Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Monday 26 January 2009

Taming wild things

It's time to get back into a regular routine and that means reviving the daily 'lunchtime garden work-out', not just for me but also for the senior under-gardeners and the Spice Girls.

I remember doing this last year and the year before: pruning and tying-in the blackberry stems – reducing a wild tangle of thorny stems into a neat arrangement of healthy arching stems tied along the wire supports. It was like a scene from a medieval calendar (I love those medieval manuscript illustrations showing toiling peasants). Picture me as the peasant working in the cold winter fields, complete with wool shawl swathed around my neck to keep me snug and warm. Other essential accessories include stout thorn-proof gloves and sharp secateurs. To secure the stems to the wires I was able to re-use last year's plastic ties – a modern, not medieval, invention and an excellent investment.

Job done . . .

The task was made even more enjoyable because it was to the accompaniment of robins singing their territorial songs and the soft mutterings of the senior under-gardeners and the extremely enthusiastic Spice girls, as they rummaged in piles of leaves under the Bramley apple tree. When the robin on the nearby apple branch seemed to be singing a solo I realised that the hens had moved on to a far more exciting activity – slight panic! What UGP* had they dreamt up today? Ahhh, good girls – compost turning.

Time for lunch girls! Thankfully, like the under-gardeners, the Spices have now been trained to recognise the long curvy stick that, when held out like a skilled shepherd holds a crook, signals 'time to go back through the green gate' . . .

*UGP = unauthorised gardening project

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Notes from a small island

Last week Cliff and I sneaked away to a place that's warm and sunny . . .

with jagged black cliffs and crashing ocean waves

and amazing giant plants with beautiful swaying flower arches.

We visited interesting places, like the Silk Museum where we saw these gorgeous shimmering skeins all coloured with traditional plant dyes.

There are thousands upon thousands of these . . .

and every town had a Spa we could go to ;-)

Mile after mile of majestic pine forests and deep mysterious ravines . . .

and breathtaking views!

We spent the week exploring the zigzag roads and precipitous footpaths of La Palma and had a great time :-) I was a Fen Tiger out of her natural environment and descending some of the slopes challenged my recently recovered tummy muscles. I took my sketch book and didn't do any sketching – but the wind blowing over Pico Fuente Nueva and Roque de Los Muchachos has blown the cobwebs away and I'm back in my spring-cleaned studio ready to face 2009.

Sunday 11 January 2009

The Pickled Walnut Challenge 2009

It was back in August last year that I read that The Cottage Smallholder was making Pickled Walnuts and I suggested that we get together around Christmas time to compare our PWs with hers. Just before Christmas we arranged a date, and last night the Victorian pickle fork lay in wait for the contestants . . .

Of course pickled walnuts can't be savoured alone – they need a traditional spread of cold meats and cheeses as a background for their complex top-notes. Inspired by my Christmas present – What to cook now by Valentine Warner I made leek vinaigrette using some lovely fresh fat leeks from the farm veg stall at 100 Histon Road, Cottenham and eggs from our under-gardeners of course. I had been on a foraging expedition of my favourite local suppliers and gleaned ham and haslet from Beaumont's Butchers in Fulbourn; smoked eel, a big crusty granary loaf, and some delicate spelt crackers from The River Farm Smokery in Bottisham. The ingredients for the main dish – Pork and Duck Terrine, were bought from my favourite butchers at Highgate Country Store in Willingham; where I also bought some very fine Blue Stilton and a delicious Isle of Bute Cheddar cheese. Making the terrine was a labour of love and took far longer than the recipe suggested! But it was worth every hour – and the yummy jelly which formed around the edge was heavenly!!!

Before we started tasting the 2008 pickled walnuts, we sampled Cliff's 2005 vintage PWs, these were pickled in white malt vinegar flavoured with mixed pickling spice. The vinegar had lost its harshness allowing the spices to be tasted, the texture of the walnuts was firm but soft enough to squash easily with a fork. These made an interesting comparison with the young pickles entered into The Pickled Walnut Challenge . . .

Purple Podded Peas entered two jars of Pickled Walnuts, both pickled in early July 2008. Cliff had picked the walnuts at a secret location near Cambridge and followed the pickling method described in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's book The River Cottage Cookbook. Half the walnuts were pickled in cider vinegar, the rest in white-wine vinegar; both vinegars were flavoured with cloves, allspice, mixed peppercorns, bay leaves and cinnamon sticks.

size : large, almost golf ball size! maybe too big.
texture : very good, firm but easily cut to show a good cross-section of immature nut.
flavour : harsh vinegar tang, robust spicing.
summary : needs longer to mature; a well crafted traditionally flavoured pickled walnut which hopefully will mellow over the months ahead.

The Cottage Smallholder also entered two jars of pickled walnuts one in cider vinegar and one in white-wine vinegar, but with different spices. The walnuts were picked in late July from an undisclosed location near Newmarket and pickled in early August 2008, see more notes about the recipes here.

Jar A: cider vinegar flavoured with cloves, ginger, alspice, garlic, peppercorns and molasses.

size : medium, a perfect pickled walnut dimensions.
texture : the outer layer was tender but the core was perilously crunchy in places as the nutshell had already started to form.
flavour : harsh vinegar tang; the inclusion of garlic and fresh ginger gave this pickle a hint of oriental spicing.
summary : a pity that the walnuts had not been picked when younger as the flavourings are good.

Jar B: white-wine vinegar flavoured with tarragon, allspice, cloves, mace, bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns and molasses.

size : medium, a perfect pickled walnut dimensions.
texture : firm but still a good pickled walnut, maturing may soften them more.
flavour : harsh vinegar tang; the tarragon adds an anise note which is surprising in a pickled walnut and slightly medicinal in character.
summary : it will be interesting to try this pickle after further maturing as the flavourings may mellow.

As well as the miriad of PWs we had a 'guest pickle' – Cliff's Piccalilli. everyone agreed that it was a 'mighty fine pickle' and a perfect accompaniment to the terrine. More will have to made in 2009 and plans are underway to dedicate an area of the vegetable garden to the growing of picalilli ingredients!

After all that you'd think we'd be ready to lie down for a snooze! But the feasting continued . . .

You may remember that the original challenge to The Cottage Smallholder included tasting Sloe Gin, as we know she was conducting intensive field trials into this delectable liqueur. Sadly she had to announce that the Cottage Smallholder Sloe Gin was suffering from an over-dose of almond essence and had been withdrawn from the contest. Nevertheless we'd got four bottles of home-made fruit liqueur from the Purple Podded Peas cupboards: Sloe Gin, Sloe Vodka and Damson Gin all made from fruit grown in our garden; and a 'guest liqueur', Quince Brandy, made using this recipe. These all went very nicely with the winter fruit compote (dried apricots and sultanas soaked in redbush tea with a small piece of vanilla pod; then warmed through with the addition of chopped Cox's apples and Conference pears and a spoonful of local honey)served with whipped cream, slices of Panettone and the remnants of the Christmas cake.

The Cottage Smallholder went home with the Victorian Pickle Fork (maybe it will become a legendary trophy like The Ashes) and a box of blue shelled eggs laid by The Spices. If anyone is up for a challenge then get pickling! And let us know if you're up for the challenge next Christmas.

PS. Matron - the Christmas cake was tested with a sliver of Isle of Bute Cheddar - verdict: excellent!

Saturday 10 January 2009

Jack Frost's sugar sprinkles

January 2009 – Garden report:

It's been a cold week; I wouldn't say extremely cold but temperatures have hovered around zero for over a week and the ground is permanently rock hard. Over the past few days we have been enveloped in a shroud of dense cold fog and magically this has resulted in some amazing frosting on the trees and plants.

The weeping silver birch has become a shimmering white curtain of frosted twigs . . .

holly leaves are artfully edged in white crystals . . .

archways, obelisks and bare twigs come into their own and make a winter theatre set to wander through . . .

which is great fun if you're wearing the right headgear!

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Dancing in the snow


Keep practising girls!

Sunday 4 January 2009

Walking home

After what seems to be too long in the house and with too little exercise, Cliff and I decided a walk was in order. The temperature may be zero (feels like -6C with wind chill) but we have long-johns, warm jackets, gloves, socks, hats and sturdy boots. We drove to a nearby village and stode out across the fields spangled with frosty thistle stars . . .

After a few miles we decided that instead of turning back and retracing our steps, we'd walk all the way home and collect the car later.

earth stood hard as iron

water like a stone

but in the hedges
signs of Spring

Thursday 1 January 2009

Here's to a happy 2009!

No, I haven't taken to wearing woolly headgear indoors – I'm modelling the hat I've just finished knitting using the last two balls of that cunningly clever sock wool from Denmark. Just right for the cold weeks to come.

You can't quite see the ipod wires, but I've been enjoying listening to half my Christmas present from Cliff – Jool's Holland's latest CD. Which turned out to be two for the price of one – hurrah twice as much happy listening! The other half of my present was Val Warner's book What to eat now. I'm not a fan of celeb cookbooks, but I rather took to his TV series and he seems like my kind of cook. I like the style of the book (though it might not be to everyone's taste), instead of neat organised step by step instructions the recipes are written in a chatty narrative style which is amusing to read and is full of useful cooking tips. It's like learning from a bouncy enthusiastic friend who's dropped round with some ingredients picked up from the farm shop and wants to show you how to cook something delicious using them.

Hope you all saw the New Year in in style and/or were safely tucked up in the warm. We toasted 2009 with champagne after a retro Murder Mystery Party set in 1967 – which turned out to be the perfect antidote to the drama of Christmas week and it's aftermath back in the village.

Happy New Year everyone!