Aromatherapy Christmas craft project – pomander balls

Baki is learning about the Bubonic Plague in his Social Studies class, and came home talking about fleas and rats and doctors with beaks, so naturally the first thing that sprang to mind was pomander balls, especially with Christmas around the corner.

Plague doctors wore masks with beak-like protrusions on them (you might be familiar with the Venetian “doctor” mask, which is quite similar to the one in this picture, if a bit more ominous). This was because the beak area could be stuffed with aromatic herbs; it was believed that sweet smells could ward off the disease. That’s where pomander balls enter the picture. (picture credit: Paul Furst (1608-1666), “Der Doctor Schabel von Rom”)

Every year at Christmas time we open up the boxes of Christmas ornaments and the same smell rises from them – oranges and clove, with faint scents of pine. This is the smell of Christmas to me, and it is mostly coming from the pomander balls in the boxes, some of them decades old.

Pomander balls in the Middle Ages, when the Plague was a major health concern, were not actually made from oranges at all, but were pieces of jewelry with aromatic herbs inside. The name comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, meaning amber apple – ambergris was one of the sweet scents inserted in the lockets.

My mother said that she learned how to make pomander balls when she was in high school, but couldn’t get more specific than that. All I know is that for as long as I can remember, the clove studded oranges have made their appearance at the end of every year. In my mind they were synonymous with that time of year and I didn’t think much about it beyond that.

Zanzibar (a small group of islands off the coast of Tanzania) was once known as “the Spice Isles” because they were the world’s largest producer of cloves. When Omani sultan Sayyid Said moved to Zanzibar, he decreed that every farmer plant three clove bushes for every coconut palm on their land. These trees formed the backbone of a major industry, and one that Zanzibar continues to be associated with (unlike the other major function that Zanzibar served at that time – a slave port).

Pomander balls in their present incarnation as clove studded oranges showed up in the 19th century; a gift of a pomander ball at that time was said to indicate “warmth of feeling.” Making pomander balls is pretty straightforward – just cover the orange with cloves. You want to leave a little space between them because the orange will shrink a bit as it dries, but not too much or it will look patchy and balding. When we set Baki to the task, though, it was about thirty seconds before he was complaining of sore fingers and declaring himself bored to death.

Then my mother had a wonderful idea.

“Why not use a fork?” she said.

I had on occasion used a toothpick to poke holes for the cloves , but by using a fork you make the holes and ensure even spacing. A dessert fork is best for the meticulous (me), a dinner fork for the underachiever (Baki).

Although Baki got off to a slow start with pomander balls, he did come up with a very nice little trick – when making holes in the orange, place the first tine of the fork in the last hole that you made so that your spacing really will be robotically precise. 

In this manner, we were able to make our pomander balls in record time.


And of course there is the added pleasure of the smell – cloves smell great, and there is something heartening about the smell of orange peels. Make one and see – and keep it for decades! It’ll still hold up, smelling of the Spice Isles and bringing a whiff of the Plague to your holidays.

Merry Christmas to all and sundry!

Escape to London

In Antalya, our summers are perfectly dry. For about four months, it is not reasonable to expect any rain to fall. The temperatures soar and then coast along in the upper regions of the thermometer. This must be why people come here on holiday – no risk of staring out at the rain soaked beach from your hotel room, with your sun hat in your hand. But it turns the forest into a tinderbox – one thing that you are sure to see every summer is the forestry department planes flying by with bags of water trailing behind them. And in the garden, the extreme heat and lack of water means that for us, summer is the busiest season. We spend our days watering everyone – the plants, the trees, the chickens, the cats, the dog, ourselves. In the sense of feeling that we are fighting the weather to keep everyone alive and happy, and that every living thing is undergoing some sort of stress, I feel like summers are our winters. Winter in Antalya is a breeze – it gets rainy and muddy, and it even gets cold, but the plants are delighted by the weather, the vegetable beds are full of lettuces and cabbages, and we have cozy evenings by the wood stove, roasting chestnuts and all sitting around the table to peel and eat them. I look forward to winter every year. I dream about getting the wooly sweaters out.

It can be tiring to trudge around the garden in the pounding heat, and when I get overwhelmed by taking care of the garden and the family, I dream of being alone. There are very few times in a summer day when I am not interrupted by someone who needs something from me. This is the chaotic charm of family life, but it grates sometimes, when I want to think my own thoughts, uninterrupted. I began to plan a little escape. I would go to London in the fall, after my mother came here. I would stay in a hotel near a Waitrose supermarket so I could roam its tastefully curated aisles and read stacks of newspapers, drinking milky tea, or coffee from my Aeropress. I’d visit some museums, and definitely go to the cinema – it had been years since I had done that. I could even eat at a restaurant without wondering when one of the kids was going to start careening around the room. And I did it all.

It was a grey weekend, only intermittently rainy (although I did get badly caught in the rain once and had to duck into a cafe to nurse a coffee and dry out) which is the perfect weather for tea and toast. I had bought a quarter loaf of sourdough bread and a salty unpasteurized butter. A friend of mine remarked that I didn’t post any photos of food from my trip on Instagram, and this was mainly because I was so happy eating buttered toast with a mug of milky tea, that this is what I did, again and again. Not great nutrition, perhaps, but deeply satisfying all the same. Likewise, although I was whiling away the entire weekend doing nothing much of great use to anyone, I felt at the end of it that I had been fed in some intangible way.

IMG_4756I have a lot of good reasons for not living in the city anymore, and most of them are to do with my desire to be closer to nature and more involved in the day to day mechanics of my life – in the garden, we fix our own plumbing, chop our own wood, kill our own chickens. But that does not mean that I am immune to the charms of city life, or to the sense of wellbeing that beautiful architecture or gardens can evoke. One morning, while walking to the British Museum, I noticed a clipped tunnel of trees and walked through it – I discovered later that these were linden trees (the living corridor is more correctly known as a “pleached lime cloister”). It was so enjoyable to be walking in the leafy embrace of the trees that I almost doubled back to do it again, but time was of essence.

IMG_4757I was drawn to the museum because I had read that there was a show of metalpoint drawings there. It has been a long time since I drew with any regularity, but there was a time when I dreamed of art school, and of all art forms drawings are my favorite. I bought my ticket and was directed to go “up the staircase.” This was in the beautiful skylit Great Court, with its huge round stairwell winding importantly upwards. I realized that there couldn’t be any other staircase to refer to in such a nonchalant manner, so up I went and as I ascended, with the cloudy sky dimly visible through the glass ceiling, I found myself level with the Ionic capitals of the classical facade of one of the buildings sheltered in this huge indoor courtyard. It gave me the sensation of floating upwards, or at least of something not quite possible, and this only deepened when I followed the signs pointing towards the exhibition and find myself walking through a room full of mummies. If only Baki were with me, I thought.

Then I entered the small and perfectly silent gallery where the drawings were displayed. I handed my ticket over and was directed into an even quieter room off to the side, with glass cases all along the walls that had wooden bannisters in front of them. As I went to the first drawing, I could see why those bannisters were there because the drawings were so intricate and so beautiful that they drew me towards them and almost without being aware of it at all, I rested my elbows on the bannister and leaned in as close as I could, until I could see my breath on the glass. And as I did, I saw more and more clearly the sharp, precise lines and marveled at how with such hard styluses and unforgiving material these delicate and vibrant drawings had been made. There is something unbelievable about looking at a drawing that was made by artists as far back as the 14th century. Some were sketches or studies, but all executed with a deftness that was visible centuries later. I made my way around the room slowly, silently. The drawing that I loved the most was a study of drapery by Leonardo Da Vinci. It was so beautiful, my eyes filled with tears. And look, I can share it with you here, courtesy of the British Museum’s free image service:metalpoint

I was disappointed when I went to buy a postcard for my mother that the reproductions seemed so lifeless compared to the real thing, but I was overjoyed to find this image reproduced and available for use. I thought I’d never see it again, and any reproduction is better than that!

Edit Cavell was a nurse shot by a German firing squad for her role in helping allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. She was controversial to both sides of the conflict because she would treat any soldier, regardless of which side he was fighting on.

This monument caught my eye, probably because I have been reading about World War 1 lately (at the moment I am reading a very good, if sobering, book called 14-18: Understanding the Great War). My trip came directly after Remembrance Day, so there were red poppies on lapels, placed at the foot of monuments such as these, and even hanging on the grills of taxis.

There is a menacing beauty in the symmetry of these 15 inch guns at the Imperial War Museum entrance.

I visited the WW1 galleries of the Imperial War Museum and pored over exhibits of grisly handmade clubs and knives from the trenches, children’s toys of Lord Kitchener, shells from Big Bertha guns. I had thought that it would be a quiet, lonely visit, but the museum was packed with people of all ages, all buzzing with conversation, and the WW1 galleries were so crowded that walking through the exhibits was a slow business. So there are all these other people, I thought, thinking about these events a century ago.

The city is not the place where I would expect to find human connection; it seems that the great lesson of city life is how to be alone in a crowd. However, I did have a wonderful experience on my trip where I remembered just how helpful it can be to talk through a problem, even with a stranger. I had always been curious about the School of Life, and there happened to be a class there during my trip called How to Realise Your Potential. I signed up for it and then didn’t tell anyone in my family about it because I thought they might laugh at me. I told them about it when I got back, though, because it was a really fun evening where I talked to several very interesting people. It turns out that when you have a room full of people puzzling over something in their lives, it results in a willingness to talk through it all with the person in the next seat. I avoid interacting with strangers like the plague, and I think it was really good for me to not only get over it for an evening, but also come up with some concrete ideas for doing things such as write here more often.

I returned home feeling just as I had hoped I would – feeling energized and ready to get back to work. It was not a very glamorous trip, but it was just what I wanted – just some time to wander around in a city I enjoy and in my own thoughts.

old photo

Don’t you love friends? The way they are always there for you when you need them most and the way they make you feel better about your more questionable decisions, or listen to your endless rambling? And most of all the way they call you out when you have been really lazy and not written on your blog for ages and ages.

“I visited your blog the other day,” said my friend, “and I was pretty disappointed.”

Busted. I changed the subject by telling her about a photo I had seen on Istagram that was taken by someone who had gone on a pilgrimage of sorts to see the late, great explorer, Wilfred Thesiger. That did the trick, and we chatted until she had to go and she said, “One day, I’d like to hear the story of how you met him, again.”

You’ll forgive my clothes, I hope; this was the 80s after all…

In 1987, we were living in Nairobi and I was in 6th grade. My father was a reporter for Time Magazine, covering all of Sub-Saharan Africa. He was always busy – it seemed as if coups d’etats broke out every week, or at least any time we attempted a family vacation. When my father was home, the evening news via shortwave radio (a huge device that sat atop a chest of drawers in my parents’ room) was a sacrosanct occasion, treated with utter silence. We usually left him to it alone, but we all sprawled on the bed together to listen to Alistair Cooke read his Letters from America once a week. Not to sound too crusty around the edges, but these were the days where news bureaus had telex rooms.

Therefore, I am not exactly sure how my father came to discover that Wilfred Thesiger was living above a gas station in a town called Maralal, up in Samburu County. It certainly wasn’t the internet! But we had a constant procession of visitors passing through for tea or dinner – reporters, aid workers, lots of priests, monks and nuns, anyone with interesting news to share. We also had regular visitors. We could always expect Maryknoll priest Father Quinn at the door on Sunday afternoons, calling “Hodi!” and awaiting our welcoming call of “Karibu!” He would ply us with tales of how he had used his Black Stone to help people bitten by venomous snakes – there were plenty of those about; I grew up keeping a sharp eye on the ground in front of me.

At any rate, someone must have told us over tea or a succulent roast beef (we ate the most insanely opulent Sunday dinners back then – roasts with Yorkshire puddling and gravy were de rigeur) that they had spotted Thesiger in Maralal, and that got the wheels in my dad’s head spinning. War and famine were his bread and butter, for better or for worse, but he did the odd profile piece as well. So it was that he, my mother and I headed up to Maralal in search of Wilfred Thesiger.

When we moved to Kenya, my parents had the brilliant idea of allowing me to choose my own school, and I  chose to attend a Catholic convent school, mostly because I liked the idea of a school uniform, I think. Anyhow, in our geography lessons, our teachers would dictate notes about Kenya and we had to write them down, complete with red margins and double underlining where required, and many many maps of Kenya. I had a cardboard template in my notebook that I traced around and would then fill in the appropriate geographical feature, for example the fresh water lakes of Kenya. The largest of these was Lake Turkana (Lake Victoria is bigger, but not all of it is in Kenya) and Maralal is to the south of that.

It was a long time ago now, and I don’t remember a lot about the actual visit. I am left instead with feelings and impressions. This is what I can recall: that Thesiger was very tall and gnarled like a tree; that he was sharing a house with Samburu men that he said all snored at night; that he took us to a place called the End of the World, a dramatic escarpment that we sat at the edge of, with stippled clouds overhead and a rocky shrubby valley down below; that he walked very fast. For some reason we met up again in London, for tea at Brown’s. My father was stressed out because we were running late. We took a cab there and passed him striding down the street and although he was some way away, he came through the door only seconds after we did. And while we had tea, he said something I always remembered. The conversation had turned, somehow, to the topic of sleep and I remarked that I could sleep anywhere without trouble. He looked at me and said seriously, “That is a great gift.” and from then on I treated effortless sleep as just that. It is my great natural talent, sleep.

The impact of meeting him continued later, as I read what he wrote and came to understand through his own restlessness and adventure that there is something that all we seek that will put us at ease. It might seem crazy to cross forbidding, uncharted desert by foot, but it made perfect sense to him. For most of us, it might not take something quite so extreme – running in the woods might work, or a sense of connection with a community, or a feeling of contributing to social justice, or a garden.

I didn’t know what I was looking for in my life until I found it. We were visiting our land for the first time (or, the area at least – we did not actually know which bit was ours until we had moved here) and as we rounded the curve in a road there were cliffs overhead, forest to either side, and the hot dry air was full of the chant of cicadas. A wild grape vine hung from a tree by the side of the road and we ate warm, sweet purple grapes from it. I felt something unlock inside me and I had the unexpected thought that I may have found my home. I felt a sense of freedom, of being away from everything that weighed me down – traffic, my job, other people. It was a feeling I had known while I was growing up in Kenya where I used to stare out across wide open spaces, all the way to the horizon, and was uplifted by how small it made me feel and the feeling of space it created in my mind. When I came to our garden, I remembered that feeling again.

In My Kitchen, July 2015 – back in the garden again

I don’t know about you, but after the bookshelf, the kitchen is the place in a person’s house that I am the most curious about. Take a peek into kitchens from around the world at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial’s  In My Kitchen. These are some of my favorite posts to write, so what better way to get back in the saddle after months and months away.

It is deepest summer here in Antalya, with temperatures well into the 30s Celsius, and edging ever closer to 40. We are doing all we can to beat the heat, but no complaints here because summer is the time when we all move out to the garden for three months with no commuting back and forth (well, there is a little, with Baki’s archery classes and an incubator still running in the apartment hatching chicks, but it’s light stuff compared to our school year routine.)

In my garden kitchen this month, there is:

Fruit leather! Our plum trees produced an absolute glut of deep purple fruits and we could not keep up with them, so I hunted around and found  this recipe that I liked the sound of. It’s by a kitchen hero of mine, Claire Thomson of 5 O’Clock Apron, who takes a lovely, level-headed approach to feeding kids. The recipe uses apples to thicken the fruit puree, and no sugar. I added some dates to mine for sweetness because the plums really are tart, and the shops are awash with dates this month, as it’s Ramazan. I dried it in trays in the sun, with parchment paper below to keep it from sticking and on top to keep critters out. In two days, they were leathery as can be, and the boys clamor for them. This box will be depleted before tomorrow is out, mark my words. 

We also have:

our stone age kitchen tool, the Kitchen Rock. Whenever we go to the beach, Baki and my mother spend a good deal of time looking for interesting rocks. Baki usually wants to take them all home, but relents when I tell him he’d have to carry them all himself. Good thing too – there’d be no rocks left if he took them all (or I’d spend all my time repatriating them). But we did bring this one home, and it is a handy tool in the kitchen that gets us in touch with our caveman roots. We use it primarily to bash garlic, but it has also proven useful when weighting is needed, holding a plate on top of a pot of bouyant dolma, for instance. My mother is a great believer in the Kitchen Rock. I think she appreciates how straightforward it is in this age of elaborate kitchen gadgets, and when I annoy her she seems to really enjoy smashing garlic to bits with it. 

Avert your eyes if you do not like animal parts! In my kitchen there are:

chicken feet! We are running two incubators – with a total capactiy of 72 eggs – almost continuously these days. We give a lot of the chicks to the feed store in exchange for chicken feed, but we keep a few from each batch. New chickens joining the flock means old chickens making an exit, so we have been despatching chickens lately. It is not always the easiest thing to do, but it is one of the realities of keeping animals, particularly when they reproduce. Yesterday we retired a rooster and a hen and I was interested to see how different their feet were. We can usually tell if a chicken will be a rooster by the size of its feet, but it was something else entirely to just see the feet side by side.

Of course, I love to eat chicken feet – they are my favorite dish at dim sum. I use them in my own kitchen as a most prized ingredient in our chicken broth; they have loads of collagen in them that makes a nice rich broth that will gel when it is cold – good for the gut! Broth without feet just wouldn’t feel complete to me. 

And that is a little peek into the goings on here in our garden kitchen. Thanks so much for stopping by – perhaps you’ll invite me into your kitchen some day?

In My Kitchen, August 2014

Some of my favorite posts to read (and write!) are In My Kitchen. Pop over to Fig Jam and Lime Cordial for a list of posts, and perhaps you’d like to join in too?
I thought I wouldn’t be posting this month, but things kept catching my eye, so here I am again with a few things to show you.
In my kitchen there is:

a skull! We went out for a walk last week and Kaya found this half a skull and wanted to take it home. It is in the kitchen because I have become the mediator in a silent war between Kaya and Lulu. Lulu wants to chew on the skull, and Kaya wants to scrutinise it and pull out its teeth. (That is why it looks a bit dishevelled.) And it turns out that it once belonged inside the head of a wild boar.
In my kitchen there is:

kombucha in various stages of fermentation. The one on the right is a second fermentation with ginger and turmeric to make it fizzy (and delicious), and the one on the left is a new batch that I fermented with osmanthus oolong tea. I was extra excited about that one, since I really love osmanthus tea. Because I took this photo almost a week ago, I can now report that the tea retains all of its loveliness when fermented with a kombucha culture. Interestingly, the Domestic Man posted a profile of an interesting business in Portland OR called Salt Fire and Time. They seem to make exceptional bone broths (which can be purchased online, if anyone’s interested) but also deal in flavoured kombucha, including osmanthus! I first encountered these flowers in Hangzhou, where they burst into bloom in early autumn and perfume the entire city. They don’t look like much (think daphne flowers) but they have a sweet fruity scent that is hard to forget. It’s the stuff of Proustian flashbacks to be sure.
(Kombucha is a yeast and bacteria colony, by the way (the mothers are often referred to as SCOBY – a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) that you add to sweetened tea. The scoby digests the sugar and ferments the tea so that you are left with a slightly sour, slightly fizzy drink rich with beneficial bacteria. Each fermentation produces a new little scoby, which is why it is so wild and wooly up on top of that new batch – there’s a stack of scobys in there!)
I have been reading and using Nigel Slater’s lovely little book, Eat, a lot lately. Sometimes a cookbook will become the source of all knowledge for a spell, and this one helped me out of a few jams recently. Ali brought home a whole quarter of a lamb not too long ago and I ended up with a few cuts of meat (after a crash course in lamb butchery) that I am not accustomed to cooking, like lamb belly. There was a wonderful recipe in Eat for it, and one for lamb fillet, or loin, as well. Then, while reading through, I noticed a recipe for a Spanish tortilla that called for “banana shallots.” I thought that sounded appealing and a little humorous, and wondered if they were something that I could grow. Imagine my surprise when I caught sight of these elongated shallots among the alliums at the market not too long afterwards!

They are very delicious, and since Ali is away for a few days I have been subsisting on Spanish tortillas.
Thanks for stopping by my kitchen!

When things go bust

Do you ever feel like you are the thing that is keeping something running smoothly? Like if you walked off everything you left behind would fall apart without you? Because I am sure that’s how Ali is feeling right now. He drove up to Istanbul on Thursday to meet Baki at the airport, flying in solo from New York and will drive back with him tomorrow. And since he left, one rooster has flown over the fence into the forest and although he looks longingly at all of his friends on this side, he will not be convinced to fly over and flees into the thickets when he catches sight of me climbing over the fence (on a ladder, not in the manner of a superhero or felon).
But the thing that really cried out for Ali’s attention is the generator. Now, our water comes directly from a spring a short walk away. One sweltering summer day, we went out with a coil of pipe and ran it from a place where the spring bubbled out of the ground all they way back to the garden. The top end of our garden, however, is higher up than the water source, so the water will not flow there. To water this part of the garden we use an electric pump. But since the only electricity that we have is what we get from our solar panel array, we have to use a diesel generator to run the pump. (When I describe all of this it sounds ridiculously complicated…)
But the generator won’t start. It could be because it ran out of fuel and we filled it and now there is air in the fuel line but for the life of me I can’t figure out what to do about it. “Water with buckets,” Ali offered, unhelpfully.

So that is what I did. And I have to say that bucket watering is a nostalgic sort of thing for me because when we first came here and we had just brought water to the garden, that is how we
used to water. Or how I used to water, because that summer Ali’s back went out so I used to climb over his sleeping body every morning before sun-up and haul buckets of water about.
And one of the nice things about watering this way is that you encounter little surprises like this one:

I always forget that the only cannas that we have are purple leaved, so I thought these were cannas, but they’re turmeric. Ali got a hold of some turmeric roots and planted them and they were thriving in the greenhouse so he tried one outdoors. The flower smells faintly, medicinal.
While I watered, Kaya climbed up on the rocks and brandished pieces of firewood as weapons. This kept him happy for a very long time.

And as I worked, it began to rain . Not enough to stop me or even give me pause , but enough to release the sweet smell of dried grass and dust being reacquainted with water.
It took me over an hour to finish, but I managed to water everything and felt very pleased with myself, albeit a little flushed and sweaty.

(That is my very first selfie – the
result of an Instagram overdose I am sure.)

A Salad for Summer

Who doesn’t love to eat salad all summer long? I like to have raw vegetables somewhere on the table at any meal, but in the dog days of summer, not cooking your veg and eating it too is just too good to pass up.
Lately, we have been obsessed with Shepherd’s Salad, or Coban Salatasi as it is known here. It is an odd salad for me because it can be so unremarkable when encountered while eating out. And I have finally put my finger on why – it is full of ingredients that ripen in the heat of the summer, but are commonly grown in greenhouses year-round. Everybody knows what tomatoes are like in December, right? But when everything is in season and ripened by the sun, it is a fantastic combination of flavors.
The salad is simple enough. Take these:

chop them all up, salt liberally, squeeze a whole lemon and dump it in and then add a generous amount of olive oil and you’ll end up with this:

It’s the perfect summer salad because it is full of things that thrive in this weather. (I don’t know about you, but my lettuce swoons a bit in the heat of summer.)
Anyway, here’s a written recipe for those who are so inclined:
Coban Salatasi (Shepherd’s Salad)
3 or 4 large ripe tomatoes
an equivalent amount of cucumbers
a green (or red) bell pepper
half a sweet onion
a handful of parsley
2 or 3 green onions
one lemon, squeezed
olive oil

Mince the onion and parsley finely, slice the green onion into rounds, and chop the rest of the veg. Mix it all with a generous pinch of salt, pour over the lemon juice, and glug in some good olive oil. Stir it around and you’re ready to eat!

We have been having this with everything. The other night we spooned it on top of bowls of rice and broiled salmon, this morning we ate it alongside our eggs. You can throw in a diced avocado, too, if you’ve got it.

It is also sour cherry season, and that means it’s time for liqueur! I have made a new batch, but with two minor adjustments to the original recipe that I posted, which I wanted to mention here. One is that I now leave some of the cherry stems on to add flavor. The other adjustment I made after enjoying this post over at Rachel Eats and reading “…how the heat of high summer halts fermentation but precipitates maceration. ” and having one of those moments like you see in films where a montage of events flashes before you — bottles of cherry liqueur on terraces in full sun at my mother in law’s house and at other homes I have visited.

20140720-133759-49079420.jpg“The liqueur will sit in the full, blazing sun!” I cries, and that is where it is for the month.