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Thursday, 9 September 2021

Days of harvest and a heatwave

So, September sunshine came at the weekend, bringing almost tropical temperatures.

It meant meals in the garden after watering the tomatoes and sweet pepper plants in the evening. Glasses of wine whilst watching the swallows pirouette, soar and swoop around us until the skies became dark.

No so relaxing though for our local farmers. They’ve been harvesting at full pace when there’s a tight window between having lots of sunshine and the storms forecast. 

Farmers Phil and Mark were hard at work in the field at the end of our garden on Monday. Our dogs Boo and Eric had a grandstand view, following their progress with interest as they circled the field.

After a couple of hours it was time for the hard workers to have a drink and a chat …

Meanwhile on the other side of the village, I stopped to watch as they were working on another field, with a cloud of dust  trailing behind them …..

On the other side of the road, all was safely gathered in as I walked through one of my favourite fields.

As I got closer, I realised just how huge this tower of bales was. It looked so majestic in a commanding position on the ridge, pale gold surrounded by bright blue skies.

I know storms have been appearing already  elsewhere in the country but here in our little village, all is still dry. This  warmth and sunshine have given us a glimpse of the summer we didn’t have. A small bonus as the year marches on and the nights draw in…..

Monday, 6 September 2021

A reading day: Big Veg by Gerald Stratford

Ah, the beginning of September - heralding the beginning of autumn and the big bonanza of newly published books, all shiny new and ready for the Christmas market. 

One of the first books to arrive through the door with a satisfying whack on the mat is Big Veg by Gerald Stratford.

Gerald Stratford has been growing vegetables since he was taught how to as a small boy by his father but had never thought about writing a book about it.

He's a grandfather in his seventies, a retired fisherman and gardener but that's just what he's done.

His book "Big Veg" , it was published last week and I think it's going to sell very well for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Gerald is an internet sensation. Despite not being on social media for long, he has already made his mark, attracting over 308,000 followers on twitter alone.

I'm one of them, and I know all is well in the world when there's a post and video from Gerald.

"Good morning" or "Good evening "he says in his lovely Oxfordshire lilt, and I'm transported to a happy place where there are outsize vegetables to admire which Gerald has grown, and to hear little snippets about his life. Nothing earth-shattering takes place in his videos, they're not slick  there's no fancy, frenetic, over the top presentation either, but they are surprisingly addictive.

So what about his book?
In the words of a famous Ronseal catchphrase from yesteryear "it does what it says on the tin."
It's about the outsize veg he grows in his garden and allotment, and how to grow them in simple, understandable terms.

Split into sections, the book has lots of tips for beginners to both grow and show big vegetables. His advice is encouraging and he understands that when growing veg, anything ..good or bad,  can happen despite your best efforts.

He only grows he likes to eat though, an important commandment really for any grow your own fan. After all, what's the point?

In his chapter on what its like to show your vegetables, Gerald is spot on as he describes the anticipation, the sheer thrill and the fun to be had whether you're exhibiting at your local village show or a more prestigious one. In the world of big veg mind you, size matters and his friendly, inspiring approach will enable you to grow some whoppers.

The last part of the book guides us month by month through Gerald's year of growing vegetables, both for showing and for supplying him and his family with meals in every season.

It's a charming glimpse into a land which is forever England. A gentle land of sheds, greenhouses, allotments and vegetable and flower shows. This book takes into Gerald's likeable world of retirement, family, growing food for his family and above all, humour and contentment.

Mind you, his world is already changing with a book,  even modelling, plus appearing at a literary festival next month, but I suspect that nothing will change Gerald.  

Cheers Gerald!

Big Veg by Gerald Stratford is published by Headline Books and cost £14.99.

My copy was sent for review.

Friday, 27 August 2021

Foodie Friday, - making Nigella’s chilli jam

Earlier this year, I rescued a chilli plant from "death row" at a garden centre.

You know, the few rows of plants which range from the mildly unkempt, the bone dry and drooping or the ones for all hope is lost.

This particular chilli plant was a third of its original price and had possibilities, so I thought it was well worth with a punt. I was right, it blossomed with some tender loving care, so much so, I had a slight surfeit of chillis.

I'd never made any jam from them, so spent a satisfying hour or so rifling through my cookbooks and scanning online to find the perfect recipe.

I found it,  and after making my second batch in less than three weeks (that's how good this chilli jam is) , I can confirm that is absolutely delicious.

It is from Nigella Lawson and is incredibly easy.


Whizzing chillies and red peppers in a food processor is easy peasy. So is throwing some jam sugar and white wine vinegar together (Nigella uses cider vinegar but I hadn't any) and heating in a preserving pan until all the sugar is dissolved.

Adding the flecks of chillis and peppers isn't taxing, and neither is bringing the mixture to a rollicking boil for ten minutes, before pouring into sterilised jam jars.

It's literally that simple and the jam sets beautifully just as Nigella tells you it will. I didn't have to faff around with small plates from the fridge and trying to find out if it would set. It does.

I can't believe I've not found this recipe before. After all, I've adored Nigella's writing since "How to Eat" was published and have other books of hers on my bookshelves. So how did I miss it? I haven't got a copy of Nigella Christmas, that's why.

That will be remedied, after all it's only 120 days until Christmas and it would be good to have some recipes to try. 

Meanwhile, if you want to try making this chilli jam, here's the link to Nigellas's website.

Thursday, 19 August 2021

Days of staying at Hever Castle


My latest trip away is all down to a history teacher, who back in 1941, enthused an eleven year girl with tales of the Tudors and a certain castle in Kent. That young girl is now 91 - she's my Mum who's always wanted to see where Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, was brought up.

So off we went to Kent, to Hever Castle to stay in a castle for the very first time, and immerse ourselves in history and luxury. A treat to ourselves, as for a long time we were apart during lockdowns and missed each other dreadfully.

Of course, we weren't staying in the seven hundred year castle itself, our room was one of 28 in the Tudor style Edwardian wings, just yards from the castle. Arriving mid-afternoon, we were pleased with Bramley, our accessible deluxe twin room on the ground floor, with a large en suite.

Mum made herself a pot of tea before unpacking. There was a selection, from Earl Grey to fruit and peppermint teas and a selection of biscuits. Builders tea and shortbread for her, I downed a bottle of spring water but noticed approvingly there was a cafetiere and real coffee for me in the morning.

We ventured out into the gardens for a brief stroll and to sit and rest in front of the castle. 

It was quiet with only a few couples here and there, other guests who were staying here. All the day visitors had gone, leaving us feeling quite spoilt to have the place to ourselves.

Back indoors, it was time to eat.  We sat and relaxed in the sitting room as we waited for our table....and then it was time to eat in the rather grand dining room, full of guests talking quietly, as we were all served attentively with nothing being too much trouble.

Smoked salmon starters went down well and then chicken and duck as our main courses. Lots of vegetables and we couldn't manage puddings. 

An early night for both us and we were back for breakfast early the next morning. When I say breakfast, this was a feast. Continental pastries, fruit platters, porridge, eggs Benedict, full English breakfast with vegetarian and vegan options too, plus copious refills of coffee, tea and fruit juice.

We virtually staggered to the castle afterwards in time for a private tour for hotel guests before the day visitors arrived. 

The castle is oh so atmospheric with precious treasures belonging to its most famous inhabitant, Anne Boleyn. 

This was Anne’s personal Book of Hours,beautifully illustrated and with colours  still so vivid, but there is also a poignant inscription by Anne herself. "Le temps viendra" - the time will come.

Henry VIII may have married her but he also ordered her execution and later, he gave her family home to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleeves. 

Hever Castle isn't the largest castle in the country but as the saying goes, size isn't everything, and it does have a priest hole, a ghost, a wonderful collection of portraits of Plantagenet and Tudor Kings and so much more. 

It’s at the beginning of the 20th century that Hever Castle and its 125 acres of gardens were transformed by the new owner, William Waldorf Astor. The richest man in America, he spent the equivalent of a billion pounds today in restoring the castle itself, building new wings and completely changing the gardens and grounds.

From the castle you can see our bedroom in the Astor Wing, so close to the original castle  


 The courtyard for hotel guests is a lovely area to sit and read a book in the early afternoon, or drink a gin in the early evening and chat with fellow guests.


As well as creating the extra wings, William Waldorf Astor employed 800 workers to dig and create a lake and create the most spectacular gardens.

These days, there isn't a huge staff to maintain them. We were lucky enough to meet the irrepressible Neil Miller, the Head Gardener who only has a team of eleven gardeners, and some volunteers, yet manages to create, refresh and enhance the acres and acres of ground

Some of the gardens are high maintenance too, such as the rose garden, containing 4000 rose bushes,

the more formal Italianate Garden and the wonderful and very different Pompeian Wall, but we loved them all.

Whether you visit Hever Castle for the day, or for a night or two, there's something for everyone no matter how young or old you are. Mazes, a children's play area, a couple of cafes and you can even go boating on the lake.

A two night stay though was a wonderful experience. We cocooned ourselves in a different world, a world where we felt safe and pampered. A place where we not only felt as if we went back in time, but where we had time to chat, to read and to have drinks with other like-minded people, such as Sam and George who love history, historic houses and gardens. 

For me, the best part of each day was first thing. Walking out into the gardens in the early morning light, breathing in the scented air, and being totally alone. Wandering around the knot garden amongst the herbs, walking over to the lake, sitting there watching the ducks and swans gliding on the water, and totally losing track of time and the outside world.

Meanwhile Mum couldn't get enough of going into the castle itself when it was so empty and she could wander around to her heart's content. There are lots of stairs and she could only use her rollator on the ground floor, but the very helpful guides ensured that she could get everywhere in the castle safely and at her own pace. 

So, we loved our time at Hever Castle. The acid test mind you, is would we go again? For both of us, the answer is an unequivocal yes. I would love to see the tulips in Spring, apparently, there's thousands and thousands of them.

Meanwhile, there are other adventures to plan. Mum has now achieved her childhood dream of visiting Hever, and over the years, we've ticked off her fancy to see Salzburg in the snow and her ambition to cruise down the Nile with a trip to the Valley of the Kings. 

Where though, can I take a gregarious, lively minded, 91 year old on a trip next?

Friday, 18 June 2021

Foodie Friday and lunch at Charnia Kitchen in Quorn

I've just come back from walking the dogs and I'm feeling rather hungry.

That's because I'm thinking of exactly two weeks ago when three of us went to lunch at a place none of us had been to before. Charnia Kitchen in the village of Quorn is a relatively new addition in the north of Leicestershire and we were so pleased we found it. 

Laura and I always have a lovely time when we meet up, there's nearly always food and wine involved, and the only time there's silence is when we are eating. Our third member of the group was Bam Bam, she doesn't talk much and didn't order any lunch, preferring to eat snacks from a copious selection which came with her. and she made it quite clear that I wasn't going to have any of those thank you very much. 

She's Laura's adorable daughter, who has been out to lunch and more press launches than I have in the last year.

So, what was on the menu, and what did we try? 

Wine first, and as it was a rather warm day, we ordered a few glasses of Cantina di Negra from Verona which were just right -  chilled with peachy undertones and very moreish.

The menu is a mixture of light lunches for those for fancying quick bites such as jacket potatoes, avocado on toast, toasties, eggs benedict and that sort of thing. 

There's also a comprehensive list of starters, then mains such as five-spiced duck breast, roast salmon to chateaubriand steaks. 

We decided to try the set lunch menu ...eyeing up what seemed a 1970's inspired selection of dishes.
Laura's eyes lit up when she saw her starter, a prawn cocktail with a Marie Rose sauce, and the oohs of delight as she started eating confirmed that it had hit the spot.

A tomato and mozzarella salad with pesto dressing was my choice,...

So, both starters prettily presented, now it was time to test the mains. Laura loved her seared lambs liver, mashed potato, fried onion and red wine gravy. Bam Bam was being fork fed tiny morsels of everything, and relishing every bite too.

I  was busily devouring the mushroom fricassee with mashed potatoes which I'd ordered. When was the last time you ate a fricassee? I was in France back in the 1990's in Normandy at a Chambre D' Hote on a cider farm. Happy and delicious memories, but I really enjoyed these mushrooms sauteed with onions, enveloped generously in a cream and brandy sauce. 

The mashed potatoes were a perfect foil, alongside the seasonal vegetables. Even so, there was plenty of creamy goodness left, and I was reaching for my dessert spoon to taste every last drop. Yes, I may have been greedy but Martyn Pepper, the General Manager was immediately at the table with a few slices of bread to help mop every last bit of cream. Which I did.

We couldn't manage a pudding too, so decided to go out into the sunshine and finish our drinks. There's a colourful outside space behind the restaurant, full of relaxing chairs and benches and a few groups of people were drifting in for drinks and afternoon teas which have to be booked in advance. 

Such a relaxed feel, and none of the *you've had your lunch and now bugger off" attitude which some restaurants have after a long, lazy lunch. Mind you, Charnia Kitchen is open from 8am for breakfast and stays open until 11pm.

The afternoon tea does look inviting, served imaginatively with copious sandwiches, cakes and what not.  A brief look flashed between Laura and me and I knew we were both thinking the same ...perhaps, lunch, go for a walk and stay for afternoon tea next time? 

There will of course be another visit here, we both agreed on that. Charnia Kitchen serves delicious food, beautifully presented and I like the attention to detail both in the food and service. Gleaming glassware and cutlery, and Martyn Pepper, the General Manager, was friendly and attentive, without being intrusive and looked after all three of us very well. 

We paid  £12 each for our rather retro set lunch which we both thought was an absolute bargain, plus the wine. 

We drove off happily. Bam Bam, who is an absolute delight, was dozing in the back as we discussed the meal and how much we enjoyed it, The only question mark was-  did the menu need a few more summery dishes on it?  Yes, we decided, and we're both very much looking forward to tasting some on our next visit. 

Monday, 15 March 2021

Days of sowing seed more successfully


We're in the middle of the magic month which all gardeners have been waiting for. The month of annual acts of faith and hope in the future. Yes, the yearly seed sowing jamboree is officially underway. 

Of course this year, many started their seed sowing early. Being at home in lockdown and a few days of warmth and sunshine prompted lots of early activity  and I started my first sowings in mid-February of beetroot, sweet peas and peppers.

I was so driven to sow something and I had run out of the seed compost which I trialled last year and was very impressed by. Foolishly I nipped into a local DIY and garden centre not far away and quickly bought the only seed compost I could find. Well, it was cheap and on special offer. Two small 12 litre bags I thought, would do the trick for right now.

When I opened the bag though, I was so disappointed. It was clumpy, with large strands of baler twine, hair, large twigs and goodness what else. I had to sieve it to get rid of a few stones and the other offending bits before use. 

I'm not going to name what product I bought, but I've learnt my lesson when it comes to buying compost. You get what you pay for.  Dalesfoot Wool Compost for Seeds is what I trialled last year , and yes it may be  more expensive to buy, but the germination rate was virtually 100 per cent across the board.

The compost is a fine-textured mixture of wool and bracken from a farm in the Lake District, and I didn't need to water my seeds so often. I was so pleased with this, but apparently there's a new version which has just been brought out with added comfrey. Comfrey's benefits are well known, giving high levels of potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen, so I can't wait to try some and compare the two bags of peat free compost. 

I've also been paying closer attention to the way I sow my seeds and transplant the seedlings in the last year.   I've always been a "stick my finger in the compost and lob a seed into the hole " type of gardener but not now.

I'm using a dibblet. I'd never heard of one before...a dibber yes, but not a dibblet. Here it is...

This one is made of beech and made to last. It's hand turned and has graduating rings of one cm each so that you know exactly what depth to sow seeds and transplant tiny seedlings. It may be a small item, but as they say, good things come in small packages. 

So far so good, but previously I've had trouble transplanting the seedlings to bigger pots or outdoors.

I was always told that you must handle them by their leaves so that you don't damage the tender stems, when potting on. Well, that's never worked for me. My clumsy fingers ( including a couple which are slightly arthritic) always managed to crush either the stem or the leaves., or even both! 

Until I was sent these seed cell trowels that is. Last year they made potting on seedlings or removing  plants from seed trays  to plant in the ground so much easier. 

They may be tiny, but they are beautifully made, strong and good to work with. They have certainly helped prevent damage to leaves and root disruption by my clumsy handed ways. That has saved the loss of many seedlings I can tell you.

They would be ideal for house plant gardening too. Not that I have any house plants though as, like I've mentioned before, bringing a house plant into my house is like putting them on death row.

That was a long time ago however.  As the sun has come out this afternoon, I'm going into the garden to plant these beetroot and broadbean seedlings now. Using my little seed cell trowels of course..........


The dibblet costs £5.99 and seed cell trowels  (£9.99 for the pair) are all made by Burgon and Ball. I've bought so many products from them over the years, for myself and as presents for friends and family, but these were sent to me for review. 

Monday, 1 February 2021

A day of making marmalade and sleet

 In the first lockdown here in England, everyone started making sourdough bread. In the second lockdown, baking banana loaves were a craze, and in this lockdown, making marmalade seems to be THE thing.

Sourdough baking and making marmalade take time, and that is one thing many of us have during lockdown. Unless you're a parent and homeschooling that is.

I haven't made marmalade for a number of years and to be fair,  I wasn't going to this year either.  Until I went to Waitrose to buy some food and spotted a few boxes of Seville oranges at half price. Call me a cheapskate but I do like bagging a bargain.

I was going to buy two boxes but there two others behind me also wanting to a box, so selflessly I only took one box. That was a mistake ...

Snow which didn't settle and sleet came on Saturday with a biting wind. I didn't want to go out, so marmalade making was definitely on the agenda.

I rather like Pam the Jam's recipes....she's the preserves maker from River Cottage, and I've watched some of her videos on youtube. Wonderfully relaxed and quietly spoken, you know you're in safe hands with her.

First of all, I did as I was told and took what Pam Corbin calls the "little bottoms" off the Seville oranges 

before slicing them in half, juicing them and taking all the pips and pith out of all them.

Then came the rather long-winded business of cutting the rind into very thin slices, but it's the sort of activity that seemed just right for a quiet sleety Saturday especially whilst enjoying listening to the radio or a playlist. I chose a catch up on BBC sounds listening to the final instalments of the wonderful serialisation of "The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line " by Ruth Thomas, which I really enjoyed. A story of an accident, heartbreak, and ultimately revenge.

The pips and pith were wrapped up and tied tight  in a piece of muslin and popped into the pan along with the juice and some water, 

and simmered away for about ninety minutes. The glorious scent of oranges filled the whole kitchen in a warm, aromatic hug and brought back memories of various trips to Spain. Not that I spent my holidays making marmalade you understand. I was remembering my first ever visit to Spain, that was Sitges when I was ten. The first time I ever saw oranges growing on the trees near our hotel in Soller was two years later and the last time I went to Spain was a  couple of years ago. We were staying near the orange groves at a friends villa by a golf course near Torrevieja. 

It was time to add the sugar, The lovely Pam used golden granulated, but I went off piste and used a  mixture of granulated and demerara sugar, which worked well.

I must admit I started panicking when, despite achieving a lovely thunderous boiling roll for well over ten to fifteen minutes, my marmalade still hadn't reached setting point. Another ten minutes passed, but my friend Josephine advised patience on our whatsapp group. "It will set." So, I poured the marmalade into the jars and even after a couple of hours, I wasn't hopeful. 

Patience is a virtue, and the following morning , there were jars of perfectly set marmalade. Delicous marmalade which such a depth of flavour I've not tasted for quite a long time - since I last made marmalade in fact. Smothered on my seeded sourdough bread, with a strong hit of coffee, it's a  wonderful way to start my mornings.

It was far cheaper to make than buy too, so next January, I know what will be on the top my to-do list. 
Making marmalade again! More of it though, as I shall be buying at least three boxes of Seville oranges next time.

You can follow Pam's recipe on the River Cottage youtube channel  here...

Meanwhile, on my book wish list is The Book of Preserves by Pam the Jam, published in 2019 by Bloomsbury. I shall be needing it later in the year for all the fruit I'm growing organically on my allotment.