Blog, recipes

The World’s Best Soup Recipe?

You decide…

Soup is the perfect winter meal here, as it’s cooked on our gas hob. That means I can make it during a power cut, while the electric oven, Remoska and slow cooker are all useless.

BREAD_AND_TOMATO_AND_LENTIL_SOUPTomato and lentil soup is so easy, I make sure I’ve always got the ingredients in stock (or in the garden). It’s delicious, too. When I’ve made this soup with brown lentils instead of red, it’s fooled a carnivore with its almost meaty richness.

It’s hard to give quantities as I’ve made this soup so often. To be honest I put the stock cubes into one of the emptied tomato tins, and dissolve them by topping up with some of the boiling water. Then I pour that mixture into the soup pan, and add a couple more cans full of boiling water. This also cleans the tins ready for recycling, but watch your fingers when doing this. Those metal tins get very hot!


A large onion, peeled and sliced

Two big potatoes, peeled and diced

A couple of sticks of celery, chopped

250g lentils (red makes a soup like the photos, brown lentils seem richer and more filling)

Two 400g tins of chopped tomatoes in juice

Three Kallo organic vegetable stock cubes

1.5 litres boiling water


Rinse the lentils well under running water. Put them in a big saucepan with all the vegetables, and the tinned tomatoes. Dissolve the stock cubes in the water (see above for how I do this, but take care) and pour that in, too.

Stir, bring to the boil then turn down the heat. Let the soup simmer gently for about an hour, or until the vegetables are tender and the lentils soft.

Take the pan off the heat and liquidise, or use a stick blender. During power cuts, I use a potato masher—if I can’t delegate the job to somebody else!

Season to taste with salt and pepper, then reheat gently to serve.  Home-made wholemeal or wholegrain bread goes perfectly with this, as you can see in the picture.

A bowl of tomato and lentil soup, and you’ll be ready to face winter again.


Blog, gardening

March Towards Spring?

It feels more like we’re backing into winter!

I was planning to tell you all the things I’d be doing in my garden during March. Today is officially the First Day of Spring here in the UK.

Then The Beast From The East met Storm Emma.snowyshed 2

That sounds like a Fifties B-movie or a wrestling bout. Instead,  it’s a combination of weather systems fighting it out over Europe. The UK has practically ground to a halt. Countries who see snow every year are having a good laugh at our expense. I don’t blame them. Many of our main roads impassable. People have been sitting  in their cars for up to seventeen hours, stuck in endless traffic jams. Airports and trains have been at a standstill from the second snow began to fall.

In our defence, we’ve seen more snow in this country over the past forty-eight hours than we usually see in a whole month during the winter.

We’re simply not set up for bad weather here in England. It doesn’t happen often enough. OH and I used to fit winter tyres to our cars every autumn, but after years with no problems, we never bothered to buy them when we changed our cars. Snow chains are worse than useless unless there’s a good depth of snow, and in any case the lightest snowfall renders the one-in three lane between Tottering Towers and the country road connecting us to civilisation impassable.

So…there are my excuses. Now, down to work. In advance of the bad weather I travelled 40 miles to fetch a full canister of propane gas for my greenhouse heater. That would normally last for a month at the rate I use it. Temperatures have been well below freezing for days, so I dread to think how fast the gas is being used! I haven’t dared open the greenhouse to check. It’s well insulated, all the citrus trees and overwintering cuttings are clustered close to the heater, but there’s a limit to how much cold they can take.

Paperwhite narcissi, flowering in January. I wish you could experience their scent!

I’m not so worried about my fig trees, which also live in the greenhouse. They’re a bit hardier, and still dormant.  The apricot flowers I wrote about a few days ago may be damaged by the extended cold period. I’ll have to wait and see. The strawberry plants haven’t come in to be forced yet, and at this rate they’ll be staying outside! Once I can get into the greenhouse again I’ll be topdressing all the fruit trees with fresh compost. All the bulbs I forced for flowering at Christmas and in the first few weeks of the new year have been moved from the house into the greenhouse, waiting to be replanted in the garden when the weather warms up.  I’ll give them some plant food this month, to keep them going.

March is traditionally the main seed-sowing time, but they’re safer off in their packets for a day or two. I won’t be sowing anything for a while. There’s no point. It’s too cold to keep them growing, once they’ve germinated. The tomato and lettuce seeds I sowed a few days ago are living on my office windowsill, safe inside Tottering Towers, but they’ll soon get long and lanky. They need moving out into the greenhouse, but they won’t appreciate the conditions out there right now! OH wants me to get electricity in my greenhouse so I don’t need to worry about heating and lighting for my seedlings, but Tottering Towers is prone to power cuts. That’s why I rely on a propane heater.

There’s nothing to be done outside when everything’s covered with snow. The shallots I wrote about last week are snug under an insulating layer of snow. I have seed potatoes ready to plant for an early crop, but I’m holding them back.  A sheet of black polythene has been warming the soil in the kitchen garden for them. It’s been there since New Year, but I’m not going to risk planting them yet.

I need to thaw out  the hens’ drinkers with warm water several times a day, and make sure they are shut inside their insulated houses each evening. I bring the feeders in, as rats would soon discover that easy source of food. Fetching them at dusk is a challenge which means floundering downslope in the snow, then back uphill with my hands full. Alex our mad dog doesn’t help the process, dancing round my feet. One day I’ll trip over him and end up flat on my back in the snow, covered in hen food!

What’s the weather like where you are? Do you have any tips for dealing with wintry conditions?


In the Bleak Midwinter…

A young oak tree came down across our track
I hope you had a good Christmas and New Year! It was quiet here at Tottering Towers. The only excitement was a heavy fall of snow. It brought down lots of branches in the wood. One fell onto the electricity cable supplying us, and some other houses on our hillside. It snapped with a huge bang at 4am, waking everyone. While we were all in darkness, the night outside was filled with sparks from the arcing electricity cable. It was quite scary for a while. 
We cook with electricity and it powers our gas central heating, so we had to find alternatives. Housework keeps you warm, but it’s not very exciting. We could boil a kettle on our gas hob to make tea, and it was a good excuse to live on soup and cake!
Flares, from Pixabay
So many people were affected by the bad weather across Gloucestershire and the surrounding counties, it was 9pm that evening before we had light and heat. A brave engineer had to repair the damage while standing on top of a cherry-picker in a stiff, freezing wind. 
It’s only when there’s a break in the supply that we realise how lucky we are to be living at a time when life is relatively easy. Imagine you’re a Victorian woman living in a city tenement. In the days before electricity, every morning is pitch black and freezing. The only sounds come from rats scrabbling beneath the bed your wheezing children share. Snow blows in under the door of your single room. Fetching all the water you need from the communal well will be a slippery job today. If your husband gives you some money, your family can eat. If not, hard luck. He’ll go to the pub. You and the children will have to go hungry. 
Women in those days had no voice, and no power. They lurked in the footnotes of history until they gained an element of control, first over their own money, later their vote and finally, their lives. Much of that progress was driven by women themselves. It took a hundred years of hard work, lobbying and violence before their lives improved to anything like today’s standards. The only way was up—and women from my old home town, Bristol, led the way. 


2018 is the centenary of the first British women getting the vote. The publisher Pen and Sword Books is producing a series of books to mark this defining moment. Each volume concentrates on one British city. My contribution covers Bristol.  Struggle and Suffrage—Women’s Lives in Bristol, 1850-1950 will be published later this year, and there will be all sorts of events to mark the centenary. To make sure you don’t miss anything, sign up for my newsletter in the boxes at the tip of this page, and follow my author page on Facebook.