Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Shrove Tuesday

batter, noun; 
a semi-liquid mixture of flour, egg and milk or water, used for making pancakes or for coating food before frying.

batter, verb; 
pummel, pound, buffet, thrash, lash, clobber, bop, biff.

It has been a lively week.
One day grey skies, the next blue.
One day calm and the next unruly.
All the more beguiling.

I have watched the wind carouse with hitherto orderly rows of poplars.

I have heard the wind whistling through the gaps in tight-knit hedges.

It has scattered fragments of untidy clouds across the horizon.

But the ash tree stands firm. Resolutely clinging to fat bunches of keys, waiting to unlock spring for us all.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Great Train Journeys

A Mind's Journey to Diss
By John Betjeman

Dear Mary,
Yes, it will be bliss
To go with you by train to Diss,
Your walking shoes upon your feet;
We'll meet, my sweet, at Liverpool Street.
That levellers we may be reckoned
Perhaps we'd better travel second;
Or, lest reporters on us burst,
Perhaps we'd better travel first.
Above the chimney-pots we'll go
Through Stepney, Stratford-atte-Bow
And out to where the Essex marsh
Is filled with houses new and harsh
Till, Witham pass'd, the landscape yields
On left and right to widening fields,
Flint church-towers sparkling in the light,
Black beams and weather-boarding white,
Cricket-bat willows silvery green
And elmy hills with brooks between,
Maltings and saltings, stack and quay
And, somewhere near, the grey North Sea;
Then further gentle undulations
With lonelier and less frequent stations,
Till in the dimmest place of all
The train slows down into a crawl
And stops in silence.....Where is this?
Dear Mary Wilson, this is Diss.

Monday pm.
I am at Diss Station too.
I’m waiting to board the ‘Sir John Betjeman’ train. How charming that it has a name as well as a destination.

A man has just edged past me with strident pink rhubarb stems and a bunch of yellow daffodil buds poking out of his holdall. I must trudge up the garden and check my rhubarb when I get back home.

There is a feral cockerel patrolling the station, looking for lunchbox leftovers. He is friendly, and has long and glistening sickle feathers. I’m certain Sir John would have liked that, he was very fond of Diss.

Now I’m on the train, sweeping through Betjeman’s landscape, heading for Liverpool Street.
Wide fields, winter wheat, weather-boarded barns and listing trees under infinite skies.
Before we get to the 'new and harsh'.
Stratford and beyond.
Sir John would barely recognise that.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Make do and Mend

In 1943, the Ministry of information published a series of pamphlets called ‘Make do and Mend’
They presented easy household economies to help housewives spin out their resources in times of rationing. 
Cut up frayed towels to make flannels, unravel worn jumpers and re-knit with the wool, clean nubuck with a pumice stone.

Just my kind of book, and as relevant as ever in a world of diminishing resources.
So here are my own objectives for a resourceful 2016.

Sow all my seeds at the right time... for maximum production.

Make fire-lighters out of candle ends, toilet roll inners and the sawdust from cutting up  firewood. 

Make biodegradable seed pots out of old newspapers.

Turn stale crusts into breadcrumbs and pop in the freezer.

Try and avoid buying any food in a plastic tray.... reuse any that slip through the net in the greenhouse.

Sew new covers for a jaded sofa.

Pretend to own a dog. (a win, win situation... daily exercise in the fresh air, with of course the luxury of ducking out on wet days, but with no expense, no commitment and not a trace of muddy paw prints when I get home!).

Friday, January 8, 2016

The veg man cometh

Every Friday morning farmer Geoffrey sets up his vegetable stall in town. His veg are the best. He doesn’t seem to mind getting up before dawn and numbing his fingers to the bone to bring us the freshest possible bounty. This is a great comfort to me.

I am more of a haphazard grower. I sowed my sprouting broccoli way too late so won’t have any crops this spring. I could feel very disappointed because it’s my favourite vegetable, but Geoffrey already has mounds of fresh green florets on his stall. Exemplary!

I caught him lost in thought between customers...

“Morning Geoffrey, Happy New Year, you look pensive”

His eyes regained focus and he puckered his eyebrows

“What did you call me?” he asked

“pensive” says I

“I’ve never heard of that one....”

“Oh, it means thoughtful, from the french verb ‘penser’, to think. ”

“Ahhh” he sighs “so it’s not a Suffolk word, no wonder I haven’t heard of it!”.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A surprise Christmas present

I received these cute little pins featuring my veggie illustrations, from the creative folks at Bluehill.

Quite timely, as I’m busy chopping up mountains of veg. Forget mince pies, stodgy puds and fiddly canapĂ©s; all you really need in the fridge for the holidays is a huge pot of home-made Minestrone soup.

Its beauty is manifold... Start it off with all the lost souls from the vegetable garden, the split carrots, dried out beans and knobbly artichokes and then keep the pot topped up with any left over veg from dinner and once the bird is finished, the stock from the turkey bones. Just keep a vague eye on the proportion of veg to stock and it should get even tastier as time goes on. 

Such an accommodating soup always reminds me of a story we used to read to our children when they were small... 

A cold and hungry tramp arrives on the doorstep of a cosy farmhouse. The farmer’s wife very reluctantly invites him in but is adamant that she doesn’t want to share with him the mouthwatering ingredients she is preparing for her supper. 
Thinking she can fob him off she drops a rusty nail into her pot of simmering water and presents him with a bowl of “nail soup”. 
The tramp sips it, oh so gratefully and declares it delicious. She is flattered. 
There’s a but, though. 
He suggests that to elevate the soup to the next level of delectability she could maybe add an onion? 
You’ve probably guessed, she is persuaded one by one to rummage through her cupboards and add all the ingredients she was reserving for her own supper. The more she adds the more appreciative the tramp is, until they’re both sitting down together sharing a hearty stew.

While I do harbour an affection for the beauty of rusty nails, you will notice I have left them out of this soup. In the spirit of the story though, I am all for rifling through the fridge. In goes that drop of oil swilling around in the otherwise empty anchovy tin and likewise some tomatoes that are too squishy for slicing but perfect for squashing. 

Serves 6

2 tbsp olive oil
1 large garlic clove, finely sliced
1 large onion, diced
2 sticks celery, finely diced
½ bulb fennel, diced
2 decent carrots, diced
1 small parsnip, diced 
1 leek halved lengthways, then chopped
1.5 litres stock (veg or preferably turkey)
4 tomatoes (squashed!) or a 400 g can of chopped tomatoes
450 g fresh borlotti beans or a 400 g can of beans
¼ head savoy cabbage
50 g dried mini pasta shapes (or all those broken shards in the bottom of any normal bag)
2 tbsp chopped fresh marjoram
2 tbsp chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

freshly grated parmesan to serve

Combine the olive oil and garlic in a large, heavy pot over a medium heat. Add the onion, celery and fennel and sautĂ© for 5 minutes, stirring frequently with a spatula. Add the carrots, parsnip, and leek and continue to cook gently for a further 10 minutes, until the vegetables are beginning to soften. If they are starting to brown reduce the heat.

Add 1.2 litres of the stock, the chopped tomatoes, and the beans. Bring the soup to a boil , then reduce the heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Add the cabbage, pasta the fresh herbs and the remaining stock. Simmer for another 10 minutes or until the cabbage and pasta are cooked. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. 

Serve with freshly grated parmesan and warm crusty bread.

If you're likely to be deluged by un-announced 'first-footers' tonight, or maybe a weary tramp, there's ample time before midnight to get a pot simmering… 
In fact the local stray cat has just forced entry to my kitchen and plundered the meat I was planning to cook, so we might well be having Minestrone soup too! 

Happy New Year

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

…dreaming of a WHITE Christmas

One of the young hens laid her first egg this week. 
Yes, I'm pleased for her. 
Mary however can hardly contain her excitement. 
It's like Christmas has come early... simply because the eggs are blue… green? bluey-green? greeny-blue?

Mary turns each egg over in her palm, stroking its perfectly smooth surface, tilting it this way and that to catch the light. At the same time she's wrapping her tongue around a string of fancy syllables like ce-ru-le-an, eau-de-nil and cy-an in an effort to describe the colour to anyone who is within earshot.

If only she'd paint a picture of the jolly thing that would put us all out of our misery.

I lay white eggs. 
Do I feel upstaged? Maybe.

Once Mary has calmed down I'll remind her that blue is actually quite a bold statement. 
White, on the other hand, goes with everything!

Have a Happy Christmas, love Hulanicki 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Now we are six...

Hello, Hulanicki guest blogging for Mary. Mary thinks it’s spring already. She’s busy hopping round the garden in light woollens photographing pink blossom, clumps of snowdrops and her broad beans that are a foot high and already in flower.

I suppose it is unseasonably warm, which is why we have decided to start laying again.
Mary thinks this is marvellous. She loves her scrambled eggs for breakfast on Saturday. 

Let me bring you up to date on the coop reshuffle.
Three weeks ago Berlinda sat down on her haunches, sunk her beak onto her breast and simply expired. All very neatly accomplished I must say. Then again, she was a classy bird despite never having laid an egg in her life. I suspect she was one of those “too posh to push” types.

Knock me down with a feather, the following week Peggy MBE keeled over too. Now this did worry Mary. She shot over with her chicken encyclopaedia and thumbed through the diseases glossary. I don’t think she realised she was reading out loud but we could all hear this terrifying list of horrid symptoms. Most of them concluded with “usually fatal”.

Peggy really was 'king pin', so now the rest of us are jostling for position. Consider this blog my UCAS 'personal statement' (for those grappling with UK university applications at the moment), hopefully I can impress Mary enough for her to elect me as 'top flock'.

A couple of weeks down the line, so far so good. Our main problem at the moment to be honest, is the two cockerels. They hurtle out of the coop in the morning firing on all cylinders. We girls try to creep out unseen, call it an attempt to have breakfast in pyjamas. But we’re usually chased and hounded, subjected to the cockerel's clumsy foot stamping dance, before we’re pinned to the ground... and the rest is disgusting. It sometimes takes me ages to realign my feathers after that indignity, and, sigh, breakfast is taken late again.

Last night however, I had a nightmare. 

The coop door creaked open in the middle of the night. Torch light flashed in our eyes. A strong hand grabbed first one cockerel then the other. There were squawks. Then hush. A deep voice muttered “you got string?” “hold sack open”. Then heavy footsteps dissolved into the darkness.

This morning there was an eerie calm. It wasn’t just a dream. The cockerels had simply vanished. 

Oh well, they lived life in the fast lane, but perhaps they didn't realise that when soup is your destiny it’s down hill all the way to the pot!