30 November 2009

into the light

Every November I go along to a service to remember the dead. Not many people turn up, though I know many of the older people who do attend, parents of people I was at primary school with, staunchly loyal church attenders, people who have been associated with this church on the edge of the city for generations, including my own extended family. During the service, the family names of the dead are read out and people go up one by one to light a candle for them. It is a gently moving and intimate affair, especially when you can remember the time when the people whose names are called used to light candles themselves. Turn round as you make your way out and you can see the candles twinkling away in the chilly building. It's all rather uplifting, in spite of the gloominess and rain outside.

So we segue into December. Advent calendar tomorrow?

29 November 2009

what goes around

I had made a commitment to make a couple of cakes for a fund raising event today and searched in vain for inspiration, something that has been absent from my kitchen recently. Then I came across the recipe - and provenance - for Knit Nurse's Granny's Fruit Cake. It was just the ticket.

The sharing of recipes, patterns, thoughts and knowledge that send you off to try, see, think or read something is wonderful thing.. And a positive comment or follow up from someone who has been inspired by something you have posted is a foot stomping pleasure. (The picture that J sent me of her Apple Cake in the oven is still making me smile)

So I'm passing on thanks here for the recipe, from me and and the mystery person who won one of the cakes in the raffle. And when I make it again and someone tells me what a fine cake it is I'll be able to pass on the recipe too.

26 November 2009

last knockings

It has been unseasonably mild in London for the past few weeks. Only a couple of days ago I saw these climbing over the wall of a garden facing onto Mile End Road. Yesterday I saw acanthus flowering in garden facing onto the Thames. And today John brought home the last of the hollyhocks from one of his gardens. Rather unsettling for late November.

Meanwhile, in our own backyard, there was a bit of a bee thing going on ...

I made it for the East End WI bee-themed AGM last week (possibly an indication of a woman with too much time on her hands). Now, my preference in aprons is normally inclined towards the Quaker end of the market, plain and workaday. However, once I embarked on this apron, it began to develop a life of its own. Working without a pattern, I found that the head of the bee was a little too large and floppy. The addition of some interfacing and darts had the effect of adding a corsetry effect that one of my friends described as somewhat burlesque. And the bee-eyes seemed to develop that weird hypnotic trick of following you around, all seeing, all knowing.

I hear the weather is going to chill down a bit, which is probably just as well.

25 November 2009


Tempting though it is to keep the remnants of last year's spices, if you want your cakes and puddings to excel, you have to sacrifice parsimony and refresh the spice box. So I checked the necessary ingredients, made my list, and visited a cash and carry under the railway arches to stock up. These modern fluorescent emporia are stacked high with variously sized packs and sacks of rice, pulses, nuts and spices, . You have to weave your way through aisles of unfamiliar labels (I should have been asking for jaipal instead of nutmeg) and be very disciplined not to leave with giant packs of exotic ingredients.

Back home we set to pounding cloves and cardamom for the pudding, surely one of the most physically satisfying and sensuously fulfilling of jobs. Even my boy remarked on the scent of oranges and spices filling the house. Unfortunately he was unable to throw any light on the whereabouts of the brandy we bought for steeping the fruit.

The remains of the cloves were stuck into an orange, insufficient for a full pomander, but enough for me to sit here and hold it close enough to smell winter indoors while I listen to the rolling boil of the pudding being steamed. More of which later.

15 November 2009

better late

We finally got round to planting our hyacinths. Probably too late to have flowers by Christmas though.

Better get started on the pudding and cake then

10 November 2009

precautionary principles

One of the best things about autumn is the abundance of vegetables. We are still eating self-sown rocket and mizuna from the plot, and a smattering of container grown red oak leaf from the back garden. Added to these there are the pleasures of more substantial roots and leaves - beetroot, chard, potatoes, leeks.

We dug up our first leeks this weekend to make a smooth and comforting leek and potato soup, pleased that, despite a nasty attack of voracious leek moths, at least some leeks have survived. I need to do something about those moths next year - last year we lost the whole crop. Pheromone traps, perhaps (any advice gratefully received).

I guess it's just as well that we have survived ourselves. We had a note from the Contaminated Land Officer this week to tell us that the historical use of the allotments was for dock dredgings, which pretty much explains why the so-called soil is so awful. As a ship's rigger's driver's daughter, I rather like the idea of gardening on dock dirt. However, according to the venerable CLO, the soil samples indicate "small numbers of contaminants thought to pose low level risk". Her advice is that we should scrub veg before eating, keep children away from playing with the soil, wear gloves, rinse tools, try and cut down on the amount of soil and dust brought into the house from the allotments.

I'll try my best. I can guarantee the first "to do" on her list: enjoy the allotments. Caution thrown to the wind or otherwise.

09 November 2009

felix's apple cake

One of my former work colleagues gave me the recipe for this apple cake at the end of September on the day I finished work and I have just got round to making it. He told me he had been on the hunt for the perfect apple cake and this version, based on a dutch recipe substituting oil for butter, was very near the mark. If, like me, you have a fondness for apples, prefer your cakes to have a fruity-verging-on-tart bite, and don't expect them to be picture perfect, then this may well be your kind of cake.

The recipe suggests that this serves four - in which case the Dutch have a greater capacity than we do. I have biked some over to my mum for her and my aunt to have with a cup of tea, and wrapped some for John to have with his morning coffee at work. We had it for pudding yesterday and tonight, and I sneaked slivers of it before bed, and there is still more than a quarter left. Perhaps I just managed to use some magic apples.

08 November 2009

rosemary and other cemetery flowers

We walked in Tower Hamlets Cemetery this afternoon. It's the place we used to collect our seasonal ivy to deck the halls, much of which has been tidied by enthusiastic volunteers. It's still pretty ramshackle and wild in places. The crows were making a racket and every now and then I could hear the tapping of what sounded to me like a woodpecker. At the bottom of the War Memorial, below today's poppy wreaths, someone has planted a few rosemary plants, for remembrance, straggly and struggling a bit, but still managing to flower.

We found some more flowers. Some seasonal, like this autumn crocus.

And others looking slightly out of place this time of year. Like this cranesbill ( I think that's what it is).

And ragged robin?

Then the remains of a dandelion clock.

Enough said.

05 November 2009


I foolishly chose to go shopping in Oxford Street on the day that the Christmas lights were switched on. That meant that the tube station was closed and I had to walk to the next one. But that was so crowded that I decided to walk on to Holborn. Then Chancery Lane. And when I had got that far, I was in the swing of the walk and thought I might as well carry on because it was such a lovely evening, cool rather than balmy, with a full moon and, of course, all lit up. Along High Holborn, past St Andrew Holborn and Old Bailey, and over the viaduct.

The first glimpse of St Paul's appeared at the end of an alley.

Then into Cheapside, past St Vedast, Foster Lane with its list of old churches incorporated into the parish, and St Mary le Bow.

The city is quieter at this time of night, less traffic, people standing outside pubs or making their way home, then an entrance to the tube on the corner of that other city temple (this link gives an interesting explanation of the name of the street, not for the faint hearted.)

At which point I disappeared underground to get home a little more quickly.

Fireworks tonight

Added later: If you have never seen skylanterns floating away in the wind - which tonight was off towards the low-in-the-sky moon in the east - then try them sometime. Absolutely magical.

04 November 2009


Look, look look! This is genuine Isle of Dogs honey. The hives are kept on the roof of the school where John gardens. Just think - the nectar for this honey may have been collected from his hollyhocks or sedum or knautia or verbascum or mullein or sunflowers or yucca flowers. Or maybe they even got as far as our allotment on the other side of Millwall Park. And let me tell you, this honey tastes very special indeed, not overly sweet, slightly minty to start with, then a richer flavour that I can only think is the result of the variety of flowers those bees have visited. Too good to cook with, it will have to be eaten with something very plain in order to appreciate it, maybe just straight from the spoon.

If you look closely, you'll see that the beekeeper is a Mr Mole (and he is a real person). You couldn't make this up if you tried.

03 November 2009


Seeing these two goats at Mudchute reminded me of conversations that my friend and I used to have about our favoured goats one winter in Cornwall. Those letters reminded me of those conversations when she used to slyly ask me what goat I would keep if I could. She kept British Saanens (the white ones) - the wonderful Peonie, not the prettiest goat but a great milker; her daughter Pipkin, just like her mum; and the divine Strawberrie, the prettiest goat, beautiful conformation, neat little udder, frequent winner of best in show at the then Cornwall Dairy Goatkeepers Association. We used to take the goats out for walks over "the dumps", the area of mine wasteland up on the slopes behind the goatshed, she leading the way (very important that she established her authority apparently) , occasionally showing her superior knowledge of poisonous vegetation to her kidlings by spitting on it and stamping an angry foot. I don't think anyone other than me and the goats witnessed these demonstrations. Fortunately.

The goatkeepers of Cornwall were a lovely lot. Some of them lived on remote farms up in the misty wet hills with granitey fields, perfect for goats to caper on. My friend used to take her girls off in the back of a landrover to be mated with the hardy, bearded boys of good breeding. (The tough little Freelands Caesar 's line of descendants is probably longer than that of Abraham.) These goatkeepers did know how to party - any wine contributed at the annual Christmas party, home made or other, was put in the punch. It was strong stuff. And the raffle prizes were very desirable - a bale of hay, a giant pumpkin, a giant bunch of root vegetables. I won the pumpkin.

There is very little opportunity to use my scant knowledge of udder cream and goaty conformation to profitable use these days. But when I see the Mudchute goats, I still rather fancy having a little Anglo-Nubian (the one on the left in the picture, smiling for the camera), for these were the goats I fancied most, with Toggenbergs a close second. I don't think my friend ever quite forgave me for the betrayal.

02 November 2009

beetroot splash

If I have mentioned before how much I love beetroot soup I make no apologies. The first borscht of the season marks the change from the late warmth of October with its outdoor golds and rusty leaves to the warmth of the kitchen. The contrast between the sweetness of the beetroot and the sharpness of the vinegar; the wonderful dark red colour that I can never quite reproduce; the knowledge that it's made from my own beetroots and home-made stock; the simplicity of the recipe; and the fact that this is John's speciality so I can just sit, watch and dip in some wheat-rye bread at my leisure. All this converges to give beetroot perfection.

The recipe is from Cranks Recipe Book, a very battered version in this case.

Onion (1 med); potato (small); beetroot (1lb/450g raw, though I used cooked); butter (1oz /25g- we use olive oil instead); stock (2 pints/1.2 l); cider vinegar (3tbsp/ 45ml); marmite (1tsp/5ml); salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste; soured cream or yoghurt, and parsley to garnish.
Saute onion, add other veg then stock. Bring to boil then simmer for half an hour. Blend. Serve.

This is the food of the kitchen gods, I swear.

01 November 2009

letters, liberty and smoke in the lanes

I've spent some time looking back this week, for various reasons. My oldest friend came round with a packet of letters she had found in her loft, written by me to her, and spanning some 35 years of our friendship. Some of the letters went back to my first year at university (one made me cry), others covered the time when I was traveling the land a truant girl chasing smoke in the lanes. Here I am with the truant boy a few months after we set off, me in my Liberty print dress.

Those letters tell the story of the animals we had, the kindness of strangers, selling cabbages and holly wreaths from our horse drawn cart, cooking on an open fire and how snug it was inside with the oil lamps lit and the Queen stove burning, how we made and sold clothes pegs for 20p a dozen, how useless I was at calling at houses for scrap metal and rags, buying my rooster shaped tea pot and new china bowl. The letters documented adventures as well as anxieties about making our way up country again through unknown places. I'd remembered the happy times more than the worries.

Only a few material things remain - the letters, some photos, the tea pot and bowl, this Liberty print dress and another one I sewed by hand. If you are quick you can hear me talking about it, very briefly, on last Thursday's Woman's Hour (about 10 minutes into the programme, just after Justine Picardie talking about Coco Chanel.) My 15 seconds of fame.