Twittering, tweets and snowdrops

I woke up this morning to the cheerful cacophony of a chorus of birds singing their hearts out in my garden. Yes, my garden! They chose my garden to be their stage.
Such gaiety saw me leap out of bed, with a somewhat unusual surge of enthusiasm, and head for the window; I am instantly captivated by the abundance and activity of the little birds that have chosen to visit this space I call my own.

 

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Five coal tits dart in and out of the branches of the silver birch as if they are playing some crazy game of tig. Then come the blue tits as fast and loopy as their monochromatic cousins. This playful dance carries on just below my window when a movement further down the garden catches my eye. It’s my goldcrest, a regular visitor. This minuscule bird makes my heart skip a beat whenever I see her because she always brings with her a curious sense of belonging, a feeling that all is well in my world.
A couple of robins join in the throng; it is a veritable feast of feathery activity. These birds are literally eating my garden and they are very welcome.

 

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This past week Twitter has been awash with photos of snowdrops; it’s that time of year. Snowdrop enthusiasts (or galanthophiles to give them their fancy name) are in their element and who can blame them? These pure and delicate flowers are so charming they can entice even the most latent of gardeners outdoors to witness their beauty.
Visitors flock to country parks and estates to witness the glorious sight of great swathes of snowdrops growing under trees and along grassy embankments. I however come over all Lord Byron and prefer the path less travelled. I gad about down country lanes, venturing into ancient churchyards to indulge my passion.

 

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Now I married for love not money and therefore do not live in a country estate but this doesn’t mean I can’t have my own little clump of snowdrops to adore. I have several clumps growing in my suburban garden and each year they spread a little further, so much so I can now pick two or three stems and bring them into the house where I spend too long marvelling at their gorgeousness.
Padfoot shares my love of snowdrops and carefully tiptoes over them to sit in his favourite place.

 

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I think he has noticed their delicate fragrance too.

 

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When a flower captures my attention I like to find out more about it and the snowdrop has quite a story. Folklore has it that folk were once afraid to bring the flowers into the house for fear it would turn the cows milk watery, make the butter go bad and affect the hatching of eggs under a sitting chicken. Now I’m no farmer but my own chickens lay very few eggs in snowdrop season and have shown no desire at all to try and hatch them in freezing cold temperatures. As for the milk and butter I think the development of the refrigerator has saved the day.

It’s exciting times for the snowdrop nowadays. Scientists have discovered certain properties may help in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, MS and trauma to the nervous system. Such promise of hope from a herb that blooms at a time of year when we all look forward to brighter and better days.

I’ve noticed that most writings about snowdrops always end with a warning. Do not eat them, they will make you very poorly. Now I’m not sure why anyone would want to sink their teeth into this little beauty but just in case you are tempted, best not.

Snowdrops belong in the flowery section of the kitchen garden. If you fancy growing some, now is the perfect time to get started.
Snowdrops are offered for sale ‘in the green’. This means they have flowered and will still have their leaves attached to the bulbs. Planting them in like this gives them a much better chance of thriving.

The blooming of late winter flowers is a sure sign that Spring is on its way so why not introduce some into your own garden. They are guaranteed to lift your spirits and chase any winter blues away.

Photo credits.

A massive “Thank You” to Paul Cliff for letting me use his beautiful photo of a coal tit and to my sister Sarah Anderson who spent the weekend tiptoeing through snowdrops and bombarded me with photos. Blog collaboration at its best!

Ps The pictures of Padfoot are all my own work ūüėČ

The fragrance of winter

I had planned to climb Snowdonia today but, with blanket fog, zero visibility and arctic conditions forecast I decided to postpone my trek much to the relief of Llanberis mountain rescue.

I had wanted to climb for the view not the trek and was looking forward to being wowed by natures glory; as it turned out, I didn’t have to go far.

I haven’t been out in the garden much and, when I have it’s been dark, so I haven’t noticed the gradual unfurling, the slow unraveling of the witch hazel flowers.

Until now.

As I step across the lawn I stop in my tracks because what I see takes my breath away. The witch hazel, that grows next to the fence, unnoticed for most of the year, is clothed in glory. Explosions of tissue-paper flowers have erupted along each stem and it is gorgeous.

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It’s difficult to describe the colour; golden-yellow with a hint of lime maybe? Chartreuse yellow ? I try to capture the colour with my camera but it doesn’t do it justice so I stand and savour it with my own eyes instead.

I stand for ages taking it all in. Would I have stood on the summit of Snowdonia for so long? Not today.

Its impossible not to reach out and touch the tiny tendrils, they are so irresistibly tactile. Droplets of water run off them when disturbed and I am reminded that these are amongst the most highly scented of winter flowering plants. Nose twitching I lean closer, keen to get a whiff of their intoxicating aroma but, alas, today they are not releasing their fragrance. I will have to wait for a sunnier day.

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But all is not lost in the perfume department because the sarcococca flowers, commonly called sweet box,  are more than happy to gently permeate the air with their fragrance. The flowers of this evergreen shrub are often described by horticulturalists as insignificant. Insignificant! How rude! These tiny blooms bring joy to the dullest of winter days and, in my book, that makes them natures superstars.

Whilst enjoying these beautiful winter plants I am aware that I have not positioned them in the best places. The witch hazel is planted against an appallingly scruffy fence and the sweet box is behind the twisted hazel in a forgotten corner of the garden.

Its about time the witch hazel is given the very best background so she can really shine. A covering of bottle green ivy on the fence or closely clipped pyracantha will make a great foil. And the sweet box? Unlike the witch hazel she doesn’t mind being moved so, when the flowers are spent, I will carefully dig, keeping a good root ball of soil, and move her close to the path so that next winter, when I stroll through the garden, natures orchestra will begin with the soft, gentle notes of sarcococca reminding me that natures splendour is right here under my very nose.

Happy new year everyone !

 

 

Making Monday ~ Scones of old

It’s 8.15 am on a Monday morning and here I am making scones!
Why?
Because yesterday I was given a prophetic collage and on it is a Victorian recipe, hand written in faded ink, for scones. So I decided to make them.

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There’s an egg in this recipe. An egg? That’s unusual; all the scone recipes I’ve used previously only have egg as a glaze. But I am delighted this one has an egg because…..

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It’s a double yoker!!!

I always feel that their is something good in store for me when I crack a double yoked egg so I can’t wait for what today will bring.

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Already it’s good. The scones are out of the oven and they look and smell amazing. I’d better have one for breakfast…with a dollop of home made jam.

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Oh yes. I can confirm they are good, good scones. They are slightly crunchy on the outside and warm and soft on the inside. What a delicious surprise breakfast on a Monday morning. A warm scone, a cup of ‘good morning tea’, Classic FM playing softly in the background and a copy of Country Homes magazine to browse at my leisure.

I really must do this again sometime.

A nod to november

November. One minute the leaves are still firmly attached to the trees the next they are lying, in great drifts, on the ground waiting to be kicked into the air in a moment of joyful abandonment. This sudden denuding of the trees can only mean one thing…Winter has arrived!

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The fennel that grows outside the front window is adorned with strands of cobwebs. We had no idea the spiders enjoyed this herb so much until a light frost caused the silky threads to glisten and sparkle in the early morning sun.

I always leave the dried seedheads in place over winter; I love the  structure of them especially when they are silhouetted against the sky.

imageMy sister shares my passion for fennel and included them in this stained glass window she painted for my shed. Can you see them? They are black outlines in the middle section. The shed was an exhibit at the RHS flowershow Tatton in 2015; it’s now in my garden and I smile every time I see that artistic window.

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The physalis, that grow along the wall beneath the roses, come into their own at this time of year. The leafy green foliage cannot stand the frost but its loss is my gain. Withered leaves reveal a heart warming display of tiny chinese lanterns.

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I pick armfuls of blooming physalis stems and bring them into the house. Paired with wiggly branches cut from a twisted hazel they make a fantastic winter display.

The arrival of the cold weather is bittersweet. On the one hand it marks the end of the summer crops; the squashes, beans and summer annuals are no more; on the other hand, the cold snap brings a mouth watering sweetness to the hardier vegetables like parsnips and kale.

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Our kale has been flourishing on the allotment for months now and all members of the Broccoli family enjoy eating it. But lately though there have been murmurings of discontent and I fear that another helping of this leafy green vegetable may just tip the younger Broccolis over the edge. So it’s time to suprise them with something new. Kale crisps.

Kale crisps are unbelievably easy to make.

They taste truly scrumptious.

And are very good for you too.

 

How to make kale crisps

Pick a big bunch of kale leaves and give them a rinse.

Strip the leafy bits off the tough central rib (put the tough rib on the compost heap).

Make sure the kale is completely dry (a salad spinner works a treat) and spread out on a baking tray.

Spray with olive oil, sprinkle with salt  and bake in the oven at 150 degrees for 8-10 minutes. Turn them over half way through to crisp them up.

Leave to cool them serve them up. Kale crisps are deliciously moorish so be sure to make plenty.

Enjoy!

Sugar and spice and all things nice

“If you were a tree your leaves would be starting to fall ” Mr Broccoli tells me. He is very perceptive my husband.

It happens every year. As the days get shorter and the nights draw in my energy levels begin to dip and slide. I used to think I was dying, I really did! Then Mr Broccoli very wisely recognised that I was doing nothing more than gently slipping into hibernation. I had done my hurly-burly, hell for leather summer living and now is the time to rest; he is very perceptive my husband.

I used to fight this feeling, this calm that pervades every aspect of my being. I would kick and scream and fight it thinking myself weak and stupid. Now I embrace it, I embrace it as warmly as I greet an old friend because now I see I for what it is, a changing of seasons, winter returning just like it does every year.

 

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This year I plan to do winter well and I’ve already made a start. I’ve chosen to eat well, a decision that has brought my family and kitchen to life.
I cooked a roast dinner the other day; lavish and succulent it was full of goodness and flavoured with herbs from my garden. I crowned each plateful with gloriously crisp, golden Yorkshire puddings; piping hot they never fail to make my children’s eyes light up.
I’ve never made Yorkshire puds from scratch before so I reached for the Hairy Bikers cookbook; I knew they would have the recipe.
And there I was, content in my kitchen.
Middle child wandered into the kitchen in the midst of my contentment.
“Can I make some cinnamon swirls?” she asked.
Words like these make my heart sing.

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We go about our cooking side by side. We do more than that. I decide to talk like the Hairy Bikers and she models Nigella in the kitchen. Before we know it we are shimmying to the fridge to get supplies and draping ourselves over work tops in hysterics; we both want to be Nigella.

Soon our house is filled with the delicious aromas of winter spices. The rich, sweet scent of cinnamon and the smell of freshly baked bread is impossible to resist and the Broccoli family drift into our cosy kitchen. Settled around the wooden table we watch, warm and content, as the cinnamon buns come out of the oven; they are perfectly formed and a joy to behold. Middle child graces her handiwork with a dusting of glittering vanilla sugar before we tuck into the warm dough; it is delicious, heart warming and beautiful.

Spice up your life

The frying pan spits and sizzles as I shake it enthusiastically by the handle; the finely sliced onions and chunky, chopped garlic dance in the heat and my kitchen is filled with a delicious aroma.
I add fiery grated ginger to the mix then a sprinkle of cinnamon, a dash of cumin, a flash of rich yellow turmeric; I swirl them around and watch, entranced, as the colours and flavours intensify.

The fragrance has caused the Broccoli family to stir; one by one they wander into the kitchen curiosity getting the better of them.

“What is it?” they enquire “It smells so good!”

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I am making Moroccan chicken tagine. I’ve always wanted to go to Morocco, always. I dream of resting in a riad in Marrakech, dipping my toes into a tiny pool on the surface of which floats scented soft, scented rose petals. As night-time falls I long to see the sun slip down over the rooftops just as the call to prayer sounds over the city.
I know that, when I see the market place come alive, I will throw myself headlong into the crowds. I will take in deep lungfuls of the heady night air; rich with the fragrance of spices. Intoxicated by the scents and colours and feeling the warm breeze on my skin I will explore the whole place, savouring every moment.

I blame the Hairy Bikers for fanning the flames of my Moroccan dream. I watched a recent documentary where they visited the country and indulged in the finest local food; it was brilliant. Programmes such as these ignite the wanderlust in me and, if I can’t get to Marrakech just yet I will bring a little bit of eastern magic to my kitchen instead.

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It’s not just seeing places on the tv that inspires me, I’ve just read an article about cooking over fires in Mendoza, Argentina and I so desperately want to go. The descriptive piece, written by Daniel Neilson for National geographic traveller, transported me to another place. I could smell the smoke, I could hear the sizzling sounds, I could feel the passion of those cooking and sweating over the fires; I could feel the passion. The Vines of Mendoza I’m heading your way for meat and Malbec.

I can count on one hand the people I know who are passionate about food. They revel in the joy of food, they take pride in the cooking of it and delight in sharing it with others. The countenance of a passionate foodie can likened to a person in love; they sparkle and their passion causes conversation to flow like good wine.

This passion for food is something I am now embracing wholeheartedly following a recent conversation, held well into the night with the eldest Broccoli, that has got me all fired up. We were discussing, helped by more than a few Cuban cocktails, a thread on Instagram that encourages readers to reconsider their relationship with food. So I did and here’s how it goes.

Cooking, for me, is an adventure. I love exploring new recipes, I love trying new things. Herbs and spices are my best friends in the kitchen and I can travel far in my imagination when I inhale their aromas. I feel an enormous sense of satisfaction when my family enjoy the food I cook; when we sit down together and talk about the day. These are simple pleasures that should never be taken away.

But I nearly lost this passion; nearly.

My interest, my passion, my love turned to guilt. Why? Because the magazines I see portray food as the enemy. The conversations I hear focus on weight loss. The society I live in is obsessed with body image and I started to get sucked in. I began to avoid bread; I swapped meat for Quorn; I made jam and felt sad because I couldn’t eat it because I might get fat. Because sugar is wrong, right?
As I started to fear these foods I could feel my joy fading and I like my joy. I also like my jam and, hand on heart, I love warm, freshly baked bread. Quorn products? Well they have their place but I’ve never really felt much passion when cooking Quorn cottage pie; all I felt was obligation.
Then I read the article about cooking on fire in Mendoza and I felt my passion flicker; then I watched the Hairy bikers and got the fire back in my belly. The desire to make and eat good food is burning bright my friends thanks to the writers and broadcasters who choose to celebrate all that is good about food.

Blackberries in the sky

Its’s early in the day but already the tow path along the Bridgewater canal in Sale is busy. It is busy with people running backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.
Lycra clad individuals pound the floor with their feet while sweat pours down their flushed pink faces. Plastic bottles, clutched tightly in sweaty hands are too brightly coloured; they jar against the watery landscape.
Bicycle bells tinkle in the morning air as more and more people join the journey; backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.

I stand still.

I stand still and savour the morning with Padfoot by my side.
I don’t mind the dingle of a bicycle bell; it’s a gentle, innocent sound unlike the fast approaching thudding sound of a jogger coming up behind me gasping for breath and shouting “s’cuse me!”
And I want to shout
“Stop”

“Stop for a minute and savour the day.”

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Because today is a beautiful day on the towpath in Sale.
Barges line the edges of the water that is calm and still. Somebody is up and must be cooking breakfast because the intoxicating smell of wood smoke is permeating the crisp morning air. It reminds me that Autumn is on the way and I too will soon be revelling the the joy of a good fire.

A heron stands, stock still by the side of the water. Padfoot hasn’t noticed and I don’t want him too because I want to look at this gawky bird a little longer.
No chance.
Padfoot spots the heron and we are off; it takes everything I have to stop him running hell for leather and upending me in the canal!

A honking sound above stops my hairy companion in his tracks. We look up and see four Canada geese flying overhead; they don’t bother the heron, he flaps his wings for a brief moment, takes a couple of steps sideways and resumes his reverie.

I resume mine. I’m looking at a barge and admiring the shiny gold window frames, the beautifully painted panels and I’m thinking how lovely it would be to sit on the top of the boat and drift down the river on such a fine day.

I did once. Many years ago my friends and I hired a barge and pottered about on the waterways. Then, one afternoon, we sailed around a wide, dawdling bend and came face to face with a riverbank filled with fishermen. O-oh this looked intense and serious. My friend who was steering the boat suddenly lost control. It all happened very slowly as is the way with a barge. She turned the tiller too sharply and we ran aground; we got completely stuck. We tried throwing the vessel into reverse to see if we could salvage the situation to no available; all we did was churn up more and more mucky silt.
We decided the best thing to do was grab the barge poles from the top of the boat and push ourselves away from the bank and back into deep water but where were the barge poles?

“Where were the barge poles!!!”

They were gone. Unbeknown to us they had been nicked the night before when we had been moored up outside a pub.
We were in trouble.
Not to worry we were four lovely girls stranded but surrounded by potentially gallant fishing men; they would surely rush to our aid.
But these people looked angry; they looked really angry!
“You idiots” they shouted waving rods angrily in the air.
” This is a fishing competition!” “And you lot have ruined it!”
Oh dear. We had churned up enough riverbed to drive all the fish away for a very long time.

Thankfully nothing as dramatic happened on this early morning walk. I was able to hold my head high as Padfoot and I sauntered. We did discover some blackberries ripe and juicy but they arched high above us well out of reach; lovely they looked though, framed against the clear blue sky.

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