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Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Days before Christmas - gifts for gardeners

As I write this, looking out onto a white world, it really does feel wintry, and yes, so Christmassy. With only thirteen days to go until the big day though, I can assure you I'm not one of those who is already smiling smugly knowing that every single card has been written and every present chosen and wrapped.
Oh no, this year I'm one of the "Oh it can't be that time already, and what the hell am I going to buy for  x, y and z " gang. Before you start tut tutting though, I have bought the cards, and even written over half of them.
So if you're like me and a little  tardy shall we say, I thought I would suggest some perfect presents for anyone interested in gardening. ....items that I've already road tested by reviewing,and by buying.
Firstly, if anyone asks me what I would like for Christmas, books are usually top of my list. Cook books, gardening books, history books, novels by favourite authors, or book tokens make me a very appreciative person!
Here, I've chosen three gardening books which have made me smile, think and given me inspiration.
The first is "The Hidden Life of Trees" by Peter Wohlleben. I have loved reading this paperback which talks about trees not only communicating with each other through their roots, but supporting each other . In the author's eyes, trees in forests form a real society where older trees look after younger ones and other trees living close by.
Apparently they can definitely feel pain (and I now so dreadfully guilty about having my old ash tree chopped down after it was severely damaged by Storm Doris.) I'm not surprised at that statement but do they have  emotions? Peter Wohlleben says they have, and his book is so persuasive, I believe him.
This is a fascinating book about why trees growing in a forest grow stronger and can learn from each other. It may sound provocative, but I 'll be certainly looking at trees in a different way.
Published by William Collins Books and costing £9.99 , this will certainly get you talking over Christmas! 

A glossy, beautifully photographed and well written book is a joy, and this is one of my favourite gardening books this year. Ideal for a present, "The Secret Gardens of  East Anglia" by Barbara Segall and photographed by Marcus Harpur shortly before his death this summer, is packed with inspiration.

Although these gardens are described as secret, many of them open their gates for charity each year.
The photographs here are beguiling ,capturing the wonderful light in this part of the country, secret corners, lavish borders and grand vistas.

  Barbara takes you on a magical journey through such different landscapes with stories of how these gardens were designed or evolved. It's as if she's introducing you to the owners and you are there in the gardens with them having a private tour. You also get a feel of the challenges involved too....which I always relish, because then I don't feel so inadequate when things go wrong .

There's only one garden in this book that I've actually visited, and that's The Manor at Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire, so I was particularly interested to read Barbara's take on this. Her opening sentence is
"If only gardens could talk. Were it so, then the garden at the Manor, Hemingford Grey would have more stories to tell than most, for it surrounds the atmospheric home of the late Lucy Boston, an acclaimed writer of childrens novels."

That sets the tone for this garden  and house with the echoes of ghosts throughout the centuries, both real and imagined, but as well as dealing with the  historical and fanciful, there's practicality too with the names of striking plants.

A fair number of the gardens selected are quite large, some are rather grand and I'd love to see inside the houses too - but then I'm insatiably curious. However, there are so many ideas which could be scaled down successfully to smaller plots and there's lots of ideas to be inspired by.

Whether you are seduced by a parterre, a rose bower, a knot garden , a herb garden, terraces, kitchen gardens, or innovative planting, there's something for everyone in this book. Barbara's keen eyes have spotted everything...and I know because I've actually walked around a couple of other gardens with her. She immediately hones on little pockets of beauty or will stand and stare, taking in  the bigger picture.

I'm already planning to visit some of the gardens featured next spring and summer.
The Secret Gardens in East Anglia" by Barbara Segall and photographed by Marcus Harpur is published by Frances Lincoln and costs £20.00.

"Growing Self Sufficiency " by Sally Nex is an ideal present for anyone thinking about growing their own fruit and vegetables, and taking things one step further.

Written in a very straight forward, engaging style, this introductory guide gives immediate suggestions of what Sally calls "the easy hits" - the things you can grow on a window sill or an allotment and get immediate success.

This book then romps through how to sow, plant, make a hot box, grow your own drinks or medicine cabinet or even how take on a few animals for meat and eggs.

Broad brushstrokes may be, but Sally is enthusiastic and motivating through each chapter, and she knows what she's talking about, moving on from a tiny handkerchief London garden to keeping chickens and sheep and acres of land. An enjoyable read, and I've picked up some useful tips. This book could be the springboard for someone to dive into a life of self sufficiency!
Growing Self Sufficiency by Sally Nex is published by Green Books and costs £17.99

Onto a very practical present now for the gardener in your life - a pair of gardening gloves. Now don't go thinking these are the gardening equivalent of being given socks and pants for Christmas. These aren't just any garden gloves  - when I was given these back in September, it was like finding the Holy Grail.

I've got through so many pairs of gardening gloves in the cotton ones for the summer and when I say the summer, they last for exactly that long, one summer only.

I tried thicker gloves, always finding the right fit a problem and tried gloves  which made my hands sweat terribly. I've never found the right pair specifically for dealing with thistles, holly, brambles and my ever expanding collection of nettles on the allotment until now.

These though fit wonderfully well, I haven't had a single scratch on my hands (a miracle, they're warm enough in December, and they still look remarkably good considering how much I've been using them.

Tough Touch Ladies deerskin gardening gloves, from Gold Leaf Gloves cost around £25 depending on where you buy them. Men's  gloves in the same range are available too.

Onto some stocking filler presents now , and I love these seed tins full of seeds from Suttons for successional sowing. Try saying that on air....I did try , but made a real hash of it. I must have sounded as if I was drunk but obviously that wasn't the case darlings....

 There's six different varieties of veg seeds to sow- carrots, red and white spring onions, beetroots and spring onions and each tin costs £4.95 for 2,000 seeds divided into three different packets. Very practical. If you buy alll six though , the cost is £24.95.

I always think you're never too old or too young to get a kick out of watching something grow, and these packets of seeds would be lovely for children to sow. Brightly packaged, there's added value with a paper tape measure in with the sunflower seeds, and bug stickers to accompany the calendula seeds for example..
Obviously, there's lots of other seed collections from other seed companies which are available which would also make fabulous prezzies too!

So, Happy Christmas shopping....and whatever you buy for the gardeners in your life, remember to treat yourself at the end of your shopping expeditions too.  I find a glass of fizz always perks me up a right treat.....Cheers!


Sunday, 3 December 2017

Days of past, present and future at Winstanley House

If you want to go to out to eat in Leicester these days, there's so much more choice than say ten years ago. Some of the big boy chains moved in, some small independents are flourishing, some have fallen by the wayside.

 I couldn't have forecast ten years ago where the latest restaurant would open though. It's called the Black Iron at Winstanley House and is two miles away from the city centre set in one hundred and sixty acres of public parkland. Next to a housing estate.There's a hotel as well, with huge function rooms for up to four hundred people, ripe and ready for the wedding market.

It's a far cry from a number of years ago, when the building was in a sorry state. Neglected and unloved for years, no one quite knew what to do it  - a crying shame for somewhere which meant so much to many people.

The Winstanleys were local landowners who commissioned the house in 1775, and who lived here
for a hundred and fifty years. Then, thousands of local children went to school here from 1932 until 1996.

But that's in the past....years of work and £2 million later, it was the press launch. My friend Tim and I were whisked straight thorough Reception

 to the dining room, oh so tastefully done in shades of grey.

Menus were promptly presented with a flourish and our orders taken for drinks. Yes, let's mention them first because I was pleasantly surprised with the wine list. An inviting long list with interesting wines I'd not heard of before. Tim and I both loved the Zapa Oak aged  Malbec....which was far classier than the £24 price tag would lead you to believe.

So onto dinner....a set meal with three courses....

I decided to go for the vegetarian option and began with the beetroot salad. Pretty on the plate, four very finely sliced heritage varieties of beetroot were dressed with honey and hazelnuts. Crunchy, light and tasty.

The mains was a courgette flan with perfectly roasted vegetables, but the flan needed something  added. Not enough flavour for me, and it was a fairly dry plate...a puddle of a sauce would have been welcome. I improvised and swiped some of the delicious peppercorn sauce which was served with Tim's " fantastic" - his words -rib eye steak. To be fair I also quality control tested a few of the dripping fries on his plate too. It's a wonder I didn't steal the whole lot.

As for the dessert, well here I have to apologise here as this photo doesn't do this rich, moist, tangy toffee pudding justice. This did everything a sticky thing like this should do, but without making me feel as if I needed a lie down afterwards.

So, an enjoyable meal, followed by a fleeting trip to the bar with lots of animated chat about the food , the d├ęcor etc.

I couldn't help but admire the lights before being whisked off for a sneaky peek  at what the accommodation in the hotel is like.

I can sum this up in a few words.

Sleek, stylish and as fresh as paint. Literally so fresh as paint we could still smell it.

There's so much attention to detail here, even in the ladies loos....somewhere I always check out whenever I'm on a press trip or visit. These are impeccable.

There endeth my initial visit, but a couple of weeks later I was back, together with four hundred visitors who were all at school here in the dim, distant and less glossy past. I was there to record a radio feature,  they were all there to see what had been done to their old school and to reminisce. The noise levels were off the Richter scale as they laughed and gossiped and everyone I spoke to was blown away by the transformation of this building.

The acid test of reviewing anywhere is to ask yourself the question "Would I go back and would I take my friends?" Well yes, and I fancy trying the bar menu one lunchtime. I even know what I want to eat.

There again, I've also got my eye on the bottomless brunch. Cooked breakfast ( full English or steak and eggs anyone?) plus unlimited Prosecco, beer or soft drinks for an hour, all for £20. That would do me, but not on a school day obviously - the ghosts of previous headmasters might not approve.....

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Gelato days - when the Maestri Gelatieri came to town

It may be Autumn, but last weekend I was taken back to Italian summer evenings on the shores of Lake Garda, to afternoons of stifling heat in Florence, and stolen moments outside Leicester Cathedral on warm, sunny lunch breaks.

So what's brought on these memories, I hear you ask. Well, it's the taste of gelato. Not just any gelato, though. I'm talking about the creamy, silky texture, the richness, and the sheer genius of the marriage of flavours which tickle your tongue, slide down your throat, and leave you with a smile on your face.

I've eaten a lot of artisan gelato recently.

We're lucky in Leicester to have Gelato Village, an artisan gelato shop at an oh so handy location just around the corner from where I work. I'm very partial to flavours such as mango, pistachio and lemon and there are many others of course. At the end of October though, a team of ten Maestri Gelatieri came to town from Italy to share their passion and skills .

They were from all over Italy - some of the world's best gelato makers. Seven men and three women, most of whom had successful careers elsewhere before finding what they really wanted to do, which was to make gelato, in the traditional way, with their own hands and producing their own flavours. Now they were over here to share their favourite flavours and new sensations at Gelato Village..

"Come for  a meal" Laura Hadland from Thirst Media had said...."come and meet them all." So I did, over at Sapori in Anstey, a wonderful Italian restaurant which just happened to be Claudio Ranieri's favourite place when he was managing Leicester City Football Club. (I must just say I adored him- what a character, what a manager and oh how many mourned his departure.)

I digress, back to last Friday, and a noisy night with lots of feverish chat about food, wine, and yes, gelato in Italian, English and sign language.  Delicious Italian food too, for me a wild mushroom and goats cheese tartlet with cashew pesto, Italian fennel sausages and rigatoni followed by a sorrento lemon tart with a orange and carrot sorbet. Perfect.

Everyone was looking forward to their weekend organised by Antonio de Vecchi  and Daniele Taverna from Gelato Village and the Compagnia Gelatieri.

left to right Andrea Scarpati the owner of Sapori,  Raffaella Garavelli , Daniele Taverna and Antonio De Vecchi

They had all brought ingredients from their home regions, from Piedmont, the Marche, Milan, Lombardy and Perugia, to use with the non homogenised milk and cream from Red Poll rare breed cattle on the Belvoir Ridge Creamery farm in Leicestershire.

As soon as they arrived from Italy, they began to make, mix, create the most amazing selection of gelato flavours....

There were some big flavours which screamed "Eat me!" From the deeply rich Chocolate & Tuscan Cigar sorbetto to the subtle fig, almond and bay gelato, the stunningly refreshing and tangy quince and Franciacorta sparkling wine sorbetto and the Passito sweet white wine gelato.

Andrea Soban with his Biscotti Zaeti gelato...he studied law before becoming a gelato maker.

Yes, they were here to make, showcase and sell their creations but there were tastings and talks too, about the history of gelato and how they found their inspiration . According to Antonio Luzi pictured below, the gelato business in Italy is a very saturated market.

It was a busy weekend for all of the gelato makers. Some managed to get out to the Belvoir Ridge Creamery to see where the milk came from to make their gelato and that's what they were all very impressed with, the richness and quality of the milk.

Of course they went to Leicester Cathedral to see the tomb of  Richard III, but there wasn't time for them to really explore the city. There was just enough time for me to take Vera Castrovilli, Alessia Torselli and Raffaella Garavelli next door to one of my favourite places in Leicester, The Guildhall which they loved.

Vera and Alessia were both set designers in films and on stage, before fleeing their stressed careers, and Rafaella was in the corporate world flying all over Europe before returning to her home village and opening a gelateria.

Making gelato has made all three of them very happy.

I'm just as happy eating it, and really enjoyed tasting so many new flavours the weekend the Maestri Gelatieri came to town.. I do hope they come back one day......

Just to make your mouths water , here's the full list of the gelato and sorbetto flavours created for the  trip to Leicester

Paolo Brunelli made Crema Brunelli gelato with hazelnut & chocolate, and Ricotta Celeste a Pois gelato, flavoured with honey, coffee & lemon zest

From Matteo Carloni, there was Bacio gelato with hazelnut biscuits sandwiched with dark chocolate, and Malaga, a gelato made with a raisin & sweet wine custard

Vera Castrovilli & Alessia Torselli created Passito Erbaluce di Caluso, a gelato with sweet white wine

Raffaele Del Verme made a fig and chocolate gelato and a fig with almond and bay gelato

Raffaella Garavelli created a quince with Franciacorta sparkling wine sorbetto

From Antonio Luzi, there was a coffee gelato plus a spiced pear sorbetto

Andrea Soban made a Biscotto Zaeti gelato and Torrone, an Italian hazelnut nougat gelato.

Last but not least, Mirko Tognetti created a chocolate and tuscan cigar sorbetto and a Torta della Nonna gelato flavoured with pine nuts and cream.




Tuesday, 31 October 2017

A day of fizz, fizz, glorious fizz

 Merely being asked to judge entries in The Glass of Bubbly Champagne and sparkling wine awards is rather intoxicating in itself.  After all, these are my favourite tipples. I adore champagne, cremant, cava, English sparkling wine, prosecco and sekt....just the sound of the cork popping perks me up a treat!  Without fail, Friday night means fizz night.

So this time last week, I trotted off to London for the second of day of judging being held at the Marriott County Hall hotel in Westminster where I joined the other judges.

We were seated at two tables, ours was rather jolly, before even the tiniest sip of any fizz touched our lips. They included Cecile Bergart from the Champagne region in France who now runs the Hampshire Wine School and Francesco Gabriele, Director of Wine at Chewton Glen in Hampshire.

Others on the table included Richard Bampfield, Master of Wine and Richard Moore, and I was dying for another Richard to join our table, so we could call him Richard III! That was not to be, but other judges were Martin Day, a restauranteur who runs the Pipe of Port  in Southend, Anna Caidon a journalist with Le Sommelier magazine, Govert Deketh the General Manager of the  Marriott County Hall Hotel and Cherry Constable, a freelance wine writer.

So, after hellos and introductions, Christopher Walkley , the founder of Glass of Bubbly , explained our mission.

The previous day, a panel of professional wine experts, which included Masters of Wine, Master of Sommeliers and other enologoists) had decided which wines went through the Round 2 of the judging. So we knew right from the start that these wines were highly commended .

Our job was to select the best in a number of categories.

and although we were judging only three categories, there were rather a lot of bottles to try.

Faster than the speed of sound , our table started sipping and gurgling our way through our first category which was Love or Hate.

 This was an interesting category, and the one which provoked so much discussion. There were some very interesting wines which perhaps didn't fit the brief, and some which we called the marmite wines..some of us loved them, others didn't share the same enthusiasm.

 First Date was another category .and each wine was poured perfectly by Armando Pereira, a writer and sales executive with a Glass of Bubbly. Of  course he had an idea of what was being poured, but gave nothing away as we mused, muttered and marked the wines.

 We sipped , we spat...and talked about  how nervous is everyone is on a first date, and how you wouldn't want to over indulge on alcohol. Getting hammered on a first date would never lead to a second one would it? So we were looking for an easy wine, perhaps lower in alcohol which would go with most dishes.

Cecile and Anna were obviously enjoying themselves,

as was Richard Moore

Our last judging category was Summer Days, and here we were on much safer ground. Bottles of fizz enhance any summer gathering, and we were looking for light, not too expensive, fruity wines. Boy, did we get them....and I was itching to take some of them home. One I was sure was an English sparkling wine, all fresh English morning and a whiff of the hedgerows, but Cherry thought that it couldn't be, bearing in mind the price of English sparklers .

After over three hours of debate, deliberation and dedication, (we took this very seriously) it was time for a glass of bubbly to drink!

from front left to right: Richard Bampfield, Richard Moore, Govert Deketh, me, Cherry Constable, Anna Caidon, Cecile Bergart, Francesco Gabriele and Martin Day.

Christopher and Eve (Editor in Chief of a Glass of Bubbly) thanked us and presented us our judging certificates,
and we all waltzed off in a haze of bonhomie to go home, leaving a mass of empty bottles.

What a wonderful afternoon tasting some excellent wines and enjoying the company of so many knowledgeable wine professionals sharing news and opinions. I can definitely say I've acquired a taste for this and relish further similar opportunities.

I also can't wait to find out which wines win the World's Finest Glass of Bubbly Awards 2017. The results are being announced on November 23rd at the Marriott County Hall hotel in Westminster .


Sunday, 22 October 2017

Days of virginia creepers and giggling....

I love to look out of my bathroom window in the early mornings in autumn, seeing the mist disappear as the sun comes out, and watching the green leaves of the virginia creeper turn redder by the day.

The more sun a virginia creeper gets , the redder the leaves become, and it's wonderful to see fiery reds, russet reds and every shade in between.

So why do I get the giggles every time I see a Virginia Creeper? Whether I'm walking around  our village, admiring my neighbour's houses clothed in their autumnal finery

or out in the city...wherever I am, if I see a virginia creeper, my lips twitch and I'm off again, giggling away.

I blame my mother.

 Mrs Malaprop, ,as I sometimes call her, was a character in Sheridan's play called "The Rivals" written in 1775. Like the very amusing Mrs Malaprop, Mama often uses words which don't have the meaning she intends to, but sound very similar to those that do..For example, calling windscreen wipers  "windowscreamers."

Amusing yes, but then at other times, there are no words to describe what happens after one of her malapropisms. Like the time at my friend's wedding. The vicar sported a very bouffant hairstyle - think Donald Trump with some backcombing. At the reception , Mama and her friends were talking...."Did you SEE his hairstyle?" one asked . "Yes!" replied my mother...."I swear he's had a .....

What she meant to say was a blow wave but what was actually said was something completely different. Of course she had no idea why there was a stunned silence and then people holding onto each other killing themselves laughing. Mama was mystified, then mortified when I had to explain.

What does this story have to do with  a parthenocissus or virginia creeper, you may ask?

Well, it was a glorious September morning when my children were small. We were in North Somerset at my parents' house and the children were playing on the lawn. Jean, Mama's friend and a very talented gardener, wandered into the garden.

"Oh," she exclaimed " the autumnal colours in your borders are lovely this year."

I could see Mama was thrilled, praise indeed . "But turn around Jean, the piece de resistance is my vaginal creeper!"

My father almost choked, Jean's mouth hung open in shock. I got the giggles, and couldn't stop. My sides ached, Jean was howling with laughter, my father's face had turned virtually the same colour as the virgina creeper,but once again, Mama hadn't a clue what she'd said.

So if you see me giggling away to myself during the autumn and I'm near a virginia creeper, now you know why......


Sunday, 8 October 2017

A day at Sulby Gardens


A new garden to explore is always a joy isn't it? A weekend wander around a garden with cake and coffee at the end of a visit is a pleasure for so many of us.
To get a chance for a private visit to a garden with two friends who happen to be gardening experts, and enjoy a ramble around with the owners, is even more of a treat.
That's why I loved going to Sulby Gardens, to record a programme for BBC Radio Leicester's gardening programme, "Down to Earth" doing just that. Derek Cox and Josie Hutchinson , from the programme's panel of experts were with me.
Tucked just inside the Northamptonshire side of the border with Leicestershire, Sulby Gardens consists of twelve acres of formal gardens, kitchen gardens, orchards, a wood and even an ice house.
Alison has lived here since 1976. She and her husband Chris were fired with enthusiasm after reading John Seymour's 'The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency' and were inspired to buy a walled garden and live in the Head Gardener's Cottage there.
There were glasshouses and old storerooms which still bear the pencilled notes on the doors detailing how many fruits and carrots were picked in the early 1900's.
Part of the old apple store is now a conservatory where expertly trained (according to Derek) grapes festoon the ceiling.
There's a rather large glasshouse from 1904, which was the original carnation house.

 A place to sit out of the rain, looking down to part of the kitchen garden

Alison's husband Chris died nine years ago at the age of sixty. However he's left quite a legacy and they both have amassed a wonderful collection of sixty three varieties of apple trees .

There's a certain romance to the names of the old and new varieties of apples grown ...and there's also a dozen varieties of pear trees .We tasted two or three varieties as we munched our way around the kitchen garden and then found ten varieties of plum trees on the verge of ripeness.

Bill Barker has been the Garden Manager here for twenty years or so, and he too has played an important role in the development of the garden, especially since Chris's death. In fact Alison says he's an important reason why she has been able to stay here - she simply couldn't have done it on her own.

On the right hand side of the walled garden, glass houses previously abutted the walls for a couple of hundred yards or so.

And that's why Sulby Gardens is so interesting...because the gardens belonged to a minor stately home built in 1792 and designed by Sir John Sloane. Echoes of its gardening past are all around, but the house itself is no more. It was demolished in the early 1950's .

We winced and shuddered as we heard this - having seen photographs, it was a beautiful building. Yet we were able to admire what remained of the more formal area of gardens

It's ironic, because so many owners of old houses have, over the years, sold parcels of their estates or gardens for housing or development. Alison and Chris did the exact opposite, they managed to buy extra land to increase their garden, to build a wood and seven ponds.

 With the wood, they inherited an ice house. I was dying to see this...Josie walked over it without knowing at first!

This dates from the late eighteenth century and is listed.

 We all trooped down the stairs and inside in single file, the temperature immediately dropping as we did so. No torches, but fortunately I had my trusty iphone to light our way

This was where tons of ice, were hacked from the stream running through  the gardens by the gardeners, and thrown into the hole. Meat, game and fish, butter and other foods were kept here on the ice until needed for the table.

By now, we had spent two hours wandering around the gardens, enjoying the views and the plantings. We'd also admired the way that Alison, Chris and Bill have enhanced the gardens over the years and developed flower meadows and wildlife habitats for mammals, insects and birds.

By now, the drizzle and wind had died down and we were able to relax on a garden bench in the sunshine.

Left to right...Bill Barker, Josie Hutchinson, Derek Cox, me and Alison Lowe

Such a lovely day and such an interesting garden, with so much to see . You can hear the programme we recorded by clicking this link

You can also see the gardens for yourself as they are open on Thursday 12th October from 1 pm to 4pm and again on  Friday 13th October from 11am until 4pm...

Alison and Bill will be around, and you've got the chance to buy some bottles of fresh apple juice too, which is pressed and bottled by Bill, but only sold to garden visitors at open days for the National Garden Scheme. There's plenty of apple cakes to taste too!

Here's just three of the varieties, and Sunset, the bottle I have tasted is absolutely delicious and addictive.

Sulby is worth a visit any time of year though and opens do check with the Northamptonshire branch of the National Garden Scheme to find out next year's dates. You will be so pleased you did!