Thoughts on Nepal

This morning as I watched the hens free ranging in the field enjoying the fresh grass and scratching in the damp marshy patch I was reminded of the inspiration behind this blog – the amazing cook I met in Langtang in Nepal. Read about him here

Since the first news of the earthquake l have been thinking about the people we met and langtang cookwondering how they are coping with losing loved ones, losing homes, losing so many beautiful historic buildings.

The recent shocking reports from Langtang show a landslide and devastation where this photograph was taken. This natural disaster has affected those people who already had so little.

I have heard that our guides and their families and all involved with the trekking company  we travelled with are safe.  They are trying to cope with the immediate problems – lack of shelter, water, food and the unknown.

Here the fresh green leaves on the trees, the pear and apple blossom, the shoots of vegetable emerging from the soil are all reminders of spring and new life – I just wonder how the people of Nepal can rebuild their lives.

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Dashed, but not lost hopes

Easter is one of my favourite times of year and this year has been no exception. It is a time of hope – hope of winter really being over, hope for new beginnings, hope for a good growing season with more progress towards self sufficiency, a garden flowering with plants which are a pleasure not only for us but for the wildlife that they attract and support and the ever eternal optimism of longer days giving more time for exercise and physical fitness.

I had high hopes for this Easter break – I had intentionally started sowing seeds in March to get ahead making the most of the greenhouse which is about to celebrate its first birthday. The broad beans under cloches in the polytunnel are now a good 10cm tall and I hope we will get an early crop before the tomatoes go in. So the plan was to get to grips with the herbaceous beds which have not been tended all winter cutting back all the dead stems which have been protecting new growth from late frosts and weeding and mulching and planting out overwintered potted plants.

Well I had not bargained for a completely debilitating bout of flu followed by a chest infection which has left me as limp as a frosted lettuce leaf and all hopes dashed. I have sat in the sunshine in the greenhouse and dozed, I have sat outside when it got warmer and dozed and I managed to pot on the tomatoes and make a simnel cake but that is it.

I was feeling really sorry for myself this afternoon, feeling like my Easter holiday had been totally wasted and annoyed that I cannot shake this bug off and get going. As I sat in the sunshine I caught a glimpse of a brimstone butterfly, my first of the year, and then watched as it returned to hover around the holly hedge. About half an hour later a peacock butterfly skipped up and down the border which the man of the house had tended this morning it looked like it was inspecting the compost that he had used to mulch around the rosa mundi and lavender plants. I sat and watched the butterflies, I listened to the chiffchaff calling and then I sat for about an hour watching Mr Wren preening and strutting and singing to Mrs Wren as they flitted in and out of the Irish Juniper which is a favourite nesting site for them. So I may not have ticked off the gardening to do list this Easter but I took time to listen, watch and enjoy the beauty of the natural world and to be grateful for living in such a special spot.

And hope – yes I hope by next weekend I will be back to my usual self and the borders will be sorted and more vegetables planted and the hope of a lovely spring and summer remains strong in my heart.

Is life too short to make marmalade?

Shirley Conran thought life was too short to stuff a mushroom but when the Seville oranges appear in the shops I have a bit of crisis – to buy or not to buy? There is no doubt that making marmalade is a time consuming and messy job and at the time of maximum mess the thought ‘why not buy it? the shops have so much they sell it’ is very much at the front of my mind.

This year, as in most years, I bought even though I knew that life was far too busy to make marmalade in the near future.  But one of the good things about Seville oranges is that they can be frozen until there is sufficient time to make marmalade so in previous years I have popped the whole lot in the freezer for a month or so. I didn’t freeze them this year but put them in our new cold food store and the weather has been so icy recently they probably have been frozen. When I got them out to make the marmalade they seemed  perfect.

Part of the fun of cooking is reading round the subject and I spent some time enjoying a coffee and reading different recipes to decide whether to hand cut all the rind as I did last year or whether to try the liquidiser attachment on my ancient Kenwood chef.  Next decision soak over night and then boil the pulp, rind and water or try the slow cooker.  I decided to live life on the edge and if I was trying a new method of fruit preparation I should try a new method of cooking so Kenwood and slow cooker out and off I set.

20140216_114510Roughly chopping the oranges (once juiced and then pips and pith were removed) and popping it in the Kenwood was easy.  Next I loaded the prepared rind,juice, pips and pith tied up firmly in butter muslin, and water into the slow cooker put it on and went outside to finish cutting the willow.

Four hours later when I came back into the house there was a beautiful, tangy citrus aroma filling the kitchen.  Next the easy bit remove the jelly bag and squeezing out all the lovely pectin laden juice.  Important next step (which I often forget)  is to weigh the empty preserving pan before adding the fruit so when you add the boiled fruit and weigh you can calculate how much sugar is needed.  Rule of thumb is add 1lb of sugar for every 1lb of fruit.

20140217_183239The marmalade has been boiled and bottled in clean warm jars so it’s just a matter of patience waiting for it to cool ready for breakfast tomorrow, Having had a few tastes during the ‘test for setting’ process I know that life is not too short to make marmalade and it is certainly not too short to eat it,

 

 

 

The pain of cutting willow and the joy of using it

There have been many clear, bright, days in December and January. The clarity of winter light causing the leafless trees to stand out in stark beauty against the skyline always makes me pause, gaze and marvel at nature. Throughout the day as the light and the colour of the sky changes, lightening then darkening again, the trees stand still and their shape and beauty is accentuated by the different tones and contrast.

It’s also the time of year to carry out traditional woodland management tasks like coppicing and hedge laying. It’s a perfect pastime providing exercise after the winter indulgences and in activity but there is also a sense of grounding and being at one with nature – setting the scene for spring and the start of a new growing year.

Over recent weeks there has been much wielding of billhooks by certain members of our household as some very old and straggly hedges have been laid in the traditional manner. It is very satisfying to see a hedgerow all neatly laid with neat cuts (pleachers) open to the sunshine ready for new growth as soon as the sap starts to rises in spring. The finishing touch to the perfect hedge is the bindings – the sue of long lengths of material woven along the top of the hedge t hold if firmly in place helping to make it stock proof until the hedge regenerates. I read recently that this was traditionally done with long lengths of bramble (with thorns removed) which shows just how our predecessors made use of every bit of material.

I must confess de-thorning brambles does not really appeal and hence my pain as I look at the beautiful straight stems of willow against the blue sky and know it’s time to start coppicing so that I can bind the hedge and make use of this season’s crop. The first cut is the hardest but as you make progress through the stand of willows there is an immense satisfaction sorting the willow and once the last stem is cut there is the beauty of the coppiced trees and the anticipation of next season’s growth.

The hedge has its binding, there are neatly tied bundles of willow sorted into different colours and lengths and there is the traditional willow ‘flower’ arrangement of coloured stems and even a few pussy willow in the living room.

Next job? Making some hurdles using coppiced hazel and green willow to act as rabbit fences around the herb bed.

Willow against winter sky

Willow against winter sky

Line of a laid hedge before bindings

Line of a laid hedge before bindings

Close up of willow binding

Close up of willow binding

Willow bindings on a laid hedge

Willow bindings on a laid hedge

Pleachers on a laid hedge

Pleachers on a laid hedge

The kick of horseradish

I caught a snippet of The One Show last night and was fascinated to find out about Mapson’s Farm who grow fields and fields of horseradish. I don’t grow fields and fields of horseradish but I do have quite a big patch and as the feature made me realise I haven’t harvested any yet this season. Like parsnip horseradish improves with the onset of winter and hard frost but the danger is that procrastination can end up with no horseradish – just when you decide to dig it up there peeping through the soil is the first sign of the new season’s growth.

I would love to think that the plant got its name from looking like a giant radish that has a pungent flavour that gives a ‘kick’ to food. However it is more likely that the name comes from the prefix horse meaning large and it is a large root. Horseradish (Cochlearia armoracia or Armoracia rusticana) has been cultivated since the earliest times and has many medicinal as well as culinary uses. The young leaves can be used in salads but it is the knobbly root that is most commonly used.

Horseradish is always grown from root cuttings and in fact when you dig up the root to harvest it is virtually impossible to dig it all up so be warned if you introduce horseradish to your garden plant it somewhere where you don’t mind it taking up a fairly permanent residence.

I think it is sad that most people’s encounter with horseradish is via a jar of commercially produced horseradish sauce as it is a wonderfully pungent and versatile herb. But it’s not for the faint hearted – peeling and grating the root can bring a tear to the eye of just about everyone and it’s pretty good at clearing the sinuses too! My solution is to dig up the roots once a year and prepare myself for a few tears.

One of the simplest things and most useful things to make is horseradish butter – simply peel the root and either grate it or using a food processor mix it into butter. Pat the butter into a narrow sausage shape and wrap it in foil (or the butter wrapper) and then pop it in a bag and freeze. The butter can be used straight from the frozen block whenever you want it – cutting a few slices and returning the rest to the freezer for use another day. Horseradish butter is a wonderful addition to mashed or boiled root vegetables especially carrots and parsnips, melted into mashed potatoes or even topping a succulent piece of beef, chicken or fish.

Horseradish loses its flavour if it dries out so if you don’t use all your harvest in one go either store the complete roots in damp sand in a cool place or peel and store the root immersed in white wine vinegar. Then grate a little whenever needed. I usually resort to the sand method and then I don’t use it all by late spring I can pop it a pot to grow and give to friend or even sell for charity.

Horseradish helps with the digestion of rich and oily food so that’s why horseradish sauce is the traditional accompaniment to roast beef. It’s quick and easy to make by adding the finely grated root to whipped cream and adding a dash of white vinegar and even a little dry mustard if you fancy it But one of my favourite uses is as the ‘secret’ ingredient in smoked mackerel pate to give it a bit of a kick.

So thanks to the timely reminder on The One Show the job of digging up and ‘processing’ the horseradish has moved up the ‘to do’ list and I look forward to horseradish butter and mackerel pate even if the tears will flow in the process. Maybe this year I will remember to try the leaves when they are young and tender too.

Mackerel pate recipe

Candles in the greenhouse

I’ve decided that the first winter as a greenhouse owner is a bit like having your first baby – you are really keen to do things right but a little scared that things might go wrong. I realise that plants are nowhere near as precious as children but over the last few days when we have had our first really hard frosts I’ve felt the concern of ‘new parenthood’.

Until November we had very few frosts and (as you will have read) I was picking tomatoes until late in the season. I did an early winter tidy of the greenhouse and wrapped the most precious plants in lovely warm horticultural fleece. Being concerned about freezing roots especially for the orange tree, three little home grown lemon seedlings and the jasmine, I lined boxes with sheets of polystyrene to stand the pots in.

No real frost arrived until the 27th when the skies cleared,the stars shone and the temperature plummeted. At that point I unearthed the large candle purchased in October. Following Dad’s advice I went outside to light the candle and place it in the greenhouse – he relies on the heat generated by the candle to keep the temperature above zero.

I woke early, about 4am, on the 28th and could see quite a glow on the hedgerow – was the greenhouse on fire? I shot out of bed and popped a coat and some wellies on and went out to inspect. It was bitterly cold outside but inside the greenhouse it felt relatively warm and the glow that I thought was fire was just the candle flame reflecting on the glass. So back to bed happy and relaxed and the candle has been lit and done its duty every night despite frosts hard enough to cause one of the water butts to split!

Today the bright crisp weather had disappeared,it was above zero by dawn and felt really quite warm outside. This afternoon I took a deep breath and unwrapped all the plants to see if jack frost had done any damage. Amazingly under the fleece wraps the geraniums and the orange tree were still in flower and so far there is no sign of frosting on any leaves. I picked chillies and sweet peppers and then carefully tucked the plants back in their fleece wraps. As the temperature is not due to drop there will be no glow of candle light from the greenhouse tonight.

Christmas trees, stars and ‘burglars’

I may not have finished buying all the Christmas presents but I have made the second batch of Christmas ginger biscuits.  The first batch disappeared with mulled wine following the carol service so batch two has been made tonight.

I started making these biscuits, in a variety of festive shapes, to occupy small children (and adults) after lengthy festive meals. I would make batches of the biscuits and serve accompanied by tubes of icing, and glittery bits and so that each person could decorate their chosen shape to their delight. The Christmas cutters have been around a long time too and they include an angel, a snowman, star, Christmas tree and Father Christmas who really looks like a burglar as the top row of the picture proves!

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The little children are all pretty big now but I still have to make the biscuits and buy the icing. And despite wanting to concentrate on pretty stars and trees the festive burglar still is in demand.

 

Some Christmas traditions just have to end

As I  was weighing the fruit for our glacé fruit Christmas Cake (or colourful Christmas cake as it has been known for many years in this house) I started thinking about stir up Sunday and various Christmas traditions – some of which have been around for centuries and others are very much our family traditions.

Stir up Sunday has links to the Anglican Church being the Sunday before Advent and has its special prayer dating back to the 1600s to stir up people in their faith but as with many traditions there is modern secular version of stir up Sunday which links to making the Christmas pudding. Probably due to the fact that a Christmas pudding should mature quietly in its pudding basin for around 4 weeks before being eaten.

Well this year the stir up Sunday tradition was broken I didn’t get round to making our Christmas pudding until the 1 December!  Making a Christmas pudding ( or as Mum calls it Plum Pudding)  is fairly new to me as Mum used to make a pudding for each of us.  Bringing back the Christmas pudding from Ireland in my hand luggage often caused discussion at security but fortunately I never had to forfeit my bomb shaped pudding.

Several years ago Mum shared the recipe which originates from a friend’s Mother. But not only did she share the recipe but she came over to Shropshire to teach me how to make it. I think I fairly proficient at it but obviously don’t have the number of puddings under my belt that Mum has  – it’s a delicious recipe and it’s always good to make a big one so that it can be enjoyed throughout January .

Sadly the other tradition that will be broken this year is each member of the family stirring the Christmas cake mixture while making a wish. We usually manage been at three of us – last year all four but tomorrow it will just be me and I shall have to wish extra hard. And my wish – well that never changes I wish for a happy, peaceful and healthy Christmas for all our family.

Mum’s Plum Pudding recipe

Christmas wreaths and Advent rings

It’s been a week full of many meetings,  a growing number of end of year deadlines which are creeping closer as is Christmas and a mind that seems to be getting very busy. That’s why an afternoon outside in the fresh air under the clear blue sky gathering goodies for a creative morning in our local village hall was the best medicine that could be on offer.

I spent the whole afternoon cutting willow, dog wood and ivy as  well as trimming branches off our enormous Christmas trees and pulling wild hops out of the hedgerow.  The trailer is a treasure trove of goodies ready to be taken up to the village hall in the morning.

The final joy of the day was creating a few example Christmas rings with willow, ivy, and teasels as well as giving the advent ring, created very quickly  in the semi dark last Sunday, a bit of a facelift.

Tomorrow’s ‘event’  is something I have never done before but I just wanted people to come together to use their hands and create something natural to take home to start their Christmas and who knows perhaps they will feel as much benefit from the morning as I have gained from preparing for it.

I also hope to raise some money for Crisis at Christmas

Update after the event…

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We raised £50 for Crisis and had a fantastic morning with 17 people creating beautiful rings out of natural materials.

Early new year’s resolution to organise more craft events in the village!

 

 

Sloe jelly – the rich colour of winter

Geranium,nicotiania, marigolds and nasturtiums are still flowering even though we are in mid November but today was one of those days where it never got light and eventually the rain set in.  To cheer myself up I thought it was time to make sloe jelly – one of the richest coloured preserves around.

Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn a common part of traditional hedgerow.  The berries are a deep dark shiny purple and cluster round the sharp thorns.  Birds love them but don’t be fooled to try to eat them from the bush as they have a dry sharp flesh which makes your tongue shrivel.  But use them to make sloe gin to sip at Christmas or sloe jelly for use in winter stews or to accompany game they are delicious

I had picked about 1lb of sloes last weekend and earlier in. the week I had cooked them with cooking apples and strained the pulp overnight but as I hadn’t enough time I froze the strained liquid until today.  Gently heating the liquid with sugar and stirring until it came to the boil and enjoying the lovely smell and colour brightened up a wet afternoon.

Testing for 'set' before potting up sloe jelly

Testing for ‘set’ before potting up sloe jelly

Now as I write I can smell sausages, chunks of potatoes and red onions gently cooking  and once the onions have caramelised I will add the sloe jelly that didn’t fit in the jar and a slug of red wine – should be good!