Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Shades of Purple

Last weekend, my mum suggested a visit to Lordington Lavender, a nearby lavender farm which opens its fields to the public for one week a year. I'd never heard of it but I think everyone else in Sussex and Hampshire had, judging by the crowds. It was still lovely though and, despite the number of visitors and the fact that they'd sold out of ice cream, managed to retain a charming English village fete feel, with tractor rides, hay bales, and stalls selling teas and lavender cake, as well as their own lavender products. The colour and scent of the flowers is as strong as you'd imagine, but the thing that struck me the most was the hum of the bees. You almost don't notice it at first, but once you do, it's captivating. So many beautiful bees, just doing their thing. That hour was just the pause I needed at a very busy time of year. 

As you would expect for somewhere so photogenic, it's very popular with photographers and I think there were lots of people there who'd gone wearing nice clothes and with good cameras purely to take some pretty family photos. I hadn't really given the whole trip much thought and, while I had remembered my camera, I forgot the memory card, and I hadn't given a moment's thought to what myself or the kids were wearing (with Angus in that awful Minecraft t-shirt that he loves and I loathe). 

But still, a delightful way to spend a warm Saturday afternoon in July, and I got some gorgeous body lotion too.

With my head full of those rows of purple flowers, I went straight to my sister's to beg an armful of the stuff from the huge plant in her front garden.

I had thought about drying some but it's currently sitting in an earthenware pot on the kitchen table. I love it. I can pretend I live in a Provencal farmhouse.

I also became obsessed with making lavender shortbread, and baked a batch on Sunday afternoon. I was worried that the flavour might be too strong - I love floral flavours like lavender and rose but know that not everyone does - so took them into work on Monday for honest criticism. The response was more lavender, not less, which was relief. I didn't want anyone to think they were eating soap.

I just made another two batches tonight as we're having a tea party after work tomorrow for a much loved colleague who it retiring, and we're all bringing something along. Don't worry, I've kept some shortbread back for us to eat.

Lavender aside, I finally managed to produce a few sweet peas, not my usual amount but enough to put in a little vase on my bedside table.

We also spent a little time picking all the redcurrants and blackcurrants at the bushes from the bottom of the garden. I say we - I bribed the kids and made them do it, as I was distracted by lavender shortbread. Ziggy, as ever, had to be in on the action.

 For now, all the berries have been washed, weighed and frozen, ready for a day when I am not rushed and actually have time to deal with them. I'm thinking redcurrant jelly, possibly to be turned into a sweet chilli dipping sauce, as I did last year, and maybe a summer pudding. For the blackcurrants, I have enough for one batch of Nigella's blackcurrant and liquorice ice cream and possibly a jar of jam.

Thank you for your kind comments on Bella's room. Yes she is a lucky girl, but I know that she appreciates the space she has and in no way takes it for granted. I came home from work on Monday to find that she'd stripped the bed and put fresh sheets on, dusted, watered the plants and was in the process of vacuuming! That instantly put me in a good mood, let me tell you. However, the rest of the house is a complete pigsty at the moment because we're all just concentrating on getting to the end of term and letting out a huge exhale in relief. Two more days. 


Lavender shortbread

125 g soft butter
55 g caster sugar
180 g plain flour
1 level tsp chopped lavender flowers

  • pre-heat the oven to 180°C
  • mix butter, sugar and lavender together
  • add the flour until you have a dough
  • tip out onto a floured work surface, pat into a smooth ball and roll until 1 cm thick
  • cut into circles
  • bake for 12-15 minutes until lightly browned
This amount of dough gives me anywhere between 12 and 15 biscuits depending on how thickly I roll it out. You can keep going until every last bit of dough is used, but I find the last few scraps become crumbly from the extra flour you're working into it and hard to roll out. 

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Room Tour: Bella's Bedroom

I feel like I've written about Bella's bedroom many times. From her six year old's bedroom in our old house in Leeds, to her quickly decorated new bedroom here when she was eight ,which we then updated two years later, and then updated again last summer. It was always a challenge to squeeze all her things into the smallest room in the house, with her needs ever changing. I should say that I never mind this constantly evolving bedroom situation; it gives us a chance to update and refresh the children's bedrooms, and it's unrealistic to expect a child's bedroom to never change, as what they need at six is so different to what they need at eleven, and sixteen.

What we've done is move Bella, who is twelve and a half, into what was the spare room downstairs, just off the hall and opposite the kitchen. This room was only really used if we had guests, or if I was doing the ironing. Wasted space, to put it mildly, while Bella was crammed into a box room upstairs.  From the spare room, an archway leads to a smaller room which we used to call the office but no-one ever worked in there, it was basically storage. 

Here are a few before and after photos of the spare room:

and the office area:

(When the house was built this smaller room was a utility room, accessed from the garage and with a door to the garden, but previous owners had blocked up the garage entrance and knocked through an archway, making it accessible from the house instead. So we had two awkwardly shaped but linked downstairs rooms which added up to quite a good sized bedroom.)

Over half term, we removed the laminate flooring from the spare room and the carpet from the office and used the same flooring that we have in the hall and living room, largely because we had so much left over that we only needed to buy another couple of packs. Straight away, using the same flooring throughout made the space look like one room rather than two. We also boxed in the upvc window frame, moved a couple of light switches and redecorated. 

As much as possible we tried to reuse what we already had, buying new only when we absolutuely had to. Another IKEA Billy Bookcase (I could assemble these in my sleep now) was added to the one that was already there, so that Bella finally has enough space for all her books and those storage boxes which are ideal for storing small toys, craft supplies etc.

I updated Bella's six year old desk (the Micke desk from IKEA) by covering all the pink metalwork and trim with copper spray paint and turning it into a dressing table. It was no longer big enough for her to use as a desk, so it's nice that it has a new purpose.

An old IKEA Frosta stool was given a face-lift with new cover made from a load of leftover scraps of yarn.

In between the door and bookcases hangs a gallery wall. All the prints were ones we already had, we just updated a few frames cheaply from IKEA and Wilkos. 

Bella is now using what was the "spare bed", rather than her old wooden one, because it's a trundle style bed with a pull-out mattress underneath, so perfect for sleepovers.

Most of the bedding and cushions we already had, although Bella chose to spend some of her pocket money on a new cushion and a mustard throw.

I added a garland made from leftover scraps of cotton and acrylic DK yarn.

Moving into the old "office", this now holds Bella's wardrobe and desk. It's an awkward room due to the boxed in pipework that runs along one long wall, so we decided to devote this wall to hanging storage, for her school blazer, bag etc.

At one end is space for a wardrobe, a bigger one than before because Bella does not have a chest of drawers to hold clothes, so everything is hung or stored in boxes in the wardrobe.

At the other end, under the window, sits the desk that was there before with the addition of a little chest of drawers underneath and a couple of shelves above. This desk (which we've had for about six years maybe) is plenty big enough for Bella to study at, with space for folders, laptop etc. Although I bet she will continue to use the kitchen table as she always does...

She arranged and styled everything herself, and these two shelves hold some of her most favourite things, so I'm relieved to see a couple of old handmade toys up there.

We bought two new lampshades, but I didn't mind this as we'd never updated the lighting in this room since we moved in four years ago.

We were able to reuse so many things; the curtains, desk and chair, a slim Billy bookcase, dressing table and stool, bedside table, bed, plus smaller things like storage boxes, prints and shelves. I'll provide links for everything we bought at the bottom of the post.

So you might be wondering about what kind of spare room we have now, and what about poor neglected Angus? Well, Angus has moved into Bella's bedroom, taking with him a huge wall map, his clothes, and about two hundred books. His old bedroom is now going to become a multi-use room, and it is going to work extremely hard! It will be the spare room when it needs to be, although we need to buy a sofa bed before we do anything else, so that we can put people up when they come to stay (or let them have our bed while we sleep on the sofa bed). But the sofa bed is also so that this room can become a sort of second sitting room, with somewhere for Bella, Angus and friends to play on the Xbox or watch a DVD. It still holds all Angus's toys in the large cupboards in the eves, so this is essentially his play room for now, which he is delighted about. ("It's like I've got two bedrooms mum!") And finally it will be an office, the room where we keep all our files, paperwork and printer, with a desk and chair. If any of you use these kind of spare room/offices/play rooms I'd really appreciate any tips on how best to get the space to work. I'm guessing it's one thing mainly: storage!

I hope you are all well? We've had the loveliest weekend, visiting lavender fields, picking fruit and enjoying the weather among other things, just taking it a bit easier than usual. It was much needed after a tough week last week, during which I was unwell with a horrible virus, no doubt something to do with end of term tiredness. Anway, five more days to go...

Product links:

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

June's Cookery Book

Throughout June we cooked from the marvellous A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones, her second book, and the follow up to A Modern Way to Eat, which I chose back in January. I love her books; her approach to vegetarian and vegan eating is passionate but ever so practical, she writes well, and her recipes always work. She is becoming one of my favourite food writers. 

This book is usefully organised by time, with recipes for lunches and dinners taking fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty minutes etc, and then my favourite chapter, investment cooking, which covers the sort of cooking you do at the weekend for the week ahead: nut butters, soups, bread, pulses, cereals. Finally, chapters on breakfasts, desserts and cakes finish the book. 

From the "in the time it takes to set the table" chapter, we made kale, tomato and lemon magic one-pot spaghetti. We've been making this about once a fortnight since we discovered this recipe and it's become a firm favourite here. I often add spinach if we don't have any kale, but I always have cherry tomatoes, spaghetti and lemon.

All the ingredients are assembled in a large, shallow pan and simmered for as long as it takes for the pasta to cook, while the olive oil, lemon zest, tomatoes and salt all mingle with the spaghetti cooking liquid to create a dreamy sauce. Topped with grated parmesan this is a weeknight winner which even the children will eat without complaint. 

From the "on the table in half an hour" chapter was an inspired double page spread full of different ideas for toppings for baked potatoes, both regular and sweet. I often pop a few baked potatoes in the oven on weeknights when we are busy with clubs, or all eating at different times, but get fed up with our usual toppings (beans and cheese or tuna mayo). This topping is one of the nicest I've ever had: one leek, shredded and cooked until soft, with some greens stirred in, then finished with a spoonful of wholegrain mustard and a handful of grated cheddar which melts into the leeks. 

From the "forty minute feasts" chapter we tried lentils with roast tomatoes and horseradish, finished with a kind of garlic breadcrumb topping. I loved it, John less so. I think the lentils were a little overdone.

We also tried lentil ragu with much greater success. This comes under my own quest of finding meat free meals that the kids will just eat without moaning and that have the same flavour.  I preferred the texture of this pulse based ragu sauce over other types of vegetarian mince, as it had the thickness and depth of flavour that I associate with the beef ragu John used to cook in the oven for hours. There was some leftover which I stretched by adding a tin of chopped tomatoes then stirring it through some cooked fusili before baking it with lots of cheese on top.

The "investment cooking" was probably my favourite part of the book, just crammed with imaginative and practical recipes for the kind of cooking I love to do at the weekend ready for the week ahead. I made malted chocolate granola, substituting the buckwheat flakes which I couldn't find anywhere with oats and quinoa. 

I love making granola; it's so easy and leaves me with a pleasingly domestic goddess feeling, well worth the minimal effort.

So far I've been eating it with plain yogurt and banana, often taking it to work in a little pot and eating it at morning break. 

The "super-fast breakfasts" section was again crammed with ideas, and I do love a good breakfast. I think it might be my favourite meal of the day. One sunny Saturday morning I made tahini-drizzled super fruit, which is just a fruit salad dressed with a mixture of tahini and honey.

I loved it. It was a hot, hot day and just what I fancied - something light, with the sweet creamy dressing cutting through the more acidic fruit, but something I needed to sit down and eat with a knife and fork. Lovely.

Also from the breakfast chapter, I tried a different version of my beloved overnight oats: the porridge oats are mixed with chia, dessicated coconut, honey and milk or water (I use half and half).

Again, I often take these to work if I am in a rush or not hungry first thing, topped with whatever I have that needs eating up in the fridge: sliced banana, pineapple, blueberries, grated apple, strawberries.

From "quick puddings and sweet treats" I made dark chocolate goodness cookies. The recipe contains no refined flour or sugar, hence the "goodness" but I was unwilling to pour a large amount of expensive maple syrup into a recipe where I wouldn't be able to taste it, so just used golden syrup instead.

Instead of flour, the bulk of the cookies are made up with a tin of black beans, pureed, and chopped dates are added too.

They were incredible. Next time I would add more medjool dates though as the chewy sweetness of the dried fruit was amazing with the dark chocolate.

I feel like I am raving a bit about this book but I really can't think of anything bad to say about it, other than I wonder if she bulk buys her maple syrup on discount somewhere. But I cooked from this book a lot because it was a pleasure to, and there were so many other recipes I'd like to have tried but didn't have time. Anna Jones writes a weekly food column in The Guardian magazine on a Saturday called The Modern Cook where many of her recipes are available online and, vegetarian or not, you might like to have a look.