Fact of the Week

Forced rhubarb in season now. Don't miss out!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Autumn bliss

Autumn has been an unexpected delight. Even November, which is usually the bearer of driving rain, biting wind and the gloomy descent to Christmas, has given way to gloriously fine, mild, sunny days. It has stopped me in my tracks. And made it impossible to leave the house without my camera, yet imperative to leave the house and breathe in great gulps of autumn, knowing that these warm, sunny days cannot last.

London has looked its best in the brilliant November sunshine. I have jumped at the opportunity provided by a few quieter weekends to cycle between Brockley and Brockwell, Nunhead and Westminster, Peckham and Pall Mall. Liberated from November's typically cold grasp, I have pedalled, the breeze whistling around my ears, bags jangling from my handlebars, enjoying the time to stop, to photograph, to have a coffee, enjoying London.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Coming of age

On Wednesday I was thirty.

I am not usually a birthday person. I do not know why. Maybe it is something to do with it being 9 November and always raining. Maybe it is because I am invariably at work (if my birthday would have otherwise been on a Saturday it is unfailingly a leap year). Maybe the variety of calamities which have befallen me on my birthday over the years have knocked the shine of the whole birthday concept.

This one I was dreading more than most. Why is it that birthdays with a 0 on the end induce a state of introspection, a checking of one's achievements (or not) against the rose tinted vision of one's life dreamt up as a little girl (I too was going to be married with babies, a dog and living in a wisteria clad cottage by the time I reached the grand old age of thirty) (writing it in full helpfully avoids the need for the nought).

The anticipation was worse than the reality. I actually had a really good day thanks to some wonderful friends, a naughty little sister who excelled herself, and things happening, both related and unrelated to my birthday, which made my day.

1. I came in to work to an email from a client thanking me for some work I had done. A grateful client? That almost never happens (but it is oh so nice when it does).

2. A colleague (different department, different floor) complimented me, out of the blue, on the dress I was wearing. Her exact words were 'you rock that dress'. If I needed an antidote to worrying about looking old, that was it.

3. My naughty little sister sent me flowers at work. Isn't receiving flowers just the most amazing thing? They made my eyes open wide and my heart soar. And these weren't any old flowers: they were pink ranunculus with ornamental cabbages - green with purple hearts and purple veining - antique roses the most delicate and elegant shade of lilac you have ever seen, giant pale green hydrangeas and sprigs of rosemary and eucalyptus that filled my office with the most amazing smell. It made everyone who walked past my office, stop and come in and bury their noses in the flowers. The thoughtfulness of sending the flowers and of choosing such exquisitely apt flowers to send completely overwhelmed me.

4. After work I went for tapas with four of the most wonderful friends a girl could wish for. We sipped on tall glasses of cava and shared plates of smoked beef, pork belly stuffed with butternut squash, prawns with chilli and garlic, padron peppers, jamon, tomato bread and razor clams with chorizo and mint. We laughed a lot.

It made me think that birthdays are not so bad, even thirtieth birthdays.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Winter greens or winter blues?

Autumn has been superlative. The garden is looking far less sepulchral than usual at this time of year. The dahlias are still flowering (a small nod to the mighty Great Dixter), the winter dianthus are offering an unexpected show of pink and many of the perennials are yet to shed their leaves.

Despite this late flurry of summer, I have been busily preparing for the long winter months ahead: mulching; moving tender plants inside; and planting row upon row of cavolo nero, kale and purple and white sprouting broccoli. These keystones of my winter larder are not constrained, like the summer produce, to my raised beds but are planted liberally throughout the garden, in the space vacated by the summer show stoppers.

These seedlings will breathe new life into my winter garden, as well as providing a rich source of food through to spring.  The sprouting broccoli will stand green and tall, its thick glossy leaves defying winter's harsh yoke. The cavolo nero will fringe the garden with palms, each single stem supporting a bunched canopy of leaves overhead, as if laughing in winter's face. The kale will grow wiry and strong, flourishing despite winter's bad grace.

So as the days shorten and I am robbed, from Monday to Friday, of daylight hours by work, the garden will provide an excuse to breathe winter's crisp air, to feel its watery sun on my back, a reminder that all is not lost, dead or hibernating, and a source of hearty winter food. Its vibrants winter greens are the perfect defence against winter blues.

My blueberry bush ablaze with autum reds

The beautiful red spires of dogwood

The smiling faces of winter pansies

The warm brilliance of autumn

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Time waits for no woman

I have not written for a while.  Or tended to my garden.  Or cooked any new recipes.  Or run (or done any other form of exercise).  Or taken any photographs that I am proud of.  Or baked.  Or spent time with my naughty little sister who matters more to me than anyone else in the world (but don't tell her).

I have however spent a weekend in Bristol with my university girlfriends to celebrate my wonderful friend Anna's birthday; window shopped my way around the annual Great Dixter Plant Fair (save for one giant pale lavender blue Scabiosa, a Penstemmon Digitalis and a Echinacea Pink Double Delight- given the selection of plants on offer, this was an exercise of the utmost restraint); sampled the wonderful Kentish produce being offered, cooked and quickly sold at the Broadstairs Food Festival; crunched through the rusty leaves in the grounds of Rousham House; eaten a chocolate and almond croissant sitting on the pavement in the sunshine at Columbia Road Flower Market; been on several bad dates; and done my first day's training to be a mentor for Kids Company.

So I have not been idle.  I am however, suffering from a shortage of time to do the things that are important to me, the things that add colour to my working week and make the weekends so irresistible.

So why, you may ask, am I taking on something new?

I first heard of Kids Company the day after the riots that swept through large parts of London (including the usually leafy streets of Peckham Rye) in August in an article written by Camila Batmanghelidjh, the charity's founder.  Sitting reading at my kitchen table over a cup of cafetiere coffee, the article made volumes of sense and touched a nerve (one not yet awoken by the coffee) that I, who am lucky enough to spend my weekends cooking, gardening and escaping the crowded London streets to the countryside beyond and still have time to write about it, can and will fit something else in if it is important.

I have one more day's training in two weeks time and then Kids Company will pair me with a child or young adult who has asked for a mentor.  We will spend a couple of hours together on Saturday mornings having fun and learning from each other.

Saturday mornings will become sacred and something else may have to give.  It seems a small sacrifice amongst the other highlights of my week.  And it will, I hope, in its own way become a highlight for me and more importantly for the child who will become the focus of the beginning of my weekend.

The Plant Fair at Great Dixter


The tropical garden at Great Dixter

The last of summer flowers against a summer sky

Ipomea lobata or Spanish flag, curling up verbena bonariensis

Early morning sunshine at Viking Bay, Broadstairs

Cannoli at the Broadstairs Food Festival

Midsummer, 2 October 2011: Viking Bay, Broadstairs

Autumn at Rousham House

Monday, 26 September 2011

Island idyll

The sunfilled streets of Marettimo
I have just returned from Sicily, the small island at the foot of Italy so overflowing with historical significance, multi-cultural influence and gastronomic experience that no holiday could be long enough to explore its abundant delights.  The island is a veritable, edible treasure trove and during the course of my all too brief visit, I ate some of the best pasta, gelati, fish, granita, figs, foccacia, jam, aranchini, melons, nectarines and tomatoes, that I have ever tasted.  I was inspired by unusual combinations (mouth melting aubergine with tuna), local specialties (fish couscous with tomato broth) and a dreamy array of pastries, each showcasing Sicily's superb homegrown produce, including oranges, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, watermelon and pinenuts.  The finest and most unexpected of the pastries were Cassatelle, a sweet pillow of light pastry filled with creamy ricotta and studded with dark chocolate drops, which had surely been created by angels. 

I came home armed with ideas and recipes to try, modify and perfect over the winter. After a long period away, the garden was looking avant garde but alive, thanks to the watering efforts of my not-as-naughty-as-she-used-to-be little sister. She had enjoyed a staycation in my absence, and had been rewarded for her diligence by the best of this summer's produce: tomatoes, French beans, rocket, chard, padron peppers, borlotti beans, lettuce, aubergines, apples and rhubarb (her timing was impeccable, my timing of leaving my lovingly tended garden less good).   Encouraged, by me, to eat as much as she wanted (the product of guilt towards the garden and gratitute to her for looking after it), she had taken me at my word and by the time I arrived home, the garden was bare, stripped clean by her voracious appetite.  Bare that is, except for the chicory, which had been saved from my naughty little sister's jaws by its serrated leaves, which, she deduced, resembled those of the dandelion and looked like it might be poisonous (despite being encourage to grow prolifically, and in neat lines, in my vegetable bed...).  The chicory was therefore the last man standing in an otherwise barren landscape. 

I discovered chicory two years ago in Puglia in southern Italy.  There it is braised and eaten with fava, dried broad beans which are soaked, cooked and pureed and served with a generous drizzle of new season olive oil.  It is peasant food, combining the taste of summer gone with a warmth and heartiness so comforting during the long winter months.  Inspired by the honest, simple food I ate in Puglia, I sourced and sowed chicory seeds on my return.  Coming home to London after two glorious weeks away, fava and chicory was the perfect dinner for my first night back: a recipe discovered on a previous trip, sourced from the garden and bridging the chasm between the southern Italian summer sun and England's autumnal hue. 

Fava and chicory

150g dried broad beans (fava), soaked overnight
Olive oil
1 garlic glove, peeled and sliced

Drain the broad beans and rinse in clean water.  Cover with water and cook until soft (approximately 25 minutes).  Drain but retain a cupful of the cooking water.  Puree the beans with three tablespoons of olive oil.  Add as much of the cooking water as is needed to make the puree smooth and silky.  Season to taste.

Heat olive oil in a frying pan.  Gently fry the garlic but do not let it brown.  Discard the chicory stalks and add the leaves to the frying pan with a ladleful of water.  Cover and cook until the chicory is soft.  Serve the fava and chicory with a generous drizzle of olive oil. 

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The real love that dare not speak its name

A couple of weeks ago, the Hapless Gardener asked me if I would write a guest post for his blog, Growing up.  As a regular follower of the tales of his gardening exploits in Bristol, I readily agreed, only regretting my decision when he suggested that I write about an emotion of my choice.  An emotion?  I write about food and gardening, was I qualified to write about emotion?

When I sat down to put metaphorical pen to paper, I quickly realised that there was one obvious emotion linking the topics I usually covered in my blog: Love. So here it is, my musings on Love, as published in the Hapless Gardener's guest bed


Love is not a word usually associated with the garden.  Hobby, pass-time, pleasure, keen, weekend, amateur are all more commonly linked with the acts of sowing and growing, planting and mowing.  However, having been asked by the Hapless Gardener to write a guest post for his blog, Love is what I want to write about.

For the relationship between garden and gardener has taken the Hapless Gardener and me completely (and independently) by surprise.  It has been so overwhelming that we have both chosen to write about it in our blogs.

Let me explain.

The Love between garden and gardener is based on a few simple principles.  First, it is undemanding:  the garden asks nothing of the gardener except that which the gardener knows the gardener can give; light, warmth, water, time.  The garden, in return, rewards the gardener with stunning results year after year. 

Second, the Love between garden and gardener is unconditional.  Only if the gardener fails to nourish the relationship completely and for a prolonged period, will it wither and die.  Otherwise, the relationship is a constant, that survives the many changes life brings.  Once acquainted, the garden and gardener cannot imagine being without each other.

Together the garden and gardener share the miracle of new life.  The perfect combination of nature and nurture.  I know I am not alone in arriving home and rushing to the window sill/propagator/greenhouse to see whether my seeds have germinated.  Or in experiencing that flush of excitement in January when the first green shoots of spring start to appear.  (I fear I may be alone in encouraging my Delicata Cornell squash seeds to germinate by placing them, in their pots, on a hot water bottle topped up with hot water every four hours.)

The relationship between garden and gardener is about the fundamentals in life: light, colour, air, water.  It endows the garden and the gardener with a richness and a sense of harmony, otherwise often lost in the furore of modern life. 

So whether you have a window box, a herb patch, a pot of flowers outside the front door: an allotment, a London garden, or a huge, formal garden with sweeping lawns, Love your garden, see the best in it, cherish its strengths and work with its weaknesses.   And when you are lowering your tired muscles into a hot bath at the end of a long day in the garden, or marvelling at a bee sucking from a flower full of nectar, or cooking a simple meal to share from the produce that the garden has provided, celebrate all that the garden gives you.  Love and Life and Health and Happiness.   

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Tresco Abbey Gardens

Last week I had the incredibly good fortune to spend three days in brilliant sunshine on the Isles of Scilly.  There are lots of reasons to go to the Scillies (white sand beaches, cystar clear turquoise seas, island life) but none more so than to visit the Tresco Abbey Gardens.  The Gardens benefit from exceptional hours of sunshine and the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, both of which provide the perfect growing conditions for an exceptional variety of plants.  The photos speak for themselves...

Agapanthus growing wild on Tresco

Tresco Abbey Gardens

The Gardens are inspiring in their use of shape, and texture as much as in their use of colour
Sunlight streaming through a palm

Aeoniums galores!

The Tresco Children by David Wynne

A bank of agapanthus

The Cutting Garden
(poppies, rudbeckia, echinacea and sweet peas)

The Vegetable Garden

Campanion planting: tomatoes and marigolds

A Tresco gardener with flowers from the cutting garden for one of the rooms
Oenothera and agapanthus growing wild on the shoreline