Animals

An Encounter With Red Pandas

International Red Panda Day (IRPD) is celebrated on the third Saturday in September which this year falls on Saturday the 17th. IRPD was created by the Red Panda Network (RPN) to highlight the issues endangered red pandas face in the wild such as habitat loss and illegal poaching. IRPD is observed around the world with special events and red panda themed events. Some zoos celebrate on different days, so check with your local zoo to see if they are doing anything and on what day. If you’re lucky enough to have a zoo that does red panda encounters, IRPD would be a perfect day to treat yourself to one of these special experiences.

In preparation for IRPD, I visited Billabong Zoo to have an encounter with not one, but two red pandas! Rato and Tito, two elderly red panda sisters, were very keen to have breakfast, so when they saw me enter their enclosure with a bowl, they didn’t waste any time and quickly climbed down the tree for treats. They were very polite as they waited while I fed each of them tasty bits of fruit in turn.

During the encounter I made eye contact with the beautiful elder girls and my heart swelled at how gentle they were. As I looked into their stunning red panda faces millimetres from my from own, I felt a connection with these very special creatures. They seemed to know that I needed healing as it has been a very difficult couple of years. I was feeling rubbed raw emotionally and spiritually.

Being in the presence of two seemingly old and wise red panda ladies, I felt a huge burden lift from my shoulders. As I stared into their happy little faces, an overwhelming sense of calm and balance coursed through me. For the first time in a long time I felt happy, positive and ready to face the challenges ahead of me. The road forward is uncertain, but with the promise of more red panda encounters in the future, I’m ready to start journeying again.

(from the world animal dreaming oracle by Scott Alexander King)

The Power Of A Panda

March 16th is Panda Day. It’s a day to celebrate giant pandas and to raise awareness about the struggles pandas face in the wild. Giant pandas are an “umbrella species” which means that the protections we place around wild pandas and their habitats, also protect other animals that share those vulnerable habitats with them. Drawing attention to the struggles of one species can also prompt us to look at other vulnerable animals and hopefully will inspire us to do something to protect the many species around the world that need our help.

Giant pandas are not only important for the planet, but for some of us they nourish our souls. In A Personality Of Pandas, I wrote about my personal connection to pandas and how they helped me through a very difficult time. After a horror couple of years that included a global pandemic, I recently needed to draw on the healing power of pandas again. The best way to do that was to visit the quirky black and white bears at Adelaide Zoo.

Adelaide Zoo is the only zoo in Australia that has giant pandas. Fu Ni (Lucky Girl) and Wang Wang (Net Net) arrived in November 2009. Adelaide is only a short flight, or an eight hour drive, from Melbourne so luckily I’ve been able to visit our resident pandas a few times. I was planning to visit them again two years ago, but the pandemic put our travel plans on hold. I didn’t think it would take so long to see them again but the wait was worth it.

Unfortunately Fu Ni didn’t make an appearance on the day we visited, but Wang Wang did. As soon as I saw his adorable face, and those black ears that look like they’ve been stuck on his head with a glue gun, I felt some some of my anger, pain and grief melt away. I happily watched Wang Wang sitting there eating his bamboo. He was so close I could hear him tearing the strips which he then shoved into his mouth. He seemed oblivious to the crowd until the woman next to me asked if she was blocking my view. Wang Wang stopped eating and stared at us, seeming eager to hear the answer himself. I was happy to let him know that no-one was blocking my view. Wang Wang gave me a long, hard stare and then went back to his feasting, Ieaving me with a lighter soul and a smile on my face.

Happy Panda Day!

A Duality Of Holidays

Halloween is my favourite time of the year – especially now that Australia has finally gotten into the spirit of things. Halloween candy and decorations compete for shelf space with xmas paraphernalia in stores, making it one of the rare times that I love to go shopping. As I go for walks around my neighbourhood, I’m rapt to see so many houses proudly showcasing ghoulish displays. The signs of Halloween are all around me, but so too are the signs of Beltane, the Spring festival that many southern hemisphere Pagans will be celebrating on October 31st.

On one of my morning walks, I was reminded that Spring is here when I saw an adorable tiger snake on the footpath. I watched, spellbound, and then took photos and video, from a very safe distance! I kept watch as the graceful creature slithered onto the road, making sure it made it safely across. The little snake found a nice place to rest and sun-bake while I continued on my walk. While a snake is a perfect symbol for Halloween, it’s also a perfect symbol for Beltane.

To celebrate northern hemisphere Halloween and southern hemisphere Beltane, I’d like to share a recipe that utilises apples, a fruit appropriate for both festivals. I found this recipe in a cozy mystery novel, appropriately called The Uninvited Corpse, from the Food Blogger Mystery series by Debra Sennefelder. All the recipes included in the book sounded divine, but it was the Cinnamon Apple Bread that had me heading to the kitchen.

The first time I made it I used a sweet red apple. The cake was very sweet and very delicious. The second time I used a green granny smith apple and it was perfect. To add a touch of Halloween to the recipe, I substituted pumpkin pie spice for the cinnamon. Pumpkin pie spice mix is a combination of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and sometimes allspice. I’ve made a few pumpkin pie spice mixes, but my favourite combination is:
4 parts ground cinnamon
2 parts ground ginger
1 part ground cloves
1 part ground nutmeg

Spiced Apple Bread

Ingredients
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice
1 + 1/2 cups flour
1 + 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
125g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 + 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk
1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped

Instructions
Preheat oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a loaf pan with baking paper. (I used a 22cmx12cm / 9x5inch pan).
Mix together the brown sugar and spice. Set aside.
Sift together the flour and baking powder. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter and white sugar until smooth.
Beat in the eggs one at a time until combined.
Add the vanilla extract and mix until combined.
Mix in half of the flour mix followed by half of the milk and mix until combined.
Repeat with the other half.
Pour half the mixture into prepared pan.
Add half the apple and half the brown sugar. Press lightly into the batter.
Repeat with remaining ingredients.
Bake for 55-65 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Allow to sit in the pan for 10 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

Happy Beltane and Happy Halloween!

A Day For Red Pandas And Bamboo

International Red Panda Day was created by the Red Panda Network to promote the red panda and to find ways to fight for its survival. It is celebrated on the third Saturday in September. This year it falls on the 18th of September which is also World Bamboo Day. What a happy coincidence as bamboo is something red pandas love!

World Bamboo Day was created in the hopes it would increase global awareness about the importance of bamboo. The World Bamboo Organization encourages the use of bamboo in a sustainable fashion. They hope to introduce bamboo to new industries across the world and also protect traditional uses within local communities. The World Bamboo Organization is passionate about growing more bamboo around the world and have created the hashtag #PlantBamboo for this year’s celebrations.

Red pandas are all for planting more bamboo because they can’t survive without it. About 95% of their diet consists of bamboo. While the giant panda eats nearly every part of the bamboo, like the woody stem, the red panda is very selective and only eats the more nutritious leaf tips. They also eat tender bamboo shoots when they are available.

Thinking of red pandas enjoying nutritious bamboo tips reminded me of the bamboo leaf tea I bought a while ago. Bamboo tea is becoming popular as it is supposed to boost the immune system. It is good for the skin and can improve bone density. Bamboo tea also promotes healthy nail and hair growth, which may explain why red pandas have such beautiful, thick fur!

Bamboo tea has a subtle flavour, so you may need to experiment to find the right brew for you. I decided to pump up the flavour by using bamboo tea to make a spiced apple tea. This tasty tea can be served hot or enjoyed chilled as an iced tea. You can also make ice cubes with it and pop them into a gin or vodka cocktail. I mean why should pandas be the only ones having fun with bamboo! 🙂

Bamboo and Apple Tea

Ingredients
2 cups bamboo tea brewed to your liking
1 apple
1 cinnamon stick
4 cloves
1 teaspoon brown sugar

Instructions
Strain the tea into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
Cut the apple into thick slices crosswise so you can see the star shaped core.
Add the apple slices, cinnamon, cloves and sugar to the boiling water.
Simmer for 15 minutes.
Strain and serve with a slice of apple if desired.

A Game For Snakes

July 16th is World Snake Day! To celebrate this serpentine day, I want to explore one of my favourite childhood games – Snakes and Ladders.

Snakes and Ladders is a board game which features squares numbered 1 to100. Played by two or more players, each player rolls a dice in turn and travels along the numbered squares. Some of the squares have the bottom of ladders which help you move up (to the top of the ladder), while other squares feature the heads of snakes which send you back down (to the tail of the snake). The snakes and ladders vary in length, so you can rise and fall vast or small amounts depending on where you land. The first player to reach the final square is the winner!

Snakes and Ladders is the English version of an ancient Indian game. There are a number of names and variations of the Indian game such as Gyan Chauper, Leela, Mokshapat and Moksha Patam. The games were originally used to impart moral and karmic lessons to children. The ladders represent a virtue which allows you to rise while the snakes represent a vice which causes you to fall. In the Indian version there are more snakes than ladders, probably because it’s easier to fall victim to vice than to be virtuous. 🙂

When the game came to England, a few changes were made. The number of snakes was reduced so there were equal numbers of snakes and ladders. The karmic lessons of the original were also replaced with moral lessons relevant to the Victorian era of the time. Eventually the moral lessons were left out or replaced by cartoon pictures that had no real link to virtues or vices.

The American version is called Chutes and Ladders. In a move that would make Saint Patrick proud, Chutes and Ladders has driven all the snakes off the board and replaced them with chutes. Interestingly, most of these versions still retain the moral lessons of the original games.

When I think of playing Snakes and Ladders as a child, I can’t remember any moral lessons being imparted. All I remember is my desperate desire to win and to avoid the snake boldly waiting at the top, ready to turn my impending victory into defeat! I actually loved the drawings of the snakes, with their cute tongues poking out, but I was annoyed that it was a punishment to land on them.

Snakes are one of the oldest, richest and most widespread mythological symbols. While they are seen as symbols of negativity in some cultures, they are more often associated with positive traits such as creativity, fertility, healing, rebirth, sexuality and wisdom. I’m glad Snakes and Ladders didn’t teach me to see snakes solely as a symbol of negativity.

Happy World Snake Day!

A Protection Of Pandas

March 16 is Panda Day. It is a day to celebrate our beloved giant pandas, though for some of us that’s everyday! 🙂 Panda Day is also a day to reflect on the important work being done to save these precious creatures from extinction.

To celebrate Panda Day, I thought I would explore the giant panda card in the World Animal Dreaming Oracle by Scott Alexander King. I bought this deck as I knew it had a red panda card which I’m hoping to explore on International Red Panda Day. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the deck also had a giant panda card. I was a little disturbed to discover this card was called Sorrow. However, to understand this card, you have to know the legend of how the giant panda came to have black and white fur. 

There are a few variations of the legend, but my favourite version tells the story of a young shepherdess who protects a giant panda cub being attacked by a leopard. The brave shepherdess saves the panda, but during the struggle she is killed by the leopard. The cub returns safely to the other giant pandas, who in this legend are as white as snow. When they hear about the death of the shepherdess they are heartbroken. As a sign of respect for her sacrifice, the pandas attend her funeral. As was the custom, the pandas cover their arms in black ash. As they weep, they rub their eyes with their paws, wiping away their tears and staining their fur with black ash. To block out the sound of crying, they cover their ears with their paws, staining their ears with black ash. To deal with their grief, they hug each other, spreading the ash from their arms to their legs. To remember the shepherdess and her sacrifice, the pandas decide to never wash the ash from their fur. They have kept their black and white markings to this day.

So now you know why Sorrow is a fitting theme for the giant panda in the World Animal Dreaming Oracle. Thankfully the giant panda card has a lovely meaning. According to Scott, the giant panda reminds us of our compassion, empathy and sensitivity to the suffering of others. The giant panda also teaches us to be careful of not burning ourselves out with the weight of our concerns and responsibilities. We can care for the world, but not at the expense of our own emotional state. The giant panda is here to support us, especially when we value ourselves as much as we value others. I think this is a beautiful interpretation of our beloved pandas. 

For this Panda Day, I’ll be celebrating the legend of how the panda became the black and white beauty of the bear world, by enjoying a nice slice of white cheese rolled in black ash. In true panda style I’ll also be enjoying a cup of bamboo leaf tea.

Happy Panda Day!

Rusty’s International Red Panda Day

Saturday the 19th is International Red Panda Day. IRPD is held on the third Saturday in September each year and is a day to celebrate all things red panda! Zoos around the world join in the celebration with a mix of live and online activities. You can find out more about IRPD and heaps of other red panda stuff at the Red Panda Network.

This year I will be celebrating IRPD with a very special addition to my fluffy and felty family – Rusty the Red Panda. Rusty is a famous escape artist red panda who escaped from the Smithsonian National Zoo in 2013. Luckily he was found safe and sound. You can read about his adventure in this Washington Post article.

It is no surprise that such an infamous red panda would make his way into Anne Belov’s The Panda Chronicles. Rusty has appeared in a number of her cartoons and is portrayed as a red panda activist. When Anne starting making felty versions of her Chronicles characters, she included Rusty and his famous protest signs. I think he is the perfect embodiment of IRPD!

Rusty is looking forward to celebrating IRPD with his new mate Kevin the Scorched Koala, another Chronicles critter who has emigrated Down Under. You can read Kevin’s story in A Tale Of A Felted Koala.

Naturally I wanted to make a special recipe for my new felty friend. Rusty’s name brought back memories of one of my favourite drinks – the Rusty Nail, which is made by mixing Scotch whisky with Drambuie, a honey and herb infused whisky liqueur. While researching the Rusty Nail I came across a variation which substitutes bourbon for the Scotch whisky and is called a Rusty Bob. I laughed as Bob T. Panda is one of the key characters in The Panda Chronicles! I was going to make both Rusty Nails and Rusty Bobs but then made a giant leap and turned these delicious cocktails into a rich and creamy dessert I call a Rusty Bob Cranachan. 

Cranachan is a Scottish dessert that is a delicious mix of raspberries, cream, honey, oats and Scotch whisky. Drambuie is sometimes added as a sweet optional extra. My version definitely includes Drambuie but, in the tradition of a Rusty Bob, substitutes the Scotch whisky with bourbon. Purists will be shocked, but I’ve always liked to cook on the wild side!

Rusty Bob Cranachan

Ingredients
(serves two)
1 tablespoon oatmeal
125g raspberries
3/4 cup double cream
1 tablespoon bourbon
1/2 tablespoon Drambuie
1 teaspoon honey

Instructions
Toast the oats in a frying pan over medium heat. Toss occasionally, being careful not to burn them, until they just start to brown and smell nutty, then remove from the pan and set aside.
Whisk together the cream, whiskey and Drambuie until just firm.
Fold in the oatmeal.
Put a few raspberries aside for serving and fold the remaining raspberries into the cream, being careful not to over-whip the cream.
Place in serving glasses or bowls.
Refrigerate for one hour or until chilled.
Top with reserved raspberries and drizzle with honey. 

Happy International Red Panda Day!

A Day For Snakes

July 16 is World Snake Day. It is a day to celebrate snakes, learn more about their important role in our ecosystem and hopefully conquer some of the fears associated with these captivating reptiles. Seeing as every continent except Antarctica has snakes, it’s probably a good idea to get to know them. 🙂

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Poison vs Venom
Are snakes poisonous or venomous?
In biology, the term venom is used for toxins that are injected via a bite or sting, while poison applies to toxins that are absorbed through ingestion or inhalation. This means snakes that bite and inject venom are venomous and snakes that can make you sick or kill you if you eat them are poisonous. A few snakes can be both venomous and poisonous. Some venomous snakes eat toxic prey such as newts or cane toads. The toxins don’t usually harm the snakes, but they can retain those toxins in their system for weeks, making them poisonous if eaten.

Most Venomous vs Most Deadly
What is the difference between the most venomous snake in the world and the deadliest?
While the terms may seem interchangeable, it has become increasing common to use the word venomous when speaking of toxicity and deadly when speaking of deaths. Venomous snakes are graded by the toxicity of their venom while deadliest snakes are rated by how many people they kill. This means that venomous snakes may not be the deadliest. Australia is home to several of the most venomous snakes in the world but, because we have access to hospitals and antivenom, deaths are low. Therefore, although we have extremely venomous snakes here, they are not necessarily the deadliest.

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When Snakes Fly!
We can find snakes on land and in water but did you know some snakes can fly?
Chrysopelea are commonly called flying snakes or gliding snakes. These snakes glide through the air by propelling themselves off tree branches! Once airborne the snake forms an S shape, flattens its ribs then glides and undulates its way to its desired location. I know some people may be thinking “NO! – not flying snakes!”, but I think they are awesome. You can see a flying snake and all its graceful movements in these fascinating videos:

Short clip

And a longer one if you’re really keen!

Happy World Snake Day!

A Tale Of A Felted Koala

Since discovering the Pagan wheel of the year over thirty years ago, I’ve celebrated the harvest festival of Halloween (Samhain) on April 30th. I still remember that first, long ago Halloween held in a Victorian forest on a bitterly cold night. After the ritual we warmed ourselves by an open fire. We watched the smoke rise in waves and patterns, trying to scry for messages in the fiery air. As the logs burned, the bright red embers turned to charcoal, making strange shapes as they transformed. We drank, laughed and talked through the night. We told jokes and shared stories until the sun rose and May Day dawned.

This Halloween I would like to share a story of a tiny felted koala, an idea forged during the horrifying Australian bushfires, and created by my dear artist friend Anne Belov as a symbol of comfort, hope and rebirth – perfect symbols for a Halloween tale.

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Many of you know Anne Belov as the creator of The Panda Chronicles. Anne is also a multi-talented professional artist (an incredible painter) who has recently branched out into the field of felted creations. Most of her creations are, not surprisingly, pandas, but in the mix there is a very special critter, Kevin the Koala, or as he is now affectionately known – Kevin the Scorched Koala. Before Kevin was born in felt he was introduced to the world in ink in a very special cartoon in The Panda Chronicles.

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Kevin was a huge hit and when Anne toyed with the idea of making a felted version of him we all said “Yes!” When she suggested adding scorch marks to her creation the more diabolical among us said “Hell Yes!” It wasn’t long before Kevin, complete with scorch marks, moved from the world of ink into the world of felt. I’m happy to say that I am the proud caretaker of the very first Kevin the Scorched Koala.

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To honour Kevin’s arrival to his ancestral homeland I created a special recipe that blends some Aussie ingredients (eucalyptus honey and macadamia nuts) with an imaginary cookie bar – the Binky Bar! If you’re a fan of The Panda Chronicles you’ll know that the pandas love eating and drinking and Binky Bars are one of their favourite treats. But what are they? No-one knows as it’s been left to our imaginations to visualise these tasty treats. When a Kevin fan suggested a Kevin Binky Bar would be fun I naturally volunteered to create one. Kevin’s Binky Bars feature a shortbread base topped with a sweet and chocolatey filling.

In honour of Kevin’s adorable scorch marks, I’ve served my Binky Bars with scorched macadamias. Scorched nuts are an Australian and New Zealand name for roasted nuts that are covered in layers of chocolate. Don’t worry if you can’t get them, or any other ingredients, just experiment and have fun. After all, nobody really knows what a Binky Bar looks like – or tastes like. 🙂

Kevin The Scorched Koala’s Honey & Macadamia Binky Bars

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Special Note:
These bars need to set overnight.

Ingredients
for the shortbread base
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
125g unsalted butter, cut into pieces

for the chocolate topping
50g unsalted butter
1/3 cup double cream
1 tablespoon eucalyptus honey*
50g dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
100g Anzac biscuits (cookies), broken into various small and medium sized pieces**
1/3 cup macadamia nuts, chopped into various small and medium sized pieces

Instructions
For the shortbread base:
Preheat oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a baking pan (approximately 23cm x 17cm / 9” x 7”) with baking paper.
Place the flour, sugar and butter in a food processor.
Process until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Spread mixture into the prepared pan, pressing it down with fingers or the back of a spoon to compress it slightly.
Bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until lightly browned.
Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before adding the topping.

For the chocolate topping:
Heat the butter and cream in a medium sized saucepan over low heat.
Stir in the honey.
Add the chocolate pieces and stir until the chocolate melts.
Allow to cool for a few minutes. (You have to allow it to cool long enough so that the biscuits don’t turn to mush when added, but not too long or the chocolate will set.)
Add the broken biscuits and chopped macadamias to the chocolate mixture and stir until combined.
Spread over the shortbread base.
Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Cut into bars.
Serve with scorched macadamias.

*koalas love eucalyptus but you can use any honey you like or any other syrup such as agave, maple or golden.
**if you can’t find Anzac biscuits you can make your own or use my recipe here!

For The Blood Is The Life

There are three interesting events coming up – National Bat Appreciation Day, Orthodox Easter and Bram Stoker’s Deathiversary.

April 17th is National Bat Appreciation Day, a day when we are asked to remember the important role bats play in our lives. Bats are insectivores, which means they eat insects which helps keep insect numbers down. This is especially critical with mosquitoes. Bats are also pollinators which means they move pollen from male to female flowers which helps bring about fertilisation, thereby providing a vital link in our food chain. There are heaps of other interesting facts about bats and April 17th is a great day to learn more about them.

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This year April 17th is also Orthodox Good Friday. This doesn’t happen every year so it’s a fun coincidence. Orthodox Easter Monday will be celebrated on April 20th which is also Dracula author Bram Stoker’s Deathiversary – another fun coincidence. Perhaps a more disturbing coincidence is that all three events have a blood connection.

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While my favourite bat is the fluffy and cuddly Australian flying fox, I’ve always been fascinated by the cute and uncanny vampire bat. Vampire bats are connected to vampires, not only in name, but also by being blood suckers! There are other connections too as the vampire’s cape is reminiscent of bats wings and some vampires are depicted as sleeping upside down like bats rather than in coffins. Dracula can also turn into a bat when necessary. With all the competing Easter traditions such as bunnies and chocolate eggs, it is easy to forget that Easter is actually a celebration focussing on blood, death and rebirth. 

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To celebrate this trilogy of bloody connections I’ve made dyed red Easter eggs – with a twist! Colouring eggs red is meant to represent the blood of Christ which is shed on Good Friday. I’ve used red wine to colour my eggs as red wine is symbolic of blood in Christian rituals. (Knowing this connection it always amused me that Bela Lugosi’s Dracula never drank wine.) I’ve also added spices, which symbolise the spices that Jesus’ body was anointed with before burial. The eggshell represents the tomb and the egg signifies rebirth. An Easter tradition I grew up with was the egg cracking game where you try to crack the shell of your opponent’s boiled egg without cracking yours! Because I’m not a traditionalist, I had to break the rules by cracking shells and turning them into Chinese marbled eggs. But don’t worry, there are still some unbroken eggs to play with. 🙂

Red Wine Eggs

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Ingredients
6 eggs
1 bottle red wine
1/2 teaspoon sugar
4 cloves
2 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks

Instructions
Place the eggs, wine, sugar, cloves, star anise and cinnamon sticks in a saucepan, making sure the eggs are fully submerged in liquid.
Cover and bring to a boil.
Once boiling, turn off the heat and allow the eggs to cook for 15 minutes.
Remove half the eggs from the saucepan and allow to rest until cool enough to touch. Gently tap them with the back of a spoon to crack shells, making sure to keep the shell intact. The deeper the cracks, the more flavour will penetrate.
Place the eggs back in the wine with the remaining eggs.
Allow to cool then refrigerate and steep for a few hours or overnight.
Remove the eggs from the wine and allow to dry.
Peel the cracked eggs to show off their marbling.
Use the remaining eggs to play the cracking game.