Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Alas, poor Mabel

Morello Cherry blossom Blossom on the morello cherry. Dreaming of cherry pie… Look, lots of these pictures are random ones taken in my garden today, to give you something pretty to look at while I bash on about Gardening: My Thoughts. Your visit is very important to me and so on…

On our way back from the country a few weeks ago, Lady de B  and I took a detour to the most magical nursery, Wootten’s, in Halesworth, Suffolk.

It was a drippy, grey and misty sort of afternoon so we retreated to the glasshouse and a feast of pelargoniums of every imaginable type. Our senses, dulled by too little sleep and too much chablis, awakened. We trawled the aisles, sniffing foliage, holding little black pots up to the light to admire the delicate leaves.

I was drawn to the sherbet-y, dainty Queen of the Lemons, not just for its hangover-banishing aroma, but for the description on its label.

PELARGONIUM Queen of the Lemons

Scented leaf. Mauve flowers April – Oct. Sage green rounded leaf with delicious sweet lemon scent. Much more refined than the rather coarse Mabel Grey
.Queen of the Lemons The Queen herself.

Poor Mabel! What had she done? Made the mistake of wearing diamonds in daytime? Displayed an extensive collection of fish knives? Asked to use the toilet?

But I brought home my Queen, and a few courtiers, feeling rather smug at my refinement by association.

Euphorbia Cheering euphorbia

When I first started gardening a dozen or so years ago, I had no idea that this most gentle of activities was as riven with snobbery, beset by fashion, as everything else. I was just relieved if I got through a season without slaughtering the Innocence (that’s Collinsia verna to you).

I was a newlywed. I had a few pots on a Marylebone roof terrace and big dreams. I wandered innocently into the garden centre, picked up some packets of seeds that looked pretty and hoped for the best. I made all of the beginner’s mistakes. I planted too quickly and too thickly, a little bit of that here, a little bit of this there, with little regard for what sort of conditions each plant needed.

But gardening quickly became an obsession. I amassed books by the stout-of-shoe and stout-of-heart. Margery Fish, Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse, Beth Chatto - the glorious sorority soon crowded my bedside table. I knew my addiction was serious when most of the books I read became text-heavy and picture-lite. At one point, poor Séan considered suing the late Christopher Lloyd for alienation of affection as his Well-tempered Garden was never out of my hands.

Cheery tree The ornamental cherry, one of the few things in the garden when we bought the house.

James Grieve

Bramley Blossom on the James Grieve & Bramley Apples.

Walthamstow Wonder My Walthamstow Wonder is sprouting,
delighted that I haven’t killed it yet.

In winter, there were catalogues to study. Not just any old seed catalogues either, but specialist pamphlets, most with no vulgar pictures to distract. These are top-shelf material for gardeners, the things that put ‘cult’ into horticulture. Any plant described as ‘rare’ or ‘seldom offered’ is our hard core. The idiosyncratic descriptions warm the chill of winter: ‘Mrs Fish acquired her plant during rationing in exchange for a quarter of tea’ (Glebe Cottage’s description of the Polemonium ‘Lambrook Mauve’); or ‘the whip-like tips of small brown arum flowers look like the rounded backsides of mice’ (Beth Chatto on Arisarum proboscideum).

I joined the Royal Horticultural Society and attended their shows in Vincent Square. They really are marvellously comforting, like a big church fête in one of the better parts of Gloucestershire. They’re crammed with thoroughly decent people in sensible clothes which run the full colour spectrum, from oatmeal through khaki to nut brown.

Euphorbia martini Euphorbia martinii, with Geum Mrs Bradshaw in the background. Very unrefined clashing, but there you are.

I soon realised how naïve I’d been in my smash and grab raid of garish seed packets. Flowers are the obsession of the amateur. Those gaudy geraniums (which I now knew to call pelargoniums), non-stop busy lizzies and flowing petunias were the horticultural equivalent of top-to-toe acrylic. Foliage was where it was at: hostas, ferns, euphorbias were the thing. Colour was tricky. Gentle, blending colours with perhaps the odd well-thought-out surprise acquired from Great Dixter were just about allowed.

I met people who played it so safe they drained all of the magentas, mauves, golds, oranges and reds from their gardens to the point where they contained hardly any colour at all, “except, of course, green, which really is the most complex and thrilling colour of all,” they claimed.

Shriek pink bergenia Shriek pink bergenia

These gardenistas visited Vita Sackville West’s White Garden at Sissinghurst as though it were Lourdes, designed to cure them of any longing they may have had for gaudy, waxy begonias or shriek pink rhododendrons. In Vita, they found their high priestess.

As if to underline her peerless good taste, Sackville West’s husband, Harold Nicholson, once said of her, “Vita only likes flowers which are brown and difficult to grow.” Which brings us to difficulty of cultivation, demonstrated never more strongly than with roses.

For decades, able and dedicated people have sweated to bring us roses which are disease resistant, flower continuously and behave sensibly. These blooms can have names like Radox Bouquet, Sexy Rexy, Disco Dancer, Pretty Polly or Rhapsody in Blue. Are we grateful? We are not. In our quest for chic, we want roses that were bred before 1900 and are magnets for mildew, aphids and black spot. Ideally, they will have names beginning ‘Gloire de…’, ‘Comtesse de…’ ‘Souvenir de…’ and many of them will flower once, for about ten minutes, so long as it isn’t raining too hard, and probably when we’re on holiday.

True style, in gardening as in everything else, is elusive - a shifting, spectral thing. As soon as you feel like you have a handle on what’s cool, all the big kids have moved on. So there you are, stuck with the knot garden, prairie border and bed of exclusively black plants, looking like Daniella Westbrook in top-to-toe Burberry.

Rhubarb My rhubarb is in rude health.

Stawberry flower The last few days’ sunshine has delighted the strawberries.

Even the vegetable patch has not escaped the style mavens’ attention. Of course, you could have a few scrubby rows of leeks, or you could have a potager overflowing with fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. And it’s very important to grow the most exquisite varieties, selected after hours studying Sarah Raven’s Cutting Garden catalogue as if it’s the kabbalah. Obviously, you won’t miss out Bright Lights chard with its orange, yellow and scarlet stems. And your salads will glitter with dainty Heartsease violas, Indian Prince marigold petals and mahogany nasturtiums. No iceberg lettuce for you, but choicest mizuna, pain de sucre and merveille de quatre saisons. Say it softly, it’s almost like praying.

But despite all of this, gardens are freedom. They are the buffer zone between us and crazy. In a world full of ‘instant’, gardening forces us to be patient and rewards us with a glimpse paradise. You may never own an Old Master, but you could cram some tulip bulbs into an old terracotta pot. Within a few months, you will have display to rival any Vermeer. And really, who cares whether it’s in this year’s colour or not?

Scabious This scabious began flowering in February,
as soon as the snow melted.

Not a Ballerina! This is supposed to be Ballerina. The perils of buying your tulip bulbs from open bins in Columbia Road market. I think naughty gardening sprites go around mixing them all up so, a few months later, surprise!  Any idea what it is?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Up and down the Kingsland Road


Sometimes, I imagine a shuttle running between Lady de B's house and mine rather like the underground trains that once carried four million letters a day between Paddington and Whitechapel. Our zippy little shuttle wouldn’t transport the Royal Mail. It would carry such precious cargo as extra chairs, baskets, platters, ice cream makers, jelly bags, jam pans, barbecues, tablecloths, ice buckets, stick blenders, mandolins, baking sheets and roasting tins. A truly moveable feast - or the furnishings for one - running the mile or so between my house and hers. It’s not unheard of for me to admire a plate in her house and for her to say, ‘Well, you should like it, it’s yours’.

We cook together so often, plan parties together, eat at one another’s tables with such regularity, that I can find the cling film or cinnamon or colander in her kitchen as easily as I can in my own. I know where the hot spots are in her oven. (Well, at least I did. She’s just got a swanky new Lacanche, and though we’ve been formally introduced, we’re yet to get to know one another intimately over roasted meats, slow-cooked stews, bubbling gratins and biscuits.)

Vanessa and I share recipes obsessively, whether it’s excitably garbled descriptions of dishes we’ve eaten on holidays or in restaurants, inspirations ripped from magazines, or pristine, bookmarked perfection in the pages of the latest cook books.

When Vanessa said she was making gravadlax for Easter lunch, I’d quite forgotten that I’d lent her Falling Cloudberries: a world of family recipes, one of my favourite books because it is filled not just with lovely recipes, but family, history and stories. In her introduction, Tessa Kiros writes ‘These are the recipes I grew up with: the recipes that have woven their way through the neighbourhoods of my mind, past indifference and into love’

Falling Cloudberries Falling Cloudberries

Tessa's mother Tessa Kiros’s mother and a Finnish birch tree.

Born in London to a Greek Cypriot father and a Finnish mother, Kiros’s childhood in Africa was followed by stints cooking all over the world before settling in Tuscany with her Italian husband. It’s hardly surprising her cooking is as diverse as it is delicious. There’s skordalia and semifreddo, couscous and ceviche, tom ka gai and crème brûlée, and in the middle of all that, her mother’s recipe for gravadlax, the happiest of beginnings for our happy Easter feast.

Gravadlax with dill cucumbers

Gravadlax with dill cucumbers

Vanessa bought the salmon from Steve Hatt, fourth-generation fish monger and the north London fisheratti’s piscine purveyor of choice. He advises that for gravadlax, a larger, more mature salmon that had had a chance to build up some fat responds best to the salt and sugar cure. Get the best your pocket can stand, but after that it’s all very easy.

Salmon ready to be sliced

Serves about 20.

300g (10 ½ oz) caster (superfine) sugar
200g (7oz) coarse salt
150g (5oz) dill, chopped
2 whole fillets of salmon, skin left on, but cleaned and small bones removed

For the dill cucumbers:
1 cucumber
1 tbsp chopped dill
100ml (3 ½ fl oz) white wine vinegar
2 heaped tbsps caster (superfine) sugar
1 tsp salt

To serve:
Chopped dill
Finnish mustard (See below)

To make the gravadlax, combine the sugar, salt, dill and a few good grindings of black pepper in a bowl. Put a large piece of foil on your work surface. Onto this put about a third of the salt and sugar mixture. Put one of the fillets, skin side down, on top of the mix then top this with another third of the mixture. Top with the other salmon fillet, skin side up, and cover with the remaining mixture. Pat down so it is all covered nicely and wrap the foil around it to seal the salmon. Keep it in a container in the fridge (Vanessa used a fish kettle, perfect) for four days, turning it over every day. If you don’t have a container large enough, sit it on a tray or large dish to catch nay juices that may drip.

To make the dill cucumbers, cut the cucumber into very thin slices, slightly on the diagonal if you like, so that they are extra long and look good. Put them in a bowl where they will fit compactly in a few layers, sprinkling the dill between the layers. Combine the vinegar, sugar, salt and 2tbsps of water, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Pour this over the cucumber and cover it. Keep in the fridge for at least a few hours before serving. Transfer to a jar and cover with its liquid and it will keep for up to a week.

To serve the gravadlax, remove the foil and scrape off as much of the sugar and salt mixture as possible. Slice the salmon very thinly, horizontally, and scatter with more fresh dill. Serve with the dill cucumbers and Finnish mustard.

Finnish mustard

This keeps really well, sealed in a jar, in the fridge for a few weeks. Its fiery fabulousness will perk up a plate of cold meats, sausages or, yes, cured fish no end.

Makes about 300ml/10 fl oz

45g (1/3 cup) hot English mustard powder
115g (1/2 cup) caster (superfine) sugar
1 tsp salt
250ml (1 cup) single (pouring) cream
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp apple cider (or other, white) vinegar
Juice of half a lemon

Mix the mustard powder, sugar and salt together in a bowl, squashing out the lumps with a wooden spoon. Put in a small saucepan over a low heat with cream, oil, vinegar and lemon juice and bring to the boil, stirring constantly. Cook for 7-8 minutes, stirring often, then remove from the heat when it darkens and thickens. Stir now and then while it cools and then pour into glass jars, seal and refrigerate.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A lovely thing happened…

Psychologies picture

I am doing the happy dance this morning. The wonderful people at Psychologies magazine have included Love and a Licked Spoon in Kate McGinley’s feature on the five best blogs. It’s on page 42, along with Daily Eco tips, Mind Hacks, Brit Lit Blogs and The Sartorialist – rather smart company, I’m sure you’ll agree.

When I began my blog just over a year ago, my idea was to create a place where I could record all of my kitchen experiments - so much better, more accessible, less spattered with flour/butter/olive oil than recipes scribbled into countless notebooks and onto the backs of envelopes or grubby paper napkins. I thought my family might like it; I hoped my friends would (if nothing else, because they feature so heavily in my life, in my kitchen, around my table and therefore in my blog), but it has been heart warming, genuinely thrilling, to find that it resonates with others too. I confess to checking my Statcounter and being ridiculously delighted to see visitors from America or Australia or China, as well as those from just down the road. I love it when you visit, I love it even more when you come back and I’m uncool-ly excited when you comment.

So if you’ve been visiting Love and a Licked Spoon for a while, thank you. You’re all angels at my table. And if you’re visiting because you read about my blog in Psychologies, thank you too. I hope you’ll stick around, join in and swap some food stories of your own.

Love and a licked spoon,

Debora x

Psychologies text

Monday, 5 April 2010

Wayward tarts. It’s not you, it’s me.


Look, I tried my best. I’m sure it was my fault. Two days of fizz-fuelled festivities blunted my baking arm. I’d promised Lady de B two tarts for Easter Sunday lunch, Blood orange meringue pie and Black bottom pie from Lindsey Remolif Shere’s Chez Panisse Desserts so I got up at 6.30am on Sunday to make good on my promise.

Can I start by saying I love this book? Many a summer evening has ended with scoops of its Beaumes-de-venise ice cream melting alongside slices of apricot tart. In autumn and winter, its apple crisp or espresso cognac mousse are to be found on my table almost as often as salt and pepper. But I just couldn’t get my tarts to behave. The blind-baked tart shells cracked like river beds in a drought, requiring patching, cursing and coaxing into usefulness. I struggled on. They were fine but not the perfection I was seeking.

But no matter. I was playing to the home crowd, those most likely to forgive my failings. Besides, after a feast of Lady de B’s homemade gravadlax with mustard sauce, barbecued shoulders of lamb, cheese and salad, the tarts vanished quickly enough so they can’t have been too horrible.

DSCN1498 Barney and Patrick play in the garden.

DSCN1413 So many glasses, so little time…

DSCN1405 Richard made collages of parties past and laminated
them into placemats.

DSCN1529 Tucking in.

DSCN1479 Lady de B’s home-cured gravadlax with mustard sauce
and cucumber salad

DSCN1507 Barbecued shoulder of lamb with roast potatoes and
cauliflower gratin

DSCN1514 I think Kim and Steve raided a particularly fine French restaurant to come up with all of these fabulous cheeses.

DSCN1532 The smell of the cheese brings Patrick to the table.

DSCN1556 Wayward tart No. 1: Blood orange meringue pie

DSCN1561 Wayward tart No. 2: Black bottom pie

DSCN1612 Naughty Claudia feeds Barney at the table.

Chez Panisse blood orange curd


What was delicious and easy was the blood orange curd I used to fill the meringue pie so at least I can offer you that. I’ll try the tarts again and post them later.

Makes about 1 ½ cups

2 blood oranges (about 275g/10oz)
1 tbsp lemon juice
¼ tsp cornstarch/flour
¼ cup/55g caster sugar
1 egg
4 egg yolks
6 tbsp/85g unsalted butter

Wash the oranges and finely grate the zest into a non- corroding bowl. Juice the oranges, strain 7tbsp of the juice into the bowl, and add the lemon juice. Mix the cornstarch/flour and the sugar – this prevents lumps from forming when it’s mixed with the eggs. You may omit the cornstarch/flour unless you are filling a tart that you want to brown. Put the egg and yolks in a small, non-corroding saucepan and whisk the sugar-cornstarch/flour mixture into them. Stir in the juice and zest mixture. Don’t be alarmed if it seems to curdle; it will smooth out later. Cut the butter into several pieces and add to the mixture.

Cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon as for crème anglaise. Remove from the heat and stir for a minute or two until the heat of the pan dissipates so the custard won’t curdle on the bottom. Pour into a small container and chill.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

And the winner is…


Well, what a delight it has been to read all of your replies to my Canteen: Great British Food competition. A real British banquet. Roasts featured heavily – beef, pork and chicken. There were puddings of all kinds - from Yorkshire (with and without ‘toad’) to shepherds’, bread and butter, sticky toffee and summer ones, pasties, fish and chips and Cromer crab, Anglesey eggs and omelette Arnold Bennett. A real yah boo sucks to those who say we have no real food culture.

I loved Kath’s thrifty description of a roast beef feast which transformed itself into dripping on toast, bubble and squeak, stock then doggy treats. So Kath, I have a nice runner up prize for you, a lucky dip from my cookbook collection.

But then Alex T  stormed in with his trippyfabulous banquet of egg and cress sandwiches, sausage rolls and Texan bars and a fondly remembered family lunch of steak and kidney pie, peas and Jersey Royals followed by strawberries with condensed milk and sugar. Any man who, in a delirious state, imagines himself to be a sausage sandwich, deserves a treat. So Alex T, this one’s for you.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Happy Easter!

Hot cross buns & butter

On Wednesday, I put in my last shift as acting food editor at Waitrose Kitchen (née Food Illustrated). These darling, brilliant and generous people have given me a desk to call my own (when William wasn’t trying to colonise it with his flashy second computer, laundry, proofs, books, bicycle helmet, adoring fan mail) two days a week for the past six months. It’s kept me off the streets and out of trouble during one of the coldest winters on record and for that I’m grateful. But more than that, they made me laugh twenty times a day, encircled me in their breathtakingly talented, enchantingly co-dependent, enormously cheerful embrace and taught me vocabulary that I may find difficult to transfer to any other workplace. I loved every second.

This is a big thing for me. I like my life of walking the dog then coming home to cook a bit, write a bit, my routine only disrupted by having to pitch up at the odd photo shoot to fiddle with a reluctant radish or coax a pig’s trotter into close-up ready deliciousness. I don’t really like offices, but I grew to love the pod and its inhabitants.

The kitchen fireplace

So Thursday was a bit funny really. It felt good to have my life back but a little sad too. Nothing banishes melancholy like baking, so I lit the fire in the kitchen and busied myself with a batch of hot cross buns. Outside, thunder rumbled and lightening crackled across the north London sky. Inside, I mixed and kneaded and shaped the dough into fat little buns as the rain ran in rivulets down the kitchen’s glass roof. I piped wobbly flour-and-water crosses on their tops. The house filled with the smell of spices and sugar and orange zest and I felt happy.

Dan’s hot cross buns

Dan's hot cross buns

This recipe comes from my lovely, floury friend, Daniel Stevens. Until recently, he was the baker at River Cottage and his book, River Cottage Handbook No.3 Bread, is my favourite go-to guide to all things doughy. Dan’s recipe makes eight, which seemed a little modest to me (believe me, I can pretty much eat that many myself) so I doubled the quantities.

Well, I should have listened to Dan, as always. The dough bulged and undulated over the top of my KitchenAid, struggling for freedom. So I took it out and kneaded it by hand. I’m giving you Dan’s recipe for eight here. It doubles up brilliantly, but be prepared to hand-knead it if you do. Or to spend your Easter weekend picking gunk out of the head of your mixer.

Mixer ambition  Annoying over ambition, in dough form.

250g strong white bread flour, plus extra for kneading
250g plain white flour
125ml warm water
125ml warm milk
5g powdered dried yeast (easy blend type)
10g salt
1- 1 1/2 tsp ground, mixed spice
50g caster sugar
1 medium free-range egg
50g butter, softened
100g raisins, currants or sultanas, or a mixture including some candied peel
Finely grated zest of half an orange

For the crosses:
60g plain white flour
100ml water

To finish:
1 tbsp apricot or other jam
1 tbsp water

If you have a food mixer, combine the flours, water, milk, yeast, salt, mixed spice and sugar in h bowl ad fit the dough hook. Add the egg and butter and mix to a sticky dough. Now add the dried fruit and orange zest and knead on a slow speed until silky and smooth. You can do this by hand, but the dough will be sticky to handle. Put the dough in a warm, lightly oiled bowl, cover and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.


Knock back the risen dough and divide into eight equal pieces (they’ll weigh about 120g each). Shape into rounds and dust with flour. Place on a floured board, cover with plastic or linen and leave to prove for half an hour or until doubled in size.

Ready for the oven

All crossed...

While they’re rising, preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6. To make the crosses, whisk together the flour and water until smooth, then transfer to a plastic food bag and snip off the corner. Transfer the risen buns to a baking sheet and pipe a cross on top of each one. Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the jam with the water in the pan. Sieve, then brush over the buns to glaze as soon as you take them from the oven. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm, cold or toasted, but always with lots of butter.

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