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.



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.


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!”



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.


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 for a minute and savour the day.”


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.



The evenings are drawing in and I like it. I love the summer but, if truth be told, I breathe a sigh of relief when it slowly ebbs into autumn.


Because in our island kingdom the weather is varied; wild and crazy one day then calm and serene the next. We are never really sure what we might get so when a warm sunny day is pulled out of the bag a strange sense of obligation takes over. We must revel in the sunshine, lie in it, bask in it, soak it all up because who knows when we may get another one. A sunny day encourages us to put our lives on hold; we must make the most of it.

Now don’t get me wrong I love warm, summers days but I think I love a sunny, late summer day more; it feels like a special treat.

They say the rain in Manchester is what makes it such an industrious, creative city. Studies show that a warm, sunny environment makes a person relaxed and subdued; no bad thing when you need a break but cloudy days cause us to think deeply and clearly.

I am in no doubt at all that moonlit evenings make the Broccoli family more industrious, especially when there are delicious jams to be made with punnet upon punnet of juicy strawberries.


The boys are busy hulling strawberries, weighing, measuring and looking quizzically at me waiting for their next instruction.
It’s why I want to do more of this in school. Because making jams, sauces and relishes is like capturing pure joy.
Some of you may know that I have the best job in the world; I work as a Level 3 Forest school practitioner in a primary school and, this year, I am giving the school kitchen garden a nudge, well, a boot up the pants actually.

Introducing children to growing and eating healthy crops lays down strong foundations for life and the skills they learn are varied and useful. Emotionally, gardening is good for the soul; simply by being outside our levels of well being go up whilst physically connecting with nature can improve our mental health. I have no doubt at all that gardening is the best way to practise mindfulness if, like me, you struggle to sit still.

My writing is interspersed with watching the youngest Broccoli make strawberry jam; he is 11. So far he has put the strawberries in the jam pan and simmered them for five minutes before mashing them with a masher. I am sitting, contentedly, at the kitchen table with a glass of red wine in my hand and Padfoot is warming my feet; the jam smells lovely.

Looking up I realise youngest Broccoli has also melted some dark chocolate over a pan of hot water and is dipping some leftover strawberries and placing them gently on a saucer; my heart is melting too.

He he turns his attention back to the jam.

“The sugar’s dissolved” he shouts ” what next!”

Eager beaver.

I navigate him to the jam thermometer and tell him it’s a waiting game.

We wait.

I ponder.

He is learning so much.


The jam is done; it is sticky, gooey and so tasty. We stick our fingers in the pouring jug to taste. It is delicious.
Middle child has arrived and she is inspired by our industrious kitchen.
“Can I make gingerbread men?” she enquires.
I smile.
“Of course you can.”

Because this is what weekends are for.

Relishing the plot

The allotment is awash with colour and alive with the sound of buzzing insects. A carpet of bright orange pot marigolds sweeps through the flower border; each face is turned upwards radiating the days warm sunshine.
The foamy cream flowers of English mace, weighted down by their own enthusiasm, tumble over the edges of the plot like gentle waves on the seashore. I love this herb. Little known and completely underrated it’s leaves have a flavour like nutmeg; I use it to liven up potato salad. It is, however the flowers I grow it for as it flowers it’s socks off all summer long and seems to last forever when I pick it and bring it indoors.

img_1802                                                  Cornflowers and English mace

A chance packet of wildflower seeds, found in an old tin in the shed, has produced a gorgeous display of cornflowers and borage and its amongst the borage that the buzzing sound intensifies. The bees love this sky-blue, star shaped flower even more than I do!
They love the courgette flowers too and so do I because each giant yellow flower holds the promise of delicious fruit. These plants have to be carefully observed; take your eye off them for a day or two and the slender courgettes will soon turn into marrows. Not that this is a bad thing, a stuffed marrow can never be wrong.
So far we have been vigilant and no courgettes have run amok. Summer salads, full of seared courgettes and flavoured with lemon thyme have been enjoyed while the excess has been turned into my favourite relish.
Courgette relish is the best way to preserve a glut of courgettes and is a major staple in the Broccoli household. A dollop on a cracker,topped with a bit of cheese really does hit the spot and goes very well with a dash of port.

Courgette relish recipe


1 kilo courgettes
1 green pepper
2 onions,thinly sliced
2 tbsp salt
500ml cider vinegar
450g sugar
3 tsp dry mustard powder
3 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp chilli flakes

1 tbsp cornflour


Finely chop the courgettes, onion, peppers and apples and put in a large pan with all the other ingredients. Bring to the boil then simmer for 45 minutes until thickened. Ladle into sterile jars and store in a cool dark place for a month before using.




Eat well, live well.

I’ve finally wafted back inland after spending several glorious weeks drifting around on the British coastland. The sun shone on the Broccoli family as we revelled in the beauty of Devons finest beaches. We stretched out and basked, like lizards, on warm shingle shores raising an occasional lazy eyelid to look and smile at the sunlight glittery on the water.

It was Padfoots first time on the beach and, the minute those giant paws hit the sand, he was off. His passion for digging makes  me think he is the perfect gardeners dog. Sand flew in every direction, as he frantically dug deeper and deeper, pausing only to wag his tail in delight. When he was satisfied with his beach burrow he settled into it and lay there, contentedly, for most of the day, not even stirring when the younger Broccolis buried him!


The sea was cold, very cold but we went in it anyway because that’s what we do. We rode the waves on kayaks and rubber rings and laughed breathlessly whenever we fell in.
And we ate.
Very badly.

Keen to indulge in a little ‘crabbing’ we spent many an evening sitting in Dartmouth harbour eating fish and chips, because that’s what we do when we are by the sea, we eat fish and chips. Pizza too, we ate pizza for no other reason than the younger Broccolis love it and I will do anything to avoid cooking tea on a bijou camping stove in semi darkness while the wind howls in and around the tent; an experience not helped by a dog getting under my feet who wants to eat EVERYTHING!
Padfoot the dog is the only one of us who ate well. Every evening we would pop into Marks and Spencer’s and buy him a meaty tray of dog food as a holiday treat. He’s spoilt now and may never return to average dog biscuits.

After a brief stop off back in the north the youngest Broccoli and I headed off down to New Quay, Wales to visit with relatives and look for dolphin. We found the first but never saw the latter.
And here we ate well.
We ate very well.
After a long day travelling, crabbing, scanning the sea for porpoise and basking in the sun we headed off for an evening meal at an organic farm that the relatives had secured for a couple of days.


Nantgwynfaen organic farm b&b is beautiful. Nestled in the Welsh countryside it oozes comfort and cosiness and we felt so very welcome. As we sat and listened contentedly to the sounds of food being prepared in the kitchen our noses started to twitch and mouths began to water as the most deliciously fragrances filled the air.
The food that was placed before us was exactly what we needed; sausages, mash, onion gravy, spinach and carrots, all organic and all so good. As chief cook in the Broccoli household I always take great pleasure in eating out but dining at Nantgwynfaen was something else. The food was exceptional, the situation beautiful and I couldn’t have asked for better company. But the best thing, the very best thing was this; I didn’t have to choose from a menu. This was one of life’s unexpected pleasures.

And then dessert arrived, home-made peach and apple crumble, but what was this? I was suddenly confronted with choice! Was my peaceful disposition about to be shattered? Panic not, it was an easy choice, would I like custard, cream or ice cream to smother on this fruitiness. I’ll have the custard please.

So I’ve decided; wherever I am, whatever I’m doing I’m going to eat well because eating well always brings a deep satisfaction to my day.

Joy in the morning

Padfoot is home! He’s been back for just over a week and, much as I would love to have written about him sooner, I just haven’t had the time.
Everyone said having a puppy is like having another child and boy were they right!!! Going anywhere with him requires an extraordinary amount of time simply because he is so gorgeously cute. Strangers bend down on one knee to greet him and are rewarded with an explosion of fluffy bouncing and the occasional face washing. Mmmmm I know, lucky them!
It’s house training him that is the focus of all our attention this weekend and this requires close scrutiny on our part, the reading of many books on the subject, explorations into the World Wide Web for some interesting advice and endless trips into the garden.

The latter I, for one, am enjoying immensely.

It’s 8 am on a Sunday morning and here I am, sitting comfortably on the garden bench, in my tartan pyjamas, writing. The first cup of bitter, black coffee has been supped and enjoyed and I am content in the knowledge that there is more to be had. So, perked up with caffeine and happy with life I sit here and write while my garden is dug up and the kitchen floor I have just mopped will soon look like a mud bath.


I’m not normally an early riser; I love my bed but I am discovering the delights of early mornings. I was warned of this too, it was whispered to me like an illicit secret.

Each morning the day presents me with something new; a raindrop caught in a leaf that shimmers in the morning light or a freshly bloomed poppy that lasts for just a single day, it’s beauty magnified by its fleeting nature.


Tiny birds dart in and out of the Christmas tree pecking at the unsuspecting bugs hiding in the scented needles. A magpie caws harshly momentarily breaking my reverie and I think dark thoughts; murderous thieves. Then Padfoot bounds past, leaping in the air for no other reason other than he can, and I catch his joy.

Because my joy comes, like his, in the mornings and the peacefulness of the day beckons to me.

“Hey there peacefulness” I say ” Hang on a sec, I’m still in my pyjamas and I need to get my wellies on before we go dancing through this glorious day!”

Have a wonderful day everyone