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.

persian salad & beautiful broccoli – a change of appetite

Lamb scottadito with summer fregola was the first thing I cooked from ‘a change of appetite’; I had some local, organic lamb cutlets and Diana Henry’s marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and chilli flakes was simply delicious. I couldn’t wait to try her smoked mackerel, beetroot and poppy seed relish the following evening. DH_Day4_097 Next was the sweet-tart gooseberry, almond and spelt cake. Inspiring ideas to use the last of my purple sprouting broccoli before it flowers too. And so it continued – a pattern of hungrily reading Diana’s beautiful prose then cooking my way through the enticing recipes immediately. a change of appetite jacket This is a book about healthy eating, and it arrived at my home at a time when the wild cherry tree is covered in blossom and the warmer weather is forcing me to shed those more forgiving layers of clothes. Lighter, less calorie-laden dishes are obviously welcome. But that isn’t why I’m so keen to eat my way through ‘a change of appetite’ – it’s just all so blooming tempting. Even Ruby, my six year old daughter who’s begun looking suspiciously at my chocolate brownies recently (asking if I’ve sneaked in any beetroot) has bookmarked the date, apricot and walnut loaf cake. It’s brimming with dried fruit, malted brown flour and healthy seeds, so I’ll happily bake it for her. And scoff it too, it looks wonderful. Definitely one of my new favourites for a feel-good browse at the end of a busy working day, ‘a change of appetite’ is such an utterly beautiful book. The gorgeous photography helps but Diana Henry’s recipes and descriptions are just as seductive. From her Persian salad (I note happily that most of the ingredients including borage flowers and violets are currently growing just outside the kitchen) to squid with couscous, chilli, mint and lemon, this may be healthy food but there’s not a hint of self-denial. Written by a food writer who blatantly adores eating, none of the recipes are going to be joyless. In fact Diana stresses that her latest book is about food that’s “accidentally healthy” and I love her assertion that: “I’m much more into living life to the full than I am into thinking of my body as a temple.” Diana set out to “explore what a ‘healthy diet’ actually is and come up with dishes that were so good (and good for you, too, but first of all delicious that you wouldn’t feel you were missing out” and there are lots of interesting facts and opinions about which fats are fine to use freely, which to keep an eye on and why switching from refined carbs to whole grains is sensible. The emphasis though is on drawing on the robust flavours of Middle Eastern, Scandinavian, Japanese, Thai, Burmese and Vietnamese food – with food so fabulously fragrant with herbs and spices, you don’t crave excess fat, salt or sugar. With scandi salmon burgers, Sicilian artichoke and broad bean salad and Persian saffron and mint chicken amongst the many recipes still on my to-cook list, this book is influencing my planting plans as much as my shopping. While dried sour cherries and lots of interesting whole-grains are on the shopping list, Diana Henry has inspired me to be more imaginative in salads with the many garden herbs that are already emerging. And to grow more radish. Many hued radish in fact. Rather than use herbs as an afterthought in salads, Diana has reminded me that “…in the Middle East, they can be the salad.” And with dill fronds mingling with flat leaf parsley, mint and edible flower petals (violets and borage I think) as well as mauve and pink radish in this Persian salad, look at how beautiful this can be: DH_Day8_067 With thanks to Octopus books for my review copy of ‘a change of appetite’ by Diana Henry, published March 2014 and for the use of the lovely photos above from the book. If you’re as addicted to books about food as I am, I can also recommend a read of this piece on Diana Henry’s blog about her favourite cookery books. It may prove expensive though.

primrose, wood-stores & wild cherry buds

“After the sugar snow had gone, spring came. Birds sang in the leafing hazel bushes along the crooked rail fence. The grass grew again and the woods were full of wild flowers. Buttercups and violets, thimble flowers and tiny starry grassflowers were everywhere. As soon as the days were warm, Laura and May begged to be allowed to run barefoot. At first they might only run out around the woodpile and back, in their bare feet. Next day they could run farther, and soon their shoes were oiled and put away and they ran barefoot all day long.”

I’ve been reading ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder with Ruby, loving this simply but beautifully told tale of family life interwoven so closely with the seasons in a log house in Wisconsin. While I relish the descriptions of preserving food, collecting maple sap and dancing to celebrate sugar snow, Ruby loves the exciting stories (there are wolves and bears and huge wild cats in the Big Woods and the family travel by sleigh) that always end cosily.

Now that our own days are suddenly warm, pale yellow primroses have made a pretty appearance next to the slender pink rhubarb in the garden and the kitchen table is full of cheery blooms.

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The hammock has made its first appearance this year. We may not be exactly barefoot, but abandoning thick socks and boots in favour of easily slipped on crocs and shoes and having the kitchen doors wide open for most of the weekend has given me a similar feeling of freedom. The very welcome sunshine also seems to have urged us into lots of activity. Guy has been chopping a large oak tree that was a casualty of the recent gales. Unfortunate (and we’re keen to plant more trees) but it’s adding considerably to the wood-pile and will keep us very warm next winter. The recent sun means it’s been possible to get the trailer into the water-logged field to bring the wood home ready for splitting and stacking.

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A large extension to the very full wood-store is planned too. Funny how just as we’re welcoming Spring we’re thinking of future winters. The Oak tree has also supplied some splendid, rustic chairs for the tree-house, which has been the scene of much al fresco eating over the last week. It also became a washing house yesterday. Ruby turned into Dame Washalot (from Enid Blyton’s ‘Magic Faraway Tree’) once more, and enlisted the help of a friend in her tree-house laundry.

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Old rags that we use for cleaning were ‘washed’ in buckets of luke-warm water. Yes, I need to gather them and stick them in the washing machine asap as they MAY not be scrupulously clean, but the girls were happy dangling them over the tree and pegging them out for ages.   Ruby was also busy making a rabbit bike-helmet out of a shell and some old ribbon – well, someone has to be safety conscious as that bunny is partial to speed.

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Meanwhile, the Spring sunshine had me enthusiastically tackling the garden, weeding and digging and planting seeds. In between making rhubarb custards to follow slow-cooked pulled pork (one of the last of the joints from our Berkshire pigs, marinated over-night in smoked paprika, garlic, beer, brown sugar) which I could forget about while I gardened. I dug parsnips from the garden to roast, picked purple sprouting and we shared it with friends, washed  down with our own cider, now really quite palatable and with a very pleasing sparkle.

Amidst all our Spring activity, I had a very indulgent start to Sunday morning. Knowing that this is the only morning of the week (now that swimming lessons mean an early start to Saturdays) that there’s any chance of a lie-in I nonetheless woke to chattering birds and a promising sun and was eager to start the day. So was Ruby. While I got tea and milk, she suggested we go outside. We headed out in our PJs through the dewy, still cool garden. I strung up the hammock and we snuggled under a blanket, gazing up at the blue sky. The wild cherry tree that the hammock hangs beneath was full of buds that I hadn’t noticed before. A visiting bee obviously had though, heading purposefully on a foraging trip. The more we looked, the more life we spotted in fact. Then we sipped our tea and milk and savoured the last chapter of ‘Little House in the Big Woods.’

“…Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting. She thought to herself, ‘This is now.’ ”

It seemed so apt reading this while enjoying the unexpected delight of a cuddle with my daughter and a part of the day outside that we normally miss. Even though I could spy tender little nettles destined either for a Wild Greens Pie or the compost heap, I decided that all the Spring activity and planning for future seasons could wait a little while.

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Very grateful to Diana Henry by the way, for leading me to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books through her very well-chosen quotations in the wonderful Roast Figs, Sugar Snow: Food to Warm the Soul.

the creamery kitchen – a review

The creamery kitchen by Jenny Linford is full of lovely, traditional dairy recipes, the sort that would’ve once been passed down from generation to generation – in an era when most people would’ve been comfortable making butter, maybe a little cheese at home.

Having recently discovered the homely delights of cheese making at home, I was very excited when I heard about this book. Having already made labneh and basic cream cheese at home, some of the recipes were already familiar to me. But I hadn’t tackled butter or buttermilk, or realised how gloriously simple they are to make.

Once I’d made buttermilk (and loved the fact that, unlike the stuff I’ve previously bought from the supermarket, I know that this is made from quality milk from local Jersey cows) I used some in the Buttermilk & Parmesan scone recipe from ‘the creamery kitchen’. Even though I chose to use wholemeal flour, the buttermilk made the scones beautifully light. They were delicious, even if my version didn’t look quite like the ones in this gorgeous photo by Clare Winfield.

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I also used some buttermilk instead of sour cream (next on my list to try) in the wonderful Polish apple pancake recipe from Ren Behan here. Buttermilk fried chicken is next on my list for the last of the buttermilk.029_RPS1679_creamery_friedchicken

There are lots of similarly simple dairy ideas but plenty of unusual recipe ideas too so I think this is an inspiring book for home cooks of all levels. Jenny Linford reassuringly guides us through the processes – from setting up a creamery to making your own butter, cream cheese and mascarpone, there are lots of tips and snippets of advice; the sort that in another era would’ve been shared over a pot of tea with your sister or mother.

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Just as Jenny Linford’s style is very approachable, Clare Winfield’s photographs have a beautiful simplicity, displaying just how enticing a jar of buttermilk in a jar covered with muslin or a creamy bowl of home-made yoghurt can be. We’re reminded that you need very little equipment for most dairy-making; armed with a heavy-based pan, some fine-meshed cheesecloth, a good kitchen thermometer, sharp knife and a slotted spoon, you could tackle most of the recipes in this book.

Yet recipes such as Saffron and Cardamon Labneh with Mango, Fried Buttermilk Chicken and Serbian Burek show how important dairy making is to so many different cultures. Once you’ve made yoghurt or cream cheese, there are some wonderful ideas for using them in dishes inspired by cuisines around the world.

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Having previously made ricotta traditionally by re-heating whey, I tried Jenny’s simpler version which involves curdling whole milk with white wine vinegar – I loved the ease of this method. The book doesn’t move beyond soft cheeses, but as I’m in no hurry to be tempted into making a stinky blue cheese or an aged pecorino this was quite a relief. I know how easily led/hopelessly optimistic I am when it comes to food, so a beautiful picture of mature stilton would’ve had me reaching for the rennet quicker than you can say listeria.

You could use ‘the creamery kitchen’ purely for its instructions to easily make butter, buttermilk, yoghurt and maybe a little cream cheese and if you have access to good, un-homogenized milk, it’ll be very rewarding. Jenny shows how basic dairy products can also be used as stepping stones for making delicious and useful concoctions such as labneh and mascarpone. For those like me who can’t resist going one step further there are suggestions for how to cook with these versatile dairy products. Ranging from the sweetly tempting (Fig & Honey Ricotta Cheesecake, Rhubarb & Mascarpone Tart) to the savoury (Spinach & Cheese Burek and Lamb Skewers with Za’atar Labneh) these are recipes that definitely encourage experimenting.

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Totally agree with Jenny that:

“Given that all dairy foods have one ingredient – milk- as their starting point, the range of textures and subtly varying flavours within them is remarkable…”

The creamery kitchen by Jenny Lindford. Photography by Clare Winfield. Published by Ryland Peters & Small Feb 2014

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Reader offer: The Creamery Kitchen will be 16.99 by telephoning Macmillan Direct on 01256 302 699 and quoting the reference GLR 9MQ.

I received a review copy of ‘the creamery kitchen’ but wasn’t paid for this review: all opinions are my own. All photos in this post are by Clare Winfield and taken from ‘the creamery kitchen’.

 

glittery cheese & a happy new year

I’ve obviously been busier using up leftover turkey and beetroot-cured gravlax lately than experimenting with cheese-making. More focused on important tasks such as bashing and melting boiled sweets for the windows of a gingerbread house with Ruby.

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Just before Christmas I did have a go at making an easy semi-hard cheese that matures in weeks rather than months though. I rubbed olive oil and coarse sea salt around the little cheeses (very little actually, attempting cheese-making has made me realise quite how much milk goes into producing a tiny amount of cheese and given me even more of an appreciation for bought artisan cheese) and put them in the cold room upstairs in a sealed container with a damp cloth for humidity.  When I say ‘cold room’ don’t misguidedly think I have some room purpose made for hanging hams and letting cheese mature. It’s a very bare, un-plastered room that we’ve been meaning to turn into our bedroom ever since we moved here.

Lack of time and money have meant the bedroom has been a little delayed. As ever, I’m optimistic that this year may be the year we move out of the spare room. In the meantime the unheated bare room is proving very useful. The dark bit behind the door is rapidly becoming pickle corner.

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With a house full of family over Christmas, the fridge was bulging and leftover veggies destined for bubble and squeak were sent up to the cold room. Actually we so enjoyed the Boxing Day leftovers that Guy came up with a suggestion. Next year, we cook Christmas lunch on Christmas Eve, then without eating any of it,  immediately take it up to the cold room ready for leftovers!

Obviously too many days of Bird Bingo, muddy walks across the fields and wondering whether piccalilli or Middle Eastern pickled turnips is the correct pickle for that days’ leftovers has gone to our heads. The festive period has also had a disturbing effect on my cheese. Last time I had a peep at the cheeses ripening in the cold room, I couldn’t spot any mould forming (or much of a rind either) but there was definitely something unique about them. Some artisan cheese-makers may use nettles, even ash to add a distinct look and flavour to their products. I detected something else adorning the rustic exterior of my carefully made cheeses. Something with a definite flavour of my December kitchen. Yes, glitter.

It obviously says a lot about my optimism then that one of my plans for the new year is to have a go at making mozzarella. Yes, I know I’ll end up with strings of cheese everywhere but I’d like to try it. I’m chuffed that the feta has worked out, it’s very salty but good used sparingly, crumbled into flatbreads with leftover lamb – I cooked a leg of lamb slowly over potatoes using a recipe from The Fabulous Baker Brothers book as an easy way of feeding everybody the day after Boxing Day. Will write about how I made the feta soon.

After being inspired by the medieval bread baked at The Hearth in Lewes, would love to experiment more with bread this year too. Using interesting flour, a home-made sourdough and a long prove.

But with the glittery cheese a reminder of the results of my multi-tasking I’m trying to keep my resolutions and plans for the new year simple. While I’m still harvesting parsnips, swede, chard and beetroot from the garden, can’t help but have lots of plans for the new things I want to grow though. And the size of the ewes in the field next to us is reminding me of the delights of Spring already. Lovely to think that it’s not long after Christmas until there are new lambs in the fields and broad beans to be planted. Which makes me look forward to these sort of pleasures…..

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Hope you have lots to look forward to in 2014 too. Happy New Year!

‘Abundance: How to Store and Preserve Your Garden Produce’ by Alys Fowler

a book review

Bowls of strawberries and heaps of gooseberries are a familiar sight in my kitchen at the moment. My courgettes and crimson flowered broad beans are loving the amazingly long-lasting sunny spell and even the runner beans are now snaking up their rustic wigwams vigorously. Very different to last summer when it was mainly mud that I brought in from garden to kitchen. Happily it seems an apt time to review a book called ‘Abundance.’

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I’m already a big fan of Alys Fowler’s writing and broadcasting about growing your own foodie treats and making the most of our wild larder. Her lovely book ‘The Edible Garden’ (subtitled How to have your garden and eat it) is one of my favourite places to turn to for inspiration when I’m planning planting in the midst of winter. I’m very partial to planting calendula and cavolo nero together in the garden, the majestic dark green leaves looking splendid against the vivid orange flowers and I have the beautiful photos of calendula and cavolo nero in Alys’ own garden to thank for this idea.

In her recently published book, ‘Abundance’ she writes about how to make the most of gluts from the land to enable you to still eat well in the leaner winter months.Including classics such as Raspberry Jam and apple sauce, Alys also offers unusual ways to preserve your  harvests, with some fascinating facts on how different cultures have developed their own techniques for pickling, fermenting and drying and interesting nutritional information.

Torshi Lift-Pickled turnips and Powidla (Polish Plum butter) may sound exotic but the recipes suggest they’re an easy way to both preserve and add an exotic glamour to home-grown produce. Gorgeous photos (and my own memories of pickling turnips with beetroot) reminds me that the turnip recipe is a glorious bright pink colour too.  While Kale crisps look like a delicious way of persuading fussy young eaters to eat their greens – and maybe the cavolo nero that I’m so partial to could be used here?

Similarly to Diana Henry in ‘Salt Sugar Smoke’ Alys reminds us of the satisfying feeling that a store-cupboard full of preserves can give us:

“We store up a lot more than ripeness when we store away our produce; we store up a summer of hard, enjoyable work. If done well, we take all those vitamins and minerals, all that well-nourished soil and health and offer it up to those we love when the garden has all but gone to bed.”

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All good reasons to freeze a few bags of the wild strawberries that are hanging down enticingly below my lavender (as Alys points out it’s almost impossible to collect enough tiny wild strawberries in one go to make jam, but you can freeze batches until you have enough) to make the lovely Wild Strawberry Jam. Not that I need another reason after reading Alys’ enticing instructions:

“This jam will not set well. Run with its sloppiness and spoon into Greek yoghurt or let it race across butter.”

As both a gardener (she trained at the Royal Horticultural Society, the New York Botanical Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew before working as Head Gardener, then presenter for BBC’s Gardeners’ World) and inspirational cook, Alys imparts some excellent gardening advice in ‘Abundance’ before dealing with harvesting, storing and preserving. It’s interesting to read just how important getting the soil right is to preserving its fruits. Alys points out that too much nitrogen (often favoured by large-scale farmers aiming at quick, bountiful harvests for the supermarkets) can affect the plant’s metabolic rate and although this aids fast growth, it also ages the fruit faster:

“Conversely, an abundance of potash (potassium) in the soil has a positive effect on storage.”

So when we add potassium-rich comfrey, seaweed, green manures and animal manures to our plots, it’s nice to know we’re already benefitting the winter larder.

I like the sound of the health benefits for our winter stomachs too. In the ‘On Fermenting’ chapter, Alys describes delicious ways for using the sour, salty taste of pickles made this way and explains that fermented foods, “..are hugely important to our health, containing a unique mixture of good bacteria and vitamins.” Reminding me of some of the lovely sauerkraut type fermented cabbage recipe that I want to try in the lovely Dale Cottage Farm Diaries.

A good reason too to try Kimchi, an ancient pickle thought to originate in China. A way of preserving different winter vegetables using salt, Alys refers to a Korean study which has found that the good bacteria in kimchi can kill off bad bacteria such as salmonella. As I line up my kilner jars and admire the flowers on my pickling cucumbers, I like to think this means that pickling truly is good for you.

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Abundance by Alys Fowler (Kyle Books, £16.99) Photography: Simon Wheeler.

 

 

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