Clementine Cake

I’ve been reading up on baby weaning lately and in so-doing, was prompted to revisit Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. There’s a chapter buried in the back devoted to the feeding of babies….ten days later I’ve yet to get to said chapter for it turns out that this is the most distracting of books, a calming balm for the sleep-deprived cook.

A 1990s classic: How to Eat

Putting to one side the fact that Nigella drops into her introduction that she wrote How to Eat whilst pregnant / nursing (note, this is a whopper of a book with 500+ pages of dense prose. Already I feel inadequate, as I consider it a success if I manage to check my email in the course of a day, never mind write a classic. I suppose being monied helps), I am struck by how ahead of its time How to Eat was. The pages are full of foods that, as a student in 1998, I had heard of but would never dream to encounter: pomegranate molasses, marsala, quince. There is talk of Lebanese supermarkets and popping out for brioche and challah. Meat comes not with a dollop of mash, but with chick pea’d couscous and polenta.

At the time I felt myself to be terribly unsophisticated for not cooking like this on a daily basis (I was, but then so was 99.99% of the population). This was the food of the London sophisticate, recorded unapologetically, in a fashion that is now unpopular in the age of austerity and clean eating. I think I can thank Nigella for widening my culinary horizons… Twenty years on I can remember making some of her dishes – including walking three miles to the Co-op to try to find an aubergine (they didn’t have any) – and was beside myself the first time that I went to an actual real life Lebanese supermarket (it was in north London in about 2006 and the celery was amazing, in full leaf like the most over-the-top floral display).

In homage to Nigella, here’s her clementine cake, which I first made for a New Year’s Eve gathering in the early 2000s. It manages to be sweet but with an element of bitter, which comes from the inclusion of the whole fruit in the batter. I wasn’t so keen on it then, but I now prefer bakes that aren’t too sweet and I think it’s marvellous. Incidentally Sarah Raven has a similar cake in her Garden Cookbook, which I also turn to from time to time.

Clementine Cake
From Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat

First, put 5 clementines in a saucepan and simmer for about two hours, until completely soft. Leave to go cold, then remove any bits of stalk and pips, and whizz to a pulp in the food processor.

Simmer five clementines until totally soft then whizz to a pulp

Next, oil and line a 21cm springform tin and preheat the oven to 180c. Beat 6 eggs until just combined, then add 225g caster sugar250g almonds and 1 teaspoon baking powder. (If you’re short on almonds, you can use 150g almonds and 100g plain flour or, even better, a mixture of almonds and breadcrumbs. The cake will be lighter in texture but still good.) Stir in the orange pulp.

As well as your clementine pulp, have ready eggs, almonds and caster sugar (& baking powder, not shown)

Whisk eggs with the sugar and almonds

Add the clementines

Pour the lot into the tin and bake for about an hour. The cake will likely need to be covered with foil after about 40 minutes to stop it browning too much. Cool in the tin and then turn out, to be served naked or with cream and a dollop of fruit (rhubarb compote would be excellent).

Once baked – a not-too-sweet cake for tea or pudding

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Seeds of optimism

There are many life changes that come with having a small baby in the house. Some big (disturbed sleep, general worry) and some small but unforeseen. I had not realised, back in those summer days of waddling around as if nothing was about to happen, that my cooking would be seriously disrupted by Harry’s arrival.

To begin with, he wouldn’t let me put him down for more than a few minutes at a time. I quickly discovered that it’s impossible to chop, stir, fry, roast or boil with a wriggling baby in your arms. For this reason, between September to about early December I think I lived on tea, toast and hummus. He’s now happy to hang out in his chair or play mat for some time, but each day is different: On Monday he’ll babble to himself for an hour….then on Tuesday he’s having none of it and wants entertaining NOW Mummy!

So I’ve learnt to cook in short, sharp intervals. Anything that involves short periods of intervention or preparation work well – from the freezer pies that I can heat up after bedtime, to the quickly rustled-together poached egg on toast (there is still a general toast theme).

In recent weeks I’ve discovered that it’s possible to do bigger kitchen projects, provided that they need plenty of hands-off time. Last month’s marmalade is a good example, and this weekend I had a go at a blueberry couronne – a sweetened dough stuffed with cinnamon butter and blueberries, twisted and baked to gooey goodness. In total it took about 5 hours to make, but each intervention (making the dough, kneading, twisting) was less than 10 minutes. Perfect baby-friendly food.

Blueberry couronne

I used my recipe for apple buns, substituting the apples for blueberries and mixed spice for cinnamon. But instead of making buns, I baked the dough as per the recipe for chocolate couronne. Perfect for weekend brunching with the newspapers.

Perfect for weekend breakfasting

I don’t know if I can take the same approach with allotmenting…the challenges of gardening-with-baby remain unknown! But I did find an hour yesterday to sow the first seeds of the year, whilst the boys watched the Six Nations on the telly. Broadbeans, sweet peas and cleomes are now buried in their compost cocoons, ready for the strengthening spring sun to encourage them to life.

First seed planting of the year: sweet peas, broad beans, cleome

I now have the taste for planting but I must remember my plan to not do too much this year…no stress…no unnecessary hassle. It’s difficult not to get carried away with seeds; why plant 4 if you can plant 12? And before I know it, the allotment will be a jungle again!

Planting: Cleome, broad beans, sweet peas
Cooking: Beef cheeks braised in red wine, freezer-fruit crumble, coq au vin, blueberry couronne

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Marmalade

So much for Calm January! As usual, the quiet first few days of the new year have given way to busy-busy-busyness: I’ve taken on a few small work projects to keep my hand in, and these, combined with baby-care, mean the days are disappearing. Which is no bad thing: the dark days of January drag on a bit, don’t they?

Today’s other juggling act has been the making of marmalade. Seville oranges are in the shops now and the season is short, so there’s no real time for delay. Marmalade-making is meant for a slow, pottering day in the kitchen…but in our house I had to fit it in between copy-writing jobs, during nap times and after bedtime. Note: This does not lead to a relaxing few hours of cooking. But on the plus side, I discovered an unexpected upside of having a baby in the house, namely the microwave bottle steriliser that now doubles up as my jam-jar steriliser.

Marmalade

This recipe is Nigel Slater‘s and makes 6 large jars.

Take 1kg of Seville oranges and 2 lemons. Score the fruit from top to bottom, to separate the rind from the fruit within.

Score the rind of 1kg Seville oranges and 2 lemons

Next, separate the peel from the fruit and place into separate bowls.

Separate the rinds from the fruit

Using a sharp knife, slice the rind into thin strips. In truth mine are little thick – but it depends how chunky you like your marmalade. Squeeze the fruit segments through a sieve into a bowl, reserving the pith and seeds.

Finely slice the rinds and squeeze the fruit, saving all the pips and pith

Place the pith, pips and other orangey detritus into a muslin bag and secure it tightly. These contain lots of pectin, which helps to set the marmalade.

Put all the pips, pith and general orangey detritus into a muslin bag

Then get a massive bowl, measure the squeezed orange and lemon juice, and add enough water to make up the quantity to 4 litres. Add the strips of rind and the muslin bag, then leave to sit overnight.

Make the juice up to 4 litres, then leave the rind, juice and muslin bag to sit overnight

The next day, transfer the lot to your biggest pan – ideally a preserving pan – and bring to a simmer. The rinds need to be cooked until soft, the timing of this depending entirely on how thickly they have been sliced (mine took 40 minutes).

The next day, use your biggest pot to simmer the rinds until soft

In the meantime, get on with washing and sterilising your jam jars – I used the baby bottle steriliser but 10 minutes in a hot oven will do the same job.

In the meantime, sterilise the jam jars

When the rinds can be easily broken against the side of the pan, they are done. Remove the muslin pan from the pot and leave aside until it is cool enough to touch, then squeeze it hard and return any juices to the pan.

Soft rinds!

Your windows will get steamy – enjoy!

Your windows should get good and steamy

Add 1.25kg granulated sugar to the pan. You can use golden caster sugar here, which will give you a darker marmalade, but I prefer the lightness of regular white sugar. I warmed mine in the oven, which Nigel Slater does not mention, but I understand this is an important part of making preserves and it definitely won’t do any harm. Stir the sugar over a low heat until it has dissolved.

Add your warmed sugar to the pan and stir gently over a low heat to dissolve

Now ramp up the heat and boil the mixture hard until the thermometer reaches 105c. You can also use the teaspoon-of-mixture-on-a-cold-saucer trick….but I prefer the scientific approach. It can take up to 50 minutes to get to this point.

Ramp up the heat and boil until the thermometer reads 105c

Leave the marmalade to sit for 15 minutes and then ladle into your jars. Cover, cool and enjoy!

Stand the mixture for 15 minutes and then ladle into the waiting jam jars. Cover and leave to cool.

Also this week:

On the allotment: Pruned blackcurrants, redcurrants and raspberries. Ordered seeds for 2018 growing. Cleaning pots ready for sowing sweetpeas and broad beans

Cooking: Anything that’s nourishing and inexpensive, including sausages with lentil stew, daal, squash soup, Mexican braised beans with smoked ham hock, Chocolate brownie pudding with armagnac prunes

January calm

The only thing to do in the first week of a new year is hibernate. This is the time for quiet, calm, maybe a bit of contemplation and probably quite a lot of cleaning and clearing up. In the kitchen, the excess of pastry, pork, turkey, chocolate and all the rest of it gives way to wonderfully vibrant January produce: January King cabbage, crunchy green sprouts, Seville oranges, braised pheasant.

We headed up to Malvern last week for Harry’s first trip to the hills. In truth, a pram is not the best walking companion, even if it is an all-terrain one, but we managed a short trot to British Camp.

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View north from British Camp

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Harry’s first trip to the Hills

New Years Day saw a stroll around Edgbaston Reservoir and our traditional 1 January dinner of a deliciously frugal braise, this time of pheasant, carrot, parsnip and pearl barley.

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New Years Day on Edgbaston Reservoir

During this week when the world is back at work, I do a spot of planning. It’s always time to review my professional, financial and personal plans for the upcoming year and, of course, think about the 12 months of allotmenting that lie ahead. I have a new companion to guide my thinking – in his new book Down to Earth, Monty Don discusses using fruit and veg into a cottage garden and it’s got me wondering what crops I can shift from the allotment site up to our back garden. With a baby to look after, being able to step out the back door for watering/harvesting will be significantly less stressful than packing up the car to head down to Harborne during rush hour. So there’s a high chance that the sweet peas, cosmos, stick beans and salads may stay in Bearwood this year, leaving the allotment for the space-hungry crops of sunflowers, squash and courgette.

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Time for reflection, fires and a spot of allotment planning

Meanwhile the jobs list is growing again. The raspberries are at pruning time, as are the currants, and we need to rethink the weed-suppressing plastic that I put down as it isn’t surviving the gusty winter winds. But for now, I’ll just sit in front of the fire for a wee bit longer.

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The black plastic I put down in December has barely survived the high winds: back to the drawing board

Harvesting: Rosemary, sage

Reading: The 2018 Almanac by Lia Leendertz, Down to Earth by Monty Don

Cooking & Eating: Braised pheasant, Seville oranges, sourdough. Freezer is full of turkey soup, turkey curry, turkey pie. Planning to make mutton with quince and squash soup in upcoming days.

New Years Resolution: To learn how to drink again, one teeny tiny weekly glass of fizz at a time (my metabolism is blown post-pregnancy)

Snow snow snow

The thermometer continues to dip, with inches of snow last weekend and treacherous iced pavements. So today some obligatory pictures of snow – and the annual freelancers’ Christmas party.

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Baby’s first snow

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Snow has broken branches in the garden

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Gertie was suspicious of the white stuff

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Inches of snow on the cars

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Annual Supperagettes night out

Hello winter!

Hibernation has set in, as it does every year. When I realised that I’d have a small baby during the winter I was certain I’d get down in the dumps, but it turns out that the gentle rhythm to our day sits beautifully with the darker months. The Harry-shaped alarm clock means we’re awake before dawn, and every morning I thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to venture out into the dark and cold to head to an office (hurray for self-employment). Harry gets his first breakfast, then hot tea with cranberry and orange breakfast bread, emails and the Today programme are the order of the day before baby gets washed and dressed and devours his second breakfast. A million jobs are done between nap times and other feeds, then by 5pm the fire is on and it’s time for our nappy-free-disco (half-)hour. So by Harry’s 6.30pm bedtime it’s dark anyway and there’s no yearning to be out in the evening.

Despite not feeling Christmassy in any way, shape or form (this despite the decorations having been up for a week), I am all over seasonal change. Yesterday I bought thirty quid’s worth of candles to see me through until April, and today we donned our waterproof outfits to trudge out in the snow. We’ve been to Lichfield Cathedral and breathed in the flickering candlelight, and in the kitchen, soups, curries and anything-with-gravy are the order of the day.

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Shrine to St Chad at Lichfield Cathedral

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Latest addition to the household

On the allotment, I find that the black plastic sheets I put down a fortnight ago have escaped and that our kind allotment-neighbour Martin has tried to secure them into position with stones. Affirmative action is needed. Fingers numb with cold, I pull the sheets back into place and drag planks of wood on top in a last-grasp effort to keep them in place. There’s no-one around and the only sounds on the snow-covered plots are birds going about their business.

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An inch or so of snow has fallen overnight

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The allotments are peaceful on a wintry lunchtime

I have a fairly bad case of baby-brain at present and so I’ve been looking at my pictures from the year to try to remind myself what I actually got up to in 2017. I notice that the kale and cavolo nero plants have been cropping since July, and now in December they’re still going strong – if anything they’re better than ever, relishing the cold that has zapped the whitefly. Today’s picking will probably be stir-fried with ginger and garlic to accompany a warming rabbit dhansak (Matt’s creation).

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Only thing growing now is cavolo nero and Russian red kale

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Today’s gatherings, whitefly-free for the first time this year

Eating & cooking: Cranberry & orange breakfast bread, Dad’s soup, rabbit pie, rabbit curry, giant yorkshire puddings with sausages wrapped in bacon, chicken baked with parsnips, rosemary and clementines, Aldi stollen, Aldi & Wilko panettone (these are the very best and I’ve tried many)

Harvesting: Rosemary, sage, Russian red kale, cavolo nero

Reading: The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater

Sweet potato & pumpkin curry

In the two-and-a-bit months since the baby was born, the allotment has gone from high summer productivity to sodden and vaguely overgrown. The so-called compost bin is overflowing with the debris of the season, sunflower stalks, hop vines and mouldy chard. The veg patches are green with weeds and the fruit bushes are bare saved for the buds of new life, already visible on the branches. I pop down when I can for a spot of tidying – the success of this depends entirely on what mood Harry is in, and how much sleep I’ve had (or not had) the night before.

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Harry is not much help when it comes to allotmenting

I’ve covered both of the main beds with black plastic, partly to keep the weeds down over winter but also because I don’t know how much I’ll get around to cultivating next year. Left uncovered this soil becomes a carpet of weeds in a blink of an eye; this is a case of an hour’s work now saving me serious amounts of graft come spring.

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If left to its own devices, the allotment would be this overgrown all over

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I’ve put black plastic over the beds to keep the weeds down

There’s not much to pick now but the cavolo nero is still going strong, as is the kale and chard. What I do have though is a serious pile of pumpkins; having served their time as Halloween decorations, it’s time to transfer them to the pot.

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Cavolo nero still going strong, as is the kale and chard

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Pumpkins form the basis of this easy curry

This is an easy curry that I have shamelessly pinched from Nigella Lawson, though in truth it’s more the kind of dish I’d expect to find on a yoga retreat than from a ‘sleb chef. It’s vegan (shock!) and cheap (horror!), and more to the point I am able to cook up a massive vat of it in the few minutes that the baby is asleep in the afternoon. If you’re not lucky enough to have a pumpkin pile at home, use butternut squash instead.

Sweet potato and pumpkin curry
Recipe adapted from Nigella Lawson. Makes loads, about 8 portions.

1 red onion, cut into chunks
1 red chilli, stalk removed
Thumb of fresh ginger, peeled
3 fat cloves of garlic, peeled
1 tsp turmeric
2 heaped tsp whole coriander seeds, bashed in a pestle and mortar (or 1 tsp ground coriander)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 vegetable stock cube (I use low salt)
Salt
Sunflower oil
1 x 400ml tin coconut milk
1 x 400g tin tomatoes
Water
1 large sweet potato, trimmed and cut into large chunks
1/2 pumpkin or winter squash, peeled and cut into large chunks
Juice of 1 lime

First, make the curry paste. In the food processor, whizz together the onion, chilli, ginger, garlic, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon  and stock cube, adding a splash of water to help it combine if needed.

In a large casserole or stock pot, warm the oil over a medium heat and add the curry paste with a pinch of salt. Fry for a few minutes until the oil begins to separate from the paste. Add the solid coconut cream from the top of the tin of coconut milk, fry for a few minutes more, the add the rest of the coconut milk and tomatoes. Swill both tins out with water and add to the pan.

Finally slide in the sweet potato and squash, bring to a gentle simmer, and cook until the veggies are soft – about half an hour. Some of the squash will disintegrate into the curry, which helps it to thicken. Season with more salt and lime juice to taste, then serve with brown rice and a dollop of yoghurt.

Granny’s apple scone

Life is gradually mellowing into a new rhythm. I am back to my clock-watching habit, but now it’s to calculate feed times rather than dashing to work meetings. Dare I say that the night feeds have become less hideous now that I’m getting my strength back and the baby has a more predictable rhythm to his day…but I don’t want to speak too soon, it could all change again tomorrow.

It’s good to be heading towards some kind of stability or normality; I don’t care for chaos. The other weekend we braved a visit to Quainton in Bucks to catch up with my uni friends – a whole day away from home with no disasters!

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Early evening in Quainton

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First visit to the farm (Harry, not Matt)

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We’re out in a different county…a miracle!

In other news, Matt’s Granny and Grampy (both remarkable people, blessed with long life and good health) have recently moved out of their bungalow into a care home. Granny has spent her entire life baking and I’ve been lucky enough to be given temporary guardianship of her recipe books, handwritten in neat script and with brilliant records of the hundreds (not exaggerating) of mince pies and rich fruit cakes baked each Christmas for friends and neighbours.

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Granny’s recipe book

Obviously I’m going to have a go at some of these classic recipes though I am very conscious that there is danger here – no matter how hard I try, my efforts will never be considered by Matt to be as good as Granny’s, or his Mum’s for that matter. This apple scone recipe is a case in point: Matt grew up on this and I feel I have a duty to add it to my repertoire to keep the family tradition going, though it will probably take a good 20 years of practice before I finally get it just right. Food and cooking carry with them great nostalgic value; the link between generations.

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The famous apple scone recipe

Apple scone is, as the title suggests, a scone with apple in it. In a world of red velvet cakes and beetroot brownies it’s refreshing to work with a recipe that is solidly straight-forward and, dare I say, plain.  The fruit makes the scone slightly more dense and moist than normal and pleasingly it’s not too sweet.

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My effort…not bad for a first timer!

This is a fantastically adaptable bake: Granny suggests to eat with butter; Matt’s sister Claire suggests trying it with custard or ice cream, but I’d have it plain for breakfast with the first caffeine shot of the day. My attempt used apples from Grampy’s trees.

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Have for afternoon tea, pudding, or breakfast after the morning feed.

Granny’s apple scone
8oz self raising flour
2oz unsalted butter
pinch salt
1 level teaspoon baking powder
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and finely diced
2oz caster sugar
little milk
demerara sugar

Sift the flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until only the finest lumps remain. Stir in the sugar and apple, then add enough milk to make a soft dough.

Transfer the dough to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Press the dough to an 8-inch round shape and mark into 8 wedges. Brush with milk and scatter with demerara sugar.

Bake at 180c for about 20 to 25 minutes.

Pictures of autumn

Somehow we’re deep into autumn. I say ‘somehow’ as I didn’t really notice the summer (was working too hard) and then September vanished into a new baby fug. I am still in new-baby-fug of course, and will probably stay in the fug for the next 18 years, BUT we are now able to leave the house and generally do stuff. (This all depends on how many times I’ve been up in the night of course. But let’s live positively.)

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Cousin Sue made an amazing patchwork quilt for Harry

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Meeting the pigs at Clive’s Fruit Farm

The allotment has turned into a jungle in my absence – I find this very stressful but have decided it’s good practice in learning the art of going-with-the flow. Harry’s visited a few times, hanging out in the greenhouse whilst I harvest and weed.

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Harry’s made a few visits to the allotment….he hangs out in the greenhouse

The annuals are finished now but the greens and purple beans are still going strong – they are surviving slugs and caterpillars and whitefly and weeds. The massive foliage of the squash patch has died back to reveal a treasure-trove of striped fruits, just in time for Halloween, and the self-seeded nasturtium are threatening to take over completely. All those summer months of prodding and weeding, but it’s taken two months of no intervention for much of the harvest to come good.

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The autumn clean-up has started veeeerrrrry slowly. The sunflowers and cutting flowers have been taken up and that’s about it.

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In the last two months the greens have become a weeded jungle. Mega chard, mega spinach, massive beans.

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And the self-seeded nasturtiums have made the sweetpea netting their own

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Better late than never, we finally have a massive harvest of stick beans

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The squash harvest!

The light is softer now and the air damp. Small trips to the allotment provide a brief respite from the house, thirty minutes of quiet time.

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Browning leaves, soggy days, muddy boots: pictures of autumn

Harvesting: Final tomatoes, chard, spinach, cavolo nero, frills of hex, squash, stick beans, potatoes (thanks Mum & Dad for digging these), chrysanths
Jobs to do: Oh Lord, EVERYTHING needs tidying up.

Life on hold for a bit

For the past fortnight I’ve been meaning to post my recipe for cornbread (using September’s fresh corn, obvs) and could never quite get the energy together. Turns out the reason for this was that I was in early labour: Harry Joseph Foster-Stallard appeared at 11.17pm on Sunday night, a week early and very much in a rush to join the world, with a mere four hours from the first niggles to birth.

Child, mother and father are now trying to get over the shock and find their new normal. Until we get there, here’s a few pictures of the last week BC (before child).

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Cornbread

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Jungle of flowers

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Last summer harvest, I suspect

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The bump

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The biggest harvest of them all… On the way home from hospital

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