How to enjoy life's little pleasures
Are we really so busy that we have to buy ready-roasted chickens? Why do we scurry to the gym when a brisk walk can keep us fit and enrich our daily existence? The latest Consumer Prices Index is an indictment of our frenetic, throwaway society. But it doesn't have to be that way...
Wednesday 25 March 2009
Roasting a chicken
Never underestimate the smell and taste of a simple roast chicken. A crisp, golden skin that falls from a pinkish white slice of meat, served with a simple bread sauce, is all you need to appreciate such a homely dish. Who really needs those rotisserie jobbies from the supermarket when one's home could be filled with the aroma of freshly cooked food?
Simon Hopkinson, chef and author of the cookbook Roast Chicken and Other Stories, agrees, saying we should roast our own chickens out of love. "The best I ever enjoyed was my mother and father's," he says. "We were lucky enough to have an Aga when I was young – an old-fashioned solid-fuel one, and I can still smell that chicken being roasted in their kitchen now. You can't beat it – with that beautiful, crisp, salty skin – served with gravy, bread sauce and a little sausage wrapped up in some streaky bacon."
Simon recommends selecting a good-sized, preferably free-range, bird (300g is sufficient per person). Remove its innards, and smother the skin with plenty of butter before placing carefully in the cooker. Don't bung it in ("This kind of food needs great respect," he says). Let it roast at 220C (gas mark 7) for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 190C (mark 5) and allow 45 minutes per kilo, plus another 20 minutes, or until the juices run clear. Allow its skin to become golden and prepare a good bread sauce. Remember, says Simon: a true Englishman believes chicken and bread sauce (milk, butter, onion, garlic, cloves, thyme, salt and breadcrumbs) should never be parted. You can stuff the chicken cavity with garlic, lemon halves and onion, but this is of the Gallic school, he says, and could lose you friends. "You have to want to roast a chicken. Don't be driven by necessity. It's all about being able to look forward to its delicious flavours on your tongue, or salivating when you pull it from the oven. It's not a chore." Rob Sharp
Going for a walk
As you zoom into work on the train, or drive your car to your mother-in-law's house three roads away, think about the physical and mental health benefits you are missing out on by not using your legs as God intended.
Martin Christie, founder of exercisewith friends.co.uk, is a firm believer in the value of taking a walk to put a brake on your pace of life, or to provide a useful hiaitus in our frantic daily lives and careers. "My wife and I have one car between us and she takes it to work," he says. "So every day at around midday, I walk to pick up my little boy from nursery. This takes 45 minutes out of my day, ambling down the road. But I love it. Along the way, I pick up calls on my mobile. There's no reason my business has to stop."
When walking, why not take a look around you and appreciate the natural world – how spring is bringing lighter mornings, or the blossom is appearing on the trees? The simplicity of it, or the social side of walking with a friend, can make an important difference to people's lives. Some even do it to get fit.
"If you are walking for fitness set yourself a realistic target," continues Christie. "You don't have to do it for more than an hour, and even that will make a big difference to your health. The Government advises you walk at a brisk pace. You certainly want to feel you are raising your breathing rate and getting slightly warm, but you should be able to converse comfortably with any walking partner accompanying you. If you swing your arms you are also using your upper body."
Try to fit your walking around your lifestyle, he says. If you live in a city, travel home from the railway station on foot rather than take a bus. And don't bother changing Tube lines – travel the old-fashioned way, instead. Our species has been doing it for thousands of years, after all. Rob Sharp
Caring for clothes
In these days of fast fashion, the concept of caring for one's clothes seems hopelessly outdated. Why would anyone bother with all that folding and storing, stitching and darning when all they've got to do is pop to the high street, and buy an armful of new outfits each year?
Consequently – tragically – many of us don't know the ritualistic pleasure that comes with good, old-fashioned, wardrobe routines. The notion of carefully packing away your winter wools as spring dawns, and lovingly laundering delicates by hand, has become an alien concept.
Hopefully, with less cash in our pockets to throw away on passing fads, this won't continue. Not long ago Prince Philip stepped out in a pair of perfectly-preserved 51-year-old trousers (altered only to taper the legs to make them fashionable). Whatever you might think of HRH, for true clothes lovers it was a heart-warming sight – not just because it conjures up the rather terrific image of the prince studying stills from a Hedi Slimane catwalk – but also because it represents a peculiarly old-fashioned mentality of make-do and mend, whereby clothes are treasured, not coveted.
"People don't realise, but I've seen an enormous increase in damage to clothes, thanks to our culture of rushing," says Garry Charnock of Jeeves of Belgravia, the royal dry cleaners, who laments fashion's disposable culture. "But it's much more economical to buy good quality classics and care for what you've got. They don't have to be Chanel, they can be Marks & Spencer."
Garry recommends using a cotton sheet (he customises his own) to cover items that you won't be wearing for a while: "That way, the moths won't get to them and you won't need mothballs." He also advises scenting clothes with dried lavender to dispel any musty odours: "To quote John Keats and Mary Poppins, 'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.'" Alice-Azania Jarvis
Cleaning the windows
Back in the Seventies, when Robin Askwith was clambering up ladders in Confessions of a Window Cleaner, this task probably had men scrambling for the bucket and cloth and offering to "do" their neighbours (nudge, nudge).
Nowadays most of us view it as a tedious chore, but taking charge of your glazing is simple to do, and will instantly brighten your home.
Guy Scott has been in the business for more than 20 years. "The best way to go about washing your windows is to use a squeegee and an applicator with some warm soapy water," says Guy. "Go in a horizontal fashion from one side to another, then use the back of the applicator, following the same pattern, to remove all the dirt and grime. Finally, use a crimp – a muslin cloth that has broken down – and wipe the frames to remove any residue."
Guy says that, if possible, the process should be repeated at least once a month.
"In this day and age, for high windows, even the householders shouldn't be going up ladders. It's not worth the risk, and most people don't realise they won't be covered on their house insurance," says Guy. Instead, he advises using a "reach and wash" pressure water system, or extension poles.
Though Guy admits it can be difficult to illicit much pleasure from cleaning windows during colder months, he says there's no excuse for not getting the squeegee out during the summer. "When it's warm, it's just nice to be outside," he says. "It can be sociable too - if your neighbours are out, you can have a chat." Ben Naylor
Servicing the car
Changing your own starter motor was once not only a matter of pride, but a matter of course.
Today, however, many motorists happily spend fortunes to have mechanics change something as simple as a brake light. This, according to James Ruppert, of bangernomics.com is partly the fault of the manufacturers. "They deliberately make cars complicated," he says. "With some models, every time you replace a bulb you need to reset the car computer. It's all to force you to go back to the dealer."
In reality, even the most intimidating sounding tasks ought to be well within the capabilities of the up-for-it amateur mechanic. All they need are some basic tools – a set of spanners, three or four screwdrivers – and the relevant Haynes manual, all of which will, says Ruppert, quickly pay for themselves.
"There's no law against servicing your own motor. When it comes to something like the brakes, then perhaps if you're not confident, you should pay someone to do it, but with most other jobs you may well do a better job than your garage."
And, if you're handy with a wrench, you'll soon be able to deal with a whole host of household tasks that might previously have seemed to demand a plumber or electrician.
"Young motorists today don't know one end of a car from the other. There are fewer and fewer people able to do these things. It gives you a sense of satisfaction, you learn a skill – and you save money." And besides, oil-stained overalls can be quite the aphrodisiac. Tim Walker
Baking a cake
Our butter is unbeatable, our cream and milk unmatched. Our chickens lay some of the finest eggs you'll crack and we mill a mean flour. So why do we so often reach for the supermarket shelf for a sweaty lump of stodge wrapped in plastic?
It's a mystery to Lesley Norris, who oversees cake creation at Betty's Craft Bakery in Harrogate, Yorkshire. "When you make a cake in the home, the family can mix the ingredients and lick the bowl," she says. "And then, best of all, you've got the smell of a freshly baked cake coming out of the oven – you can't get any of that if you get something off the shelf."
Lesley has seen a return to traditional cakes as austere times breed nostalgia. And cakes don't get much more traditional, or easy, than the Victoria sponge. The recipe requires only butter, caster sugar, self-raising flour as well as four eggs, a teaspoon of baking powder and the all-important jam and cream for the filling.
Over to Lesley: "Mix the butter and sugar really well so it's pale and fluffy. Then, add your eggs a tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift in the flour and baking powder, using a large metal spoon to fold it in gently with a spoon using a figure of eight motion so you don't knock any air out.
"Then divide the mixture between two greased tins and bake for 20 minutes (at a 175C) until golden brown. Cool on a rack, remove the sponge from the tins, and spread one half with jam and the other with whipped cream. Finally, sandwich the sponges together and dust the top with icing sugar." What could be nicer? Simon Usborne
Making sloe gin
Erroneously believed to be the province solely of Miss Marple types, the making of fruit liqueurs is thriving in certain quarters. This was forcibly brought home to me when I agreed to judge the category entitled "One Bottle Sloe Gin or Other Fruit Liqueur" at a country show in North Yorkshire. Instead of the half-dozen entries I anticipated, the phalanx of 30-odd multi-coloured bottles posed problems for both stamina and sobriety.
The best of these potent refreshments is sloe gin, made from the tiny, intensely bitter fruit of the blackthorn (look for them in the local park, or next time you take a walk somewhere leafy). To make a bottle, you need a pound of berries and a pin, though two hours in the freezer is said to perform the puncturing just as well.
Mix the punctured sloes with a quarter their weight of sugar. Half-fill an empty bottle with the mixture. Top up with gin and leave for two months, shaking occasionally. If you pick sloes after the first frost, which weakens the skins, the resulting liqueur should be ready by Christmas.
Be warned, however: once you start making fruit liqueurs there is a danger of the house filling with bottles, though these soon empty after reaching maturity. My home-made crème de cassis resulted in a kir so irresistible that the entire production run disappeared in a single evening. This proved to be somewhat expensive since, unless you happen to have a still, hidden in your back garden, the gin or vodka required as a basis for fruit liqueur involves a substantial payment to Mr Alistair Darling.
One way of avoiding rapidly vanishing stocks is to make a drink that is resistant to consumption. This proved to be the case with my dauntingly rustic elderflower vodka. Though unappealing taken neat, I eventually discovered a cocktail that adequately disguised this stalky concoction. Elderflower caipirinha, anyone? Christopher Hirst
Reading a map
Reading a map is an invitation to the imagination. The nautical chart leads the desk-captain into stormy harbour; the aviator's Tactical Pilotage Chart brings with it the vision of clouds forming as the wind heaps up over this ridge, this one, here. The Ordnance Survey maps, even the big ones, lay history before our eyes. These villages, all in hollows: the people who settled them weren't afraid of their neighbours or they'd have built on the hilltops. See how the place-names change: this valley was once a river, separating tribes with different languages.
GPS, or Google Maps, show a world through glass, with the manic focus of an imbecile. Zoom out your satnav to see the places passing either side of your affectless motorway and within seconds it autozooms in again, a flat line on a joke horizon. You don't need to know that. Time to destination, to the minute? I can do that with my thumb on the map and a glance at my wristwatch.
Let me navigate – boat, car, or aeroplane – with a map and a protractor, an E6-B drift calculator, a sextant and skills other men have taught me, passed down since that worst of all navigators, Odysseus. Let me see not just where but how and why and what. Great Circles, Mercator projections, rhumb lines, speed-over-ground; B-roads and single-tracks and villages big enough for a pub or small enough for a history: map-reading brings these all into view, and, with them, the pleasure of being wrong.
And, of course, texture. Paper and chinagraph pencils and sun-sightings and compass dip: more to life than precision on a screen. Yes, I love Google Maps on my iPhone. But maps are qualitatively different. When my father was dying, he gave me his Rand MacNally Road Map of the USA. "I'll have no more use for it," he said. I read it in bed, pencil in hand, thumb on the map, planning the journeys he'll never make. You can't do that with a TomTom. MIchael Bywater
Brewing a cup of coffee
For some of us, getting to work without at least one shot of caffeine is as unthinkable as turning up without clothes on. And while it may be tempting to fork out for a Nespresso machine, or grab a skinny macchiato at Costa Nerobucks, anyone who knows their beans would attest that brewing a proper cup of coffee requires nothing more complicated than a cafetière.
Ben Townsend is a "barista trainer" and self-confessed coffee geek from London. His morning routine starts with a bag of beans. "The most critical part of making good coffee is to grind good-quality, fresh beans every time," he says. "I use a little burr grinder rather than a blade grinder. Blades tend to create particles of uneven size."
Ben then places his cafetière, or French press, on a set of digital scales and weighs out his freshly ground coffee and hot water (not boiling – the heat overpowers the coffee). "The industry standard is 50 grams of ground coffee to one litre of water," Townsend says. You can reset the scales and use them to measure the water – a litre is roughly one kilo.
Then you've got time to get your cereal sorted. Good coffee comes to those who wait (for about four minutes). Add milk if you like, though he thinks "it's a shame to dilute the flavour of the coffee", and pour. The final decision: the cup. According to psychologists who have studied how our brains are wired up to latch on to the rituals associated with drug delivery, coffee "tastes better" in your favourite mug. Just make sure it's clean – a week's worth of encrusted rings will do nothing to improve the taste of organic arabica beans. Simon Usborne
Having a clear-out
Having a good clear-out is something we should think of as less of a chore and more of a meditative experience. According to Isobel McKenzie-Price of Ideal Home, "there's nothing more satisfying than the sense of tranquillity that comes from an organised home".
And rather than spending money on storage for your long-forgotten possessions, surely it's better to confront clutter head-on and get your house in order. "We have a need to create order from chaos," explains McKenzie-Price. She recalls the bliss of visiting a well-ordered home. "A couple of years ago, I spent a weekend with the CEO of a global company in her house in the Hamptons. She showed me her perfectly ordered cupboards and her fully stocked larder and I was in heaven."
To feel this euphoric about one's own abode, she recommends tackling one room at a time, claiming this makes it a far more relaxing, and even a de-stressing experience. Be systematic – don't just drift from pile to pile, get stuck in – and be ruthless. Teenage love letters and puffball skirts might once have loomed large in your life but if you're drowning in stuff then it's time to sling them out. Clear bookshelves of anything you've always meant to read and haven't, then deliver the spoils to Oxfam so others can enjoy your cast-offs.
One top tip for sorting out a crowded bedroom or sitting room is to tip all of the debris on the bed or the couch – that way, you can't have a sit-down or sneak off to sleep until you've thoroughly dejunked and dealt with the mess. Anything valuable can be posted on eBay or, if you're feeling altruistic, listed on Freecycle.org. Finally, sit down and enjoy a well-earned drink. Ben Naylor
...or just doing nothing
"We're busy doing nothing, working the whole day through," sang Bing Crosby in the 1949 film, A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, "Trying to find lots of things not to do./We're busy going nowhere, isn't it just a crime?/We'd like to be unhappy but we never do have the time."
It's a lost art, the art of idling, loafing, wool-gathering. We're so driven by schedules and deadlines, BlackBerry-consulting and Facebook-checking, it's hard to imagine life without it all. There's always, we tell ourselves, something to be done, someone to be rung, something to be read or cooked or recycled or consumed. Kipling, in his poem If, encouraged us to fill any spare minute on our hands with "60 seconds' worth of distance run", like some deranged scoutmaster. Should we try that?
Try doing nothing, instead. The TV is switched off, the children are away, the phone is dead, the dogs are silent – and you are prowling in your kitchen, picking up a corkscrew or a wooden spoon as though trying to familiarise yourself with ordinary life. In the garden, you stare at the leaves of a magnolia tree as if you've never seen them before. You spend whole, unrecoverable minutes of your life gazing at a caterpillar arching its back along a wooden fence. Back indoors, you sit on the living-room carpet and admire the complicated geometry of the sticks that make up the unlit fire in the grate...
Doing nothing, in other words, makes you notice everything. The mind, sated with processing external stimuli from page, screen and the chatter of humans, finds itself fixing on the ordinary and being startled by its unfamiliarity. Doing nothing inspires involuntary meditation, until you suddenly hear the sound of your own self, tucked away deep inside you, ruminating on the world and your place in it. It's a fantastic noise. John Walsh
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