Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Allotment at Home Up-Date: IT’S FABULOUS!

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Well, 7 months after the project took its first muddy and tentative steps in January’s freezing and wet rain, February’s freezing and wet rain, and March’s freezing and wet snow, I can report that it is an overall success and I love it.  There have been some things that I would not do again, some planting and sowing failed (partly, I think, due to the long, cold winter, extending into spring), and some things I would modify, but it is really a great project, delivering all of the benefits I identified as essential and most of the desirables at the outset, plus some unexpected bonuses.  Yes, I am a project manager.  It’s my (real) job, I can’t help it.  I project the (desired) outcomes, I deliver the project, I measure the outcomes against the initial spec.  Job done.

Here are some ‘before and after’ images.

The area on the left side of the drive, then and now:

The area on the right side of the drive – then and now:

Some jungle shots:

Some gratuitous allotment/food-porn shots:

If I had been gardening my allotment now, in this extended hot and dry spell, I would have been making tactical sacrifices.  Because there is no mains water, only what we collect off our shed roofs and save, plus what we can share from the pond that was dug some years ago, and is pumped into a bank of shared bowsers, I had to walk from the top of the field, to the bottom, with empty cans or buckets and then back up with full vessels, to pour onto the most needy plants.

At this time of year that would be the 4 raised beds, the squash and courgettes, and the beans.  I would have decided not to water the cage, or the spinach, or the raspberries and rhubarb.  And I am pretty sure the spinach would have died and I would also be unable, short of doing this every day for several hours, to really stop the runner beans from aborting their flowers, or to make the courgettes and squash hydrated enough to thrive.  In short, I’d have kept most of it alive but that’s not easy or fun.  I did this in the first and second years there, especially the first which was hot – but not as hot, for as long, as this mid-summer has been.  It was hot and exhausting, boring labour.

Here, even though 80% of my allotment is in raised beds, I can water it very easily and quickly.  Furthermore, as the canopies of the squash and courgettes are so lush and thick, they are in turn providing shade for both their own roots and the roots of companion plants, such as runner beans.  Thus I have minimal moisture evaporation despite the beds being in full and intense sun for much of the day.

Even last year which was a fairly wet summer with long, cool spells, I never got such lush and impressive growth.  There is no mildew on the courgettes or squash – this is always a problem, but it’s easily remedied by just cutting off and destroying the affected leaves.  Here, so far, it just has not happened.

There has been some black fly on the broad beans, mainly I think because I had such a late sowing, the first 2 having failed due to 1) mice; and 2) snow x 2.  But here, with mains water at hand, I can blast the affected plants with a water jet which is the most effective and organic method of tackling black fly.  And in any case, the black fly has not been at all bad, perhaps because I am on hand to inspect and deal with it at least once, often twice a day so they never really get going.

Other benefits:

  • I can pick crops whenever I want, rather than collecting enough for 2 or 3 days.
  • I can attend immediately to any problems or small tasks that crop up;  all my tools are to hand and I have time.
  • Time saved is incredible.  If I had a spare half-hour there was no point going to the allotment as it took me 10 minutes to walk there.  Here, I can use even a spare 10 minutes to really good effect.
  • It is far less tiring.  I have no-dig, virtually zero weed control is needed and if it is hot, I can come inside or move to shade.  On the allotment, there was no shade, a lot of digging and constant weed-wrangling due to the open nature of the site, backing onto weed-infested fields and it having been left in such bad shape before.
  • I have a loo!  And a kettle!
  • It is possible to make a really productive and attractive site.  I always thought the allotment was attractive to be fair, once I had it in hand, but this is really beautiful.
  • I can sit in the allotment, in a comfy garden chair and have my breakfast, my coffee, a glass of wine – and just enjoy it.
  • I do not have to leave the dogs.  Rupert is now too old to go to any hostile, hot or cold places.  He has been really poorly recently and so I can just let him potter about and then put his bed in the sun or shade, depending on the day.  Right now, it is very hot and I would have been unable to leave the boys here for fear of them, and especially Roo, getting too hot or stressed.  I’d have to wait for evening or some respite care for him.
  • It is my environment and I control the use of all products.  I garden 100% organically and whilst this is not always ‘easy’, at least here, I do not have to try and do this in a mixed environment.  In fact, because I used pest control methods that mainly relied on barriers, I did not really get that much trouble but there is no doubt that if Allotment A uses chemical warfare and Allotment B does not, Allotment B may get some collateral damage as the little twats move away from the war-zone and over to my peace-camp.  Sigh.  Also, to be successfully organic, the whole environment – i.e. your own garden, or the whole allotment field, has to be organic.  If it is not, it is hard to get that long-term build up of organic benefit as the cycle is always being disrupted by the use of non-organic chemicals or methods beside you or nearby.   So for  example I had all my allotment broad beans eaten by mice this year for the first time ever and I believe this was because the ecosystem of the plot had been seriously disrupted.
  • It is peaceful.  It is so peaceful, calm and private.  There is no distracting mobile-phone chatter, no machinery or building noise.  There is a downside to this, see later, but overall, it is huge bonus and if I am honest this was one of the ‘must have’ benefits of the project before I began.
  • The level of produce is not lower, on average.  It is in some areas (broad beans, for example) but it is higher – and easier – in others such as salad crops, herbs and squash.
  • The rest of my garden – the majority of it, I mean the bits that are not allotment – are getting far more attention because I am here so much more.  Once I got my village allotment, the rest of the garden here really suffered and it became a source of anxiety and irritation.  Now, balance has been restored.

Downsides and what went wrong?

  • I have to improve the soil quality in some of the beds.  And in all cases, raise the soil levels.
  • There is clearly not much point sowing seeds for crops such as spinach or peas direct as I was able, successfully to do on the allotment.  They just do not like it.  I have no idea why. But this is easily remedied by sowing in pots and growing on.
  • I need to re-think where I site some crops.
  • I have been unable to get carrots going.  Again, I do not know why as on the allotment I did have great success, also in raised beds.  Maybe my timing and the weather.
  • Some pests were obviously imported by me along with some of the soil I moved from one side of the fence to the beds.  Mainly, probably, slug-eggs, resulting in instant death to germinating seeds as soon as the tiny slugs emerged.
  • As ever, I have over catered and there is some crowding going on.  Less will have to be more next year.
  • Raised beds are targeted by ants far more than open ground so I need constant and better ant control tactics.
  • It is a bit lonely.  I really never met all the allotment holders as my activity was almost always on weekdays, as I often work at weekends and go out on many evenings.  Plus when I was there, I was head-down-race-against-time-working-before-I-need-a-wee.  But I do miss chatting to my one-side neighbour, and the old neighbour on the other side who gave his plot up last year, though one of them has been for tea and a look round here!  But I have high levels of self-reliance and on balance, I’d rather have the peace and the huge efficiency savings I have gained.


  • The broad beans are almost over and so over the next 2 weeks, this will liberate 5 raised beds.  These will then be populated with later sowings for French beans, and I will have another go with late carrots and peas.
  • Some of the salad crops went over very fast, so I will re-sow for these too.
  • I have pricked out several squash plants that self-seeded in the compost – probably butter-nut squash as these are the only squash seeds I ever discard, we eat the others, roasted.  Anyway, this means I can continue to site them into free beds or old bath-tubs as in the images, or tyre towers, 2-high.

I have not been to the allotment for weeks.  I won’t go back now, as Mark has kindly offered to put it all to bed and save me that heart-aching (but not heart-breaking) job.  I do not miss it.  It is too joyful, busy and productive here for that.  But yet, I am so grateful that I had my allotment years.  Had I known that Florence and Will would buy a house with such a big garden and thus (completely reasonably and understandably) bow out of the allotment almost right away, I would never have gone in for it.  So it was lucky that I did not know.  I would never have learned how to grow vegetables on a big scale, and also that this is my favourite sort of gardening any time.



Quiche Recipes

Saturday, June 10th, 2017

quiches 2 quiches

You probably don’t need a quiche recipe but a couple of people have asked for some so here goes.

The pastry is shortcrust and I make 2 lbs at a time and freeze it in 2 batches.  1/2 lb lines one quiche dish generously.  My quiche dishes are quite big and they are ceramic. I think metal dishes are better but these look nicer for serving in workshops.

I make the pastry with plain flour, very cold water, and all butter. If I was making them for just us and I had any in, I’d make it with 50% lard for savoury things but it’s not veggie so I can’t for workshops.

I line the dishes with the pastry and then make sure it is not dead level with the top sides; I sort of make it stand up a bit round the edges. This is because the egg batter rises.  I guess the pastry is rolled to about 2 – 3mm deep.

I never bake them blind.  I usually line the dishes 24 hours ahead, then cling-film them and chill right up to when I make the quiche.

These fillings are all made with this batter:

  • 4 medium free-range eggs
  • A small size pot of single cream
  • Full or semi-skimmed milk to make the batter up to c700 ml in total volume
  • Pepper

I usually make the fillings 24 hours ahead and cover in cling-filmed bowls in the ‘fridge until just before I want to cook them.

I usually make the quiches between 7 and 10 am on a workshop day and then sit them on a rack until they are cool.  I cover them with a cloth and serve at kitchen temperature.  Even if I was making quiche for home-consumption, I do not serve them hot, just barely warm. They taste a lot better like this.  In all cases except the courgette and the spinach variations, I put the filling in the bottom of the dish, evenly spread, and pour the batter over it before sprinkling with grated cheddar.

Mine take about 50 minutes to cook.  I start them in the middle of the baking over (gas mark 4 or 5) and turn twice as my AGA does not cook evenly.  I pop them in the bottom (usually directly onto the base) of the top roasting oven for the last 10 minutes or so (gas mark 7 or 8).  Putting the dish directly on the base helps to dry out the bottom, but you could get a metal baking sheet very hot and then pop the quiche dish on that – same result. Letting them cool on a rack is crucial to the avoidance of soggy bottoms but still, sometimes it happens.  So the best tip is make sure your fillings are cold when they go into the case, and not wet/slimy.


Classic Quiche Lorraine

  • 1 pack of smoked, streaky bacon (or c8 – 10 slices), chopped quite fine
  • 2 large brown onion, chopped quite fine
  • 1 clove of garlic, very finely chopped
  • 4 generous handfuls of strong cheddar, grated

Fry the onion and bacon in a little oil until cooked and browned.  Add the garlic at the end.  When cold, make up as above, adding a lot of cheddar to the top. There is a lot of cheese on this.  I often lay a sheet of paper-toweling on the top once it is not bubbling anymore and this absorbs the ‘loose’ oil nicely.  It only take a moment.

Salmon and Leek

  • 2 small or medium salmon fillets preferably with the skin still on
  • 4 leeks or fewer if huge, sliced into penny shapes about 1 – 2 cm wide
  • Soya sauce
  • 1 or 2 handfuls of grated cheddar

Put about 3 tablespoons of soya sauce and a dash of oil in a non-stick frying pan and get it hot.  Add the salmon, skin side down and sear.  You can watch the fish cook by looking at the side of the fillets.  Turn.  I don’t cook them through at this stage as they will continue to cook in the oven later, so I remove them when the fish is still a bit pink (rare) in the middle.  Once cool, remove the skin and feed it to the dogs/cat.  Pull the fish into chunks, not too small.  In the same pan, add a ounce of butter and gently saute the sliced leeks until tender, then more heat to colour them a bit. Cool this and gently mix with the fish.  Once cold, lay it in the quiche lining and add the batter (see above) plus 1 or 2 handfuls of grated cheddar.

Goats Cheese and Spinach or Courgette

  • 2 packs of soft goats cheese broken into lumps
  • 1 medium pack of washed and dry young spinach OR 2 medium courgettes, sliced like slant-wise pennies, about 1 cm deep
  • Butter
  • Oil
  • 1 or 2 handfuls of grated cheddar
  • 4 teaspoons of mustard seeds (if using Courgettes); or a scant teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg (if using Spinach)

If using Courgettes, saute them in butter, oil and with the mustard seeds.  Once soft, add more heat to sear them a bit.  At the end (optional) add 1/2 a clove of very finely chopped garlic.

If using Spinach, wilt with butter, very briefly, and then drain/gently squeeze/pat dry.  Garlic always an option, just not much of it. Once cool stir in the nutmeg.

Both:  dot the lumps of goats cheese all over the base of the quiche lining.  If using Courgettes, add about 2/3rds to the case now.  Both:  pour in the batter and then add the other slices of Courgette or the all the spinach to the top of this batter – spread out.  Add 1 or 2 handfuls of grated cheddar.

Variations on the Goats Cheese:

  • Broccoli and Stilton
  • Roasted peppers
  • Other cheeses – any blue cheeses, or feta.  Whatever is left over basically.

New Recipes

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

Here are a some new recipes for things I have been serving at workshops.

Short Bread Biscuits

New in my repertoire.  I like short bread but I hate making it with my actual hands.  Sure, my hands are going to get involved at some stage but with this recipe, that is only at the end. These look, if I say so myself, pretty good, almost like the ones in M&S or that Waitrose.  I imagine.  This is because I have some lovely flower shaped biscuit cutters from Lakeland (All Hail) that make them perfect. This makes about 50 biscuits.  That is too many for one go, even for 10 at a workshop, but listen, this is not a recipe that even I, with incredibly high levels of tolerance for cooking, want to make often, and you can roll out, cut and freeze the biscuits you do not need and defrost and bake them later!  Genius.

  • 500g of salted butter (Yes.  Five. Hundred)
  • 750g of a mix of white, plain flour and cornflour. I use about 200g of cornflour
  • 250g of white sugar – normal or castor

Cut up the butter into small bits and place in a big mixing bowl.  Add the sugar.  Let this get all warm by the oven or somewhere but not too melty. Don’t miss out this stage and use cold butter. You’ll thank me later.

Arm yourself with a hand-held cake mixing device (you may have a kitchen aid, and if so, good for you, get it in there, instead, but I don’t.  I only have my hands, some wooden spoons and my hand-held mixing device).  Get the mixer into the butter/sugar mixture and say goodbye to about 10 – 15 minutes of your life in which you can’t hear the radio or anything over the row made by the mixer.  Keep on mixing.  Ignore it when it clumps up and starts to get all mashed into the round bits of the mixer – ignore it until the butter/sugar paste begins to travel up the beaters towards you.  Then stop and get it all back in the effing bowl, and off you go again.

Just carry on until the clumping sort of gets less bad and it’s all pale.  Have a drink of water and limber up for Round 2 – the flour round.  Add the flour  – which you must sieve – into the bowl of clumpy stuff, in doses.  I had about 6 goes.  Each time you add a few spoons of flour, prepare for a cloud of flour to rise from the bowl and settle almost everywhere when you first re-introduce the beater.  This process is quite tiresome and the dough will vacillate between buttery crumbs that may fly at you/all over the kitchen in general, and even more clumpy dough than before.  Also, the quantity of flour will seem ridiculously huge and you will say (maybe just in your head, or if you are like me, out loud):  there is no way this bastar&ing flour is all going to amalgamate with that butter/sugar axis of doom.  But, it will.  You just have to keep on and have faith.

I did this until all the flour was in and stopped once I thought that my hand and arm might be about 2 minutes short of permanent vibration damage. I then floured the dough a bit more, and my hands, and the surface and did some fairly firm kneading.  Tip it all onto the surface and just have a good old mix with your hands. You need a lot more flour.  Now at this stage, I realised I wasn’t going to cope with it all so I cut it in half and tackled it half at a time. It goes smooth when you roll it, but also a bit cracked at the edges – as I was too, by now – but if you roll it out and ignore the very edges, you can cut perfect shapes.  I cut mine about 7mm deep.  That sounds nerdy.  Fair enough, I am a nerd, but the thing is, you need this incredibly dense dough to cook without really colouring, for once it goes brown-ish, it is in fact slightly burnt, and you can taste that, so don’t cut them too thick.

What I love is that as there is literally no raising agent at all, they do not melt into a nasty cookie-lake as my attempts at biscuits so often do.  They just stay exactly like the shape you started with.

I then freeze the cut out raw biscuits in a Tupperware between layers of baking paper.  These can be defrosted for an hour or so and then baked, at a moderate heat (I used the Aga baking oven, so I guess that is about gas mark 4) for no longer than 17 minutes.  My Aga is hot in places so I often had to get them out and turn the tray.  Once they are done – slightly coloured, so subtle – and a bit cooked-looking, get ’em out and sprinkle the hot biscuits with a little bit of castor sugar.  They may feel a bit soft.  It’s OK, they will crisp up as soon as they cool down.  Once they are cool enough to handle, cool them on a rack.

They are absolutely yummy. My advice is to make 100s and freeze them so you only have to go through this every now and then, but it is so worth while.  Lily said they looked shop bought but she didn’t see the flour-drenched kitchen on the day I made them.  I think small ones, served with chocolate mousse or lemon posset would be lovely.

Roasted Ratatouille

No Picture, sorry.  This serves 10, so scale down. I *think* it will freeze well, but have not tried that.  I make it 24 hours ahead.  I think it is better that way.  The pre-roasting is the key part.

  • 6 large red peppers
  • 4 large yellow peppers
  • 4 red onions
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 3 cans of chopped tomatoes
  • 2 jars/cartons of really good quality passata
  • (optional, I leave this out for workshops) 1 – 2 de-seeded finely chopped red chillies
  • 4 large courgettes
  • 1 butternut squash
  • Rape seed oil and butter
  • salt and pepper

First, cut the peppers in half, remove the core/seeds and place in a big roasting tin.  Roast in a hot oven, or under the grill.  If you are grilling, first get them tender and then turn the grill up to char the skins.  If roasting, just blast them for about 30 – 40 mins, turning as they will fill with liquid.  Once they are done, and while they are piping hot, put them all in a large food bag and seal it up. Leave it to go cold.

Wash but do not peel the butternut squash.  De-seed it and cut the flesh including the skin into small cubes c 1 cm-ish.  Pop these in a non-stick frying pan with some oil and  butter.  Roast them/saute them until they begin to caramel and are cooked through.

Do the same with the courgettes but slightly bigger chunks and do not let them go soft.  More heat, less time.

Do the same with the red onion, which I slice long-ways like at the fair when they serve onions with hot-dogs.

Take the peppers out of the bag and try and peel the skin off each bit of pepper.  This is something I have mixed success with so I don’t stress too much if I miss bits.  Chuck the skins away.  Cut the remaining pepper into strips or chunks.

Peel and crush the garlic so it’s finely minced.  Heat some oil in a big, deep pan and add the garlic and the chilli if using that.  Then add all the pre-roasted/saute-ed veggies, and give it a bit of a stir so the oil gets on it.  Add the tomatoes and the passata.  Get it to a simmer – watch it ‘cos it spits hot lava like a ratatouille volcano.  Do not let this boil or simmer for long, the veg is all cooked really and it will start to disintegrate if you over-cook it now.

I serve this with masses of grated cheddar to stir in.  I also serve it with the next recipe…

Chilli Peas

This is invented by me, based shamelessly on the Macho Peas served in my beloved Nando’s.  Nando’s is the best place to eat.  Evah.  I wanted to re-create my favourite side dish and I am delighted with my version.

This serves 10, so as ever, scale. Downwards, probably. I am sure it will freeze OK but I never have.  For workshops, I make it 24 hours ahead and gently re-heat it for an hour before serving.

  • One-and-a-half packs (the big ones, not sure how much they weigh) of frozen petit-pois
  • 4 – 6 cloves of garlic, still with the paper skin on (this will be pre-boiled so will be much milder than usual)
  • A fair bit of rape seed oil AND very good quality olive oil
  • A big handful of fresh, finely chopped mint
  • 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of hot chilli flakes (I usually use one rounded for this amount.  Be careful if you are not sure.  I use hot flakes which are very fiery so less is wise if you don’t like too much heat)
  • Salt and pepper

Put the garlic cloves in the water you intend to cook the peas in.  So when I make this, that is quite a lot of water.  Get it to the boil and then simmer with the garlic cloves in there for about 5 minutes. Now your kitchen and indeed the entire house/street smell of garlic.  You’re welcome.  Add the frozen peas.  Get it back to the boil.  Boil the peas for 3 – 4 minutes.  I add 1/2 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda as it begins to boil as this keeps the peas greener.  Up to you.  Once tender, drain and rinse with warm water.  Let them continue to drain. Fish about for the garlic and slip off the papery skin. Roughly chop the garlic which will be tender and much less garlic-y now you have boiled it. Put the garlic and half the peas back in the big pan.

Put some rape seed oil – I add a big BIG slug of oil here – in a small pan, and add the chilli flakes.  Let them gently sizzle but not really fry or colour. Remove from the heat and pour onto the peas/garlic.  Mix it all up then with a potato masher, smash the pea/oil/garlic mixture so it’s quite squished. Add the finely chopped mint and stir it in.  Add the whole peas that you didn’t smash.  Add a surprisingly large amount of olive oil, you need it to be a bit oily, not swimming but you should see a slick of oil, even a little side-puddle.  Season well with salt and pepper.  The salt is important.  You can gently re-heat this now in the pan and serve, or let it go cold, cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.  I serve it warm, not scorching.  I think room temp would also be fine.  This is delicious with chicken. Obvs. And it is also lovely with the rat (above) mixed into the rat is even better, topped with masses of strong cheese of your choice. It is also lovely with a gurt big roasted goats cheese round (one each, please) plus chutney.  I also eat these peas with steak, salmon (the best combo after chicken), quiche and roast dinners.

Potato Cakes

These are simple and delicious.  I serve them warm and buttered as a non-sweet alternative before workshops with morning coffee but they are also great with eggs and bacon.

This makes enough for three workshops – so about 60 – 70 cakes.  I freeze the raw dough in batches for up to 1 month.

  • 3 lbs of potatoes – old, floury ones are best
  • 1 lb of plain white flour
  • About 6 oz of butter plus extra for frying and buttering
  • Milk
  • Rape seed oil
  • Salt and pepper

Peel and boil the potatoes – they need to be very tender.  Drain and mash them with the butter and a generous dash of milk.  Now you need this to be not sloppy but not really stiff and no lumps, needs to be smooth and fine.  Maybe more runny than if you were serving mash as you have flour to add yet.  Season well.   Let this go cool, almost cold.  Add the flour and work it in really well.   I guess at this stage you could add fresh or dried herbs, maybe chives. If you need more flour to make an elastic dough, go for it.  Tip it out onto a floured surface and give it a good seeing to.  Chill the dough. You can freeze it now if you want in food bags.

Roll it out to about 1.5 cm thick.  Cut out shapes – I used the scone cutter.  It won’t really stay in shape, it’s too elastic so it’s also OK just to cut it into squares or triangles if you prefer, that is what my mum always did.  In a non-stick frying pan, melt some butter with a bit of oil and gently fry the cakes.  The potato is cooked but the flour is raw so it needs to be allowed to cook properly, not too fast or it will taste raw and glue-y.  You want them golden brown.  I set them in a dish to keep warm in the oven as I fry the next batch and so on.  I then lightly butter them and serve hot or warm in a covered dish.

Note about freezing the dough:  this works well in food bags but the dough comes out very sticky once de-frosted so you have to add more flour and knead it all again.  After that it’s fine.

Cheese and Herb Scones

I serve these warm, buttered. They are also good as an accompaniment to soup instead of bread or balanced and baked on top of a stew as a cobbler-topping.

This makes about 24 which is enough for 2 workshops.  I mix up my metric and imperial, sorry.  (Not sorry).

  • 1.5 lbs of white self-raising flour
  • 250g of butter, cold (Note:  as you are also adding fat in the cheese, you can reduce this by 25 – 50g but I don’t)
  • about 6 – 8 oz of strong cheddar, grated plus a bit extra to top the scones (or other cheese in small chunks such as Stilton or goat cheese but I never serve these at workshops as a lot of people don’t like that sort of cheese which is sad as I love them)
  • 3 eggs and some milk
  • A big handful of finely chopped fresh chives (optional but delicious)
  • A small handful of very finely snipped fresh rosemary or thyme
  • Some rosemary or other edible flowers if available to top each scone

Add the chopped butter, cold, to the sifted flour and make a fine crumb by rubbing it in for an improbably long time – try and keep your hands mainly out – finger tips only – so it does not get hot.  Stir in the herbs and cheese.  Beat the eggs and the milk.  How much milk?  This is a ‘feel’ thing.  It needs to be spongy and moist, not stiff and not wet.  You also need some egg/milk mixture to paint the scones so either make some more with another egg or keep a drop back.

Amalgamate this – light touch, no pounding and tip out onto a well floured surface.  Firmly but gently, knead this but not for long.  Roll out to about 3.5cm high or a bit higher.  Cut the scones out with a well-floured cutter and place on a papered tray.  Paint with the egg/milk.  Pop some grated cheese on each one and then a sprig of rosemary flower or chive flowers or thyme.  Bake for about 20 minutes gas mark 4 or 5 or Aga baking oven.

The baked scones freeze brilliantly. I have never frozen the raw scones, but I think they’d be OK. I make this many before each group of workshops if I fancy serving them and they do 2 events. I only freeze them for a maximum of 2 weeks though.

The plain scones I serve are the same except I obviously omit the cheese and instead add about 3 oz of white sugar instead of cheese and herbs. I just paint them and add no topping. I make them a wee bit taller as I usually want these for cream-teas. That is very little sugar.  But it is plenty.



Allotment Soup and Upside Down Rhubarb Fool Cheesecake

Monday, September 5th, 2016

Squah and Courgettes for soup

This soup is really yummy and I have been serving it at workshops last weekend.  Everything in it was grown on the allotment! It contains no brassica which I know some people don’t like and it has gone down very well.  Here is the recipe which made enough for 8 so you could freeze some. I serve it with bread and sometimes warm buttered toasted crumpets, pickles and several cheeses:

  • 3 or 4 squash (I used Japanese squash that are orange and quite like small pumpkins, and Patti-Pan squash which look like yellow, fat flying saucers)
  • 5 or 6 large courgettes (I used mainly yellow and two large dark green ones).  A marrow would also do nicely though you might de-seed it.
  • 3 large brown or white onions
  • 3 cloves of garlic (I made one lot with garlic and one lot without)
  • 3 teaspoons of ground ginger
  • Vegetable stock
  • 2 teaspoons of coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons of mustard seeds
  • Black pepper (lots) and some sea-salt flakes
  • Rape seed oil

De-seed the squash but do not peel.  Chop into smallish chunks and add larger chunks of the courgettes and the sliced onions and garlic, peeled and whole.  Pop them into a large roasting tin and douse with a good slug of good quality rape seed oil.  Add the spices, salt and pepper, mix it all up and roast it for ages.  I start mine slow and then move it up for the last hour or so.  Eventually, it will start to caramelize a bit and will all be very tender. Transfer to a huge stock pot.  Add enough veg stock to cover well and simmer for a few minutes.  Cool.  Blend. It will go velvety thick.  Too thick probably, so if you want to eat it now, add more water or stock, re-heat and serve.  If you want to freeze it, as I did, freeze it now and then once it has de-frosted and you have re-heated it, let it down a bit more then.  it looks odd at first when you de-frost it but just heat well and stir a lot, then add more water or stock to get it how thick you want it.

Another crop that has been abundant is rhubarb.  Here is upside down rhubarb fool cheesecake pots and this makes about 8 – 10 small pots:

Rhubarb fool cheesecake pots

  • Lots of rhubarb washed, trimmed and chopped
  • Some fresh grated ginger
  • 6 slightly crushed whole cardamon pods
  • Caster sugar to taste
  • A large pot of double cream (and optional, I am doing this next time, substutute half the cream for a full pack of cream cheese)
  • About 4 oz of butter
  • About half a pack of digestive biscuits

Put the rhubarb, sugar, ginger and cardamon in a shallow roasting tin and roast for as long as it takes for the fruit to be very soft and deepening in colour.  It should still be quite syrupy.  Fish out the pods and squeeze the black cardamon seeds back into the mixture, chuck away the skins.  Mash or blend it – I mash so it is still textured.  Cool and chill.  Whip the cream to a soft peak consistency.  Add about 2/3rds of the chilled rhubarb mix and stir it all in well.  Crush the biscuits to a coarse powder and add the melted butter.  Mix well.  Cool and chill.  Spoon the rhubarb/cream mix into your pots and on top of each add a generous dollop of the rhubarb compote that has no cream in it.  These can now be covered tight and chilled and will keep fine for 24 – 48 hours.   The biscuit mix can be put in a food bag, air pushed out, sealed and chilled for up to 24 – 48 hours too. When you want to serve them, make sure the biscuit mix is back to room temp and sprinkle a generous layer on the top of the rhubarb.  To make it even more cheesecake-ish next time I am going to blend the rhubarb compote with half cream, half cream cheese.  I will let you know how that goes.



Afternoon Tea Knitting Club

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

The Afternoon Tea Knitting Club kicks off this Friday, 1 April.  This inaugural knit-in is fully booked but there are spaces for the other three dates, so please have a look at these here.  You do not need to ‘join’ this club, you can come to them all or just one.  They start at 2.00 pm with a cuppa and we knit for a bit, then I will serve afternoon tea at 3.30.

I have just finalised the menu for this week’s club.  It is:  cucumber sandwiches, smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, warm cheese and rosemary scones with optional butter and cream cheese, and hot, buttered potato cakes.  Then, plain scones with cream, jam and strawberries, ‘slutty’ brownies and lemon drizzle cake.

Want to know what a slutty brownie is and what makes it so slutty?  Of course you do.  But instead of Googlating it, come to the next Club, in June!

This menu will be fairly typical.  You don’t have to eat it all, and I promise not to force you, but I am making it fairly wide-ranging to appeal to most people I hope.  I will adjust it seasonally though.

In the meantime, here is a glimpse into the pilot-baking I did to test All Of The Things.

Here is the sunny face of a lemon drizzle cake I made last week – just to check that I could still make them:

And here is a dark and gooey interior of the slutty brownie:

Allotment Life in Winter

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

Lots of activity on the allotment!  Unfortunately, 95% of this is digging.  Get an allotment which needs a 100% dig-over to remove rank weeds and call it a fitness regime.  This is how I am making it work in my head because to be quite honest, digging and then sifting for weed roots (some of which are HUGE) is not fun.  It is fun when compared with some activities though such as train travel in winter, or colour-coding your sock drawer.  I also take my audio book and headphones down when I am solo-allotmenting.  My current book is The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham, beautifully read by Alex Jennings. So now when I look at the earth that has been worked I think of sea-dwelling alien space craft.  Nice.

Anyhoo, we are now 2/3rds through the main dig.  There is a large, uninterrupted plot – the main dig – which is about 75% of the whole plot.  Then at the top, is a wide grass path, then a border that was the worst in terms of weed-choke, and directly behind this, a raised up mound of what I hope will be earth, but it is literally covered with lush pasture-grass.  On the flat part, we also inherited plastic composters.  Then one day Colin left a huge pile of wood to make into seed beds or compost bins and we are using the flat part of this ‘bed’ to house three of these.  We have moved the plastic composters to the bottom end of the site.

The digging progresses:

Soon I will have to bite the bullet and start digging over this rank-grass mound, not least so that we can then use the earth underneath to fill the tyre-towers we are planning to use to grow new potatoes, also on this bed, and next to the three seed beds.  If I plunge my fork into this grass bank and find it is a huge heap of rotting weeds, I will cover it over, clip it with hand shears and call it a feature.

The grass mountain when we took the plot on:

A real bonus was finding that the main compost bin – not really a bin, as it has an open front – that we inherited was literally full of really high-grade loamy compost that the previous plot-holder had made.  Will has been barrowing this up to the top and using it to partially fill our new seed beds.

Our first two, of three, seed beds:

In the meantime, we have planted all the broad beans and they are up.  But many have been fatally nibbled.  I suspect rabbits.  It is all open land about us and I think rabbit damage will be a significant threat, which it is not in my own garden.  So I think I will sow some more, later this month, into the obvious gaps.  Usually, if you plant these early beans in late November or December, it is cold enough for rabbit activity to have ceased or declined, but it has been very warm.

I have also planted four rows (six heads, broken into cloves) of garlic, which is about forty plants potentially.  I am growing broad beans because they are delicious when harvested small, expensive and difficult to buy in the shops – and you need masses.  Plus, the pods can be used to make wine!  This is the main reason for our crop choices:  rare, expensive or significantly better tasting if home-grown.  Some crops such as broad beans, are all of these.


Garlic isn’t, really. It is cheap, widely available and not that much better, dried, as you buy it in the shops, than if you grow and dry your own.  However, it is significantly more delicious when cooked ‘wet’, i.e., right after harvesting and cleaning.  It is still very juicy, and often pink.  You then slice off the bottom where the roots are so it sits flat, and the top to expose the cloves.  You sit this in a garlic roaster or just sturdy tin foil, drizzle liberally with olive oil, and salt, scrunch up the foil to contain it in a loose parcel or pop on the top of the roaster and slow roast it.  Once done, which is a couple of hours, you can spread the soft, sweet garlic-mash onto seared ciabatta, or toasted bread, or French bread with about half a centimeter of butter on it. You can’t buy garlic in this state – fresh and wet.  It will be like this for a few weeks, after which it dries out and is just like the supermarket product.  The garlic isn’t through yet.

Garlic going in.  See you soon.  I hope.

These two crops, plus at the bottom, the rescued strawberries, giant rhubarb patch, rescued purple sprouting and few other lame ducks we transported down here, such as celery (Mark’s most hated veg.  Fact.  And anyway, will it over-winter?  Do we care?) leave about 60% of the main plot free for now.  This is the digging we are now engaged upon.  It looks to be getting easier in that there are fewer weed-choked areas, though there are weeds everywhere we have not cleared, but harder in that is heavier earth.

In my own garden, I rarely dig unless I want to dig in compost.  I intend to use this plan at the allotment.  But for now, the plans are:  complete the digging of the main plot; dig and remove weeds from the grass-mound-mountain at the top; erect and fill the last seed-bed; scavenge tyres and store for growing new potatoes; buy a plastic bench to sit on by the shed and admire the work.

Yesterday, I went down there for the last hour and a half of day-light and a bit more was dug.  I also edged the whole main plot, but my edging shears are no match for the pasture grass despite having been sharpened.  But it does look tidier.  I also hoed the areas where, already, the weeds are showing their heads.  There was no-one else there, there rarely is.  I have been unable to go on Saturdays and Thursday due to teaching of late, but I usually go on Sunday and once or twice in the week.  I am often alone with the pygmy goats in the next field my only company.  Last evening at 4.30 as it was getting properly dark, I walked all round the allotments looking at the plots.

Several at the bottom end where we were supposed to get a plot, remember, are already so wet there is standing water in the edges and depressions.  That plot we might have inherited has now been officially surrendered by its plot-holder but nothing else has changed.  It’s just been left.  I guess if no-one wants it, we as a collective, may reduce it to the ground at least and cover it with heavy plastic to at least contain and kill many of the weeds because it is a nuisance to the lady who allotments beside this one.  She has two plots I think, and they look lovely.  Peas are thriving on one bed, all neat in rows with twiggy supports.  I never knew you could grow peas in winter.

Anyway it was nice wandering round in the dusky afternoon.  Here in this part of Somerset, this time of day with its dusky light is called ‘dimsy’. So you might say, for example, say I walked round as it was getting dimsy.



Monday, November 16th, 2015

Recent workshop attendees have requested some recipes for the lunches or treats we serve.

Here are the recent requests.  Some of the quantities may be too much for 1 – 4 people.  I always knowingly over cater.

Mistake Trifle

This is my first offering.  It was traumatic to say the least and I am never making this again.  But it was delicious.  This is what happened on Friday, before my first Christmas 2015 event.

First, spend most of your day painstakingly making a vast, baked New York vanilla cheesecake. Once this is really cold, (which takes a further 4 hours) and while removing it from its giant tin, up-end the bastard cheesecake, partially into the cake box you have ready, partially smashing it onto the lid of the cake box, making quite sure the cheesecake is upside down and utterly, irreparably ruined.

This is what your ruined work should look like:

Commence epic bout of jagged crying, interspersed with piratical swearage, disbelieving hysterical laughter, and angry, fist-clenched, body convulsions.  This will take about 10 minutes.  Realise that this is, sadly, not another pre-workshop anxiety dream, but it is actually happening. Gradually regain some self-control and calm the dachshunds who are now also hysterical with vexation that you didn’t up-end the thing onto the floor so they could gorge on it and have to go to the emergency vets.  Again.  Well, it is Friday.

Tell Face Book, along with a picture.  Receive little sympathy, but also the genius idea of making this effin’ disaster into a trifle.  Ring someone who is not hysterical and who also has access to a car and some money, and who will help you rather than face an evening of distress.  Get them to bring you a red jelly (I used raspberry), a lot of double cream, and a can of black cherries or black cherry pie-filling.  Further destroy the poxy cheesecake and distribute it, all smashed up, into a trifle dish.  Make up the jelly and while still hot, mix in the cherries or pie filling.  Pour this over the cheesecake base.  Watch with detached interest as the dense cheesecake mix first resists and then gradually absorbs the fruit and jelly, popping like geysers in an Icelandic landscape.

Chill the trifle base for a few hours while you clear up the kitchen, re-apply your eye-flicks because you cried off the ones you applied in the morning, re-apply a little rouge as the first lot has slid off your sweating, greasy face like a land-slip, have a big glass of water to ease your parched and aching throat, and then serenely make a giant vanilla cream sponge just in case the Mistake Trifle is rank.  Add a layer of not-too-thick creamy custard and some softly whipped double cream, silver balls, unicorn sprinkles, and anything else pretty in your cupboard.  Serve the bloody trifle anyway.

I’m over it.  Clearly.

Salt Caramel Choc Pots

This will make enough for about 5 people so I double it.

Make or buy salt caramel sauce.  To make it, you need butter – I use a whole 1/2 lb block; fine salt – enough to make it actually salty; a 14 oz can of condensed milk and 3 table spoons of golden syrup.  Mix all together in a pan, bring to the boil and gently boil (rather than simmer) for about 10 mins.  Lily makes it a different way, on top of a bain marie for about a month…Or buy a jar, it tastes the same.  If you can’t buy the salted variety, just stir in a tea spoon of fine salt and mix really well.

Put a big dollop of the sauce in the bottom of a pot (I use small espresso-style coffee cups or tiny Kilner jars).

To make the chocolate topping, you need 200g good quality, high cocoa dark chocolate broken up, 100 ml boiling water, 1 tsp vanilla, 125 ml double cream, plus a little single cream to serve.  Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water.  Take it off the heat.  Add the boiling water to the choc – and now you need to really stir this hard – it may look granular when you first add the water, so this step makes it all glossy and smooth.  Add the vanilla and the cream and mix well.  While still really warm, spoon it on top of the caramel.  Chill (and this will keep fine for up to 48 hours in the fridge, covered over).  To serve, bring up to cool room temp or the chocolate topping is too hard; pour a tiny bit of single cream onto each pot.

Cold Crumbles

Served as a small sweet treat in a glass or the Kilner jars, as above.

Make a crumble topping, with butter, plain flour and rub to a fine crumb; add golden caster sugar (I always reduce the amount in a recipe by 1/3rd) and a 1/2 tsp of fine salt.  Mix well and spread out in a baking tin – it needs to be about 2 – 3 cm deep.  Dot with more butter.  Bake this and now and again, stir it all round to redistribute it.  But for the last bit, leave it be, so the top and the edges go a bit caramelised and darker.  I bake this for about 45 mins in the baking oven, so I think gas mark 4…?  Let it go cold and rough it all up again.

Make the fruit base – I use apples and any berries in the hedges or the freezer – just on the top of the stove like you would to stew fruit, with some sugar to your taste and a tsp of vanilla.  Sometimes I add grated fresh ginger, especially if the fruit is rhubarb.

Dollop this into the bottom of the glasses/jars.  Sprinke/ram on some of the crumble topping, which may be a bit chunky, that’s fine.  Chill – this will keep well, covered in the fridge for up to 48 hours.  The crumble topping will go very hard, because of the butter.  Don’t panic.  Just make sure it is warm room temp before serving and it will soften.  This takes about 1 hour in my kitchen which is very hot indeed.  I add a topping of single cream about 5 mins before serving, as this sort of sinks into the topping; but cold creamy custard not too thick would work, as would a tsp of clotted cream balanced on the top!

Variation:  fruit fool.  Make the stewed sweetened fruit, cool down, puree and chill. Whip up a large pot of double cream to softly stiff.  Fold the fruit into the cream.  Pile into the pots or jars.  Beat a few ginger biscuits up and sprinkle on top just as you serve or reserve a little of the puree and add a tart layer of that onto the fool.

Roast Butternut Squash and Ginger Soup

This is super-easy, veggie-friendly and always seems to go down well.  Very comforting in autumn and winter too.

This serves 9.

3 large butternut squash, 2 large onions, 3 cloves of garlic (sometimes I leave this out but it is much better with the garlic), 4 inch piece of fresh ginger, lots of veg stock, black pepper, salt, 2 table spoons of dry coriander seeds (berries, sometimes sold as), dry roasted in a pan and then ground by pestle and mortar, olive oil.

Wash the squash, de-seed and cut the rest into chunks – do not take off the skin cos it’s delicious and makes it thick.  Chop the peeled onions into chunks.  Peel and chop the ginger and the garlic. Pile it all into a big roasting tin, season and anoint it with a good slosh of oil.  Roast it quite high for about an hour (this is in an aga; I used the roasting oven which is really hot but gentler than a real stove). It will need turning over a few times and lots of liquid will come out – it’s fine, don’t drain it off, but use it all in the soup. When the squash is tender and roasty, take It out.  In a huge soup pan, add some oil, get it warm and add the ground coriander seeds, fry very briefly – maybe 20 seconds – add the veg roast mix and cover with vegetable stock.  Simmer for about 40 mins.  You may need to re-season with salt and pepper and add more water.  Blitz it with a hand blender.  It will go VERY thick as the pulp is blended, so add more stock or water, simmer and serve.

I sometimes add a chopped sweet potato skin on, or celery, or 2 or 3 chopped carrots at the roasting stage.

Parmesan Aubergine Bake

There are lots of recipes out there on the interwovens for this North Italian seasonal favourite.  There is also a lot of tosh about having to use Parmesan that has been hand-pressed by the fingers of new-born cherubs in the most enchanted of the Provinces of Parma.  Rubbish.  Use supermarket ‘Parmesan-style cheese’.  It’s fine.  I also leave off the basil as I hate basil.  Who likes food that smells like cat-wee?  Not me.  And I leave off the optional mozzarella cheese on top.  Not sure why, as I love all cheese.

This served 10.  So, you know, pare it down.

8 large aubergines, 3 large red onions, 2 cloves of garlic (can be left off but nicer with it), dried oregano – about a tablespoon, 4 cans of chopped peeled plum tomatoes OR if you have plenty in the garden, a basin full of fresh toms, peeled and chopped, 1 large carton of passata, 1 triangular block of Parmesan cheese finely grated, a little salt – be careful as the canned tomatoes, cheese and passata are salty too, black pepper, 3 handfuls of home-made white breadcrumbs, fresh, and a lot of a light oil such as rape seed which can remain stable at high temps.

Top and tail the aubergines and slice them into discs about 1.5 cm thick but don’t actually measure – you want meaty slices but not door-steps.  Put on the radio to a good play or your audio book as you are now entering the griddling phase and you will be here for a while.  Also, open a through draft as the air will soon be smokey and blue.  In a  griddle pan that has lines raised up, add some oil and get it hot.  Place as many discs of aubergine in as you can fit, and lightly press down but don’t move them about.  They will spit and hiss like a tom-cat, I wear long sleeves and resign myself to the mess. Put a teaspoon of more oil on each top of the slices.   After about 3 mins, tip one over; if it has darkish score/griddle lines on it, flip them all over and repeat on the other side.  You are not looking to cook them through, just griddle them.  Set aside to rest and cool.  Some hours later, you will be done and you can start the kitchen decontamination.

Make the sauce by frying the chopped onion, garlic and oregano in plenty of oil until the onion is well cooked and starting to go brownish.  Add some the tomatoes and passata, black pepper and a little salt if you wish.   Simmer this for about 15 minutes or 30 if you used fresh toms.

In a deep roasting tin, dollop a few spoons of the sauce and spread it out.  Sprinkle with a little cheese.  Add a layer of the aubergines.  Repeat – sauce, cheese, aubergine, until you run out of aubergine and end with sauce on top, cheese on the sauce and then the breadcrumbs.  This is when you can add the Mozzarella torn up into chunks if you want.  Also the basil if you like your food to resonate of cat-wee.

At this stage, you can chill it and keep it in the fridge for up to 24 hours.  But you don’t have to.

Bake it for about 2 – 3 hours, slowly at first then with more heat.  Ideally the sauce will bubble through to the top here and there and the top will be roasty.  Do not disturb the layers or stir it up.  It will keep warm for ages too.

Serve with these:

Hassle-back bay scented roast potatoes and pan-fried sliced brussels with crispy smoked bacon OR toasted pine-nuts for a veggie option.  We are having all this again next week for Second Christmas at Court Cottage.



Food Porn Alert

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

Hello there and welcome to a shameless tarty-food post.  This is just for those people who are coming to any workshops here in the autumn.

We will be serving this:

Millionaire Brownie 2

It is Millionaire Salt-Caramel Brownie.  This was made – or ought I to say created, conjured, coaxed – by my daughters, working as a team in their endless pursuit of The Great Devil-Baker’s handiwork.

Not content with the common, all-garden shortbread version, they have substituted the base for dark, squidgy brownie, just this side of cooked, then added a layer of home made salt caramel, and topped it all off with a peanut butter chocolate ganache.

I am not a big fan of cakes and puddings to be honest with you.  Now calm down, it’s not like I just confessed to knitting with cat fur or liking BBC Radio 5-Live.  I am a big fan of the savoury end of the food spectrum, specifically meat, fish, cheese and vegetables and any things that combine these food groups.  Roast beef, loads of cauliflower cheese and some veg.  Sorted.  Or a short-crust chicken and veg pie.  Now we are in business.

For sweetness, I like plain vanilla cheesecake, Nigella’s Guinness cake and custard tarts.  That is more or less it.  Until I tried this Millionaire Brownie.  It’s good.  It’s very good.

I sometimes feel a bit left out.  For example, I have never watched The Apprentice, Downton Abbey, or any of the Star Wars films.  It’s the same with the current national obsession with baking.  I just don’t get it.  But I guess that is because I’m all meh about 90% of the outcome of this frenzy of flour and sugar and jam.  Maybe now I ‘get’ it.  I think I like it because it has what Nigella (all hail) calls the holy trinity of human taste desire:  salt, sweet and fat.

I only had one square of the new pudding and that is where I will draw the line, but it’s so nice that in order to restrain myself, I had to have it locked in a ‘fridge in the garage with a car parked across the door.  I don’t usually bother with restraint, as you may know.  I think temptation is basically there to be yielded to.  But I have had to be very firm with myself over this treat.

Anyway, for those winners who are attending an event here this autumn, this will be the tea-time offering.  In Spring, it will change to Cornish pasties*.

* It won’t.  Millington doesn’t really like pastry.


What I think about when I’m running

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

(The title of this post is a shameless paraphrase.  It is also a warning to you, regular reader, that the knitting phase of blogging appears to be over).

We all knew that the outpouring of knitting posts would dry up eventually, didn’t we?  Have you missed my ramblings on subjects un-knitty?  Have you been wondering what I’ve had for dinner, what I have read, what I have listened to, what I have been doing, how many recycling melt-downs I have had, which caves I have dived into?

The answers are:

1) mainly roast dinners; plus scampi.  Not together.  How weird are you?  I love roast dinners and could eat them every day.  In winter, maybe not in summer.

The scampi is an actual addiction of mine.  I simply adore it.  Shop bought, frozen, breaded scampi.  Preferably the sort they call ‘giant’ or ‘large’ so there is a better scampi-to-breadcrumb ratio.  I sometimes have it – or used to – so often that a kind of scampi-sickness would descend upon me and I’d be forced to avoid the scampi isle for a few weeks.  But it always comes back, the call of the scampi, the lure of it’s squidgy sweet prawniness and the crunchy – not too crunchy – coat of breadcrumbs.  A dash of lemon juice, some mayo to dip into. I don’t want chips, I definitely don’t want peas – I just want scampi.  I want some now.

2) I have read Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway:

Recommended to me by the bookish Karina Westermann whose designs are lovely and whose book choices I urge you to follow too.

Loved it. Could easily have devoured it in maybe 3 goes but was forced by lack of time and some self-will to nibble it rather than gorge.  It is a book quite unlike any I have read, with a duo of police officers – the Hawthorn and Child of the title – opening the novel and threading through it thereafter.  It’s more like a series of linked short stories and since I love short stories even more than whole books, this was perfect.  Like buffets which are my favorite meals.  Oh.  Wait.  No that’s wrong;  roast dinner is my favourite.  And scampi.  Well, buffets are among my favorites.

This book is a buffet –  stories sharing the tressel-table and gingham table-cloth of a book.  It’s graphic and adult.  In a proper, grown-up way, yes there is sex, gay sex and love.  It’s not shocking and it’s not coy.  It’s the sort of book that makes your (my) tummy tighten and tumble.  I was aware of a sense of mild to moderate peril just behind my right shoulder throughout the entire reading of it.  This was partly the edgy stories and partly the tingle of such powerful yet spare and clever writing.  Because aside from the compelling way he spins the stories, the way he writes is reward enough in itself.

Oh, by the way there are no speech marks. Do not let this put you off, instead, let it make the spoken words feel more natural.

I have read some other things lately but this is the one I wanted to tell you about because I want you to read it too.  I am unselfish this way, please, read it.  It almost makes me wish the ill-fated book club was still going (it is, kind of, but without me and that’s another story which I will save for later) so that I could recommend it – but then, I just know, that club being the club it is, that Hawthorn and Child would be carelessly and hideously dismissed with a shrug and upturned palms.  Because there is no conventional plot device or route-map.  I agree, once again, with Karina who has been known to say she couldn’t be in a book club – and I think I can’t either, much though I’d love to talk about this and other books I love, as you do with someone who also loves (or at least understands) the same books.  It’s not about agreeing or scoring – but it is about respecting writing and reading, two great arts, the latter often sadly underrated.

3)  I have finally finished listening to Ulysses by James Joyce.  This was an Audible download and it was a gift download so being a careful person I decided to choose a download that is eye watering expensive (or a credit, but my credits are usually fully allocated in my Wish List), and that I just know I’d never, ever actually read.  It is, of course, a great classic.  My, but it’s a book of so many parts – and I am no scholar so I cannot even begin to tell you how clever and yes, at times, how impenetrable I found it.  I adopted a policy of listening to it in sections, allocating time to it and having breaks.  Having breaks doesn’t matter in the least.  It’s just there, waiting for you as you drift back.

I found that sometimes I was very comfortable with the ‘story’.  Life, food, love, art, sex, death, music, class and religion – a clashing muddle, a dash through just one day in Dublin.  At times like these I felt really proud of my ears and brain, acting like a pair of old friends and together, passing understanding to me.

At other times I was drifting.  This was pleasant, even beautiful, for the writing is breathtaking.  I was drifting but a little lost.

And sometimes I was utterly, hopelessly lost, so lost I had to look things up on the Internet to try and see what the feck was going on, and even then, I was still left reeling, with that feeling you (I) get when you (I) look at maps or I try to negotiate my way to B from C when I usually go to B from A.  In these times, what I generally do is go back to A and then make my way to B, leaving C out of it altogether.  You can’t do that with this book.

However, I was and still am, awash with this book, which I now know I’d never read with my eyes because I just wouldn’t be able to cope, but to listen to it again – yes, that I will be doing.

I listened to it a lot while running.  The running has been in a good phase which leads me to 4).  In 4), I have been running more.  I have entered a half marathon in Birmingham in October.  My first and last HM was 2 years ago and I hated it so much I felt I might just give up running.  However, I have entered this one for several good reasons, or so it seemed and now I have got used to the idea, I am glad.  I can run 10 or 11 miles sometimes.  Usually I run 5 or 6.  Sometimes I only run 3.  But when I ran 10 or 11 recently, it was me and James Joyce.  The mind-bending wonder of his words, or sometimes the sheer beauty of what he tells me made the miles seem fewer or at least quicker – and they weren’t quicker, in fact I have lost pace this last 6 months, I’m not sure why.  Age, maybe.

5) No recycling melt-downs lately, since I have partially opted out of the recycling dictatorship that is Somerset Waste and set up my own independent state.  I burn food waste that I cannot compost on my open dining room fire.  I throw things away that I *think* the recycling police may whimsically reject, there being no discernable policy.  It’s good.  Opting out is the new recycling.

6) Sadly, no caves of late.  Maybe that will come back if the weather warms up.

All of the above and more, are what I think about when I run.



Food love re-kindled

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

So in an attempt to get the food love re-ignited, I went right back to basics and cooked 2 quiches, my all-time favourite food that I kind of went off due to making them too often for workshops.  I made a classic quiche Lorraine and my new best-friend, Stilton, bacon and broccoli quiche:

I loved making them ‘cos I was on my own, no pressure, no people in the kitchen;  and I am almost unable to contain myself and wait for supper time to eat a slice of each.  Good thing I am planning a long, come-rain-or-shine run tomorrow – pastry-power!



Cooking, shopping and the self-service check-out

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

I have lots of patience for some things, such as:

Knitting:  I am usually calm in the face of my errors, the need to pull the knitting back, or ideas that just don’t work out.  I will *happily* try again and again to get it right, I think I know when to give up and I see this as all part of the process.  I would describe my approach to problems as accepting, trying to go round problems and not being upset or frustrated.

Gardening:  I garden for the long-term.  I thank gardeners of past generations who planted trees and set out gardens or spaces that I enjoy today.  I will move plants to get them to thrive – and as with the knitting, I know when to quit with a plant that isn’t co-operating.  Again, I accept.  I accept that I can’t garden for 6 or 7 hours anymore – or if I do there will be unpleasant consequences.  I accept that even if I only do an hour, I did something.

Sports that I do such as cycling and running:  I am happy to invest quite a lot of time and effort into making small – sometimes incremental – gains in my enjoyment, fitness or performance.  I accept that I am never going to be a fast runner or cycle 100 miles a day, but I set small challenges and I love this gradual process.

With all of these, because I enjoy the process as much as the results, the need to be patient doesn’t really arise.

As I grow older, however, I find I am less patient with other aspects of my life.  Such as, and mainly, shopping for and then cooking food.  This used to be a real passion for me and don’t get me wrong, I do still love food.  Not as much as I did.  Why is this?  I have many cookery books and enjoyed reading them as I would a pattern book or even a novel.  I’d make lists of the new things I wanted to try and loved sourcing the ingredients and then creating the dishes.  Nothing gave me more enjoyment than cooking for friends.  I wondered if I was just maybe a bit bored of the same things as very slowly the lure of this activity began to wane, and so I re-read my books and got a few new ones.  Nothing.  Also, I really, really hate shopping for food these days (or shopping for anything to be honest except stationary, yarn, needles, books, sports-related things and garden stuff).  I simply don’t seem to get as hungry or enjoy the eating as I once did.  And I wonder if this is basically because I am out of patience with it, or at least if I am honest, because it’s become boring.

My father lived to eat.  He was a small, strong, wiry man, never fat.  But he was greedy, in a lovely, lovable, funny way.  I think this was because he had been starved by the Japanese when he was a prisoner in WW2.  My mother ate to live.  She was a good cook, a plain cook but she also clearly didn’t enjoy the cooking much and even less, the eating, so she resorted as she grew old, to eating the same very limited meals or foods, day in, day out, not minding this as she’d never enjoyed the variety much anyway.  I think it was a relief to buy the same list of things each week and eat the same lunch, the same dinner and so on.  Food bored her.  It was a minor trial for my father but he’d cook his ‘exotics’ as mum called them from time to time to keep his interest alive.

Maybe it’s the shopping.  Supermarkets are terrible places, I think, and I can’t be bothered to drive or cycle to many far-flung places to buy from nicer places.  I have tried.  I don’t have the time and where I live isn’t trendy enough to make this easy.  By nicer I mean any shops that are not super-cold mega-stores with pretend food smells, and rip-off ‘offers’ and – surely the worst curse of the modern shopping age:  the self-service check out.  Self-service check out rage is actually an acknowledged condition.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t make that up.  Oy, my life, have you ever tried to operate one?  It’s purgatory.  And as you wrestle with the system – don’t move the bag! Don’t move the bag with your stuff in it or it will  speak to you in a sort of semi-human code;  but if you don’t move the bag, you can’t pack more stuff in another bag…then the scanner doesn’t recognise your pack of blueberries and in the end, the supermarket operative in charge of this torture area has had to intervene so often, deploying a magic swipe-card that appears to fix all known evils, that you ask him/her if they could just leave the magic card with you for a while and also, does the magic card cure the head-cold or make tea?  And you know that s/he will go home and tell his/her significant other what a weirdo s/he met today, at work…

I don’t get self-service check out rage because I no longer use them but Mark does and so I then just stand about 4 feet away from him, looking at my ‘phone.  Because I don’t like shopping, I am going to start Internet shopping.  This is something I have tried, it’s not perfect, but it’s better than real shopping, and I spend less.  Will I then develop a dislike of unpacking the shopping that is dropped off, just as now I sometimes get fed up with emptying the washing machine whereas years ago, I used a twin-tub that had a spinner and demanded human intervention for an hour or two once or twice a week.  Isn’t it funny how your levels of – well, laziness, I suppose, move up as the labour-saving devices multiply?



Chocolate pot recipe

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

This recipe is from my favourite recipe book, 1981 Good Housekeeping’s French Cookery by Helge Rubinstein:

Petits pots au chocolat:

  • 200g bitter high cocoa content chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 300ml single cream
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • pinch of salt

Heat the cream in a pan slowly and until it is just short of the boil.  Remove from heat.  Add the bits of chocolate and stir until melted and nice and smooth. Stir in the egg, vanilla and salt.  Stir for a minute or two until quite amalgamated and silky but make sure you don’t hang about as it needs to be warm to go into the pots.

Spoon into your pots (I use very small coffee cups, shot or cocktail glasses would also do, or small earthen-ware pots with glazed insides).  Cover with cling film and chill in the ‘fridge for at least 4 hours, but you can make 24 hours ahead of time, at least.  When you serve, add a dribble of single cream or sour cream to emulate cream on coffee.

Variations:  for evening or Christmas servings, add brandy or booze of choice to the egg mix;  for Millington, add chili powder to the choc.

Serves 4 (really, this is so rich, I think it serves 5 or 6, you only need/want a few luxurious tea-spoons…also note that the egg is barely cooked really so not suitable for everyone.

 I haven’t cooked many of the cakes and pudding recipes because I am, contrary to evidence you may have gathered from my blog and workshops, more of a savoury food fan.  The vegetable dishes in this book are also lovely but my absolute favourite is the carbonnade nimoise – lamb baked with potatoes and aubergines.  It is so easy and delicious, the book opens naturally at that page.  I like this book better than my Julia Child because the recipes are much simpler.  It looks so dated now and by no means is it ‘slimming’ food, but I love it.  I think my dad gave it to me, certainly it would have been his dream cook book, bless his greedy little heart.  I would give anything in my power to cook and eat the tournedos Rossini with him again.

Chocolate pots

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Obviously (I assume) when you attend a knitting workshop, there has to be an emphasis on the knitting.  So for tomorrow’s sock event – luxury bed-socks knitted from the toe-up – I have been focusing on the technique and the easiest way to teach it, plus a new design (with 2 options for the lace) to knit afterwards.  And the yarns, and so on.

However, I think that a knitting workshop should be a really rounded experience.  Knitting, learning, yarn-fondling, sharing, making friends, talking (hence why I do not, ever, teach fiendish subjects at my events) and laughing.  Oh, and eating!

Tomorrow, I am serving bitter chocolate creams as a tiny pudding following the roasted vegetables and jacket potatoes (with 3 kinds of dairy, for Millington’s delight).  These are served in tiny coffee cups.  Mine are Poole Pottery and I get my Poole things mainly at charity shops and flea markets.  But I bought these at Tremaine Fine Arts in St Ives ( a gem of a shop, do go) and I adore them.  Here they are, empty, trying and almost succeeding in out-lushing the KSH:

and here is one posing, avec its dark chocolate heart, just about to go into the ‘fridge and chill:

The recipe which is French and which I have used for years, is simplicity itself but it says it serves 4. I have to cater for 10 tomorrow, including me and Millington, so I just doubled it. There is enough for at least 16. Left-overs!

New kit – Shimmer Star-Crossed; and Paris tales

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

This is Star-Crossed scarf, knitted with Shimmer in the place of Pure Wool DK.  It’s simply lovely.  I know I may be biased but it is!  It looks very ethereal, almost like the foam of very fine bubble bath…then the silver Shimmer glints at you and holds the criss-crossed Kidsilk Haze in place. 

It’s available here.  The original version, which uses Pure Wool DK and Kidsilk Haze is available here.

Both use (almost) 4 balls of yarn, that is 2 of each quality.  Fiona’s husband – Fiona is an amazing knitter to the confused (me) – also liked it, which I am told is high praise. 

Tomorrow, I am adding another kit, Le Marais Cuffs:

I think I am about ready to deal with The Incident In The Restaurant In Paris.  My youngest daughter, Lily, loyally tells me she reads my blog but I am pretty sure she doesn’t and so I am safe.  Our second evening in Paris, warm, still, bustling pavements, bizarre street artists – in this case a late-middle-aged lady dressed in feathers, who executed startlingly ugly and slow pirouettes across the square to the accompanying Swan Lake, booming from her beat-box…

Anyway, emboldened by our successful day of chatting away like native Parisiennes, ahem, we returned to the cafe where the night before, we had had a delicious supper and a fair bit of red-wine – a pot.  Some of us however, were rather too confident.  Lily boldly opted for the steak tartare.  I was startled.  So was the waiter, who seemed to clearly recall that last evening, Miss Lily had been quite content with le cheese-burger and a huge slice of tarte tatin to follow…I intervened.  I said (suddenly and painfully aware that I seemed to have come over all middle-class and also very bourgeois and embarrassed):  oh but Lily, I’m not sure you’ll enjoy that – it’s raw steak…

Yes, I know. (Theatrical sigh).

It’s raw, chopped steak, mixed with – erm – eggs!

The waiter is feeling my pain but also, it’s frantic in this place, being August and he’s eager to clinch the order.

Yes, I have seen it, it will be fine mum! (Oscar-standard eye-rolling)

I shrug, a shrug that says, fine, I am not the one who has to force that down, and I order my duck.  Once before, some years ago in St Ives, Lily, who was then only about 9, ordered squid in a restaurant.  She did this because she was mesmerised by a friend of my eldest daughter who was on holiday with us, and she, knowingly and happily, had also ordered squid which she very much enjoyed.  On that occasion, Mark manfully took over and ate the squid, for I surely could not have done so.  You may say – and I might agree – that we all ought to have learned our lessons from that incident.  Mais non, apparently not.  I ought to have said:  no.  You’re not having that madam, order something else or go without.  I do not really know why I didn’t.

The food arrives.  A flourish at Lily’s place reveals a HUGE shape of raw chopped steak, nestling in a forest of salad. 

Lily is suddenly not a sophisticated teen-about-Paris anymore.  Her eyes meet mine.  There is an extended silence, broken only by the sounds of Mark eagerly addressing his own dinner, in a blatant and successful bid to avoid having to man-up to the steak tartare, like he did with the squid.  I briefly consider not doing the ‘told you so’ dance, reject this option and tell Lily that I did warn her.  She makes a pitiful mewing noise and prods the food.  I take one bite of my duck.  Lily plays the clincher.  She says:  Mum, I am afraid of my dinner.  Oy.

With incredibly bad grace, I switched our plates and had a good look at this steak tartare.  I also am afraid of it but sadly, I am not 15.  I think about donning a few feathers and joining mad ballet lady in the square.  Finally, I re-charge my wine glass and slowly, silently, sip (!) of wine for bite of steak, I eat about one third of it.  Oh!  what a different party we were from that of the evening before when we had laughed and talked!  Now we are each lost in our own worlds.  Mark has bolted his supper with a speed that might have made me laugh if I hadn’t been so focused.  Lily, evidently loving my duck, was trying to look as if she was forcing down rather than adoring the lovely supper, the dauphinoise potatoes, the tender vegetables…

I re-assessed the plate.  I reckoned that leaving one third would be OK.  I had eaten one third, how, I do not know.  There was no way the last third was going down.  Mark stared hard in the other direction, Lily practically licked the pattern of her plate.  I deployed all the napkins, deftly wrapped half of what was left in them and put this – and this is almost the worst part – in my tiny Mulberry handbag.  It was fine, they were good napkins. 

My next tale of Paris is a happy one!

Patience patience…

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Not my greatest virtue, patience.  I do have patience with some things, such as knitting.  And gardening.  Oh and queuing, I am very English about queuing and don’t really mind it.  I have little patience in some respects such as, this week, my sour-dough starter.  It’s not working.  I know that making-bread-the-River-Cottage-way (my new mantra) is slow, but seriously, I have been 8 days and 3 lots of starter at this now and still no loaf!

However, the break-making clutter and flour has arrived.  I have an artisan bread-stone, a peel to lift bread (had I any) out of the oven, I assume; a proving basket and some artisan flour.  All redundant.  I might start my sour-dough starter again with the new flour, maybe artisan flour is more, er, sour and yeasty…?

People, please advise me about what I ought to be doing with my sour-dough starter.  I need to know:  ought the lid on the container be sealed or would a gap be better?  I imagine the wild yeast, you see, that River Cottage tells me is all around us, maybe trying to get in.  I also need to know if the Aga in the kitchen is maybe making the sour-dough too hot.  I don’t park the sour-doughs – there are now 2, equally inert – next to it but it’s not a big room and it does get quite warm.  I started sour-dough starter no 2 off with half of no 1, and added some wholemeal flour and (cheating a bit) a spoonful of brown sugar as a food supplement.  I left the other one, after feeding it with flour and water as instructed, as a test starter. 

Sometimes, the starter does seem to push out the odd bubble.  Mainly, it just separates, floury silt on the bottom, semi-clear flour-water on the top.  Ought I to stir it?  I do stir it, by the way, finding this irresistible.  In this question, as in many others, I have consulted both Bread, the River Cottage book and the Gods of the Innernets, all to no avail.  I am possibly in danger of becoming a bit obsessed with the success of this, but I did go on the course and therefore I know this is ‘easy’ and also ‘essential’.  I have to stop checking it though.  Every time I pass through the kitchen – and sometimes when I am not but make a special trip – I have to have a good look at them both.  First I stare at them through the (glass and plastic) lids.  I then remove the lids, prop my elbow up on the counter and settle in for a really good staring session.  Nothing.  Is it dead?  Actually even I am worried now by how much this has gripped me, note to self:  get out more;  do not attend any more life-style artisan courses;  consider therapy;  buy bread…or at least, buy yeast…?

But I can’t give up now, I’ve just sourced the clay to make the outdoor clay bread oven!  And a lady from the gym whose husband is a keen wood-worker, is bringing me 2 carrier bags of wood shavings on Friday, another oven-essential, it says in the blasted book…

In happier news, the old lavender hedges are both now history, the paths are being re-edged and a whole pack of new lavenders is on its way, by post, from Norfolk.  I am very excited.  I am assured that these will not grow more than 2 feet high and 2.5 feet wide, unlike the giants that we had before.

Bread and knitting

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

Bread is a food I have avoided for some time now because I stopped enjoying it and it often made me feel – not ill, but not well.  It disagreed with me.  I went to Glastonbury and bought spelt flour, organic bread from the wholefood cafe there and that seemed OK, if very, very filling and heavy – and anyway, it’s a long way to go for a loaf of bread.  So I sort of gave it up.  No big deal.  Except, I like bread and I missed it.

When a friend suggested that we go on the River Cottage ‘Bread’ course, I was keen and that was, if I’m honest, mainly because I was convinced that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would be there.  He wasn’t.  Celia, with whom I went, was quite right.  I don’t think he goes there much, mainly to film for the telly I suppose.  But anyway, it’s a very cool and interesting place, River Cottage HQ, AKA Park Farm.  For example, they pick you up from the car-park in a tractor-pulled trailer.  Ouch.  That is one long, bumpy track down to the farm.

(Note:  it said in the literature that we should wear sturdy footwear.  So of course I wore black and silver, chunky high-heel-and-platform Doc Martens, which were fine as I wear these shoes or similar all the time and can walk miles and teach all day in mine, but it/I kind of didn’t fit it.  I shrug, they looked fab.  Here they are:

Diva Marlena Mary Jane

Yes.  I know.  But I am used to wearing them and they are dreamily comfy, so I don’t care.  Just because we are making bread, does not mean that style must be abandoned at the farm gate…)

It turns out that even ‘good’ bread – let’s say you’ve gone to all the time and trouble of going to an up-market supermaket for a wholemeal loaf – is likely to be kind of ‘hurried’ in its production.  Fast food, by bread standards, using dried ‘express’ yeast, not having enough water, too much salt, maybe accelerators, over-processed flour, fats may be added, and the whole thing happens really quickly. Aidan, our master-baker and tutor, who owns and runs the Phoenix Bakery in Weymouth explained that real bread making is a slow process.  That is not to say that you are involved all that much.  It’s slow – but not time-consuming.  You can go away and get on with your life while, for example, your sour-dough starter is growing.  This is a clever and ancient method of harvesting wild yeast from the air and growing a sort of culture to make your own bread – no need to even use bought yeast at all.  You just have to accept that it will take days to start the sour-dough off and then the proving of your loaves will take a lot longer too because you are using this slow-working wild yeast.  That’s fine.  I like the slow-lane.  The longer the process and the better the ingredients, the more ‘wholesome’ your bread will be, less likely to upset your tummy – in fact, it’s rare for people who are unable to tolerate bought bread to have a bad reaction to bread made in this long slow way.

If I wanted a fast turn-around on a knitwear design, I’d never be a hand-knitter.  That is what M&S is for.  I think, reflecting on the day at River Cottage with Aidan, that making bread his way is like knitting, my way.  I’m not fast and I have stopped trying to be.  I spend ages thinking and designing and planning – as evidenced by the time it is taking me to get the kits ready, for example.  I think these are the main analogies I came away with:  buying a mass-produced loaf is like buying a cheap knit from a mass-production High Street retailer with bargain basement prices.  Making your own bread but using fast-acting yeasts and having a loaf banged out in a morning is like knitting with a knitting machine.  Aidan, on the other hand, bakes bread like I design and produce hand-crafted knit-wear:  slowly.  Carefully.  With my own energy in the product. 

I was not 100% happy with my loaf.  It’s not a thing of beauty.  But Aidan said, quite rightly, that doesn’t affect the taste.  I suppose I am applying knit-wear expectations to it, in which my designs have to be both beautiful (in my eyes at least) and practical.  I will have to work on this with my future bread-making.  For example, I wouldn’t wear an ugly scarf just because it was warm.  So I need to make my bread look better (or stop worrying that it’s flat and squat…), but this was my first attempt and it does taste very good!

We also made pizza, a food I dislike usually, but these were actually delicious.  I was a bit freaked out by the 20 plus people rammed into the tiny kitchen of River Cottage HQ, though it was also great to see the real place.  The oven in which they usually make pizzas was inexplicably missing as were the bread ovens usually in the classroom area, so there was a certain amount of improvisation – the bread oven in the little inglenook was literally going like a furnace, with flames jetting out of it, so the burning logs had to be dragged out and left to burn in the inglenook.  By this time the small room was approaching melt-down temperatures.  Aidan whose unhappy task it was to cook the blasted pizzas, one by one, was heroic.  I’d have said:  knickers to that!  and we’d have had to forgo the best pizzas we’d ever eaten…but no, he manfully went in again and again to post and then retrieve the food, which came out like molten lava (and sometimes burned and crispy or with bits of charred log adhered to it, but there was so much of it, it didn’t matter). 

Now we’d been told that these would be the best pizzas we’d ever eaten and that they Were Not Our Lunch, i.e., don’t utterly gorge on them as you will lose your appetite.  Well, it was like a feeding frenzy.  Honestly, you’d have thought that half these folks had never had a hot meal, despite the evidence to the contrary.  My pizza was the last but one to go in and to be honest, I’d got a bit bored of the pizza bit of the day by then, and I had also offered to share my dough with a small, very shy and quiet lady who was even more retiring that I was and who therefore had no dough of her own.  So I said:  you shape it, I’ll top it!  Oh dear, it was shame that she was a vegetarian.  I never thought to ask, as I adorned the pizza with fat bacon and salami….oopsie.

To be honest, it can’t have been a great day for her because just before lunch, Ollie the chef – very young, very, very enthusiastic and really charming but mainly disturbingly passionate about curing meat – got us all into his kitchen to look at three butchered pigs that he was happily – no, not happily, manically – rubbing down with a rather yummy smelling salt/sugar/juniper/bay mix.  As he rubbed, he slapped the meat, showed us how fat it was (fat in a good way) and talked dreamily of curing bacon and pork.  I do like to see a man happy in his work.  Ollie is delirious.  But I do see that being a veggie at River Cottage, where Ollie also produced a lunch of slow-braised brisket of beef about which he eulogised first (the vegetarian lady got a lovely alternative, but still left it all and all her pudding…) might be a challenge.  Before we went I saw that they said in the literature:  any dietary requirements?  and then it said, rather cajolingly:  if you are a vegetarian, do you eat fish?  This is of course a pitifully hopeful River Cottage attempt to get them to eat at least some once-living thing, but it did make me laugh because vegetarians don’t eat meat or fish.  At all.  I am now an enthusiastic meat and especially fish eater but I used never to eat meat (though I always ate fish and was therefore, not a vegetarian).  I don’t mind or even care what choices people make as long as they eat responsible and fair food.  But gosh, I bet Ollie finds it all a bit baffling!

Anyway, I have now read the River Cottage Bread book that we were given, started my own sour dough starter that will provide the yeast and a rather tangy taste for my bread, and I have become obsessed with making my own clay oven in the garden, step-by-step instructions for which are also in the book!  This will require 8 pails of squidgy clay – any ideas, people?  At River Cottage they dig it out of their lake.  Here we are on sand…But I am undaunted, and one day soon, I will have a clay oven like this, outside the back door:

Bread in clay oven

I’m very excited!  Aidan says his own bread book will be out in the next few months and I will certainly be getting that because his ways of bread making are even slower than the recipes in the River Cottage book – and I am a slow-food, slow-living, slow-lane girl.  Except for shoes.  And cycling.  Oh, and running…but apart from that.

Sunday morning blues-banishing formula

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

A wise woman – it was The Blessed Delia  – said:  if I feel low, I do three things:  put on a load of washing;  put a big fat chicken in the stove to roast;  and while all that activity is underway, I clean out one just thing – a drawer, a shelf, a cupboard. 

I’m paraphrasing but you get the drift.

At the time, I reckon I was about a life-time and maybe 1 – 2 decades away from where I am right now and I may have mentally scoffed.  Later though, I tried it.  It’s so trite, so simple, yet it works.  I think it will work even if you change the elements of the equation.  Dish-washer can be substituted for washing machine;  simple cake or casserole can sub for chicken, and so on.  The magic lies in the fact that three things are happening at once (productivity and desirable outcomes) whilst really only engaging you at the start and end of two of the processes, and liberating you to do something small (small:  this is vital, do not attempt to re-grout the bathroom or terrace the garden, just line a few drawers), and in the midst of all this, gradually the kitchen fills with yummy food smells and the washing machine does its thing…

I am going to have to employ this tactic and others today.  It’s a blue-Sunday.  Ever have those?  Actually I do love weekends, even though they have lost all real meaning since I no longer have a conventional job and Mark works every weekend anyway and always has.  Do you remember hating Sundays as a child, or was that just me?  I didn’t like roast dinner – now I adore but anyway.  I didn’t like the dullness, the quiet, the stifling being in the house-ness.  Even as a child I adopted blue-Sunday coping strategies, such as doing homework on Friday evenings, because if homework was left, Sunday became even more dreadful.  I scoured the Radio Times for a good old film to watch, or sat in the dining room with my dad while he studied or wrote out Masonic name cards (don’t ask; another time, maybe).

But today, it’s raining very hard and the Met Office insists it will do so all day.  Worse, because I don’t mind rain per se, it’s really cold.  in June.  In my Birthday Season.  How dare it?  So my plans:  run, garden, shower, knit, eat dinner, read – have to be changed, re-jigged and supplemented. 

So (mentally shakes herself to represent fresh resolve), what shall I do?  First, I have a new camera.  For the website.  Oy.  It’s so lovely, so BIG, so complicated.  My head, never a linear place at the best of times, threatens to explode if New Technology arises.  A friend once tried to tutor me through an Excel lesson.  She still vividly recalls me having – having, not wanting – to stop because it was making me cry.  I wish my head was not like this, but it is, we are stuck with each other.  Anyway.  The camera;  I have two (2) DVDs that came with it, and a stack of booklets.  So, I am allocating an hour, an hour being all I think I can stand, to investigating the camera.  That will feel like Homework.  I will do an hour a day until I have taken a picture.  And then, I will devote a further few weeks to up-loading it here and sharing.

Second, I have to get out of the house, even if only for an hour so I am going to walk.  I can’t be staying indoors all day, it makes me feel all funny.  Yes, in the rain, I’ve got the clothing and boots.  I won’t take the active dog as Dachshunds dislike rain/cold/wind even more than do cats.  I’ll be a mad solitary walking-in-the-rain woman.  I will listen to an audio-book.

Third, I will light the fire, have a hot bath, and read.  One of my workshop participants, Nicola of the lovely cuffs, recommended a book:

The Best of Everything

and oh my, how well Nicola knows me!  I adore it and am about half way.  Reading has taken a bit of a back seat recently, as I’ve been out a lot and also when working, listening to audio books, but reading has still been happening.  Of course there has been some grisly book-club reading to get through but that’s in a lull for now as the next book, annoyingly, is one I already have and read about 3 years ago.  The Island, by Victoria Hislop.  A friend passed it to me.  It’s OK, not great but an interesting (and true) basis for the yarn itself.  I mean it’s not great literature but I didn’t hate it, so a big step up from N Hornby.  Anyway, I LOVE The Best of Everything.  I also recently really loved Brooklyn,


again recommended to me via this blog.  Both these books are really really well written.  And ravel you up into their worlds without any annoying language problems.  How great is that?  My blogsters (I think you are out there!) know me better than my book club mates!  Respect.

Fourth, knitting.  I’m knitting Glow still, but planning a little capelet/shoulder shawl, in Pure Wool 4 Ply and Shimmer….as a break from Glow (New Glow) I will swatch this again later.

Fifth, my youngest daughter, Lily, may need some revision help – yay!

Sixth (try and keep up), I am not in charge of cooking today but Florence has promised us roast pork tonight, so the household smell thing will still happen.

Do you know I feel better already!  OK, camera, do you feel lucky today…?

The attraction of opposites

Friday, June 10th, 2011

I am sometimes attracted to things – and people – who are, if not the opposite of me, at least not at all similar.  For example, I love a particular class at my gym, called Body Combat.  And yet I look like a middle-class knitting lady.  I think.  And, for example, I am currently addicted to the music of both Lady Gaga and a new recording of Faure’s Requiem that I recently acquired. 

Same with food.  I love foods that ‘clash’ and have recently enjoyed eating Nigella’s Guinness and chocolate cake:

(ours didn’t look quite like this as we had ours warm and squidgy with the topping on the side)

…in itself stout and chocolate in a cake is an odd yet inspired combination, but it’s even better when you add the salty-sweet cream-cheese and icing-sugar whipped topping.  My friend, with whom I baked (as in I assisted, she baked) and ate this, doctored the topping and added Mascarpone cheese to the original.  I used to make this cake some years ago but stopped due to it being a banned substance, so addictive is the rich, damp, close ‘claggy’ cakiness of the Guinness and chocolate cake base, when combined with the salt-sweet-cream frosting.  By the way, I am planning to serve this at the Christmas-themed Court Cottage workshops….

We also agree, my friend and I, that we like lightly salt-crusted pretzels dipped in dark chocolate – try it, it’s very, very good.  You know it ought not to be, yet like salt and lime at the top of a Tequila, it just works.  Even my old favourite, tangy cheddar and sweet cubes of tinned pineapple serve the same fondness (though these have to be on cocktail sticks poked into a baking potato that is covered in tin-foil, that’s the law).  And this weekend, I am cooking spicy chicken with chili and chocolate sauce.  I’ll report back.

I also love going to Glastonbury.  The town, not the festival.  If you live near Glasto, as we do, near to the main road to the town, you get a bit sick and tired of being trapped in your own village at festival time, by a ceaseless procession of swanky motor-homes en-route to have a rah! time pretending to be hippies dressed in Joules wellies and with Cath Kidston play tents for Giles and Olivia to play hippies in.  Oh yes, the camper vans are giving way to festival-geek USA style mobile homes.  Anyway, me and Glastonbury-town:  it’s like Doris Day does Woodstock – we are opposites, yet I like it there.  It’s got a great atmosphere, if a little rarefied on the cuckoo side of the spectrum.  Right in the middle of what passes for normal there, an odd moment spikes through, such as last Christmas hols, when I was walking across a car park with the girls plus a friend, and a guy was walking briskly past us, talking on his mobile phone.  He was a hippy but hippy-lite, his hair was neat-ish, his clothes while of many hues, were also neat and clean.  I’d say he was about 50 years old.  As we passed, we heard him say:  oh, yeah, no, yeah, that’s fine, I’ve got my wizarding clothes in the car with me.’  Great, that’s OK then.

Recently I have been more and more obsessed with the combination of Kidsilk Haze with Shimmer.  I used these two yarns together in a design from Lacy Knits and it’s been a real winner.  Then earlier this year I designed some fingerless gloves for a kit, combining the yarns again, the Frost Flower Mittens.  I think you’ll like them – when you see them!  These yarns oppose each other – one so smooth, shiny, floppy, inert, the other so fluffy and exuberant – and yet they do go so well together.  I’ve been re-working Glow, and with stunning originality, it’s called New Glow (working title), and I am very happy with the results:

Unfinished and un-blocked, it is still delighting me with it’s combination of modern lace and ‘opposites-attract’ personalities.  I’m teaching Glow at Spin-a-Yarn next week so participants can choose KSH and Aura (the original) or New Glow, with Shimmer.  I’ve also changed the ends of the scarf, so we do some needle rotating ‘smoke and mirrors’ magic and get a softly fluted edge with no actual knitting skills other than stocking stitch.  In New Glow, the Shimmer actually forms a ‘frame’ around the tops of each lace ‘window’, because, unlike uber-excitable Aura, Shimmer is just like a Scandinavian beauty:  cool, calm and polished.  I aspire to Shimmer-like levels of calm and polish.  I’ll advise you if I ever reach that happy place.


In other news, this is the scene currently in the workshop/work/dining room at Court Cottage, below.  Seriously.  I have been lighting the fire a lot since the hot spell in March (AKA summer 2011) passed – but I don’t think I have ever lit it in June before.  I know I feel the cold more than many, and I may be related to a gecko, but really, it is actually cold!  Today I also ordered a double trailer of logs (the log man clearly thought I was un-hinged;  he said:  oh good plan, get the logs in now for winter.  And I said:  well, yes but I’m still lighting the fire most days.  Brief silence before he requested the address….) and I booked the chimney sweep.  It feels like autumn!  Yay, knitting season time! Aided by the fact that the moment the Government announces that we have water levels at below those in the Sahara, Biblical rain storms immediately follow, might build an arky-arky – oh! now who remembers that children’s hymn?

Kidsilk Haze nest

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

I just bought this from the butcher in our village:

It’s a fresh goose egg, isn’t it lovely?  The lady in the butcher’s weighed it and it’s 1/2 a pound!  I was in love with the milky blue-whiteness and also the sheer scale of it.  She agreed with me that it was a thing of beauty, though the butcher spoiled the moment with a rather coarse remark – I am sure you can guess his line of thought.


I also thought it looked very pretty snuggled up on this Kidsilk Haze swatch.

The lady said they make lovely quiches, and someone else says they used to have them in omelettes.  But I have friends over to supper tonight so I am making a bramble and apple sponge for pudding, using my beautiful goose egg for the sponge.  I’ll let you know how I get on.

Pancakes? I may give them up for Lent

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

I don’t really like pancakes.  And yet, every year on Shrove Tuesday, I make them.  I think I do this because my mother did it – she also rarely ate any though, but my father was very greedy, surprising for a rather thin, wiry man, and he ate maybe a dozen in a sitting.  Impressive.  How I shudder to think of their reaction to Nutella pancakes, treacle, cream, chocolate batter….Oh no, it had to be fresh lemon juice and crunchy, coarse white sugar.  I am the same. 

Here is my pancake batter, ‘resting’ for the obligatory hour (why?  other than my mother said so?) before I made them.

I ate two last night, a record.  This was due to the fact that I was short of supper, having elected for ‘left-overs’ but then found there weren’t really enough, oops.  And I was very tired, so the pancakes, which usually I dislike a bit or at least can’t be bothered with, seemed rather comforting.  Nursery food?

I am not a fussy eater.  I don’t like liver, but grew up in Manchester, happily – unknowingly – eating all sorts of things that I thought delicious and normal, but which I found, upon relocating to the achingly cool East Midlands, were considered disgusting.  Trotters, brawn made of sheep and pig head, tripe steamed with milk and onions, served with mashed potatoes, thus creating an unnervingly, uniformly white meal.  My Grandmother, with whom I spent a lot of time as a small child, was a real Mancunian cook.  I used to love going to the fish shop (for ‘yellow fish’ which she steamed and smothered in cheap, salty butter and pepper);  or the butchers, where in my memory, we never bought a whole chicken or a joint of meat but rather bought stewing cuts, tripe, mince, ox-tail….

Back home in her tiny (really tiny, a curtain behind a large sideboard divided the room into ‘sitting room’ and ‘bedroom’), her fold-down kitchen unit and ancient gas stove – plus her no-nonsense magic – transformed the food into really lovely meals.  We’d sit at the table, the same old oak table that I now have in my kitchen, and happily eat our ‘tea’ looking out on ‘the park’, in reality a sooty space edged with sickly privet and several more identical blocks of flats. 

I’d eat that food again today, but I don’t really know how, or indeed where to buy tripe. (My other grandmother, incidentally was even more ‘street’ than the grandma I grew up with, because she ate raw tripe, for breakfast, with pepper and vinegar on it.  I remember her once coming to stay with us in Wellingborough and my mother anxiously tracking down some tripe and then serving this up, at 7.30, at our red Formica kitchen table.  I – and my brother, who watched as if he was taking part in a horror film – were perfectly sure that Grandma Turner would be appalled and refuse to eat the tripe, possibly there would be a scene like in Coronation Street.  But no, to our horror, especially Duncan’s who was very fussy and squeamish at the best of times, Grandma Turner calmly applied malt vinegar and white pepper to the slab of raw tripe and silently ate it all.  Duncan watched from the crack between the kitchen door and the hall, a la Dr Who. I enjoy telling this story to my soft, southern daughters).

The food my parents cooked often took a long time to prepare.  For one thing, it was a bus ride to the market where the ribs were sold by a particular butcher.  Many times, there were distinct phases in the preparation process, such as soaking (overnight, say);  boiling and skimming;  simmering, straining, sifting, chilling, pressing.  It wasn’t fast food.  Now I am in danger of romanticising this, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t cook like that and if I did, no-one in this house would thank me for it, but I miss it, all the same.

I’m not really giving up pancakes for Lent.  That would be cheating.  Instead, I’m going to take something up for Lent, an altogether more positive approach I feel.  I’m going to make a daily habit of speaking to someone in my village (I am morbidly shy.  Yes, it’s true!), even if it’s just a quick ‘hello’ before  scuttling off into the post office.  And I’m going to knit more.