The depths of winter seems like a good time to bake bread. Quick flat-bread is easy throughout the seasons – cooked in minutes on the wood-burner hotplates when it’s cold or in a regular oven to go with a herby salad from the garden in summer. But slowly proven bread, maybe risen by wild yeasts from a sourdough starter, baked with nourishing stone-ground organic flour feels right for those months after Christmas when comforting but healthy food is craved. And getting a new sourdough starter established definitely seems easy in a kitchen that’s constantly cosily warmed by the wood-burning stove. Winter evenings are perfect for curling up with a good book too of course. There seems to have been far too little time for that lately, but the following books have not only inspired me to give sourdough another go, to experiment with herbs more and to look forward to Spring foraging; they’re leading on to more great reading. In ‘The Modern Peasant’ by Jojo Tulloh, a sort of self sufficiency for city-dwellers is explored. Jojo initially describes visiting Patience Gray’s hillside home in rural Southern Italy. Lured by Patience Gray’s autobiographical cookbook ‘Honey from a Weed’ (next on my list to read!) Jojo describes the old bread oven where figs dried, the fireplace where hams and sausages were smoked and the larder full of preserves. She concludes: “Patience’s remarkable ability to live both in the present and in the past got me thinking, as did her propensity for learning from others. I returned to Hackney determined to eat more weeds (Patience’s universal panacea), get bees and seek out those who could teach me their hard-earnt skills.” Having thoroughly enjoyed Jojo’s account of meeting and learning from organic bee-keepers, a farmer who combines pig-keeping with cheese-making (feeding the pigs seems a great use for all that surplus whey), foragers and bakers, I determined to revisit sourdough, make easy everyday sausages without skins (one of the many tempting recipes in this book) and eat more weeds. The weed-eating enthusiasm was further encouraged by Ian Hemphill’s ‘The Spice & Herb Bible’, an amazingly comprehensive and hefty tome which covers everything from growing herbs, foraging for them, their history and imaginative ways to cook with them. You can even learn the names of the herbs in numerous languages. As I said this book is hefty, not the sort to pick up and read from cover to cover, more the sort I’ll refer to when wondering if there’s anything new I can do with my Angelica, wanting to master a Massaman curry or fancying blending a spice rub. It’s packed with fascinating facts (if I find Alexanders I now know what to do with them and did you know they were named after Alexander the Great?) and interesting recipes. Baharat Beef with Olives sounds both comforting and exotic, while I’m keen to mix my own Ras el Hanout and make Lavender and Lemon Olive Oil Cakes. Ian Hemphill (a household name in Australia) has travelled all over the world in search of new spices and herbs and his passion is evident in this spice encyclopaedia which I’m looking forward to dipping into regularly. While the books above make me want to cook and eat, John Jackson’s ‘A Little Piece of England’ makes me hanker for more animals. In John’s account of how he, his wife and three children built up their smallholding in rural Kent in the sixties and seventies, owls are harboured in the barn and upstairs in the family home his daughter is always looking after a litter of pups or hatching chicks. Their sheep have learnt a few tricks from Houdini. And tales of their guinea fowl makes me nostalgic for the semi-wild old character who used to hang out here. John tells how the Cuckoo Maran hens “gave us lovely brown eggs that looked homely and cheerful at breakfast time.” But food doesn’t feature a lot in this book at all; the family clearly love their animals and although they have notions of roast guinea fowl, they never focus on livestock as food. Apart from a few eggs, they mainly seem to be bred for the love of them: “It was understood in the family that old age pensioners were allowed to die in peace and dignity. Some of them held out for a long time.” So ancient rabbits, guinea pigs and guinea fowls all become much-loved extended family members. A book to curl up by the wood-burner with, that will make you smile as you read, this reissue is also beautifully produced. It features lovely pen and ink illustrations by Val Biro. I like John’s approach to gardening, which reminds me of my own lazy gardening style: “The plan had been to contrive ways of growing interesting plants without disturbing the general wildness of the place.” Most of all though, I love John’s enthusiasm for living a life intertwined with the land: “The best way to get an understanding of the land is to use it. I have long believed that the health of a nation is better, and its communities and its cultures stronger, the more it cleaves to and values the land it lives on.” All making me want to relish the cosiness of baking bread in the kitchen for the moment, but also sort out the shoddy state of my seed box in readiness for Spring. With thanks for my review copies of ‘A Little Piece of England’ by John Jackson and ‘The Spice & Herb Bible’ by Ian Hemphill. I bought ‘The Modern Peasant’ by Jojo Tulloh after a twitter recommendation – very grateful. All rambling opinions are my own.
My kitchen is full of untidy clutter, silver pine cones and lots to eat. All with a distinctly glittery sheen. Nothing changes.
The pine cones were painted by children last weekend and are waiting for me to somehow attach them to ribbon (I hadn’t quite thought that one through when I reached for the glittery paint) to make a sort of Christmas bunting to string from the beams. Next to them are Christmas cards that I must write, cards that I keep meaning to hang on ribbon and a few sprinklings of tinsel for good measure. It must’ve dropped off the Nativity play angel halo. I have work to do, ironing piling up, lots that I could tidy, but of course I’ve just found time to make Crisp Cinnamon Cookies from Trine Hahnemann’s lovely Scandinavian Christmas book. Well, we’re choosing a Christmas tree after school and I thought we’d need something festive afterwards.
Another indication of my priorities can be seen on the windowsill.
This year’s Quince harvest wasn’t as bountiful as last year so I just made my two favourite Quince items – Quince Ratafia and membrillo. Some of the membrillo has already been scoffed by us with cheese and added to tagines for a sweet fragrance but it’s mostly waiting to be wrapped in a tin in a cool room.
This is how I make my Quince Ratafia, a golden liqueur whose wonderfully exotic name belies its ease of making:
1.2 litres brandy
Simply chop the quinces into chunks, cover with the brandy (you can use cheap brandy but not so cheap that it ruins your lovely home-made liqueur) and add the sugar. Shake daily until the sugar dissolves. Strain the liquid after 12 weeks through muslin. Lovely as a tipple with the Christmas pud.
Quince-meat slices have already been made and scoffed.
And a Christmas pudding that I made with my daughter is tucked away in a dark corner. It may be the best place for it. I’m hoping that the grandparents who will share it with us on Christmas day will be so pleased that it was mixed by their 7 year old grand-daughter that they’ll just be amused by the fact that she was a little creative in its making. I was probably a little too relaxed about how lovely it is to let Ruby get on with things in the kitchen these days. I passed her the baking powder and cinnamon and a teaspoon, mentioning how much to add and even left the room to get something during the mixing. Later, when she mentioned adding a few ‘secret ingredients’ I did recall her darting away guiltily from the ‘treats’ drawer. Then there’s her admission that she may have been rather generous with the baking powder. I did notice the pudding looking as if it was trying to burst out of its basin pre-steaming. I look forward to a mad scientist style pudding on the big day.
My kitchen has also seen lots of experimenting with bread lately. An easy overnight loaf which I’ll hopefully write about in January ( a good month for the warm fug of baking in the kitchen surely?) and also Rye bread, which I’m planning to make again on Christmas Eve for an easy supper along with smoked salmon and crab.
Anyway, back to the glittery chaos (even the cookies are sprinkled with an edible gold variety). Happy Christmas baking to everyone and hope you too have that constant glittery sheen around you. And a big thank you to the lovely Chava of Flavourphotos who did a photo shoot with me for a recent Quince magazine article and managed as always to make something beautiful out of my shoddiness.
I’m using any scraps of material that appeal to my eye and hand-sewing large squares very simply together. Patches of Ruby’s first red gingham school-dress is being added to some sixties style fabric leftover from an apron I made for her; there are scraps from an old dress of mine that had too many holes even for gardening, a stripy apron that even I had to admit was too torn for use but that I’d loved and a few baby dresses. I like mixing the prettiness of some of these fabrics with patches from old worn jeans.
They’re all sewn together in my very basic style, the idea being that I can mindlessly sew while listening to music or watching TV in the evening. My patchwork is growing very slowly (the busy work stuff again) but I’m hoping that eventually it’ll be big enough for a small throw that I can back with fleece and that Ruby can snuggle under to watch a film or read a book.
I was prompted to start my patchwork a few months ago after reading an interview with Emma Bridgewater in ‘Country Living’ magazine. I’m very partial to her hand painted mugs and jugs and was inspired to read about the quilt that she’d made for her daughter, Margaret. Made out of much-loved bits of fabric collected over the shirts from scraps of her late mother’s purple sarong to old shirts from Provence belonging to her husband, Matthew Rice, the quilt had a similar homely charm to Emma’s lovely earthenware.
But what I really loved about Emma’s quilt was the memories entwined in it. Emma said that she’d sat sewing the quilt, which is finished with the words, “Keep very cosy, darling Margaret,” while watching favourite films over the years. When she looks at it she can hear the soundtracks from those films as well as treasuring the memories of her loved ones wearing those clothes.
Hoping that one day Ruby will be kept cosy by a mixture of her first school dresses and my old aprons. Sewn together by her shoddy but enthusiastic Mum using the pin cushion made from an old yoghurt pot that Ruby made for me at Rainbows for Mother’s day.
Thanks to Chava again for pics taken when she visited (all apart from the pic of Emma Bridgewater from Country Living feature). My camera has recently completely given up. I’m hoping to buy a new one very soon – so my amateur pics will be back shortly!
I’ve just been picking damsons as the sun rapidly fades and bats start to swoop around the garden. It’s been such a gloriously sunny day, happily spent in woodland having fun with friends but the cool of the evening is a reminder that Autumn is around the corner. The PE kit scattered around the house and the name labels that still need to be sewn on school dresses are a reminder that the school holidays are nearly at an end.
And I’m feeling nostalgic already for those hot first weeks of the summer holiday when Ruby and friends played in the paddling pool and I picked blackcurrants to make Cassis. When we still had the week in Brittany with our family lying ahead, our bellies not yet fattened by copious crepes and far too many croissants. I don’t want to forget about any of it, not the camping by a river in Herefordshire, kayaking down the Wye, or the rainy days at home when we made a huge chocolate cake and went swimming. Even the day we were all forced to sit on the pew because every available chair was being used in the construction of a huge den.
Amidst all this, my garden has been getting wilder by the day, providing a great setting for lots of play while providing the ingredients for plenty of meals, so many of them scoffed outside.
They may not be to everyone’s aesthetic taste but I’ve even savoured the sheer good looks of a variety of vegetable flowers this summer - partly from curiosity (I’ll keep quiet about the laziness) I’ve had flowering carrots, leeks, swede and a parsnip forest this year and found them all rather beautiful.
Which brings me to why I bother. Writing, that is. A lot earlier in the summer, Sarah of the lovely gardening/cooking blog The Garden Deli invited me to join in a blog hop started by Elizabeth of Dig In about why we write. I have to apologise for being so tardy in joining in, but thinking about the whole process of blog writing has set me thinking. Especially as I’ve just taken an unplanned blogging break over the last month or so.
I’ve had a lot of work to do, and like many working Mums, in my efforts to savour as much time as possible with my daughter (she’s nearly 7 and I’m conscious that these carefree, innocent days of summer holidays are so fleeting and so precious) much of this has been squeezed into evenings. So blogging time seems to have vanished.
Yet I look back at some of my blog posts about last summer, and I’m so glad that I kept a record of our time rock-pooling and making potions on the beaches of the Lyn peninsula.
The crab linguine was delicious too. And it’s lovely to glance back at my crazily wild garden through the seasons and years.
So here’s my first answer:
Why do I write what I do?
I was already writing on a freelance basis for a number of magazines but looking to generate more work when I started blogging and initially I thought it made sense to have somewhere to refer make to when generating new work. Gradually though I began to discover many fascinating blogs, became interested in the virtual communities and loved ‘meeting’ people who seemed as passionate about growing and cooking food as myself. I gleaned all sorts of bits of info, from new healthy recipes to cook with my daughter to how to attract more bees and butterflies into my garden.
Increasingly my blog became both an indulgent pleasure and something of a diary. While I love writing about things I’m interested in – from cheese-making to medieval bread – for magazines, when writing my blog I can choose to focus even more on whatever I’m particularly enthusiastic about that day. Whether it’s making lip-balm, meeting buffalo or reviewing lovely books.
Often my passions are bizarrely linked of course, which brings me to:
How does my writing process work?
My ideas for magazine article can often pop into my mind at random times; booking swimming lessons for my daughter combined with enjoying reading about the criminal activities of Mr Toad in the Wind in the Willows to her led to my Take a Dip on the Wild Side piece for GreenParent. So obviously my blog posts may be triggered by even more bizarre bits and pieces. Being amused by post-it notes in my daughter’s book led to Bread and Jam for Ruby and while cycling or walking I’m always spotting edible goodies in hedgerows that lead to much cooking and writing activity.
As for the actual writing, I agree with Sarah of the Garden Deli that writing the first paragraph of anything is always the hardest. I may have progressed ( a teeny bit) from my student days of scoffing a whole packet of hobnobs while struggling to churn out an essay but I still reward myself with a mid morning espresso pot or a potter around outside to pick some raspberries when I’ve got past the tricky bit.
What am I working on?
Well, I have lots of lovely unhomogenised full-fat milk in the fridge which I really need to turn into brie in order to write an article very soon. Then there’s the sloe gin piece. While I’m looking forward to finishing reading an inspiring book about living off the land, A Little Piece of England, ready for a review. Lots more ideas rattling round in my befuddled head too.
All of which will happily distract me from those school labels and collecting the PE kit …
And now I’ll pass the blog-hopping baton onto Chava, a great photographer who’s taken the best of the pics in this post (including the veggie flowers/seedheads) and who writes a beautiful vegan food blog at Flavour Photos. Chava’s cooking and recipes are wonderful, equally tempting whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or carnivorous. Delicious too I can confirm, having enjoyed several bring and share vegetarian suppers with her.
Wild strawberries, redcurrants and raspberries are all plentiful in our garden at the moment. Tempting me to grab a handful as I walk past on my way to plant purple beans or to pop outside with a bowl before eating my breakfast granola. And Ruby is telling me she’s ‘fed up’ of the regular strawberries that have been our dessert most evenings for the last two weeks.
While I’m definitely not fed up of red berries, it’s perhaps time to do a little more with them than pour on the cream. Redcurrant cordial beckons (how lovely to drizzle on to vanilla ice-cream or use in salad dressings as well as for a summery drink) but first I’ve made something even easier.
We’ve had such amazing summery weather lately, it’s seemed more important to savour it, whether it’s pottering around the garden, sneaking into the hammock on a lazy weekend afternoon or eating outside.
Or making sure that warm evenings are not all about dusk gardening; remembering to sit with a drink and enjoy the golden glow of the hay field next door and the changing look of the garden as the sun sinks and a bat starts to circle the house.
You may think I’ve spent a little too much time doing the above if you saw the parsnip forest (I’ve left them to go to seed, enjoying the flowers until my squash are ready to plant in their place) or the wild growth around the redcurrants. But the parsnip flowers are very pretty and there’s a definite hum about them suggesting the honeybees are appreciative of my tardy ways. While my wild growth is doing a good job of protecting the redcurrants from greedy birds, keeping them hidden like little jewels in an unkempt forest.
Shaken berries (or currants) seem to be popular in Scandinavia, and it’s a wonderfully simple way of drawing attention to their jewel-like beauty. Trine Hahnemann inspired me to try them when I read the Nordic diet and Diana Henry reminded me in her wonderful recent book, a change of appetite.
You can use any sort of berries/currants - I used a mix of wild strawberries (cultivated strawberries don’t work brilliantly in this) redcurrants and raspberries but will be trying blackcurrants too when they’re ripe.
These berries are meant to be shaken, not stirred, so I’d recommend using a deep sided baking tray. My first attempt was in a container with shallow sides which encouraged me to do the opposite.
75g raw cane sugar
Rinse the fruit but don’t dry. Spread them out on a large tray and sprinkle with the sugar.
Leave for a couple of hours until the sugar has dissolved, shaking from time to time.
Pour into a sterilised jar (I used one straight from the dishwasher) and they’ll keep for about 3 weeks in the fridge. Great with mascarpone for a summery dessert – the juice makes a lovely, easy syrup to sweeten the mascarpone – these make a tasty breakfast too with thick, Greek yoghurt or labneh.
Would love to join in Four Seasons Food, co-hosted by Louisa of Eat Your Veg and Anneli of Delicieux, with this month’s theme of The Colour Red hosted by The Spicy Pear and to Ren Behan’s Simple and in Season.
I have to admit that the words pie and salad are not often paired in this house. Pie and mash, yes regularly. Pie and steamed veggies even. Salad, flowers and pies, not really. But thanks to some totally delicious and very summery pies that I was sent recently by Higgidy and a selection of salad seedlings from Sarah Raven we’ve been turned.
Imaginative fillings such as Sweet Potato & Feta with pumpkin seeds, Chicken & Smoky Spanish Chorizo Pie had something to do with it. Then there’s the fact that the side dish was very handily growing just by the back door.
The mizuna, red mustard, rocket and red & green lettuce seedlings were sent to me by Sarah Raven back in April, with fab seed markers and a feed to encourage healthy growth. The idea was that I would grow my own side salads to accompany the pies that would follow in June.
Some of the seedlings were planted in a little area next to my strawberry bed, but I have to admit that the ones that fared best were planted in a pot right next to the back door. Sheltered, against a sunny wall and very handy for watering they also provided handy leaves for lunchtime sandwiches before the arrival of pies.
I don’t normally buy pies, although I’m very partial to a home-made chicken and mushroom, buffalo and kidney or wild greens and ricotta version. As these turned up when we were just back from holiday and I had lots of work to catch up on, they were particularly welcome.
Pies that taste like properly handmade pies too, but with lovely fillings I hadn’t thought of. As well as including classics such as the Little Smoked Bacon & Cheddar Quiche (Ruby’s favourite).
There are some great, imaginative ideas for side dishes both on the pie boxes (Warm White Bean Salad to go with the Chicken & Spanish Chorizo Pie, Moroccan spiced Carrot & Orange for the Sweet Potato & Feta) and on the Higgidy web-site. Because I was looking forward to an easy supper, and I returned from holiday to a garden full of edible flowers, I popped outside and then tossed the following ingredients together for this salad to enjoy with my pies:
Garden Salad with Edible Flowers
A few handfuls of mizuna, rocket, red mustard, lettuce (grown from my Sarah Raven seedlings)
Purple & red radish sliced
A handful of flat leaf parsley tips
A few fennel fronds & pea-tips
Salad Burnet (for a cucumber-ish flavour)
A handful of edible flowers – borage, violets, chop suey green flowers, chive flowers, calendula)
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
4 tablespoons local rapeseed oil
A little sea-salt
Very glad I have a few pies still in the freezer – the first new potatoes are nearly ready and I’m thinking already of tossing a few with sorrel & butter to scoff with a Chicken & Chorizo pie.