Keukenhof, Amsterdam

After a week of chic Amsterdam loft-living, we’re having to get used to living in a Victorian terrace again. We were in town to visit the world-famous Keukenhof garden (about an hour out of the city), but the trip really turned into six days of mainlining carbs, reading, not-being-emailed-constantly and quality time with my man (a novelty as he works all the time).  I booked the flights back in January, when the desire for spring flowers had reached obsessive levels, only to find that by the time the trip rolled around, Britain’s spring had already been in full flow for at least a month…this rather took the edge off the urge for tulip-spotting.

No matter, for I quickly replaced one obsession with another: namely, the art of how to make a perfect Dutch appeltaart.

2017-04-24 14.55.26

Appeltaart at the Rijks Museum

Appeltaart is the dessert of choice for Amsterdammers, and I spent the entire week studying different versions to work out how it’s made. The pastry is cake-like, deeply filled with cinnamon-spiked chunky apple and raisins, and topped with latticework. The apples seem to break down around their edges into a brown-sugary-mass that holds the chunks in place, so there’s a contrast of textures. It’s not particularly sweet, is always served cold in enormously generous wedges and (hilariously) comes with a side of slagroom (whipped cream). If I ever succeed in making a decent version at home I will blog the results.

One other thing to note about Amsterdam is that everyone is dressed like a contemporary art curator. They’re all on bikes, wrapped up in smart tailored wool coats, trainers and thick-rim glasses, off to some glamorous arts job or perhaps simply to a cafe to scoff appeltaart whilst working on their Apple laptops. And I mean everyone – even the kids look cool. The place is spotlessly clean and ordered, except on King’s Day, when the city dresses up in orange, gets leathered on Heineken by 11am and congregates on party boats trailing around the canals with euro-pop and Wham! at full blast. But by 8pm, it is all over and everyone goes home for their tea. In Holland, it seems they like to lose  control in a very controlled fashion.

2017-04-27 16.36.38

Party boats for King’s Day in Amsterdam

Our loft apartment was painted entirely white, overlooked a canal (naturally) and was a short walk from a super-trendy street of independent trendy boutiques and classy food shops. I am sure that not everyone in Amsterdam lives this way, but for the few days we were there, it felt the height of civilisation.

But we were there for the tulips and it is the tulips that I must report back on. The Dutch LOVE tulips and they express their love at the Keukenhof, which is apparently the largest flower garden in the world. It’s only open for two months of the year, from March to May, and is essentially a massive trade show for Holland’s enormous flower industry. The formal beds of spring flowers and indoor pavilions are designed to show off the latest and favourite varieties of tulip, hyacinth and daffodil from individual bulb producers, and they do it with pristine attention to detail; we spotted a gardener placing metal rods into individual hyacinth stems to keep them upright. Imagine repeating that several million times, for that’s what it takes to keep this place looking great for spring flower season.

2007-12-31 23.00.00-2

At the Keukenhof, strips of ornate planting jut up against blocks of colour

2007-12-31 23.00.00-3

Clever geometric design

The geometric ‘designed’ beds are a useful way to highlight individual colours of tulip and I soon picked out a few favourites. The deep, inky-purple shades are dramatic, especially when planted against candy-pinks, but I’m increasingly enamoured by pale yellows, creams and greens.

2007-12-31 23.00.00-7

Darkest purple contrasts with candy pink

2007-12-31 23.00.00-11

Enjoy the soft green merging into pink

2007-12-31 23.00.00-4

These are firecrackers!

The received wisdom for tulips is that you plant a single colour together in blocks, so I was surprised to find a few beds that were a riot of contrasting colours and shapes. And actually, after all the formality in the rest of the gardens, these tutti-frutti beds were a joy.

Matt rather dryly observed that there’s an element of the cruise ship about the Keukenhof and I know what he means – it’s fun, but quite an unreal, artificial creation. Plus it was full of coach parties. Take a peep outside of the fairyland creation and the Dutch landscape gives an insight into what these gardens are all about – marketing the acres-upon-acres of flowers and bulbs that keep the Dutch economy afloat.

2007-12-31 23.00.00-19

Outside, the Dutch landscape is as flat as their ubiquitous pancakes

So I was surprised at how little merchandising there was at Keukenhof…it was difficult to find the name of a variety of tulip and the bulb-shops were tiny. Perhaps maximising visitor-spending is an area of commerce that doesn’t appeal to the Dutch – equally, the cut-flower displays were all a bit ‘plonk them in a vase’, so it seems that floral design is not high on the agenda. (Compare this to, say, Chelsea Flower Show where designs are expected to be cutting-edge and they want to part you from every penny you’ve ever earned). The Dutch are horticulturalists first-and-foremost, and the Keukenhof is a shrine to their preferred artform.

2008-01-01 12.00.05

This is about as artful as the cut flower display got, alas

On a different note, this will be the trip that I’ll remember for when I felt the little monster in my tummy starting to wriggle around for the first time. It is the weirdest thing, like when you drive over a humpback bridge and your stomach takes a few minutes to catch up. I’m 20 weeks, have got an undeniable paunch and remain shocked at how out-of-breath I get from normal physical activity. Four-and-a-half months to go.

The Keukenhof is open from March to May.

I read: Living Danishly by Helen Russell, Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry
We ate: Pasta, pizza, cookies from Stauch, appeltaart, cheese, more pasta, pastries. The Dutch like Italian food and carbs. Matt drank alot of beer.
We watched: National Geographic channel, mostly programmes about plane crashes, Einstein and an American vet

Kent part 2: Sissinghurst and Great Dixter

Perch Hill shares a link with Sissinghurst castle, the home of Vita Sackville West, now managed by the National Trust. The link is familial (Sarah Raven’s husband is the grandson of Sackville West), but also  conceptual: in the Arts and Crafts tradition, Sissinghurst is split into several garden rooms, each planted with painterly swathes of colour.

Sissinghurst was meant to be a place of retreat for Sackville West, somewhere to write and be alone. I wonder what she’d made of the hundreds of thousands of people who today visit this Kent garden, inspired by its romantic heritage and beautiful planting. I also wonder, if Sissinghurst had not been created by an aristocrat known for affairs with women, including Virginia Woolf, would it get the same level of sustained attention? Perhaps not. But this is churlish; Sissinghurst is a wonderful place.

2015-08-02 11.16.06

Sissinghurst, home to Vita Sackville West

The NT go to great efforts to keep the gardens vibrant and in good order. As with so many Arts and Crafts gardens, Sissinghurst suffers from seasonal flowering (a rose will never look good in November), but the planting is so clever that as soon as one thing finishes, another springs into life. Easy to say, difficult to execute.

2015-08-02 11.04.55

Notes from the gardener

2015-08-02 11.05.08

A selection of flowers from the estate

The best view is from the top of the Elizabethan tower. From here, the garden rooms can be seen and understood as a whole: the strictly formal structure is softened by colour-led planting. The structure without the plants would look staid; the plants without the structure would look scruffy. This is the essence of Arts and Crafts gardening, famously championed by Gertrude Jekyll (although she was not involved with the creation of Sissinghurst).

2015-08-02 11.33.22

View from the tower down to the garden rooms

The marriage of two minds made this garden possible. I like the very modern feel of Vita and her husband, the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson – the artistic sensibilities of Vita were tempered by the technical nous of Harold.

2015-08-02 11.28.39

The marriage of formal and free design

It’s easy to forget now that this generation of artist-gardeners were revolutionary. If Jekyll, Sackville West and their like were operating today, their work would be the subject of exhibitions in white-cube galleries and the Daily Mail would huff and puff about the new-fangled way of doing things.

Over at Great Dixter we see the work of a more contemporary revolutionary. Christopher Lloyd met Gertrude Jekyll as a child; she blessed him to continue as a gardener. He turned Great Dixter into a garden of world-wide renown and lived in the Edward Lutyens-designed house his entire life.

2015-08-02 13.01.03

Great Dixter

Don’t expect pretty-pretty gardening here though. Lloyd ripped out the Lutyens rose garden in the 1990s and was reported as saying: “We do not all want to float endlessly among silvers, greys and tender pinks in the gentle nicotiana-laden ambient of a summer’s gloaming. Some prefer a bright, brash midday glare with plenty of stuffing”. His garden rooms are crammed full of plants, colours loud and clashing.

2015-08-02 13.57.35

A great forest of these loomed six foot high

2015-08-02 14.34.17

Close-knit and exuberant

If Sissinghurst is a garden for artists, Dixter is a garden for plants-people. It’s dedicated now to teaching and there’s also a workshop for green woodwork. Incidentally, Kent is full of locally-produced green wood products, from fences to gateposts. Much of it is made from hazel, which is coppiced and fast-growing.

2015-08-02 11.43.39

Hazel grove at Sissinghurst

2015-08-02 13.04.56

Green wood hurdles at Great Dixter

The combination of the artistic eye, structured design, technical ability and working with the landscape: this is the essence of the great Kent gardens.

Kent part 1: Perch Hill

Confession: I have a girl crush. I’ve been ruthlessly marketed to and have fallen like a sucker. In short, I’ve been got by Sarah Raven.

If you’re not aware of Sarah Raven, she’s a writer, broadcaster and gardener who also has a very successful business selling seeds, plants, cookery and gardening classes and a certain kind of lifestyle.

My family do not understand this crush. It’s because they don’t tick the demographic boxes: my Mum’s too good at gardening to fall for all the pretty pictures in the seed catalogue, and the men are, well, men. As someone who works in marketing, I am woefully aware that I’m falling for a clever branding exercise…but nonetheless I’m willing to be seduced.

So we went to Kent to poke around Perch Hill, the public face of Sarah Raven, and whilst there also took a look at those classic gardens, Sissinghurst and Great Dixter.

2015-08-01 12.00.33

Perch Hill, the public-facing garden of Sarah Raven. There’s spaces devoted to veg, herbs, flowers for cutting, plus many opportunities to spend hard-earned cash.

The concept behind Perch Hill makes a huge amount of sense to me. The point is this: grow flowers for cutting (TICK!). Grow veg for eating (TICK!). Grow the two together so that your garden is pretty (TICK!). Cook what you grow (TICK! TICK! TICK!). Grow stuff all year round so there’s always something to eat (I’m still working on that bit).

Perch Hill is made up of lots of smaller garden rooms, devoted to flowers, veg, herbs and so on. I’ve come away with several ideas for next year’s allotmenting.

2015-08-01 12.28.23

The cutting garden is framed by rusted arches

2015-08-01 11.26.01

A classic view of Kent with oast house, tiling and wood

2015-08-01 12.28.11

Grasses break up the flowers in the cutting garden

First idea to pinch: bright sweet peas were grown against firm meshing. On the allotments a lot of people use flimsy net reclaimed from building sites, but this looks smarter and more able to survive a few years of Brummie weather.

2015-08-01 11.01.48

Idea to steal: sweet peas grow in abundance up semi-permanent willow structures fitted with wire mesh

2015-08-01 11.02.32

This planting style looks familiar… bishop’s finger with white cosmos

The flimsy mesh though would be useful in holding up floppy flowers:

2015-08-01 11.02.49

Idea to steal: The cosmos and other tall flowers are grown through mesh to stop them flopping over

In the cutting garden, flowers are grown in blocks through supportive string frameworks. This dahlia caught my eye, a vivid lurid orange.

2015-08-01 11.06.52

Dahlias are out in Kent. This one is called Happy Halloween.

2015-08-01 11.18.20

Idea to steal: Dahlias are grown in blocks through string support. I think this is easier to do than a lot of individual staking.

I have a lot of white flowers this year, which frame the purple lavender, nigella and sweet peas well. Next year I’d like more bright colours, possibly including this extravagant cosmos.

2015-08-01 11.18.40


2015-08-01 11.24.08

Agapanthus give shots of blue colour

2015-08-01 11.55.27

Drifts of lavender line the paths

Over to the veg. There were still baby courgette plants pushing through the soil, and masses of kale and brassicas. Plus a few surprises including quinoa, which I’ve never seen in plant-form before.

2015-08-01 11.13.49

To the veg: we’re growing this variety of onion, but there’s still a way to go before ours get this big

2015-08-01 11.08.12

Cavalo nero envy. Mine are still seedlings, the first sowing have been scoffed by the slug

2015-08-01 11.10.03

This is quinoa! It’s a long flower spike. Who knew?

There’s also a massive greenhouse and converted barn, home to the cookery school and shop. The antiqued vases gave me a mental note to take a look in charity shops for old glass at a fraction of the price.

2015-08-01 11.46.28

2015-08-01 12.24.12

Matt cannot stay away from wood; these massive doors frame the barn.

The crush continues…

7 artists x 7 plates at Grand Union

In my professional life I do a lot with art. In my personal life I do a lot with food. So an event that brings the two together? Hello!

On Friday we wiled away a few hours at Grand Union, the exhibition space and artists’ studios in Digbeth. If you don’t know, Digbeth is where Birmingham’s trendies hang out and it’s also home to the most exciting visual artists in the city. Despite being most definitely NOT a trendy I am lucky enough to work with some of these folks every so often. Friday was a new adventure for Grand Union, an evening of food inspired by the artists who call it home.

2015-06-26 21.04.57

Grand Union, Digbeth

2015-06-26 21.20.59

Birmingham The Magic City…as modelled by Kim, GU’s Associate Curator

GU’s current exhibition by Fay Nicolson does a lot with colour and structure. It inspired the first dish of the evening, a plate called Texture & Colour, with beetroot meringue, needles of spruce and labneh, which is a kind of strained Greek yoghurt.

Beetroot meringue, spruce and labneh

Then is was down to the artists’ studios starting with BAZ. Artist Matt Westbrook makes work inspired by Birmingham, and not just Brum but all the Birminghams around the world. Birmingham Alabama is dubbed The Magic City (the bag so ably modelled by Kim above is his design). So in a plate called The Many Birminghams of the World, we ate food inspired by America’s deep south – crab, succotash, sweetcorn.

2015-06-26 21.38.00

Inside the BAZ studio

Smoked sweetcorn puree, Brixham crab, succotash, black mustard flowers

Elizabeth Rowe creates exquisite collage works from everyday items – in essence, she takes something apart and rebuilds it into something new. In her studio we were presented with Texture, Deconstruction and Reconstruction, a kind of deconstructed fish and chips with vinegar powder.

2015-06-26 21.41.46

Haddock, vinegar powder, seashore herbs, potato & lemon

David Rowan is a landscape photographer, the difference being that all his work takes place underground. Sewers, tunnels, caves…these are the places that David likes to hang out. Into the darkness was served in the dark (there being no light in the sewers), the lack of light only serving to make the taco of venison, sorrel and apple doubly delicious.

2015-06-26 21.53.35

Taco, venison, sorrel, apple, egg yolk

2015-06-26 21.56.56

Work by David Rowan

Onto Juneau Projects, an artist duo with a habit of making playful art. Recently they’ve been working on robotics – we were welcomed to their studio by a chatty robot. Come the Apocalypse looked at what we might the eating once the robots have taken over, with haddock, cauliflower and *ugh* wood ants. I know that they taste of lemon, that a shrimp is just a big insect, but I admit failure and could not bring myself to eat them.

2015-06-26 22.03.15

Cauliflower, milk, smoked haddock, wood ants (yes really), wild pea shoots

Tom and Simon Bloor pay attention to things that other people might miss: the beauty of a discarded drinks can, the form of abandoned bits of architecture. Here we enjoyed The Wasteland, a plate formed of the bits that we might normally chuck out: crispy chicken skin, weeds (which were green and fresh and amazing) and a chicken boudin, traditionally made with the offally pieces of the carcus.

2015-06-26 22.15.16

Chicken boudin, chicken skin, cured yolk, weeds and wastrels with Simon Bloor

Finally we collapsed into Stuart Whipps studio. Stuart is an artist particularly known for his photography. His studio is furnished with reclaimed chairs and tables from Birmingham Central Library (the one that’s about to be knocked down) and given his interest and ongoing championing of Birmingham’s brutalist architecture, dessert was entitled Our deeply flawed past & other celebrations. We went retro with a 99 flake and a plum and custard tart.

2015-06-26 22.30.32

Inside Stuart Whipps’ studio

2015-06-26 22.37.48

Pickled plum and custard tart

Congratulations to Grand Union for pulling it off, and to Nomad and Kitchen School for curating and (more importantly) cooking amazing food in a tiny little space. More please!

More information about Grand Union and the artists based there at

An arts and crafts masterpiece: All Saints Church, Brockhampton

Easter Monday took us to the tiny village of Brockhampton, close to the River Wye. We were in search of arts and crafts (the William Morris type) and one place in particular, the extraordinary church of All Saints.

2015-04-06 12.03.27

All Saints’ Church, Brockhampton, Herefordshire

This church is nestled so easily into its landscape that it looks hundreds of years old. In reality, it was completed in 1902 and is one of the most dramatic surviving examples of arts and crafts architecture. It’s possible that my great-grandfather, a baker who lived a few miles down the lane, saw it being built. I like this idea very much.

All Saints’ Church was the work of architect and clerk-of-works William Lethaby, disciple of William Morris and a lifelong socialist. He was also deeply involved in the creation of the Central School of Arts and Crafts (later to be known as Central St Martins) as well as Professor of Design as the Royal College of Art and Surveyor to Westminster Abbey.

The church was built according to the principles of the arts and crafts movement, with free expressions of craftsmanship encouraged. There appears to have been an element of letting the building find its own form as it was being built, which for the artist-craftsman is a hugely gratifying way of working. On the other hand, it is easy to understand why Alice Foster, the commissioner, got a little, shall we say, ‘frustrated’ with the approach. Accounts from the time indicate that it was not a happy build and indeed it was to be Lethaby’s last active role as an architect.

2015-04-06 12.05.05

Easter flowers

Despite the challenging build, it’s an extraordinary place. Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, named it “one of the most convincing and impressive churches of its date in any country”. In other words, the church takes its visual cues from medieval forms, techniques and craftsmanship, but also takes full advantage of materials available at the turn of the twentieth century. It looks old…but it isn’t. The interior is formed of a concrete vaulted roof, lime washed to give a serene light-filled space.

2015-04-06 12.11.48

View down the nave

As it was Easter, the font and nave were brimming with green, gold and yellow flowers; daffodil, gorse and pussy-willow. Brockhampton has a tiny population yet it cares enough about its church to put on a stunning floral display, gratifying to witness.

On the wall is a hand-embroidered altar cloth, donated to the church by an anonymous stitcher in the 1950s, depicting flowers and plants found in the fields and hedgerows of the parish. The same woman (and I am presuming that she was a woman) also wrote a book filled with folk-knowledge of these plants. She did not wish her identity to be known and I suspect never considered herself to be an artist. But to me, this level of skill is as great as that of the male craftsmen who built the church in the first place.

2015-04-06 12.23.09

The hand-embroidered altar cloth. Artist unknown.

The churchyard is immaculate and on Easter Monday was filled with insects, blossom and the inconsiderate squawking of nearby pheasants.

2015-04-06 12.26.09

April blossom

Places like this are so easy to overlook. We see church architecture all over the place, in every village, in every town, and perhaps don’t appreciate the extraordinary cultural heritage on our doorsteps. Other people do – there is an exact replica of All Saints’ Church in Osaka, Japan, popular for weddings. If you get the chance to visit Brockhampton, do.