Nov 06 2014

October 2014 Putting the Record Straight………..

As autumn tumbles into winter clocks go back and the evenings are long and dark once more. But the weather is mild, the temperature strangely unseasonal and the garden still scattered with colour; the last roses, cosmos, salvias, a few astrantia and the tiny delicate blooms of a camellia sasanqua. It feels slightly ominous as if Nature is playing a trick and has a nasty surprise up her sleeve.

Since returning from a wet week in Portugal while the rest of Europe sunbathed, October has flown by in a haze of visitors; from South Carolina, Adelaide, Brittany and Japan, all friends and family enjoying this fabulous balmy English autumn. But now it’s time to knuckle down to reality and prepare for harsher things to come.

Harvest safely gathered in, fields are being ploughed once more. Across the valley in the distance I watch my neighbour’s tractors turn the soil in neat lines, rioting seagulls in pursuit, white specks against chocolate. Barns are being cleared, animals brought in, hay and oats stacked up for winter fodder.

Chickens are tucked up in their winter quarters. Dead trees are cut down, logs stored for winter warmth. The greenhouse is full to the gunnels with tender plants in anticipation of that first deadly Devon frost that creeps up without warning. So as the garden prepares to hibernate, the farming cycle begins again.

Fred is in with the ewes once more clearly hard at work as evidenced by his bright green raddle. We have just a small flock of White Face Dartmoor’s now, plus a couple of Border Leicester X’s, some 30 mature ewes in with Fred. A fine looking bunch of last springs ewe lambs graze quietly, alone now, far up on the top field. Old Larry the Lamb is still with us too, of course, companion to a small, as yet unnamed ram lamb, who we hope will make the grade by next year.

Last night found us up on the Moor for the Annual Dartmoor White Face Sheep Breeders Association Dinner; a disparate group of some hundred and fifty people, farmers and smallholders, drawn together by their love of this gentle strong moorland breed. We’re all crazy about our sheep! Huge plates of food were consumed; toasts and speeches made, cups and rosettes presented and raffle tickets drawn. And Paul, my husband is the President. We ponder often how it came about that a Cornishman should be so honoured on Dartmoor!

As I said last time, life on a farm is wedded to the seasons, spring lambing, summer growth, autumn harvest, the austerity of winter.

I said too that I sometimes try to imagine the urban oblivion to the changing landscape. As I trudge through lashing rain and mud up to the top fields to count the sheep, how comforting the image of the uniformity of street and pavement across the year! No need to battle with the elements in order to make a living. How appealing the memory of that erstwhile indoor job becomes, that warmth within, as winter weather bites and rain trickles down my neck inside my coat and I realise I’ve forgotten my gloves again and my boots are leaking. Then I remember, too, the M25, the long commute, struggling on the Tube and I’m wet still but happy again!

But alas, one reader was not happy with my reference to the “bland urban landscape”: and instructed me to “take down this post and delete the sentence …. before some unknown reader writes a tart comment in response. People connect to the seasons in all sorts of ways wherever they are living and of course millions of people simply have no choice about where they can live…..”
I was saddened by this response, the first of its kind in ten years. But how lucky am I, never before a tart Tweet or a Facebook snipe! It was, of course not at all what I was referring to and I received no negative comments, quite the reverse, in fact.
But it is true that very few people are fortunate enough to have a choice of lifestyle whether rural or urban. Some farm because their forebears have done so for generations, some because they must, some because they can and some because they are lucky enough to make that choice.

Whichever way, farming is strangely addictive despite the constant rigours of the elements. Some people cannot imagine any other way of life. Many more would simply hate the farming lifestyle and choose to enjoy the countryside in a million other ways, while wishing well to those who do farm the land and provide their food. And many, many more simply have no choice at all and are just grateful to have a roof of any kind over their head somewhere, anywhere and a job to go to.

I smiled to myself as I leafed through Country Living magazine in our local surgery last week, so prettily idealised, so clean, such lovely hazy photography; a really pretty thing so delightfully divorced from real country life; even dare I say, an urban dream. As I flicked through the pages I remembered a recent BBC Country File; Adam Henson racing breathless across a huge field with fire fighters and all emergency services to rescue the driver from an exploding harvester and quench a burning crop; not at all the image the film makers had anticipated, but harsh reality, no romance here. Life in the country as it really is. Or maybe reality is mostly somewhere in between. As my son said ten years ago: “Why not write a blog about what you really do on the farm, Mum.”

Raining Sideways is simply that; my diary of food and rural life; it is not and never has been a political comment or statement of social justice. I leave that to those far better qualified than me.

Even though the weather is so mild I find the dark evenings start me thinking about warming winter comfort food: big soups with ham hock and lentils and lots of root vegetables, rich casseroles, pot-au-feu, Lancashire hotpot, steak & kidney pie, bangers and mash…….or Maiale al Latte
Slow cooked Pork Shoulder in Milk
No more pigs for the time being so the last pieces in the freezer are hugely treasured! I cooked a rolled shoulder for friends last week, so good, though I say it myself! There are, of course, many versions of this Italian classic. Here is my take on it.
Brown a boned and rolled piece of pork shoulder weighing about a kilo in a little hot oil in a heavy casserole. Make sure it is nicely coloured on all sides then remove from the pan and set aside.
Add more oil to the pot and gently soften a couple of chopped shallots, 3 or 4 sliced cloves of garlic, a handful of sage leaves, the zest of a lemon and a sprig of rosemary. You can add all sorts of other herbs and spices according to your preference. Then pour in 300ml of white wine and 300ml of full fat milk. Gently simmer for a minute or two, take off the heat and return the browned pork to the pot. Most recipes say simmer gently but I prefer to cover the casserole with a lid and place in a slow oven 170-180 c for about 2 ½ hours. Be sure to check it regularly and stir the liquid which will, of course, curdle. This is the classic essence of the dish. Add more milk if it begins to brown. When cooked the meat should be soft and succulent and fall apart. The cooking time will vary a little according to the quality of the pork. When you are satisfied it is ready let it rest for ten minutes before cutting or tearing the meat with two forks into pieces. Spoon over the remaining liquid and serve with mash or crusty bread and a crisp salad. This is not an elegant dish but, oh my, it’s so delicious!

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Oct 13 2014

Widdicombe Fair 2014

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Sep 06 2014

Slow cooked Pork Shoulder in Milk

No more pigs for the time being so the last pieces in the freezer are hugely treasured! I cooked a rolled shoulder for friends last week, so good, though I say it myself! There are, of course, many versions of this Italian classic. Here is my take on it.

Brown a boned and rolled piece of pork shoulder weighing about a kilo in a little hot oil in a heavy casserole. Make sure it is nicely coloured on all sides then remove from the pan and set aside.

Add more oil to the pot and gently soften a couple of chopped shallots, 3 or 4 sliced cloves of garlic, a handful of sage leaves, the zest of a lemon and a sprig of rosemary. You can add all sorts of other herbs and spices according to your preference. Then pour in 300ml of white wine and 300ml of full fat milk. Gently simmer for a minute or two, take off the heat and return the browned pork to the pot. Most recipes say simmer gently but I prefer to cover the casserole with a lid and place in a slow oven  170-180 c for about 2 ½ hours. Be sure to check it regularly and stir the liquid which will, of course, curdle. This is the classic essence of the dish. Add more milk if it begins to brown. When cooked the meat should be soft and succulent and fall apart. The cooking time will vary a little according to the quality of the pork. When you are satisfied it is ready let it rest for ten minutes before cutting or tearing the meat with two forks into pieces. Spoon over the remaining liquid and serve with mash or crusty bread and a crisp salad. This is not an elegant dish but, oh my, it’s so delicious!

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Sep 06 2014

Sam and the Tomatoes

Golden sunlight casts long shadows on the grass, spider’s webs carpet the fields in the morning mist, skeins of calling geese fill the sky: it’s autumn again. Harvest is all around us. Combines roll across the golden fields, the hedgerows are weighed down with fruit: blackberries, sloes, wild plums. As the apple trees begin to throw their bounty to the ground I struggle to keep up with the abundance in the veg garden. Everywhere nature is sending out early signals urging us to prepare for winter. Our lives on the farm are so wedded to the seasons, spring lambing, summer growth, autumn harvest, the austerity of winter. I try to imagine the urban oblivion to the changing landscape, the uniformity of street and pavement across the year, the ready food, always the same, always available regardless of season in the supermarket: a security that is not for me.

The house martins have already left. Flying practice started early this year. At the end of August juniors were already lining up on the telegraph wires for flying tuition from their swooping elders. Sam raced across the top fields pursuing them as they skimmed the long grass for insects, he’s much to slow for them and they continue to feed oblivious to his game. He joined us at the end of June, a rangy skinny chap, another boy from Labrador Rescue.

For six weeks, after the demise of dear old Welly, Porter mooched around looking miserable, us too. Finally I picked up the phone and two days later an eleven month old Sam, his new name, was with us. Porter was thrilled and we were soon exhausted! I began to wonder why my friends do work outs in the gym; no need for me with Sammy by my side. In the first week he was blissed out by falling in the pond not once but twice. I’m sure the second time was deliberate as he swam happily amongst the water lilies.

Next he rolled down the bank into the stream, somersaulted and, turning “turbo-dog”, raced up and down splashing in utter delight. Labradors adore water, it’s true. He thought the chickens were worth a chase, got stuck in the undergrowth in the quarry, was given a very severe ticking off by the cats, showed a little too much interest in the sheep and made a friend of a donkey who generally doesn’t care for dogs at all.

Sammy is a very different boy to Mr P with a very different story. Both dogs came from social housing backgrounds, lots of kids and a struggling single mum. That’s where the similarity ends. Mr P had been kept in a cage neglected and starved; Sam was allowed to run wild with no boundaries at all, until his owner’s partner, irritated by him, hit him regularly: all this on his rescue notes. A very different approach was needed to help him settle down and feel safe with us. Beneath the delinquent teenager is a sweet gentle dog, wonderful with children. Our grandchildren’s long summer holiday with us was invaluable. He played with them, socialised with their dogs, learnt that cats and chickens are best ignored and Guinea pigs are simply boring. The transformation had begun. But we soon realised it was us who needed more training if he was to become a really happy dog. So it was off to Cumbria for Paul for doggy boot camp! Not really, it all turned out wonderfully for them both: two nights in a lovely dog friendly pub and expert training by a wonderful professional in the dramatically beautiful Lake District. Oh, it’s so simple when you know how!! Everyday Sammy has his doggy Tutorial and the transformation is a joy to watch as he settles into his new life, loved and safe at last.

Maybe it’s to do with his past life or maybe it’s just because he’s a Labrador, Sam is an expert harvester. First it was the Dit’sum plums, then blackberries, figs, apples. And now he’s discovered the tomatoes; not an ideal arrangement for either of us! I have a glut this year despite the sodden winter and return of the tomato blight. Every year a dear friend sources wonderful heritage seeds for me. I grow enough for both of us and when she returns from a warm winter the other side of the world we share the seedlings.

This year I grew Yellow Brandywine, Black Cherry, and the amazing giants, Cherokee, as well as modern Pomodoro Red Cherry and funny pointed Follia F1. Last year saw success with Striped Cavern, Ivory Egg, Copia and Japanese Black Trifele. Of course I’ve grown good old gardeners Delight and Moneymaker too but the heritage ones are such fun and more of a challenge. The flavour is often better too. For years solanum   lycopersicum were considered poisonous in this country. Gerard dismisses them out of hand in his Herbal of 1597: “Poma Amoris, Apples of Love. …In Spaine and those hot Regions they vse to eat the Apples prepared and boiled with pepper, salt, and oile: but they yeeld very little nourishment to the bodie, and the same nought and corrupt. Likewise they doe eat the Apples with oile, vineger and pepper mixed together for sauce to their meate, euen as we in these cold Countries doe Mustard.”. They were already being eaten in Italy and Spain by then, brought back from the Andes by the Spanish Conquistadors. Tomato comes from “tomatl” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The Italians called it Pomma di Mori, Apple of the Moors. The first reference to the cooking of tomatoes in Italy can be found in Vincenzo Corrado’s 1765 Cuoco Galante, The Gallant Cook. In his wonderful book, Complete Italian Food, Antonio Carluccio states that Italians now consume an astonishing 50kg per head per year mostly in the form of sauce and purees on their pasta! In France it was named Pomme d’Amour and in time embraced as warmly as in Spain and Italy. In contrast we cautious Brits only began to let the Love Apple creep into our diet around 1820 still clinging to the dire warnings of Gerard two hundred years earlier and despite the best efforts of the Quaker merchant, Peter Collinson who reported in 1742 that the Apples of Love “are very much in Italy to putt when ripe into their Brooths & Soops giving it a pretty Tart Taste. A Lady Just come from Leghorn says she thinks it gives an Agreeable tartness and Relish to them & she likes it Much”. Tomatoes were considered as “chill to the stomach”, the cause of maladies such as gout and a dangerous aphrodisiac. How times have changed!

So What to do with all this deliciousness? I will be halving the small red tomatoes and putting them in a cool oven overnight to semi dry them. Then I will bottle them in olive oil with a sprig of basil and store them in the fridge for winter treats: a tiny salad with grated Parmesan, a quick pasta topping or a filling for a baked potato.

One of my favourite recipes takes me back to a tiny village in the hills in Provence many years ago when Madam cooked just one set meal in her tiny restaurant in the Village Square: no choice and the food served in big dishes straight to the table. I can’t remember the rest of the meal only the exquisite beans and tomatoes! Blanche French beans, drain carefully and return to the pan with olive oil.  Add a clove of crushed garlic and fresh chopped tomatoes. Simmer gently for a few minutes. Add salt and pepper and serve with more really good olive oil. That’s it, truly wonderful if the beans are tender, the tomatoes full of flavour and the olive oil thick and green.

The big boys such as Cherokee will be a meal in themselves. I will scoop out their middles, make a stuffing, top them with breadcrumbs and cheese and bake them in the oven. Others will be made into sauce with shallots, herbs and  garlic, then frozen ready to go into winter ragouts and pasta sauces. Some I will simply whizz in the blender and freeze. And, of course, the green tomatoes will join apples, sugar, shallots, chili, and vinegar to become thick unctuous chutney. None will be wasted so long as I keep Sam out of the greenhouse!

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Jul 06 2014

How it all Began

The sun shone, the clock struck two, we opened the gates and in they came; suddenly there was a steady stream of visitors walking round our garden on a beautiful June afternoon. They paused, sat in the sun, went round again. They loitered by the pond gazing at an avalanche of white, cascading “Seagull” intertwined with “Masquerade” drooping over the water.

Damsel flies hovered above Bobby’s huge water lilies. Towering delphiniums, hostas, geraniums swayed gently in the breeze.

Cream teas flew out of the kitchen; strawberry jam and delicious Devonshire clotted cream, donated by the Dartmouth Dairy, topped big fat scones made by the Anchorstone café. Friends rallied round to help.

We had done it again: for months and months we had dug, we had sown, we had weeded, planted, mowed, pruned and prayed for sun. And now after all the hard work the weekend had arrived; our garden teemed with happy smiling people. We sent off our biggest cheque ever to the National Garden Scheme to be divided once more between UK nursing charities.

This year is our thirty second summer in the valley. It was February 1982 when our lives changed forever as we travelled west in search of lost friends. Not only did we find our friends but also fell in love with a poor old battered farmhouse. On the day of completion we arrived early and sat patiently on the grass wondering what on earth we had done. Eventually an old tractor trundled up and the farmer handed over a key; I gazed at it in wonder, just one enormous, rusty, unused old key; the key to our new life. Just then we were startled by the Red Arrows flying overhead, some welcome we thought, then realised it was Dartmouth Regatta week and the honour was not exclusively for us!

The house was built in 1767 by the local Rector for his daughter. Over the last two hundred and forty years it has been home to either churchmen or farmers. The Reverend Francis Lite, Poet and Priest of Brixham, lived here for a year or so before moving across the river. Maybe, we muse, he even wrote “Abide with Me” during his short stay here. The Deeds are lost so there is much we will never know but we do know that the family from whom we bought it had farmed here since 1922.
Our arrival was eventful. The removal lorry broke down on the motorway, and was, as I had predicted in several high decibel phone calls to the removal company, too big to fit through the narrow Devon lanes, too big to reach the house. All our belongings had to be decanted unceremoniously into a small hired van in the middle of the village right outside the shop; a good place for passers-by to get a look at the belongings and the people who had bought ”Dorothy’s House”.
Death watch beetle, wet rot, dry rot and flourishing fungi meant we had no floor boards on which to arrange this furniture. All our belongings, everything but the most basic necessities, had to be stacked high in the farm dairy. They would remain there for the next nine months. We began to forget about them; things we had deemed so essential simply weren’t missed. As the months passed I soon learnt that black mould is permanent and green mould can be brushed off…..
The dairy, now a cosy study, was a cold north facing addition, circa 1820. The deep slate shelves all round the room still remain. Each shelf has a gully which held a trickle of cold water that acted as the cooling system, keeping hams and cheese, milk and cream fresh; a nineteenth century “refrigerator”.
For months we all camped downstairs, sleeping on plastic covered mattresses. The children were ecstatic. They climbed around the house balancing precariously on the joists, exploring every corner and bagging a future bedroom each. They spent hours happily picking wet wallpaper of damp walls, they counted dead flies and compiled a scrap book of the amazing interior decoration. They recorded all details of yellow and orange staircase, pea green panelling in the little Georgian sitting room and the beautiful iron fireplace steeped in cream paint. They explored the overgrown garden and made camps in the orchard. They tramped across fields arriving home wet and muddy with happy exhausted dogs.
There was no hot water in the bathroom and the lavatory perched on high near the kitchen was inclined to give those brave enough to use it, a fairly substantial cold shower when flushed. Fortunately there was another one upstairs which was less eccentric, but journeying to it meant balancing on ceiling joists.

I loved the old solid fuel Rayburn. It stood cream and battered in the corner of the old kitchen. It hadn’t been used for years but it was the only source of heat we had. All the chimneys were blocked up either deliberately or by years of nesting birds. So to cook our food, give us a little hot water and keep us warm, I set about bringing it back to life. I scrubbed the old thing, bought some “nuts” to feed it and fired it up. If the wind was in the right direction it was a marvel. But, as the hills rise high behind the house, on grey days the smoke was returned unceremoniously down the chimney. It began to rule our mealtimes. Would it roar into life and cook lunch or would the cloud hanging heavy in the sky make us wait till supper time for the fire to draw.
The old kitchen had no sink or drainage of any kind. A modern breeze block extension housed a metal sink whose waste pipe ended in mid-air. Water flowed first onto the floor then trickled optimistically towards a little drain hole: sometimes it disappeared, sometimes it didn’t. It was a long, wet walk from cooker to sink with a saucepan. Cooking was a challenge.
In November the builders arrived and the restoration process began. The pantry vanished together with the waterfall loo. Suddenly a large space appeared which would in time become the new kitchen. Ceilings fell down, new ones replaced them. Heating and plumbing appeared; water, no water, heating, no heating. And, of course, things got so much worse before they got better.
Christmas approached and after much discussion we decided to make a valiant effort and celebrate in the shell which was to be our home. We hung a curtain across the bathroom door for Granny who whistled to indicate her occupancy; new floor boards in place made her journey slightly less hazardous.

Rubble was barrowed out of the kitchen, the floor was levelled. A shiny new sink appeared then taps, hot water. What more did I need! A Christmas tree acted as camouflage and a few decorations lit up the occasion.

The dear old Rayburn came up trumps and cooked a turkey to perfection. Chairs and table were pulled out of storage and dusted down. Table laid, crackers in place and friends and family sat down together for the traditional festive feast in somewhat unconventional surroundings. My father gave me a long look and asked if I thought we had been altogether wise. I just smiled.

As months passed, we made progress. Paul returned to work in London saying “Now, don’t start taking the stair case to bits…” I made a plan with my new friends, the builders. Terry borrowed a pig trough from farmer Richard. I filled it with caustic soda and washing powder and we were in business. Terry dismantled the staircase piece by piece. I dipped each spindle into the pig trough and scraped, and dipped, and scraped and rinsed again until years and years of old paint was gone. I handed them one by one back to chippy Chris who reassembled everything. What a team! By the time Paul returned the job was done. Not a trace of orange or yellow paint anywhere.
Decorating next and along came “Les the Decorator”. We chiselled off the distemper and hosed down the stairs together, all three floors. As Les transformed each room I sat on the sitting room floor for days on end pickling and picking the paint from the cast iron fireplace. As I worked the beauty of the metalwork emerged. I was lost in admiration at the depth and detail of the design. Soon carpets arrived and curtains were hung and the wonderful team departed. Our worldly belongings emerged from the damp dairy and the house came to life once more. Best of all I had the most beautiful kitchen I could possibly have imagined.
Time now for garden restoration: as we cleared and dug, chopped and cleared, the basic structure of a garden long forgotten began to re-emerge. Someone at some time had cherished it.

Down fell the derelict old green houses, broken glass threatening to chop off our heads. Down came the great tin tractor shed, in went the pond, out went the fencing made of gas stove and corrugated tin. In went banks of shrubs, out went broken outhouses and bindweed and dead trees.

In went roses and camellias, beech hedges. Up popped swathes of bulbs and wild flowers. Stifled for years beneath the undergrowth, they took their chance to break free at last.

Slowly, slowly a garden emerged once more in the valley.
And then one day, some years ago now, the County Organiser of NGS came to tea and suggested we open the garden for charity. “Weed, weed, weed” she said and I’ve been weeding ever since……………..

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Jun 09 2014

Our garden’s open again!


Here’s a come and join us on Saturday and Sunday between and 6pm.

Enjoy the garden and a cream tea all in aid of the National Garden Scheme!

GARDEN 14 from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.


June 14th & 15th


Admission £4  Children Free

Cream Teas £3.50

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Apr 01 2014

Raining Sideways is Ten Years Old!

Raining Sideways is ten years old; it is ten years since Tom e-mailed me from Tokyo saying “get Techy, Mum, and start a blog”. Needless to say I had no idea what he was talking about, I had never heard the word “blog” and even miss-read techy for tetchy which caused a lot of laughter on both sides of the world!

Blogs were brand new in 2004, so new in fact most people had no idea what I was talking about either. But Tom was adamant; “start a blog about your everyday life, about the farm, the food you grow and, above all, the food you cook. Most of the stuff written about food and farming is put together by someone in an office in a city, inaccurate and romanticised.” Maybe things have improved a little since then but at that time he was right. And, oh my goodness, what a response I have received over the years. I hear from people from all over the world. So here is how it all began:

Chapter 1

I grew up in post war London; a world of bomb craters, ration books and smog. I was to be the only child of professional actors both of whom had abandoned the stage in 1939 to do their bit for King and Country. After the war my grandfather summonsed my father back to the world of “real work”. My mother was frequently in and out of hospital so I was sent to boarding school just a few weeks after my seventh birthday and spent many holidays with grandparents.

Cooking was not high on my mother’s agenda but fortunately there was dear Percy. She came in daily from her home somewhere in Portobello Road. I’ve no idea how long she stayed or what she cooked; I just remember that I adored her. She taught me to make pastry on the kitchen chair, grey and slippery and streaky. Why, I wondered, did it look so different to the silky white dough that she produced on the kitchen table and then transformed into such deliciousness? She was round and warm and kind; we had such fun together.

My father had lived in France as a young man and had developed a passion for good food. So my solitary childhood was punctuated with memorable visits to the theatre and delicious meals in wonderful restaurants.

In 1964 I left school with plans of my own. But alas, my mother was once more in hospital and my father had other ideas for me. The day I filled the house with smoke, in an effort to feed him, sealed my destiny. I was to go to Winkfield Place to learn to cook and be “finished off”. I put up a good fight but to no avail. September found me gloomily driving father’s mini through the lanes of Berkshire to learn, oh horror, for one whole year, how to cook and be a lady!

I was furious with him for sending me somewhere I considered, with teenage pomposity, so frivolous, so light weight! After all those years at my earnest Methodist Girls Boarding school I had been taught the world was a serious place. My duty was to play my part by doing something worthy; wave the flag, be a missionary, help the needy. I wasn’t at all sure what all that meant but, whatever it was, it needed doing and it was my duty to do it! Alas, within weeks, I’m ashamed to say, I found I loved this other world!

Constance Spry had died after a tragic accident in 1960 but the formidable Rosemary Hume was still in charge. The house and garden were beautiful, the regime very strict and the time table relentless. The cookery lessons were quite different from the dreary domestic science lessons I had hated at school. Each one was an adventure; and, of course, we did have to eat the food we’d cooked; a huge greedy incentive to do it well! I still have my crumbling box file of recipe cards.

Dressmaking lessons were even more terrifying than cooking. Our fierce Austrian teacher brooked no nonsense and frequently induced tears of frustration with her high standard. Flower arranging and floristry sounded so feeble to me when I arrived but in fact it was doing these things that first introduced me to my lifelong love of gardening.

And best of all I made some wonderful friends; a bonus I hadn’t expected.

From Winkfield it was back to London to my first job. I worked for a fierce young woman cooking meals in a minute kitchen above a garage in a mews. We delivered to private houses every day in a pre-war Morris Minor with a divided windscreen and wobbly wipers. One day, car loaded with freshly cooked meals, I dropped the ignition key down the drain in Marylebone High Street. Quite unperturbed Susan lifted the bonnet, magically put two wires together and the little old thing juddered into life, I was forgiven and the customers fed.

We delivered all over London to the famous and not so famous. Little did he know it, but I unceremoniously scraped Sir Malcolm Sergeants’ soup back into the pot having sloshed it across the back seat of the afore said Morris Minor as we trundled down to Albert Hall Mansions. We delivered supper to him every night before the Proms but never ever set eyes on him.

The Sixties were in full swing, or so I’m told. Somehow I always seemed to be on the outside looking in. And so it was when I went to work at Nick’s Diner. Nick, a flamboyant retired Guards Officer, started the restaurant to feed his fashionable friends. Everything about it seemed to my nineteen year old eyes utterly exotic and quite eccentric. The exquisite Seraphina ran the office. Chefs came and went from all over the world. One worked all night in a gambling club and all day for Nick. I remember peering at him in wonder; how on earth could he live without sleep? Another, whose cooking skills were very suspect, his piece de résistance being Belgian pomme frites, turned out indeed to be an impostor. We were all rather thrillingly interviewed by Interpol. The Ghanaian washer-up, a very small highly educated young man, held us spellbound each day with his plans for a government coup d’état.

I had absolutely no idea just how fortunate I was to be given such a job aged just nineteen. It would be years before I realised just how privileged I had been. I worked in Nick’s Moveable Feasts with the wonderful Kem Bennet who had trained together with Joyce Molineux at The Hole in the Wall in Bath owned by the legendary George Perry Smith.

How kindly and patiently Kem trained me; with his help I entered a new realm of cooking. I loved what I was doing. I cooked all day, ate delicious lunches with hilarious, entertaining, international staff and went back to my grotty flat and good friends in the evening. I was learning from the best and having huge fun, more fun than I’d ever had in my life!

Oh how modern the food was. We were all entering a new post war era of cooking. Gone were the dry lamb cutlets and rice pudding, the half raw chicken and tinned peaches of childhood. Gone was the nightmare food of school; Dead man’s arm and lumpy custard, dreadful leaden Spotted Dick, bright yellow dried egg powder mixed with water masquerading as scrambled eggs, plastic fried eggs glued to aluminium trays cooked for hours, the grey cabbage floating in water and slugs, the axel grease Echo marg on gondola slices of stale bread. Gone, the brown slithers of grey “roast” meat winking with little keyholes of sinew served with mauve and yellow sprouts and leather potatoes. Gone was the fish on Friday, oh dread, dry on the outside and smelly and grey within. And best of all, gone were, oh, oh, my most hated of all; warm pork pies.

In the evenings after work I read cookery books. I devoured all of Elisabeth David, particularly the wonderful French Provincial Cooking. I still have that dear old book, completely in tatters and held together by an elastic band. Sentimentality forbids me to buy a new edition!

Kem taught me to make Fish soup with sauce Rouille, Terrine de Gibier, Duck Liver en Brioche, Paella, Steak Kidney and Oyster pies by the dozen,

Mediterranean Fish Pie, Civet de Lievre de Diane de Chateaumorand. That is to say, jugged hare the way Diane de Chateaumorand used to do it! I hated cutting up the hare and always pretended I’d forgotten how. Patiently he showed me again and again tactfully ignoring my youthful squeamishness!

We cooked Pigeon breasts au Porto, Daube of lamb a l’Ardennaise, oh so modern; slices of leg of lamb cooked slowly with haricot beans, mushrooms, black olives and bacon. And then of course there was some sort of Gumbo, Kem’s speciality from Louisiana! I was in heaven!

When he wasn’t teaching me I was seconded to the Bermudan pastry chef, a dear, patient man nicknamed, unkindly by my fellow workers, the Black Queen in those homophobic days. Rumour had it that he was the son of a high ranking government minister, who knows, I loved him. He taught me to make brandy snaps by the gross, Mont Blancs of meringue and candied chestnuts, Pears a la Bourguignonne, and chocolate mousse to die for. I adored his poodle too.

I have the Moveable Feast menu still. Luncheon and dinner was between 25/- and 35/- shilling per head (£1.25p-£1.75p in new money!) with a delivery charge of 10/- (50p) per meal irrespective of numbers. These were the days before Takeaways when busy hostesses picked up the phone, had their dinner party food delivered to the door and, often as not, pretended they had thrown it all together themselves!

But not always, sometimes I was sent with the food and found myself in some amazingly bizarre settings. I cooked for Edna O’Brian, while her sons raced round the kitchen full of beans after school. Rita Tushingham popped in for a chat while I dished up dinner. “The Girl with Green Eyes” had just been released

I was sent to a party in Kensington, all titles and glitterati, with an out of work actor to “wait”. He instantly cut his hand badly and insisted on serving dinner to the great and the good one handed. The other, swathed in a bloody napkin, he held high above his head; high camp indeed.

After the “small” dinner for twenty, others guests arrived and the party moved to the huge studio upstairs. The bath really was full of ice and champagne! The guest list was startling even to me who had mixed with debs, “done” Queen Charlottes Ball while at Winkfield Place and who had a boyfriend who was an up and coming TV type in the thick of “Ready Steady Go” used to holding back the screaming hordes from a new rock star called Mick Jagger!

A tall man approached me in the hall as I raced frantically back and forth between kitchen and guests. He asked me to hide his coat. Slightly irritated and without looking at him I snatched it and stuffed it unceremoniously under a chair. I looked up into the laughing eyes of David Niven.

Having finished the washing up, I was invited by my delightful employers to join the revellers. Hot and dishevelled and smelling of cooking, I managed to smile graciously and slide out quietly without being noticed and go home on the bus to my boyfriend.

I married the boyfriend and soon I found myself with a new challenge: a small screaming affair needing attention day and night. My Nick’s Diner days came to an abrupt end. Soon we had another baby and I began to learn what huge fun childhood could be after all. But even then I simply couldn’t stop cooking!

Cooking for “Flat”

Each term at Winkfield we all took it in turns to do two extra duties. One was called Drudge which simply meant clearing plates, laying tables, washing up, serving and, well, general drudge!

The other duty was far more terrifying: we had to cook for the senior staff in “Flat” Constance Spry’s private part of the house. This meant producing perfect meals to order for her widower, Mr Spry, the great Rosemary Hume herself and a selection of senior staff and guests. It was nerve wracking. We dreaded it. Here is a précis of one menu and you’ll see why!

“Hostess Cooking” 25th &26th January, 1965

Eggs “Poche Aurore”

Freshly made little pastry tartlets were filled with tinned crab seasoned with lemon juice and Tabasco and a cold poached egg. Each was then topped with a mixture of homemade tomato puree, shallot, sherry, béchamel sauce, gelatine and cream.

Sole Cubat

First poach skinned fillets of sole in a well-buttered dish. Cook chopped mushrooms in butter and add to a béchamel sauce and spread down the centre of a serving dish. Place the fish on top and coat with a Morney sauce seasoned with cheese and mustard. Sprinkle Parmesan on the top, glaze under a hot grill and serve with croutes of French bread fried in butter.

Shoulder of Lamb Dauphinois

The shoulder of lamb was boned and stuffed with a mixture of parsley, green pepper, thyme, oregano, rosemary, and bay all bound together with a small egg. The meat was securely sewn up and spread with butter. A glass of wine was poured over the top. It then went into a hot oven for 1-1 ¼ hours and was frequently basted. Gravy was made with a good stock made from the bone and the whole was served with creamed butter beans.

Squabs Malaga

Brown three young pigeons in butter. Remove from the pan and brown chopped onion and bacon. Replace pigeon, season, add stock, put on a lid and cook for 30-40minutes. Add raisins soaked in brandy 10 minutes before the end of cooking.

Take out the pigeon, split in half and trim. Thicken gravy with kneaded butter, reboil. Serve with Brussel sprouts

And finally………

Pineapple Mousse “en Surprise”

Prepare a 6 inch soufflé case and set an oiled jam jar in the centre. Make a mousse with 3 eggs, 2 egg yolks, 2 oz. caster sugar,1/4 pint pineapple juice, ½ oz. gelatine, 1 lemon , ¼ pint stiffly whipped cream and 2 stiffly whisked egg whites. . Pour into the soufflé case and leave to set. Meanwhile peel and slice a pineapple and sprinkle with sugar. Soak ratafia biscuits in Kirsch. When the mousse is set remove the jam jar and fill the centre with the pineapple and ratafia biscuits. Decorate with whipped cream.

Can you wonder we were scared !

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Feb 07 2014

Devon Rain

And still it rains, relentlessly, torrentially day in day out, week after week. We’ve become obsessed with the weather forecast tuning into radio and television at every opportunity, checking our phones, computers, tablets every hour. Low after low swirl across the Atlantic, bringing more and more severe flood warnings, leaving more and more devastation in their wake. Flooding, waterlogged fields, storm force winds, it feels as if the whole of the British Isles is sinking below the sea. As we travelled right across England from west to east last week to the memorial service of a dear friend, the roads seemed to snail their way like great grey slime trails across mile after mile of submerged farmland. The media tells of the desperate plight of the Somerset Levels but we saw the same in Avon, Wiltshire, North Oxfordshire, everywhere. And now it has reached us here in the West Country; the rail connection gone from Exeter to Penzance, Dawlish station washed away; catastrophe after catastrophe right across Devon and Cornwall.
Day in day out the forecast is the same; rain and wind, wind and rain. A brief respite and we rush to the yard to try to do a few long overdue jobs.

Then in comes the next storm. Gale force winds rock the very fabric of the buildings, trees sway precariously on the steep hills above us. No serious flooding here yet: no flooded barns or collapsing driveways so far this year. The flood defences we put in place after last years’ deluge are so far holding up. The stream is still just about contained as it roars through the valley. Frothing brown, it crashes its way to the mud streaked creek taking all in its path. Each high tide finds us cut off from the village as the huge volume of water coming off the hills is held back by gale force winds holding back the natural tidal flow of the river. The geese arrived last week but didn’t stay long this year. Resting and feeding for a while, they soon moved on.

Day in day out, slipping and sliding on waterlogged ground, we trudge up to the top fields to feed the sheep. Today I could barely stay upright in the wind as I called the girls to tea. For once we are grateful to have such steep land where ewes can graze safely on high ground with a little barn for shelter.

I heard on the radio the other day that someone somewhere has unearthed old records which show we are experiencing the highest rainfall since 1767, the year our house was built. As I watch our 21st century builders equipped with all the latest gear struggle to climb the scaffolding in howling winds and rain to mend our leaking roof and replace our rotten windows, I try to image the scene in the 18th century as men dug into the muddy Devon hillside in torrential rain toiling to build this strange, narrow four storey folly; a local Rector’s dream house for his daughter.

Some folly indeed, down a muddy track almost a mile from a steep riverside village, it stood at the head of a creek looking east towards the River Dart. There was a ford at the gate, no heating, no plumbing, certainly no little shop in the village! The village could only be reached on foot or by horse and cart, the local town by water. The only token to modernity, if you can call it that, were the coal grates in the house replacing he usual wood burning hearth. Coal barges unloaded their cargo at the head of the creek onto horse and carts so coal was available to warm the two main rooms; so very modern for 1767. But I keep imagining just how hard and bleak life must have been.

At the head of the creek the rotting hulk of the coal barge sinks into the mud

Dartmouth is still our nearest little town. A town with an extraordinary history, it has managed to re-invent itself in a quite remarkable way time and again across the centuries. It sits at the mouth of the Dart, a river which rises five hundred and fifty metres above sea level on the acidic peat bogs high up on Dartmoor. The water tumbles down fed by numerous little rivulets and streams until it becomes a respectable river flowing through grassland and heath, farmland and pasture to Totnes. Here it becomes an estuary, flooding a RIA valley formed long ago in the last Ice Age by rising sea levels and sinking land. It becomes tidal, freshwater mixing with salt from the sea. Oak trees dominate the shore. Dart is the Celtic word for “many oaks”.

Dartmouth perches at its mouth, a town with a history of ships and shipping and a story dominated by the sea. It was not until 1823 that the town became accessible by land for wheeled vehicles almost sixty years after our house was built. Up until that time only pack horses or ponies could manage the steep descent to town and .quay; the river was the motorway to the town.
In the 12th century Dartmouth was the fourth most important town in Devon after Exeter, Plymouth and Barnstaple. The First Crusade left in 1147 and the third in 1190. Dartmouth was already meeting the needs of commercial shipping. Smith Street, Higher Street and Lower Street formed the town centre on the water’s edge; merchant houses and warehouses backed onto the river making it easy to load and unload cargoes straight from ships. Boats lay alongside for repairs and the quay side was a thriving marketplace, the earliest recorded in 1231. Plenty of fresh water flowed from the hills above the town filling conduits which were still in use in the 20th century. The water supply made Dartmouth a popular place with brewers and vintners and in 1364 it received the Charter of Merchant Vintners increasing trade in cloth and herring as well as wine.
There were brewers, bakers, butchers and craftsmen. There was the pillory, stocks and a cucking stool in the waterside churchyard of St Saviours. Laws were plenty to dissuade the unscrupulous tradesman; a Millar must only have 3 hens and a cock in case he should feed client’s grain to his poultry. If he gave short weight he was fined for the first two offences then, if he offended again, he was into the pillory. A similar fate awaited the brewer who sold short measure. On his third offence it was into the cucking stool then into the pillory soaking wet; a nasty deterrent. And so on for the fishmonger and cook. Tavernier’s were forbidden to make their own wine and one Innkeeper who used his premises as a Brothel was simply expelled from the town.

Until 1823 the river was the motorway of the town

The strength behind the success of the town for many years was the great merchant and shipmaster, Hawley 1340-1408. It was he who fortified the town with a great chain that could be cast across the mouth of the river thus giving the town the power to stop enemy ships entering or leaving. So impressed was Chaucer when he met Hawley while visiting Dartmouth in his role as customs officer on behalf of the King in 1373, that he is believed to have based his famous Schipman upon him in the Canterbury Tales. Hawley’s achievements are legendry, mayor many times, a privateer of huge reputation and some say, possibly something of a pirate too. On his death the town mourned the loss of one of its greatest and began to decline.
But not for long, as the fishing trade increased so Dartmouth was to become famous for the Newfoundland fisheries. Sir Walter Raleigh, “a local”, described the fishery as “the mainstay of the West”. So important was it that the crews sailing to Newfoundland were exempt press-ganging into the Navy at times of war. The ships were away for half the year salting and drying the cod on board and trading it with goods from Spain, France and Portugal on their return en route to Dartmouth. As time passed fishing became more local and by the 18th century Devon boats were sending fish to Bristol, Bath, Portsmouth, London and the Channel Islands. The fish was kept alive in huge tanks on board ship.
Gradually the town began to change. It is hard to imagine Victoria Road under water until the beginning of the 19th Century; crossing places at North Ford and South Ford uniting the two small towns of Hardness and Clifton which together formed Dartmouth. Drainage and land reclamation began in earnest.

Foss Street

By the 1820’s Foss Street was dry land leading to the new Market Place. Wheeled vehicles began to come down the hill into the town at last. Local trade increased as farmers were able to bring more produce to market and supply local shops. Burgoyne’s the Butcher and Oldreive Brothers in Fairfax Place victualed the ships and fed the town. The display of poultry and game from the first floor of Oldreives was such that they employed staff all night to prevent “pilfering”.

And so the town swung into the 20th then 21st century. Small traders like Mr Shillibeare and Mr Cutmore the butchers, Crisp and Green the greengrocers, Dave Killer the Chemist, Cundells the Grocer, have all given way to the supermarkets. There is just one butcher now run by the Pollards who cut up our lamb and pork so beautifully for our customers.

Jilly’s Farm Shop sells local produce every week day. High quality restaurants, cafes and pubs abound. The old bakery is gone but the fabulous patisserie, Saveurs has arrived from France. The old Market has recently been magnificently refurbished: the fat stock show and the farmers market keep the old traditions not just alive but thriving there, local food producers bring their produce to the town as they have done for centuries, then by boat, by cart or pack horse, now by car or van.

The fishing fleet mostly trade from nearby Brixham now but the crabbers still come, into the river and wonderful fresh fish is still available in abundance; local food producers are once more thriving and multiplying and local food is slowly being valued once again. Times change, and as in the past, Dartmouth adjusts to the needs of the moment; the multiplicity of a present built upon hundreds of years of the past.

A delicious smell of chicken stock floats into the study as I write, the very last vestiges of a delicious local free range bird I bought from the Pollards last week. We’re hard to please when it comes to chickens having spent so many years raising table birds ourselves. But this was as good as anything we used to sell! And it provided so many meals. First I cooked traditional roast chicken. The following day a wonderful cold chicken salad, then a chicken and mushroom pie with added Hogs Pudding. The latter made by the aforesaid Richard Pollard even won the approval of by my Cornish husband! This evening a risotto and still to go, stock for soup, even scraps as a treat for the dogs! Not bad for one small chicken.

Left over chicken pie
Strip the last pieces of meat from the carcase. Use the bones to make stock for soup.
Finely chop a small onion or shallot in a little butter and oil (the oil stops the butter burning)
When the onion is soft but not coloured add sliced mushrooms, a little chopped bacon and Hogs Pudding if you can get it. It tends to be available only in the West Country.
Cook gently for a few minutes then stir in stock or left over gravy to a creamy consistency. Thicken with corn flour if necessary.
Add the chicken and some chopped parsley. Taste and season accordingly.
Tip into a pie dish. Cover with ready-made puff pastry. Brush with beaten egg and bake for till crisp and golden in a hot oven 200 c

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