Make a Christmas Wreath

Today I made a Christmas wreath for our front door.

We probably won’t bother with a tree this year – the wreath is a better, more simple alternative for our little lockdown household of two!

I gathered some bay prunings after Jonathan trimmed the tree back this afternoon.

Nearby there’s a yew hedge so I cut a few fronds of that as a contrast.

I then added some variegated willow and skimmia, which is in flower, to brighten it up.

I would have used holly for the berries but there are very few this year as it’s been trimmed back recently!

You can see in the photo above that I made a circular frame out of some thick plastic coated wire I found lying around in the shed.

I then followed this method to make the wreath using thinner wire to attach the greenery.

I re-used an orange ribbon to tie it to the front door knocker.

It turned out pretty well I think!

UPDATE: I fretted about the lack of moisture the wreath would have so I took it down and wrapped soaked moss from the lawn in clumps/balls around the stems and wet them again. Then re-hung it. I will spray the hidden moss at the back with water every couple of days to try and keep it fresh.


That Compost Glow

There’s nothing like homemade compost to make plants glow and grow!

It’s the foundation for nutrient rich fruit and vegetables.

An inch or so spread on all the beds once a year is like waving a magic wand.

Hey presto!

Sweet orange carrots; deep vibrant green, purple and white cabbage, kale and broccoli; pink passion ruby chard; vigorous herbs and delicate lime green lettuces.

The veggies really do glow like jewels in the low winter light.

The compost making is less glamorous but just as satisfying!

Every year at about this time I empty and remake the main heap nearest the house.

Last year, Fynn came over from northern Germany to visit and helped me.

This year Alex dug out the “black gold”.

This is the really fine stuff from the bottom of the heap which I will use mixed with leaf mould and sharp sand for potting compost

Then when the bay was empty she helped me combine and consolidate material from the other heaps nearby.

We layered brown woody stuff like spent bean vines and half rotted woodchip with nitrogen rich greens like grass cuttings, chopped up comfrey leaves and vegetable peelings.

Comfrey growing near the compost bay is “harvested” two or three times a year and used as an activator in the heap

This time I remembered to sprinkle each layer with QR activator – a biodynamic powder made of dried plants/herbs mixed vigorously with water.

No, it’s not wee! It’s Quick Results activator

The last time I used this it really did seem to speed up the composting process.

Unfortunately you can’t buy it from Chase Organics anymore as the company was taken over by a bigger concern so I’ve sent off to France for some biodynamic compost preparations which I’ll try out next time.

Jonathan was scarifying the lawn so we used the grass cuttings as part of the mix. This coming week I’ll add a lot more material brought up from the heap at the orchard end of the garden.

The new heap is already warm and toasty.

It’s shrunk somewhat as the billions of organisms get to work decomposing and transforming the material into the rich dark compost that we’ll  dig out and use in a year’s time.



Winter preserves

Some of my first memories are apple picking in a house we rented for a couple of years in Surrey.

Dad would shin up a very long ladder and pass them down.

Mum would make stewed apple and keep it in kilner jars.

I loved it for breakfast. Or with sweet crunchy caramelised breadcrumbs on top as a pud.

Mike, my brother, made that as part of his scouts or cubs cooking badge. He had to make a whole three course Sunday lunch to get it.

Anyway. Those apples were the ubiquitous Bramley cooking apples that were very tart and needed sugar to make them palatable and preserve them.

Fast track fifty years and the Bramley tree here in our garden in Norfolk is diseased and will have to come down soon – this year the crop is practically non existent.

But the memory of preserving has stayed with me and I’ve bottled quite a few pears, some stewed eating apples and a big kilner jar of quince.

Instead of using a water bath to preserve them I’ve used the bottom simmering oven of the Aga.

I’ve followed directions from the Aga Cookbook by Mary Berry (written before she was famous).

I’ll be interested to see how well the fruit lasts and what it tastes like.

Most I’ve done without sugar; only the quinces have needed it as they are mouth puckeringly sour without! But I did use a recipe that suggested far less sugar than usual.

I’ve also made quince jelly.

I’ll keep the rest of the apples and pears in a dry, cold, dark place although that might be difficult as the mice (and possibly other larger rodents!) like the shed and the pantry’s crammed with other stuff.







New Secateurs

I’ve received my new tools and ikebana equipment; a birthday present to myself!

They’re all from a Japanese company called Niwaki.

My friend Alison, who’s lived in Japan for thirty years, points out that the two Chinese characters that make up the name Niwaki mean garden and tree, so it’s appropriately named!

Here’s a link to the video of me opening the parcel.

That was a few weeks ago and the secateurs are wonderful to use – ergonomically just right for the size of my hands.

I’ve got used to the closing mechanism at the bottom of the handles.

I’ve just used the hori hori knife to make holes to plant out my choy sum and Belstar broccoli – both should be ready to harvest before Christmas.

The knife should also be good for targeted weeding.

I’ve still got a huge amount of seedlings (land cress, spinach, chinese cabbage, pak choi, dill, frizzy endive and frilly oriental mustards) to go out which will be fleeced if we get a cold snap.

I’m planting out very slowly bit by bit as I can’t bend down for very long and I’m hoping I’ll get a wee bit of help next week from a couple of friends.

I’ve tried the crean mate cleaning block and the sharpening stone (soaked in water first) on an old pair of secateurs with great success.

And to top it all off my lovely friend Jenny Holland delivered a late birthday present today – a Niwaki canvas wrap for my tools, old and new!





My Top Ten Cookery Writers

One of my greatest inspirations in the kitchen is the Greens Cook Book.

I’ve just made a kale, potato and chilli soup from it for lunch.

My sister, Deb, gave it to me many years ago and I think she came across it when she was living in San Francisco where the Greens Restaurant is to be found.

I was so inspired I went there for lunch when I travelled to the West coast 20 years ago and I was not disappointed.

I remember the crisp white table linen, the sparkling wine glasses,  the view across the bay to Sausalito and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge nearby.

The food was pretty good too!

Black bean and fresh corn chilli followed by a delightfully wobbly pannacotta, I seem to remember.

After the trip the book enabled me to recreate dishes like that back at home.

It was only on closer inspection that I realised one of the authors, Ed Espe Brown had written another of my cookery bibles, The Tassajara Cook Book.

It’s more of a manual than a conventional cook book.

It described the alchemy of cooking and taught me how to trust my taste and intuition and to use what was to hand.

Ed also showed me there was more than one way to chop a carrot!

Other books that have inspired me are those passed down by my mother.

Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David’s slightly academic, scholarly tomes adorn our bookshelves alongside newcomers like Yotam Ottolenghi, Dennis Cotter (owner of Cork’s Paradiso restaurant) and Rebecca Wood who wrote The Splendid Grain recommended to me by my late friend, John Mixer VII.

I also treasure my copy of Claudia Roden’s A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, given to me by fellow Sacred Harp Singer Lin James.

Marcella Hazan’s Italian cook books and Fuschia Dunlop’s books about Szechuan cookery also rate highly in my pantheon of cookbook writer greats.

And I can’t leave out Madhur Jaffrey and Stephanie Alexander.

They’ve become like old friends and during this pandemic are even more important windows to other worlds.

Who’s inspired you in the kitchen?

I’d love to know more about your influences.