Service without a smile

You can find anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant*…and Singapore’s Mustafa Centre.

A veritable Aladdin’s Cave of things edible, cosmetic and electronic, plus jewelry, pharmaceuticals, and more, Mustafa Centre is open 24/7. First-time visitors will be exhausted just checking out a fraction of the goods. At 2am, you can find insomniac families wandering around.

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Mustafa accessories


Mustafa greengrocer

Mustafa shoppers like the variety available – many items can’t be found anywhere else. Deciding on toothpaste or tea can be mind boggling. Take sweetener as an example. Choose from organic or non-organic sugar. Or Lion Date Syrup (800g, $8.50), Pure Harvest Rice Malt Syrup (500g, $6.50), Cecil Coconut Treacle (180ml, $2.50), not to mention Southeast-Asian palm sugar and neatly packaged jaggery (Indian palm sugar).


Mustafa chocs


Mustafa electronics

The fact that I find Mustafa Centre irresistible despite the sucky service is a tribute to the store’s merchandisers. Perhaps service can take a back seat when the goods are the draw. That doesn’t seem right, but how else can I explain why I keep returning when service is at-best casual indifference?

Last week to my amazement, I ran into one staff who appeared keen to serve. Maybe he was a promoter in the health section. That’s how used I am to the usual dour faces.

It was 3pm on a Friday. I brought my basket to a cashier with no queue. Her expression could have curdled cream.  Sorry, I must have interrupted her reverie.

My worst experience was some years ago in the jewelry department where I waited 10 minutes for the woman behind the counter to fish out gold earrings – a gift for my then helper. I tried to get her attention by waving. I said, “Er, excuse me….” She pointedly ignored me as she leisurely pushed earrings onto a display board. I wouldn’t have minded if she’d just looked up and said, “Just a moment, let me finish this.”  Finally, when I wouldn’t go away, she snapped, “Yess!” in a whaddya-want tone.

I’m ranting. Enough.

Even vinegary countenances won’t keep me away. Other stores have something to learn from this.

*Alice’s Restaurant – Arlo Guthrie’s musical monologue


Cut the mustard

Sometimes, I want to return to the familiar flavours I grew up with. I’m talking about staples like HP Sauce, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, Tabasco Sauce and Colman’s Mustard Powder.

Viva nostalgia! These condiments give an old school flavour to sturdy favourites like shepherd’s pie, pork chops, and curry debal or devil’s curry – dishes that hark back to our days as a British colony. Back then, knowing how to use such imported delicacies meant one was either sophisticated or a Hainanese cook in a club or expat household.

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Now that we can get gourmet sauces from all corners of the globe, and those olde brands are available in neighbourhood supermarts, we don’t think of them as anything special. Yet, the fact that they are still in production means they’re as essential as soy sauce.

I just bought a large tin (454g) of Colman’s Mustard Powder in Mustafa Centre. Of late I haven’t seen Colman’s at my neighbourhood FairPrice. There’s no way I would miss the jolly yellow packaging. Also, what’s available elsewhere is only the small tin (probably 57g). Hence, at $13.80 for 454g, it’s a good buy.

Colman's mustard

As a flour miller, it wasn’t surprising that Jeremiah Colman came up with mustard in powder form in 1814. His factory in the vicinity of Norwich is still there today. So, if you’re ever in Norwich, check out the museum and bring home some Colman’s souvenirs.

Colman's mustard 1905

Cooks who prize Colman’s suggest combining equal parts of the dry mustard and a liquid – water, wine, vinegar, beer, milk, cream – and leaving it to stand for 10 minutes for the flavour to develop before using it. Stir a tablespoonful into stews, sauces, relishes, dips, marinades or dressings. Add zing to burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches.

(As an aside, if you have an ant problem, sprinkle some mustard powder on the ant trail. Wonder if it will work on roaches, but then, those hardy pests seem to be able to survive anything.)

For convenience, I’ve been using French mustard in my devil curry, but English mustard is sharper than Dijon. Now that I have my large tin of Colman’s, I’m going for the bigger kick. Here’s a recipe from my former colleague, Angela Fernandez. Every Eurasian family seems to have their own version, so vary the amount of onions and chillies to get a hotter or thicker gravy.

I forgot to take a photo last week when we made Devil’s Curry, so I had to borrow a visual:

devil curry


30 dried chillies

2 fresh chillies (optional)

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

4 big onions

2 thumb-sized knobs of ginger

10 cloves garlic, sliced

2 carrots, cut into large chunks

2 potatoes, quartered

¼ cabbage, cut into large pieces

Chicken thighs and drumsticks or ½ a chicken, chopped

350g bacon bones

300g sausages, sliced into thumb lengths*

1 tablespoon vinegar

1½ tablespoons English mustard


  1. Blend chillies , ginger and onions into a paste.
  2. Saute garlic in oil. Add mustard seeds and when they pop, add blended ingredients and fry till fragrant.
  3. Add bacon bones and top up with water. Slow cook for 4 hours or pressure cook for 10 minutes. Now add chicken and potatoes. When chicken is half cooked, add carrots. When chicken is almost done, add cabbage, vinegar and mustard.

*Substitute sausages with roast pork or char siew. This is an any-meat goes dish.

Back to bare necessities

Last month, regular shoppers at the Salvation Army Family Thrift Store might have noticed an influx of non-matching picture-pretty tableware. I must have donated several basket-loads of bowls, plates, cups, platters etc collected over my 30+ years of producing recipe pages for the magazines I worked for.

crockery 2

It took 18 months into retirement before I was ready to part from what had been part of my working life. While some pieces were unused, other attractive old crocks brought back memories of photography sessions, of the cooks, and even of the food so artfully placed in them. Reminders of busy days and a different phase.

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But it’s time to let go, and once I am recharged, I will go through the garden shed and hall cupboards where more props are stacked. More stuff will go to a friend who has a food blog and can use my carefully curated pieces from enamel to china to placemats. What I want is a good home for these much-loved items.

crockery 3

Minimalism has never been attractive to me. But there is just too much of everything. The clothes and shoes, all in good condition, were gladly received by neighbourbood helpers and will be put to good use in the Philippines and Myanmar. In the searing tropical heat, I just need to dress for comfort.

Now that I finally have time to explore my book collection, I am reading the books – some sent eons ago by book distributors for possible review. It’s read-and give away.  Each time, I can easily fill 3 of the National Library’s donation shelves. Eighty per cent of the last batch disappeared in 10 minutes.

I hope to only end up with an excess of beads and dogs. But the clearing will keep me busy for a long time yet as it’s hardly left a dent. Here are parts of a poem that can be a hoarder’s mantra. Titled The Cycle of Letting Go by Ryan Nicodemus, half of The Minimalists (, it captures the trap of possessions and the freedom from cutting loose.

I want it.
I own it.
I don’t use it.

It owns me.
It steals time from me.

I desire little.

I keep a little.
I am happier with little.

I miss little.

Baking for dogs

Have a biscuit or two, both you and your best friend. I’m tired of buying expensive doggy biscuits that look dry and unappetising. While my dogs love jerky, they play with store-bought biscuits and only eat them when dinner is a long way off and no other treat is forthcoming. Who can blame them when so many of these biscuits look like reconstituted cardboard?

Here are K9-friendly versions of biscuits meant for humans. The original peanut-butter cookie recipe was created by Chef Devagi Sanmugam over a decade ago for the magazine I used to work for. Hers uses 50g honey and no eggs. The cheese sticks recipe is even older and from my days in a women’s magazine. It’s no-fail even without the suggested pinch of cayenne pepper.

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doggy cookies


300g plain flour

60g quick-cooking oats

100g peanut butter (smooth or chunky)

2 eggs

120g butter

100g caster sugar


  1. Cream butter and sugar. Add peanut butter and eggs to the mix.
  2. Fold in flour and oats to make a pliable dough. Roll out dough to 4mm thickness and cut with a bone-shaped cutter. Use another cutter if you want some for your two-legged best friends.
  3. Bake in a preheated 170˚C oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown.
  4. Cool cookies on a wire rack and store in an air-tight container.

cheese biscuits 2


150g plain flour, sifted

50g butter, hard – cut into cubes

80g cheddar cheese, grated

1 egg, lightly beaten


Preheat oven to 180 ˚C

  1. Rub butter into sifted flour with fingertips to get a breadcrumb texture.
  2. Stir in grated cheese. Make a well in the centre of the dough and add egg. Mix well until dough is firm enough for rolling out.
  3. Dust work surface with flour. What’s easier is to cut open a plastic bag. Sandwich dough between two plastic sheets to make clean-up quick and prevent sticking.
  4. Roll out into 0.3cm thickness and cut into strips with a lightly floured blade.
  5. Place pastry strips on a greased or lined baking tray. Bake on top shelf until golden. Cool and store.

Can do!

Actually, it’s not at all easy retrieving the can you’ve been kicking down the road.

During the ongoing City Harvest Church trial, the Deputy Public Prosecutor accused a witness of “kicking the can of the debt down the road”.

It means to put off solving a problem or dealing with an issue. The expression conjures such apt imagery for the procrastinating we’re all guilty of. Whether it’s clearing the storeroom or delivering unwelcome news, many of us tend to drag our feet, hoping for someone else to take over or for the problem to resolve itself.

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can 3

So, what’s the personal can you’ve been pushing along? Excess weight, credit card debt, dead-end job, disintegrating relationship, hoarding habit, health check-up, making a Will/LPA, smoking cessation, moral dilemma, depression… The last is not a can, more a dark cloud threatening to envelop sufferers. But there is a can tied to depression, and that is seeking help, or facing reality.


can crush

A counsellor will tell you to bring your cans to a compactor, cry while they’re crushed, and know they’re going to a better place. Easier said than done.

I’m as guilty as everyone else, so I can relate to all fellow can-kickers. My can probably has some cement in it. It’s stubbed my toe but I’ve still managed to kick it to the next street. But never mind. Along the way, I’ve found another can to kick as a distraction.

And that’s the problem. A can collection can be a menace to anyone in the vicinity, impeding the flow of your life and tripping you as you try to distance yourself from the clanking tin.

Do you have one big can or several small ones? When are you going to pick them up? Many of us will continue kicking cans till the end of our journey, but it sure does ruin good shoes!

Singapore’s wild side

With the new alcohol law there might be less wildness, but of course, I’m not talking about inebriated homo sapiens. As a developed country, it’s our biodiversity (plant and animal life) we should be showing an interest in.

Isn’t it funny that while our island is named after the majestic lion (singa) supposedly spotted by Sang Nila Utama, it’s more likely the Javanese prince saw a tiger?  Hence, if he had identified the animal correctly, Singapore would be Harimaupura, maybe anglicised to Harrypore in honour of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, or even Tiggerpore. How would you like to be a Harryporean or Harimauean?

If you visit the recently opened Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at NUS (National University of Singapore), you won’t see any stuffed lions because lions are not native to our part of the world. So, while our football team and various clubs are named in honour of the king of beasts, and the barfing Merlion is our icon, we’re lyin’ about our lion links. The truth is, the nearest natural lion habitat is in India (Gujarat).

While Singapore was part of tiger territory, sadly, our last tiger was killed in the 1930s, leaving us with just beer and an airline as reminders. But as you’ll discover, there are many more wild critters in the limited natural spaces we have, eg graceful gliders like flying dragons, birds and small mammals.

See for yourself at the museum most famous for its three Jurassic Age diplodocid sauropod dinosaur skeletons. The longest dinosaurs of all have tiny heads on necks that snake on and on. To get a decent photo, take a shot from the upper floor. Imagine one of these running towards you, chased by a T-rex!

As more of a museum- than a mall-fan, visiting the newish museum was my Mother’s Day outing. My son couldn’t be prised away from the insect section – he’s into insect taxidermy and happily provided a running commentary. He was disappointed there wasn’t enough on ants, his favourite anthropod.

As pictures speak better than words, here’re visuals for the ones who have yet to see the natural side of Singapore.

At the entrance is a mandala. Get up close to see the birds.

museum mural 3

Dinosaurs with the unlikely pet names of Prince, Appollonia and Twinky.

museum top 2

This prehistoric fish, the coelacanth (pronounced SEEL-uh-kanth) was believed to have gone extinct along with dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But one was caught in 1938 and since then, more of these endangered dinosaur fish have been sighted.

museum coelacanth

Birds are lovely and should be flying free. They weren’t given wings to be caged.

museum stuffed birds

The colours, the wings … Butterflies are Mother Nature’s delicate works of art, as are some insects. Cockroaches I can do without.

museum butterflies

Frog, sea mouse (a marine worm) with gold quills, turtle, coral and all kinds of close-ups we’ll only see in a museum.

museum frog 2museum sea mousemuseum turtl

We are family. All humans belong to the same species. There used to be other species but they went extinct, and at the rate we fight each other, we might soon disappear too.

museum skulls

Before Darwin, there was Alfred Russel Wallace. Although his theory of evolution by natural selection predated the findings of Charles Darwin’s, he was trumped on the basis of qualifications. However, Wallace is coming into his own now, and we have a section at the museum devoted to him alongside Sir Stamford Raffles and his contributions as an amateur naturalist. Here’s the American monyet (monkey) discovered by Raffles.

museum Raffles monyetmuseum Raffles

The Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum is open Tues-Suns, 10am-7pm (last admission at 5.30pm). Book through SISTIC, tel. 6348 5555.

No bling-bling, just belimbing

When I first moved into my Sembawang-near-but-not-on-the-beach house, my late mother was thrilled to find a belimbing tree at the end of our lane. She picked enough to make sambal udang belimbing (prawn belimbing sambal).

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Over the years, I forgot about the belimbing until my Burmese helper brought a basketful home. While the Chinese are not interested in belimbing, the Indonesian and Myanmar nationals and Peranakans like me, cook with the sour fruit, a relative of the starfruit.

I gave a bagful to my chef-and-cookbook-author friend, Devagi Sanmugam. She made chutney with it and gave me two out of three bottles! So generous, but I’m not complaining as I’m eating a bit every day – it’s a yummy condiment.

Devagi - orange blouse

As Devagi blogged about it and provided a recipe, all I have to do is lift information from her blog – If you don’t have belimbing growing in your neighbourhood, look out for it in the wet market. Tekka would be a good place to try.

Belimbing 2

Other names: bilimbi, belimbing buluh, belimbing assam,sour star fruit, irumbampuli

Bright green to yellowish green, the belimbing is quite crunchy when unripe and can go very mushy if ripe. It is extremely sour and has very tiny flat seeds. Since belimbing has a high concentration of oxalic acid, it can be used for cleaning brass and copper items and also for bleaching.

It is believed that consuming belimbing regularly will relieve high blood pressure, chronic cough and diabetes. All you need to do is, chop about 5-6 belimbing and boil it in 2 cups of water for 20 minutes and then strain and drink the water.

The belimbing is used to flavour curries and other dishes. When cooked, it mellows down. It can also be made into chutneys, pickles and into a refreshing drink. I like it in salads or just dipped in sugar!

Belimbing makes good chutney. This belimbing chutney has a tangy, sweet flavour which is perfect with cheeses such as cheddar or white stilton. Great on pork chops too. I am not joking – if served with vanilla ice cream, it will be an unforgettable dessert.

 belimbing chutney


Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

Makes: 400 g

700 g belimbing, halved lengthwise and cut into 1 cm pieces

250 ml cider vinegar

150 g light brown sugar

80 g onion, chopped

5 red chillies

30 g finely chopped peeled ginger

½ teaspoon garam masala or ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon turmeric powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 bay leaf


  1. Place all the ingredients together and boil over medium heat for about 25 minutes or until the chutney is thick.
  2. Discard the bay leaf before storing in clean, sterilized glass jars.

Northern exposure

In Singapore, having to drive longer than 20 minutes to get anywhere is considered as good as going to another country. For the longest time, Sembawang has been like the other side of the moon.

People who live elsewhere always exclaim, “so far!” That’s because for many years, Sembawang was only accessible by a couple of roads.

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With just two bus services, no nearby MRT station where I live (near Sembawang Park which faces the Straits of Johor), no shopping mall, and with commuters carrying fishing and crabbing paraphernalia on the bus, we really seem to be the last bastion of ulu (countryside) Singapore.

But therein lies the charm. The bonus of living in what was once kampung (village) land is the lush landscape which includes edible plants growing wild. Just beyond my backyard are three majestic banyan trees, obviously many decades old as they were already ancient when I moved in 26 years ago.

Surrounding state land and forested areas are dotted with plants and trees like pandan, curry, banana, jackfruit, neem, papaya, belimbing, and even kangkong if you’re adventurous enough to wander a little off the beaten track. The rambutan trees have been felled but there are other goodies. These, and a quaint mosque, are the only remnants of Malay and Chinese kampungs.

Basong bus stop

Above: Waiting for the shuttle bus isn’t so bad when the view is so pleasant

Although land value has risen, it’s still comparatively low. Up to half a century ago, this sleepy part was distinguished only by its status as HMS Sembawang – His/Her Majesty’s Naval Base. Today, we remember our colonial heritage by the street names – Montreal, Canberra, Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar, Auckland, Wellington, Falkland, Tasmania, King’s, Queen’s …  In Sembawang Park, there’s the century-old Beaulieu (pronounced Bew-lee) House, once a residence, now a seafood restaurant. A dog run has been added to the upgraded park, so the K9 crowd no longer have to go to Bishan.


sembawang beaulieu house


sembawang dog run

In the last 10 years, we’ve seen our verdant area transformed as developers parcelled off choice bits of land to build four-storeyed houses and apartment blocks. New and old owners in the mature estate have also been tearing down their single-storey houses to add floors of space.


sembawang wak hassan bungalows

sembawang Wak-Hassan-Bungalows- 6m

Got $7-$9 million to spare? Resort living is yours.

The Sembawang HDB estate is also encroaching. Where once treetops met the sky, I can see concrete rising by the day as a new estate is born, with schools and all the attendant amenities.

It’s fine with me as my son will occupy one of those flats, and an injection of fresh life into our countryside estate is welcome. Already, I feel less distant from the rest of Singapore with new links to highways (Yishun Ave 8 to the TPE, Jalan Kayu and Sengkang) and an upcoming MRT station between Yishun and Sembawang.

My son was born a northerner whereas I lived all over Singapore and adapted gradually to what was once a rural part of the island. He fished, caught spiders, rescued critters (from abandoned bunnies to grass snakes), tramped through secondary forest collecting plants to bonsai, bicycled all over, and with his best friend, enjoyed a Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn childhood.

For me, highlights are birdsong and the kind of silence that leaves a ringing in your ears. At first, I thought I had tinnitus. Mosquitoes are a blight but a natural part of living on the ground surrounded by greens.

It’s a privilege to be country folk.

Beads and pieces in the slow lane

Retirement has been both unsettling and wonderful. I stopped work at the end of 2013 and in the blink of an eye, it’s almost mid 2015! At first, I felt displaced. After 40 years of dashing to and from work, and being switched on even on public holidays, it felt discomfiting not having an office to head to. My days were no longer organized into blocks of time.

But hey, after the first few months, I couldn’t believe the joy and freedom of not having my life sucked dry by deadlines, meetings, appraisals and the politicking inherent in any organization with power-hungry individuals. Trying not to fall in step with the brown-nosers and sociopaths had been exhausting. As much as I enjoyed my editorial work, I realized what I missed most was a regular paycheck and bonuses.

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Once I got into the rhythm of the perpetual weekend, I fell into a beading-and-reading frenzy, rediscovered radio and caught up with friends over lunch, tea and dinner. Bored? Never!


blog rush hour

But too much jollity led to total neglect of my blog. My reasoning: Blogs are nothing more than personal diaries. Non jetsetting bloggers like myself who don’t post photos of their gorgeous selves, are probably floating in darkest cyberspace. Really, who cares what we’re up to?

While it’s a convenient argument, I realize that writing helps me organize my thoughts for functional sharing. Of course, I would rather be flotsam but I need the discipline.  Even if some bloggers only occasionally encounter life forms in the blue void, and hardly anyone likes or follows us, we should still be guided by the blogger’s code of conduct –


This all sounds very altruistic but the truth is, I’m popping up for a gulp of air simply because of RSI. Yes, intensive beading has led to repetitive strain injury. It is not the needle hand that’s hurting, but the holding hand (my left). Whatever you do for hours – move the mouse, play the guitar, craftwork – remember to stop and flick/flex fingers, stretch arms and get the blood circulating. Keeping your hand in the same position for long periods will result in tendonitis, swelling, inflammation etc. Very unpleasant.

While I rest my hand, let me encourage you to indulge in creative activity. An obsession with (in my case) bead weaving has left me with no time to be lonely, depressed, or inclined to engage in risky pursuits. Other benefits:

From start to end

When I make one earring, I will push myself to finish the other side, usually on the same day. If it’s something more complicated like a necklace or dreamcatcher, I might take days or weeks, but with so much time already invested, the discipline to complete what I’ve begun is a sure thing.

earrings_sherbet Apr 2015necklace_earth Apr 2015Dream Catcher_Doug_11.9.14

A good workman

The crafty too must look after our tools and have materials at the ready. You’ll soon lose the mood to do anything if you’re running around searching for bits and bobs.

blog bead box 1

Constant learning

There’s always something new to learn, or technique to perfect. And with every step, patience is required. When I attended pottery classes, some students just wanted to throw pots and get them fired. The working of the clay bored them, but sloppy kneading and not slapping out air pockets might result in pots cracking in the kiln. The same persistence applies whether you’re trying tubular peyote stitching or breadmaking.

Stop and check

Even now I sometimes find myself speeding along to finish, and then discovering an unwelcome thread, or something awry when I’m all knotted and done. It means snipping off the offending section and fixing the mistake. Or living with it – and being forever irritated. If everyone did this at work, i.e. spot-check and backtrack, more errors would be caught before they snowball into something too difficult to fix.


When you get interested in something, you will suddenly notice everything connected with it. Or even indirectly connected. Beading has made me more observant and appreciative of colours of fabrics, the ocean, sunrise, sunset, nature, tableware, art… It’s opened my eyes to the beauty around me and to the far superior skills of other crafters.

blog quilt


After you make a whole lot of stuff, you’ll either want to sell, or make gifts of them. The trouble is not knowing whether the recipients are too polite to tell you to keep your handiwork. Hence, it would be best to set up a table at an event and sell my beadwork for money which can go to an animal shelter. But an introvert like me is not likely to face the public, so someone else will have to actualize my do-good idea.

bracelets_ocean 2014


It might sound odd, but having a hobby keeps me in touch with my mortality. It means prepping for the eventuality that I’ll leave behind a pile of beads from stones and quartzes to glass, acrylic and delica plus findings, tools, wire, threads and so on. What is my son to do with these? To cart them all to the Salvation Army would be a waste, so I shall have to find a worthy donee. It certainly bears thinking about.

blog bead boardblog Miyuki 2

Happy fatigue

The world stands still when you’re immersed in something. It’s like meditating. I’ve spent happy hours beading into the pre-dawn while catching up on cable TV shows. I concur with British writer, Jeanette Winterson who eloquently explains why having an interest outside yourself is good for the soul:

When you love something like reading – or drawing or music or nature – it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great. If you are lucky enough to know this, then your search for meaning involves whatever that Something is. It’s an alchemical blend of affinity and focus that takes us to a place within that feels as close as we ever get to “home.” It’s like pulling into our own train station after a long trip – joy, relief, a pleasant exhaustion.

blog cottage

MOMENTS – A Time for Everything

Here’s something for Hwee Hwee’s long-lost friends who have found her through my blog. It makes me feel not so bad about being such a slob and not posting anything for the last few months.


Over on sunny Singapore, all we have to watch for is the super dry season which has thankfully just ended, and the Monsoons, so it’s hard to imagine changing seasons. I have still not figured out how to get basil and mint to survive, and the pests have ravaged my limau perut (kaffir lime) plant yet again. How nice to think of Hwee Hwee gazing at a poplar forest and at majestic eagles flying wild and free.


In late winter, I see vineyards dotted with small faraway figures – workers trimming the vines, cutting back the long shoots of the previous year to allow new shoots to grow and bud.  Long ago, when visiting another part of France, I have observed farmers pushing along a wheelbarrow in which they burn the vines as they are cut.  The lonely figures and wisps of smoke arising from the neat row of vines make a melancholic landscape.  I think burning the cut vines might be the way done for vines grown on land where it is too steep for tractors to pass and where grape is harvested by hand.


In the vineyard beside our house, it is usually the old farmer Mons Grialou who does the cutting, single-handedly and at his own steady pace.  After the branches are cut, the wife and daughter, and sometimes neighbours and friends, depending on who are available, arrive to pull the cut branches from their supporting wires and leave them between the rows of vine plants.  Then Mons Grialou comes again with a tractor to grind the cut branches into compost for the vineyard.  An easier and greener way of disposing of the cut branches than burning, I think.


Since we use woodstoves for heating in winter, we always ask the Grialous to leave us a row or two of cut vines.  Once dried, they make excellent starter-sticks for the next winter’s stoves.  Many people also use them for barbecue fires – they are supposed to impart a special flavour to the grilled food.


I have lived in the midst of the vineyards for so long now that I sometimes take them for granted – I hardly make a special effort to go for walks in the vineyards – something I would have found so romantic to do 10 years ago.  But what I love is the job of picking vine sticks.  It is one job that I never grumble about.  On bright, sunny winter afternoons, I would dress myself warmly and trudge down towards the vines armed with a pair of strong pruning shears.  I work slowly down the row, cutting off the crooked awkward parts of the pulled-out vines.  The peacefulness of the vineyard never fails to amaze me.  Sometimes I pause and shade my eyes to look at the poplar forest in the distance; sometimes I admire how the evening light changes the colours of the hills around.  Often I hear cries of eagles and when I look up – there they would be, circling above me.


When all the awkward corners are trimmed, it is time to gather the sticks.  In this, my boys like to help.  We gather them and lay them straight then their father comes and ties each bunch up tightly.  He has this habit of saying – put your finger on the knot and don’t move, whatever happens!  After the nineteenth time, the boys roll their eyes and sigh with exasperation.  Depending on how much we have gathered, we either truck the bunches back with wheelbarrows or the father will bring out his old-fashioned sputtering farm trailer.  The latter is always more fun because the boys get to ride in it.  Finally, the vine sticks are cut into good lengths that will fit properly into the woodstoves, and stored in the woodshed for winter.  The sight of cut wood and vine sticks gives me a great sense of fulfilment – like I have made proper provision for something important.


You might say – so much work just to get some starter sticks.  Yes, you are right, but all this is the natural progression of things.  Winter is for pruning, turning and preparing the soil of the vegetable patch, repairing things around the house; spring is for sowing, weeding and tending the new plants; summer is for harvesting; autumn for raking fallen leaves and storing the harvest properly to last through winter.  Each season brings its own activity – you cannot push or rush it, and I have to learnt not to grouse or grumble against it.  What you can do is to make full use of each season and most importantly, to enjoy each fully.


There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under heaven:


a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,Gathering vine sticks

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.