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

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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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

Doughnuts, cheese straws and the lingering smell of baking bread

I’ve written before about my time working at Cooks Bakery in Upton Upon Severn, and I return to the theme now in reflective mood. Cooks was owned and run for years by the Russell family, by Dad/Chief Baker Aubrey (known as Russ) and Mum/Boss Sue, with help at various points from their children – Louise, Sally and Sam. Sally is one of my oldest and closest friends; we go way back, she knows about misdemeanours in San Diego youth hostels, dodgy tummies in Barcelona and God knows what else.

Russ died on 9 February, aged 69, from cancer.

Now this of course is a profound and private sadness for the family, but Russ’s passing will have touched many other people besides. For the past fortnight I’ve been struck by genuine, heartfelt grief for my friend, the first of our group to lose a parent. It’s a generational shift and it makes the ground feel rocky underfoot.

At Russ’s funeral Sally’s husband Paul gave a quite brilliant tribute to his father-in-law, a speech touched with humour and generosity. So in this spirit, I now want to call to mind Russ as I knew him, one of a small breed of old-fashioned craft bakers, who got up everyday at the crack of dawn in order to turn out tin loaves, bloomers, doughnuts and Belgian buns for the townsfolk of Upton.

The front of Cooks was the shop area, where the assistants like me served customers and practiced our mental arithmetic as we added up the cost of three jam tarts, one French stick and two Cornish pasties (there was no automated till, just pen and paper. For someone who is interested in maths but not great at adding up, this was both useful and challenging).

But the interesting bit was at the back, where the bakers worked. Here, floor-to-ceiling ovens engulfed the space, surrounded by giant mixing machines, sacks of flour, massive wooden trays and hundreds of bread tins, including the original embossed Hovis ones. (Incidentally, Matt bought me a vintage Hovis bread tin back in the early days; I knew then he was a good’un).

Russ and the other bakers started work at stupid-o-clock and so I never really watched them do their thing –  but oh! I was itching to. How much more interesting to make doughnuts rather than sell them!

And doughnuts must surely be Russ’ legacy. His were huge. HUGE. Properly round, deeply golden, caked in sugar and filled with gloopy jam that dripped onto your lap as you took a bite. But then I also liked the apple & almond slice…and Sally was keen on the cheese straws…and the bread pudding took some beating. Remarkably, it was best either straight out of the oven or after it had been lying around for a few days.

By the end of the day my hair, clothes and skin would be impregnated with the smell of baking and, if I was lucky, there would be a few goodies to take home for a treat.

These days the traditional village bakery, whilst not fully extinct, is not the commonplace thing that it was. What am I saying – back in the 1990s Cooks was already unusual. Now we live in an age of Greggs with their sell-it-cheap-pile-it-high approach or at the other extreme, trendy bakeries with their 48 hour sourdough and highly technical creations.

So the skills I saw at play at Cooks were an insight into a time-honoured, and deeply British, food culture. I genuinely believe that I wouldn’t be the cook I am today had I not worked at Cooks and been so deeply immersed in traditional British baking. For this I thank Russ, and Sue for giving me the job in the first place. It sounds a small thing, but for me, it was life-changing.

So Russ, or Mr Russell as I would call him, your memory will live on in ways that I am sure you never expected. Go well, wherever you are.

The Russell family are collecting for Cancer Research UK and the RNLI in memory of Russ. To donate, visit www.justgiving.com/teams/AubreyRussell

Message to Australia

Wishing season’s greetings to all, particularly to my brother Stu spending Christmas / the turning of the year / the solstice in the summer heat of Australia, and to Rob, Anu, Hemani and Oliver who are in Argentina.

A Worcestershire Christmas in pictures:

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2014-12-24 15.56.27The wishes of the Metta Bhavana sum it up so well:

May you be filled with loving kindness

May you be well

May you be peaceful and at ease

May you be happy and live in joy.

Indian summer

After the dismal August, the weather has got all perky. As I write I’m considering putting my shades on just to see the laptop as sunlight streams in onto the kitchen table. Gertie kitten is sprawled out in front of me, between chest and keyboard, absorbing the rays. I love an Indian summer, it suits the English psyche. You get sunshine and a bit of warmth, but not too much, not enough to prevent the baking of bread or the eating of gravy.

The cold August / hot September is having repercussions though. Some of the tomatoes are rotting on the vine, I think killed off by the late summer chills. And news from the Shire tells me that the sloes are already going over – these that traditionally aren’t even picked until after the first frost! A Christmas of purple gin drinking is threatened.

I think the Shire is about a month ahead of Birmingham. I still have ripening borlotti beans and corns whilst my Mother’s been picking hers for about a month. Their spring started earlier of course, and most of the harvest is going over now. But not all.

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Mother’s epic peppers


Remember those sea-monster/crook neck squash we were offered the other week? Well, I took a look at the vine. This is a 12 foot wall. That is one epic plant.

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Squash plant / jungle monster

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Crook neck squash

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These are kinda fun

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The Viburnem in full glory


As ever, I’m sent home with a car full of food. Their tomatoes have already been roasted and sieved into passata, and the chillies will become sweet chilli sauce. But you know, the weekend’s picking from our allotment is pretty outstanding too. The raspberries just keep on coming. We’ve had the last of the beans now but the tomatoes are fat, soft and fragrant. Season’s pickings.

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Mother’s September harvest

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My September basket

A question of squash

My folks came to visit yesterday. At this time of year that means a basket of goodies. I noted that the tomatoes, summer squash, courgette, corn, beans and chilli all hail from South America, looted by the Europeans and brought back to revolutionise our cooking. Centuries of history in one basket.

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Mother’s basket of goodies

The harvest gift is not just a kind gesture of course, it’s a way of off-loading stuff that they aren’t going to eat. But surely this must be the ultimate off-load: monumental crook-neck squash that had self-seeded and grown up the wall, and lost their crook to become almost as tall as me (almost).

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crookneck squash

If I were Indian or Malay or Mexican or some such, I am sure that squash would hold no fear. I am none of these things; a squash can sit unloved for months in my kitchen whilst I wonder what to do with it. Therefore the only thing for it is to get out the permanent marker and make… sea-monsters.

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Sea monsters at home on the veg rack

Endless amusement for months.

Malvern Water

Not been getting much cooking done of late due to the new addition to the family.

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Hello world!


Gertie has been dragged from her rural idyll on our friend’s farm in Buckinghamshire to live on the mean(ish) streets of Edgbaston. She is a 7 week old jumpy, scratchy, inquisitive bundle of fur fun.

Yesterday I had to go to Malvern and whilst there, the done thing is to stock up on spring water. Non-Malvernites tend to not understand this: it literally means collecting water from the hills, from one of the 20-odd springs dotted around. I go to Evendine lane, as did this chap with his demi-johns. That’s a lot of beer he’s going to be making.

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Malvern Water is the best there is. Tap water, particularly in Birmingham, tastes disgusting. This is pure and tastes of…nothing. I was asked at a wedding once if it’s true that I only drink Malvern Water. The answer is yes my friend, it is true and I don’t apologise for it.

Neither am I the only one. Collecting water is a Thing here and people have their own ways of making it easier. It’s not uncommon to see bits of drainpipe used to channel water, or massive great containers that are too heavy for one person to lift.

If you know this country, you could be dropped here blindfold and still know where you are. It’s the smell of the ferns. At this time of year, the Hills are alive with the scent of ferns. The autumn cyclamen are in bloom in Malvern – another sign of season’s change. No matter where I go in the world, this land will always be home.

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Black clouds over Clee Hill

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North towards Jubilee Hill

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South towards British Camp

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Ferns and wild flowers