Cinnamon buns

Amidst this biblical rain, I made it to the allotment last week to sort the raspberries out. Which I did, but it has left a bigger problem: what to do with the brambles. They are over-running this really productive area of the allotment. If I dig them out I’ll almost certainly lose some raspberries, but if I leave them, they will get worse. If anyone has any suggestions of dealing with rampant brambles, I am all ears.

The monster brambles and grass have taken over the raspberries

The sun did briefly shine yesterday. I know this because we were at Moseley Old Hall, the National Trust property a stone’s throw from Wolverhampton. I sat in the tea room contorting my body into the weirdest shape so that my face could be in the triangle of sun beaming in through the window. Afterwards Harry explored the woods and tree house, covering us all in mud, which is just as it should be.

The knot garden at Moseley Old Hall. What you can’t see is the meadow of native narcissi that are coming into life behind the garden.

Onto baking. I’ve been messing about with cinnamon bun recipes since Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess was published, which Google tells me was 1998. That is over 20 years of exploration into enriched dough cookery. I am low-level obsessed, and over the years have tried my hand at kuchen, chelseas, iced buns, brioche, bun cake, various Scandi versions of kanelsnegle – I went to Denmark purely to marvel over the miracle that is baked dough with butter, spice and sugar. I wouldn’t say that I am a brilliant baker, far from it, but I surely get points for loyalty.

I have concluded that the cinnamon bun can’t really be made from a recipe; so much is about the feel of the dough, that velveteen bouncy quality that you know when you touch it but can’t explain. Having been to Denmark, I would say that my cinnamon buns are not the ‘real thing’ – there they came covered with cream cheese icing, which I can’t quite fathom. Actually I never glaze my buns anymore, but do sprinkle them with sugar pearls that I managed to track down at Ocado. The Danes would never add fruit, which I do sometimes, as I enjoy the adding squishiness of blueberries or apple. But I bake not because I want to be ‘proper’, but because I want to feed my family good food. So here is my current favourite recipe, an amalgam of many magazine cut-outs, splattered cook books and 20 years of trying. No picture I’m afraid, as they never last long enough to be photographed.

Cinnamon Buns – my current perfect recipe

For the buns:
250g spelt flour
250g strong white flour
40g caster sugar
2tsp ground cardamom
14g dried yeast (I use Dove’s Farm)
5g salt
270g whole milk
50g unsalted butter
1 egg

For the filling:
180g unsalted butter
70g caster sugar
70g soft light brown sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
Handful fruit, e.g. chopped apple, blueberries, sultanas (optional)
white sugar pearl crystals, for sprinkling

First make the dough. Melt the butter into the milk – I use the microwave – then leave to cool slightly. If you dip your finger into the mixture it should feel neither hot nor cold, just wet. Place the salt, flours, sugar, cardamom and yeast in a big bowl, in that order – this keeps the salt and yeast separate. Use a bread scraper to mix it all together. Crack the egg and whisk into the milk, then pour the lot onto the flour mixture and, using your scraper, mix to a sticky mass. Turn it out onto the work surface and knead for a good five minutes, probably more. It needs to be smoothy and springy, like a baby’s bottom. Spelt flour is low gluten so this won’t become as stretchy as normal bread flour, however a good long knead is essential to a good finished bun, so don’t be lazy. Shape the dough into a ball then pop back into the bowl to prove, covering it with a tea towel. It will need at least an hour, possibly two, to prove.

Meanwhile make the filling – mix the butter, sugar and cinnamon together in a bowl until smooth. If you need to zap the butter in the microwave to get it soft, so be it.

Next, prepare the baking tray: I use a roasting tray which I line first with foil and then with baking paper. You could also cook your buns in muffin cases, which is more traditional.

When the dough is ready – a finger pressed into it will leave a lasting dent, plus it looks good and puffy – gently tip it out onto a very lightly floured work surface. Use your fingers to ease it into a rectangle, then roll out properly with a rolling pin. I make mine about 45cm x 35cm but it would never occur to me to measure it, it just looks ‘right’. Spread the butter mixture evenly over the dough, going all the way to the edges, then sprinkle on any fruit if you’re using it.

Now roll it up, starting with the long side furthest away from you. Try to keep it tight and even, then roll the whole thing back and forth a few times so it comes together in a neat swiss roll shape. Use a sharp knife (e.g. a bread knife) to slice into rounds: the size is up to you, but I usually get between 11-13 buns from my dough. (I intentionally make them slightly different sizes as Harry has different bun needs to myself and Matt. This is unorthodox, but is proper family cooking.)

Place the buns cut-side-up on the baking tray, leaving a few centimetres between each bun to allow room for spreading. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise again, this time for about 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200c.

When the buns are puffy and yearning to be baked, sprinkle white sugar crystals over them. Place them in the middle or bottom of the oven for an initial ten minutes. Open the door, turn them around (for a more even bake), turn the oven down to 180c, then bake for another 15-20 minutes, depending how crunchy you like them.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Vietnamese duck braised in orange juice, served with jasmine rice, bok choi stir-fried with garlic and fish sauce, and a massive bowl of spring rolls and gyoza. Crabs and prawns from the Rag market. Accidentally spent £50 on noodles, the spring rolls & gyoza, rice paper rapers and so on at Wing Yip supermarket, which was massive fun.

Reading: Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, after a gap of about 10 years, and reminding myself of my yoga life before Harry.

Anna Del Conte’s Crostata

I’ve been obsessed with tagliatelle all this week. Lusting after it. The reason is the re-reading of Anna Del Conte’s lovely memoir-with-recipes Risotto with Nettles which – unusually for me – I’ve actually been cooking from. Her deceptively simple prose whisks the reader to a different time, a different place, a different age, that of well-to-do pre-war Milan, where women spent most of their time either shopping for food, making the food or discussing the food.

It happens that I’m reading this just after Matt’s return from Bolzano in north Italy, where he spent a few days for work. (I spent most of January solo-parenting whilst he fabricated the Sonia Boyce exhibition at Eastside Projects, then went to Italy, then was in Cambridge. And no, I was not happy about it.) Knowing that the goodwill of one’s spouse is essential to a successful career, Matt did a wise thing and brought back a bulging bag of Italian goodies: speck, salami, noisette, parmesan, pickled vegetables, sunflower bread, Milka (not Italian but still food of the Gods) and, for proper sucking up, a heart-shaped box of Ferrero Rocher. The eagle-eyed may notice that the writing on the speck and salami labels is Germanic, this a cultural hangover from the various periods of history when the Tyrol was in German hands.

Matt’s sucking up present

So when I came across Del Conte’s recipe for Taglietelle with prosciutto and peas, and I realised that I actually had proper Italian bacon in the house, and proper Italian parmesan (the stuff over there is a world away from the pre-packaged stuff in the supermarkets over here), I gave it a go. And I liked it so much that I made it for Harry’s tea the following day. And then again for MY dinner the following day. It is simply tagliatelle tossed with very finely diced onion that has been stewed in butter, matchsticks of prosciutto (speck), peas, a dollop of cream, parmesan, salt and pepper. A ladle of pasta water brings the dish together into silky mass. Simple, but beautiful, and a reminder of just how good Italian food can be when the ingredients are of perfect quality.

It makes me think how different the Italian approach to food is to that of the British. Another of her recipes, Crostata di marmellata di fichi (or Fig jam tart), is a masterclass of perfection in simplicity. Jam tart carries a very particular meaning for the English. For me, it has traditionally meant a basic shortcrust, made without sugar and with half Stork margarine, half vegetable shortening, rolled into a plate pie dish, filled with raspberry or maybe mixed fruit jam (always homemade), topped with a thin lattice, then baked until golden or even slightly over done, meaning the jam is often chewy. It’s everyday food, nothing fancy, the stuff of Enid Blyton and childhood.

The Italian crostata is a different being.  Anna’s is a pate sucre dough, made with butter, enriched with egg yolk and sugar, and delicately seasoned with lemon zest, and so it becomes biscuit-like in the oven. This is a pastry so rich and delicate that it needn’t even be rolled, but can be pressed into the tin with fingers. The lattice top spreads in the oven to become closely linked, meaning the filling is almost entirely enclosed apart from tantalising nuggets of bubbling fruit that escape from between the gaps. It feels indulgent and yet…it’s just a jam tart.

Crostata from Anna Del Conte’s Risotto with Nettles. Ignore my dodgy lattice work: I was in a hurry, school run and all that.

Anna’s recipe uses fig jam, but given that figs are not forthcoming on an English allotment, I used last summer’s strawberry and redcurrant preserve, loose set, fresh-tasting and vibrantly coloured. The same pastry could easily be filled with stewed apple, plum or soft fruit. Incidentally, she strongly asserts, quite rightly, to eat this on the day that it is made, but also that it should be eaten without cream. This is a step too far for this Englishwoman: plain ice cream on the side for me, please.

Crostata (Jam Tart)
Adapted from Anna Del Conte’s Risotto with Nettles, p99

225g plain flour (she uses 00 but I used regular plain flour)
1/2tsp fine salt
100g caster sugar
grated zest of half a lemon
120g cold unsalted butter
2 large free-range egg yolks
milk
350g jam or other fruit filling
juice of half a lemon
1 egg yolk and splash of milk, for glazing (optional)

To make the pastry, whizz the flour, salt, sugar, lemon and butter in the food processor until fine. Pulse in the egg yolks and sufficient milk to make a ball. Wrap and place in the fridge to firm up for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer.

Preheat the oven to 200c. Grease a 8 or 9 inch tart tin with a loose bottom and sprinkle with a little flour, shaking off the excess.

Remove about one third of the dough and roll the rest out into a circle, about the depth of a pound coin, and use to line the base of your tin. If this is tricky, you can take lumps and simply press it into the sides of the tin, ensuring that there are no gaps and that the pastry is even. Make sure the pastry is pressed firmly down between the base and the side.

Mix the jam with the lemon juice and pile it into the tart case, spreading it out evenly.

Roll out the remaining dough and cut into strips about 1-2cm thick, then place the strips quite closely together in a lattice format over the tart (they will spread a little in the oven). If you wish, brush the pastry with a glaze made of egg yolk mixed with a little milk.

Bake for 10 minutes at 200c then turn the heat down to 180c and bake for 20 minutes, until the pastry is golden and biscuit coloured. Leave to cool in the tin before serving at room temperature.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Tagliatelle with prosciutto and peas, or did I mention that already?; Rogan josh made with goat from the butchers on Bearwood High St, with a good saag aloo and some terrible chapatti; lots of blush oranges whilst they’re in season, including blush orange bellinis; apple cake with whipped cream at Ikea. Harry’s really into what he calls ‘cold cheese’, which is cream cheese, but I like his name better.

Reading: Gave up on the Jilly Cooper, she’s not for me. Also tried, and gave up on, Walden…there are too many grumpy men in the world as it is without reading their work at bedtime. So Anna Del Conte is providing respite, plus I am dipping into the re-print of Dick Strawbridge’s book about sustainable living.

Also: Attended Writing West Midlands course Starting to Write, which was fun if only to see the characters who go on a writing course on a stormy Saturday in February. It feels good, after 2 and a half years of constant work/parenting, to find little notches of space for creativity. Also our two expensive new windows were finally fitted, and the house has warmed from Positively Arctic to merely needing only one jumper. Only six more windows, a kitchen, the shed, the utility room, the bathroom and my office still to do.

The planting diary

A few weeks ago now I received several bulging packages of seeds in the post and got out the dusty old biscuit tubs of last year’s seeds to sort out what’s staying and what’s going. Here’s the list – it’s work-a-day, just an aide-de-memoire of what to sow/plant when, with a bit of succession sowing in there for good measure.

January (already done)
sweetpeas
broadbeans
Mustard salad leaves (undercover)

February
Peas for pea shoots
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
Leeks
Dill
Plus: cut down the raspberries

March
Kale Emerald Ice
Kale Pentland brig
Kale nero di toscana
Spinach perpetual
Mustard salad leaves
Peas Blauwschokker
Viola heartsease
Broadbeans (direct sow)
Basil
Verbena bonariensis
Plus
Map out the allotment plan – make room for:
– x5 new dahlia tubers (allotment and/or garden)
– lupins, teasels, chrysanthemums (allotment)
– pumpkin and climbing squash (allotment)
– sweetcorn (allotment)
– amaranthas (allotment and/or garden)

April
Sweetcorn Swift
Watercress
Pumpkins and Squash
Courgette
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
Wild rocket (direct sow)
Dwarf french beans
Climbing french beans
Runner beans
Borlotti
chard
Parsnip (direct sow)
Basil
Dill
Salad bowl
perennial delphiniums (x5, allotment)
teasels (x5, allotment/garden)
nepeta (cat mint, x1, garden)
white nicotiana (x5, garden)

May
Chicory variegate di castelfranco
Chrysanthemum starburst (x5, allotment)
lupin mixed (x30, allotment)
Oak leaf lettuce (direct sow)
Salad bowl
Foxgloves

June
Watercress
wild rocket (direct sow)
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
Basil
Dill

July & August
Watercress
Wild rocket (direct sow)
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
mustard salad leaves

September & October
Mustard salad leaves
Dill

Also this week:
Eating and cooking: 
I’ve been doing a lot with slow-cooking and leftovers. Sunday’s 6 hour slow-cooked pork shoulder (bay, fennel seeds, seville oranges, white wine, onions, garlic) was cut up and slow-cooked again with black beans, tomato, onion, chipotle and spices to make a Tex-Mex-style Monday-night stew. Celeriac and potato gratin shoved in the oven to eat alongside a roast (still rare) venison haunch. Also slurping up blood oranges, a regular late January/early February treat.
Reading: How to eat a peach by Diana Henry. Also having my first ever go at a Jilly Cooper, which reads like it’s from a different age (it is).

Seville orange cake

2020 has hit us with a bang. This past week I’ve had a cold so bad that a hole in the head to alleviate sinus pressure would have been welcome. Matt’s working all hours so I am single-parenting whilst also putting in the hours on my own projects. Harry’s in the terrible twos. Yah-de-yah-de-yah, moan moan moan. The other week I took myself over to Leamington Spa for a special lunch date with my friend Tune and – more importantly – Tune’s mum, Mrs Roy, who is from Calcutta. Mrs Roy is not confident with her English, which is fair enough as my Bengali is somewhat lacking. But good cooking crosses all borders and languages, and I was fascinated as she expertly toasted her daal and rolled her parathas from scratch. Who would have thought that cabbage curry could be so delicious? Well in the hands of a Bengali cook it really can (the trick is more salt than I ever thought feasible).

Mrs Roy’s vegetarian lunch

I’ve also been busy with the seed catalogues, planning and plotting. I’ll post about this another day but there are to be some new additions to the allotment this year, with yet more cut flowers and a few varieties purely for drying. And despite the cold, there is sowing to be done: the chill of our sun room is the perfect place to start off a few sweetpeas, deceptively tough as they are, plus there’s the first of many sowings of broad beans. I’ve also filled a drain pipe with mustard mix for an early crop of spicy leaves; it’s the perfect size for a windowsill salad bar.

Amidst the chaos, sweet peas, broad beans and mustard leaves have been started on their way

January food writing seems to be entangled with veganuary and being booze free, which is all well and good, but seems to me to be at odds with what’s actually good to eat right now. I like a salad as much as the next person but surely January is the time for root vegetables, slow cooking and rib stickers? Or citrus for that matter, which is now bountifully in season. I came home with other week with a box of Seville oranges, lovely for marmalade but with potential for so much more. I enjoy their citrus astringency, and use the juice in stir fries or stuff the whole fruit into the cavity of a roast chicken so that the sharp orangey fug can permeate the flesh.

This recipe for Seville orange cake could also be called marmalade cake, for that is what it tastes like; the alchemy happens when the gooey orange syrup melts its way into the just-cooked crumb, making a cake that is sweet and sharp and dense and damp all at the same time. Perfect on its own with a cup of tea but also – my preference – with a fruity compote and a dollop of thick double cream.

Seville Orange Cake
Recipe adapted from Waitrose & Partners Food magazine, January 2020

200g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
1 Seville orange, zest and juice
2 eggs
300g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
150g natural yoghurt
50ml sunflower oil

For the syrup:
2 seville oranges
75g caster sugar
40g clear honey

Grease and line a 900g loaf tin and pre-heat the oven to 180c.

Beat together the butter, sugar and orange zest until pale and fluffy; I use electric beaters for this. In a separate bowl, sieve together the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda to combine. In yet another bowl, measure the yoghurt, oil and orange juice (squeeze the fruit through your fingers to get rid of the pips) and stir to combine.

Add the eggs one at a time to the butter mixture along with a spoonful of flour between each addition, mixing thoroughly. When all is combined, beat in the remaining flour and the yoghurt mixture until you have a smooth dollop-able batter. Spoon into the cake tin and bake for 1 hour 10 minutes or so, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Keep an eye on the cake as it may brown too soon; if this happens, cover with foil and also maybe reduce the heat to 170c.

Leaving the cake in its tin, leave to stand for 10 minutes whilst you make the syrup. The centre of the cake will probably collapse in on itself but no matter. Warm together the juice, sugar and honey until the sugar has dissolved, then raise the heat and bubble for a few minutes until it looks syrupy. Stab the cake several times with the skewer, then carefully and slowly pour the hot syrup over the cake, allowing it to soak into your holes. Leave to cool entirely before removing from the tin.

Seville orange cake

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Yet more cinnamon buns, this time made with 50% spelt flour, 50% strong white flour. I can never get enough of them. Sausages with lentils stewed with red wine, which pleasingly gives me a glass of something in the evening. Trying to find nourishing things to feed Harry with and am brought up short by the realisation that all he really wants are baguette, biscuits, shreddies and chocolate.

Reading: The Consolations of Food by Valentine Warner, which is essentially the book that I would like to write myself, and Dick Strawbridge’s book about bread, borrowed from the library, which reminds me that I can actually bake and should do it more often. Revisiting Vajragupta’s Buddhism: Tools for living your life in an effort to regain mental clarity.

Also: Sowed broad beans, sweet peas and mustard salad mix. Ordered my seeds for this season, plus several plug plants as I don’t have space to propagate. Made myself go for my first solo swim in something like 5 years as I rarely find the space to exercise these days.

The joy list

As I write there’s a man upstairs deep-cleaning my carpets with chemicals, hot water and an unfeasibly loud vacuum. In a grown-up version of Craig David’s 7 days, I found out about The Carpet Cleaner on Wednesday (having admired my neighbours spotless rugs), texted him on Friday, he came to quote on Sunday and by Monday his brushes were in action (I intend to chill on Tuesday).

I like to take this week after the alleged-holidays for a bit of cleaning, in all senses. Christmas with a two year old in no way is a break; it took me 7 hours this week just to get through The Sound of Music due to interruptions for Hey Duggee!, nap time, snack time, etc. Plus there’s all the visiting, carting toys around, tantrums, cooking, entertaining…every year I feel mental. So to take a bit of time from 6th January for scrubbing and reflection has come to be a useful aid to my health and happiness.

The climate of 2019 was difficult: the suicidal state of UK politics, ecological crisis, Trump, the daily grind of running two small business, feeling skint because childcare is the same as a mortgage. Watching a bit of vintage Nigella on the Food Network yesterday, Matt and I reflected that 20 years ago food TV was deeply aspirational – all about having a lovely time, doing fun things with beautiful people and maybe picnics on the beach with Toploader playing in the background. Now it’s all about survival: you need to make your dinner in 15 minutes and on the cheap because you’re back from work late and you’re short on cash.

So in the spirit of fighting back against the gloom, I have started a Joy List for 2020. Anything can go on provided that it will actually be achieved, and any visitors to the house are welcome to add things to it. Whether your idea of joy is growing your own food, eating ice cream in January, brewing beer, jumping into a freezing cold lake because you can or finally visiting that posh restaurant you’ve had your eye on since you were a teenager, perhaps this is the year to actually make it happen?

Some items from the Joy List might include…

More cut flowers for the home and for gifting. The allotment has now been covered in plastic to keep the weeds down until spring.
Admiring beautiful art and architecture, such as this ornate ceiling in Tewkesbury Abbey
Ice cream in the park is a TOP joy for Harry, even if it’s January and he’s dripping snot into his Mr Whippy
Fire pits and farm visits with old friends
Planning sunnier retreats to the beach / Cornwall
The joy list as it currently stands

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: All the usual Christmas stuff including a memorable turkey chilli from Jamie Oliver’s Christmas cookbook. Matt’s toasted sandwiches with chicken, cheese and chutney. Home-made clementine jelly.

Plus: Reading Grampy’s 1930s copy of Robinson Crusoe and not quite sure what to make of it. It flits from being a work of great philosophical depth to a boy scout manual; do I really need several pages describing fisticuffs between groups of grown men? Plus making full use of our National Trust membership so that Harry gets some fresh air.

Cut flowers in mid-winter

If you, like me, feel particularly emotionally jangly at present – what with the politics, the expense of Christmas, the darkness, the drizzle, etc etc etc – then can I suggest a few hours of gentle botanical crafting to ease frazzled nerves. Over the last few weeks I’ve been using up the dried stems of summer’s strawflower and hydrangea, arranging them into wreaths and swags for yuletide displays. And I mean ‘yuletide’, Pagan that I am, for there is something extremely grounding about bringing the natural world into the house as we approach the winter solstice.

Now, just because I like this kind of activity, doesn’t mean that I’m actually any good at it. My canister of gold spray paint is professional standard, procured by Matt (obviously) and therefore way too posh for me – just trying to get the nozzle to stay on led to this unfortunate drippy decoration of the skimmia plant outside the backdoor.

The skimmia got attacked by a drippy can of gold paint

Once I finally got the paint to work, I lightly sprayed the hydrangea stems, allowing some of their natural pink to show through. These are lovely as single stems in wreaths or grouped together in a massive vase.

Hydrangea heads sprayed gold

The strawflowers make a lovely simple wreath – dead kitsch and retro. I used the glue-gun to secure individual stems onto a willow base, which cost a few pence, for a display that will last for years.

Strawflower wreath (terrible photo, sorry)

For the front door, I decided to make my own swag using evergreens pilfered from my Mum’s garden, plus a few more hydrangea, strawflower and that spay-painted skimmia. I think it’s important to have a range of textures in these winter displays, and scent if you can – I used rosemary but bay would also work well.

Laying out the stems for the front door swag

I simply worked the greens together into a display that I liked, then tied them tightly with string and ribbon before trimming the ends. Half an hour’s work, cost is negligable, and – most importantly – we have a display that is absolutely rooted in the English mid-winter enlivened with a few colourful memories of the English summer.

This year’s floral swag
Strawflowers are the gift that keep on giving

Also this week:
Cooking and Eating: Blackforest Arctic Roll – whisked chocolate sponge stuffed with amaretti and chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, cherry jam, amaretto and clementine zest. A baked ham spiked with allspice and marmalade. Mince pies. Pomegranate seeds in everything, they seem never-ending.
Doing: Mainly hibernating and attempting to protect myself from politics and political fall-out (Birmingham is the most politically active city I have ever been in). But also a visit to the CBSO Christmas concert for tots, which was a joy, and to Lichfield Cathedral to see the Christmas trees.

Be the change

I have thought for several years that December (and into January) is a particularly difficult time of year. There’s the obvious things, like the darkness, the cold, the drizzle. But more than that, the commercial onslaught of Christmas and the enforced jollity within which we are meant to thrust ourselves sits awkwardly with me. Christmas is great…..when it’s at Christmas. When it starts in November, then it’s a No Thanks from me.

This year we add to this an election, with exhausting levels of mud-slinging from all sides; the ecological crisis; the homelessness crisis; food poverty; terrorism….it goes on and on. I can’t sing Jingle Bells on November 30th when I know that a few hundred metres from my house there is a man sleeping rough on a doorstep, and families are using a food bank because their lives are in crisis.

However. The answer to these problems is to do something, anything, however small. In the words of Saint Mother Theresa, ‘in this life we can not do great things, we can only do small things with great love’. The small people of the world, if they stand together, have enormous power – just look at Greta Thunburg and her inspirational, angry campaigning that has every teenager in the world shouting her on whilst the suited, male, middle age politicians she lambasts appear idiotic with their inadequate responses. (The young people of today should give us all hope for the future.)

In the meantime, this Christmas, let’s resolve to be the change that we want to see in the world.

We live in the fifth largest economy in the UK and yet some people can not afford to feed their children. This is a national disgrace. Can you imagine, really try and imagine, what it is to have a newborn baby, be exhausted and emotionally on the edge, and then know that you can’t afford to buy your baby nappies, or that your landlord may kick you out of your flat at any point because you have only £50 in your bank account and it’s either food, heat or the rent? If this bothers you then perhaps consider making a regular donation to the Trussle Trust https://www.trusselltrust.org who organise food banks around the country.

If you see a rough sleeper in your neighbourhood, at least acknowledge their presence and perhaps ask them if they need money, a hot drink, whatever it might be. Human kindness and dignity goes a long way.

Abandon Amazon with their tax-dodging ways and instead, buy local and buy small. Less is often more. As usual, Matt and I are making many of our presents this year (I admit that Matt is dead good at making things, which does help).

If you are grieving, as some of my friends are, take time out over the holidays to light a candle and honour your loved one. Give thanks for their presence, however short-lived it was.

Use your vote wisely.

Be the change.

I will be taking a car boot of donations to the Sandwell Food Bank on 16th December so if anyone has anything to give, drop it with me.

Quince and apple crumble

These late mornings and early events are terrible for the circadian rhythm. Hard to wake up…certain it’s time to go to bed at 7pm. Last night picking Harry up from nursery in the pitch black at 5pm, the local owl was twit-ting for a mate. It was good to hear: in our old flat, just around the corner from the nursery, owls were a regular winter sound. I stood transfixed listening, Harry the same, then we spent several happy minutes twit-twooing at each other.

There are grounding, seasonal tasks for November. The annual trip to Ludlow to stock up on game for the freezer; the stirring up of the Christmas cake and pudding; the gathering of hydrangea heads for drying…and the lorry-load of poo.

Low autumn light over Ludlow
Macerating dried fruits in Amontillado sherry and orange juice ready for the Christmas cake
Note the cake tin double wrapped in newspaper ready for its three hour bake

A pallet of poo is actually 60 x 50l bags of matured ‘farmyard’ manure, for mulching. That’s 60 (heavy) bags that need moving from the lorry, down the road, through the gate, down the path, to the allotment. Then shifting from pile to plot. I’m fortunate that it cost us not a penny, as this poo was my Christmas present from my garden-supplier Dad and we’re OK with a bit of graft; my brother, with his posh garden in the Cotswolds, has been quoted £5k (£5000!!!) for a good mulch. There is money to be made in poo.

Dad brought me a pallet of poo!
A few filthy, freezing cold hours later, we have two manured plots
I needed a shower afterwards

One more November activity is cooking with quince, something that only began when I moved to Bearwood and I realised they could be bought (in season) for pence at the halal shop. What a glorious thing a quince is, with its fuzzy velveteen coating, its can’t-quite-place-it scent, its slight otherness. not quite a pear, not an apple, but a glamorous cousin. There’s no need to make boring old quince jelly that will sit uneaten in the cupboard for months: treat the quince as you would any orchard fruit, in cakes, crumbles, pies and for a sweet note in savoury cooking.

A note of warning that quince are hard, and have unpredictable cooking times. I take Claudia Roden’s advice and quarter them, leaving them with skin and core, before simmering in acidulated water until just tender. This can take 20 minutes or it can take 5 so keep an eye on them. When the quince are soft, drain and cool, before removing skin and pips and dicing into chunks. A squeeze of lemon in the water will prevent the fruit browning too much, though it does take on a beautiful hue of rose parchment.

It’s best to briefly simmer the quince in water with lemon before peeling and dicing
The cooked flesh is delicately perfumed and the colour of parchment

For a simple crumble, mix the stewed quince with sweetened apple puree – for my three quince I cooked down three bramley apples with water and a few tablespoons of white sugar. Tip the lot into a suitable dish and either top with crumble mix to bake straight away or freeze the fruit to use another day.

Mix the quince with sweetened apple puree and either turn into a crumble immediately or freeze for another day

I tend to bulk-make crumble topping then leave it in the freezer so a pudding is ready to go when needed. In a food processor, blitz 230g butter with 460g plain flour, then stir in 200g caster sugar and 30g demara sugar. It’s sometimes nice to add flaked almonds or chopped hazelnuts or pecans. Sprinkle a generous layer of crumble over the fruit and lightly press down, then freeze the leftovers in for speedy future desserts.

A final note: Crumbles need baking at quite a high temperature, 180c to 190c – anything less leads to soggy rather than crumbly crumble. Baking times depend on your dish of course, this one took 40 minutes. Leave to stand for a good 15 minutes before eating, to allow the fruit to settle.

Simple but slightly out of the ordinary: quince and apple crumble

Also this week:

Cooking, shopping and eating: Pie and chips in Ludlow; veal pot roast using Ludlow veal; Italian pastries from the tiny fairy-light filled deli. Chanterelles cooked with butter, parsley and garlic. Game pie. Came home with venison haunch and burgers, Italian sausages, mutton, stewing steak, stems of winterberries, purple sprouting…God love Ludlow.

Allotment, garden and house: Mulched allotment and garden with 57 bags of manure, holding three back to use on the strawberries. Ordered new replacement sash windows for office and kitchen; perhaps a new blog about how to rescue your Victorian terrace whilst on a budget is in the offing.

Reading: Bake Off Creme de la Creme, to learn daring baking skills.

Notes for 2020

Back in April I handily noted a list of all this year’s sowings, so that I could check in on their performance at year end. Inexplicably – surely it’s just a few weeks since I made that list? – the season is at its end. Judgement time.

General Notes
Work had most of my attention between June-October, leaving little time for allotmenting. I prioritised the important job of harvesting but let the weeding go, so in this warm but wet summer, the grasses, brambles and stingers were rampant. And whilst this was VERY stressful at the time, actually, nothing terrible happened – we still had a regular crop of flowers and veg, and the extra weeds were all forage for insects. The verdict is that whilst it may look good, cleanliness is over-rated. I used no chemicals at all on the allotment and plan to continue in that vein. Also, generally speaking, we can get in far more plants than we currently do, so I must plant more rather than less as it keeps the weeds at bay.

The density of planting in the cornflowers was spot on

Flowers
Cut flowers have been the backbone of the allotment this year, with weekly cuttings from May to October. I planted in blocks, which worked well for sunflowers, ammi and cornflower. The cosmos, nigella and cleome did less well.

Next year, consider:
– 12-ish sunflower plants
– succession-sow the cornflowers to make 2 x 1m blocks
– have another go at sweet peas; plant at least 1m back from edge of plot to prevent grass getting into the nets
– put heartsease into pots at home rather than allotment
– attempt some options for foliage/greenery
– invest in new chrysanthemum and dahlia varieties for cutting
– attempt summer-flowering bulbs in the allotment for cutting
– harvest the hops as a cut-flower and don’t just leave them to rot on the vine
– cut and dry cornflower and nigella for use over winter

Some brighter chrysanthemums and dahlias would really add to this mix

Flower Notes:
Sunflower Valentine Too small for allotment, don’t bother
Sunflower Ornamental Multicolour mix A winner
Sunflower Magic Roundabout F1 A winner
Sunflower Red Sun A winner
Sunflower Giant Not a good cut flower, don’t bother
Nigella Persian Jewels Possibly needs more sun; don’t plant out until June
Nigella Double White Possibly needs more sun; don’t plant out until June
Achillea Millefolium Cerise Queen Worked well, keep as a perennial
Cosmos Pied Piper Blush White Did not take to allotment; stick to Purity
Cosmos Double Click Cranberries Beautiful, try again but plant out as more established plants rather than plugs
Cosmos Velouette Did not take to allotment; stick to Purity
Ammi Majus Graceland Does OK but bolted quickly; try the smaller form?
Salvia Farinacea Blue Bladder Worked well, keep as a perennial
Delphium Exquisite series, White King A few small blooms but kept plants in the ground to encourage perennial harvest
Delphium Exquisite series, Blue Spire A few small blooms. Have kept plants in the ground to encourage perennial harvest
Cornflower Snow Man A winner
Cornflower Double Blue A winner
Limonium Suworowii Total fail, don’t bother again
Calendula Indian Prince Fine, nice colourful filler
Helichrysum bracteatum monstrosum (Strawflower) Paper Daisy Huge fun
Cleome Colour Fountain Failed but I planted out as plugs – if try again, take to much bigger plants. Needs hot summer.
Baptisia Australis False Indigo Total fail, don’t bother again
Mexican Hyssop Total fail
Brachyscome Multifida (daisies) Total fail, don’t bother again
Chrysanthemum I have many unknown varieties taken from cutting-after-cutting from a Sarah Raven mix. Time to shake things up with some new varieties, perhaps with yellows and oranges.
Dahlia Seem to prefer over-wintering in the allotment. Invest in some new tubers specifically for cutting, maybe with spidery and/or dinner plate flowers.
Summer bulbs Those planted in the garden where a 100% fail, perhaps eaten by the squirrel. Try a few in the allotment next year for cutting.

Veg & fruit
I kept the veg crop simple this year due to my available time and my growing interest in cut flowers, but actually I have missed a few allotment stalwarts, mostly the pumpkin and gourds. We had far too many courgettes (twas ever thus) but nowhere near enough beans – they absolutely have to be netted against the pigeons. The broad beans were brilliant, with half planted in pots in February and the rest direct sown in April.

Remember how many courgettes come from one plant, i.e. too many!

Next year consider:
– Plant more than I think we need. Apart from courgettes.
– Only 2 courgette plants
– 3-4 squash plants, for decorative use, e.g. turks turban, Jill be little
– Full row or even 2 rows each of leeks and parsnips
– At least 5 cavolo nero plants plus other kale and chard
– Put in some autumn spicy leaves, such as mustard or mizuna
– At least 40+ broad bean plants
– At least 12 climbing bean plants plus same again of borlotti. They absolutely need to be 100% pigeon-proofed.
– Only attempt tomatoes if the greenhouse is back in working use
– Have a go at something new, perhaps cornichons
– Attempt to re-plant the strawberries completely. The matting will need to be removed, the ground mulched and de-grasses, and new strawberry plants put in.

Veg notes:
Courgette Soleil Keep but only 1 plant
Courgette Bianca di Trieste Time to try something else
Courgette Costata Romanesco Time to try something else
Summer Squash Custard White Don’t bother as we never eat them
Pumpkin Cinderella Had only 1 fruit. Need to prioritise several different pumpkin and small gourds, for decorative purposes – definitely turks turban and also some smaller styles
Broad Bean Aquadulce Claudia Brilliant, definitely do again. At least 40+ plants; plant some into pots in February and direct sow the rest when the soil is warm enough.
Broad Bean Crimson Flowered Fine but nothing special.
Leek Musselburgh Cropped well but has been attacked by some kind of rust/bug
Climbing Bean Cobra Try again but net against pigeons
Climbing Bean Cosse Violette Try again but net against pigeons
Borlotti Bean Lingua di Fuoco Try again but net against pigeons
Dwarf French Bean Tendercrop Not sure it’s worth it
Runner Bean Scarlet Empire Fine, cropped well
Parsnip Gladiator F1 Very nice, attempt several sowings if germination patchy
Carrot Nantes 5 No germination at allotment but worked OK in veg trug
Fennel Montebianco Don’t bother
Tomato Costoluto Fiorentino Don’t bother unless have greenhouse sorted
Tomato Gardener’s Delight Don’t bother unless have greenhouse sorted

Let’s grow the small pumpkins next year instead of getting them from Aldi

Greens
Chard Bright Lights
Kale Pentland Brig
Kale Russian Red
Kale Cavolo Nero
Spinach Perpetual
All the above are brilliant
Beetroot Leaf Blood Red (also pleasingly known as Bull’s Blood) Don’t bother, beets never do well on our ground

Salads & Herbs
Lettuce Catalogna (a type of oak leaf)
Salad rocket
Tuscany salad mix
Viola Heartsease (a flower but I put it in salads)
Basil Thai
Basil Sweet green
Dill
Green Fennel
Not a great year for herbs. Plant lettuce as plugs but really it’s better in the veg trug. Rocket always gets attacked by beetle.

The rocket bolted, meaning that it sprouted up through the netting. Removal meant destroying the brassica cage – fail.

Garden Notes
The back garden suffers from lack of sun, so needs to be planted with shade-tolerant plants. Come July/August, need taller plants for back of the bed. Roses need supporting from the very start of the year, with 6-foot supports; everything grows taller than we think as it is searching for sun. Very back bed (by the shed) needs entirely replacing with shade-loving shrubs. Try again with the cat mint, but put it somewhere where the cats won’t destroy it!

Inspirations
Things I’ve seen this year to inspire next year’s planting:

Loved the way the Montessori Garden at Chelsea crammed in flowers in a tutti-frutti confetti style
Loved cat mint everywhere I saw it so must have another go – but put it somewhere where the neighbourhood cats won’t destroy it!
The bright oranges at Packwood House are always a joy
Herbs and ornamentals planted together at Baddesley Clinton
Maybe try some lupins next year
Do-it-yourself plant supports are always fun. Love this one made from hazel poles.
Note how dense the cut-flower planting is here, with blocks for ease of access.

Drying the autumn harvest

People talk about spring cleaning but it’s in the drag-end days of autumn that I’m busiest clearing and tidying. November falls into two sections: the bit where you’re waiting for the frost/wind/rain to finish the summer flowers off, and the bit after the frost/wind/rain has occurred and the work begins. My chrysanthemums and dahlias got zapped by the weather about two weeks ago but someone somewhere is still looking after their blooms, evidenced by this magnificent display at Croome Court in Worcestershire.

Although this is quite old fashioned display the zingy reds and oranges still makes a massive impact
Pumpkins fill the fireplace alongside semi-dried Chinese Lanterns

We have a new addition to the back garden. Matt’s parents turned up yesterday with a 5ft tree, Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Twisty Baby’ (thankfully they chose to come in the car rather than on the bus). They had one in their back garden for years, which Matt had always admired, and tracked down a good specimen that can live in a pot in our shady patio.

Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Twisty Baby’

Now the allotment is pretty much finished for the year, it’s to the warmer countries that I look for seasonal goodies. The Halal shop on Bearwood Road has new season quince and pomegranate piled up in boxes against the window, massive enough to fill your fist and rich with the promise of aromatic stews and bakes. Venture inside and be met with crates of walnuts, sultanas and dates – evocative goods that call out for Christmas cooking.

First of this season’s quince

But it’s the clearing that occupies my mind at present, for I am on a deadline. This Friday I have a pallet-load of poo coming, for it is mulching time. Before I can mulch, I have to clear – and during this busy summer, the weeds have taken quite a hold. Over a few days I have removed the annuals, pierced a few dandelions and thistles, sworn over stubborn grasses and forked the ground. Happily, about 15 foxgloves have self-seeded so I have gently moved them to sit together in a few cut-flower patch, alongside the achillea and salvia that I grew from seed in the spring. The Sweet William and delphinium are staying put, the former because the patch is too established to move, the latter because the spindly plants seem too delicate for upheaval.

Cut-flower patch before…
…and after. The Sweet William and delphiniums have been left where they are.
The veg patch before…
…and after. I have left a single leek in situ as it seems keen to flower, and who am I to stop it?

Clearing is not confined to the allotment. My small and experimental (that word give oneself permission to mess it up) flower bed has been cut right back, the dahlias lifted for winter and the roses trimmed. Again, foxgloves have self-seeded, but less welcome are the aquilegia that seem determined to take over with their muddy pink flowers. The shed, incidentally, remains a Work in Progress and has become a shelter for local wildlife – the neighbourhood fox, various cats, many fat squirrels and the odd pigeon have all taken refuge here.

The flower bed has been cleared ready for its winter mulch.

A guiltless harvest at this time of year are the bounteous heads of hydrangea, now bowed by the wet weather. We have two bushes, one of which produces numerous handsome pink blooms the size of a baby’s head, the other produces sparse numbers of MASSIVE heads. I am drying both kinds ready for spray-painting at Christmas. The strawflowers that I harvested through September and October are now dried and I will use them for some kind of wreath, I think, in a full throwback to 1980s crafting.

Fat hydrangea heads are drying, ready to be spray painted for the winter
The strawflower may have a more creative end, perhaps turned into a wreath to brighten the dining room

After the busiest of summers I relish this comparatively calm time. Rather than being a burden – as they have been when I am busy – our small patches of land are now giving me time to be outside, breathe and absorb the last of the autumn sun. We pack away the year, cleanse and ready ourselves for the next onslaught; as one readies the ground for winter, it is actually I who is nourished.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: STOLLEN. Harry and I went on a stollen hunt to Aldi and happily came up trumps with the first of the seasonal goodies. Golden syrup and apple sponge – like a steamed sponge but baked. Jean’s tayberry and apple cobbler. Gateaux from the Eggless Cake Shop on Bearwood Road; it remains a mystery to me how they manage to make light sponge with no egg.

Harvesting: Carrots from the veg trug. Hydrangea heads. Last of the leeks. Chard, kale, cavolo nero and beet spinach.

Allotment and garden: Lifted chrysanthemum. Moved achillea, foxgloves and salvia. Cut back all the perennials in back garden and pruned roses. Lifted garden dahlias (allotment stays put). The first seed catalogues are dropping through the letter box.