Mothers Always Know Best (Sometimes)

From early childhood my parents taught my sister and I the skills to be self-sufficent. From my father we were both taught how to grow and harvest things from the garden which ultimately led to me earning my living from gardening. My sister became a skilled plantswoman and, although she has never earnt money from it, now opens her garden to the public each year raising many hundreds of pounds for charity.

My mother was much more interested in being indoors running the home. She was always at her happiest when unexpected visitors arrived and were persuaded to stay for dinner. Somehow, from the depths of her larder (which was always bulging) she would rustle up enough food to feed the proverbial army. Just before she died two years ago, I asked her why she had been so ‘progressive’ teaching me, a boy in the 1950’s, to sew buttons and name tapes, amongst other things, on clothing. She looked somewhat surprised and puzzled at the question and, to my disillusionment, told me it was because she had hated doing them herself. Mothers!

That was not the case when it came to cooking and the three of us loved to bake and baste together so, that by the time I reached my teens, I was able to cook a complete meal from start to finish. At one of my mother’s dinner parties I remembered an amazing stack of ultra thin shortbreads, with layers of clotted cream and rasberries between each one. A final decoration of raspberries and icing sugar on top left an unshakeable image of culinary delight in my mind and one that I had intended to recreate for years.

More disappointment when Mother told me that I’d imagined it, that she’d never made anything like it and it would be impossible to create wafer like, plate sized shortbreads – if only because it would be impossible to lift or cut them without them breaking. I was determined to prove her wrong and, every so often, she would give me that look that mothers do when I told her of my latest failed attempt.

The photographs illustrate the procedure for my ‘wafer stack’


Finally, yesterday, I achieved success, albeit they were much smaller than planned. Now they are individual sized portions but perhaps better for that.

Here is the recipe, which couldn’t be simpler:

4oz butter

2oz icing sugar

6 oz plain flour

pinch of salt

*Put all ingredients into a food processor and whizz until the mix forms a soft ball

*If you just want to make ‘ordinary’ shortbread then press into a flat tin or on a baking sheet with the back of a fork

*Bake for 15 minutes at 180C until firm and only just beginning to colour

*Remove from oven and immediately cut into pieces but don’t remove from baking sheet until completely cool

If you want to try my stack the process is a bit different and a little more time consuming:

*Make as before but instead of pressing down the mixture, roll out as thinly as possible. This won’t be thin enough!

*Cut out rounds – I used a jam jar as I found that if the circles were anything larger they were impossible to lift without them breaking up (Mother did know best!)

*Place on a baking sheet and don’t worry if the rounds are now an odd shape. Flatten with fingers into a round shape making as thin as possible I made 24 altogether from the quantities of ingredients above

*Bake for 5 minutes only at 180C, leave to cool on sheet before lifting

For the filling, use any fruit you fancy. Here, I have used blueberries and strawberries.
Cut up into pieces and mix with a thick cream – I used sour cream (smetena). Decorate with a ‘clean’ piece of fruit

Good luck and let me know if you manage to make them plate size. Somehow, I feel that you won’t and in this case, Mother does know best! I like to think she has been watching my final attempt with an amused smile and rather cross that she is unable to try the end result…..

PS I promise that the next post will be the latest news on the puppies!

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Anatomy of a Flower Arrangement

How often does a garden plan go awry only to find that you have something equally as good, if not better, instead? This is what happened to one of my designs, a large area taking up almost one quarter of a walled kitchen garden.
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Formal beds, surrounded by box(wood) hedging and topiary, were planted to create what was to be a tisane, or herbal tea, garden. All the plants were supposed to be suitable for making infusions for either medicinal or culinary use. Something went wrong and, for reasons unknown, half the plants either died or refused to flourish. In desperation, we turned it into a cutting garden where flowers could be harvested for arrangements for the big house – actually, the mystery house I used to dream of as a child. I have written about this house before and the tale of my arriving there two hundred years after I had died….

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Concentrating on those plants that survived the initial planting, I decided to see how they would cope with being used as cut flowers and the result was much better than expected. The flowers were cut in the middle of the hottest day of this year so far – not ideal conditions – and then plunged up to their necks in water for the rest of the afternoon. They looked poorly and drooping when first arranged but perked up overnight and now, ten days later, look as fresh as ever.

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Much of the structure is created with a framework of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. I find that to get the best results it is necessary to prune this shrub down to ground level each spring. They then produce long wands of stunning silvery foliage. A bitter herb used for all sorts of ailments, I would have to feel very ill before I would consider drinking a tea made from this!
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At this point, I should stress, that I am no herbalist so I do not recommend that you try out any of these plants without deciding for yourself whether they will do you good or kill you instead.
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Hemp Agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum, is a British native plant, normally found growing in damp places but quite happy in the garden border. The Joe Pye of America, it is claimed that it is good for many different ailments but especially good for gout.
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A big surprise, was this Spearmint. In the cutting garden it has grown exceptionally tall (and like all mints, proving rather invasive) with attractive, fine flowers. This is, of course, one that I can safely recommend for use as a culinary herbal tea, very refreshing on a hot summers day and good if you suffer with indigestion.
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Lavender needs no introduction. Oddly enough, because of soil conditions, I thought they would struggle in this garden. Instead, they have thrived.
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Marjoram, another common herb that grows wild in England on sunny banks, also needs no description from me. It is our best bee and butterfly plant in the garden, even outrivalling Buddleias. We grow it in huge patches throughout the garden.
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Leaving the best to last and the biggest surprise of the lot! Marsh-mallow, Althaea officinalis, another UK native. This was the first time I had grown it and it is now one of my ‘signature’ plants that I try to incorporate into every design. Related to Hollyhocks but only about half their height and very much more delicate in every way, except one – they are as tough as old boots!
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Beautiful, downy, soft-as-velvet leaves and the merest hint of pink flowers, they require no staking, suffer from no pests or diseases and grow year after year, getting ever stronger. And, of course, you can always make marshmallow sweets to eat from their dried, powdered roots.
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This recipe comes from my old herbal, although I have never tried to make them:
2oz marsh mallow root, 14oz fine sugar mixed with gum tragacanth and enough orange flower water to bind altogether. Quite what you do after that I have no idea – perhaps just eat them?
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Cooking: Cherries and a Tongue Twister

It has been a good year for cherries. Despite the hard and late frosts, which continued well into May, there has been a bumper crop. And, for some reason, the birds have been kind enough to leave them for us humans to harvest. There is the appearance of something exotic, or even of decadence, in the cherry’s shining, red orbs hanging in profusion. Perhaps because we see it all to rarely.
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One rather plump bird has developed the taste for cherries. Henrietta, the tamest of our Lavender Pekin bantams just can’t get enough of them! Fortunately, the others show no interest and, not being the brightest of creatures, Henrietta hasn’t considered flying into the trees to eat even more.
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Today was a cooking day – I love cooking but have no patience when it comes to following recipes, occasionally with unfortunate consequences. Luckily, today was one of the better days. Having picked the cherries, I had no idea what to do with them, so sat outside in the sunshine stoning them, waiting for inspiration.
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So much juice came from the fruit that it was necessary to strain it off. I thought of jam and other weird and wonderful ingredients to add to them. In the end, I just cooked them gently until their skins were tender, then added sugar and stirred in some mixed spice and some cinnamon. It made a pulp that will go down a treat with vanilla ice cream or with some natural yoghurt for breakfast tomorrow.
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So what to do with the juice? First thought was to throw it away but, apart from the waste, I knew that Rhonda from down…to…earth, would not approve. Her blog is so inspirational, I highly recommend it to all that want to try and live -even just a tad – more simply. Warmed through with sugar, a few chilli flakes (I only wanted it to have a slight kick, not blow my head off) and some vanilla essence, it has become the basis for several potential options. Below it was poured over crushed ice and topped up with chilled tonic water to make a beautifully, refreshing drink for a hot, summers day. The colours were an unexpected and added bonus.
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Next, the tongue twister: Geviklte Kichlach. I have had the great fortune of having a Jewish grandmother – if you have never had one, I suggest you find one that you can adopt. For apart from spoiling their grandchildren rotten, they are the most superb cooks. Geviklte Kichlach, which translates approximately, to ‘twisted little cakes’, Grandma would make for my every visit.
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The recipe is more a pastry one than a cake recipe and it is very simple. I use spelt flour and baking powder as my partner has a wheat intolerance – spelt, despite being a type of wheat, is often ok for people with digestive problems.
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Mix 4 oz butter with 4 oz curd cheese and 6 oz flour (if not using self raising, add two teaspoons of baking powder). Roll out thinly to an oblong and spread with jam. Then sprinkle currants over the top and some ground cinnamon and roll into a sausage shape.
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You can elongate the sausage, if need be, by rolling it with your hands like plastacene. Cut into thinnish slices. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 190 until golden – about 10 minutes. Once cool, dust with icing sugar (it does need this additional sweetness, so don’t be tempted to leave it out). The undusted, currant free version, sitting on the marble slab is a special treat for She-dog!
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You don’t like it? Well, as Grandma would have said, “You will like mine – now eat!”.
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Please remember, overseas visitors, that the measurements are in British ounces and the oven temperature is in Centigrade.

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