The drying room

As September draws to a close, summer still clings on. Chilly mornings herald blue-sky days; the roses are in second bloom and our house is filled with vase upon vase of brightly coloured cosmos, sunflower and dahlia. But the nights draw in early now, and the fire has been flipped on a few times – its role is to warm both the house but also our souls. As ever, with the outside world remaining as turbulent as it is, it is mindfulness of the moment, the season, the small things, that provide comfort. And my goodness, what a month to be outdoorsing it, with these glorious rich colours and an abundance of harvest.

September colour: cosmos, chrysanthemum, strawflower, dahlia, nasturtium

Last week Matt took the hops down, using a hammer and brute force to drop the hopolisk to ground-level. It’s a good harvest this year, the hops rich with resin. Perhaps one year we’ll actually turn them into beer but for now they remain an ornamental, and I take lengths of hop bine, twist them into lengths then leave them to dry for a few weeks, ready to decorate the house over winter.

The hopolisk is down!
Up close, the hops are resinous and fresh-scented
Our current regular harvest, awash with rich colour
I took bines of hops and twisted them into hanging lengths

The ‘sun room’ at home (that’s what the estate agents call it) has become the Drying Room, the perfect south-facing glass-fronted space for drying the harvest ready for the cooler months. Since the spring I’ve been saving bunches of flowers, notably the strawflower, hydrangea and alliums, but also dainty cornflowers and a few poppy heads, tying and hanging them upside down to slowly dry in the gentle sun. Come December I’ll twist them into garlands and wreaths, a bit of Christmas botanical creativity that costs nothing.

The drying room, filled with (L-R) hydrangea, strawflower, hops, allium, cornflower

It’s not just flowers though. The borlotti beans are piled into an old vegetable box, their leathery skins becoming hard and dry as the beans ripen. If podded before drying, the skins curl themselves into spirals – perhaps another addition to a winter display. Once they’re fully dried I’ll take the beans and pop them in glass jars to store.

Borlotti beans twist themselves into spirals when dry

Seeds can be preserved too. These sunflowers I cut a few weeks back and have left to desiccate so that I can get the seeds before the squirrels do – some to eat, but the rest to sow again for next year’s blooms.

Sunflower seeds ripening in the sun room

Then there’s the foraging harvest, the hips and haws that are at their best in late September and October. This weekend I hunted down rosehips and hawthorn berries (and a bag of sloes which I’ve ferreted away into the freezer), and they join the Drying Room action. It’s all an experiment really – I don’t know if they’ll dry well or not – and half the fun is seeing what works, finding the possibilities.

Hawthorn, rose hips and spruce join the drying flowers, ready to be turned into Christmas displays

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias (abundant), cosmos purity and dazzler, sunflowers (now in a second bloom), chrysanthemum, zinnia, cavolo nero, kale, first pumpkin Jill be Little, runner beans, raspberries.

Cooking and eating: Excellent roast lunch at the Plough and Harrow at Guarlford, first time in a pub in what feels like years. Fish tacos with fresh corn. Home-made deep pan pizza. Plum Eve’s pudding. The hunt for the perfect samosa continues with a trip to the sweet centres of Smethwick High St.

Also: Work is full on and there is a mental shift as I realise just how much of my professional life must adapt to the Covid world; it’s not a great time for the cultural sector and friends are losing their jobs. Yoga provides ballast. Lovely few days play-dating at Rowheath Pavillion, celebrating my Dad’s 75th birthday and foraging on Castlemorten Common.

Ice cream, she Mumbles

Allotmenting – and cooking for that matter – has taken a back seat for the last few weeks. After the storms blew over the best of the sunflowers and dahlias, I lost heart a little, and since then my time has been taken up with work (meetings now happening IN REAL LIFE! which is exciting but also exhausting after so long not seeing anyone), Harry’s birthday and a trip down to the Gower. Maybe it’s normal to get an energy dip at this time of year, with the days shortening and the light beginning to dim. But then this weekend the sun has come out and I realise that we’re not quite done with the season just yet – look at this basket of colour, harvested yesterday.

This week’s flower haul: dahlias, cosmos, sunflower, zinnia, chrysanthemum and dill

Once or twice a week I am gathering a flower haul like this, with multiple colours and shapes of dahlias, cosmos, sunflower, zinnia and chrysanthemum, and today I also added a few sprigs of lime-yellow dill to the basket. I place them in multiple vases in the dining room, the more clashing shades the better.

I place them in multiple vases in the dining room

This week Harry turned three, with not one but two birthday parties (in Corona-times we have to limit the numbers of people who can get together at once). I did consider making one of those 3D ambitious Thomas the Tank Engine cakes but sanity took over, and I stuck to the good old-fashioned chocolate tray bake with chocolate fingers and 100s and 1000s. To be clear, no matter how small the number of guests, a child’s birthday party is TIRING. I am deeply looking forward to Monday and a rest.

Harry’s small but fun birthday tea

But onto the ice cream referenced in the title. Last weekend we were in Mumbles at the edge of the Gower peninsula, hoping for a few days of peaceful rejuvenation amidst the sea air. Not a bit of it: in the six months since he last saw a beach, Harry has morphed from sand-phobic to CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF IT. I am rapidly having to rethink how we approach our forthcoming autumnal Cornwall holiday, for the usual cagoule-and-welly 30 minute beach experience is looking like it will become a full-day-outer needing buckets, spades, windbreaks, wet suits and thermos.

Afternoon light on the Gower
Sand meets sea meets sky on Rosilli beach

When one is knackered, and on holiday, there is always the promise of ice cream to keep energy levels up. And baked goods. And my goodness, do the Welsh deliver on the ice cream front. Verdi’s, on the Mumbles seafront, is an Italian cafe institution, serving up ice cream sundaes, semi-freddo cakes, custard slices (of which the Welsh are particularly partial, they were a regular feature in cafes) and proper coffee.

Ice cream sundaes, semi-freddo cake and cappuccino at Verdi’s

In fact, there are Italian-style cafes and ice cream parlours dotted across the Gower, and a little research tells me that this is A Thing. In the first half of the 20th century, immigrants from the small town of Bardi in the northern Italian mountains settled across South Wales, bringing cafe culture with them – and whilst many of these institutions have now closed, a few have stuck in out, passing businesses (and recipes) down the generations. This BBC article has more but what I would really like to do is take a road trip through the valleys, slurping my way through cappuccinos and gelatos, to find the true spirit of these independent Italian superstars for myself.

Also this week:
Harvesting: Cavolo nero, a scant handful of beans, raspberries, dahlias, chrysanthemum, cosmos, sunflowers, dill, zinnia. Also: Stripped back leaves from the bush tomatoes to let some light in, hoping for a few to ripen.

Cooking and eating: Birthday tea 1: chocolate cake, smoked salmon blinis, sausage rolls. Birthday tea 2: Full Tamworth buffet spread, my contribution was a mac and cheese with leeks and bacon and chicken wings marinated in yoghurt and ras al hanout. Baked porridge oats with blueberries, raspberries and coconut. Semi-freddo cake and ice cream sundaes at Verdi’s. Fresh mackerel and sardines bought from the fishmonger in Mumbles, butterflied and grilled, with fresh bread, salad and laverbread. Squishy focaccia sandwiches and chelsea buns from the Mumbles bakery.

Bullace & plum pudding-cake

We have tipped into Late Summer. I think this time, from late August to the start of October, is a season in its own right, a transition from one thing to the next, a time to celebrate the harvest whilst letting go of the busy-ness of the longest days. I used to feel sad at the onset of autumn but now it’s one of my favourite times of year…as summer’s end I finally get my days at the seaside (we never holiday during peak season, I’m usually busy with work), the light is gloriously golden, and the allotment, garden and kitchen is filled with rich colour: oranges, yellows, purples and reds.

We’ll be harvesting hops soon; their papery husks are filled with resiny fragrance. Not that I know what to do with them as we never get around to turning them into beer…perhaps this year we’ll use them as an outdoor cut flower display for the garden. Slightly more excitingly, for me at least, is the swelling of the borlotti beans: the irresistible hot pink pods open up to reveal rows of beautifully striped beans, which sadly turn to humble brown when cooked. I’ll freeze these fresh from the pods to use in chillis during the winter.

Hops are nearing their harvest time
The lurid pink borlotti beans nearing perfection

As ever, the courgettes quickly became a burden this year and I stopped harvesting them a few weeks ago. As a result we now have an abundance of whopper marrows, which I enjoy looking at if not eating. Next to them the autumn squash have become triffid-like, stretching their growing shoots to anywhere where they find space, and using the more sturdy of the dahlia plants as a climbing frame. Incidentally I never label my squash as I enjoy the mystery, come October, of finding out what we’ve got this year (I never remember what I have sown). Will it be a Turks Turban or a Jill Be Little?

A squash is using the dahlias as a climbing frame

The cut flower have held up well, considering the storms. Well, they are mostly now growing horizontally, but they’re still standing, so I take that as a small victory. This year we have an abundance of hot pinks and oranges, with the chrysanthemum, dahlias and straw flower putting on particularly flamboyant shows.

Clashing shades of chrysanthemum
Hot colours of strawflower
Cut flowers still standing, despite the storms

Traditionally at harvest time, growers would store their hard-won produce and then sell or give-away any excess – this exchange would fill up holes in one’s own supply. It’s an age-old habit that still exists now, and this week I have happily exchanged sunflowers for tomatoes, raspberries for damsons. Alex’s black tomatoes, still warm from the greenhouse, are big enough to carve and eat with a knife and fork – and I did just that, anointing them with olive oil, salt and a sprinkling of dill. Late august perfection.

A regular late summer harvest

The damsons demanded some cooking, however. Now I say damsons but I am pretty sure that these little black beauties are actually bullace, which is a type of wild plum, indigenous to the British Isles. They came from my friend Hannah’s back garden and indeed there is debate in her house as to whether they have damsons or bullace. Either way, they are as seasonal to late summer as asparagus is to May. Incidentally, I would never want to buy a damson – to me they are a foraging food, or at least one that should be scavenged from a friend’s orchard or a neighbour’s tree, leaving fingers stained purple and legs sore with nettle stings. A damson that arrives at the kitchen wrapped in plastic is going against the natural order of things.

I stewed the damsons/bullace with a handful of plums in just a little water and sugar until soft, then picked out the little hard stones, a laborious but essential job. They create a syrup the colour of lipstick. Top with a basic sponge batter and a sprinkling of flaked almonds, and you have the perfect late summer pudding.

Plum and bullace just starting to burst their skins
Simmer until the juices flow freely, then top with sponge batter and bake
Plum & bullace pudding cake

Plum & bullace pudding cake
The bullace can be exchanged for plums or damsons. The amount of sugar needed will vary according to the ripeness of your fruit – an unripe damson can taste like sucking a battery, but a ripe one can be lusciously sweet.

About 500g plums, bullace, damsons or a mixture of the three
Water
Sugar

For the sponge:
100g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter, softened
100g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
flaked almonds, for sprinkling

First prepare your fruit. If using plums or damsons, halve them and remove the stones. The bullace can be cooked whole. Place in a lidded pan with a splash of water and sugar to taste – I would start with 2 tablespoons and add more if required. Simmer the fruit until soft and the juices run, about 5-10 minutes. Leave to cool then fish out any stones.

Grease an oven-proof dish that is of a suitable size to take your fruit and sponge. Using a slatted spoon, transfer the fruit to the dish, keeping any juices in the pan. Return the pan to the heat and reduce the juices down to make a syrup, then pour this over your fruit. Set aside whilst you make the sponge.

Preheat the oven to 180c.

In a bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time with a spoonful of flour, beat to combine, then beat in the remaining flour, baking powder and vanilla extract. When fully combined spoon the batter onto the fruit, then smooth the top and sprinkle with flaked almonds.

Bake for about 45 minutes until golden and set firm. Cool slightly before serving.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Roast lamb and dauphinoise potatoes, the first truly autumnal dinner of the season. Shepherds pie with the leftovers. Spaghetti with tomatoes and runner beans. Jam turnovers. Baked pancakes with blueberries. Korean vegetable pancakes, hot with gochujang.

Harvesting: TONS of raspberries, I have no freezer space left. Plus chard, dahlias, cosmos, chrysanthemum, ammi, zinnia, marigolds. A few beans but they’re over now really.

Also: Upping my fitness with Jessica Ennis-Hill’s HIIT app, which is leaving me a sweaty mess but is fun, plus weekly yoga with Mel.

Rain stops play

It’s been a week of gales, rain, intermittent sunshine…and a rat attack. On last week’s only sunny day I took Harry to Bourton House in the Cotswolds to take a look at their famous summer garden. The planting was amazing of course – though it’s hard to take anything in when running after a sprinting two year old – but actually it was the use of wood that caught my eye. Just look at the incredible shadows created in this shade house, and the magic quality of the kinetic sculpture in the meadow.

The shade house at Bourton House, Bourton on the Hill
Kinetic sculpture in the woodland walk

A quick trip to my parents’ yesterday wielded another bootful of goodies. Corns, fennel, carrots, beans, spinach, and 14 castaway snails that I rescued from the sink, one by one. Apparently it’s been “a crap year for growing” (direct quote) but I am not sure that my Dad truly understands what crap is. My folks have been spoilt by years of living with tons of space and a protected walled garden – this isn’t as posh as it sounds, believe me, but the result is that even a massive harvest of corns is considered substandard. It occurred to me later that these children of the 1940s were possibly the first generation to grow things purely for pleasure rather than necessity, but the cultural memory of growing for need lives on. These days the winter store cupboard can always be replenished by a trip to the shops, but the age-old instinct of the country people to squirrel away the harvest for winter remains. I share this instinct, of course, and so the freezer is now full of sweetcorn, raspberries, blackberries, sliced apples…the list goes on.

Apparently it’s been “a crap year for growing” says my Dad, whilst hauling two buckets of corn and giant fennel bulbs
Corn being prepped for freezing, a still life

It’s a good job that my parents’ “terrible” corn harvest has still yielded extras, for on the allotment mine has been obliterated by rats. Or maybe mice. Whoever the culprit, they took their fill then scarpered, leaving only the evidence of a feast.

Corn left desolate after attack of the rats/mice

In fact, it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs down there after the terrible winds and heavy rain of the weekend. Two sunflowers completely capsized, and the rest are growing horizontally, their bronze faces battered with wind burn. The new dahlias also took a beating, and I make a mental note to stake them properly next year. I think there is still a few weeks of cutting left but the real high point of summer has surely passed and it’s sad to lose the best of the crop so early. Like vegetables, I have started to think of my flowers as seasonal friends, here for a few short weeks and then gone again for another year. When they leave, I feel genuine sadness.

At least two sunflower plants have been lost in the weekend winds, and the rest are leaning on the wonk
Dahlias flattened in the wind – the lesson, next year we stake

I’ve been distracted this week with the nature of things, post-lockdown. Apparently there is a term for people like me, who have seen their income drop by a mile due to Covid-19: we are the nouveau-skint. Actually I don’t have a problem with it per se – as long as there is food on the table and a roof over the head, that is what counts – but as I’ve emerged from the lockdown bubble, what has also re-emerged is that nagging feeling that I should still be achieving everything at the same time. Earning a living whilst keeping work interesting, renovating the house, sorting the garden, coming up with amazing things to do with Harry, getting fitter/stronger/healthier, working out what I think about 21st century feminism/decolonialisation/race relations, writing my book, the list goes on.

The problem is that all the other domestic stuff gets in the way, things like getting the boiler fixed, doing the Aldi shop (nouveau-skint, no Waitrose anymore), mopping the floor, sorting the allotment aftermath of the weekend winds. Last week I had an 8am Zoom with colleagues in Pakistan and then promptly turned round and scrubbed the bathroom. This is the reality of the educated working mother. We are the central rock around which everything else revolves.

And then yesterday I was given this picture of my Granddad, taken some time in the 1940s when he would have been around my age. Ivor Yapp works the fields of Herefordshire, ploughing the dense clay earth with his horses – apparently to use three horses with your plough was unusual and meant the land is particularly solid. It’s a picture that asks many questions. Who took this photo? For what purpose? What’s this lone farm-hand thinking of as he walks miles a day, earning a few bob to keep his wife and children in coal and bread? You can almost hear the silence on this image, punctuated only by the snorts of horses, squeak of plough, sqwark of crows.

My grandfather Kenneth Yapp ploughs Herefordshire fields, 1940s

Would this man be able to imagine how the working world could change so quickly in two generations? Our society has transformed in less than 80 years to a place of hyper-speed, hyper-connectedness and so much NOISE. No wonder the adults are knackered and no wonder the kids and teenagers are confused. I think this is why I put so much time and effort into growing things and cooking things, even if they don’t turn out quite as planned. It’s a connection to a shared history, a previous life. Amidst all the nonsense of the 21st century, it is a return to the elemental.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Plums, eating and stewing for the freezer; also freezing blackberries, raspberries, apples, blueberries, spinach.
Harvesting: Sunflowers, dahlias, cosmos, ammi, calendula, amaranth, delphinium, courgettes (marrows really), spinach, chard, french beans.
Also: Reading Still Life by Elizabeth Luard, her account of travelling Eastern and Northern Europe in the 1990s to learn of peasant cooking.

Peach and amaretto ice cream

High summer is upon us. This has meant a few days of treacherously hot, heavy weather, broken with restless thunder and incredible forked lightening. Now we’ve lulled back into good old comfortable drizzle and mist – grey skies being the true constant feature of an English summer in the Midlands. Already there is the sense of nature drying out and crinkling up.

Yesterday we headed the other side of the city to Castle Bromwich gardens, a 17th century walled garden placed rather ignominiously beside the M6 and underneath the flightpath to Birmingham International Airport. It’s a gem of a find. Come August there is little I enjoy more than checking out someone else’s veg patch, and these marrows planted in a parterre style are certainly impressive. These cornflowers also caught the eye for their unusual shades of pink and purple, more fun than the normal blue and white.

The kitchen garden at Castle Bromwich Walled Garden
Cornflowers in shades of pink, plum and indigo

On my veg patch, or should I say flower farm, we have reached peak abundance. The dahlias are sensational this year; they must enjoy the full sun of our plot. Likewise we have armfuls of sunflowers and chrysanthemums, marigolds, tansy and strawflower.

Brassicas, squash and corn thriving amidst the cut flowers

This year I have sown ammi visnaga for the first time, a stubbier version of the more common ammi majus, and it’s quietly magnificent. On its own it is elegant, with lime green to white shades, but when placed with other stems it makes their colours shout louder. Also it doesn’t drop seeds and fluff everywhere, which is always a bonus. Highly recommend.

Ammi visnaga and cosmos purity are now coming into their own
We’re getting towards the jungle stage

I’m also enjoying this sunflower, whose name I do not know as I think it has come out of a Seeds of Italy mix. I’m planning to leave this head on the stem in order to harvest the seeds in a few weeks time so that next year I can grow more. The sunflowers are always covered in bees, no matter what time of day I visit, and it makes them impossible to cut for who has the heart to steal their nectar?

The un-named sunflower, a magnet for insects

With high summer comes a surplus of stone fruit in the supermarket, most of it – let’s face it – bruised and still rock hard. It is nigh on impossible to get a really good peach in this country, they usually need to be nudged along into softness. A peach that is picked before it is ripe will never become truly sweet, so the best thing is to poach them in syrup (stones and all) and then use them in cooking. Poaching stone fruit with their skins and stones intact gives the most glorious sunset colours; add a strip of lemon peel or a few bay leaves and you are whisked away to an Italian terrace.

This peach and amaretto ice cream is just the thing for those meltingly hot days where you’d rather be dipping into the sea around Amalfi. Incidentally, this is yet another ice that doesn’t need eggs, and I am coming to the conclusion that the very best fruit ice creams are the simplest: fruit, sugar and cream is all that’s required. A splash of booze helps to keep the ice cream smooth, but is by no means essential. You do need an ice cream machine, however.

Peach and amaretto ice cream
Makes about 1 pint. You need an ice cream machine and a stick blender or food processor.

5 small peaches, rock hard is fine
150g granulated sugar
150ml water
150ml double cream
25ml amaretto
icing sugar, optional

Halve the peaches but you can leave the stones and skins intact. In a shallow pan, melt the sugar into the water, then add the peaches and bring to a slow simmer. Put the lid on and poach the fruit for 5-10 minutes, until soft. Leave to cool, fish out the stones and skins, then blitz to a puree using a stick blender or in a food processor. Chill the mixture thoroughly before attempting the next stage.

When the fruit is quite cold, stir in the cream and add a shot of amaretto. Have a taste and if it needs to be sweeter, stir in a spoonful of seived icing sugar (remember that ice cream looses its sweetness when frozen). Transfer the lot to your ice cream machine and churn into a soft peachy mass. When it’s done, move the ice cream to a tub and freeze until firm. Remove from the freezer for fifteen minutes or so to soften before serving.

Peach & amaretto ice cream – as usual, no pretty sundae pictures here, just ice cream in a tub

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias, ammi, cosmos, sunflowers, marigold, delphinium, strawflower, amaranthus, chrysanthemum, tansy, raspberries, blueberries, spinach, chard, courgettes, chard, dwarf beans.

Cooking & eating: Roast chicken with runner beans and roasted potatoes, carrots and fennel; pancakes with fresh raspberries, cinnamon buns; vegetable curry using home-grown veg.

Doing: Elford Walled Gardens, Castle Bromwich Walled Garden, moving back into my office after a 5 month renovation.

Raspberry and apple kuchen

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I’ve been in a fug all week. No, longer than a week. Aimless, listless. Work feels like treacle, with contracts ending or not happening in the first place, a general feeling of tetchiness, and nothing new on the horizon. The state of the world seems to get worse. And this grey, humid, drizzly weather! Today I’ve decided to press ‘reset’, with time dedicated to Harry, a bit of cooking, staying away from Instagram and all the rest. I’m reminding myself of Elizabeth Luard’s observation that in peasant societies, money is a crop like any other…when it fails, it’s not the end of the world provided that there’s still other crops to fall back on. I love this idea as it reminds us that our professional lives are not our only indicator of worth, a notion that sadly is indoctrinated into us from Day 1 at university. To be a freelancer in the arts is to take the rough with the smooth.

And Lord knows there are PLENTY of other crops going on at the moment. Courgettes, of course, and amazing dahlias, sunflowers, achillea, cosmos, marigolds, blackberries, raspberries, a few potatoes. I was feeling pretty smug about my efforts until I was beckoned over to Martin’s plot last Saturday, to be greeted with a field of cabbages, purple sprouting, cauliflowers and sprouts. These are whopping prize-winning specimens! I was kindly offered a cabbage and cauli to take home, which are now taking up the entire top shelf of the fridge. There’s no room for them in the veg drawer because that is filled with my parents’ efforts – aubergines, peppers – and my courgette glut. I’ve spent the morning roasting sliced courgettes, peppers and aubergines in a blisteringly hot oven before bottling with olive oil, fresh marjoram, red wine vinegar and chilli flakes.

Martin with his whopping 10lb cabbage

I escaped from my desk for a few hours on Tuesday to take a look at the potatoes, which we planted in March and then completely ignored. No mounding up or watering or anything like that. And blow me there’s a crop! It’s not magnificent but there are few things more satisfying than forking up a mound of pale round spuds from black soil.

Digging spuds this week

The cut flowers are at their zenith now, with an incredible display of dahlias and the cheery sunflowers, their colours ranging from yellow and gold to copper and brown.

Sunflowers are the star of August cut flowers

This week the raspberries started cropping, along with the first blackberries of which we’re going to get a bumper crop. I was also gifted a bag of early apples, a sight that reminds us that summer will soon be on the way out. Carpe diem, seize the day: this apple and raspberry kuchen makes the most of late summer fruit but can be adapted through the year to use whatever’s in season (or use up whatever’s lurking in the freezer).

Raspberry and apples stud the top of the enriched-dough base

A kuchen is a Germanic sweet bake, not dissimilar in concept to a sweet focaccia, where an enriched bread base is glazed then topped with fruit and sugar before baking. It can also be iced or topped with a crumble or streusel. It’s lovely for breakfast but also as a snack during the day, and as it’s full of eggs and fruit, I consider it a health food. Do eat it up within a day or two, as it won’t keep well.

Raspberry and apple kuchen

Raspberry and apple kuchen
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess

350g strong white bread flour
3g fine salt
50g caster sugar
5g easy blend yeast
2 large eggs
grated zest of half a lemon
grating fresh nutmeg
125ml milk
50g unsalted butter

For the topping:
1 large egg
1 tablespoon cream or creme fraiche
1 tsp cinnamon
2 apples
handful raspberries
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp demerara sugar

You’ll need an ovenproof dish – I use a 8 inch flan dish but a brownie pan would also be fine. Make sure it’s well greased with butter.

Mix the flour, yeast, salt, sugar, lemon and nutmeg together in a large bowl. Melt the butter into the milk, leave to cool slightly, then beat in the eggs. Tip the lot into the flour and use a plastic scraper to combine into a rough dough. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Form into a ball, cover with a cloth and leave to prove for about 2 hours, until puffy and risen.

For the topping, mix the egg into the cream with a fork, then stir in the cinnamon. Peel, core and dice the apples.

Preheat the oven to 200c. When the dough is ready, ease it into your prepared pan – gently does it – then press it in to reach the sides. Spread the egg glaze over the top, scatter on the fruit, then the sugar. Place in the oven and turn the temperature down to 180c. Bake for about 40 minutes, until risen and golden. Cool slightly before eating.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Courgettes, squash, a few beans, spinach beet, chard, blackberries, raspberries, dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos, achillea, chrysanthemums, delphinium, marigold, strawflower, last sweetpeas. Gifted harvests of green peppers, beetroot, tomatoes, aubergine, apples, cabbage, cauliflowers, runner beans.

Cooking and eating: Roasted courgette, peppers and aubergine which I marinate in olive oil, red wine vinegar, chilli flakes and fresh marjoram – great kept in the fridge for easy snacks. Moussaka with my Dad’s aubergine. Courgette cream pasta.

Reading: Normal People by Sally Rooney, a few years late on this one. Dipping into Buddhist texts to get me back on track.

Best-in-show blackcurrant jam

Finally the allotment has come to fullness. June always surprises me with how sparse it looks, but by the end of July, it’s a jungle. The courgettes have doubled in size in the last fortnight, and the squash are sending out exploratory shoots studded with yellow flowers. The self-seeded borage literally hums with bees, and the dahlias are full of whopping dinner-plate blooms. We have yet more new allotment neighbours and as they steadily hack away at their bindweed and other nasties, there’s a quiet happy sense of communal endeavour.

The difference a few weeks make: the plot has transformed from sparse to a jungle
The self-sown borage literally hums with bees
Sweet peas are cropping again in abundance

This year I tried a few new varieties in the cut flower patch. The amaranthus is a big success, with frothy plum-coloured foliage, and this new type of sunflower (can’t even remember the name) is just fabulous, a green centre framed with fluffy petals finished off with a halo of yellow.

This sunflower and the amaranthus are new additions to the cut flower patch for 2020

The summer cooking continues. Those blackberries I mentioned were turned into a frangipane tart, and there’s also been salads of courgette, summer squash and toasted sweetcorn, made fragrant with allspice.

The blackcurrants were turned into a frangipane tart

Baking can only take us so far through the summer harvest though; it’s time to get preserving, bottling and jamming in time for winter. For previous generations this was necessary for survival and whilst times are more generous now, it’s a tradition that I enjoy. There is something very grounding about making jam.

Happily for me, my room-mate from university is a genuine prize-winning jam maker. Way back in the heady days before children and mortgages, Kerry’s blackcurrant jam won Best in Show – BEST IN SHOW – at the Quainton Village Show. This is an achievement not to be underestimated: a 29 year old stole the show away from ladies twice her age. Not just any ladies either: these were HOME COUNTIES ladies, ladies who are stalwarts of the WI. It was phenomenal. A decade later, Kerry’s still the person to go to when you want advice on jam.

Kerry clutching her Best in Show commemorative plate at the Quainton Show 2009

My jams always tend to be a bit, erm, ‘jammy’ for my liking, heavy-set and sweet, but Kerry’s are soft-set and with a balance of acidity to stop them being cloying. For want of a better word, they taste really ‘contemporary’. But it turns out that she turns to another jam queen for advice, no other than Marguerite Patten and her Jams, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook. There’s no date on this recipe but judging from the cover-picture it’s ancient.

Kerry’s secret recipe actually comes from Marguerite Patten

Marguerite’s (and Kerry’s) trick is to include a good amount of water with the blackcurrants and sugar, and not just rely on the blackcurrant juice. Genius. My trick, not pictured here, is to sterilise the jam jars in the Tommee Teepee baby bottle microwave steriliser, so much easier than faffing around with boiling water and kettles. From then on it’s all easy. Oh and if you’re picking your own blackcurrants, make sure that you pick out all the stalks and leaves from the fruit, a lengthy but utterly essential job.

Blackcurrant Jam
From Marguerite Patten’s Jams, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook. Makes 4 x 300g jars.

450g blackcurrants – make sure any stalks and leaves are removed
450ml water
550g granulated sugar

Prepare your jam jars, ensuring they are spotlessly clean and sterilised. I use glass jars with screw-on lids rather than the old-fashioned waxed paper/cellophane lids, as they can be completely sterilised and therefore there is less likelihood of the jam going bad.

In a stock pot or small jam kettle, place the fruit and water and bring to a simmer. Cook until the fruit bursts. Tip in the sugar and stir until it melts. Bring to a simmer and cook until the jam reaches setting point – use a jam thermometer for this. Leave to cool slightly then pour into your still-warm jars. Seal and store.

Blackcurrants, sugar and water transform into a shiny deep purple preserve
Blackcurrant jam ready for storing

Also this week:

Harvesting: Courgettes, summer squash, green beans, spinach, blueberries, dahlias, sunflowers, amaranthus, sweet peas, marigolds.

Cooking and eating: Blackberry frangipane tart, sweetcorn and courgette warm salad, chicken chilli, plums straight from the punnet.

Watching: Mrs America. Important, pertinent and all with great outfits.

Red gooseberry ice cream

It’s mid-July and the glut is starting to hit. Not that much of it has been grown by me, of course; I do get a glut of cut flowers and courgettes but that’s always about it. No, this glut is the result of greedy farm shop purchases plus generous gifting from my mum and dad’s veg patch, and a spot of judicious shopping from Aldi (a supermarket that is surprisingly good for summer produce).

The bright late summer cut-flowers are starting: chrysanthemum, strawflower and achillea
The allotment is reaching its cut-flower peak

In my kitchen currently I have: punnets of plums, strawberries, blackberries and peaches; a massive bowl of red gooseberries, a juicy cantaloupe melon sliced and topped with blueberries from the shrub outside the back door, three aubergines, five green peppers, a bag of French beans, a bag of chard, another bag of spinach beet, a kohlrabi, an overflowing plate of tomatoes and several courgettes (erm maybe a marrow). This week there has also been raspberries, bulb fennel, beetroot and young carrots. Outside there are pots of basil, marjoram, tarragon and leaf fennel; there should be lettuce too, but the snails got there first.

What can be more joyous than whole boxes of summer fruits and veg? The box at the back was grown by my mum and dad, the stuff at the front is from Hillers farm shop
Late strawberries meet early plum and blackberries

And so begins my annual trawl through the cook books to find new things to do with all this loot, because one thing I REALLY don’t want to do is spend hours prepping it, stick it in the freezer, forget about it for a year, then chuck it out. (No judgment, everyone with a productive fruit and veg patch does this.)

These days I don’t have much space for wafting around the kitchen creating fun new dishes – no one ever tells you just how much time pre-schoolers take up – but one evening this week, after work, teatime, bath time, Tree Fu Tom, Big Red Bath, Katie and the Dinosaurs and bed time, I found myself, glass in hand, sitting down to top and tail this lot.

Homegrown red gooseberries getting topped and tailed

Thomasina Miers posted a recipe on Instagram for red gooseberry ice cream a few days back, spiked with grappa, orange and proper vanilla. Thus inspired, I’ve come up with this version, which is full of the flavours of the English summer. The grappa is replaced by blackberry gin, and elderflower cordial takes the place of vanilla.

The method is simple enough and can be adapted to so many summer fruits (see my blackcurrant ice cream). Take your prepped gooseberries, bubble them up with elderflower cordial until soft, add the gin and sugar, then blitz to a puree. Push through a sieve and chill until quite cold, then fold in whipped cream and churn to freeze.

Gooseberry puree spiked with elderflower cordial and blackberry gin
Churn the puree with cream, then freeze until firm. I know I should post a picture of a perfect ball of pink ice cream in a dainty glass dish, but in this house we eat it straight from the tub.

It’s rich, of course, but the acidity of the gooseberries stops it being cloying. The alcohol helps to keep the ice cream smooth but you can leave it out if you prefer. These cream-based ices don’t last so long, so eat this one up within a few weeks. Now…what to do with those blackberries?!

Red gooseberry ice cream

500g red gooseberries (you could use green but you may need more sugar)
1 tbsp water
2 tbsp elderflower cordial
140g granulated sugar
50ml blackberry gin (or other suitable spirit)
250ml double cream

Top and tail the gooseberries. Tip them into a pan with the water and elderflower, then cook gently for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the sugar and gin. Blitz in the blender or with a stick blender until smooth. Push through a sieve and chill until quite cold. Stir in the cream then churn in your ice cream machine, or use the stir-freeze method. Pop in the freezer to set hard. Remove about thirty minutes before you want to eat to soften.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias, calendula, nasturtium, first sunflowers, achillea, last sweet peas, cornflowers, first chrysanthemums, first strawflower. The soft flowers of June are giving way to lurid carnival brights of late summer. First courgettes, a few French beans and spinach beet leaves. Took up final broad beans. Onions are ready and we need to have a poke around the potatoes. Have had to put cages over the 6 nepeta plants to stop the neighbourhood cats destroying them.

Cooking and eating: A tart of puff pastry topped with harrisa, sliced roast aubergine and feta. Summer minestrone (no tomatoes, just greens). Lemon and blueberry drizzle cake. Matt’s beef shin, beer and mushroom pie. Plums straight from the punnet.

Reading: Nothing of note. I am desperate for the library to re-open. We’re watching Toy Story at least once a day.

Also: Renovation of the office continues and I’ve decided that the bathroom is next.

Chocolate mini milks

I’ve been remiss in documenting this year’s allotment, mainly because progress has been slow and steady and therefore not very dramatic to photograph. Plus we have new neighbours whose efforts put me to shame (that’s retirement for you). Something has flipped in me this year though, because the self-seeded plants who have set up home on our allotment have become friends rather than foes. Last year, everything felt like a struggle, partly because I was running a festival and HAD NO TIME. This year it’s a wee bit more relaxed, though I’m only spending an hour or two a week down there and I can only do what’s possible in the time I have. The thistles and groundsel I do remove, but there’s no point fighting the borage, nasturtium, mullein and poppies. The pollinators love them and actually their colour and form are welcome elements to this year’s allotment (I have harvested some poppy seed heads for drying). Even those annoying brambles are swelling with the promise of a bumper crop of blackberries.

Perhaps because of my tardiness, the broad beans have been fine but no major success this year. They are full of weeds and I do wonder if they needed less competition. It’s a similar story with the climbing beans, whose base are overrun with nasturtium. I think the Cobra will do OK, but the purple and borlotti beans are sluggish. We will get a crop but it will be late, partly because my first set of plants were zapped by that late April frost so these are Maytime afterthoughts. The runner beans, incidentally, have completely vanished, which makes me wonder if I planted any in the first place. I’ll pop some seeds directly into the ground next time I visit, in hope of an autumn bean surge.

The long view, with bean sticks, squash plants, sweetcorn and amaranthus. Also plenty of self-sown ‘weeds’ – borage, nasturtium and poppy.

The things that we leave alone often do the best. The dahlias were over-wintered in the allotment, I never water them, and they are now the biggest plants on the plot. There is something to be said for leaving tubers in situ. They are just now beginning to give a crop, as are the new tubers planted last month on the gritty thin soil at the top of the path.

The March-sown corn plants with dahlias behind

The onions have become fat, their leaves beginning to flop, and next to them – miraculously – we have a line of pale green parsnip seedlings that finally germinated on the third attempt.

onions, leeks and tiny parsnips plus some hastily planted zinnia to plug the gaps

August’s cut flowers will be dominated by cosmos, chrysanthemums, ammi and sunflowers. The sweet peas are fading now, their velvet shades become mottled as they give up the ghost.

Ammi visnaga and cosmos, with chrysanths and strawflower behind plus the inevitable self-seeders mullein and poppies
sweet peas, nasturtium and cornflower
Sunflowers are romping away now

The hop is one of those plants that is hidden in plain sight. It’s so part of the furniture that I rarely see it these days, only to look up last week and notice that one bine has collapsed under its own weight.

A bine has collapsed on the hopolisk

Because of my transformed attitude to weeds, plus the success of this year’s planting plan (every inch of ground is covered with something), the July allotment is a pleasure rather than the burden that it was threatening to become. The crops are coming weekly but in small number, which doesn’t make for good photos but does make for a more manageable life. We’re talking a courgette and a bag of broad beans a week, leaves from the trug at home, plus a few berries and two or three vases of flowers. Come August all this will change of course and the glut will hit.

The regular haul of sweet peas, cornflower, nasturtium plus first dahlias and cosmos

Do you remember when it was warm? No I don’t either but I have pictorial evidence that, just a few weeks ago, the sun shone. At these time I become one of those highly irritating super women who produces home-made ice lollies for her offspring. (Don’t be fooled by this, because the rest of the time he exists on chocolate buttons and Aldi’s own-brand Ritz biscuits.) These chocolate mini milks are really easy and use up those smushy black bananas that are always lurking in the fruit bowl. They’re also a good way of getting milk inside him disguised as a treat.

You’ll need a blender and some lolly moulds. Little hands can join in, but make sure they know which end of the lolly handles to put into the moulds…

Remember to put your lolly sticks in the correct way up

Chocolate mini milks

In a blender, whizz together 1 banana, 1 tsp cocoa powder, 2 tsp icing sugar and about 200ml milk. Pour into lolly moulds and freeze.

Chocolate mini milks

Also this week:

Harvesting: last broad beans, first courgette, lettuce, rocket, blackcurrants, blueberries, alpine strawberries, cornflower, sweet peas, dahlia, first sunflower, nasturtium, poppies. Also finding peaches, nectarines, plums, strawberries and red/white currants in the shops and farmer’s market.

Cooking and eating: Nectarine, plum and strawberry crumble. Inevitably, pasta prima vera with courgette and broad beans. Chicken marinated with Moroccan spice mix, yoghurt and garlic, roasted in a HOT oven and served with chopped salads, yoghurt and chips. Toscakaka. Black banana cake.

Also: Reading the biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Working back at full tilt without ever feeling any richer. Slow but steady progress on the office renovation. Taking Harry for his first hair cut since February, and then only because his fringe had become and health and safety issue.

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.