Gillian Monks

'Making Fairytales Come True'

Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 3)

Pots and Pans and Puzzlements

A simple cold supper for New Year’s Eve at the Hafod at Cae Non

Buying an electric implement for the kitchen will not automatically make you a good cook – or produce tasty food. Do not be fooled!

Every pre-Christmas, I notice that advertisements for electric accessories, tables and chairs and tableware proliferate, as if by owning these items your ability to produce perfect seasonal fare is then assured. Today, I walked into one local supermarket and was presented with a great pile of gravy boats. Do people only eat – or serve – gravy at Christmas? And what happens to all the gravy boats specially purchased other years – do they automatically vanish?

I annually ponder these vexing questions.

However, when I recently read an on-line advertisement from one of the mail order companies I deal with regularly, I actually felt cross. Here were special pans to microwave an omelette (£10), cook rice (£15), bake a pie (£35) or make soup (an eye-watering £70). Advertisers are clever and convince you that you rally cannot cook – or in any way do without – whatever item it is they are trying to sell. In these days of such widespread economic hardship, I find it in appallingly bad taste.

One omelette pan, one large soup pan (with lid!) and a collection of aluminium pie cases saved and washed from pies bought from the chippy or supermarket would produce all this food at a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, what many are short on is the know-how of what to do in their kitchen.

I fondly remember the time I spent with my mother and uncle out in Sri Lanka when I was a child. We had a wonderful cook, Rajah, who could produce mouth-watering Singhalese and Indian dishes and cordon bleu European cuisine – his main utensils were a large sharp knife, and a medium-sized fork and table spoon. At the end of every day, he would carefully wash and dry them and reverentially lay them out on a clean cloth upon the kitchen table ready for his return the next morning.

Perhaps this is an extreme example in the opposite direction, but worth bearing in mind!

Every good cook is economical and hates waste. Keep it simple. Don’t be seduced into making unnecessary purchases – use what you have got and when you do have to buy new, make sure that it is multifunctional, of reasonable quality and will last a good long time.

For more ideas on how to operate in a kitchen economically, take a peek in either of my free e-booklets, ‘Eat Cheap: Survival Strategies in the Kitchen‘, or ‘Christmas on a Shoestring‘  which can be read on my website or downloaded – you can print them out yourself or order from Amazon if you want a professionally produced paper copy (just be aware that this last will cost you a few pounds).

I feel another book coming on – nothing quite like I have written so far, but one about how to basically run a household. It has already been suggested to me several times and I am beginning to think that maybe I should give it a try.

In the meantime, as far as Christmas Dinner is concerned, don’t get too stressed out… stick to simple, tried and tested… and good luck!

“Mankind is my Business”

Free illustrations of VintageThe above title is a misquote from “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, words uttered by a miserably repentant Marley’s ghost to an intractable and very unrepentant Scrooge.

The full quotation is: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business: charity, mercy, benevolence, forbearance. These were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the ocean of my business!”

In earthly life, Marley became far too engrossed – obsessed, even – with his own business of financial profit and the power which it brought him. How much money we earn and what expensive items we own do not define us. It is not what we are but who we are that counts, and that is usually best revealed by our actions.

Far too often we become so totally wound up in our own emotions and challenges that we forget what life is really all about – living the best life that we can whilst reaching out to all around us with love… and that includes not just humanity but all the natural world as well!

Every year, during the winter season, we are ALL reminded of this fact, regardless of our religious practices or spiritual beliefs, and given the chance to enter into practical action… lay aside our grievances, fears and prejudices, and extend the hand of hospitality and friendship. After all, it is a win-win activity because when we bring loving and giving into our hearts and our daily actions, we not only communicate good feeling to everyone around us, but we also end up feeling much better about ourselves too.

Yet, even when we do think about it, how many of us do not generously give our caring and love for fear that it will be scorned and thrown back in our faces. Rejection is a bitter blow to deal with. Is it foolhardy to persist in giving and loving when there is such danger of being so wounded, or a sign of emotional and spiritual maturity?

To quote a Christian concept, remember to always turn the other cheek… give people the benefit of the doubt… if nothing else it demonstrates that you are the stronger, more mature character, as well as being the far nicer person.
And, in the long run, it becomes a habit.

So, how will your ‘business’ flourish this Midwinter? What will you be able to enter in your columns of positive and negative this Christmas? What service can you render to others; what gift of smiles, friendship, forgiveness and love can you distribute far and wide – even to complete strangers?

No ‘humbugs’ here, dear friends!
With my love.

Autumn Abundance

Large wreath for my front door – not yet complete – and smaller one for a friend.

A few days ago, a couple of my dearest friends presented me with an early birthday present – a wonderful long, flat wicker basket which they found recently on Ludlow market. As soon as I clapped eyes on it, it was love at first sight! I could immediately think of numerous uses for it – lined with colourful napkins and heaped with fairy cakes for Hallowe’en or piled with crusty cobs of bread on the local market stall…

However, that was not its first assignment. Instead, the next afternoon I took it out into the garden to collect examples of harvest bounty with which to make an autumn thanksgiving wreath – lengths of green aromatic bay to form the main framework, bunches of acorn cups and beech masts, clusters of deep scarlet hawthorn berries, strands of flaming Virginia Creeper, sprays of purple and pale green hydrangea and tiny-leaved Escalonia with bright little orangey-red berries, and so on.

Me this afternoon, about to hang the finished article

With the assistance of my amazing basket I was able to gather and transport everything gently without crushing or crowding, and once I sat down to begin construction of the wreath it made my work so much easier and less fiddly.

And what a lot we have to be thankful for this autumn, for despite the drought in the summer, we have been blessed by bountiful crops and the countryside as a whole has blossomed and burgeoned into a prosperous wealth of rich rewards. As the plants droop and wither, dying back towards the land which has nurtured and supported them and will now shelter their roots or seeds through the resting time of winter, the trees are turning colour and the rich scent of decay fills the woodlands.

Complete and in place

I love to make a wreath to hang on the front or back door of my home – sometimes both. This one is destined for the front door which is sheltered by a little open-fronted porch which means that the fragile flowers will last much longer. They vary remarkably every year, depending on what is available and has done well. Yes, of course the wreath will gradually dry out or wither and some leaves and berries will fall – but in so doing it will reflect the season it was made to celebrate – a land gradually fading into shadows to dream again of the spring and rebirth… regrowth.

This is a good time to rejoice and give thanks. How might you acknowledge the turning of the season and the maturing of the autumn… the onset of winter?

May all your store cupboards be filled with tasty treasures against the shortages of winter… may you bask in the glow of the long-gone summer sun and taste again the rich flavours of the light half of the year… may the autumn treat you gently.

A Very Happy New Year!

Belated – but no less heartfelt – New Year greetings!

For me, 2022 has got off to a fairly rollicking start. It is an old belief that whatever you do on the 1st January will set the tone and pace for the rest of that year. Well! I had carefully planned the day to be more relaxed, a lot more flexible, with lots of lovely activities (watching the New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna in the morning among them) with an early, less formal dinner for

All was going well and I was thoroughly enjoying my day. Yet, as our meal ended, a very dear friend and guest who had joined us for dinner suddenly lost consciousness and gracefully – with assistance from my husband and son – slithered down off her chair onto the floor. It was just as well that my son is both a medical herbalist and  an Emergency Medical Technician – he was therefore able to begin treating the lady in question immediately.

There then followed many hours of phone calls, urgent conversations, oxygen cylinders and read-outs, paramedics, numerous cups of tea, coffee and soup, and finally, just after midnight, the arrival of an ambulance to transfer our dear friend (now well on the way to recovery) to hospital for more tests.

It just goes to show that you can never tell what might happen next – even when you are sitting in your own cosy, comfy, safe home environment around your own table enjoying a happy family meal!

I have deeper thoughts about this which I will share with you another time, but for now, please accept my love and best wishes for a marvellous new year. We shall be gently winding down our Winter celebrations as the month progresses. Already, the birds are singing and the indefinable quality of light has changed… spring is on its way.

Make 2022 a brilliant year of choices, new adventures, wonderful experiences and love for all that is… indeed, a very happy new year!

The Advent Calendar Wreath

Tomorrow is the first day of December when many children (and adults) will be opening the first door of their 2021 Advent calendars. Many of us already receive so much around Christmastime that I like to do something for Advent which involves all the family and giving of oneself to others.

This year, I have hit upon the idea of the Advent Calendar Wreath. It is a smaller door wreath made from natural willow and covered in holly and ivy to which I have tied 24 pieces of coloured paper which have first been written on then tightly folded and sealed. Each piece of paper is numbered, 1 – 24 and each member of the family will take it in turns to find the appropriate number for the day, open the paper and carry out the suggestion written there.

However, we are going to do this the evening before the date it falls due, so that the person in charge of carrying out that day’s task has time to make any necessary preparations. For instance, they might be asked to find three Christmas jokes and tell them to everyone else, find and play their favourite Christmas carol, organise a little Christmas afternoon tea – even if it is only a biscuit and a hot drink – organise a game for everyone to all join in with, or search for a small parcel wrapped in a certain colour of paper which is hidden in a particular room and share its contents with everyone else…. and so on. They are only small actions, but most are calculated to involve everyone and, at the very least, to bring some seasonal cheer and togetherness into our lives each and every day.

Alternatively, this could be adapted to cover the Twelve Days of Christmas instead, and keep the winter seasonal festivities and sense of sharing going past New Year and on into the beginning of January.

If you would like to try it for yourself, this is how I did it:

Cut as many pieces of coloured paper as you will need – they only need to be about 3″ or 8cms square. Write a suggestion or ‘command’ on each one and then fold it up so that it is a long thin rectangle and seal with a bit of Sellotape so that it can’t begin to open up again. Write the numbers 1 – 24 on each folded paper. Then, take a needle and a 6″ or 15 cm length of thread (preferably some dark colour) and run it through one end of the folded paper, removing the needle and leaving the thread ends dangling, ready to tie the paper on to the wreath.

To make the wreath itself, take several very thin willow whips, two – three foot in length, and bend them around into a circle 8 inches (or 20cms) in diameter. Weave them in and out of each other if possible and secure firmly with one or two lengths of green garden twine.

Gather a few little lengths of holly and two or three long strands of ivy, plus three or four florets of ivy flowers which are in bloom at this time of year, and arrange them around your wreath, tying them onto it securely with the garden twine. Decide which part will be the top of the wreath and add a loop of green string or coloured ribbon with which to hang the wreath up by once it is finished.

Lastly, tie all your paper ‘days’ around the wreath. (See picture at beginning of post.)Be prepared to get your fingers prickled but it is in a good cause!

Find somewhere to hang your Advent Calendar Wreath where it will be seen frequently by everyone… and don’t forget to open each day in turn, gently reminding others when it is their turn if necessary. You may have to volunteer for the first couple of days to set the tone and pace.

Enjoy – happy days!



Black Friday Antidote

My cosy corner for the evening.

Today, Midwinter has definitely been in the air – quite literally… it was hailing at lunchtime. Today has felt incredibly ‘Christmassy’. Today, I made my Christmas cakes!

While the mountains disappeared beneath blankets of cloud, rain pelted down, and windows steamed up, it grew steadily darker as the afternoon advanced and I had to switch the main room lights on. However, my kitchen grew increasingly fragrant with spices… rich mounds of sticky dried fruit appeared on my work surfaces… glowing glacé cherries were heaped waiting to be sliced in half… brown piles of nuts were ready to be chopped or ground, plates of golden butter and sweet, soft, dark brown sugar gleamed, the tang of grated lemon peel filled the air. Christmas carols played and the rooms became cosier and more inviting by the hour.

We were all busy today. My husband was sweeping both our chimneys – although with wood-burning stoves there is very little residue to clean away. My son was bustling about the house, too, and our friend (who sometimes does building repairs and jobs for us on the house) also called in, as did our next door neighbour. The kettle was set on the Aga to boil, (frequently), and the freshly baked lemon drizzle cake I had made this morning was generously cut into. There was a tangible buzz, a feeling of expectancy – almost of excitement – in the air. Anyone who passed through the kitchen at the critical moment was offered a chance to stir the huge metal bowl of cake mixture and make a wish…

I have thoroughly enjoyed today. Yes, it is quite hard work, but I wouldn’t miss the seasonal ambience, the sights, scents and sounds of this traditional winter alchemy which takes place every year in my kitchen around this time. In the past, I have suffered from long-term chronic illness, and just this autumn I am facing the challenge of cancer, so I do know what it is like to not have the strength or energy to do this type if activity. But even so, I still find simply going out and purchasing a cake from a supermarket shelf an empty, boring activity, with little to interest me and resulting in no sense of pride, satisfaction, or dare I say, pleasure?

I saw that one very famous London store was advertising ‘stir up Sunday’ (which actually occurred last weekend) as ‘put your feet up Sunday’ – but where is the fun in that? When you have put your feet up, what then? I am putting my feet up this evening after a busy but incredible day of music, laughter, warmth, creativity and loving friendship.

As I repeatedly remind everyone in my first book, ‘Merry Midwinter‘, sedentary past-times are all very well in reasonably small doses, but you only get out of a situation what you put in… what you contribute… what you help to create. It can be the most ordinary activity or chore, but approached in a positive and festive frame of mind, the magic of the season – of life itself – can be introduced into every mundane nook and cranny.

Try it and just see.

Meanwhile, the gales forecast for tonight are beginning to gather apace, yet the dense darkness of a moonless night is still feels oddly welcoming and benevolent. Inexplicable, unidentifiable but very real seasonal magic is almost crackling through the atmosphere. Perhaps these gales are partly created by the furious passing of Herne the Hunter, or Gwyn ap Nudd as they traverse the winter skies… or the flight of Frau Holle, or the slip stream from Father Christmas’s sleigh, out on a ‘practice run’? …

Thank You!!!

It is already a whole week since my birthday… I can hardly believe it! I want to thank everyone – family, friends, ex-students and readers alike – for all the wonderfully warm, loving and deeply touching messages, emails, cards and letters which I have received. It truly has gladdened my heart!

The centre of any celebration for me is my loved ones, near or far, but especially around the hearth, a dining table, the Christmas Tree…. wherever. Here I am, about to blow out the candles on my birthday cake, with the little wood burning stove roaring behind me and the Aga kettle (very decorative!) merrily burbling away in the background ready to top up the tea pot.

My sweet son and his equally sweet girlfriend had laid out the table, produced the delicious cakes and assembled all my cards and presents to be opened and by four o’clock, the fun was all set to begin! We did indeed have a wonderfully cosy tea and ‘together time’ which lasted far into the evening.

So, thank you, everyone, for all your kind and loving wishes and good thoughts. You ALL helped to make my solar return extra special with many precious memories which I shall treasure.

Happy Saint Non’s day!

Daffs and Welsh cakes

Daffodils, a leek, a plate of home made Welsh Cakes… and butter… the Welsh love their butter! There is nothing so delicious as a Welsh Cake hot off the planc, smothered in butter which melts into the fragrant fruit and nutmeg. All emblems of my beloved Wales.

The 1st March was Saint David’s Day, but today, the 3rd of the month, it is the turn of his mother, Saint Non, to be celebrated.

Born in the 5th Century in Pembrokeshire, Non was the daughter of Lord Cynyr Ceinfarf of Dyfed. She grew up to be a devout holy woman but was violated by lustful Prince Sandde of Ceredigion. Non became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy at Caerfai, just south of Saint David’s, in the middle of a violent thunder storm. Various versions of this tale recount how in her extreme birth pains, Non pressed her fingers into a boulder with such force that she left their impression in the rock.

When David was born, a brilliant light appeared, the rock was split asunder by a mighty bolt of lightning… and a spring gushed forth out of the ground. This beautiful clear water became know as Saint Non’s well and is reputed to heal those with mental illness.

Non brought Dewi up at Henfeynyw near Aberaeron and later they founded a nunnery at nearby Llanon together. We are all familiar with what happened to Saint David, but much less is known of his blessed mother. Later in life, Non moved on to Cornwall founding another nunnery at Alternon, where an ancient and beautiful church still stands today. However, Non ended her life in Brittany where she founded a third nunnery at Dirinon in Finistere. (Note the ‘non’ element in all these place names.)

Non means ‘nun’, and my middle name is Nonita, which is one of the Latin forms of ‘nun’. Therefore I have a double reason to celebrate today, for not only is it special to the mother of our patron saint here in Wales, but it is also my name day. People have long celebrated their name day across Europe, for they might not know the date – or even the year – of their birth, but they certainly knew their name and the protection and patronage of which Christian saint they were entitled to.

I am very lucky, for I have both birthday and name day… and my darling husband has just walked in bearing a box of chocolates for me!

Whatever your beliefs or genetic origins, I wish you all a very happy Saint Non’s Day – may she bring the nurture and support of a truly good woman and good mother to you all!

The Alternative Alternative Advent Calendar!

Making an alternative advent calendarI have a suggestion for an alternative advent calendar which is based on my book, ‘The Alternative Advent Calendar’ but is perhaps more suitable for children, or is something which the whole family can join in with producing and then following.

The idea is to make (or use) 24 little paper envelopes, which can be made from coloured paper, Christmas paper, plain file paper or even newspaper – anything you want. They can be decorated in any way you with too – this you can set the children  or the most artistic person in your household to work on.

Ready made envelopes can be used to save time, or pieces of paper simply folded in two and glued or sellotaped shut. I have made mine from red and green crepe paper. To do this:

  • Cut 24 pieces of paper, each 12 cm x 18 cm.
  • As in the illustration above, fold each paper almost in half, leaving a flap of around 2 cm.
  • Glue both sides together and then cut the top flap into an envelope shape and fold over.
  • Trim down both sides of envelope with pinking shears or decorative craft scissors, write a number from 1 to 24 on the front of each envelope and decorate as desired – I have simply stuck a smidgen of mini tinsel on the front of mine instead of a ‘stamp’!
  • Think of 24 things which a person can do to contribute to the preparations for Christmas, or to entertain everyone else in the household. For instance, find six jokes and tell them to everyone else; become someone’s ‘servant for the day/afternoon/an hour and agree to help them in whatever way they wish, or make everyone a hot drink… and so it goes.
  • Finding 24 helpful, seasonal ideas with which to fill the envelopes need not fall to you alone. Divide 24 by the number of people in your household and get each person to think of that number of contributions. Everyone needs to write them out separately on pieces of paper, fold them up and place them all in a bowl or some kind of container. Mix them up, and then randomly give everyone the same number of envelopes and allow them to fill with the folded suggestions from the container and seal them.
  • Then each person goes alone into a designated room – or you might wish to use the whole house! – and secretly hides their envelopes. Then the next person hides their envelopes, and the next, until they are all hidden.
  • On the 1st December, the youngest member of the family has to find the envelope with No. 1 written on the front and carry out whatever the message inside tells them to do.
  • On 2nd December, the next in age has to set off and find envelope No 2 and carry out the instructions which it contains… and so on.

Advent EnvelopesThis helps people to come together, share and makes sure that everyone is included, regardless of age or ability. It also helps to start slowly building the excitement, encourages everyone to join in and take responsibility for organising or performing some task or function but also helps to take a little of the focus off Christmas Day and spreads the activity, enjoyment and fun over the whole three weeks.

Many variations may be experimented with: each envelope may contain a joke or a quotation, or a riddle or the clue to a large crossword… whatever you can think of, so long as it is something everyone can join in with and enjoy the results of.

There is still time yet to get something organised before the 1st December on Tuesday – and it won’t cost a thing, except a little time and thought.

If anyone would like to try this out and then let me know how they get on, I would be absolutely delighted to hear from you. We as a family shall be using this idea for our ‘Advent Calendar’ this year.

Good luck – have fun!

Where Is Your Centre?

Fire and HearthIt is an extremely grey, wet, stormy afternoon in deepest autumn. With a second ‘lockdown’ just begun, the road outside is totally deserted. I have just popped into the dining room to look something up in one of my recipe books and am sat in a chair by an cold,empty, ash-filled grate. We do not light the fires in all the rooms every day and are gradually changing over to enclosed log burners anyway, but it seems a very chilly and sad prospect.

The hearth and living fire has always been the heart of my home ever since I can remember. This is traditionally the focal point of any room, where everyone comes to, warms themselves at, sits around, huddles up to, talks by, reads or sews besides and rests while they watch the T.V. or listen to the radio. When the flames dance brightly the whole room is brought to life. When the fire is out – as it is now – the room dies and becomes hollow, empty, soulless.

Where is the centre of your home? We all need a centre to turn towards, to make for, to represent having truly arrived. Perhaps it might be your favourite chair, or your kitchen table, or the corner where your television sits? The problem with making the television your focal point is that, although it constantly depicts humanity, it is, in itself, essentially dead. Wherever you decide, perhaps you need to enliven it further – stand a couple of house plants in that same corner, and add a candle or two (but not too near to the plants as they fear fire).

What other ways might you depict and furnish the centre of your sanctuary with? Photos of friends or family, perhaps? A stack of your current reading? Bag of handiwork… radio near to hand… biscuit barrel close by? (Naughty!) Think about it this damp, wild day while so many of us are shut in and thrown back upon our own resources, and decide where the centre of your home is and how you can make it even more welcoming and cosy, both for yourself and for others.

I also understand that, for many of us, it is the people who we are closest to who truly make our home the haven and comfort it is… the company, the spark, the support, the laughter… the understanding when there is tears. And perhaps some of you dear souls out there will have recently lost loved ones.

To illustrate just what I mean I will finish with a poem which I wrote after the death of my mother 16 years ago, when the cottage was standing empty and neglected due to my father’s illness when he came to live with us. That was an empty cold dining room too…

Sitting in the creaking chair I look around – you are not there;
You with your funny marvellous ways – only the ‘ghosts’ of ‘yesterdays’.

The room is dark, the hearth grown cold, candles guttered, lamps well out,
China dull and silver tarnished – I blink my eyes and turn about…

Laughter, warmth and dancing flames, steaming food and boisterous games;
Companions close in evening light, enwrapped in love against the night.

But night has come and entered here. Such times with you are now long past.
The group is scattered far and wide; for good or ill no time can last.

I shake my head to break the rays of dancing lights from other days.
Ashes cold – the hearth unswept, this then is death… and I have wept.

SO – bring new life into your home, your daily routine. Do not despair. Look forwards to new beginnings and leave the past where it belongs, in fond memory, but don’t allow it to pollute all the good things which you have now… this day.

With my love.

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