How to Make Profiteroles For The First Time Ever

Once upon a time, in a land far away[i], this blog was a collection of whimsical anecdotes about baking and shooting. Somehow it has morphed into a general outlet for whatever my internal monologue is concerned with at the time – not least because I am shooting and baking vastly less than I used to. But despite the general downhill trend of baking experiences, a few weekends ago I attempted to bake for the first time this year. More excitingly, it was something I’ve never made before and have always wanted to try; choux pastry. Therefore, in homage to the heritage of After The First Frost (and because I’ve currently no more Tinder Tales to report to you[ii]) I present to you: My Guide to Profiteroles.

The Day Before

    1. Recipe & Ingredients
      The day before you want to make your profiteroles, it’s a good idea to buy the ingredients. If you also have friends coming for Sunday lunch and expecting roast lamb, it’s not a bad idea to buy some lamb too, so head to Sainsbury’s with your wife[iii]. Definitely don’t write any form of shopping list. Once at the supermarket – and only once you are there – look up a recipe for profiteroles. Try to curb your impatience as the 3G coverage in the supermarket flickers in and out, before you realise there’s free Wifi available and get slightly over-excited. Once successfully plugged into the interweb, again Google a recipe for profiteroles. It’s obviously a very bad idea to look this up in advance, check which of the ingredients you have in the cupboard and write yourself a shopping list. It is far preferable to stand in Sainsbury’s trying to remember whether the Kilner jar of flour is self-raising or plain, and wondering what impact it would have on your profiteroles if it turns out you’re wrong. Do this therefore, and decide to risk it.
    2. Mental Preparation
      Remember to put the cream and butter in the fridge once you get home, but leave the other ingredients out on the table, because it’s easier than trying to put them away. When a friend cancels the film night you had planned because he’s still unwell, poor thing, agree to go out for a quiet drink with your housematebestfriendwife to a local beer café after dinner. Have her mix a round of sweet Manhattans while you make dinner, and know that your subconscious is definitely thinking about profiteroles, somewhere in the background. As dinner is almost ready, mix up another round of Manhattans – this time to test whether you prefer a perfect one to sweet. Enjoy dinner, and when it turns out that you do prefer a Manhattan perfect, make a third to celebrate the fact while applying a little make up before you leave. End up in a deep discussion about bourbon with the very educated barman in the beer café, and instead of beer, end up trying two brand new bourbons: Elijah Craig and Basil Hayden’s (BH definitely won.) Fast forward to 1am, where your profiterole and Sunday-lunch-hosting prep should will be taking the form of you trying not to cry over the piano in a bar, distraught that you can’t play from memory the second half of that Bach piece you learned about a decade ago, and that your fingers are turning the opening waterfall of Debussy’s First Arabesque into a discordant tangle of fingers and wrong notes. It’s definitely because you can’t play the piano anymore and music has abandoned you; nothing to do with the booze. Make a mental note to be grateful tomorrow morning that the bar is closed at this hour of the morning, and only the lovely owner and his equally lovely daughter have had their ears subjected to the caterwauling coming from your hands.
    3. Rest Up
      Steel yourself for the unbelievable cruelty that is telling your housematebestfriendwife that the two of you can’t go dancing at 1.30am. Her lower lip will wobble, the heartbreak will be blindingly evident on her face, but you will have to be firm. Even when her eyes fill with tears as she begs to find somewhere still open to dance, stay strong and call that taxi. (Spoiler: it’s fine, she won’t remember in the morning.) Bed at 2am will give you plenty of rest before profiterole-making duties.


      On The Day

    4. Getting Up
      When your body clock kicks in and wakes you up too early, forgive it. On this occasion, you need to be up as your plan to clean the house on Saturday unfortunately fell by the wayside, and thus not only is there last night’s dinner and drinks mess to clear up, but a sitting room and kitchen to clean, lamb to prepare, and, of course, the all-important profiteroles. Lying in bed, drink some water and start plotting out your morning and how you’re going to get things done. Hear a groan from across the corridor as your housematebestfriendwife wakes up too. End up spending an hour sprawling on the bed, nattering together and to a friend on the phone, feeling thoroughly sorry for yourselves. Drink more water. Decide that any preparation can wait, and that coffee and breakfast take precedence. Head to a local Melbourne-inspired coffee shop for poached eggs on smashed avocado on sourdough, not forgetting the prosciutto and of course an incredible coffee. Sneak in a blueberry and lemon friand, because you can, and another cup of coffee. Decide to leave the café. Drink another glass of water. Fifteen minutes later, actually leave the café. Get back to the house just before midday, and don’t start panicking that no prep has been started. Your housematebestfriendwife will start the lamb, and you will definitely not start thinking about profiteroles. Instead, you’ll drink yet another glass of water and tidy the sitting room (read: throw anything that is looking messy up the stairs with the intention of getting it out of sight, but accept right now that you won’t get round to it, and the stairs will simply stay covered in stuff.) Try to ignore your churning stomach, and take two painkillers. No hangover here, promise.

    5. Guests arrive
      When your first guest arrives, have a slight panic with your housematebestfriendwife about whether profiteroles are really the best idea, with less than two hours before you’re due to serve lunch and the veg and mint sauce not yet cooked or made. Dig out an old cookery notebook and use that and trusty Google to look up ‘easy chocolate mousse’. Rule this out completely when you see the words “chill for at least eight hours before serving.” Decide to stick to the original plan and make profiteroles; you know you have the ingredients (ignoring the mystery of the flour); enough time to make them is optional. Hangovers have a magical effect on the laws of time and space and will make it possible.

    6. The Method
      While catching up with your friend, measure out the flour (plain? Self-raising? Only time will tell), sugar and a pinch of salt. In your hungover state, get excited to be using the bamboo salt pot you bought as a souvenir on a recent holiday to Australia, with its swivelling lid. Take a few moments to demonstrate this to your bemused friend. Alternately try to calm and ignore your housematebestfriendwife as she flaps around the kitchen panicking, and start the choux pastry. Melt the butter in the water and bring to a rolling boil. The recipe says wooden spoon – will silicon really make a difference? Decide it’s not worth the risk, and dig out a wooden spoon from somewhere. Hear someone say hello at the precise moment you tip the flour mixture into the saucepan. Utterly ignore the two new guests as you frantically beat the mixture with your wooden spoon. Beat, beat, beat, and feel better about not having done any exercise; this definitely is working the muscles in your right arm, and that’ll do for now. Continue to ignore your guests, and rely on the first guest to entertain the other two while your housematebestfriendwife gets drinks, and you start beating the eggs into the pastry batter. Remind yourself to breathe as the mixture starts looking a little like the pictures online. It’s a passable choux pastry, pre-baking at least. Encourage the guests to move through to the sitting room, speaking over your shoulder while still focusing on the pastry. Scoop the mix into a piping bag, and pipe little round dollops of mixture onto the baking tray. Realise you’ve no idea how much they will puff up – if at all – and prepare yourself that even if, despite all your thorough and rigorous preparation the day before – the baking goes well and the mixture rises, you might end up with a tray of profiteroles joined together like a batch of Hot Cross buns. Too late to worry about it now. Dampen your finger in a mug of water and push down the little pointy tops, and finally sprinkle a little water over the tray, because that’s what Google says to do.
    7. The Cooking
      When cooking profiteroles, it is essential to put them into the oven at the exact temperature at which your leg of lamb is cooking, whatever that may be. Don’t panic about whether they will take on a flavour of roasted lamb and garlic; everyone loves a savoury, meaty note in their profiteroles. Move the lamb down a shelf and slide the baking tray into the top of the oven. Absent-mindedly wonder whether baking profiteroles are affected by opening and closing the oven door while cooking. Close said door. Set a timer for 15minutes.
      Four minutes later, open the oven door to remove the lamb. Close the oven door.
      Check the lamb, decide it needs longer.
      Open the oven door, put the lamb back in. Close the oven door.
      Accept a glass of prosecco, feeling your stomach turn slightly as you do so, and finally turn to greet your guests in the sitting room. After all, it’s only been half an hour since they arrived.
      Moments later, excuse yourself again and dive back to the kitchen. Squeal loudly with excited pride when you see that against all odds, your beloved profiteroles have started to rise. Rejoin your guests.
      Leave the guests again to check the profiteroles again. Still rising.
      After a precise ‘little while’ go back and using a sharp knife, prick a hole in the bottom of each bun. Return them to the oven to dry out slightly.
      Once you’ve removed them from the oven for the final time, collapse back on the sofa with your prosecco in hand, and enjoy official success.
    8. Serving
      After gazing lovingly at your little puffed up choux buns, make the caramel cream. Fill the piping bag, and find that the swirls of once-warm caramel have set a little and are blocking the nozzle of the piping bag. Said nah will then burst its seam on one side. Decide that the filling and drizzling with chocolate sauce is asking too much – after all, how can people be expected to believe your profiteroles rose if there’s cream filling up the lovely little air pockets? Put the caramel cream in one bowl, chocolate sauce in another, and proudly serve your guests Deconstructed Profiteroles. A filled profiterole is so very gauche; assembling them yourself is all the rage right now, don’t you know?

 

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[i] Also known as Oxfordshire.

[ii] This is due to no more story-worthy online dates, rather than the result of a successful one.

[iii] In reality she’s my best friend and housemate, but if even her mother refers to you as her Wife, you kind of have to accept it. Maybe I’ll call her ‘housematebestfriendwife’ from now on.

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Letting in ‘la vie en rose’

I realised recently that I seem only to have written for this blog recently when I have been particularly down or irritable about things – if indeed any of the last few posts can be called ‘recent’. This was not why I started writing this blog. Or it was, but not as a vehicle to share my woes, but rather as something to distract me from those woes and encourage me to focus on the bright side of life (cue Monty Python whistle) by sharing funny moments and yummy cakes as I learned more and more about country life. The problem with this theory, I thought, was that as I became more acquainted with mud and any terminology associated with it and its world, the fewer and further between the anecdote-worthy moments came. I have realised that I was wrong; in fact, firstly I became less embroiled in country life when I got a job in the wine trade, a distinctly less tweedy industry than the shooting one. I also broke up with Mr Farmer, meaning no more weekend jaunts on Sally the Combine Harvester. Secondly, upon leaving the shooting trade and joining the wine trade, life just got busier. And moving from WineWorld to Unilever only intensified that busyness.

Amid this busyness, life, to paraphrase a postcard I saw recently, is trying not to pass my family and me by so much as to run us over – and then reverse just to be sure. Despite this, I don’t want to turn this blog entirely into a portal of doom and gloom. I think as it evolves, this blog will become a blend of woe and (I hope) wit, of complaint and cake. In short, it will continue to be an outlet for whatever is on my mind. But I want so very much to push and push and keep open the door that life is trying so hard to close, and to let in la vie en rose as Miss Sabrina Fairchild would put it. And as such, I want to refocus on why I started writing here – to refocus my outlook on life, to see the Mississippi pie amid all the mud. As such, I have been wracking my brains to think of something positive or at least humorous to write about, say a scrumptious new recipe I’ve tried, or an amusing anecdote to share. One of the few new recipes I’ve attempted in recent months, I sadly cannot claim as my own – I followed someone else’s recipe, almost verbatim – but it WAS a cake and I DID make it, so I figure it counts. It was also my little brother’s wedding cake. (My ‘little’ brother is in fact a great dangling thing of almost 6ft 4, with arms too long for his already-overly-long self.) That cake was by far the most all-American thing I’ve ever cooked, in honour of the all-American bride. It was baked to welcome Ariel into our family and, at least as far as I was concerned, to cement her role as ‘sister-in-law’ in my life (because let’s be honest; that was the point of it all!) with as much chocolate icing and peanut butter cookie dough as it is possible to fit into one cake. As such, it deserves a post all of its very own – so you can be confident that the future of this blog does still hold some cake.

Since moving to my new cottage in Cobham – yes, Cobham, and no, I can’t afford it – I have noticed that I seem to have succumbed to a Waitrose infection; the only recipes I’ve really tried other than the wedding cake have all felt deliciously middle class. I sometimes feel I should be somewhat ashamed of this, but I’d be foolish to pretend I’m not middle class, surrounded by matching tea towels, oven gloves and apron, with my yoga mat out in the sitting room. So instead I’m choosing to embrace it! I’ve tried cooking quinoa, but as I’ve not yet really created a recipe using it worth sharing, that’s pretty much a dead-end (or more of a cul-de-sac?) I have made rosemary-roasted almonds, which have potential to be absolutely delicious, but I’ve not yet executed them to a standard to make it a recipe worthy of sharing. I’ve made hazelnut granola, but it’s a similar situation there as to the almonds with regard to the standard of execution. This whole non-Aga oven thing takes some getting used to. The homemade granola was attempted partly to avoid the extortionate prices of this newly-fashionable breakfast fodder[i], and partly so – I kid you not – I could add soya powder to the mix to get more protein into my breakfasts. I’ve made peanut butter Overnight Oats as per the minimalist baker’s recipe, fed to me via a friend. In fact, I’ve made them regularly and am about to whip up another batch to take to work tomorrow. I may not be dating a Chelsea footballer, but I am still feeling remarkably Cobham.

At dating footballers I may have so far failed, but at just plain dating I have… well, so far, also failed. My ‘single’ status indicates fairly accurately that every attempt I have made at a relationship has not exactly gone veil-inducingly well. Since Easter however, shortly before the aforementioned move to Surrey, my love life has been as unsuccessful as any moment in my romantic life.[ii]

After my best friend, her boyfriend and I has between us consumed more than a bottle of wine a piece, I decided she was right that after over a year single online dating was a great idea, especially as I was moving to a new area where I knew no one. This moment of enlightenment was followed by the two of us (she and me) composing a lengthy and beautifully written Ode to Me with which to grace my shiny new dating profile. Once done, and thrilled with our masterpiece, we submitted it to be reviewed and edited by her lovely boyfriend. What had been a number of paragraphs of positively stunning prose describing every favourable aspect of myself (at least if read through rosé-tinted spectacles) was streamlined down to about five lines. And while I say ‘edited’ I’m pretty sure our original version didn’t include the line,

“Good brain, good eyes, good abs, good c*ck = a good start!”

But, while it may deceive potential suitors into thinking I have the ability to be succinct (HA!), we decided to go with it. They say ‘in vino veritas’ so I’m not sure what this says about my friend’s boyfriend. However, given that subsequent male friends’ amendments to my profile include clog-dancing, bear wrestling and intergalactic conquest on my list of hobbies, I’m not sure I’ll take any of them too seriously.

While the online dating site in question wasn’t actually Tinder, a friend of mine has taken to posting Tinder Tales on Facebook, and I am going to steal borrow his title for the anecdotes that now follow – so thank you James for being my inspiration. If I’m really lucky, a little extra humour from your original posts may have become mixed up with the plagiarised titles.

Tinder Tales: #1

My first date actually didn’t go too badly. It was spur of the moment – always good – with one of two guys with whom I’d been chatting a day or two. He offered to drive to my neck of the woods – apparently a good start. He could only make it quite late, but as it was near me, I wasn’t too fussed. He said he’d be wearing a red jumper – so I was now only going to be peering curiously at every guywearingred alone in the pub, rather than every guy; a marked improvement. I couldn’t get the pub on the phone, so set out a bit early with a book to secure a table. On walking in, the pub confirmed that they had plenty of tables available – because the kitchen was closed. Sunday trading. Bugger. Never fear, I had an idea; I drove quickly to another pub nearby, and confirmed that they had both space and an open kitchen. Brilliant. I quickly texted my date, hoping to God that he would illegally check his phone while driving.

Installed in a comfy window seat, I wait…

I read my book.

I hope he got the change of venue.

I order a drink.

Please don’t let me have been stood up.

I read more of my book.

Lucky it’s a good book.

The barman comes over. The kitchen will be closing in five minutes.

I order two burgers – you can’t go wrong with a burger, right? Is this confidence or arrogance? Or foolishness?

Please God don’t let me have been stood up.

I read some more.

The food arrives.

Oh god, I can’t eat two burgers.

Well, let’s be fair, I can – but it wouldn’t make it any less embarrassing.

At that moment, a guy with a familiar face walks in. Is that him? He’s wearing a red jumper, and he’s evidently looking around for someone, but he’s not who I was expecting to meet. But he’s not the guy I thought I was waiting for. Didn’t he say he was 6ft 2? Oh shit. Of the two guys I was chatting to, he’s the other one. Hmm. I evidently haven’t quite got the knack of this online dating thing yet.

In fairness, I would still have agreed to meet up with him had I correctly associated profile-to-person, so decide to go with the flow. And – yesss! – he likes burgers. It was purely confidence after all (or so I tell myself.)

We eat our burgers, we chat, we have another (now non-alcoholic) drink (we’re both driving) and we’re getting on quite well. Then they start stacking the chairs upside down on tables around us. Oh yes. Sunday trading. We have now been on this date for less time than it took him to drive to it.

Date 1: 4/10, though not actually in virtue of anything to do with him. Fanciable, easy to talk to, no immediate spark fireworks. Would probably have scored the date a 6 if it hadn’t been for the series of organisational debacles. We have actually stayed in touch, so who knows? As yet, still firework-free, but maybe one day things will change (and we’ll remember to have dinner on an evening when pubs are open normal hours.)

Tinder Tales #2

Having agreed to meet Date 2 in a wine bar in St Pancras on my way back from a meeting in Bradford, I am a bit flustered and hot after rushing around to find the place having got off my delayed East Coast train. But he’s wonderful. We get on like a house on fire, the wine is good – and he’s not put off by my interest in it. The bar lets us order by the carafe – perfect for trying a couple of different bottles without having to get through a couple of different bottles. We venture into the treacherous waters of politics, and survive! We get into philosophical debates that at no point evolve into arguments, and yet are utterly absorbing. He isn’t afraid to disagree with me – bliss – and can actually hold his own in terms of number-of-words-spoken-per-minute – no mean feat. The words ‘awkward’ and ‘silence’ did not feature in our language. I glance at my phone – and gasp when I realise I’m going to miss my train if I’m not careful. We carry on nattering on the tube to Vauxhall. And, upon saying goodbye, I realise the fatal flaw. He’s really, truly great. He’s interesting. He’s attractive. But I’m just not attracted to him. We go to say goodbye, and as he leans down, I find myself figuratively scrunching my eyes closed and wincing, desperately thinking ‘don’tkissmedon’tkissmedon’tkissme’. I spend the train journey home feeling such a bitch – as though I’d led him on my enjoying myself. Turns out enjoying someone’s company does not chemistry make.

After I let him down, I received a message saying that he was already considering me “the one that got away.” Slightly scary. Slightly glad he doesn’t know where I live. Still, a lovely evening. (5/10)

 

Tinder Tales #3

This date could not have been more cringeworthy. I’ll spare you the finer of the details, but after much optimism-inspiring Whatsapp chat, my balloon was burst with a sharp pointy thing. Or, to be more precise, a dull instrument.

He wanted to meet in Wimbledon, because there were ‘nicer bars’ than in Epsom. I’d not been to Wimbledon since a shopping trip at about 16, so I went along with it. On the train on the way there, he asked me if I was “classy”. He also joked that if I wasn’t attractive enough, he’d pretend I was his sister when we were having a drink. Nice start.

We met outside the station. He didn’t know where we were going. Thought All Bar One would be a good place to start. Wasn’t sure where it was. He wasn’t pretending I was his sister. A compliment? With a bit of help from Siri, we got to All Bar One and at the bar, I ordered an Old Fashioned. He didn’t know what it was – ‘cause cocktails are a bit girly for him.

Hmm.

The Old Fashioned wasn’t on the menu, but classic that it is, the barman offered to make me one anyway. I said thank you. The drink I was presented with had bourbon in. That’s about the only resemblance it bore to an Old Fashioned. It also contained fruit juice, a wedge of lime, and a good head of froth after being traumatised in a cocktail shaker. Call me a stickler for the rules, but that just isn’t an Old Fashioned.

I’ll spare you a blow by blow account, but as the evening progressed, conversation proved to be painfully slow moving. But never fear; he’d obviously read some advice on dating, including that it was a good idea to ask your date questions about themselves. Phew! Cue his question:

“You don’t have very long fingernails, do you?”

It’s not often that I’m stumped for words, but that did the trick. At some point, we set off to head to our second bar – somewhere he apparently really liked. We went in, I went to look for seats while he went to the bar. There were no seats. I got back to the bar. He had decided it was too loud, so why didn’t we go back to a pub-y place we’d passed on the way? And without so much as a drink, onto bar three. In fact, bar three/the pub (and yes, the pub-y place was in fact, a pub) brought with it the highlight of the evening – a live guitarist complete with some pretty good acoustic covers. I hummed along as we attempted to make conversation, until a game of Name That Tune evolved. This was going quite well, relatively speaking, until Mr Guitarist decided to play his joker and switch to a medley. I got quite excited with the first couple of lines and explained it was a track from one of my favourite albums (Woodface by Crowded House if you’re interested.) I carried on singing along to the medley, and he said something along the lines of ‘wait, I do know this’ at which point I turned and explained that was because this part of the medley was Rhianna. Mr Guitar continued to chop and change songs and track after track, mostly well-known, passed by prompting no response beyond a frustrated and/or bemused look from my date, who didn’t understand how the guy was getting through the songs so quickly. I tried to explain the concept of a medley. I gave up. I heard a few chords from Wonderwall and thought we were on to a winner. And yes! Sure enough, he says “Wait… I know this one…”

At this point, the guitarist is singing the word ‘Wonderwall’. My date turns to me blankly; he in fact does not have it. I tell him it’s Wonderwall by Oasis. Oh yeah. He paused. Yeeaah I knew I knew it. Silence. Increasingly awkward silence, but thankfully the guitarist continued. My date then made the awkward silence more awkward, if less silent, by saying,

“I really think I’m more intelligent than I’m coming across.”

Lost for words twice in one evening. A record. I told him musical knowledge didn’t equate to intelligence, which is true even if both tend to feature relatively highly in guys in whom I’m interested. But he may have very different musical taste to Mr Guitar. But then again, doesn’t everyone know Wonderwall?

I’d have given him the benefit of the doubt, even if not a second date, until he turned to me and asked rather pointedly “so do you consider yourself quirky?” I don’t know why this got my shackles up, but it really did.

Two days later I get a message from him. There was apparently something he didn’t like about Saturday night. Morbid curiosity got the better of me and I asked what. I wondered which, of the many, many awkward moments had irked him most. His answer was that he couldn’t stop thinking about me. This took me by surprise, and was in a peculiar way even quite sweet. I told him I was surprised, that I hadn’t thought he’d had a great time and that I’d felt he thought I was a bit odd.

“I do think you’re odd. It’s endearing.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was one slightly patronising step too far for me. We haven’t stayed in touch.

Score out of ten: two, because I didn’t go home crying, it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t stick it out for good manners’ sake, and if I’m honest 1.8 of the score is for the guitarist and the fact he included It’s Only Natural in his medley.

At this point I’m going to pause with the Tinder Tales, and shall resume another time. Please be reassured that a) there aren’t too many, b) I will tell you all about the wedding cake just not right now, and c) I actually went hedgerow-harvesting today, and have bowls of ‘hips, haws, sloes and even a few blackberries scattered around my kitchen, so will be playing with those in coming days – and will do my bestest to write about those escapades.

To end my post, I want to gift to you one further dash of la vie en rose, by sharing with you one of the stories that has made me laugh the most in recent months.

Last year, a friend of mine ordered an almond hot chocolate in Starbucks as a treat for himself. He paid, likely chatting with the baristas as he’s a nice guy like that, and knowing him very sweetly thanked the person who handed him his hot chocolate. He took a sip, right there and then… and pulled a disgusted face. As the barista hurriedly queried if anything was wrong with the drink, his expression melted into dejection and disappointment – in himself, as well as his drink. “No, there’s nothing wrong with it,” he said, “I just forgot I don’t like almonds.” The barista, at least in my imagination, tried to hide her smile as she asked if he would like another drink instead. But, never wasteful, he told her he would keep this drink as a punishment to himself, so he wouldn’t forget next time. I don’t know why this anecdote tickled me so much, but it had me in fits when he first told me, and still makes me chuckle every single time I think of it.

[Exit stage right, whistling:]

Quand il me prend dans ses bras…

 
           Slightly overdone Hazelnut Granola   The Wedding Cake   Peanut Butter Overnight Oats

[i] Or lunch. Or dinner. Or dessert. Or whenever you’re peckish, and have a large spoon to hand.

[ii] … except for one misguided relationship towards the tail end of my time at university that included letters exchanged between solicitors, 4am texts to my boss at the time threatening to end the relationship if I didn’t leave work early, being kicked out of the house, buckets of tears, and briefly an unwelcome third party briefly getting involved (a very pretty English Lit student. Not my favourite person in the world) and the hideous moment where you realise HE is breaking up with YOU. Resulting note to self: even doormats have too much self-esteem to put up with that shit. Rinse (very well), but do not repeat.

No Method in my Madness

This blog was supposed to be about a City Girl discovering Country Life, shattering all illusions of Ambridge-like agriculture and Downton-esque dress codes. And it was going well. I had down-graded from Capital City to City, from City to Town; I’d learned where my full-beam headlights were, and the various types of farming and various names for a cow; and I was spending more time with rurally-minded friends willing to welcome me into their country lives without holding me accountable for either my giggle-inducing naivety or gawping stares (and verbal equivalents) at their odd habits.

Then misfortune struck and I found myself being rescued by Maman et Papa and thus back in London. Don’t worry, I thought/wrote. It’s only temporary.

Seven months after I started documenting my muddy discoveries, I’ve ended up not only living in the Big Smoke, but joining the Rat Race of commuters each morning. I’m up stupidly early, not to walk dogs or muck out horses, but to chase the bumper in front of me at a snail’s pace around the M25 every morning as the sun makes up its mind whether to battle the city smog, or to give in and force us mere mortals to accept that England is known as grey and drizzly for a reason. While I stubbornly refuse to hear my alarm clock, Mr Sun is enjoying longer and longer lie-ins, and rarely has the energy when he does wake to fight off the blanket of grey.

As previously mentioned, I’ve recently started a new job. This is partly (wholly) to blame for the lack of words on this blog in recent weeks. It’s actually really rather wonderful, and not at all as dismal a picture as I’ve painted above (except for the traffic jams. They really are dismal.) I’ve mentioned before that my new position is as Category Insight Executive at a wine agent. What I didn’t tell you is what exactly that means, for the very good reason that I didn’t know. But now I can! Sort of at least. My job is in effect studying future trends by means of data analysis. It could be a terribly boring job I’m sure, but actually even in under a fortnight I’ve discovered it’s not only a romantic product to be working around but an interesting one, and I’ve been given projects to sink my teeth into, even if they are the wine industry’s equivalent to a baby’s teething ring. I’ve had my first wine tasting, and I’ve learned just how much I didn’t know I didn’t know about wine. For now it’s only the commercial wine knowledge that’s essential – and bits of it are sinking in already; I just hope they stick. But one lovely thing about the company, aside from the chef who makes us lunch every day, is that they like every member of staff to have at least a very basic knowledge of wine itself. This means that at some point in the not too distance future, I’ll be studying for my first wine qualification. I’m rather excited.

Most of my friends will know that I’m more of a gin girl – Hendricks with cucumber, or a delicious fruit gin if I can get it. My interaction with wine has been extremely limited, predominantly because I discovered at university that cheap wines (or at least the ones I’d tasted) are really rather unpleasant. Cheap gin on the other hand is drinkable, as is cheap cider. Which means if one wants to actually enjoy the liquids passing one’s lips as an impoverished student on a tight budget, one would choose either of these two over wine – at least if one is a one with preferences similar to my own. The other contributing factor is that I Like Food. I like cooking, and I love a home-cooked meal. So even if I did ever find myself with a few pence to spare – which was increasingly rarely once I started shooting – I’d be more likely to be found down the butcher’s choosing some lovely fresh sausages for dinner than in the nearest off-licence.

Nonetheless, I’m rather excited about discovering wine. I hope I won’t evolve into a dreadful wine-snob, and if in a year’s time I’m writing about the delicately fragrant nose of a particular Sauvingon Blanc or Pinot Gris, with delicate hints of asparagus and grass, a full green flavour with toasty smoked caramelly undertones or some such; if this turns into a wannabe’s wine blog, I can only apologise. I am as I type (with my left hand only) saluting with three fingers straight, my pinky held tight by my thumb and in doing so I hereby promise to do my best[i] to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground, where possible in some muddy country undergrowth; to keep my head below the level of the clouds, even if that involves ducking come the Winter; and to ensure that all and any of my vacillations documented here are themed strictly in accordance with the theme of the this blog (however much I am failing at present.) Or I promise to try at any rate. Unless I have nothing more interesting to write about, because surely even wine-snobbery has to be better than empty space.

With respect to this blog, my lovely new job does have some points in its favour, and may yet produce more tales of rural enlightenment for your amusement. Only time will tell. They are as follows.

  1. It is not in London. It is in fact in the beautiful county of West Sussex, near plenty of shooting grounds and even some shoots, or so I have been led to believe. In actual fact my petrol-fuelled commute only skirts the dirty frayed hem of the capital city. I’m not actually in The City itself.
  2. I work opposite a gun shop! Just imagine my amazement – and delight – as I popped out during my lunch-break last Thursday, resigned to my sinking back into country life, only to discover a homeware/baking shop, farmers’ market and gun shop all within a 1cm radius of work. Please forgive the hyperbole but I promise you, they’re close. It seems all is not lost. Hurrah!
  3. I work with at least two self-confessed country bumpkins. I am not closeted with suited and booted city-folk working till midnight and drinking until 4am only to hit the glamorous shiny gym at 5am after 30 seconds shuteye. I work with people who like their home time, who like their evenings in, and at least one girl (and she promises me there are more) who shoots and even owns her own gun! A second Hurrah is called for.
  4. I work not far from a) some lovely countryside and b) a clay shoot or two (or more). I’ve been reliably informed by the very nice John and Irving in the gun shop that should I move to the area in the future, I would be able to find myself some clays to smash without travelling too far. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for my shooting aspirations (which are to one day own a gun and be able to shoot it more than twice a year.)
  5. I get to taste wine, and occasionally to bring the majority of a bottle home after a tasting. With regard to the blog, this is more exciting from the baking point of view than the country one, but it’s exciting nonetheless.In the back of my head is a box[ii], and in this box are little elves. I picture these elves sat on those high wooden stools we had in the old fashioned science labs before the melamine surfaces conquered all, in a room dusty with icing sugar and full of the sound of ticking clocks and the gentle hissing of egg-timers and hour-glasses (probably filled with ground almonds instead of sand, but that may be the macarons I made recently talking). The elves are scribbling away on rolls of parchment with Davinci-esque scribbles of cake and fairy cake ideas. For the last week and two days, the elves have been busy embarking on the idea of an alliance between the Realm of Wine and Empire of Cake… [iii]

Here my words have all but run out, I’m running on fumes as they say. I’ll try not to leave it another three weeks before posting, but please be forgiving with your expectations. I hope I haven’t left you despairing of anything vaguely muddy ever appearing on this blog again. The mud will be back, I promise. To give you hope: I have my first game shoot this coming season and at least two more Chelsea Bun Shoots before the year is out, not to mention another farm visit. To make amends for fooling you into reading this post when there has been no shooting or baking of any sort, here are some pictures of my recent bakes, as a shrug towards a baking theme.


White chocolate and pecan ‘blondies’ with a crab apple glaze
Ready for the last night of the BBC Proms

Pork and Apple Sausage Rolls with Sage and Chili
Also for the Proms Picnic

Amaretto Macarons – The First Attempt

St Clement’s Cupcakes
For the Monday Morning Meeting

I can only apologise for the lack of accompanying words. If the elves are successful, hopefully there will be more bakes to come for which I can provide some wordy descriptions to complement any photographic evidence. Right now, the elves asleep on their parchment, snoring softly onto the sketches, and as for me, my duvet is beckoning. Good night.


[i] …to love my God, to serve my Queen and country, to help other people, and to keep the Brownie Guide Law.

[ii] If you don’t have an in-head filing system, I highly recommend it. It helps keep what I call creativity but what others call madness at bay, particularly around the latter types that might be inclined to call for Professional Help. Of course it’s only effective up to a point…

[iii] If you’re not one of these people, and are inclined to accept my madness, you should definitely read a) The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley, if just for some of the most imaginative names you have ever laid eyes on, and b) The Phantom Tolbooth by Norman Juster, for the relief of knowing you’re not alone and giving you the (perhaps-false) confidence to make public your madness by posting it on the World Wide Web. These 6am starts are not good for me.

Pies and Prejudice

Fabulous Fortnight Part 3

 And so we come to the end of the life-changing fortnight. Though the life-changing bit had actually already happened, a long-awaited diagnosis and new career, the (hopefully annual) Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club Competition and scrummy BBQ social topped off the fortnight perfectly.

As with every meet of the Bun Club, there would be baked offerings of all sorts from members. After the success of my tiramisu at the Hen Party, I decided to make tiramisu cupcakes. The sponge, idea of how to fill them and the base for the icing were all borrowed from the wonderful Hummingbird Bakery, but the recipe for the actual icing and filling were my own doing. By digging out the middle of each cake, slicing it, soaking it in a sinfully boozy coffee-amaretto mixture and layering with creamy filling and grated dark chocolate, I hoped to create a mini-tiramisu in each pretty cupcake case. I topped them off with an amaretto-mascarpone icing with just a hint of coffee, and with a final a sprinkle of cocoa they were ready for the competition. I gently popped them into cake tins – they had to go into three separate tins; no chance of layering these cakes without smushing the icing.

Before the S&CBC competition, I drove over to Barbury Shooting School in Swindon with my old instructor and shot the 100-bird challenge. I was pretty happy with how I shot I have to say – a one or two sloppy mistakes from lack of practice (and concentration), and towards the end some very frustrating misses as my HNPP-sore hands refused to do what my brain told them to. But I came out with a not-embarrassing score, especially compared to the ladies who had shot before me, so I’m pretty content. More practice required I think. Once I get settled in my new job (insert squeak of excitement here) my plan is to find a local shooting ground and get trigger-pulling.

Shooting a 100-bird competition the day before my Proper Competition with the Chelsea Buns was perhaps not a great move for my chances on the day, fun as it was. I turned up with a stiff back, still-sore hands, sore legs to boot and a slightly tender shoulder; not the best state to start a competition. Again, my kills I did shoot well, with only one really chippy break – I actually thought I’d missed it but spectators and the scorer thankfully disagreed. Some misses were good – as long as I know where I missed it, I can correct it. You actually learn more from a miss than from a break, as long as you’re concentrating. But more frustrating/sloppy mistakes meant I lost any chance I had of winning fairly early on. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to finish the competition by straighting the final stand – always nice to go out on a high.

I volunteered to score for the afternoon’s open shoot, and while juggling clipboard, ear defenders, pen and plate stacked high by the generous BBQ man, I traipsed around the stands again to watch people who actually knew how to shoot – and shoot well – have a go at it. Once we got back to the clubhouse, I was both disappointed and thrilled to find that all sixteen of my tiramisu cupcakes had been eaten. Good news as it meant they obviously liked them, slightly sad that I hadn’t had one – but this was quickly appeased when I remembered that I had hidden four in the car in case of some late-arriving friends. And after stuffing my face with cake, decided that they were really rather tasty even if I do say so myself. Luckily for me, my arrogance was justified when Chief Chelsea Bun Victoria announced that they had won Best Cake. So I am now the proud possessor of a pink rosette for my cupcakes. Hurrah!

Earlier in the week, after finding out I’d got the job, I went out for (of course gin-based) celebrations with a friend. He jokingly commented that the exclusion of men from the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club was quite sexist, that they needed an ‘Emilio Pankhurst‘ to protest on their behalf. Though I know he was joking, it still was a little thought provoking. Another male friend from university, keen on both baking and shooting, has commented before enquiring about whether he could join. And the answer is, in general, no. The social this weekend was an exception, when the menfolk were not only welcomed but even invited to shoot. Nevertheless in general it is an exclusively female club; no Y-chromosomes allowed.

Does this make us sexist? I guess in some ways the answer is yes by definition: men are not allowed to join most shoots, in virtue solely of their being male. But the club is actually helping to redress the balance in the world of what is a predominantly male-dominated sport. Most shooting grounds will find that their client base is much more blue than pink, and guns are designed and shaped for the average male build – otherwise they’d have far higher combs and there would be no need for gadgets such as Jones stock adjusters (a life-saver for any woman with breasts above a B-cup) or comb raisers to let us dainty females keep our heads straight on the stock and thus shoot straight even if blessed with the highest of sky-high cheekbones.

I suspect it initially stems back not to discrimination of women, but to the hunter/gatherer instincts of the human race. Hunting is, as I’ve said before, embedded deep within human nature. It makes sense that we can still find satisfaction in it, even now in our grandesuperskinnyicedfrappemochaccino times. Our base instincts haven’t evolved as quickly as our taste in coffee. Back before the advent of Starbucks and even further back, if there ever was such a time, the male of the species did much of the hunting, while females were bogged down with all the child-bearing malarkey. But now in our modern, post-Starbucks world where women have proven their ability to multi-task, taking care of themselves as well as bearing offspring, why shouldn’t we be given the opportunity to shoot too? The ladies-only Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club goes some way to help redress the balance – not by excluding men, but by giving women a chance to ‘catch up’; to shoot in the company of other women and build their confidence without fear of either embarrassment or being snappily told to stop talking. It gives some inexperienced ladies a chance to learn how to hold a gun properly, and realise that they can actually break targets. And those that can already smash a clay nine times out of ten can simply practise doing so in good, girly company with plenty of tea and cake. The club would never do anything other than encourage a lady gun to go out shooting with male friends and companions in between and even sometimes straight after the ladies-only shoots, nor would it discourage men from shooting (or possibly to start a male-version of the club, for those baking-mad guns out there – The Shotgun and Homemade Pie Club perhaps?) So Emilio Pankhurst can step down, the club is not sexist. From where I’m sat, it exists simply to promote good girly fun, enjoyment of a fabulous sport and of course, practice practice practice.

Proof: a man shooting at the S&CBC Competition, taken by Kay Thompson

The weekend’s competition was a huge success. The ladies-only beginners’ and novice categories gave the girls a chance to experience a proper CPSA competition format without the pressure of shooting amid a crowd of experienced male guns. The afternoon let the Chelsea Bun HABs[i] have a go too, with the open shoot there for anyone to compete in. The BBQ on site provided more than enough tasty burgers, proper sausages and crunchy coleslaw. The bar issued numerous drinks as the clock stuck Pimms O’Clock and a couple of hours later Gin O’Clock, and the clubhouse gave home to the traditional S&CBC tea and cake, complete with tea sets and beautiful cake stands made by Victoria herself.

Having built up an appetite so large that even a BBQ and an award-winning cupcake couldn’t satisfy it, the cherry on the cake that was my fabulous fortnight was dinner at the famous pie pub in Deddington, Oxfordshire. My chicken, ham and leek pie appeared with a cloud of puff pastry rising out above my pie dish like a flaky sky-scraper, hiding a scrumptious filling that went perfectly with my glass of Chardonnay (I need to get to grips with some of this wine stuff now, if I’m going to be working ‘in the industry’) And it was a Proper Pie, with pastry lining the pie dish as well as adorning the top. As if one wasn’t enough, I ordered the apple and cinnamon pie for dessert. It arrived and took my breath away – along with my confidence in finishing it. It was the same size as my main, with the same tower of flaky pastry this time drizzled with maple syrup and dusted with icing sugar. With deliciously creamy vanilla ice cream hidden inside the pastry of all places, it was heavenly. And finished completely – only one step off licking out the dish.

A truly fabulous fortnight, and just in case anyone involved is reading this, I’d like to thank those involved: the Lancastrian Chelsea Bun for her recipe; Dad for enjoying his chips and friands, for making that Kichen-Day a success and for the celebratory bubbles after getting the job (and Mum for celebrating with me); NeuroDoctor for finding an answer to The Mystery Of The Numb Hand/Knee/Leg/Feet; Mr and Mrs Newly Wed and their wedding elves for the most wonderful First Wedding I could have been invited to; my interviewers for agreeing to give me a chance (sucking up even before day one – brownie points??); a certain someone up in York for putting me onto the job in the first place and for recommending me, and her fiancé for helping confirm the address for her thank-you flowers; the Chelsea Buns for enjoying my cakes enough to give me the rosette – my first ‘award’ for baking! – and Chief Chelsea Bun Victoria for organising such a splendid event, and for creating such an incredibly inclusive, friendly, not-at-all-sexist and encouraging club. A joy to be a part of it, not least because of all the cake.


[i] Husbands and Boyfriends

Strawberry Friands Forever

The Fabulous Fortnight – Part 1

Last-weekend-but-one kicked off what has turned out to be a fortnight of life-changing discoveries and general wonderfulness, including everything from home-cooked chips to award-winning cupcakes, county wedding confetti to clay competitions, a foot on the first rung of the career ladder to a long-dreamt of diagnosis…

First came my dad’s birthday, where I got to play chef for a day, i.e. a lovely day for me to enjoy first dibs on the kitchen! After a sunny dog-walk and swim (though for him only) via the various wild fruit plants, including plums (not yet ripe), blackberries (mostly not ripe) and elderberries (also mostly unripe), I ventured to the town-hedgerows, also known as aisles in the supermarket. Before I’d even set foot in the supermarket, my phone rang. As a result of that phone call, sat in my little toboggan-car in the car park, I picked up something far more interesting than groceries: it was my neurologist (check me out – I have a neurologist! I shall call him NeuroDoctor from now on) and he had a diagnosis for my silly hands/feet, non-carpal tunnel problem. Note to the reader: if you’ve not read previous blog posts, or are more interested in the ventures into country life that this blog is supposed to be about than my neurological conundrums, you can skip the rest of this paragraph and the next. Anyway, NeuroDoctor was calling let me know that I’ve got a genetic condition called HNPP, or HereditaryNeuropathyWithLiabilityToPressurePalsies. More importantly for me, he also told me that my MRI scan was completely clear – and sent me the photos!

This means that my brain is nice and safe (and I have proof it exists, for all my doubting friends). While my condition isn’t ‘curable’ – unless you have a spare gene knocking around (apparently I’m missing one and that’s what’s causing my problems) – it’s much more favourable than some of the things my imagination and well-intentioned friends had teamed up to scare me with, and so brings peace of mind along with the numbness. The fun thing about it is that because it’s genetic, it’s pretty damn likely that my father also has it, meaning that when I got home I had the fun of being able to say:

– “Happy birthday Dad, hope you like your present; I got you a genetic disorder!”

As well as a diagnosis, I brought back some groceries from the supermarket, and so began my day of cooking. For the first time in my life, I decided to try making chips from scratch, the idea being to prepare steak frites and salad for father’s birthday. With a rainbow of tomatoes halved, salted and left in the sun to tastify, I set about preparing my chips. As per Professor Blumenthal’s instructions, I’d picked up some Maris Pipers, and cut them into chips. The bizarre recipe includes boiling the chips to the point of disintegration, then popping them into the freezer until frozen through. Then you fry them from frozen, then freeze once again before being fried yet again just before eating. Even though 1/3 of my chips disintegrated completely at the boiling stage, I froze them anyway and alongside my a big bowl of Proper Chips (and I hope my family will agree that they were very tasty!) I served a smaller one optimistically labelled ‘scramptions’, which were thankfully all hoovered up by a very happy family (I think I got away with my overly-generous label!)

Rewind a little to the point where the chips are in their water, bubbling away merrily. While the chips bathed/disintergrated, I pulled out the meat mallet and started bashing the steaks to within an inch – or half-centermetre – of their lives. Prof Blumenthal recommends leaving your steak out on a plate in the fridge for two days to let the air circulate around it and help it ‘age’. As I foolishly read this the morning of the meal, I could only leave my steaks out for a few hours, but nonetheless I laid them all out on plates to ‘age’ as best they could in the limited time frame. Aging under pressure!

Main course now prepped with only a rocket salad to add to the mix later, and I could start the fun bit: pudding.

Dad had requested friands as a birthday cake this year. ‘Ah ha’ I thought. ‘Perfect.‘ Unknown to him, a couple of months ago a most dedicated Chelsea Bun had journeyed down from Lancashire for a shoot, complete with a tin of mouth-wateringly delicious raspberry and almond friands. I immediately begged for a copy of the recipe and started looking for an excuse to purchase a friand tin. I was sadly let down by Lakeland, who had not a single friand-anything available on their website. The one I eventually purchased turned out to be a mini friand tin, and this has left me in a quandary. Are mini friands are a bad thing – less cake than a proper-size cake? Or are they a blessing, because you can eat more of them before the guilt sets in, and look elegant and dainty in the process of devouring your mini-cakes? One good thing however is that you have more little cakes to adorn with fruit and can therefore create lots of different ‘flavours’ of friand (another excuse to eat more than one…)

Despite the debate, I had only a mini-friand tin to work with, so that’s what Dad would be having for his birthday. The bulk of Dad’s birthday mini-friands were adorned with raspberries and flaked almonds, as per the Chelsea Bun recipe, but a few were topped with fruit harvested earlier that day from the hedgerows (read: our garden and the park, while out with Pascoe the dog). This means that we had:

–       Wild blackberry friands, from the very same brambles so often stripped to make jam;

–       An apple and elderberry friand, apples courtesy of the tree in our back garden and elderberries picked walking the dog;

–       And saving the best for last, an alpine  strawberry friand with a small handful of strawberries from a plant that my Mum has tended for years that produces small fruit, like a miniature strawberry but white inside and so very tasty.

I was quite happy with the friands, though I’ll admit the ones the Lancastrian Chelsea Bun brought to the shoot were so much lighter than mine, so I might need to experiment whipping my egg whites a little more. Or possibly buying a proper size tin, for proper size cakes. Or both.

Cakes done, steaks bashed, and chips were on their third cooking. Last thing to prepare was a rocket salad, with parmesan. Rather than indulge in a whole big block of parmesan, which we simply didn’t need, I made friends with the nice lady behind the deli counter at the supermarket who cut me the world’s smallest block of cheese, for an amazing £0.32 (the price sticker was bigger than the cheese!) And that little wedge of cheese made the world of difference, accessorising the peppery leaves. With a splash of white wine vinaigrette and the rocket salad was done.
Tomatoes with a glug of olive oil, salt and pepper: done.
Steak, briefly seared on a hot griddle pan: done.
Prof Blumenthal’s chips: done, frozen, done, frozen and for a third and final time: done.

And I can wholeheartedly say it was a Pretty Good Meal. If you have a whole day to dedicate to preparation, they really were remarkably good chips, and easy to make just time-consuming. But you do get plenty of time in between the cooking/freezing to get on with other things (like making cakes). It was a pretty good day all in all, what with discovering I had a healthy brain, finally getting a diagnosis after months of mystery (not quite gift-wrapped but close!), successfully preparing home-made, thrice-cooked chips AND fruit friands (including Mum’s delicious strawberries!) and finally tucking into a very tasty meal with my family!

To be continued…

Blueberry Gin With a Twist of Sublime

At the beginning of this month, I paid my deposit for my first ever game day. A bit of a shock to both the system and bank account, but it means that the 2012-2013 season, due to start in just four days on the Glorious Twelfth, will now definitely be my first Proper game season. Last year was the first season I’d ever been aware of, and this time round I get to actually shoot some birds – or aim at them anyway. Needless to say, I’m doing star jumps and cartwheels inside (somewhat lacking the space to do them for real, not to mention the athletic ability).

The closest I’ve got to joining a proper game shoot is walking up and down a couple of drives on a Yorkshire shoot, in lovely bright sunshine on a wonderful day out while being followed by a herd of curious cows. My eager imagination did its very best to send pheasants streaming out over the treetops, my fingers wrapped around the fantasy trigger of a make-believe shotgun. As well as my imaginary friends and I did on that day, having never seen a shoot I’m not sure it quite counts as experience.

My wishful subconscious, still with her tweed cap on, has her fingers tightly crossed, imagining the perfect shoot, picturing a group of women, guns and instructors in tow, strolling up the drives on a bright, crisp day through beautifully settled snow, and of course none of us would feel the cold, being oh-so elegantly wrapped up (layers are the key to success I’ve been told). Plenty of tweed, plenty of gin for later, and even more champagne to add it to. Beautiful shiny guns, spicy-smelling leather cartridge bags and that lovely smokey smell of gunpowder. An array of wonderful birdy targets, easy enough to shoot but challenging enough to make it fun and something to be a bit proud of, all with enough meat on to do well in an oven. In short, a day nothing short of perfect.

On the other shoulder, the pessimist in me is telling me to prepare for rain. Hail. Sleet. Sludge. Cold. It will be winter in Yorkshire after all. Fingers and toes, ears and nose, all blue with cold and about to drop off, despite wooly jumpers enough to turn a woman into an abominable snowman-lookalike. And she continues: once I eventually manage to mount a gun through the inches of thermal padding that won’t have worked, I’ll likely fire shot after shot into the sky, with the birds whipping away scot free and me simply peppering the greybrown carpet of sludge on the drive with lead instead of pheasants.

In an effort to steer reality away from the prediction of my inner pessimist and towards the romantically idealistic dreams, I have set about my preparations already. After all I am nothing if not prepared. Thermals, a cap, footwear and gloves are already on my Christmas list. I have already secured myself an instructor – none other than my old instructor, the man who taught me how to hold a gun, also known as Sir Pheasant’s farmer (if you’ve been following me long enough to understand those references, I thank yoy!) – who will accompany me on the day and attempt to teach as I shoot, how on God’s green earth I’m supposed to hit a target with a mind of its own. If I sound sceptical of my chances of success, I do not doubt his instructing ability, but simply my ability to follow his instructions. And aside from practise, practise, practise, stocking up on super-thin, super-warm thermals and something warm/piping hot to pop on my tootsies for the day and securing reliable guidance for the day is about all I feel I can prepare this far in advance, at least for the shooting side of things.

But then there is afterwards, the after-shoot. And so we come to the gin. I confess I’m not yet quite tough enough to sip neat gin – indeed, when I accidentally took a gulp of neat gin from a glass during the Jubilee celebrations, thinking it was the remained my ice-cube diluted G&T from earlier, I very nearly spat it into the face of my my laughing friend and pulled all manner of unflattering faces. But the lovely fruit gin I purchased at the mini Game Fair is another matter entirely. Sadly, I’m not sure my raspberry or damson gin will last me quite long enough to fill a hip flask come shoot-time, but never fear: I am prepared! I currently have some blueberry gin in the making (resting? Brewing? It’s all sat in a Kilner jar at any rate!) I have no idea if it will work, but following the same principles as the sloe gin I made last Autumn after the Wonderland-worthy Hunt Halloween Ball, I have introduced to each other some sugar, tasty blueberries and last but not least, some gin. On a slightly different tack however from the sloe gin given the lack of frost around in August, I decided to heat up the blueberries to release more of the juice. No doubt this means the gin will need extra straining at the end to get rid of any excess flesh or seeds that may escape the skin, but hopefully it should lead to a tasty drink. It’s looking a lovely deep purple colour already – and just a week or so in. My plan is to keep it at least until the raspberry and damson gins are finished, and fingers crossed it might last me until the shoot. The only question now is what to call a blueberry gin and champagne cocktail? As all S&CBC girls will verify, sloe gin mixed with champagne is a ‘Sloegasm’ and Foxdenton Estates have taught me that damson gin with champagne was most imaginatively and wonderfully christened ‘A Damn Shame’. I’m not sure what a raspberry champagne cocktail would be either – except beautifully pink and sparkly! Anyway, I shall set my imagination to work on those two, and any suggestions will be welcomed with open arms; I believe you can post comments below this post if you want to.

Gin aside, I’ve been broaching other culinary borders recently too. While I’m certain it would not be suitable to take along on a shoot, and therefore it is somewhat unrelated to the general topic of this thread, I am going to share with you my adventures into the world of Almost-All American Baking. Last week I made my first ever Key Lime Pie, complete with fluffy meringue! The only reason that it didn’t quite qualify as All-American Baking was the lack of graham crackers[i], as I have been assured by my lovely, most definitely All-American colleague from Tuscan, Arizona (“give her the wings to fly through harmony and she won’t bother you no more…[ii]) that a proper American pie with a biscuit-based crust simply must be made with graham crackers; nothing else will do. That said, I managed okay with good old chunky British Hobnobs, though I will admit that I found my crust a little thick. Perhaps graham crackers do give a more refined crust. If I ever get my hands on any graham crackers, I’ll test that theory.

My inadequately-British Hobnob crust prepared, I set about zesting and juicing four limes. Once prepared, the very limey filling was poured into the base and I set about making my meringue. Time for a confession: I have never successfully made meringues before. And last time I tried was so long ago that I didn’t even have an electric whisk. But it was wonderfully easy. The soft peak stage was reached in less time than it took me to fluff up the whites even a little with a hand-held whisk, and with sugar and whatnot added, the stiff peaks arrived in what felt like an instant, glossy and white as though just covered with fresh (shiny) snow.

All in all, despite the slightly thick crust, my pie was a success! The meringue was very light and fluffy, sweet and foamy, and just turning golden brown on top, and the whole pie was demolished by my brother (the birthday boy for whom this pie was made in place of a birthday cake) and me, Mum and Dad helped him just a bit. Or two bits. Each. Or maybe three.

Pie done (evidence above) and I have another family birthday this week, so we’ll see what baked goodies stem from that. Until then, I shall leave you pondering names for luxuriously decadent fruit gin cocktails. My subconscious is standing, glass in hand and doffing her tweed cap at you all saying,

– “Cheerio old chaps!” (or whatever the female equivalent is.)


[i]Graham’ is apparently pronounced ‘gram’, not ‘Graeme’, with the A drawn out to aaah, in that lovely American way that stretches it further than any A has gone before, ‘graaaaaam’.

[ii] I apologise if you don’t get the reference – a lovely song by Paul Simon called ‘Under African Skies’.

 

A Shotgun Salad

And so the cakes that starred in my last post were carefully placed into my beloved Garden Trading cake tins and accompanied me around the M25 and up the M40 to the E J Churchill’s Mini-Game Fair, where they became well acquainted with some members of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club and a few others to boot.

The mini fair was great – and incredibly was pulled together with little more than two weeks’ notice, when we all heard the tragic news of the CLA’s cancellation of the Game Fair proper. I was introduced to Rob Fenwick, the MD of E J Churchill, of whom I’d heard previously. Rather more excitingly (no offence to Mr Fenwick) I got to see the infamous Mickey Rouse, the former world sporting champion, trick shooting – but more on that later. We wandered up the track to the clubhouse, to be handed a slurp of The King’s Ginger Liqueur on our way into the showroom – delicious, sweet and strong with a powerful kick of ginger.[i] We paused here and there to peruse a few stalls on our way up, and after having a typically country chat with Scott in the shop about wellies and tweed and that sort of thing, we made our way into the tents to examine the main array stalls. I had another twang of that feeling of ‘belonging’ when one of them men on the Hunter stand waved at me as if he knew me. On closer inspection, he turned out to be Gary, the Hunter rep from William Powell with whom I’d dealt in the past (incidentally, their new catalogue is out soon and new website is in production – very excited!) Knowing someone (and luckily for me, a friendly someone forthcoming enough to wave) my genuine-country friends didn’t made me feel very self-satisfied, not to mention a little bit relieved that he thought I was nice enough to be worth waving to. My subconscious stood there smugly, her tweed flat cap fitted firmly on her head and one hand on her hip saying,

– “See? I do belong here!”

The array of leathery feathery tweedy and altogether undeniably Country goods on offer was wonderful, from candlesticks made out of antlers (they’ve joined the pistachio green mixer on my mental somewhereovertherainbow-maybeoneday wishlist) to tweedy iPhone covers and snuggly coats for your hipflask. Beautiful photos on card and canvas, gorgeous cashmere knitwear well out of my price range, and delicious fruit gin from the wonderfully friendly Nick at Foxdenton Estate, from whom I purchased two bottles of wickedly delectable gin – one raspberry, one damson (and you can really taste the plums!) More cakes in the offing I have no doubt! The prize for the S&CBC Open Shoot on 18th August was proudly on display – a stuffed fox standing on his hind legs, with a just-as-stuffed pheasant under one armleg and gun over the other. My not-quite-determined views on taxidermy aside, this prompted some cheeky giggling with the S&CBC girls as my friend said he that was determined to come along, win the fox, then place it in the road to confuse some unsuspecting driver, later to be stood at the side of the road saying “Hello? Police? I’ve just hit a fox and it was carrying a gun!” Probably not as funny as at it seemed the time, but sufficient giggles ensued to entertain us. Any way, Mr Fox stood proudly on the stand next to the CBC girls: Bettina with her beautiful bracelets (also on my Wishlist, though promoted from ‘somewhereoverhterainbow’ to ‘next pay day’), Kay with her lovely cards, and Lili of Forbes and Maude displaying her tweeds. Possibly unfortunately we were attending the fair on the Friday, which was very much the quieter of the two days from what I’ve heard. However, we had fun wandering around, and and I enjoyed the challenge of trying to eat a cheeseburger complete with onions and ketchup without getting any on my white jeans. My view on white jeans is you should only wear them if you’re prepared for them to get mucky – if you’re going to be precious about it, wear blue ones or something else altogether! However, bright red grease stains wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I thought that as I put them on earlier in the day, so I battled with my burger and came out on top, my trousers surviving the ordeal and thankfully appearing on the other side of lunch ketchup-free. A perfect canvas for the various shades of proper country muckiness they would no doubt accrue throughout the day.

As well as those S&CBC girls who had stalls at the fair, we ran into a couple of other key actors in the Chelsea Bun Show on Twitter: Jane Macnab, a trickster with a stage name that lulls you into a false sense of security, believing its her real name, until she shatters the illusion by saying ‘Hi, I’m Lucy!’; and Urban Gundog, with bosses in tow. Mrs Macnab had brought along her faithful CBH (Chelsea Bun Husband), Dr Macnab, and Urban had brought along Deputy Boss (another CBH) to accompany him and The Boss. The Macnabs had even brought along Little Miss Macnab, of whom I am very jealous due to the fact that she was treated to both an ice cream and a lovely tweed dress. But to make up for the lack of a tweed dress, Urban[ii] honoured me by christening my white jeans with the proper sort of muck white jeans should pick up. He graciously bestowed upon me the most perfect paw print that I have ever seen – and that’s after years of trying to ink my dog’s paw to get him to ‘sign’ birthday cards, unerringly ending up with a coloured smear in the card and numerous matching smudgy patches on the surrounding floor. I have never seen one so accurate and un-smudged, and was so chuffed that I even took a photo – though for the Boss’ sake I won’t post it, as she didn’t seem as excited about it as I was. But Urban (we’ll stick to stage names here), I thank you!

Stalls done and two bottles of gin the richer, we headed over to watch Mickey Rouse trick shooting. And it was wonderful – both impressive and hilarious. Renowned as an absolutely fantastic clay shooter, we watched in awe as he shot balloons that appeared to be floating way out of range, and in the order of preference we the crowd shouted out to him as the targets drifted further and further up into the sky. He shot clay after clay, all from the hip. He lined up volunteers and had them throw eggs in the air – and then, you guessed it, he shot them. Using a pump action gun meant he had to physically reload between eggs, a feat not to be sniffed at. He carried on by chipping golf balls higher with his shotgun than I’d probably manage with a club and a set of lessons. Using a 10-shot self-loading gun, he fired a shot, then shot the spent cartridge as it was ejected and continued the series until he’d run out of ammo. Last but not least, he more or less prepared a salad with his shotgun. He balanced a tomato on the end of his barrels, flicked it up into the air and shot it barely a metre away from the end of his gun. He then threw up a melon, which was blasted into pieces, and finally and most spectacularly did the same thing with a couple of cabbages. As you can see, it turns out cabbage explode rather marvellously when shot with a  12gauge shotgun:

Cabbages done, and we return to the cakes. I said previously that the verdict on the cakes would come later, and so here it is:

The lavender cakes I was a little disappointed at – the icing was nice, but wasn’t as floral as I would have liked – more experiments needed to make that one work. However, the Chelsea Bun girls seemed to enjoy their cakes, and I was delighted to hear that Kay thought she could taste the lavender – so maybe my taste buds were marred by the intense scent of lavender in our kitchen from the preparation. The delicious blueberries were altogether too scarce – more needed next time!

My mother was very happy with the carrot cakes, as was I. I would even go so far to say that it was one of the best cakes I’ve made in a long, long time and is definitely one I will be trying again in the not-too-distant future (and if you’re lucky, I’ll put my recipe up when I find the time!) But the biggest endorsement for me was when I gave Mickey a carrot cake. He of cabbage-shooting glory turned out to be an acquaintance of one of my friends, and joined us for a cup of tea. After accepting the offer of a cupcake, declared with a mouth full of carroty sponge,

– ‘That’s seriously good cake.’


[i] I’ve been wondering what that would be like in a ginger cake… Or perhaps in the icing… We shall see.

[ii] It turns out this is also a stage name; his real name is Monty. I shall have to keep an eye out for all sorts of espionage at the Chelsea Bun Club it seems.

What’s up Doc?

A couple of weeks ago I was presented with a free bag of organic fruit and veg, courtesy of Abel and Cole. Included in that bag was a punnet of peaches, which as a family we simply had not got round to eating. So one morning, I trundled downstairs clutching some pretty cupcake cases and a recipe book, intending to make peach cupcakes of some variety or other. I had been beaten to the punch; I walked into to the kitchen to see my mother, apron on, radio on, cake mixer on as she whipped up a summery fruit loaf – using up the peaches, just as I had intended to do. I could have been bitter about my baking intentions being thwarted, but the cake she made was really very tasty, and she had the Archers Omnibus (she who cooks has control of the radio) so I got to listen to it anyway, even without being Queen of the Kitchen. Even now I have seen some of the mythical countryside for myself, I feel it important to keep up with David, Ruth and the gang from time to time and remind myself where this all started.

I had just left the house for work last Thursday when I got a phone call saying there had been a leak somewhere in the clinic and please don’t come in. So I turned on my heel, retraced the 10-15 steps back to my front door and immediately decided that today was a Baking Day. One supermarket sweep later (all heavy-lifting credits go to my little brother) and I had planted my feet firmly in the kitchen, apron on, beautiful beloved birthday mixing bowl out and wooden spoon in hand.

We’ve had a little box of icing carrots in the pantry for a couple of years now, that Mum has been saving to adorn a carrot cake. We also had enough carrots in the house to satisfy Bugs Bunny, so you can see where this is heading. I followed the Hummingbird carrot cake recipe to start with, but at mother’s request and for a (slightly) healthier cake, used entirely wholemeal self-raising flour, and added sprinklings of baking powder and bicarb to help boost the little bubbles that should make my cake nice and light. I also added sultanas; thankfully everyone in my life in Twickenham likes sultanas, so I am free to enjoy using them once again! I also added some milk, as someone, somewhere told me, or I read/saw/heard, that the wetter your cake batter, the moister your cake – and it makes sense when you think about it. After all, where is a little cake going to find any extra moisture in a hot hot oven?! As with fruit cakes, carrot cake batter must have some oomph about it to hold up all those bits of carrot, nuts and now sultanas, but the mixture seemed too stiff. I popped in a generous splash of milk to loosen it before decanting my mixture into pretty turquoise spotty cupcake cases and silicon mini loaf moulds. A beep of the timer later, and the cakes were out cooling, getting ready for their cream cheese icing.

This again was a Hummingbird recipe to start with, but I often find that their icings are a little too soft to pipe. Perhaps I don’t start with my butter cold enough, but it’s certainly chilly enough to crumble into the sugar and send puffs of icing sugar into the air until the kitchen was full of a sweet, white fog. Anyway, this time I blitzed my butter and cream cheese together quickly before mixing in the icing sugar a bit at a time. I didn’t weigh it, I simply kept going until the mixture looked stiff enough to pipe – and it was! Once piece of advice here: don’t use a piping bag with a hole in. It leads to very sticky hands, a messy piping bag and counter, and worst of all, wasted icing. But eventually I had piped generous swirls of cream cheese icing onto each cupcake – topped of course with a little, iced carrot. I then piped more icing onto the loaves, snaking my way over the top of each one. Mum helped with decorating, popping blueberries (because we had them!) and carrots onto each loaf. In the end, we were left with some rather pretty cakes, even if I do say so myself! What they tasted like remained to be discovered, but they did at least seem to sit there with plenty of confidence and say “Hey Bugs, want some cake?”

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Batch number two was more of an adventure. Years ago, when I decided as a teenager that my life long dream was to become a chef, my aunt and uncle gave me Gordon Ramsey’s Secrets, a recipe book with lots of exciting things. I might get around to trying a few more of the recipes in years to come… Anyway, one of the dessert recipes (that I have actually made!) is for berry kebabs with a lavender honey dip, made with mascarpone cheese, and it was really lovely, indulgent but Summery all at once. This recipe was the inspiration for the second batch of cakes – why not try for indulgent Summeriness in cupcake form? I made a simple vanilla sponge cake mix, with what was left of the wholemeal flour topped up with white, and folded in some lovely juicy Spanish Blueberries. I even cut a couple up and mushed them a bit before folding those in too, in case it helped flavour the sponge (word to the wise: it didn’t).

As the cakes baked, I popped round to a neighbour’s and collected six lavender heads, four for the recipe and two for luck. I dissolved some sugar in water, just as Gordon instructs for his dip, and then popped the lavender heads in for two minutes to infuse over a low heat, filling the kitchen with a very relaxing, flowery scent. Once infused and left to cool (with lavender still in), I strained the syrup and mixed it with honey, mascarpone cheese and 50g butter (the same amount Hummingbird instructs for the cream cheese icing) before again adding icing sugar until the mixture looked stiff enough to pipe, and purple food colouring until the icing was – wait for it….. lavender purple. Who could have guessed?! This icing was piped on top of the cooled buns in an attempt at a rose – starting in the centre, and slowly working your way out so the lines of the icing (from the nozzle) overlap and loop a bit like petals. The final adornment was a sprinkling of lilac edible glitter, and the cakes were finished! I sat down with a big mug of Earl Grey tea and admired my lovely little creations, basking in a glorious mix of pride and smud self-satisfaction.

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For the verdict on the taste, you’ll have to wait until the next post. I elected to save most of them to take along to E J Churchill’s mini-game fair, speedily set up in a fortnight since the announcement of the cancellation of the CLA event. I knew a few of the girls from the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club would be there with stalls, selling with lovely cards, bracelets and tweed, and thought that cakes would make a nice surprise for them (in true Chelsea Bun spirit!) I shall be writing about that – including the shot-shredded cabbage, smashed melons and splattered eggs that rained down on us – soon, but for now, that’s all folks!

Respect Your Elder

I’ve been promising myself, and promising and promising and promising, that I will get around to writing about my recent experiments with elderflowers. And finally, I have got around to doing it, and I’ve left it too late for anyone else to use the recipes or even try other recipes using the flowers this year, as they’re now out of season. So my first request is: please forgive me, and my first lesson is: elderflowers are only in bloom for a few weeks a year – don’t miss it!

As well as being reunited with my beloved teashop, my move back to London reunited me with my beloved dog, the mostly-border collie pictured licking an empty tin of golden syrup clean a few weeks ago. While walking him, I discovered that the paths where I used to go blackberry picking with my mother are also lined with elder trees. And once I’d noticed it, I kept seeing it everywhere. Our street here is full of elder. It lines the college playing fields over the road, the path down to the park, and the riverbank. So once it was in bloom, I trundled down with my dog, my trug and a pair of scissors, and carefully started collecting heads of flowers. I decided to view it as pruning, so I only took a few heads from each plant, and did my best to thin out clusters of flowers as my mother does in her back garden with the apple tree. This should let the plant focus its effort on only a few of the flowers it initially produced, eventually – hopefully – creating better fruit come the Autumn (when I’ll no doubt try out some elderberry recipes!)

Armed with a trug full of elderflowers, I searched online for recipes for Elderflower Cordial. It seemed simple enough, and the only ingredient I didn’t have was citric acid. I popped out to a local pharmacy and headed home from successful – though only after being quizzed on what I wanted it for; apparently citric acid is used in the production of heroin. I’m fairly sure that, were I an accomplished heroin-producer, I’d be savvy enough to lie and pretend I made vast quantities of fruit cordial, rather than announce my drug-baron career and shady intentions. Anyway, my declaration of honest intentions believed and citric acid in hand, I began making my cordial.

One of the best things I found about making it was that for twenty-four hours – and my mother will vouch for this – our kitchen smelled delicious. Sliced lemon and orange, elderflowers, sugar and citric acid were steeped in good old tap water, in my beautiful Mason Cash mixing bowl (the one I admired on my window sill for three days after being given it as a birthday present). I covered them with a tea towel, and left overnight, stirring occasionally. This simple mixture gave off enough perfume that every time you opened the kitchen door, you were greeted with a gust of floral deliciousness that made your mouth water and almost tricked your subconscious into believing it was actually sunny outside. The next day, I strained the mixture through muslin, bottled it and voila! The cordial was done. I have to say if you’re thinking of making this yourself, I don’t know how long it keeps for – I confess mine didn’t last that long; my mother and I drank it before we could find out.

The success of the Elderflower Cordial Venture provoked my mum into asking that I find something to do with her bush of Lemon Balm. I experimented with Lemon Balm Cordial (exactly the same as the Elderflower recipe, except I substituted a lime instead of the orange) which was nice, but not as nice as the elderflower. However, the Lemon Shrub proved much nicer, not to mention a little more potent. I got the recipe from a book called Hedgerow Harvest that my mum bought from William Powell when she came to visit me, and it’s pretty simple. You take quite a lot of lemon balm leaves and rinse them, before sticking them in a bottles-worth of brandy with some lemons and lemon rind for three days. I then added half a bottle of dry white wine and sugar, and left for another two days before straining and bottling. It’s very easy, and the result is a little like Pimms – you can drink it on its own (though better over ice in my opinion as it’s quite strong!) but it’s also quite nice topped up with lemonade, or even sparkling elderflower. You can really taste the lemon balm, and it’s not too sweet either. Very refreshing, and Mum especially seems to enjoy it.

I also experimented with an elderflower champagne from the same book, but need to experiment next year with the quantities of sugar used, and possibly add some sort of preservative (possibly more citric acid) as my finished ‘champagne’ was far too sweet for most to drink neat, and one bottle has started going ever so mouldy on top (and I haven’t even opened it yet). That said, the unmouldy bottles made for delicious mixers, especially when added to a gin and tonic on a recent hen weekend – though I must point out that using an alcoholic mixer makes your trusty G&T a little stronger than you expect, and the mother of the bride should back me up on that! I was quite amazed – and delighted – that I discovered things to make from (more or less) wild plants while living on the outskirts of London. And I know from previous experience that the areas where I found the elder also provide a decent harvest of blackberries in the Autumn, and if you pick the right time of year, there are even some wild plum trees hidden by the railway line. I make sure I wash the fruit and flowers thoroughly; being on the outskirts of a city, not to mention by a railway line and series of factories, I imagine they’re more prone to pollution than the same picked out in the countryside. But it was still great fun, and I even managed to use the left over fruit from the various concoctions described above to make a sort of marmalade jam, by chopping the peel, flesh and pith of the citrus fruits very finely and boiling up in a little elderflower cordial. I then weighed this, added 75% of that weight in sugar and boiled to setting point[i] before filling sterilised jars and sealing. It might not be luxury marmalade, but it helps limit waste and it tastes lovely on toast.

All of my creations/experiments are poured, spooned or decanted into nice jars and bottles, some of which I bought and some of which are reused. I label bottles with big brown labels that you can tie on – this saves you peeling stickers of at a later date when you want to reuse the bottle again, and doesn’t look too bad. From experience I’d recommend using a water-resistant pen to do the writing – a few of my labels have ended up illegible as a result of having elderflower champagne splashed onto them during pouring. All in all, I’ve ended up with quite a nice array of delicious jams, curds and drinks, and if it wasn’t already obvious from this and previous posts, I’m quite proud of myself. Hopefully wherever I move next will prove just as fruitful (and flowerful) for more homemade experiments.

[i] Put a saucer in the freezer until it’s very cold. Test your jam/marmalade mixture by putting a drop of it on the icy saucer. Leave for a few seconds, and then nudge with your fingernail. If the surface wrinkles, your jam is at setting point and ready to be poured into pretty jars.

Let Them Drink Tea

There are many disadvantages of being thrust back into London life, somewhat against my will – to list but a few: the traffic, rush hour and normal; the sheer quantity of people filling the streets, pubs, shopping centres and green spaces; and the aeroplanes passing over my head ever five or ten minutes, jetting off from Heathrow to some unknown destination, almost certainly glorious, tranquil, vibrant and fascinating if only in virtue of the fact that I am not on the plane. But there are also advantages: I get to spend time with my parents, and now that I’m not a hormone-saturated teenager that is a much more appealing prospect than ever before. And I also get to revisit some of my old haunts, not least The Tea Box in Richmond.

I have waxed lyrical about the afternoon teas enjoyed after every meet of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, but I’ll admit I have predominantly focused on the cakey side of things. But another simple joy of these sessions is the opportunity to enjoy nice tea, brewed in a proper tea pot and sipped elegantly (of course) out of a proper porcelain tea cup, complete with saucer.

My introduction to tea was a slightly unusual one. My mother lives on the stuff – we actually used to pack small airtight bags of tea bags before going off on holiday. I think if you cut her she’d bleed milky PGTips. My father is just as huge a fan of coffee is my mum is of her tea. He’s been known to both grind and roast his own coffee beans at home, and we have a vast range of coffee making apparatus including a traditional Costa Rican ‘coffee sock’ brought back from my Gap Yah travels, a big plastic coffee syringe, and even some sort of high tech coffee syphon that looks like it belongs in my school’s chem labs rather than my parents’ kitchen. But despite my parents’ obsession with tea and coffee, I never liked either, or indeed any hot drinks at all, not even hot chocolate or warm milk.

This continued until I was 19, when, one evening on a particularly unpleasant part of a trek across Costa Rica, I found myself in a sodden tent, camped in the rain at the top of a mountain with a bad stomach bug, having walked since the small hours of the morning and set to get up at 4am the next day to do the same thing again. Feeling very sorry for myself in this pathetic state, I was offered something we hoped would turn out as hot chocolate – we didn’t know whether the dehydrated milk would work (and the chocolate did have little specks of white floating at the top). I guiltily accepted – guiltily because I still didn’t like hot drinks. But it gave me something warm and comforting to hold and to help encourage the blood back into my fingers. For further warmth and to mask my guilt, I forced myself to drink it, and by the end of the mug had decided that I no longer hated hot drinks. In Nicaragua I had my first ever cup of coffee, and then my second, third and countless more, all served hot, black and very sweet just as the locals enjoyed it. But I still didn’t tea for a few months more, until I had returned to the UK  and was taken  by my then-boyfriend to a new teashop that had opened in my absence.

The menu at the teashop was dauntingly extensive for an inexperienced tea drinker such as myself, particularly when I was adamant that I didn’t like ‘normal’ (read: English Breakfast) tea. However, after some persuasion I agreed to try a first flush Darjeeling recommended by a lovely waiter we’d come to know through our frequent visits there. And I was hooked. Since then I have progressed from Darjeeling to become an avid drinker of the more readily available Earl Grey. The unfortunate consequences of this included my old roommate (she of the straw mattress) complaining that I made our flat smell like “the bottom of a tart’s handbag”, and at work being accused of drinking the ‘posh’ tea. Now, finally, I can enjoy an English Breakfast if not too strong, but would choose Darjeeling, Earl Grey or almost anything else, almost every time. I was lucky enough to find myself attending York University, York being the home of the infamous Betty’s (if anyone reading this works at Betty’s or knows someone who does, please please tell them to bring back the Engadine Torte, which was heaven on a plate and went so well with an Earl Grey tea). Needless to say I spent as much time as my student budget would allow in Betty’s (not enough) sipping tea. I was brought a packet of Moroccan Mint Tea from Fortnum and Mason as part of my birthday present, which was delicious and refreshing. University was a time of enlightenment as far as me and tea went, as well as the philosophy and politics I was there to learn.

One of the lovely things about tea is the history that goes with it. Someone told me what they claimed was the story behind the origins of Earl Grey tea, though as I don’t know quite how true it is please don’t forward it on as fact or my old university lecturers will never forgive me. Apparently, an envoy of Earl Grey (a British prime minister in the 1800s) saved a boy’s life while travelling in China. The boy’s father was a mandarin and as a mark of his gratitude he presented the envoy with some tea to take home to his master. This blend of tea was given to the Earl back in the UK, who liked it so much he asked his local teashop (allegedly Twinings, but this could just be clever marketing on their part) to recreate the tea. When the details of the blend were recorded in their ledgers, they were recorded under his account and thus his name: Earl Grey.

Regardless of the veridity of this tale I like the romance of it, the romance tea and its complex history. I like the delicacy of the flavours, and also of the teapots, strainers, cups and saucers that come with it. My favourite teaspoon was given to me by my ex-boyfriend, and is from the teashop where I first enjoyed a pot of tea. It has a slim, delicate stem carved almost like bamboo, with a tiny silver teapot adorning the end, and I adore it. I love carefully spooning tea leaves into the strainer in my little one-person tea pot, or scooping them into a strainer to put straight into a mug. I love pouring tea from a pot into a tea cup, and yet I get a whole different satisfaction from a steaming (Earl Grey) tea, made in the mug with a simple tea bag. If you have read my blog before, and if you intend to read it again (and I hope you will) you should remember that every time I sing the praises of cake, talk about new recipes I’ve tried or cakes I’ve sampled baked by others, I will always be enjoying said cake with a pot, mug or cup of tea, drunk black and sugarless, just as my darling-Darjeeling waiter first taught me.