Thursday 10 October 2013

Make yourself a merry little Christmas…

2013-06-09 15.10.34

Join me at my house for a cup of tea, a glass of wine, a slice of cake and a little light crafting and cooking. I’ll show you how to make some simple and irresistible Christmas presents, such as marigold soap and rose milk bath, scented sugars, pine cone firelighters, seedy crackers and chilli vodka. I’ll also demonstrate some easy decorations like dried orange and pine cone garlands, so your home smells as good as it looks this Christmas.

WHEN? NOVEMBER 9  - Sold Out
      or NOVEMBER 30 – Sold Out  

HOW MUCH? £30, includes refreshments and a copy of my book, Gifts from the Garden: 100 Gorgeous Homegrown Presents
You can book from the PayPal link in the right hand column, or email me for further details.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

A taste of figs



A box of figs, £3.49.

When we went to the Turkish Food Centre on Sunday I bought a whole case of figs for £3.49. They were sticky and ripe, the kind you can eat greedily with the skin on, spitting out only the stalk. I think there’s something a little revolting, life-denying, about peeling figs. They look so raw and unappealing, like dead baby mice.

Of course, when you’re buying them as ripe as this you need to use them within a day or so. I like them with yoghurt for breakfast or cooked on the griddle with some slices of halloumi and a trickle of honey, maybe a few slivers of toasted almonds. But there are a lot of them in a box.


Figgy lunch, with halloumi , almonds, thyme, olive oil and honey.

I’ve wanted to try making a fig liqueur since Séan and I were offered sticky little glasses of the stuff to round off dinner at one of our favourite local restaurants, the almost painfully charming and invariably delicious Oui Madame! on Stoke Newington High Street.

I’m not sure if what we tried was Figoun, the Provençal fig liqueur made from red wine, figs, vanilla, angelica, oranges and tangerine among other, secret ingredients, but I thought I’d try combining figs, vanilla sugar, orange zest, red wine and a slug of cognac and see how I get on.

I think it should be quite good by Christmas, even better by next Christmas. If you’d like to try it, I’m giving you the recipe I’ve used here but of course it’s something of a leap of faith. I’ve never made this before. I’ve no idea if it will work, but if it does won’t we all be enormously pleased with ourselves on Christmas Day?

Fig Liqueur


This lovely illustration is by my Twitter friend, artist Anna Koska (@gremkoska). Do take a look at her website here.

[Copyright: Anna Koska]

When you’re buying figs, especially if you’re buying them by the box, lift them out of their pretty paper cases and inspect them for mould – the mortal enemy of figs everywhere. One mouldy fig will turn the rest very quickly indeed.

Should make about 1.5 litres. We’ll see.

600g figs
225g caster sugar or vanilla sugar, I used vanilla sugar
1 strip of orange peel, pared with a very sharp vegetable peeler, any white pith removed
1 bottle fruity red wine, plus a bit, enough to almost fill the jar
100ml cognac
You’ll need 1x2l cold, sterilised jar and some cold, sterilised bottles to decant the liqueur into


Cut figs…


Macerating in sugar…


Add the wine and cognac.

Wash the figs, trim off the hard stem and cut into eighths. Place some in the bottom of the jar and scatter some of the sugar on top. Continue layering fruit and sugar until you’ve used them all up. Seal the jar and put in a cool place for 2-3 days, turning it every day until the sugar has dissolved.

Add the orange zest. Pour in the wine and cognac. Seal and store the liqueur in a cool, dark place for a couple of months, shaking the jar every week or so. Strain through a sieve and then strain again through a sieve lined in muslin. Pour into cold, sterilised bottles and seal. Ideally, leave it for a month or so before drinking.

Monday 16 September 2013

Quick slow lamb


In anticipation of the chives going underground for winter, I’m throwing handfuls of them into almost everything.

On our way home from Columbia Road Flower Market yesterday we stopped off at the Turkish Food Centre at the end of Ridley Road market. We bought halloumi, feta, a box of figs, oranges and lamb and loaded them into the back of the car with the bunches of Chinese lanterns and hydrangeas.
I went into the garden to pick out seasonings for the lamb. At this time of year, I use even more soft herbs than usual – fistfuls rather than handfuls – anticipating their vanishing underground until next spring. I cut some lovage, thyme, bay leaves, chives and a couple of mild chillies.

In the cool, grey light of the kitchen, I set about cooking the lamb, mostly from instinct and driven by the news that a storm was coming. The height of my ambition for Sunday afternoon was to sit on the sofa, fire lit, telly on, dog at my feet, eating something cosy from a tray. In the end, we ate it at the kitchen counter. My husband is a civilising influence.

End-of–the-garden lamb shank casserole

This past year, largely because of my friend Catherine Phipps’ The Pressure Cooker Cookbook, I have learned to love the pressure cooker. For an impatient person like me, its greatest draw is that it cuts the cooking time of recipes like these lamb shanks from a few hours to 30 minutes. I’ve given timings for making this in a normal casserole too, but I urge you to give pressure cooking a go.


2-3 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
3 carrots, 1 diced and the other two cut into thick chunks
1 stalk of lovage, diced (reserve the leaves for later), or 1 small stick of celery, diced
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 mild chillies, membrane and seeds removed, diced, or a good pinch of chilli flakes to taste
1 tbsp flour
4 lamb shanks, 4 pieces of lamb neck cut from the middle
About 250ml red wine
1 tbsp concentrated tomato purée
600ml chicken, beef or vegetable stock
1x400ml tin chopped plum tomatoes
100g pearl barley, rinsed, or you could add a drained, rinsed tin of chickpeas if you like
Bunch of chives, finely chopped
Bunch of parsley, tough stalks removed and finely chopped
Some dill’s nice too, if you have it
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper


Seasoned lamb shanks and neck.

Warm a tablespoon of the oil in a heavy-bottomed casserole or a pressure cooker over a medium-low heat. Add the onions, bay leaf, thyme and a pinch of salt. Sauté gently until the onions are soft and translucent, stirring from time to time, about 15 minutes. Add the diced carrot, lovage or celery, garlic and chillies. Stir for another couple of minutes. Tip everything into a bowl and reserve.

Season the lamb with salt and pepper and dust lightly with the flour. Warm the rest of the oil over a medium-high heat and brown the lamb on all sides. Do this in batches so you don’t crowd the pan, removing the browned pieces to a plate as you go. When all of the lamb is browned, drain all but a tablespoon or two of the fat from the pan then deglaze it with the red wine, scraping up any bits which have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Simmer until the wine is reduced by half then stir in the tomato puree, tinned tomatoes and stock. Add the reserved vegetables and barley or chickpeas and simmer everything together for 5 minutes. Add the lamb with any juices from the plate, season with salt and pepper and stir.

If you are using a pressure cooker, put the lid on the pan, seal and bring up to full pressure. Reduce the heat slightly and cook for 30 minutes. Vent immediately. Add the carrots, seal and bring up to full pressure; cook for 2 minutes and vent immediately.

If you’re cooking the lamb in the oven, cover the casserole tightly with foil, put the lid on and cook in a 160°C/325°F/Gas 3 oven for 2 hours. Remove from the oven and add the carrots. Return to the oven for a further 30-40 minutes, until everything is very tender.
Stir in the chopped herbs (add some chopped lovage leaves or celery leaves if you have them), adjust seasoning if necessary and serve with plain boiled rice or potatoes, sprinkled with a few more herbs.


Friday 13 September 2013

A Sweet Consolation Prize


Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

Albert Camus


A bowl of Bramleys from our tree.

Summer left like a well-mannered guest, slipping away quietly, without fuss. There are fewer dinners in the garden, sitting around into the night over the end of the cheese, picking at soft fruit and polishing off the last of the rosé. Washing takes longer to dry on the line. We reacquaint ourselves with the sock drawer after weeks of neglect. And then suddenly the greengrocers’ shelves are filled with figs, damsons, cobnuts and ruby-skinned pears.

Hello, autumn. We’ve been expecting you.

If I plunged my hand into a bag of favourite autumnal words, pulled out five, arranged them into an order and then created a recipe from that, this is what would happen.

Browned butter caramel apple cake


A slice of cake for breakfast.

I made this cake with the apples from our small, espaliered Bramley, which this year is doing everything in its power to make me love its twiggy self. It is so heavy with fruit it will keep us in pies, cakes, jellies and chutneys all winter.

Don’t be put off by the longish list of ingredients. You probably have most of them hanging about anyway.


Browned butter caramel apple cake. I think I love you.

For the cake:
250g unsalted butter, cubed, plus a little more for greasing the tin
200g plain flour
50g ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
100g light muscovado sugar
100g caster sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp cognac, cider brandy or calvados (optional but good, obviously)
About 3 cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks, about 300g prepared weight

For the caramel sauce:
120g unsalted butter
120g light muscovado sugar
60ml whole milk
Good pinch of flaky sea salt

Preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3. Lightly butter a 22cm springform cake tin, line the bottom and sides with baking parchment and lightly butter the parchment.

Warm the butter in a medium-sized saucepan over a medium heat (a stainless steel pan is better than a dark-bottomed one as it’s easier to see how brown the butter is getting). The butter is ready when it’s a rich shade of hazelnut brown and it smells nutty and delicious. Pour it into a bowl to cool.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, almonds, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.

When the butter is cool, tip it into the bowl of a stand mixer with the sugars and beat until creamy and light, about 5 minutes. With the motor still running, slowly pour in the eggs, pausing from time to time to make sure everything’s well incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and booze, if you’re adding it. On a low speed, beat in the flour mixture being careful not to overmix.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and scatted the apple pieces evenly over the top. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Place the tin on a wire rack while you make the caramel sauce.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a medium heat. Whisk in the sugar, milk and salt. Keep stirring vigorously until everything blends into a smooth, silky sauce and simmer until thickened slightly. Pour half of the sauce over the cake, making sure it’s evenly distributed, and leave it for 10 minutes until it’s fully absorbed into the cake.

Remove the cake from the tin, peel off the parchment and put the cake on a plate. Pour over the remaining sauce and let it trickle down the sides. Leave the cake to cool completely then serve in fat slices with generous spoonfuls of crème fraiche, greek yoghurt, clotted cream or vanilla ice cream.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

A sweet good morning to you


We always buy too many croissants. I think it’s because whoever’s up first likes the idea of the little excursion to the bakery. But in reality, my father breakfasts frugally on an abstemious bowl of cereal, my sporty brother and sporty nephew like the protein hit of huge omelettes, I eat what I eat at home, yoghurt and fruit, Séan cruises what everyone else is having and picks out what he likes best. My mother dines luxuriantly on the worry that everybody has exactly what they want, that it’s not too hot, not too cold, that it’s just right.

So we often have croissants left over. This morning I made eggy bread, french toast, pain perdu, whatever you’d like to call it, from yesterday’s poor, overlooked specimens. This is so easy it’s barely a recipe, but it does make a very fine breakfast. On that at least we have an early-morning consensus.

Very french french toast


You could also add some vanilla if you like, or use lemon zest in place of the orange zest.

4 eggs
About 100ml cream and 200ml whole milk, or any combination of the two, or just milk
A few gratings of orange zest
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of salt
4 day-old croissants, halved
A few knobs of butter
Icing sugar, to dust, though I don’t have any here so I didn’t.
Maple syrup or jam, to serve

Whisk together the eggs, milk, cream, zest, cinnamon and salt in a wide, low dish. Put the croissants into the custardy mixture, cut-side down, for about 10 minutes.

Turn over and leave to soak for another 5 minutes. Warm the butter in a large, non-stick frying pan over a medium heat. Fry the croissants until golden, about 3 minutes per side.

Serve dusted with icing sugar (add a bit more cinnamon to the icing sugar if you like), with maple syrup or jam.




Tuesday 18 June 2013




A summer evening in the Languedoc.


in summer, the song sings itself
above the muffled words--


from The Botticellian Trees
William Carlos Williams

Friday 14 June 2013

One for the road



Browned butter biscuits

Tomorrow morning, Séan and I set off on our annual drive to the south west of France. That’s just the 16 marriage-enhancing hours, door to door. It’s a modern Kerouacian romp of shouting at the SatNav and arguing over whether the dog needs a wee.

Service stations are where whimsy goes to die, or at least to stock up on wiper blades and pallid chips, where low aspiration and low blood sugar meet, and weary, glazed eyes seek out sticky glazed doughnuts to fill the hungry gap between now and inevitable Type 2 diabetes. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t say ‘holiday’ to me.

Due to our (my) desire to be on holiday as soon as possible, we don’t stop much. We rely for sustenance on a hastily-scrabbled-together-at-dawn holiday picnic of egg-and-cress sandwiches, salt-and-vinegar crisps, fruit, perhaps some leftover pie or cake, sturdy biscuits which will withstand being rattled about in the car, bottles of water and a huge thermos of coffee.

Of course, some take en route sustenance very seriously indeed. You know when you get on a plane and your neighbour suddenly produces a linen napkin and a beautiful bento box filled with sushi? You never want to sit next to that person. They would be no use at all if there was An Incident. For example, if we were suddenly required in the cockpit to fly the plane, she would be unavailable to take instructions from air traffic control due to an urgent need to remove the wasabi stain from her three-ply dodo wool sweater.

I am a great believer in the redemptive power of the snack, but it doesn’t do to be too precious. Contrary to what many a modern calendar/mousemat/comedy mug/inspirational postcard might have you believe, sometimes it really is the destination not the journey.

Sturdy biscuits which will withstand being rattled about in the car

These are made from browned butter, which gives them a deliciously sweet and nutty flavour. They are a plainish biscuit, which is generally my preference. You can even leave out the rolling in sugar part if it offends your abstemious nature. They’re the sort of thing you can make when the cupboard’s practically bare and they last for ages in a tin. Perfect for a road trip. If you have one of them in your future this summer, you should try them.

Makes about 3 dozen

150g unsalted butter, cubed
1 tbsp vanilla extract
260g light muscovado sugar
1 tsp flaky sea salt
2 eggs, 1 separated
320g plain flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp baking powder
Golden caster sugar, for rolling


Roll them in sugar, or not.
It’s entirely up to you.

In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan melt the butter over a medium heat, stirring frequently, until the solids go a deep golden brown and it has a rich, sweet, nutty aroma - it really will smell delicious. This should take about 6-7 minutes. Hold your nerve. Immediately pour the butter into a medium-sized mixing bowl to cool and stir in the vanilla. Beat in the sugar until well combined and glossy. Beat in the whole egg and one egg yolk.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt. Gradually beat into the butter and sugar until you have a smooth, firm dough. Divide the dough in two. Roll each piece into a log about 5cm wide. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate until firm, at least an hour. At this point if you like, you can freeze one of the batches of dough.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and line some baking sheets with baking parchment. If you are rolling the biscuits in sugar, scatter and few tablespoonfuls onto a sheet of baking parchment. Lightly beat the remaining egg white with a teaspoon of cold water and brush the dough with the egg wash before rolling in the sugar. Slice the biscuits into 5mm rounds and place on the baking sheets – leave a minimum of 2cm between each biscuit as they spread out a bit.

Bake until firm and golden, about 15 minutes. Cool for a couple of minutes on the baking sheets before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. They will keep for about a week in an airtight tin.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Things to say and do


In the next few days, I’ll be making projects from my book, Gifts from the Garden, at various points across north and east London and I’d love it if you would join me. If you don’t it’ll just be me, weeping into my dried lavender over what might have been, like a demented, sherry-swigging old fool. And none of us want that.

So, tomorrow night do come to the verdant and lovely N1 Garden Centre at 6.30pm – not only can we get to know one another a little better, there’ll be that added delight of running about a shop when it’s closed.

If you can’t make that, I am running two events at my house this weekend as part of the fabulous StokeyLitFest. Come and sit in my kitchen, walk around my garden, eat nice things, come out smelling fragrant and wonderful. All that for four quid. That’s Saturday or Sunday at 3pm. I hope to see you then.

Monday 27 May 2013

A postcard from Chelsea, with love and cowparsley XXX



Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden for the Daily Telegraph. I loved this combination of clipped cubes of box and yew, and native plants wafting in the afternoon breeze.

If you were ever in any doubt that Chelsea is the world’s biggest flower show, the ticket touts scattered along the path between Sloane Square tube and Royal Hospital Road are enough to tell you that this is the hot ticket that marks the beginning of summer, even when the skies are leaden, the wind brisk.

Inside the grounds, smooth-skinned young men in striped blazers and panama hats rub shoulders with ladies in pac-a-macs up for the day, their sturdy bags packed at dawn with thermoses, mints, bottles of water, biscuits, hankies, notebooks, a selection of biros. Felix Baumgartener probably jumped from actual space with less preparation. They crowd along the rails, speaking of ‘wow factor’, sighing over favourite plants like you might a sleeping puppy, dodging camera crews and gathering free cotton tote bags with barely-concealed glee.

This year, the show’s hundredth, seemed a little quiet to me. Of course, we all collectively clutched our pearls at Jinny Blom’s B&Q garden for Prince Harry’s charity, Sentebole. We sighed over the elegant, meditative beauty of Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden for the Daily Telegraph and cooed at the traditional, pretty planting in Chris Beardshaw’s Arthritis Research UK garden. While I could admire the technical skill of the Best-in-Show Australian garden, it left me rather cold. The plants all looked a bit crammed in (I know they all are, they’re just not supposed to look it), like chorus girls vying for the role of headline act.

Hard surfaces, such as concrete and stone, and sculptural clipped shapes combined with the deliciously billowy waft of grasses and native plant species. Cowparsley, sweet cicely and other meadow-y delights were everywhere.

After the high-octane hoopla of the show gardens, the Great Pavilion is always terribly soothing. With its banks of flowers, pyramids of vegetables and bowler-hatted nurserymen, it feeds my terminal plant geekery. In these troubled times, just knowing that The Delphinium Society exists makes me happy.

I come home laden with catalogues and ideas, hastily scribbled plant lists and sore feet, desperate to get out into my own little garden to work out where I can cram in just a few more plants. It seems I really didn’t learn anything from the Australians, did I?


The Brewer Dolphin garden designed by Robert Myers. Clipped cushions of box surrounded by billowy native plants, such as wormwood, angelica, musk mallow and ravenswing cowparsley.


The ‘Sowing the Seeds of Change’ garden by Adam Frost for Homebase shows that the trend for combining the decorative with the edible continues to gain popularity. On the day I was there, visitors seemed to be really enjoying the posh potager look.



Jinny Blom’s planting somewhat overwhelmed by the hard structures in the B&Q Sentebale Garden.

And on into the Great Pavilion…


Robinson’s remarkable vegetable display.


A mountain of pelargoniums at the Fibrex stand.


Quite the bunch of tulips at the Blom’s Bulbs stand.


Delphiniums and begonias arranged like a floral army on the Blackmore and Langdon’s stand.


Amaryllis dangle high over our heads at the Warmenhoven stand.


Splendid tiers of well-behaved alliums at the Warmenhoven stand.


An explosion of allium Christophii at the Warmenhoven stand.


A window of clematis.



There’s something comfortingly old fashioned about these cushions of chrysanths.


W&S Lockyer’s auricula display. Note the bowler hat in front of the stand.


I love these orange geums. So cheering.


Always so very difficult to walk past the Hardy’s stand without ordering something.

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A little light, post-Chelsea reading.

Sunday 26 May 2013

I’ve Seen the Future, and It’s Bouffant



Chilli wreaths and courgette muffins at Divertimenti.

Yesterday, as part of the Chelsea Fringe, I demonstrated some of the projects from Gifts from the Garden at Divertimenti, the kitchenware shop of dreams on the Brompton Road.

My friend Julia came to help. Her presence is so soothing I always feel nothing bad could ever happen when I’m with her. And if it does, it’ll transform itself into an anecdote we’ll laugh about when we’re old ladies, sipping cold and alcoholic somethings on a porch. She’s from Chattanooga, which for some reason means I always picture us on a porch swing in the cool shade a clapboard house, even though in our ten years of friendship we’ve never even been south of the river together, let alone to Tennessee.


Julia and I, side by side, trying out the rose petal and sugar body scrub.


Pouring marigold and honey soap.


Making chive pesto.

The extent of my lofty aims for any public appearance is that people come, they take away something vaguely interesting, useful or edible, and I remember not to swear. Over the course of the morning, a chain of delightful Pamelas and Barbaras, Alexandras and Elizabeths, Emilys and Katies came through the door and ate courgette and ricotta muffins, crostini with chive and lemon pesto, watched me thread chillies onto wire to make edible wreaths and plant up colanders with herbs you could scatter on or in a pizza. They got me to sign books for their sisters, their mums, their best friends.

And then my future walked through the door. Or at least the future I aspire to in my wildest imaginings. A tiny old lady appeared at the demonstration table, her lips determinedly lipstick’d and her eyelashes enthusiastically mascara’d. A nimbus of backcombed hair quite doubled the size of her head. Her magnificent black coat was richly embroidered with flowers and leaves. She watched for a little while. She ate a spoonful of pesto. Then she fixed her clear blue eyes on me and said, ‘I have a cook. I am going to go home and ask my cook if she would like your book’. In that moment, it felt like the Brompton Road equivalent of a Pulitzer.


Planting up a pizza hanging basket in a colander


Making a chilli garland.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Cookbooks and Cake: A Winning Combination

A delicious way to celebrate Free Cakes for Kids Hackney’s hundredth cake. On Sunday afternoon, the sun shone, cakes arrived, shortly followed by people, a lot of people, who bought lots of cookbooks and ate heroic amounts of cake. Most impressive, most unstinting in this latter effort was my friend Lola’s husband who will now forever be known as Barry ‘Four Cakes’. Neighbours came. This being Stoke Newington, some of them came bearing gifts – a little tomato plant, some homemade smoked cheese. Strangers came and sat happily in the garden, chatting, flipping through their new books. My friend Julia made a NAAFI’s worth of tea and coffee. Séan washed up with characteristic cheerfulness. The hallway was full of bikes, pushchairs and scooters. In three hours, about a hundred people came through the door and helped us to raise a thousand pounds for Free Cakes for Kids Hackney. A THOUSAND POUNDS. That’s roughly twice as much as I hoped we might make and means a lot more birthday cakes for a lot more kids. Thank you to the many FCKH bakers who brought such beautiful cakes and to those of you who came and helped to make it such a happy, successful day. See you all again next year? DSCN8927
Julia makes yet another cup of coffee. DSCN8910
The dining room turns into a bookshop for a day.
Enjoying the precious sunshine. DSCN8946
The FCKH committee rocking their brand new tote bags.
My contribution – a lemon and blueberry layer cake, which I didn’t even get to taste. By the time I turned around, it was but crumbs.
Scones with clotted cream. I did try one of these and it was so good.

2013-05-20 19.22.31

A present from my neighbour, a little tomato plant. He also brought me this smoked cheese, below.

2013-05-20 19.32.55

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