Category Archives: Useful things to know

Head torches

Petzl Tikkina XP 2. My headtorch. Pick it up for between £35-£50.

Whenever anyone asks me what they should someone for a present, be that person a child or an adult, the first thing I always say is: a head torch.

They are fab. Admittedly if you live in a city, and are an adult, you probably don’t fully understand the need for them; but if you’re a child they can be used in tents, hidey holes, under bed clothes etc. And if you’re an adult and you live in the country they are, I think, essential for getting firewood, putting the bins out, getting to your car (this will sound crazy to those with street lighting…). I also use mine when cycling or running.

The one I have is, of course, top of the range with a price tag to match: the Petzl Tikka XP 2 (but I have just the head torch, not the charger etc). Mine has three different white light permutations (bright, economy, flashing) and it can also go to a red light (which preserves night vision) in constant or flashing. It tilts (a really useful facility so you can look at things on the ground or straight ahead) and is very bright. Most normal people don’t need this but as I also use mine for the aforementioned cycling and running, it’s pretty imports for me. Mine costs between £35-£50 (do a search on Google they’re not difficult to find), but although it’s top of that range, there are others that go up to £200, but really for people climbing Everest..

Petzl Tikkina 2, for about £15.

Otherwise the Petzl Tikkina 2 is the one to get. It has two white light modes (strong or economy) and tilts and is really everything you’d need. You can pick them up for about £15 and they’re – Petzl’s -vastly superior to any other head torch I’ve tried. Also comes in pink, blue, green, gold.

Keeping your wood burner glass clean, a tip

This is my woodburner. And I think you’ll agree the glass is pretty clean

So this isn’t the sexiest blog post I could do. No food porn or sex tips (I do actually have plenty of those but I charge for them). But if you have a wood burner I hope you’ll find it useful.

Indeed, if you have a wood burner, you’ll know that the glass can get smoked up. And as part of the fun of having a fire is staring at it with your mouth slightly open and your thoughts far away, it’s imperative that the glass is kept clean.

A really good tip is coming up.

Every morning, before you light your fire, get a damp rag/piece of kitchen paper. Dip it in yesterday’s ash, clean the inside of the glass with it (the ash is abrasive). It’ll go into a horrible looking paste all over our glass and you’ll think ‘ewww’. But, then give it a wipe over with a clean bit of damp whatever (you may need two if it’s particularly dirty, and I also dry with a clean, dry bit, because I’m a bit mad about having really clear glass) and hey presto.

Clean glass.

You don’t need to use anything else.

I wish I could lay claim to this, but it came to me via my partner, via his friend Nigel.

You’re welcome.

When to play fast and loose with laundry

Laundry is a sexy motherflippin’ subject. If I had to give any man over the age of 35 a tip to get a woman to move in with him it would be this: promise her a laundry room. Want her to move out? Tell her you’re going to smash up the laundry room to make way for your own personal tanning salon.

So that’s my tip. And now here’s my story for today. A few weeks ago on Facebook I noticed that a friend of someone I’d never met was called Isabel de Vasconcellos. I thought this was the most amazing name. So much so that I said it outloud a few times whilst pretending to pick up a telephone and speak into it thus:

“Hello, this is Isabel de Vasconcellos, bring the car round immediately.”
“Hello, this is Isabel de Vasconcellos, I need flowers in every room.”
“Hello? Isabel de Vasconcellos? This is she.”

“Isabel de Vasconcellos” I said to my boyfriend, “isn’t that the most fabulous name you’ve EVER heard? Even more fabulous than my own multi-syllabled, melodic, mellifuous name.

He agreed. So I friended her (she’s a writer/curator) and only occasionally take on her identity when I’m out and about.

Today she messaged me asking if she could put her new top in the wash at 40C, even thought the label says ‘wash at 30’. In order to answer her I had to know the fibre content. I suspected viscose and I was right. It contained 85% viscose, the rest was polyamide and elastane.

Now, viscose’s (more commonly known as rayon in the US) easy-to-wearness belies a fragility. It’s great in garments as it makes them hang so nicely and they can need very little ironing. But, if wrongly washed they can shrink. She didn’t need to worry about the polyamide part as polyamide is just the European name for nylon (just as Tactel is nylon but it’s a brand name) and elastane is the generic of Lycra (also a brand name, hence the upper case).

The fact that the top was black was in its favour as white garments with synthetic fibres can, if washed at too high a temperature, go grey.

So my advice was to wash it at 30C to be on the safe side. There will come a time when it mistakenly goes in at 40C and then she’ll discover if it can withstand that extra ten degrees. But until then, don’t play fast and loose with viscose or rayon clothing. I speak as someone who has never dry cleaned cashmere – it always goes in to the washing machine but only if it has a hand wash cycle. (And bear in mind I’ve never had anything other than an AEG or Miele machine.) Natural fibres* you see, are – up to a point – more forgiving than certain synthetics.

*viscose/rayon is a man made fibre from a natural polymer (cellulose).   Polyamide and elastane, since you ask, are manmade fibres from a synthetic polymer – petrochemicals.

Conkers, moths and spiders

Conkers, not to be confused with chestnuts

Although September is spider month, October is conker month. The two are connected because spiders hate conkers and having conkers around the house can keep spiders away.

Why it works, I don’t know. This isn’t science. But it does seem to work.

The other thing conkers seem to repel is moths. I get asked a lot about moths and moths are subject close to my wool-clad heart as I’ve suffered much at the jaws of moth caterpillars.

It is of course, not the moths that do the damage  but the baby moths, aka caterpillars. Moths usually only reproduce twice a year, but because we heat our houses now, they can reproduce all year round (if you want to protect your clothes, and your bills, keep your house heated to below 20C, which I now do, look at me, I am so virtuous).

You don’t need to be scared of all moths, well, not so far as your clothes are concerned. The moth larvae that does the damage is a clothes moth, of which there are three in this country. The most common is the webbing moth, which is small (no more than 10mm long) and is the sort of colour Martha Stewart loves: beigey caramely.

All moth repellents, at least that I know of, work on repelling the adult female. And that includes my conkers but they’re so much nicer than conventional moth repellent, natural and free. Repellent is fine if your clothes are egg free, but if they’re not then they won’t kill the eggs already laid (which, incidentally, are often deposited where there is any food spills, which is why so much damage is done across the chest area…). You cannot tell if an egg has been laid, you can only see the caterpillar. If you suspect you have eggs on your woollens – and yes they do favour high quality cashmere (it’s softer) and colours like caramel, because they’ve had less done to them – the only way to get rid of them is to clean (hand, machine wash or dry clean) or freeze. Conservationalists freeze items at a temperature of minus 28 to 32C for seven to ten days. If your freezer doesn’t go that low, just freeze for longer.

If you want to store precious items, do so after washing/cleaning/freezing and put in individual closeable plastic bags to limit any damage if you have missed eggs. But really, as moths like dark, undisturbed places, the worse thing you can do is pack things away in a dark, undisturbed corner; the best thing you can do is take your dress/coat/jumper out frequently. I once had a precious dress hang on the back of my bedroom door and it never came to any  harm. My gorgeous wool dress in the cupboard was eaten to pieces.

If you do use moth repellents, change them every three months, and once you’re sure you’re moth free, keep your cupboard doors closed. (I always, always go in and check on favourite pieces regularly having lost many precious pieces to the moth.) If you hoover your cupboards out, change the bag as a closed, dark bag full of dust and clothing fibres is like a moth nursery that’s been rated Outstanding by Ofmoth.

At room temperature, it takes 7-10 days for the eggs to be laid and them to hatch and start munching, so you see how quickly the damage can be done.

I think it’s time for tea now.

BTW: if you’re wondering how I know so much about moths it’s cos I interviewed an entomologist at the National History Museum a while ago.

Cast iron pans ‘n’ skillets

Everyone seems to have a tale of the cast iron frying pan that never got washed and was passed down from mother to child. I certainly have. Whenever I did the drying up with my Ma, and that drying up involved the frying pan (not a cast iron one), she would tell me about her Ma’s frying pan which never got washed, just wiped.

This queer little detail fascinated me for ages. How could you not wash a frying pan?

Fast forward many years later.  And all my well meaning friends, the one who breastfeed for years and have home births and make their own bread and are…generally just like me. Well they started going on and on about cast iron frying pans. How non stick made you die, how canaries in rooms with non stick frying pans just dropped down dead.

It was really boring, so I thought I’d buy a cast iron frying pan, if for no other reason than, when they came round, I could whack them round the head with it.

And now, here I am being just like them and going ON about cast iron. It’s true, owning a cast iron frying pan is like having another member of the family, someone you love and trust and who never lets you down.

Only kidding. It’s not. It’s a frying pan for goodness sake. But yes, there is something really nice about the weight, the solidity of a cast iron fucking frying pan. And I was actually getting fed up of non stick stuff lasting just a few years before it started to fall apart (and I’m not talking cheap pans, either, all of my non-stick pans were Berndes).

I now have three cast iron frying pans (aka skillets). They’re all from Lodge. They’re not expensive (I got mine from Amazon) and I stripped them all down (they come pre-seasoned, but I wanted to season them myself, so I stripped them down using oven cleaner) using this incredibly complicated, scientific formula from this rather fabulous website.

Even once you’ve done the seasoning in the oven, with the organic linseed oil, the prescribed six times (you need to feel the pain), it still takes a few uses for them to become really non stick, but then, you’re flying (frying…).

So, the first few times you cook with them, don’t use them for something where the non stick properties are really important.

Oh and according to Sheryl Canter (writer of the blog post on how to season your pan, above) you can wash your cast iron pans. We do. I gently wipe them with a non-scratch pad, hot water, occasionally a bit of washing up liquid. As she points out, the seasoning got there via a long process, a bit of hot water and soap ain’t gonna get it off. Then I dry them on the hob for a couple of minutes and apply a slick of olive oil to cover the whole pan. If any bits get stuck on, if you heat up the pan you can get them off with a wooden spoon or some other more gentle implement. Don’t use the pans to heat up water or anything with tomatoes in – the acid can damage the pan. You need your stainless steel pans for stuff like that. I recommend Le Pentole, superb. Mine are still going strong some 25 years after I bought them. (They’re not cheap.)

A few other advantages of cast iron:

It gets really hot and retains the heat, so great for fast cooking but also great for long, slow cooking where you can turn the heat right down.

You can cook something on the hob and then transfer it to the oven (like tarte tartin).

Works out your biceps and triceps every time you lift the damn things up (that’s actually a pain but I’m trying to make it into a positive).

I’m sure my cast iron pans will last for many years, and I’m sure my children will be delighted that instead of passing down my diamonds,  I’ll be passing down my non-canary killing skillets.

ps: Don’t confuse the cast iron I’m talking about here with enameled cast iron (viz Le Creuset).

pps: to answer Claire (below, who has asked me a question on Facebook), yes I do use my cast iron frying pan to make pancakes in. This is the pan I use.

Sun-San Sandals

Navy Salt Water Originals

Really, for quite a long time now, I’ve been looking for “Jesus sandals” that were popular in my youth. I couldn’t think of a more perfect sandal for a small child.

But they were nowhere to be seen. The closest I ever got were Birkenstocks, but, in truth, I was tiring of the overly large foot print.

Then, quite by chance, @sunsansandals started following me (@AnnalisaB) on Twitter and there they were. My perfect child-hood sandals: Sun-San. Which I hadn’t imagined at all. (And the style I remembered is called Surfer, shown in red below.)

They were American, but date back to the 1940’s. They came to the UK last year and they’ve become, I hate to say this, the sandal du jour for children. I don’t mind this since they are

a) incredibly practical – they can withstand salt water and can be washed in the washing machine
b) sensible – I’m not a Lilli Kelli kinda mum
c) gorgeous looking in that understated way – I’m not insane
d) proper sandals, therefore not cheap (average price: £34) but comparable with StartRite or Birkenstocks.

(Otherwise I just hate following trends, I am so contrary.)

Although I wanted to get both my children a pair – how cute would a three year old look in the Surfer style in red or tan? – in reality the youngest has some already that are perfectly okay and I can’t justify spending £70 on two pairs of sandals.

But I did want to get my eldest some, since she needed something for the summer anyway (and Birkies, what she usually wears, cost the same). Today we found ourselves in Liberty with her Godmother who, so so kindly, bought her a pair. We got the Saltwater Original, which weren’t the actual Jesus sandal I had planned on getting for her. But I left it between my daughter and her Godmother. Some transactions a mother shouldn’t interfere with.

Side view, you can just see the fringes of my mother’s incredibly ornate carpet
You can find stockists here. Although I’d personally advise trying them on in person first if possible: we tried them on in white first and they were huge, same size in navy fitted perfectly; otherwise pretty true to size I’d say. They range in price from £34-£40 and come in six designs/twelve colours, sizes 0-adult 3.
Apparently they are way cheaper in the States so if you know someone who lives there or are going there, that may be a way to save some pennies!Update: I couldn’t resist and bought my youngest a pair too. I don’t regret it, they are gorgeous and make me happy every time I see them.

I love these sandals so much I want to eat them.
An update in late August 2012. Well Sun San has now launched its own online shop, which should help with the stock situation. I relented and bought myself a pair, in silver (£55 which included p&p). Me and my girls have worn almost nothing else but our Sun San sandals all summer and I cannot tell you how brilliant I think these sandals are. We have gone in the sea with them, gone surfing wearing them, built sandcastles and they look like new.
Weirdly, also, considering I find really flat shoes hard to wear all day, my feet don’t hurt (anymore than they would anyway walking all day) in these. I get asked about them all the time and my friend Wendy bought seven pairs (or thereabouts) the moment the shop went live.
You do need to buy them so they are slightly tight I think. I’m a true 37 which is a 4.5 UK and I was unsure whether to get a 5 or 6 in Sun San. When I first tried on the 5 they felt too tight – as in not wide enough (obviously the length has to be right, they don’t get longer!) I also tried the 6 and they felt really comfy from the off. But instinct told me the 5 would stretch and they did. Plus once you get them wet – and I recommend you do – and they dry on you, they’ll be no more rubby bits. I never once have had to wear any sort of plasters with these.
Is it clear how much I love them? And just so you’re absolutely sure no-one is telling me to say this let me assure you that I have accepted no freebies or discounts in relation to these sandals *
The sandals after surfing
My sandals.
A family of Sun San sandals. Now we just need a men’s version.
* Well, this is no longer true. The UK distributor gave me a pair for free as a thank you (she had tried to give me a free pair in the spring and I said no) and I’m afraid, this time, I said yes thank you. Because I’m greedy, and a little bit broke after all the shopping I’ve done.

Wee bags, for toddlers, for when they just have to go..

Wee-bag closed, fits into palm of your hand like this unless you have unnaturally tiny hands

The same open. Note jolly pics…

I’m not usually a fan for making a simple process more difficult. I mean, I like a bit of kit as much as the next person, but, especially where babies and children are concerned, you can be sold a lot of stuff you just don’t need.

With potty training, some children like to go on a potty (my second learned to go on a potty, but would only perform, for the first week, with my pashmina over her head), some like little toilet seats. Some a combination of both. All fine. When you go out you may take a potty or the trainer seat or just hold your child particularly carefully whilst their tiny bottoms perch on an adult toilet seat and you try not to get freaked out that their hands are all over a public toilet seat.

But sometimes, especially when they’re still very new to it all, you’re not near a toilet or a potty, and they really need to go. Great if you can balance your child over a discreet bit of grass (one of my earliest memories is being held over the gutter by my mum, just by Paddington Street Gardens in London. I can’t pass there without remembering…surprised there’s not a plaque up there commemorating it…). But, you can’t always, or they don’t like it.

This is where these gizmos come in: TravelJohn Junior Disposable Urinal Bags. They’re portable piss bags, basically. There is gel inside, so no spillage and you can, theoretically use them til they’re full (they hold up to 600cc), but in truth they start to stink after a day or two. The top has a plastic shaped bit that you hold up to the child’s groin. You can be really discreet using them too.

You probably won’t need many, but they come in packs of three and I think they’re great for emergencies. We keep on in the car, one in the pram, one floating around. (They fold up really small when empty, so can even fit in a pocket). I got mine from Amazon for £5.07 for three, so nearly £1.70 a bag. Not cheap but for when you have to go: really worth it.

Here‘s a piece I wrote for The Guardian about potty training.