Dec 21 2008

Happy Christmas

With a little old driver so lively and quick
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick……
“The Night before Christmas” Dr. Clement C. Moore

A happy Christmas to everyone across the world
And a peaceful 2009

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Dec 20 2008

Holding on this Christmas

My tipsy little Christmas tree sits jauntily in the dining room sporting the same dear old decorations its predecessors have worn for years. I love the sameness of it, the reassuring repetition, same old well worn, slightly shabby decorations, presents piling up on the floor, excited grand children arriving and trying to guess the contents. The cats bounce at the baubles, the dogs sniff out the chocolates. Fairy lights wink in the dusk, crackers on the table, fir crackles in the grate, yummy cooking smells from the stove; same old rituals, same old timetable, all so reassuring.

And this year, as the very bedrock of our society wobbles precariously around us and people around the world caught up in war and recession, famine and disease struggle to find enough to eat, to get medical help, keep homes and jobs, survive one way or another. At times like these that shabby sameness seems even more important than ever to hang on to. Christmas and New Year are for family and friends, for loving and sharing, a chance to give each other the free gifts of life: time, space, companionship, fun, laughter and love.

It’s hard though, as we face each new crisis, hear the news, read papers, watch television switch onto the internet, hard to hold the faith that we’ll get through hard times just as we get through the good times. Time passes.

The sheep are getting fat on the hill. They’ll be lambing in a few weeks time without a clue about interest rates; hedge funds have quite another meaning for them.sunset-sheepc.jpgSheep dogs aren’t interested in sub prime problems either, no mortgage on their kennel. Donkeys are just so pleased with their new hay and mineral derivative that they don’t care about the credit crunch either.donksa.jpg And the chickens don’t waste a thought on politicians.cockeralsb.jpg
Lucky them, I wish I could say the same! Instead I find myself wondering where on earth we’re going and fearing what the New Year may bring.

So unable to change the world I turn instead to cooking a Christmas feast for family and friends. It’s time for the traditional roast turkey and Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies; comforting once more in turbulent times.
We had nineteen for lunch last Sunday which concentrated my mind wonderfully! We had a Glazed Ham, cold Rare Roast Beef with fresh herbs, olive oil and Japanese wasabi.

I made a Galantine of Chicken stuffed with marinated pork, juniper berries and spinach. A guest looked at the latter with suspicion “Why is that chicken so flat? Is it road kill?” How I laughed and thought serves me right for showing off; but it did taste good!

I grilled polenta and boiled Pink Firapple potatoes, made a salad of peas and broad beans with bacon and artichoke hearts. We had another of green leaves from the polytunnel, a third of shredded raw vegetables and grilled red peppers with plenty of garlic and olive oil.

For pudding I made tiny chocolate mousse in coffee cups, a Hazelnut meringue cake with apricot conserve and last years raspberries from the deep freeze.
We had a big Tarte au Pomme made with windfall apples still lying in the garden, then sumptuous soft Brie with Italian Flat bread oozing raisins and grapes. I cheat with that making the dough in the bread maker then dividing it in half and pulling each half into a thin flat circle. I put the first circle on a baking tray and smother it with fat raisins and grapes. Then the second circle goes on top and I press more grapes into the dough, sprinkle with sugar and put it somewhere warm to rise for at least half an hour to an hour. It takes about twenty five minutes to bake in a hot oven at 200c. Served slightly warm and gooey it’s delicious with any soft cheese.

Galantine of Chicken….

from henceforth known as “Road Kill Chicken”!!

Large free range fresh chicken
Sharp filleting knife

2 large shallot or I onion
500gms minced pork
6/8 juniper berries
2 large cloves of garlic
tlb. spoon mixed dried herbs
zest and juice of a lemon
red wine
200grams (approx) chicken livers
2 handfuls blanched spinach leaves
salt & freshly ground black pepper

Chop the onion, crush the juniper berries in a pestle and mortar and crush the garlic to a paste with a little salt. Strip the zest from the lemon and squeeze the juice. Stir all together into the pork with mixed dried herbs, a good slurp of red wine, salt and pepper.

Bone the chicken very carefully with a sharp knife. I prefer a filleting knife with a flexible blade and I leave the wing bones in to give a little structure. Be careful not to puncture the skin.

When the carcass and the thigh bones are removed open the meat out flat and season well. Press half the pork mixture into the chicken followed by half the blanched spinach. Arrange the chicken livers on the spinach then complete with remaining spinach and pork.
Carefully close the chicken and sew up using fine string and a larding needle. Press the chicken roughly back into a chicken shape. Wrap in tin foil and place in a close fitting dish. Stand the dish in a bain marie and cook at 180 for one and a half hours.

Test with a skewer; if the juices run clear it is cooked through. If the juices are pink continue cooking for a further few minutes and test again.

Take out of the oven. Drain the bain marie and put a heavy weight on top of the chicken till it is cold. Refrigerate.

Carefully remove all the string. Serve sliced on a large plate decorated with fresh sliced lemons and salad leaves.

Hazelnut Meringue Cake

This must be one of the best!

2 x 20cm cake tins
4 egg whites
250gms castor sugar
150grms hazelnuts
150ml double cream
Compote of apricots
fresh raspberries
icing sugar

Grease tins and line with non-stick baking parchment. Oil again.
Heat the oven to 190c. Brown hazelnuts, cool, then grind till fine.
Whisk egg whites with half the sugar till stiff. Gently fold in remaining sugar. Fold in ground nuts. Bake for 30-40 minutes looking regularly; all ovens differ! The meringue should be lightly browned and dry but slightly chewy. Cool on a rack.
Meanwhile whip the cream to soft peaks.
Place one half of the meringue on a plate spread with cream and apricot compote. Place second meringue on top and smother with remaining cream and raspberries. Dust with icing sugar.
Serve the same day.


Dear little Minnie Mouse, died peacefully yesterday aged an amazing fifteen years old this month. She had a wonderful life on the farm, a charming, funny and a wild little terrier. She was champion ratter and a tenacious hunter when out, a sweet natured loving little dog at home. She gave us so much love and laughter over the years. She is buried beside her dear old friend Truffles, the chocolate Labrador, companion and co- conspirator for fourteen years of her life

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Nov 20 2008

Carlo Petrini’s in Devon


I’ve been pondering lately the complicated relationship the British seem to have with their food these days. Contradictions abound. On the one hand we treat food as fantastic entertainment; our TV screens host a plethora of food programmes. We lap up Raymond Blanc’s “Restaurant”, Gordon Ramsey’s food nightmares and marathon cookalongs; all entertaining stuff. But loads of us still don’t or won’t cook at home; too busy, too expensive; too boring. Or is it? Is Jamie Oliver right? As a nation, are we losing the skill?

There seems to be a rumour about that good food is a luxury; it’s for the middle classes, the wealthy, for “toffs”, not for everyone. Is this true? Do we really believe eating is self-indulgent, good food unnecessary, that we can survive on basics, chemicals even, masquerading expensively, as the real thing, and feel good about it? Do some of us perhaps still have just the ghost of a memory of rationing all those years ago, a whiff of a hand-me-down rather than actual memory which tells us to make do or do without? Maybe we even drag with us some internalised abstract legacy from the 19th century about the evils of self indulgence; some of that parsimony still lurking in our social subconscious.
And now we are left with a huge contradiction as we grapple with these internalised values. Our supermarket shelves groan with food. We can have whatever we fancy, in theory, all the year round; in theory because we must pay for this privilege both in money and damage to the environment. We all need to eat to stay alive and yet, still we do not feel able to allow food, the very source of life, to be a pleasure. Parsimony has been replaced in part by the belief that eating is a tiresome chore. As a nation we are inclined to snatch something on the hoof instead of sitting round a table. And we throw millions of tons of the stuff away everyday. We live, or have done until the events of the last few weeks, in a world of excesses. Since then our norm has been shaken to the roots.
Is change on the way and if it is can we make it work for us? Is it time to reassess, to start to think a little laterally, to look around the world to see if there is anything out there we can do for ourselves to help us through these turbulent times? Could we, for example, take a lesson perhaps from the Slow Food Movement?

Over the last few years the Slow Food movement has, slowly and steadfastly, taken hold worldwide. In 1986 when Carlo Petrini witnessed McDonald’s appear on the Spanish Steps in Rome he knew he could not just stand by and do nothing. Slow Food was born. One man’s inspiration is proving to be a grassroots movement that can and does bring real change to the way we are beginning to think about the sustainability of our planet as a whole, our relationship with it and with each other. This inspiring man came to the UK on November 19th, came to Devon to speak in the Great Hall at Dartington. His overwhelming message was that sustainable responsible world farming is the way for the future. He spoke for over an hour through his brilliant interpreter: his message “I am strongly convinced that the world economic crisis will lead to more respect for the rural economy, agriculture and farming”
At the recent Slow Food Terra Madre event of Oct 24-27, 6000 delegates from 153 countries from all over the world came together in Turin to discuss, to celebrate, to develop food production ; the cooking, the sharing, the selling, the writing, the thinking behind real traditional food. As Marc Millon, Slow Food guru and writer, present at the huge gathering, put it so eloquently:” We were linked, as much as anything with this vast and diverse gathering, by a system of beliefs and values about the worth of rural activities and local food production, protection of the earth, and the value of real food, traditional food, simply to make our lives, as well as our livelihoods, better”.
Some of the worlds most influential food figures, lobbyists and politicians, attended this years Terra Madre. The iconic chef Alice Waters was there, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Dr Vandana Shiva. All shared the view that co-ordinated global action is needed to ensure the future world’s food supply. Dr Shiva received a standing ovation for her angry and political attack on a world that bails out corrupt bankers yet balks at the challenge of eradicating hunger and poverty and giving rights to those who produce our food. ” we cannot accept that the destiny of humanity is the continuation of poverty: we want something else for future generations”.

We may feel powerless to change the world but we have the potential if we can find the will. Here in the West country we are surrounded by local food producers of every sort; we have farmers, fishermen, growers, manufacturers, distributors, who hold, with integrity, the core belief that sustainably produced food is the right of every man, woman and child on the planet. Let us join them, change our attitudes and rediscover the pleasure and fun of sharing our resources.
Financial sustainability is crucial to a healthy economy but it is not everything. There is more to life than simply money, economics, financial survival. There is so much we can do for each other with very little cost: we can share knowledge, give time, companionship, watch out for one another. And we can use food, the staple of our very existence as the lynch pin of this sharing. Good, clean, fair food is for us all and, in sharing, neighbourhoods, communities, countries come together with friendship across the world. The Terra Madre in Turin proved it.
Sally Vincent:
Western Morning News
October 10th 2008

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Nov 09 2008

To Make Lasagne

Like so many classic Italian dishes, lasagne varies from region to region. Internationally, of course, it has developed another identity altogether as a readymade dish available everywhere which, like Pizza, bears little resemblance to its country of origin.
We are most accustomed to a variation made up of a meat and tomato sauce, a simplified ragu, layered with a cheese sauce and sheets of easy-cook pasta. It does take time to prepare so it’s worth doubling up on the quantities for a big group of friends or for portions in the freezer.
500gms lasagne
750 ml Bechamel sauce….homemade or good quality ready made
150 gms grated parmesan cheese
Ragu; see below
The Ragu
200gms minced beef or mixed pork and beef
55gms chopped prosciutto or streaky bacon
1 chopped onion, carrot, celery stalk
3 tablespoons tomato puree
A glass of red wine
A little beef or chicken stock
Butter and oil for frying
Salt and pepper
Melt butter with a little oil in a heavy flat pan; the oil stops the butter burning. Fry the vegetables and bacon gently till soft. Add the meat and brown a further ten minutes. Stir in the wine and allow it to bubble to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Stir in tomato puree and a little stock to loosen the ragu to a sauce like consistency. Simmer for 1 ½ hours adding more stock if it becomes dry. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper.
To assemble the dish:
First carefully read the instructions for the lasagne: some need cooking in boiling water before assembly and some are ready cooked and can go in straight from the packet!
Spread a layer of béchamel sauce on the bottom of a large flat gratin dish. Follow with a single layer of lasagne. Nest some of the Ragu, then more lasagne and so on. Finish with Bechamel and a thick layer of the cheese. Bake in a hot oven for thirty minutes until golden on top. Remove from the oven and allow to set for ten minutes before serving.
In his wonderful book, Complete Italian Food, Antonio Carluccio adds fried courgette, aubergine, spinach balls and porcini between each layer of lasagne and ragu; a truly sumptuous version!

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Sep 25 2008

Dark Days of Autumn

Golden autumn sunshine briefly floods the rain soaked valley. Geese are arriving for the winter; they screech and circle overhead as they prepare to land clumsily on the creek beyond our gate. Sheep glisten on the hillside high above my window, their fleece still wet from the relentless summer rain. The dry interlude has brought a frenzy of activity across the county as farmers race to save the remains of their sodden crops. Tractors, combines, ploughs, harvesters growl their way over the fields cutting brown over-ripe corn, ploughing through mud, lifting overdue potatoes, saving whatever they can as fast as they can. More rain is on its way. Suddenly the dark sky is back, and there is a sharp chill in the wind. An air of gloom hangs over us all as we realise winter approaches following the summer that never arrived.

August was the worst month since records began in 1929. Acres of crops have been lost across the whole country. Flooding has been wide spread and hundreds of lambs have been lost in floods, 800 in Northumberland alone. For some farmers this is the second time they have been flooded in two years. It bodes badly for the winter months ahead. Wheat is sprouting in the fields as rain prevents harvest and crops must be written off as drying costs soar with the world hike in oil prices. Potatoes rot in water logged soil, other root crops simply fail to mature in the cold wet weather. Salad crops are not germinating and the cold spring and late frost devastated most of the fruit crop. Cider makers, though, say they have a bumper crop of apples.
I worry about feeding sheep and donkeys as the winter months draw near. Hay and straw is going to be expensive and scarce and, although we have plenty of grass at the moment, it is poor quality and lacks sugar. We’ll have to supplement everyone’s winter feed, particularly the ewes, if we are to have sturdy lambs next year. This year’s lambs have suffered everywhere from the lack of sun of their backs and are finishing more slowly than ever.

And then of course there is the world stage to bring us even more despair as financial markets crash around our ears. Our own political climate is no better with media feeding us a steady daily flow of doom and gloom; little to lift our hearts in these grey September days. Indeed a creeping feeling of helplessness is threatening to take hold and must be resisted at all costs.
So I turn once more to my garden for solace. I harvest what crops I can and enjoy the fading blooms of autumn. Gentians glow bright blue by the back door. Blousy pink cosmos, scarlet dahlias and pale anemones clash wildly by the pond.
Huge water lily leaves glisten in the evening light and the clerodendron tree fills the air with sweet scent. The last roses and geraniums flower bravely on despite rain and wind. Autumn leaves change colour and glow briefly in fleeting sunlight. The little Katsura tree, golden now, smells, of burnt toffee as I pass by on my way to the yard to feed chickens and donkeys and check sheep. Late broods of new chicks crowd the farmyard, miraculously surviving storms and predators.
Vegetables of all sorts go into the deep freeze, with more urgency than ever as food prices rise across the board. I managed to pick a good crop of beans before disease ruined the plants.
Courgette exploded into marrows in the wet weather if I turned my back for a moment. Still, they will feed all those chickens in the barren winter months. Chard stalks glow pink, yellow and scarlet beneath their glossy green leaves. Turnips, carrots, swedes swelled in the wet ground and have been rescued before they rot. Potato blight devastated the tops of the plants but, by cutting them down quickly, I still have a reasonable crop. Tomato plants turned brown and crisp, suffering, I suppose, from the same blight as the spuds but the fruit is still ripening on its dying host. In the poly tunnel I have had a few small feeble aubergine and three fine pumpkins, huge shiny and dark orange, but yet another blight has withered and whitened the leaves.

Meanwhile a marauding army of cabbage-white caterpillars marches relentlessly through the salad crop stripping bare every leaf.

It has indeed been a very strange year in the vegetable garden but I have a great new arrival in my kitchen…..Every cloud, even one as big as this years summer, has a silver lining! The terrifying rise in oil prices forced me to sit down and look long and hard at my oil bill and my poor inefficient old cooker. It had to go. It dried the clothes and heated the water but the minute I lifted its lid or put something in the oven to cook, it threw up its metaphorical hands and the temperature plummeted. We twiddled our fingers wondering when we would be allowed to eat. And all the while it gobbled more and more oil.

So now we have a shiny new electric range with a separate heat source to the two hot plates, two ovens and, oh wonder, grill! This means they all independently hold their heat. If I use the simmering plate, the hot oven remains hot; if I bake bread in the top oven the simmering plate still holds its temperature! Obvious really, but I didn’t realise how used I had become to limping along with my grumpy old fellow. Best of all the new girl has an “eco” button which turns the temperature of the whole cooker down all night, bringing it up again in time for breakfast.
Cooking has become a real pleasure and relaxation once more. I no longer think “Oh I can’t cook that; poor old fellow won’t manage it”. Potatoes roast, vegetables too. Pastry crisps, soufflés rise, gratins brown, bread bakes crisp and golden, meat roasts succulently and briskly. Stews and ragouts mellow gently in the cooler oven. Herbs and tomatoes dry in the third little plate warming oven and I am making wonderful real yogurt once more. Cooking is fun again!

Now I am able to cook our own lamb chops, pink and succulent, under my fierce new grill. I blanch some of the last runner beans, before cooking them in olive oil with my own chopped tomatoes and a clove of garlic until the tomatoes melt. Add some Pink Fir Apple potatoes that have escaped the blight and we have a small delicious feast all harvested from our little piece of Devon.

The last of the broad beans are blanched and added to a béchamel sauce that is enriched with cream and ham and accompanied by a baked potato.

Chard leaves are blanched quickly too, before they are added to their colourful chopped stems, which have been softened in a little butter and oil with garlic and chopped shallots. Mixed with a couple of fresh eggs from the farmyard and a dollop of cream I turn the mixture into a pastry case, sprinkle the top with grated cheese and bake in the top oven until the pastry is crisp and the filling quiveringly set.

Root vegetables are sliced and sprinkled with salt, then roasted in the hottest part of the oven in olive oil to make a light supper with couscous or rice.

Any of the garden vegetables are dragooned into use for a quick lunchtime soup; sweated in oil till just soft they are added to a tub of frozen chicken stock, simmered gently, seasoned and served with crusty home made bread.

I daresay I will even make a cake one day and maybe even cook exploding, crunchy, golden Yorkshire puds!


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Sep 05 2008

Making Stock

A friend of mine who has recently had to take on all the cooking for the first time looked at me in a puzzled way the other day and said “When you’re making soup where does the liquid come from?” If you’ve never cooked before it’s a very good question! I laughed and explained about making stock, ‘take the meat off the cooked chicken, put the carcass in a pot. Fill the pot with water, add a bay leaf, some herbs, a carrot, an onion and put the whole thing in the bottom of your kitchen range and go to bed’! “Goodness” he said and looked delighted. Just then someone else spoke to me and our conversation on soup finished. But I overheard him trying to find out more from a photographer friend. “Where do you get the liquid from?” he asked again ” A stock cube, of course!”. I laughed to myself. It was like me taking my happy snaps to Boots to have them processed when I know my friend works for hours printing to perfection in her dark room. So horses for courses, make your stock or use a cube!  The basis of soup is the same. Sweat vegetables slowly in a covered pan over a gentle heat in a little butter and oil until they are soft. If you want a thick soup add a potato or some rice and stir in a little flour. Omit these if you want a clear soup with bits! When the vegetables are just tender stir in the stock, simmer season and serve.
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Aug 01 2008

Cabbages and Summer Rain

It’s three in the morning and the storm which woke me from a restless sleep, is easing a little. Exceptional rain, the worst since records began, has dominated most of July. A few glorious days seduced us briefly into believing summer had finally arrived. Balmy heat haze across the fields brought the farmers out in a frenzy of activity trying to get in hay and cut corn while it was dry. But, alas, the rain is back with a vengeance.
The kittens greeted me wetly as I walked out of the back door in the middle of the night. They raced downstairs eagerly to my basement study hoping for a midnight feast. Min and Meg looked up from their baskets for a second and wearily shut their eyes tight, Welly didn’t stir. Ginger Fred is, I suppose, out hunting and picking fights.

I can’t sleep again; all wired up on pills and puffers to help me breath, I’m wide awake, mind racing. Funny thing asthma, months go by when I forget all about it, reluctantly taking routine medication while wondering if I really need it at all. Then, wham, a teeny cold and I’m rattling like an old rattle-bag. I wonder what a rattle bag is; must Google it later. It’s hard to sleep sitting up anyway and faintly reassuring to be awake and certain I am in fact still breathing, if rather badly! Of course I’ll pay the price tomorrow.
Kittens, full now; have left for more wet nocturnal adventure. Actually they’re not kittens any more. I’ve had them a whole year. A whole year since I visited Phil’s farm and wrote about his sheep (Old Traditions New Skills: July 2007); a whole year since he and Gail pressed two tiny furry boys into my hands and said “here you are, take these home with you!” They still bounce round my study when I’m writing, climbing across the computer keys adding interesting punctuation and even weirder spelling than my very own. I am constantly amazed at the pleasure they give me, funny, happy affectionate little animals; such a contrast to the grumpy Fred, who only speaks about food, then says he wants a chat and rewards with a sharp bite. Funny old boy, in turn he growls grumpily at the newcomers and tries to pretend they don’t exist. Poor chap; I guess he feels a bit displaced.
All the other animals are getting old. Little Min, the feisty Cairn, is incredibly fifteen in September. She still potters off and gets lost but has finally given up ratting for a quieter life. Her great love is Boris, the boy next door, who is singularly disinterested in an old girl like her having a bright new collie companion of his own. Deaf and a bit dotty she pursues him undeterred.
Meg at eleven is getting less enthusiastic about climbing hills to bring down the sheep but then she’s always been keen on me giving her a hand!
Even her daft daughter, Welly, is eight. Can it really be over eight years ago that the wayward Buck, (pronounced in the village as BOOK) passed by, leaving me a legacy of nine collie x lurcher puppies. I ran fast but not as fast as him and, alas, I was too late. I remember wondering how I was going to tell Paul his Beloved was in pup! And now I have the incredibly intelligent, loving, anxious Wells whose terror knows no limit at the sound of thunder, gunshots or, indeed, champagne corks.
Dandy is thirty five now by my reckoning; a dear old donkey, gentle and safe with my grandchildren. He’s plagued once more with an abscess in his foot. A fault right through one hoof makes him so susceptible to infection in this muddy wet weather. He’s improving now and today we were able to put his little boot on his bad foot and let him out with the other donkeys which cheered him up. He climbed to the top of his field for the best grass so I think he’s feeling better.
A new generation of chickens is appearing in the yard as hen after hen appears leading a procession of fluffy pingpong balls. We rush round gathering up each new family and finding them safe, rat free quarters to raise their young. Some of the chicks have hatched from blue eggs so the old Aracuana fellow has left his legacy.
Lambs graze wetly on the hill, fat now on sweet summer grass. Ewes are getting into shape for autumn and the arrival of a new tup. The last of the hogs are heading for customers’ deep freezes. Round goes the season again.

Maybe it’s time to try for sleep once more and dream about what on earth I can do with a truly enormous cabbage I have just been gifted!
I had a call from a friend asking if she could bring someone over to learn about donkeys with a view to buying her own. Of course, I said, and was rewarded with the vast brassica; what on earth to do with it. It is a huge quantity for the two of us and the vegetable garden is at its most abundant now despite rain and potato blight.
I have broad beans and runner beans, French ones on the way, pea-beans and courgette, carrots and turnips, lettuce and chicory, aubergine and tomatoes but no cabbage. My own brassica, cavalo nero, purple sprouting, and, a new one this year, pink Brussel sprouts will not be ready for ages.
Restless and grounded by asthma and rain I turned to Jane Grigson for some enlightenment on cabbage and, true to her great self, she told me that cabbage has been eaten here since the time of the Celts and the Romans, that it has “original sin” and needs improvement and has a nasty history of being good for you! I love it! Read Pliny, she says if you don’t believe me. Her daughter Sophie, in Eat Your Greens, (Network Books 1993) exemplifies this with her scientific explanation; “as cabbage is cooked, compounds including ammonia and hydrogen sulphide – the rotten egg smell – are produced. Between the fifth and seventh minute of cooking the amount of hydrogen sulphide doubles in output. So, either cook your cabbage in less than five minutes, or keep going for long enough for all the chemical changes to take place….”.

Well that was it, I tipped out all my cookery books from their shelves and, intrigued now by this humble veg, indulged myself in hours of reading! I was on a roll! The Greeks and Romans believed cabbage would stop them getting drunk. Some think this is indeed born out by recent research at a Texan university where cabbage is said to be “hostile” to the vine. And some Mediterranean farmers never plant brassicas near vine or beehives believing bees transfer the odour to both grapes and honey, tainting both.

Horace apparently liked it with pickled pork. Diogenes is said to have lived, astonishingly, on only cabbage and water. And I did indeed find out a little of Pliny’s views on the subject too; he wrote recipes for cabbage with leeks, olives, semolina, pine kernels, raisins and pepper, while extolling the healing properties of this humble brassica. But, alas, from Roman times to Mediaeval banquets it was renowned for causing wind, inciting Lucullus to declare it had no place at a gentleman’s table. Indeed it was forbidden in C6BC in China and in India 400 years later. And year’s later still Dr Johnson mentions it in his rule of etiquette as the “ill wind behind”!

The earliest cabbage was a wild tough derivative of the mustard plant and sea cabbage, brassica oleracea, unpalatable to us now but grown as an herb and allowed to bolt by northern European peasants who stewed it with onions and the occasional belly of salt pork. It supplemented their meagre winter diet of bread and grain, porridge and ale.

In the Middle Ages cabbage plasters were used for sciatica and varicose ulcers. In the C18th Captain Cook took crates of cabbage on board ship to prevent scurvy and cabbage compresses were used to prevent gangrene.

It was not until the C16th the word legume for vegetables replaced the term herb and the Savoy cabbage arrived. It continued as the staple of northern Europe throughout the C18th appearing salted and fermented as early sauerkraut accompanying sausages, as choucroute, over the border into France, with the newly arrived potatoes, and with veal cooked in fermented milk. Here at home, William Ellis, in his “Country Housewife and Family Companion”, (Prospect Books 2000) tells us how to preserve Cabbages and Collyflowers at Allhollantide “withall rough leaves on keep under wheat straw or tie up the leaves around them with string to protect from frost, hang in the cellar roots and all”.
My splendid 1880 Mrs Beeton tells me to boil cabbage in half a gallon of water, 1 tablespoon of salt and a small piece of soda. Cook in plenty of fast boiling water till tender….Savoy ½ – ¾ of an hour and summer cabbage 10-15 minutes; cost 2d in season. Oh dear, original sin indeed and a strong smell of sulphur to boot! Memories of 1950’s school dinners fill my head. I always wondered how they achieved the soggy, smelly yellow mess swimming around an enormous aluminium dish!

But it can be delicious! Yes, really! Red cabbage cooked long and slow with apples, smoked bacon and juniper berries is a delicious accompaniment to game birds, sausages and venison.

Spring cabbage fried quickly with a chopped shallot in butter and a little oil, to stop the butter burning, is a fresh and crunchy companion to grilled chops or bacon. Stir in some crème fraiche, pine nuts or a spoonful of pesto together with some chopped de-seeded tomatoes and you have a quick pasta sauce, not a classic, I admit, but very good nevertheless.

I stripped the outside leaves from my gargantuan gift and blanched them for a couple of minutes in boiling water. Carefully dried on kitchen paper, then wrapped separately in layers, they went into the deep freeze. They will re-emerge in time to be stuffed with various spicy fillings of chicken or pork, rice or couscous. Placed in an oven proof dish and covered with a cheesy sauce they will provide comforting warming suppers as an autumn chill descends on the valley.

I’m so glad to have received my cabbage gift!

The Four Elements: Joachim Beuckelaer worked 1560-1574

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Jul 10 2008

Midsummer Dreaming

The sun is shining down in that funny, crystal clear, July- watery sort of way. The sky glows an infinitive iridescent turquoise, crowded with outrageously unreal puffy clouds. Great blobs of soft white meringue race across blue emptiness. Dragon flies and glimmering damsels hover over the crispy white cups of water lilies on the pond. The wind stirs up the scent of roses hurling their petals into the air. Sheep and cows stand out like little plastic farmyard toys dotted across the hillside and the trees, silhouetted on the hilltops, surely belong to Hornby. Of course it is all too good to be true. Perfect visibility means rain, more rain, horizontal rain, sideways rain, rain, rain, rain.
It rained on midsummer evening as Titania and Oberon railed at each other over possession of the Changeling child, as Lysander and Demetrius, Helena and Hermia fell under Puck’s impish spell. It continued to rain as the lover’s confusion grew. It rained as the men drew their swords and Hermia and Helena ranted wildly at each other exchanging insults.
It rained as the Mechanicals planned the performance of their “lamentable Comedy” of Pyramus and Thisby for the Duke and Duchess. Alas, as they rehearsed with damp gusto, hoping nervously for riches rather than the gallows, Puck was still up to no good. Bottom found himself rudely “translated” into an Ass. Titania, drugged too, by a magic potion, slept wetly in her bower, only to wake and fall hopelessly in love with this slightly soggy Ass. Fairies danced lightly in the raindrops, fairy lights twinkled through the trees glistening on the pond. Puck glowed greenly from his secret tree watching his mischief unfold. And still it rained.

It continued to rain until Oberon stepped in and made Puck undo his mischief and restore order and love. It rained as the grand Duke Theseus and his Duchess arrived for their wedding feast. It rained as the Mechanicals clumsily unfolded their impossible farce.

And we had a huge audience. We did! For both performances the beautiful terraced garden filled with umbrellas, oilskins, tarpaulins, damp, smoked salmon sandwiches, slippery bottles of watery wine, laughter and love.
“Surely they’ll go home in the interval” we waterlogged thespians asked as we tipped toed from our polytunnel dressing room. “They won’t stay to the end, will they?” we looked at each other astonished……and they did. They gave us a standing ovation after both performances, and we, the cast, applauded them. It was truly magical!

Fireworks cracked through the night air, music filled the dripping sky. Only in Britain, we laughed, only in Britain could we be so triumphantly daft and carry on with such huge success, in the pouring rain. Somehow the adrenalin cut in even more than usual!

Phone calls and e mails followed. How had we done it? How come it was so professional? Where all the actors really just amateurs? “ I saw a production in Regents Park and yours was better!” “Really?” “Yes, really!”

But then of course, we live in this funny corner of the world where people appear from nowhere to lend their professional technical skill: “Oh, by the way, I do/did that for a living. Can I help” It happened over and over again until we had the most extra ordinary team to bring this dream of the Dream to life. It really was one of the happiest and most fun things I have done for a very long time. Extraordinary!

Oh, and it’s still raining!

Sometimes I’m asked if I really live such an idyllic life in idyllic surroundings. Well yes in a way I suppose I do. …… except for the normal grind of everyday life; oil costs rising, war, famine, knife crime, bad news in every newspaper, doom and gloom on all broadcasting channels. Downturn, recession, sub-prime disaster, food crisis, property crisis, political crisis, world crisis….

Yes, I do live in the real world but I also live in a beautiful part of the real world. It is that which I try to celebrate and to share. I do realise how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to find a certain peace and tranquillity sometimes among the quiet of the fields and the peacefulness of the animals but I am not smug as one erstwhile reader sadly remarked; I am not even lucky, I just am. I live a quiet life, mostly in the rain, which so many would find extremely dull and boring. I value it. I love it.

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May 20 2008

Gardening Time

Bluebells march through Devon in May with such reassuring relentlessness energy they make my heart sing. Like the pink waves of Sakura unfurling across Japan in spring, Devon turns blue.
As the clouds of cherry blossom petals drift northwards from Okinawa to the northern tip on Hakkaido, the Japanese meteorological Agency issues regular news bulletins tracking its progress. Hanami festivals bring crowds to parks across the country to celebrate the brief pink, beauty representing the fragility of life itself. No parties in the park here, though, to celebrate the blueness of May, no sake or beer festivals, no news bulletins or public holidays for the bluebell; just the overwhelming private joy of an intoxicatingly blue world pursuing me through lanes and woodlands where ever I go.
I wonder what it is that I find so irresistible about blue flowers. Forget-me-nots smother great swathes of the garden, ceonothus drips heady scented blueness across the lawn. One small, stalwart, mecanopsis stares out at me from the boarder, iridescent and fragile, it’s petals falling all too soon. Lobelia springs darkly from beneath geraniums and sage and rosemary are bursting into flower in the herb garden. I cannot bring myself to pull up wild alkenet vying for position amongst marching pink campion. Creeping speedwell peeps out along the hedgerows, beneath every tree, round every corner. Centaurea Montana threatens to smother everything in the border with its fluffy thistle-like flowers. And I wait in anticipation for the great clumps of geranium Johnson’s’ Blue to erupt on the banks, for salvia Patens and glowing, majestic agapanthus. And, of course, for now there is the bluebell. I do love blue flowers!
We may not have a Hanami festival here, but all is a frenzy of activity in this garden, in this corner of Devon, this week. We had a call from the vicar’s wife asking if we would open to the public for McMillan Nurses on June 1st. “Don’t worry” she said “I will organise everything: publicity, tea ladies, urns, tables, chairs, cakes, parking signs….” Maybe, I mused looking out at the nourishing summer rain, maybe, she’d even ask her husband to have a word with God about the weather.
She tells me I need do nothing but garden. What luxury is that! All my energy and attention is funnelled into the soil! The sun burns down on my back between showers, as, hat crammed on head, mud smudged across face, hands stained brown with compost, I dig, manure, weed, sow, plant out, plot and plan. What happier life could there be?
Geraniums, wintered inside, are finally allowed out. Re-potted and titivated, they line the steps by the back door. The olive tree, now so large in its huge pot, is dragged from winter protection. Others must stay inside but have space and air around to spread themselves at last. The lemon tree and abutilon are both already in flower. The avocado is nearly six feet tall and stands majestically like some beautiful elegant goddess arms outstretched. Oleanders are in bud, and the plumbago, another blue beauty, is bursting into leaf once more. All my treasures have made it through the winter. Too tender for this frosty valley, they must be protected till all signs of frost are past. Now at last I dare to open their door.
Tomatoes are starting a new life in the greenhouse, beans and peas are taking a chance with the bantams in the vegetable garden. Broad beans already stand in robust rows held to attention by bailer twine. Courgette vie for space amongst last years missed potatoes. Sweet peas are taking off at last after a terrible chilling by a late freak frost. And joy of joy, my new box hedge is sprouting greenly round the herbs beds.

Strawberries sprout out of black plastic in the poly tunnel, my attempt to beat the nasturtium infestation. Salad leaves are ready to cut, aubergine and basil must be planted out this week. Brassicas are coming along nicely, beetroot seedlings, leeks and parsnips germinate at last. French beans stare at me imploringly, bursting out of their seed trays. I wonder how I can possibly sit here writing with so many plants shouting for attention.

Ali weeds the herbaceous boarders, Paul mends the pump in the pond, all the while gazing lovingly at his newly constructed pergola. Roger cuts the grass and Stephen fixes broken gates, clears the farmyard and dags the sheep.

Donkeys must be groomed, coats brushed, hooves oiled. Chickens will put on parade, bantams, no doubt, allowed to wreak havoc as usual. Chicks will be on display with mother in the yard, ewes and lambs will decorate the hillside and old rams will doubtless gaze grumpily from the orchard. Oh please may the sun shine!
Meanwhile there is another pocket of frenzied gardening activity taking place in a corner of Swansea Bay! Tucked away behind tall trees on the edge of the park, under the battlements of Oystermouth Castle, Julia, Bill and Ken beaver away restoring their allotment to championship standards.

Julia had become increasingly frustrated at the lack of space in her exquisite little gem of a town garden. Every corner had been used to maximum effect but space was at a premium. She decided to put their names on a waiting list for a plot in the Mumbles. One day they reached the top of the list and were “allotted” their quarter acre sight. Two years ago it was a scene of dereliction, the weeds were simply winning. Digging began. Now, hours and hours, months and months of work later, perfect raised beds are host to a myriad of vegetables and flowers, standing to attention in perfect rows. Julia likes order!
Tea must be taken regularly to restore strength so umbrella and chairs are stored along with tools in the recycled shed. Recycling is the allotment mantra. Community spirit binds the gardeners together. They share tools, salvaged treasures, plants, skills and laughter, and, hmm, sometimes grumpiness and competition. All human life is here!

I wonder if Jules ponders the coincidence of history as she bicycles along the sea front to her little paradise. Oystermouth castle in the Mumbles is considered by historians as the finest castle in the Gower Peninsular. It was founded by William de Londres in the C12th but burnt down twice by the Welsh themselves in 1116 and 1215. Who were these Norman incomers? In the C13th it subsequently fell into the hands of the de Braoses, Lords of Gower, who made the castle their permanent residence. Edward 1,himself, is said to have been a guest in 1284!

As I read on about the emergence and decline of this majestic castle, my mind flicks back to those allotments beneath the battlements. Were they there too in Norman times? Certainly there is evidence in parts of Briton of Saxon “field” clearings in woods to be held for “common” use. The invading Normans began to claim land, both for themselves and for the church. Did Julia’s allotment, beneath the castle walls, escape such a fate? Was the land confiscated yet again, this time from the church, during the reformation, I wonder?
In the late C16th, during Elizabeth’s reign, common land began to be “enclosed” and “allotted” by the nobles to tenanted cottages on their estates. The C17th and C18th centuries saw the beginning of the huge migration of people to the city; common land continued to disappear. As life became more and more urbanised the 1845 Enclosures Act tried to enforce “field gardens of ten rods” for the poor. That is to say 302 square yards or 253 square metres or, ¼ of an acre per family. This was in line with the Victorian belief that “allotments provided a productive use of time, keeping the poor from the evils of drink and providing wholesome food for a workforce housed in tenements and high density terracing without gardens….”

In 1887 another act, largely ignored, obliged local authorities to provide allotments. It was not until 1908 that parishes and urban and borough councils had this responsibility forced upon them. Then the 1914-18 war brought food shortages and the threat of starvation to thousands of working people. It was the railway companies who came to the rescue this time giving their workers plots of land beside the tracks on which to grow much needed food. Have you ever noticed the allotted rows of serried veg laid out beneath you, as you gaze idly from the train window?
The Second World War gave birth to the “Dig for Victory” campaign and once again allotments flourished. After that war and when rationing finally ended, land prices began to climb. Allotments disappeared under urban redevelopment.

The 1970’s saw a brief resurgence with the TV programme “The Good Life” but, as supermarkets took hold and land prices continued their upward spiral, vegetable gardening dwindled and gardening in an urban landscape lost its thrill. Why bother when you can buy fruit and vegetables from all over the world, all the year round, perfect and clean and wrapped in plastic?

Now suddenly there seems to be a ripple, a tiny rumble. Will it spread, this new awareness? Will we begin, at last, to question the true legacy of our food; air miles, insecticides, fair trade? Will worry about our diet, concern about wholesomeness of our children diet really amount to a sea of change in the way we shop and eat? Food prices are rising, fuel bills soaring, mortgages wobbling.

Look around, something small is changing. Allotments, once abandoned and neglected are suddenly sought after and desirable. How strange. Waiting lists are springing up all over the place, young and old alike, are turning up. Families, children in tow, armed with spades and cultivators, packets of seeds and a huge amount of enthusiasm are digging their way back to growing their own food. A gardening army is on the march again, a quiet army, a quiet revolution maybe!

Oh and then of course there is that other underground movement: the urban guerrilla gardeners causing havoc in the cites by clandestinely clearing litter, planting trees, flowers, vegetables and shrubs, turning barren urban wasteland into beauty, bringing fun and companionship back into communities. How bad is that! How great
are they!

So hurrah to Julia, Bill and Ken: hurrah to all of us, all of us who struggle to grow our food on our own patch, all helping to revalue and preserve those old skills that were, until so recently, in such serious danger of extinction.

Let us dig for the victory again, but this time let it be for the preservation of our health, our future and our environment.

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Apr 18 2008

Slow Down, Food is Fun…

“Put a Spoon in Your Hat!”
Peasants Dancing by Pieter Bruegel
It is several years now since I became quietly interested in the growing momentum of the international Slow Food Movement. Up till very recently I watched its progress from the sidelines. Then a few months ago by chance, I met some of the people who drive Slow Food in Devon an I became more involved. Then a little while ago, I was invited to write an article about Slow Food for the Western Morning News, our Westcountry regional newspaper.

It occurred to me that it might also be of interest to all of you all over the world who read Raining Sideways so here is my article in full . …I wrote too much, of course, for the space available in the paper!
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