puglian vendemmia

Having relished our English Autumn, we had a lovely trip to Puglia in half term and it was wonderful to see Italy at a time when the olives are being gathered. There are bags of walnuts and almonds outside every village shop and the trattorie all feature wild mushroom dishes.

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Our holidays over the last few years have mainly been British seaside bucket and spade fests, partly because flights in school holidays are so expensive and also because we’ve loved finding hidden Welsh coves and Dorset crabbing spots. Discovering somewhere completely different, leaving our abundance of apples to explore Baroque towns and rural areas with olive nets laid in readiness under ancient trees was such a different treat.

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We stayed at Casa Cicerali, a beautifully restored stone farmhouse with a wonderful wooden decked pool overlooking olive and almond groves. In between Ostuni and Cisternino, two little hill-top towns that were great to explore and buy delicious provisions from, it was also a 20 minute drive to some lovely Adriatic beaches. It wasn’t hot, but being hardy English girls (and the Adriatic sea was distinctly warmer than the Welsh sea that we’re used to) Ruby and I swam in the sea and Ruby made trulli sandcastles.

casa cicerali

Casa Cicerali has been restored by an English family whose modernist white house somehow fits into this valley of vines and olives perfectly. Their girls go to school locally, they were so welcoming from offering to cook us supper for our first night (a baked pasta dish with Italian sausage, home-made bread and brownies – all delicious), lending us buckets and spades and leaving a large jar of their own almonds which we scoffed throughout the week. We could pick any fruit from their trees too (Quince and Persimmon during Autumn).

casa cicerali pool

It was great to have a local family give us ideas for exploring the area, and their recommended local village restaurant was amazing value. Wonderful and abundant antipasti left us hardly any room for the delicious wild boar and cardoncelli mushroom ragu with pasta. Thank goodness for the walk home to let it go down – through little country lanes that gave us great glimpses of the orti (patches of land where the villagers grow olives, almonds, fruit and maybe a few vegetables).

We shopped at the local market for food, coming home with squid, sausage,lentils and tomatoes to cook and eat on our lovely terrace.

nov 2015 179nov 2015 180Exploring the Baroque streets of Martina Franca, Ruby discovered a florists shop where all the flowers and bouquets were made from candy, chocolate and almonds. Then we got caught in a rain storm and drank far too many strong espressos and ate nutella pies while we sheltered in a bar.

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Now we’re home to English rain and copious apples and quince in place of prickly pear and persimmon. I’m loving the large bowl of almonds we brought home from Casa Cicerali on our kitchen table. They remind me of our great holiday every time we get out the nut crackers.


mellow fruitfulness & focaccia

Rampant storms seem to have taken over from all those misty mornings and mellow fruitfulness. Soon all the russet leaves will be on the ground, so before I forget what an utterly stunning Autumn it’s been, I thought I’d recap. And in true “hygge” style, savour the cosiness of wintry baking.

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I can’t remember an Autumn when Keats’ words were more apt. This season of “mists and mellow fruitfulness”  has been exactly that: so many mornings eating breakfast while the sun attempts to break through the mist hanging low over the fields. The coppery, golden and amber hues have been more vivid than ever, stunning as a bright blue sky replaces the mist as a backdrop. And as for the mellow fruitfulness, many of the Quince have been made into membrillo and jars of jelly, Ruby and friends collected rose-hips for syrup and apples are in plentiful supply.


The wood-burning stove is lit most days and it’s time for slow-cooked stews and baking. Quince and Apple cake from Sarah Raven’s fab ‘Garden Cookbook’ (one of my most-used cookbooks) is my new favourite cake, quince has been used in a Venison, Quince and Cider Stew today and the smell of baking bread draws me into the kitchen. More tempting than venturing outside this week.

I’m still loving using the sourdough starter (offspring of Priscilla Queen of the Refrigerator) kindly sent to me by Celia of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, while Ruby and friends are ever niftier at cake-baking. I can let them get on with so much weighing and mixing, even chopping these days without chaos but it’s good to see that cleaning the bowl from chocolate cake is still the preferred baking activity. And although rapidly growing up, my daughter still has fingers that are the perfect size for those dimples in foccacia.

This is the focaccia recipe I generally use:

500g strong white bread flour

1 dessert spoon Maldon sea salt + extra for sprinkling

I x 7g sachet dried, fast-action yeast

2 tablespoons olive oil + extra for drizzling

3 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves chopped


Mix together the flour and dessert spoon of salt in a large bowl and add the yeast along with 350ml warm water and the 2 tablespoons of oil. Bring together into a dough and knead on a floured surface for 10 minutes until the dough loses its stickiness and becomes nicely pliable. Put it in an oiled bowl, cover with a damp tea towel and leave for an hour or so until doubled in size. Knock back the dough and leave to rise again for another hour then press into a lightly oiled rectangular baking tin. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to prove for 1/2 hour (close to the oven) while the oven heats to its highest setting.

Use your own fingertips (or borrow some from a child as I often do) to poke rows of dimples. Well, maybe not quite as orderly as rows if you’re anything like my daughter – or me. Drizzle liberally with olive oil (it will collect deliciously in those dimples) and sprinkle with sea salt and rosemary. You can vary your focaccia each time, maybe pressing halved cherry tomatoes into the dough or some olives.

making focaccia

Of course I haven’t just been gazing at leaves and baking lately – it seems as if our lives are ever busier, particularly with work and school. All the more reason to make focaccia!

cardigan bay hols

Kayaking in a sheltered bay, spotting dolphins and scoffing delicious food at the pizza tipi are some of the things I’ll remember from our recent hols.

We stayed in Newport, a lovely laid-back little place on an estuary in North Pembrokeshire. You can cross the estuary at low-tide (as long as you’re happy to paddle up to the waist) to reach a long windswept beach with great waves for jumping and sand dunes to picnic in.

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I loved the arty/foodie/slightly bohemian vibe and the variety of beaches from sheltered coves (great for paddling around in our inflatable kayak) to vast, white sandy expanses perfect for kite-flying.

We stayed in Carreg Las, a gorgeous Georgian house that we all wanted to move into permanently. It had a light-filled kitchen that was perfect for lingering over coffee in the morning, scoffing bara brith from the nearby bakery and playing games in the evening.Carreg lasAnd the simple but stylish decor with slate/stripped wood floors, pale greys and creams and splashes of colour from Welsh textiles or local art was lovely.

Carreg las bunks

It inspired some art of our own – necklaces made with shells with holes and worn with PJs!

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Our first night treat meal at Llys Meddyg, a restaurant with rooms with a passion for foraging and local rooms was delicious – we ate in the very family friendly and relaxed garden restaurant that opens during the summer.

One morning we climbed Carningli, the hill that rises above Newport and grazed on whimberries as we walked. I can’t wait to return!


out of hibernation

I can’t believe that last time I wrote a post I was talking about hibernating. Now I’m making the most of every sunny hour outdoors, enjoying my garden which is wilder than ever and the surrounding countryside, currently all undulating fields in those lovely subdued, mellow hues that ripe barley and wheat tend to have by August.

Of course I haven’t really been hibernating since April. In between work, busy school terms, attempting to play some minor part in the shape of my unruly garden and feeding my family, there doesn’t seem to have been time to blog. These are some of the things I have managed to fit in:

Yet more baking.

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Cake decorating with flowers in the garden seems to still be popular with lots of 7 year old girls around here:

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We had a lovely weekend back in May in Somerset, including visiting the wonderful Ethicurean. I loved the restored walled kitchen garden with far-reaching views over the surrounding countryside. Would love to see how those little seedlings are looking now.

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We played hide and seek in it, a tad embarrassing when I was spotted by a passing couple lying behind a low box hedge. And the food, home-produced/local and scoffed in a restored old greenhouse, was delicious. Lots of jars of fermenting potions on the windowsill too, just my cup of tea.

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Back home, I made gooseberry and elderflower cordial as a change to my usual elderflower cordial.

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We had a great crop of strawberries, I made some Cassis with blackcurrants from garden and I let the asparagus get shoddily surrounded by weeds.

Currently the courgettes are starting to produce fast and furiously, the calendula and nasturtium are as rampant as usual and there are regularly lots of children in the paddling pool. Veggies, flowers and children all becoming increasingly feral as the summer holidays progress.


I’m missing blogging and am looking forward to catching up – as determined to post more regularly as I am to make the most of the rest of this lovely Summer.





making bagels

Over the last few months, bread-baking has been my chosen form of hibernation. Enjoying the warmth of the kitchen while I experiment with baking sourdough, focaccia, malted grain loaves and now bagels, it all beats hiding under a pile of leaves.

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I’m very grateful to Celia, whose enthusiasm for baking in her fab blog, Fig Jam & Lime Cordial, regularly inspires me, for sending me some of her sourdough starter. When Celia offered to share Priscilla Queen of the Refrigerator (in dried form, with instructions of ready to be rehydrated) I was very excited. Priscilla’s offspring, Edna, now regularly helps my sourdough slowly and majestically to prove. Lovely to think that thanks to Celia’s generosity Priscilla’s offspring are being similarly productive in kitchens around the world.

Now a little of Edna has gone into my bagels, an experiment my daughter was keen to get involved in. Regular bread-making is no longer too interesting to her, but rolling dough around your arm into a doughnut shape and then dunking it in boiling water, now you’re talking. Obviously I made plenty of dough to allow for mishaps – more from me than 7 year old Ruby.

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Have to say though, that it isn’t as tricky as it sounds. Our bagels were obviously very rustic, some may say messy, in appearance. But they tasted great. Even though I very gingerly lowered my dough rings into boiling water, waiting for them to disintegrate into a mush, it does work.

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This is how we made them:



450g strong white bread flour (a mix of white/wholemeal is good for bagels with banana and peanut butter)

2 teaspoons salt

7g sachet dried yeast

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon sourdough starter (optional)

1 tablespoon rapeseed oil

1 tablespoon molasses (optional)

1 egg , beaten

Poppy seeds & sesame seeds

Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl. Dissolve the yeast in 250ml warm water and stir in the honey and oil. Pour the liquid into the flour to make a dough, add the sourdough (if using) and knead for about 10 minutes, adding more flour if the dough becomes too sticky or a little more water if it’s too stiff, until the dough is firm and elastic. Place in an oiled bowl, cover with a damp tea towel and put in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size. If you have time, leave for a slower prove overnight on a cool windowsill.

When the dough has proved, bring a large saucepan of water to the boil and add the molasses. Turn off the heat and cover. Lightly oil two baking trays.

Divide the dough into 7 equal chunks and roll each into a long, thin sausage shape. Bring the ends together, splash with a little water and squeeze together to seal. Place on the baking sheets, cover with a damp tea towel and prove for 20 minutes. Preheat oven to its highest setting.

Bring the saucepan of water and molasses back to a simmer. In batches of two or three at a time gently drop each bagel into the water and turn over after a minute. Simmer for another 1- 2 minutes then remove the bagels from the water and drain.

Place the bagels on the baking trays, spacing widely as they will expand as they cook. Brush the tops with the beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds, sea salt or poppy seeds. Bake for about 7 minutes until golden then turn over and cook for a further 7 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Don’t wait too long before eating though – they’re at their best within the first few hours, delicious with smoked salmon and cream cheese. Otherwise they’re great toasted the next day with sliced banana and honey or peanut butter.

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The primroses, slender pink stems of rhubarb (and mass of weeds as yet untouched from last year) are beckoning outside so my hibernation is at an end. This week the storms are raging outside though; a fallen ash tree at least means we’ll be warmed by the wood-burner during future winter hibernations. And there’s still an excuse for cosy baking, so will report more on focaccia and sourdough soon.


eating weeds, baking sourdough & escapologist sheep – inspiring winter reading

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. Bread389 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. image001 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. ALPOE-COVER600In 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. 1024rooster 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. 1024sheep 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.

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