A New Home



After quite some time living at this address, the blog has a new home, it's HERE.

Go see it, click the RSS feed, leave rude comments, the usual stuff....

Henry

Dear Henry

You are magnificent. With your fine squawk, splendid plummage and confident swagger, you cut an undeniably impressive figure. You rule the roost. I take my rather knackered straw sun hat off to you Henry.



You have, like many before you, become rather too enchanted with your own magnificence. Your manly demeanour started to give way to random aggression, your evocative calling of the dawn becoming day-long wailing, your occasional not-entirely-successful attempts at the amorous arts replaced by digging those sharp bits into the ladies.

You started scaring my 6 year old with unpredictable charges, then my wife. Charges became rabid attacks, spurs first, throwing yourself into the fence repeatedly in an attempt to get through. This week you even started trying to catch me out, but you weren't paying attention to that cane I happened to have in my hand were you Henry. Hurts doesn't it.

Henry, you've become a pain in the arse.

I wonder what has turned you this way. Can it be the dawning of spring and the rising of the sap? Perhaps you're feeling a little more frisky than normal in this unseasonal sunshine Henry. You wouldn't be the only one.

But you know what Henry, when my daughter can't collect the eggs, my wife can't clean out the hen house and you're starting to hurt the egg-laying ladies, you can rely on things not staying like that for too long.

Henry, the living daylights were strangled out of you last night* while you were snoozy and I'm truly sorry. It was, however, the best of a short series of options. Tonight you rest in a friend's fridge awaiting red wine, perennial herbs and Gas Mark 4.




I didn't strangle you Henry, the owner of the fridge did. I would have liked to have strangled you but I didn't. I would have liked to as if it was going to happen, it would have been right to have been me. I didn't for two reasons: by the time you went I disliked you Henry and that's not a good feeling to have when sending a bird off to its end, and I haven't done it before and a friend has and you were a big bugger Henry and I thought you might've taken more killing than a first-timer would be confident to do. As it turns out, it was quick and easy.

What I do promise Henry, is that I will learn how to do it well and when keeping some chickens for eating this summer I will do the do rather than pass that responsibility to someone else. I will bleed, eviscerate, hang, pluck and eat every part possible before the summer is through.

So bye bye Henry. It was fun before you turned into a total bastard.




* Mum, if you're reading this, next time you see your grand-daughter, Henry has been 'gone to a friend's', ok.

Allotments

So, from today, no more River Cottage for me but, as if by magic, more interesting things appear to ensure that at least for now there's no threat of a return to the days of living in an old people's bungalow with two friends (one of whom had the conservatory for a bedroom) watching Going For Gold in a dressing gown with a bottle of sherry and four cans of Crucial Brew for company*.

I seem to be writing four books in the next three years and am taking the photographs for another. It is this 'another' which I'd like to draw to your attention. The publisher is getting that Lia Leendertz (or Lena Linedance as someone straight-facedly referred to her as a couple of weeks ago) to do the largely inconsequential job of filling in a few words to make the white spaces around the delightful images seem less dull.

The book is about amazing allotments. The definition of allotment is very loose - community gardens, flower allotments and roof gardens are among those that fall under our rather untidy umbrella.

It's a very simple book - we write about and shoot the most amazing allotments, the people who garden in them and some of what they grow. If we get it right it should be beautiful and inspiring, a tale of people and place.

GARDEN PARTY 01 Les potagers Belvédère Suresnes - La tomate from GARDEN PARTY, l'émission on Vimeo.


We have many fantastic allotments, like the one above, that we hope to include but we are after a few other belters. If you have one or know of one you'd like to suggest, please let us know either by adding a comment or emailing us.

Thank you thank you


* Coming to a grand total of £4.85 and therefore meeting the strict rules applied to the £5 challenge

Burning seat

See this seat...it's made of wood, hazel I think. Uncharacteristcally, I've had the wherewithall to put it into the barn through the winters. It's lasted four years. I, family and friends, as well as a few squash, have availed ourselves of its surprisingly ample comforts.



It is now, sadly, quite knackered and is about to find its way to the fire pit on the first afternoon reasonable enough to feel like sitting out and holding a sausage or two over some flames.

In truth, I'll only be so sad to see it go. Every time I sat on it, it's rough contours reminded me of the day I bought it.

I'd seen the seats at an event and found out they were made by the mum of someone I knew. I arranged to pick up a couple from their house. I drove there, my usual gormless self bounding in like a poorly behaved labrador and kissing the daughter hello on the cheek and introducing myself to her mum. Her mum said something I heard but didn't quite catch but assuming it was a pleasant greeting and being polite in my gormless labrador way I smiled, said a cheery '...and to you too...' and kissed her warmly hello too.

We walked around the garden, me being suitably enthusiastic about the lovely bits and nodded gormlessly at the bits full of ornamental. A couple of cheek kisses to the daughter, and a wave to the mother who to the untrained eye could've been mistaken for retreating sharpish as I left.

Half way home, driving alongside the glorious Dorset coast, humming along to whatever was on the radio, I felt good. Wine, wife and daughter were waiting in the sunny evening field. My mind, finally at rest after a busy day. Or almost. Something was bothering me very faintly, at the back of my head. An odd feeling, like when you wake from a dream that you can't remember but have the feeling left from it. It was the mum, I'd got it into my head that she'd taken against me, she was walking away, making herself scarce as I left and I couldn't think why. I put it down to my paranoia and put it out of my head.

I drove past the 'Welcome to Devon' sign and smiled, remembering friends who always stopped by it to do a little jig when driving back home from University. I had the very clear feeling of the final reel spinning into place in my head - like when you finally get the lyric you've been singing wrongly. I clawed that misheard sentence back into sense. What she'd said, as I kissed her daughter hello and just before I'd bumbled over to her to kiss her enthusiastically hello was: 'Oh no, no no....we're not that forward around here'.

Extera

My mum sounds like Rihanna. Alas not in the singing department, or I'd be blowing my share of the family fortune sniffing a hundredweight of jazz salt off the curvier parts of a lady of easy virtue in a preposterously tariffed hotel rather than writing a blog at 7.25 on a Sunday night while wishing I hadn't finished off that bar of Green and Blacks Butterscotch earlier this afternoon.



The one similarity they share is that they say 'umbrella' with four syllables. A sneaky addition slides in between the b and the r. Alas I haven't a recording of my mum, but here's Rihanna.

Maybe they are both trying to make up for the seemingly shortchanged 'parliament', February' and 'Wednesday' which having had the good grace to provide us with a certain arrangement of letters are rewarded by us routinely skipping past a syllable for the fun of it.



I have, as it goes, something of a fascination for umbrellas. I think it started with the rather spooky story of Georgi Markov. As a young kid I was very much into James Bond and the idea of spies - there was Masterspy on the box and Double Agents in the sweetshop. All was well. But the idea that someone who had defected here from Bulgaria might be killed on the streets of London by having a poison pellet fired into his leg from an umbrella....an umbrella! How marvellous. I didn't make it to 'How awful' for some years.

I never forgot his name, but that may be less to do with umbrellas and more to do with my ludicrously contrary brain - at that time I would absorb any slightly unusual name to be retained for life, whereas these days I have trouble remembering my own middle name. Or perhaps it was that everyone on the news then seemed to have a novel name - Ndabaningi Sithole, and Canaan Banana to name but two.



As with all sensible children, the least likely, most convoluted yet interesting explanation was always the real one. Conspiracies were happily taken on board wholesale, paranormal happenings and other worldly experiences accepted. The very first night a friend and I went UFO watching from his window we stopped after only 3/4 of an hour as we'd already seen a hundred. They were pretty common back then let me tell you. Of the many conspiracies that took my fancy, it seemed pretty obvious even to the very young me that JFKs assassination was mighty fishy. The angle he moved when the first bullet hit, then the second the other way meant it had to be two or more assassins...all the documentaries said so. Then I read an article somewhere about a man with an umbrella and how he must've been involved. This was music to my ears. A dry sunny day, JFKs motorcade sliding slowly through the streets of Dallas, people waving and all that. On this glorious day, captured on film, a detail missed by most eyes, a single man holding up an open umbrella. So peculiar, so strange on this sunniest of days, it must have something to do with the events that unfolded. Hiding his face perhaps, and some speculated that perhaps the umbrella itself had a gun concealed within it, the bullet fired threw the fabric.

The truth is not much less ridiculous. Fascinating. Do watch the lovely film.

And then of course there's Steve McClaren, the once England football manager, who after a particularly dull performance which he watched from the sidelines from under an umbrella, was sacked - many of the papers carrying the rather easy headline of The Wally With the Brolly. Although in his favour you have to say his command of foreign languages is second to known.

Why am I thinking so obsessively about umbrellas you may well ask. Other than the fact that my mum is saying 'umbrella' with a touch more frequency than normal given the almost daily downpours, it is because next week I will be spending each day in the vineyard pruning the vines and I need to find a way to keep my head dry. This is conundrum visits my dim brain regularly.



Much as I like hats, they leave me with a weird after-feeling. I blogged about it years ago. If you can't be arsed to read it, essentially when I come in after wearing a hat, I take it off and for hours afterwards I keep reaching for the hat, to take it off - it still feels like it's there. In the American Civil War those who'd lost a leg or arm had the sense that the missing limb was still there, even experiencing pain from it. This became known as Phantom Limb Syndrome. Unfortunately my own Phantom Hat Syndrome makes me reluctant to wear a hat for too long. I'm not a fan of hoods - I like to be 'in' where I am, and anything that impairs my hearing is most unwelcome. An umbrella would solve all, but it would take up a hand. Unless....I bought one of these.

Clearly this would be preposterous. Although I suspect that all preposterousness is, certainly for the male of the species, simply a matter of time. I bought a very marvellous walking jacket a couple of months ago which served me very well when debuted on a two day walk with Big Stu in the most ridiculous coastal walking weather...



Warm, wind proof, light, deeply unfashionable - it ticked all the boxes. I wear it more days than not at the moment simply because it keeps me warm, even though I look ridiculous. What has become of me. Clearly this is no kind of look for someone so influential*.

And what next, Clarks Movers?



* That noise you can hear is me putting my shoehorn back in the drawer.

The Fall Principle

I planted four Devon sorbs a few years ago and they've been mightily unencouraging. Slow to grow and reluctant to fruit is about the best I have been able to say in their favour. Other than they're not overly common which, if you're minded that way, affords it's own nerdy caché.



This year, at long last, they came good. If not an ugly duckling turned siren, then certainly a plain Jane turned foxy - beautiful leaves, a gorgeous shape and colour and (most gratifyingly) fruit. Not the most obviously appealing fruit, but luckily our forefathers didn't have the internet and could be expected to spend their shallow empty lives trialing ways of turning unpromising foodstuffs into deliciousness. This (thanks to John Peel) has become known (at least in my house) as The Fall Principle.



I saw The Fall a few times, firstly in 1988 when they were at the peak of their powers. The floor in front of the stage collapsed (almost certainly due to the weight of snakebite and black ingested by those watching): cue much standing around and looking into the abyss while The Fall carried on. They played for 40 minutes. Including the encore. Which was the first two songs of their set played again. They were very fine indeed.

John Peel once said that if The Fall brought out an album that he didn't like he would presume that he just didn't know how it was good yet. What a fine way to look at music, life and indeed food. This I have christened The Fall Principle. And thankfully one of our ancestors must've applied this principle in whittling their way through proto pie, crumble, smoothie, brûlée*, fool and trifle recipes before the eureka moment: sorb jelly. I bet the cave campfire was a pretty rockin' place to be that night.



Half an hour with wife and daughter in the orchard relieved the trees of their load - maybe half a basket's worth. There are as many experts in sorb harvesting as there are in camel yodelling, but one thing I have managed to glean from the few corners of the internet dedicated to the topic is that, like medlars, sorbs are best when picked past their visual peak, when they've started to soften (or blet) a little. But, and it's a big but, fruit needs cold to properly blet and there has been precious little of that this year - two frosts to speak of and here we are in the middle of January. The feet thick snow of last winter as seemingly distant as the nation's fascination with Darius. So that half basketful had some soft but mostly still firm sorbs.



Why does it matter? It matters because the soft fruit give up their substance readily whereas the harder fruit give you more pectin. This fine substance has the desireable trait of encouraging, nay compelling, your jams, jellies and other confections to set rather than slop around forever like so much Slime.

Washed, destalked and deleaved, I just covered the sorbs in water in a preserving pan and after bringing slowly up to the boil, I simmered them for an hour. They were still as hard as grandad's bunions. Another hour and some discernable softening. The potato masher was employed and a further half hour of simmering resulted in the required mush.

Mush into muslin, suspended from the legs of an upturned chair, dripping into a large bowl overnight. Don't squeeze the mush through the muslin as this makes the liquid cloudy - just let it drip.

To every 600ml of this liquid you should add 450g of caster sugar. Then boil the living arse out of it. Test for the setting point in your preferred way. If you're me this involves thinking you have reached it, pouring the molten lava into jars, then decanting when it doesn't quite set to boil some more. See these jars?



They were decanted and boiled some more giving a grand total of 2.4 jars of the most amazing coloured jelly.

All that anticipation for such a small reward...but my word it's incredible stuff. The perfect balance of sweet with an edge of something that will go beautifully with blue cheese and that ruddy great goose I have in the freezer.

So after a three spoons of tasting that's now two jars. Or rather one jar as at the few-jars-not-quite-realising-I'd-have-to-boil-it-some-more stage I promised Alys Fowler a jar.

Which leaves one jar.

One jar, which from the The Fall Principle No.2 (derived in memory of that first gig) states that a little of something truly marvellous can give an awful lot of pleasure.





* Go on then, if you're so clever, YOU find those crazy letters on a Mac.

Three

So here we are: the season to be jolly. And having won three awards at the Garden Media Awards last week I have much to be jolly about. Journalist of the Year, Book Photographer of the Year and Blog of the Year. You'd think that little voice on my shoulder would stop telling me I'm a bit shit at this, but thankfully not.



Luckily that little voice has several allies in keeping my feet on the ground, most notably the Three Men Who Went To Mow, who managed to restrain any strut I might have been tempted to add to my step by intentionally mispronouncing my surname everytime I was shortlisted. Mark Decaisnea fargesii got the biggest laugh. I also had a ridiculous moustache, the only thing in its favour was that it allowed me to be part of a team of bewhiskered gardeners that has raised a whole load of money for Movember. If you supported us, or indeed anyone, thank you.

As always, these days are what you make them. I had a great time, as much for seeing so many people I like (and feeding my not inconsiderable face with a dozen of them in Moro later) as for winning the awards. I can offer some guidance for enjoying yourself at any awards ceremony: don't expect fine food; your ability to last the day/night is inversely proportional to the speed at which you drink your first two glasses of fizz; if anyone still likes you after you've won more than one award, be thankful; don't take offers of work too seriously - it's very much like believing what you hear during the last half an hour of the night at a smalltown club.

It wasn't the only pleasure of the week - the day before, my wife and I had picked the last of the Szechuan pepper. There was a fair load as you can see. It's very satisfying to be harvesting something substantial - I've grown used to taking pleasure from the growing and the first nibbles. It takes time to get serious harvests from many perennials but once they reach that productive threshold, they tend to keep on giving with little effort on your part. So, kilos of Szechuan pepper - Zanthoxylum simulans. There are a few Zanthoxyluym species that are considered as Szechuan pepper and me and the gang had picked the other we have here, Zantoxylum schinifolium, a couple of weeks before. We have Japanese and Nepalese pepper growing here too. I even made an even-poorer-than-usual film about it.



I'm not feeling quite so jolly this week - obviously, I haven't won three awards this week - but also as I've been laid up for a couple of days with a monster cold. I'm not good with the inconvenience of being ill but it happens very rarely, and if you're going to be incapacitated it may as well be with a honey and lemon and a whisky by your side and El Clasico on the Ipad. I'm also puzzled by the absence of the usual all-powerful urge to consume a binbagful of mince pies each day. The compulsion normally kicks in somewhere around Bonfire Night and lasts til the 3rd round of the FA Cup in early January. It results in me casting the silhouette of Mike Gregory for a few weeks into the New Year. I'm hoping the mince pie love will return.



There are other less benign causes of unjolliness at this time of year - I'm talking about the misery spread by those feckers who insist on calling it 'Chrimbo'. Surely this is an infringement on our human rights and its mention should be punished accordingly - along with 'lecky', 'shroom', and 'lottie'. While we're about it, let's criminalise 'all the trimmings' too.

I was going to include the recipe for making salami* using Szechuan pepper but the whisky, honey and lemon and El Clasico are in need of my attention. But I will, in the spirit of the festive season, remind you of the only thing you need to bear in mind when buying your Christmas bird (about 46 seconds in):





* The pigs have made the short journey to the abattoir...more next time.

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D