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


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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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.