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.

Red gooseberry ice cream

It’s mid-July and the glut is starting to hit. Not that much of it has been grown by me, of course; I do get a glut of cut flowers and courgettes but that’s always about it. No, this glut is the result of greedy farm shop purchases plus generous gifting from my mum and dad’s veg patch, and a spot of judicious shopping from Aldi (a supermarket that is surprisingly good for summer produce).

The bright late summer cut-flowers are starting: chrysanthemum, strawflower and achillea
The allotment is reaching its cut-flower peak

In my kitchen currently I have: punnets of plums, strawberries, blackberries and peaches; a massive bowl of red gooseberries, a juicy cantaloupe melon sliced and topped with blueberries from the shrub outside the back door, three aubergines, five green peppers, a bag of French beans, a bag of chard, another bag of spinach beet, a kohlrabi, an overflowing plate of tomatoes and several courgettes (erm maybe a marrow). This week there has also been raspberries, bulb fennel, beetroot and young carrots. Outside there are pots of basil, marjoram, tarragon and leaf fennel; there should be lettuce too, but the snails got there first.

What can be more joyous than whole boxes of summer fruits and veg? The box at the back was grown by my mum and dad, the stuff at the front is from Hillers farm shop
Late strawberries meet early plum and blackberries

And so begins my annual trawl through the cook books to find new things to do with all this loot, because one thing I REALLY don’t want to do is spend hours prepping it, stick it in the freezer, forget about it for a year, then chuck it out. (No judgment, everyone with a productive fruit and veg patch does this.)

These days I don’t have much space for wafting around the kitchen creating fun new dishes – no one ever tells you just how much time pre-schoolers take up – but one evening this week, after work, teatime, bath time, Tree Fu Tom, Big Red Bath, Katie and the Dinosaurs and bed time, I found myself, glass in hand, sitting down to top and tail this lot.

Homegrown red gooseberries getting topped and tailed

Thomasina Miers posted a recipe on Instagram for red gooseberry ice cream a few days back, spiked with grappa, orange and proper vanilla. Thus inspired, I’ve come up with this version, which is full of the flavours of the English summer. The grappa is replaced by blackberry gin, and elderflower cordial takes the place of vanilla.

The method is simple enough and can be adapted to so many summer fruits (see my blackcurrant ice cream). Take your prepped gooseberries, bubble them up with elderflower cordial until soft, add the gin and sugar, then blitz to a puree. Push through a sieve and chill until quite cold, then fold in whipped cream and churn to freeze.

Gooseberry puree spiked with elderflower cordial and blackberry gin
Churn the puree with cream, then freeze until firm. I know I should post a picture of a perfect ball of pink ice cream in a dainty glass dish, but in this house we eat it straight from the tub.

It’s rich, of course, but the acidity of the gooseberries stops it being cloying. The alcohol helps to keep the ice cream smooth but you can leave it out if you prefer. These cream-based ices don’t last so long, so eat this one up within a few weeks. Now…what to do with those blackberries?!

Red gooseberry ice cream

500g red gooseberries (you could use green but you may need more sugar)
1 tbsp water
2 tbsp elderflower cordial
140g granulated sugar
50ml blackberry gin (or other suitable spirit)
250ml double cream

Top and tail the gooseberries. Tip them into a pan with the water and elderflower, then cook gently for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the sugar and gin. Blitz in the blender or with a stick blender until smooth. Push through a sieve and chill until quite cold. Stir in the cream then churn in your ice cream machine, or use the stir-freeze method. Pop in the freezer to set hard. Remove about thirty minutes before you want to eat to soften.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias, calendula, nasturtium, first sunflowers, achillea, last sweet peas, cornflowers, first chrysanthemums, first strawflower. The soft flowers of June are giving way to lurid carnival brights of late summer. First courgettes, a few French beans and spinach beet leaves. Took up final broad beans. Onions are ready and we need to have a poke around the potatoes. Have had to put cages over the 6 nepeta plants to stop the neighbourhood cats destroying them.

Cooking and eating: A tart of puff pastry topped with harrisa, sliced roast aubergine and feta. Summer minestrone (no tomatoes, just greens). Lemon and blueberry drizzle cake. Matt’s beef shin, beer and mushroom pie. Plums straight from the punnet.

Reading: Nothing of note. I am desperate for the library to re-open. We’re watching Toy Story at least once a day.

Also: Renovation of the office continues and I’ve decided that the bathroom is next.

Chocolate mini milks

I’ve been remiss in documenting this year’s allotment, mainly because progress has been slow and steady and therefore not very dramatic to photograph. Plus we have new neighbours whose efforts put me to shame (that’s retirement for you). Something has flipped in me this year though, because the self-seeded plants who have set up home on our allotment have become friends rather than foes. Last year, everything felt like a struggle, partly because I was running a festival and HAD NO TIME. This year it’s a wee bit more relaxed, though I’m only spending an hour or two a week down there and I can only do what’s possible in the time I have. The thistles and groundsel I do remove, but there’s no point fighting the borage, nasturtium, mullein and poppies. The pollinators love them and actually their colour and form are welcome elements to this year’s allotment (I have harvested some poppy seed heads for drying). Even those annoying brambles are swelling with the promise of a bumper crop of blackberries.

Perhaps because of my tardiness, the broad beans have been fine but no major success this year. They are full of weeds and I do wonder if they needed less competition. It’s a similar story with the climbing beans, whose base are overrun with nasturtium. I think the Cobra will do OK, but the purple and borlotti beans are sluggish. We will get a crop but it will be late, partly because my first set of plants were zapped by that late April frost so these are Maytime afterthoughts. The runner beans, incidentally, have completely vanished, which makes me wonder if I planted any in the first place. I’ll pop some seeds directly into the ground next time I visit, in hope of an autumn bean surge.

The long view, with bean sticks, squash plants, sweetcorn and amaranthus. Also plenty of self-sown ‘weeds’ – borage, nasturtium and poppy.

The things that we leave alone often do the best. The dahlias were over-wintered in the allotment, I never water them, and they are now the biggest plants on the plot. There is something to be said for leaving tubers in situ. They are just now beginning to give a crop, as are the new tubers planted last month on the gritty thin soil at the top of the path.

The March-sown corn plants with dahlias behind

The onions have become fat, their leaves beginning to flop, and next to them – miraculously – we have a line of pale green parsnip seedlings that finally germinated on the third attempt.

onions, leeks and tiny parsnips plus some hastily planted zinnia to plug the gaps

August’s cut flowers will be dominated by cosmos, chrysanthemums, ammi and sunflowers. The sweet peas are fading now, their velvet shades become mottled as they give up the ghost.

Ammi visnaga and cosmos, with chrysanths and strawflower behind plus the inevitable self-seeders mullein and poppies
sweet peas, nasturtium and cornflower
Sunflowers are romping away now

The hop is one of those plants that is hidden in plain sight. It’s so part of the furniture that I rarely see it these days, only to look up last week and notice that one bine has collapsed under its own weight.

A bine has collapsed on the hopolisk

Because of my transformed attitude to weeds, plus the success of this year’s planting plan (every inch of ground is covered with something), the July allotment is a pleasure rather than the burden that it was threatening to become. The crops are coming weekly but in small number, which doesn’t make for good photos but does make for a more manageable life. We’re talking a courgette and a bag of broad beans a week, leaves from the trug at home, plus a few berries and two or three vases of flowers. Come August all this will change of course and the glut will hit.

The regular haul of sweet peas, cornflower, nasturtium plus first dahlias and cosmos

Do you remember when it was warm? No I don’t either but I have pictorial evidence that, just a few weeks ago, the sun shone. At these time I become one of those highly irritating super women who produces home-made ice lollies for her offspring. (Don’t be fooled by this, because the rest of the time he exists on chocolate buttons and Aldi’s own-brand Ritz biscuits.) These chocolate mini milks are really easy and use up those smushy black bananas that are always lurking in the fruit bowl. They’re also a good way of getting milk inside him disguised as a treat.

You’ll need a blender and some lolly moulds. Little hands can join in, but make sure they know which end of the lolly handles to put into the moulds…

Remember to put your lolly sticks in the correct way up

Chocolate mini milks

In a blender, whizz together 1 banana, 1 tsp cocoa powder, 2 tsp icing sugar and about 200ml milk. Pour into lolly moulds and freeze.

Chocolate mini milks

Also this week:

Harvesting: last broad beans, first courgette, lettuce, rocket, blackcurrants, blueberries, alpine strawberries, cornflower, sweet peas, dahlia, first sunflower, nasturtium, poppies. Also finding peaches, nectarines, plums, strawberries and red/white currants in the shops and farmer’s market.

Cooking and eating: Nectarine, plum and strawberry crumble. Inevitably, pasta prima vera with courgette and broad beans. Chicken marinated with Moroccan spice mix, yoghurt and garlic, roasted in a HOT oven and served with chopped salads, yoghurt and chips. Toscakaka. Black banana cake.

Also: Reading the biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Working back at full tilt without ever feeling any richer. Slow but steady progress on the office renovation. Taking Harry for his first hair cut since February, and then only because his fringe had become and health and safety issue.

Kiftsgate Court Gardens

Despite my best efforts, life has completely returned to normal. Matt’s working long hours (including weekends) so my days are a juggle between work and childcare, with the occasional foray to the outside world. I’m not complaining too much (I’m lucky to have any work at all, frankly, as the creative industries are currently screwed) but our leisurely days of lockdown are absolutely over. Plus there’s potty training. And renovation of my office. It’s been ages since I posted because my headspace for creative activity is pretty much zero. But there are still socially-distanced playdates to be had: thank God for Warley Woods, Lightwoods Park and our back garden, which are the setting for many hours of pre-school adventure.

Me and Harry in Warley Woods
Blowing bubbles

Harvesting has notched up on the allotment. The cut flowers are providing the interest at present, with the intense Venetian jewel colours of the sweet peas, soft purple lavender, romantic cornflowers, long-stemmed vivid orange nasturtiums and – just today – my old friends the dahlias have started to flower. The strawflower, sunflower and chrysanthemums will be out within the fortnight, I predict.

The veggies, on the other hand, are taking a while to get going this year. There will be courgettes and French beans – though the runner beans have gone AWOL – and the chards and kales look fine. Today I planted out an unexpected bounty of brassicas gifted by Matt’s parents, cauliflowers, purple sprouting and sprouts, which have had to be nestled in between overgrown broad beans and the self-sown alpine strawberries. Come January I will curse myself for planting them right in the middle of the veg patch, surrounded by a quagmire of soil, but there was nothing else for it.

There’s a lot of self-sown plants on the allotment this year, which previously I would have called ‘weeds’, but now I see as pollinator-fodder who have chosen to set up home with us. Some are the hangover of previous summers (borage, ammi and nasturtium have all seeded themselves from plants introduced by me) but the alpine strawberries, poppies and mullein are truly wild. I am leaving them be, seeing them as a food source for hungry bees and, potentially, extra harvest for me.

On the allotment, things are happening – self-sown poppies, borage, nasturtium, ammi and alpine strawberries have taken up home amongst the squash, corn and cut flowers
Photos do not do justice to the thicket of cornflowers, nasturtium and sweet peas
Ten days ago I was just harvesting sweet peas…
…today I add cornflower, lavender, achillea, nasturtium and dahlias to the mix

For my birthday treat, I had intended to visit both Hidcote Manor Garden and Cowley Manor, but The Disease put an end to that plan. Instead I took myself on a rare child-free few hours to Kiftsgate Court Gardens near Chipping Campden. Dear reader, it was glorious. Clear blue skies, warm (but not hot) sun, the sweet scent of old rose in the air, and no-one telling me they’ve done a wee. After so many months of being in one place, it felt so good to be free, even if only for a lunchtime.

The border at Kiftsgate Court, which was heavily scented with sweet rose

Kiftsgate is both a family home and a national treasure, which is quite a difficult trick to pull off. A garden created by three generations of women, there are design influences from the 1930s, mid-century and contemporary periods. Late June is the time to go if you can, for the roses are incredible. Incidentally, the Kiftsgate rose is famous for its vigour. The visitor guide warns against purchasing one unless you are entirely sure you can cope with it: apparently it can take the roof off a garage with ease. But in its natural habitat it looks an innocent mass of white froth amongst the pink.

The inner courtyard, a mid-century design filled with the gentle sound of falling water
The rose garden is bordered with pink leading to a sculptural focal point.
Above it, the white mass of the Kiftsgate rose.
I always enjoy a makeshift bit of engineering, such as this rose support

For me though, the unsung hero of the garden are the sculptural trees that frame the landscape and lend the eye to the rolling Cotswold valley below. I’m always fascinated by trees in a landscape, for whoever plants them never sees their vision come to fruition; I am no expert but these must be decades, even centuries old.

The trees are the real stars of Kiftsgate

The Cotswolds are, of course, hilly, and Kiftsgate answer to this problem is steep terracing to echo the gardens of Tuscany. The black pool that looks out and down to the valley is a genius of design: infinity in front, infinity below.

Looking down to the 1960s pool and beyond it, the Cotswolds
Italianete terracing

Cotswold buildings are often a joy, and this one is no exception. The slightly-off symmetry makes one wonder…was this intentional ? An accident? What stories this old house could tell.

The off-symmetry of the side of the court is pleasing

The cafe is shut for the present but the meadow is open for picnics. (Surely an unexpected bonus of lockdown is all this time out-of-doors). For a time-poor working parent, I am so pleased that I took the chance to seize the day. This is an English garden at its midsummer best.

English meadow on a summer’s day

Also this week:
Harvesting: Sweetpea, cornflower, nasturtium, very first dahlia, very first cosmos, achillea, lavender, broad beans, peas/mange tout, rocket, lettuce, first blueberries, alpine strawberries. Gifted tayberries, blackberries and last asparagus by Jean and Gary.

Allotment: Planted out cauliflower, PSB, sprouts

Garden: Planted out annuals – zinnia, cosmos, sunflower – and false indigo and rose from Kiftsgate. First dahlia blooming.

Other things: Potty training and work so been housebound for a bit. Not had much time for cooking and it’s back to simple mid-week meals: sausage pasta, leftover roast beef stir-fry, make-ahead moussaka. Buying up nectarines & strawberries.

Barabrith

I am writing from the bliss of a quiet house. This week I had a birthday (a big one, but the least said about that the better) and it turns out that birthdays in lockdown are tricky. It’s not like you can have loads of friends over for pizzas and aperol spritz as we would in normal times, or pop to the spa for a pick-me-up. So tea and cake in various gardens it is and rather than dwelling on the parties-that-never-were, I’m grateful to have parents who bring flowers and in-laws that make cracking Victoria sponges. Incidentally, let it be committed to print that my dear other half has promised to make me a new desk for my birthday, and now that it’s public, he has to deliver the goods.

This birthday I had not one cake but two (actually I had three but the third one came a week later)

In baking news, the cinnamon buns continue, this time with a new shape (the twisted knot) and also with chunks of dark chocolate folded into the layers, for a cinnamony-chocolatey-south-american flavour.

Cinnamon bun twists with chunks of chocolate

The parched earth of spring has now been nourished with days and days of rain. The allotment is grateful for it – the sweet peas in particular are now galloping away – and of course the fat hen, thistles and buttercups are thriving. Last year the weeds drove me bonkers but this year I’m just seeing them as part of the ecosystem of the land, their place as much as mine. As long as the flowers and veggies are still cropping, not too much harm is done by their existence. Meanwhile Matt’s made a new brassica cage, sturdier than my efforts of last year, and so I have finally planted out three types of kale plus chard and beet spinach.

This year’s brassica cage has come into operation
Harvesting redcurrants, broad beans and sweet peas

The broad beans are giving two crops weekly and I also now have a few diddy purple pea pods, planted for their shoots but left to mature just for the fun of it. Thankfully I have a helper to assist with all the processing of pods and stalks, a necessary but (to my mind) excessively enjoyable June task.

I have a helper to pod all those beans…

On to a recipe. Harry’s obsessed with Fireman Sam at the moment, and I took the view that if we can’t get to Pontypandy, then Pontypandy can come to us. Meaning, if we can’t go to Wales, then I can at least do some Welsh baking in the form of Barabrith. This one is a tea loaf made with self-raising flour, though it’s more common to find recipes that rely on yeast. Yeast cookery holds no fear for me but sometimes I prefer to take the easy option, which this definitely is: soak fruit in sugary tea, add flour and an egg, than bake. Unashamedly old-fashioned, it keeps for weeks and somehow manages to be simultaneously plain, nourishing and a special treat. My only stipulation is that it must be served plastered with plenty of salted butter.

Barabrith, Wales’ great contribution to baking culture

Barabrith

450g dried mixed fruit – I used sultanas, raisins, currants and cranberries
250g light brown sugar
300ml boiling water
1 tea bag
2 tsp mixed spice
450 self-raising flour
1 egg

In a big bowl, place the fruit, sugar, water and tea bag, give it a stir, then leave to soak. This can be for an hour or overnight, which ever is most convenient.

When ready to bake, prepare a 900g loaf tin with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 170c.

Fish out the tea bag from the fruit, then add the spice, flour and egg to the mixture. Give it a good mix with a wooden spoon to combine, then dollop it into the loaf tin. I like to smooth the top then make a slight dip so that the end loaf comes out flattish.

Bake for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until a skewer comes out clean. You may need to put foil over the cake to prevent it browning too much. Leave to cool in the tin for ten minutes or so before turning out onto a wire rack. This is a big cake but it keeps for weeks in a tin. Serve in thick slices toasted with butter.

Also this week:

Harvesting and growing: Harvesting lettuce, broad beans, peas, red currants, sweet peas, first cornflower. Planted out dahlias, chard, beet spinach, kale. Given a lovely apricot rose in a pot for my birthday from Mum and Dad, which is sitting happily next to the pink lilies (I like a colour clash).

Cooking and eating: Amazing lamb and chicken kebabs, rice, bulgur, bread and salads from the new Turkish grill in Bearwood. Baked lamb with capers, garlic and rosemary, served with potatoes boulanger. Birthday party at Claire’s with two Victoria sponges, and another at our house with one chocolate sponge, crab sandwiches, fresh prawns on the shell and the inevitable party rings. Lots of new season broad beans, lettuce, and a few peas.

Reading: Yin Yoga by Norman Blair. European Peasant Cookery by Elizabeth Luard. Feast by Nigella Lawson.

Planting out

Note: No pics this week due to technical issues. Imagine small plants in soil and the occasional flash of a foxglove, and you’re pretty much there.

Last week was hard, no? We may be easing out of lockdown but it’s now that the reality of the situation hits home. Jobs are uncertain as businesses have to respond to social distancing and spooked customers. What does this mean for my industry, my work? It’s not yet clear, but people are worried. On top of that comes the renewed and emotional debate about racial equality, which because I have both professional and personal interest, always feels challenging. The world is realigning itself, perhaps, but centuries of engrained injustice will not be resolved overnight. It did not help that the sun has been replaced with relentless concrete grey skies.

I was cheered though to see the antics in Bristol and the removal of the Edward Colston statue over the weekend. Young people taking matters into their own hands and not putting up with the status quo – marvellous. The removal of a statue of a man involved in slavery isn’t denying history, this is saying that the story we’re telling about history is not a story we are proud of. We don’t want to be defined by the subjugation of one group over another. And so we choose to tell a different story, a story where the people of a city work towards equality. That statue now has a new history attached to it, the story of ‘now’. It’s brilliantly evocative stuff; the curators, story-makers, historians of Bristol have been given a gift with this symbolic gesture. This article by the historian David Olusoga explains all this in a far more articulate manner than I ever could.

Aside from all that, there is peace to be found with the plants. Take your sustenance where you can find it. Today I found it with planting out a heap of dahlias and other flowers grown from seed – isn’t there a joy in raising a plant from infancy to maturity without messing it up too much?

I’m pleased with this year’s allotment planting plan, which is blocked and – unusually for me – in straight lines. Usually I only grow for the allotment but this year I remembered to hold things back for the garden as well, so we now have cleome, amaranthus and chrysanthemums settling into Bearwood soil. It will be interesting to see how the same plants respond to differing conditions.

This year’s updated planting plan

Meanwhile, the harvest has started again – only slim pickings for now, of foxglove, sweetpea and broadbeans – but experience tells me that the late May/early June lull after the spring explosion of tulips and daffodils is just that – a lull – a rest before the abundance of July begins.

Planting out: Dahlia, chrysanthemum, lace flower, grasses, cleome, amaranthas (garden). Amaranthas, calendula, zinnia, annual delphinium, all the beans, cosmos (allotment).

Harvesting: very first tiny sweetness, first broad beans, foxgloves, cos, round lettuce, rocket.

Cooking and eating: My first Lockdown banana cake, about two months after everyone else. Strawberries topped with vanilla mascarpone and demarera sugar with biscotti on the side. Beetroot hummus. Watermelon.

Reading: Family Life by Elisabeth Luard, coinciding with European Peasant Cookery by the same writer. Couldn’t read last week though, the combined hit of centuries of endemic racism, economic meltdown and disease finally broke my ability to concentrate. On order from the library: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddi-Lodge.

Be the change, an update

The end of yet another deeply troubling week. How many more troubling weeks will there be? Brexit crisis, climate crisis, pandemic and economic crisis, and now the re-emergence in the public consciousness of the crisis of inequality in Western society. The protest for Black Lives Matter may have begun in the USA but its resonance is far, wide, loud. It should give all of us pause for reflection.

In my industry (arts and culture) diversity, equality and universal representation, or rather the lack of it, has been an issue present my entire career. My very first job was for a theatre company, which happened to be led by a white woman, which worked in what was then called ‘culturally diverse’ performance – in practice, this meant voices of Black and Asian people, from the UK but also the Caribbean, Africa, India. They tended to be angry voices. I had to question some assumptions that I had about other people from different cultural backgrounds to my own, assumptions that I’d never actually been aware that I’d had; there wasn’t a phrase for this then but it’s now called ‘unconscious bias’.

Since then I’ve worked with many different faces from many different backgrounds. Sometimes my projects are specifically about attempting to improve representation of people who aren’t white, middle class, straight, able-bodied. This work always brings me up short, making me realise the things I’ve misunderstood about people who are different to myself. Twenty years I’ve been doing this, and still it’s hard. I’ve given jobs to people who were white and ‘ready to go’ over those who were not white and needed training to get them up to speed. It was the right decision for the project, but was it the right decision for society? The emotions are conflicting: guilt, confusion, defensiveness, self-pity, frustration, tiredness, anger. Equality work is difficult. Black and White isn’t actually that black and white.

But the work is worth doing, we have to keep doing it.

So if you’re wondering what you can do to make life better in our society, I’d recommend once again to try and Be The Change. Look at your choices, look at your unconscious bias, look at the things you say/think/feel and see if they need unpicking a little. Educate yourself a little more on how we got to this point. It may make you feel uncomfortable but if everyone does this, imagine the changes that would come.

“We can not always do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” Mother Theresa of Calcutta

Outdoors-ing it

The flowers and veg plugs are ready to be planted out – and with these long warm days, outdoorsing it is the best way to live. A week or so back we headed out to a farm shop in the middle of nowhere to stock up on proper tomatoes, strawberries and bacon, then ventured down the riverside path, overgrown with cow parsley and scented with mayflower. Smelling freedom, Harry made a bid for a buttercup-filled meadow – toddler life as it should be.

Making a bid for freedom

Meanwhile at home he’s the lucky recipient of another new garden structure, a climbing-frame/slide created by his Dad whilst he had time on his hands. Harry’s not the only one who has taken advantage of Matt’s carpentry skills – he’s also knocked up a trug for my lettuce and rocket, so that I can wander out the back door and pick leaves for tea. So much more practical than having them at the allotment where they only get harvested once a week.

The new climbing frame
My new lettuce trug. Also at the front is my experimental watercress, which does surprisingly well in a container provided that it gets watered daily.

In mid-May the tulips finally faded, and in their place comes the vivid pink roses, foxgloves and delphinium. The return of Getrude Jekyll is like welcoming back an old friend.

Rose Gertrude Jekyll
They’re going over now, but 10 days ago the azalea and allium were a perfectly contrasting match

Don’t be fooled though – I’m really pleased with the April-May garden but as we go into June, when the tulips fade and the alliums go to seed, there are gaps and holes a-plenty. I am nursing trays and trays of annuals to put out in a few weeks, things like sunflower, cosmos, lace flower, but for the next few weeks the glorious roses stand alone in their beauty, bordered by the bedraggled leftovers from spring. Such is life.

On the allotment, that unexpected late frost did for the beans. I remembered to net against pigeons but it never crossed my mind to fleece against the nighttime chill. But then would it be a spring unless I had to have at least three separate attempts at growing a humble bean?

The late frost did for the beans

All else is coming along though, late as ever. This week I planted out a few early squash, chrysanthemums, strawflower and sunflowers, and the cosmos and zinnia aren’t far behind. We also re-sowed the parsnips that inevitably failed to materialise.

Planting out has begin

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, life has busied in the last week or so. The gradual easing of lockdown means that Matt has had a load of new commissions in, so we’re both working whilst trying to keep Harry gainfully occupied. He’ll be back at nursery for a few days next week. Tradesmen are back at it and so my office is finally getting the makeover that was started in March, which is great but does make for mess and disruption. I’m not really ready for all this, feeling keenly the rudeness of ‘normal’ life interrupting my domestic haven. There are some things about lockdown I fully intend to hang on to. The garden has become a creative outlet, playground, refuge. The once-a-week food shop is now so much more mindful, and I am using more farm shops than before (the meat and veg is better so why wouldn’t I?). I’m reading a book a week. Once the world stopped I found an abundance of time to think, time to listen, time to live, and isn’t life better for it?

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out sunflowers, strawflower, chrysanthemums, first squash, salad rocket, other lettuces. Re-sowed parsnips. Harvesting lettuce, alliums, persicaria. Sowed new sunflowers, sweetcorn, zinnia, dill and marigolds.

Cooking and eating: Massive rib of beef for Matt’s birthday, Angel Delight for the hell of it (it wasn’t good, the recipe’s changed since the 1980s and the whole thing split in the fridge); a Victoria Sandwich birthday cake that I messed up by not putting the baking powder in; lamb kebabs with flat breads, asparagus and salads; strawberries; first bobby beans. An unexpected joy of lockdown is ordering a load of proper bread online from a small-scale baker then venturing forth to a trading estate in Stirchley / Stirchley High St / Moseley Bog (delete as appropriate) to collect the goodies a few days later.

Reading: The Bone People by Keri Hulme, with which I feel in the presence of greatness.

Almond (and chocolate) crescents

You know how you get Instagram food and then you have real life food? Instagram is usually style over substance but the home-made stuff, whilst not being pretty, is actually where we can find real heart-warming soul-bolstering cooking. It’s the same with cookbooks – the things we covet on paper somehow don’t carry the true essence of what is real. The expensive images can’t give the impression of the kitchen filled with the fug of bubbling chicken stock, or the furtive treat of stealing the first biscuit off the tray before anyone’s noticed. They can’t give the life-preserving feeling that you get from a slice of proper toast slathered in salty butter. Nor do they give room for the truth that some of the best cooking actually happens when we mess it up a bit.

On that note, I’ve been tinkering about my cinnamon bun recipe (yes, it is an obsession), thinking it would be fun to try something else that’s Scandi and calorie-laden, and my eye was drawn by these, Gifflar med kanel, or cinnamon crescents, from The Nordic Baking Book. Have you ever seen a thing of such dough-based beauty? Look at the swirl! Look at the shine! Look how NEAT they are!

What a Crescent is meant to look like…

So obviously I had a go and, inevitably, my version look utterly crap. Big and puffy, with all the filling oozed out, like I’ve made some cheesy sausage roll from my Mum’s 1970s M&S Picnic Cookbook. But do not be deceived, for this swirly ugly mass is a thing of caramelised unctuous gorgeous heaven.

…and the homemade version!

Instead of the cinnamon filling that is traditional, I used an almond version called remonce, the type used in Danish pastries and Mandelbullar (almond buns). The almond actually comes from marzipan, creamed with heart-stopping quantities of butter and sugar, so imagine this: Sweet dough baked golden in a puddle of marzipanny-buttery caramel. Then think of the illicit pleasure of peeling the leaked caramelised butter-almond off the paper in shards, shovelling them in your mouth before your 2 year old sees and wants them for himself.

Then imagine a chocolate version. Dear God.

Roll your dough out more thinly that you’d expect, and you might succeed in making crescents that are slightly better looking than mine. These freeze well so any that don’t get eaten can be stashed for future breakfasts, brunches or midnight feasts.

Almond crescents
Makes 32 crescents. Recipe adapted from various things in The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson.

For the dough:
320ml milk
150g unsalted butter
1 heaped teaspoon ground cardamon
15g dried yeast
1 egg
125g caster sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt
750g strong wheat flour

In a jug in the microwave, melt the butter into the milk then leave to cool slightly. In a large bowl, place the salt, the flour, the yeast and cardamon (in that order so that the yeast and salt don’t come into contact with each other) and mix thoroughly with a scraper. Whisk the egg into the milk mixture, then tip the lot into the flour and mix to combine. Once you have a sticky mass, tip onto the work surface and knead for a good 10 minutes until you have a soft, elastic dough. Or you can use a stand mixer if you have one. Don’t stint on the kneading, this dough needs it! Shape the dough into a ball, put back in the bowl and cover with a tea towel. Leave to prove for about 2 hours or so, until really risen and puffy. Meanwhile, make your filling:

Lys remonce – Danish pastry filling
125g unsalted butter, very soft
125g caster sugar
125g marzipan

Place the butter and sugar in a bowl, then grate the marzipan over using a box grater. Cream together thoroughly and set aside.

For the crescents:
Preheat the oven to 220c. Prepare three or four (depending on their size) baking sheets or roasting trays with baking parchment. Tip the dough out onto the work surface with the tenderness that you would treat a newborn baby. Gently shape it into a circle then divide into 4 pieces.

To make crescents, roll each piece into a circle using a rolling pin. They should be quite thin, about 1cm deep or thinner. Spread a quarter of the filling over the circle using an off-set spatula, then cut into 8 equal triangles. Roll each triangle up from the thick edge to the thin, then place on a baking sheet. Repeat and repeat until all the dough is used up. Leave to prove for another 30 minutes or so, until puffy.

If you want, at this stage you can egg wash the crescents, or simply leave them plain as I do. Bake for about 10 minutes until risen and golden. You may need to turn the trays around mid-way through baking to avoid burnt bits. Leave to cool before tucking in but take every opportunity to munch on the crunchy almondy caramelised bits that have leaked from your buns.

Variation: Almond & chocolate buns
To make a sinfully good chocolate version, break up some shards of 70% dark chocolate and scatter on top of the dough after you have spread it with the remonce filling. Either shape as crescents or make into traditional cinnamon or cardamon bun shapes, as I have done here. Bake as before.

The chocolate almond version. Ugly but mind-blowingly good.

Life in lockdown

On the whole, we’ve been having a thoroughly nice time in lockdown. I read yesterday that psychologists are worried that people have made such cosy cocoons for themselves that even when we’re finally allowed out, we’ll all be a bunch of agoraphobes who refuse to leave the sanctuary of home. I think there is truth in that and I also think that perhaps it is no bad thing, that there is time yet for stillness and an appetite for life focused on things other than endless consumption and growth.

We do go out every day, but usually only the hundred metres or so to the park. Last week children had left chalk graffiti on the path, an act of pure creativity without self-consciousness.

Kids’ graffiti in Lightwoods Park

I’ve been following my own creative urges – nothing amazing, just thirty minutes of free writing here, a bit of colouring there. I envy all those people I know who actually have skills to draw or paint (or write) well. There’s always cooking of course, and now that we have flour again I’m drawn back to the alchemy that is yeast cookery. Last week I had a go at crumpets; this week I can feel Danish pastries coming on.

Homemade crumpets

In our domestic bubble, aside from the cookery and colouring, there is always the cultivated world to turn for solace and creative endeavour. I am so pleased with my garden this May, the first time I’ve got it looking good. Some of it is considered, some of it is a happy accident. Tulips give tones of green, cream, pink and peach against the hot pink azalea, and in the last week the alliums have opened their lavender pom pom heads. The hottest pink roses are opening too, offset by the vigorous green growth of delphinium, aquilegia and foxglove. It will stay looking glorious for a few more weeks before the inevitable early July slump. To offset that I have a cold-frame full of seedlings – cosmos, nicotiana, more delphiniums, dahlia – readying themselves for their summer in the sun.

The tulips are still going strong, giving white, pink and peach tones to the greening-up garden

All this fecundity is in sharp contrast to the allotment, where nothing much is happening yet. Nothing cultivated I mean, for the grass and nettles are once again rampant. I popped down on Saturday for an hour alone-time, only to be met by a downpour. The shed provided cover and I perched on a spindle of hop twine for half an hour, accompanied by bird song, lilac, cow parsley and the sound of rain on the roof.

In a downpour, I take refuge in the allotment shed, with a view of lilac, cow parsley and nettles

The climbing beans, dwarf beans and sweet peas have now been in for a week or so, netted to protect against the inevitable bird attack. The rest of the soil remains fallow for now. I have learnt that things planted directly in our soil do not do well and it does no good to rush; the first five months of the year are a dormant period down there. No, much better to sow the seeds at home, develop strong plants and put them out only when they’re good and ready, which for the brassicas, salads, squash, corn and cut flowers may not be for another month yet.

Beans have been planted out and netted against the birds

I still visit the allotment though, partly to keep the grass down, but mostly to get my fix of May cut flowers. Alongside the alliums, which I planted several years ago, there is self-sown cow parsley, lilac and persicaria for the picking, making for a gloriously frothy vase.

Alliums, lilac, cow parsley and persicaria, all foraged from the allotment

Having worked from home for years, I find that lockdown life is just a slowed down, slightly more domestic version of normal life. I look after Harry, tend to my seeds, do my bits of work, cook, take care of the never-ending chores, read, sit, chat, play in the garden. There are Zoom meetings, Zoom parties, Zoom yoga, and we even managed a socially-distanced drink with our neighbours through the back gate. Once a week I go to the shops and collect bread from the baker in Stirchley. I completely avoid Facebook, the newspapers and much of the news as I find all the shouting to be wildly unhelpful. I yearn to write but don’t know where to begin (always that sense that we should be doing something useful or productive). There is always the worry of financial armageddon, of course, so as not to become overwhelmed I find I take life one week at a time.

It feels like the right conditions for good things, good ideas, to brew.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Roast chicken with fennel, chilli and oregano; peach and blackberry cobbler; homemade pesto to dress roasted aubergine and asparagus; tagliatelle with peas and bacon; raspberry lemon muffins; lemon ricotta hotcakes; cannellini beans braised with tomato; crumpets.

Allotment and garden: Planted more dwarf beans, climbing beans and squash. Planted out runner, French and borlotti beans, sweet peas, cornflowers. Hardening off many younger plants. Uncovered all the old strawberry patch ready to take the squash plants in a few weeks. Garden tulips holding on and the first roses are breaking bloom. Covered up the gooseberry and redcurrant against bird attack.

Harvesting: Cow parsley, lilac, alliums, persicaria, lettuce merveille de quat saison (veg trug), tarragon, marjoram.

Reading: The land where lemons grow by Helena Attlee. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.