Thursday, 2 December 2010

Winter crumbles

I have to confess that I prefer most of my food fairly plain and unadulterated.  Apple crumble is a case in point, because I normally like to keep it plain.
However, I've spent the last two weeks being ill with flu and a chest infection, so I decided I needed a few more vitamins to fight off the winter germs.  We have got a wealth of red fruit in the freezer, just waiting to be put into pies and crumbles, so I decided on a change.
I sprinkled a load of sugar on to taste.
The red fruit adds a nice pink colour to the mixture.
I included coarse oatmeal in the crumble to add a bit of bite:
The result was pleasantly tart, and a very vivid red colour!

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Home-made Christmas biscuits

I love this time of year.  The pre-Christmas excitement and planning is my favourite part of the proceedings, and I know exactly why.  It's all the creative possibilities, the baking, the making, the shopping, the goodwill, the thinking, the planning.  It's my favourite time of year, closely followed by the short-lived bit of summer where camping in the UK becomes a pleasant pastime.
Inspired by the amazing "Biscuiteers", my friend Clare and I decided to make some home-made biscuits.  This activity was squashed in during the twins lunchtime nap and my school run, more of which later.
We based the biscuits on a wonderful recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook.  I have seriously never tasted such great biscuits, and would thoroughly recommend this one.  From what I can remember, we used:
400g plain flour
200g butter
280g unrefined caster sugar
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla paste
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
These ingredients were mixed together like a cake, as in:  butter and sugar creamed together, add the egg, fold in the dry ingredients, making a dough.  Usually you would put the mix in the fridge to set a bit, but we had no time, so just rolled it out straight away, cut out some Christmas shapes and stuck them in the oven till they went golden brown.
We then made some royal icing, which has lemon juice and egg white added to make it harden properly.
300g icing sugar
1 egg white
1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice
You whizz the lemon juice and egg together, then add the icing sugar gradually, mixing well throughout.  Then add colours.
My collection of icing colour pastes and sparkles came into their own.  But the unfortunate thing is that we ran out of time, so rushed putting the icing on, and only had spoons to apply it, hence they are a bit rough and ready.  Next time we will have a small piping bag etc.....
Unusually for these sorts of things, the best bit of them is the taste.  They are the best I have ever tasted.
The second batch of biscuits were supposed to be for the school Christmas fair, but in the event I was too ill to go, so we had to eat them all ourselves.....

Friday, 15 October 2010

Fallow period

When I look at this blog, it reminds me of how little we have done on the allotment this year. I think after years of graft with fairly small yields, we needed a break.  The strawberries in particular were so disappointing that I was on the verge of giving up altogether.  Mostly it was just losing the habit of going there all the time.

We have been lucky enough to have a lot going on this year.  I lost the end of my finger in December, we moved house in February, and then we seemed to spend every weekend or holiday going up North to see our distant families.  We had two wonderful family holidays in the Isle of Wight and Scotland, then Fern started school this Autumn.  Only now are we catching our breath back!

Nature was still kind to us.  We got some fantastic crops with very little input, like the potatoes.

Later this year we are hoping to get a greenhouse for the first time, and I think this will give us renewed enthusiasm for growing.  I think having had a fallow period will do us (and maybe the soil?) good.  I am just about to pay this year's allotment invoice, and this was definitely a moment to reflect on the next stage of our allotment progress.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Ode to strawberry jam

Despite trying my best to grow strawberries and raspberries year after year, we have never really had much success (see picture below for this year's harvest!)
We have a relatively huge space dedicated to them, and have painstakingly planted, weeded, watered and checked the crop.  We got a handful this year, but it was all very disappointing.
Things came to a crisis point when we recently ran out of the 2008 supply of homemade jam.  As we used the last drop, with no sign of our own glut, something had to be done.  So we went to Garson's pick your own farm, in Esher, Surrey.  What a find!  There are as many as 40 crops you can pick throughout the year, depending on season.  They have popular crops such as strawberries in succession, so you can pick them more or less any time from spring to autumn.
I can't quite put my finger on why our home-made jam is so special and so essential in my kitchen.
It could be that the jam is made with fresh and ripe fruit, usually on the same day as picking?
It could be the dash of balsamic vinegar that Nigella recommended?
It could be the gooey lumpiness which it has, rather than the pert jelliness of shop bought jam?
Whatever it is, it makes it well worth the hours of picking, preparing, cooking and putting into jars.  I am so looking forward to that first batch of scones with cream and jam.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Star Rock Shop

Well, this is nothing to do with gardening, and everything to do with my addiction to sweets.  However, I found the most perfectly retro, intact sweet shop from days gone by.
There were jars of sweets that I haven't seen since childhood.  I didn't even know half of these still existed?
They make their own sweets as well.  The speciality of the house is the eponymous Star Rock.  I bought some, but I haven't yet had the heart to break into the packet, so I will have to report back on what it tastes like.
To my delight, they also make and sell Scottish tablet.  My scottish granny used to make it, and once I learnt the recipe I could make my own.  It sustained me for years as a teenager.
This place also sold home-made tablet.  The normal sort that you can get anywhere had the same grainy texture and sugary flavour, and was sold in squares.
Also in the counter I noticed another basket of what looked like tablet, but it wasn't wrapped in a nice package with ribbon round.  Instead it was in blobs, and wrapped in ordinary food bags.  I pointed to it and asked the lady behind the shop counter what it was.  She told me in hushed tones that this was the stuff from the pan bottom.  Apparently for tablet aficionados this is thought to be smoother and something of a delicacy.
No prizes for guessing whether I bought some.  It's nice to know whatever your poison, there is somewhere in the world where they are on the same wavelength.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Apple bonanza

This has seemed like a year off tending the allotment.  Although we have visited often, the daily/weekly visits have not been possible.  Aside from mowing the lawns and paths weeding (of course), there hasn't been a vast amount to maintain.  We definitely aren't aiming for prize-winning standards, or even keeping up appearances.  The plot has to take its place alongside the other demands on our time.
We have also had a very odd year of weather for gardening.  It started off with a freezing cold spring (May), then overnight turned boiling hot and dry (June to mid-July), and late summer (Jul/Aug) seems to have been a monsoon (good old St Swithun).  In early summer, our crop plans were defeated by the difficulties of watering through a drought, whilst accomodating two full time jobs, two kids and a full calendar of holidays and long distance family celebrations.  We have had a fantastic year as human beings, but less so as gardeners!
So we were thrilled to find that the apple trees have been busy while we were away.
Every year seems to bring something special from luck rather than judgement, and here it was.  Jamie has promised to make a tarte tatin later, so I will post photos of the results later.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Espalier fruit trees, House of Dun, Montrose

The House of Dun is near Montrose in what I think of as "Golf" Country (Carnoustie and a billion other golf courses). The Montrose Basin is nearby, with the nature reserve. However, what I found most impressive about this National Trust property was the espalier fruit trees against the kitchen garden wall.

I have honestly never seen such amazing fruit. The leaves were dark and glossy. The fruit looked sumptuous - rich, ripe and plentiful . My garden envy was at an all-time peak. I want their secret!

It must be the climate, and I was quite prepared to up sticks and move to Scotland that instant. That day, my eyes were opened to the possibilities for fruit trees, and one day I will fulfill those.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Birthplace of Peter Pan

We went on holiday to Scotland this summer, and it was a very pleasant oasis of cool and damp following our long, hot summer of drought. The green made a vibrant contrast to our brown and yellow, and when the sun came out, you didn't feel obliged to run for cover. The reward for the changeable weather was a lush natural world and stunning landscape, with nature teeming from every pore.

We were staying in Kirriemuir, the hometown of JM Barrie, writer of Peter Pan, and were lucky enough to be staying in the cottage next door to his birthplace, pictured above.

Kirriemuir is known as 'the Gateway to the Glens' and I could not more highly recommend anywhere for a restful break. The traffic levels were non-existent, and the gentle pace of life was the perfect antidote to city living.

It will come as no surprise to some to hear that most of Scotland started out as a separate island from the rest of mainland Britian, and in prehistoric times the continental plates 'crashed' together. The rocks are radically different in composition, and this explains the different landscape of the highlands to the lowlands, and the 'granite city' of Aberdeen compared to the red sandstone of Edinburgh. Well, the Angus glens are formed on the boundary of that historic join. Where the two types of rock collided, you get the most fantastic waterfalls imaginable.

You can see salmon performing almost miraculous jumps up the waterfalls. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I couldn't have believed it. As well as stunning natural features, there were lush forests full of wildlife.

I have to say that it was very easy to start believing in magic too! The Glens are peppered with castles, both inhabited and ruined, leftover from the days when the fertile lowlands needed protection from raiders from the mountains, known locally as 'Caterans'. The one pictured below is a ruin at Inchmark in Glen Clova.

Scottish Heritage maintain some of the remaining ones, including this one at Edzell, which has been enhanced with a picturesque knot garden.

In keeping with the emblem of Scotland, wild thistles grow everywhere, and along with heather were fully in bloom, adding a purple tinge to the green and browns of the countryside.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

A Tribute to Elspeth Thompson

Photo courtesy of

Today I found out the sad news that Elspeth Thompson, gardener, writer and craftswoman died four months ago. For those of you who haven't come across her work, she wrote books such as The London Gardener :Guide and Sourcebook, and The Urban Gardener. More recently she had written books on crafts and making things, such as Gorgeous Things to Make with Love.

Her writing was a real inspiration to many including me. Sometimes felt that if I liked something, it was only a matter of time before she would have written a book on it. This sometimes spooked me in a "parallel lives" kind of way, but more often made me feel connected in some way to something bigger than myself. I loved the way she transferred so much enthusiasm into her writing, and passed on that creative urge to her readers.

The very sad thing about this is that I didn't know until I read a very moving account by her husband in this weekend's paper. She had battled for years with depression, and despite the fantastic talent she possessed, she was unable to go on. She left notes to people including her 6 year old daughter, telling them she loved them and she was sorry. Then she took sleeping tablets and put stones in her pockets and walked into a river.

Perhaps because of also having a 6 year old daughter, perhaps because of the shared interests, I found this unbearably tragic. Depression is a terrible illness, and one that isn't taken seriously enough in our society. I constantly hear colleagues whingeing about someone being "off sick with depression/stress" as if it is a skive. Crikey, there are better ways to skive.

Someone who clearly had so much talent and so much to offer the world finding it so hard to go on that they took their own life, leaving behind their beloved child and husband. It rings true, though. Because if we are honest, many of us go through low patches in life where it seems too hard to carry on. Each person has a lot to offer, especially to those who love them, and it is all too easy to forget that. When I read the moving account from her husband about how him and their daughter have had to carry on, it moved me to tears. How terribly tragic that if she could take back that last action, she almost certainly would. Her husband was certainly right when he concluded that she was so ill that she did not know what she was doing.

So here, in tribute to Elspeth Thompson The Wonderful Weekend Book . Enjoy every bit of life while it lasts. None of us ever really know when the end will come.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Lancashire is a land of contrasts.

On the one hand, it has some of the most urbanised and densely populated areas of the UK. The industrial revolution has left a legacy of dark satanic mills (most of which are now trendy loft apartments) and the town planners of the 20th century have left some fairly drab town centres and huge, unloved housing estates.

On the other hand, there is some of the most lush, untouched countryside in England. There are lovely villages, towns and a standard of living that those of us in London can only dream of. The combination of superb countryside and rich urban commuters have led to some brilliant places to visit to celebrate the local cuisine and culture.

As someone who grew up there and has since been a frequent visitor to the region, I get an increasing sense of regained identity in a region once so demoralised by the loss of many local industries since its industrial heyday.

At the weekend, I was lucky enough to be taken to one of the places celebrating Lancashire's gourmet culture, Bashall Barns. This is a farm shop and restaurant in a remote location near Clitheroe. As a dairy farm, they use their own milk to make their very popular ice cream, which is sold in the resturant and in tubs at the shop. Flavours that day included toffee, chocolate and vanilla, as well as seasonal British flavours such as gooseberry and rhubarb.

There is also a delicious selection of local specialities for which many ingredients are sourced in Lancashire, such as Goosnargh chicken and duck, Lancashire cheese and Bury black pudding. The food was served in generous portions, (as I have come to expect in the North) and the friendly staff gave a very warm welcome. Overall a fantastic experience. The farm shop itself had the famous ice cream, as well as local vegetables and beer brewed on-site.

They also had a really good selection of gardening and self-sufficiency books.

Well worth a visit if you are ever in the area, which of course is very unlikely! You might need to take a detour especially.