, if unglazed, will have darkened with age.  Repairs done with staples are another good sign.  That type of repair hasn't been done in over 90 yrs.  The colours that were in vogue during the Victorian Era are a good sign as well.  Although some pieces were in dark browns and greens, most sported jewel tones, aquas, pinks, yellow and robins egg blue.

This bowl bears all the desired trademarks. ~

A sure sign of vintage majolica is applied handles.  They were solid clay and attached after the piece came out of the mould.  Reproduction and newer pieces, made in the style of majolica, will have hollow handles. You can see they are hollow by looking inside the piece for the opening or searching for a small vent hole in the handle itself.

You also should not be able to feel or see the pattern on the inside of the piece.  Pressing the clay into the mould gave it a smooth surface inside.

Of course the easiest way to identify a manufacturer and year it was made, is a backstamp.  ~

The premier English potteries marked their pieces, as well as the larger American potteries but a great many smaller potteries did not.  There is a great difference in quality in the pieces as well.  A George Jones elaborate centrepiece from Britain will be finely executed and worth thousands of dollars.  A humble jug from a lesser known pottery may be worth $30 to $40 dollars.  Many of the pieces you come across will show the wear and tear of years of use.  The odd nick or chip doesn't mean it doesn't have value.  A hairline crack is okay as long as you can't feel movement when you press on it.  If it moves, it's cracked right through.

Remember the basketweave and ribbon handle bowl my dad gave to me?  He paid less than $10 for it and it lists for $325 to $350 dollars. ~

Not a bad return on investment and worth keeping an eye open for don't you think!

Monday, 9 June 2014

Nothing Says Victorian Era Like Majolica!

In the 1800's the middle class had arrived and they wanted to share some of the elegant trappings of the wealthy.  A second level of society had leisure time and funds to decorate their homes with upholstered furniture, draperies and china.  That leisure time also inspired a growing interest in nature.  Bird watching, entomology and botany were all the rage.

At the Great Exhibition of 1851, Mintons Ltd. introduced a line of clear, lead glazed pottery that was a riot of colour and nature inspired designs.  Fish and coral danced across fish serving pieces.  Strawberries hung from vine handles on fruit serving spoons.  Cauliflowers poured tea and vases were shaped like bird nests, complete with modelled birds clinging to the side.  It was whimsical and eye catching and every sample piece had sold out by the end of the exhibition.

It's worth familiarising yourself with this style of pottery, so you can spot it at garage sales and thrift shops. It's highly collectible and the pieces I have bought and resold have earned easily 10 times or more what I paid for it.

When you are starting out with majolica, it's handy to have a guidebook to get an idea of styles and values. I began with The Collectors Encyclopedia of Majolica, by Mariann Katz-Marks. ~

Every time money gets tight around here, I sell off my collection.  Majolica has saved my butt more than once!

Without a doubt, the ladies who lived in my house in the 1800's had majolica pieces on their dinner tables and in the parlour.  This little grape and vine pitcher holds buttercups on my bedroom dresser. ~

A miniature vase has relief blossoms and leaves applied to a cobalt blue background. ~

A favourite of mine is a piece styled as a woven basket with a raised ribbon twined around the handle.  It was a gift from my dad and safe from the auction block! ~

The little pansy shaped butter pat is safe as well as it belonged to my grandmother. ~

The star of the show in my house is a large bowl.  It is doubly collectible to me because it has a staple repair to one handle.  That kind of repair hasn't been done since the early 1900's.

The colours are vibrant.  The outside has a design with Persian influence and a beautiful gladiola graces the inside of the bowl.  To me it screams Victorian sentiment and fascination with travel and the natural world! ~

The value of antiques fluctuates wildly with economic trends and fashion, so I always hesitate to call any of them a sure thing.  I do know that majolica has been a consistent money maker for me for over 20 years.  It has been collectible enough for fakes to show up on the market and I'll give you some tips on recognising the real thing on the next post.

Who knows?  You just may stumble across a Minton, figural centrepiece at a yard sale and pocket yourself a few hundred dollars!

I'm sharing this with:  Cottage Style Party

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

What Fear Looks Like

This is it.  This is fear. ~

I know it's only a rubber monster, that my little brother made from a craft kit. But, my toddler did not know what it was.  She was a nightmare child to keep away from things that could hurt her.  We are talking a child that was climbing out of her crib at 8 mos. and not just walking, but running at 9 mos.  She feared nothing EXCEPT the rubber Golliwoggle.  Putting something on top of the fridge to keep it out of her reach didn't work.  She opened the fridge door and climbed the racks.  Put the Golliwoggle in front of something and she wouldn't go near it!

Fear is something I've had to keep under control for myself.  I'm a worrier.  I can imagine the worst of the worst.  The least hint of trouble becomes a Gothic novel in no time to me!  Letting one fear stay seems to breed endless baby fears that are completely unrelated to the first one and they all grow into bloated monsters.

Having made it through childhood with nothing more than a fear of spiders, the complications of adult life seemed to grow more and more fears.  They were huge and they were taking over my life. They were also entirely of my imagination. ~

It all came to a crux when a great many bad things happened in a very short time.  None of my worrying stopped them from happening.  That means I got to suffer twice, once in the worrying and once when it happened! I knew I had to fight my way through it all and pulled out the Golliwoggle.  I put it on my kitchen windowsill, then on the dashboard of my car and stared my fears right in the face.  "It's not real.  It's just a Golliwoggle", I told myself.

I remembered something I'd heard many years ago.  ~

Frames on my quotes courtesy of The Graphics Fairy

It was true.  Even the bad things that happened;  the things didn't seem to have any positive aspect, in hindsight, did lead me to something that was positive.

I have to recognize fear the minute it shows it's sneaky face.  Pushing it to the back of my mind only lets it grow in the dark, slither out and call it's buddies in there with it.  I don't hide it from myself anymore and I won't feed it!

Sure caution can be a good thing.  I agree with J.R.R Tolkien when he says, "It does not do to leave a dragon out of your calculations when you live near him".  Just make sure it really is a dragon before you barricade yourself behind your front door.

Fear will turn itself back on you.  Fear for your children's safety will make you keep a stranglehold on them that will stifle them.  Money fears will stop you from achieving the very things that will hold poverty at bay. Fear and love are polar opposites and one cannot live where the other thrives.  You can't create when you fear failure.  Life constricts in an atmosphere of fear and all the wonder of the world is lost.  Sometimes you just have to stand up and punch it in the nose.

I'm not afraid of spiders anymore.  I'm bigger than they are and I have a flyswatter!

There is one thing I know for sure, now.  Life is risky.  Not living it fully is riskier still!

Spoiler alert!!! ~

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Gardening Is An Act Of Faith

My garden doesn't look very nice right now.  It's full of odd structures and markers for plants that I have absolute faith will grow.  Disappointments in the past are forgotten.  Bountiful crops are remembered.  I choose to remember the good seasons.

A tripod of driftwood is wrapped in chicken wire.  I have visions of Italian cucumbers climbing up the structure.  I'll wear a flowing garden dress and floppy sun hat while I pluck perfect cucumbers for the salad. ~

I don't have a flowing sun dress or floppy sun hat but that's beside the point.

Bits of wattle fence deter the chickens from digging up seedlings.  Tent pegs and string mark the rows, waiting for seeds to germinate. ~

I keep digging, planting, watering and weeding.  I know it will be worth every mosquito bite and broken nail when the crops start to come in.

Along with the regular gardening, I'm terracing the hill that comes down from the patio.  It's back breaking work and takes a whole lot of faith to believe it is worth it. ~

All the stones are being moved from another spot.  It's hot, dirty, heavy work and I have no idea how long the project will take.  My little, happy voice inside keeps saying, "I think I can, I think I can...".

Bit at a time is my motto on this baby. ~

Good old Kay marches along beside the wheelbarrow, watching as the the loads of stone get dumped. ~

I admit it.  I like having chicken company while I toil!

Anne Boleyn, being of royal blood, doesn't like being part of the construction.  She whiles away the afternoon in her bower under the blooming Weigela bush. ~

Like Anne, you will all have to have faith that the peons (Kay and I) will get the job done and have prettier pictures to show you before this summer is out.

I will focus on the victories of the past.  The little lilac bush was only two years old and had to endure this past winter of brutal temperatures.  Today, I picked the first bouquet from it. ~

And that, my friends is the reward of faith!