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Sunday, 24 October 2010

An Age of Austerity

Sunday 24th October 2010

We are in an age of austerity, there are calls for strict budgeting and the tightening our collective belts. The reality is dire for us all and even worse for others who will lose their jobs, incomes, even homes. It is at times like these that we have to become resourceful, to make do and mend, to organise ourselves to use our skills to make the best of what we have. Of course we could easily allow this economic down turn to be an opportunity to practice rigorous asceticism, to deny ourselves even the smallest crumb of comfort. But that I believe would be a terrible shame, a mistake even. Now is a time when we must take comfort where ever we can find it. Now is the exact time when having a welcoming home that excites our senses is of paramount importance. To get through and out the other side of this recession, we need to keep positive, stay optimistic and enjoy our homes and family life. Some things can cost very little to cheer our souls; a roaring log fire, a brisk walk in the autumn afternoon, a freshly baked batch of scones with a nice, cup of hot tea, a favourite tv programme and the Sunday papers or having friends/family over for a simple lunch.

This is indeed a period of financial austerity but it does not have to be an age of creative austerity too.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Windfall Apple Jelly

Everyone can cook. Actually I have to take that statement back straight away, on reflection not everyone can cook, but everyone must eat. Whilst some eat just to live, most of us I think in addition to nourishment, eat for pleasure. I love to cook AND eat and it is something I do every day of course. Epicurus the Greek philosopher said along with many other wise musings, that “one must practice the things which produce happiness,” No surprise then if I tell you I spend many long and happy hours in my kitchen baking, cooking and recently experimenting with recipes. I realise that there are many people who like me love to cook and are fascinated enough by food to find nothing even faintly ridiculous about reading cookbooks in bed or thinking about ingredients or recipes in those spare idle moments. Of course it is often difficult to find any spare idle moment that can't be filled with a must do chore.

Yesterday was one of those days.

Having ownership of an apple tree that feels obliged to produce several kilos of apples each year is, believe me, a chore. How to store them, cook them or dispose of them occupies your thoughts from late August to November. I have tried every recipe going containing apples with the bid to use as many as possible just to stop myself feeling bad about composting the lot. I have attempted to give them away but no takers; everyone I know seem to be trying to force their windfall garden produce on me instead. I have apple trees, so I have to make Apple jelly, it is the simplest way of getting rid of a few kilos of apples with hardly any effort.

Garden produce

For this recipe you need 5lbs of cooking apples, chop them up, but check them first to be sure they have no bruises and blemishes. There is no need to peel or core. Place in a very large sauce pan and add enough water to sit level with the apples in the pan, about 3 pints. Heat up until the apples start to turn mushy. Add 6 cloves, a sprinkle or three of ground ginger and some lemon juice and a cinnamon stick ( the cloves and cinnamon stick should be removed at the potting stage).

This is the moment that occurs at this time every year when I realise I should have bought a jelly bag as I won't be able to strain the mixture over night to capture the pure apple essence. I wonder who actually has a jelly bag apart from say Delia or Gary Rhodes. I kick myself because I don't have one and driving in to town to get one from Lakeland is just not going to happen, can't see myself making that journey. And so a cheap pair of tights ( new of course) are my genius substitute. It does the job!! I tie it to the door knob of a kitchen cupboard and Robert is your father's brother!!

A jelly bag made from a pair of tights!!

Early next morning, measure the juice you have strained and for every pint ( 600ml) add one lb (500g) of sugar. Heat gently, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved, add the chopped tarragon, grated lime and finely chopped garlic. Skim any scum off surface and boil hard to setting point. Pot in warm sterilised jars. Label and store

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Sweet Oven Dried Tomatoes

Growing tomatoes is something anyone can do whatever the size of their gardens. Two tomato plants in a couple of pots will yield enough harvest to make several jars of chutney and adorn a salad or two. As I am, unlike my husband, not a big fan of chutney, this year I decided to oven dry some of the tomato harvest. Unfortunately given the unpredictable weather in England, sun drying is not always an option. Oven drying however is a good alternative and easy enough that very little skill or effort is require, except perhaps a good memory. When choosing the variety of tomatoes to grow, go for the very sweet variety for oven drying purposes, as the sweetness is intensified by this method of preserving and makes for better eating pleasure.

You will need:

A good amount of ripe tomatoes, sliced quite thinly.

Good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil


That’s all. This method of preserving relies solely on the flavour of the tomatoes.

Place the slice tomatoes in a single layer on a lightly greased baking sheet, sprinkle with salt. Place in the oven at the lowest temperature possible and leave for about 10 hours. The tricky part is not forgetting about them completely, as you may find that they are dried beyond the point of redemption. Once they are dried but still with a tiny bit of moisture and flexibility, put them in a clean sterilised jar and at this point you can add fresh torn basil. Pack them in tightly and cover with Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Seal and label and store in a dark cupboard for a few months to let the flavours infuse before use.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Cinnamon Apple Sandwich Cake

Cinnamon Apple Sandwich Cake

At this time of year there is always a glut of apples and over the years I have made a whole array of recipes. There is, however, only so much you can take of row upon row of apple jelly, crumbles and pies. So this year I have been looking for different ways to diminish the glut. Last night when I came home I had the urge to bake so I made up this cake, based loosely on a Victoria Sandwich.

Weighing your eggs is a tip I stole from the Hairy Biker’s cookbook. You weigh the eggs and simply use the same weigh of butter, flour and sugar. My four eggs came to 9 ozs so the recipe is based on that.


4 free range eggs

9oz butter, at room temperature

9oz caster sugar

90z self raising flour, sifted

1tsp baking powder

2 cooking apples: one diced and one thinly sliced.

4 tbsp crème fraiche

A pinch or two of cinnamon to taste

A few drops of vanilla extract


½ tsp cinnamon

½ oz melted butter

2 tbsp caster sugar


5 oz soften butter

Icing sugar

½ tsp cinnamon

Jar of home-made Apricot jam


1. Heat the oven to 180c (160c fan) 350F, gas mark 4.

2. Grease and line two sandwich tins

3. Beat the butter and caster sugar together until light and creamy. Then gradually add the beaten eggs and crème fraiche. Add a small amount of flour to avoid curdling.

4. Gently stir in the vanilla extract, sifted flour, baking powder and cinnamon until it is a smooth, soft dropping consistency. Stir in the chopped apples.

5. Divide the mixture between the two tins. Arrange the thinly slice apples on top of one cake.

6. Mix the melted butter with the caster sugar and cinnamon and brush over the top of the cake.

7. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes until the cakes have risen, is golden and firm to touch. Remove from oven and cool on wire rack.

8. Mean while beat the butter until light and fluffy, incorporate the icing sugar and cinnamon. When the cakes are cool sandwich them together with the butter icing and apricot jam. Sift caster sugar on top.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Utilitarian Simplicity

How to make your own Eco Friendly Householder Cleaner..

There is really no need to use harsh chemicals, fact is with a few basic ingredients you can make your own household soap cleaner. All you need is about 50g of pure soap flakes, 1/2 a cup of soda crystals, the same of white vinegar, a few drops of tea tree oil and lemon essential oils , have ready five litres of cold water and four and a half litres of hot water. It is simple. First you place the soap flakes and two litres of the cold water in a sauce pan and bring to the boil, then add the soda crystals. Stir it until completely dissolved, stir in the essential oils and white vinegar. Pour into a bucket and add the hot water and the remaining cold water. When cool transfer to smaller containers and label. The is basic cleaner is good for soaking heavily soiled items before washing and then add 2 cups to the washing machine per load for fresh clean laundry. Give it a go.

Strawberry Jam

Strawberry Jam

You will need about 3lbs of strawberries and the same of sugar and the juice of half a lemon. That's it...3 simple ingredients. Wash the strawberries and hull them (that's taking the green stem of the top) and mash a few of them. Warm the sugar in a bowl in a low oven about 120 Celsius, 250 Fahrenheit or Gas Mark 1/2. If I'm in a rush, I tend to miss this step out, it doesn't seem to harm the process or the end result. Put the mashed and whole strawberries in a big preserving pan with the lemon juice and bring to a gentle simmer. Then add the warmed sugar and let it all slowly dissolve over a really gentle heat. Then let the jam boil rapidly for about 10 to 15 minutes or until setting point is reached. Remove from heat. Leave to stand for a few moments, then stir until the strawberries are well distributed throughout the jam. Pour into warmed, sterilized jars, seal immediately, label and date, sit back and feel like a true domestic goddess. (It is a fleeting but wonderful feeling). NB: To sterilize jars see the Finer Details above. Seal jams with a circle of wax paper and a screw top lid. Store your jams in a cool dark place for up to a year, but depending on your family they won't last that long!!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Garden Harvest: fruit

Having inherited a garden crammed with fruit trees, I find at the end of every summer I am overwhelmed with the bounty of fruits from plums to figs to pears. Of course I tend to give most of it away as I find I hardly have time to make jams and pies and chutneys. I feel incredibly guilty of course being a self proclaimed domestic goddess, that I have not got row upon row of gleaming jars of apple butter, plum jam, preserved pears and fig and tomato chutneys. However, I like to make a jar or two of jam and five or six pies to tide the household over the winter months.
Plum Jam.. well of course you need plums; about 3 lbs/1.35kg will make 8 half-pound/225g jars. The plums need their stones to be removed, this is boring, bribe a child to do it for you, one that you can trust with a knife. Add the stoned plums to your nice big jam pot and add the same amount of jam sugar. A touch of lime zest and the juice of one lime will make your jam memorable for all the right reasons. Bring slowly to a rolling boil, and let it boil away for at least 30 minutes. This is not the stage in this recipe to go off to inspect your tomatoes or to get on the phone for a marathon chat with a best girlfriend. No, this is the time you stick to the kitchen, wooden spoon in hand, ensuring that your jam does not stick and that you are angelically spooning off the scum that forms on the top. Getting rid of the foamy scum will give you a nice clear luminous jam. After 30 minutes or so, do the jam set test, put a little of your jam on a chilled saucer, place in fridge to cool. If it wrinkles and leaves a clean path when pushed with your finger it is ready. If not, then boil for a while longer. Your jam jars should be sterilising in the warm oven, get them out, pour in your jam.
Apple Crumble is an old family favourite and here is the recipe I use:


For the crumble

For the filling

Preparation method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.

2. Place the flour and sugar in a large bowl and mix well. Taking a few cubes of butter at a time rub into the flour mixture. Keep rubbing until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

3. Place the fruit in a large bowl and sprinkle over the sugar, flour and cinnamon. Stir well being careful not to break up the fruit.

4. Butter a 24cm/9in ovenproof dish. Spoon the fruit mixture into the bottom, then sprinkle the crumble mixture on top.

5. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until the crumble is browned and the fruit mixture bubbling.

6. Serve with thick cream or custard.

One further recipe using the figs I have in abundance:

Roast figs with honey and yoghurt


· 2 figs

· 2 tbsp honey

· 1 pinch cinnamon

· 50g/1¾oz Greek yoghurt

· 1 orange, segmented

Preparation method

1. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.

1. Cut into the figs to make a cross on the top. Place on a baking sheet and drizzle with the honey.

2. Place into the preheated oven and cook for five minutes.

3. To serve place the figs on a plate with the Greek yogurt and garnish with the orange segments.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

How I decorate...

It can start with one simple and beautiful object: that is where the inspiration can come from. Or a view; the way sun shine caresses and sparkles on moving water; or the pureness of a blue clear sky or anything really, anything unexpected can be the jump point for a decorating idea. A favourite inspiration for me has always be looking at other designer's homes.

Homes are places that you have to feel at 'home' in. Your home should welcome you back with open arms, you should feel able to be comforted and happy at home. There is nothing worse than a house that accuses you the minute you walk in..."paint this wall....wash these pots....this hall way is too dark...there is too much clutter here...etc". When you open your front door you want to feel welcomed and this is the starting point when you begin to think about decorating your home...'what feeling do you want to create? And how can you achieve it?' For instance if you want to create a cosy feel it is best to stick to warmer colours. Although it is not impossible to do this with lighter shades, but these are considerations to take into account. It is also important to have a level of authenticity to your home, a level of reality that is only possible to achieve with vintage furniture, paraphernalia, real art work and faded linens and shiny pretty things. Whatever look you go for in your home, let it be real to you and your personality, don't buy your interiors wholesale from furniture stores: think for yourself. Understand your own taste and if it is miles away from recent trends or completely off the wall...if it says home to you then that is the aim.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Making cakes

When I was a child, I would often spend the afternoon in the kitchen with my mum and sisters baking. Mum would make currant buns, heavy rich fruit cakes, pasties and fragrant lemon cakes speckle with poppy seeds. In fact my mother was a superb all rounder, she made ginger beer, lemonade and frizzy strawberry cordial and then to top it all she made all our clothes and still worked a full time job. She basically did it all. At the time I didn't think about the mountain of chores my mother went through every day, I just enjoyed being in the cosy, steamy kitchen with my sisters, stirring the cake mixture or kneading dough.

Now I find myself in much the same place as my mum, but without the blessing of a brace of young daughters to stir cake mixtures, roll out pastry and chatter like blackbirds with me in my kitchen. But even alone, I enjoy spending the day in the kitchen baking. In this modern age with all the demands on women to compete in the job market and be all things from mum to journalist to gardener to business woman, there is a simple pleasure from tying on an apron, getting out a mixing bowl and weighting scales, gathering ingredients and baking. The air in the kitchen becomes heavy with the aromas of vanilla pods, lemon rind, cinnamon, ginger, the toffee smell of dark brown refined sugar and you can almost taste the chocolate lingering like a brief memory of a kiss.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

From 'How to Drive a Car.' (1940's)

Riders of pedal cycles are often the source of much worry to the motorist. One would think that the rider of a bicycle would be so very conscious of the flimsiness of his machine and his exposure in the event of a collision that he would be particularly careful to observe scrupulously the rules of the road, but, as a matter of fact, he is often the most reckless of road users. He delights, for instance, in swooping down an exceedingly steep hill at 25 mph, entering the main road in a grand sweep, which takes him right across the path of one line of traffic, and face to face with anything on the other, so that he relies entirely on the skill of other road users and the efficiency of their brakes, while such are the anomalies of our motor laws that he is permitted, head down, with cap hung on the lamp bracket, to dash through villages at 18 miles an hour where red-and-white-painted discs impress the motorist that he will be liable to dire penalties if he exceeds, be it by ever so little, the 10 mph allowed. An Annoying Habit Many cyclists also take pleasure in driving side by side several abreast and obstructing the road entirely to one line of traffic, often obstinately refusing to make way for those wishing to overtake them, so that if there is much traffic coming in the opposite direction - i.e., towards them - the pace of every other road user is set by a few slow cyclists talking as they ride. Verily, cyclists are to be treated with the utmost respect, especially at night, when, scorning even a red reflector which would ensure their safety, they pedal silently along the road, their machines and garments merging into the gloom. The motorist, in order to pick them out, must needs have powerful headlamps, yet, when they see a car with bright headlights, which the driver is compelled to use in order to save their skins, they shout loudly some remarks about road-hogs and dazzling lights. It is a hard life!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Frustrating chores

There is always the day when you find your list of chores are too mind numbingly dreary to complete. Today was such a day. The first a simple task was to complete a job I had started about a month ago: replacing a nasty plastic doorbell with a chrome one. This was of course turned out to be not as simple as I wish. The drill bit was the wrong size, the screw driver had stripped the thread of the screw and a wasp nest was disrupted apparently by my attempts at D.I.Y and a flurry of furious wasps made short work of my desire to continue. Okay I thought, I'll wire the walls for the wisteria which was flopping all over the patio. This job went fine until I discovered the wire was too light weight to support the bulk of the wisteria. A list began to form: Larger drill bit, stronger wire and wasp powder, clearly a trip would be necessary to the hardware store.

Well there was the fence waiting to be painted, it was a job started many weeks ago and was so tedious, so incredibly dull that although I had begun I had only managed to do less than a third and could not bear to continue; so had prevaricated for as long as I could. Well it could be put off no longer... But anther obstacle frustrated my attempts to lay waste to my long 'to do' list: the paint brushes had harden off because the last person to use it had failed to wash it up and put it away properly. (That would be me then,..) With a true sense of relief I put 'paint the fence' back to the bottom of the chore list and added 'new big fence paint brush' on the shopping list.

There was clearly no other option but to go shopping, so I had a bit of a chance to start and finish at least one job this weekend.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Cool and calm

In the heat of summer, it is lovely to have a house that is cool, serene and calm.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Not just a walk

Taking Ruby, the energetic cockerapoo pup, for her daily walks has been a revelation in many ways. She is full of curiosity, inquisitiveness and has a nose set to seek out mischief. Her doggy being simple requires walking and there is no debate. So I have at last been disciplined into taking regular exercise by a dog; simply the best personal trainer anyone could ask for. It is impossible to make excuses for avoiding a brisk walk when your doggy looks so dejected and disappointment sitting by the door, or to resist the keen enthusiasm of a dog straining on the lead, desperate to get out into the big wide world.

Every wind heralds another scent and Ruby charges from aroma to aroma, dashing about in her own world of delicious smells. Walking with Ruby is not a matter of going from A to B, it a thorough exploration of the alphabet!! It is easy though, on walks, to allow your mind much like Ruby's nose to wander. My thoughts are chasing smells, darting from worries to plans to ideas to memories: resting for a second perhaps on a plan or worse, lingering for a while on a worry. In a mere mile I can cover the whole gauntlet of emotions from pleasure to tears to glee to horror and back again.

My dog walking mornings are a wonderful opportunity for emptying my head of petty thoughts and worthless worries and pointless niggles. I can watch Ruby intent on moving forward, seeking out new scents to smell and only occasionally darting back for a second sniff at a lingering whiff. Much like her I have learnt to jettison the crap and move onwards straining on the lead of life. And if occasionally I look back thinking I caught the aroma of the past, I can be forgiven for that.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Recipes for Quick Summer Lunch

When the weather is good, I for one , do not want to be stuck in the kitchen. I want to be able to get outside and enjoy the sunshine. So I have a few very quick recipes that can add up to a very presentable lunch with the addition of a bottle of chilled white wine or two.

Sweet Pear, Pea and Potato Salad

This is a recipe that takes no time at all to prepare and is light refreshing and delicious served with fish or chicken.

You need enough new potatoes to serve however many people you're feeding, along with frozen peas, and a good size sweet and ripe pear, peeled, halved and cored.

Fresh mint, black coarsely milled pepper and mayonnaise and a slurp of extra virgin olive oil will also be required.

Cook peas. Chop new potatoes length ways
(there is no need to peel) and cook in salted water until just tender.

Drain and add cooked peas, chopped mint, roughly chopped pears.

Add mayonnaise to taste with a dash of olive oil and a generous grind of black pepper.

Serve slightly warm with:

Salmon topped with pesto

Have a skinned salmon fillet for each guest, season lightly with salt and pepper. Place each salmon in an individual non stick, grease proof baking paper, add lemon juice, a dash of olive oil, and top each fillet with a level table spoon of pesto.

Parcel up the fish and ensure it is sealed sufficiently and place in a ban marie. This should take 20 minutes in a gas mark 5 oven.

Serve the above with a lovely salad.

Lunch in the garden.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Something for nothing ...

Warm and wet weather means seeds germinate and suddenly there seems to be a multitude of weeds springing up daily in the garden. And yet there is also a bonus, because in amongst them will be many self-set seedlings. With a couple of hours to spare, they can be teased out of their randomly chosen home, potted up and before you know it, you will have a collection of cottage garden favourites to give to your friends or even to set out on a table by your gate and sell to passers by. There is something very satisfying about sharing plants with fellow enthusiasts.

This year my gravel path has proved to be the perfect place for self-set hardy geraniums, a sweet variety called Walter's Gift. Potting up this crop of seedlings was an easy and enjoyable task.

Ease each one from the ground with a gentle tug and the help of a plant label or garden fork, and into a waiting pot of compost. Water well and place in a shady spot for a couple of days, until the plantlet has had time to recover. Keep watered and wait. Before long your efforts will be rewarded.
I’ve been lucky with some other plants this year. Jacob’s Ladder has happily set seed, along with Verbena Bonariensis and the delightful everlasting sweet pea. Any takers?

Friday, 28 May 2010

How to paint your fence and not fall out with your neighbours..

Painting a fence in the hot blazing sun is not the worse chore in the world, but it is in the top ten for tedium. I have been putting off painting our new fence for weeks, always blaming the onset of rain as the reason I can't get started. However when that excuse wore thin, I knew I had to get on with it. So suitably dressed in my decorating scruffs (a pair of old tatty jeans and a very unflattering T-shirt) I set about painting the fence.

Living in a small village puts a self imposed restriction on ones choice of paint colour. If I could have indulged my taste for the outré and the unusual I would have gone for purple, a deep sensual purple. But imagine the gossip in the village doesn't bear consideration..walking the dog would have been impossible as I would have been given the evil eye by everyone and be known as "that woman with the purple fence..ruins the looks of the village that fence does". So the fence is being painted non offensive dark 'rich oak' and predictably gets approving nods from all dog walkers passing by. I also get some helpful hints ..." you might get it done quicker if you use a bigger brush.." ...."you'd be better off spraying, rather than using a brush.." ..."you've missed a bit..". All this I can put up with, after all the fence is a step closer to a bit more privacy, I think of witty and cutting responses in my head as I paint, ignoring the growing ache in my painting arm after two hours or so. I am just considering stopping for a tea break when the neighbour from across the street, comes over.

Of all our neighbours which number just five, these are the neighbours: Mary and Malcolm, I like the most. This is because they always say a cheery hello, don't get involved in village gossip and basically mind their own business whilst being open and friendly. So it was with some trepidation that I greeted Mary, added to which I looked like a dog's dinner and sweaty to boot.
"I've been meaning to come over to have a word for a while..." she starts..."like your fence by the way, you're doing a good job" Mary smiles, I smile back and wait for the blow from the blunt instrument of other people's opinion. "You may have notice that we've not been out and about with Marcus lately..." Marcus is their very friendly black Labrador retriever. Strangely enough I spend no time at all wondering what my neighbours are up to, but I do not say this, I just nod and put the appropriate concern expression on my face. "Unfortunately Marcus had to be put down last month..spinal problems." "Oh dear," I say genuinely upset...dogs are often the best neighbours to have, they can't be held responsible for their owners. "Well.." says Mary bravely "we've got a new dog, a puppy. I wasn't really ready, but Malcolm was adamant we replace Marcus right away..he's called Magnus...the new puppy....would you like to see him?" I can see her bottom lip quivering and sense tears are hovering. I put down my paint brush and agree. It is only when I'm in their house, which is the top end of posh, that I become aware of my scruffy clothes, sweating armpits and paint splattered arms. I immediately feel like a teenager, gauche and awkward. My body betrays me by sweating more and I wipe my face on my T-shirt, which I realise immediately after doing it, that it was the wrong thing to do, as Mary's face crinkles slightly with disapproval.
"Would you mind taking your shoes off" Mary asks politely, with horror I look down at my muddy wellies and the mucky foot prints I have left on her pale green hall carpets. I apologise profusely and feel a blush of menopausal hot flush proportions. "Follow me.." Mary instructs. I do as I am told.
I can't help but cast a sneaky eye at my surroundings. I am caught doing that too. "Would you like a tour?" Mary asks with a hint of sarcasm. I decline and place my interest back on the fat wriggly black lab puppy squirming in my arms. He's beautiful I tell her and he is. I make my standard comments one makes for moments like this and gratefully leave. As I resume painting the fence, I can't help thinking that the impression I made on Mary will probably result in her avoiding me forever. Its not fair, I was just minding my own business and painting the bloody fence!!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

de Hortus Botanicus: Amsterdam

On Planage Middenlaan, just off Muiderstratten is a 2 arce plot that plays host to Amsterdam's Botanical Gardens. It is an intriguing place, sort of a mini Kew Gardens, with an Orangery built 1875, the Palm House for palm trees and cactus constructed in 1912, an miniature rainforest in the big Three-Climate Greenhouse dating from 1993, the Hugo de Vries building was built in 1915 to honour Professor de Vries was a famous genetics scholar and a director at de Hortus from 1896 to 1918. There is also a pond and potager. It was a beautiful hot day, so wandering around was a delight and a pleasure.

The Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam is one of the oldest botanic gardens in the world. There are apparently over 4,000 plant species from all over the world. The Hortus started out as a medicinal herb garden in 1638 by the Amsterdam City Council. I can't imagine any other city in any other country doing the same. Although it was in part due to an plague epidemic that the medicinal garden was formed to allow doctors and pharmacists to train in the preparation of prescriptions.

Find out more on

The Dutch Touch

A little time spent away from home and nosing about in another country is always interesting and an opportunity to be inspired. Luckily for me I hitched a ride on my husband's business trip to the Netherlands and had a sunny weekend in Amsterdam. I came back with a few treasures and lots of fantastic experiences finding vintage shops with unusual and quirky stuff. I was very inspired and captured some brilliant ideas for Beardog and Joolz.

I will be writing other blogs in the very near future about my extra long four day weekend in Amsterdam, but for now, here are a few tantalising images:

The simple beauty of every day things:

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Dinner Party Tips: How to avoid the DP Blues

The invitations have gone out, the menu has been planned, the shopping has been done and everything is in place for a dinner party bar the actual cooking. Dinner parties always seem like a good idea at the time. You get to thinking, 'gosh I haven't seen so and so for ages, lets' invite them over for a meal...' or you exchange invites one drunken night after a session in the pub and only remember the promise of a meal when they turn up on your doorstep expecting to be fed a week later. Or your husband hands out invites to dinner to all and sundry like smarties and every weekend you feel as if you're running a five star restaurant but with no tidy profit at the end to make it feel worthwhile. Things that are a good idea at the time are only ever good at the time, the brilliance of it fades with every passing second. The closest I want to get to a dinner party these days is watching 'Come Dine With Me'.

But sometimes there is no avoiding it: you either 'owe' a dinner to someone who fed you 6 months ago and has been hinting ever since that they "haven't seen you for ages not since you came over to ours for a meal" or circumstances mean you can't ditch the kids and take some worthy friends out to share an Indian and are force to cook instead. I use to make a right meal of a dinner party (ha ha) and by the time I dished up I would be completely exhausted and unable to enjoy the food and unwilling to engaged in dinner party chat. These day I am very laid back and these are my handy tips to put the fun and conviviality back into providing food for friends.

1. Are your friends coming to inspect your house or have a meal? Don't give yourself more to do or put pressure on your hubby to re-wire the house. There is really no need to repaper the downstairs loos or sparkle clean inside the under-stair cupboard. As long as your house is reasonably clean and hasn't been condemned by Health and Safety, all is well.

2.Keep it simple. Don't start planning an elaborate menu with a 6 bird roast or a Heston Blumenthal feast, don't even think about cooking something you've never cooked before. This is when you revisit your own perfected repertoire of dishes that you have mastered and made your own. I always make a Lemon Meringue Pie as pud because I can make it with my eyes close and one hand tied behind my back. is boring to keep churning out the same dishes, but if you have perfected more than a dozen recipes you can mix and match for ages before anyone notices.

3. Get someone else to do the cooking: the other guests for example. It is quite charming for guests to be asked to be responsible for preparing one of the courses; clearly not the main course; but the starter or dessert can be palmed off on others. This gives you more time to focus on making the main course fantastic. You do have to share the glory but you are sharing the work, so its all good.

4. Don't reward the cook with a glass or two of wine whilst preparing the food. You'll end up a very sweaty drunken mess with a potentially uneatable meal on the table. Take it easy. Wait until the dishes are prepared and you've got a relaxing half an hour before your guests arrive: pour a drink then, you will have earned it.

5. Reward your kids with treats if they agree to set the table, walk the dog or keep their toys off the stairs. Every one in the household should be drawn into helping. There is always something you've forgotten to buy or do.

Follow these tips and dinner parties may end up being fun. Or like me you can simply get a family size bag of crisps and a bottle or two of pinot and amuse yourself watching other people sweat on Come Dine With Me.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Perennial Pleasures

Perennial Pleasures

Some pleasures come round year after year. We mark the seasons by some and renew our acquaintance with others which we have quite forgotten about and then are pleasantly surprised by, every single year! These perennial pleasures are as individual to us as our birthdays. For me, the year is not punctuated by commercial holidays like Easter and Christmas, but by the changing styles of the seasons and the delight each one gives. The seasons for me are marked by simple things, like the first journey home from work without having to put your car lights on. That is when I note that Spring is definitely on the way. Hearing bird song first thing in the morning is another.

The first smell and sound of a lawn being mown reminds me of the
rhythm of grass cutting, marking out the start of a love affair which by mid- summer has become an arduous chore. However mowing the lawn for the first time after a long bleak winter, gives a certain pleasure that is not easy to explain. Encapsulate in that moment is the very definition of the start of summer, a promise of hot, lazy days and passionate sultry nights to come.

Similarly having an excuse to light the fire and illuminate the room with candles always invokes a singular feeling of comfort and being secure at home. It is the only part of winter that soothes; the rest is a battle against the weather and the commercial hype of Christmas.

I love the stillness of summer’s afternoon, when the sky is aglow with heat, the blueness as perfect a colour of blue that no painter could match; the sounds of bees, of birds chattering and the distant drone of a lawn being shorn somewhere; the clink of ice in a glass and the gentle creak of a deck chair as you settle into the moment; this for me is the very definition of high summer.

These perennial pleasures are perfect markers for my year, each loved and exclaimed over when they are here and mourned and fondly remembered when they have gone.

A Few of my Perennial Pleasures:

First asparagus.

The longest day.

Summer rain (as long as it is infrequent and comes after a really muggy hot day).

Smell of freshly picked tomatoes. The perfume of blushing plums.

Foggy autumn day and the smell of a bonfire.

Finding beautiful and unique things for my home and for Beardog and Joolz.

Fireworks in the night sky.

The feel and smell of sheets after a day on the washing line in the sun.

The smell of the sea and warm sand between ones toes.

A cup of tea and a bun enjoyed after an autumnal walk. .

Email us at and share your perennial pleasures and the most evocative will win a 10% discount voucher to spend with Beardog and Joolz Ltd.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

New life

There has been a lot of discussion in the old homestead recently, centred around the arrival of a new household member. This very special someone is due to arrive around June and already there has been a lot of changes because of this. This new arrival will need a room, a nice comfy bed and a copy of the house rules ( just as soon as we know what they are).

Monday, 1 February 2010

How to make your home ready for spring.

Spring cleaning is not just about emptying cupboards and de-cluttering, banishing cobwebs lingering high up in the stair well or cleaning windows inside and out. Spring cleaning also presents a good opportunity to review how well your housing is running generally and to adjust your organisational skills. Here are 4 steps to a spring clean sweep:

Once a year it pays dividends to take the time to review how you manage your home.
MOT your central heating boiler, water tank, and other regularly used household appliances like the dish washer. These simple checks will ensure that you avoid unexpected breakdowns.

Check your standing orders/direct debits for utility bills are accurate, ensure your meter has been read recently and your have no outstanding credits/debits.

Check guarantees for household appliances like toasters, vacuum cleaners are up to date, if not check out if further household insurance for appliance failures are available.

Sit down with a notebook and list the bare minimum needed to keep household systems flowing on a weekly basis. The usual tedious chores: washing up, the kitchen tidied fairly regularly, food shopping, laundry washed and ironed and put away, vacuuming, dusting, changing bedding and cleaning bathrooms and toilets. This is a list of the bare minimum health and safety standards for your home.

Divide your list into daily jobs and weekly ones. It is for example not necessary to change your bedding every day, but washing the dishes or filling the dishwasher is a daily task.

Next draw up another list for: Spring-Cleaning Tasks.
This should include some of the following:
clean interior windows - remove curtains/blinds (have those dry-cleaned).

Open windows (silly as it sounds people usually keep their windows shut all winter) air the whole house thoroughly. Keeping a house ventilated is very important to avoid the growth of mould. A damp house is essentially an unhealthy house.

Take all your rugs (if you have any) outside and take your aggression out on them by beating them thoroughly. (It is good exercises too). Carpet beaters are still available at old- fashioned hardware stores.

Move beds, vacuum underneath, also vacuum the mattress and turn it over to ensure even wear.

Empty out and clean all cupboards in the house: this is an ideal time to de-clutter and get rid of things you never use. Charity shops, car boot sales and ebay are just a few options of recycling your unwanted belongings.

Employ an Oven cleaner, but get a reputable company. They can deep clean your cooker so it looks like new.

Hire a carpet cleaner: choose a day when it is dry and you can leave all the windows open. Clean carpets in high traffic areas thoroughly. If you don’t have carpets, you can also hire a floor polisher to give your wooden floors a boost.

Use these lists to divide up chores between your household members and get started.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Reading by the fire

Reading by the fire is something I would recommended for cold wintry afternoons. There is a certain smugness about it, a feeling that all is right with your world. A cup of tea and a modest plate of biscuits enhances the pleasure. But finding the right book to read is the real purpose of this treat. It must be a book that is captivating, that has the power to transport you to the author's world completely and allows you to wallow in all the emotions unfolding in the tale.

It is so strange when you look up from reading a intriguing book to find yourself back in your comfy armchair with the fire blazing merrily when seconds before you had been lost on the forbidding Kilimanjaro volcanic mountain range, or fighting off a murderous assailant in a dark city ally way. I love those books that have the power to chill your bones and make you shiver just from the prose describing the snow, to make your heart race with fear or your eyes swell with tears.

I suppose that writing blogs is a way that we have to set down our emotions, to describe our lives, make observations on the world around us and engage with a wider audience, people we will never meet in real life. Yet so many of our authors feel like close friends, like people we know and love. That is the power of the written word. I have started writing blogs before and certainly kept on doing it even when I knew that no one was actually reading anything I wrote. Essentially I write for myself, for the cathartic value and to capture a snapshot of my life that I can reflect upon years later and assess how much or little I have changed.