26 September 2012

a significant birthday

I'm ashamed to say that I forgot to buy a birthday card, but I did remember to make a cake*. I think she liked it, though it did make her look like tiny.

She has to remind me every now and then that she is an old lady because sometimes I forget that too.

*appropriately, Knit Nurses Granny's Fruit cake, decorated with the help of a packet of pre-made icing.

24 September 2012


Bee gathering nectar on West Ham sunflower
We made a good decision to spend the weekend gathering in what we could while the sun shone.  I say "we", but I just watched while the spuds were dug up and gathered my thoughts about this year's successes and failures - the courgettes made it after all, but not a single pumpkin; kohlrabi the size of footballs, but cauliflower plantlets demolished by slugs; beans overtaking the world, but tomatoes wiped out by blight; market bought peppers pulling in to a strong finish, but only one tiny aubergine. 

Vittelotte and mizuna
The spuds haven't done badly at all and are now up, and bagged, with some colossal sized specimens of Markies and Remarka, and a respectable collection of the low yielding, floury but staggeringly purple Vittelotte and pink Highland Burgundy.  

Giant Markies and Boots
At home the kitchen is now full of dusty sacks of potatoes, sorted and labelled, waiting to go down to the cellar.  The remaining beans have been stripped and podded for seed though I may just cook with Borlotto Firetongue.  I'm hoping that the meagre palmful of the beautiful mottled green and purple dwarf bean  Fagiolo Nani Bobis d'Albegna will be enough for some plants next year.  It tasted good too.  I should have made chutney from the runner beans, but I'm done with smelling of vinegar for a few days at least, and freezing seems completely beyond me. The sweetcorn went in late but just about managed to ripen, the ones that the parakeets and pigeons haven't eaten that is, and tasted delicious with some baby leeks, courgettes and chard. Just wish I could remember what they were.

Look at those Highland Burgundy!
I'm not even going to bother making any resolutions for next year because surely as eggs is eggs it'll be vegetable mayhem -yet again - while I sit in a deck chair, get to work with the camera or just do my Marie Antoinette act with my straw hat and a pretty trug.

If you want to take a look at the photos from another gathering - the Edible Garden Feast that took place last weekend - you can find them here on Flickr.  Dozens of people sitting down to eat in the growing space among the vegetables. It was truly amazing and moving.

21 September 2012

on bathing

"...and then my wife being busy in going with her woman to a hot-house to bathe herself, after her long being within doors in the dirt, so that she now pretends to a resolution of being hereafter very clean. How long it will hold I can guess."  Samuel Pepys Diary, Tuesday 21 February 1865

The latest part of the radio dramatisation of Pepys diary has been on Radio 4 this week, and I especially enjoyed the episode where Elizabeth Pepys' pays a visit to the hot-house.  She was very pleased with her bath and decided that she would to wash once a week thereafter. Samuel was not only sceptical, but very put out as his wife insisted on sleeping separately so she could stay clean, leaving him cold and grumpy alone in the marital bed.  

I entirely understand Elizabeth's delight. There is nothing quite like a bath. In the flat I lived in as a child, our bath was hidden under a table top in the kitchen and bath night was once a week. It was something of a treat - hot water gushing out from the geyser in the corner, palmolive, talcum powder, dry off by the fire, telly, sweets, clean PJs, flannelette sheets, hot water bottle.  Sweet. On reflection, I'm surprised at how many other bathtimes I can actually remember: being made to go and  wash before our little gang was allowed in the swimming pool because we'd got covered in coal dust while we were sitting outside waiting for opening time; a tin bath in a hop-pickers shed in front of a giant fire of hop-pole larch wood, as memorable for the draughts as the relief from the aches of potato lifting; the intimacy of washing my best friend's pale and freckly back on the morning of her wedding; the day my son was born, how lonely I felt in hospital in a cast iron bath, so huge that the hot water ran out when it was only a few inches deep.

These last few weeks I've been reliving one of my favourite bathing experiences.  On our Great South Coast walk years ago when we slept rough for weeks on end, we washed in streams using a  bar of expensive Roger and Gallet lily of the valley soap completely at odds with the austerity of the rest of our supplies. Whenever I smell lily of the valley now it brings back the memory of stripping off and washing in a small pool surrounded by dripping greenness.  The pleasure of being shiny and clean after trudging up hills, cooking over smoky fires, sleeping under hedges and swimming in salty seas was unforgettable.  

I bought some lily of the valley bath essence and soap a couple of weeks ago.  It's not quite the same, but I can just close my eyes and pretend it's still summer.  I'm not quite ready for it to end and if I'm lucky I'll be able to squeeze another week out of the bottle.

18 September 2012

and there is honey for tea

The bees on the Isle of Dogs have been happy and healthy unlike a lot of bees this year. Apparently it took a long while for them all to get busy this year because of the cold and wet. There were a couple of weeks in May when everything came into blossom, and just as suddenly stopped when the rain returned. The bees didn't know whether they were coming or going. 

The apprentice beekeeper explained all this to me, he who has been most diligent in attending classes and reporting back. I was given a tour of the beehives a few weeks ago not, as I had erroneously said, on the roof of the school, but in a scruffy little secret garden at the side of the car park.  I thought they would be pretty little houses, not skeps perhaps, but at least painted like a Kentish clapboard house.  Not a bit of it. The hives were very workaday. I was told  not to go too close as the bees get upset if you obstruct their route to the entrance to the hives, so I stood well back.  There is after all something about the bees' gentle busy-ness that inspires respect, not least because the ground around the hives is littered with the corpses of dead workers.  They'll have been round and about - the gardens, Millwall Park, Mudchute, maybe across the river to Greenwich, clocking up the miles, plenty of fresh workers being nurtured to replace them when their time was up.

There was a little excitement last week because it was time to bring home some honey.  He described the process:  take the sliders frames from the hives, scrape off the cap of wax, put the sliders in the centrifuge, spin, then catch the honey in the jar  - and bring it home to settle before spreading on scones or stirring into fresh yoghurt.  Simple. This batch has a complex, intriguing flavour.  I'd like to say I could tell that this is London honey, but I can't.  It's very subtle though, first a slight bitterness, with the sweetness coming through softly and slowly, quite unlike some commercial honeys.

Unfortunately we are on rations. There is only one jar.  Every now and then I sneak a small spoonful.  And an extra one just to make sure that this is a sweet and fruitful year.

12 September 2012

food stories

Less than a week ago, it was warm enough to swim and wear stripy tee shirts and straw hats on the beach. Such a lovely day we had.  He read some trashy book about spying and I tacked some bunting together and then went swimming in the cool, calm water.  We had hardly anything to eat - a cup of coffee and a very delicious honeycomb ice cream each.  I complained that he had forgotten that I had asked for a latte and not an americano -  he had probably never listened anyway.  Very hot days can suppress both the appetite and the memory it seems.

Food, though not eating, was very much on my mind.  The bunting I joined up was a collection of triangles depicting food stories crafted by my buddies at the WI.  It's a project we have been working on most of the year and the finished triangles were strung between two trees last weekend at a local community fete where we sold cream teas in the WI tent. We had made dozens of scones - plain, fruit and cheese.  And, even if I say so myself, my six dozen were the finest scones I had ever made. I had done my research, you see. After years of mediocrity, I had watched the Great British Bake Off, listened carefully and discovered that the secret was to "chaff" the dough and not to handle it too much. And it worked, even if I decided not to follow the complicated recipe recommended (here is the one I used). Unfortunately, it was so hot that people found it too much work to make their way to the tea tent and so we had to hawk our baking around the site a la Nell Gwynne. Learning point: cheese scones sell well to men who have been sitting outside the beer tent all afternoon and would not be seen dead in a tea tent.

Food story bunting
I very much  enjoyed collating the food stories and stringing them all together.  The improvisation with scant crafting supplies was a delight and the stories intimate, funny and touching.  Memories of mother's apple pies from someone far from home, jam sandwiches made with fluffy (fun fur) white bread, trips to a fishmonger who gave away ice lollies, the importance of eating fruit on the road to recovery from a rare and debilitating illness, an introduction to (nylon shoulder pad) mussels and chips on holiday as a child, ice cream, adventures with undercooked beigels, pints of Guinness, podding (green plastic bead) peas with Granny after breakfast, Granddad's deadly bread, heavy as a brick, spread with Lurpak and, one of my favourites, a definitive "I hated rhubarb".

We are bringing all this together this Sunday with a grand feast, and last night some of us were working with the project chef to prepare food from the Edible Garden. It was like having a magic show in the kitchen.  Mike turned up with tiny packs of garlic chive flowers, feverfew and oxalis to taste - I'd always thought of oxalis as a weedy pest but it was a revelation, lemony and tart and green all at once. We boiled water and measured salt, mixed them in the correct proportions,and brined cabbage and chard stems, radish and nasturtium pods. We learned how to use nitrogen cavitation to speed up the process of infusing olive oil with thyme. And to round off the evening we had a quick burn up in the garden of hay and hickory alder to smoke some chillies.

Part Heston, part Merlin, not a hint of Delia.

More food stories to follow.

02 September 2012

this week

This week:

:: the sky was absolutely beautiful, even if it was chilly sitting on the west side of the stadium after the coldest August night for years, but the athletics was even better.  This from someone who never watches sport and cheered like a loon. Interesting.

:: my mum had her second cataract operation, got the bus home, said how wonderful the hospital was and is glad it's all over and she'll be able to see well again.  Her grandfather lived to be over 90 and was blind.

:: I used a spindle for the first time, not very well at all but still had a lovely time learning in my favourite wool shop

:: Some of the courgettes were made into the first of this year's glutney, with plums this time. Much prettier.  Only another ton to go.

:: my bike got two new tyres so perhaps there will be less punctures now and I got some smarter panniers too.

The world is my lobster.