Handmade Drinks

elderflower champagneThe elderflowers in our orchard were slow to come into flower this year.  Which meant that it was late June before we found ourselves brewing elderflower champagne and the equally delicious, though rather less potent, elderflower cordial.

The latter is such a doddle and elder trees so abundant in town and country, I wonder why anyone bothers with the ready made version.  If bottled in scrupulously clean vessels and kept in the fridge, I find it keeps for almost a year, though most recipes state it should be drunk within three months.

elderflowers and lemons

elderflowers and lemons

To make such a cordial, gather twenty or so elderflower blooms in an area free from pollutants and car fumes; and the trick here is to pick the flowers that are still a creamy white and before they are fully opened out – by which point the blooms will be a whiter white.

Shake them free of small creatures before popping them into a pan, followed by the pared rind and slices of two lemons. Then make a syrup with 1.2 l of water and 1.8 kg of sugar.  Once boiling, tip the hot liquid into the pan and add 75g citric acid.  You can get this from most chemists and is important as it acts as a preservative as well as adding a kick to the flavour.

elderflowers mascerating in syrup

elderflowers mascerating in syrup have a honeyed fragrance

Cover and leave to mascerate for 24 hours.  Then strain through muslin and bottle in cleaned and sterilised vessels – I tend to save small cider vinegar bottles for this purpose but full sized wine bottles are fine too.

The cordial is delicious diluted with sparkling water with a sprig or two of mint; it’s also pretty good to pep up a white wine spritzer.

Other culinary uses are in gooseberry jam (add it once the jam is cooling in the pan before bottling) and as a delicate top note in both gooseberry fool and gooseberry ice-cream, both of which we eat in abundance at this time of year.

The  making of elderflower champagne is a bit more involved it has to be said.  Particularly if you opt for a more refined brew with a delicate aroma and fine fizz.  We make ours with champagne yeast and keep it in demi-johns for a few weeks before bottling.  It is ready to drink in about six months – but truly worth the effort. The resulting drink is refreshing, dry and fragrant of  lychees and melon, making it the perfect accompaniment to lightly spiced coconut curries…and gooseberry ice cream for that matter!



Handmade Food

time for tea

It all started with a green and white polka dot tea-set. Bone china and a chance find in Greenwich market 4 years ago. The sort of tea-set to conjure images of old fashioned summer afternoons with lashings of pop and tea and cakes on the lawn. It co-incided with my becoming the proud of owner of such a lawn – complete with a magic apple tree in the centre, its shady branches the perfect canopy for picnics and teatime treats.

Like so many frazzled and cooped up Londoners embracing the pastoral idyll, we quickly  bought into the idea of “country life”. And that included home baking. I’d been rather good at cake making as a child. A sort of adolescent Nigella, though pudgy and with spots -not a goddess at all. On Saturday mornings, having consulted Marguerite Pattern, I would unveil the Kenwood chef and set about producing elaborate cakes and pastries for the family tea.

At the age of twelve I was creating bijoux christmas cakes – snow white and piped to perfection – and selling them to neighbours. At fifteen, with my friend Fiona, we tripled our pocket money cooking dinner parties for our parents and their friends. My speciality – the showy desserts that were all the rage in ‘70s Bromley. Multi-layered black forest gateau, encrusted with chocolate curls, light as a feather pavlova, filled with the new exotics – kiwi, mango and kumquat.

Heady days indeed. And great fun. But somehow, since then, I had lost the art of baking. And so the arrival of the polka dot tea-set was the perfect opportunity to re-kindle my love affair with teatime indulgence. I started off with traditional fare – easy to make scones, victoria sandwich, sticky gingerbread. Then came jams and chutneys. Three years ago I managed to cultivate my own sour dough starter. Amazing! And the source of a weekly batch of tasty bread and pizza.  From there it was a small step to the food for free movement and John Seymour’s complete guide to self sufficiency. This we consumed fireside one Christmas (along with rather a lot of wine I suspect) to a point where we were seriously considering the practicalities of “the Thunderbox”. Two years on we have lost some of that earlier naivity. We grow loads of our own veg and brew pretty good beer, cider and other country beverages. But the installation of a thunderbox, proably wisely, is now raised only in the presence of house guests who have outstayed their welcome.

First flowerings on the allotment

The cool wet weather might have dampened some of the bank holiday jubilations, but my it’s good for the allotment!

After two years of dry, hot springs when all but the hardiest seedlings shrivelled in the parched soil, this year’s heavy rain is a welcome relief.

broad beans in flower

broad beans in full flower

Spinach, chard, salad leaves and peas have all shot up. So too the broad beans which are awash with flowers with not a blackfly in sight. Majestic along the side border are the dozen or so artichokes, doubled in size since they were planted last year and already well into bud. So the prospect of an abundant harvest for both eating fresh and bottling.

artichoke plant

artichoke flower bud

Ah, the delights of the perennial vegetable! They re-sprout each year, with the minimum of effort. For an amateur allotmenteer (or anyone who has a life outside of the vegetable patch!) their great advantage cannot be understated.

The herb garden too is a resplendent mix of green and mauve, from the smoky grey of purple sage, to the golden green of marjoram, the whole bed, peppered with violet chive flowers and seeding parsley.

herb garden

purple sage, marjoram and chives with seeding sorrel and parsley

One downside of all this rain is the speed with which the weeds take hold! So a two pronged campaign of attack:

The first, made possible by the arrival in our life of the wonderful Ian and his seemingly inexhaustable supply of horse manure. Good for the organic grower at any time, but an essential part of the no dig, weed free policy. Basically you heap a load of manure over the vegetable beds every few weeks when the weeds start to take hold. The idea was passed on to me by one of my yoga students, Trish, who from her five allotments in Wells, grows an impressive selection of organic fruit and veg with which she supplies some of the top restaurants in the area.

Second part of the campaign, which involves even less effort, is to make friends with some of the weeds. I found this particularly successful in the flower garden last year. Having allowed some of the wild flowers and grasses to take hold, the effect of them interspersed with the cultivated varieties was incredibly pleasing. So this year on the allotment a similar tack in the perennial beds where I have allowed ground cover wild flowers to flourish alongside self sown companion plants like marigold and nasturtiums – both of which incidentally add a splash of colour to the summer salad bowl.

the flower garden

alliums and lupins interspersed with wild campion,wild geranium and mixed grasses

May on the Allotment

I have to confess that this cool wet weather has seen us huddled indoors rather than on the allotment so we are very behind this year with our planting programme. But the last few days have been a bit brighter -and so the allotment challenge begins!

rain stops play

Biggest hurdle is to clear the 7 foot wide beds that surround the entire allotment. These are intended to be perennial beds and were planted last year with cardoons, artichokes, sorrel, and some roses plus some wigwams of peas and beans. The idea being to limit the amount of toil required each year by designating a good portion of the growing area to plants that spring back up each year. It looked fantastic in full flower but we made the classic mistake of leaving it all over winter – the result: a wild flower meadow of thistles, nettles and grasses over three foot high. After a backbreaking few days we are resolved – NEVER AGAIN! Whatever the weather we will cover the dormant beds with black plastic or cardboard over the winter.

Less daunting are the dozen 6×6 foot beds which take up the remainder of the growing area. These are easy to maintain and with wide grass paths surrounding them, easy to access too. At the moment they are verdant with lettuce, fennel, radicchio and chard – plenty to provide a tasty salad bowl each day. Really fresh and a fraction of the cost of buying it in bags from Waitrose.

Then there is the asparagus. Here we have had to exercise much patience. Asparagus has to be left until the third year before picking. Our second year plants have thrown up impressive shoots over two feet high. Very tempting to pick just one or two but we have resisted. Even our new purple asparagus, planted in April are poking cheekily through and will need covering soon if they are to withstand those pesky pigeons.

green asparagus

green asparagus

purple asparagus

purple asparagus -just shooting up

Also doing well are the broad beans – two beds planted three weeks apart. One of the first lessons we learned as allotmenteers is that it is very easy to get into the famine/feast cycle. One minute you are gazing hungrily at emerging pea shoots, say, the next minute, they’re coming out of your ears. The trick is, successional sowing of smaller crops to extend the eating season. We love broad beans so will be sowing at least one more bed before May is out.

broad beans

broad beans with twiggy supports

Yoga in Wighton …and Wells too

Sadly the cool wet weather meant we didn’t get to practice our yoga outside in April.  Hoping things brighter up a bit in May!

That said today’s cold and windy weather means our new block of classes starting tonight in Wighton village hall will definitely be indoors. Class dates are as follows:

14 May
21 May
28 May
4 June (bank holiday)
11 June
18 June

So that’s six weeks rather than the usual five.  

Pre-pay:  £36 for all six classes or £30 if you want to exclude the bank holiday.  Taster class £6 or £7.50 for regular drop in (but please email or phone to book a place in advance!)

Our theme in this series will be “going with the flow”.  Using the breath and transitional postures to move confidently {and gracefully!) through a series of yoga asanas.

Wells yoga

I will be running a new class at the WI Hall in Wells from 21 May.  I am starting it off as a one hour class from  3-4pm to see how it goes.  It will be  a beginners’ class with an emphasis on breathing and gentle movements to ease stiff joints,  stretch tight and tired muscles and alleviate associated back pain. Cost is £25 for five classes paid for in advance, £5 for a taster class or £6 for regular drop in.  

Art, Books and Bill Viola

May is a fantastic time for exploring the creative arts in North Norfolk with both the North Norfolk Festival and Open Studios weekends running in tandem.

Top of my list at the festival is video artist Bill Viola whose entrancing work is being displayed at a series of venues across Norwich.

The thought of video art leave you cold? Well it did me too …until I discovered Bill Viola; Tristan and Isolde to be specific – filmed sequences created to accompany the opera by Wagner. Rythmic, profound and beautiful, it totally blew me away.

Closer to home, three of the Wighton yoga group are taking part in the artist’s open studios. In Great Walsingham, you will find Sarah Caswell amongst her colourful blooms; together with Heather and her partner Nigel Skinner who run Earth Art Co. Then over at Wells Catherine Laura Ward is showing new work after a busy year exhibiting in London, Norwich and beyond.

For a taster of Catherine’s work and some eye-catching book art generally, The Forum at Norwich is hosting Turning the Page, a two day book art fair and exhibition this weekend.

Good luck Sarah!







We  have a celebrity in our midst in the Wighton yoga group!  

Local artist, Sarah Caswell, has been chosen to take part in BBC2’s Show me the Monet and one of her vibrant flower paintings  is currently up for grabs at the Mall Gallery in London.

A selection of Sarah’s work is always on show in her studio at Walsingham Barns but this year she is a hot ticket in London too –  at the Society of Botanical Artists later this month and then back by popular demand at the Chelsea Flower Show in May.


Easter on the Allotment

forced rhubarb shoots

Forced rhubarb shoots – out from under wraps

At this time of year, growing your own can seem all hard work (digging, weeding and sowing) with very little to show for it. So I was gleeful to have spent Easter with an abundance of tasty produce to use while cooking for family and friends.

The forced rhubarb is so sweet and tender it needs little accompaniment, but with a basket of unforced Timperly Early to use as well, I decided on a spring version of classic Eton Mess for a good friday lunch with friends; and to my mind the sharpness of poached rhubarb is the perfect foil for light sticky meringue and whipped cream.

basket of timperly early

Timperly Early – perfect for rhubarb mess

For the first year ever, we have been harvesting purple sprouting broccoli and other brassicas – previously the plants were left shredded by pigeons and rabbits well before christmas. This year – Fort Knox! As a result we have been feasting on cavolo nero, green cauliflower and scorzerona since November. The sprouting broccoli was a later developer – so late, I nearly pulled it up to make way for a sowing of spring peas. But it’s been a real winner. The more you pick, the more it grows and delicious lightly steamed in salads, in stir frys or made into a tart with hot smoked salmon from the Cley smokehouse.

pigeons keep out!

Another great discovery this year has been that vegetables can be eaten in so many forms. Take radishes. We grew these in the summer and they went to seed before we had the chance to pick them. Within weeks they had grown into tall delicate plants bearing bucket loads of succulent spicy pods – a cross between radishes and sugar snap peas.

And so this winter, as we let some of the cavolo nero and cauliflowers go to seed (after all there is a limit to how many cauliflowers you can eat in the two week period when they are all ready to pick), we found ourselves trying the sprouted heads – delicious!

Added to this we have had armfuls of salad in the form of fennel, sorrel,parsley, lambs lettuce and land cress – all mainly self seeded so very little effort involved.

Finally – the last of the winter squashes. We tend to grow mostly Crown Prince. They look and taste fantastic, fruit prolifically and can be stored for around 6 months. As a result I am a sucker for new recipes. So on Easter Sunday a spicy pumpkin cake for desert – moist, creamy…and with a handful of black pepper thrown in, quite a kick too…

Spiced Pumpkin Cake

pumpkin cake with pepppercorns

50 g raisins soaked in 100ml of licor (I used rum, but galiano or cointreu would do as well)
450-600g pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cubed and stewed in 150 g butter (or mix of butter and olive oil) til soft. The greater the proportion of pumpkin, the more cheesecake like in consistency the end result will be. I like to use lots!
Pinch salt,
150 g sugar,
50g almonds chopped,
grated zest of lemon,
1 tbsp coursely ground black pepper.
50 g plain flour – or ground almonds/polenta if you want wheat free.
1 heaped tsp baking powder
2 eggs
icing sugar
8 inch tin, 180 degrees

Beat softened pumpkin ’til smooth and add all dry ingredients including raisins in licor.

Then add egg yolks, followed by whipped whites which should be folded in.

Bake for 1-1.5 hours. It is ready when scewer comes out clean.

When cool, dust with icing sugar.

Farewell to the Geffrye

My six week stint with the Asian Women’s Group at the Geffrye came to an end this week – it’s been such a great experience I’m sorry to be saying goodbye. Not only has the group been the most enthusiastic and fun I have every had to teach but I have discovered so many new things along the way.

– early morning cycle ride along the Regent’s Canal towpath with its colourful canal boats, funky apartments and watery reflections;

– quirky shops like jewellery gallery @ Work and contemporary furniture maker, Unto This Last on Brick Lane;

– utility homewares at Labour and Wait on Redchurch Street;

– master of the the new wave paper cut Rob Ryan on Columbia Road;

– Vietnamese food in the many wonderful cafes along Kingsland Road;

– morning coffee overlooking the gardens at the Geffrye Museum as they spring into life with tulips, daffodils and an abundance of green.

Hopefully the farewell is more of an au revoir: Julie and her group so enjoyed the yoga sessions that they have asked for more! Something I hope to be able to pursue later in the year if not before.