Spiced pumpkin muffins

The autumn clearing began this week, the slow removal of stems, supports and seed heads in time for the plot’s winter sleep. Amongst the debris piled onto the ‘compost’ (read, rubbish) heap, are, sadly, the leeks, which once again have all succumbed to some kind of fungal disease. Their stems look good enough at a distance, but look closely and they are mottled with orange, and what should be firm flesh has been rendered limp and slimy. Next year I must remember this and stop myself from planting more seeds, for every year the result is the same.

Slimy leeks end their days on the ‘compost’ heap

Removal of tired sunflowers and beans feels right in October, an appropriate task marking the end of summer. What astounds me, however, is the longevity of the cosmos. It’s not a question of hanging in there, more that they are thriving in this autumnal weather. Cosmos ‘dazzler’ has given handfuls of hot pink stems for several weeks but now it is littered with buds, a final hurrah before the frosts set in. Amongst them is a newly flowering mystery cosmos, a pink so pale that it’s almost blue. They sit amongst the chrysanthemum and strawflower, fully at home in what now shall be known as the autumn cut-flower bed.

The cosmos have (finally) exploded into colour
The mystery cosmos – not veloutte, not dazzler, not pied piper, not purity, so what is it?

The autumn squashes has been slow this year, with only three tiny little gourds and three larger squash making it to harvest (though the largest turned to rot in the wet weather). I suspect I planted too many too close together, so they were fighting for both space and sunlight. The smaller ones are decorating the house, while the larger specimens are curing in the sun room ready for storage.

Taking home my two autumn squash amongst the cut flowers

Is there a vegetable so wonderfully voluptuous at autumn squash? Orange, green, grey, yellow; round, long, ribbed, fat, turbaned; they are emblematic of all that is joyful about the autumn harvest. A confession though: I much prefer growing squashes to eating them. The odd wedge will make its way onto my dinner plate, and I do enjoy sweet chunks of butternut in a soup or curry, but, for me, the best way to use the soft sweetness of squash in baking. The all-American pumpkin pie is a thing of joy, and just writing the phrase ‘pumpkin spice’ is enough to conjour up a comfortable feeling of seasonal hibernation.

These pumpkin spiced muffins are just the thing for this time of year, when one wants to feel embedded in the season of autumn. Reminiscent of carrot cake, but denser, they have an element of the virtuous about them and therefore work for breakfast as well as afternoon tea. I say ‘pumpkin’ but I would actually use a squash if you can, such as butternut, to avoid wateriness. Alternatively, do as I do, which is to use pre-cooked pumpkin that has been thoroughly drained of all its liquid, either from a tin or home-made. These little cakes are not lookers, but what they lack in appearance they make up for in homely comfort.

Spiced pumpkin muffins
Makes 12

400g fresh squash, or around 200g pre-cooked squash puree that has been thoroughly drained of excess liquid (from a tin or home-made).
1 tsp mixed spice
pinch salt
225g spelt flour (or normal white flour if preferred)
2 heaped tsp baking powder
4 tbsp soft brown sugar
125g unsalted butter
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 tbsp plain yoghurt
Handful sultanas
Demerara or white sugar crystals, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 180c and line a 12-hole muffin tin with cases.

If using fresh squash, peel and chop it, then whizz in a food processor until finely chopped and transfer to a mixing bowl. If using pre-cooked squash, drain any excess liquid off then place in a large bowl. Add the spice, salt, flour, baking powder and sugar, then stir gently to combine.

In a separate bowl or jug, melt the butter in the microwave (about 40 seconds). Add the eggs, yoghurt and vanilla, when whisk to combine.

Pour your wet ingredients into the pumpkin mixture, then stir gently but thoroughly until just mixed. Add a handful of sultanas and stir to combine.

Place spoonfuls into each paper case, top with a sprinkle of sugar, and bake until risen and golden – about 20 minutes.

Best eaten fresh but also good for a few days after if re-heated in the oven or microwave.

Spiced pumpkin muffins

Also this week:
Harvesting: Strawflower, chrysanthemum, cosmos, dahlia, cavolo nero, kale, squash.
Also on the allotment and garden: Pulling up sunflowers, bean stalks, summer annuals and ditching the diseased leeks. Sowing sweet peas, ammi, cosmos and laceflower for next year.
Cooking and eating: Beef brisket chilli rich with peppers and coffee (recipe to follow). Butternut and sweet potato curry. Bangers, mash and onion gravy. Sticky toffee pudding.
Reading and visiting: A Suitable Boy, still less than a quarter of a way in after three weeks of effort. Autumn walk in Wyre Forest. Van Gogh experience at Birmingham Hippodrome.

Blueberry coconut porridge

After a fortnight’s abandonment, I steadied myself for a trip to the veg patch. Weeds everywhere, of course, and faded bean sticks, nibbled sweetcorn and rotten raspberries. But I worried not, for amidst the decay of summer there is still the sweet autumnal harvest – the unshowy and unsexy brassicas and parsnips, the not-yet-ripe squash, and the ever-lasting flowers. All of them thriving, in their own way.

Cavolo nero and Pentland brig kale are enjoying the damp weather. Brilliant in minestrone or simply sautéed with garlic and chilli.
A rather mediocre pumpkin harvest this year but the green will eventually ripen to orange, and into store they will go.
Strawflowers cut long, with jewel-chrysanthemum and pompom dahlia

Just as I’ve been yearning for stews and soups once the night draws in, in the mornings I want soft, comforting nourishment. Working alone, from home, I’m often on back-to-back Zoom meetings for 4+ hours a day which believe me, is exhausting. Headaches are an everyday part of life now. To endure it all I need yoga, stamina – and porridge.

The trick to porridge is ratios and time. When I say ‘time’, I am of course talking minutes rather than hours, but I do think that proper oats cooked for 8 minutes in the microwave are deeply superior to those 90 second instant packets that so many office workers use (or used…do you remember the days of putting on actual clothes to go on an actual train for an hour, just to sit behind a desk all day? What madness that was).

I suppose it could be cooked on the hob but that involves hovering over the stove to avoid the risk of burning, and in the morning I’m probably also putting a wash on or shooing the neighbourhood cats off my garden, so a microwave it is. I habitually add coconut to my porridge, partly for the vitamins and flavour, but mostly for the gentle sweetness it provides – I find that I don’t then need much extra sugar or syrup, which I say not as one of those dull sugar-fascists but because I have found that too much refined sugar in the morning makes me feel iller-than-ill.

The ratios bit is fun. I have done away with scales when it comes to oats and instead use one of Harry’s tommee-tippee sippy cups, the ones that hold about 200mls. You could use a broken old mug, or a measuring cup, or whatever you like. For every 3/4 sippy-cup of oats, I add 1/4 cup desiccated coconut, 3/4 cup milk and 1 cup of water. In other words, for 1 part coconutty-oats, add 1 and 3/4 parts liquid.

Tip the lot into the largest microwaveable mixing bowl you own – this bit is important because it bubbles like mad and no-one needs to be clearing that mess up first thing in the morning (I speak from experience). Split porridge does look like baby sick, don’t you think?

Porridge fail: May 2018

Anyway, microwave for 5 minutes whilst you put the kettle on. Give it a stir, then pop it back in for 90 seconds. Finally add your berries – a handful of fresh blueberries works for me at the moment, but frozen allotment fruits will find their way into my porridge during the winter months, the sourer the better. Microwave again for 1 final minute (if using frozen berries they may need a little longer, use your judgement on this one). Total cooking time, 7.5 minutes. If you have timed it right, your mug of tea will also now be of a drinkable temperature.

When it’s done, tip the lot into a bowl, add a circle of cold milk around the edge (this is a traditional Scottish touch) and then finish with the merest hint of maple syrup, just a teaspoon or two. Or more, if you have a sweeter tooth than me.

Porridge win: October 2020

Eat in front of the laptop, ideally before the first meeting of the day.

Autumn beef & vegetable stew

We are returned from our summer holiday, ‘summer’ being perhaps an optimistic notion for October. It is at this time of the year that we travel, partly to avoid school holidays but mainly because work is usually busiest during the festival-season of June to September. Not this year of course. Nothing is the same this year – not that you’d know it in Cornwall. There, the pace of life remains reassuringly unhurried, the noise of lockdown diktats from London seem to merely echo rather than shout.

Alas, the weather threw everything at us. Gales, rain, drizzle, sun, rainbow, wind again…Watching it all unfold, I wrote a few words in my journal:

Sea merging into sky
steel blue, grey, white, concrete
Three days of leaden sky
Forceful wind, rajasic weather,
Stormy. Relentless.

But then this morning, sun broke through
turning the cliffs golden
The hint of a rainbow dissolves onto the sea
and then returns with greater resolve.
A brief strengthening of sprit.

I am not normally driven to write poetry-style words. This is what the Cornish landscape does to a woman in middling-age.

Endless grey skies at Mawgan Porth
Industrial architecture mimicking a Norman keep
Sky meets sea

I have always thought of our September/October break as the end of summer, a mental shift towards the autumn/winter months. On returning home my mind whirrs with lists to make the next six months more tolerable; much of it is kitchen and garden-room (I can wish) related: the final autumn harvests, the creation of dried flower vases around the house. Sloe-apple jelly and butternut squash soup become earmarked for creation. Traditionally we prepared for winter by filling our stores and retreating indoors, a way of thinking that remains in my blood.

Yesterday I gave in and harvested the outdoor tomatoes from the veg trug. These are lockdown plants, arriving shrivelled and near dead in the post after whiling away for days in the postal service, but they perked up and the four plants have given several kilo of fruit. Harry, only 3, insisted on using the secateurs and to his credit, did an effective job. The issue is ripeness, or rather the lack of it: 90% of them are green, our back garden too overlooked and the summer too cloudy to allow them to ripen. I’ve placed them on newspaper in the sun room in hope of a late ripening, and the rest – let’s face it – will probably end up in the compost.

The harvest from 4 tomato plants, all outdoor. An abundance of fruit, alas all of it in varying shades of green

Whilst sorting out tomatoes my eyes were drawn to the bunches of hanging strawflower and hops, now papery and dried, and I cut a few to make a small vase for the office – a classic procrastination before work. Over the next few weeks there will be more of these to brighten up the house, replacing the vases of dahlias and chrysanthemums that have been so abundant during late summer.

The first of this year’s dried flower posies, made of hop, strawflower, cornflower and poppy head

October weather – once one has truly been in it for days, as even in gale-force winds a pre-schooler insists on building sandcastles – demands a return to slow food. Feta cheese and salads won’t cut it now; my body yearns for homely, inexpensive, peasanty cooking. Yesterday, whilst stocking up on essential supplies I even found myself sneaking turnips into the trolly. Turnips! They found their way into a simple long-braised stew, rich with root vegetables and just a scrap of meat, served steaming in deep bowls with a few stodgy-yet-crunchy dumplings.

The trick to this is cutting your foundation vegetables – the onions, celery, leeks – quite small so that they melt into the stock, but the hero veg – the parsnips, carrots and the like – big. That way you get a smooth silky soupy base with interesting chunks to chew on.

This is what I call National Trust cookery. Autumn is here.

Autumn beef & vegetable stew
serves 4, generously

500g braising steak, diced
oil or dripping
2 small onions, peeled and finely sliced
2 large sticks of celery, trimmed and finely sliced
1 leek, cleaned, trimmed and finely sliced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
2 small turnips, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
5 mid-sized new potatoes, halved or quartered (if you have tiny ones leave them whole and just use a few more)
4 or so fat cloves of garlic, peeled and bashed but left whole
4-5 bay leaves
few springs of thyme
1 tablespoon flour
salt and pepper
2 beef stock cubes (I use Kallo organic low-salt)
boiling water

For the dumplings:
250g self-raising flour
125g suet
cold water
salt and pepper

Set the oven to 160c. Warm a heavy-weight frying pan and when hot, brown the meat on all sides until burnished – I do this in batches, without any extra oil as I dislike all the splatters. Remove the meat to a very large casserole pot.

Turn the heat on the frying pan down, add a little oil or dripping, then soften the onions, leeks and celery for about five minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper, then tip the lot into the casserole with the meat – the onions should pick up any crusty bits left from browning your beef. The frying pan can now go in the sink to be washed up.

Put your casserole pan onto the heat, add the remaining vegetables and turn them over with the onions and beef for five minutes or so, just to slightly soften. Add the herbs, flour and the stock cubes, and stir again for a few more minutes so that everything is well distributed. Tip in enough boiling water to cover the meat, bring it all to a slow simmer and give everything another good stir – we need the stock cubes to fully dissolve and for there to be no lumps of flour.

Pop the lid on and transfer to the oven, where it should putter away for two hours. Top the water up if it looks dry.

For the dumplings, stir the suet, flour, salt and pepper together using a table knife, then add enough cold water to bring it together to a rough dough – maybe 3 tablespoons. Shape into however many dumplings you require – this mixture makes 5 BIG ones or rather more smaller ones.

After two hours, turn the heat up to 180c. Remove the lid of the casserole, pop the dumplings on top of the stew and return to the oven, cooking uncovered for 30 minutes or so until the dumplings are puffy and crunchy on the top.

Enjoy in a deep bowl with a dollop of hot horseradish. No other accompaniment is required.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Braised rabbit with rose wine, rosemary and bacon (found an independent rural butcher selling wild rabbits for £3, which is an offer I can not refuse); pasties, scampi, chips, fudge etc etc; a tot of sloe gin from Chappers’ 2017 vintage. Buying up apples and pears, some for eating now, some to be sliced and frozen for future pies.

Reading: Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy, wonderfully evocative writing; A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, which I’ve been putting off because it is literally the size of a brick, but when on holiday there is no excuse.

The drying room

As September draws to a close, summer still clings on. Chilly mornings herald blue-sky days; the roses are in second bloom and our house is filled with vase upon vase of brightly coloured cosmos, sunflower and dahlia. But the nights draw in early now, and the fire has been flipped on a few times – its role is to warm both the house but also our souls. As ever, with the outside world remaining as turbulent as it is, it is mindfulness of the moment, the season, the small things, that provide comfort. And my goodness, what a month to be outdoorsing it, with these glorious rich colours and an abundance of harvest.

September colour: cosmos, chrysanthemum, strawflower, dahlia, nasturtium

Last week Matt took the hops down, using a hammer and brute force to drop the hopolisk to ground-level. It’s a good harvest this year, the hops rich with resin. Perhaps one year we’ll actually turn them into beer but for now they remain an ornamental, and I take lengths of hop bine, twist them into lengths then leave them to dry for a few weeks, ready to decorate the house over winter.

The hopolisk is down!
Up close, the hops are resinous and fresh-scented
Our current regular harvest, awash with rich colour
I took bines of hops and twisted them into hanging lengths

The ‘sun room’ at home (that’s what the estate agents call it) has become the Drying Room, the perfect south-facing glass-fronted space for drying the harvest ready for the cooler months. Since the spring I’ve been saving bunches of flowers, notably the strawflower, hydrangea and alliums, but also dainty cornflowers and a few poppy heads, tying and hanging them upside down to slowly dry in the gentle sun. Come December I’ll twist them into garlands and wreaths, a bit of Christmas botanical creativity that costs nothing.

The drying room, filled with (L-R) hydrangea, strawflower, hops, allium, cornflower

It’s not just flowers though. The borlotti beans are piled into an old vegetable box, their leathery skins becoming hard and dry as the beans ripen. If podded before drying, the skins curl themselves into spirals – perhaps another addition to a winter display. Once they’re fully dried I’ll take the beans and pop them in glass jars to store.

Borlotti beans twist themselves into spirals when dry

Seeds can be preserved too. These sunflowers I cut a few weeks back and have left to desiccate so that I can get the seeds before the squirrels do – some to eat, but the rest to sow again for next year’s blooms.

Sunflower seeds ripening in the sun room

Then there’s the foraging harvest, the hips and haws that are at their best in late September and October. This weekend I hunted down rosehips and hawthorn berries (and a bag of sloes which I’ve ferreted away into the freezer), and they join the Drying Room action. It’s all an experiment really – I don’t know if they’ll dry well or not – and half the fun is seeing what works, finding the possibilities.

Hawthorn, rose hips and spruce join the drying flowers, ready to be turned into Christmas displays

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias (abundant), cosmos purity and dazzler, sunflowers (now in a second bloom), chrysanthemum, zinnia, cavolo nero, kale, first pumpkin Jill be Little, runner beans, raspberries.

Cooking and eating: Excellent roast lunch at the Plough and Harrow at Guarlford, first time in a pub in what feels like years. Fish tacos with fresh corn. Home-made deep pan pizza. Plum Eve’s pudding. The hunt for the perfect samosa continues with a trip to the sweet centres of Smethwick High St.

Also: Work is full on and there is a mental shift as I realise just how much of my professional life must adapt to the Covid world; it’s not a great time for the cultural sector and friends are losing their jobs. Yoga provides ballast. Lovely few days play-dating at Rowheath Pavillion, celebrating my Dad’s 75th birthday and foraging on Castlemorten Common.

Ice cream, she Mumbles

Allotmenting – and cooking for that matter – has taken a back seat for the last few weeks. After the storms blew over the best of the sunflowers and dahlias, I lost heart a little, and since then my time has been taken up with work (meetings now happening IN REAL LIFE! which is exciting but also exhausting after so long not seeing anyone), Harry’s birthday and a trip down to the Gower. Maybe it’s normal to get an energy dip at this time of year, with the days shortening and the light beginning to dim. But then this weekend the sun has come out and I realise that we’re not quite done with the season just yet – look at this basket of colour, harvested yesterday.

This week’s flower haul: dahlias, cosmos, sunflower, zinnia, chrysanthemum and dill

Once or twice a week I am gathering a flower haul like this, with multiple colours and shapes of dahlias, cosmos, sunflower, zinnia and chrysanthemum, and today I also added a few sprigs of lime-yellow dill to the basket. I place them in multiple vases in the dining room, the more clashing shades the better.

I place them in multiple vases in the dining room

This week Harry turned three, with not one but two birthday parties (in Corona-times we have to limit the numbers of people who can get together at once). I did consider making one of those 3D ambitious Thomas the Tank Engine cakes but sanity took over, and I stuck to the good old-fashioned chocolate tray bake with chocolate fingers and 100s and 1000s. To be clear, no matter how small the number of guests, a child’s birthday party is TIRING. I am deeply looking forward to Monday and a rest.

Harry’s small but fun birthday tea

But onto the ice cream referenced in the title. Last weekend we were in Mumbles at the edge of the Gower peninsula, hoping for a few days of peaceful rejuvenation amidst the sea air. Not a bit of it: in the six months since he last saw a beach, Harry has morphed from sand-phobic to CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF IT. I am rapidly having to rethink how we approach our forthcoming autumnal Cornwall holiday, for the usual cagoule-and-welly 30 minute beach experience is looking like it will become a full-day-outer needing buckets, spades, windbreaks, wet suits and thermos.

Afternoon light on the Gower
Sand meets sea meets sky on Rosilli beach

When one is knackered, and on holiday, there is always the promise of ice cream to keep energy levels up. And baked goods. And my goodness, do the Welsh deliver on the ice cream front. Verdi’s, on the Mumbles seafront, is an Italian cafe institution, serving up ice cream sundaes, semi-freddo cakes, custard slices (of which the Welsh are particularly partial, they were a regular feature in cafes) and proper coffee.

Ice cream sundaes, semi-freddo cake and cappuccino at Verdi’s

In fact, there are Italian-style cafes and ice cream parlours dotted across the Gower, and a little research tells me that this is A Thing. In the first half of the 20th century, immigrants from the small town of Bardi in the northern Italian mountains settled across South Wales, bringing cafe culture with them – and whilst many of these institutions have now closed, a few have stuck in out, passing businesses (and recipes) down the generations. This BBC article has more but what I would really like to do is take a road trip through the valleys, slurping my way through cappuccinos and gelatos, to find the true spirit of these independent Italian superstars for myself.

Also this week:
Harvesting: Cavolo nero, a scant handful of beans, raspberries, dahlias, chrysanthemum, cosmos, sunflowers, dill, zinnia. Also: Stripped back leaves from the bush tomatoes to let some light in, hoping for a few to ripen.

Cooking and eating: Birthday tea 1: chocolate cake, smoked salmon blinis, sausage rolls. Birthday tea 2: Full Tamworth buffet spread, my contribution was a mac and cheese with leeks and bacon and chicken wings marinated in yoghurt and ras al hanout. Baked porridge oats with blueberries, raspberries and coconut. Semi-freddo cake and ice cream sundaes at Verdi’s. Fresh mackerel and sardines bought from the fishmonger in Mumbles, butterflied and grilled, with fresh bread, salad and laverbread. Squishy focaccia sandwiches and chelsea buns from the Mumbles bakery.

Bullace & plum pudding-cake

We have tipped into Late Summer. I think this time, from late August to the start of October, is a season in its own right, a transition from one thing to the next, a time to celebrate the harvest whilst letting go of the busy-ness of the longest days. I used to feel sad at the onset of autumn but now it’s one of my favourite times of year…as summer’s end I finally get my days at the seaside (we never holiday during peak season, I’m usually busy with work), the light is gloriously golden, and the allotment, garden and kitchen is filled with rich colour: oranges, yellows, purples and reds.

We’ll be harvesting hops soon; their papery husks are filled with resiny fragrance. Not that I know what to do with them as we never get around to turning them into beer…perhaps this year we’ll use them as an outdoor cut flower display for the garden. Slightly more excitingly, for me at least, is the swelling of the borlotti beans: the irresistible hot pink pods open up to reveal rows of beautifully striped beans, which sadly turn to humble brown when cooked. I’ll freeze these fresh from the pods to use in chillis during the winter.

Hops are nearing their harvest time
The lurid pink borlotti beans nearing perfection

As ever, the courgettes quickly became a burden this year and I stopped harvesting them a few weeks ago. As a result we now have an abundance of whopper marrows, which I enjoy looking at if not eating. Next to them the autumn squash have become triffid-like, stretching their growing shoots to anywhere where they find space, and using the more sturdy of the dahlia plants as a climbing frame. Incidentally I never label my squash as I enjoy the mystery, come October, of finding out what we’ve got this year (I never remember what I have sown). Will it be a Turks Turban or a Jill Be Little?

A squash is using the dahlias as a climbing frame

The cut flower have held up well, considering the storms. Well, they are mostly now growing horizontally, but they’re still standing, so I take that as a small victory. This year we have an abundance of hot pinks and oranges, with the chrysanthemum, dahlias and straw flower putting on particularly flamboyant shows.

Clashing shades of chrysanthemum
Hot colours of strawflower
Cut flowers still standing, despite the storms

Traditionally at harvest time, growers would store their hard-won produce and then sell or give-away any excess – this exchange would fill up holes in one’s own supply. It’s an age-old habit that still exists now, and this week I have happily exchanged sunflowers for tomatoes, raspberries for damsons. Alex’s black tomatoes, still warm from the greenhouse, are big enough to carve and eat with a knife and fork – and I did just that, anointing them with olive oil, salt and a sprinkling of dill. Late august perfection.

A regular late summer harvest

The damsons demanded some cooking, however. Now I say damsons but I am pretty sure that these little black beauties are actually bullace, which is a type of wild plum, indigenous to the British Isles. They came from my friend Hannah’s back garden and indeed there is debate in her house as to whether they have damsons or bullace. Either way, they are as seasonal to late summer as asparagus is to May. Incidentally, I would never want to buy a damson – to me they are a foraging food, or at least one that should be scavenged from a friend’s orchard or a neighbour’s tree, leaving fingers stained purple and legs sore with nettle stings. A damson that arrives at the kitchen wrapped in plastic is going against the natural order of things.

I stewed the damsons/bullace with a handful of plums in just a little water and sugar until soft, then picked out the little hard stones, a laborious but essential job. They create a syrup the colour of lipstick. Top with a basic sponge batter and a sprinkling of flaked almonds, and you have the perfect late summer pudding.

Plum and bullace just starting to burst their skins
Simmer until the juices flow freely, then top with sponge batter and bake
Plum & bullace pudding cake

Plum & bullace pudding cake
The bullace can be exchanged for plums or damsons. The amount of sugar needed will vary according to the ripeness of your fruit – an unripe damson can taste like sucking a battery, but a ripe one can be lusciously sweet.

About 500g plums, bullace, damsons or a mixture of the three
Water
Sugar

For the sponge:
100g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter, softened
100g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
flaked almonds, for sprinkling

First prepare your fruit. If using plums or damsons, halve them and remove the stones. The bullace can be cooked whole. Place in a lidded pan with a splash of water and sugar to taste – I would start with 2 tablespoons and add more if required. Simmer the fruit until soft and the juices run, about 5-10 minutes. Leave to cool then fish out any stones.

Grease an oven-proof dish that is of a suitable size to take your fruit and sponge. Using a slatted spoon, transfer the fruit to the dish, keeping any juices in the pan. Return the pan to the heat and reduce the juices down to make a syrup, then pour this over your fruit. Set aside whilst you make the sponge.

Preheat the oven to 180c.

In a bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time with a spoonful of flour, beat to combine, then beat in the remaining flour, baking powder and vanilla extract. When fully combined spoon the batter onto the fruit, then smooth the top and sprinkle with flaked almonds.

Bake for about 45 minutes until golden and set firm. Cool slightly before serving.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Roast lamb and dauphinoise potatoes, the first truly autumnal dinner of the season. Shepherds pie with the leftovers. Spaghetti with tomatoes and runner beans. Jam turnovers. Baked pancakes with blueberries. Korean vegetable pancakes, hot with gochujang.

Harvesting: TONS of raspberries, I have no freezer space left. Plus chard, dahlias, cosmos, chrysanthemum, ammi, zinnia, marigolds. A few beans but they’re over now really.

Also: Upping my fitness with Jessica Ennis-Hill’s HIIT app, which is leaving me a sweaty mess but is fun, plus weekly yoga with Mel.

Rain stops play

It’s been a week of gales, rain, intermittent sunshine…and a rat attack. On last week’s only sunny day I took Harry to Bourton House in the Cotswolds to take a look at their famous summer garden. The planting was amazing of course – though it’s hard to take anything in when running after a sprinting two year old – but actually it was the use of wood that caught my eye. Just look at the incredible shadows created in this shade house, and the magic quality of the kinetic sculpture in the meadow.

The shade house at Bourton House, Bourton on the Hill
Kinetic sculpture in the woodland walk

A quick trip to my parents’ yesterday wielded another bootful of goodies. Corns, fennel, carrots, beans, spinach, and 14 castaway snails that I rescued from the sink, one by one. Apparently it’s been “a crap year for growing” (direct quote) but I am not sure that my Dad truly understands what crap is. My folks have been spoilt by years of living with tons of space and a protected walled garden – this isn’t as posh as it sounds, believe me, but the result is that even a massive harvest of corns is considered substandard. It occurred to me later that these children of the 1940s were possibly the first generation to grow things purely for pleasure rather than necessity, but the cultural memory of growing for need lives on. These days the winter store cupboard can always be replenished by a trip to the shops, but the age-old instinct of the country people to squirrel away the harvest for winter remains. I share this instinct, of course, and so the freezer is now full of sweetcorn, raspberries, blackberries, sliced apples…the list goes on.

Apparently it’s been “a crap year for growing” says my Dad, whilst hauling two buckets of corn and giant fennel bulbs
Corn being prepped for freezing, a still life

It’s a good job that my parents’ “terrible” corn harvest has still yielded extras, for on the allotment mine has been obliterated by rats. Or maybe mice. Whoever the culprit, they took their fill then scarpered, leaving only the evidence of a feast.

Corn left desolate after attack of the rats/mice

In fact, it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs down there after the terrible winds and heavy rain of the weekend. Two sunflowers completely capsized, and the rest are growing horizontally, their bronze faces battered with wind burn. The new dahlias also took a beating, and I make a mental note to stake them properly next year. I think there is still a few weeks of cutting left but the real high point of summer has surely passed and it’s sad to lose the best of the crop so early. Like vegetables, I have started to think of my flowers as seasonal friends, here for a few short weeks and then gone again for another year. When they leave, I feel genuine sadness.

At least two sunflower plants have been lost in the weekend winds, and the rest are leaning on the wonk
Dahlias flattened in the wind – the lesson, next year we stake

I’ve been distracted this week with the nature of things, post-lockdown. Apparently there is a term for people like me, who have seen their income drop by a mile due to Covid-19: we are the nouveau-skint. Actually I don’t have a problem with it per se – as long as there is food on the table and a roof over the head, that is what counts – but as I’ve emerged from the lockdown bubble, what has also re-emerged is that nagging feeling that I should still be achieving everything at the same time. Earning a living whilst keeping work interesting, renovating the house, sorting the garden, coming up with amazing things to do with Harry, getting fitter/stronger/healthier, working out what I think about 21st century feminism/decolonialisation/race relations, writing my book, the list goes on.

The problem is that all the other domestic stuff gets in the way, things like getting the boiler fixed, doing the Aldi shop (nouveau-skint, no Waitrose anymore), mopping the floor, sorting the allotment aftermath of the weekend winds. Last week I had an 8am Zoom with colleagues in Pakistan and then promptly turned round and scrubbed the bathroom. This is the reality of the educated working mother. We are the central rock around which everything else revolves.

And then yesterday I was given this picture of my Granddad, taken some time in the 1940s when he would have been around my age. Ivor Yapp works the fields of Herefordshire, ploughing the dense clay earth with his horses – apparently to use three horses with your plough was unusual and meant the land is particularly solid. It’s a picture that asks many questions. Who took this photo? For what purpose? What’s this lone farm-hand thinking of as he walks miles a day, earning a few bob to keep his wife and children in coal and bread? You can almost hear the silence on this image, punctuated only by the snorts of horses, squeak of plough, sqwark of crows.

My grandfather Kenneth Yapp ploughs Herefordshire fields, 1940s

Would this man be able to imagine how the working world could change so quickly in two generations? Our society has transformed in less than 80 years to a place of hyper-speed, hyper-connectedness and so much NOISE. No wonder the adults are knackered and no wonder the kids and teenagers are confused. I think this is why I put so much time and effort into growing things and cooking things, even if they don’t turn out quite as planned. It’s a connection to a shared history, a previous life. Amidst all the nonsense of the 21st century, it is a return to the elemental.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Plums, eating and stewing for the freezer; also freezing blackberries, raspberries, apples, blueberries, spinach.
Harvesting: Sunflowers, dahlias, cosmos, ammi, calendula, amaranth, delphinium, courgettes (marrows really), spinach, chard, french beans.
Also: Reading Still Life by Elizabeth Luard, her account of travelling Eastern and Northern Europe in the 1990s to learn of peasant cooking.

Peach and amaretto ice cream

High summer is upon us. This has meant a few days of treacherously hot, heavy weather, broken with restless thunder and incredible forked lightening. Now we’ve lulled back into good old comfortable drizzle and mist – grey skies being the true constant feature of an English summer in the Midlands. Already there is the sense of nature drying out and crinkling up.

Yesterday we headed the other side of the city to Castle Bromwich gardens, a 17th century walled garden placed rather ignominiously beside the M6 and underneath the flightpath to Birmingham International Airport. It’s a gem of a find. Come August there is little I enjoy more than checking out someone else’s veg patch, and these marrows planted in a parterre style are certainly impressive. These cornflowers also caught the eye for their unusual shades of pink and purple, more fun than the normal blue and white.

The kitchen garden at Castle Bromwich Walled Garden
Cornflowers in shades of pink, plum and indigo

On my veg patch, or should I say flower farm, we have reached peak abundance. The dahlias are sensational this year; they must enjoy the full sun of our plot. Likewise we have armfuls of sunflowers and chrysanthemums, marigolds, tansy and strawflower.

Brassicas, squash and corn thriving amidst the cut flowers

This year I have sown ammi visnaga for the first time, a stubbier version of the more common ammi majus, and it’s quietly magnificent. On its own it is elegant, with lime green to white shades, but when placed with other stems it makes their colours shout louder. Also it doesn’t drop seeds and fluff everywhere, which is always a bonus. Highly recommend.

Ammi visnaga and cosmos purity are now coming into their own
We’re getting towards the jungle stage

I’m also enjoying this sunflower, whose name I do not know as I think it has come out of a Seeds of Italy mix. I’m planning to leave this head on the stem in order to harvest the seeds in a few weeks time so that next year I can grow more. The sunflowers are always covered in bees, no matter what time of day I visit, and it makes them impossible to cut for who has the heart to steal their nectar?

The un-named sunflower, a magnet for insects

With high summer comes a surplus of stone fruit in the supermarket, most of it – let’s face it – bruised and still rock hard. It is nigh on impossible to get a really good peach in this country, they usually need to be nudged along into softness. A peach that is picked before it is ripe will never become truly sweet, so the best thing is to poach them in syrup (stones and all) and then use them in cooking. Poaching stone fruit with their skins and stones intact gives the most glorious sunset colours; add a strip of lemon peel or a few bay leaves and you are whisked away to an Italian terrace.

This peach and amaretto ice cream is just the thing for those meltingly hot days where you’d rather be dipping into the sea around Amalfi. Incidentally, this is yet another ice that doesn’t need eggs, and I am coming to the conclusion that the very best fruit ice creams are the simplest: fruit, sugar and cream is all that’s required. A splash of booze helps to keep the ice cream smooth, but is by no means essential. You do need an ice cream machine, however.

Peach and amaretto ice cream
Makes about 1 pint. You need an ice cream machine and a stick blender or food processor.

5 small peaches, rock hard is fine
150g granulated sugar
150ml water
150ml double cream
25ml amaretto
icing sugar, optional

Halve the peaches but you can leave the stones and skins intact. In a shallow pan, melt the sugar into the water, then add the peaches and bring to a slow simmer. Put the lid on and poach the fruit for 5-10 minutes, until soft. Leave to cool, fish out the stones and skins, then blitz to a puree using a stick blender or in a food processor. Chill the mixture thoroughly before attempting the next stage.

When the fruit is quite cold, stir in the cream and add a shot of amaretto. Have a taste and if it needs to be sweeter, stir in a spoonful of seived icing sugar (remember that ice cream looses its sweetness when frozen). Transfer the lot to your ice cream machine and churn into a soft peachy mass. When it’s done, move the ice cream to a tub and freeze until firm. Remove from the freezer for fifteen minutes or so to soften before serving.

Peach & amaretto ice cream – as usual, no pretty sundae pictures here, just ice cream in a tub

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias, ammi, cosmos, sunflowers, marigold, delphinium, strawflower, amaranthus, chrysanthemum, tansy, raspberries, blueberries, spinach, chard, courgettes, chard, dwarf beans.

Cooking & eating: Roast chicken with runner beans and roasted potatoes, carrots and fennel; pancakes with fresh raspberries, cinnamon buns; vegetable curry using home-grown veg.

Doing: Elford Walled Gardens, Castle Bromwich Walled Garden, moving back into my office after a 5 month renovation.

Raspberry and apple kuchen

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I’ve been in a fug all week. No, longer than a week. Aimless, listless. Work feels like treacle, with contracts ending or not happening in the first place, a general feeling of tetchiness, and nothing new on the horizon. The state of the world seems to get worse. And this grey, humid, drizzly weather! Today I’ve decided to press ‘reset’, with time dedicated to Harry, a bit of cooking, staying away from Instagram and all the rest. I’m reminding myself of Elizabeth Luard’s observation that in peasant societies, money is a crop like any other…when it fails, it’s not the end of the world provided that there’s still other crops to fall back on. I love this idea as it reminds us that our professional lives are not our only indicator of worth, a notion that sadly is indoctrinated into us from Day 1 at university. To be a freelancer in the arts is to take the rough with the smooth.

And Lord knows there are PLENTY of other crops going on at the moment. Courgettes, of course, and amazing dahlias, sunflowers, achillea, cosmos, marigolds, blackberries, raspberries, a few potatoes. I was feeling pretty smug about my efforts until I was beckoned over to Martin’s plot last Saturday, to be greeted with a field of cabbages, purple sprouting, cauliflowers and sprouts. These are whopping prize-winning specimens! I was kindly offered a cabbage and cauli to take home, which are now taking up the entire top shelf of the fridge. There’s no room for them in the veg drawer because that is filled with my parents’ efforts – aubergines, peppers – and my courgette glut. I’ve spent the morning roasting sliced courgettes, peppers and aubergines in a blisteringly hot oven before bottling with olive oil, fresh marjoram, red wine vinegar and chilli flakes.

Martin with his whopping 10lb cabbage

I escaped from my desk for a few hours on Tuesday to take a look at the potatoes, which we planted in March and then completely ignored. No mounding up or watering or anything like that. And blow me there’s a crop! It’s not magnificent but there are few things more satisfying than forking up a mound of pale round spuds from black soil.

Digging spuds this week

The cut flowers are at their zenith now, with an incredible display of dahlias and the cheery sunflowers, their colours ranging from yellow and gold to copper and brown.

Sunflowers are the star of August cut flowers

This week the raspberries started cropping, along with the first blackberries of which we’re going to get a bumper crop. I was also gifted a bag of early apples, a sight that reminds us that summer will soon be on the way out. Carpe diem, seize the day: this apple and raspberry kuchen makes the most of late summer fruit but can be adapted through the year to use whatever’s in season (or use up whatever’s lurking in the freezer).

Raspberry and apples stud the top of the enriched-dough base

A kuchen is a Germanic sweet bake, not dissimilar in concept to a sweet focaccia, where an enriched bread base is glazed then topped with fruit and sugar before baking. It can also be iced or topped with a crumble or streusel. It’s lovely for breakfast but also as a snack during the day, and as it’s full of eggs and fruit, I consider it a health food. Do eat it up within a day or two, as it won’t keep well.

Raspberry and apple kuchen

Raspberry and apple kuchen
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess

350g strong white bread flour
3g fine salt
50g caster sugar
5g easy blend yeast
2 large eggs
grated zest of half a lemon
grating fresh nutmeg
125ml milk
50g unsalted butter

For the topping:
1 large egg
1 tablespoon cream or creme fraiche
1 tsp cinnamon
2 apples
handful raspberries
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp demerara sugar

You’ll need an ovenproof dish – I use a 8 inch flan dish but a brownie pan would also be fine. Make sure it’s well greased with butter.

Mix the flour, yeast, salt, sugar, lemon and nutmeg together in a large bowl. Melt the butter into the milk, leave to cool slightly, then beat in the eggs. Tip the lot into the flour and use a plastic scraper to combine into a rough dough. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Form into a ball, cover with a cloth and leave to prove for about 2 hours, until puffy and risen.

For the topping, mix the egg into the cream with a fork, then stir in the cinnamon. Peel, core and dice the apples.

Preheat the oven to 200c. When the dough is ready, ease it into your prepared pan – gently does it – then press it in to reach the sides. Spread the egg glaze over the top, scatter on the fruit, then the sugar. Place in the oven and turn the temperature down to 180c. Bake for about 40 minutes, until risen and golden. Cool slightly before eating.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Courgettes, squash, a few beans, spinach beet, chard, blackberries, raspberries, dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos, achillea, chrysanthemums, delphinium, marigold, strawflower, last sweetpeas. Gifted harvests of green peppers, beetroot, tomatoes, aubergine, apples, cabbage, cauliflowers, runner beans.

Cooking and eating: Roasted courgette, peppers and aubergine which I marinate in olive oil, red wine vinegar, chilli flakes and fresh marjoram – great kept in the fridge for easy snacks. Moussaka with my Dad’s aubergine. Courgette cream pasta.

Reading: Normal People by Sally Rooney, a few years late on this one. Dipping into Buddhist texts to get me back on track.

Best-in-show blackcurrant jam

Finally the allotment has come to fullness. June always surprises me with how sparse it looks, but by the end of July, it’s a jungle. The courgettes have doubled in size in the last fortnight, and the squash are sending out exploratory shoots studded with yellow flowers. The self-seeded borage literally hums with bees, and the dahlias are full of whopping dinner-plate blooms. We have yet more new allotment neighbours and as they steadily hack away at their bindweed and other nasties, there’s a quiet happy sense of communal endeavour.

The difference a few weeks make: the plot has transformed from sparse to a jungle
The self-sown borage literally hums with bees
Sweet peas are cropping again in abundance

This year I tried a few new varieties in the cut flower patch. The amaranthus is a big success, with frothy plum-coloured foliage, and this new type of sunflower (can’t even remember the name) is just fabulous, a green centre framed with fluffy petals finished off with a halo of yellow.

This sunflower and the amaranthus are new additions to the cut flower patch for 2020

The summer cooking continues. Those blackberries I mentioned were turned into a frangipane tart, and there’s also been salads of courgette, summer squash and toasted sweetcorn, made fragrant with allspice.

The blackcurrants were turned into a frangipane tart

Baking can only take us so far through the summer harvest though; it’s time to get preserving, bottling and jamming in time for winter. For previous generations this was necessary for survival and whilst times are more generous now, it’s a tradition that I enjoy. There is something very grounding about making jam.

Happily for me, my room-mate from university is a genuine prize-winning jam maker. Way back in the heady days before children and mortgages, Kerry’s blackcurrant jam won Best in Show – BEST IN SHOW – at the Quainton Village Show. This is an achievement not to be underestimated: a 29 year old stole the show away from ladies twice her age. Not just any ladies either: these were HOME COUNTIES ladies, ladies who are stalwarts of the WI. It was phenomenal. A decade later, Kerry’s still the person to go to when you want advice on jam.

Kerry clutching her Best in Show commemorative plate at the Quainton Show 2009

My jams always tend to be a bit, erm, ‘jammy’ for my liking, heavy-set and sweet, but Kerry’s are soft-set and with a balance of acidity to stop them being cloying. For want of a better word, they taste really ‘contemporary’. But it turns out that she turns to another jam queen for advice, no other than Marguerite Patten and her Jams, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook. There’s no date on this recipe but judging from the cover-picture it’s ancient.

Kerry’s secret recipe actually comes from Marguerite Patten

Marguerite’s (and Kerry’s) trick is to include a good amount of water with the blackcurrants and sugar, and not just rely on the blackcurrant juice. Genius. My trick, not pictured here, is to sterilise the jam jars in the Tommee Teepee baby bottle microwave steriliser, so much easier than faffing around with boiling water and kettles. From then on it’s all easy. Oh and if you’re picking your own blackcurrants, make sure that you pick out all the stalks and leaves from the fruit, a lengthy but utterly essential job.

Blackcurrant Jam
From Marguerite Patten’s Jams, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook. Makes 4 x 300g jars.

450g blackcurrants – make sure any stalks and leaves are removed
450ml water
550g granulated sugar

Prepare your jam jars, ensuring they are spotlessly clean and sterilised. I use glass jars with screw-on lids rather than the old-fashioned waxed paper/cellophane lids, as they can be completely sterilised and therefore there is less likelihood of the jam going bad.

In a stock pot or small jam kettle, place the fruit and water and bring to a simmer. Cook until the fruit bursts. Tip in the sugar and stir until it melts. Bring to a simmer and cook until the jam reaches setting point – use a jam thermometer for this. Leave to cool slightly then pour into your still-warm jars. Seal and store.

Blackcurrants, sugar and water transform into a shiny deep purple preserve
Blackcurrant jam ready for storing

Also this week:

Harvesting: Courgettes, summer squash, green beans, spinach, blueberries, dahlias, sunflowers, amaranthus, sweet peas, marigolds.

Cooking and eating: Blackberry frangipane tart, sweetcorn and courgette warm salad, chicken chilli, plums straight from the punnet.

Watching: Mrs America. Important, pertinent and all with great outfits.