Tuesday June 09th 2009, 9:28 am

Fruits of The Earth - My preserving book

As the preserving season starts to get into gear I am receiving more and more interest for my jam making book, Fruits of The Earth, which is selling very well in the shop. Over the next two weeks there is an abundance of elderflowers to be picked and made into cordial. Local gooseberries are also only a few weeks away from being ready to harvest, so if the elderflowers are still in good enough condition by then they can be combined to make gooseberry and elderflower jam. The same with the strawberries that will be at their best over the next few weeks.

book review waitrose food illustrated
waitrose food illustrated book review for fruits of the earth

I am really pleased that Waitrose Food Illustrated has chosen the book to review and their recommendation is very favourable. Not that there is much time to dwell on these things – there are elderflowers needing to be gathered. If I make enough cordial there will be plenty to put in the freezer, as well as for making summer drinks to consume now, not to mention for use to flavour cakes, icings and ice cream. I will post the recipe next. It always amuses me when the lady in the chemist gives me a grilling about what exactly I need citric acid for. This substance is obviously useful for some underhand illegal activity of which I have no knowledge, making the assistant behind the counter obliged to ask. But it makes me feel like a rebellious middle aged anarchist under interrogation, not generally the image I project. Or do I …..!

Sunday May 24th 2009, 11:29 pm

elderflower blossom just starting to come out

Being without a car for a few days this week has meant I’ve been walking to work, and even though it has been mainly tipping it down (with rain) it is such a great way to focus my attention on what’s going on around me. I have to make a real effort to live in the moment when there is always so much needs to be done to develop things for the future. It is very easy to let things and time go by unnoticed.

elderflowers just starting to come into flower.

The elderflowers are just starting to come into blossom. I’m glad I’ve realised this as it gives me a week or two to get prepared. I never make quite enough elderflower cordial, usually only enough to last for a few weeks. I’m hoping to make more than enough this year so I can put plenty in the freezer as well.

elderflowers in close up.


Saturday May 23rd 2009, 8:29 pm

In the country, degrees of separation tend to be very few. After writing my blog piece recently about the willow fence down the road, within a week or so I had met the fence maker in person, whose handiwork I have been admiring, and was able to get a few facts straight. This gives me the perfect opportunity to update the story. Mark, who works with willow, owns the house and wove the fence, so in effect it is the calling card for his trade. Since I took the last pictures, he has finished the fence very handsomely with a stripe of contrasting yellow willow along the top and put out a sign to advertise his business, Forest Willow. I hope he gets many commissions for his efforts.

forest willow business card

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 November 23rd 2008, 9:36 pm

Baking the Christmas cake, November 2008

I had a boyfriend once whose sister made him a Christmas cake every year. When it came time to eat the thing, instead of cutting it with a knife into neat pieces or treating it with any kind of ceremony or respect, he used to pick at the cake with his hands, tearing off big untidy lumps. Any remaining cake would sit there for weeks afterwards, all hacked at, looking like a replica of the north face of the Eiger. He quite obviously had never made a Christmas cake himself.
It always surprises me that noone ever mentions just what hard physical work it is making this classic rich fruit cake. The idea that all the tools you need are a wooden spoon and a bowl is true of course but doesn’t take into account the quantity of elbow grease required. Today I made my Christmas cake, thankfully, with the help of my trusty vintage Kenwood Chef but I have in years gone by done the creaming of the butter and sugar, the beating of the eggs and the stirring in of the inordinate amount of dried fruit, all by hand and have been completely knackered by the end of it. As a consequence, seeing anyone eating this traditional cake without due care and attention is in my eyes unacceptable. (However, I don’t want you thinking that was the only reason my relationship with the boyfriend didn’t work out!)
As mentioned in my last post, I’ve decided this year to follow a handwritten recipe found in an old cookery book, with of course, a bit of tweaking. Everyone you ever speak too about Christmas cake has something to say about one ingredient or another that they can’t stand; be it the marzipan, the icing, the dried fruit, etc, etc. I decided that my cake should include everything but the kitchen sink and treacle. Along with the usual currants, sultanas, raisins, chopped candied peel and glace cherries, I added roughly chopped stem ginger pieces and a couple of spoonfuls of the syrup from the ginger jar (because it is fab with just about everything). I didn’t have any ground almonds so I chopped up some marzipan and creamed it in along with the butter and sugar as well. I will publish the recipe here in the next day or so.
As the cake baked for 3 or 4 hours, the house became filled with this amazing smell. A Christmas cake baking is not like anything else and then I realised it was the smell of Christmas as a child. My baking project then became something much more important than simply ‘making a cake’. I’m not really a great traditionalist, always preferring to do things that are new and different, but this made me realise why we bother year after year to do these things. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help remembering the totally over-the-top childish excitement and fervour that Christmas once created and loved ones, no longer here, who cared enough to make it so.

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.

Sunday August 03rd 2008, 8:11 am

punnets full of summer fruits

Everyone has food stuffs or flavours that they aren’t particularly fond of. Sometimes we decide early on that we don’t like something when in actual fact we just haven’t eaten it prepared in the right way. That’s what I’m like with blackcurrants. I think my mind was made up after drinking Ribena in my youth and without ever having tasted them freshly picked. My neighbours blackcurrant bushes are heaving with fruit right now and noone seems interested in using it up, so not keen to see a crop go to waste I have decided to harvest the berries (I do have permission!) and find ways of using them that might change my mind.
As I am in jam-making mode I thought I’d start with a preserve and am really thrilled with the result. Blackcurrants are a great fruit to work with as they have a distinctive flavour with a tart kick, quite similar to damsons, which I really love. The recipe that follows is somewhere between a jelly and a jam; it is without the bits, as the skins and seeds are pureed out, but doesn’t need straining through a muslin bag as required to make clear jelly. The resulting jam has more body and texture than a jelly. Rather than the fruit being boiled to smitherines, the cooking time is minimal and so ends up absolutely bursting with flavour. This jam has a lower sugar content than usual which gives a lovely softish set and as the skin of the currants are removed there is no need to cook them first by boiling the fruit in water. It has just the right sharpness to make it ideal as the filling for a chocolate cake and is fab slathered on sourdough toast. This jam has turned me into a blackcurrant enthusiast, it’s that good.

1 Kg blackcurrants, leaves and stalks removed
800g granulated sugar
1 lemon

Choose ripe or slightly under ripe fruit. Rinse the fruit if you must but make sure to drain off the excess water by patting dry with kitchen towel. Place the blackcurrants, sugar and juice of the lemon in a preserving pan. Gradually bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar then remove from the heat. Pour into a glass or ceramic bowl and cover with greaseproof paper pushed down onto the surface of the fruity syrup. Leave in the refrigerator overnight. (I went away for a couple of days at this stage with no adverse effects!)
Put the fruit and syrup through a food mill fitted with a fine disk or push through a sieve held over the preserving pan to remove the skins and seeds. Bring the resulting puree to the boil, stirring occasionally, and cook at a fast boil until it reaches setting point (it only took me 5 minutes). Skim if required and pour into hot clean jars, filling right up to the top and seal, preferably with screw top lids. Cool the jars upside down.

A punnet of blackcurrants

Wednesday July 30th 2008, 4:31 pm

Vintage Household Encyclopaedia

We’ve had a few days of really hot weather and I never think to change the temperature of the fridge to compensate for the extra heat. Subsequently some milk started to go off. It was only a bit off, off enough so it tasted strange in tea. In an attempt to be resourceful and thrifty (not a quality that comes naturally to me) I set about turning it into something else. However I didn’t really think it through. I could have made some scones or added the milk to the mixture when making a chocolate cake but I messed up big time and ended up with a house that smelt disgusting and a dish of tasteless rubbery cheese that would have needed other things added to it to make it even vaguely palatable. I had wasted a good hour of my time and the ‘cheese’ went in the bin.
Perhaps it is just me, but the whole idea of making use of leftovers makes life feel grim and miserable. Just the word ‘leftovers’ is depressing. As the need to be more mindful of waste becomes increasingly necessary, someone needs to rework the subject to make it appealing. We need a new vocabulary that makes food scraps and stale stuff exciting.
While I was scrabbling around trying to find a use for my sour milk I found an old household encyclopaedia that I had collected primarily for its colourful dust jacket. Set out in an A to Z format, for sour milk it says:
SOUR MILK This is very good for polishing linoleum. It will remove iron rust from white fabrics.
So next time perhaps I’ll give that a go, not that I have any linoleum in the house. I spent quite some time reading through the book though, which is filled with useful nuggets of information as well as much that is quaint and outdated.

BED to ascertain if damp. Put a mirror for a few moments between the sheets. If it is misty when removed, then the bed is damp.

CHIMNEYS These can be kept reasonably clear of soot if potato peelings mixed with a little salt are burnt in the grate at least once a week. It will form a glaze inside the chimney and thus prevent its becoming clogged.

COFFEE GROUNDS Dry coffee grounds filled into a suitable covering make excellent pin-cushions; the pins and needles struck therein will never rust.

FLY-PAPERS to make. Take pieces of strong, thick paper, smear with treacle, and place in prominent positions. Always burn fly-papers after use.
(You just know your hair will become tangled up in one of these!)

HEDGEHOGS Keep in a cage during the day and release at night if it is desired to use them as beetle-catchers. Feed on bread and milk and an occasional earth-worm.

LAVENDER SACHET Mix together 75 parts powdered lavender, 20 parts powdered benzoin and 1 part oil of lavender.
(This actually sounds lovely and I think is worth trying out. Benzoin has a scent similar to vanilla so I imagine this combination would work beautifully.)

Using leftovers 1934 style

Saturday April 26th 2008, 7:30 am

planting seeds in paper pots

I have just ordered some Nemoslug and I am feeling in two minds about it. Nemoslug, in case you have never heard of it before, is a biological slug killer which when watered in, introduces nematodes into the soil which in turn kill the slugs that are lurking underground. It arrives in the post in a small box, but as it is full of living organisms, it has a limited shelf life and needs to be kept in the fridge and used within two weeks. So long as the soil is the right temperature and so long as there isn’t a heat wave which dries the soil out, the nemotodes get to work, thus in theory creating a 6 week window of opportunity for seedlings to avoid slug damage for just long enough to be well on their way. It isn’t particularly cheap and they do recommend that you give the soil more than one treatment.
Now this of course is all good stuff. Slugs and snails are the bain of a gardeners life and it is soul destroying when your nurtured crops dissapear overnight and you are left doubting your own sanity, ‘I’m sure there were some seedlings growing there yesterday, but perhaps I imagined it?’ So what is my problem with Nemoslug?
Some people say it works and others say it doesn’t. There are alsorts of uncontrollable variables as regards the conditions which will make it work effectively or not and as all the work is carrying on unseen underground anyway it isn’t as if you can be sure that anything is happening at all. It is intriguing that some of us are trusting enough to hand over money for a product that only might work and comes with not a single guarantee. As an entrepreneur myself, it is certainly one of those products which I only wish I had invented, that and the water filter. At what point do you add up what you are spending on growing your own food and say, ‘This is costing me a fortune!’

a paper pot made from The Guardian

Anyway, enough of that. As I have very little luck when sowing directly into the ground, I have been busy starting my seeds in pots, making my own pots using a Paper Potter. At least with this ingenious invention, once you’ve bought it, it goes on working for ever more and uses up waste paper at the same time. I did get rather carried away, starting by making pots out of newspaper, then using the colours and fonts to get creative. The weekend Guardian is really good for this as it is well designed making it easy to find lovely headings and typefaces to use. I also found some cheap wrapping paper in the shed which made even fancier pots as well as some wicker-patterned paper for pots that look like baskets. Thankfully, at this point I told myself to get a grip. Using the Paper Potter you can make pots for your seedlings out of any waste paper of a newsprint quality that will absorb water and biodegrade.
Here’s how you make them.

paper pots that look like baskets


Tuesday April 15th 2008, 11:32 pm

zinnia textile print from The Laundry

I’ve just found a box full of zinnia seed packets that I bought several years ago to give away to promote The Laundry’s zinnia bedlinen. I have kept the box in the bottom of the fridge for most of that time. I love these flowers as they grow in such great colour combinations from brassy yellow to burnt orange to mucky pink.

I haven’t had a great success growing zinnias myself though each year I get that bit better at it and am hoping to crack it this year. The trouble is that slugs absolutely love the seedlings so you need to either be very lucky, or more likely use a combination of vigilance and cunning to outwit them. Last years attempt did result in a handful of lovely blooms but the leaves below them weren’t anything to be proud of and to reach that stage I had started the seeds off in pots, planted them out, each one in a plastic tube made from a recycled water bottle edged with copper tape, positioned them close to slug traps that needed to be replenished with beer at regular intervals and sprinkled organic slug-away, slug-off or whatever the acceptable eco friendly slug pellets are called, on the soil surrounding them. Granted it was a very wet summer, so that didn’t help, but surely it’s not meant to be quite that difficult.

Now seven months on, the agony seems to be but a distant memory and this year I am again visualising vases of zinnias filling my house by late summer ’08 and a zinnia supply so plentiful I’ll be giving bunches away to my neighbours as well.

First things first though. Are these seeds even worth bothering with? Not knowing whether the seeds would still be viable after 5 or more years I thought it best to do a viability test to decide whether chucking them on the compost heap would be a better option. Luckily zinnia seed, if kept under suitable conditions, can stay viable for 7 or more years.

To test them I took a piece of paper kitchen roll and sprayed it with water so it was somewhere between damp and wet, then placed 20 seeds, evenly spaced out, on the towel. Multiples of 10 make it easy to work out the viability percentage but obviously if you don’t have many seeds to begin with use fewer.

The kitchen roll was then carefully rolled up, the roll placed in a sealed polythene bag, the bag placed in a warm airing cupboard, in the dark. That was on Saturday. Today, 3 days later, I thought I’d have a look see how they were doing, and lo and behold when I unrolled the towel, all 20 seeds had germinated. This is a really impressive result considering that seeds are supposed to lose significant viability as each year passes. So the seeds are raring to go.