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Saturday, 21 November 2020

Foodie Friday - the fishmonger and a fish dish..

I'd never been a fan of fish, except battered fish from the chip shop.

There, I've said it. Call me what you will, but I didn't just like it. I suppose being allergic to shellfish put me off all kinds of fish, except a piece of cod,  haddock or salmon.. You know where you with them.

Until this year that is. 

As the covid pandemic spread and the lockdown began, all of us began to only leave our small village to buy food or fetch medicines. 

During the first lockdown, I was cooking lots of different recipes and decided I would try cooking with fish more. A fishmonger visits the neighbouring village every Tuesday afternoon so I wondered whether he would drive a mile up the hill to our village if there was enough demand.

Paul Farrell, or Paul the Fish as a few of us call him, said yes, he would come once to see if it would be worth it. So, was it? Let's just put it this way, like Julius Caesar, he came, he saw, he conquered.

It was a sunny Tuesday lunchtime, and as he arrived there by the church gates there were about fifteen people waiting for him in a socially distanced queue. It was very convivial as we all saw people we hadn't seen for weeks, and everyone eagerly bought fish as if it were going out of fashion.

Paul has been coming to our village ever since, and do you know what? I'm really enjoying trying different types of fish.

His immaculately clean refrigerated vehicle always has a good selection of fresh fish and shellfish. Haddock....plain, smoked yellow and plain smoked, cod, plaice, hake, halibut, salmon, dressed crab, prawns, mussels, crevettes, lemon sole, Dover sole, trout and if you want lobster, he will order it in for you.


These days he visits each house individually and has built up a devoted following here. 

Paul lives in Grimsby but can be seen whizzing around the villages in Leicestershire, and at the market in Market Harborough.  

He's busy and works long hours, but he's thankful. This year hasn't been kind to the fishing industry in this country. In March,  the beginning of the first lockdown, he wondered whether his business would survive. 

Now in November, fishermen are in dire straights again during this second wave of Covid. So much so that we are all being urged to buy more fish from our local fishmongers or to buy direct from many fishermen who are now selling their fish directly online to customers' homes all over the country. Spread Christmas cheer, buy more fish this year.....or even send fish this year...
So I'm doing just that and enjoying many new recipes along the way.

A favourite though is Arbroath smokies or smoked haddock gratin, whatever you like to call it. This is a fairly vague recipe which was dictated to me via a friend of mine, but it's delicious...


large onion, finely sliced or died
large glass of white wine
6 rashers of bacon, cuts into strips
250gms of cheddar cheese, grated 
450 gms smoked haddock, cut into small pieces
half a stock cube - (fish, or vegetable,I use Swiss bouillon powder)
300 mls of water 
300mls of double cream

How to make it

Chop the onion and bacon.

Heat a few glugs of olive oil in a saucepan, and then brown the onion and bacon.

When browned, add the wine and the stock you have made with the stock cube and water.

Reduce by about a half, then add the cream. As soon as it starts to boil turn the heat down. Add the grated cheese
Add the cubed haddock and cook gently for about 6 minutes, then transfer to an oven dish.

Top with some more grated cheese and some chopped parsley.

Finally, brown under a preheated grill until the cheese bubbles. Or, like I do, put into the oven and bake for another 5 - 10 minutes before serving.

This is a very forgiving dish, and it will stay in the oven on a very low light quite happily for a while.  This week, I added mushrooms to brown at the same time as the onion and bacon, for a change, which worked well.

This serves four people and I usually serve this with some new potatoes either boiled or roasted, asparagus, tenderstem or purple sprouting broccoli, peas or brench beans - whichever is in season.

Or for real comfort food on a cold, wintery night, you could just dunk a couple of hunks of good bread or toast in this tasty, cheesy, fishy dish and spoon up the rest of the sauce. It's filling.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Days of honesty

One of the most valued plants in my garden is honesty.
The first plants arrived one spring when my children were small, a couple of years after we moved to this country cottage. They must have come on the wind,and I only really noticed them when their purple flowers appeared. At first there was a couple of plants under the now departed euclalyptus tree, before spreading into the borders,the vegetable patch,the ha ha - it has self seeded at will where it pleases, even in front of the piggery door this year.
I don't care because I enjoy seeing it flower in spring ,and in the summer when the seed pods first begin to appear. Then, I adore that time in the autumn when the seed pods,looking like silver pennies, reach what I call their show off stage, and I bring a few into to brighten up the house in small vases. This year though, one huge plant was blown over showing it roots after a summer storm. Even so, I had plans for this plant, deciding that yes, it would still get its moment of annual glory. I brought it inside,and shoved it in the biggest vase I have,to dry.
Slowly, slowly the papery seed pods turned a lighter colour, some seeds fell , I saved some for my Mum's garden and the scattered more outside in mine.
But what to do with the hundreds of translucent seed membranes and all the rest of the seeds? I decided to keep them with the rest of the plant in the vases - and I'm fascinated by them.
I also love the way that honesty transforms itself by the light. Golden, when the candles are lit as dusk falls and how ghostly it becomes by moonlight. No wonder its Latin name is lunaria. In the morning though,I'm entranced when the sunshine catches the honesty,throwing a sometimes white, sometimes silver luminessence around the room. It's not surprising then, why honesty is one of my favourite plants, and this year,here in the dining room, its moments of glory will last far longer than usual.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Foodie Friday: growing and cooking tomatoes, featuring Lindsay Bareham’s "The Big Red Book of Tomatoes"

I sowed my tomato seeds in early March this year, in the days which now seem like another world away.

This year they were Sweet Aperitif from Thompson and Morgan, my favourite little tomato of all time, which I buy every year, and for the first time, a selection of tomato seeds from the Sapore Italiano range from Blumen which I was given at a press day back in 2019..

I was impressed with a 100 per cent germination rate and such vigorous growth from every single plant. 

The San Marzano tomatoes have been so successful this year -  huge tasty tomatoes which I used in gratins and sauces. I'm definitely going to grow more of these next year, and can jars and jars of them to use in winter.

Meanwhile, the scintilla cherry tomatoes were prolific and  I used them in tomato tarts and eaten raw.

Ribelle tomatoes suit soups and are also good thrown on the griddle with a splash of oil to accompany smashed avocado on toast.

I grew the tomatoes in pots on the courtyard in full sun, and also on my allotment in raised beds. All of them did equally as well in both locations. So how have I been cooking them?

My go to book for more recipes, as always at this time of the year, is  "the big red book of tomatoes" by 
Lindsey Bareham. 

This is what I call a recipe book for life. A book to lose yourself in, to sit in a chair to pore over...with around four hundred, yes, four hundred recipes to drool over. There are recipes for every occasion, from tarts, gratins, soups and stews, to salads, ketchups and preserves for winter.

I've had this book for years - it was published back in 1999 by Michael Joseph - but its one I've returned to again and again, especially since  I started growing my own tomatoes. All the recipes which I've tried work...and that's because Lindsey took three years to research , cook and then write the book.

I've still not made borani's a Persian dish involving tomatoes, rice, herbs olives and more, which cuts like a terrine.That is on my list to male shortly but I have made a recipe this autumn which I somehow had missed before. A recipe which was first published in 1806 in a book called "A New System of Domestic Cookery " and which Lindsey has updated.

Here it is - Mrs Rundell's  fresh tomato sauce

It is something which I thought wouldn't work but oh boy, it does, even if the first line reads

 "Put about 900g - 1.4 kg or more of very ripe tomatoes, whole and unskinned and into an earthenware or other oven pot. Add nothing whatsoever. Cover the pot and place in a moderate oven  in a moderate oven (325 degrees F, 170 degrees C or gas mark 3)

Leave for almost an hour."

I did so, but .what about a good glug of olive oil I wondered. I did as I was told though and the tomatoes cooked away merrily in my old lidded pyrex dish.

The recipe goes on
"Press them through a sieve or mouli."
 I did do this the first time, but since then I use my liquidiser as I like to keep the seeds in. 

The recipe continues
"Heat the remaining puree in a thick saucepan, adding for every 450g of tomatoes, a teaspoon each of salt and sugar and optionally, a little ground ginger or cinnamon, dried or fresh basil or marjoram, and crushed garlic if you like.

A tablespoon of port per 450 g of tomatoes has a wonderfully mellowing effect on the sauce. For immediate use, cook the sauce as soon as possible so that it retains its freshness of flavour ad bright colour.

Use immediately or store in the fridge or freezer."

 Now I can't make a tomato sauce without using garlic and I prefer to add basil, but marjoram also works well. I couldn't find any port in the booze cupboard either, but will definitely try some next time.

Mrs Rundell's recipe is a real winner, but so is Lindsey Bareham's book. I believe it's now out of print but I have seen second-hand copies for sale on a certain internet site, and I also think you get can get it on kindle.

This book deserves a reprint though as it really is the book that keeps giving. , in fact I would be lost without my copy.

In the meantime, I'm going to be flicking through this again as I fear I may be having quite a few green tomatoes to deal with during the next few weeks. I don't quite feel up to trying the green tomatoes and zabaglione tart featured on page 333, but i shall be cooking from this bookfor a long time yet.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

A day at Chenies Manor and Gardens , Buckinghamshire

Just over two weeks ago I was on my way to Chenies Manor, a former Tudor Palace in Buckinghamshire. The click-clack, click clack of the windscreen wipers kept up a constant rhythm as the rain fell on a crowded motorway, miles of roadworks and rather cross looking drivers.

As I entered Chenies Manor though, it was as if I was entering a parallel universe. The sun was shining on a house and garden of timeless beauty. I felt like Tom in one of my favourite children’s books, “Tom's Midnight Garden” by Philippa Pearce. Where, set in the 1950s,at the stroke of midnight Tom opens the door of the flat in an old house where he's staying stays and miraculously finds himself in a beautiful garden at the turn of the 20th century. Since then, I've found out that this very garden featured as the garden in the film of the book back in 1999!

What an entrance to Tudor times,

and such ornate brickwork and chimneys

Meanwhile, I was walking through five acres and five centuries of garden history. The sunken garden here is a jewel which draws your eyes immediately and as walked down the right-hand side path, I came across this beautiful statue 

 I sat down on the step to admire its perfect form backed by trees, bushes and arches in vivid shades of green and pretty pink pops of dahlias.

At the other end of the sunken garden, there’s a different view of her with the stunning backdrop of the house itself, which stands imposingly as befits the former seat of The Earls of Bedford,

Let’s talk about the gardens though. 

There are over 2,000 dahlias on show at Chenies Manor and all of them are dug up every autumn before the first real frosts, stored in November, and propagated, then planted out the following spring. Labour intensive yes, but when you see the planting and positioning of the dahlias such as Rebecca’s World, Ambition, Sandra, Labyrinth and Red Labyrinth and cafe au lait rose, it is so well worth it!

The result is stunning, yet with friendly informality.

I had to linger on this pathway, to savour the rather wistful and romantic feel before making my way to the Physic Garden.

Apart from the kitchen garden, this would have been one of the most important parts of the garden in Tudor times. Plants were there to heal, to soothe, herbs to flavour food, and to add scent indoors. These would have all been a necessity in any self-respecting still room, but there's also more sinister plants...plants to poison and perhaps to kill. 

This physic garden hasn't been here since Tudor times though. It was designed back in the 1970s by Elizabeth Macleod Matthews who along with her husband Charles had bought and restored the Manor twenty years earlier and Dennis Tweddell. The original would still have been within the walled garden though.

The more formal topiary and this beautiful, intricate gazebo draw your eye back towards the house and the historic Queen Elizabeth Oak, which Elizabeth  I had reputedly climbed .She was obviously less accident-prone than me- as it was,I  wouldn't have got out of the maze for hours if it hadn't been for other Garden Media Guild members in the maze at the same time.

I did manage to make my way over to the kitchen garden and orchard which lie behind the labyrinth.

There's a very relaxed feel here, espalier pears lining the potager were still bursting with ripe fruit, some were attracting some lazy wasps, and the best of the produce had been harvested.

Asters provided a welcome burst of colour, 

and I couldn't resist a sneaky peek inside the potting shed. There was no one from the house was around in the kitchen garden.or in felt like a gardening equivalent to The Marie Celeste, as if everyone had just decamped.

I admired the old pump standing in the afternoon sun

before making my way to the St Michael's church which stands so close to the Manor House..

 As in the garden, the echoes of the past were all around me and it was near here that I listened to a very interesting talk about the house and those who lived here. My imagination was caught with tales of Anne Sapcote, the heiress who married three times in the tudor period. She became the Countess of Bedford after she married her third husband Sir John Russell. They built Chenies up to be an equal to Hampton Court, but then moved to a new family seat at Woburn Abbey.

By now I was itching to get into the historic house itself, to see where the people I'd heard so much about had lived, and where the current owners Boo and Charles Macleod Matthews now live. Unfortunately, due to covid restrictions this wasn't possible. Hopefully next Spring the house will be open once again.

 I absolutely adored seeing this garden, which even in mid-October had so much to seduce the members of the Garden Media Guild on our visit here.

All too soon, it was time to leave Chenies Manor, to walk out this magical place, get the car and drive back reluctantly to reality and the modern world. As I did so, I made plans to return next spring, The chance of seeing the house being open and with over 10,000 tulips in the garden is a temptation that I will be powerless to resist.

There's still time to visit Chenies Manor before it closes for the winter. It is open for the new two Wednesday and Thursday afternoons in October.Make sure you leave time to stop for tea, coffee and cakes...they are very good.

 For further details go to


Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Blueberry days

There’s something about growing blueberries facing your kitchen door. They’re in a large pot in the sunniest and most sheltered part of the courtyard and they are in direct view as I stand at the sink. I watch them grow and haven't had to net the fruit at all from the birds at all so far. I like this variety  called Duke, which I got from Sutton’s Seeds a couple of years ago and has been such a reliable performer.


Last week though,the number of blackberries on the bush started to decline rapidly. Who was the phantom blueberry picker? I managed to get proof... 

 .The culprit was none other than Jasper, my 17 month old grandson who was staying with us for five days. He loves blueberries and has them most days for breakfast either sprinkled on top of his porridge, or in a pancake. I caught him in the act and was worried that maybe he had eaten some which weren’t ripe.

 But oh no, he knew exactly which ones were suitable, and popped them into his mouth, one by one, hiding the evidence, yet still managing to look angelic. 

It became his morning ritual to go out with my daughter and pick his own blueberries for breakfast, and he’s been told that he can’t pick anything else in the garden and put it in his mouth. In the meantime, Jasper has learnt that you can grow what he likes to eat, and I’ve learnt that I need to order an extra blueberry bush to cope with the extra demand. I think he needs his very own blueberry bush too .

After all, it’s never too early to introduce a child into the wonderful world of grow your own., is it?

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Rosemary - days of Miss Jessopp's Upright

I adore rosemary. In fact it's one of my favourite herbs and the first thing I see and smell as I walk from the courtyard into the garden..

I've only ever grown one variety and that's Miss Jessopp's Upright, which has grown here in my garden for the last twenty years or so.

Here she is, agrowing to nearly one and a half metres in height in her hey day, with pretty, light blue flowers in June and the beginning of July. Her stems stood erect and proud , with the outside stems just the right height for me to pick a sprig as I walked  past , crushed  the leaves and inhaled.

I use rosemary in so many recipes, many involving lamb, garlic and wine. My current favourite marries rosemary with leeks and chard, baked in cream - it's an absolute winner. I also use rosemary to give my hair an extra shine after shampooing and rinsing off the conditioner. I bung a large handful of rosemary stems into about a litre of just boiled water, then steep for about ten minutes. fish out the rosemary and throw over your hair as a final rinse.I've been doing it for years and my hair is very thick and soft, even if I can't get in to the hairdressers until 4th August to have it cut.

Miss Jessopp has not been looking her best for a number of years though. Neglect on my part I'm afraid , and although I've been picking it on a very regular basis. I didn't give her what she needed - a really good pruning. She's been very woody and leggy for ages.

Worse was to come, instead of carrying herself like  that the upright and righteous Victorian spinster I imagine her to be named after, she lost her sense of poise. In fact. parts of her became prostrate, and she was looking such an unkempt raddled old dear.I had to put her out of her misery , and it was harder than I imagined. Her roots had grown deep and they were damned hard to dig out.

Mind you there's been lots of rosemary to preserve. A couple of huge bunches are handing from one of the old beams in my aged cottage to dry.

 I chopped four large bags of small rosemary prunings which are now in the freezer for the winter.

  I've also planted a trio of cuttings into a pot...and in a belt and braces move, I've put some cuttings into a jar of water near my windowsill and I'm pleased to say they've taken nicely.

So, Miss Jessopp's Upright will live on, but I also now fancy a trailing variety of rosemary to put in a rockery at the side of the cottage. if you've got any favourites or recommendations...please let me know....

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Weekend walks every day during lock down

Each daily walk is different for my two terriers Boo and Eric. Some times I walk them, at others, my husband does.

If it's a normal working day for me, it can be a shorter walk, especially if it's raining or icy. It can be a very fast romp down the lane and through the village if I'm running late for work, and there's definitely not time for dawdling. Oh no.

Weekend walks are completely different of course. There's time  for them to stop and sniff and track.  For me there's time stop and the horizon, at the fields, at the sheep sheltering under the trees, to stop and talk to friends, both human and canine.

Now though, during lock down, every walk is like a weekend walk. When I would normally have been driving to work, a 45 minute trip each way,  now I can be taking my time, and my cue from Boo and Eric.

Sometimes they like to turn left out of our gate, sometimes right. I don't mind as there are beautiful views and things to delight any which way we all choose.

On a hot day, it's important to have some shade....the cool air along the track by the church is pleasing...

Further on, the small lane lane invites us upwards

to what my youngest used to call "the top of the world"

Not quite, but it is a wonderful view, which never fails to please me. There's something different to see here every may be a buzzard, different animals in different fields, or new crops in the fields.

Sometimes  my wellies squelch through the mud, but this weekend the land is dry, the sort of  bone dryness which cracks the earth. I turn my face to the sun, inhale the fresh warm air and listen to birdsong.

Sometimes we press on, this time not....but there's still plenty of room for the dogs to scamper off , to run, to chase a stick or two or to investigate the hedgerow.

As we come down from the hill I see my friend's field, with its newly laid hedging,which frames a timeless scene....

In a few minutes I'm back in the village, where there's a traffic jam, or what passes for one, in our village.

Farmer Phil and Jane are walking her sheep to another field....and there's also time to stop for a chat.

Our world may have changed forever this year, but this conservation village that I love, doesn't change all that much. Farmers still walk their animals through the village, there's community, greenery, space to be and plenty of it. and now during lock down, I have so much more time to appreciate it.

As for Eric and Boo, they don't know what's happening in the world, all they know is that I'm working from home, am spending far more time with them, and there's time for weekend walks every day......