Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Ah, October! How I love you!

I have noticed that I am permanently happy since the season has turned. Looking back at my previous blogs, I have found I posted so much more in the autumn months than any other time of year. There is just so much to take in! And this year, I intend to soak it all up.
We have been busy in the plot and are making some great progress at last. I awoke to the sound of my lovely husband rotivating the plot a few weeks ago. I commend his enthusiasm, although some might argue he just wanted to have a go with the shiny new (hired) rotivator!

I had previously sprayed the grass with Glyphosate. Not something I was keen to do at all – I would much prefer to avoid chemicals and intend to grow organically. But time is pressing on and although I would prefer to cover the grass with newspaper or cardboard and kill the grass naturally, that would take months, and I needed to be preparing the ground over the autumn/winter ready to go in spring.
 This did leave us free to rotivate in the dead grass, keeping all of that fertile biomass in the soil. He went over it several times at increasing depth, and we finished with a layer of manure from the heap (which is now spent!). I dressed the beds with blood, fish and bonemeal first for a slow-release nutrient boost. The patch that will grow potatoes and ‘hungries’ like courgettes and squash had a sowing of green manure seeds (field beans and grazing rye) to make sure none of the nutrients are leached out over the winter.


The Brassica bed has had a generous top dressing of ‘Warrior’ municipal compost and gypsum to try and break up the clay, but no manure or green manure as in my experience,  brassicas like a nicely consolidated soil (that has finished decomposing at least!). I turned the soil over in great sods to let the weather get at them over the winter.

The leaves are definitely starting to drop. This is very exciting as it means free leaf mould! My heavy clay needs all of the organic matter it can get, and leafmould is perfect. So I have been enthusiastically raking at every opportunity and have dedicated a compost bin for leaf mould purposes. I am the office wierdo asking the gardeners at our complex for the leaves they collect - too good an opportunity to miss.

I am really enjoying the colder mornings - walking the dog has become an exquisite pleasure, as the sun is low and golden that early and the mist thick.


The grass is jewelled and the cobwebs draped over the huge sods of the newly ploughed fields are all shimmery silver. To think these cobwebs are everywhere during the day but we just don’t see them.
Just beautiful – long may Autumn continue.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Jammin' and the Meaning of Life

It has been a blissful week this week and I have been absolutely revelling in the gentle slide into Autumn.  Every tinge of gold on the tips of branches, every time I can see my breath in the air, every moment I lean on the worktop and look out of the kitchen window at the willow leaves that gently spin to the ground from the huge tree next door, I am totally bursting with joy. I just adore autumn!

I am going to join the army of bloggers out there banging on about how good it feels to preserve things…because it does! It is totally a human instinct and is immensely satisfying. My preference is for jelly rather than jam – we just don’t eat Jam in our house, but I can get on board with a blob of jelly in a casserole, or with some cold meat at Christmas.

This feverish preserving binge began in the run up to the wedding in September. With table plans to create, bridesmaid shoes to buy and 1001 other little things to do, I found myself task avoiding by making a batch of Hedgerow Jelly and Apple and Rosemary Jelly. Our apple tree dropped early this year and I was determined not to waste a single apple if I could possibly help it.


Apple is a great base for a jelly, stretching any other fruit you have in smaller quantities. I don’t have a recipe but just make it up as I go, following the rule that for each pint of juice you end up with, you should add one pound of jam sugar.
I have suffered the misery of jellies not setting in the past. But these days I chuck in the skins from apples I have peeled for apple pie. Also, for jellies involving any kind of berry (not renowned for high pectin levels) I add the juice of a lemon or two to boost the pectin levels.

First I chop the apples, splitting them into however many batches I need to encompass the flavours I want to use. This was Apple on its own and Apple and Blackberry. I stew them – adding enough water to just half cover the fruit. If it is too dry, it won’t strain. At least if you add too much water, you can always boil it off.



Once thoroughly mashed, I strain through muslin into a large plastic tub overnight. It isn’t very rustic or traditional, but I find pegs and a Tupperware box work just fine!


The next day, I boil the liquid with jam sugar in the quantities above.

After a nice rolling boil for about half an hour, it reaches setting point (which to me means it forms a blob on a chilled plate that will just about hang upside down). I scald the jam jars in boiling water and fill them almost right up. At this point you can add rosemary or sage to the apple (for beef or pork/chicken) or whatever herb you like! Give it a stir and then a shake now and then as it sets, and the herbs distribute throughout the jelly evenly.

Last night, I went for a totally blissful dog walk, armed with a bucket, and foraged pounds and pounds of rosehips, Hawthorne berries and blackberries, which will go into more hedgerow jelly, apple and rosehip jelly and possibly some chutney.


It was amazing how much I collected in just an hour.
It was getting chilly and at about 6pm the evening light was golden, chasing me along the hedgerow as I stopped and picked. I imagined how generations of Wiltshire people had done this very same thing over the years – out of necessity rather than for pleasure.
It got me thinking about why we hark back to times of hardship, from our times of plenty (excess even). Are we any happier now that we can just go to a shop and buy whatever we want? It’s a question that is on my mind.

But for now, with pots of jelly bubbling away in my kitchen, made from ingredients that money literally cannot buy, I couldn’t be happier!

Friday, 23 September 2016

September and Coming Back to Earth

Well what a September it has been. We got married!


It has been a whirlwind of doing flowers, getting stationary printed, dress alterations (mostly letting out!)…and then the day hit. It was wonderful and everything we wanted it to be. It was followed by a glorious honeymoon in Sardinia, where we were so knackered from the wedding week that we slept, ate and relaxed and nothing much else – perfect.
I have to say though, I am glad it is over! Walking the dog over the fields this morning was an absolute simple bliss in the last of the summer sunshine. We have eaten rich food, drunk a lot of nice wine, stayed in luxury hotel and treated ourselves to lots of nice things, but it doesn't feel real somehow!

Since we got back last Monday it has been a frantic week of mandatory social and work events, so we haven’t been at home much.  I am really looking forward to getting our home in order (after the chaos and various guests staying for the wedding it is in a total state!), eating some simple, healthy home cooked food and being a recluse for a while.

Although the wedding was glorious, it was expensive, coupled with moving house the same summer – we must have been mad. What is now needed is a period of quiet living and financial retreat. No matter how we tried to control costs, they escalated towards the end, overspending our wedding fund and leaving us with hefty credit card bills to repay. 

That’s OK though – we are entering my absolute favourite season, there is plenty to get on with in the garden that doesn’t cost money and now that the stress of fitting into a wedding dress has gone, I am looking forward to re-building my relationship with healthy food and exercise again. I also can’t wait for the dark nights, cuddling up on the sofa watching good TV and making gardening plans, and not feeling guilty about not going out.

This weekend is forecast to be sunny on Saturday and then wet and miserable on Sunday. I couldn’t be more pleased - a day of digging the veggie patch and trench for our edible hedge (more later) on Saturday followed by a day inside finishing my quilt, cleaning and tidying the house and catching up with Poldark. Sounds dull but I am definitely up for some Domestic bliss!

Monday, 22 August 2016

Black Bean Soup and Digging

So the weekend was not as wet as it was hailed to be and I made some excellent progress digging the fruit bed. Not something I can photograph as it is essentially just another precious couple of meters of soil! Plod plod plod. One day I will get to the last row, I keep reminding myself!

So here is yesterday's tea instead - Spicy Black Bean soup - another one from Gwyneth Paltrow's cookbook. It was really easy to make - a couple of cans of black beans, onion, garlic and spices, finished with dollops of sour cream,  salsa, chopped avocado and some deep fried tortilla.

You can find the recipe here - it was delicious and something a bit novel for a Sunday night.

A blissful weekend of flicking through the newspaper and generally pottering about - nice and relaxed for the week ahead.

Friday, 19 August 2016

What's been Occurring in August

It has been a soul-gratingly bad spell at work recently. I have been working hard on building my resilience and emotional strength. This failed miserably last Monday when I ended up drowning my sorrows at the pub - on a Monday!

On Tuesday, I pulled myself out for a late evening walk with the dog. I have been practicing mindfulness recently, inspired by this life changing book, and used the walk as an opportunity to be mindful in a bid to master my whirring brain.

I tried to just let my bad thoughts come and go and remember that a thought is just a thought -  not necessarily the truth - and to always come back to the moment. I forced myself to really notice what was around me - the cows hurrying to meet the farmer; the splash of little creatures in the disused canal; the warm air; the light shining through the trees.

I also tried hard to turn the negative thoughts into positive ones and to see the opportunities to learn and grow. I would have scoffed at the thought of anything positive coming out of a shitty week like this six months ago, but I dug deep and did come back home feeling better about life. I don't meditate as such, only managing five minutes once or twice - it's SO hard! But I think the benefits may very well be worth it, so again, I will persevere.

The wedding preparations are eclipsing everything at the moment and last weekend was my hen do. Downing shots in a cheap plastic tiara just didn't appeal, so myself and 6 of my closest friends spent a weekend in a wooden ark, in the middle of the deepest Welsh countryside.

This is my favourite place on earth. There is no wifi signal and the scenery is amazing. Life just slows down - we ate cheese and drank our way through plenty of wine, with the occasional dog walk - utter bliss! Everyone agreed that without wifi it was such a relief not to be entirely glued to our phones, checking them all the time. Definitely a lesson to be learned there.

I have also bought some clothes this week - rare for me. As I get firmly into my 30's I feel like I understand my style so much better, possibly even for the first time. It seems to mainly revolve around involve shapeless linen, leather sandals and silver jewellery! I have totally fallen in love with TOAST. Their clothes are just so simple - sort of Amish chic which definitely isn't 'trendy' but almost outside of fashion and therefore, somehow stylish in it's own way!

I bought this linen tunic, which I will wear with jeans and sandals. With Autumn on the way I don't think I can resist this cardigan for long either - gorgeous berry shades are my nemesis.

So, as this mixed fortnight draws to a close, I am home alone this Friday night with just the little dog for company. The weather has turned a little and we are facing a wet spell, so not much chance of digging the plot, which I had been looking forward to.

I fancied a bit of a treat for my Friday night dinner, so cooked myself a Vietnamese Noodle Pho (a noodle soup)  from Gwyneth Paltrow's It's All Easy cookbook.

It was fantastic - hot, sour, spicy and sweet thanks to the basil.

I know, I know - roll eyes, celebrity cookbook. I am glad I gave it a chance though - admittedly, there are lots of carefully engineered shots of GP prancing around in designer clothes in beautiful places. But sometimes you need to try something different (read: you can't just cook Nigel Slater recipes forever). I might try the black bean Mexican soup on Sunday.

Have a great weekend, whatever you are doing.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

A Part-Time Sourdough Baker

I imagine that the incredibly long timescales involved in making a sourdough loaf was convenient for the medieval housewife. Leaving four or five hours between each stage would leave ample time for milking cows, rustling up a wicker basket, laying a new fire out etc.

However, when you work full time and want bread in the week, it is a bit of a pain. I usually don't bake sourdough during the week, because we try not to eat bread too much for diet reasons. But what normally happens is that we cave in and end up with a cheapo cardboard loaf from the supermarket - bad on both counts!

So, I am facing reality and baking in the week on the basis that if we are going to eat bread, I want it to be my lovely sourdough. I imagine it is healthier than the shop bought stuff, as I do not add sugar or rising agents. Also, the dough has plenty of time to ferment, which I gather means it is easier to digest. And, it is much cheaper to make your own - our Farm Shop charges £3.60 for a sourdough loaf.

BUT - it requires a bit of logistical shuffling to fit this around a full time job.

So... the night before, take your starter (I use this recipe) and mix with some new flour and a little warm water to make a 'sponge'. This is basically a watery dough mixture which will use the yeast you have grown in your starter to feed on the fresh flour and multiply, amplifying the effect. May as well use a huge bowl, as you will be adding to it.

Leave this overnight, somewhere warm ish, covered in cling-film or in a back bin bag, so that it doesn't dry out. Next day, in the morning, add more flour, salt and olive oil to the sponge, so that it becomes firm. Eventually you will be able to roll it into a dough ball.

Now, you can knead. After watching my bread machine in action, I assumed for a long time that kneading bread was a bit like rolling a football around a table. But it isn't, it is much more of a streeeeetch-turn-turn-streeeeetch kind of action. Literally dragging the bread across the kneading surface until it is at the point of coming apart, then roll it together, turn it and do it again. What you want is to produce long stretched gluten fibres that can accommodate the bubbles of carbon dioxide that the yeast will give off as it consumes the sugar in the flour.

I do this on a thoroughly cleaned draining board as we have waxed wooden worktops. Try and last for ten minutes - if I am honest, I usually only manage about 7-8. But after a while, you will see the dough become shiny and silky, and at this point I usually stop. If you can carry on for a whole episode of the Archers, that is about perfect!

Put back in the bowl and bin bag, go to work. You could leave it a whole day, but I come home at lunchtime. Punch the air out of the dough, leaving it flat again. Return to bowl to rise once more.

Then, that evening, you need to prove. This is a special word for what really means 'put in a tin and leave to rise for the final time'. As sourdough is traditionally a bun shape, I bought a proving basket, a nice lightweight job with a swirly pattern in the weave, which makes the dough look pretty - but any bowl will do.

Flour it well to stop the dough sticking and put the dough in. Back in the bin bag it goes, somewhere warm for about five hours. On Friday evening, at about 11pm, I bake my loaf. Tip it out of the proving container (or skip this step if it went straight into a loaf tin) veeeery gently, so that you don't squash it - or you may end up with a Frisbee shaped loaf.

Bung in a hot oven (as high as it will go) for ten minutes, then turn down to 200 degrees and finish for about 25 mins.

If it is hollow sounding when you tap the bottom, it is done. Leave to cool overnight and enjoy in the morning!

I love this routine. I also love having my own loaf. We don't waste it, and every slice is precious. Because it is so long coming, we don't gobble it down thoughtlessly either, which is good for our waistlines. More than anything else though, I like the fact that it is mine - not the product of some massive faceless corporation and not made for profit, at the expense of care or quality.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Join Me For a Summer Evening Run

The seasons move so quickly that I am determined to make sure I soak it all up while I can. I went for a short run this evening in the lanes where we live, once it had cooled down enough to be comfortable.

This was 7.30pm - the light was so beautiful and the shadows really deep. I prefer off-road running - it's much cooler and the varied terrain is just more interesting.

I did a bit of a tour of the hedgerows looking for some promising foraging finds. Apart from sloes and blackberries, there wasn't a lot to be had. I need some damsons for chutney - the search continues.

Someone else was on the look out for forage too...

I recon the blackberries are a month away yet.

Just beautiful soaking up all that green.

It hasn't rained for a long time, and the earth is parched where the cows have been.

I was pleased that apart from the cost of the manure, I didn't spend a penny, yet it was a wonderful weekend in the late summer sun.