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Thursday, 26 May 2016

Press day at the Chelsea Flower Show - The Great Pavilion

The first time I ever went to the Chelsea Flower Show, ooh, must be twenty years ago, walking inside the Great Pavilion was like walking into a steamy bathroom after someone has sprayed the most pungent perfume liberally all over themselves. It was so humid, and packed with people,  Mama and I beat a hasty retreat as she felt a little faint.

This year all was blissfully cool inside the Pavilion, but I still couldn't spend as much time as I liked in there. There was so much to see and admire....and I was rather taken with the National Chrysanthemum Society's display....especially with this beauty

The Alpine Garden Society's stand was so pretty , enticing groups of dainty plants which I pore over....

I always think of rhododendrons as marmite plants...among my friends, we either love or hate them.
I like them, and was interested to see the Burncoose Nurseries stand which celebrated 100 years of the Rhododendron Society. Charles Williams who is the senior partner of the nursery, and owner of the Caerhays Estate in Cornwall ,was telling me a few lovely stories about his great grandfather who was a founding member of the society .

I haven't yet planted any peonies in my garden, even though I love to receive a bunch of them. After seeing the Binny Plants stand, this must be rectified. I was almost salivating in delight at the snowy beauty of the Duchess de Nemours and the white double Mme Claude Tain. The pink , rose shaped flowers of The Fawn also delighted, and I was so busy oohing and aahing over them , I completely forgot to take any photographs of them.  If you did, please let me know!
 I did manage to photograph this bed though, packed with every type of lavender imaginable from Downderry Nursery, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. From a distance it looked like a living patchwork quilt. Lavenders are  my must haves in any garden, and there were some I've not seen befor , I really have taken a fancy to. I loved the bright, white Edelweiss , Heavenly Scent- a mid purple lavender and the sweetest Little Lottie, the shortest pink available.


 But it's not just all about the flowers inside the Great Pavilion, I loved this display of potatoes from a husband and wife team who told me they were only hobby growers. Only! I loved seeing all these black potatoes for the first time....

 And to see these  allotments was a joy, perfectly planted produce in raised beds, with a shed and an allotment notice board made me itch to pick a few plants and eat them there and then.

The day went all too quickly, well we were working, but perhaps I should spend two days at Chelsea next year..there's simply too much to take in all at once. Even going through a tunnel to the loos made me stop and stare...

I love Press day...but you do have to leave  by 3pm so that Her majesty the Queen and the Royal party can visit. We left at 3 minutes to  the hour, even so, I felt like clinging to the gates and refusing to leave .....

Next year Chelsea, next year.....

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Press day at Chelsea Flower Show

I love the month of May and I love the Chelsea Flower Show. I love having a birthday too when Press Day and my birthday coincide - well, let's just say I was in seventh heaven.

There was an early start on the 6.54 am train to St Pancras, a mad scramble on the tube and a brisk walk to get to the Royal Hospital Grounds  early with my friends and colleagues Dave Andrews and Chris Gutteridge. First stop was coffee and a meet up with garden designer Karen Gimson who would be walking and talking around the gardens with us.

Here they are with the lovely Jenny Agutter.

But at Chelsea, there's so much to see and do, so we were given 45 minutes to have a quick squizz around and choose a garden each to discuss. I literally whizzed around the site, refusing to be diverted by all of the shopping opportunities. That's a first...
Gardens, gardens, gardens! Obviously, we couldn't talk about all of them, but these are the gardens we decided to feature...

In pole position was Diarmuid Gavin's The Harrods British Eccentrics Garden. I stopped, entranced by the octagonal folly, seduced by the topiary and terraces, those open gates which drew me in.

I loved the planting - the Duchesse de Nemours paeonies , the verbascum , the roses , the box and the angelica.

I loved the quirky little potting shed too, but then came the sheer theatre, and the surprise....the garden started to come alive. The topiary which twirled around, the box which rose up from the beds and then retreated, the border which danced around the folly. Inspired by  Heath Robinson's designs,
this attracted a lot of attention.

Speaking to Diarmuid later, he said that he had designed this for fun, not for a medal, and I believed him. But it turns out the judges like a bit of fun too, and he was awarded a silver gilt medal. Quite rightly so, as this garden lived up to it's British eccentric short, bonkers but brilliant!

A very striking garden was "God's own county - a garden for Yorkshire. It was designed by the rather dashing Matthew Wilson who now lives in Rutland, but who spent hours up in Yorkshire getting a feel for his brief..

 We were taken by the stained glass and stone inspired by York Minister using the same methods which were used back at the beginning of the 15th century. I loved the planting to reflect the jewel like colours of the glass.

Last year in May, I blogged about the RHS report on Greening Grey Britain and how  paving over our front gardens could be negatively affecting our wellbeing.

See here..

This year designer Ann- Marie Powell
has come up with the RHS Greening Grey Britain for health, happiness and  horticulture garden.

Wow, this packed a powerful punch packed with flowers, fruits and vegetables planted into every single inch. Beans and tomatoes  grown on a  rooftop, a water feature to sooth , a wildflower meadow, a pergola covered with roses and plenty of benches to sit and chat, to think.

 I loved it, a garden full of verve and brio, just like Ann-Marie Powell.  She's a brilliant funny, and honest...she was particularly grateful that her garden was the only show garden not being judged. I think though that she might have won something. Certainly there's some ideas here which I'll be using in the next few seasons .
Then it was onto my favourite garden of the show, The St John's Hospice - A modern Apothecary designed by Jekka McVicar. In the hurly burley of Chelsea, this exuded calm and tranquillity in both the planting and the landscaping.

The cooling trickle of water onto the raised cobbles, the densely packed thymes were so pleasing and the bees were loving the lavender and herbs. This was a perfect, living embodiment of the healing power of plants.



When talking to Jekka McVicar  the experience of creating this garden and growing all of the plants wasn't quite as stress free and relaxing as the final garden. In fact she told me that she won't do another one, that's it...which I think is rather a shame as many loved this quiet reflective spot, including the judges who gave her a silver gilt medal. Mary Berry sitting here with Jekka rather liked it too.


But for Karen and Chris , the garden which really took their fancy was Andy Sturgeon's Telegraph Garden. Reverential mutterings about perfect form and execution could be heard...and intakes of breath as they admired the geologically inspired garden.

Then a decisive "Best in Show" from Karen,with Chris agreeing...and they were right, as Andy Sturgeon was awarded the title of  yes, the Best in Show.


The most stunning exhibit though  was the 5000 Poppies project. Set up by two Australian women who wanted to crochet 120 poppies to lay at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne three years ago, in memory of their fathers, this has become an emotive, symbolic and stirring triumph
designed by Phillip Johnson .

Against the backdrop of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, we could only stand quietly, admire and inwardly weep at the stirring sight of 300,000 poppies individually crocheted.

There's more on Chelsea to come....


Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The day of cheese, cheese, and more cheese

I've always loved cheese. Well, coming from Leicestershire, it's a given. There's good grass here, and cheese makers have been producing excellent Stilton and Red leicester in the county for many years.

That's why I was so pleased when the Artisan Cheese fair at Melton Mowbray came into being in 2011, and it's now the UK’s largest dedicated Cheese Fair.

This year's event was held about ten days ago in the town's old cattle market, with 62 cheese producers showcasing 300 cheeses. They came from all over the UK from as far away as Fife in Scotland, from Cumbria and Yorkshire to Devon and Cornwall, from Wales and Ireland.

 Cheese heaven!

First tasting of the day was at the Leicestershire Handmade Cheese Company stall where I had a chat with David Clarke. He and his wife Jo make few different cheeses...Sparkenhoe is their big hitter , being made in large wheels of  ten and twenty kilos. With an excellent flavour, I love the texture of this cheese made from unpasteurised milk. Their Battlefield Blue is also made with unpasteurised milk and then the Bosworth Field is made with raw milk.

 It's always a pleasure to see Alan and Jane Hewson exhibiting ..they run the Belvoir Ridge Creamery, and raise native rare breed cows - Red polls, Blue Albions and Kerrys.

I really do like their Slipcote cheese...a tiny circle of cheese which really packs a creamy punch, and it was lovely to be able to buy a bottle of their raw milk. 

Of course, Long Clawson Dairy was exhibiting...the times I've been over there at the dairy at Christmas...but there were so many different, new tastes to discover too.

And so much cheeese made by small producers from raw milk.

There was lots of goats cheese on offer, I particularly liked a couple of cheeses from Cerney Cheese based near Cirencester, namely the Cerney Ash , coated with a mix of oak ash and sea salt, and  the Cerney Pepper. My tastebuds said yes, these have soft subtle taste and at the same time, my head was filled with memories of France.. And I was on the right track...talking to Janet Angus, I found out that her mother in law, Lady Isobel Angus was inspired by living in France to make goats cheese. Apparently she persuaded a French farmer's wife to teach her the basics,and the rest is history...and she's been making cheese ever since.

And that's what I like about visiting a cheese's not just about stocking up with cheese, or trying before you buy. It's the stories I hear, the passion from the producers about their cheese, how they make it, as well as their expert knowledge about each of their cheeses, which is a big draw for me.

I remember two years ago at this cheese fair meeting Graham Kirkham who now runs the family cheese business run by his mother.  I tried the Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire Cheese , and was bowled over it's creaminess and crumbliness. I asked him for a large cheese for the evening party at my daughter's forthcoming wedding. "When's the wedding date?" he asked . and then felt around feeling each cheese,"This is the one," he said , and gave me precise instructions as to when to take it out of the fridge etc. It was perfect.

I made my way home, like many others,with a bulging bag of cheeses, thinking how lucky I am to live so close to such a good artisan cheese fair, It's very popular too...over 10,000 people visited this two day event organised by Matthew O'Callaghan, pictured here being roped into some morris dancing.

Next year's event takes place on 29th -30th April 2017.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Days of the BBC Food and Farming awards


A few months ago, I went to Derby, to the old Victorian Market there. Walking along the rather impressive colonnades,
into the beautifully designed old market,

I could smell food. My stomach growled, I knew I was in the right place. I 'd arrived at the Pyclet Parlour owned by the charismatic Mark Hughes.

Thousands of pyclets are made here every week....and they're not just any old pyclets. If you've never heard of them before, they're like a flattened crumpet.Made with flour, yeast, milk and salt. These are made to an adaptation of an old traditional Derbyshire recipe, baked on griddles and even eaten without any toppings or butter, they're tasty and comforting.

 I was here to record Michelin starred chef Angela Hartnett and Paula McIntyre, the Director of the Slow Food Movement in Northern Ireland , as they tasted their way through the whole menu of pyclet dishes. Mark didn't know it, but he'd already been selected as one of three finalists in the forthcoming  BBC Food and Farming Awards in the street food category.

What an enjoyable morning's recording here, listening to Mark's story of how he came to start up here. He bought a house, and then found out it had belonged to the Monk family who had been making pyclets in Derby since 1864. He began to research the origin of the pyclets, tested some recipes and the rest is history.

Angela and Paula were a joy as they tasted, tested, asked questions and chatted...they were having fun as well as taking their role seriously. The plain pyclets are sold by the bag, but perched on stools at the counter, Angela and Paula really liked the hot,welsh rarebit topped, toasted pyclet, followed by one topped with stilton, honey and walnuts, followed on with smoked salmon and horseradish cream. Then there's a sweet one topped with nutella.

 Luckily I was being kept in the tasting loop too and the three of us ate every single scrap of food put in front of us. No dainty forkfuls, just a quick bite and then onto the next....oh no. We were all hungry and these were delicious.


Meanwhile Mark was serving his regulars with charm and cheeky banter,

and there was  just time for a another photo before Angela and Paula have a final deliberation on their overall decision.

Meanwhile judges in the other categories, such as Sheila Dillon, Yotam Ottalenghi, Allegra McEvedy, Stefan Gates, Ken Hom and Diana Henry were criss-crossing the country to visit food producers, drinks producers, cooks, food shops and farmers, who had all been selected from the thousands of nominations received.
On Thursday night, the winners of the 16th BBC Food and Farming Awards were held on College Green in Bristol, and what a night it was. Hundreds of people from all over the UK were there to celebrate excellence, innovation and passion in the British food communities.
I was there early doing a bit behind the scenes with others... ... 

My friend Anne-Marie Bullock, one of the producers of the Food Programme was there welcoming the guests, who were being served with tempting trays of canap├ęs, all inspired by the food of the finalists. Oysters, pyclets, salami, chorizo, cheese, and so much more. The trays just kept coming, and guests were all tasting cider, fruit wines and fruity lagers.

I had a sneaky peek at the  practical yet so stylish!

And at 7pm prompt, the awards ceremony began, expertly compered by Sheila Dillon, pictured here with the gorgeous Yotam Ottolenghi. Yes, Sheila is small and Yottam is that tall!

Winners were feted in nine categories, their back stories were humbling and inspiring, and the audience loved every moment. These awards really are the Oscars of the British food industry, but unlike the Oscars, the acceptance speeches were humorous, gracious and mercifully short.

As the ceremony ended , the launch of Bristol Food Connections began - a week long food festival full of banquets, debates, cooking demonstrations, foraging walks and other community events.

Outside, there were tantalising aromas coming from a number of street food stalls who were showcasing what they do....from Caribbean jerk chicken, to pizzas, to oysters, to barbecued goat...
and spirits were high despite the rain.

The rain may have begun to lash down, but people were still chatting, smiling, eating...such a great atmosphere.

Back in the Orangerie, by now slightly damp, I caught up again with Anne-Marie and Sheila

and the inspirational and oh so likeable Dee Woods who won the BBC Cook of the Year award. Dee works as a volunteer cook and serves hundreds of free meals every week at the Granville Community Kitchen London. Outgoing and entertaining, with a life enhancing laugh, she loved her award...

I don't think you can underestimate the power of the Food and Farming Awards. I was chatting with the funny and friendly Sam Evans and Shauna Guinn from the Hangfire Smokehouse . They won the Best Street Food or Takeaway category last year, which has had a profound influence on their lives. Their first cook book has been published by Quadrille, and they've opened their first restaurant in Barry.

What a good night....the camaradie amongst foodies, so many people enjoying themselves, celebrating our food and drink communities, so many stories, so much passion about how food really can transform lives, and so much good food to eat too.

It may be another year until the next awards ceremony in Bristol, but until then, we can all get our weekly fix of award winning food related stories every Sunday lunchtime and Monday afternoon on Radio 4's the Food programme.

Here's the full list of the award winners

BEST DRINKS PRODUCER – Hallets Real Cider, Crumlin, Wales
Presented by Jancis Robinson
THE ONE SHOW BEST STREET FOOD OR TAKEAWAY - Gourmet Goat, Borough Market, London
BEST FOOD PRODUCER - Charcutier Ltd - Carmarthenshire
Presented by Ken Hom
BEST FOOD MARKET - St Dogmaels' Local Producers Market, Pembrokeshire
Presented by Diana Henry and Charlie Hicks
THE 'YOU AND YOURS' BEST FOOD RETAILER AWARD - The Almerley Food Shop – Herefordshire
Presented by Mitch Tonks
FUTURE FOOD AWARD - Our Cow Molly, Sheffield
Presented by Mike Gooding and Julia Glotz
BBC COOK OF THE YEAR - Dee Woods, Granville Community Kitchen, Kilburn, London
Presented by Allegra McEvedy
COUNTRYFILE’S FARMING HERO AWARD - Julia Evans, Worcestershire
Presented by Adam Henson
Presented by Tony Hall - BBC Director General