Cool Yule #3: let’s cook!

I’m not a gambling woman but I wouldn’t mind putting money on the fact that mankind has used food in celebrations for the whole of our history. It’s such a fundamental, human, life-affirming thing to do, to come together to share meals in an atmosphere of giving, gratitude and generosity, forming and strengthening bonds and creating and deepening traditions. Christmas is, of course, no exception to this, and food rightly plays a central part in many people’s celebration and enjoyment of the festive season. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing . . . but I’d like to make a gentle plea that we try to eat, drink and be merry without stressing ourselves, creating piles of waste or generally wrecking the planet.

To be honest, I nearly didn’t write this post; having done a lot of research and reading, mostly around food waste, the shocking statistics left me feeling sad and despondent. I’m not going to repeat the figures quoted in previous posts, but just share one new one: in the UK, 130 million Brussels sprouts are wasted at Christmas. One hundred and thirty million. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to imagine what that even looks like. It feels like a complete and utter lack of respect for every part and process of the journey from field to fork, so much work and energy spent producing a fresh, wholesome vegetable that is simply thrown away. Now, I like my writing to be grounded in reality ~ life is not about unicorns prancing in sunlit uplands, no matter who might think it ~ but I do like to weave a general uplifting thread of hope and happiness through my musings and I have to admit, I’ve really, really struggled with this one.

Brussels sprouts don’t thrive in our garden, but cabbages grow well.

Sprouts are one of those foods that people tend to love or hate; sifting through studies and surveys, it seems a third or so of British adults like sprouts and can’t imagine Christmas dinner without them. That’s great! However, the maths says that the other two thirds don’t, and I suspect that is part of the problem: people are cooked or served a vegetable they don’t like and won’t eat and therefore it goes to waste. What a terrible shame when there is such a wealth of options for seasonal green vegetables to choose from. We can’t grow sprouts here as the climate is too mild but with leeks, spinach, chard, cabbage and kale in the garden, we don’t miss them at all. In an earlier post, I suggested that we should not be tyrannised by traditions that don’t serve us and this is surely one of them; if you don’t like sprouts, don’t buy them but choose something you enjoy instead. If frozen peas are your thing, then have frozen peas; the Vegetable Inspectorate is not going to be knocking on your door on Christmas Day and it makes so much more sense to opt for foods you will eat and enjoy rather than something that could end up being wasted. It’s a win-win, surely?

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Christmas vegetables from the garden and not a sprout in sight.

Let’s talk turkey. I have recently completed a 30-day vegetarian challenge and to be honest, it was a breeze; I don’t eat much meat anyway and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, especially experimenting with some new veggie recipes and rediscovering old dishes we haven’t made in ages. Now I’m back to my former flexitarian ways, enjoying occasional meals of good quality meat which started with a local, organic, free-range chicken roasted with all the trimmings to celebrate my birthday. Personally, I believe that a roast dinner is a thing of great glory when it is done well . . . and there is the problem: it isn’t an easy meal to pull off, relying as it does on precise timings and temperatures and juggling a range of culinary processes to ensure everything arrives at the table at the same time. Enter Christmas dinner, and a nation where many people actually do very little cooking through the year, trying to produce the mother of all roast dinners centred on wrestling something resembling a baby ostrich in and out of a hot oven. Turkeys are relatively huge; they require large roasting trays, wide foil, a lot of oven space, a very long cooking time and at the end of it all, unless you’ve stumped up for a super duper delicious free range number, you end up with meat that is often bland and dry. To make things easier, many people opt for a turkey ‘crown’ which is basically a limbless bird; I understand the reasoning but to me it seems a bit weird, and stranger still that you can now also buy a turkey crown with ‘added’ legs. Mmmm. If you enjoy turkey, fine; it’s traditional, after all, and can be lovely. However, if it means ending up feeling stressed on Christmas Day (as surveys suggest many people do) and piles of leftovers going to waste, then have something else instead. One of the arguments for turkey is that it feeds a lot of people but so does a good sized roasting joint of other meats and, given that turkey is not a cheap option, it might be better to go for something different. In all our years together, we have only ever had turkey on Christmas Day once; in other years, choices like a rib of local pasture-fed Welsh beef did us proud and helped to support farmers and butchers in the local community. One year, in deep snow, we famously had a barbecue. I know people who have dispensed with the whole idea of a grand Christmas roast and had a marvellous time on good old bangers and mash instead and others who pack a special picnic every year and head off to a beautiful spot to eat it. Traditions can be great but some of the best are the ones we make ourselves.

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Speaking of making things, one of the aspects of festive food that saddens me is the extent to which so much of it is bought ready-made. Yes, I know I’m a keen cook and I appreciate not everyone shares the pleasure I get from cooking from scratch, but I think making your own stuffing, bread sauce, gravy, mincemeat and mince pies, pudding, cake, biscuits, chocolates or whatever is a wonderful thing to do for several reasons.

#1 It’s economical. This applies particularly to foods like stuffing and gravy which are really made from scraps and these days I tend to make mincemeat and Christmas pudding from whatever is knocking about the house rather than buying a set of specific ingredients. Even if you push the boat out and buy pricey ingredients, you will end up spending less than for the equivalent ‘luxury / handmade’ article bought from the shops . . . and end up with something far, far superior.

Candied peel is simple to make and costs pennies.

#2 You can choose your ingredients. Many people (including a lot of the children I taught in the past) don’t like certain festive foods because of particular ingredients or flavours, so if you make your own, you can tailor dishes to suit different tastes (as well as to any specific dietary requirements, of course). If you’re not a fan of sage, leave it out of the stuffing; if nuts upset you, don’t put them in the mincemeat. If you can’t stand Christmas pudding, make something else for dessert, something that will delight you and make you purr. You can also be a choosy consumer; having spent a fair bit of time perusing the ingredients lists for a range of ready-made or packet mix Christmas foods (I know, I should get a life), I’m pretty horrified at how many of them contain palm oil. We have managed to produce delicious stuffing, mincemeat, pastry, pudding and cakes for centuries without it so why is it so necessary now? It is an ecological nightmare and I refuse to buy anything that contains it until 100% of it is guaranteed to come from a sustainable source that doesn’t harm people or nature; yes, it’s a personal thing (and I’m certainly not trying to preach here) but principles matter ~ even at Christmas! Gravy is another one. A good quality piece of well-seasoned meat will release wonderful juices which put over heat, sprinkled with flour and whisked with vegetable cooking water or homemade stock makes fabulous gravy. Gravy granules and stock cubes contain a list of ingredients that puzzle me and it seems especially curious when certain brands describe them as ‘real ingredients.’ These include things such as monosodium glutamate, hydrolysed vegetable protein, permitted flavourings, maltodextrin, modified starch, flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, disodium 5’ribonucleotides, colouring, potassium iodate, sodium inosinate and guanylate. Real ingredients? Really? Give me meat juices, flour and vegetable water any day ~ plus a splash of wine or dollop of cream if I’m feeling decadent. So what if homemade gravy is a bit lumpy or lacks the colour and gloss of this commercial stuff? It’s Christmas, time to be kind to ourselves and choosy about what we put in our bodies.

Homemade mincemeat

#3 It’s enriching. I’ve said before how creativity is empowering and this is true of making foods and dishes yourself rather than being a consumer. I’m not sure how we arrived at a point where it’s possible to pretty much buy an entire Christmas dinner off the shelf but I think that many people deny themselves a hugely important and beneficial sense of achievement and pleasure by not having a go at making at least a few bits and pieces at home, especially when much of it is so simple. Take stuffing, for example, which ~ trust me ~ is the easiest thing in the world to make. Start with a large bowl of breadcrumbs: these are best made from stale bread (we freeze bits and pieces until we’ve gathered enough), and if you don’t have a food processor, just rub it, crusts and all, down a cheese grater. Lumps are fine, no finesse required! Cook a chopped onion in butter or oil until soft and stir into the breadcrumbs along with plenty of salt and pepper and a pile of chopped fresh or dried herbs of your choice. At this point, you can also add anything extra you fancy such as chopped fruit, nuts, mushrooms, celery, spices or citrus peel. Go crazy, it’s your stuffing! Bind with an egg, adding a drop of hot water if the mixture is dry, and you’re done. Yes, it takes a few more minutes than opening a pack of ready-made fresh stuff or pouring boiling water onto a packet mix, but it’s so much more satisfying and the result will be truly delicious. It used to make me smile when we still had sprogs at home how the last few crumbs of stuffing were what everyone fought over.

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Lemon balm, thyme, parsley, celery leaves, sage and rosemary heading for the stuffing.

#4 It’s fun and inclusive. No-one should feel stressed about feeding themselves and others at Christmas (well, at any time, to be honest); no-one should have to get up at 5am to stick the turkey in the oven and then spend the next few hours fretting about it; no-one should end up being a frazzled martyr in the kitchen while everyone else is busy being festive elsewhere. For many years, I have used Delia Smith’s reliable recipes as good starting points in the kitchen and her famous 36-hour countdown to Christmas dinner has undoubtedly helped many people cope with the complexities of feeding a hoard. However, I do smile at the few ‘free’ minutes allowed for the cook to enjoy a glass of pre-lunch bubbly between turning the chipolatas and boiling the sprouts. Apologies and big respect to Delia but my take on that one is this: open the bottle earlier, pour everyone a glass and give them a pinny to go with it. Get all hands on deck and everyone involved, or at the very least, stick a few seats in the kitchen and invite everyone in. With appropriate supervision around hot and sharp things, there is no reason why children can’t get busy, too. Yes, it may well be chaotic and noisy and cramped, but that’s the whole idea. Play some music, chat and laugh, let the fun start here . . . sociable cooking is a truly wonderful thing to do.

Making mince pies is my favourite seasonal cooking activity.

#5 It gives you control. This might sound like a strange one, but the more inclined you are to do your own cooking for Christmas, the more confident and in control you will be. That allows you to choose which bits of tradition you are going to keep and celebrate, which you plan to change and which to ignore. For years, I persisted in making a traditional Christmas cake decorated with frosted icing and reindeer frolicking through a forest of fir trees until I asked myself why I was doing it. Since Roger doesn’t like fruit cake, I don’t like marzipan and icing and the littles were more interested in the plastic tat on top, it seemed like a pretty pointless activity. Discovering a wonderful recipe by patissier Eric Lanlard for a rich and luxurious cake full of dark chocolate and topped with jewelled glacé fruits (not a plastic reindeer in sight) was a eureka moment and I never looked back. Where a Christmas pudding is concerned (previously always made at the end of October), nowadays I tend to leave the decision to the last minute ~ to make or not to make? It depends totally on how we feel and I have to admit, I’ve yet to notice any difference between the properly matured version and the ‘throw it together on Christmas Eve’ number. We have never subscribed to the idea that Christmas dinner must be on the table by a specific time, preferring to drift slowly towards it in a relaxed fashion (easier if there’s no giant turkey involved). When we had children at home, there was never any chance of eating at lunchtime as is often the tradition, since late morning would find the cooks and their helpers wandering about in pyjamas and the vegetables still growing in the garden! These days, with just the two of us, we tend to go for a long walk somewhere, armed with a flask of coffee and mince pies, then prepare our midwinter feast together when we feel like it . . . and yes, that bottle of bubbles is definitely opened before we start.

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#6 It gives you possibilities for simple gifts. One of my grannies used to shake her head over the excess of expensive Christmas presents that had become the norm, saying that in ‘her day’ people were happy to give and receive small handmade gifts such as a pair of knitted gloves or jar of homemade jam. I’m definitely with Gran on that one: homemade foods can make lovely, personal gifts which tend to be acceptable to everyone and are far more meaningful than anything bought. There is a wealth of possibilities: preserves like jams, jellies, marmalades, butters, pickles, chutneys, bottled fruits, oils and vinegars, biscuits, shortbread, gingerbread, chocolates, truffles, small puddings and cakes ~ a double layer of foil wrapped round a large tin makes a brilliant mould for mini Christmas cakes. There are many beautiful ideas for wrapping and presentation (eco-friendly being the best, of course!) and if something homemade lacks the predictable, banal perfection of a commercial product, then so much the better. It’s an individual and unique gift, made with truly ‘real’ ingredients and something you won’t find on any food label ~ love.

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Homemade marmalade ~ add a pretty label and lid covering and it makes a lovely gift.

#7: It reduces waste. With this one, I’ve come full circle from where I started with all those wasted sprouts. If we have a close connection with food and a better understanding of where it has come from and how it is produced then we are less likely to waste it. It’s not so easy to throw a pile of mince pies away if we have spent time and energy making them ourselves, rather than plucking them off a supermarket shelf. Making your own Christmas foods tends to enourage meal planning and shopping lists which in turn lead to less waste. It’s not just the food, either; if we are sourcing ingredients ourselves, we can make eco-friendly choices where packaging is concerned, too. The inclination and ability to use leftovers is also hugely important. I once watched in horror as the entire remains of a Christmas buffet of bought ‘luxury’ foods ~ including a side of smoked salmon ~ was swept off the table into a bin bag because the hostess refused to use leftovers; that food would have fed my family for a week or more. For us, leftovers from any meal are a wonderful opportunity to be creative in the kitchen and, at the very least, form the basis of tomorrow’s dinner. It’s amazing how a bit of roast meat, cooked vegetables, stuffing, gravy or whatever can be transformed by sheer culinary alchemy into heartwarming dishes (some sort of pie topped with creamy root mash is always a good crowd pleaser). Cooked meats, mince pies and Christmas pudding can be frozen perfectly well and safely for future meals. Leftover mincemeat makes a fabulous filling for baked apples, or a wonderful surprise at the bottom of an apple pie, crumble or Eve’s pudding; you can bake it into muffins or even stir it into your porridge. Many people have an aversion to boiling up bones but it is a simple thing to do and for me, does full honour to the life of the animal in squeezing out and valuing every last drop of nourishment. It yields wonderful stocks to use in soups, stews, risottos and gravies and can be successfully frozen for future use.

New research suggests that almost a third of Britons don’t know how Brussels sprouts are grown, as in they have no idea what a sprout plant looks like in a field or garden. Perhaps if as a society we could connect more with food properly at a very basic level, literally go right back to the roots of food production and understand the whole holistic picture beginning with the soil and weather, then we would be less inclined to be wasteful. Perhaps we could be more aware of what we are eating and make better, healthier and more informed choices at the point of buying. Perhaps we could rediscover the joy and freedom of being engaged and enthusiastic cooks rather than passive consumers. Perhaps we could come to an understanding that Christmas doesn’t have to be built around excess and waste. I don’t know. Maybe I’m dreaming . . . but having finished a post I nearly didn’t write, I am at least feeling more optimistic about the possibilities. I sincerely hope that those of us fortunate enough not to need the support of foodbanks this Christmas will cherish every precious mouthful and do complete honour to our festive food, ourselves and the planet. Happy Christmas cooking, everyone! 😊

Breathe


The proper use of science is not to conquer nature but to live in it.

Barry Commoner

I have loved language for as long as I can remember. It’s a very simple thing, really: words fascinate me. Take the origins of ‘inspiration’ for example, a word that came into Middle English via Old French from the Latin inspirare, meaning literally ‘to breathe or blow into’ and figuratively ‘to excite or inflame’; in English, the original meaning suggested a divine being imparting a truth or idea to someone (the word ‘spirit’ comes from the same root). I love the idea of taking a deliciously deep breath of sweet fresh air and filling my very core with the excitement and challenge of a new idea to try . . . and isn’t it fascinating how inspiration can sometimes come from the most unforeseen sources or at the least expected times?

My inspiration in recent weeks has come from a book first written in 1978, The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. I’d actually read much of it in bits previously but after a long-needed nudge (thanks, Sonja!) I finally sat down and read the whole work . . . and as I did so, I felt that wonderful tingling breeze of inspiration in the air. I’m not planning to rush off and grow rice on a Japanese mountainside, but there is certainly plenty of Mr Fukuoka’s wisdom and experience that could be applied to life here on our Asturian mountain.

The first point that resounded with me was the idea of using everything we have here as much as possible; we aren’t – and won’t be – self-sufficient, but we do go a reasonable distance in that respect, and it’s important that we make full use of what we have. For example, it’s so easy at this time of year to look at the garden and think we’re short of things to eat as we’re edging towards that awkward ‘between seasons’ hungry gap and yet, looking again, we still have plenty. The salad leaves in the polytunnel seem for all the world to have gone over but setting out with open eyes to pick something to accompany a barbecue last week, I wasn’t disappointed.

There might not be huge quantities of anything but a combination of young chard and beetroot leaves, rocket, wild rocket and mizuna with spearmint, lemon balm, flat-leaved parsley, marjoram and chives, the first tender kohlrabi for some sweet crunch and a splash of colour from nasturtium, pansy, borage, rocket,violet and coriander flowers was a fresh and delicious bowlful of nutritious beauty. It didn’t need anything else, no extra bought ingredients just for the sake of it. So simple. Just perfect. (Still lovely the next day, too, the leftovers refreshed for lunch with our first spears of lightly steamed asparagus.)

I’m inspired to look further afield, too, and see what possibilities foraging for wild food might offer. If the salad leaves had been thinner on the ground, then young dandelion leaves and chickweed would have added a whack of spring goodness. It’s so easy to dismiss things as weeds when in fact they have great value; it’s time to wander through the meadow and woods and see what overlooked treasures we could be putting to good use in the coming months.

In our holistic approach to simple living, making good use of our resources extends beyond the food we grow. The days when we will be lighting The Beast, even just briefly in the cool of morning or evening, are now numbered so making the most of that free heat is essential, especially when it comes to preserving foods we have harvested. I caught a snapshot of our kitchen worktop which says it all: the jar of sourdough starter out of the fridge, fed and working on a a bubbly sponge for breadmaking later; jars of peach marmalade made from a bonus bag of fruit we found lurking in the depths of the freezer; a tray of roast squash cooling before freezing for soup (two more in the oven) and the rest of the squash ready for processing; a tray of seedy crispbreads fresh from the oven for lunch. It might be a simple life but it’s also a busy one!

Sam and Adrienne, who love all things Scandinavian, introduced us to Trine Hahnemann’s multigrain spelt crispbread recipe. It’s taken me a while to get round to making them as I couldn’t find rye flakes anywhere but a substitution of a Spanish organic five cereal mix seemed like it might work. Oh my goodness, these crispbreads are the cat’s pyjamas! They are so easy to make, in fact I loved the therapeutically tactile business of pressing the warm dough flat with my hands so much that I was quite sorry when it was done. They just ooze good health somehow, are completely delicious and I have serious plans for them this year. In the garden, the rows of carrots and beetroot have germinated, the broad beans are dripping with flowers and the first peas are literally days away from eating . . .

. . . bring on the veggie hummus. This is such a brilliant way of not only enjoying fresh garden produce but using up bits and pieces of leftovers, too. To get us started, a sultry, spicy, caramelised roast squash hummus zinging with the heat of homegrown chillies. Fantastic.

Mr Fukuoka’s words also had me reflecting on herbs. When we moved here, we gave most of our books away, just keeping one small bookcase of treasured tomes; two of those are herbals and it was with great glee and enjoyment I dug them out and pored over them again from cover to cover. We grow a good selection of herbs and I’m planning to add several new varieties this year but I’m the first to admit they are an underused resource. On the strength of using calendula successfully in my recent batch of soap, I set out to harvest more flowers while they are in their prime.

Some of these I set aside to dry, the others were packed tightly into a jar and covered in sweet almond oil. I’ve put them in the polytunnel amongst my tender seedlings; there they can bask in the warmth, creating an infused oil which I can use for making toiletries (and new lip balm recipe is next on the list).

Herbal tea is something else I know I should be pursuing; after all, relying heavily on commercial tea produced on the other side of the world is hardly good for my green credentials when I have a garden full of drinkables. Mmm, there is a slight problem here, though: I love tea. Not the slightly flirtatious green tea or the almost-there oolong but the full monty, rich and malty, tannin-laden black stuff, brewed properly in a teapot and drunk a large mugful at a time (milk in first, no sugar). I cannot begin to describe how hard reducing my tea consumption is, especially as I have tried – really tried- to like herbal teas in the past and have failed miserably every time. Leafy, flowery, fruity . . . you name it, I’ve drunk it and hated every mouthful. However, I need to get a grip, especially as bought tea is not really the best of things: highly processed, over-packaged, racking up the food miles and – horror of horrors – some teabags contain plastic which leaches out of the compost into waterways and becomes part of the terrible microplastic problem in the oceans. So, deep breath: time to try the herbal stuff again. I decided to start with one of my favourites, lemon balm. I brought one small root with us when we moved here and in typical romping away and self-setting style, we now seem to have half a dozen good clumps spread about the patch, including the one below that popped up from nowhere beneath a clump of calla lilies.

Herbal teas require a lot more fresh leaf than dried so I picked a good handful, washed it thoroughly and set it to brew. The smell emanating from the pot could only be described as lemony spinach. Yuk.

It didn’t smell any better when poured into a mug (china, please note – I was trying very hard!) and there is just something about tea which is that insipid colour that really doesn’t do it for me. Anyway, the proof of the pudding and all that . . . What can I say? Well, it tasted – um – okay. In fact, I’d go as far as admitting it was quite pleasant and very refreshing. There are many stories about this melissa tea being a source of longevity and that may be true; even if I live to be a hundred, I’m not sure I’ll ever really love herbal brews but I’m committed to keep on trying. Honest.

Eucalyptus is another resource of which we have plenty. It’s a controversial thing, introduced from Australia and grown in huge swathes of forest as a fast-growing crop. Like any monoculture, it has a dubious impact on the environment and offers very little to indigenous wildlife. About two-thirds of our 4-acre woodland has been planted with eucalyptus, no doubt with a future harvest in mind, but the saving grace for us is that there is also a good amount of mixed tree varieties in there, too – mainly chestnut, oak, birch and holly – and a healthy understorey of gorse, Spanish heath and the like. It can’t be denied, though, that the eucalyptus is useful and we keep finding more ways in which we can make the most of it. Having almost burnt all the old roof timbers now, it will be eucalyptus that forms the basis of our log pile next winter.

Roger has hauled several long poles out of the wood this week which we will use to shore up the vegetable patch below the terraces in the top garden – call it an anti-mole device in this respect! Having made eucalyptus oil from the leaves a few weeks ago, I’ve now discovered that made into a hot infusion, they create a powerful and effective household disinfectant, another useful weapon in my green clean armoury. I’ve also gathered fallen strips of bark, soaked them in water to make them pliable and used them to line hanging baskets.

The flowers sit so high in the trees that we don’t often have chance to see them close up. They look fluffy from afar but in reality, they are exquisite pompoms of filigree strands and smell of honey: little wonder the bees go so crazy for them. A single stem provided an aromatic and simply sophisticated centrepiece for the kitchen table and once the flowers had gone over, I simmered the leaves for cleaning purposes. Nothing wasted . . . and I’m sure there are plenty more uses yet to be discovered.

The second strand of Mr Fukuoka’s philosophy which appeals to me greatly is his ‘do-nothing’ approach to cultivation. Now that doesn’t mean lounging about expecting a garden (or farm) of plenty to miraculously present itself; growing food requires an element of work and that’s fine by me (actually, I’ve never regarded anything in the garden as work, it’s far too enjoyable). The idea, though, is that instead of forever creating more chores in an endless cycle of ‘What else could I / should I be doing? ‘ there is a shift to a ‘What happens if I don’t do something?’ mentality. In short, back off, stop trying to control everything and give nature free rein to get on with it. Music to my lackadaisical little gardening ears indeed. I have to confess I am some way along this path already, as the lemon balm tale above illustrates. I’m happy to let things spread and seed around the garden if that’s what they want to do; it’s no hardship to whip out anything that springs up in an awkward place but otherwise I believe self-set plants are happy plants and who cares if Californian poppies peep out from amongst the leeks or parsley settles itself beneath the roses? Last year I raised a handful of cerinthe plants from seed; this year they are everywhere, in every crack and cranny, jostling for elbow room in pots and troughs and colonising walls like there’s no tomorrow. I love them. So do the bumble bees. They can stay.

I’ve never seen the point of pulling plants out before it’s strictly necessary, either. For a start, it’s more possible than we think sometimes to gather our own seeds; of course, some things won’t come true but that’s half the fun. I also happen to admire vegetable flowers and like to leave them until the last possible moment. Could anything be more exquisite than the few remaining salsify plants now flowering?

The Tuscan kale which has fed us so well since last autumn is in full bloom; I’m hoping to gather seed but in the meantime those buttery flowers are a pollinator paradise mingling against a backdrop of clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’ in a pretty colour combination I couldn’t have planned if I’d tried.

Every gardener knows that when you clear a patch of ground, you’ve hardly turned your back before nature starts filling it again, as though bare earth is something that simply can’t be tolerated. Well, thinking about it, it’s not very natural, is it? A well-cultivated plot, all tidy rows with hoed bits between, might be a feast for the eyes but it’s purely an aesthetic thing: nature would not create the same left to its own devices. The ‘do-nothing’ approach advocates keeping as much ground covered as possible for as long as possible, using simple mulches, green manure and even – yes, it’s true – weeds. True, I struggle a bit with the latter idea but green manures are something I am definitely going to try. I have no problem with keeping bare earth covered, which is why I’m happy to let nasturtiums trail about the vegetable plots like jewelled carpets or turn a blind eye to the poached egg plants currently making a takeover bid on one of the terraces.

My plan is simple: to try six different green manures in various parts of the garden this year and see how we get on. Globe artichokes grow like crazy here; we are close to eating our first picking of the year and on the strength of their enthusiasm, I planted a hedge of them at the end of the garden last autumn.

My plan is to underplant them with white clover as a permanent thing; Roger is a tad nervous about the sense of this which I do understand, given how enthusiastic clover is, too, but I’m willing to take responsibility should we end up with clover chaos.

The other patch earmarked for the clover treatment is in the top garden, beneath and between fruit bushes; here we have planted three blueberry bushes and also two autumn raspberries which have currently pushed up over 40 new shoots. Yikes! Maybe the clover will meet its match up there. Note the self-set nasturtiums gathering strength in the foreground, too; something tells me bare earth will be a thing of the past in this area very soon.

I’m also planning to try sowings of buckwheat and trefoil between rows of vegetables and under the bean tripods – to be cut and left as a mulch before they seed – and a winter mix of Westerwold ryegrass and vetches to be dug in next spring. A patch of phacelia, too, but in all honesty I just know that will be left to flower for the bees! It’s interesting and exciting to be trying something new and different, to be putting a slightly different slant on how we do things . . . and why not? After all, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain and if it helps the soil, the wildlife and our harvest, that’s fantastic news. Breathe in. Be inspired. Over to you, nature! 🙂

Good granola

I am a huge fan of simple food, by which I mean dishes and meals that are created from the most basic and least processed of ingredients. It doesn’t mean that what we eat is boring – far from it. We love to spend time creating complex dishes from an array of ingredients, and mezze/tapas-style meals of many delicious bits and pieces are a great favourite, especially as they usually mean lots of leftovers for lunch! Using ingredients from our patch here is a wonderful way for us to eat but you don’t need to grow or produce your own ingredients in order to enjoy the benefits of creating meals from scratch.

For me, there are three main reasons for cooking this way:

Pleasure: eating should be a joyful thing. If we have enough to eat every day, we are lucky; if we have the choice of many delightful ingredients to choose from, we are blessed. Preparing even the simplest meal with hands, senses and hearts should be a daily pleasure.

Economy: many pre-packed and pre-prepared foods are expensive. Sourcing your own ingredients means you can choose what’s good, in season or on offer and buy in bulk to save money. Even the simplest of dishes – say a basic tomato and herb sauce for pasta or humble vegetable soup – that has been made at home is likely to be of a better quality than the bought stuff, so when comparing cost it’s important to look at the high end of the market.

Health and choice: if you create your own meals from scratch, you have control over what goes into them and that’s a powerful thing. It’s fascinating – and often hair-raising! –  to read the list of ingredients on food packaging. Making your own means you can control the amount of different nutrients and foods that go in (so for example, less sugar and salt, more fibre, no artificial colourings, flavourings or additives). It doesn’t mean you can’t indulge, either! I recently made some cinnamon and ginger ice cream as a treat to eat with hot mince pies. The ingredients I used were egg yolks (from our neighbour’s free range hens), double cream, whole milk, sugar (from a jar with several vanilla pods in to flavour), ground cinnamon and ground ginger. Healthy? Not really! Decadent? Most definitely! The point is, though, that nothing else went in. Compare this with the list of ingredients in a quality brand of ice cream (vanilla – I couldn’t find a cinnamon and ginger version) : reconstituted skimmed milk, glucose fructose syrup, sugar, glucose syrup, coconut oil, whey solids (milk), stabilisers (locust bean gum, guar gum, carrageenan), vanilla bean pieces, emulsifier (mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids), natural vanilla flavourings , colour (carotenes). Ice cream without  . . . cream? Stabilisers and emulsifiers? I’m happy to stick with homemade.

As an example of just how easy and rewarding cooking from scratch can be, I’d like to share my granola recipe and encourage you to give it a go. Granola and ‘crunchy’-type breakfast cereals tend to sit at the luxury (and therefore pricier) end of the breakfast cereal market with an aura of healthy eating about them. Researching some of the top brands, I found that after oats, two of the biggest ingredients were sugar and palm oil, and many recipes for homemade granola use large amounts of sugar, maple syrup and corn syrup. Mmm, no thanks. I based my recipe on Sam and Adrienne’s which is delicious, nutritious and sustaining (in fact, it’s what I stoked up on before running the half marathon in September) but I have played around and made a few changes of my own. The recipe is very flexible so ingredients and quantities can be changed to suit your tastes and preferences; I definitely didn’t want to use sugar as I think the honey and dried fruit are plenty sweet enough. I didn’t buy anything ‘new’, just used what we already had at home; in fact, it was a good way of using up some bits and pieces left over from other dishes. It is so easy to make that it hardly qualifies as cooking!

I started with 450g of oats,

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then added sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds – about 150g in all – and another 150g of mixed walnuts and almonds.

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For the wet ingredients, I began by stirring in several tablespoons of apple puree. These were windfalls that I’d frozen earlier in the autumn; when defrosted, I remembered that I’d added orange zest and juice when cooking them – this gave a lovely additional flavour.

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I then added a couple of tablespoons of sunflower oil (Sam and Adrienne use walnut oil but I didn’t have any) and a very generous glug of village honey straight out of the jar. I gave it all a good stir, then spread it onto two lined baking trays: the mixture was wet but not overly so.

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Many granola recipes call for a fairly cool oven but I just whacked the trays into the woodstove oven which was sitting a bit below 200 degrees Celsius and kept a careful eye on things to make sure the granola didn’t burn. I took it out and stirred it a couple of times and at this point I was slightly worried as it wasn’t doing the clustery thing I’d expected. No worries: after about 45 minutes, it turned a lovely golden brown and clumped together a bit as it cooled.

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Once cool, I added roughly 150g of mixed raisins and dried cranberries, then piled it into an airtight jar.

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This has made a truly delicious breakfast (I like to eat it sprinkled over Greek yoghurt) which has kept well and gone a long way; it’s very filling, so only small portions are needed, and it has a lovely flavour and crunchy texture without being cloying or overly sweet.

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Simple, wholesome ingredients quickly and easily transformed into a breakfast of gorgeousness. Perfect! 🙂