Monday, 27 May 2013

A postcard from Chelsea, with love and cowparsley XXX



Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden for the Daily Telegraph. I loved this combination of clipped cubes of box and yew, and native plants wafting in the afternoon breeze.

If you were ever in any doubt that Chelsea is the world’s biggest flower show, the ticket touts scattered along the path between Sloane Square tube and Royal Hospital Road are enough to tell you that this is the hot ticket that marks the beginning of summer, even when the skies are leaden, the wind brisk.

Inside the grounds, smooth-skinned young men in striped blazers and panama hats rub shoulders with ladies in pac-a-macs up for the day, their sturdy bags packed at dawn with thermoses, mints, bottles of water, biscuits, hankies, notebooks, a selection of biros. Felix Baumgartener probably jumped from actual space with less preparation. They crowd along the rails, speaking of ‘wow factor’, sighing over favourite plants like you might a sleeping puppy, dodging camera crews and gathering free cotton tote bags with barely-concealed glee.

This year, the show’s hundredth, seemed a little quiet to me. Of course, we all collectively clutched our pearls at Jinny Blom’s B&Q garden for Prince Harry’s charity, Sentebole. We sighed over the elegant, meditative beauty of Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden for the Daily Telegraph and cooed at the traditional, pretty planting in Chris Beardshaw’s Arthritis Research UK garden. While I could admire the technical skill of the Best-in-Show Australian garden, it left me rather cold. The plants all looked a bit crammed in (I know they all are, they’re just not supposed to look it), like chorus girls vying for the role of headline act.

Hard surfaces, such as concrete and stone, and sculptural clipped shapes combined with the deliciously billowy waft of grasses and native plant species. Cowparsley, sweet cicely and other meadow-y delights were everywhere.

After the high-octane hoopla of the show gardens, the Great Pavilion is always terribly soothing. With its banks of flowers, pyramids of vegetables and bowler-hatted nurserymen, it feeds my terminal plant geekery. In these troubled times, just knowing that The Delphinium Society exists makes me happy.

I come home laden with catalogues and ideas, hastily scribbled plant lists and sore feet, desperate to get out into my own little garden to work out where I can cram in just a few more plants. It seems I really didn’t learn anything from the Australians, did I?


The Brewer Dolphin garden designed by Robert Myers. Clipped cushions of box surrounded by billowy native plants, such as wormwood, angelica, musk mallow and ravenswing cowparsley.


The ‘Sowing the Seeds of Change’ garden by Adam Frost for Homebase shows that the trend for combining the decorative with the edible continues to gain popularity. On the day I was there, visitors seemed to be really enjoying the posh potager look.



Jinny Blom’s planting somewhat overwhelmed by the hard structures in the B&Q Sentebale Garden.

And on into the Great Pavilion…


Robinson’s remarkable vegetable display.


A mountain of pelargoniums at the Fibrex stand.


Quite the bunch of tulips at the Blom’s Bulbs stand.


Delphiniums and begonias arranged like a floral army on the Blackmore and Langdon’s stand.


Amaryllis dangle high over our heads at the Warmenhoven stand.


Splendid tiers of well-behaved alliums at the Warmenhoven stand.


An explosion of allium Christophii at the Warmenhoven stand.


A window of clematis.



There’s something comfortingly old fashioned about these cushions of chrysanths.


W&S Lockyer’s auricula display. Note the bowler hat in front of the stand.


I love these orange geums. So cheering.


Always so very difficult to walk past the Hardy’s stand without ordering something.

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A little light, post-Chelsea reading.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

I’ve Seen the Future, and It’s Bouffant



Chilli wreaths and courgette muffins at Divertimenti.

Yesterday, as part of the Chelsea Fringe, I demonstrated some of the projects from Gifts from the Garden at Divertimenti, the kitchenware shop of dreams on the Brompton Road.

My friend Julia came to help. Her presence is so soothing I always feel nothing bad could ever happen when I’m with her. And if it does, it’ll transform itself into an anecdote we’ll laugh about when we’re old ladies, sipping cold and alcoholic somethings on a porch. She’s from Chattanooga, which for some reason means I always picture us on a porch swing in the cool shade a clapboard house, even though in our ten years of friendship we’ve never even been south of the river together, let alone to Tennessee.


Julia and I, side by side, trying out the rose petal and sugar body scrub.


Pouring marigold and honey soap.


Making chive pesto.

The extent of my lofty aims for any public appearance is that people come, they take away something vaguely interesting, useful or edible, and I remember not to swear. Over the course of the morning, a chain of delightful Pamelas and Barbaras, Alexandras and Elizabeths, Emilys and Katies came through the door and ate courgette and ricotta muffins, crostini with chive and lemon pesto, watched me thread chillies onto wire to make edible wreaths and plant up colanders with herbs you could scatter on or in a pizza. They got me to sign books for their sisters, their mums, their best friends.

And then my future walked through the door. Or at least the future I aspire to in my wildest imaginings. A tiny old lady appeared at the demonstration table, her lips determinedly lipstick’d and her eyelashes enthusiastically mascara’d. A nimbus of backcombed hair quite doubled the size of her head. Her magnificent black coat was richly embroidered with flowers and leaves. She watched for a little while. She ate a spoonful of pesto. Then she fixed her clear blue eyes on me and said, ‘I have a cook. I am going to go home and ask my cook if she would like your book’. In that moment, it felt like the Brompton Road equivalent of a Pulitzer.


Planting up a pizza hanging basket in a colander


Making a chilli garland.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Cookbooks and Cake: A Winning Combination

A delicious way to celebrate Free Cakes for Kids Hackney’s hundredth cake. On Sunday afternoon, the sun shone, cakes arrived, shortly followed by people, a lot of people, who bought lots of cookbooks and ate heroic amounts of cake. Most impressive, most unstinting in this latter effort was my friend Lola’s husband who will now forever be known as Barry ‘Four Cakes’. Neighbours came. This being Stoke Newington, some of them came bearing gifts – a little tomato plant, some homemade smoked cheese. Strangers came and sat happily in the garden, chatting, flipping through their new books. My friend Julia made a NAAFI’s worth of tea and coffee. Séan washed up with characteristic cheerfulness. The hallway was full of bikes, pushchairs and scooters. In three hours, about a hundred people came through the door and helped us to raise a thousand pounds for Free Cakes for Kids Hackney. A THOUSAND POUNDS. That’s roughly twice as much as I hoped we might make and means a lot more birthday cakes for a lot more kids. Thank you to the many FCKH bakers who brought such beautiful cakes and to those of you who came and helped to make it such a happy, successful day. See you all again next year? DSCN8927
Julia makes yet another cup of coffee. DSCN8910
The dining room turns into a bookshop for a day.
Enjoying the precious sunshine. DSCN8946
The FCKH committee rocking their brand new tote bags.
My contribution – a lemon and blueberry layer cake, which I didn’t even get to taste. By the time I turned around, it was but crumbs.
Scones with clotted cream. I did try one of these and it was so good.

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A present from my neighbour, a little tomato plant. He also brought me this smoked cheese, below.

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Friday, 17 May 2013

Here, Have A Cookie


So a nice thing happened which I quite forgot to tell you about, what with all of the garden talks and bake sale hoopla. It’s a really nice thing, a skip-around-the-room-and-pour-yourself-a-margarita sort of thing.

My blog has been nominated for the Guild of Food Writers’ Food Blog of the Year Award , alongside Kerstin Rodgers’ The English Can Cook  and Emma Gardner’s Poires au Chocolat . The chichi là là party is on May 29. Not long to wait. In the meantime, do join me in a celebratory Friday afternoon cookie.

MochaButta Cookies


I’ve been at my desk since seven o’clock this morning, taptaptapping away. By tea time, I was desperate for something sweet and there was nothing but oranges in the kitchen. Now I love an orange, but I needed the You-Lift-Me-Up transformative powers of butter and sugar. So I came up with these cookies using what I have in the cupboards, and they’re pretty good. Dark, nutty, not too sweet, quite grown up in fact. I’m eating one now. It’s still warm and I’m thinking how good it would be with vanilla ice cream.

I was going to make them with half caster- and half light muscovado sugar, but I’m out of light muscovado so I did a 8:2 blend of caster- and dark muscovado sugar. I also wanted to use up some caramelised cocoa nibs I was sent so I threw those in. Chocolate chips would be good if you're all out of caramelised cocoa nibs.

Makes about 20 cookies.


75g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
50g unsalted butter, softened
80g caster sugar
20g dark muscovado sugar
200g crunchy peanut butter
1 egg, room temperature
2 tbsp instant coffee, dissolved in 1 tbsp boiling water
1 tsp vanilla extract
70g caramelised cocoa nibs or chocolate chips

Sift the first four ingredients into a bowl and set aside.

In a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer - or certainly by hand if your desire is to have perfectly toned upper arms to rival Michelle Obama’s – beat together the butter and sugars until well combined. Beat in the peanut butter, then the egg, coffee and vanilla. Slowly but thoroughly beat in the sieved dry ingredients then fold in the cocoa nibs or chocolate chips. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Line two cookie sheets with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 170C.

Roll the cookies into balls roughly the size of a walnut. Place them on the prepared sheets about 4cm apart. Flatten them slightly with the bottom of a glass then press a criss-cross pattern into the surface with the tines of a fork.

Bake for 10 minutes. Leave on the tray for two minutes to firm up slightly, then drag the baking parchment onto wire cooling rack and let the cookies cool completely.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

I Went South of the River and I Liked It


Making pesto: I pour the olive oil, Rachel mixes.

A couple of months ago, food writer Rachel de Thample emailed me to ask if I’d like to come and demonstrate a few of the projects from Gifts from the Garden to some like-minded souls in Crystal Palace. Rachel is so full of quietly determined Texas charm, it’s impossible to say no to her. Even though speaking in public is pretty new to me and fills me with proper white-knuckle fear.

Stupid, isn’t it? I’m ridiculously old still to be holding onto such terror so I’ve decided to say ‘Yes!’ to everything until I get over it like a proper grown up. My mum, who is undeniably the wisest person on the planet, sounded only mildly irritated when she said to me, ‘Oh for god’s sake, you love telling people what to do’. True.

So I went to Crystal Palace, the car rattling with mixing bowls, graters and knives and smelling deliciously of lavender and lemons. People were kind, no one threw things at my head, they asked interesting questions and nibbled happily on bits of bread topped with spoonfuls of chive and lemon pesto.


Grating ginger into the bathtime ‘tea’, which you infuse in your bathwater.



A relaxing tisane planter.



Making bundles of dried herb and flower tisanes.



Jars of rose and lavender body scrub.

I liked Crystal Palace. It has a busy high street with bakeries, delis and cafés, a good bookshop, and coffee shops where intense and Amishly-bearded young men discuss the optimum water temperature for making the perfect cup (SE19’s Amish say 93.4°C). In fact, it’s so like my dear, beloved Stoke Newington that I think we should have some sort of North-South-of-the-Thames twinning scheme.

That very weekend some of the people who came to my class were afterwards going off to publicise their brand new food market, which was inspired in part by N16’s award-winning Growing Communities. If you live locally, do check it out. It’s every Saturday, 10am to 3pm at Hayes Lane, SE19 3AP,


Joe, dressed as a carrot, to publicise Crystal Palace’s new Saturday food market.


Chive and Lemon Pesto


This recipe is from Gifts from the Garden. Do use its measurements as a template and experiment with other nuts, hard cheeses and herbs.

40g pine nuts
A generous bunch of chives, about 50g, finely chopped
60g Parmesan cheese, finely grated
Grated zest of 1 small lemon
1 small garlic clove, minced
4-6 tbsp olive oil, plus a little more for bottling
Salt and pepper

1x190g jar

Warm a dry frying pan over a medium heat and gently toast the pine nuts until just golden and fragrant, rattling the pan frequently to ensure they don’t burn. Cool and bash thoroughly in a pestle and mortar, or pulse a couple of times in a food processor. Combine with the chives, cheese, lemon zest, garlic and just enough oil to get the texture you like. Taste and season if necessary with salt and pepper.

Spoon the pesto into the cold, sterilised jar, pressing down with the back of a spoon to get rid of any air pockets. Ensure that the pesto is completely covered with a thin layer of oil before sealing. Refrigerated, the pesto will keep for 2-3 days.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Cookbook and Cake Sale

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My first cake for Free Cakes for Kids Hackney

Recently I signed up as a volunteer for Free Cakes for Kids Hackney. Essentially, FCKH matches up keen bakers like me with families who find it difficult to provide birthday cakes for their children. I get to bake, which I love, and a kid gets to blow out some candles. Simple.

When FCKH were trying to think of a way to celebrate the making of their hundredth birthday cake, I had an idea. My dining room table was creaking under the weight of more than a hundred cookbooks I’d been sent as a judge for the Guild of Food Writers’ Cookbook of the Year award. Why not have a cookbook and cake sale to raise some funds so we can make more cakes for more kids?


Some books for the sale.

So if you’re free this Sunday, May 19, do come. There’ll be many of the biggest titles from 2012, so you can tuck into brand new copies of Ottolenghi, Nigella, Jamie, Hugh and Mary Berry at knock down prices - and there’ll be quite a few second-hand books too. And if that isn’t a big enough draw, we’ll be serving tea and cake, of course.

There are Free Cakes for Kids groups springing up all over the country. If you’d like to volunteer or donate, check out their website here.


19 May, 2-5pm, 112 Rectory Road, Stoke Newington, London N16 7SD

Cash only, please.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Hello London, I Love You


Ballerina, Queen of Night and Barcelona tulips.

Last Sunday was real sunhat weather.

I sat on the grass weeding, low enough to smell the soft, sweet scent of the orange Ballerina tulips and to enjoy the dazzle of their lily-shaped heads against the fat cups of purple Queen of Night and shriek pink Barcelona. I love to sit on the grass. You see things differently there.


Beautiful shriek-pink Barcelona tulips.

As I pulled out soft-leaved, milky-rooted dandelions and tiny sycamore seedlings, music drifted across the wall, through the trellis and over the roses. Our neighbours are in a bluegrass band. They’re really good. The plaintive sounds of the fiddle, guitar and banjo pulled the hipsters who live on the other side of us from their beds and onto their little roof terrace. Pale chested boys and girls with last night’s mascara smudged around their pretty eyes sat and watched, listened. When they came to the end of their first song, we all applauded.

Gentle wisps of smoke from our Turkish neighbours’ barbecue curled deliciously into the warm afternoon air.

And in that moment, I just fell for London really hard and all over again.




Cherry blossom, before…



…and after the wind.


Apple blossom.


Barney – is it the demise of the blossom, or the bluegrass music that’s making him so mournful?

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