Nettles and sorrel

I’m not sure I should admit this and do not wish to sound flippant, but now that last week’s hysteria has died down, I am thoroughly enjoying this enforced sabbatical. Pottering at home, pottering on the allotment, playing with Harry, cooking, reading…with no meetings or pressing deadlines…lovely. I am putting all financial implications of lost work out of my mind – right now I can do nothing about it, so why worry?

I have reclusive tendencies anyway but even Matt – who is always over-worked – said to me earlier that this is the most relaxed he’s been for about three years. It helps that we’re all well and that the past few days have been undeniably spring-like. We should not be deceived, for there is time enough still for cold and wet, but for now the garden and allotment are unrelenting in their awakening.

Forsythia brings welcome colour to both garden and allotment
Allotment-neighbour Martin’s crop of daffodils are simply fantastic

The need to be still and quiet, more mindful of our consumption and savvy in our housekeeping, appeals to me on many levels. Some of my favourite food writers – women such as Anna del Conte and Patience Gray – speak so eloquently of how to live well in times of hardship. They hark back to the old ways, to country ways, to knowing what the pantry, the garden, the vegetable patch and the hedgerow can provide. Not that we’re on our way to starvation anytime soon, but there is joy to be found in even the smallest degree of self-sufficiency. The biggest thing that has concerned me over the past week – far more than the potential loss of career or, even, illness – was that Boris would ban us from going to the allotment; when that fear was allayed, I knew that we would cope just fine with our current situation.

And so today, whilst Matt planted onions and manured the strawberry patch, Harry and I picked newly emerged sorrel leaves, tiny nettle shoots, self-sown marjoram and the leaves from last summer’s kale, spinach and chard, all of which I left in the ground and are now re-shooting. Once home, I tipped the bag of leaves into the sink and left them to soak for an hour or so to get rid of dust and creepy crawlies. Tomorrow I will wilt them down, stir them with a single egg, a scraping of cheese and finely chopped spring onion, wrap them in the filo pastry that’s been lurking in the freezer for months, and so they become a filling for spanakopita. I absolutely adore this kind of living and this type of cooking, and when I do it, I feel connected to generations of women past who have dealt with far greater hardships than we will ever know.

Yes, we will cope just fine.

Planting onions is a family affair
Nettle shoots for the wilderness area of the allotment
Last year’s kale is reshooting, and these leaves are full of goodness
Few things in life give me as much pleasure as a sink packed full of home-grown/foraged greens

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Pantry and freezer food is on the up, so it’s sausages with braised lentils, blackcurrant muffins (from last summer’s fruit) and bolognese. Now that McDonald’s is shut I can’t help but think this will be the healthiest Matt has ever been.

Reading and watching: Pride and Prejudice and various yoga books – nothing like Aunt Jane and the sutras to give a wise perspective on life. And the happy discovery that This Old House is now streaming again to the UK after an absence of several years, so we’re lost in evenings of home renovation in the Greater Boston area.

Sowing/Plotting/Planting: Potted up 15 dahlias (10 for the garden, 5 for the allotment as cut flowers). Most of the cut flowers and veg have been sown, including several kales, beet spinach, leeks, cosmos, strawflower, ammi, amaranthus, calendula and others I have forgotten. Planted onions and garlic. Dug and manured the strawberry patch.

Also: Finding a line between ‘school’ and play for Harry now that he’s home. Montessori resources are on order and in the meantime we’re doing lots of creative play, story time and outdoor messing around. And CBeebies of course.

Things to do in a crisis

After an extremely torrid five days where – I do not exaggerate – esteemed colleagues in the cultural sector are talking about their organisations and personal livelihoods being decimated, planning for 6 months closures and everything being cancelled for the foreseeable future, I am retreating to my preferred way of dealing with a crisis: seed sowing and forward planning.

We do not know what the future holds but I do know that panicking about it helps no-one. As a self-employed household, we have already had several contracts put into question by coronavirus, so now’s the time to be prudent and as self-sufficient as possible, and lend a helping hand to those who need it. Because it could be a whole lot worse (think of those Doctors, some of whom I was at university with, who are running the ICUs at the moment).

So here is my list of things to do in a “shit I’ve got no work on” crisis.

  1. Work out how much we need to live on vs confirmed income and budget accordingly.
  2. Finish building the shed and then insist Matt moves the concrete mixer so that I can tidy up the shrubs in the back garden
  3. Finish building the utility room
  4. Plan what colour to paint my office
  5. Potty train Harry (note, this will be harder than any day’s work I’ve ever done in my life)
  6. Plant all my seeds (already doing well with this)
  7. Dig out the brambles and grass from the allotment
  8. Plant out broad beans
  9. Dig out and replace the strawberries
  10. Replace the greenhouse
  11. Watch This Life and Ready Steady Cook on iplayer
  12. Study the sutras again (this is yoga, always the best medicine)
  13. Actually write that damned book

Because in this life, the most important things to learn in order to survive are how to grow things, how to make things and how to cook. Look out for your community (and well done to all those organisations who have promised freelancers that they will honour contracts and invoices) and let’s be sensible.

A new and timely addition to our art collection, from Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft
A bit of free time is give me space for this lot! 40+ different types of veg and flowers are now in the process of being sown.

Battle of the bramble

Slowly, slowly, we’re venturing out and turning our faces to the sun. These are tentative early glimpses, a foretelling of spring, but it’s there. The blackbird has started singing again, and the forsythia is bring her yellow showy-offy-ness to the back garden. At Wightwick Manor last weekend, the skeleton trees had their bases lit up by a mass of glowing daffodils.

The garden at Wightwick Manor on March 1st

Whilst we’re at Wightwick, I must make a note of their wonderful dried flower hanging rack, which brightens up the scullery (clearly the place that I was born to hang out). I love everything about this, from the uniformity of the hang (that’s art-speak) to the choice of colours to the fact that the flowers still look vibrant several months after picking.

Strawflower and limonium hung in bunches on a rack from the ceiling
The colours are still strong, several months after picking

This weekend we ventured to Snowdonia for some much-needed family time; the first for about 5 months I realised. Between us we work a lot of weekends, that’s just how it is, so consecutive days spent as a threesome are really rare. And whilst sun is never guaranteed in West Wales, it did show itself – briefly – and the birds sang a crescendo of joy. This is not an exaggeration! Living in the city I forget just how loud country birds can be, be they crows or pigeons or gulls or blackbirds or even, my favourite, the barn owl. I do not know this part of Wales and the landscape felt extraordinary to me, a place so alive with the feeling of the ancient past.

Sheep sheep everywhere
Have you even been to Snowdonia if the view isn’t like this?
Harry has to take a train or a bus or a tractor or a lorry with him, wherever he goes

Spring means life and birds and sun…but it also means jobs. Not that this is a bad thing. My limbs are desperate to be stretched and I value the creative fun that the allotment gives me after solitary hours at the desk. I’ve drafted up my planting plan for the year, with blocks of cut flowers in one bed and lines of greens and veg in the other.

The planting plan, 2020

But the thing that has really been on my mind are the brambles, specifically the ones that have infested the autumn raspberries. I took advice from lots of people and the general consensus was to dig them out, albeit carefully, trying to avoid the raspberries. This proved to be significantly easier said than done, given that the raspberries have been there for years and have made the place very much their own; there is no ordered line of planting or any of that, it’s a free-for-all. That, and the fact that these brambles have the longest tap root I have ever experienced. I yanked and I heaved and I pulled and I fell over several times and gradually, I made progress.

One of the invading brambles with a tap root as long as my forearm
A semi-victory over the invading forces

I am under no illusion that this is the job done; I think this exercise will need repeating throughout the next few years. And it also taught me that there is no way in hell that the brambles in The Wilderness by the shed and greenhouse can be dug out: as Matt tells me, some of the stems are wider than my wrist. It would take an excavator, or at least someone with a heck of a lot more strength than me to do it.

The raspberry patch now. It may not look like much but this is a major improvement.

As I was digging and falling over and swearing, I realised that it wasn’t just me who was out. Life is springing up again at the allotments. Martin was happily moving his brassica cages and we had a chat about Coronavirus. Lynn came over and I admired her fruit cage (it is a thing of beauty and I feel ashamed of our tardy efforts at tidiness) whilst her husband had a bonfire. I came home smelling of woodsmoke. It’s good to be back.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Green papaya salad with Thai green curry; barabrith; veal meatballs cooked in an Aga at our holiday let; new season rhubarb (some of it sweet, some of it like licking a battery)
Visiting: Harlech, Snowdon and the surrounding area, staying in a marvellous Georgian manor with a tennis court and mysterious old walls, barns and lanes that felt from a different place in time. Also Wightwick Manor where Harry insisted on eating a massive cake all to himself.
Reading: Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a dark tale about an affair between a woman and a man who turns out to be what was in the 1990s called a conman, but who would now described as a perpetrator of coercive control. Wonderful but unsettling.

Cinnamon buns

Amidst this biblical rain, I made it to the allotment last week to sort the raspberries out. Which I did, but it has left a bigger problem: what to do with the brambles. They are over-running this really productive area of the allotment. If I dig them out I’ll almost certainly lose some raspberries, but if I leave them, they will get worse. If anyone has any suggestions of dealing with rampant brambles, I am all ears.

The monster brambles and grass have taken over the raspberries

The sun did briefly shine yesterday. I know this because we were at Moseley Old Hall, the National Trust property a stone’s throw from Wolverhampton. I sat in the tea room contorting my body into the weirdest shape so that my face could be in the triangle of sun beaming in through the window. Afterwards Harry explored the woods and tree house, covering us all in mud, which is just as it should be.

The knot garden at Moseley Old Hall. What you can’t see is the meadow of native narcissi that are coming into life behind the garden.

Onto baking. I’ve been messing about with cinnamon bun recipes since Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess was published, which Google tells me was 1998. That is over 20 years of exploration into enriched dough cookery. I am low-level obsessed, and over the years have tried my hand at kuchen, chelseas, iced buns, brioche, bun cake, various Scandi versions of kanelsnegle – I went to Denmark purely to marvel over the miracle that is baked dough with butter, spice and sugar. I wouldn’t say that I am a brilliant baker, far from it, but I surely get points for loyalty.

I have concluded that the cinnamon bun can’t really be made from a recipe; so much is about the feel of the dough, that velveteen bouncy quality that you know when you touch it but can’t explain. Having been to Denmark, I would say that my cinnamon buns are not the ‘real thing’ – there they came covered with cream cheese icing, which I can’t quite fathom. Actually I never glaze my buns anymore, but do sprinkle them with sugar pearls that I managed to track down at Ocado. The Danes would never add fruit, which I do sometimes, as I enjoy the adding squishiness of blueberries or apple. But I bake not because I want to be ‘proper’, but because I want to feed my family good food. So here is my current favourite recipe, an amalgam of many magazine cut-outs, splattered cook books and 20 years of trying. No picture I’m afraid, as they never last long enough to be photographed.

Cinnamon Buns – my current perfect recipe

For the buns:
250g spelt flour
250g strong white flour
40g caster sugar
2tsp ground cardamom
14g dried yeast (I use Dove’s Farm)
5g salt
270g whole milk
50g unsalted butter
1 egg

For the filling:
180g unsalted butter
70g caster sugar
70g soft light brown sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
Handful fruit, e.g. chopped apple, blueberries, sultanas (optional)
white sugar pearl crystals, for sprinkling

First make the dough. Melt the butter into the milk – I use the microwave – then leave to cool slightly. If you dip your finger into the mixture it should feel neither hot nor cold, just wet. Place the salt, flours, sugar, cardamom and yeast in a big bowl, in that order – this keeps the salt and yeast separate. Use a bread scraper to mix it all together. Crack the egg and whisk into the milk, then pour the lot onto the flour mixture and, using your scraper, mix to a sticky mass. Turn it out onto the work surface and knead for a good five minutes, probably more. It needs to be smoothy and springy, like a baby’s bottom. Spelt flour is low gluten so this won’t become as stretchy as normal bread flour, however a good long knead is essential to a good finished bun, so don’t be lazy. Shape the dough into a ball then pop back into the bowl to prove, covering it with a tea towel. It will need at least an hour, possibly two, to prove.

Meanwhile make the filling – mix the butter, sugar and cinnamon together in a bowl until smooth. If you need to zap the butter in the microwave to get it soft, so be it.

Next, prepare the baking tray: I use a roasting tray which I line first with foil and then with baking paper. You could also cook your buns in muffin cases, which is more traditional.

When the dough is ready – a finger pressed into it will leave a lasting dent, plus it looks good and puffy – gently tip it out onto a very lightly floured work surface. Use your fingers to ease it into a rectangle, then roll out properly with a rolling pin. I make mine about 45cm x 35cm but it would never occur to me to measure it, it just looks ‘right’. Spread the butter mixture evenly over the dough, going all the way to the edges, then sprinkle on any fruit if you’re using it.

Now roll it up, starting with the long side furthest away from you. Try to keep it tight and even, then roll the whole thing back and forth a few times so it comes together in a neat swiss roll shape. Use a sharp knife (e.g. a bread knife) to slice into rounds: the size is up to you, but I usually get between 11-13 buns from my dough. (I intentionally make them slightly different sizes as Harry has different bun needs to myself and Matt. This is unorthodox, but is proper family cooking.)

Place the buns cut-side-up on the baking tray, leaving a few centimetres between each bun to allow room for spreading. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise again, this time for about 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200c.

When the buns are puffy and yearning to be baked, sprinkle white sugar crystals over them. Place them in the middle or bottom of the oven for an initial ten minutes. Open the door, turn them around (for a more even bake), turn the oven down to 180c, then bake for another 15-20 minutes, depending how crunchy you like them.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Vietnamese duck braised in orange juice, served with jasmine rice, bok choi stir-fried with garlic and fish sauce, and a massive bowl of spring rolls and gyoza. Crabs and prawns from the Rag market. Accidentally spent £50 on noodles, the spring rolls & gyoza, rice paper rapers and so on at Wing Yip supermarket, which was massive fun.

Reading: Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, after a gap of about 10 years, and reminding myself of my yoga life before Harry.

Anna Del Conte’s Crostata

I’ve been obsessed with tagliatelle all this week. Lusting after it. The reason is the re-reading of Anna Del Conte’s lovely memoir-with-recipes Risotto with Nettles which – unusually for me – I’ve actually been cooking from. Her deceptively simple prose whisks the reader to a different time, a different place, a different age, that of well-to-do pre-war Milan, where women spent most of their time either shopping for food, making the food or discussing the food.

It happens that I’m reading this just after Matt’s return from Bolzano in north Italy, where he spent a few days for work. (I spent most of January solo-parenting whilst he fabricated the Sonia Boyce exhibition at Eastside Projects, then went to Italy, then was in Cambridge. And no, I was not happy about it.) Knowing that the goodwill of one’s spouse is essential to a successful career, Matt did a wise thing and brought back a bulging bag of Italian goodies: speck, salami, noisette, parmesan, pickled vegetables, sunflower bread, Milka (not Italian but still food of the Gods) and, for proper sucking up, a heart-shaped box of Ferrero Rocher. The eagle-eyed may notice that the writing on the speck and salami labels is Germanic, this a cultural hangover from the various periods of history when the Tyrol was in German hands.

Matt’s sucking up present

So when I came across Del Conte’s recipe for Taglietelle with prosciutto and peas, and I realised that I actually had proper Italian bacon in the house, and proper Italian parmesan (the stuff over there is a world away from the pre-packaged stuff in the supermarkets over here), I gave it a go. And I liked it so much that I made it for Harry’s tea the following day. And then again for MY dinner the following day. It is simply tagliatelle tossed with very finely diced onion that has been stewed in butter, matchsticks of prosciutto (speck), peas, a dollop of cream, parmesan, salt and pepper. A ladle of pasta water brings the dish together into silky mass. Simple, but beautiful, and a reminder of just how good Italian food can be when the ingredients are of perfect quality.

It makes me think how different the Italian approach to food is to that of the British. Another of her recipes, Crostata di marmellata di fichi (or Fig jam tart), is a masterclass of perfection in simplicity. Jam tart carries a very particular meaning for the English. For me, it has traditionally meant a basic shortcrust, made without sugar and with half Stork margarine, half vegetable shortening, rolled into a plate pie dish, filled with raspberry or maybe mixed fruit jam (always homemade), topped with a thin lattice, then baked until golden or even slightly over done, meaning the jam is often chewy. It’s everyday food, nothing fancy, the stuff of Enid Blyton and childhood.

The Italian crostata is a different being.  Anna’s is a pate sucre dough, made with butter, enriched with egg yolk and sugar, and delicately seasoned with lemon zest, and so it becomes biscuit-like in the oven. This is a pastry so rich and delicate that it needn’t even be rolled, but can be pressed into the tin with fingers. The lattice top spreads in the oven to become closely linked, meaning the filling is almost entirely enclosed apart from tantalising nuggets of bubbling fruit that escape from between the gaps. It feels indulgent and yet…it’s just a jam tart.

Crostata from Anna Del Conte’s Risotto with Nettles. Ignore my dodgy lattice work: I was in a hurry, school run and all that.

Anna’s recipe uses fig jam, but given that figs are not forthcoming on an English allotment, I used last summer’s strawberry and redcurrant preserve, loose set, fresh-tasting and vibrantly coloured. The same pastry could easily be filled with stewed apple, plum or soft fruit. Incidentally, she strongly asserts, quite rightly, to eat this on the day that it is made, but also that it should be eaten without cream. This is a step too far for this Englishwoman: plain ice cream on the side for me, please.

Crostata (Jam Tart)
Adapted from Anna Del Conte’s Risotto with Nettles, p99

225g plain flour (she uses 00 but I used regular plain flour)
1/2tsp fine salt
100g caster sugar
grated zest of half a lemon
120g cold unsalted butter
2 large free-range egg yolks
milk
350g jam or other fruit filling
juice of half a lemon
1 egg yolk and splash of milk, for glazing (optional)

To make the pastry, whizz the flour, salt, sugar, lemon and butter in the food processor until fine. Pulse in the egg yolks and sufficient milk to make a ball. Wrap and place in the fridge to firm up for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer.

Preheat the oven to 200c. Grease a 8 or 9 inch tart tin with a loose bottom and sprinkle with a little flour, shaking off the excess.

Remove about one third of the dough and roll the rest out into a circle, about the depth of a pound coin, and use to line the base of your tin. If this is tricky, you can take lumps and simply press it into the sides of the tin, ensuring that there are no gaps and that the pastry is even. Make sure the pastry is pressed firmly down between the base and the side.

Mix the jam with the lemon juice and pile it into the tart case, spreading it out evenly.

Roll out the remaining dough and cut into strips about 1-2cm thick, then place the strips quite closely together in a lattice format over the tart (they will spread a little in the oven). If you wish, brush the pastry with a glaze made of egg yolk mixed with a little milk.

Bake for 10 minutes at 200c then turn the heat down to 180c and bake for 20 minutes, until the pastry is golden and biscuit coloured. Leave to cool in the tin before serving at room temperature.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Tagliatelle with prosciutto and peas, or did I mention that already?; Rogan josh made with goat from the butchers on Bearwood High St, with a good saag aloo and some terrible chapatti; lots of blush oranges whilst they’re in season, including blush orange bellinis; apple cake with whipped cream at Ikea. Harry’s really into what he calls ‘cold cheese’, which is cream cheese, but I like his name better.

Reading: Gave up on the Jilly Cooper, she’s not for me. Also tried, and gave up on, Walden…there are too many grumpy men in the world as it is without reading their work at bedtime. So Anna Del Conte is providing respite, plus I am dipping into the re-print of Dick Strawbridge’s book about sustainable living.

Also: Attended Writing West Midlands course Starting to Write, which was fun if only to see the characters who go on a writing course on a stormy Saturday in February. It feels good, after 2 and a half years of constant work/parenting, to find little notches of space for creativity. Also our two expensive new windows were finally fitted, and the house has warmed from Positively Arctic to merely needing only one jumper. Only six more windows, a kitchen, the shed, the utility room, the bathroom and my office still to do.

The planting diary

A few weeks ago now I received several bulging packages of seeds in the post and got out the dusty old biscuit tubs of last year’s seeds to sort out what’s staying and what’s going. Here’s the list – it’s work-a-day, just an aide-de-memoire of what to sow/plant when, with a bit of succession sowing in there for good measure.

January (already done)
sweetpeas
broadbeans
Mustard salad leaves (undercover)

February
Peas for pea shoots
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
Leeks
Dill
Plus: cut down the raspberries

March
Kale Emerald Ice
Kale Pentland brig
Kale nero di toscana
Spinach perpetual
Mustard salad leaves
Peas Blauwschokker
Viola heartsease
Broadbeans (direct sow)
Basil
Verbena bonariensis
Cosmos
Cornflower
Nigella
Sunflower
Strawflower
Ammi
Calendula
Cleome
Honesty (?)
Sweet rocket (?)
Sweet william (?)

Plus
Map out the allotment plan – make room for:
– x5 new dahlia tubers (allotment and/or garden)
– lupins, teasels, chrysanthemums (allotment)
– pumpkin and climbing squash (allotment)
– sweetcorn (allotment)
– amaranthas (allotment and/or garden)

April
Sweetcorn Swift
Watercress
Pumpkins and Squash
Courgette
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
Wild rocket (direct sow)
Dwarf french beans
Climbing french beans
Runner beans
Borlotti
chard
Parsnip (direct sow)
Basil
Dill
Salad bowl
hyssop
perennial delphiniums (x5, allotment)
teasels (x5, allotment/garden)
nepeta (cat mint, x1, garden)
white nicotiana (x5, garden)

May
Chicory variegate di castelfranco
Chrysanthemum starburst (x5, allotment)
lupin mixed (x30, allotment)
Oak leaf lettuce (direct sow)
Salad bowl
Foxgloves

June
Watercress
wild rocket (direct sow)
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
Basil
Dill

July & August
Watercress
Wild rocket (direct sow)
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
mustard salad leaves

September & October
Mustard salad leaves
Dill

Also this week:
Eating and cooking: 
I’ve been doing a lot with slow-cooking and leftovers. Sunday’s 6 hour slow-cooked pork shoulder (bay, fennel seeds, seville oranges, white wine, onions, garlic) was cut up and slow-cooked again with black beans, tomato, onion, chipotle and spices to make a Tex-Mex-style Monday-night stew. Celeriac and potato gratin shoved in the oven to eat alongside a roast (still rare) venison haunch. Also slurping up blood oranges, a regular late January/early February treat.
Reading: How to eat a peach by Diana Henry. Also having my first ever go at a Jilly Cooper, which reads like it’s from a different age (it is).

Seville orange cake

2020 has hit us with a bang. This past week I’ve had a cold so bad that a hole in the head to alleviate sinus pressure would have been welcome. Matt’s working all hours so I am single-parenting whilst also putting in the hours on my own projects. Harry’s in the terrible twos. Yah-de-yah-de-yah, moan moan moan. The other week I took myself over to Leamington Spa for a special lunch date with my friend Tune and – more importantly – Tune’s mum, Mrs Roy, who is from Calcutta. Mrs Roy is not confident with her English, which is fair enough as my Bengali is somewhat lacking. But good cooking crosses all borders and languages, and I was fascinated as she expertly toasted her daal and rolled her parathas from scratch. Who would have thought that cabbage curry could be so delicious? Well in the hands of a Bengali cook it really can (the trick is more salt than I ever thought feasible).

Mrs Roy’s vegetarian lunch

I’ve also been busy with the seed catalogues, planning and plotting. I’ll post about this another day but there are to be some new additions to the allotment this year, with yet more cut flowers and a few varieties purely for drying. And despite the cold, there is sowing to be done: the chill of our sun room is the perfect place to start off a few sweetpeas, deceptively tough as they are, plus there’s the first of many sowings of broad beans. I’ve also filled a drain pipe with mustard mix for an early crop of spicy leaves; it’s the perfect size for a windowsill salad bar.

Amidst the chaos, sweet peas, broad beans and mustard leaves have been started on their way

January food writing seems to be entangled with veganuary and being booze free, which is all well and good, but seems to me to be at odds with what’s actually good to eat right now. I like a salad as much as the next person but surely January is the time for root vegetables, slow cooking and rib stickers? Or citrus for that matter, which is now bountifully in season. I came home with other week with a box of Seville oranges, lovely for marmalade but with potential for so much more. I enjoy their citrus astringency, and use the juice in stir fries or stuff the whole fruit into the cavity of a roast chicken so that the sharp orangey fug can permeate the flesh.

This recipe for Seville orange cake could also be called marmalade cake, for that is what it tastes like; the alchemy happens when the gooey orange syrup melts its way into the just-cooked crumb, making a cake that is sweet and sharp and dense and damp all at the same time. Perfect on its own with a cup of tea but also – my preference – with a fruity compote and a dollop of thick double cream.

Seville Orange Cake
Recipe adapted from Waitrose & Partners Food magazine, January 2020

200g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
1 Seville orange, zest and juice
2 eggs
300g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
150g natural yoghurt
50ml sunflower oil

For the syrup:
2 seville oranges
75g caster sugar
40g clear honey

Grease and line a 900g loaf tin and pre-heat the oven to 180c.

Beat together the butter, sugar and orange zest until pale and fluffy; I use electric beaters for this. In a separate bowl, sieve together the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda to combine. In yet another bowl, measure the yoghurt, oil and orange juice (squeeze the fruit through your fingers to get rid of the pips) and stir to combine.

Add the eggs one at a time to the butter mixture along with a spoonful of flour between each addition, mixing thoroughly. When all is combined, beat in the remaining flour and the yoghurt mixture until you have a smooth dollop-able batter. Spoon into the cake tin and bake for 1 hour 10 minutes or so, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Keep an eye on the cake as it may brown too soon; if this happens, cover with foil and also maybe reduce the heat to 170c.

Leaving the cake in its tin, leave to stand for 10 minutes whilst you make the syrup. The centre of the cake will probably collapse in on itself but no matter. Warm together the juice, sugar and honey until the sugar has dissolved, then raise the heat and bubble for a few minutes until it looks syrupy. Stab the cake several times with the skewer, then carefully and slowly pour the hot syrup over the cake, allowing it to soak into your holes. Leave to cool entirely before removing from the tin.

Seville orange cake

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Yet more cinnamon buns, this time made with 50% spelt flour, 50% strong white flour. I can never get enough of them. Sausages with lentils stewed with red wine, which pleasingly gives me a glass of something in the evening. Trying to find nourishing things to feed Harry with and am brought up short by the realisation that all he really wants are baguette, biscuits, shreddies and chocolate.

Reading: The Consolations of Food by Valentine Warner, which is essentially the book that I would like to write myself, and Dick Strawbridge’s book about bread, borrowed from the library, which reminds me that I can actually bake and should do it more often. Revisiting Vajragupta’s Buddhism: Tools for living your life in an effort to regain mental clarity.

Also: Sowed broad beans, sweet peas and mustard salad mix. Ordered my seeds for this season, plus several plug plants as I don’t have space to propagate. Made myself go for my first solo swim in something like 5 years as I rarely find the space to exercise these days.

The joy list

As I write there’s a man upstairs deep-cleaning my carpets with chemicals, hot water and an unfeasibly loud vacuum. In a grown-up version of Craig David’s 7 days, I found out about The Carpet Cleaner on Wednesday (having admired my neighbours spotless rugs), texted him on Friday, he came to quote on Sunday and by Monday his brushes were in action (I intend to chill on Tuesday).

I like to take this week after the alleged-holidays for a bit of cleaning, in all senses. Christmas with a two year old in no way is a break; it took me 7 hours this week just to get through The Sound of Music due to interruptions for Hey Duggee!, nap time, snack time, etc. Plus there’s all the visiting, carting toys around, tantrums, cooking, entertaining…every year I feel mental. So to take a bit of time from 6th January for scrubbing and reflection has come to be a useful aid to my health and happiness.

The climate of 2019 was difficult: the suicidal state of UK politics, ecological crisis, Trump, the daily grind of running two small business, feeling skint because childcare is the same as a mortgage. Watching a bit of vintage Nigella on the Food Network yesterday, Matt and I reflected that 20 years ago food TV was deeply aspirational – all about having a lovely time, doing fun things with beautiful people and maybe picnics on the beach with Toploader playing in the background. Now it’s all about survival: you need to make your dinner in 15 minutes and on the cheap because you’re back from work late and you’re short on cash.

So in the spirit of fighting back against the gloom, I have started a Joy List for 2020. Anything can go on provided that it will actually be achieved, and any visitors to the house are welcome to add things to it. Whether your idea of joy is growing your own food, eating ice cream in January, brewing beer, jumping into a freezing cold lake because you can or finally visiting that posh restaurant you’ve had your eye on since you were a teenager, perhaps this is the year to actually make it happen?

Some items from the Joy List might include…

More cut flowers for the home and for gifting. The allotment has now been covered in plastic to keep the weeds down until spring.
Admiring beautiful art and architecture, such as this ornate ceiling in Tewkesbury Abbey
Ice cream in the park is a TOP joy for Harry, even if it’s January and he’s dripping snot into his Mr Whippy
Fire pits and farm visits with old friends
Planning sunnier retreats to the beach / Cornwall
The joy list as it currently stands

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: All the usual Christmas stuff including a memorable turkey chilli from Jamie Oliver’s Christmas cookbook. Matt’s toasted sandwiches with chicken, cheese and chutney. Home-made clementine jelly.

Plus: Reading Grampy’s 1930s copy of Robinson Crusoe and not quite sure what to make of it. It flits from being a work of great philosophical depth to a boy scout manual; do I really need several pages describing fisticuffs between groups of grown men? Plus making full use of our National Trust membership so that Harry gets some fresh air.

Cut flowers in mid-winter

If you, like me, feel particularly emotionally jangly at present – what with the politics, the expense of Christmas, the darkness, the drizzle, etc etc etc – then can I suggest a few hours of gentle botanical crafting to ease frazzled nerves. Over the last few weeks I’ve been using up the dried stems of summer’s strawflower and hydrangea, arranging them into wreaths and swags for yuletide displays. And I mean ‘yuletide’, Pagan that I am, for there is something extremely grounding about bringing the natural world into the house as we approach the winter solstice.

Now, just because I like this kind of activity, doesn’t mean that I’m actually any good at it. My canister of gold spray paint is professional standard, procured by Matt (obviously) and therefore way too posh for me – just trying to get the nozzle to stay on led to this unfortunate drippy decoration of the skimmia plant outside the backdoor.

The skimmia got attacked by a drippy can of gold paint

Once I finally got the paint to work, I lightly sprayed the hydrangea stems, allowing some of their natural pink to show through. These are lovely as single stems in wreaths or grouped together in a massive vase.

Hydrangea heads sprayed gold

The strawflowers make a lovely simple wreath – dead kitsch and retro. I used the glue-gun to secure individual stems onto a willow base, which cost a few pence, for a display that will last for years.

Strawflower wreath (terrible photo, sorry)

For the front door, I decided to make my own swag using evergreens pilfered from my Mum’s garden, plus a few more hydrangea, strawflower and that spay-painted skimmia. I think it’s important to have a range of textures in these winter displays, and scent if you can – I used rosemary but bay would also work well.

Laying out the stems for the front door swag

I simply worked the greens together into a display that I liked, then tied them tightly with string and ribbon before trimming the ends. Half an hour’s work, cost is negligable, and – most importantly – we have a display that is absolutely rooted in the English mid-winter enlivened with a few colourful memories of the English summer.

This year’s floral swag
Strawflowers are the gift that keep on giving

Also this week:
Cooking and Eating: Blackforest Arctic Roll – whisked chocolate sponge stuffed with amaretti and chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, cherry jam, amaretto and clementine zest. A baked ham spiked with allspice and marmalade. Mince pies. Pomegranate seeds in everything, they seem never-ending.
Doing: Mainly hibernating and attempting to protect myself from politics and political fall-out (Birmingham is the most politically active city I have ever been in). But also a visit to the CBSO Christmas concert for tots, which was a joy, and to Lichfield Cathedral to see the Christmas trees.

Be the change

I have thought for several years that December (and into January) is a particularly difficult time of year. There’s the obvious things, like the darkness, the cold, the drizzle. But more than that, the commercial onslaught of Christmas and the enforced jollity within which we are meant to thrust ourselves sits awkwardly with me. Christmas is great…..when it’s at Christmas. When it starts in November, then it’s a No Thanks from me.

This year we add to this an election, with exhausting levels of mud-slinging from all sides; the ecological crisis; the homelessness crisis; food poverty; terrorism….it goes on and on. I can’t sing Jingle Bells on November 30th when I know that a few hundred metres from my house there is a man sleeping rough on a doorstep, and families are using a food bank because their lives are in crisis.

However. The answer to these problems is to do something, anything, however small. In the words of Saint Mother Theresa, ‘in this life we can not do great things, we can only do small things with great love’. The small people of the world, if they stand together, have enormous power – just look at Greta Thunburg and her inspirational, angry campaigning that has every teenager in the world shouting her on whilst the suited, male, middle age politicians she lambasts appear idiotic with their inadequate responses. (The young people of today should give us all hope for the future.)

In the meantime, this Christmas, let’s resolve to be the change that we want to see in the world.

We live in the fifth largest economy in the UK and yet some people can not afford to feed their children. This is a national disgrace. Can you imagine, really try and imagine, what it is to have a newborn baby, be exhausted and emotionally on the edge, and then know that you can’t afford to buy your baby nappies, or that your landlord may kick you out of your flat at any point because you have only £50 in your bank account and it’s either food, heat or the rent? If this bothers you then perhaps consider making a regular donation to the Trussle Trust https://www.trusselltrust.org who organise food banks around the country.

If you see a rough sleeper in your neighbourhood, at least acknowledge their presence and perhaps ask them if they need money, a hot drink, whatever it might be. Human kindness and dignity goes a long way.

Abandon Amazon with their tax-dodging ways and instead, buy local and buy small. Less is often more. As usual, Matt and I are making many of our presents this year (I admit that Matt is dead good at making things, which does help).

If you are grieving, as some of my friends are, take time out over the holidays to light a candle and honour your loved one. Give thanks for their presence, however short-lived it was.

Use your vote wisely.

Be the change.

I will be taking a car boot of donations to the Sandwell Food Bank on 16th December so if anyone has anything to give, drop it with me.