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

June in Cornwall

Perhaps the best place to escape election overkill is the Cornish coast. The place we stay at Mawgan Porth has zero phone reception, and watching the motion of the sea is far more compelling than watching the telly. There’s still the email of course (that’s the lot of the self-employed, we can never truly be away from our businesses) and I wish we had two weeks instead of four days (due to work issues I came down a day later than planned, and Matt two days later), but always here there is warm air, salt-licked skin, good food, and a sense (albeit brief) of lightening.

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A massive colony of mussels is growing on Mawgan Porth beach

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Bit of rock scrambling is a Cornish must

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Wind swept!

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I love these dramatic spiky plants, reaching well over 8 foot in height

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Wild roses give shots of colour to hedgerows

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The feedback comments at Tate St Ives are very amusing. (The art wasn’t crap, but this person needed a little more help to appreciate it I think)

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Buddha keeps watch over Green Ocean cottage

Ate: A oddly-bitter tasting crab from Rick Stein’s, cream teas, Matt’s guacamole, pasties, ice-cream, fudge, curry at the pub
Visited: Bedruthen Steps National Trust cafe (twice), Padstow chippy, Leach Pottery, Tate St Ives, St Eval Candle Company, Bedruthen Steps hotel spa
Read/watched: Frenchman’s Creek, Springwatch, election stuff, sodding email

May flowers near a Cornish beach

I’m writing from Green Ocean, our home-from-home, a holiday let overlooking the sea in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall. Outside is a cacophony of bird-song as crows, blackbirds, gulls and others besides try to outdo each other in the pink evening light. The outgoing tide has left a silver sheen on the sand and the sky is streaked with violet and orange. It is the first week of May and we are held in the very cup of the year; the natural world is undeniably awake.

Time then for that traditional festival marking the end of winter and the start of summer, the May Day holiday. On Monday, despite the drizzle and chill, Padstonians celebrated with their traditional Oss dance and the town was bedecked with flags, flowers and lots and lots of visitors.

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Padstow on May Day

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The Padstow maypole, decked with flowers, marks the start of summer

Within a few steps of Green Ocean there is the sea, an ever-moving landscape that draws one back to the present. We’re both working on this ‘holiday’ and I react to it badly, feeling work’s grip even on supposed down time. How good then to look up and see the sea, the birds and the wildflowers and be reminded that life is what happens away from the computer.

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Mawgan Porth

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Wind-sculpted sand

The Cornish roadsides and cliff-tops are awash with wild flowers. Some, like the primroses and daffodils, are the hangers-on from our late spring. Others, like the dog violets, dead-nettles, buttercups and bluebells, mark the start of summer. I love their presence and it reminds me how much I miss, living in the city.

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Primroses are still in bloom

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North Cornwall roadsides are awash with white bluebells

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Bluebells turn the cliff sides into a wash of colour

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Blossom like tiny delicate spikes

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Can anyone name this? Have spent twenty minutes on Google and am none the wiser

May flowers near a Cornish beach, one of life’s simple pleasures.

Arrivederci Amalfi part two: Growing

Back to Amalfi we go. There are a few things to bear in mind about this mountainous, coastal part of Italy. 1; There’s not a lot of industry and therefore not much money swilling around. 2; It takes hours to get anywhere; that’s the joy of mountains. 3; It’s surprisingly densely populated, with villages clinging to the cliffs.

What do you do if you live in a place such as this? Well you grow all your own food of course. It’s not a lifestyle choice as it is in the UK, it’s just obvious. It’s been obvious for centuries. In Pompeii, archaeologists have replanted fields of vines using ancient Roman planting schemes and they looks exactly the same as any vines you’d see these days, 2000 years later.

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Pillars at Pompeii. Archaeologists have replanted vines here based on the original layout.

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Archaeology for the masses. Photo of people taking photos at Pompeii.

Some things are different now though. The Romans would not have had tomatoes, courgette, potatoes, corn or chillies, all of which came to Europe from South America in the 16th century or thereabouts. In Agerola, the cluster of cliffside villages where we stayed, every property was surrounded by rows upon rows of tomatoes. I can only imagine the industrial efforts required into turning this lot into passata for the winter.

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Tomatoes on the agriturismo, a crop that was of course not known to the Romans. Here they are grown between two strings to support the growing vine.

As well as the ubiquitous tomatoes, everyone grows grapes, potato, maize, beans and fruit of some description.

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Grapes are grown across trellis made from local chestnut wood. There are three benefits: the vine can spread as it will, the grapes can drop down for easy pickings (and to reduce the risk of mildew) and the leaves provide canopy shade for whatever grows below. Ingenious.

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Fruit is everywhere. As well as peaches, apricots, strawberries and pears, we spied these mulberries.

Further down the cliff is where the famous Amalfi lemons are found. Their renown is justified: these are the biggest, narliest, most fragrant citrus you are likely to find.

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The famous Amalfi lemons are grown on steep terraced banks, often covered with netting to protect from strong winds.

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Or maybe the nets are just to deter thieving tourists!

Up in the mountains, the air is scented with herbs: sage, mint, rocket and most of all, oregano.

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In Provence they have the wild thyme and rosemary of the garrigue… In Campagnia, they have wild rocket, oregano, sage and mint.

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Despite the heat, the wildflowers are not dissimilar to those found in an English June summer. I found these on Capri.

We ended the trip with the Walk of the Gods, a cliff-side trek that descends 600m from a country village to the seaside resort of Positano.

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End of the road

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Path of the Gods, a fitting climax for any birthday.

Arrivederci Amalfi part one: Food

We escaped! After spending most of the last 6 weeks running around, vaguely crazed, sorting work projects, Matt and I hopped over to Italy for a week. The reason was my birthday (am now 35); the official activity was walking the Amalfi coastline (which we did and I have a purple toe to prove it). But really, it was all about the food. And the growing of the food.

I’ve been to Italy a number of times and never really understood the fuss about Cucina Italia. I now know where I’ve been going wrong: I have never before stayed on a farm. If you want real cooking, get a country person to do it.

I say a farm: we actually stayed in the agriturismo Luna D’Agerola in the little village of San Lazzaro, which is kind of like a souped-up B&B, except  that rules dictate that they have to grow their own produce. It turns out that in Amalfi, everyone grows their own produce. Despite clinging to vertiginous cliff sides, each house is surrounded by rows upon rows of tomato, corn, courgette, beans, vines and, of course, lemons. With produce this generous, good food is guaranteed.

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A little photo opportunity in Ravello

We start the day with breakfast cake. Each morning, Giovanna offered up an enormous platter of goodness, filled with the lightest of sponges or, if we were lucky, little palm-sized pastries filled with custard or pear.

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Breakfast cake. The lightest of sponge is topped with wafer thin apple, with a few raisins thrown into the mix

After walking up a mountain in the heat, a little refreshment is needed. It’s Italy, so this means gelato.

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Overpriced Amalfi gelato

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Cassata gelato, studded with candied fruits and pistachio

Another option was granita, which was on offer in pretty much every bar and cafe. This one was made with those gorgeous Amalfi lemons but there was also coffee, melon, peach, apricot, strawberry, orange… You could even get it in your cocktail if you so chose.

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Refreshing lemon granita, made with those amazing Amalfi lemons

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Lunchtime bellini anyone?

And then the pastries. The Italians do ALOT with pastry, far more than I ever realised. We tried sturdy cannoli, filled with ricotta and custard, washed down with the obligatory aperol spritz. (Nb I am certain an Italian would find this combination outrageous.)

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Mid-afternoon aperol spritz and cannoli

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Exquisite pastry stuffed with lemon scented frangipane

And for dinner. Every meal at the agriturismo began with the primo (a plate of pasta  with tomato or pesto) followed by the secondo (meat or fish with a side of beautifully dressed grilled vegetables). The veggies-on-the-side option was there to please the English, I think, as usually they would be offered as a separate course. To finish, more cake or fruit. But occasionally we went off piste:

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Arancini, rice balls stuffed with specs of salami and gooey cheese

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Pizza perfecto: No tomato, just cheese, fennel-scented sausage and cima di rapa

Next door to Giovanna and Guiseppe’s agriturismo is one run by Pasquale, Guiseppe’s brother. Obviously they too produce enormous quantities of their own food. In the cellar, home-made salami and pancetta hang amongst jars of passata, laid down year on year to see the family over the winter months.

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Perfect passata store at the agriturismo

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Four generations of sons have worked on the vines. Their mural adorns the cellar where the wines are stored.

There, we were treated to a meal that will forever be known as Feast Night. After nibbling that salami there came a platter of antipasti, all home-made or home-grown, with the sweetest whispers of ham and garlicky grilled vegetables. Plus pizza fritta, little rounds of dough deep-fried then topped with passata and parmesan.

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Antipasti spread at the agriturismo. With the exception of the mozzarella (which will have come from just down the road), everything here is homegrown or homemade.

Next, plates of grilled chicken and pork alongside mounds of mash stuffed with mozzarella. Watermelon to refresh the palate, then the thickest, richest tiramisu one could ask for. It was washed down with bottles of their own white and red wine (the red served chilled) then shots of limoncello and blackberry liquor.

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The thickest, punchiest tiramisu

A birthday can not pass without a cake. This tiramisu gateau will do *I suppose*.

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Fa la la! It’s my birthday! Cake to feed 20.

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The sponge is soaked in coffee, filled with coffee cream and topped with more cream.

All this amazing food is possible because of the age-old agricultural habits in this part of Campagnia. More about that in the next post.

Luna D’Agerola: www.lunadagerola.it/english.htm

Water water everywhere nor any drop to drink

‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well.’ Virginia Woolf

‘Water water everywhere nor any drop to drink.’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

We’ve both been busy and as a result, it’s been a Bad Food Week:

Tuesday night noodles went into the bin on the discovery that the fish sauce I’d used was rank with old age, a taste that may well haunt me for some weeks.

Pasta with tomato sauce fished out the freezer tasted mouldy and old, not a patch on those fresh summer dinners from just a few weeks back.

Last night I worked late and came home to discover that Matt had cooked himself a pizza and left me diddly squat, nada, zilch. Dinner was readymade custard with sliced banana – which actually is brilliant, just perhaps lacking in some major vitamins and minerals.

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Winter stockpiling

The countryside has been shrouded in low mist for the past few days. A weekend walk on the Malvern Hills looked like this:

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Worcester Beacon

Although it’s not properly cold yet, the shift to mist and darkness has finally set the trees on their golden turn. Driving back from Stratford to Birmingham this afternoon, the fields stretched before me in monochrome tones, dotted with sheep, the sun hanging low in the sky. We’re moving from autumn to winter: I’ve seen flocks of geese and turkeys being fattened for the Christmas roast.

But we’re not quite there yet. So at this time of year, my thoughts turn to game. With so many shoots around, it’s time to stock up the freezer – game found at this time of year will still be relatively young but leave it until February and March and the meat will be that little bit older and tougher.

I suppose I could buy my game from the supermarket, but why would I when I live an hour from Ludlow, the foodie hotspot of England? We get to have a day out, eat excellent pie and chips in a proper pub, browse in a proper book shop and support small family businesses to boot.

So off we went, and my favourite Ludlow game butcher looked like this:

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Ludlow butcher

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Pheasants!

We came back with a brace of pheasants, a fantastic rolled loin of local venison, two rabbits (a bargain at £3 each) plus sausages, a beef shank and various squeaky-fresh veg. If only all shopping could be so satisfying. The freezer is full.

Then on arriving home – laden with cheese from the market – Matt was given a selection of cuts from the World Cheese Awards, where a girlfriend-of-a-friend had been working. The fridge is now laden with manchego, gruyere, an unidentified sheep cheese, another unidentified cheese with a port-washed rind, plus taleggio, stinky cheddar, lancashire, you name it.

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Goodies from the World Cheese Awards

I am not entirely sure what I will do with this cheese mountain, but it does mean that there is no need to do any more shopping for days. Wonderful.

Black Country Allotment Society

I’ve been aware of circadian rhythms this past week. Given that it’s suddenly now dark before 5pm (precisely when did this happen?), all the summer routines are gone, forgotten. Dinner is early. Waking up is late. I’m getting through tealights so quickly we’ll have to do a special trip to Ikea to stock up. Hell, I’ve even been craving sprouts (but only if they’re roasted. That’s the key to a good sprout).

So there’s not been much allotmenting, just a lot of….sitting. I am good at sitting, it’s all that yoga (i.e. to relax is not lazy, but essential if one is to feel part of the wider universe. Got to love those yogis). But if one is going to be in hibernation from November to March, some decent reading material is needed.

Happily, the postman brought such an item the other week, a brown box filled with beautifully presented essays and musings on the allotments of the Black Country. It’s the work of Susie Parr, a writer who has been working with Multistory, a community arts organisation based over in West Brom.

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The box of delights

Susie spent two years popping in and out of Black Country allotments, making friends with the tenants, researching the history of allotments and, by the sounds of it, getting completely lost driving around Sandwell (easily done).

She discovered a rich cast of characters on her travels. I particularly enjoyed reading about Alison, who I think must be in her 60s. Alison never chucks anything away. Yoghurt pots become seedling nurseries, an old bucket serves as an amplifier for the radio, and she makes her own storage heaters though, frustratingly, I am not told how.

Alison uses a pencil to punch marks into used tin cans, making every-weather plant labels. On one label, she has engraved a poem:

The kiss of the sun for pardon

The song of the bird for mirth

One is closer to God in the garden

Than anywhere else on earth

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Snapshot of the mend-and-make-do plant labels

Sandwell and the Black Country are just down the road from us but in many ways they are a world away. It’s not true to say that this area is post-industrial – the Black Country remains industrial. It’s a hive of industry. Whilst our patch of land in Harborne is overlooked by massive houses owned by surgeons and solicitors, plots just 1 or 2 miles away in the Black Country are surrounded by tight terraced housing, warehouses and nondescript industrial buildings. Some things have changed though: I loved this shot of haymaking, date not given but I’d surmise it’s early 20th century.

Haymaking at Craddock’s Farm c. Walsall Local History Centre

Haymaking at Craddock’s Farm c. Walsall Local History Centre

I got the sense from Susie Parr’s introduction that she hadn’t expected to find such a thriving scene of gardeners in the Black Country. If I’ve learnt anything from living here, it’s to not judge by appearances. Even in the most unpromising of areas, there are gems to be found.

You can read more about the Black Country Allotment Society project at www.multistory.org.uk

Full disclosure: My friend and former colleague Kate works for Multistory and sent me a free copy of the Black Country Allotment Society publication to read. I was under no obligation to blog.