August National Trust-ing

No summer holidays for us – no cash – but we do have our National Trust membership to fall back on. The past few weeks have taken me to Croome Court, Packwood House, Baddesley Clinton and Biddulph Grange – and each visit has given new ideas for both the allotment and our newly-acquired back garden.

When the National Trust began back in the 1880s, its co-founder Octavia Hill was on a mission to provide green-spaces for put-upon urban dwellers…and as I wandered around the late-summer borders at Baddesley yesterday, I smiled at how her intentions are still coming good, over a century later. I think it’s fair to say however that our pal Octavia wouldn’t have taken Argentinian-style snacks with her on her countryside visits. The Olympics have inspired Matt to do some South American cooking and his pasty-sized empanadas made for great picnic food.

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It’s not a picnic unless there’s a grease-soaked paper bag involved

Today’s post is nothing more than a pinning of ideas that I like so that – hopefully – they can inspire my planting next year. I don’t even know what some of these plants are called so I am hoping that my mum will come to the rescue.

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Packwood House, Warwickshire

At Packwood, the borders were filled to the brim with sky-high hot-colour plants. I spotted lilies, sunflowers, agapanthus and dill, off-set with green foliage and grasses.

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I love the hot red against the acid yellow

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More hot yellow planting

In the veg garden at Packwood, cosmos and calendula were planted en masse with rudbeckia (?) for beds with real wow-factor.

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In the veg garden, cutting flowers are thrown in together for a riot of colour

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Matthew gets in the way of the camera, as usual

Baddesley Clinton is smaller than Packwood but the walled garden felt very, very special yesterday. One edge is given up completely to dahlias, with the surrounding borders filled with swathes of painterly-style bright colours plus tall stands of everlasting sweetpeas. Yes, the grass is traditional, but it’s neatness provided structure to balance out the beds. My photos don’t really do the planting justice; it was verging on garish – but I think it’s marvellous!

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Baddesley Clinton is more pared back – but the drifts of colour feel a bit more achievable

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Love these!

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What feels like a mile of dahlias

One corner at Baddesley is a herb-garden-turned-border. I actually looked at it for several seconds before I even realised that all these plants have a culinary use, so good was the effect. A tarragon had been allowed to grow into a sizeable shrub, the blue hyssop was humming with insects, and the parsley, sage, camomile and thyme gave good ground cover.

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The herb garden is transformed into a border with hyssop, parsley, tarragon and sage

With a few weeks of summer still to run, I’m hoping to get to a few more places to help get the creative sparks buzzing!


Kent part 2: Sissinghurst and Great Dixter

Perch Hill shares a link with Sissinghurst castle, the home of Vita Sackville West, now managed by the National Trust. The link is familial (Sarah Raven’s husband is the grandson of Sackville West), but also  conceptual: in the Arts and Crafts tradition, Sissinghurst is split into several garden rooms, each planted with painterly swathes of colour.

Sissinghurst was meant to be a place of retreat for Sackville West, somewhere to write and be alone. I wonder what she’d made of the hundreds of thousands of people who today visit this Kent garden, inspired by its romantic heritage and beautiful planting. I also wonder, if Sissinghurst had not been created by an aristocrat known for affairs with women, including Virginia Woolf, would it get the same level of sustained attention? Perhaps not. But this is churlish; Sissinghurst is a wonderful place.

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Sissinghurst, home to Vita Sackville West

The NT go to great efforts to keep the gardens vibrant and in good order. As with so many Arts and Crafts gardens, Sissinghurst suffers from seasonal flowering (a rose will never look good in November), but the planting is so clever that as soon as one thing finishes, another springs into life. Easy to say, difficult to execute.

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Notes from the gardener

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A selection of flowers from the estate

The best view is from the top of the Elizabethan tower. From here, the garden rooms can be seen and understood as a whole: the strictly formal structure is softened by colour-led planting. The structure without the plants would look staid; the plants without the structure would look scruffy. This is the essence of Arts and Crafts gardening, famously championed by Gertrude Jekyll (although she was not involved with the creation of Sissinghurst).

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View from the tower down to the garden rooms

The marriage of two minds made this garden possible. I like the very modern feel of Vita and her husband, the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson – the artistic sensibilities of Vita were tempered by the technical nous of Harold.

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The marriage of formal and free design

It’s easy to forget now that this generation of artist-gardeners were revolutionary. If Jekyll, Sackville West and their like were operating today, their work would be the subject of exhibitions in white-cube galleries and the Daily Mail would huff and puff about the new-fangled way of doing things.

Over at Great Dixter we see the work of a more contemporary revolutionary. Christopher Lloyd met Gertrude Jekyll as a child; she blessed him to continue as a gardener. He turned Great Dixter into a garden of world-wide renown and lived in the Edward Lutyens-designed house his entire life.

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Great Dixter

Don’t expect pretty-pretty gardening here though. Lloyd ripped out the Lutyens rose garden in the 1990s and was reported as saying: “We do not all want to float endlessly among silvers, greys and tender pinks in the gentle nicotiana-laden ambient of a summer’s gloaming. Some prefer a bright, brash midday glare with plenty of stuffing”. His garden rooms are crammed full of plants, colours loud and clashing.

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A great forest of these loomed six foot high

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Close-knit and exuberant

If Sissinghurst is a garden for artists, Dixter is a garden for plants-people. It’s dedicated now to teaching and there’s also a workshop for green woodwork. Incidentally, Kent is full of locally-produced green wood products, from fences to gateposts. Much of it is made from hazel, which is coppiced and fast-growing.

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Hazel grove at Sissinghurst

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Green wood hurdles at Great Dixter

The combination of the artistic eye, structured design, technical ability and working with the landscape: this is the essence of the great Kent gardens.

Blackcurrant ice-cream

I spent a good hour on Sunday processing soft fruit. I don’t mean putting it through the food processor… I mean topping and tailing gooseberries and blackcurrants to make them freezer ready. Yesterday at the allotment, my neighbour left with a crate (a crate!) filled to the brim with goosegogs. That’s a lot of crumble.

In truth our fruit harvest is down this year on last and I’m uncertain why. Perhaps the bushes need a good prune, or maybe I didn’t net properly and the birds had them. But still, on Sunday the bushes gave up about 1 kilo of blackcurrants, and there’s still more to come.

I’ve had my eye on Sarah Raven’s cassis recipe for quite a while. It’s very simple: in old money, for every pint of brandy, add 1lb each sugar and blackcurrants, plus a few blackcurrant leaves for flavour. Leave to stew for a few weeks before straining. Cassis is great for making cheap white wine (in particular, fizz) into something drinkable: the French call this a Kir, or if you’re using fizz, a Kir Royale. I’ll give the verdict in the autumn.

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Cassis in the making

But the best, the absolute BEST, thing to do with blackcurrants is to turn them into ice-cream. And I mean ice-cream is the purest sense; that is, cream that is flavoured and frozen. Most ice-creams have a custard base which can be a bit of a faff. This one is as simple as can be.

Firstly, get yourself some cream. Incidentally, I’ve never weighed or measured anything when making this ice-cream, just going with what I have. Each time it’s worked out yummy. But that’s no help to you so I’d allow about 450ml double cream.

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Take some cream…

Then you’ll need some blackcurrants. I took about 500g of fruit and cooked it down with a little sugar and water until the fruit burst. It tasted sweet but not too sweet. It was then pushed through a sieve and chilled to make a thick glossy smooth puree.

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…and some cooked and sieved blackcurrants…

Then you just mix it all together! Whip the cream until it’s just thickened and then fold in the blackcurrants. Don’t over-whip as that will mess up the texture; it needs to be smooth and dollop-y. Give it a taste: it should be slightly too strong and sweet, as the freezer will dull the flavour. If in doubt, add a little icing sugar to the mix.

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Whip them together…

Then pop the lot into your ice-cream maker and churn until frozen. Or frozen-ish. I always make too much and so it stays very soft-set. No matter, as it hardens up just fine in the freezer.

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…and churn

Pop the lot into a tub and freeze until firm. This ice-cream retains a lovely  texture that really is akin to a custard-base ice. I can only imagine that the blackcurrants, with all their pectin, have something to do with this. If it’s too hard to scoop, just leave the ice-cream out of the freezer for 20 minutes or so before serving.

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Purple blackcurrant ice

If you, like me, pick far too many blackcurrants at this time of year to eat, then you can always make up the fruit puree and freeze for future ice-cream making forays. I’ve made this with both sieved and chunky puree, and I think sieved gives a better texture.

Be warned: this is fruit and cream and sugar. It’s rich and a little goes a long way. But my God, it’s good!

Blackcurrant ice-cream

Recipe half-remembered from a National Trust cookbook from many moons ago. You’ll need an ice-cream maker.

About 500g blackcurrants

Granulated sugar, to taste

About 450ml double cream

Icing sugar, to taste

First make your puree. Remove any big stems or leaves from the currants. Put them in a pan and cook on a gentle heat with a splash of water and a few spoons of granulated sugar until the fruit bursts. Taste it: it should be sweet but retain a bit of sharpness. Push through a sieve and chill.

Whip the cream until very soft peaks form. Fold the fruit into the cream, tasting as you go until the right balance is achieved. Add icing sugar if you need to. It should taste a bit too strong and a bit too sweet. Churn until frozen, then put in the freezer to harden up.


Emergency gingerbread

We come home to concrete skies and rain, the kind of wet that penetrates through to the bone. Proper Midlands weather. It’s hard to believe that just a few days ago we were living amongst this:

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Doom Bar in Padstow


Outlaw’s Kitchen at Port Isaac

Nathan Outlaw’s Kitchen at Port Isaac was a revelation. Seafood cookery that is brilliantly fresh (the evening’s fish delivery arrived whilst we were lunching) and incredibly good value for money (set menu £15pp) without any pretension. The cuttlefish croquettes were served with grey mayonnaise, presumably from the cuttlefish ink – what a great touch.

And oh, those Cornwall beaches.


Low tide at Mawgan Porth


Birds enjoying the surf

Faced with today’s downpour, and with no sign of immediate let-up, I donned the waterproofs and got on with the essential task of harvesting the borlotti beans. Note – it is a TERRIBLE idea to harvest something meant for drying in the pouring rain. But leaving them any longer gave the risk of rot. So a sackful (no exaggeration) of beans is now languishing on old newspaper on the spare bed. If they don’t dry off by morning I’m going at them with the hairdryer.

I came home sodden. Time for emergency gingerbread. This recipe comes from an old client, Bill Sewell, who I was fortunate enough to work for when he opened his cafe at St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. It’s incredibly easy, really tasty and keeps brilliantly. Ideal for wet autumnal afternoons.

Emergency Gingerbread

Preheat oven to 180 celsius. Line a 2lb loaf tin with baking parchment.

In a small pan, gently melt together 100g each of treacle, golden syrup & light brown sugar and 300ml milk. Leave to cool. The milk may separate, but no matter.

Measure 225g self-raising flour in a bowl with 1tsp bicarb of soda, 1tsp cinnamon, 3tsp ground ginger and a good grating of nutmeg. Rub in 100g butter until well combined.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and give it a good stir until it comes together as a batter – I just use a wooden spoon. Beat 1 egg in the (now-dirty) milk pan and stir it in.

Pour the lot into the prepared tin and bake for about 45mins, until done.

Gingerbread keeps brilliantly and gets better with age. Keep in a tin for future rainy Mondays.

Humble (pumpkin) pie

I thought that my squash were doing alright. I’ve got ‘summer squash’, which doesn’t actually exist of course, I just have no idea what variety they are. That and the turks turban, which are fattening nicely. My harvested squash pile currently looks like this:

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The onion rack is now a squash-curing rack

But then we visited Charlecote Park at the weekend, the National Trust place near Warwick. And frankly, they’re just showing off with their squash pile. Check this out:

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One serious squash harvest

The gardeners at Charlecote are having huge fun with their squash. There were varieties here I’d never heard of, both old and new, from the UK, Japan, Canada, USA, France… you get it. All of them were exquisitely beautiful, even the ugly ones. That may make no sense, but is perfectly logical to me.

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Gourds – these are inedible, just for show

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I am growing these! Though I’ll probably get about…10.

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Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous

But what to do with all these squash – will they ever sell them all? I doubt it. Not at £5 a pop, which is how much some of the more interesting ones were. No matter. I best get back to looking after those Turks.