Apple cinnamon pancakes

We’ve slipped into the dark now, it’s black before 6pm. It’s not cold – far from it – but damp, dank. The warmness of the last few weeks is unnerving. It’s one thing having record-breaking hot days in July, quite another to be pushing 20c when the Halloween decorations are up. When the rain holds off there is consolation in the glorious colours of the season. The air smells of leaves and moss.

It was half-term last week, and there was barely time to take a breath, what with daytrips, parties and playdates. Plus for some reason I’ve been struck with the need for autumn-cleaning, scrubbing every surface, shining windows and shampooing carpets. Which is difficult when much of the floor is covered with lego, marble run and train tracks.

Half term looked mainly like this

The warm and the rain and the school holiday means there’s been not much allotmenting. I started the mass clear out back on 9th October, stripping down sunflower stalks, bean supports and the enormous courgette plants. But the soil is just not ready to be fully covered yet – the cosmos are still magnificent, and the chrysanthemums are finally coming into their own.

Starting the yearly clear up – 9 October
Look at the detritus of grass and weeds that was hiding beneath the beans and courgette plants

On Sunday I picked an armful of Chrysanthemum ‘starburst’ plus – unbelievably – several dahlias, which are still coming and show no sign of giving up yet. In a few weeks we’ve gone from colours of summer to colours of autumn.

Squash, dahlias, chrysanths – colours of autumn
A magnificent harvest of starburst chrysanthemums this year

Speaking of autumn, it’s the perfect time to stock up on English apples, and these pancakes a very agreeable way of using them up. It’s a simple pancake batter, augmented with a grated apple or two, and warmed with cinnamon. I like this kind of simple, economical baking – plus the whole family will eat them, which is a bonus. Whisk them up in seconds, scoff on a Sunday morning, then any leftovers are very nice as a Monday snack with your morning coffee.

Apple and cinnamon pancakes

Apple and cinnamon pancakes
Serves 3-4 people

Place 200g plain flour, 1 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1 tbsp caster sugar and 1 heaped tsp ground cinnamon in a bowl. Using a box grater, grate in 1 or 2 small eating apples (there’s no need to peel them). Crack 2 eggs into the bowl, splash in 150ml milk, then whisk the lot together with a balloon whisk. It will start off looking lumpy and unpromising, but after a few seconds will come together nicely. Stop when the batter looks smooth.

In a non-stick frying or crepe pan, melt a good knob of salted butter, then stir this into your batter. Then it’s just a question of cooking the pancakes – dollop tablespoons of batter into the hot pan, cook until browned on the bottom, flip, cook a little more, then whip them out. Keep going until all the batter is used up, then just gobble them up. I think these are best with golden syrup.

Also this month:
Harvesting: Cavolo nero, chard, chrysanthemums, dahlias. Could be harvesting cosmos but I’m bored of it now.
Also: Began clearing allotment. Pruned shrubs in garden (yes I know it’s the wrong time of year). The forced paperwhite narcissus and amaryllis are poking heads through the compost.
Cooking & eating: Apple pancakes. Gingerbread. Black bean and chorizo chilli. Baked squash. Cauliflower and chorizo cheese. Enjoying a glass of red wine for first time in about six years.
Also: A visit to Ludlow to stock the freezer up with pheasants, veal, beef ribs, sausage, bacon and duck. Space Centre in Leicester. Batsford Arboretum. Cleaning every surface and ordered a new sofa to replace the one that Gertrude has destroyed. Attempting to not allow the permanent political and economic crisis to bring us down: ordered my Christmas turkey, which is 15% more expensive than last year, but at least we can afford to get a turkey in the first place.

Beef in beer

The lawn is confettied with golden leaves and the seed heads are helicoptering down from our neighbour’s tree. There’s no denying that autumn is here – though the air is still warm, days are marked with wind and drizzle. After the brief summer of shorts-and-t-shirts, I’m back to wearing two jumpers and ancient socks. It’s OK. August was so busy, and September rather trying, so a slow October is called for. I think I always go through a mourning period at this time of year, in denial that summer (and with it all that LIFE!) has gone. There’s a few weeks of learning to let go, and more so this year because school starting was such a shock to our normal way of doing things.

Having said all that, it’s not winter yet, not that you’d know it from a trip to the supermarket. Waitrose is already flogging Lindt Santas, and guess what’s made its yearly appearance in our kitchen, a good month earlier than normal. Aldi stollen and panettone – staple winter carbs in our house – are back. I welcome them with open arms.

Panettone and stollen have made their arrival to the kitchen a good month earlier than normal

This warm-yet-autumnal weather means it’s time to harvest the squash. This year I planted out 10 plants of a few varieties – an ornamental gourd mix, a few crown prince, a few black fatsu, and a few pumpkin. The fatsu disappeared without trace, but the gourds thrived. This week I harvested a box full, plus a few crown prince and a fat halloween pumpkin. Given the hot dry weather in August, and the general neglect that I expect all my allotment plants to tolerate, it’s a good haul.

Grow your own halloween – mixed gourds, crown prince squash and a pumpkin

Of course the flowers are still coming, the dahlias in particular enjoying the recent wet. Cosmos are hanging on, and the chrysanthemums are now thinking about putting on a show. The colour of late September and early October is magenta, with the amaranth, cosmos and dahlias making a striking contrast with the borlotti beans and autumn raspberries.

Magenta hues of amaranth, borlotti beans, cosmos and dahlias

The hops are past harvesting for beer now but I’ve taken a few strands for drying, for Christmas displays. Their soporific scent fills the sunroom.

A few hops for winter arrangements

A word of note for the sunflowers, which struggled to get going this year but come September claimed their magnificence. All of these are the side shoots from one single plant, which sadly got blown down in last week’s high winds. It’s decline warns me that it’s time to get tidying up, clearing away the summer debris before the cold comes, but I can’t quite find the energy just yet.

Late September vases

I’m hankering after ‘proper’ food again. Slow cooking, big flavours, made from an hour or two pottering in the kitchen. A few weeks back we were having grilled sardines with tomatoes, but now we’ve tipped to autumn bowl food. Last weekend we made a monkfish curry with a Goan recheado spice paste. And this week I want something from closer to home: beef in beer it is. You can veer to the Belgian-style Carbonnade if you want to with the addition of mustard and juniper, but I keep it plainly Anglo-Saxon: beef, beer, onions, mushrooms and stock are all that you need. Cook it low and slow, and float a few dumplings on the top to finish.

Beef in beer with onions and mushrooms

Beef in beer
Serves 4

Oil
2 large onions, finely sliced
300g mushrooms (white or chestnut), thinly sliced
800g (two supermarket packs) braising steak, diced
1 dessertspoon plain flour
1 heaped teaspoon tomato puree
1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
Thyme leaves picked from 3-4 stalks
400ml beer or pale ale – I used Old Speckled Hen
2 low-salt beef stock cubes – I use Kallo
Hot water
Salt and pepper

In a heavy-bottomed casserole, heat the oil and fry the onions with a large pinch of salt on a low heat until very soft and slightly golden. Don’t rush this stage. It can take up to 30 minutes to get there, and it’s important for both flavour and texture of your casserole that they are very soft and very sweet. Give them a stir every now and then to ensure they don’t catch.

Meanwhile, pile the mushrooms in a dry heavy-bottomed frying pan on a medium heat. Cook for 10 minutes or so, turning every now and then, until golden and most of the moisture has evaporated. I don’t add any oil to the pan, as I don’t think it needs it – just ensure they get a stir to prevent burning or sticking. When they’re done, add them to the onions.

In the same pan as you cooked the mushrooms, dry-fry the meat cubes in batches until browned. Again, I don’t add oil here, as if you’ve got a good heavy pan they’ll cook just fine without it, and there’s less of a clearing up job later. Once browned, tip the meat into the casserole with the onions.

Deglaze the pan with about 400ml of boiling water, and add the stock cubes to dissolve. Set aside for a minute or two.

Now attention goes back to the onions. Stir in the flour, tomato puree, thyme, sugar and a good grind of pepper, and cook on a medium heat for a minute or two until the mixture is well combined. The idea is to cook the tomato and flour out a little to remove their raw taste. Now tip in the beer, and give it a good stir. Bring to the simmer. Add the beef stock from your frying pan, and again stir together.

Pop the lid on and stick it in the oven for about two hours, until the meat is yielding. Taste and adjust the seasoning if it needs it (you may need more salt, pepper or sugar). If it’s too wet, leave the lid off and pop back in the oven for 20 minutes or so to reduce down. Serve, or leave to go cold and reheat the next day, when it will be even better.

If you want dumplings – and why wouldn’t you – simply toss together 4oz self-raising flour with 2oz suet and a pinch of salt, then add a few spoonfuls of cold water to bring to a dough. Shape into balls and pop onto the top of the stew before returning to the oven for 20 minutes or so to cook. Lid off or on, depending on if you like your dumplings wet or crunchy.

Nb. I like measuring my dumplings in ounces rather than grams, as it gives rise to the feeling of being homely and traditional. That, plus I find the 4/2 ratio much easier to remember.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Cavolo nero, kale, chard, last raspberries, last tomatoes (still green), gourds and squash, borlotti beans, dahlias, cosmos, last sunflowers, first chrysanthemums, hops

Also in the allotment/garden: Trimmed the shrubs, a job that should have been done in spring. Thinking about tidying the allotment and can’t quite find the energy, time or motivation to do it. Thinned autumn-sown annuals. Drying hops and borlotti beans.

Cooking and eating: Monkfish curry, crispy cakes, raspberry and chocolate sponge, sausage ragu, apples, pears, still a bowl of tomatoes on the side.

Also: Started the RHS Level 2 course in Principles of Plant Growth and Propogation at Winterbourne House at the University of Birmingham. Reading the Tucci Table, because Stanley Tucci is a God amongst men.

Stars of the season

August disappeared in the blink of an eye. For a few short weeks there was a flurry of family time, hot weather, ice creams and days by water.

Messing about on the River Wye
Eeking out the last of the summer at Kelmscott Manor

Then the rain came and with it a jolting change of mood. The start of a new school, which also marks the end of the baby years; a death and the anniversary of a birth. Eras ending and new beginnings, all in the space of three days.

First day of school
A moment in the nation’s story
And a moment in our own little story

The hot weather has brought on an early autumn, I think. Some of the summer flowers have gone over earlier than expected – or maybe it’s just my imagination, because summer came to a jolting end with the start of the school term. (For the record, I don’t think I will ever get used to the straight-jacket of term times.) Time to take stock of the stars of the summer.

On the veg front, the dwarf beans (Thomson and Morgan three colour mix) have been surprisingly brilliant this year, with a regular harvest over about 6 weeks that’s only now stopping. So too for the chard, which this year was the Seeds of Italy ‘Costa Bianca’. It did threaten to bolt in the hot weather but I cut off the flower stalk, and it’s still cropping just fine – perfect for creamy chard side dishes, stir fries and pasta. The kales are stalwarts, particularly the ‘cavolo nero’ and ‘redbor‘ varieties, as are the courgettes (take note that two plants is more than adequate).

A typical late summer veg drug – including the courgettes that got away

Not yet cropping, but doing well, are the squash and gourds – a Thompson and Morgan ornamental mix will be great for autumn decorations, and the ‘crown prince‘ should make good eating. These plants are fun, give great ground cover, and you can just leave them to get on with it. The borlotti beans are also doing well, and are of course beautiful.

One of the crazy gourds nearing ripeness

Other plants to mention: broad bean ‘crimson flowered’ and ‘super aquadulce’ gave a good length of harvest. The potatoes ‘charlotte’ gave a huge harvest that we’re still working through now. In the veg trug, the peas did fine but I think a mange tout might be a better use of the space. The soft fruit was all on the thin side, effected by lack of water, apart from the wild blackberries, which are magnificent.

The cut flowers have held up to the strange growing season admirably; there’s been something to pick every week since April, from the tulips through to the Sweet Williams, foxgloves and lupins, onto the high summer dahlias, cosmos and snap dragons. There are still promising numbers of chrysanthemums waiting in the wings.

A boot load of blooms

The high summer blooms have fallen into two categories this year – this by luck rather than forethought. First is the romantic, whimsical set, made of whites, pale pinks and the odd bit of hot pink, and spires offset with curves.

A romantic vase of whites and pinks

Star of this set is the white pompom dahlia (name unknown), the super huge white snapdragon Antirrhinum majus ‘White Giant’ F1, which I absolutely love, and of course the cosmos. This year I have a mixture of cosmos ‘purity’, ‘double click collection’, ‘dazzler’ and ‘candy stripe’. Also there was the odd bit of phlox ‘creme brûlée’, which I’ve never grown before, but has earned its place for delicate prettiness alone.

The phlox is a gangly plant but lovely in the vase
The cosmos is a stalwart of the august-september plot

Some plants that I thought I was growing for me actually quickly became colonised by nature. Insects love the scabious, the wild carrot ‘purple kisses’, ammi ‘visnaga’ and sunflowers, so much so that I haven’t got the heart yet to pick any of the latter.

Scabious and ammi are loved by bees
As is the wild carrot

On the other colour spectrum, this summer there’s been bright, carnival peacocks, in clashing shades of orange, hot pink, coral and purple. Most of this fun comes from the dahlias, but I’ll put a word in too for the gladioli, which I failed to take a single decent photo of, but who are the can-can dancers of the bulb world.

A typical bright summer vase

I planted, I think, about 8 new dahlias into the allotment this year, as a trial. Some have performed brilliantly, some less so. Dahlia ‘crazy legs’ and ‘ambition’ are the absolute cut flower winners, along with stalwart ‘labyrinth’. Others have been slower to establish, thwarted perhaps by the intense heat. Incidentally, the 10 or so tubers that got decimated by slugs both at home and on the allotment I rescued and potted up, and are now putting on heaps of new growth. Next year all the dahlias at home will be in pots, for slug protection. And on the allotment, I just want MORE – more oranges, more zing, more pizzaz.

The beginnings of the dahlia patch
‘Ambition’ at the front’, ‘Crazy legs’ at the back

I will make special mention of ‘bright eyes’, which is not a great cut flower but is a joy to have nevertheless. I first saw bright eyes in the Montessori garden at Chelsea Flower Show in 2019, so I always think of it as Harry’s flower.

Dahlia ‘bright eyes’, a favourite

Gypsophila was a pleasant surprise as a romantic white filler. Cerinthe has a certain Halloween quality to it. The sweet peas, in large tubs this year, did brilliantly – by the back door so easy for a daily water and pick.

The season is still far from finished of course, with chrysanthemums still to come and the borlotti, squash and kale still to harvest. But my mind is already flipping forward to the autumn jobs – overgrown tansy to remove, brambles to deal with, ground to cover. And in some ways, after the summer frenzy, it’s a bit of a relief.

Also this month:
Harvesting: Kales, courgette, French beans, lettuce, last of the tomatoes; raspberries, dahlias, cosmos, amaranth, millet, last of the snap dragon, last of all the umbellifers.

Other jobs: Saved seed from sweet peas, marigolds and sweet rocket. Started off autumn trays of marigolds, cornflower, ammi, spinach and rocket as an experiment. Ordered spring bulbs, not so many this year in an effort to save money. Wondering if it’s time yet to plant up amaryllis and paperwhites.

Cooking and eating: Slow roast salt marsh lamb from the Gower; creamed chard as a side dish for roast chicken and lamb; roast new potatoes and carrots; bowls and bowls of plums; pasta with fresh tomato sauce and basil; pasta with courgettes; roast five spice pork belly – the leftovers stir-fried with allotment veg and noodles; chocolate birthday cake with raspberries; Jean’s apple and raspberry sponge with custard.

Also: Building work on the house still ongoing; Our friends left to go live in Vietnam; Last day of nursery; A week in Hay on Wye and the Gower; Kelmscott Manor; First day of school; CBeebies Land and children’s parties; Confounded by the death of a monarch, which was universally a shock, regardless of how expected it was and irrespective of anyone’s view on the monarchy. In all – a busy few weeks.

Melon & strawberry granita

What a month we’ve had. Hottest day ever, and the driest summer in what certainly feels like forever. We’ve had the builders in for the last four weeks, so this hot spell has coincided with us having no shower, no bath and only limited access to a loo – I’ve been begging access to friends’ bathrooms at every opportunity. We’ve both eased down now that the Commonwealth Games have happened (both of us benefited from A LOT of work rooted in the B2022 cultural programme) and there’s been actual days out, actual holiday feelings. My friend moved to Vietnam (which I consider to be most rude) and one-by-one the kids are ending their time at nursery ahead of starting school in September. And then, of course, Birmingham turned into a party town for two weeks whilst the Games were on. This city has been hungry for so long – for recognition, for investment, for fun, for coming together – and we grabbed our opportunity with two hands. What a brilliant time to be in Birmingham.

A brief trip to London for the CBeebies Prom at the Royal Albert Hall
The Alexander Stadium looking resplendent
Our latest tourist attraction – Centenary Square has been rammed for days as people visit this fella
Perry has become an established member of every household with children in the city

All of this means that the plants have been somewhat abandoned lately. I’ve done the odd bit of weeding, mainly to remove three foot tall fat hen plants – but am only watering the allotment once a week. And of course everything does perfectly well with a little neglect: the nasturtiums run rampant, the cerinthe and ammi are miraculously still going, the squash are fattening. The switch to late summer colour is coming in now, so alongside the pale, delicate cornflowers, achillea and wild carrot comes the dinner-plate dahlias and blood-red amaranth. Sunflowers are waiting in the wings. The wild brambles, which I long ago gave up on, are now repaying me with punnet upon punnet of sweet black fruit.

The squash have taken off in the heat, and doing fine with only one water a week
Two seasons in one true: delicate cornflowers, ammi, wild carrot and phlox alongside the shouty dahlias, tansy and amaranth. What you can’t see underneath is the pile of courgettes, beans, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.

If there were more time I would take out the three slug-eaten dahlias and pot them up in hope of a second coming, and all the flowers (and veg for that matter) on the allotment would be getting a weekly feed and daily water. But there isn’t more time, so I live with what’s possible. Incidentally I’m purposefully not cutting the dahlias too much this year, as most of them are new plants and I don’t want to put them under undue pressure, so it’s just the odd bloom, here and there.

This week’s pickings end up in jam jars and charity-shop finds – this all happens on the worktop by the kettle, which isn’t pretty, but is real life.

Today’s recipe is shamelessly stolen from Instagram, from the wonderful Prue Leith. It’s a granita, perfect for these hot sticky days, but instead of using a stock syrup it’s made using whole, over-ripe fruit that’s simply blitzed in the food processor then frozen. You give it a stir with a fork every hour or so to break up the ice crystals. I love the idea of whole fruit being hidden into ices, and Harry and I make banana-chocolate-milk lollies often; this is simply a more sophisticated version of that. Add a splash of booze if you want to up the flavour.

Melon and strawberry granita
In a blender or food processor, blitz up one over-ripe melon (I use cantaloupe) with a handful of strawberries until smooth. Add a splash of booze if liked – I think damson gin or blackberry vodka would be good here. Then move the whole lot to a tupperware container and pop in the freezer. Set your timer to go off every hour and when it does, stir the mixture with a fork to rough up the ice crystals. When it’s all frozen, but still slushy, it’s good to go.

Freeze the squished fruit but remember to stir with a fork every hour or so to break up the crystals
When frozen but slushy, it’s ready to serve

Also this week (month):

Harvesting: First raspberries, last blueberries (not a great year for them, the plants are tired and they need more water), blackberries, dahlias, last gladioli, amaranth, cerinthe, ammi, calendula, wild carrot, first scabious, snapdragon (coloured mix only, whites still not in flower), achillea, cornflower, phlox, a very few early cosmos, tansy, stick beans, dwarf beans, last broad beans, courgettes, chard, last potatoes. Could be picking carrots, cavolo nero and russian red kale but can’t bring myself to do it yet. Borlottis and squash doing well. Also getting beets, carrots, beans, peppers, tomatoes and blueberries from my folks.

At home: Dug up all the dahlias from the garden due to slug apocalypse and potted them up. Bought selection of slug-proof plants from Wildegoose Nursery to trial in replacement. Can’t see the garden anyway due to building waste and the fact the lawn is constantly covered by a tent or a paddling pool.

Cooking and eating: Blueberry muffins; a lot of whole fruit (cherries, nectarines, strawberries still); Purple prickle pancakes from the Gruffalo Cookbook; Blackcurrant ice cream; Sautéed courgettes with everything; Roasted beet and carrot salad with feta; A daily coffee, which is still such a novelty that I have to record it here.

Out and about: Dress rehearsal for B2022 Opening Ceremony, plus athletics, rhythmic gymnastics, a few B2022 Festival sites and numerous meetings with Perry the mascot; the kids are all obsessed with him. CBeebies Prom. Wildegoose nursery. Numerous Bearwood bathrooms.

Sausage and (broad) beans on toast

It’s hard to believe that high summer is upon us already. As ever we’re trying to catch our breath, from several intense weeks of event management (me) and back-to-back fabrication projects (him)…but there is an end in sight. Which is well, because this time of year needs to be savoured, noticed, enjoyed. Harry and I disappeared to Sussex at the weekend to visit old friends, armed with bucket and spade. It’s so noticeably hotter and dryer down there, with golden fields ready for harvesting and sun-kissed calm seas.

We practically had the beach to ourselves

Back home, it’s time for a few remedial allotment jobs. The fruit cage, which never quite served its purpose, finally gave way to old age and was precariously close to collapse; it’s now been half taken down (because to take it apart properly would take too long and Matt’s always at work) so it sits haphazardly on its side, no longer a threat to Martin’s dahlias but at just the right height for me to whack my head on every time I take a look at the blueberries.

The fruit cage is no more

I’ve done a more thorough job of staking. My birthday present from Matt was my very own hammer, meaning I finally whollop the homemade oak stakes into the ground myself. Chrysanthemums, dahlias and sunflowers have now been supported with stakes and string – not the prettiest way of doing it, but it works.

Dahlias are supported with stakes and grids of string
The starburst chrysanthemums also need staking, as they can get to a good 5 feet tall

The week of hot weather has brought the harvest on. We have a sea of cerinthe, ammi and gypsophila, which is unexpected and joyous. Nestled amongst them are two courgette plants, which in the weekend I was away managed to give birth to two giant whoppers (marrows already!); I need to keep a closer eye on them. Behind them the climbing beans are finally starting to climb, and the sunflowers are shooting up. I like the mix of flowers and veg jostling for space; our allotment always takes an age to reach fruitfulness but when it does, it’s so satisfying.

The cerinthe, ammi and gypsophila have exploded, framed with beans and courgettes
Cornflower and calendula interspersed with self-seeded nasturtium

I’m now picking the last of the broad beans, plus the first of what I think as high summer flowers – the cornflowers, calendula, and this time for the first time, wine-coloured snapdragons.

Yesterday’s basket, with broad beans, chard, cornflowers, snapdragon and ammi

It’s the time of year when I have to make time for veg and fruit processing – as well as the broad beans I also had a trug-full of peas, which I had grown intending to eat as mange tout, but Harry was so in to eating peas from the pod, I left them in for a little longer. It look an hour to pod this lot, accompanied by Claire Balding walking the Sussex and Kent countryside on Radio 4’s Ramblings. Note the blueberries, coming fast now from my Mum’s bushes and also our own, plus the piddling handful of red gooseberries, the only ones to survive the pigeon attack.

Colanders of beans mean an hour’s podding
There’s potatoes too, a salad-drawer’s worth with more to come

On the flower front, I am not much of an arranger, but I do enjoy the contrast of the tall foxglove spire with the froth of ammi and gypsophila. There’s the odd dahlia now, plus jam jars full of English summer flowers – some garish, some tasteful, but always making a house feel more like a home.

Dahlia, foxglove, ammi, gypsophila
Garish: clashing colours of calendula, sweet peas, foxglove and cornflower
More tasteful: single shades of sweet pea alongside wine-coloured snapdragon

What to do with all the broad beans and peas? It’s a good question: both these vegetables have a tendency to glut, and given that Matt’s not home so much, there’s only really me who will eat them. I blanched the lot, to give them a few extra day’s life. Some will make their way to a creamy, herby, garlicky pasta dish, and others I’ll blitz with lemon and garlic to make a beany-hummousy-dip. And then there’s beans on toast, or even better, sausage and beans on toast. The sausage is actually a kind of do-it-yourself chorizo, made from minced pork, paprika, garlic and fennel. The beans are broad beans and peas. Hash them together in a frying pan, perhaps with a few sliced potatoes and a fried egg, or just a bit of feta, and you have an easy flavour-packed brunch, lunch or supper dish.

Sausage and beans on toast

Sausage and beans on toast
Recide serves 4 but if it’s just you, the ‘chorizo’ will store in the fridge for a few days, or can be frozen for another day. Inspired by River Cottage Reunion, though I’m not slavishly following their recipe

First, pod enough broad beans and/or peas for four people, or you could use frozen. Blanch them in boiling water for two to three minutes, then drain. If they’re really big, pinch the broad beans out of their skins.

Make your ‘sausage’. Take 250g pork mince and squish it together with 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1 teaspoon smoked hot paprika, 1 teaspoon sweet paprika, two chopped cloves of garlic and a good pinch of salt. Set aside for a few minutes to allow the flavours to come together.

To cook, heat a large frying pan and crumble in the sausage mixture – you may want to add a little oil to the pan to get things going. Brown the meat all over, then add one thinly sliced red onion and the beans/peas. Hash the meat and vegetables together, turning in the paprika-stained oil until it’s all cooked through. You could add a slosh of white wine to get a little steam going. Finally add some chopped parsley to finish.

Serve on toast with a fried egg, or perhaps a little feta cheese. Sliced cooked potatoes and courgettes are also a good addition to this.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Blueberries, a handful of gooseberries, cos lettuce, first chard, last broad beans, peas, first courgettes, mangetout, new potatoes, ammi, cornflowers, calendula, foxglove, gypsophila, dahlias, nasturtium. French beans, beetroot, courgette, raspberries, and blueberries from Mum’s garden. From the shops, excellent English cherries, proper tomatoes, early corn, watermelon and strawberries. Excellent Amalfi lemons from Cowdray farm shop.

Cooking and eating: I really need to start making an effort again. Blueberry, raspberry and gooseberry crumble cake. French bean and potato salad. Flapjacks. Sarah made two outstanding salads at the weekend: green beans with an orange dressing and toasted hazelnuts, and a freekeh salad with pomegranate, mint, parsley and finely diced red onion. Also a home-made fish finger sandwich at The Lobster Pot near Bognor. I find I have to have a coffee a day now in order to function, and there is always wine in the fridge.

Jobs: Staking flowers on allotment. Planted out dahlias and salivas in the garden, which is now in that straggly in-between stage that lies between early and late summer. Feeding pots once a week. Watering allotment. And WORK, all the time, obviously.

Also: Reading nothing, I am too tired. Watching very little, I don’t get time. Visited Chichester, Arundel and Denman’s garden in West Sussex, a dry gravel garden, very interesting, but Harry not happy so no time to linger.

June in review

June is a month of two halves. We start still in spring – I didn’t get around to planting out most of my veg and cut flowers until the first weekend of the month – and finish it most definitely in summer. The allotment finally starts to get productive and the garden goes from politeness to an overgrown sprawl. The long, long days are bookmarked with short sleepless nights (at least they are if you’re a sleep-thief 4 year old), but thankfully we can take it. It’s a month of high energy before we get zapped by the heavy weather of July and August. It’s also the start of event season (I’m working or have worked on three outdoor arts events this month) and I find myself back in the familiar-yet-unfamiliar life of print deadlines, venue dressing and production plans.

I’m not cooking so much at the moment, so there’s real joy when someone else does. This cake table taken in Bushley for the jubilee is a case in point: joy, in cake form. Back home we did manage a little tea, with a little help from our corgi friends at M&S.

Few things are more enjoyable than a cake table in a village hall
Our humble jubilee tea

May ended at Chelsea Flower Show, which didn’t have the fireworks of previous years. The designs were markedly low impact (I don’t mean that in a bad way), naturalistic, loose, even a bit wild. It’s the kind of designs that look really easy to do but are of course nigh-on impossible to pull off. But I love the toned down shades, the purples, greens, deep dusky pinks, subtle yellows and whites.

Rewilding garden at Chelsea Flower Show
Loose planting of poppies and verbascum at Chelsea

A few weeks later I headed to Hidcote, possibly my favourite place on earth, to soak in the glory of an arts and crafts garden in midsummer. Harry came along and to explore this garden maze through his eyes is a fresh joy.

Slightly tighter, but still loose, and note the colour spectrum – midsummer at Hidcote
Love these 8 foot tall scabious
Pale yellow with bubblegum pink
A field of daisies never grows old

Down on the allotment, we started cropping lupins, alliums and sweet rocket back in late May. The allium christophii is both whopper and winner; some I’m cutting now for the vase and others I’ll dry ready for winter. The lupins are dropping now, but stepping into their place are the dahlias, the first of which are just opening now. There’s filler plants this year too, from cerinthe, ammi and a surprise crop of gypshopila, with its white elegance. It’s still too early for much veg, though we do have broad beans cropping now and the start of the soft fruit (strawberries, redcurrants, black currants). I’ll have a poke about the potatoes later this week…it’s always a surprise to me just how long one has to wait for a veg harvest.

Allotment on 4 June – self-sown poppies, lupins and the beans bedding in
Early June potatoes and still lots of bare earth
By 21 June, the broad beans are fat and the strawberries cropping, though it will still be some weeks before we reach full ‘fatness’
Of course, the healthiest thing is this thicket of flowering brambles
At home, the peas are threatening to creep into the sun room
Giant allium christophii, sweet william, foxglove and cerinthe
Cropping in June – sweet williams, sweet peas and sweet rocket

An hour down the road it’s a different story, and I come home from Worcestershire with a basket of raspberries and beetroot from my parents’ patch. Earlier this month I took my Dad foraging for elderflowers down lanes I never knew existed, and we now have three hefty bottles of cordial. (Store them in the freezer and there’s no risk of mould forming.)

Our strawberries, alongside Mum’s raspberries, broadbeans and beets
After an afternoon’s foraging on jubilee weekend we have bottles of cordial

It’s in July that things start to get serious: I’ve high hopes for the dahlias this year, having spent a small fortune on new plants, and that’s before we even get onto the chrysanthemums, gladioli, cornflower, courgette, squash, borlotti, French beans, kales, chard, peas… I can see the summer in sight.

Also this month:
Allotment: Planted out most plants first weekend of June, including dahlias and beans. Started off biennials. Tons of strimming and weeding and staking, at home AND allotment…
Harvesting: Strawberries, broad beans, oregano, sweet william, alliums, sweet peas, foxglove, cerinthe, first ammi, last lupins.
Cooking and eating: Fish finger tacos, meringues with homegrown strawberries, chocolate chip cookies, roast apricots, raspberries and blueberries with yoghurt, plenty of rose, bulgur wheat with broad beans and feta, birthday cake
Also: Chelsea Flower Show, Hidcote, Key to the City (Birmingham), Tappin’ In (Birmingham), What’s in Store (Bearwood), play dates and park visits.

Inspiration and perspiration

Having spent the first third of the year complaining about feeling locked down in some kind of post-Covid hangover, from mid-April onwards I’ve been keenly aware of the sap rising. Energy levels are up, both physically and intellectually. There has been a fair bit of perspiration and propagation, but also – more importantly – a focus on inspiration.

The last few years have been so difficult on that front, with galleries closed and movement difficult. So in the last month, as the weather has warmed, I’ve been soaking in visits to the Eden Project and Trelissick in Cornwall, Hestercombe in Devon, Chelsea Physic Garden, the Garden Museum and Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds, plus have knocked back books about Joseph Paxton, Gertrude Jekyll and the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement in garden design. Later this week it’s Chelsea Flower Show, and meanwhile there is endless joy in country lanes filled with cow parsley. I don’t know as yet where any of this will lead…as my old English teacher used to say, it’s all grist to the mill.

Let’s start with the perspiration…

Perspiration

Propagation and preparing the soil is such a part of life now that I barely register I am doing it. Since I last blogged in April, the sun room has become full of nascent seedlings, all becoming leggy for want of light (I am used to this). Sunflowers, scabious, chard, tomatoes, squash, it’s all there. Meanwhile the outside space is full of trays hardening off; I’ve moved the more slug-vulnerable ones to the top of the wheelie bins. There’s been hours and hours of weeding, as I attempt to get the grass and buttercups into some kind of control.

Sweet rocket is now flowering, with the Sweet William due to bloom next. The brassica cage is ready for planting, and last year’s chrysanthemums have been put in next door.
The dahlias bed was rife with buttercup, which I’ve now removed. The gladioli are doing well (far better than in my back garden).
The long view, which looks very little, but represents hours of weeding. The alliums are now cropping, in the foreground.
Harry helps to hoe the potatoes

After last year’s pitiful efforts with the sweet beans and peas, I’m attempting a new approach this year. The sweet peas are in deep pots, trained up twine and bamboo sticks, and are catching the afternoon sun by the back door. I’ve also put in a few rows of peas in the veg trug, working on the assumption that they’re more likely to get watered if by the house than on the allotment, which I only get to once a week, if that.

As for cropping, I took few photos, but the pale Purissima tulips were a triumph – even bigger than the earth (!). As they faded, the alliums, lupins and sweet rocket are giving vases of pink, purple and white, and the Sweet Williams are waiting in the wings. My plan was to extend the harvest so that there was something to pick from March through to November – so far, so good.

Purissima tulips
It’s taken three years but the lupins are finally flowering
A vase of lupin, sweet rocket and allium

Inspiration

No comment here, just images of a few weeks of spiritual and intellectual nourishment, starting in Cornwall.

April evening on the beach in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall

At Hestercome Garden in Devon, we explored the amalgam of 18th century landscape park, full of follies and vistas; grand Victorian terracing, and an arts and crafts masterpiece by Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens.

Gertrude Jekyll’s famous steps at Hestercombe, filled with eryngium daisies
Lutyens’ terracing often carried deep recesses of still water
A folly fit for a witch
Witching folly
Charcoal burning deep in the woodland

The Garden Museum and Chelsea Physic Garden are rife with generations of history, heritage and knowledge.

Central courtyard at the Garden Museum
Example of off-the-peg designs, 1930s
Dried flower installation
The Garden Corner
Lead water butt, 1670
Using hazel brushwood for training, Chelsea Physic Garden

In the Cotswolds, the arts and crafts garden at Snowshill Manor is framed by the perfection of English hedgerows in Maytime.

Nothing is more glorious than a lane lined with cow parsley
Orchard during no-mow May
Yet another lead water butt, age unknown. Harry’s there to show scale.
One of many garden rooms, using materials echoing the local vernacular
A path through a hidden garden
Single specimens on an old table, in a barn that looks ancient but is probably only 100-or-so years old.

May is surely the most wonderful time of the year – and there’s still the glories of June and Midsummer to come.

Also this week/month:
Harvesting: Sweet rocket, allium, lupin, lilac, soft herbs. Had a steady crop of narcissi and tulips from the allotment during March and April. I would be harvesting lettuces but they’re taking ages to grow.
Sowing/propagating: EVERYTHING. I started most things off later than usual, end of March and into April, and as yet there seems to be no harm done.
Planted out: Last year’s chrysanthemums, broad beans, peas, potatoes, lettuce. Direct sowed carrots and parsnips. Everything else will wait to be planted out until warm weather is guaranteed. In the garden, planted out salvias, hardy geraniums and achillea. Waiting on the tulips to die back before putting in the dahlias.
Reading: Biography and works of Gertrude Jekyll, biography of Joseph Paxton, history of arts and crafts gardens. Incidentally, working on two projects that have bamboo as a sustainable resource and the social justice/healing power of gardens at their core.
Visiting: Eden Project, Trelissick, Hestercombe, Garden Museum, Chelsea Physic Garden, Snowshill Manor, plus don’t forget the glory of an English hedgerow in May.
Cooking and eating: Asparagus, strawberries, rose wine. I still feel too busy to cook, which is sad, and I should sort it out.

Asparagus and gladioli

…even when you’re feeling warm
the temperature can drop away
like four seasons in one day.

Not my line, but Neil Finn’s. Crowded House were singing about New Zealand of course but the lyric is also true of the English springtime. Last week was sun, this week there is snow. Spring comes late to our patch of earth anyway and I still have pots of daffodils yet to bloom; it was a genuine surprise last weekend to visit the Welsh borders and see roadsides and gardens awash with yellow. The party is all happening elsewhere, it seems. And yet, earlier this week, it was warm enough to play outside in the garden, and Harry and I had a good close-up look at the bees as they visited Granny’s primroses. Three days later it was sleeting.

March 28: Playing in the garden with summer sunshine, framed by Granny’s primroses
April 2: Cloudy with a risk of snow. Daffodils brighten the banks at Coughton Court

The few days of warm made me turn my nose towards Evesham. Are they in yet? Is it time? The annual pilgrimage to find the shockingly expensive few spears of new asparagus came on 2 April. I simply boil these tender new stems for a few minutes until they are bright green, with a slight resistance to the tip of the sharp knife. I serve them dripping with butter. It is one of the most important meals of the year, marking the turn of the season. Plus they make your wee smell, which is always amusing.

First Evesham asparagus of the season at Hiller’s Farm Shop. I have taken this exact photo on roughly the same week for several years.

Outside, it’s still too early for any serious planting, but there is springtime remedial work going on. The autumn raspberries were pruned a month ago now, but the entire patch is dense with encroaching brambles and grass. The brambles I do my best to dig out, but the grass – dear GOD the grass! It is the constant perennial problem of our plot.

Believe it or not this is the ‘after’ shot! Autumn raspberries were pruned about a month ago, but the grass and brambles remain a perennial issue.

So today I spent a few hours forking out great clumps of couch grass and buttercups from around the perennial flower bed and vegetable beds. The soil in the veg bed feels hard, compacted, but around the flower bed it is soft and friable, and seems healthy. So I was surprised to see that the few short row of tulips, which I planted back in the late autumn, seem short and stunted this year – as if they’ve had insufficient nourishment. Perhaps it is too early and they will perk up? Next to them are two rows of alliums, planted for cut flowers, and up from them (not in shot) I’ve put in three rows of gladioli. They are new to the plot for 2022, and reminiscent to me of that former resident of Harborne (and lover of pink), Dame Barbara Cartland. What could be gaudier than a few hot pink glads in a vase? I’ve popped a few bulbs into my back garden too to see if they fare differently there to the allotment.

The first sign of growth on the perennial patch, with alliums and just a few tulips. Next to them (not in shot) are the sleeping dahlias, and then the emerging shoots of lupins and echinacea. Three rows of gladioli complete the scene.

Inside, I’ve started off a few trays of seeds, but I don’t want to start too early, not with these cold nights. Slow and steady, that will be my seed-sowing mantra for this year. In other exciting news, work has started on building a new lean-to greenhouse for the back of our house. Will it be ready for the proper hardening-off period in May? Watch this space…

Also this week:
Harvesting: First tulips for cut flowers. In the shops, first asparagus, first English strawberries.
Sowed: Tomatoes, broad beans, peas, lettuce, rocket, spinach, chard, courgettes, cornflower, amaranth, millet, snapdragons, cerinthe, calendula, phlox, scabious, wild carrot. Everything else can wait for a few weeks.
Also: Planted gladioli in garden and allotment. Weeding. Have trays of achillea, broad beans, sweet peas in the cold frame toughening up. Matt has started building the green house that has been boxed up in the utility room since February. Still no sign of the builder for our bathroom, however (5 months since quotation).
Cooking and eating: Slow roast lamb shoulder with garlic, cumin and paprika, bulgar wheat, hummus, green beans, roast onions and aubergine. First asparagus with salmon and broccoli tart. Lots of mini-eggs and hot cross buns though it’s two weeks to Easter. Ice creams in Hay on Wye.
Reading: Agatha Christie, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, picked up for a few pounds in a Hay bookshop.

Lamb tagine

My life feels more locked down now than it did during Lockdown. I’ve been trying to unpick why…a combination of a work boom (I’ve currently got 10 projects on the go with more in the pipeline, and some of them are deeply complicated), tempered with the age of Zoom (no-one goes anywhere any more, we’re at home chained to desks and video calls) and of course it’s February so even if we do venture out, there’s the gale force wind to contend with. Matt’s business is also running at its limits and he often works 7 days a week, so when my work ends, childcare and housecare begins. Somewhere, somehow, a social life or a creative life seem to have edged away.

Now obviously we are extremely blessed and I am aware that moaning is not really on – but running two businesses is hard and the juggle is real. There’s only so much that can be taken out before something has to go back in…sometimes I need to press pause. I was on a video call with colleagues in Bangladesh the other week (Bangladesh! Because it’s 2022 and that’s how we work now!) when this chap wandered onto the flat roof next to my office window. Did I stop the meeting to swivel the laptop around and show him to the group? Of course I did.

This chap has been wandering around our garden in the February sunshine

I mention all this because whilst I do have time to look at visiting foxes, I don’t seem to find time to really cook anymore. Obviously I make food….but I don’t really cook. Dinners need to be ready pretty much instantly, to refuel in the 30 minute gap between bath time and bedtime stories. And if Matt’s working at the weekend then there’s no real point in making extravagant dishes, for who will eat them? It’s such an easy slide into the world of convenience and fast cooking, but I am realising that my soul needs slow. The devoted attention to a puttering stew. The gentle tap of a wooden spoon when creaming butter and sugar by hand. The satisfaction of turning a mess of flour and water into dough as soft as a baby’s bottom.

So I’m trying, even if only once a week, to make something more involved. Last week it was sausage rolls with rough-puff pastry, plus a tray of parmesan pinwheels with the leftover pastry scraps. This week, it’s tagine.

Sausage rolls and parmesan pinwheels
Redemption comes in many forms; a big pan of bubbling lamb tagine being one of them.

This tagine comes from Rick Stein’s French Odyssey, and used to be a family favourite until we both got so busy that we forgot to make it. Matt actually made this back in the very very early days, to give me the impression that he could cook. (Note – he’s an excellent cook, he just doesn’t do it very often). There’s room for your own take on the veg: he adds green peppers, I add sweet potato.

A word on the meat. If you can, don’t use lamb at all – go for mutton. You’ll get a better flavour and a better texture for long, slow cooking. For this I used a half leg of Herdwick mutton that I picked up in the Lakes last year; it’s been in the freezer obviously. I boned the leg and cut the meat into generous portions, and then meat AND bone went into the pot (it’s all flavour). Lamb shanks or shoulder would do just as well.

The ras el hanout is essential and can be found in any supermarket or halal shop. Mine actually comes from a Moroccan souk, brought back by my friend Claire as a holiday souvenir (this was pre-Covid, which says a lot about the antiquity of my spice box). You will require a very big pot to hold this vast dish.

Moroccan lamb tagine
From Rick Stein’s French Odyssey. Makes 6 very generous portions.

2kg lamb or mutton – ideally on the bone – leg, shoulder or shanks
Olive oil
4 teaspoons ras al hanout
450g carrots, chopped into generous lengths
200g onions, sliced
8 new potatoes, such as Charlottes
1 can tomatoes
75g dried apricots
2 tablespoons honey
1.2 litres or thereabouts, chicken stock
3 bay leaves
salt and pepper
400g sweet potato, peeled and chopped into generous dice (optional)
1 green pepper, chopped into generous lengths (optional)

For the spice paste:
4 garlic cloves
2 small red onions or shallots
1 red chilli
Stalks from a small bunch of coriander
salt and pepper

For the spice paste, put the ingredients into a food processor and blitz until smooth – let it down with a drop of water if needed.

Trim the meat of any excess fat. If using shoulder or leg, you will want to remove the bone and dice the meat into generous chunks. Shanks can be left whole. Season with salt and pepper.

In a very large pot big enough to take the whole stew, warm some olive oil and brown the meat (plus any saved bones) on all sides. This will need to happen in stages. Once browned, set the meat aside.

In the same pan, heat a little more oil and add the spice paste. Soften for a few minutes on a low heat. Add the ras al hanout and cook for one minute, then tip in the onions, carrots and potatoes and turn over in the spice. Add the tomatoes and stock, and bring to a simmer.

Return the meat plus any saved bones to the pan. Add the apricots, honey, bay leaves, salt and pepper, then cover. Either cook on the hob or put into a slow oven, 160c.

After one hour, check the stew, give it a stir, then add the peppers and sweet potatoes if using.

Return the stew to the hob/oven, and cook until the meat is tender. Lamb will need a total of about 2 hours, mutton a little longer. Check the seasoning and add more salt, pepper or honey as required. If the stew is watery, cook with the lid off for the last thirty minutes or so.

This is perfectly good the next day. You may want to fish the bones out before serving – cooks perk. Serve with couscous.

Also this week/month:
Cooking and eating: Very little, I live off tea, pasta and toast. Matt made some cumin-spiked potato cakes to go with the tagine. Black banana cake. Some seasonal rhubarb and blood oranges have made it to the house, as have the first hot cross buns of the season.
Allotment: It’s still there despite the gales. Sowed snapdragons. At home, the iris reticulata is flowering, as are the amaryllis and paperwhites.
Also: Indoor child entertainment is the order of the day: Legoland Discovery Centre, Sealife Centre, YouTube, Lego and Star Wars.

Veg patch to bed, rather later than planned

I always enjoy the first few weeks of January. The chance for a fresh start, with optimistic thoughts for the year ahead, and after the hullabaloo of December, the refreshment of a quiet month. It’s not so quiet for me actually this year due to some high octane work projects – but you get the point. This time last year we were all sick with Covid and locked in the house; this Christmas, there was the opportunity to get out and breathe. And after several months of intense work (and less than zero family time), we needed it.

The view across to British Camp, 27 December 2021
Trees caught in mid-winter mist

A day or two before Christmas I found time to wade through the armfuls of dried flowers that I’ve had hanging in the sun room since the summer, harvested from allotment and garden. I’d been finding their presence low-level stressful…every time I go in there to fish something out of the freezer, it was as if they were shouting at me: ‘why have you not used us yet eh?!’. And so I did. Vivid yellow tansy now sit next to the pale fawn of dried aqualegia, allium and teasel, with the lighter rounds of honesty giving contrast. I love the mixture of shape and form. It’s accidental – many of these plants were self-sown. I notice that tiny bunches of dried flowers now sell for £10 or more in the shops, and I am reminded how fortunate I am to be able to gather and keep my own supply.

The allotment and garden blessed us with armfuls of dried flowers this year
Two Christmas arrangements, with tansy, teasels, honesty, aqualegia and allium

There is one, rather larger, job that has been nagging at me as well. Usually I get the allotment mulched and covered in December, an enormous task that in previous years has involved one lorry, an entire pallet of manure, two strong men, one strong(ish) woman (me), and painfully frozen fingers. But this year, since my Dad has retired, we no longer have access to his lorry.

Plan B was to carry as much as we can in Matt’s van: 30 bags to be precise, barely enough to cover the smaller of the two main plots, but better than nothing. So in an enterprise that lasted two days, this weekend we drove to Worcestershire, pinched 30 bags of manure from my Dad’s seemingly never-ending supply, stacked it into the van, drove back to Birmingham, walked the bags from van to allotment, emptied the bags, then spread the black gold with a fork. To be on the safe side, I then covered the two plots with black plastic, my back-up armoury in the war against weeds. Muck Spreading Day is the most physically draining task on the allotment but possibly the most important one, hopefully keeping the annual weed seeds down, and also blocking light from the grasses and buttercup that seems endemic.

30 sacks of manure makes for only a scant covering of the first plot, so to keep the weeds down I’m playing safe with a covering of black plastic
The larger patch won’t get manured this year, but the covers are down – leaving the heads of sweet fennel and sweet william to poke through

There’s part of me that enjoys the cleanliness of a freshly manured plot more than when it is covered in plants. With plants comes some inevitable disappointment; with black soil comes only potential. With the ground put to bed now for a few months, thoughts turn to planning, seed-sorting, list-making. The joy of searching the seed catalogues; the pull of creative potential!

In the meantime, planning for 2022 has begun

Also this week/month:
Allotment: Manured the small plot and dahlia patch, and covered the two main plots with plastic. Could be harvesting kale, chard, rocket and mustard leaves, except that I’m not, for I am a fair-weather gardener. Sowed a few sweet peas, with little expectation for them. Planning for the season. Peering at the amaryllis and paperwhites daily to check progress. Listening to the Sarah Raven / Arthur Parkinson podcast for inspiration.

Cooking and eating: Enjoying the time for proper cooking. Baked ham with a chipotle and marmalade glaze; bavette steak with tenderstem broccoli, feta and roasted red pepper; quince sticky toffee pudding; still working through Christmas biscuits and panettone.

Also: Booking up tickets for fun things after two years of austerity. Reading Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley, a brilliantly radical feminist re-telling of a familiar biography.