Daffodils and bonfires

I’m re-reading Elizabeth Howard’s Cazalet novels at the moment – it’s all country houses and gin at 6 – and so this weekend’s outing to Madresfield Court near Malvern felt particularly well-timed. Madresfield is an Arts & Crafts gem, a small-ish country house (still a family home) that served as inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Every year in March the gardens are opened to the local riffraff, and in we all trot to admire the thousands upon thousands of spring bulbs in the extensive grounds. Daffodil Sunday this year was blessed with blue skies; no doubt a few visitors left drunk on sunshine after the long weeks of winter gloom.

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The extensive grounds of Madresfield Court

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Daffodils, daffodils, crocus, daffodils

As well as the daffodils – and there really were thousands – it was heartening to see primroses in bloom and early wild garlic making its smelly presence known. Primroses to me are reassuringly old-fashioned; they are the bloom of mothers’ day posies and crystallised sugar flowers on Easter simnel cakes.

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Primroses are out, pink and yellow

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Young shoots of wild garlic. We could smell this from several metres away.

Of course a day trip to a country house is never complete without Tea. Madresfield have this down to an art: the stable block is taken over for a brilliantly English spread, manned by efficient local ladies armed with urns of hot water. In the kitchen I spied a production line of scones being dolloped with cream, and trestle tables were laden with plate upon plate of cakes. It may be 2016, but it could have been 1956 – and was none the worse for that.

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The cake spread in the tea-room

Our outing was a treat after an afternoon of allotment graft on Saturday. I finally got around to scrubbing the greenhouse – and did a terrible job of it. I blame my tools. We aren’t allowed to use hose-pipe and obviously there’s no hot water. Matt meanwhile dug over the reclaimed potato patch and had our annual bonfire.

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Potato patch is fully reclaimed

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Shed is tidied and bonfire burnt…and was promptly covered with new things to burn

In the greenhouse I potted up new dahlias – a bright orange dazzler called Happy Halloween, and a Sarah Raven mix inspired by William Morris wallpaper: Totally Tangerine, Labyrinth and the naff-sounding Bacardi.

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New dahlias have been potted up

Not much to harvest now though the leeks are still cropping – we still have babies, which is not that impressive given that they’ve been in the ground for the best part of 9 months.

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Still harvesting leeks – some of them tiny!

It will be weeks yet before we can plant outdoors – the allotment is still so cold that we have only one solitary daffodil in bloom – but we can plan. The herbs by the greenhouse need moving to make room for the cold frame, but where? To the potato patch? To the fruit bed? Whilst we ponder, I begin an inventory of my seeds and think about indoor sowing. I have 69 varieties to play with this year – and that’s before we get onto Grampy’s crysanth cuttings and the new dahlias. 69 varieties need a heck of a lot of windowsill/greenhouse/cold frame space. Allotmenting, I begin to see, is as much about logistics as its is knowledge of plants.

Harvest: Leeks, parsnips, rosemary, sage
Moved:  Broad beans and sweet peas to greenhouse
Also: Dug potato patch, had bonfire, cleaned shed, scrubbed greenhouse

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

Blackcurrant leaf sorbet

What with the travelling, the festival organising and the general gallivanting, there’s not been much cooking and allotmenting on Veg Patch of late. This might indicate that there’s nothing going on – but that would be false. First though, let’s take a little trip to the Hills.

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View from Malvern Hills on Saturday

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Spot the foxgloves in the distance

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Up close, a brilliant pink

I went home (i.e. to the parental home) to water the greenhouse, an age-old job that for most people takes 10 minutes, but at Grove House takes at least an hour. For years, the Way to Water the Green House (and the hanging baskets) has been indoctrinated into me, in the same way that a Tiger Mother might teach their child the times-tables. My folks like their plants tended to just-so, and obviously they have a lot of plants. As my reward, I did a little scrumping.

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Scrumped from my mother’s garden

In Birmingham, our plant tending is a little more laid back. As is my flower arranging. I like mixing up the flowers and the veg because, well, it’s all so pretty!

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A 2015 posy: chard, spinach, rosemary, sweetpeas, lavender

The recent hot weather has brought everything on, everything apart from the French beans of course which remain sad and stunted. The greens, meanwhile, are fresh and zingy and beautifully slug-free.

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Am mightily pleased with my greens this year. From L-R, Red Russian kale, stripy beetroot, bright lights chard and a kind of white chard whose proper name I forget

I love greens. But perhaps, just perhaps, we might have too many?

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This, dear readers, is ALOT of lettuce

In other news, the artichoke we inherited is proving to be a bully with more style than substance. For starters, it is HUGE and threatens to overrun both the currants and the strawberries. Last year I spent an entire weekend turning about 40 globes into antipasti; I’ve eaten less than one jar because although they tasted great, the texture was stringy. I wondered if they were better used for boiling. So yesterday I boiled up two of the larger specimens and ugh! I couldn’t even finish one. They tasted sludgy and herbaceous, but not in a good way. So I will let all these remaining buds turn to flower and unless they are amazing beautiful, the whole thing is coming out to be replaced with something a little more useful.

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The artichoke, all style over substance

The cosmos and dahlia are starting to bloom, along with a few self-seeded interlopers. I’ll let them off; they’re pretty good.

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Gorgeous self-seeded poppy after the rain

However, some other interlopers have had their day. I removed the netting from the redcurrants and blackcurrants, to be greeted not only with bounteous fruit, but a forest of blackberry saplings that were hidden in plain sight.

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Baubles of perfect red currants

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Hidden in plain view: blackberry saplings discovered in the blackcurrants

And so we move to today’s recipe. It’s an odd one, but a really really good one. The recent hot weather demands an ice or two, and I really can not think of anything better than a sorbet delicately fragranced with fresh blackcurrant leaves. This is one of those recipes that is probably age-old, known only to country folk and people who grow-their-own, but my God, it’s amazing. The flavour is somewhere between lemon citrus and blackcurrant, but it’s more herbal and delicate than either of those two descriptions allow. There’s an element of elderflower in there; it’s ephemeral and light, but flavourful. If you have access to a blackcurrant bush, just give it a go and you’ll see what I mean.

First, get yourself a few fistfuls of fresh blackcurrant leaves. Check for bugs. We don’t want any bugs.

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Take a tubful of blackcurrant leaves

Then make up a simple syrup flavoured with lemon zest. It occurs to me that those Amalfi lemons I scooped up in Italy would be lovely in this, but alas they’ve all gone.

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Make a lemon-infused stock syrup

Now it all gets a bit witch’s brew. Chuck your leaves into the hot stock, wilt them down a little bit, and add the juice of three lemons. Then just pop a lid on and leave to infuse for a few hours, stirring occasionally.

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Complete the witch’s brew with the blackcurrant leaves and juice of three lemons

When it’s properly stewed, strain it through muslin into a jug. I recommend that you wear an apron for this and do not do what I did, which is to come home from a media event in your poshest frock, remember that you have not yet strained the brew, then splash it down front of said frock and onto the floor. That would be an error.

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A day later, strain

Then chill the syrup down and put it into an ice-cream maker to churn. Half-way through the churning, add a lightly whisked egg white. I’m not 100% sure why this is necessary, but I think it’s something to do with making a smoother sorbet.

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Whilst churning add a lightly-whisked egg white

After a few minutes in the machine you’ll have a pale ice. Give it a good stir to make sure it’s smooth, then put in the freezer to firm up.

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Fragrant lemony blackcurranty sorbet

To serve, soften for a few minutes and serve a scoopful at a time, perhaps with a trickle of double cream over the top (it will freeze like that 1980s oddity, Ice Magic). Or just steal from the freezer when you get hot. Whatever works for you. I’ve also been known to swirl blackcurrant compote through this to make a grown-up ripple ice.

Blackcurrant leaf sorbet

Recipe adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

An ice-cream tub of good fresh blackcurrant leaves

Grated zest of 2 (unwaxed) lemons

Juice of 3 lemons

175g sugar

575ml water (I used Malvern water, obviously)

1 egg white, lightly whisked with a fork

First, bash the leaves a little to release the fragrance. Make a stock syrup by melting the sugar into the water, then add the lemon zest. Bring to a simmer then remove from the heat. Add the leaves and let cool. Add the lemon juice. Cover and leave to infuse for a few hours or overnight. Strain the syrup through muslin and chill. Churn in an ice-cream maker for 5 minutes, then add the egg white and continue churning until frozen. Give it a stir to make sure it’s all incorporated and smooth. Freeze until firm.


Spring wildflowers: Yellow, white and blue

In the past week the country has shifted from yellow to white to blue, and that isn’t a reference to how the nation pins its political colours. Whilst the allotment remains largely un-greened (although the seedlings are now starting to take off), in the countryside the wildflowers are rampant.

In Birmingham, daffodils and calendine are only just giving way to buttercups and dandelion. It seems odd, after May-day, for these early spring flowers to last the distance, but last they do. Meanwhile in Worcestershire – always a few degrees warmer – the hedgerows are lush, decorated with froths of mayflower, cow parsley and the rounded fluff of dandelion clocks. They give a touch of brightness on dull, rainy days, and gleam when the sun shines.

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Meadow flowers

Up close

The prize for best in show has to go to the bluebell, which carpets woodland groves and colours in the Malvern Hills like paint on canvas.

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Malvern bluebells

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Awash with colour

Blossom and grass

On opening the greenhouse on Saturday morning, I discovered a take-away box full of sweet pea seeds left there by one of our allotment neighbours. I am uncertain of his name so I call him Sweet Pea Man.

Last year, Sweet Pea Man grew armfuls of scented blooms and kindly let me pinch some to take home. I noticed last week that he had planted out this year’s seedlings, and mentioned to him in passing that he gave me confidence to plant mine – which inevitably lead to an offer of more seed, which he collected and had left over from last year’s crop. So I’ve sown yet MORE sweet peas and we’ll see if they work.

Having mentioned the desire to have pretty flowers on the allotment this year, I now face overload. A trip to Worcestershire at the weekend ended with trays of new foxgloves and aquilegia, with more to follow (amazing!), but I have no idea where all this stuff is going to go. There’s been a lot of standing and staring, attempting to visualise just how big things are likely to get and where the blooms can happily be slotted in.

Speaking of blooms, the cherries are putting on a tremendous show. The one in our communal wilderness (garden) at home has been out for a week and is thrumming with bees and bugs. I actually hear them through the double glazing. In Worcestershire they are just as good:

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Trees coming into leaf

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My parent’s crab-apple in bloom

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Flowering cherry

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Buds waiting to open

My mother’s broad beans are making a mockery of mine. Whilst the allotment beans barely reach my calf (and this is not just my beans, but everyone’s beans!), in the shire they are verdant and bushy and, frankly, a bit too showy-offy for my liking.

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My mother’s broad beans make a mockery of my 30cm tall efforts

This is all immaterial when faced with the most exciting sign of the year. It’s asparagus time! Or grass, as the Evesham locals call it. In a week or so there will be hand-painted signs on the side of roads as farmers trumpet their wares. For now, we made a pilgrimage to Hillers Farm Shop to stock up on the good stuff, and picked up the first punnet of local strawberries at the same time. The prices are eye-watering…but worth it.

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Highlight of the year: first pickings of asparagus

Evesham asparagus, which was steamed and served with herbed roast chicken for dinner


Dug over rest of veg patch; finished bark-ing the fruit bushes; planted onions and shallots


Put in more sweet peas & sweetcorn; potted on leeks

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Sauteed wild garlic carrots

Easter Sunday finished with a full-on roast dinner, so far so normal. But I happened to have a bag of young and squeaky-fresh wild garlic leaves in the fridge. Wild garlic doesn’t last long, you need to pick it and use it within a day or two. So I looked at them, and looked at the carrots, and wondered what would happen if they were cooked together. The answer is that good things happen, very good things indeed.

First, you need to acquire some wild garlic. For me, this involves a trip to the Malvern Hills.

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View towards the Worcestershire Beacon, Good Friday

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Dinner-plate fungi

There’s a patch of wild garlic which arrives on cue every March, set back from the road and extending down a bank. It’s accessible enough. Avoid any that are too close to the road and will probably be dirty. Wild garlic looks like lily of the valley, but stinks. Really stinks. Of garlic, obviously. Once you’re near a patch, I think it would be pretty difficult to miss…just follow your nose. Pluck a few leaves from several different plants, so that you won’t kill them, and go for the ones that look young and fresh. Wild garlic is at its best right now but in a few weeks time it will be over – once it’s flowered, that’s it.

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Chappers helps out with the foraging

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The booty: young wild garlic leaves

Treat wild garlic like particularly pungent, herby spinach. It needs very little cooking but packs a flavour punch. Previously I’ve chopped it and put it under the skin of a chicken before roasting, which lends an aromatic note throughout the flesh. I think it would also be admirable as a replacement for tarragon in a classic chicken-tarragon fricassee. Then there’s those carrots, which were treated thus:

Sauteed wild garlic carrots

Peel and chop carrots sufficient for your dinner into dainty chunks. Braise them in a lidded pan with a knob of butter, a few tablespoons of water and salt/pepper until soft, then remove the lid and reduce any remaining water to be left with a sticky, buttery glaze. Add in a handful of washed, chopped wild garlic and wilt for a minute or two under the gentlest of heats. Serve straight away.


Flapjacks with sour cherry, coconut and white chocolate

Way back when, whilst doing my A Levels, I had a Saturday job at Cooks Bakery in Upton Upon Severn. Cooks is one of those old-fashioned bakeries, very few left now, selling viennese fingers, jam doughnuts, iced buns and florentines. When I was little, my Nan would take me there for a custard slice. I would slice the slab of solidified yellow custard in half horizontally to make two open-sandwiches of puff pastry and custard, saving the one that was smothered in white glace icing until last. I still love a custard slice.

Other highlights of a day’s work at Cooks included the apple and almond slice (pastry topped with a layer of stewed apple and frangipane), the big white tin loaves (this was the time of the white-sliced, so an actual loaf of whole bread was a MAJOR treat) and the flapjacks.

The baker, Mr Russell, always put a handful of coconut into his flapjacks. Not enough to make it discernibly coconutty, but just enough to give an intriguing twist of flavours. I still do this now, but like to chuck in new-fangled things such as dried sour cherries and white chocolate.

Everytime I make flapjacks, I think of my time at Cooks: the striped pinny, the smell of vanilla and that hideous day when I unknowingly sold a dummy porkpie stuffed with newspaper. I didn’t realise it then, but what idyllic days they were.

Back to the flapjacks. Any idiot can do this: melt syrup, butter and sugar together, and mix into rolled oats and coconut.

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Melt brown sugar, butter and syrup together

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Oats, coconut and dried sour cherries

I like to sandwich the chocolate between layers of flapjack mixture. This helps to stop the chocolate catching and burning in the oven. I have used white today, but plain chocolate is also excellent.

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White chocolate chopped into chunks

Bake on parchment paper and remember to slice when still warm and pliable.

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Bake for 20 minutes and ta da!


100g butter

100g light soft brown sugar

75g golden syrup

200g rolled oats

25g desiccated coconut

handful dried cherries or other fruit

50g white chocolate, chopped

Preheat oven to 180c and line a suitable baking dish with parchment paper.

Melt together butter, syrup and sugar over a gentle heat. Leave to cool slightly whilst you measure out the oats, coconut and fruit into a bowl. Prepare the chocolate and leave to one side for now.

Stir the butter mixture with the oat mixture until well combined. Tip about a third into the prepared dish, sprinkle the chocolate on top, then finish with the remaining mixture. Doing this keeps the chocolate covered, which helps prevent it burning in the oven.

Bake for about 20 minutes until golden and bubbling. Keep an eye on it, over-done flapjacks are not good at all. Cool for 15 minutes or so in the dish then remove the parchment paper and slice the flapjacks. Leave to cool completely.

Boxing Day ramble

So how was your Christmas dinner?

There are four key things to get right with the turkey: 1, get a good bird; 2, prepare it well, anointing with flavoured butter and streaky bacon to protect the breast; 3, most importantly, cook it for about half as long as the books tell you. This one was 7kg and took 2 and a half hours at 170c; 4, leave it to rest for at least an hour.

If I do say so myself, this year’s turkey was a triumph! Moist, flavoursome and…enormous.

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Carving the bird

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The ultimate roast

The best thing about Christmas dinner though is leftovers. Obviously. As I write my Dad is stripping the meat from the bone, ready to make a vat of stock for soups, braises and casseroles. As for the meat…I’m thinking creamy turkey and leek pie, punchy Thai turkey salad full of chilli and lime as well as good old turkey soup.

It helps to wash it down with a bottle of something delicious.

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The Christmas wine

Yesterday we took to the hills to get some air. Not the main bit of the Malverns, which is always heaving with folk on Boxing Day. Best to go off piste, down to the bit that only the locals know about – the Gullet quarry and the Eastnor obelisk. Happy holidays!