Frugality Challenge finale

How did the remainder of the Frugality Challenge work out? Well, it still worked out pretty expensive, but that’s December for you (as well as all the Christmas food, gifts and socialising, there’s the car MOT, road tax and TV licence to contend with).

By the end of the month I’d spent £339 on groceries – most of this was on Christmas goodies – but I have no doubt that the bills will shoot WAAAY down now that we’re into the proper austere winter months.

Being mindful of one’s spending habits can become addictive, and of course peering over one’s shoulder to see how other people organise their finances is an ageless joy that never tires. Over Christmas I enjoyed this article in The Guardian about a Millennial’s spending habits, which sums up accurately what it is to be a young working woman in the city (i.e. spendy), but was saddened to read about the backlash that the writer faced for daring to have a social life at the age of 28.

Give her ten years and she’ll be spending her evenings working out how to make the most of her leftovers, just like the rest of us. (Incidentally, the joy of Christmas for me lies in leftover creativity. This year the pork stuffing was simmered into a magnificent fennel-scented ragu, and leftover goose was baked with saffron, onions and rice to make a delicious biryani).

Will the frugality challenge continue into 2019? Elements of it will, certainly. I don’t think of it as being ‘frugal’ or ‘austere’ though, I just think of it as being sensible. Why waste your cash on stuff you don’t need, with all the environmental and social problems that that brings? We’re better off saving it for lovely long family days in Cornwall come the spring.

Normal Veg Patch service will resume next week.

Sticky toffee pudding with quince

The frugality challenge has been true to its name this week – a challenge. On Day 8 I took a trip to London and was reminded how, when you set one single foot out into the capital, money is hoovered out of your wallet. Consumerism rules for urbanites, from morning coffee to the after-work pick-me-up. Take as evidence this decorative bunch of sticks – literally a bunch of sticks – for sale in Regent St for the princely sum of £40.

£40 for some twigs. Christmas madness folks!

By day 10 I needed to do a proper shop. I did an Ocado order for the big/heavy stuff, like cat food and tins of tomatoes (£71, pretty normal), and then headed to Aldi for milk, butter, wipes and nappies, and to the local Halal shop for bananas and herbs. Altogether the ‘top up shop’ came to £25, which seemed alot, and I reflected that there was nothing profligate in this shopping bag; it’s not like I was filling up with Taitinger. Life has become expensive now we’re three, even when you shop at Aldi. I offset my grumpiness by making my own Christmas wreath, using ivy from the garden.

Wreath using ivy from the garden

The shopping highlight of the week was a trip to a local nursery for a potted Christmas tree, where I also stocked up on some potted daffodils, hyacinths and veg. £10 buys us loads and reminds me that independent rural food shopping is the best there is.

Total for the week: £144.50. It’s less than normal and we’re still eating really well but I see that mindful shopping is making me mardy about consumerism.

Let’s cheer things up with some good December comfort eating. Earlier in the week I made my lamb with quince recipe, using those quince that I bought from the Halal shop a few weeks back. I used the leftover fruit as a base for a sticky toffee pudding, giving a lovely bit of fruity interest amidst the dense sweetness of sponge and toffee sauce. If quince are not to hand, which is most of the time, this would also work with firm apples or pears. This recipe is a total keeper.

Sticky Toffee Pudding with quince
Serves about 8

First, find yourself a few quince. Poach them in simmering water until softened (about 15 minutes), drain, then allow to cool. Core and cut the fruit into wedges.

Slice some cooked quince into chunky wedges

Next make a simple caramel sauce. In a small saucepan, melt together 115g unsalted butter, 75g caster sugar, 40g dark muscavado sugar and 140ml double cream. Bring the lot to a simmer and reduce until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat to cool slightly. Preheat the oven to 180c.

Bubble together your caramel sauce

Find yourself an ovenproof baking dish (I use a lasagne dish) and butter it well. Pour in a drizzle of caramel sauce, lay the quince on top, then drizzle more sauce on top (leave some sauce back to serve with your pudding). Then put the dish in the fridge to firm up whilst you make your sponge.

Layer up sauce and quince in a buttered dish

For the sponge, take 100g stoned dates, chop them roughly, then place in a bowl with 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda and 275ml boiling water. In a separate bowl, beat together 50g unsalted butter with 80g caster sugar and 80g dark muscovado sugar. In yet another bowl, measure 175g flour with 1tsp baking powder1/2 tsp cinnamon and a small pinch of salt. Alternatively beat 2 eggs and the flour into the sugar-butter mixture. Stir in the dates and their water. Mix well.

Make your cake batter – it’s a wet one

Pour the sponge mixture on top of the sliced quince, then bake for about 40 minutes until firm and risen. Serve warm with the remaining toffee sauce and ice-cream. I prefer Mackay’s plain but you could go for vanilla.

Bake the lot together until risen and burnished. Serve with extra sauce and plain ice cream.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Amazing Danish pastries from Ole & Steen in Marylebone, doughnuts from St John’s in Covent Garden, lamb with quince, Tune’s egg curry with roasted cauliflower and roti, homemade mince pies, tons of stollen and panettone, the first brandy cream of the season.

Reading: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, which has the best food writing I have ever read. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to reading this classic.

Sprout Linguine

In light of the Brexit debacle, I have abandoned Radio 4 for the safety of Classic FM. Listen to the Today programme and you run the risk – as happened this morning – of waking up to the phrase “How will you fare in the post-Brexit world”? Well there’s only so much trauma I can take first thing in the morning, so over to The Home of Christmas Music it is. Though even there it’s not 100% safe, as there is the occasional horror of a classical guitar rendition of Hallelujah.

Actually, listening to a big of Grieg whilst Harry yells with excitement at spotting the squirrels outside is pretty fun. I’ve also taken delivery of a few new books to lift the spirits; the theme of this one fits in nicely with the Frugality Challenge.

How’s the Frugality Challenge been faring? Pretty well actually. Here’s Notes from Week 1:

Day 1: I concoct a sprout linguine for dinner. Matt says that this will confuse the clean eaters for they will think “how the f*** do I spiralise a sprout”? Recipe below. Money spent: £0

Day 2: Today is Harry’s swimming day. He fell off his frog float and went head-first into the pool; I fished him out immediately but he was inconsolable for ages. (I deserve so many gold stars for persevering with swimming). We spent the afternoon cooking, using things from the freezer and storecupboards: smoked mackerel pate; oxtail braised with ancho chili, cinnamon and star anise; spiced carrot cake with lemon icing and baked pumpkin to use up the 39p one I bought from Aldi for halloween. Money spent: £3 on bread from Peel & Stone.

Preparing the oxtail for its 5-hour braise

Day 3: Half fail, half win. We went out for lunch but Matt paid so that doesn’t count. Then I consider what to have for dinner. What I really want is Indian…..so Harry and I head to Waitrose. I resist the allure of the puddings and croissants but I do get some curries, knowing that if I could be arsed I could make them from scratch. Also get a chicken for the weekend, thinking that leftovers will last for days. Money spent: £19

Days 4&5: A weekend of friends and family. Also a trip to the German Market (hideous) offset by a visit to Eastside Projects (sublime). Money spent: £0

Current exhibition at Eastside Projects, Digbeth

Day 6: Monday morning is the only sensible time to risk Christmas shopping. The shops are empty and there is car parking; any other time is madness. I head to the new massive Sainsbury’s in Selly Oak and reflect that the bigger the shop, the least likely I am to spend money there (I can’t be the only person who finds supermarkets totally exhausting). Other people have laden trollies but I leave with just eggs and satsumas. The afternoon is spent at my desk. Money spent (not counting Christmas presents): £4

Day 7: A trip to Lidl for some Christmas items. Panettone, stollen and chocolate biscuits – the German discounters do them better than anyone. Money spent: £16.05

Grand total for week 1: £42.05 A big improvement, and we’ve still eaten really well, but could do better.

Today’s recipe is for Sprout linguine, which you’d be forgiven for thinking is a form of torture but is actually (genuinely) one of my favourite pasta dishes. It’s seasonal and comforting, creamy and garlicky.

Cook some linguine in the normal way. Whilst it’s cooking, shred a handful of sprouts and sweat over a medium heat in olive oil or butter for two or three minutes until softened; don’t let them burn. You could toss in some sliced watercress or other peppery-leaves at this point. Add some crushed garlic to the pan with a squeeze of lemon juice, a glug of cream and a grating of parmesan. Season.

When the pasta is done, drain and add to the pan with a dash of cooking liquor. Cook and toss for a minute or two more, so the sauce and pasta become one. Serve immediately, ideally under a blanket in front of the fire.

The Frugality Challenge

I am setting myself a frugality challenge for December: can I cook and eat well through the month without buying loads of new stuff? My grocery spend has crept up this year and I’m horrified to work out that since the summer, an average of £331 a month goes on trips to Waitrose, Aldi, farm shops and butchers. This does include things like nappies, cat food, washing liquid and so on but it’s still higher than it needs to be.

Living in a city encourages the spending of cash so much more than a rural existence. The message of BUY BUY DO MORE ACHIEVE MORE BUY BUY BUY is ubiquitous and it patterns our daily behaviour. The iPhone is full of messages to buy, I receive loads and loads of marketing emails daily wanting me to buy, the buses that trundle down my road carry adverts that I can see from my living room telling me to buy. When I’m getting cabin fever, it’s easy to drive to the supermarket in order to get out of the house and before I know it, that’s another £30 gone. (Note: this is a genuine thing. A friend who shall remain nameless spent thousands in her local supermarket when her two children were tiny.)

I am not a bad housekeeper – I cook from scratch most days, batch cook for the freezer, buy certain things in bulk and I prefer to make breads, stews and cakes for Harry rather than buying ready-made. I don’t buy much booze since pregnancy buggered up my liver. We don’t eat out much. I grow fruit and veg and flowers. I don’t like fast fashion. We’ve not been abroad for nearly two years. I rarely use a credit card and there’s no debt.

But the truth is that we need to rein it in. Here are some simple truths about parenthood, freelancing and finances:

  1. We are not entitled to the same amount of maternity pay as people on PAYE (despite the fact we work as hard if not harder)
  2. Self-employed men have no right at all to paid paternity leave
  3. There’s a gap of 27 months from when maternity pay ends to when free child nursery places start. During that time, we earn significantly less (because we’re looking after the babies) but our expenses go up (because babies cost money)*.
  4. Even if your babies are in nursery or at school, regular working hours just don’t fit with nursery or school hours. Something has to give and it’s usually the mother’s career – and therefore earnings – that is sacrificed**.

Obviously paying the mortgage is the priority and it’s the peripheries that need to be cut down. I relish this challenge – I love a bit of frugality and a sticking two fingers up to consumer culture. I was going to write that December is a crap time to do the Frugality Challenge but actually, perhaps this is the BEST time to do it. A Christmas that isn’t tainted by buying loads of tat and then being stressed by all the spending?  YES PLEASE.

The Frugality Challenge rules:

  1. Daily to ask, do I really need to buy this new thing or can I make up a great dish with something already in the fridge, freezer or cupboards?
  2. We’re still cooking proper food, not relying on cheap ready meals
  3. When I do buy I’m buying well – to paraphrase the Brexit nonsense, no bread is better than bad bread
  4. Rule 1 is repeated for all Christmas purchases – do I really need/want it or can I do better by thinking creatively?

So it begins.

Home-made Christmas pudding (though I would have made these anyway). A reminder to grow my own leaves instead of buying bags of rocket and watercress. A trip outside with the secateurs to bring the outside inside, instead of relying on hot-housed cut flowers from the shops. The frugal option so much nicer than the shop-bought.

Stir-up Sunday resulted in two puds – we’ll have one and Helen Annetts will have the other

Those bags of salad are rubbish so let’s get on with sowing windowsill leaves

Cut flowers are out, aromatic viburnum from the garden is in

Also this week:

Allotment: Matt tried and failed to have a bonfire, the pile having got too damp. Still harvesting cavolo nero and chard.
Cooking and Eating: Potato and savoy cabbage curry with daal, sprout linguine, soda bread (Harry’s new favourite), Tuscan bean soup.
Life: Headed out to Woolhope (Herefordshire) for a visit to their brilliant pub and to get some country air. Everyone’s had a stomach upset so there’s been a few 3am baby-sick calamities (days lived on 5 hours sleep are hideous). Planning and plotting a new product line for Plane Structure.

 

*This is the time when many people face genuine financial issues. I am deeply thankful that I was able to put savings aside before I got pregnant but still, I worry about money. Spare a thought for all those who are not as fortunate.

**Yes this makes me angry. It’s not the Dads’ fault though.  Working practices in the UK simply do not support the parents of young children, both men and women. I think Matt and I are actually two of the lucky ones as at least we can work flexibly.

Dutch appeltaart (work in progress)

There have been a few ventures out into the damp November countryside this week. Thinking ahead, I’ve caught my Christmas goose early to take advantage of early-bird (excuse the pun) prices. Mrs Goodman breeds the best free-range Christmas poultry, and if you collect direct from her Great Witley farm then you save ££. I forget how glorious the countryside is around this part of Worcestershire; even on a dim, damp late-autumn morning it was beautiful.

Fields in Great Witley on a damp November morning

Goodman’s Geese, home of the best Christmas poultry

This year’s goose is a little larger than anticipated…

Then Saturday took us to Baddesley Clinton, for some lunch and fresh air after a photoshoot in Coventry. The National Trust have reconfigured the vegetable garden there and I now have envy for straight edging, compacted gravel paths and lean-to greenhouses.

Matt inspects the glass house at Baddesley Clinton

To today’s recipe. I’ve only been to the Netherlands twice, but both times I’ve been blown away by the brilliance of appeltaart, or Dutch apple pie. This one I had at Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum – I know I should be more interested in the art at this great establishment but pffff, baking wins every time. Appeltaart is a deep dish apple pie with a buttery biscuit-like crust, filled with apple slices or chunks that cook together with sugar and spice to make a creamy-yet-textured filling. Appeltaart is always served in generous wedges, cold or at room temperature, with a dollop of whipped cream (slagroom, in Dutch). It’s earth shatteringly good and a thing of beauty.

The best apple pie, at Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum

I have wanted to have a go at making one for some time, but felt daunted at the challenge. All the recipes that I could find are either in Dutch (my languages aren’t great) or American, which requires translation from their mad cups measurement system into grams or ounces. Plus any baking this beautiful MUST be really hard…there was the certainty that I’d mess it up somehow. Then I found this brilliant blog post by a Canadian food writer with a step-by-step method to making appeltaart and I thought actually, perhaps I need to woman up and give it a go. I have translated Food Nouveu’s cup measurements into grams, and also reduced the quantity as I could not face eating apple pie for the next two months. The resulting recipe is good but still needs tweaking – let’s call it a work in progress.

Appeltaart is made with a crust that you press into the tin with your fingers, which is actually loads easier than rolling out shortcrust. In a food processor, pulse together butter, brown sugar, salt, eggs and flour until the mixture looks like play dough, then leave it to firm up in the fridge for half an hour or so.

Pulse the pastry ingredients in the food processor until they look like play dough

Then press the dough into your pie dish with your fingers. You need to make it even all the way around – it may help to wet your fingers so that they don’t stick to the dough. I used a pie dish with a removable base but a spring-form cake-tin would also work well.

Press the dough into a loose-bottomed pie dish with your fingers, trying to keep the crust even (more even than I did)

The filling is simple enough. Apples, obviously. You need to choose your fruit wisely, with a mixture of acidic cookers and firm eaters so that when they cook you get both softness and  texture. I used a mixture of bramleys and anonymous eating apples. Chop or slice them up and mix with orange zest, lemon zest, lemon juice, brown sugar, mixed spice (or cinnamon and ginger), cornflour, raisins and a slug of brandy.

Chop apples and mix with the citrus zest, juice, cornflour, sugar and spices

Pile the fruit into your crust evenly, then top with any remaining dough. I made my crust too thick so had very little dough left to make a topping, but if you have more you could make a lattice or even a full pie-top.

Pile the apples into the dish and dot with any remaining pastry, then bake

The appeltaart is baked for what feels like an eternity (about 1 1/4 hours) and then left to cool completely before serving with whipped cream. I kept forgetting to photograph the final result, hence this awful picture of the final slice of tart! The flavours were great but the execution needs work – I think I need a pie dish with a smaller diameter to make for a deeper pie, then I can go thinner on the crust. I might also be tempted to slice rather than dice the apples, so they cook more evenly. But that aside: this is a great apple pie and a useful recipe to have up one’s sleeve for when a trip to Amsterdam is impossible.

Mine is nowhere near as beautiful as the Rijks Museum version, but a valiant first effort

Appeltaart (work in progress)
Adapted from the Food Nouveu blog

Note: Allow several hours of cooling time before you can dish up your cooked pie. You need a 6 or 7inch springform tin or one with a removable bottom. (If you go larger you will need to increase the quantity of pastry and filling.)

For the pastry:
170g unsalted butter
20g light soft brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
280g plain flour
pinch of salt

For the filling:
1 large or 2 small bramley apples
4 small or 3 large eating apples
zest of half an orange
zest of half a lemon
juice of half a lemon
25g brown sugar
1 level teaspoon mixed spice, or use a mixture of cinnamon and ground ginger
1 tsp cornflour
1 tblsp brandy or apple juice
Small handful of raisins

First make the crust. In a food processor, pulse the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the egg and the flour in batches, scraping down the sides to make sure everything is combined. Add the salt and pulse again. The dough will first come together in a scraggy way but eventually becomes smooth and firm, like play dough. Transfer to a bowl and chill whilst you make your filling.

Make the filling: Slice or dice the apples and mix together with the citrus zest, juice, sugar, spice, cornflour, brandy and raisins.

Make the pie: Pre-heat the oven to 190c. Grease your tin well (you can choose to line the base with baking parchment if you prefer). Press about half of the crust mixture into the base of the tin, keeping it as even as possible. It may help to dampen your fingers for this. Then take lumps of the remaining dough to line the edges of the tin, ensuring there are no gaps or holes anywhere. Pile the apples into the dish, then dot any remaining crust mixture onto the apple surface.

Place the tin onto a baking sheet to catch any juices that leak out, then bake at 190c for 30 minutes. Turn the oven down to 170c and continue to bake until the apples are soft and the crust is crisp – about 1 1/4 hours cooking in total but it may be longer. You may need to cover the tart with foil to prevent the pastry from burning.

Cool for several hours before slicing – you can turn it out onto a wire rack but I kept mine in the tin. Serve in generous wedges with whipped cream. Keep any leftovers in the fridge.

Muck spreading

Last week, with the concrete skies and the poorly-but-not-that-poorly baby, I fell into a fug of dis-inspiration. When Matt is working all hours and in contrast my work is quiet, I end up spending long days at home, alone, with little stimulus. The days drag and the evening are long. The radio predicts the end of world (well, Brexit) on an hourly basis. No point doing a nice dinner – who’s going to eat it? No point having a tipple in front of the fire – I’ll just get a bad head and then will be stuck with an entire bottle to get through. No point having my long-planned day off in London. No point doing anything really. So the days lull together into an endless tedium of cleaning and tea and afternoon telly and Instagram and feeling broke and singing chug-a-chug-a-choo-choo.

The thing is, these days of Fug are actually rare, and tend to only last for a week or so until a new creative project comes along. I am so, SO, acutely aware that for women in previous generations, and women in different circumstances today, this was/is their life. The endless drudge of housewifery, with no option of a professional life or a creative life or whatever it is that keeps a person inspired and alive. Don’t misunderstand me – I love my family, of course I do, but the weeks where I am home all the time are hard. So I think of those women who went before me, and pushed for the changes that mean that I have at least got the option of having a different kind of life, and I offer them a little prayer of thanks.

In the meantime, there is muck spreading to be done. 25 sacks of manure have been piled up by the compost bins since February, waiting to have their contents piled up onto the ground where the sunflowers used to be.

25 x 50-litre sacks of manure still do not cover an entire bed

It’s phenomenal just how far these heavy bags of manure don’t go. All that heavy lifting, and there’s still several square metres of land that didn’t get mulched today – just not enough to go around. As I worked, the inquisitive robin hopped around the plot, taking advantage of the feast of snails, slugs and woodlouse that emerged from underneath the plastic sacks. The weather was dry today after days of wet, and the sun was low in the sky but surprisingly warm…enough to thaw out fingers that had grown numb inside sodden gloves.

Both veg beds are now covered in plastic as best I can, to keep the weeds down

If there’s any doubt about the efficacy of covering ground – this patch has been hidden under manure sacks since February and all greenery has gone, leaving a feast of slugs and worms for the robin

I have now covered both of the main vegetable beds in plastic to keep the weeds down, weighed down with more bricks and stones that have been uncovered now that the wilderness area is being cleared. A bit of graft now is much preferable to hours and hours of weeding in the early spring – and sometimes, getting mucky and soggy can be an effective way of removing The Fug.

On Thursday I was drenched…

…but today merely covered in poo

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Matt’s amazing curry dinner (tandoori chicken, chicken curry, spinach flatbread, Tune’s carrot salad & aloo jeera), profiteroles, Jean’s cider loaf. I have rashly pre-ordered a goose from Mrs Goodman for Christmas, which will live in the freezer at Grove House for a month, and thereby saved myself about £30 by buying early.

Illness update: Harry is now fine but has passed his mouth disease to Matt.

Reading and watching: Winter by Ali Smith; the return of Escape to the Chateau on C4 (once again coveting all things Dick & Angel, including the berets and kimonos).

First frosts and whiskey cake

Our house needs a big red cross on the front door: once again we are diseased. Well actually it’s not that dramatic – potentially a bit of hand, foot and mouth, except Harry’s spots are on his bum, knees and mouth. I haven’t googled “bum, knees and mouth childhood illness” as I’m pretty certain it’s new to science. Whilst Harry’s potentially infectious and therefore off nursery, I’ve been mentally bouncing off the walls at being nearly-housebound. The worst is over so today we even went to Ikea out of desperation.

In the meantime, autumn has taken hold and Birmingham is bathed in golden colour. It’s good to pay attention to these things…the changing light roots me into the passing of the seasons. We’ve had a few frosts now which have finally meant the end of the cosmos – the Cosmos Purity and Dazzler gave me blooms from June to November, which is pretty impressive.

My allotment visits look like this now, meaning it’s almost impossible to get anything done

Cosmos have finally been zapped by the frosts

A week or so back I managed to take out the remaining plants from the one veg bed and get some black plastic down, to protect the soil from the worst of the winter weather and limit the weeds. Keeping the plastic in place is always a feat of “that’ll do” – pegs and staples are useless here, so I use any bits of heavy material I can find including, this year, the hopolisk, some discarded fencing and (my favourite) a marrow.

The one veg plot has been covered in plastic, though the brassicas are still going strong

Without really meaning to, I have become the proud owner of a gazillion dahlias – none of which are in the right place. The ones at home have now been dug up so that I can over-winter them indoors and replant in the spring. The allotment ones also need to come up (just need to find the time) and they will get the same treatment.

First crate of dahlia tubers for over-wintering

All this is diversion from what Harry and I spend most of our poorly time doing, which is cooking. Every morning I plonk him in the high chair so he can watch me concoct something – today it was a lentil and vegetable stew, which he later scoffed very happily, and yesterday it was a parsnip and cheddar soda bread. I know that he’s very young to be indoctrinated into Stallard cookery but I like to think that he will learn by osmosis.

One of his favourite treats of recent weeks has been an Irish Whiskey Cake that was leftover from the cake table at our wedding. He (and I) liked it so much that I pumped my friend Felicity for the recipe, which she in turn had to get from Mrs Audrey Flint from Smethwick Old Church. Audrey very kindly came up with the goods, and I discovered that my naive assumption that the whiskey would have been baked into the cake was wrong wrong wrong. It’s actually a tea bread, and the key ingredient is drizzled on after cooking to increase the moisture content…which means that my son has started his boozy life extremely young.

Here is Audrey’s fine typed-up version, which I see no reason to re-type as I can not improve on this excellent piece of food culture. Thank you Mrs Flint for carrying on the fine tradition of simple yet richly fruited, boozy loaves that keep forever.

Irish Whiskey Cake courtesy of Mrs Audrey Flint of Smethwick Old Church

Also this week:

On the allotment: Covered one vegetable bed with plastic. All the cut flowers are now finished, but still harvesting chard, beet spinach and cavolo nero.

Cooking and eating: Chocolate Eve’s pudding, parsnip & cheddar soda bread, banana muffins, lentil and vegetable stew.

Matt’s rabbit rillettes

The temperature in our house has plummeted in recent days from long-sleeve-t-shirt-with-thick-cardigan temperature, to proper-jumper-plus-thick-cardigan-and-socks-but-still-really-cold temperature. The windows are permanently hazed with condensation and I find it inconceivable that I ever used to wander around in shorts with nothing on my feet. What madness was that?!

This means that we have arrived firmly in autumn. Actually we might be fast-forwarding through autumn in a rush towards winter, given this weekend’s chill wind. Aside from these nonsense low temperatures, autumn brings with it a great many pleasures, most of them culinary. It’s quince season for one. You can buy the fuzzy aromatic pear-shaped fruits in the halal shop on Bearwood High Street for £1 each, or I found this basket of 50p fruits in Moreton-on-Marsh the other day.

Quinces a bargain 50p each in Moreton-on-Marsh

Pumpkins and squash abound, of course, in the run-up to halloween. My local Aldi is selling ‘decorative’ turks turban and blue prince squash for 39p each – presumably they think people will use them as table decorations but I’d rather cook with these than a butternut squash anyday. In Ludlow on Saturday, the pumpkin prices were higher but the colours just as fun.

Gorgeous colours on Ludlow market

We were in Ludlow for our annual freezer-filling visit. I have come to the conclusion that there is nowhere better in the UK to stock up on game, meat, cheese and proper veg (i.e. field-fresh, knobbly and ideally still crusted in mud). Add to that the independent shops, the cosy pub that serves really good pies AND has an open fire, the Ludlow Brewing Company, the castle and the glorious country drive and you have the perfect escape from the city. It’s also surprisingly good value. We came home with (VEGETARIANS PLEASE LOOK AWAY NOW) 2 pheasants, 2 rabbits, stewing venison, stewing mutton, oxtail, 1kg beef mince, 1kg braising steak, Italian sausages, pork pie, a round of cheese, amazing pain de levain and purple sprouting broccoli for less than £55. We’re not talking rubbish meat here, we’re talking meat that someone has taken care over, but without the pretension that you find in the posh urban butchers.

The Ludlow visit always precedes the start of Proper Cooking Season. Yesterday was a happy day of concocting rabbit rillettes, beef bourguignon and orange & cinnamon creme caramel and this morning I interspersed press release writing with making a massive vat of deeply flavoured bolognese sauce. My Things to Cook list has gone subtly wintry….cranberry breakfast bread, pumpkin pie, smoked mackerel pate with beetroot and horseradish.

The rillettes are a particularly welcome addition to the autumn kitchen. The rabbit is slow-cooked with pork belly, thyme and garlic until shreddable, then packed together with their cooking liquor (which is essentially lard, let’s face it) to make a subtly-flavoured pate. Keep a tub of these in the fridge for topping warm buttery toast: lard and butter, working together to keep out the autumn chill.

Rabbit Rillettes
Adapted from this recipe by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Makes two shallow 10cm tubs.

First, joint a rabbit (or get the butcher to do it for you). Remove the rind from 500g fatty pork belly and dice into chunky cubes. Place the meat in an oven-proof dish with sprig of fresh thyme, 3 bay leaves, a bulb of garlic sliced in half through the centre and 250ml water. The meat should be in a single layer so that it cooks evenly. Cover tightly with foil and bake at 220c for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 140c and cook for 2-and-a-half hours more, until the rabbit and pork can be shredded with a fork. Give the dish a prod every now and then during the cooking to ensure that it’s not drying out (top with a little water if you need to).

Allow the rabbit and pork to bubble together in a gentle oven for several hours

Remove the meat from the liquor and leave until cool enough to handle. Shred the meat from the bones and place in a large bowl, making sure all the fat from the pork is included.

Strip the meat from the bones and save the liquor

Thoroughly mix the two meats together and season well with salt and pepper (you could also add some nutmeg or mace now). Add a good splash of the cooking liquor and stir until you achieve a loose pate texture, adding more of the liquor as needed. Transfer your rillettes to tubs or jars, and refrigerate until firm.

Pack the meat into your container and chill

Serve on hot toast, preferably with something slightly acidic to counter all the lard. A cornichon or pickled onion is just the ticket. The rillettes will keep for several days in the fridge, or you could make a few jars and freeze what you don’t need for a later day.

Serve on good toast, ideally with something pickled

Also this week:

Cooking & Eating: German bienenstich (bee sting) cake, spiced squash soup, pies at The Crown Inn in Ludlow, hake from the Birmingham fish market with chorizo. Stollen-watch has begun: Aldi has its mini stollens in, which means the proper ones won’t be too far away.

Reading & Watching: The Apple Orchard by Pete Brown, a love story to the English apple tradition with plenty of references to Herefordshire. The Prawn on the Lawn cookbook by Rick and Katie Toogood.

Visiting: Batsford Arboretum to make the most of the autumn colour. Ludlow for freezer-filling. The new BOM cafe, near the Bullring markets – a cosy cafe that has been designed to be friendly to autistic people.

On the allotment: Still harvesting cosmos, chrysanthemums, chard and cavolo nero. It’s time to clear: Matt has started to remove the thicket of brambles at the back of the greenhouse, I’ve pulled up most of the annuals and veg, and have put black plastic on the one plot to protect the soil and keep weeds down. It’s nearly time for a bonfire.

Golden days on windswept beaches

No words this week, just Cornwall honeymooning lovely-ness.

Actually I will add some words, as follows:

Eating and Cooking: An array of small plates at Prawn on the Lawn in Padstow including deep-fried oysters with garlic creme fraiche, and a lovely glass of Prosecco (am not normally keen). Plus over the course of the week also worked our way through two crabs, a steak and oyster pie (home-made), Buttermilk fudge, mussels at The Beach Hut at Watergate Bay, crab sandwiches and a pasty at the National Trust Cafe at Bedruthan, and a return visit for a cream tea, plus chips, more pasties, really good bread and a memorable viennese finger from the bakery in Polperro.

Reading: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, a favourite holiday read, plus Inviting Silence by Grunella Norris. Ordered a load of cookbooks to reinvigorate my home cooking, including PoTL Fish and Shellfish to Share, River Cottage Family Cookbook and Jamie Oliver’s Superfood Family Classics. Also ordered Real Gardens by Adam Frost, for some outdoorsing inspiration.

Wedding flowers and wedding cake(s)

September began with parties and ended with a wedding! After a summer of growing, my cut flowers were OK (nothing special) but thankfully, I had a squad of growers watching my back. Step forward my Mum and Cousin Sue, who between them grew an entire FARM of blooms for our wedding displays. When I asked Sue to help out, back in April, I thought we’d have some pretty flowers that would be just fine, but what we ended up with was better than some professional florestry I’ve seen. I love that our wedding gave an opportunity for creative friends and family to shine.

Sue’s flowers, picked and conditioned, ready for transport

My offerings – not as impressive but still some colour and variety

Together with my Mum, Sue made up some incredible displays for tables and plinths, all using home-grown stems. Plus she made beautiful bouquets for myself and my two nieces, and some seriously impressive buttonhole work. Note the use of hops and clematis seed heads for a bit of country chic.

Sue fashioned the botton holes and bouquets

These exquisite displays were put together by Sue and my Mum

More table decorations

After the wedding the vases made a welcome addition to my back garden

If someone is thinking of doing their own wedding flowers I would say do it…but only if you have a talented team to do all the work. If I was arranging flowers at the same time as making sure the bar was in order and the caterers were OK and having my hair and make-up done, I would have collapsed in a heap. So all respect to Sue and my Mum for their extraordinary skills – I don’t use those words lightly; I couldn’t have asked for more on the floral front.

As someone who has never wanted a big wedding, let alone a bit formal wedding (ugh), it was important to me that we included as much of our normal life into the day as possible. Normal life in Bearwood means regular trips to Chandigarh sweet centre for samosa – THE best samosa in the region – and it gave us great joy to pile 300 onto MDF boards for after-ceremony snacks. 

The best samosa this side of the Punjab

My favourite picture of the day

Normal life also meant Matt messing about with massive bits of wood – this time by sticking our heads onto temporary exhibition walls – and me organising this event like any other work event that I’ve ever been involved in (cue production schedule, production budget, and various bits of tech).

Tres amusement

I digress. The other noteworthy creative skills were from our bakers, and in particular Helen Annetts (my work sister) with her epic allotment cake. I didn’t want a regular wedding cake so Helen “volunteered” to have a go at making a novelty cake – as it turned out, a brilliant centre piece to our table of cakes, generously brought along by our guests for the best pot-luck dessert table I’ve ever seen.

A room devoted to cake

Helen Annett’s allotment cake

Why have one cake when you can have 30?

So now we’re holed up in a farmhouse in Cornwall, looking forward to life getting back to normal and introducing Harry to the joy of October beaches and cream teas.