Golden days on windswept beaches

No words this week, just Cornwall honeymooning lovely-ness.

Actually I will add some words, as follows:

Eating and Cooking: An array of small plates at Prawn on the Lawn in Padstow including deep-fried oysters with garlic creme fraiche, and a lovely glass of Prosecco (am not normally keen). Plus over the course of the week also worked our way through two crabs, a steak and oyster pie (home-made), Buttermilk fudge, mussels at The Beach Hut at Watergate Bay, crab sandwiches and a pasty at the National Trust Cafe at Bedruthan, and a return visit for a cream tea, plus chips, more pasties, really good bread and a memorable viennese finger from the bakery in Polperro.

Reading: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, a favourite holiday read, plus Inviting Silence by Grunella Norris. Ordered a load of cookbooks to reinvigorate my home cooking, including PoTL Fish and Shellfish to Share, River Cottage Family Cookbook and Jamie Oliver’s Superfood Family Classics. Also ordered Real Gardens by Adam Frost, for some outdoorsing inspiration.

Wedding flowers and wedding cake(s)

September began with parties and ended with a wedding! After a summer of growing, my cut flowers were OK (nothing special) but thankfully, I had a squad of growers watching my back. Step forward my Mum and Cousin Sue, who between them grew an entire FARM of blooms for our wedding displays. When I asked Sue to help out, back in April, I thought we’d have some pretty flowers that would be just fine, but what we ended up with was better than some professional florestry I’ve seen. I love that our wedding gave an opportunity for creative friends and family to shine.

Sue’s flowers, picked and conditioned, ready for transport

My offerings – not as impressive but still some colour and variety

Together with my Mum, Sue made up some incredible displays for tables and plinths, all using home-grown stems. Plus she made beautiful bouquets for myself and my two nieces, and some seriously impressive buttonhole work. Note the use of hops and clematis seed heads for a bit of country chic.

Sue fashioned the botton holes and bouquets

These exquisite displays were put together by Sue and my Mum

More table decorations

After the wedding the vases made a welcome addition to my back garden

If someone is thinking of doing their own wedding flowers I would say do it…but only if you have a talented team to do all the work. If I was arranging flowers at the same time as making sure the bar was in order and the caterers were OK and having my hair and make-up done, I would have collapsed in a heap. So all respect to Sue and my Mum for their extraordinary skills – I don’t use those words lightly; I couldn’t have asked for more on the floral front.

As someone who has never wanted a big wedding, let alone a bit formal wedding (ugh), it was important to me that we included as much of our normal life into the day as possible. Normal life in Bearwood means regular trips to Chandigarh sweet centre for samosa – THE best samosa in the region – and it gave us great joy to pile 300 onto MDF boards for after-ceremony snacks. 

The best samosa this side of the Punjab

My favourite picture of the day

Normal life also meant Matt messing about with massive bits of wood – this time by sticking our heads onto temporary exhibition walls – and me organising this event like any other work event that I’ve ever been involved in (cue production schedule, production budget, and various bits of tech).

Tres amusement

I digress. The other noteworthy creative skills were from our bakers, and in particular Helen Annetts (my work sister) with her epic allotment cake. I didn’t want a regular wedding cake so Helen “volunteered” to have a go at making a novelty cake – as it turned out, a brilliant centre piece to our table of cakes, generously brought along by our guests for the best pot-luck dessert table I’ve ever seen.

A room devoted to cake

Helen Annett’s allotment cake

Why have one cake when you can have 30?

So now we’re holed up in a farmhouse in Cornwall, looking forward to life getting back to normal and introducing Harry to the joy of October beaches and cream teas.

Birthday cake

I am slowly getting used to the fact that summer has gone. I know we were all whinging about the heat but when the weather broke at end of July, I presumed it would be just a short break before normal 30c service resumed. It was not to be and now we’re in mid-September, wearing long trousers and socks (SOCKS!) and the heating has even been on for a few hours. Both the allotment and the back garden have got a bit shaggy and could do with a back-to-school tidy up. This may have to wait until October.

Sunflowers are nearing being out of my reach

The hops tower over everything

They’ve even infiltrated the sweet pea poles

The season’s shift means that new produce sits alongside the summer hangers-on. I stocked up with pears and apples at Clives the other week, and the freezer is now re-filled with my Mum’s excellent corn on the cob. The autumn raspberries have been brilliantly productive this year – got two big freezer bags of those – and the fridge is stuffed with beets, peppers, cavolo nero, courgettes (still) and beans (still). And the tomatoes! So many tomatoes – despite the fact that 50% of the plants totally failed.

Apple and pear season is here

Dad’s [smug] basket of produce

But onto more pressing matters. Harry is 1! 1! We have kept a human alive for a year with sanity (just about) intact, bank account (just about) intact and relationship intact (getting hitched so looks OK).

Harry is 1!

Birthday balloons

I made a rib roast as a special treat

Everyone knows the crazy lengths people go to now to make their children’s birthday cake. Google ‘1st birthday cake’ and you will see thousands of glorious bakes, each one suspiciously perfect and indicating to me that a nervous breakdown took place behind the scenes. And they’re all covered with sugar paste, which is (in my opinion) so disgusting and stupid expensive. Bugger that. So Harry’s birthday cake involved four things:

  1. Cake
  2. Buttercream
  3. Sweets
  4. Candles

The birthday cake

I went for a tray bake, as it’s easier to decorate and actually is also easier to cut up for a crowd. This one is surprisingly dense and chocolatey, so it keeps adults happy as well as the kids. I upped the quantities from the original recipe so that I could bake the cake in our massive roasting dish; use whichever quantities are right for your baking tray.

Easy to make, easy to bake, easy to slice. Sorted.

Birthday Cake
From Signe Johansen’s Scandilicious Baking

The first quantities are for a 20x30cm tray. Quantities in (brackets) are suitable for a 35x25cm tray.

5 (8) eggs (I always use large)
250g (375g) light brown muscavado sugar
75g (115g) dark chocolate
150g (225g) unsalted butter, melted
50g (75g) cocoa powder
60ml (90ml) strong coffee
100g (150g) creme fraiche (full fat)
3tbsp (5tbsp) milk
200g (300g) self-raising flour
tiny pinch fine salt

Icing:
150g (225g) unsalted butter
3tbsp (6 tbsp) cocoa powder
150g (225g) icing sugar
Squirt of vanilla paste or splash of vanilla extract
Milk to loosen
Sweets, chocolate and candles, to decorate

Preheat the oven to 170c and line your tin with baking parchment.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a bowl set over simmering water, then leave to cool.

Sift the cocoa into a bowl, add the coffee and mix to a paste. Stir in the creme fruit and milk, to make a smooth mixture (it may need a quick whisk to get rid of lumps).

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar until you reach the ribbon stage – this may take in excess of 10 minutes. Use a hand-held mixer or table-top mixer.

Pour the chocolate mix into the side of the eggs, and whisk to combine. Do the same with the cocoa mixture. Finally, sift the flour in top with a tiny pinch of salt and fold in, using large metal spoon – you may want to do this in batches. Mix carefully until fully combined, keeping as much air in the batter as you can. Pour into the tray and bake for 25-30 minutes, until firm. Leave to cool completely before decorating.

To make the icing, soften the butter in the microwave for 10 seconds or until beatable. Using a hand-held whisk, beat the butter then sift in the icing sugar and cocoa – it will make a massive mess alas – and continue to whisk the hell out of it until smooth and fluffy. Add a splash of milk at this stage to make the icing softer (but don’t add it any earlier as you risk the lot splitting).

When ready, use a palette knife to spread the icing over the cake, then decorate as you see fit!

Harry’s tips for happiness

Mummy bloggers abound at the moment and whilst I certainly am not wanting to join their  number, I can’t ignore that Harry has made his presence known in all areas of our life and it would be churlish not to record it. Some of this I could have foreseen – a supermarket shop never used to be so challenging before child – and some I hadn’t anticipated at all. Life has slowed down (despite still being very busy) and every day brings a new change, a new way of being as he becomes an actual new being. He turned nine months old yesterday and the metamorphoses from squealing, grumpy newborn to giggling, wriggling, grinning child is remarkable.

Smiley baby

People always comment to me how happy Harry is and it’s true, most of the time he has a massive smile on his face and is delighted with the world about him. I think there are lessons to be learnt here: as adults we over-complicate everything but the babies have got it sussed. And so here are Harry’s top 5 tips for contentedness:

1. Know when and where your next meal is coming from (and make it reasonably tasty & healthy)
Solid food is the best thing that ever happened to Harry. As long as he’s got three meals a day, plus two snacks and an evening bottle, he’s sorted. A late meal = misery. So Grown Ups, remember to eat your weetabix, make time for healthy snacks, and make sure you have a proper dinner. You will feel better about life, I promise.

2. Live in the moment
This one has fascinated me. Harry can stub his toe, or get fingers stuck in a drawer, and as soon as the immediate issue has been resolved – i.e. fingers have been freed – the wailing stops and he moves on to his next exploration. What a gift this is. Grown Ups: Let go of all the bad things that have happened to you; forget what should be or could be. Let it all go. Live in the moment and enjoy the freedom.

3. Live with curiosity
Every new room, place, toy, animal, mixing bowl, spoon, phone, etc etc, is a thing of wonder. Fingers are in drawers, arms are in flower beds, exploring this new and wondrous world we live in. Grown Ups: don’t forget to live with curiosity about the world around you. There is no such thing as boredom.

4. Get plenty of sleep
Ideally 13 hours plus three daytime cat naps. Grown Ups: Wouldn’t life just be better if we got more kip?

5. Expect everyone to be your friend
Harry meets everyone he meets, and I mean EVERYONE, with a massive massive smile. And unsurprisingly they all smile back. He expects people to be his friend and as a result they’re unfailingly nice to him. Grown Ups: a smile and a friendly attitude goes a long way in getting what you want in life.

So there we go. I’ve had 16 years of formal education, 16 years of professional development, 13 years of yoga, and here is a 9 month old baby with everything to teach. Never stop learning folks.

Yoga baby

Also this week:

Allotment: All the cut flowers are now planted out; we have a plantation of cosmos, sunflowers, sweet williams, dahlia, chrysanths, borage, cleome, zinnia and sweet peas. They’re all later than normal which is no bad thing, given that we’re after September wedding flowers. Without wanting to tempt fate, I think this year the allotment looks the most promising that it’s ever looked.

Harvesting: Lettuce, oregano, chives, strawberries, sweet william, lavender

Cooking: BBQ beef ribs, lots of salads with fake feta from the Halal shop, peaches and strawberries with yoghurt, pecan brownies, baby dal with spinach and coconut.

The sweet williams are now marvellous and smell divine

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Back to life

Now that it’s sunny and WARM, it feels as if the entire world has sprung back to life. Lightwoods Park is teeming with families at the weekends, the tinkling ice cream van decorates the streets and the back garden is lush green and dappled with light. After such a hard winter – particularly so with a newborn – I drink in the spring. It’s time for a party! We had a welcome-to-the-family gathering for Harry, which was a good excuse to make a huge party cake and bake a batch of Matt’s favourite sausage rolls.

Party fridge!

Party buffet!

Party boy!

Outside, we’ve been blessed with a few weeks of balmy blue skies. The trees have exploded into blossom, a few days of hot sun encouraging their expansion to fullness. On the allotment, the lilac has grown to encompass our shed and I pick an armful of purple heads for the vase – I know they won’t last, but they are too pretty and too abundant to ignore.

Finally, blue skies and blossom

Perfumed lilac overhanging the shed

An armful of lilac, honesty and wild carrot

Matt’s calmed down a little on the work front so this, coupled with the long sunny days, means we’ve found time for some remedial allotmenting. This weekend I amused myself pulling rhubarb and planting out chard whilst Matt saw to his hops and – fanfare – the hopolisk has risen again! The hop shoots are romping up the string, fat with vigour.

First picking of rhubarb

Hops on 1 May…

…and on 12 May with the hopolisk now erected

Matt’s also had fun erecting the bean poles. Every year I watch Monty Don faff around with his wigwam set-up and I wonder what he’s messing at – why have a wigwam when you can have a top-strengthened line of hazel, complete with geometric shadows?! Happily the cold winter seems to have kept the slug population in check so, unlike last year, I’m pretty confident of growing some healthy plants this summer.

Bean and sweet pea sticks in place

Art shadow

There are more jobs to be done – the cut flower patch still needs digging and manuring – but with the long days, warm air and (best of all) a baby who is currently sleeping 12 hours a night, these feel more like a pleasure than a chore.

Also on the allotment
Sowing: Winter squash
Potting on: Cleome
Hardening off: Zinnia, borage, sunflowers, courgette, second sowing of sweet peas, rudbeckia
Planting out:
Sweet peas, runner beans, French beans, borlotti, chard
Also: Netted redcurrants, hopolisk is up, ‘cage’ for brassicas and leaves in place

Cooking: Party cake with strawberries, mascarpone & chocolate fingers, sausage rolls, chocolate sorbet, redcurrant tea bread, a lot of summery Middle Eastern-style baked chicken, salads & flat breads, daal and squished fruits for Harry

Reading: The Vintage Tea Party by Angel Adoree. I love her and have spent actual money on a vintage-style hair band and kimonos. Alas the skill to style my hair into 1940s ‘victory rolls’ eludes me.

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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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

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