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Just a trim, please

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On a fine day at the end of March I scattered a variety of salad seeds into growbags in the hope that at least some of them would sprout and provide us with some tasty leaves. Each morning I would pop into the garden(well, more yard really) to check on progress, give them a bit of a talking to and water when they were looking dry(hardly ever as it’s been so rainy). Results have been thrilling, to be honest, and this morning the scissors came out and some of the leaves got a serious haircut.

Top of the crops was the oriental salad leaves(Mr Fothergill’s ) which came up a treat and tasted crisp and peppery. The seeds were a mix of mizuna, pak choi and oriental mustards and looked very pretty with their shades of greens and reds. The mixed lettuce(again Mr Fothergill) are also brilliant, as are the mizuna, but I’m letting these get a bit bigger. Apparently, the bigger the leaves the hotter the flavour so these will be good stirred through some spicy pan fried chicken. The wild rocket is still in it’s infancy and to be honest the mesclun is a bit patchy- these are French seeds so maybe they don’t travel well.

The leaves I have cropped should grow again, at least three or even four times which would be marvellous and a superb return on the small amount of time and money I have invested. So if you feel like giving micro-gardening a go, either in grow bags, a window box or any spare container here’s a recipe to get you inspired. I discovered wheatberries last year while working on a scandi food feature and their nutty flavour makes a great base for this salad. If you can’t find them then use farro instead, it’s pretty much the same thing.

Halloumi and wheatberry salad with young leaves

Serves 2

100g wheatberries or farro

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

juice of half a lemon

handful of pistachios, roughly chopped

handful dried cranberries

5 pieces sundried tomato, chopped

good handful fresh mint, roughly chopped

3 tbsp olive oil

good handful young salad leaves

250g halloumi

1 Cook the wheatberries in plenty of water following the pack timings. Drain well and leave to cool. Tip the onion into a large bowl with the lemon juice and mix well. Leave for a few minutes until the onion turns pink. Add the pistachios, cranberries, tomato and mint but don’t stir yet as this will turn the mint leaves brown.

2 Heat 1 tbsp of the oil in a pan, cut the halloumi into six slices and fry quickly on each side until golden. Stir the remaining oil and wheatberries into the onion mix and season with salt and pepper. Tip into a shallow dish and top with the halloumi. Scatter over the salad leaves and drizzle with a little olive oil.

A growing problem

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New Year, new country…

So after 10 wonderful years living and working in France we shut the doors of our cookschool and chambre d’hote, waved goodbye to our riverside home and at the end of February landed in North Somerset for the start of a new adventure. While waiting to move into our new home we are currently living in a boring-as-bat-shit modern townhouse with just a gravel yard out back barely big enough to swing our little dog Lily(she loves it). After six weeks of this my green fingers are itching so much I just had to grow something, no matter how small, and preferably edible.  

Before leaving France I picked up a few packets of salad seeds including Mesclun and wild rocket but I needn’t have bothered as I have found a good selection of mixed leaves in my local garden centre. Mr Fothergill has a good selection and I even found some mizuna seeds in Homebase. So armed with my seeds and a couple of growbags I got planting. Cut out the three windows in each growbag and scatter a different salad variety thinly and evenly in each window. Give it a good water and if it looks like it might turn chilly cover each with an old newspaper to keep them cosy. The brilliant part is that even for the most impatient like me you get almost instant gratification. Within a week healthy shoots started to appear, a thrill every time even for the most experienced gardener. I’m hoping that in another couple of weeks I’ll be harvesting my first crop, and if I keep them well watered should get another couple of crops from the same seeds. While I was in the mood I also dragged a cast iron pot out of the garage and planted it up with herbs to add to my stash. I’ll keep you posted on progress and next time add a recipe to inspire you to get sowing, It;s good to be back.

Hot cross buns- miles better than chocolate

Yesterday was a good day. My friend Nikki ( who runs a veggie b and b nearby had an open day in the garden of her hilltop home. We served tea and cake from our vintage eriba caravan while Nikki offered tasters of her wonderful massage skills. There was also tarot readings, art and photography classes to sign up to, pretty Indian scarves and jewellery to buy and best of all the sun shone all day long. I made a range of cakes and biscuits but the best seller of all were my hot cross buns made that morning. I could have made many more as I sold out quickly and the sadness was that I didn’t even get to taste a crumb. So it’s back to the kitchen to produce another batch and this time they will be all mine. I might just share one with my husband Mick as I have discovered a superstition that says sharing will ensure friendship throughout the coming year. As the saying goes ‘Half for you and half for me, between us two shall goodwill be’. Worth a try.
Hot cross buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday so you have a few days to get them made. Because I wanted them to be freshly baked yesterday I mixed and kneaded the dough the day before, then left it to rise for a couple of hours before shaping it into buns and leaving in the fridge overnight. In the morning I left them for another couple of hours on the kitchen table, then piped on the crosses and into the oven they went. The smell wafting through the house as they baked was delicious torture. Here’s my recipe which I promise you will taste a million times better than shop-bought and is sheer pleasure to make- I plan to toast and butter mine for Good Friday brekkie, then maybe another on Saturday and if there are any leftover on Sunday….

Hot cross buns
Makes 12
Dump the whole tray of buns, warm from the oven, onto the centre of the table for everyone to tear off and butter as they will. If you feel a baking urge now they will freeze beautifully and reheat well.
500g strong plain flour
½ tsp salt
85g light muscovado sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
½ tsp nutmeg
50g butter
7g sachet easy blend yeast
140g mixed dried fruit
300ml half milk, half water
3 tbsp plain flour
3 tbsp golden syrup

1 Mix the flour, salt, sugar and spices in a large bowl. Add the butter, cut into small pieces and rub in with your fingertips. Stir in the yeast and dried fruit. Heat the milk and water mix to lukewarm, then stir into the mixture to make a soft dough.
2 Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5 mins until it is smooth and no longer sticky. Divide into 12 equal sized pieces and shape each into a small ball. Set in rows,a little apart, over a lightly buttered baking sheet. Cover with oiled polythene(a large food bag is perfect) and leave to rise for 2 hours.
3 Heat the oven to 200C/fan180C/Gas 6. Blend the flour in a small bowl with 2 tbsp cold water to make a smooth paste. Spoon into a small food bag and snip off the corner. Pipe a cross on top of each bun. Bake for 20-25 mins until the buns are nicely browned and sound hollow when tapped on the base.
4 Remove to wire rack. Gently heat the syrup then brush thickly over the buns to serve.

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There’s a zebra in the cake tin!



I have to admit I get obsessed with recipes. I might try something really good in a restaurant and spend the next couple of weeks trying to crack the dish, each time getting a little closer, but not happy until I get it right. It often means sleepless nights and a husband who tires of being my taster-in-chief. As he loves anything sweet no such complaints were heard when I decided to try my hand a making a zebra cake. It’s a big cake that’s a bit like a marbled cake but when you cut into it you find stripes instead of swirls. Last week my good friend Reza Mahammad came for tea to talk about the cookery school he is setting up near Cognac so I had the perfect excuse to give it a go. There are loads of recipes on the internet for this cake but most are in cup measures and none explain properly how to get perfect stripes- and only perfection will do where zebra cake is concerned. The cake I made for Reza worked out just fine and tasted brilliant, but the stripes became too thick in the centre of the cake. Zebra cake number two is for my sister Deirdre who arrives tomorrow. Sitting by the river with a cup of tea and a big slice of cake is just what she needs I reckon.

Zebra cake
Cuts into 16 generous slices

4 large eggs
200g caster sugar
200ml milk
200ml sunflower oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
300g self raising flour+ 2 tbsp
1 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp cocoa powder
grated zest of 1 unwaxed orange
100g dark chocolate
100ml double or whipping cream

1 Heat the oven to 180C/160C fan/Gas 4. Butter and line the base of a 22-23cm round cake tin with baking parchment.
2 Put the eggs and sugar in a large bowl and whisk until light and creamy, and the mixture leaves a trail which the whisk blades are lifted. Stir in the milk,oil and vanilla using the whisk blades until evenly mixed. Sift in the flour and baking powder and fold in using the whisk blades.
3 Spoon half the mixture into a separate bowl. Sift the cocoa into one bowl and stir to mix. Sift 2 tbsp flour into the other bowl, along with the orange zest and mix well.
4 Spoon 3 tbsp of the orange batter into the centre of the prepared cake tin. Allow to settle a little then spoon 3 tbsp chocolate batter carefully into the centre of the first batter. Continue in this way until half the batter is used up, then reduce the amount you add each time to 2 tbsp until all the batter is used.
5 Bake the cake for 35-45 mins, until the cake feels firm to the touch in the centre and springs back when gently pressed. Cool in the tin for 5 mins, then turn out, peel off the paper and cool on a wire rack.
6 To make the ganache finely chop the chocolate, then heat the cream gently in a small pan or the microwave. Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate until you have a smooth glossy sauce. If the chocolate is not completely melted return to a gentle heat for a few seconds, stirring all the time. Pour into a bowl and leave to cool, stirring occasionally until it is spreadable. Spread over the top of the cake and leave to set.

Paris in not-quite springtime



Don’t get me wrong, I love living in our little village. But given the chance of a trip to Paris with all the buzz, bustle, shops and restaurants and I’ll bite your hand off to go. And go I did with my good friend Neil on the pretext of accompanying him to Maison et Objet, a huge trade fair where he was on a buying trip to stock his treasure trove of a shop in Wells next the sea. But that’s another story. I pitched up in the Marais on the Friday afternoon and after dumping my bags at our charming chambre d’hote we dived straight into Genin , a patisserie where they serve the richest hot chocolate in the world. And it would have been rude not to taste a cake or two. Their gateau St Honore is a perfect statement of the patissiers art. A rectangle of the crispest puff pastry topped with three tiny choux buns filled in turn with vanilla, chocolate and caramel custard topped with dark and milk chocolate and crisp caramel and finished with a flourish of vanilla flecked cream. To give us an appetite for supper we popped into Merci which is a charity shop like no other. If you are looking for bargains turn away now but if browsing is your pleasure then step inside. Try the exquisite perfumes, rummage through the racks of designer clothes, trail through the homeware department full of objects of beauty you never knew you needed or just do a bit of people watching in their cafe surrounded by floor to ceiling racks of old books.

Supper was at Au Bascou, a friendly neighbourhood restaurant serving Basque style food which was within striding distance of our chambre d’hote. It’s not a showy place on the outside but the interior is as warm and welcoming as the staff. There’s a short printed menu plus a good selection of chalkboard specials- always a good sign. This isn’t fancy-pants food, but hearty stuff for the properly hungry(that’s me- always) As I decided to go for pheasant with lardons and cabbage for main I thought I’d better choose something lighter for starters. It was billed as a salad which I was a bit scared of as I find it tiring chomping my way through too many leaves but I needn’t have worried. Three little gem leaves were filled with beetroot batons, crème fraiche flavoured with horseradish and slivers of smoked herring. A good scattering of chives, a drizzle of good oil and lemon juice and the result was a brilliant dish that was somehow much more than the sum of its parts. Of course I had to try it again when I got home and here is my version which I reckon makes a pretty perfect winter starter.


Smoked herring and beetroot salad

Serves 6


2 little gem lettuces

2 small cooked beetroots, not in vinegar

200g crème fraiche

1 tbsp hot horseradish

2 tsp lemon juice

200g smoked herring fillets

chives, olive oil and lemon juice to finish


Separate the lettuce leaves and arrange three on each plate. Peel the beetroots and cut into tiny batons. Spoon onto the leaves. Mi the crème fraiche, horseradish, lemon juice, salt and pepper and spoon over the beetroot. Cut the herring into small slices and put on top of the crème fraiche. Snip the chives finely and scatter over each plate. Sprinkle with a little lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil and serve with crusty bread.

A burning issue

At last our long awaited bread oven arrived this week. Weighing in at 700kilos it took two brave men(hubby Mick and good friend Marcel) to winch it into place using ropes and chains tied to next door neighbours slightly sickly apple tree. Scary stuff but amazingly it all went to plan so Mick set about making the dough for our first pizza, plus a bread and butter pudding to cook in the residual heat. The fire was lit and the slight drizzle failed to dampen our spirits as we waited for the oven to reach the desired heat. That was our first mistake. We now know that it takes at least 2-3 hours for the oven to heat up so instead of a lovely puffy pizza cooked in 3 minutes, we waited what felt like hours for the pizza to even slightly brown. Mistake number two was to leave the wood in the back of the oven and close the door. We eventually decided we were so hungry we had to eat the thing whatever the consequences. Only half the pizza was even a bit edible as Mick flicked ash onto it as he tried to get it out of the oven. Sadly the base had the texture of wet cardboard and tasted predominantly of, well, smoke. The bread and butter pudding was slightly more edible, but still had a weirdly kippered aftertaste. So the lesson is that you can either leave the wood int he oven and cook with the door open or rake it out and cook with the door shut.

Day two and it was chicken legs on a bed of veggies on the menu. Mick lit the fire at 5.30 and two hours later raked out the wood into a huge industrial roasting tin he picked up at a brocante. This was a highly dangerous operation as the logs were still flaming nicely. Mistake number three. We decided to cook the veggies a bit first before adding the chicken. That was mistake number four as the veggies were wonderfully browned while the chicken remained stubbornly pale and flabby. In the end supper was a pile of admittedly perfectly nice roast veg but no chicken which had to be finished off in the Smeg to have for lunch the following day.

Tonight we plan to start the fire even earlier and on the menu is Greek lamb with potatoes, garlic and oregano. Nice food if you can get it.Image