Wednesday, 30 January 2013

How Does Your Garden Grow?


I feel very lucky to spend my life around cooks and gardeners. They’re givers. Eat! Grow! Look! Try! Spend a few minutes in their company and it’s almost impossible not to come away with a recipe, a tip, a cookie or a cutting.

I thought about this the other day when a fat brown envelope dropped onto the mat from Ben Ranyard. It was filled with packets of seeds and a note which began, ‘You won’t need all of these seeds – you will have some left to give away.’

Ben runs Higgledy Garden, a mail order seed and cut flower company in Cornwall. British flowers never had a better friend. He grows them without harmful chemicals and with an enormous amount of joy.

I got to know Ben, his flowers and his terrible jokes on Twitter where he tweets as @higgledygarden. He’s given me great advice as well as quite a few laughs over the past year so if you like flowers and you like laughing, you might think about following him. He also writes an inspiring blog, the kind which makes you want to rush out into the garden and grub about.

Spring and grubbing about feels like a long time off right now, but these packets of seeds help to remind me that it’s coming. Ben signed off his letter ‘Thin all seedlings to about a foot…and life will be sweet.’ I believe it.

What I’m Growing This Spring:

This is the selection Ben sent me, with instructions that the cornflowers, calendula, sunflowers and malope are edible, so with any luck my garden will taste as good as it looks.

Calendula ‘Art shades’
Black and blue cornflowers
Vanilla ice sunflowers
Malope trifidia ‘Vulcan’
Rudbeckia ‘Marmalade’

Monday, 28 January 2013

Come To Lunch, Bring Your Slippers


Last Saturday night, as I roasted and whisked and rolled, I wondered if it all might be in vain. I was prepping for a Sunday lunch which might never happen. I dusted the counter with flour to roll out the pastry as snow fell heavily on the kitchen’s glass roof. The cats shot through the catflap and threw themselves in front of the fire where they meticulously licked fat flakes from their whiskers and paws.

Lunch the next day was to welcome home four of our closest friends, Vanessa and James from Cambodia and Richard and Stuart from Australia. Their planes were due to arrive at Heathrow between five and six on Sunday morning. It seemed a good idea, on Boxing Day, when we discussed getting together for a jet-lag-deferring Sunday lunch. But now every news bulletin came with dire updates about runways being closed. Newspapers screamed about ‘Snowmageddon’. Perhaps it would just be Séan and I, tucking into that rolled shoulder of pork and rhubarb and custard tart?

But planes landed. Guests came. Radiators were draped with lightly steaming mittens and scarves. Pegs struggled under the weight of damp wool and fat down coats. Boots lay in a heap in the hall. They’d all brought their slippers. I like that. I like having a house where people pad about in their slippers. It’s what makes it home.*



Snow soufflés rise from plant pots.


Frosted magnolia.


A present from Cambodia. Silk, peppercorns, peanut brittle, a little aluminium coffee filter and ground coffee which smells so deliciously of chocolate, I want to rub my face in it.


*Or perhaps a prelude to The Home, where I hope we’ll all end up one day, surviving on soup, show tunes, gin and gossip, cheating at cards and fighting over the best lounger on the terrace.


Rhubarb and Custard Tart


Back in 2008, on the very first shoot I did for River Cottage, we made this pretty, and pretty delicious tart . I’ve made it quite often since and I’ve tinkered with it slightly, adding some orange zest to the pastry and cramming in even more rhubarb, because you really can’t have too much of a good thing.

For the pastry:

225g plain flour, plus a little more for dusting the tin
110g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing the tin
110g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
A few gratings of orange zest
Pinch of salt
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten

For the filling:

800g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 5cm pieces
Zest of 1 small orange
Juice of half an orange
3 tbsp caster (or vanilla) sugar
1 vanilla pod, split and cut in half

For the custard:

250ml double cream
1 vanilla pod, split
5 large egg yolks
2-3 tbsp caster (or vanilla) sugar


Sorry this picture is a bit rubbish. Snapped it on my phone just as I took the tart out of the oven and I forgot to take a new one the next morning, but it gives you an idea of the fruity, vanilla-y goodness.

First, make the pastry. Lightly greasy a 28cm, loose-bottomed flan tin, dust it with flour and tap out the excess. Sift the flour into a bowl and rub in the butter with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Whisk in the sugar, zest and salt with a fork. Add the egg yolks and mix with a knife until the dough comes together. Knead very gently and quickly into a round, smooth disc. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate while you prepare everything else.

While the pastry is resting, roast the rhubarb. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6. In a roasting tin, mix the rhubarb, zest, juice, sugar and vanilla, then bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until soft and slightly caramelised. Cool, strain off the juices (save it to pour over greek yoghurt – so good) and remove the vanilla. You can rinse and dry the vanilla pod and use it in the custard if you like. Thrifty.

While the rhubarb is cooling, line the tart tin. On a lightly floured surface (or between two sheets of baking parchment or cling film), roll out the pastry and line the baking tin, letting the excess pastry hang over the side. Refrigerate again for 15 minutes or so.

Reduce the temperature to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.

Line the tart tin with several layers of cling film, leaving plenty hanging over the side. Fill generously with baking beans or uncooked pulses or rice. Bring the excess cling film over the top to make a sort of blind baking ‘pad’. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes. Remove from the oven, take out the ‘pad’ and prick the pastry all over with the tines of a fork. Brush lightly with egg wash (steal a little of the egg yolk from the custard and whisk with a splash of water or milk) and return to the oven for about 8-10 minutes, until the case is golden and completely cooked through. Remove from the oven and trim off the excess pastry with a small, sharp knife.

Reduce the oven temperature to 130°C/250°F/gas mark ½.

Make the custard. Pour the cream and split vanilla pod into a pan and heat until the cream is just scalded. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar, then pour into the cream, whisking to combine. Pour through a fine sieve into a jug. Scrape the seeds out of the pod and into the custard.

Spoon the rhubarb into the pastry shell and pour over the custard until it's about 5mm from the top. Bake on a tray for 30-40 minutes, until the custard is just set but not too firm – it should still have a little wobble to it. Serve cold.


Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A Gentle Stroll into the New Year



The soft pink light of morning.

The first week of January and I haven’t cooked very much. This is partly due to annoying tendonitis in my elbow which makes lifting things and chopping things painful. I have decided to call it TenderIsTheNightis, a RSI-type injury caused by lifting too many flutes of champagne. This makes my suffering seem a little more thrilling and glamorous.

In place of cooking, I’ve been sitting by the fire in my mother’s study drinking coffee and reading thrillers, occasionally prodding the dog with my toe to make sure he is still alive. He scarcely moves more than a foot or two from the hearth.

Barney - Fire

‘The heartbeat at my feet.’

Before the fire is lit each morning, I manage to lure him outside to the Bishop’s Park. On New Year’s Day, the light was soft and pink, the sun low in the sky. We wandered through the Scots pines and the Wellingtonia. I threw a few sticks. Barney brought them back. A lot of my childhood was spent in this park – picnics in summer, whizzing down the terrifying snowy slopes on our blue sledge in winter. Fifteen years ago, Sean and I got married in the chapel here.


St Peter’s Chapel, Auckland Castle


The clock tower at the entrance to the park.


The River Gaunless snakes through the park.




The Deer House, built by Bishop Trevor in the Eighteenth Century.


Golden box, bright as Christmas baubles, over the grey crenelations of the castle walls.

One of my favourite activities in the world, to be indulged whenever the opportunity presents itself, is to visit a country auction. Addisons - a proper country auctioneer and valuer in Barnard Castle - always has an auction on the first Thursday of the new year, which is very considerate of them as I’m usually up here then.


This morning we went to the viewing. The hall was full of the merry bustle of people relieved to be out of the house and back into their old, comforting routines. ‘Too long, too long a break John,’ explained one man to another. A young chap in a khaki jacket with a skull and crossbones appliqued on the back slowly examined a long and ferocious Indian sword. A woman in a neat red coat and careful coiffure trawled through a cardboard box of treen. Two elderly men in leather pastie shoes and Christmas scarves rustled around in cardboard suitcases of model railway bits and pieces, eyeing each other not entirely benignly. ‘Happy New Year to you’ ‘All the best!’ they said, nonetheless.





If you know me at all you know I love a bargain, and auctions outside of London are often much cheaper than my usual city stamping grounds. Apart from anything with a dog, a pig, a horse or a fox on it. Then you can expect to pay top whack.


It’s not all foxes and cows and herd books …


Please don’t bid on any of my lots, there’s a love.

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