Friday April 10th 2009, 6:56 pm

Fabrice\'s Fabulous Pastries.

This Easter weekend heralds a change in mood and a real feeling of optimism after several months of the winter doldrums. Not that I’ve been in the doldrums – I’ve been far too busy. Since opening the shop I have realised some of the advantages of going out to work. I am now able to tap into the creative energy generated by others, instead of feeling responsibility rests solely on my own head.

Tables laid for the opening day of The Garden Cafe

Today, Good Friday, saw the opening of the new Garden Cafe at Taurus, just a short hop from The Laundry’s front door. The quality of the food the Garden Cafe will be serving makes this event very exciting indeed, with food and ingredients sourced from local producers and specialists, cheesemakers and artisan bakers. The cafe will be open weekends and ‘holidays’ throughout the summer (call Taurus Crafts for opening times and directions: 01594 844841) and for a first day, things look very promising.

The new Garden Cafe at Taurus

Attention to detail is key, with fabulous rectangular stoneware platters, dishes and generous bucket-shaped coffee cups, all made especially for the cafe by the pottery, again here on site at Taurus. The clay oven built last September (see my post about our oven building weekend here ) will be fired up to supply freshly baked flat breads which come with various fillings and accompaniments.

The Garden Cafe platter

All we need now is some decent weather to make the cafe the ‘MUST visit’ place in the area. See the menu here. As these are early days, expect the menu to be tweaked as things progress.

Baking flatbreads in the woodfired clay oven

Handmade chocolate at the Garden Cafe

Tuesday April 07th 2009, 3:55 pm

bantam eggs

When I arrived home yesterday I found a bag containing five bantam eggs on the kitchen table. My next door neighbour, Veronica, had left them there for me, as her brother’s bantams are producing more eggs than they can cope with, so there are more than enough to go around. My picture wont give you any idea of scale but for those who don’t know a bantam’s egg from a regular hens egg, these eggs are about a half to two thirds the size of an ordinary egg, thus having a rather refined and petit appearance. They can be used in much the same way as normal but using 2 for 1, and apparently they have less white and more yolk per egg. Veronica says the shells are harder to crack. I am looking forward to trying them.

Saturday April 04th 2009, 12:58 pm

Woven willow fencing

Just because a house is located in the country doesn’t mean its style will follow the country vernacular. Many country houses could be transplanted to a city suburb or town centre without looking at all out of place. Close to where I live there is a row of modest Edwardian semi-detached homes that could easily be found almost anywhere, typically pebble dashed and with a postage stamp garden in front edged with privet hedging. These houses do however have fields surrounding them and a view to a valley beyond.
I was interested this week to see that one of the occupants of the row had hired an artisan person to weave a willow fence around the front garden which each day as I’ve passed by has been taking shape. I have no recollection what this hurdle fence is replacing, whatever it was merged invisibly and matched the others on each side. Now, this boundary fence stands out and looks rather distinguished. I couldn’t help wondering whether this traditional rustic touch could herald a general mood, a burgeoning trend brought about by the influence of television – The Lark Rise Effect perhaps. I hope so.

woven willow fencing

Friday April 03rd 2009, 4:51 pm

The Laundry April 2009

Apologies for being away for so long, but I’ve been really very busy and once out of the blogging routine it becomes harder and harder to begin again. For the last 3 months I have not been idle however, and now have so many stories to report it is hard to know where to start.
Firstly, in these strange and difficult times when shops and businesses are closing down left, right and centre, I have opened a shop. I’ve come close to it before but it hasn’t quite happened, so it has been very exciting to gather everything together, paint the walls, think about shelving and display, and eventually open the door for business.
The Laundry’s shop sign states ‘homewares, jam & pyjamas’ and I sometimes hear puzzled people outside saying to their companions, ‘jam and pyjamas, that’s a strange combination!’ Yes indeed it is and, as a person possessed with a mischievous streak, I am relishing giving people something new to be puzzled by, to talk about and hopefully to enjoy. The shop is close to my home and after a few weeks of getting to grips with dressing before noon, I am now enjoying ‘going out to work’ and being able to show the established strands of The Laundry plus many more new ones, all together in one place. Colourful Mexican washing baskets sit alongside bannetons, for artisan bakers, dried lavender sold by the cup-full and butter muslin measured out by the metre (I insisted on a drapers measure fixed in place along the edge of the counter for a traditional touch). When the weather is fine The Laundry’s wares can be displayed outside as well.
A few weeks ago my preserving book, Fruits of The Earth was published, so bringing another element to The Laundry which is set to develop into a ‘Glut Kitchen’ brand. Anyhow there will be plenty of time to tell you more of that in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, I’ve got things to write about.

The Laundry at Taurus

The Laundry at Taurus, Taurus Crafts, The Old Park, Lydney, GL15 6BU Tel: 01594 840563

Sunday December 14th 2008, 9:40 pm

Old fashioned Victory V throat sweets

I’ve recently had a yearning for Victory Vs, which is quite handy as my cold has now morphed into a throaty, coughy thing. My Grandmother used to eat Victory Vs and would, when I visited her as a young child, break them in half in the palm of her hand and give me a half. She’d send me out to the Co-op to get them for her, where they were weighed out loose and I’d run back to her house with them in a little paper bag. They weren’t exactly childrens sweets, but things were grim up north.
Apparently these lozenges, which still have a very charming look about them, were originally made in Nelson in Lancashire (but no longer are) since the mid 1800’s and as well as liquorice, included ether and chloroform in the ingredients (but no longer do).
When searching out Victory Vs I also came across Grays Herbal Tablets – ‘For Cold Nights and Mornings’ and was drawn to the quaint design of the packaging.

Grays Herbal Tablets

Wednesday December 10th 2008, 5:18 pm

the tenbury wells mistletoe auction december 2008

Each year the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe auction is held over 3 days and I usually manage to remember after the event (regular readers will be familiar with this scenario). This year I put the date in my diary then two days before came down with the lurgey and spent a day in bed trying to recover enough to drive up to Tenbury. I’m so glad I made myself make the 70 mile trip, it would have been so easy not too.
The area where I live, the Forest of Dean, is one of the best places in the country for native British mistletoe, along with Herefordshire and Worcestershire, where a proliferation of orchards gives this parasitic plant plenty of opportunity to flourish. Changes in how orchards are tended may mean that, long term, mistletoe could be in danger, but for now at least, this is a bumper year and the berries are in abundance.

bundles of mistletoe at tenbury wells mistletoe auction 2008

The auction is quite a sight to behold with row upon row of bundled up mistletoe divided by channels of muddy ground for strolling down to peruse the quality of the lots. There is other foliage for sale as well with different varieties of holly covered with red berries and some, simply green and glossy, without berries. The sellers bundle up their wares in different ways, using bits of old plastic feed bags, woven groundsheets and various colours of twine and each bundle is then labelled with the sellers name and a lot number.

lots of mistletoe the tenbury mistletoe auction december 2008

It is a long cold day as the auctioneer and the buyers make their way along the lines and the successful bidders heave their winnings away, filling the backs of trailers, vans and cars for distribution throughout the country. If you buy some mistletoe from a florist over the next few weeks it may have come from this auction.

carrying bundles of holly bought at auction december 2008

Tuesday November 11th 2008, 3:56 pm

It is time to bake the Christmas cake

It is time to think about baking the Christmas cake. I’d like to say that I have an old family recipe passed down through the generations, but I haven’t and as I don’t bake a cake every year either, I have generally forgotten which recipe I followed the previous time. Delia is always reliable, I’m sure I’ve made hers on several occasions.
Last year my neighbour, John, decided he’d make a cake for each of his two daughters and was given several recipes by various people. He ended up making three cakes following three different recipes, not knowing which recipe would be the best. We discovered that if you bake your cake in a square or rectangular tin, as opposed to a round tin, you can then sample the cakes by slicing off one of the sides, which would eventually be covered in almond paste and icing anyway. For several weeks we had cake tastings in the afternoon, comparing the different cakes, deciding whether we preferred a recipe which had treacle in it or another one that included cocoa. Of course the more tastings we had, the smaller the cakes became. ‘Shall I just cut another slice off the other side?’, he’d say, ‘ yes why not’, I’d reply.
What was so great about these cake tastings was that it became much easier to recognise what an ideal Christmas cake should contain when there were others to compare against. This isn’t something we often get the opportunity to do, unless we work in the Good Housekeeping Institute. I realised that I’m not so keen on treacle in the mix as I think it gives a bitter taste.
Now the time has come round again to think about baking this traditional cake, I’m faced with the usual question of what recipe to follow. Every week at least one new cookery book enters this house and I love it when a vintage find has handwritten recipes sandwiched between the pages. I’ve found a recipe for Christmas cake in one of my old books, handwritten in fountain pen on an old postcard along with a second card explaining how to make marzipan and royal icing, so I shall take pot luck and make that one. Perhaps it will be someone else’s special hand-me-down family recipe. I forgot to mention the downside of cake sampling, which is that by the time Christmas comes you’ve had quite enough cake to last you for at least another eleven months.

Monday October 27th 2008, 11:14 pm

building a clay oven

I have been interested in wood-burning bread ovens since seeing one in action on a visit to Australia and when I returned home and began baking my own sourdough bread, this interest turned into an obsession. I fully intended to build an oven in the garden this last summer, but other obligations and rubbish weather meant it just didn’t happen. Even my sourdough starter has been rather neglected lately and is currently sitting at the back of my fridge waiting to be invigorated.
However, I am all fired up after this weekend attending a ‘how to build a bread oven’ course, held at Taurus Crafts, just down the road from where I live. The course leader, Warren Lee Cohen, is a very experienced bread baker and oven builder and he set out to pass on his knowledge and enthusiasm to a group of us eager to learn.

building a clay oven

During the course of Saturday and Sunday, 16 of us collaborated – the plan to build 2 ovens; one under a beautifully constructed wooden canopy that would become a permanent feature at Taurus, the other a slightly more modest affair that we would be able to fire and bake in by the end of the second day. The domes of both ovens were made of cob, a mixture of clay, sand and straw, that had to be layered on a groundsheet and then trod, by booted foot (it was just too cold to use bare feet, but apparently you can), to form the correct working consistency to form into bricks. One by one they in turn were then wacked around a mound of sand, manipulated and stroked to seal the gaps between until it all came together to form a domed oven.

Building a clay oven

Of course there was a little bit more to it than that, but not much. What was so utterly brilliant was the simplicity of the whole thing. The second oven was made to be be more substantial, had thicker walls, a beautifully crafted oak door so that the oven could be used for baking loaves and was moulded and tended with loving care. The other oven was more basic and though it would have benefitted from a longer drying out time, was fired up by the end of the first day so it could begin to dry out sufficiently for us to bake our pizzas.

building a clay oven

Warren’s approach to sourdough was also surprisingly casual. I have written before about the trials and tribulations of working with a wet dough, getting to grips with hydration and how buying some digital scales and using precise accuracy with weights and measures helped me crack it. Warren doesn’t weigh anything, instead gets the feel of the dough and uses his instinct and experience. It seems a very relaxed way of doing things but I wasn’t the only one who felt slightly traumatised by the thought of simply going with the flow. This approach was refreshing though, after the complicated techniques described in my many books on the subject and proves that there is more than one way to do these things successfully. He had brought in some sourdough for us to use for the pizza bases, which was given a quick kneading in the morning and was ready to use by lunchtime.

building a clay oven

By the time we got round to baking, I was starving. We all had the opportunity to make pizzas with whatever topping we chose. Each base was rolled out wafer thin and topped with finely sliced tomatoes, ripped pieces of mozzarella, smearings of pesto, chopped olives, onions, olive oil etc etc. We had to be sure that the oven wasn’t too hot by throwing a handful of flour onto the hot oven floor and counting to ten. If the flour burnt in that time it was too hot, so the oven floor was wiped over with a wet cotton mop a couple of times till it had cooled down enough. The pizzas cooked in a matter of minutes, the thin crusts bubbled up and scorched round the edges, like the bestest ever pizzas you could ever wish for. Each one was cut into wedges and everyone ate so many pieces we all lost track of just how much pizza we had eaten. I’m now desperate to start building my own oven.

Saturday October 18th 2008, 4:30 pm

roadside pumpkins

As ever, in my pursuit of more roadside produce, on this occasion I didn’t have to go very far. My neighbours, whose eggs I buy, were also today selling pumpkins along the wall beside their house.

Roadside pumpkins

The display looked so wonderfully seasonal and you can’t beat an honesty box. I think their dog is more likely to lick you into submission than bite off your leg if you decided to abscond with the goods. Not that round here we do things like that.

Pumpkin guard dog

Thursday October 16th 2008, 1:29 pm

The leaves of the sumac tree in autumn

For most of the year sumac trees are a pain in the garden as they send out runners all over the place that then grow into more trees. When you need to remove them it takes a considerable amount of digging to be sure you are rid of them. They do have a moment of glory though, when the leaves start to turn and you see them in their autumnal colour. That time is right now, so best enjoy them while you can.

The leaves of the sumac tree look amazing in the autumn.