Kiftsgate Court Gardens

Despite my best efforts, life has completely returned to normal. Matt’s working long hours (including weekends) so my days are a juggle between work and childcare, with the occasional foray to the outside world. I’m not complaining too much (I’m lucky to have any work at all, frankly, as the creative industries are currently screwed) but our leisurely days of lockdown are absolutely over. Plus there’s potty training. And renovation of my office. It’s been ages since I posted because my headspace for creative activity is pretty much zero. But there are still socially-distanced playdates to be had: thank God for Warley Woods, Lightwoods Park and our back garden, which are the setting for many hours of pre-school adventure.

Me and Harry in Warley Woods
Blowing bubbles

Harvesting has notched up on the allotment. The cut flowers are providing the interest at present, with the intense Venetian jewel colours of the sweet peas, soft purple lavender, romantic cornflowers, long-stemmed vivid orange nasturtiums and – just today – my old friends the dahlias have started to flower. The strawflower, sunflower and chrysanthemums will be out within the fortnight, I predict.

The veggies, on the other hand, are taking a while to get going this year. There will be courgettes and French beans – though the runner beans have gone AWOL – and the chards and kales look fine. Today I planted out an unexpected bounty of brassicas gifted by Matt’s parents, cauliflowers, purple sprouting and sprouts, which have had to be nestled in between overgrown broad beans and the self-sown alpine strawberries. Come January I will curse myself for planting them right in the middle of the veg patch, surrounded by a quagmire of soil, but there was nothing else for it.

There’s a lot of self-sown plants on the allotment this year, which previously I would have called ‘weeds’, but now I see as pollinator-fodder who have chosen to set up home with us. Some are the hangover of previous summers (borage, ammi and nasturtium have all seeded themselves from plants introduced by me) but the alpine strawberries, poppies and mullein are truly wild. I am leaving them be, seeing them as a food source for hungry bees and, potentially, extra harvest for me.

On the allotment, things are happening – self-sown poppies, borage, nasturtium, ammi and alpine strawberries have taken up home amongst the squash, corn and cut flowers
Photos do not do justice to the thicket of cornflowers, nasturtium and sweet peas
Ten days ago I was just harvesting sweet peas…
…today I add cornflower, lavender, achillea, nasturtium and dahlias to the mix

For my birthday treat, I had intended to visit both Hidcote Manor Garden and Cowley Manor, but The Disease put an end to that plan. Instead I took myself on a rare child-free few hours to Kiftsgate Court Gardens near Chipping Campden. Dear reader, it was glorious. Clear blue skies, warm (but not hot) sun, the sweet scent of old rose in the air, and no-one telling me they’ve done a wee. After so many months of being in one place, it felt so good to be free, even if only for a lunchtime.

The border at Kiftsgate Court, which was heavily scented with sweet rose

Kiftsgate is both a family home and a national treasure, which is quite a difficult trick to pull off. A garden created by three generations of women, there are design influences from the 1930s, mid-century and contemporary periods. Late June is the time to go if you can, for the roses are incredible. Incidentally, the Kiftsgate rose is famous for its vigour. The visitor guide warns against purchasing one unless you are entirely sure you can cope with it: apparently it can take the roof off a garage with ease. But in its natural habitat it looks an innocent mass of white froth amongst the pink.

The inner courtyard, a mid-century design filled with the gentle sound of falling water
The rose garden is bordered with pink leading to a sculptural focal point.
Above it, the white mass of the Kiftsgate rose.
I always enjoy a makeshift bit of engineering, such as this rose support

For me though, the unsung hero of the garden are the sculptural trees that frame the landscape and lend the eye to the rolling Cotswold valley below. I’m always fascinated by trees in a landscape, for whoever plants them never sees their vision come to fruition; I am no expert but these must be decades, even centuries old.

The trees are the real stars of Kiftsgate

The Cotswolds are, of course, hilly, and Kiftsgate answer to this problem is steep terracing to echo the gardens of Tuscany. The black pool that looks out and down to the valley is a genius of design: infinity in front, infinity below.

Looking down to the 1960s pool and beyond it, the Cotswolds
Italianete terracing

Cotswold buildings are often a joy, and this one is no exception. The slightly-off symmetry makes one wonder…was this intentional ? An accident? What stories this old house could tell.

The off-symmetry of the side of the court is pleasing

The cafe is shut for the present but the meadow is open for picnics. (Surely an unexpected bonus of lockdown is all this time out-of-doors). For a time-poor working parent, I am so pleased that I took the chance to seize the day. This is an English garden at its midsummer best.

English meadow on a summer’s day

Also this week:
Harvesting: Sweetpea, cornflower, nasturtium, very first dahlia, very first cosmos, achillea, lavender, broad beans, peas/mange tout, rocket, lettuce, first blueberries, alpine strawberries. Gifted tayberries, blackberries and last asparagus by Jean and Gary.

Allotment: Planted out cauliflower, PSB, sprouts

Garden: Planted out annuals – zinnia, cosmos, sunflower – and false indigo and rose from Kiftsgate. First dahlia blooming.

Other things: Potty training and work so been housebound for a bit. Not had much time for cooking and it’s back to simple mid-week meals: sausage pasta, leftover roast beef stir-fry, make-ahead moussaka. Buying up nectarines & strawberries.

Barabrith

I am writing from the bliss of a quiet house. This week I had a birthday (a big one, but the least said about that the better) and it turns out that birthdays in lockdown are tricky. It’s not like you can have loads of friends over for pizzas and aperol spritz as we would in normal times, or pop to the spa for a pick-me-up. So tea and cake in various gardens it is and rather than dwelling on the parties-that-never-were, I’m grateful to have parents who bring flowers and in-laws that make cracking Victoria sponges. Incidentally, let it be committed to print that my dear other half has promised to make me a new desk for my birthday, and now that it’s public, he has to deliver the goods.

This birthday I had not one cake but two (actually I had three but the third one came a week later)

In baking news, the cinnamon buns continue, this time with a new shape (the twisted knot) and also with chunks of dark chocolate folded into the layers, for a cinnamony-chocolatey-south-american flavour.

Cinnamon bun twists with chunks of chocolate

The parched earth of spring has now been nourished with days and days of rain. The allotment is grateful for it – the sweet peas in particular are now galloping away – and of course the fat hen, thistles and buttercups are thriving. Last year the weeds drove me bonkers but this year I’m just seeing them as part of the ecosystem of the land, their place as much as mine. As long as the flowers and veggies are still cropping, not too much harm is done by their existence. Meanwhile Matt’s made a new brassica cage, sturdier than my efforts of last year, and so I have finally planted out three types of kale plus chard and beet spinach.

This year’s brassica cage has come into operation
Harvesting redcurrants, broad beans and sweet peas

The broad beans are giving two crops weekly and I also now have a few diddy purple pea pods, planted for their shoots but left to mature just for the fun of it. Thankfully I have a helper to assist with all the processing of pods and stalks, a necessary but (to my mind) excessively enjoyable June task.

I have a helper to pod all those beans…

On to a recipe. Harry’s obsessed with Fireman Sam at the moment, and I took the view that if we can’t get to Pontypandy, then Pontypandy can come to us. Meaning, if we can’t go to Wales, then I can at least do some Welsh baking in the form of Barabrith. This one is a tea loaf made with self-raising flour, though it’s more common to find recipes that rely on yeast. Yeast cookery holds no fear for me but sometimes I prefer to take the easy option, which this definitely is: soak fruit in sugary tea, add flour and an egg, than bake. Unashamedly old-fashioned, it keeps for weeks and somehow manages to be simultaneously plain, nourishing and a special treat. My only stipulation is that it must be served plastered with plenty of salted butter.

Barabrith, Wales’ great contribution to baking culture

Barabrith

450g dried mixed fruit – I used sultanas, raisins, currants and cranberries
250g light brown sugar
300ml boiling water
1 tea bag
2 tsp mixed spice
450 self-raising flour
1 egg

In a big bowl, place the fruit, sugar, water and tea bag, give it a stir, then leave to soak. This can be for an hour or overnight, which ever is most convenient.

When ready to bake, prepare a 900g loaf tin with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 170c.

Fish out the tea bag from the fruit, then add the spice, flour and egg to the mixture. Give it a good mix with a wooden spoon to combine, then dollop it into the loaf tin. I like to smooth the top then make a slight dip so that the end loaf comes out flattish.

Bake for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until a skewer comes out clean. You may need to put foil over the cake to prevent it browning too much. Leave to cool in the tin for ten minutes or so before turning out onto a wire rack. This is a big cake but it keeps for weeks in a tin. Serve in thick slices toasted with butter.

Also this week:

Harvesting and growing: Harvesting lettuce, broad beans, peas, red currants, sweet peas, first cornflower. Planted out dahlias, chard, beet spinach, kale. Given a lovely apricot rose in a pot for my birthday from Mum and Dad, which is sitting happily next to the pink lilies (I like a colour clash).

Cooking and eating: Amazing lamb and chicken kebabs, rice, bulgur, bread and salads from the new Turkish grill in Bearwood. Baked lamb with capers, garlic and rosemary, served with potatoes boulanger. Birthday party at Claire’s with two Victoria sponges, and another at our house with one chocolate sponge, crab sandwiches, fresh prawns on the shell and the inevitable party rings. Lots of new season broad beans, lettuce, and a few peas.

Reading: Yin Yoga by Norman Blair. European Peasant Cookery by Elizabeth Luard. Feast by Nigella Lawson.

Planting out

Note: No pics this week due to technical issues. Imagine small plants in soil and the occasional flash of a foxglove, and you’re pretty much there.

Last week was hard, no? We may be easing out of lockdown but it’s now that the reality of the situation hits home. Jobs are uncertain as businesses have to respond to social distancing and spooked customers. What does this mean for my industry, my work? It’s not yet clear, but people are worried. On top of that comes the renewed and emotional debate about racial equality, which because I have both professional and personal interest, always feels challenging. The world is realigning itself, perhaps, but centuries of engrained injustice will not be resolved overnight. It did not help that the sun has been replaced with relentless concrete grey skies.

I was cheered though to see the antics in Bristol and the removal of the Edward Colston statue over the weekend. Young people taking matters into their own hands and not putting up with the status quo – marvellous. The removal of a statue of a man involved in slavery isn’t denying history, this is saying that the story we’re telling about history is not a story we are proud of. We don’t want to be defined by the subjugation of one group over another. And so we choose to tell a different story, a story where the people of a city work towards equality. That statue now has a new history attached to it, the story of ‘now’. It’s brilliantly evocative stuff; the curators, story-makers, historians of Bristol have been given a gift with this symbolic gesture. This article by the historian David Olusoga explains all this in a far more articulate manner than I ever could.

Aside from all that, there is peace to be found with the plants. Take your sustenance where you can find it. Today I found it with planting out a heap of dahlias and other flowers grown from seed – isn’t there a joy in raising a plant from infancy to maturity without messing it up too much?

I’m pleased with this year’s allotment planting plan, which is blocked and – unusually for me – in straight lines. Usually I only grow for the allotment but this year I remembered to hold things back for the garden as well, so we now have cleome, amaranthus and chrysanthemums settling into Bearwood soil. It will be interesting to see how the same plants respond to differing conditions.

This year’s updated planting plan

Meanwhile, the harvest has started again – only slim pickings for now, of foxglove, sweetpea and broadbeans – but experience tells me that the late May/early June lull after the spring explosion of tulips and daffodils is just that – a lull – a rest before the abundance of July begins.

Planting out: Dahlia, chrysanthemum, lace flower, grasses, cleome, amaranthas (garden). Amaranthas, calendula, zinnia, annual delphinium, all the beans, cosmos (allotment).

Harvesting: very first tiny sweetness, first broad beans, foxgloves, cos, round lettuce, rocket.

Cooking and eating: My first Lockdown banana cake, about two months after everyone else. Strawberries topped with vanilla mascarpone and demarera sugar with biscotti on the side. Beetroot hummus. Watermelon.

Reading: Family Life by Elisabeth Luard, coinciding with European Peasant Cookery by the same writer. Couldn’t read last week though, the combined hit of centuries of endemic racism, economic meltdown and disease finally broke my ability to concentrate. On order from the library: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddi-Lodge.

Be the change, an update

The end of yet another deeply troubling week. How many more troubling weeks will there be? Brexit crisis, climate crisis, pandemic and economic crisis, and now the re-emergence in the public consciousness of the crisis of inequality in Western society. The protest for Black Lives Matter may have begun in the USA but its resonance is far, wide, loud. It should give all of us pause for reflection.

In my industry (arts and culture) diversity, equality and universal representation, or rather the lack of it, has been an issue present my entire career. My very first job was for a theatre company, which happened to be led by a white woman, which worked in what was then called ‘culturally diverse’ performance – in practice, this meant voices of Black and Asian people, from the UK but also the Caribbean, Africa, India. They tended to be angry voices. I had to question some assumptions that I had about other people from different cultural backgrounds to my own, assumptions that I’d never actually been aware that I’d had; there wasn’t a phrase for this then but it’s now called ‘unconscious bias’.

Since then I’ve worked with many different faces from many different backgrounds. Sometimes my projects are specifically about attempting to improve representation of people who aren’t white, middle class, straight, able-bodied. This work always brings me up short, making me realise the things I’ve misunderstood about people who are different to myself. Twenty years I’ve been doing this, and still it’s hard. I’ve given jobs to people who were white and ‘ready to go’ over those who were not white and needed training to get them up to speed. It was the right decision for the project, but was it the right decision for society? The emotions are conflicting: guilt, confusion, defensiveness, self-pity, frustration, tiredness, anger. Equality work is difficult. Black and White isn’t actually that black and white.

But the work is worth doing, we have to keep doing it.

So if you’re wondering what you can do to make life better in our society, I’d recommend once again to try and Be The Change. Look at your choices, look at your unconscious bias, look at the things you say/think/feel and see if they need unpicking a little. Educate yourself a little more on how we got to this point. It may make you feel uncomfortable but if everyone does this, imagine the changes that would come.

“We can not always do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” Mother Theresa of Calcutta

Outdoors-ing it

The flowers and veg plugs are ready to be planted out – and with these long warm days, outdoorsing it is the best way to live. A week or so back we headed out to a farm shop in the middle of nowhere to stock up on proper tomatoes, strawberries and bacon, then ventured down the riverside path, overgrown with cow parsley and scented with mayflower. Smelling freedom, Harry made a bid for a buttercup-filled meadow – toddler life as it should be.

Making a bid for freedom

Meanwhile at home he’s the lucky recipient of another new garden structure, a climbing-frame/slide created by his Dad whilst he had time on his hands. Harry’s not the only one who has taken advantage of Matt’s carpentry skills – he’s also knocked up a trug for my lettuce and rocket, so that I can wander out the back door and pick leaves for tea. So much more practical than having them at the allotment where they only get harvested once a week.

The new climbing frame
My new lettuce trug. Also at the front is my experimental watercress, which does surprisingly well in a container provided that it gets watered daily.

In mid-May the tulips finally faded, and in their place comes the vivid pink roses, foxgloves and delphinium. The return of Getrude Jekyll is like welcoming back an old friend.

Rose Gertrude Jekyll
They’re going over now, but 10 days ago the azalea and allium were a perfectly contrasting match

Don’t be fooled though – I’m really pleased with the April-May garden but as we go into June, when the tulips fade and the alliums go to seed, there are gaps and holes a-plenty. I am nursing trays and trays of annuals to put out in a few weeks, things like sunflower, cosmos, lace flower, but for the next few weeks the glorious roses stand alone in their beauty, bordered by the bedraggled leftovers from spring. Such is life.

On the allotment, that unexpected late frost did for the beans. I remembered to net against pigeons but it never crossed my mind to fleece against the nighttime chill. But then would it be a spring unless I had to have at least three separate attempts at growing a humble bean?

The late frost did for the beans

All else is coming along though, late as ever. This week I planted out a few early squash, chrysanthemums, strawflower and sunflowers, and the cosmos and zinnia aren’t far behind. We also re-sowed the parsnips that inevitably failed to materialise.

Planting out has begin

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, life has busied in the last week or so. The gradual easing of lockdown means that Matt has had a load of new commissions in, so we’re both working whilst trying to keep Harry gainfully occupied. He’ll be back at nursery for a few days next week. Tradesmen are back at it and so my office is finally getting the makeover that was started in March, which is great but does make for mess and disruption. I’m not really ready for all this, feeling keenly the rudeness of ‘normal’ life interrupting my domestic haven. There are some things about lockdown I fully intend to hang on to. The garden has become a creative outlet, playground, refuge. The once-a-week food shop is now so much more mindful, and I am using more farm shops than before (the meat and veg is better so why wouldn’t I?). I’m reading a book a week. Once the world stopped I found an abundance of time to think, time to listen, time to live, and isn’t life better for it?

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out sunflowers, strawflower, chrysanthemums, first squash, salad rocket, other lettuces. Re-sowed parsnips. Harvesting lettuce, alliums, persicaria. Sowed new sunflowers, sweetcorn, zinnia, dill and marigolds.

Cooking and eating: Massive rib of beef for Matt’s birthday, Angel Delight for the hell of it (it wasn’t good, the recipe’s changed since the 1980s and the whole thing split in the fridge); a Victoria Sandwich birthday cake that I messed up by not putting the baking powder in; lamb kebabs with flat breads, asparagus and salads; strawberries; first bobby beans. An unexpected joy of lockdown is ordering a load of proper bread online from a small-scale baker then venturing forth to a trading estate in Stirchley / Stirchley High St / Moseley Bog (delete as appropriate) to collect the goodies a few days later.

Reading: The Bone People by Keri Hulme, with which I feel in the presence of greatness.

Almond (and chocolate) crescents

You know how you get Instagram food and then you have real life food? Instagram is usually style over substance but the home-made stuff, whilst not being pretty, is actually where we can find real heart-warming soul-bolstering cooking. It’s the same with cookbooks – the things we covet on paper somehow don’t carry the true essence of what is real. The expensive images can’t give the impression of the kitchen filled with the fug of bubbling chicken stock, or the furtive treat of stealing the first biscuit off the tray before anyone’s noticed. They can’t give the life-preserving feeling that you get from a slice of proper toast slathered in salty butter. Nor do they give room for the truth that some of the best cooking actually happens when we mess it up a bit.

On that note, I’ve been tinkering about my cinnamon bun recipe (yes, it is an obsession), thinking it would be fun to try something else that’s Scandi and calorie-laden, and my eye was drawn by these, Gifflar med kanel, or cinnamon crescents, from The Nordic Baking Book. Have you ever seen a thing of such dough-based beauty? Look at the swirl! Look at the shine! Look how NEAT they are!

What a Crescent is meant to look like…

So obviously I had a go and, inevitably, my version look utterly crap. Big and puffy, with all the filling oozed out, like I’ve made some cheesy sausage roll from my Mum’s 1970s M&S Picnic Cookbook. But do not be deceived, for this swirly ugly mass is a thing of caramelised unctuous gorgeous heaven.

…and the homemade version!

Instead of the cinnamon filling that is traditional, I used an almond version called remonce, the type used in Danish pastries and Mandelbullar (almond buns). The almond actually comes from marzipan, creamed with heart-stopping quantities of butter and sugar, so imagine this: Sweet dough baked golden in a puddle of marzipanny-buttery caramel. Then think of the illicit pleasure of peeling the leaked caramelised butter-almond off the paper in shards, shovelling them in your mouth before your 2 year old sees and wants them for himself.

Then imagine a chocolate version. Dear God.

Roll your dough out more thinly that you’d expect, and you might succeed in making crescents that are slightly better looking than mine. These freeze well so any that don’t get eaten can be stashed for future breakfasts, brunches or midnight feasts.

Almond crescents
Makes 32 crescents. Recipe adapted from various things in The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson.

For the dough:
320ml milk
150g unsalted butter
1 heaped teaspoon ground cardamon
15g dried yeast
1 egg
125g caster sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt
750g strong wheat flour

In a jug in the microwave, melt the butter into the milk then leave to cool slightly. In a large bowl, place the salt, the flour, the yeast and cardamon (in that order so that the yeast and salt don’t come into contact with each other) and mix thoroughly with a scraper. Whisk the egg into the milk mixture, then tip the lot into the flour and mix to combine. Once you have a sticky mass, tip onto the work surface and knead for a good 10 minutes until you have a soft, elastic dough. Or you can use a stand mixer if you have one. Don’t stint on the kneading, this dough needs it! Shape the dough into a ball, put back in the bowl and cover with a tea towel. Leave to prove for about 2 hours or so, until really risen and puffy. Meanwhile, make your filling:

Lys remonce – Danish pastry filling
125g unsalted butter, very soft
125g caster sugar
125g marzipan

Place the butter and sugar in a bowl, then grate the marzipan over using a box grater. Cream together thoroughly and set aside.

For the crescents:
Preheat the oven to 220c. Prepare three or four (depending on their size) baking sheets or roasting trays with baking parchment. Tip the dough out onto the work surface with the tenderness that you would treat a newborn baby. Gently shape it into a circle then divide into 4 pieces.

To make crescents, roll each piece into a circle using a rolling pin. They should be quite thin, about 1cm deep or thinner. Spread a quarter of the filling over the circle using an off-set spatula, then cut into 8 equal triangles. Roll each triangle up from the thick edge to the thin, then place on a baking sheet. Repeat and repeat until all the dough is used up. Leave to prove for another 30 minutes or so, until puffy.

If you want, at this stage you can egg wash the crescents, or simply leave them plain as I do. Bake for about 10 minutes until risen and golden. You may need to turn the trays around mid-way through baking to avoid burnt bits. Leave to cool before tucking in but take every opportunity to munch on the crunchy almondy caramelised bits that have leaked from your buns.

Variation: Almond & chocolate buns
To make a sinfully good chocolate version, break up some shards of 70% dark chocolate and scatter on top of the dough after you have spread it with the remonce filling. Either shape as crescents or make into traditional cinnamon or cardamon bun shapes, as I have done here. Bake as before.

The chocolate almond version. Ugly but mind-blowingly good.

Life in lockdown

On the whole, we’ve been having a thoroughly nice time in lockdown. I read yesterday that psychologists are worried that people have made such cosy cocoons for themselves that even when we’re finally allowed out, we’ll all be a bunch of agoraphobes who refuse to leave the sanctuary of home. I think there is truth in that and I also think that perhaps it is no bad thing, that there is time yet for stillness and an appetite for life focused on things other than endless consumption and growth.

We do go out every day, but usually only the hundred metres or so to the park. Last week children had left chalk graffiti on the path, an act of pure creativity without self-consciousness.

Kids’ graffiti in Lightwoods Park

I’ve been following my own creative urges – nothing amazing, just thirty minutes of free writing here, a bit of colouring there. I envy all those people I know who actually have skills to draw or paint (or write) well. There’s always cooking of course, and now that we have flour again I’m drawn back to the alchemy that is yeast cookery. Last week I had a go at crumpets; this week I can feel Danish pastries coming on.

Homemade crumpets

In our domestic bubble, aside from the cookery and colouring, there is always the cultivated world to turn for solace and creative endeavour. I am so pleased with my garden this May, the first time I’ve got it looking good. Some of it is considered, some of it is a happy accident. Tulips give tones of green, cream, pink and peach against the hot pink azalea, and in the last week the alliums have opened their lavender pom pom heads. The hottest pink roses are opening too, offset by the vigorous green growth of delphinium, aquilegia and foxglove. It will stay looking glorious for a few more weeks before the inevitable early July slump. To offset that I have a cold-frame full of seedlings – cosmos, nicotiana, more delphiniums, dahlia – readying themselves for their summer in the sun.

The tulips are still going strong, giving white, pink and peach tones to the greening-up garden

All this fecundity is in sharp contrast to the allotment, where nothing much is happening yet. Nothing cultivated I mean, for the grass and nettles are once again rampant. I popped down on Saturday for an hour alone-time, only to be met by a downpour. The shed provided cover and I perched on a spindle of hop twine for half an hour, accompanied by bird song, lilac, cow parsley and the sound of rain on the roof.

In a downpour, I take refuge in the allotment shed, with a view of lilac, cow parsley and nettles

The climbing beans, dwarf beans and sweet peas have now been in for a week or so, netted to protect against the inevitable bird attack. The rest of the soil remains fallow for now. I have learnt that things planted directly in our soil do not do well and it does no good to rush; the first five months of the year are a dormant period down there. No, much better to sow the seeds at home, develop strong plants and put them out only when they’re good and ready, which for the brassicas, salads, squash, corn and cut flowers may not be for another month yet.

Beans have been planted out and netted against the birds

I still visit the allotment though, partly to keep the grass down, but mostly to get my fix of May cut flowers. Alongside the alliums, which I planted several years ago, there is self-sown cow parsley, lilac and persicaria for the picking, making for a gloriously frothy vase.

Alliums, lilac, cow parsley and persicaria, all foraged from the allotment

Having worked from home for years, I find that lockdown life is just a slowed down, slightly more domestic version of normal life. I look after Harry, tend to my seeds, do my bits of work, cook, take care of the never-ending chores, read, sit, chat, play in the garden. There are Zoom meetings, Zoom parties, Zoom yoga, and we even managed a socially-distanced drink with our neighbours through the back gate. Once a week I go to the shops and collect bread from the baker in Stirchley. I completely avoid Facebook, the newspapers and much of the news as I find all the shouting to be wildly unhelpful. I yearn to write but don’t know where to begin (always that sense that we should be doing something useful or productive). There is always the worry of financial armageddon, of course, so as not to become overwhelmed I find I take life one week at a time.

It feels like the right conditions for good things, good ideas, to brew.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Roast chicken with fennel, chilli and oregano; peach and blackberry cobbler; homemade pesto to dress roasted aubergine and asparagus; tagliatelle with peas and bacon; raspberry lemon muffins; lemon ricotta hotcakes; cannellini beans braised with tomato; crumpets.

Allotment and garden: Planted more dwarf beans, climbing beans and squash. Planted out runner, French and borlotti beans, sweet peas, cornflowers. Hardening off many younger plants. Uncovered all the old strawberry patch ready to take the squash plants in a few weeks. Garden tulips holding on and the first roses are breaking bloom. Covered up the gooseberry and redcurrant against bird attack.

Harvesting: Cow parsley, lilac, alliums, persicaria, lettuce merveille de quat saison (veg trug), tarragon, marjoram.

Reading: The land where lemons grow by Helena Attlee. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

Copenhagen Cake

The hot weather over Easter meant that the outside world felt a million miles away. Tulips bloomed, baby leaves and pea shoots were ripe for picking, birds scouted for nesting sites. Harry scooted and I sat. Dear God we even cleaned out the sun room, chucked out a load of decade-old paint tins and moved the barbecue to the shed. Those were days of glory.

Since then we’ve had perpetual rain and dank, grey skies, work has reared its head again and I’ve had one too many Zoom meetings for my liking. But as ever, there is solace in the garden, in the allotment and in the kitchen. Every morning and evening I wander outside for a few minutes’ solitude where I can admire my tulips and tend to my seedlings. And look at Matt’s shed in all its glory!

Bar the window, the shed is finally in a useable state!

Before the rain hit Matt found time to put up all the support structures on the allotment – it’s his favourite job, obviously – and so I think the sweetpeas and climbing beans will be planted out within the next week or so. Whilst there I found another bonus crop – lilac and cow parsley – which, if you sear the stems in boiling water, will last for a week or so in the vase.

Supports are up for beans, sweetpeas and sunflowers
Cow parsley and lilac

But easily the most exciting thing to happen this week is the tracking down of actual real life BREAD FLOUR. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen this stuff. Flour is harder to come by than Class A drugs these days (I am told). Morrisons are flogging 1 kilo bags from their bakery, which they’ve packed themselves in their paper bags normally reserved for doughnuts and sausage rolls. Good for them for their entrepreneurial spirit. It means that we can finally stock ourselves up with cinnamon buns and pizza again, staple foods in this house.

Finally scored some bread flour in Morrisons, so it’s nearly cinnamon bun and pizza time again

The whole nation is baking now to get them through Lockdown. Wise people. This time last year we were in Copenhagen, for a blissful few days of pastries, bread, pastries, bread, coffee, cake, pastries and bread. First (and only) time we’d been aboard since having Harry. It was one of the best weeks of my life. But despite all those hand-made artisan cinnamon snails and rye breads, it was actually a basic vanilla sponge with pink glace icing bought from the supermarket that sticks in the memory. We called it Copenhagen Cake and refer back to it often, with longing. Plain yet buttery. Basic yet iced. Elegant yet brashly pink. Cheap and yet not THAT cheap, for we were in Copenhagen after all, where a pint costs a tenner. It was a thing of joy.

Copenhagen Cake, the original, May 2019

I’ve tried to replicate Copenhagen Cake at home a few times, referring to Scandinavian cook books and making my own food colouring from squashed raspberries. This time, with the help of The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson, I think I’ve nailed it. Copenhagen Cake isn’t really a ‘thing’, but if you match a Swedish-style plain sponge with a tangy raspberry water icing, it’s close enough to the original. The trick is to whisk the hell out of the eggs and sugar, and fold in the butter and flour with comparatively great tenderness. Then go large on the icing and sprinkles. Enjoy.

Copenhagen Cake, the home-made version, May 2020

Copenhagen Cake

125g unsalted butter
50ml milk
2 large eggs
175g caster sugar
160g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the icing:
a scant handful raspberries, fresh or frozen
icing sugar, about 5 tablespoons
water
sprinkles or dried raspberries, to decorate

Preheat the oven to 175c. Butter and line your cake tin – I used a 7inch spring-form round pan.

Melt the butter and milk together in the microwave or on the hob, then leave to cool slightly.

Using an electric whisk, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla together until thick and at the ribbon stage – this will take at least five minutes, probably more.

Measure out the flour and baking powder into a bowl and have your sieve ready to go. You also need a large metal spoon.

Very gently pour the milk and butter mixture down the side of the bowl with the eggs in, then fold in with the spoon. Sieve the flour on top and fold to combine – be really gentle to ensure the air stays in the sponge, but make sure no lumps of flour remain.

Pour the batter into the tin, smooth the top then bake for about 30-40 minutes until risen and golden, and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to sit for ten minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.

To make the icing, squish the raspberries through a sieve to make a scant spoonful of bright pink juice. Add icing sugar and water, drop by drop, to make a spoonable icing.

When the cake is quite cold, spread your icing over the top and decorate with sprinkles or dried raspberries. Leave the icing for half an hour or so to set before cutting.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Asparagus, tomatoes, strawberries, baby salad leaves, duck eggs – heaven. Matt’s tagine. Apple crostata.
Allotment and garden: The garden tulips are out and glorious, such a happy addition. Picking lilac and cow parsley. Baby leaves from the veg trug. Hardening off some seedlings. Planted out 30 strawberry plants.
Life: Just staying at home. Week 7 now. I leave the house only to go to the park, allotment, supermarket and the farm shop. Matt goes to the workshop. Apart from too much Cbeebies, it’s been OK.

Bonus crops

Week 4 of lockdown and we’re just about keeping the show on the road, if that means finally staggering downstairs at 10am and giving into the pleas for Hey Duggee! at 10.01am. I have near-enough lost the power of independent intelligent thought; actually lockdown is not dissimilar to maternity leave in that regard (Anyone who is finding this period to be great for their creativity/productivity is clearly not living with a toddler.) I only really venture out of the house for a short walk around the park or to the allotment, and the very infrequent trips to the supermarket feel like both a treat and an ordeal (again, just like maternity leave). Going back to proper work, if and when it happens, will be one hell of a shock.

Harry is spending a great deal more time with his Dad than in normal life, and is developing a predictable interest in saws, hammers and screwdrivers; there’s plenty of ‘helping’ as Matt makes his shed. When Matt’s mum sent this picture of Matt with his Grampy taken back in the 1980s, it seems that history is now repeating itself.

Matt with Grampy, around 1986

Down on the allotment, the hopolisk rose again over the weekend, threaded with twine and ready to support the staggering growth of this year’s hops. Underneath them lie the broad beans, some put in as young plants and a few rows direct sown.

The hopolisk was raised over the Easter weekend, as is now traditional

March and April are meant to be the ‘hungry months’, with the winter veg running out of steam and new season’s crops not yet mature, and whilst this is true, I’ve been relishing what I think of as bonus crops these last few weeks. The forager – if they know where to go – can find carpets of wild garlic, even in the city, whilst in the veg trug the young pea plants are giving up their succulent shoots to add to salads and pastas. I’ll take this first harvest then leave the plants to mature to pods.

A carpet of wild garlic
Pea shoots in the veg trug

Meanwhile on the allotment, now’s the time that the self-sown herbs and green weeds come into their own. There are nettle shoots all over the place (lovely stir-fried or in a risotto) and oregano is sending up the first precious new growth of the year.

Self-sown oregano is now all over the allotment, a welcome intruder

As for the cultivated plants, the brassicas that I left in the ground over winter (chard, spinach beet, kale) are now sending up delicate new shoots – there’s a few pickings before they finally go to seed – and the leaves of the blackcurrant bushes need a couple of weeks before they reach their full fragrance and can be turned into the alchemy that is blackcurrant leaf sorbet: a true delicacy of mid-summer.

Blackcurrant blossom amid freshly unfurled leaves, waiting to be made into blackcurrant leaf sorbet

The happiest bonus crop of all are the little posies of narcissi and tulips, taken from bulbs that I planted years ago, and which astonishingly are still sending up vibrantly colourful stems.

Tulips, narcissi and a few leaves of freshly-sprouted chard

I’d say that these unexpected weeks at home are an unprecedented time to live differently, cook differently, get in touch with nature, blah blah blah. But the truth is that I’ve always allotmented and cooked in this way. Maybe it’s my peasant roots. To find honey in a weed is the great skill of the cook and the housekeeper, and to be in lockdown with a two year old means we have no choice but to live with a routine and keep one’s sh*t together, and that is what we shall do.

Also this week:
Sowing: All the seeds are now sown and doing well – a bonus of lockdown is getting all these jobs done.

Garden and allotment: Planted out broad beans and potatoes, direct sown parsnips, broad beans, peas. Hopolisk raised. Black plastic sheeting has been taken off the beds. In the garden, the shed is going up but still needs a window, though it’s taken a year to get to this point so I am not complaining. Hardening off the first seeds, the rest are in the sun room.

Cooking and eating: I’ve been lusting after modest food, inspired by Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed and her talk of Lenten fasting and Easter feasting – to whit, I made a dish of cannellini beans, soaked overnight and then simmered with onion, celery leaf, tomato and bay in a suitably rustic pot. Matt’s had similar urges but heads to India for inspiration – chick peas transformed into dahl with copious spices and coconut milk. The warm weather has transformed our cooking: we see the first of this year’s asparagus, always a joy, plus from the freezer and store cupboard there’s slow roasted lamb shoulder studded with anchovy and garlic; boulangere potatoes, chocolate easter cake (of course), Welsh cakes, spiced pumpkin muffins using last autumn’s squash, and leftover topside stir-fried with black beans and green peppers. Harry just wants to eat chocolate eggs.

Viennese fingers

Helen Stallard Communications is 15 years old today! That’s one and a half decades of solvent self-employment, also known as not having a proper job. The fates have been kind. I really do remember the date 1 April 2005 for it marked the day when I decided to be bold and take a really massive leap into the unknown rather than stick it out in a miserable commute that was too long, a job that seemed ultimately pointless and, most importantly, the ludicrousness of having to spend 8+ hours every day in an office regardless of how much work I actually needed to produce. The world of work, to me, seemed (and still mostly seems) off its rocker. So I “went freelance”, which is what people in the cultural sector say when they don’t really know what they’re going to do with themselves, but it turned out to be absolutely the best choice to me and since then I’ve worked with artists, composers, musicians, dancers, festivals, major events… There have been plenty of downs and uncertainty of course, but ultimately, flexibility and self-direction are the cornerstones to me of gainful employment. That plus the ability to work on worthwhile projects with interesting people. 15 years is quite an achievement and I don’t take it for granted.

I say this now because I wonder if the disruption to the workplace caused by Coronavirus will lead many people to reconsider how they organise their lives. Working from home doesn’t mean slovenliness…far from it, in my experience it leads to greater productivity. Working around caring for children or relatives doesn’t mean that you’re uncommitted, it shows that you have a full life and are adept at juggling responsibilities. Really, it’s about time that the world of work caught up.

I was due to mark today’s anniversary with a day out to London, a trip to the V&A and shopping at the fancy bakeries in Marylebone and Soho. Obviously that plan got scrapped and instead, I stayed home and made a batch of Viennese Fingers from my favourite 1970s cookbook, The Dairy Book of Home Cookery. My mum has this book and I’ve known it all my life, although the copy I use now actually belonged to Matt’s Granny. If you ignore such delights as Sole with Bananas and Potted Kipper Creams, and stick to the basics of cakes, puddings, batter puddings, scones and pastry, then you can’t go wrong.

The Dairy Book of Home Cooking, a classic that deserves its place in any cookbook collection
The Viennese Fingers have been re-named as Butter Whirls, but the basic principle is the same

Viennese fingers are one of my favourite ‘traditional’ bakery items; I still choose them when I go to Cooks Bakery in Upton On Severn. They are a basic butter biscuit dough, which is piped into either a finger or a whirl, depending on how you feel, then sandwiched with buttercream and topped with chocolate. Given that the principle ingredients are butter, sugar, flour and chocolate, this is great store-cupboard cookery, but still feels suitably celebratory. If it wasn’t for the lockdown I would never have dreamt of making these – but I’m glad I did.

Viennese Fingers
Adapted from the Dairy Book of Home Cooking

For the biscuits:
150g softened unsalted butter
50g icing sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
150g plain flour

For the butter icing:
50g softened unsalted butter
50g icing sugar

For the topping:
100g dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 160c. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

Beat together the butter, sugar and vanilla until the mixture is incredibly soft and whipped. You may need to zap the lot in the microwave for a few seconds to reach the desired level of softness, but be careful not to let it melt completely. Stir in the flour to make a soft dough.

Using a piping bag with a meringue nozzle, pipe lengths onto the baking paper – mine are about 6cm long – or alternatively you could make whirls. (Ideally you need a star nozzle but I only have a plain one.) Place in the oven and bake until lightly golden brown – between 12-15 minutes, depending on your oven and the size of your biscuits. Check them often to be sure that they do not burn. Remove from oven and leave to sit for five minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool.

For the buttercream, beat the butter and sugar together until very pale and fluffy. For the topping, break the chocolate into chunks and melt in the microwave – I do this by turning the microwave on in 30 second bursts.

To finish the biscuits, match your fingers up so that each pair is roughly the same size. Spread buttercream onto the inside of one biscuit and press the other half on top into a sandwich, then either dip one half in chocolate or drizzle over the top. Place on greaseproof paper to firm.

Makes about 10, depending on how big your piping is!

Viennese Fingers

Also this week:
Garden and allotment: The ‘lockdown’ (does anyone else really LOATHE the lexicon of this pandemic?) means that work continues on the shed, which I am delighted by. Sowed beans, sweetcorn, watercress and delphiniums.

Eating and cooking: Not been shopping for days given the lockdown, which means that eggs and flour have become luxury items. I am still in storecupboard mode. We’ve made some dodgy but edible bread, plus hummus, chicken and ham pie and more muffins. Matt’s had a go at potato farls.

Also: Crafting, farms, trains and play doh with Harry.