in my garden December

in my garden this month I’m loving the frost tinged Cavolo Nero and Kale. The chilly mornings may make trips into the garden increasingly brief, but when the sun eventually makes an appearance the smoky blue sky is beautiful.

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in my garden….

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Colour may be increasingly sparse but the chicory and trusty Chard are doing their bit to add vibrant life to the garden with their ruby reds and magenta hues. The beetroot leaves are almost two-tone in their silvery green and purple loveliness; tasty and nutritious to eat too, definitely not to be discarded when you roast the roots.

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Away from the garden it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas and maybe that explains why I’m drawn to all these silvers and reds. There’ll soon be a temptation to head a field or so away from the garden in search of this:

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How exciting! In the meantime, there are still a few jobs to be done in the garden. Muntjacs are regular visitors at the moment and pheasants are often hanging around, so there are lots of things to be protected. There’s food for everyone, but I’d like a little bit left for us.

I’ve been mulching , covering any bare earth with anything I can get my hands on; using ash from the wood-burner and compost from one of the three bays. The asparagus bed that I started from seed this year has been the most cosseted; I spread the rich compost/feed from the worm café thinly around the plants before mulching with regular compost. Hope they survive their first winter.

in my garden….

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…..I’m enjoying the views over the garden fence. Ruby has a good vantage point from her treehouse, but every morning when I come down to our kitchen I love admiring the Oak tree in the field next to us. The leaves are now turning from mellow yellow to russet and beyond it the lazy December sun rises above the Cotswold hills. I’ll never tire of this view, it’s wonderful from the hammock in the summer but on a chilly winter morning it  never fails to lift my spirits.

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in my garden….

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…. the harvest is increasingly centred around root veg – parsnips, turnips, carrots and swede are just the thing for a warming stew, slow-cooked on the wood-burning stove after a few hours outside, The Mother Hubbards are being enjoyed too and I’m very grateful for the hardy herbs including thyme, rosemary and sage which are still plentiful.

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While I soak fruit for the Christmas pudding and buy in lots of chocolate for decadent festive treats, it’s lovely to savour simple, wholesome food from the garden too.

Joining in once again with Lizzie Moult’s lovely Garden Share Collective and looking forward to seeing the enticing exotic produce and sunnier scenes from around the world.

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a wintry warming stew with blade steak, squash and parsnips

This morning the car needed scraping and I walked out of the house for the school run with two left gloves. On a more poetic note, the cavolo nero was silvery tinged with frost and when the low winter sun made an appearance, the sky was a beautiful grey blue. Either way, Autumn has undeniably been usurped by Winter and it’s time for hot water bottles, evenings by the wood-burner and slow-cooked soups and stews.

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My warming stew is both frugal and comforting, using turnips, parsnips and swede from the garden, mother hubbard squash from the store and blade steak from a wonderful local smallholding which I happened to have in the freezer. I buy their blade steak regularly, it’s a cheap cut of their very well-reared, organically fed animals that has lots of flavour but does need tenderising. I find that either bashing with a rolling pin and marinading in olive oil, salt & pepper and flash-frying or slow-cooking does wonders. As this stew cooks slowly for 3-4 hours it’s perfect, resulting in tender meat and an unctuous stew. Sweet root veg, garlic and red wine add to the robust flavours.

I cooked a large amount of this stew during an evening, a bit of very simple chopping giving me a couple of dinners for the following days. The wood-burning oven was lit, perfect for slow (and free!) cooking while I picked up my knitting. I know, it’s wild in the Cotswolds!

But back to the stew, which provides 6ish portions (depending on your level of winter gluttony) and can be nicely imprecise in the cooking times. You can substitute veg for carrots, Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, whatever you have to hand.

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Squash, Blade steak and Root Veg Stew

1 tablespoon olive oil

I onion, peeled and chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

800g blade steak (or other good value cuts from well-reared animals) cubed.

flour to dust

1 turnip, peeled and roughly chopped

500g squash peeled and chopped (I used home-grown Mother Hubbard, butternut would be good too)

2 parsnips, peeled and chopped

1 Swede, peeled and chopped

2 tablespoons tomato puree

1/4 bottle of red wine

500ml beef or vegetable stock

a handful of rosemary leaves, chopped

Cook the onion and garlic in olive oil in a large casserole pot for 5 mins. Toss the meat in a little seasoned flour, then add it to the pan with all the vegetables, tomato puree, wine and stock and stir. Season with black pepper and a little salt. Bring to simmer, place a lid on top and cook in an oven heated to 160C for 3 to 4 hours until the meat is tender and the stew rich and unctuous. If you have a wood-burning stove, it’s perfect to pop in the oven. Sprinkle some chopped rosemary over before eating.

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We ate this with mashed potato and a heap of mixed cavolo nero and kale but a few home-made dumplings wouldn’t go amiss.

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Would love to enter this into the Four Seasons Food Challenge for November, hosted by Anneli of Delicieux and Louisa of Eat Your Veg. It’s definitely worth a browse for lots of comforting Soups, Stews and One Pot Wonders this month.

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in my kitchen November

in my kitchen this month…..

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the warm hues of Autumn seem to be following me inside. The golden quinces, rosy apples, the burnt orange of the kuri squash and the enticing amber of the cider (we had a little sip when we siphoned it off into the second demi-john and it’s tasting good) echo the crisp colours of the garden. While my jewel-coloured jellies and magenta liquor around the sloes are reminding me of the rich colours of the berries in the hedgerows.

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This is obviously on a good day! There have been quite a few damp days lately when the colour that most springs to mind is grey. These are the ones when I’m as glad of the colour in my kitchen as the warmth of the wood-burning stove.

in my kitchen …..

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….there are things fermenting in every corner. I know this doesn’t sound ideal but I’m becoming addicted to cheese-making and there are regularly little tubs of cheese culture or tubs of curdling milk lurking. Not to mention the home-made booze – the Quince Ratafia and Fig Liquer just need a shake every now and again and one of the demi-johns of cider will soon be ready for drinking. Guy invested in a bargain bottle capper off ebay so we’ve been soaking labels off old bottles and will soon have a good new game. Hopefully lovely bottles of dry cider to enjoy too.

My latest easy cheese is Paneer. It’s a doddle to make; if you have surplus milk you can decide in the afternoon to make it for supper. And it holds its shape well, making it great for cooking briefly in a pan with a little oil and tossing into Indian spiced chickpeas or a vegetable curry.

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Making Paneer cheese

Ingredients

1 litre whole, organic milk

3-4 tablespoons of either lemon juice or leftover whey from previous cheese-making.

In a large saucepan over a medium heat, warm the milk to 80 degrees centigrade. Keep an eye on it as it can boil over quickly. Turn off the heat and add 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice or whey. Stir until the milk separates into curds and whey. If it doesn’t seem to be separating, add another tablespoon of the lemon juice or whey.

Pour the mixture into a colander lined with muslin or cheesecloth which is placed above a bowl.

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Gather the corners of the cheesecloth into a bundle and squeeze out as much of the excess liquid as you can. Save this whey as it can be used in future cheese-making or try replacing some of the milk in pancakes for whey, resulting in a sourdough type taste.

To press it into a solid cheese, set the bundle (still wrapped in muslin) in the middle of a plate with a good lip to catch the liquid that will be squeezed out. Put another plate on top and press until the bundle has flattened – weigh the plate down with something heavy like a few cans to help press. I found a use for my extra large jar of pickle at last!

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Press the cheese for at least 20 minutes, though an hour is ideal. Drain off the liquid that has collected and unwrap the paneer.

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Use or store immediately. The cheese will firm up even more in the fridge.

in my kitchen….

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…there’s a dried broad bean. And a copy of Lauren Child’s lovely Princess and the Pea. As we slip from Autumn into damper, colder winter days, reading by the woodburner is definitely tempting.

After I’d read this to Ruby for a bedtime story recently, she decided she’d like to try a pea beneath her own mattress. As I only had dried broad beans to hand (saved for seed) she gave one a go but admitted quickly that she couldn’t feel anything. She suggested that perhaps the bean should be directly under her sheet. A good job we didn’t have the twelve feather mattresses.

Next morning my daughter was disappointed that the broad bean still hadn’t troubled her. I imagine I’ll see a broad bean cellotaped to her pyjamas soon.

In the meantime dried beans and pulses seem very well suited to the warming stews and soups that are needed this month. Recommend Louisa at Eat Your Veg’s Sausage Hotpot, which I sneaked lots of my home-grown squash into and enjoyed with mashed swede from the garden. Chorizo and fish have been cooked in home-made stock (a fishy variety stashed in the freezer since we brought back crab from Wales with tomatoes, potato, paprika and garlic for a sort of Spanish fish stew.

But it’s lamb that is going to be added to lots of slow-cooked winter dishes over the next month. Very local lamb, bought from the brilliant smallholding near us that supplied us with pigs to clear the back garden last year. I’d been talking to Carol recently about how she moves her lambs to different pasture really regularly, thus helping her to avoid the 2 weekly worming that so many farmers carry out. The smallholding is one of those great places that isn’t classified organic but avoids use of chemicals through good practice, traditional rotation etc. Their Berkshire pigs have plenty of space in orchards to root around in and the sheep have lush pasture. So when I heard she was selling half lambs, I jumped at the chance. My head is full of lamb and quince tajine, slow-cooked shoulder eaten with salty home-made cheese and flatbread and lamb koftas. Hopefully the kitchen will be too soon.

Would love to join in again with Celia of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial’s inspiring In my Kitchen.

And the good photos (those near the beginning of the post) are taken by my photographer friend Chava Eichner, whose vegan food blog is soon to feature some Bavarian foodie treats.

 

 

making cheese

We’re lucky enough to have delicious milk delivered direct from a local dairy farmer a couple of times a week. It comes in retro style glass milk bottles (similar to the ones I remember as a child) and I love the fact that these are re-used, the best type of recycling in my view. Better still, the Jersey and Guernsey cows are free-range, grazing throughout the year on grass and fodder crops (no blanket spraying of herbicides and pesticides, tradition rotation of crops to prevent weeds and pests instead), their milk isn’t homogenised and it tastes wonderful.

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So when Ascott Smallholding supplies asked if I’d be interested in reviewing their cheese-making kit, I was keen to give it a go. Knowing I had access to great milk to experiment with was a factor and I’d also read somewhere that making soft cheese can be as easy as wine or bread-making. The idea of turning a bit of leftover milk into home-made ricotta was definitely appealing, and until a few generations ago many people made their own simple cheeses at home. Surely it couldn’t be too difficult?

When I eagerly opened my cheese-making kit a week later, I started to feel a little more daunted. The cheese moulds, cheese mats, thermometer,ladle, vegetarian rennet and cheese culture all promised a good game in the kitchen and there’s a great Beginners Guide to cheese-making in the kit.

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It was when I read the guide that terms such as ‘scalding’ and the many references to the importance of sterilization and precise temperatures began to trouble me. I began to wonder if, once again, my enthusiasm had got the better of my ability. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a very rustic sort of cook; precision isn’t a word that many would apply to my culinary style.

Once I started making soft-cheese though, I realized that ‘scalding’ is of course only pouring boiling water and although you do need to be patient, cheese-making can be as easy a process as bread-making. Similarly, each step is pretty straightforward – warming milk to a specific temperature or whisking a cheese starter culture into warmed milk is as relaxing in its simplicity as kneading dough.  And although this isn’t fast-food (you do have to wait for hours at a time between some of the processes) the wait requires no effort on your part, you can carry on with your busy day before enjoying the satisfaction of seeing your own curds forming.

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First time round you have to make a liquid cheese starter but this can then be frozen in ice cube trays. You only need a small amount each time, and future making of soft cheese is then really pretty simple; Ruby made some with me in the half term holiday and I was able to let her do most of it herself. The soft cheese itself can be frozen too and I’ve used it after freezing in a lovely New York style cheese-cake as well as mixed with spinach or chard ricotta-style in pasta bakes. I’m planning to take inspiration from those delicious Greek pies and use my soft cheese with home-grown greens (or foraged greens in the Spring)  and herbs in filo pastry in a version of my Wild Greens Pie too.

I have to agree with Kate Self of Ascott’s assurance:

“You have just got to be patient and have a go. It isn’t difficult, you can decide to make soft cheese in the morning and eat it for dinner.”

You can experiment by adding different herbs and try different milk – I’m really looking forward to experimenting with goats milk too and maybe even Buffalo milk. Having produced substantial quantities of whey (the watery liquid that’s leftover after the milk has curdled) I can understand Miss Moffet’s fixation. Whey is a by-product that happens to be highly nutritious and versatile yet it isn’t exactly easy to buy. Hence my excitement when it was great in American style pancakes (they tasted a bit like sourdough pancakes). Look forward to trying it out in baking (apparently you can substitute whey for water or milk in cakes, bread and biscuits) though I imagine you have to be careful that it’s something that suits a hint of a sour taste.

I’m also planning to try making ricotta with the whey – apparently you just add milk to leftover whey and heat it (hence the name ‘ricota’ or re-cooked) until curds form.

Can’t imagine I’ll be producing a Stilton for Christmas and an aged pecorino may be a tad out of my league but definitely finding soft cheese-making both satisfying and a little addictive.

If you have access to good milk, would definitely recommend the following:

Making a Liquid Cheese Starter

Heat 1 litre of fresh milk to 20C. Sprinkle a sachet of freeze dried cheese culture (available from Ascotts) onto the milk and whisk thoroughly to ensure it’s mixed into the milk.  Pour into a sterilised container and cover with cling film immediately. Put on a lid and leave somewhere with a temperature between 20-22C for 22-24 hours. After checking for a night or two with the thermometer, I realised that our kitchen luckily remained at this temperature overnight after we’d had the wood-burner lit in the evening.

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The cheese starter is ready when it smells sharp and clean. Store in the fridge or freeze for future use – I’ve frozen mine in ice cube trays for future cheese production as only small amounts are needed each time.

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 Recipe for Home-Made Soft Cheese

Makes 4 small soft cheeses

Ingredients

2 ½ litres of milk (if you have some that isn’t homogenised it curdles easily)

1 Dessert spoon made up cheese starter (see above)

2 drops vegetarian rennet

Salt

1) Slowly heat the milk to 32C

2) Pour milk into sterilised bowl and whisk in the cheese starter until thoroughly mixed.

3) Add 2 drops of rennet to 2 tablespoons of boiled, cooled water in a sterilised cup. Stir this into your milk/starter mixture.

4) Cover with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm room (my kitchen has been warm enough so far but this is obviously weather dependant) for between 1 and 2 ½ hours until the curd has formed and you have watery whey on the top. You will have to poke in a very clean finger to check.

5) Ladle off as much whey as possible, reserving for future use.

6) Now you can either:

a) Suspend the curd in a sterilised muslin, tied and hung over a bowl (to catch more whey) for an hour for a pot of cream cheese. Add salt and maybe herbs to taste and it’s ready to eat.

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b) Using a slotted spoon, put the curds into scalded cheese moulds (sprinkling lightly with salt as you go) stood on a scalded cheese mat. Stand both on a cake cooling tray over a baking tray to catch more whey. The salt will help to release the whey, while improving the flavour.  Leave in a warm room for 12-24 hours for the whey to drain – the cheese will shrink by half, leaving a curd that is firm enough to pick up in one piece.

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During this time, as soon as it’s firm enough to handle, turn the cheese upside down a couple of times. When you turn out your cheese you may want to coat with cracked pepper or chopped fresh herbs.  I’ve tried chives, parsley and lemon thyme but different herbs can be used according to season and taste.

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The cheese is lovely with bread, honey and maybe a few nuts for breakfast as well as on warm bread with olive oil drizzled over as a snack or with lunch. I may need to poach a few of my quinces slowly in red wine to scoff with soft cheese and honey too.

To buy cheese-making equipment such as moulds, thermometers, cheese mats, vegetarian rennet and sachets of freeze-dried cheese culture, see Ascott Smallholding supplies. Thanks lots to Ascott for my cheese-making kit and for getting me interested in making cheese.

parsley and walnut pesto

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At this time of year, when there’s still lots to harvest but winter beckons, my squirrelling instincts always set in. Squash are stored on shelves in the cool of Guy’s work-shop, their seeds are being saved for granola and of course my shelves are groaning with preserves. As I look at the stored cob nuts and walnuts though, I fear that my squirrelling may becoming a bit too literal!

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Still, these lovely local nuts are wonderful in my latest pesto combination. I find a jar of home-made pesto in the fridge so useful in lots of ways. First of all, it’s a cunning way of feeding lots of nutritious greens to my 6 year old daughter, hence my enthusiasm for Kale Pesto in the winter and Wild Garlic Pesto in the Spring. Also, it’s so quick to whizz up in the food processor, stores in olive oil for a few weeks in the fridge and offers an easy supper with pasta for those nights when there isn’t much time or there’s a shortage of food in the kitchen.

Due to my preoccupation/obsession with growing, cooking, eating, I have to admit the shortage of food bit happily doesn’t happen often in this house. But I love having a spoon of lovely intense flavour to hand, so useful to stir into soups, add to bruschetta and tarts or anoint tomatoes with.

Just as I often use pumpkin seeds instead of nuts in pesto (you may of course even use the original and authentic pine nuts!) my herbs/greens vary according to what’s tasty and plentiful. At the moment I keep casting glances at the lovely, lush parsley hedge. Wondering, as temperatures drop, how long it’s going to be quite so abundant. Batches of pesto made with parsley can be frozen in small portions (I add the cheese after retrieving from the freezer if this is my plan) which seems to me a great way of squirrelling away this tasty herb while it’s still abundant.

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Parsley and Walnut Pesto

75g shelled walnuts

1 garlic clove, roughly chopped

50g parsley leaves

175 ml rapeseed or extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Sea salt & ground pepper to taste

50g Grana Padano cheese, grated

Put all the ingredients except the cheese and salt & pepper in a food processor and blitz. Pour into a bowl and add cheese and season to taste. You may need to adjust the amount of oil, depending on the consistency. If you’re freezing, add it to small freezer bags at this stage, adding cheese and seasoning after it’s defrosted. If you’re going to use immediately or store in the fridge, add the cheese and season to taste. It will keep in a jar, covered in olive oil for a couple of weeks.

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If you still have any tasty tomatoes to hand, they’re lovely roasted with olive oil and eaten on top of pasta mixed with this pesto and some goats cheese. I also love Louisa of Eat Your Veg‘s recipe for roast mushrooms with pasta and this pesto.

Just dipping some good bread in a bowl of parsley and walnut pesto is yummy too. And having just read quite how rich parsley is in antioxidants, iron, Vitamin C and Vitamin A and how walnuts are an excellent source of healthy omega 3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats, this is definitely nutritious snacking.

A great way of showing that parsley is so much more than a cursory garnish too!

The lovely photos in this post were taken by my friend Chava Eichner, who used some of this pesto with her very tasty looking squash and bean soup.

And as this pesto uses handfuls of parsley, would love to enter it into Karen at Lavender and Lovage’s inspiring Cooking with Herbs.

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in my garden november

In my garden this month there’s lots of clearing to do….

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The ubiquitous calendula, and a few borage along with a few late verbena adding colour, but not much else. On sunny days, there are still a few more vibrant patches though….

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Well, vibrant may be stretching it, but I love those gently sunny Autumn days when you’re suddenly reminded how much life there still is in the garden – thanks to our late, mild weather. I have to remind myself that scruffy though this garden is, this time last year, post-pigs, it looked like this:

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We’d not long sown grass seed on the lawn that’s been played on and eaten on so much this year and marked out paths and beds.

And the flowers may be fading fast but I’m loving the colourful veggies. Rainbow chard is as plentiful and useful as ever, carrots in a few different hues too and then there’s the borlottis…

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They’re one of my favourite beans, growing well even in poor ground, so tasty, and it’s debatable which are most beautiful, those crimson speckled pods or the creamy beans. We picked all of the remaining pods (I had some good help as you can see) as they were planted amongst the squash. This area  has all been cleared and as it’s next to where the potatoes grew, it gave us a good sized cleared area to empty the contents of one of our three compost heaps onto, with a view to next year’s planting.

My favourite way of cooking the borlottis has been simply with garlic, olive oil and chopped tomatoes, adding a little water as they slowly simmer if it gets too dry. They made a lovely Autumn supper one night with our own pork chops (marinated in a maple brine from a Diana Henry Salt Sugar Smoke recipe) and chunks of our Mother Hubbard squash roasted with garlic, rosemary and olive oil.

I still have bulbs that I’m keen to plant once I’ve made some sense of the area just at the back of our house; Spring flowering bulbs including Alliums and Grape Hyacinth should add some easy colour early in the year. We made a late sowing of clover (various colours of flowers) and grass on a new area of ground we’d cleared and it’s thriving after a few weeks of growth. Hopefully next year it’ll prove attractive to bees and beneficial insects and when we mow it, we’re thinking it may be good for the compost heap too – I like the idea of the prettiness of a patch of clover lawn too of course.

It’s mostly food that interests me in the garden at the moment though.

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As the balance swings between kitchen and garden (the warmth of the kitchen is often winning) I’m very grateful to the garden for providing me with plenty of food to pop out and gather. Swede are being brought in lots at the moment (love them just mashed with butter and black pepper) along with purple sprouting broccoli, beetroot, spinach, carrots and handfuls of parsley from that still-thriving hedge. Waiting for frosts before we start on the parsnips but we didn’t want to take any chances with the quince. With a storm heading this way at the beginning of the week it would’ve been a shame to lose our first, precious harvest so they were all picked.

Would love to join in again with Lizzie Moult’s great Garden Share Collective. As we bring squashes in to store for the winter and gather quinces for quince cheese, quince ratafia and warming tajines, it’ll be lovely to have a look at the Spring/Summer bounty in gardens on the other side of the world.

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