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!

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

I’ve frequently declared country life to be muddy. I don’t just mean the countryside – on occasional walks in the countryside as I was growing up, I walked and waded through mud, no doubt splashed in some muddy puddles as a toddler (Mum?) and when I was fourteen even tripped over a stile and fell face-first into the mud (and quite possibly cow pats too). I have seen enough mud to know the countryside is muddy – I daresay it’s linked in some inexplicable way to the lack of paving stones, tarmac and concrete. Mysterious.

But mud worms its way into other places in Country Life – like right on your doorstep for example, because so many people actually live in the world I walked/splashed/tripped my way through before; or sprayed artistically up the side of cars (probably due to the aforementioned scarcity of concrete.) And in its drier form, those signed up to country life (and those who had it thrust upon them) will find mud encrusted into the bottom and around the sides of wellington boots or any other footwear you elected to go clay shooting in one rainy day (and thus in its crumbled, powdery form all over the inside of the foot wells of your car).

And now, to a certain degree, I see mud as a certificate of authenticity. I’ve mentioned how my friends laugh at my wellies, not just because they cost less than a night in a nice hotel, but also because of how incredibly shiny and green they are. I’ve worn Mum’s blue Hunters for years, and they are most definitely not shiny. When I went to university, she wouldn’t let me take them and generously bought me my own pair which I duly wore and loved, trudging around campus and the shooting ground in the snow and mud, and the wellies showed this loving wear in their lack of sheen and newly-dulled greenness. However, the inside sole started rolling up within the guarantee period and Hunter, true to their word, replaced them with a brand new pair. Problem is, this coincided with my third year and – horror of horrors – finals. This is the time that every university student becomes far, far too familiar with the library – or in my case, Starbucks. When you walk five minutes on citified concrete/tarmac/paving stones, sit down, head down for eight hours, make the same walk home (in the other direction of course, and work some more before falling asleep on Erasmus’ Institutio principis Christiani, there may be need for an infinite supply of biros, sticky labels, coloured pens and most importantly hot cups of tea, but there is very little need of wellington boots. Hence the new replacement wellies haven’t been worn half as much as they would have been in first or second year, and still stand glorious proud in their very-greenness.

This shiny green is the badge that marks me an infiltrator into Country Life, or at the very best a newcomer. Those fully-fledged country people, initiated into the fold years ago, will without fail sport wellies in a stoic shade of used-to-be-green, mud spattered on the tops and legs, mud encrusted into the zip, mud slowly infusing with the sole of the boot its been there so long. The wear, the mud, the gorse/blackthorn scratches, the mud, the  worn sole and lest we forget, the mud – these are all signs of Belonging.

Similarly, the position on my mental map of those vehicles that I used to look down on disdainfully – the accursed Chelsea Tractors  – has changed. I’ve mentioned this before, so apologies if I’m repeating myself, but there is a point relevant to this post hidden somewhere. Chelsea Tractors used to take up space on the roads, slow everyone down by not fitting through gaps or parking oh-so-carefully in a normal parking space because the silly car is just too big for the normal world. People sat in them, quite literally on high, and looked down at us mere insects daring to scuttle down the M<insert motorway of your choice here> beside them. And yet now I’ve seen 4x4s in action – and probably not yet at their best or most useful– and I finally understand why some people need them. I’ve seen them stoically crawl their way up hills that my car would slip and slide to the bottom of, quite likely ending up on its little toboggan of a roof. I’ve seen the stupidly large boot that I could quite comfortable sleep in filled to bursting with stock, with guns, cartridges, cartridge bags, tools, with boxes of packets of ear plugs, defenders and safety glasses, you name it. These vehicles are like mini transport vans, but ones strong enough to transport that stuff up a mudslide in the rain.[i] But all these 4x4s I’ve seen put to their good and proper use have been splattered with mud, their glossy new-car sheen long gone and however well kept the interior, however frequently washed the outside, you can always tell that it is a Working Car. So I now reserve my disdain especially for the spotlessly clean, shiny Range Rover Vogues that soar down motorways with cream leather seats (honestly, who ever came up with such as impractical an idea as cream seat in a car! Even in my thoroughly non-country little blue city pug, pale seats would have ceased to be pale within six months of ownership). A Landrover Discovery, mud splattered up the sides and encrusted all over the wheel arches wears that mud as a symbol of its legitimacy and its right to be owned.

And so you see how mud becomes a badge of authenticity in the country. Proof that you belong. And yet recent events have proven that even the country can’t cope with all the mud the English Countryside and English weather have worked together to offer. Event after event this year has been cancelled – the optimistic, go-getting organisers of the Yorkshire Show gritted their teeth through just one day of their event, before succumbing to the mud and cancelling the rest. Horse trials have been cancelled, fair and shows have followed in their footsteps and most recently and devastatingly, the CLA Game Fair in Belvoir has been cancelled. This was to be my first game fair not working, where I was going to get to see more of the fair than the route from my stand to the ladies’, and I was so excited. I’d been gifted with a free ticket and entry into all those exciting, exclusive members bits that I don’t know what they are – though as I won’t get to see them this year, I’m sure they’re wonderful and decadent and luxurious and amazing. But now I’ll never know. Sniff. Self-pity aside, all those traders who had prepared, produced, packaged and packed so much stock to take to the show, not to mention the signs, tills, furniture, flooring and goodness only knows what else… They are the people you should really feel sorry for.

The overwhelming muddiness of recent events has demonstrated a quality about the Country that the rest of us should try to learn from – resilience. Mini-Game Fairs have been popping up all over Twitter and Facebook, some in Belvoir, some elsewhere, one at the Oxford Gun Company, one with Really Wild at RBSS, and one at E. J. Churchill – where I shall be going instead! Lots of the Chelsea Bun Club ladies will be in attendance, so there should be plenty of fun to be had. Everyone is being so supportive of one another, demonstrating enthusiasm and positive thinking. The mud may have cancelled event after event, but the proud mud-encrusted-boots-wearing attendees still fight back. The lessons to be had here are:

1)   Don’t underestimate the symbolic value of mud.

2)   Don’t underestimate the power of mud.

3)   Don’t ever give in to the mud.

 


[i] Please don’t try this at home, whether to prove me right or wrong. I deny any responsibility for any accidents that may occur from such experiments.

Curiouser and curiouser

To start, an apology and an explanation…

Those of you who have read this blog before may have noticed a distinct diminishment in the number of posts recently. For this, I am sorry. I mentioned before that I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel. Well, since then the symptoms of numbness, aching and random stabbing pain have spread to both hands, arms, feet, legs, lower back and more. Honestly, you’d think my body had something against me! I’m not dying or anything (had the blood tests to prove it), but I am baffling the doctors so far! That achievement aside, I’m happy to say that life is now on the up: I’m done with the resting (it makes no difference) and am on some lovely new pain relief drugs which should kick in fully soon. I’ve  got a lovely job that is willing to be flexible around my hospital appointments, drug-induced dizzy spells and discomfort, and I  have upgraded to a shiny new iPhone that I love love love love love, not least because the lack of having to press buttons makes it so much easier/less painful to type on! The above should hopefully explain my apparently paltry efforts when it come to new blog posts in the recent past, and it has all led to a moment of inspiration for a new blog post.

Now aided and abetted by my beloved iPhone I have as I explained before reignited my involvement with Twitter – my Twitter account was created years ago, but only reactivated when my work and my mum both created accounts and demanded faithful followers. My old account was resurrected, given a whole new look (@TheFirstFrost of course, complete with lovely sloe berries as a background) and suddenly I had a whole new life online. Ladies from the aforementioned Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club are rife on Twitter, and between them can easily absorb hours of my life with talk of cakes, discussions about guns, shooting and associated accessories, lovely photos, beautiful sketches and enough tweedy goods to tempt me and my far-too-empty purse, before I notice and drag myself away from the screen. The acquiring of Twitter followers is a whole new experience – at first it almost feels like you’ve got fans! After a while you start to realise it doesn’t actually mean quite as much as an adoring fan club with banners saying “I ❤ The First Frost” but it’s still rather exciting when you first reach your first 10, then 20, then 50 and most recently for me, 100 followers. And it was my hundred and one-th (hundred and first?) follower that provoked me into writing this.

And now on to the main event…

Mr 101 commented (very kindly!) that he enjoyed my blog and always liked to see ‘country converts’. I replied saying that, truthfully, I was coming to love the country, but that it was a very strange world indeed. And this, to my surprise, surprised him.

Though I’m well aware I’m not a full-blown member of the secret society that is The Country, I feel I’ve fallen comfortably far down the rabbit hole to be safe from burrowing border terriers looking to drag me out by my heels, and thus close enough to Wonderland to able to pass some judgment.[i] And what I’m seeing is intriguing,appealing, confusing, educational, fascinating and very wet and muddy (I suppose as one might expect a rabbit hole to be.) While I am most definitely on my way to becoming a country convert, I am, as I told the lovely man on Twitter, finding a lot of it rather strange.

First is that the country world is far more old-fashioned in a lot of ways than the cosmopolitan environment I’m used to. It seems in a few ways rather behind in the ways of modern technology. Don’t get me wrong; the tractors and other farming machinery I’m sure are built with the newest of new technologies, but for the first time in perhaps as long as ten years, I’ve met fully grown adults who don’t have email addresses. This is astounding to me, a girl who could reasonably comfortable type before I could reasonably comfortable write. I’ve used computers since I was three years old, and have had at least one email address and generally two or more at all times since the age of ten or eleven.  It seems alien to me that anyone could function without regular access to the internet and email communication. Similarly, some of the country businesses, organisations and companies I’ve come into contact with in this new world have websites as advanced and complex as the ones we built for our GCSE IT. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to live a life devoid of email or so un-reliant on the Internet, but it is in my mind peculiar.

Technology aside, the country seems slightly old-fashioned in other ways. I’ve met people of my own generation (early 20s) who admit to having only ever met one or two people of African or Afro-American origin, including  someone who said he once proffered an introduction along the lines of ‘I’m sorry if I’m weird around you, I’ve just never met anyone black before’. I grew up oblivious to skin colour. You might not believe me, but I really did. Accents I noticed, but the colour of someone’s skin meant absolutely nothing – my school was a rainbow of skin colours, and none of them had the slightest of impacts on our opinions of each other – your performance in inter-house challenges was far more important! My mum will back me up with an anecdote about some friends and me sat in the back of our car discussing how a girl we knew looked like Sandra Bullock. My mum sat in the driving seat somewhere between astounded and amused, as the lookalike in question was from an Indian family and thus had completely different colour skin to Sandra Bullock. But that was irrelevant – she really did look like Sandra Bullock! Let me be clear: I’m definitely NOT saying that everyone in the country is racist. Far from it. This is probably more of a comment on those people not-in-the-capital-city. But the slight, unintended racism of a few of the people I’ve met in the last year or two is incredibly strange and slightly shocking to me. I thought that sort of stuff had mostly died out, at least among ‘people like me’. Shows how closeted I’ve been in my capital-city life.

Similarly, I’ve personally encountered more sexism since discovering this world than I ever had before – for instance, gentlemen assuming I would know nothing about guns (problem here is, they’re right) or ammunition (I know a little more about cartridges I’m proud to say) and automatically turning to a male colleague to ask advice. Or more simply male customers looking unsettled in receiving ammunition advice from someone who dared have both a matching pair of X chromosomes and an interest in guns. Surely not! I’ve met women who volunteer to help on a shoot only to restrict themselves to helping with tea, coffee and refreshments. Now, I’ve made my love of tea and cake abundantly clear, and if you’ve read my blog and not realised that perhaps I need to work on my writing. But simply because a woman enjoys baking, does that mean she should be limited to the kitchen? Why not bake and help with the shooting side of things? Or god forbid, shoot yourself?! This is definitely NOT a problem affecting all country folk – if you possess said pair of X-chromosomes and find yourself sat at your computer agreeing or shouting “YEAH!” then I highly suggest you find your next S&CBC meet and come along. Join us in our ambition to prove to all menfolk that we enjoy baking and take pleasure from our beautiful kitchen aid mixers (wishful sigh) while simultaneously enjoying shooting and taking pleasure from our beautiful shotguns.[ii] Call it multitasking. If you like the sound of that, come along and you’ll meet plenty of like-minded women I promise! Anyway, I digress. Until I left university I was coming to the conclusion that from my own (admittedly limited) experience, sexism was far less prolific than some of my more feminist minded friends made out, and as long as I stood my ground I’d be okay. But if it’s still in existence in country life, evident to me in under a year, then who’s to say they’re not right that it is prolific in other worlds too. I’m growing to really like the country, and love the history and tradition – seeing no point in change for change’s sake, and valuing hugely a lot of things lovely and old-fashioned – but some things have changed for a reason, and these isms are one of them.

The second odd thing I wish to comment on, and that I can ramble on about for some time if given the space (but I’ll try not to), is the acceptance of the roles of nature and death. I’ve talked about it before, but Country Death is not a horror that lurks in the corner in a black cloak with a scythe just waiting, revelling in the general fear and loathing that people hold towards him until the time comes for him to hack your head off or whisk you away into The Beyond. Death is accepted. The animals shot for sport are respected while living, treated well, looked after and protected while still left to roam free. And yet their deaths, and the achievement of killing them, are celebrated and glorified with photographs of dead birds laid one atop the other, or a shooter photographed and so preserved for all eternity, posing behind the dead of a just-shot dead, one hand on each antler holding it up. Animals are frequently killed on a regular basis – a farming friend casually mentioned that he was going out ‘blasting bunnies’ later on, as they were causing problems in his crops. I won’t mention the hunts-on-horseback at this point, but foxes are still shot regularly as pests, and photos will often be taken of the carcases as the norm, even just friends snapping pics on iPhones. Taxidermy – a practice which I had thought antiquated and old-fashioned – is very much still alive, with stuffed birds dotted around country shops and living rooms, the heads of decapitated buffalo, stag, antelope and countless other animals mounted on wooden plaques and displayed in shops, shoot lodges and hallways. From a city perspective, this means that someone has taken it upon themselves to track down a living, breathing animal, end its life, carefully gut and empty the animal of all its bones, muscles, arteries and other live-preserving matter to leave only the outer skin, fur, feathers, eyes, feet horns and so on. They then stuff the dead animal (and use other much more complicated techniques) to ensure its preservation, and proceed to display this emblem of a life ended too soon as a pretty ornament. City girl says: what’s wrong with a painting or sculture?

I think I’m starting to be able to rationalise it, and even possibly understand it (and I’ll save that ramble for another day) but the problem is that however rationally I explain it in my head, the fact is that I’m still pretty squeamish when it comes to dead stuff. Or dying stuff. Once it’s dead in my kitchen, it’s not a problem; it’s not an animal that recently died; it’s meat, even if it is still fully clothed in fur or feathers. I’m just not phased by dead animals when they are obviously there to be eaten. But that act of killing them still turns my stomach slightly, the idea of a stately stag in the wild standing proud one minute, and lying dead the next with a bullet through its neck (or head or heart or wherever else they’re shot), blood spilled on the grass and then dragged back home. Then again, once it’s strung up to be skinned and gutted, I have no problem – it ceases to be a deer and becomes venison. But still the middle bit, the transition from dead to alive, the idea of people and children in particular being so close to that moment, and the successful hunter taking quite so much pleasure in it… much as I possibly shouldn’t admit this to some country-friends, my head may have manage to get around it, but my heart and stomach still haven’t. I’ll admit, I’m far happier with the idea of shooting birds than I am deer and stags, so I may simply be suffering from a case of Bambi-it is. Nonetheless, it took some serious thinking to find the idea of what I first saw as ruthlessly shooting a bird down mid-flight not unpalatable, and I still find the ‘country-folks’’ complete, nonchalant acceptance of it all rather peculiar.

The last thing I’ll comment on today that I find strange looking down the rabbit hole is the amount of money people spend on clothes and footwear. I come from a world where you buy your day-to-day things cheaply, be it H&M to M&S, but the extravagant purchases are a beautiful pair of heels, or a dress for a special occasion, both of which you may wear only once a year – if that! And I know someone who buys the absolute cheapest wellies he can, once a year for a festival, leaves them at the festival and buys another next year. But suddenly I fall into the Country, and meet countless people who own £300 wellingtons (leather-lined, of course). But it does make sense – a lot of people will spend days, even weeks on end in their wellies, wearing them all day long, day in day out. They need to keep their feet dry, comfortable and warm. Similarly, a £500 coat isn’t a designer item, it’s a heavy-duty, waterproofed affair – tweed of course, if you’re of a traditional persuasion and going on a game shoot – but still Goretex lined with these storm cuffs, that drip stopper thingy and those draining holes (in the pockets of course, to keep your cartridges dry!), and countless other sensible touches, instead of the frills and fripperies of the city. This makes so much sense – I’ve even started adopting it in my every day life, spending less on dresses and heels for occasions and more on my day-to-day shoes and clothes – and you know what, it works! My clothes wash better, last longer, and are quite simply fit for purpose – so much more worth the money I spent on them than a £200 dress I might wear once or twice. Though I’m still not in the market for £300 wellies – I just don’t wear mine enough. Amazing, wonderful, sensible, logical, and most definitely to a girl who grew up in the city, just a little strange.

Strange isn’t bad, it’s strange. The Country is my wonderland, and assuming I stay safe from decapitation-hungry monarchs that torture hedgehogs with flamingos, I’m eager to see more of it. I promise that as I keep falling down the rabbit hole, I’ll let you know what else I see. In turn, if you farming folk would be so kind, should you find yourselves out ‘bunny-blasting’ please avoid any flustered looking rabbits with waistcoats and pocket watches.


[i] A country friend recently confirmed this for me, as I, a humble girl from Twickenham, referred to her local country town as “Chippy”. Apparently this means I passed some sort of test, and am well on my way to becoming ‘country’. Though apparently not there yet, as I still own Hunters, and insufficiently muddy ones at that (and love them).

[ii] For the record, I don’t recommend baking with shotguns or shooting with cake batter or even sultanas. Neither will yield very good results.

God Makes Preserves

As I’ve mentioned before (just a few times) it was my mum who introduced me to the sticky joy of making jam, jelly and other things that you can put into jars. And it’s highly likely that one source of her love of making blackberry jam and quince marmalade (among other things) is the author L. M. Montgomery, or more specifically, her second book about Anne-with-an-E, Anne of Avonlea. For those of you who haven’t read it, or who have but can’t quite recall the details, Anne ends up helping her guardian Marilla raise two twins, prim, shy little Dora, and the cheerfully mischievous Davy. In Chapter 14, Anne catches Davy stealing plum jam (evidently another Jam Fan) and the following conversation ensues:

‘Anyhow, there’ll be plenty of jam in heaven, that’s one comfort,’ he said complacently.

Anne nipped a smile in the bud.

‘Perhaps there will… if we want it,’ she said, ‘but what makes you think so?’

‘Why, it’s in the catechism,’ said Davy.

‘Oh, no, there is nothing like that in the catechism Davy.’

‘But I tell you there is,’ persisted Davy. ‘It was in that question Marilla taught me last Sunday. “Why should we love God?” It says, “Because He makes preserves, and redeems us.” Preserves is just a holy way of saying jam.’

My mother has quoted at me “God makes preserves” more times than I can count (though I should point out for the sake of her reputation as a mother that she never let me believe it). And if God enjoys making preserves, why shouldn’t we?

The clearest bit of the jam-making process that I remember from being little was collecting the fruit. Admittedly, my brother and I were weirdly enthusiastic about many collecting things, particularly conkers. One year we collected enough conkers from Twickenham Green to fill what I remember as ten or twenty huge plastic boxes, though this memory could be a victim of the innate hyperbole of a child’s mind. We’d rummage through the leaves, looking for the really shiny conkers or better yet, the spikey green balls that, if you were lucky enough, you could crack open carefully to reveal a completely perfect conker, untouched by other people’s fingers or even by sunlight. Mum used to help my brother peel the conkers. Then they’d soak one in green dye, and trace over the lines with a red biro to make a ‘rat’s brain’. Easily pleased, I preferred to try and find the best, roundest and shiniest conker of the year. Sadly though, however successful I was, the glossy sheen never lasted and before long my poor father had to come up with a means to dispose of what was undoubtedly many many kilograms of mouldy, unwanted, and by now unloved conkers.

Near the house we lived in then was a park and near that an area of land left wild to help encourage local wildlife, especially birds. Both of these, and the playing fields near by were and still are full not only of the aforementioned elderflowers, but also brambles. We used to march down the road to these brambles, plastic tubs in hand, and set about collecting the blackberries. Now, the good thing about collecting blackberries rather than conkers was that they were tasty, and what’s more, Mum would help us make the ones we hadn’t eaten into jam before they succumbed to the mould that ruined the fun of the conkers. They had to come off the bush easily and in theory, for every one we ate straight off the bush, we had to make sure at least a few went into the tub. Sticky little fingers stained purple, we’d return home with blackberries in hand, terribly proud of ourselves and for some unfathomable reason, not quite hungry enough to finish dinner. The berries would be rinsed, plopped into the big Jam Pan and boiled up with plenty of sugar before being decanted into jars and eventually, far more importantly, spread on toast with peanut butter. Yum.

When I was 10, we moved house, and discovered that the new house had two apple trees and a quince bush in the garden. The apple trees proved to have a bit of history to them: apparently the whole area used to be one big orchard. When they built the houses, the clever designer elected not to destroy all the trees (kind soul) but rather to leave every third or fourth three in every fourth or fifth row, and to build the back gardens and houses around them. This means, allegedly, that if you were to fly over our area in a helicopter, and look at the houses from above, you should be able to see all our little suburban apple trees line up rather marvellously, giving a vague indication of the orchard of times gone by. While I can’t vouch for the truth of this, I am the proud owner of (a copy of) a map of our area from the seventeen or eighteen hundreds, which indicates that there was indeed an orchard of some description in the area in which I believe our house is now.[i] And definitely it’s true that our next-door neighbour’s apple tree is exactly in line with ours, and more or less in the middle of the end of her garden.

Apple trees and the resulting crumbles, cakes, juices and failed attempts at cider aside, the quince bush proved rather more exciting, in that it enticed my mother into experimenting with quince marmalades and jellies, and I have to say she got quite good at it. Later experiments with different sugars produced rather a delicious dark quince jelly (which, added to an onion gravy with a generous splash of port, make a delicious sauce for game). The successful outpourings of her quince laboratory spurred her on into playing with rhubarb, some of which we also have growing by the garden path, and the recipe she settled on for her rhubarb chutney is absolutely scrumptious (and especially good with sausages). Within a few years she had exhausted the supply of fruit in our garden, and so a couple of Christmases ago, my father bought her two crab apple trees as a present. I must admit that he didn’t attempt to wrap them; as we sat around the fireplace exchanging gifts, she unwrapped a bright green pipe-cleaner tree with apple bonbons adorning its branches and a little plastic crab gripping the top of the ‘tree’ with one claw in a sadly unsuccessful impersonation of the silver star atop the Christmas tree.

The two varieties of crab apple proved to be a source of one very fragrant crab apple jelly, pinkish red in hue, and a soft orange Butterball Jelly with a rather honey-like flavour. A year or two later, a microscopist my mother visited for work purposes (don’t ask) nearly cried when my mother agreed to take home a big basket full of Bramley apples from her overburdened tree. The two Bramley apple jellies that resulted proved to be just as nice as the crab apple ones, and so, by now armed with quite the arsenal of homemade jams, jellies, chutneys and marmalades, my mother started the little homespun company, Twickenham Preserves. The small jars are now sold at Sandy’s Fishmongers and Last Try Wines in Twickenham, and tomorrow (1st July 2012) will be for sale at the Tiffin Boys’ School car boot sale in Kingston (just in case you happen to be passing). With a rather more successful version of my spicy pear chutney (which is very definitely a chutney this time, not a pickle) added to the mix, we’re rather hoping the people of Kingston like our little jars of jelly – after all, if God appreciates preserves, then they should be good enough for the rest of us, shouldn’t they?


[i] My skills in reading modern maps are at best passable. My skills in reading ye olde maps I would not in any way shape or form rely upon. Ever.

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.

Time For Tea

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee has brought to the fore a more patriotic spirit than I’ve ever witnessed in my twenty-three and a bit years of life. Perhaps it’s linked to the Olympics (#London2012) or building on the hype of last year’s Royal Wedding festivities, but I’ve seen more red-white-and-blue than ever before, from bunting on trees to Union Flag manicures. And I’ve found it all rather heart-warming. On International Day at school, surrounded by girls in glittering saris, silky Korean hanboks and intricately embroidered kimonos, I often lamented the lack of an English national dress. The British, in particular the English, truly are in my somewhat limited experience the masters of understatement and not-wanting-to-make-a-fuss, and the general disdain with which much of the population look upon the closest thing I can think of to a national dance – Morris dancing – I thought spoke volumes about our national pride or lack thereof. But the marriage of William and Kate – now Katherine – last year contradicted me, and this year’s Jubilee festivities have solidified that still further. My delving into the world of the countryside has shown me and continues to enlighten me about a new side of British life, and the combination of these two worlds – the city and the country – has led me to the conclusion that British tradition – or rather English tradition, for the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish are all proud enough to have and to celebrate their own national dress and traditions – does still exist, if in a slightly subtle form. I may live to change, alter, regret or even deny this assertion, but it’ll do for now.

Yesterday I went to my second gathering of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, and it was just as good as before. Three stands, three pairs of clays per stand and plenty of cake! The highlight was most definitely the wonderful, adrenaline-fueled simulated flush put on by John, Derek and Sid, our lovely instructors. I thought I loved shooting, and my second simulated experience (the first being a 20-bird sequence shot from the grouse butt at RBSS) has cemented what the first confirmed – it takes it to a whole new level. You have no time to think, it feels so much more instinctive and you do get a real adrenaline rush. I shot RBSS’s Classic Handicap with an A Class shot, and was thrilled with my 8 kills out of 20 when he only hit 12! The flush yesterday reminded me of that, and I was delighted when I managed finally to open my barrels and let the ejectors do the work (at the beginning I carefully removed my spent cartridges and looked around mid-flush for the bin to put them in). I reloaded at record-breaking speed – a personal record but still… – mounted the gun and ‘killed’ a clay that had been launched while my gun had been broken. The cherry on the cake was to hear expert instructor John King behind me say “very good shot”, a self-esteem boost if there ever was one. Needless to say I can’t wait for my first game shoot.

Shooting and hunting are, of course, part of British Heritage, dating back to Idon’tknowwhen. Having graduated from and thus left university, I think I am now safe to reference Wikipedia (and will admit a mixed feeling of guilt, rebellion and liberation in doing so) when I say that the first recorded instance of hunting a fox with dogs was in 1534. The relaxation of the law in 1831 meant that shooting was more accessible to the masses. The association of hunting (and I include shooting under that umbrella of a term) and the monarchy help give shooting its terribly British reputation – though, I believe, HRH herself doesn’t shoot, Prince Philip does, and the newest member of the Royal Family, the Duchess of Cambridge, has been photographed shotgun in hand.

A yet more quintessentially British tradition is that of drinking tea. Tea is the lifeblood of the William Powell office, and I’m sure many other offices around the country. I don’t think my mother could function without it – we used to take little sacks of teabags on holiday with us, as she could never find tea good enough abroad. It was presented to the Britons by Asterix in place of the Magic Potion, and, drunk with ‘a drop of milk’ led them to win the battle against the Romans[i]. Despite being grown abroad and only becoming popular in the UK in the 1800s, tea is most definitely an English tradition, particularly when served with cucumber sandwiches and scones – which should be pronounced ‘sconns’ not ‘scoans’ – with clotted cream and jam (my mother and I disagree on the order of application of jam and cream, meaning it was a hot topic of debate around our tea table today… opinions welcome!)

All of the above means that a meeting of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, guns and teapots at the ready, on the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations seemed most wonderfully fitting. I successfully managed not only to make a cake for this meet, but not to drop it; I did my bit, arriving with both my orange and hazelnut brownies (loosely based on Leon’s ‘Better Brownie’) and my pride intact. My brownies joined the cakes brought along by the ladies were not only of the same spectacular standard as last time, and to mark the occasion, they were adorned with red, white and blue stars, and union flags both edible and paper. Bunting decorated the lodge, and the beautiful LadiesShooting tea cups, saucers, side plates and teapots stood about proudly, waiting to be filled with hot delicious English Breakfast tea.

I was surprised again yesterday, this time by a spontaneous act of patriotism at a friend’s barbeque in the evening. In my role as sensible driver, I was amused and somewhat impressed when the slightly tiddly group agreed to add a new rule to the drinking game, Ring Of Fire. While the various rules are much argued over, interchanged, debated and tweaked, I’ve not yet actually witnessed the introduction of a new rule – until last night. To mark the celebrations of the Queen’s sixty years of reign, it was agreed that upon drawing a queen from the ring of playing cards on the table, the whole group had to stand and sing the national anthem. And despite their small size, sing they did. Twice before the game was abandoned did the walls of the shared house vibrate with passionate, tipsy renditions of God Save The Queen. I had the forethought to film the second performance, but sadly as it was on someone else’s camera I can’t post it on here. The gusto with which the anthem was belted out perhaps says more about the quantities of G&T and Pimms-and-lemonade consumed, but I believe it also shows that at their heart, even a group of proactive and intelligent students and ex-students with political views ranging from the redest of reds to the bluest of blues, share a love of their country and their monarch – if not the monarchy as an establishment. But I’m not going to dissolve into a debate about the monarchy here; suffice it to say, the enthusiasm and general joining-in-ness was really lovely to see.

Today I celebrated the Jubilee by enjoying afternoon tea with my family, watching the slightly damp pageant on the River Thames, followed by the Diamond Jubilee special “entertainment extravaganza”, all with yet more tea, homemade elderflower champagne, cordial and Lemon Shrub (more on those to follow in a later post) and plenty more cake. I spent last Friday baking a variety of cakes: the aforementioned orange brownies with toasted hazelnuts; wholemeal scones; a lemon drizzle cake with a hint of ginger (could have done with a bigger hint in my opinion but a nice moist loaf nonetheless); and the best Victoria sponge I’ve made to date, consisting of two wholemeal sponges that actually deigned to rise rather well, sandwiched together with only-slightly sweetened cream (a hat-tip here to the ex-colleague who introduced me to this) raspberry jam and fresh raspberries, and topped with more cream and a fresh-fruit Union Flag, inspired by yesterday’s winner of the S&CBC rosette for Best Cake. The plan was for leftovers to be vacuumed up by my friends on Tuesday after a street party here in Twickenham, but I fear the half a lemon drizzle loaf and two wholemeal scones that are left may not quite fill us up. Luckily I still have some elderflower champagne and more potent lemon shrub left over, which should hopefully distract my guests.

Shooting, barbeques, mini-flags, friends, family, copious amounts of tea and cake, pretty red-white-and-blue napkins and plenty of patriotic spirit have made the Jubilee weekend rather wonderful so far. This is history in the making, and we are living through it. We are celebrating only the second monarch ever ever ever  to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee. (The feminist in me wishes to point out that both of the monarchs to achieve this were women. Long Live the Queen indeed.) If HRH lasts another four years – and I can think of no reason to doubt her – we will have cause to celebrate the longest reigning monarch in British history; truly something to celebrate. I’d better get planning those cakes.


[i] I still think Marcus Ginandtonicus should have played a key role in ‘Asterix in Britain’, if only due to the fabulousness of his name!

Beam The Wheat Up, Scotty

I’ve always thought I have a good awareness of the source of my food, and I’ve been proud of myself for this – or of my parents I suppose. Lambs in the fields on holiday were very cute and fluffy and sweet. And tasty. Pigs were funny and to be laughed at when I was little, and they made delicious bacon and sausages. While away on my gap yahh, I lived for a short time with a Nicaraguan family. My ‘brothers’ lassoed a goat and tied it to a tree, and my ‘mother’ slaughtered it. The next morning the top half of the goat’s head was hanging off one of the bamboo poles that made up the shower as I washed; I walked through the ‘kitchen’, ducking under the intestines to do so; I walked past the brain sat on a rough wooden shelf by the door; and sat down to a breakfast of beans, rice, egg and fresh goat. Yet despite this ‘awareness’, I’ve never considered is the origin of the ingredients and the sheer scale of the production process. A friend recently introduced me to the TV programme ‘How It’s Made’, which showed how during the manufacturing process of Canadian ‘Sticky Buns’, an entire sack of ground cinnamon is emptied into the mixing vat – a spice that I use a teaspoon at a time. I visited Sir Pheasant’s Farm a second time recently, actually getting to see it in action, and this was when I realised how big everything involved in farming is; I’ve never even tried to imagine it before.

I had my first experience driving a tractor, and believe me when I say that a tractor is much, much bigger than a car, particularly if the car you’re used to driving is a little Pug (a 107) and the largest car you’ve driven is a 306. The tractor wheels come up to my waist, you need a set of steps to climb into the cab, and even the steering wheel is about three times bigger than in my little car. It’s also hugely less sensitive; to turn even a small amount requires one to virtually spin the steering wheel like a top (I’ll admit I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect). I did like that fact that you don’t need to press the clutch to change gear – you just click a button with your right hand (at least on the tractor I was driving, a Ford New Holland) but then there are many many more gears than on my car.  That said, all of the ones I used at least were the equivalent only of first or perhaps second gear, i.e. ‘slow’. Once used to the giant machine, and driving around a field in it, only then did I realise quite how big an acre is. Consider that farmers have to dig, plough, drill (to me this translates as ‘sow’) and fertilise the fields by driving over them, not to mention all the various sprays. Combine this with the tortoise speed of the tractors and whatnot that they drive while doing so, and you see quite how labour intensive farming is. The vehicles may be big, but the fields are much, much bigger.

On Tuesday morning, a man called to make arrangements that someone would come and pick up some wheat later. If he could make it, it would be early evening. If not, he would come the next morning – at about 5am. Luckily for me, reluctant as I was to get up before sunrise, he arrived around 5pm so I got to see the wheat being loaded. The truck that turned up seemed about three times as long as my house is wide. This could be another exaggeration, but honestly I’m not sure and wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. Before the truck/lorry arrived, we moved the combine harvester out of the way – though I didn’t drive it, for the sake of the rest of the farm; the wheels on that are bigger than me, and it requires not steps but a ladder to get into the cab. Here I learned that the engine on a combine harvester is Loud with a capital L. I’ve decided that the reason so many farmers shoot is either because they’re so deaf from the combines that gun fire next to their ears is nothing, or so they can reuse their ear defenders from shooting when farming. The loading then began, as the wheat was transferred to the enormous lorry, described by its misguided driver as a ‘wagon’. He obviously long ago mastered the art of understatement. The teleporter was kitted out with a big metal bucket on the front – and by ‘big’ I mean it could hold about 1 ½ tonnes of wheat per scoop, so a little bigger than the 5l bucket my mum keeps in the garden. 29 tonnes of wheat were being sold, and with1 ½ tonnes moved per journey, the little teleporter (and when I say ‘little’ I mean in comparison to the tractor and combine harvester) moved back and forth with its farmer in the driving seat more time than I could count.

The teleporter is a piece of farm machinery I have taken issue with. After someone described one to me a while ago, I forgot its name, and later mistakenly referred to it as a ‘Transporter’ which caused much amusement amongst my more agriculturally-minded friends. But I have to back up my mistake. From what I’ve seen, a teleporter is used to move things from point A to point B. And in doing this, it transports its load. It does not, in any sense of the word, teleport it. No Star-Trek-esque equipment vanished the wheat from the shed only for it to miraculously appear moments later in the ‘wagon’. No Willy Wonka style laser was employed to dissect it molecule by molecule at point A, and beam them through space to reassemble at Point B. No, the inaccurately named teleporter transports, and therefore even if it is officially wrong (though descriptively accurate) to call it a Transporter, I just don’t see the joke. But I will give the farming community the benefit of the doubt, note it down as part of my Country Education and assume that the understanding of the humour will come to me through time. I am thrown back 12 months or more to a conversation about tractors with Sir Pheasant’s Farmer where I described a tractor as having a ‘sticky out pokey thing’ on the front; a description that still haunts me to this day and I fear I will never be allowed to forget. Hopefully, eventually, whether in five or fifteen years time, I will have found the hidden humour in the teleporter/transporter confusion, and also learned the name of the sticky out pokey thing (I still don’t know what this is called. It’s sort of like a huge tow bar, but on the front. If you can enlighten me, please do = you can comment below!)

When the teleporter was finished and the wagon full, the driver secured a tarpaulin over the top, produced a flimsy paper receipt that was the trade for the wheat (that would soon be swapped again for a cheque for so many thousands of pounds) and drove off. Looking into the shed, the 29 tonnes he had taken appeared to have made little more than a large dent in store – there was so much left. The wheat that was taken will be ground down and added to by thousands more tonnes, to be baked into cakes, biscuits, bread and God only knows what else, which will be sold in supermarkets and corners across the country. So when I think I know the origins of my food – because I know how to make bread and cakes, and I know that animals become my food – I have so very little idea of the quantities and scale of the manufacturing processes. I can’t picture how many thousands of cows and bulls must be reared to keep our fridges stocked in mince and our restaurants in steak; how many eggs must be laid for the ingredients in the food we buy in the supermarkets, as well as the boxes of them for sale. And so I have concluded, farming’s quite a big deal really.

Shotguns and Chelsea Buns

Last week I encountered a chain of bad luck. One due to my own clumsiness, one actually due to sheer bad luck, and all of which culminated in me bombarding my few Twitter followers with tweet after tweet after tweet last Saturday morning, every single one of them moaning about the traffic jam I was sat in for an hour and a half. There were four key factors that led up to this moment:

  • First, last autumn a girl I was working with wrote an article about her experience on a grouse moor for a new website, ladies-shooting.com.
  • Second, I started this blog.
  • Third, a couple of months ago I was embarrassed by my mother’s proficiency and persuaded by work to rediscover my Twitter account – which I duly linked to the blog, rechristening it @TheFirstFrost – and started ‘tweeting’.
  • Fourthly and finally, due to a diagnosis of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, I have recently found myself living back in Greater London – temporarily I might add – and thus with a slight lack of anything even vaguely country to write about.

These circumstances all combined to stick me in the worst traffic jam I’ve yet experienced as a driver. I shall explain.

A friend at work encouraged, persuaded and bribed us all to ‘follow’ @William_Powell on Twitter. So that evening, I logged onto my dormant, near extinct Twitter account and did just that. Embarrassed by the fact that my mother was more social-medialy active than I was, and armed with a brand new shiny phone and my brand new shiny blog to talk about and shamelessly promote, I decided to pay attention to my neglected Twitter account. I promptly set about hunting for people to stalk – I mean ‘follow’. Amongst my victims were my colleagues, including the girl mentioned above who wrote the piece about the grouse moor. Sheep that I am, I also set about following people they were following, picking out anyone who seemed familiar, interesting or with an interesting name. Being a lady (or woman at least) who likes shooting, I opted to follow owner of the website she wrote for, @ladies-shooting. Little did I know it would bring me one step closer to that awful traffic jam.

City-bound as I was (and still am for that matter) I’ve had to actively hunt out things to write about, and so I derived my first benefit from Twitter. @ladies-shooting kept tweeting to the world about a clay shoot happening one weekend with the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club. I looked into it, and discovered that it is a ladies-only shooting club, where everything you require is provided, from guns to tuition, good company to cake, and I swiftly signed up.

The day before the shoot saw disaster number one. I set about making a ginger cake to take along, a very simple but very lovely, until-now failsafe recipe, requiring plenty of sticky ingredients – I finished off a tin of golden syrup in the making, which my dog very much enjoyed cleaning out.

However, one foolish and distracting phone call mid-bake meant that I forgot to add the key ingredient of my ginger cake: the ginger. After two minutes in the oven, I remembered, whipped the mostly-uncooked mixture out of the oven, and grated in my stem ginger, stirring it as little as possible before returning it to the oven. Sadly my last-ditch effort to gingify the cake meant that it sank in the middle, quite drastically; the Titanic of cakes if you will. Ever the optimist, I decided that I would cut the cake into squares, ice it, and no one would ever know of my ginger omission and its results. I released the sides of the springy cake tin, inverted it onto a plate, and removed the base of the tin. I then placed a cooling rack on the exposed bottom of the cake, and with one hand on the rack, one on the plate, set to turn it right way up onto the rack to cool. At this point my carpal tunnel kicked in: I dropped the lot. Half the cake slid off the plate onto the floor (much to the dog’s delight) and the rest smashed onto the counter. The cake was, even for the eternal optimist, ruined.

Not to be deterred, I reminded myself that there was nothing about Saturday’s shoot saying that you had to bring a cake, simply that you could if you wished. Next morning, I set off in plenty of time to drive to the Oxfordshire Shooting School to join the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club for the first time, sadly empty handed but armed with my ear defenders. Traffic caused by an accident earlier in the day caused everyone on the M40 to be diverted off at my junction down the A40, the road that I needed to drive down; and so we reach my traffic jam. I sat and crawled along, occasionally lifting my foot from the clutch as I reached the dizzying heights of 8mph, only to be shown a sea of red ahead of me as all cars hit their breaks and we ground yet again to a halt. I spent longer in that traffic jam than the entire journey should have taken. And so I tweeted my little heart out, simply as a means to keep myself amused. I also encountered a traffic sign that I don’t recollect specifically seeing before, and perhaps it was the petrol fumes, but it greatly amused me, surrounded as I was by stationary vehicles:

None of us had much need to be wary of tractors; unless one planned to drive over us all and crush us into real traffic jam (tasty and spreadable, with absolutely no pips!)

Luckily for me, I wasn’t the only one delayed, and when I finally made it to the Shooting School I was just in time to join a group on their first peg, and managed a decent score of 20/30 across all three targets. There was plenty of cake provided by luckier (or simply more organised) members of the group and we stood and sat around, chatting away drinking tea from beautiful china cups with matching saucers. All in all, it was well worth the wait, though I will aim to arrive on time next time.

For any women out there wanted to get involved in shooting, I highly recommend the club as an in. I knew no one at all when I arrived, but had a thoroughly lovely morning. The range of members is wonderful – there are people from a very country background kitted out in Dubarry’s and tweed, and people like me who really really aren’t. There’s also a fantastic variety of ability – you would not be alone as a complete beginner, and the instructors are prepared for that; but there were also a couple of experienced game shots that were both educational and a delight to watch. As I watched one of the women shooting one of the more challenging driven targets off a tower, she seemed to shoot in slow motion; she made it look elegant and easy, and there never was a better reminder that you have so much more time than you think you do from the moment you call for your target to the moment when you pull the trigger.

Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club has achieved something noteworthy (aside from there being tea and cake provided at every get together); they’ve managed to create a group serious about shooting without shying away from the feminine. Everything from the scorecards to the tea sets used at the end was oriented to women. And watching the lady I described above shoot demonstrated that it is possible to be a phenomenal game shot and be ladylike with it; as with all things, it simply takes practice. I very much look forward to the next shoot, on the 2nd June in Barbury near Swindon, and hopefully I can arrive with baked-offerings next time – if I can manage to bake a cake without dropping it or forgetting any ingredients.

Much Ado About Farming

A few weeks ago, I found out about an event taking place in Yorkshire that I wanted to attend. After begging the day off, and securing a place to attend, I considered my options for accommodation. Running through my list of friends in the area, I realised quickly that it was the university’s Easter holidays, and so the usual array of floors, sofas and armchairs would sadly be unavailable. This opened up the opportunity to stay on the estate belonging to the aforementioned Sir Pheasant and his peasant farmer. The bedroom I was allocated was bigger than my university flat, and indeed contained more beds than my university flat; my unfortunate but terrifically honest flatmate pulled straws for rooms before I even moved in, and having picked the straw for the small room, kitted out with a futon instead of a bed, was perfectly and admirably honest and began unpacking. She did come to be quite fond of the straw mattress – or so she led me to I believe. All of this aside, the fact remains that the room I occupied during my stay on Sir Pheasant’s farm was absolutely enormous. Another lesson about the country: houses are bigger. The rooms in general in the house were vastly bigger than anything I’d seen in Twickenham or Richmond growing up.

I was curious about the farm, and on the mini tour to view the pheasants and Mad March Hares, I asked a lot of questions. The farm had both livestock (cows and sheep, for meat though not for milk – no Eau de Dairy Farm here) and arable crops, and having been told this, I opened my mouth to ask a question about the cows – only to be corrected before I’d even finished my sentence. Another countryside lesson: while colloquially the term ‘cows’ is used in general to refer to cattle, in Farm World calling a beast a ‘cow’ implies that the beast is female, and has had calves. ‘Heifer’ is the term for a female cow before she has had any calves. A bull is an “intact male bovine animal” while ‘bullock’ refers to a less fortunate male, who has been castrated. The cows (colloquial use) on this farm were all bulls, being farmed for beef. I have to say, I never thought I would know this much about cows (again, colloquial use), and I’m still not sure it will ever be useful, but for now it will become yet another part of my country disguise, so that people think I know what I’m talking about.

Continuing towards the hares’ boxing ring, we stopped on a dirt track between two fields. Sir Pheasant’s farmer, gesturing with one hand to all the land visible in front of us, told me,

This is all corn.

Corn. Okay, I thought, I know what corn is. I’ve eaten corn. He turned to his left,

This is wheat…

He swung round to the right,

…and this is barley.

I stared into the space in front of me.

I thought you said they were both corn.

He smiled, trying not to laugh, explained what he meant, and I think I understood him correctly (but if not please comment below and further my agricultural education!)

Apparently, ‘corn’ is a term used to refer to any sort of cereal crop, including, wheat, barley, and what I was thinking of as corn is called maize. It starts its life as a type of corn, specifically as maize, then is cut down, stripped and bagged up by the Birds’ Eye polar bear and sold as either corn on the cob or sweetcorn, or failing that is puffed up and sugar coated, and sold as Butterkist popcorn. Unnecessarily confusing if you ask me, and greedy of the farmers who already have an umbrella term for that type of crop – cereal. Why they need a second is beyond me, but as much as I rant here, I’ll keep my lips firmly zipped when out in public among more agricultural folk; until I’ve learned a little – okay, a lot – more, they remain the experts.

Once I’d returned from the far distance lands of the North Yorkshire countryside, two friends asked me about my trip, about the farm I’d stayed on, and I recounted the storied detailed above, about how I’d seen the pheasants and the hares in the fields, about how quiet and peaceful it was, and some more boring facts about the land. Apparently I’d misunderstood something, somewhere along the line, as when I said the farm was 120,000 acres, they goggled at me.

My mother will tell anyone who will listen that I have a good eye for space, and that I should have been an architect. I have always enjoyed things of a 3D nature; woodwork when I was little, and building Lego and Duplo houses when I was littler. As a teenager I had a penchant for all things interior design and used to mock up floor plans of our house. All of this, combined with an A* in Design Technology, an A at A Level in Product Design, and the school Technology prize, I should have decent spatial awareness. And like to think I do, but my grasp of space starts at mm2 and cm2, travels up through sq ins, to pretty much reach its limit at m2. I think a house my aunt used to live in had an acre of woodland out the back, but I was small and it was big and I never full explored the limits of the Acre.

The fact was that before my visit to the farm, at the ripe old age of 23, I couldn’t have marked out how big an acre is to save my life, and even now I’m still not utterly certain whether a hectare is bigger or smaller than an acre. If I’d known then even roughly the size of an acre, I could probably have worked out that 120,000 acres was a little larger than the farm I’d seen. In fact, a 120,000acre farm would be double the size of the city of York, and approximately one seventeenth of all North Yorkshire. So having announced with faux confidence that I’d stayed on a 120,000acre farm, it’s no wonder my friends goggled; they must have thought I’d been staying with the Grand Old Duke of York, or someone of equal importance. After a quick telephone call, it transpired that the farm I described was in fact just as fictional as the Grand Old Duke. In reality, Sir Pheasant’s farm is 300-400acres. This fact and the absurdity of my initial description brought gales of laughter to my friends when I confessed, but I should be grateful – it brought humour, laughter, and yet another smidgen of agricultural enlightenment. And aside from that tiny, negligible misunderstanding, I promise you that everything else about the farm is true: there are strutting pheasants, boxing hares, plenty of corn (wheat and barley among other types), a lot of bulls, just a few sheep and at this time of year, a smattering of lambs to keep them company.