Blog, gardening

Looking Down and Looking Up

Last time, I wrote about facing up and facing down. This week I’ve put a twist on that idea. I’m looking up and looking down.

brown and black hen with peep of chick outdoor looking down at food and looking up to mum
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on

Poultry in the United Kingdom has been in lockdown for months, because of Avian Flu. Our little flock can’t run about the garden any more. They are in an enclosure, well away from wild birds.  I go out each evening to shut the hen coop door. They’re completely safe from foxes within their run, but it keeps the birds warmer. I collect the feeder and empty the drinkers, so the contents won’t freeze overnight.

Down On The Ground

As the torch beam swept across the garden one evening this week, I spotted something.  There, against the dark earth was one small shoot of garlic. I could hardly believe it. At a local food festival last October I’d bought a head of garlic for planting. The cloves had shot up so fast, I ordered another three heads direct from the suppliers.  These arrived in early November. The weather was still very mild, so I expected them to grow as fast as the original cloves.

Then the autumn rains started. Weeks went by without a single dry day. Christmas came and went, and there was still no sign of my second planting of garlic cloves. I thought they must have rotted off in the wet ground.

Now here was one brave survivor after more than two months hidden away in the sodden soil.  It was too cold to hang about that night, but I told myself that if one clove had managed to survive, there should be others.

Looking Up

Next morning I went out at 7am to open the hen coop. There had been a dusting of snow, but the sky had cleared. Looking up, I saw the full moon glowing gold. It was low over the Sitka plantation, but high in the sky a flock of redwings called as they flew over to the orchards of Herefordshire.

The moonlight was so bright it was almost light enough to see what I was doing without the torch. A covering of snow on the frozen, sloping path made the going tricky. I had to watch my step. As I filled the drinkers and put out the poultry feeder, I could hear a hen purring in her sleep. Then a fox barked from the other side of the hazel thicket, and she went quiet.

Looking down at garlic cloves beside spices and leaves
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

After I had finished with the hens, I went to check on the garlic. The one shoot I had seen the night before was no fluke. Just enough snow had fallen overnight to throw more shoots into relief against the soil surface. While my fingers and toes turned into icicles I counted twenty four little nibs.  Together with the dozen plants which had shot up back in the autumn, it’s tempting to think there will be plenty of fat garlic cloves for the kitchen this year.  I’m already planning to get more varieties from The Garlic Farm for planting in autumn this year.

Are you planning to do any gardening this year?

You can find out more about me here, and see some of my books here.

Blog, Book Review

Review: Stanley Tucci’s ‘Taste’

Um…Stan Lee…Stan Lee…Stanley Tucci?*

Only a few months ago, the name Stanley Tucci meant nothing to me. I’d heard him mentioned in The Big Bang Theory*, but that was it. Then Tucci’s Searching for Italy aired on TV. As I love both Italy and food, I watched every episode (sometimes more than once). What follows is a review of the No. 1 Sunday Times Best Seller, Stanley Tucci’s ‘Taste’.

So Who is Stanley Tucci?

Stanley Tucci is an award-winning actor, writer, director and a food obsessive. He has also worked in restaurants. Unlike some celebrities who are famous simply for being famous, when it comes to food, cooking, and ingredients, he knows what he is talking about.

A ‘Taste’ of Italy…

Both the first and second series of Searching for Italy have won Emmys. It’s easy to see why, and how. Stanley Tucci is a hugely likeable personality. He is enthusiastic about every aspect of food: its regionality, seasonality, and the joy of eating together. He knows his way around a kitchen, and brings out the best in everyone he meets. He also knows how to turn his knowledge and affable nature into words.

Stanley Tucci, Chef

Once I’d watched the TV programmes, only one thing stopped me buying Tucci’s Cookbook and The Tucci Table. It was the groaning shelves of cookery books already lining both my kitchen and living room. I use them all (with one exception) but I really don’t have the room for more…unless they come in the form of Christmas or birthday presents, of course!

Taste is a different matter. Although it contains recipes, it isn’t a cookery book. It is an exploration of how food has affected Tucci’s life and relationships. That may sound odd, but as you read this book you see how closely food affects so many areas of life. I hadn’t realised how fascinating the ritual, social, and celebratory aspects of cooking and eating could be.

I never expected to use this book stoveside, but I did. The recipes Taste does contain are good, easy to follow, and delicious. I tried almost all, and can recommend them. Sadly, I can’t endorse any of the drinks. The cocktails sound amazing, but the occasional glass of wine with dinner is now my giddy limit!

The Nightmare Begins

Taste is a clever title. From Chapter Twenty onwards it becomes a verb, as well as a noun. Mr Tucci helped his first wife struggle through terminal breast cancer. Then in 2018 he was diagnosed with oral cancer. He says of that nightmare, “I was stunned to the point of almost fainting”. Food plays such an important role in his life the discovery that the cancer hadn’t spread beyond the tumour in his mouth didn’t mean he was out of the woods. He had to endure the loss of taste, and the enjoyment of food—a huge part of his life.

His treatment regime was punishing. Despite the painful details he manages to inject some moments of humour. When Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds accompanied Stanley to an appointment to give moral support, the staff were so star-struck one of them almost forgot a vital part of the medical procedure.

I’m very glad I’d watched all those episodes of Searching for Italy (filmed in 2021/2) before I started reading this book. If I hadn’t watched Stanley Tucci on film munching away, talking with such animation, and looking so well I would never have been able to carry on reading. Even so, there were bits where I felt like crying.

A Happy Ending…

Taste is a great book. It has real enthusiasm for its core subject—food. It works on several levels. It’s part autobiography, an examination of extended family ties, a small window on the world of acting and directing, and it contains some excellent recipes.

Last but by no means least, if you have a hypochondriac in your life, try reading aloud to them from Chapter Twenty onwards. If that doesn’t make them pull up their big girl/boy pants and count their blessings, then nothing will.

Long live Stanley Tucci!

(Extracts from Review: Stanley Tucci’s ‘Taste’ have also been posted elsewhere online)

*The Big Bang Theory (Prady, Holland and Ferrari: Series 3, Episode 16, The Excelsior Acquisition).

Blog, gardening

Food, Glorious Food!

Late winter

Back in February, I wrote about the apricot tree flowering in my greenhouse. That was before winter came back to bite us, in the form of The Beast From The East. At a time when spring should have been springing, we ended up with several feet of snow, and endless days with the thermometer registering well below freezing. Despite my greenhouse heater going full pelt and plenty of insulation, the later flushes of apricot flowers were nipped by the cold.  A lot of them shrivelled before opening. Some of the earliest fruitlets were killed too, so instead of a tree covered in fruit, we were left with only a few dozen surviving apricots.

That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If every flower had turned into a fruit, we’d have had hundreds of apricots, none of them any bigger than grapes. The stone inside each one would have taken up a lot of room, so there wouldn’t have been much in the way of juicy fruit.

What a difference four months made!

The answer would have been for me to thin out the fruit by picking them off while they were still tiny. The idea is to leave about one fruit for every four inches of branch. I can’t bear to be ruthless, so we would have ended up with measly apricots.

Luckily, nature did the job of thinning the fruit out for me this year. We didn’t have so many fruit, but each one was the size of a peach! The seven in the photo at the top of this blog weigh nearly a kilogram (that’s 2.2lb in old money).

I’d be happy to sit in the shade and eat them fresh form the tree, but OH loves fruit crumble and custard. Here’s my recipe, which is really quick and easy. It includes jumbo oats and Demerara sugar which means the topping stays crunchy, in lovely contrast to the cooked fruit beneath.

Apricot Crumble


700g (1.5lb) fresh apricots, sliced

A small amount of caster sugar

100g (4oz) flour

75g (3oz) butter

50g (2oz) Demerara sugar

75g (3oz) jumbo oats

Heat the oven to 180c (160 Fan) Gas Mark 4

Put the sliced apricots in an ovenproof dish. Sprinkle over a little sugar, and add a couple of tablespoons of water.

In a large bowl, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and oats. Spread this mixture over the apricots.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for between 35-40 minutes, or until the fruit is cooked. This is delicious whether you serve it hot or cold, with custard or cream.

Of course you could always make this with tinned apricots—just use the juice instead of water, and cook until the crumble is browned and crunchy.

What’s your favourite recipe using summer fruit?



Blog, Growing

Make A Fresh Start

bean-plant-2348098_1920Mustard and cress, sunflowers, peas and beans sprouting in recycled coffee cups—remember those happy times back in nursery? Getting your hands dirty, desperately waiting for the first little shoots to pop their heads up, then carrying your plant home in grubby paws to present it to your family?

Things were so much simpler back then. Life, with its tests, exams, debts, and deadlines forces us into a hamster wheel of tail-chasing, day after day. We’re already a quarter of the way through the year. Can you believe it? Where did the time go? New Year’s Resolutions to take it easy and have more fun are a distant memory (although one resolution came back to surprise me last week—you can read more about that here).

Time flies when you’re busy, and we’re all busy all the time these days. If we’re not wrapped up in earning a living, we’re on line helping other people to earn theirs, by shopping or clicking. Why not take some time out during this holiday weekend to rediscover your roots? Take a break, abandon the rat race and re-live those times when you were a lot closer to the earth— physically, as well as mentally. It’s easy to forget that until the supermarkets and their needs turned food production into an industrial process, our food was almost all local and seasonal. It wasn’t all that far back. The first supermarket arrived less than thirty years ago in the market town where I grew up.  Before that, tinned pineapple, new potatoes from Jersey or fresh mandarin oranges at Christmas was as exotic as it got!

Home made bread and homegrown salad, just waiting for a poached egg…

Reclaim your independence, if only in a small way. Make a fresh start this spring. Grow some sprouting seeds, or cut-and-come again salad  in a tray on your windowsill. If you’ve got room outside, get the biggest container you can find, and grow some beans. Scarlet runners or climbing French beans will scramble up a wigwam of canes. They make a great show in a small space. They aren’t frost-hardy, so you’ll need to wait a week or two before sowing them direct in your container, but you can make a start indoors earlier than that. At this stage you can do your bit for recycling—start saving the inner cardboard tubes from toilet rolls to make your own plant pots.

There was a big fuss a few years ago about possible hygiene concerns when handling toilet roll inners.  Take care, and wash your hands thoroughly after every gardening session, and again before you eat. There shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re still worried, stick to reusing the cardboard tubes from the middle of kitchen roll, gift wrap or baking parchment.  Each one of those will make several small pots.

Bees love sunflowers, while birds (and bakers) love their seeds

Obviously, watering will make your bio-degradable plant pots soggy and they’ll break down quite quickly, so only use them for the early stages of quick-growing things like beans, peas and sunflowers.

To give your home-made pots stability, pack them into something waterproof, such as a plastic box. I use old takeaway containers. Although we eat healthy food every day, now and again it’s hard to resist something ready-made! Fill the pots to the top with seed compost (garden soil is too rich, and full of weed seeds). Firm it gently, then push one big seed into each. Add enough water to make the soil nice and moist, then put your container close to the glass on a sunny windowsill.

Wean your baby plants onto the outdoor life gradually. First, put them outside only on mild days. Bring them back indoors at night for the first week. After that,  only coddle them if there’s likely to be a frost. Once they’ve been planted in their permanent container, water them regularly and peg a sheet of newspaper around them at night if frost is forecast. Once your plants start to climb, they’ll be unstoppable. They’ll take as much water as you can give them. As the pretty flowers turn into beans, keep picking the pods to encourage your plants to keep producing. Don’t let them become has-beans. If you do, the plant will think it’s done it’s job. It will transfer its strength into maturing seeds and the beans will become tough instead of tasty.

RED_KALE_-3100694_1920Your bean plants will be killed by autumn frosts, but by then you’ll be hooked and looking forward (I hope) to planting up your container with some sprouting broccoli or red kale. The frilly leaves look good over winter, and you’ll be picking home-grown shoots next March, when they cost a fortune to buy from the supermarket.

Growing things helps me cope with modern life. It keeps my feet on the ground, encourages me to plan, and keeps me looking ahead. What’s your tip for staying optimistic, despite all the fears and frenzy of modern life?