Last month, I had a birthday. It was a fabulously random birthday, it certainly didn’t end in a big zero.
I’ve had a pretty tough couple of years. I have an acquired neurological disease that is chronic and disabling. My partner left me. I am no longer able to work full time. I live on a very meagre income in a pretty expensive city. I have mobility trouble that impairs my ability to get around town and travel is pretty much out of the question. I certainly won’t be able to manage any adventures like my trips around Africa again any time soon.
But I have many blessings too. Being sick has led me on a journey to better understand myself, my needs, my health and the world around me. So doing, I believe I have been able to continue to live an increasingly sustainable lifestyle. For example, foraging, a part of my food life that I now love, is something I came to out of necessity. Within many constraints, I still have a pretty nice life. But it can be hard; very hard. It’s a very precarious life financially, emotionally and health wise. While I’ve come through a lot over the past few years, there are still many challenges ahead; many everyday challenges that often people don’t see, challenges I would not want anyone else to experience.
While it is very difficult for me to go out or gather socially, I am still blessed with some truly wonderful friends who care very deeply for me. Entirely unexpectedly, one of my favourites bought my food dehydrator for me when I wanted to expand my range of products for my Selling Something Wild stalls. Many of them buy their Christmas gifts from the goodies on offer at my stall. Other friends threw a fabulous Latin fiesta for my birthday last year when I was unable to arrange something myself. When a dear friend of mine died recently, one friend came and did my dishes, and others bought me dinner several evenings when I was simply not able to take care of it myself. This matters to me. I care. I appreciate them. I notice these blessings. I am glad I notice these blessings and I am thankful for them. Actions have always spoken louder to me than words. I am deeply grateful for such wonderful actions.
For my birthday this year, I wanted to gather together these lovely people, my nearest and dearest, and count my blessings, acknowledging them with a fabulous party. I am very sensitive to sound, don’t do well with groups of people, fatigue easily, and don’t really do evenings. So I needed to plan something to work within those restrictions, something with not too many people, something outside, something in the day time. Of course, it needed to include fabulous food.
I am absolutely young at heart. I love children’s literature. You may have seen my pages to plate series, bringing the food from the pages of my favourite children’s books to a plate on my dining table. When I first got sick, I wasn’t able to read. It still is an activity I ration, because I get cognitive overload. But after a few months, when I started to manage better, I took great joy in returning to my Harry Potter books. I reread them over and over. In the three or four years since becoming ill, I have probably reread the whole series three times. I am now reading the accompanying texts from the Hogwarts Library: Quidditch Through the Ages; Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them; and The Tails of Beedle the Bard. But oh how I would love J.K. Rowling to sign my original Harry books! As I did when I was younger, I find courage and power in the tales of some of these unlikely heroes, joy in their friendships, and hope in their familial love.
So I planned a Potter Picnic Party to bring together my favourite food scenes from the books, treating my friends and I to a wonderful day of deliciousness and magic in the glorious summer sun. The day was based on three of my favourite food related scenes in the books:
- A Hogwarts Feast, so we had golden plates and goblets;
- The dinner Mrs Weasley cooks for all her children and Harry and Hermione before the Quidditch World Cup; and
- Picnicking by the lake at Hogwarts, we had two willow trees, thankfully they weren’t whomping, and of course, Lake Burley Griffin.
The magic began with the invitations. A friend of mine is an excellent illustrator, with a similar affinity for the Potter books, and children’s literature in general. So Erin-Claire Illustrations produced my invitations, RSVPs and food labels. They were adorned with my patronus, a cauldron and an amphibian that makes me think of Neville’s toad. I sent off the invitations in muggle mail, sealed with my very own wax seal.
The menu was something I’ve been working on for a long time, well, I’ve been working on its constituent parts for a long time. I’ve been creating and refining recipes for some items for a couple of years. Some of them I did just for the party. Some items were drawn from trusted suppliers I’ve known for years.
On the evening before the Quidditch World Cup, Harry and Hermione are at the Burrow, and all the Weasley children are home for the event. In the kitchen, Mrs Weasley declares “there’s just not enough room for eleven people in here.” Everyone is set to work setting up for dinner outside in the garden. Bill and Charlie set up the tables, Ron and Harry take the cutlery, Hermione and Ginny take the plates.
“By seven o’clock, the two tables were groaning under dishes and dishes of Mrs Weasley’s excellent cooking, and the nine Weasleys, Harry and Hermione were settling themselves down to eat beneath a clear, deep-blue sky. To somebody who had been living on increasingly stale cake all summer, this was paradise, and at first, Harry listened rather than talked as he helped himself to chicken-and-ham-pie, boiled potatoes and salad.”
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, page 57
That chicken and ham pie has been on my mind since the very first time I read that passage. I made several attempts at making it myself. But I think I finally succeeded with a version based on a traditional English picnic pie, like a pork pie, served cold. I posted the recipe a few months ago and it was a great success. The pie stood proudly in the middle of my party table, the center of attention, it was carved with some ceremony by an eager friend who dished out handsome slices to all the carnivores present.
Although the books only every talk about salad in a generic way, I made three different salads to accompany our meal. The first was quite British, inspired by the boiled potatoes in that passage, it was a simple dish of home grown potatoes with watercress, dressed with snipped chives, fresh lemon juice and olive oil. It was a great success. The second was a simple salad of heirloom tomatoes with fresh basil, and the third was one of my favourite combinations: rocket, char-grilled capsicum and balsamic glaze. All the salads were vegan friendly, otherwise the rocket one would have also contained shaved Parmesan, a fabulous addition to a very flavourful dish.
I could not have a Potter Picnic Party without pumpkin pasties. I’ve been working on this recipe for several years and got it to a place where I’m finally happy to post it here on the blog. I often make them with a little bacon fat in the pastry, it makes for a great flavour, but I was expecting vegetarians at the party, so I made an all butter pastry, and one with copha instead, so my vegan friends could also partake. I was given very high praise for the vegan version, I understand it is quite difficult to get good vegan baked goods. Of course the filling was great, but the pastry can be a trick. The taste buds of both little people, and big, were pleased with my party sized pumpkin pasties.
Molly Weasley made her children corned beef sandwiches for the journey to Hogwarts on the Hogwarts Express. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Ron says to Harry,
“She always forgets I don’t like corned beef.”
Well, Ron may not like corned beef sandwiches, but I certainly do! I bought my beef from Manda at Gilmore Braes and used her family recipe to cook it. With some good quality, three year aged cheddar from South Coast Cheese, and my Dad’s fabulous tomato relish, there’s not much more one could want in a sandwich. And so we did. Plates and plates of them. I made some without beef, and some without cheese and butter for the vegetarians and vegans respectively. Not a single sandwich was left by the end of the party!
In the world of witchcraft and wizardry, pumpkin juice seems to fill the same role orange juice does in the muggle world. It is served at breakfast, lunch, a feast or any other occasion. Of course I had to serve it at my picnic party. The party was on a very warm day, much like the day Harry and Ron chased after the Hogwarts Express in Mr Weasley’s flying car. After a while, Harry “stopped noticing the fantastic cloud shapes now and was thinking longingly of the train miles below, where you could buy ice-cold pumpkin juice from a trolley pushed by a plump witch.” My pumpkin juice is crisp and refreshing, perfect for such an occasion. We also served soda water, wee little steins of butterbeer, and Win’s Creek mead which, I’m sure, would rival any served by Madam Rosmerta at the Three Broomsticks. in Hogsmeade.
Dumbledore: “Would you care for a sherbet lemon?”
McGonagall: “A what?”
Dumbledore: “A sherbet lemon. They’re a kind of Muggle sweet I’m rather fond of.”
McGonagall: “No, thank you.”
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
We did have a bowl of sherbet lemons on offer, because I love Dumbledore that much. They’re quite a fun British sweet. I think they’re quite like an Australian lemon sherbet bomb, but I can’t be certain.
Of course we also had to have Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans. I could easily promise my guests they would not get a boogie flavoured bean, or one that tasted of earwax for that matter, by going down the known list of Bertie Botts flavours, buying my beans in bulk and mixing them all up. I must say though, it was kind of fun to see an almost I-just-ate-an earwax-flavoured-bean expression on one guests face when she ate a banana flavoured bean. She does not at all like bananas. Sad though I was for her suffering, it was also kind of fun, and a reminder of how much in life is perspective. We had loads of flavours including lemon, cherry, green apple, toasted marshmellow, buttered popcorn and watermelon.
In Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone, “Mrs. Figg let Harry watch television and gave him a bit of chocolate cake that tasted as though she’d had it for several years.” But then, later in the book, Hagrid baked a large, sticky chocolate cake with “Happy Birthday Harry” written in icing for Harry’s eleventh birthday. My birthday cake could have only been a chocolate cake, and was festooned with a golden snitch, which I caught, in my mouth… and ate. It was delicious. I baked it myself, from a recipe in my favourite chocolate cooking book. It was covered with dark chocolate ganache and topped with golden candles
I made my first ever treacle tart for the party and my it was magnificent! I absolutely understand why it is Harry Potter’s favourite dessert. My illustrious pie cutter, was not stinting in his praise. He said, ‘while everything has been delicious… this tart is life changing.’ I will soon post my recipe on the blog, but it was based loosely on Mary Berry‘s recipe. I doubled the filling though, and increased the portion of citrus. It was certainly a thing to behold. To go with all that we had fresh strawberries and cream.
A young at heart birthday party would not be complete without party favours. Mine were chocolate frogs, not real chocolate frogs, and not real chocolate enchanted to behave like real frogs, but quite realistic looking frogs with delicious soft centers made from chestnut cream and wild blackberries. The chestnut ones were made with milk chocolate, and the blackberry ones with dark.
I had a truly glorious day. I will have the beautiful photographs to help me remember it in the years to come. I was very blessed for my friends to come from near and far to join me. It was wonderful to have them in town for the first time. In the morning, their help putting together some of the food was invaluable, and early in the afternoon, I needed their help walking to my chair. By the end of the afternoon, it was local friends who nearly had to carry me to the car, when my body finally gave up on me. But boy, we certainly had a sumptuous supper by then! Although exhausted, I was on a high for days afterward. My Potter Picnic Party was all that I had wanted it to be.
The beautiful photos of the day were taken by Pobke Photography. As I said, the invitations and food labels were penned and illustrated by Erin-Claire Illustration. The golden plates were from House. I hired the golden platters and serving dishes from Prop My Hire in Sydney. I also hired the glass drink container from them. The goblets, cutlery, chairs, tables, napkins and table cloths were hired from Barlens Party Hire in Canberra.