A Little Bit of Rough

Before I begin, please go to your fridge. Open the door, and take out one of the bottles of champagne that I know you keep ready chilled for the spontaneous celebration of surprise engagements, unexpected promotions and Tuesdays. Find a flute (or more than one if you’re not reading this alone) and then carefully remove the foil and cage from the bottle. Hand over top of the cork. Twist the bottle slowly. Steady now… Okay, ready?

I’ve been shooting for four years, and last week, finally, I bought my own gun.

That was the point at which you should have popped the cork. If you can, avoid spraying it around the room in your excitement – if it’s all the same to you, a) it’s a waste of champagne and b) I’d rather you didn’t get any on the barrels of my new gun. A few weeks ago now I attended the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club annual conference, a wonderful event about the subject of my last post and first in over a year, Being a Chelsea Bun. Not only has Victoria, Bun Club creator extraordinaire, filled my life with fabulous cake and – though you may well not think this possible – even more fabulous women, and helped me maintain a firm hold on shooting sans-man, but she has also indirectly helped me get my first gun by introducing me to shooting instructor and sharp shot, Ed Solomons. Now I shalln’t embarrass Ed (or undersell the ladies) by calling him as fabulous as they, and nor shall I inflate his ego by calling him easy on the eye – if Facebook is to be believed he gets more than enough of that as it is – but I shall be forever grateful to him, for he found a gun that works for me within my very meagre budget.

I said to myself last year that I was going to save up a grand for my first gun. Then my licence took weeks and months and more months to come through, by which time I’d given up hope, stopped saving and used the money. Then, hurrah, hurrah! My licence came through, and so I started saving again, but unfortunately starting from pretty much scratch. I was just getting somewhere, but then my car needed a new clutch. I can’t remember what came next, but the point is that life gets in the way of saving up for guns. I realised that, until I get a pay rise (*hint*), a grand didn’t seem a viable amount to save up if I wanted a gun any time soon. After hearing Ed speak at the conference on the seventh of June, and meeting him afterwards, I asked his advice. Just two days later he told me about two guns I could actually afford. Not only that, he had one set aside for me. A Lanber Sporter Deluxe, 12b with 29.5” barrels and a set of five chokes, complete with key and little case. So last week I took a day’s holiday, jumped in my little baked bean can of a car, drove up to a lovely M25 traffic jam and after a couple of hours there, on to Sporting Targets in Bedfordshire. And after taking it out for a go, I bought it. It worked; I broke clays. People say you need to go out and try, try, try before you buy a gun, but if you’re on a tight budget, you can break clays with it, and it’s under £400, get on and buy the damned thing. And if you have change from your budget, spend it on shooting a bit – which was exactly what I did with the small amount I had leftover. It may not be the most beautiful gun in the world, nor the stock in absolute pristine condition, but it works, it will provide me with consistency in my shooting, and it can be fitted to me. More than that, it’s mine, and I already love it. My good decision was confirmed in my change-funded post-purchase shoot with a couple of Bun Club ladies (and an associated gentleman) and continued to break clays. Ed got me to have a go shooting with both eyes open and I even broke clays that way, though more practice is most definitely required. I am now armed not only with my very own 12b, and therefore have some consistency, but also a new determination to free up time in my diary to shoot more and practice, with a view to one day, just maybe, competing.

***

A month ago to the day I moved house. Having somewhat abandoned city life, and given that one of my caveats of a new house was that I could have a gun cabinet fitted if one were not already available for use, it shouldn’t really have been a surprise that I ended up in a house that I can confidently say is as Country as the old, if not more so, complete not only with Aga but also with inglenook fireplace and a row of old fox tails hung up in the hall way. My live-in landlord, disturbingly young (i.e. younger than me) though you soon forget his age once you’ve met him, is a chimney sweep. To answer my own first question, yes, they still exist. I’m sure you knew that if you are even a little bit Country, but until moving here my only experience of chimney sweeps is of them jumping into chalk drawings and dancing on roof tops, all the while singing with an awful cockney accent. When not getting dressed up to appear at weddings, something I’ve unfortunately yet to witness, my young landlord sweeps the chimneys of many buildings, known and unknown, and some of which you may even have heard; Hampton Court Palace anyone? Or how about Buckingham Palace?[1] But more important even than the Queen’s chimneys, if such a thing is imaginable, is the fact that he took me out for a mini-rough shoot last night, and I shot my very first (and second) pigeon.

Lessons learned: 1) you don’t need all that many cartridges if you’re shooting pigeons in our field, but I guess still better safe than sorry. 2) walking around the field with an unloaded gun with broken barrels and cartridges safely stowed in your pocket isn’t the fastest way to get lead in the airm, should a bird fly out. Luckily, I had a good teacher. And lesson three was: be patient. We traipsed around the fields in vain until a pigeon finally flew out over our heads. Typically, it was a pigeon sufficiently savvy as to do this at the moment when the resident chimney sweep was holding my gun for me so I could climb over a fence, thus rendering the irritatingly clever thing absolutely and entirely safe. All we could do was look up at it and swear. We clambered over a couple of fences, and, very inelegantly on my part at least, through another, but still to no avail. Eventually and with some effort, we found a couple of the pesky birds. ChimneySweep kindly flushed them out for me (read: clattering about in the barns trying to scare out two very stubborn birds by making noise and ultimately throwing sticks at them), and thus, as they eventually flew out into the evening air, my gun was christened.

 

Take two pigeons, add a new-to-me gun, sprinkle over with the lead of three shots fired, and wait until the feathers have settled. Two dead pigeons. Unfortunately feral – so much for pie – but still not a bad start for a gun if you ask me.

One new gun, two dead pigeons, three spent cartridges.

One new gun, two dead pigeons, three spent cartridges.

[1] If you live down south and need a chimney sweep, give him a bell. If he’s good enough for HRH, surely he’s good enough for you?

Being a Chelsea Bun

As anyone reading this is likely to know, I haven’t written for this blog for really rather a long time. When I used to write more or less regularly, the topic was usually an assortment of shooting tales, recipes and recollections of various country-based faux pas I made as I delved into the country world. I’m hoping I might begin to write again (not even remotely avoiding commitment there) but I can’t promise the subject matter will always stay the same. My life has changed immeasurably since I started writing. For one, the wine world is much less countrified than the shooting world. For another, I’m also ever so slightly more used to the country world, which, though I wouldn’t yet consider myself as ‘belonging’, does thankfully mean I don’t embarrass myself quite so frequently. The downside to that is of course having fewer entertaining things to write about.

As you may or may not have read, I started clay shooting at university. Shortly after I left I started dating my instructor, Sir Pheasant’s Farmer, which as you might imagine meant I kept shooting fairly regularly, but always with him. He taught me, he had the licence, he bought the shells and he owned the guns, including the Beretta with which I learned to shoot. I soon realised I was only shooting with him, and pretty quickly developed a fear that, should the relationship end, I’d lose my hobby as well as my boyfriend. Not long after this minor epiphany I attended my first shoot with the wonderful Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club. Joining a ladies’ only shooting group seemed a very reliable way to maintain some shotgun action in my life outside my relationship. Lo and behold, around a year later Sir Pheasant’s Farmer and I went our separate ways. In the 18months that followed, I left my job, moved back to my parents’, was diagnosed with HNPP, got a new job in a new industry, moved into a new house, got my own shotgun licence, was promoted, ran my first 10k race and moved house a second time, to name but a selection. And through it all, I have continued to break (and miss) clays, all thanks to one incredible, inspirational lady called Victoria Knowles-Lacks and her marvellous creation, The Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club.

The Bun Club has introduced me to countless new friends, and we all have two things in common. One: we love to shoot, and two: we’re Women with a capital W. We refuse to leave the guns to the men, and not only that, but damn it if we can we’re going to shoot better and, results regardless, with a cartridge bag-load more panache. As well as a shooting group and a curse on any weight-loss goals, the Chelsea Bun Club is a network of friends. I haven’t met them all yet, some of the women I have met I confess I don’t remember their names, some I may never meet, but all of them are friends. It has also introduced me to personalities in the shooting world, from the unforgettable Robert at Hull Cartridge, to David, the Tom Cruise lookalike from Browning, silver-tongued Peter Glenser who, two years running has had us all in fits of giggles, the marvellous Ed Solomons who within a few days of the 2014 conference may have found me a gun within my budget (the subject of a future post if I’m lucky) and who can forget Miss Sue Flay and her etiquette guide at the 2013 conference? I’ve met female medal-winners from various disciplines, most recently Abbey Burton with her fantastic story and surreal shotgun stock. I have attended two incredible conferences where I’ve learned about everything from the psychological aspects of clay shooting (and how women are better shots psychologically!) to how birds are reared for commercial game shoots.

There is so much more to shooting than people think. It’s social, educational, inspirational and fun, as well as a curse to WeightWatchers and the like with the hampers of sausage rolls, bottles of champagne, hipflasks sloe gin and mountains of cake. And just for you, a gun mounted in your shoulder slows down the world around you. Looking at the world down the barrel of shotgun seems to hit the slow motion button. All that matters is the trigger and the clay. Of course, if you are me – or are stood behind me while I’m shooting – there’s the almost inevitable interruption by the automatic safety. After a (second) call for your target, time begins to slow and stretch, for most targets at least, and you stop thinking. Watching the world in slow motion, instinct takes over, and if you’re lucky, the cue for the world to resume normal speed is a firework of clay fragments in the sky above you. Clay-concentration takes over from everything, pushing Erasmus’ opinions on the nature of war (thank you university) or the quantity of Argentinian wine being sold in UK supermarkets (thank you work) not only to the back of your mind, but out of it entirely for a moment or two. After a shoot, good or bad, it’s as though all the cobwebs have been dusted away and you breathe a little deeper.

I’m certain that any and all members of The Bun Club know what I’m describing, even if shooting gives them a different experience than it gives me. And for anyone who hasn’t shot before, I’d encourage you to come along and give it a go. If it wasn’t for the Bun Club I’d have likely lost one of the best hobbies I’ve ever engaged with, not to mention hundreds of friends, and worse to say I’d have lost it all because of a man. There are Chelsea Bun shoots around the country, and at all of them you can pick up a shotgun and maybe change your perspective on the world around you. You’ll not only meet new people and make new friends, but over time you’ll become part of something bigger, know you have friends, known and unknown, all round the country. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find a new love* and meet a new side of yourself.

 

The Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club

 

 

*Your hobby, not your instructor…Or at least not always.

Horses for Courses

Welcome 2013. I’m not a big one for turning my life around on January first. I struggle to turn my car around sometimes  –  six-point turns in bad weather on roads with a serious camber = nightmare  –  so anyone should expect anyone else to turn his or her life around in a single day is beyond me. The logistical struggle aside, I quite like my life and don’t necessarily fancy changing it entirely, even if it is the dawning of a Brand New Year. However, this year I have compromised a little and made my first ever New Year’s Resolution:

– Learn to ride a horse.

 

I have ridden once or twice in my life, but only ever as a tourist. Most recently was in Nicaragwah on my Gap Yah and it was rather entertaining. The girl I was travelling with at the time was a rather more experienced rider than I and knew what she was doing. We had placidly plodded to the end of the beach with our guide when he stopped to adjust his stirrup (the metal loop where you put your feet). My friend decided she was bored of our snail’s pace, expertly turned her horse around and disappeared back down the beach in a mini-sandstorm. Whether it was a gallop or canter I don’t know – I couldn’t estimate the MPH and wouldn’t know the horsey translation even if I could. I was more concerned with the fact that my horse evidently liked her horse, as during the seconds that I sat gawping at the cloud of sand that had been a girl on a horse, my mount decided:

– To hell with it, we’ll go too.

I felt like a driver who didn’t know where the handbrake was, what a gearstick was, which way to turn the steering wheel, or for that matter what this thing is that I’m sat in – only on a horse, you’re sat on it not in it and there is no seatbelt or airbag. Should the horse so decide, I could be catapulted any which way, only secured by my toes so loosely slipped into the little loops of metal and it was therefore still perfectly possible that I could be dragged along the beach by my feet. I remember holding onto the reins for dear life and thanking the heavens that I was galloping through the shallows on sand instead of the tarmacked roads where I’ve seen people riding at home in Bushy Park (where incidentally I daresay the horses are much better behaved. Nicaraguan horses have a thing or two to learn if you ask me).

Luckily, my horse deigned to stop when its fellow did and so I didn’t canter (gallop?) on to the ends of the earth. Scary as it was, I didn’t fall off and there was a proud moment hidden somewhere under the gasping relief.

Since my last post I have moved house  –  and been ill, attempted to learn more about a world of wine that is apparently expanding faster than our universe, been ill some more, cooked Christmas dinner, attended a couple more Chelsea Bun shoots and actually won one of them for shooting and not for cake. It’s been a busy few months. The bit that’s relevant to this post however is the moving house. I now actually live on a Horse Farm. Those of you who have read this blog from the outset will know that the Horse Farm vs. Yard debacle was one of my defining faux-pas in venturing out of the city. There is therefore both a sense of irony and of belonging in my new abode. The house is a 17th century farmhouse in West Sussex, complete with Aga, tack room, wood-burning stove, dogs and plenty of mud. It also comes complete with a small riding school run by my landlady, and the accompanying stables, ponies and horses. Before I’d even agreed to move in I’d been told I must learn to ride and I would be more than welcome to help out with the horses, and so I’ve decided that whatever the Chinese say, 2013 will be the year of the horse.

Please don’t think I’ve forgotten about shooting. My licence application is on the table beside me, complete with countersigned photographs. I have my very own gun cabinet tucked away downstairs, the lack of guns inside it leaving plenty of space for my ambitions to one day own one. And finally I have my first  –  and second  –  game shoots coming up later this month, along with a couple of days’ loading for Sir Pheasant’s farmer. I’m spending a day at Garrowby with Lord and Lady Halifax, and have been promised that I’ll see some of the highest pheasants on offer in the UK. Somewhat sadly, this is in fact the first game shoot I will ever actually see in the flesh. Please don’t misunderstand me; it will be a magnificent introduction to game shooting I’m sure, but I am a little worried that it’ll ruin me for more ‘normal’ shooting. Along with this worry and another about getting sopping wet and freezing my little toes off, one of my big, if slightly odd, concerns is that I won’t actually like it. I’ve got a week booked out in the field and I’m terrified that I’ll get to the end of the first drive on the Monday and decide that it’s just not for me. I’ve only once ever killed anything bigger than a fly, and that was a lobster that made its re-entrance into the world as lobster mousse ravioli with a seafood consommé. Not exactly the same thing. Smashing clay targets I love, but I don’t know how either my conscience or squeamish gut will fare knocking the pretty little birds out of the sky. One thought keeping me going is that just like the lobster, they’re pretty tasty  –  pheasant mousse ravioli anyone?  –  and conscience and gut both agree that I’d rather be a game-shoot pheasant than a chicken whose life ambition is to make it to the top shelf in the supermarket refrigerator cabinet. Remaining true to my philosophy roots, I’ve got my book on The Ethics of Hunting, but there’s only one way to find out for sure and so I’ll plough on (metaphorically this time) and see what the end of January brings.

Back to my equine ambitions. One of my horsier housemates has accepted my resolution, and a couple of the boys are even going to join me in my pursuits. One can ride but wants to learn to hack; the other is a novice like myself. I’m not sure what hacking is, but I know that there are special jackets available for it – a potential reward if I stick to my new year’s resolution?

I will end my first post of 2013 with another faux pas, and a slightly horsey one at that. I may now have an officially country postcode – there are now only a handful of addresses sharing my postcode, as opposed to 36 in London – and I may know how to shoot, own a pair of ‘proper’ waterproof boots, no longer fear The Mud and wear tweed to work; but I am still tripping over plenty a stumbling block on my journey of discovery. Last night I sat in the kitchen with my new housemates, discussing polo (yet more unexplored territory – I’ve been promised a trip to a polo match and someone even tried to explain ‘chukkas’ to me after I asked about ‘half time’ – apparently there is no such thing in polo). One of the boys walked in and a comment was made about his polo shirt. This was the moment when I discovered that much as a rugby shirt is a shirt worn while playing a game of rugby, a polo shirt is a shirt worn while playing a game of polo. It had honestly never occurred to me, but my loud outburst of realisation was enough to fill the kitchen with laughter. I then asked whether in winter people played polo in polo necks. But no, apparently that’s just silly.[i]

The view from my new bedroom window

The view from my new bedroom window


[i] After my discovery that ‘polo’ is in no sense a term used by tailors or seamstresses, as I had previously assumed in a not-ever-thought-about sort of way, I’m sure there must be some link to polo in the term ‘a polo neck’ or else it would be called something else. If anyone is an expert on either the history of the term or the sport or both, I’d love to know more.

Farmyard Tales

As a child I used to read the Usborne books ‘Farmyard Tales’. My memories are a little hazy; someone was called Poppy, but I’m not sure whether that was the dog or the daughter; a sheep ate a lot of flowers – I remember tracing the path with my finger; there was a red tractor, but I don’t remember what role it played in the story. My one, unerring memory is that on every single page was a little yellow duck, peeking out from behind a tree or under a bale of hay or anywhere else where in real life there would almost certainly not be a nosy duck, let alone a bright yellow one. But then illustrations of children’s fiction aren’t exactly known for the factual accuracy.

A few weeks ago I visited my real-life farm again. Sir Pheasant has relinquished his hold on it back to Mr Farmer, though not altogether willingly. He still struts about the place as if he owns it, his doting covey of partridges scuttling along behind him; but since October 1st[i] he is striving to come to terms with his impending doom as the first shoot on the farm approaches, and he is making funeral arrangements with the family (current plans are to be wrapped in streaky bacon and served with a port and quince sauce much like his ancestors before him.)

Sir Pheasant’s farm is in fact called Hall Farm and there is neither dog not little girl called Poppy, but there is a gorgeous black lab called Paddy, which is close enough for me. Not many flower beds to munch, but there are sheep and I’m sure they chomp through a few meadow flowers while out grazing. And there are plenty of tractors. I’ve already posted the photo of the blue one I drove, but there are others too (though not a bright red one). Most excitingly there is a huge big yellow combine harvester (cue the Wurzels.) Mr Farmer made the mistake of referring to it as ‘she’, much as one would to a ship I guess, but in light of it – and of course to poke fun – I’ve christened said combine ‘Sally’. Sally, being so yellow, takes the place of the ever-present Usborne duck, even if she isn’t small and doesn’t sneak from page to page. She’s the yellowest thing on the farm, and that shall have to do.

If you say ‘harvest’ to me, it conjures up out of the distance a dusty image of a line of sturdy little children plodding up to the stage in the assembly hall and placing their tin of fruit cocktail in syrup or chick peas in salted water onto the pile beneath an arrangement of orange flowers with grasses and wheat, a huge loaf of bread in the shape of a sheaf of wheat and a scattering of gourds, marrows, pumpkins and other autumnal veg that wouldn’t go bad too quickly. All this to the faint notes of a mostly-in-tune robust rendition of ‘We plough the fields and scatter…’ In real life of course, this is the children’s harvest festival at a suburban school and harvest is in fact a real thing that occurs with far fewer hymns and far more poor farmers sat for hours on a combine making its way slowly up and down fields. Or to be more accurate, this year at least, sat on said combine in thick obstinate mud waiting for a tractor to come and set them free, so they can continue cutting until the next boggy patch – probably in about ten minutes time.

When I visited Hall Farm in September I got to spend a morning actually helping out – or at least I hope I helped. The first thing we did was set about welding bits of metal to bits of fence and gate to repair and reinforce. I got to be the lovely assistant, though sadly with no sequins. Still, I made do with a box of solder and we got on with the job. Gate and post fixed, it was combining time and I got to have a ride around with Sally (this time cue The Commitments). The only thing I can say is that combine harvesters are absolutely enormous. Seriously Big with a capital B. And loud. And powerful. If Sally were human, she’d be one of those amazing black women, huge, strong, sexy and formidable, with an attitude almost as big as her voice. Think Queen Latifah in Chicago. Except painted bright yellow, churning wheat and with fewer solos. I sat on the combine for a big as we attacked a dry patch of field, and after a bit I got off for the not-so-country pursuit of taking photographs. Equally as impressive viewed at a distance, in the early Autumn sunshine with dust clouds following in her wake. Sadly, I had to leave at lunchtime to face the drive back from Yorkshire to London. Or perhaps not so sadly, as about ten minutes after I left Sally embarked upon a game of Stuck-in-the-Mud without the courtesy of warning poor Mr Farmer.

Actually seeing grain being harvested was just a little bit amazing. There are hundreds of thousands of tonnes wheat held in grain stores across the country, and much of it will go off to a commercial bakery to be made into the bread we buy off the shelves in Tesco and Sainsbury’s and such. More will go to feed the animals that are slaughtered to provide the building blocks of my sausage casserole or coq au vin. The more I learn about agriculture and the production of the raw ingredients that I take so much for granted, the less inclined I am to buy from supermarkets. One of the exciting bonuses about work  (that I may have already mentioned) is the farmers’ market that is held every Thursday. In the office this translates to ‘Sausage Thursdays’; there is a man with fresh sausages cooking on a griddle, and at 9.05am once everyone’s switched their computers on, orders are taken and one kind-hearted soul pops over to the Sausage Man and comes back clutching steaming rolls filled with all sorts of combinations of sausages of various varieties, onions (or not) and range of dripping sauces. But as well as hot sausages, you can buy fresh, local meat, fish, cheese and veg. Sometimes there’re homemade baked goodies (though I still prefer to make my own) and other bits and pieces too. A few weeks ago it was my turn to host a group of friends in our own version of ‘Come Dine With Me’, and I themed my menu around British, seasonal food – and sourced as many ingredients as I could from the market and nearby deli, nicely named ‘Market Square’.

The menu proceeded thus: we had beetroot and goats’ cheese tarts to begin, with homemade pastry, a huge bunch of locally grown and freshly dug up beetroots, and British goats’ cheese. For mains, a pork and apple braise, with apples so local I picked them from the garden just before cooking, and served with squash and purple sprouting broccoli. The squash was a disappointment; I had wanted to serve pumpkin, but despite my expectations and best efforts hunting one down – it being the beginning of October at this point, and me armed with a deerstalker and pipe – I couldn’t find a pumpkin anywhere. But butternut squash sufficed. For dessert we had sticky cinnamon figs, with mascarpone and pistachios, having been assured by the good old Interweb that figs were in season, and this being backed up by their presence at the market. And finally we had a range of local cheeses, including a Sussex blue and an award-winning Sussex goats’ cheese, which I’ve sadly forgotten the name of. These lovely cheeses were accompanied by nothing other than the terribly local Twickenham Preserves’ rhubarb chutney, and crab apple and quince jellies.

Overall I was delighted with how much I managed to source from the market, and with the reasonable prices I paid. I didn’t feel ripped off in the slightest, and was happy to know I was helping local farmers get a good price for the hours of labour they put in. It’s something I’m keen to continue doing – once I’m all moved out and fending for myself (second time lucky) I’m wondering whether I can fit my weekly shop into my lunch hour, and pop to the market every Thursday. We shall see.

To top off the night, I was almost as delighted with the wine suggestions and donations from work. They’re proving to be a very supportive and helpful bunch to work with. The girls and I enjoyed a not-yet-on-the-shelves sparkling white as an aperitif, which we all enjoyed very much. Then a heavy pinot noir rose to accompany the beetroot, a dry cider with the pork and finally a tawny port to go with the figs and cheeses. I suppose in thinking [writing] about it, I should have served English wine to go with my British-grown farmer-friendly menu. Oh well, something to consider next time round.


[i] The first of October marks the start of the pheasant-shooting season, for the enlightenment any city-based readers. Let it never be said that this blog is not informative; I strive to share my muddy enlightenment, and in doing so to educate as well as shoot and bake.

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

Bewitched by the Bubbles

The Fabulous Fortnight Part 2

Until recently, I’d only ever attended weddings as a child, running around with sticky handfuls of confetti. But all that changed last weekend at the Jeavons-Prinsloo wedding. I mentioned the bride’s hen party briefly a while back, after I managed to spike the mother-of-the-bride’s drink – entirely by accident I hasten to add. (I brought along a bottle of homemade elderflower, but failed to mention early on that it was elderflower champagne rather than cordial. In retrospect, possibly a mistake.)

The wedding took place in a picturesque village church, satisfyingly authentic as we could see the bride’s primary school from the churchyard – or at least the building that used to be it. The groom is in the army, and looked fantastic standing at the alter in his Number One dress, complete with red stripe down the trousers, silky gold curtain tassels and his medal shining brightly on his chest. He was I’m sure relieved to be joined after not too long a wait by the bride in her white dress, silky swathes flowing in a train behind her[i], adorable flower girls in pretty champagne and gold dresses, and bridesmaids also in champagne, with navy satin sashes; all complimenting the groom’s delicious uniform perfectly. Satin roses trailed over the bride’s shoulder and a cascade of golden curls down her back. And she had two shoes. Cinderella eat your heart out.

One of my favourite points of the wedding was the final hymn – the bride, chief bridesmaid, mother of the bride and many of her friends work in primary schools, either as teachers or in admin. The last hymn chosen was one I remember singing as an enthusiastic eleven year old – One More Step Along The World I Go. Wonderfully cheerful, rather fitting given the calling of the bride and her friends and family, and so perfect for the occasion.

After squishing as many people as possible into as few cars – meaning as few designated drivers as possible – we all headed to the reception in the village town hall. Strangely none of us thought to ask if there was a spare seat in the new couple’s chauffer-driven, open-topped Bentley. Everything was simply beautiful – we were greeted with flutes of gently sparkling champagne and a coordinated navy and cream table plan – and the tables had been creatively named after the couples favourite drinks from England (home of the bride) and South Africa (home of the groom). I was irrationally delighted to find out I was on the table christened ‘Gin and Tonic’, and almost as dismayed to see that I wasn’t on the table ‘Earl Grey’. But I’m sure if I had been I would have been just as disappointed not to be a Ginandtonicer – Mary Mary Quite Contrary has nothing on me.

The bride and groom arrived and were snapped and papped as enthusiastically as any celebrity couple. There were amusing speeches, romantic and much photographed kisses (evidence below), a scrummy BBQ, huge chocolate fountain with strawberries, marshmallows and heavenly Turkish Delight so good I didn’t even dip it in the chocolate. There were bubbles to drink and yet more bubbles to blow, or attempt to blow as was the case for some guests at our table. There were army men with stereotypically girly nicknames (the groom is apparently ‘Princess’ – the anonymous source of this information was suspiciously cagey when I asked why…) and plenty of dancing, flowing conversation and much merriment. The traditions were stuck to with relish, including the cutting of the cake, the tossing of the bride’s bouquet, and a South African tradition of the groom removing the bride’s garter (something blue) with his teeth while blindfolded and bound with the groomsmen’s cravats. The audaciously-removed garter is then flung out to the men in the wedding party, and as with the more Britishly-prudish bouquet toss, the man to catch it will be the next to find himself at the alter.

I’m delighted that my first grown up wedding experience was of such a lovely country village wedding, and I don’t think the bride or groom could have wished for anything more. It was perfect, and a wonderful omen for their life together – I wish them all the luck in the world and more.

As if being invited to a proper wedding in my own right wasn’t enough to prove that I am officially now an adult, four days later I went and got myself a job. A Proper Job. I have now officially got my foot on the first rung of the career ladder – so watch out Glass Ceiling, I’m coming for you. Since being back in London with my parents, my friends and family have been aware that I was hoping to find myself a graduate position in a company where I can focus on personal development as much as on the job in hand, and ideally to do so in a role that will challenge me intellectually – at least after an initial period of the donkey work that gives you a chance to prove yourself. I received a phone call out of the blue asking if I would be interested in a role with a company my friend had worked for, a role she would have been interested in if only it had been in a location a little more convenient; she’s engaged to a Yorkshireman with a deposit on a house in York; the job is in West Sussex. Go figure. After a telephone conversation with the manager and a first interview, I was invited to a second interview less than a week later, with the shock of a presentation to prepare in and around the steak, cake, wedding present and outfits.

As I accepted my degree from the chancellor of my university, I assumed that I would never again need to remember anything about my final essays on whether 16th Century Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus thought war was inherently evil, or on David Hume’s view that we have no personal identity (a true mind-boggle). And yet I found mself preparing a presentation on my final essays – admittedly on my insanely colour-coordinated planning processes and time management more than the content, but in order to remember one you have to remember elements of the other. A big mug of tea and a quick refresher course on Erasmus’ views on the behaviour of mercenary soldiers in war was all I had to ease my post-wedding hangover. Despite the cooking- and wedding-fun of the weekend before my interview, it seemed to go well. I got on with my interviewers, one of the ladies announced that she was in possession of as colour-coded a brain as me (thank God) and if I needed any more confirmation that it wasn’t an utter catastrophe, I got a phone call just a few hours later from one of the ladies, offering me the job. Smug much? Moi? Never!

The role is Category Insight Executive for a wine supplier/agent/company. I’m going to be analysing data and pulling out stories telling the journey of the wine. Anyone who knows me will know that I spend my life analysing and over-analysing. And now I have landed myself a role where I might be able to use that skill/flaw to actually make a living. Other exciting news is that it is slightly less city-based, and so I might be able to increase the frequency of my shooting, and apparently cakes are welcome in the office so my baking is safe too. Phew. A glass of bubbly with my parents to celebrate? Why not?![ii]

Within a week of my chip-based success and genetic-diagnosis, I had as a fully-fledged adult experienced a real wedding, complete with bubbles for both drinking and blowing. Days later I landed a Proper Professional Position working for a company that deals with more bubbles (definitely of the drinking persuasion) tucked in amongst all the wine. And had celebrated that with yet more bubbles! I start my new role next month; no doubt there’ll be some amusing misdemeanours to regale you with as I start another job – sorry, career – out-of-the-city, not to mention plenty of wine-based blunders to boot. But at the very least I promise you there will still be plenty of shooting and baking anecdotes. Wedding-fun and interview-success was only the second step of three making up the Fabulous Fortnight – there is nothing less than a Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club finale still to come, complete with both guns and cake.


[i] Just so you can picture it accurately, there was enough luscious material in the train to cause the bride to later announce:

“This is not a dress made for reversing.”

[ii] Thank you Dad Xx

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.