Explaining Garlic Bread to French Students

Life outside the office continues to be rich and varied. But with one son still at university, my modest (OK, piffling) income needed a boost.

So since March, we have been hosting French students.

Did you know that you are allowed to earn £7,500 from hosting students without paying tax?

If you own your own home and have rooms to spare, it is a great way of getting regular income, on your terms, for a few months of the year.

We do it through a company called Culture Exchange and a warm and fantastically well organised woman who runs the local groups. I thought we might have a couple of students, one in each of my sons’ rooms. She took one look at the larger room and said, ‘Have three. Put them all in here – they’ll love it.’ And she was right – for the students, being three to a room turns a school trip into a sleepover.

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I have always rather fancied running a B & B…

It is a bit like running a part-time B & B

Students stay three or four nights during the week. You drop them off around 8 a.m. and pick them up between 6.30 and 10.15, so your days and weekends are free.

You feed them breakfast and an evening meal and give them a pack lunch. My thrifty enthusiasm for eating well for next to nothing has been useful, along with really helpful guidelines from the organiser.

It freaks you out to start with that they are French

They’ll expect haute cuisine, right? Wrong – they’re teenagers – or children. They want pizza and pasta and dodge veg and salad like our own youth.

I scour Lidl, Iceland and Asda to get the best deals. I do a breaded chicken and homemade oven chips night, a spag bol night and a pizza and pasta night. If there is a fourth night, I have homemade burgers ready in the freezer. I love the way the sons of France, home of the world’s most renowned cuisine, complement the food as though it’s Michelin starred.

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Money saving tips for hosts

Lidl Cooked ham trimmings – really good ham, but cheap. Keep in the freezer and defrost for sandwiches. Way better than the watery wafer-thin stuff.

Iceland Sliced chicken breast – great for sandwiches. Proper chicken rather than reformed gunge, but it comes in freezer bags and is cheap as well as handy.

Buy the cheapest pizzas (frozen are fine) and add a bit of the ham mentioned above and Asda Smart Price Mozzarella – 47p a ball. I could leave this out but want to feel I could look the French Mamans in the eye.

Explaining garlic bread

We were astonished to discover that none of them have come across garlic bread before.  ‘It’s bread, but with garlic,’ we say every time. ‘Garlic bread!’ They are sometimes suspicious but they always adore it. C’est l’avenir! they must be thinking.

We haven’t had a single student we haven’t liked

They have all been polite and keen to please – really, respect to French parents and teachers.

They have ranged in age from 12 to 16 and you never know what to expect until you pick them up. Some are sweet little boys who tell you what they want to be when they grow up, and want to discuss, in English, whether you have brothers or sisters. They come down in their pyjamas to say goodnight, and bring out all your maternal instincts. They do not tend to trouble the shower.

With young groups, there is always a delicate one

He arrives saying he has been travel sick, and then picks at his food all week. A glance around the bedroom will reveal a suitcase full of chocolate biscuits, which Maman has packed in case he starves in the care of an English woman.

Some are teenagers

They barely grunt at each other over breakfast and leave enormous trainers in the hall. You can’t get them out of the house in the morning because in teen-speak, whatever the maternal tongue, ‘Be ready to leave at 7.40’ means, ‘Be larking around, playing stuff on your phone while cleaning your teeth at 7.40’. The shower gets plenty of use and the food is all gratefully eaten.

Once, we had three delightful teenage girls. Unlike any of the others, they were interested in politics, and we managed a conversation about Macron and Le Pen in English. Also unlike any of the other students, they left a purple thong behind in the shower.

We have loved getting to know them all

Whatever their level of English, there’s always a point of contact. With almost no French, Jon relies on hand gestures and football talk for communication. Dropping Paris St Germain into the conversation is his ice-breaker.

I once watched a girl trying to do up ankle-high Converse when we were waiting to leave. ‘I like your Converse,’ I said. ‘It’s impossible to put them on quickly, isn’t it?’ They laughed knowingly – we were a la meme page.

One young group were near Westminster during the terror attack

They had been at the scene a few hours earlier, but thankfully were watching a musical when it took place. Many of the girls cried when they heard the news as they left the theatre. They all saw the emergency services on the scene from their coach. The tour guides did a brilliant job of helping them to contact their parents, letting hosts know they were OK, and keeping them distracted and upbeat.

Their parents all rang in the evening. I heard one boy saying, ‘It’s OK, Papa, we saw a brilliant show – I had a good day.’

He came down later needing to chat. ‘My mother was crying,’ he said.

‘I expect she just wanted to hear your voice,’ I said.

‘Yes, that’s what she said!’

I felt closer to these boys than any of the others. I always have a huge sense of responsibility for other people’s children, but this really brought it home.

We have had only one disaster

You are supposed to be warned about bedwetting, but one family must have thought their fourteen-year-old would cope with pull-up pants, and that no one needed to know.

The room began to smell terrible. After a day or two, the stench filled the house, and was indescribably awful – you walked through the door and felt the kind of revulsion that is your primitive brain’s way of warning you to steer clear of something toxic.

Jon found two heavily laden pairs of wet pull-up pants hidden in the bed, and more in the bathroom bin. We never said anything, and the boy involved seemed happy that his secret had been removed. When the students left, a huge clean-up ensued, but though bedding, duvets and mattress were washed, re-washed and aired, and all manner of sprays were tried, a trace of the smell lingered in the house for weeks.

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The gift of … well, gifts

This aside, it has been a hugely positive experience. Every week there are three new characters to get to know and every week, more gifts from France. We have had walnuts, mustard, chocolate, sausage, marzipan sweets and even wine. I thought of having a French sale for church funds – only to discover that Jon was opening and consuming everything. His face fell when we had a group from Puy. They came bearing lentils.

 

 

 

Don’t Listen to the Voices

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Courtesy of laurazera.com

The voices want your money. In December, they said that you had to pack your house with rich, expensive food – or Christmas would fail! Now you have to lose weight and take up exercise, or you will die.

If you live, you’ll be fat, diabetic and a drain on the state, which is worse.

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Courtesy of health.com

The only way to avoid this is by spending any money you didn’t fork out on the cheese and chipolatas that are now clinging to your thighs. You need a diet that is delivered by post in sachets and costs £17 per pound lost. To exercise, you need to a fitbit, gym membership and expensive running shoes.

No activity can be embarked upon without state-of-the-art equipment.

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Never believe you can buy slimness.

Anyone who asks you to pay them for weight loss does not have your interests at heart. It is not in the interests of diet-flogging companies for you to lose weight and keep it off, which is partly why most diets fail.

Like geese, they fatten us up over Christmas, but in the New Year we’re meant to despise ourselves. Don’t! Everyone puts on weight over Christmas. A return to normal eating habits will sort this out over time.

And don’t think you can buy fitness/a fabulous new you.

I couldn’t believe the amount of equipment that littered the poolside when new swimmers took to the water this week. There were flippers, pull-buoys, laminated training programmes and specialised sports drinks.

Soon, the crowd will be gone and there will just be us regulars – unflippered and without isotonic assistance, but still swimming.

By all means, take up exercise, but don’t spend anything if you can avoid it. Make sure it’s something you actually enjoy. You might just be trying to persuade yourself you enjoy it. The truth will out as the New Year fervour fades. Don’t pay up for a whole term of some new activity unless you’ve tried it and it works for you.

Walking, running, gardening and hoovering are great exercise, and free.

You can do step aerobics on your stairs, with music to inspire you. You can lift baked bean cans instead of weights. Some parks have outdoor gyms. You could walk your neighbour’s dog, if you don’t have your own.

Believe in yourself, not the voices. The voices are not our friends!

Posh Food on a Pittance

After a slough of despond in my freelance/writing life, things are looking up. Three books I edited as a freelancer just got brilliant reviews, which I fed to myself intravenously as an emergency measure to revive flatlining confidence.

Then a US publisher confirmed that a collection in which I have an article is finally going to be published. They changed the book title because Women of Faith was already taken, and have called it Enduring Love instead (?!?) so I’m not sure what Ian McEwan will think about that…

I have also been enjoying working with great authors on books that are going to be excellent, and relishing the fact that I can have a life in between instead of flinching every time my phone beeps. For instance, I  popped round to see my lovely writer/editor neighbour, who was suitably outraged at SerialCommaGate (see previous post) and assured me that similar things have happened to her. After this encouragement, I went for a gorgeous autumn walk with her dog, Gracie, and foraged a handbagful of chestnuts.

Foraging for free food gives me more joy than all the bargains I bag at Poundland, Lidl, Wilko and Asda put together. By way of celebration, here are a couple of recipes for truly posh food that I made for almost nothing.

Romesco

This is adapted from a recipe in the Guardian, whose food pages are usually full of obscure and expensive ingredients, but can inspire even the cash-strapped to create great food. This week, someone gave me a good white bloomer that was past its sell by date, so I turned to this recipe to use the stale bread.

Romesco is a thick, pesto-like sauce that tastes incredible but costs very little. I used red peppers from a Lidl jar (£1.79), blanched almonds from a Lidl bag of mixed nuts (£1.59), smoked paprika from the local Asian shop, red wine vinegar which I had in the cupboard instead of the sherry vinegar recommended, and of course the free stale bread.

Ingredients:

75g blanched almonds

3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for frying

Thick slice of stale bread, torn into chunks

1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped

½tsp smoked paprika

110g roasted red peppers, drained

1tbsp red wine vinegar (or any wine/cider vinegar)

Salt and black pepper

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Method:

1 Preheat the oven to Gas mark 6/400F/200C. Place the almonds on a baking sheet and roast for 8–10 minutes until golden.

2 Heat olive oil in a pan and fry the bread until golden brown. Add the smoked paprika and garlic and cook for another minute, then take off the heat.

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3 Put the nuts and fried bread in a food processor, add the peppers and blitz to a coarse paste – you want a bit of texture.

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4 Put all this in a bowl, add the olive oil and vinegar and mix, then season to taste. You can add a little water if it is too thick, or a bit more oil or vinegar to get it how you like it.

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Romesco makes a fantastic spread on sandwiches and is also great used like pesto: stirred into pasta, noodles, rice, soup or potatoes. You can also use it as a marinade for roasting vegetables.

And if you’re wondering what I did with those chestnuts…

Pumpkin and Chestnut Dim Sum

This recipe wraps up the fruits of a European autumn – pumpkin, sage, leeks and roasted chestnuts – in a decidedly Chinese parcel, so let’s be really posh and call it Fusion Food. The whole pumpkin was only 50p in Asda, and I used about an eighth of it. I had leeks from my Dad’s garden, but you can of course use onion. You can make up your own flavourings: spring onion, ginger and garlic would also work well. I had the Chinese pancakes in the freezer, left over from when I made Peking Duck because the garden was overrun with plums and I had to make Hoi Sin Sauce.

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Chestnut foraging note

The best chestnuts are found by busy roads, because squirrels don’t go there. The first ones I found were beside the A26 with traffic roaring by. They had bounced out of their prickly skins from sheer exuberance at being so huge and glossy, whereas in the woods, you find the ones the squirrels couldn’t be bothered with. The ones photographed are the latter category, but I still found some that were big enough to be worth the effort for someone more determined than a squirrel.

Equipment note

You need a bamboo steamer – don’t buy one in a cookware shop as they are much cheaper in Asian supermarkets.

Ingredients:

A couple of handfuls of chestnuts

About twice the amount of pumpkin, skin removed, chopped

A little leek/onion

Pancakes for Peking duck

Nutmeg and black pepper

Soy sauce

Sage, chives and 2 bay leaves or any herb you have: coriander or parsley would be good

Method:

1 Slice the hard skins of the chestnuts round the middle/equator with a serrated knife so they will split as they cook.

2 Preheat the oven to Gas 7/220C/425F. Put the chestnuts in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a simmer, then drain and put on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes.

3 Meanwhile, fry the leek/onion gently in a little olive oil, then add the chopped pumpkin and herbs and sweat down for 5 minutes. Add a little water and a splash of soy sauce, put the lid on and steam, keeping an eye on it and stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin is tender. Add grated nutmeg and black pepper and season to taste.

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4 When the chestnuts come out of the oven, put them in a bowl and cover with a towel to steam for another 15 minutes. You should then be able to peel off the skins and rub off most of the browned pith.

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5 Blend the chestnuts with the pumpkin mix with a stick blender.

You could now use this as a dip, sauce or soup. You could use it to fill canelloni, rolled up lasagne sheets or ordinary pancakes. I decided to try making dim sum parcels. To do this:

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6 Brush a little water round the edge of a pancake and put a dollop of pumpkin and chestnut mix in the middle. Pull up and stick the edges to make a little parcel and place this in a bamboo steamer. Repeat to fill the steamer.

7 Put a little boiling water in the bottom of a large saucepan, put in your steamer, filled with parcels, put lids both on the steamer and the saucepan and steam on the heat for around five minutes. Leave to cool a while before taking out and serving, as the pancakes are very soft when freshly steamed and tend to stick to the steamer and break.

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Spiralizing out of control

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You can now enter this blog without fear, because all trace of its former smugness has gone.

I was pretty pleased with myself, wasn’t I? Dropping hints to those poor mugs still stuck in offices that I had found the secret to a better life!

Then came a nasty bout of anxiety and depression for my husband Jon. Two weeks of holiday, though lovely in its way, led to a couple of crises, with Jon wanting to be his usual happy holiday self but feeling dreadful. Back home, he has adjusted his medication and we are hoping for improvement.

With all this going on, I have not had the headspace to write, and rejections have been flooding into my inbox from agents I have approached with my novel. They have shown an uncanny ability always to arrive on a particularly bad day.

Down – are you? Here – have a kick!

Who knew?! The life of the freelancer is not all creative joy.

And Jon has been worrying about money. No donations necessary, I hasten to add – but his anxiety means that giving up my regular income doesn’t seem quite the stroke of genius it once did.

When I was struggling with all this, a wonderful friend  gave me two pieces of advice that I highly recommend:

1 You will have to park certain worries (e.g. I will never achieve my dream of being a published writer – I’m not even writing!) and come back to them when the really important thing (Jon!) is better.

2 When things are bad, you have to take it one day at a time. Then you will not be overwhelmed.

And so onto money saving! Last year, expecting the usual enormous glut of courgettes, I bought a cheap spiralizer. A poor harvest meant that it has stayed in its box since then – but today, clutching a reasonably sized courgette and a few recipe ideas, I got it out.

I am not one of those carbo-phobic people who thinks that spiralized courgettes will convince my body that it has had spaghetti. Sometimes only real pasta will do. But I did fancy having a go at using up our plentiful home-grown courgettes and sage in an appetizing way, so here’s what I did:

Spiralized courgette with sage and walnut pesto

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Ingredients:

One medium-sized courgette, spiralized

A handful of fresh sage, chopped

A few walnuts, chopped (from a bag of Lidl mixed nuts)

Olive oil

Parsley and/or lettuce, chopped to bulk out

A little parmesan, grated (also Lidl)

Lemon juice and zest if desired

Salt and pepper

 

Method

First make the pesto. Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend into a smoothish paste. The parsley appears in most recipes to bulk out this pesto, because sage can be too bitter on its own. I have found that a lettuce leaf can be added if you don’t have much parsley. Add a squeeze of lemon juice if you like.

Gently stir fry the spiralized courgette in olive oil for about five minutes so that it softens a little but doesn’t go soggy. Add the pesto and stir through over the heat. Add a little salt, a good grind of pepper and a little lemon zest if you have it – then serve.

 

 

 

Money-saving for summer

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This will be the last post for a couple of weeks, so I have been taking stock. I find that I am part of a movement, as Radio Five reported yesterday that more and more over-fifties are going self-employed to gain flexibility in their lives. I really hope that this will give the poor, beleaguered younger generation a chance – those who have enormous student debt, struggle to find the work their degrees were meant to equip them for, can’t even dream of buying a house, and pay astonishing amounts for car insurance. This generation includes my sons, and all I can say is kids, I’m so sorry.

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My boys pondering their student debt

Meanwhile, my money-saving drive has continued, and I can share the following tips:

Camp frugally

I have just come back from shopping for next week’s camping trip and the theme for the menu is tins. Tins of things you can heat up quickly, or eat cold. Luckily, Jon has recently come round to my way of thinking that cold Smart Price mushy peas are an acceptable lunch. Looking at the haul as I unpacked, it was hard to tell the difference between our week’s food and the cat’s.

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Camping supplies and cat food – spot the difference

Grow your own

The garden has finally woken up and yielded strawberries, mangetout, cherries, blackcurrants, broad beans and new potatoes as well as a huge array of herbs. In a previous era of double-income frivolity, we used to carry on buying things and use our own produce as a bonus. Now an urge for fruit means foraging in the strawberry patch and hoping the slugs haven’t beaten us to it. If you don’t have a garden, investigate what you can grow in pots or troughs on windowsills or balconies. BHS even have bags for growing potatoes, if you can get there before they all close down.

Laugh in the face of superfoods

Recent TV programmes have confirmed what we all suspected: ordinary foods that Granny said were good for us are every bit as healthy as so-called superfoods. Strawberries contain as many nutrients as goji berries. Cabbage is every bit as beneficial as kale, and in my view, much less disgusting (oh come on, no one actually LIKES kale). Rapeseed oil has been elevated to superfood status, with prices to match – but if you check out cheap vegetable oil, you’ll find this list of ingredients: Rapeseed oil.

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Make do and mend

I recently I fished out my long-abandoned sewing kit and mended the seam of a summer dressing gown instead of buying a new one. I even cinched in the waist of a cardigan that had lost its shape with the help of a bodkin and some matching wool. Most exciting of all, I discovered the following:

How to get oils stains out of t-shirts

Spilling oily food down me is my usual way of ruining clothes. I hate it when a favourite t-shirt comes back from the wash with a dark patch that hasn’t come out. I found all sorts of solutions online that sounded complex or involved items I don’t have (one required WD40). However, I tried this on a t-shirt I didn’t want to throw away, and it really worked:

  1. Put a little washing up liquid on the stain.
  2. Sprinkle it with baking powder.
  3. Rub it with an old toothbrush or clean scrubbing brush.
  4. Rinse out, then wash as normal. Once dry, the stain should be gone.

Change your car insurance

I have always been one of those people who don’t shop around for better deals because I hate the palaver of changing and fear I’ll end up paying twice or not being covered. But lately, Martin Lewis’s insistence that automatic renewal means paying a tax on the lazy has got to me. I went on Uswitch.com this week and changed our car insurance. I admit, it took much longer than changing energy suppliers and involved lots of online form filling, which always makes me shout and swear. I mean, who remembers the month and year their driving licence was issued?? (Turns out this is written in column B on the back of your licence card). However, I am now paying £230 a year instead of £330 (punches the air).

But don’t go up a ladder!

OK I am not always rational in my balance between frugality and spending. For instance, I paid £60* for someone to clean the gutters and windows this week because I have watched too many episodes of 24 Hours in A & E to allow anyone in the family to climb a ladder. This makes no sense when I will do almost anything to avoid paying £2.40 for parking – but I’ve seen those programmes! Ladder usage is the short route to ending up in a trauma ward with a camera in your face. I had the phone in my hand and a finger poised over the 9 button the whole time the man was up there. By some freak stroke of luck, he survived.

*I will not be doing this often. The man recommended quarterly, but I’m thinking we’ll do it again when we can’t see out.

 

I’m a completely different person

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Courtesy of Huffingtonpost.co.uk

This must be true because my Mum told my son, and he told me.

Four months after I gave up the day job, I look back at Office Me and I begin to understand what was up with her.

  • She was big on security and routine, but so hungry for distraction and human interaction that she had to self-impose a social media ban during work hours.
  • She was generous with money but mean with her time.
  • She had always put all her energy into doing things well, but regularly felt that nothing was ever good enough.
  • On waking, she would instantly be alert for the next thing to dread.

Now I don’t have material riches, but life is richly varied. I’m in control of what I do with my time, and I can afford to be generous with it.

I have plenty of work now, but I managed not to let it bother me when I didn’t have much, and that is the real achievement.

At the Café where I volunteer, it struck me this week that everyone leaves happier than when they came in. I love being part of that.

I spend time with people who need to talk. I sit in cafes with my parents, just watching the world go by and shooting the breeze.

I realise that in my previous existence, busyness was eating away at my humanity.

I have spent concentrated time working lately, enjoying the task with the windows open, birds singing and bees pottering in and out.

When I went into the office for a meeting, my lovely ex-colleagues looked oddly immobile, as though someone had clamped them to their chairs. When I asked how they were, they all said, ‘busy’.

I know that many people don’t have the chance to give up their day job, and that it wouldn’t suit everyone. But it seems to be working out for me.

And now my frugal tip of the week:

Join the library!

Having not been for years, I went in, joined at no cost at all and on the spot ordered a thriller that had been published that very day: When She Was Bad by Tammy Cohen. Within a couple of weeks, an email came to say it was ready for me. I have it for three weeks, but it isn’t going to take that long to finish it, because it’s gripping – and all for free! If you’re looking to make a saving on books but don’t want to miss out on the latest titles – what could be better?

And if you’re into cheap eating, have a go at this frugal recipe:

Roast cauliflower with black pudding and olives

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This is adapted from a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe from the Guardian. I always think his food looks tasty but lose interest when I see the 13 obscure ingredients and a pan I don’t have. This, however, is dead easy and  really cheap.

1 large cauliflower separated into small florets

150g of black pudding, skinned and cut into big chunks

A large onion cut into wedges

A handful of pitted green olives (buy them in big jars, in brine – try Lidl)

2 tsp smoked paprika (cheapest in Asian shops)

A handful of pumpkin seeds

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

3tbsp olive oil (doesn’t have to be extra virgin, again, Lidl or Asda)

Salt and pepper

Handful of chopped parsley

Heat the oven to Gas 7, 220C, 425F. Put everything except the parsley in a bowl with salt and pepper, mix well and spread out in a roasting tin lined with greaseproof paper. Roast for 25–30 minutes until the cauliflower is golden and soft. The black pudding will be cooked through and this is healthier than frying. The original recipe had chorizo but I have discovered a passion for black pudding and it’s so cheap!

Not to Worry

The freelancer’s challenge (and just about everyone else’s)

Back from Vietnam after an epic journey, I set about returning to my new freelancing life.  I soon realised that the nice fat payment I received in March was not likely to be repeated any time soon. I had finished off several of the projects I had kept on from my day job and had joyfully invoiced for them in the last gasp of the financial year. I have a few more on the back burner but nothing like the daily work I had to start with.

Anxiety about where my next payment is coming from has begun to creep in.

What if I can’t get any more work? What if everyone at from my day job who was so positive about continuing to give me work has now realised they’re glad to get shot of me? What if my accountant laughs when he sees my figures? (Seriously, I actually do visualise this last one. But why would he laugh? And what on earth does it matter if he does??!)

So I have been giving myself a good talking to.

Every working situation has its pros and cons. I knew that the downside of the freelancing life is that it’s all boom or bust; you’re either too busy or you have nothing to do except fret about paying the bills.

My new life is not going to work for me if I allow myself to worry about this. I need to accept that I will not always be busy and enjoy the upside.

And here are this week’s postives:

  • time for writing
  • beautiful spring weather
  • running through the woods
  • spending time with my parents and catching up with friends
  • a lovely morning walk to a church event and the warm fellowship of the people there
  • time to chat with people in the showers at swimming and at the café where I volunteer
  • being with a two-year-old, which makes seeing a digger or a helicopter a thrilling event
  • being there for my parents during their searching-the-loft-for-lost-house-deeds-and-putting-foot-through-the-ceiling crisis (don’t ask)

As ever on holiday, Jon and I ran out of books and resorted to reading each other’s, so Jon knows all about delivering babies in East End in the 50s (Call the Midwife) and I know from Bear Grylls’ Mud, Sweat and Tears that success is all about what goes on in your mind.

So I am keeping a grip on the voice in my head.

Every time it suggests I’m a loser, I shout it down. I’m equally stern when it speculates about what people think of me or devises bleak scenarios for my future.

After a run through the springtime woods one morning, my inner voice piped up:

Why worry about money when I can feel this good for free?

And that seemed much more like it. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. The trick is to worry just enough that you’re stimulated to come up with new ideas and opportunities to keep the work coming in, but not so much that you’re mired in pessimism and panic.

And given that lean times might be just round the corner, here are a couple of recipes using foraged goodies that are in season now.

Free food for foragers

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I discovered the joy of cooking with nettles and wild garlic when Jon and I were living on £1 a day per person  for Live Below the Line. If you have never cooked with nettles, put your worries aside – they do not sting you once blanched in boiling water, and the taste is velvety, smooth and delicious, not sharp as you might imagine. And wild garlic is a more delicate, fragranced alternative to the usual (tame?) variety. It’s the leaves and flowers you are after rather than the roots – have a look on grass verges and in woods. The wild garlic seems early this year so nettles have not long come up, but in any case, it’s the new, yellower top leaves you want. Obviously avoid areas where dogs might have cocked their legs, and wear gloves.

At home, plunge the wild garlic in very cold water, pat it dry and keep it in a bag in the fridge until you use it. Wash the nettles with your rubber gloves on and discard any tough stems, keeping smaller, tender ones. Blanche the nettles in boiling water for two minutes at the most, then rinse with cold water in a colander, and press out the water with a spoon. Now you can touch them without getting stung. Chop the nettles roughly and they are ready for use in either of these recipes.

Almost Entirely Free Nettle and Wild Garlic Soup

I cooked this soup tonight with what I had in the house and garden as well as what I foraged from the common. You can make it in all kinds of different ways but this is what I did.

2 generous handfuls wild garlic leaves

2 generous handfuls nettle leaves

1 small leek from the garden

500ml of vegetable stock

Prepare the nettles as above. Wash and chop the wild garlic. Chop the leek and fry it in a little olive oil for 5 minutes, then add the chopped wild garlic and fry for another 2 minutes. Add the prepared nettles and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

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Take off the heat and blend with a stick blender until smooth. Season as required. This makes a thin but tasty soup. You can add a splash of milk at this stage, or if you like a thicker soup, add a chopped potato or some rice at the frying stage. I served this with a teaspoonful of Asda Smart Price Soft Cheese (in the absence of any crème fraiche) and snippets of sorrel from the garden, then plopped in some of the home-made croutons that still fill my freezer from the bread leftover from Jon’s party).

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Nettle and Wild Garlic Pesto

I have kept the amounts vague because it depends how much you are going to use and how you like it. This pesto keeps for two weeks in a jar in the fridge.

3 big handfuls of nettles, prepared as above

2 big handfuls of wild garlic leaves and flowers

A little parmesan cheese*

1 small garlic clove

Zest of half a lemon and a little juice

A small handful of pine nuts or other nuts

A glug of olive oil

Whizz the prepared nettles and wild garlic in a blender with the parmesan, garlic, lemon zest and nuts. I didn’t have pine nuts but I did have a bag of unsalted mixed nuts from Lidl. I soaked a few cashews and macadamia nuts in hot water for a few minutes to soften them before blending. Blitz to a rough paste then add salt and pepper to taste and a glug of olive oil and blend again. Add a little lemon juice – I prefer only a few drops but you might like a good squeeze. Put the pesto in a clean jar and top up with a little more olive oil. Keep it in the fridge.

*Frugal though I am, I find cheap or fake parmesan a false economy (the worst is the stuff sprinkled from plastic pots – it smells of sick for goodness sake!) The fake stuff is waxy and lacks the taste of the real parmegiano reggiano, meaning that you use more . The real thing lasts for ages and just a light grating adds a huge flavour boost. Look out for offers or go to Lidl.

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We had the soup followed by Asda Smart Price spaghetti with the pesto tonight – the whole meal cost literally a few pence. We are going to honk of wild garlic at our quiz night later, however!

Look out team-mates if we lean over to whisper an answer…