It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…

I finally started to get into the Christmas spirit a little bit this weekend, probably because on Friday afternoon my yard looked like this:

And by Sunday it looked like this:

Many of my friends and family bemoaned the precipitation and freezing temperatures, but I always like a bit of snow before Christmas. A green Christmas just isn’t very Christmas-y to me. That being said, it’s supposed to go up to 9°C (48.2°F) on Tuesday, so it’s not like this is going to last.

It really put me in the mood for Christmas shopping, though. Unlike in the States, where the holiday buying season appears to officially start as soon as the clocks strike midnight the day after American Thanksgiving, we don’t really have a traditional time to begin. Some people shop all year ’round. Some companies put out their Christmas merchandise at the same time as they’re building their Halloween displays (which is a little early to me, but oh well). For me, all of the Halloween debris has to be cleared away and there has to be some snow on the ground for me to feel like shopping for gifts — although I have been known to pick things up six months in advance if the opportunity arises at a great price.

I went with my mother, Thing 1, and Thing 2 to a number of craft fairs on Saturday, but one of my perennial favourites was the one held at Cairine Wilson High School. It’s a huge fair; it packs full the big gym, the little gym, the hallways, and the cafeteria. Given the number of booths, I’m bound to find something that I know someone will like.

But even if I don’t find the perfect gift for someone, it’s a lot of fun to check out the wares of local craftspeople. This is one of the few times of year that a lot of these people make their work available to the public; many craftspeople work all year by themselves to make enough stock for one or two holiday shows.

After hitting a few craft fairs, we rushed home so that the kids could get changed into their uniforms and we could drive out to Epiphany Anglican Church where the Girl Guides’ Holiday Tea is held every year. Since I’d gone to all of the effort of baking brownies for the tea, I pretty much had to attend. It’s always a lovely time, with such cheerful little servers and so many delicious treats on which to nosh.

I may have kind of taken a picture of some of the sweets for our table after I’d already nabbed the chocolate ones. Just maybe. I think that the next to go was that shortbread on the bottom right, since I’m a sucker for those too.

Book Fair

This past weekend was a busy one, and it would have been even busier if I hadn’t been sick on Sunday. It started off in grand fashion with a trip to the Rockcliffe Park Book Fair. They advertised that they had over 30,000 used books, CDs, DVDs and records… And I think they delivered.

To be totally honest, a sale like this is a little slice of heaven for me. I’ve been a bookworm ever since I can remember; it was one of the things that I was teased the most for as a kid. That didn’t slow me down, though, and now I wear the label with pride. All of these books piled high in a gym brings me right back to the happiest days of my childhood, when the Scholastic Book Fair would come to my school. I would bring the money my parents gave me, plus all of my saved allowance money, so that I could bring a stack of books home with me to keep. (Libraries are like a second home to me, but having books I didn’t have to give back was an extra-special treat.) Of course, now that I’m an adult I can drive out to a bookstore any time, but the prices at a used book fair are so much more affordable — and it’s somewhere that I can pick up vintage and out-of-print books as well as new releases.

I came home with two big bags of books, mostly novels and a few Christmas gifts. (Yes, I do buy some of my gifts second-hand; there’s a lot of stuff that is just as good that should be reused instead of going to the dump, and some things just aren’t available any more.) I did find a few cookbooks that I just had to have, though.

Julia Child’s Menu Cookbook (Julia Child, 1991) — This one is a reprint of Julia child & Company and Julia Child & More Company. It’s hard to believe, but this is the first Julia Child cookbook that I have ever owned.
The Ontario Harvest Cookbook: An Exploration of Fests and Flavours (Julia Aitken & Anita Stewart, 1996)
Incredible Edibles: 43 Fun Things to Grow in the City (Sonia Day, 2010) — Okay, not technically a cookbook, but it’ll lead to more cooking in the end.
A Modern Kitchen Guide: A complete Book of Up-to-Date Recipes and Household Hints (Farmer’s Advocate and Canadian Countryman, 1946) — This is the book with the blank red spine. It’s one’s old enough that I haven’t found it online, which makes it all the more interesting to me.
A Little Canadian Cookbook (Faustina Gilbey, 1994) — This one is autographed by the illustrator!
Totally Bread Cookbook (Helene Siegel & Karen Gillingham, 1999)

What a great haul! And what a lovely way to spend a few hours for a bookworm like me!

Happy Halloween!

One of my absolute favourite things is people who go all-out to decorate for the holidays. Halloween is probably my favourite, but Christmas is another big one, especially because its decorative lights enliven the darkest days of the year. When it comes to Halloween, if you trick-or-treated as a child, to me you have filled an unwritten social contract if you keep your porch light on and hand out candy. If you carve a pumpkin or put up a few mass-market decorations, so much the better. But it’s those houses that go all-out that you remember long after you’re too old to ask for candy door-to-door. When I was a kid, our entire block did Halloween big time, which is probably why I’m still such a fan as an adult. My favourite was the neighbour who built three witches and a cauldron in his driveway, closely followed up by the people who dressed as dummies and jumped out at you, and the people who made spooky mazes on their lawns or in their garages.

Here are some of my nominations for “coolest house” this year (keeping in mind that I had to take these photos before Halloween itself, since I post so early in the morning, so some houses don’t have their decorations up/lighted):


This house had projections in the left window of ghosts and silhouettes, which is hard to catch on a long exposure for nighttime lighting, but it was still really cool.

I hope everyone has a safe and happy Halloween! May you bring home lots of your favourite candy, and may your feet and hands not get too cold. (It’s supposed to dip below freezing here, but in this climate we try to plan costumes that you can fit a snowsuit underneath.)

Pumpkinferno

I’ve been going to Upper Canada Village since I was a child. It’s a historical recreation of a rural English Canadian village from 1860’s along the St. Lawrence Seaway. Most of the buildings are authentic to the time period, although I don’t think there was ever an actual village on that site — the buildings were moved in from a number of different sources. Needless to say, it’s an educational gold mine. Not surprisingly, it was a popular spot for school field trips, and my parents also took my brother and I there on summer outings. However, back when I was a kid they didn’t have the two lights festivals that they do now (Pumpkinferno for Halloween, and Alight at Night for Christmas). I’m pretty sure they didn’t host the medieval fair in the summer there either. These are all great events, though, even if they’re not exactly time-period-accurate.

Pumpkinferno is an exhibition of 7,000 hand-carved pumpkins along a kilometer-long walking trail. The majority of the pumpkins are artificial, since the exhibition lasts for about a month and no real pumpkin would last that long. There are some real pumpkins painted (and in previous years, carved) by local children on exhibit as well. Back when they used carved ones they had to keep switching them up for new, fresh gourds, which is probably why they switched to painting. I’ve been going to Pumpkinferno since the very first year (five years ago or so), and as my kids got older I started bringing them along as well. This year was Thing 2’s first time attending.

There has been at least one Chinese-style dragon every year (this year there were two). My kids’ first thrilled exclamation was, “Long Ma!”

There was also a rainbow ribbon made of birds (doves?) in the mill pond. Only the top half of the ribbon was actually made of pumpkins; the bottom was a reflection.

Witches danced around a cauldron to a recording of the witches’ chant from Macbeth. These witches seemed more Pratchett-like than Shakespeare-like to me, though.

There was a whole section of famous paintings recreated in pumpkins. The most recognizable, of course, was the Mona Lisa. There was also Van Gogh’s self-portrait, Emily Carr’s Haida Totems, Girl with a Pearl Earring, American Gothic, White Pine by A.J. Casson (Group of Seven), and a Frida Kahlo self-portrait.

In honour of the village itself, there was an exhibit called the “Upper Canada Village People”, of which there were a schoolteacher, a cheese-maker, a baker, and a spinner.

The Jack-o’-lantern-covered archway to the children’s area is another exhibit that has remained constant (although I believe at least some of the individual pumpkins have changed).

My favourite part this year was the Day of the Dead area, which was actually so large that I couldn’t fit all of it (or even most of it) in one picture. It was colourful and detailed and a general pleasure to behold.

Of course, these aren’t all of the exhibits at Pumpkinferno — they’re just the ones of which I got the best pictures. If you have time before Hallowe’en, I highly recommend a visit. It only runs Thursday through Sunday for the next two weekends, so keep that in mind when you’re planning. Also, the lines for entry can be quite long. I highly recommend buying your tickets online in advance, which means you get to take the quicker and shorter line, and spend more time inside the event.

Cumberland Farmers’ Market — Harvest Market

Not this past Sunday but the Sunday before (October 1st), I headed out to the Cumberland Village Heritage Museum for the Harvest Market. This farmers’ market is usually held on Saturdays from mid-June to mid-September in front of the R.J. Kennedy Community Centre. This was a special, end-of-season event, though, so it was held at a larger, more interesting venue. As a bonus, admission to the museum was free! My kids were thrilled, especially Thing 1, who had visited the museum with her class and was excited to show it all to her little sister. My husband headed with the children toward the heritage and reproduction buildings from the 1920’s and 30’s (with special attention paid by the girls to the farm animals). I, on the other hand, got a chance to enjoy the beautiful weather and peruse the market for a short time on my own, which was lovely.

The aisles were teeming with shoppers:

The stalls, as always, featured interesting locally-made seasonal items, arts, crafts, and food:

In the top right background of the photo above, there was a vendor with really fantastic bibbed kitchen aprons made from vintage patterns. Honestly, they looked more like dresses than most of my actual dresses! I really wish I’d picked one up, or at least taken their card so I could find out where they’re going to be for the Christmas season. I’ve actually started using aprons lately to save my clothes, and it would be nice to have a pretty one.

Of course, then there was the produce:


I like the use of an old wicker papasan chair frame as a giant display basket.

I came home with one of the pumpkins from the above display, as well as an ambidextrous bow bread knife for easier slicing of my homemade bread. The pumpkin was turned into pumpkin pie, pumpkin tarts, and pumpkin bread for Thanksgiving this past weekend. I can’t think of a better end for local produce.

The Cumberland Farmers’ Market season is now over, but still to come is the annual Christmas Market on Saturday, December 2nd from 9:00am to 4:00pm. This market will be held at four locations in Cumberland (I’m guessing so that all of the vendors can set up indoors): 1115 Dunning Road, 2620 Market Street, 2557 Old Montreal Road, and 2655 Old Montreal Road. If I’m lucky, maybe the vendor with the lovely vintage-style aprons will be there!

But What Is It? Part 2

A while back I wrote about the interesting handmade tool that I found at the cottage that my parents rented for the summer. I wasn’t sure what it was at the time, and honestly I’m still not a hundred percent sure of its intended purpose. The consensus seems to be that it was made for chopping, which makes sense to me, but further details are elusive. The pictures I took back then were mediocre at best, so I promised that I’d take some better ones. I kept forgetting to post them, but here they (finally) are:

If anyone has any additional knowledge as to what this may be, I have to say that I remain quite curious. However, it has been pointed out to me that one-off handmade tools often have a specific purpose known only to the owner, so this may forever remain a mystery.

Milkweed

When I was a kid, one of the big things we did as a family was go for nature walks. In the woods, in the wetlands or fields, it didn’t matter, so long as we went and explored. Sometimes my parents would drive us quite some distance to check out the local scenery. Sometimes we stayed within minutes of home. As I grew older, I was allowed to roam with other children or on my own.


Me carrying Bud, my friends’ rescued pigeon, through the woods on a walk near the friends’ parents’ cottage. I was about 11 in this photo.

In retrospect, I never went all that far from wherever my parents were, but I reveled in the freedom of exploring on my own. My favourite time to explore was in the fall when the milkweed pods were dried out and bursting. I loved picking the pods and freeing all of the seeds and the silk. Flinging handfuls of silk into the air was akin to blowing on a giant dandelion.


Milkweed flowers; I’m pretty sure the kind commonly found around here is either common milkweed or prairie milkweed.

I’ve only discovered recently that parts of milkweed are also edible. From page 183-184 of Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat Ellen Zachos, 2013):

There are a lot of misconceptions about milkweed passed around in books and online. Some people claim it’s bitter; others say it’s downright poisonous. Correctly harvested and prepared, it is neither. […] Here’s what you need to know. No milkweed parts should be eaten raw. The shoots, flower buds, and pods of milkweed should be boiled, or blanched and then cooked to completion in a second way. It’s not necessary to boil in three changes of water, as some people believe. However, cooking in water takes away the milky latex (not pleasant to eat), which is why I recommend blanching, even if you choose to cook the milkweed in a different way. […] Also, mature milkweed foliage can indeed be bitter and should be stripped from the young shoots before cooking. If cooked, the large leaves will impart their bitterness and obscure the taste of the milkweed stems, which would be a crying shame.

This book goes on to identify the best practices for collecting and preparing shoots, flower buds, flowers, and young seedpods. There is also a tempting recipe for milkweed flower syrup on page 212.


Immature milkweed seed pods.


Immature milkweed seed pods opened.


Immature milkweed seed pods interior. This pod was over 1.5″ long, so probably too old to eat, but it was still fully white inside.

My copy of The Edible Wild: A complete cookbook and guide to edible wild plants in Canada and North America (Berndt Berglund & Clare E. Bolsby, 1971) also has a section on milkweed starting on page 53:

The young shoots of milkweed may be boiled in the spring. The older stems are too acid and milky for use, but the very young seed pods are excellent when cooked. […] The young seed pods, no larger than a walnut, I usually fry in fat of any kind. If I have a little flour, I mix this into the fat and make a stew of the pods.


Mature milkweed pod, much too old for eating.


Milkweed silk.

The Edible Wild has recipes for:

– milkweed pods soup
– cream of milkweed pods soup
– young milkweed pods, blanched and buttered
– milkweed stalks and wild onions in sour cream
– milkweed stalks with ham and cheese
– steamed and buttered milkweed stalks
– young milkweed stalks braised with wild onions
– glazed milkweed stalks
– stewed milkweed pods with frogs’ legs
– baked milkweed stalks omelet
– steamed milkweed stalks with brandy butter
– milkweed pods and chicken pie

Obviously, the authors have had to have eaten a lot of milkweed to come up with these recipes, which gives me confidence to try it out myself. I am often a little bit wary of foraging plants without an expert in the subject showing me what to do. Perhaps I can find someone local who is willing to teach me, and then I will try out the milkweed pods and chicken pie, which looks delicious. I may skip out on the frogs’ legs, though.

Despite all of the culinary potential of milkweed, I still find this plant at its most appealing when it’s at its least edible. I love it when there are fields so thickly coated with bursts of silk that it looks like the first snow of the season.

Milkweed is such a part of my childhood that I was very surprised when I started talking about it to a relative from the Sudbury area, and they’d never heard of it. While it’s thick on the ground around Ottawa, apparently the conditions aren’t right for it to grow further north. I guess it was silly of me to assume that every Ontarian’s childhood included milkweed. I hope that they at least had cattails! (Parts of which are also edible, by the way.) In the fall, once the plants have started to dry out, a cattail’s flower head explodes wonderfully into a mess of seeds and fluff when rubbed on a hard surface. It’s not quite as satisfying as cracking open milkweed pods, but it’s close.