I made a Christmas cake at the weekend. Here’s why I like making Christmas cake:
1) When I was at college far away Mum would make an extra one, and then give me half of it to take back with me after Christmas, and it’s that sort of a thing: a labour of love, packed full of sustaining things. ‘If you can’t afford to pay for any heating at least you’ll have a half-moon of masses of fruit jammed together sat in the bottom of your rucksack’ goes the thinking. She still makes an extra one and gives half to my brother, who lives in York and not actually in the trenches. But I recognise the urge from when I pack my kids’ packed lunches for school: ‘I can’t be there if you fall over, but maybe this flapjack will remind you that I love you, if you do.’ And the thing about a Christmas cake is that no one but the maker realises what a palaver it is, which makes it extra mum.
2) I like the fact that so many people tackle it, that everyone feels the same, about their mum making it, and their nana before, and so feels like it is a part of their thing. It isn’t a hard thing to make per se, but like I say: palaver. The buying of the million bits of fruit, the wrapping with newspaper, the fashioning of a funny hat with a hole so the top doesn’t burn and the incredibly long slow cooking (mine took SIX hours). I like that there is no celebrity ‘my take on’ or ‘three ways with’ required to spur us into doing it. It just is. We always have.
3) And I love that this so very British, cosy, sustaining, ingrained thing comes from so many other places, and that our Christmas traditions are impossible to extricate from our history of connection, travel and openness with the rest of the world. Raisins from Turkey, sultanas from Iran, cinnamon from Sri Lanka. That thought reminded me of this snippet of film from the house of commons this week, in which the wonderful Dennis Skinner takes on UKIP’s newest MP, and talks proudly of his ‘United Nations heart by pass’. It is 51 seconds that will lift your own heart, and a good reminder what a bullshit version of Great Britain UKIP is peddling. There are lots of things that are only here because of our mixed up, complex, outwards-facing history. Dennis Skinner and Christmas cake are among them.
You go up to the allotment in the late afternoon and everything is bursting with juice. The scent of the strawberry patch makes it impossible to walk past without stuffing yourself to the point of queasiness. So once you’ve reached the point of no more eating you pick and you pick and fill a big Tupperware container with strawberries, raspberries, tayberries. How beautiful and glistening they are. You take a picture of them for twitter and get some virtual applause for owning such very fine berries, then you wash them and pick the wriggling things off of them and all have big bowls of them with ice cream after tea. Then there’s still loads left so you pop them in the fridge and all eat them with yoghurt for a breakfast so healthy and seasonal and gorgeous. But – oh – there’s STILL loads left that evening and now they’re not quite so tempting, plus you’ve really eaten quite a lot of strawberries in the last 24 hours. You’ll just leave them sitting there in the fridge, for tomorrow. By then the ones closest to the back have got a bit too cold and developed severe mush all down one side, the others look a bit pale and troubled. You show them to the children and they pull faces. You dont even consider showing them to twitter.
It seems criminal for any home-grown berry that once aromatically wafted across your entire plot to end up on the compost heap, and so last night I mined the fridge for these nearly-gruesome bits of pre-compost, put them in a pan, added a couple of spoonfuls of vanilla sugar plus an old vanilla pod fished out of it and the juice of about half a lime, and simmered for about ten minutes before switching it off to cool (this is not actually jam of course, probably more compote, and it wouldn’t last if jarred, but it only had to last until the morning and the kids are more likely to eat jam than compote, so jam it was named). I then made drop scone mix, covered both with cling film, and went to sleep. This morning we breakfasted like kings, queens, princes, and really quite stroppy little princesses (despite the fact that her mother had gone to all that trouble).
I am the least OCD person you know. My kitchen is more often messy than not, my children more often grubby. That’s fine. That’s how goddam laissez faire I am. But I am hugely uptight about folding. I like to make beds ON MY OWN thank you, when I can take all the time I need to smooth and tuck and repeat. I go into a special sort of zone when the tent has to be put away at the end of a camping trip, dragging it off to a quiet spot and endlessly circling and adjusting and then – finally – folding.
And I had it again yesterday when we put the skin onto the polytunnel. A polytunnel skin is a flat sheet, a poltunnel a half cylinder, so there are potentially a lot of imperfect and flappy bits. At the ends around the doors you have to make these folds in order to pull everything tight and neat. Everyone else back off: I am in my happy place now. Shh…
Imperfect, even so, but I liked it enough to take a photo of it.
Two summers ago I met an 80-year-old man who had worked his allotment plot all of his adult life. His father had worked a plot on the site before him, and his grandfather before that. There was the human history of this allotment site, laid out before me in lifetimes. It put a shiver down my spine.
It also started me thinking about my own allotment’s lineage, about who might have worked my plot, and about what was happening in the wider world while they did. This has led to my new idea, which is to try to trace back the names of each of the plot’s previous holders. I was working away at this project, spending much of my time at the Bristol records office sifting through piles of old papers, trying to beat the idea into good enough shape to approach a publisher, when I was approached by Matthew Wilson and Simon Bisset about making some films for their new YouTube channel Digging It. Being quite obsessed and having almost no other thoughts in my head I suggested we try to make a little film or two about this, and they liked the idea. So Simon and I spent a freezing day up at the plot getting hailed on and generally blown about, and we made this video, below, which tells just a little of the start of my research. The research is as yet a very incomplete thing, and I am still feeling my way around how to find the information I need, but I am enjoying the process and I hope you enjoy the film.
Please do subscribe to the channel if you like it. There will be more episodes from me, and lovely films from others too.
A bit of a tease…. I sent the menu and dates out for our next supper club to our mailing list late last night with the intention of posting here this morning, but all places have now gone. Here it is anyway to try to tempt you onto the mailing list for next time (or the waiting list for this time, we do get cancellations).
The aim of the supper club is to cook the food that is in season in our gardens and allotments (we can’t supply it all from there – tho we are getting better at this – but use local organic sources where we can’t). It’s just meant to be a lovely meal from the sort of things we are growing.
Currently we hold the supper club at my house in north Bristol, and maybe this time out on the veranda if we’re lucky with the weather. We make it sparkly and beautiful. Suggested donation is £30 and it is BYO bottle but there is a free cocktail on arrival. Follow us on twitter at @LiaandJuliet and email firstname.lastname@example.org to put yourself on the mailing list for the next one.
August 10th menu
Lemon verbenatini with lemon verbena sherbet
Clear broth with allotment harvest vegetables (ham hock broth OR vegetable)
Potted cheese with dill cucumber pickles
Gnocchi with roast baby fennel and fennel sausage
Gnocchi with broad beans, mange tout, peas and ewe’s curd
Green fennel seed fudge
We held our Spring Supper Club a couple of weeks ago (click here if you don’t know what I’m on about). I always like to make a petit four, an after-dinner frippery, which stems from the fact that I would most probably make it an ‘Afters Club’ if I possibly could. So two puddings suit me. But when you’re trying to use the sort of ingredients found in your garden – as we do – sweet things are TRICKY in spring, when really all you have to play with is rhubarb. So for pudding I went for sweet flavours, rather than fruit, and we had scented lemon geranium posset with lemon geranium sherbet, and bolstered the whole thing with orange thyme shortbread. Plant-based St Clements stylings in posset/shortbread form. It was pretty fine.
That left rhubarb available, and I had to blog this, because I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever made: home-made jammy dodgers filled with rhubarb and vanilla jam, to have with tea. Adding vanilla to the jam gives it a creamy, custardy taste, which obviously makes rhubarb very happy. The tiny black vanilla seeds suspended in the dusky pink jam made for about the most beautiful jam I have ever seen, and there’s plenty of competition. The biscuits are buttery, smooth and full of vanilla themselves. Altogether a HIT.
Obviously you can substitute this for any kind of jam as the season goes on – I rather fancy a gooseberry jammy dodger – but I found the recipe for my jam here.
And here’s the recipe for the biscuits:
110g softened butter
50g icing sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
150g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 180 C / Gas 4 and line a baking tray with parchment. Cream together the butter and icing sugar, then add egg yolk (then mix), vanilla extract (mix), flour (fold), cornflour (fold), salt (er…mix). You are left with nearly a dough and need to use your hands to JUST bring it all together while being careful not to overwork. Biscuits want snap, and kneading makes for less of it. Roll out to the ubiquitous £1 coin thickness, and start cutting. I used my smallest cutter for cuteness but you could make them bigger. I made the hole in the middle with the tube that had held the vanilla pods and used the end of a straw to make the pattern on the top. You don’t need me to tell you to make the same number of plain bottoms and fancy tops, right…? Bake for about ten minutes. You want them pale, still. Cool on a rack, assemble whenever, and serve to *thrilled* guests.
If you are interested in finding out about the next supper club menu and dates before the rest of the world, please do sign up for our mailing list email@example.com . There will be more of this kind of thing, but over flowing with summertime garden bounty next time. Fun, fun.
PS We are in north Bristol. I always assume that people know – though there is no reason in the world that they should – and have to disappoint a couple of Australians. And I hate that.
These pictures were from a little while ago, but it’s snowing again so I reckon I can slip them past you unnoticed…
We went on a walk in the snow and found these little phrases inserted into gates. Only two, which seems odd. Maybe we should have looked harder. I immediately thought of Sarah Salway, as it is the sort of beautiful thing people actually pay her to do. Tough job eh, but someone’s gotta. I most probably took these pictures and wrote this for her, but you can look too.
I’m not great at the off-the-cuff, at riffing, or general spontaneity. When I worked in a job where I had to attend meetings in which ideas were ‘just thrown around’, I would sit there, silent and awkward and blushing. I like to think about what I want to say, and ideally go back and edit it and put it better, and then go back again and take a few more words out and THEN – maybe – show it to the world, which is why I am a writer and not a QVC presenter. I’d make a truly horrible QVC presenter.
And as a result I’ve always rather envied those that have the ability to improvise. I harboured a dream of being a jazz pianist for a while, and even thought about applying for a course. Yes there are courses! Though naturally that’s not the *real* way to become a jazz pianist, which has something to do with whisky and heartache. In truth I still harbour a dream to become a jazz singer, but though I know I can follow the notes and sing them not bad, that Ella- or Billie-like trick of giving each and every rendering of the song it’s very own little unexpected twist would elude me. Maybe they sat quietly and practiced each variation in advance, but I don’t think so.
But there is one thing I can improvise, and that is cake. I can remember the very moment I decided to teach myself. It was when I ate a piece of my friend Ellen’s carrot cake and asked for the recipe, at which she said, all casual: ‘oh I just made it up.’ I want to be like you, I thought.
There is most probably a key to piano improvisation, which is how they can teach it in a night class in Henley-upon-Thames. There is a key to improvising cake, and I found it at my daughter’s nursery two years ago. I was asked to come in to help with making fairy cakes, just to be an extra adult pair of hands, and the children were given a very simple set of scales and an egg. They put the egg on one side of the scales, and then in the other side weighed out equal amounts of first sugar, then butter, then self-raising flour. That’s it. It’s that simple: it’s equal weights of everything. You mix them all together (I mostly don’t cream the butter and sugar first as long as the butter is soft enough, just put it all in a bowl and go in with the electric mixer, but please feel free to tell me if you think I really should be. I’d love to know why), then pour them into a big cake tin lined with butter and parchment, or little cases, and cook at around gas mark 5 for as long as it takes.
Now once you’ve got the basic hang of this you can start riffing. If it’s summer and you’ve got some soft fruit to mix in you can take out a bit of the flour and replace it with ground almonds, and put in some vanilla extract to make a summery, crumbly, aromatic cake dotted pleasingly with berries. If it’s autumn and there’s a chill in the air and some apples to chop in then some of the flour will be wholemeal, and you might put in sultanas and cosy cinnamon or nutmeg, and top it with crunchy demerara sugar. Or you can grate lemon zest into the mix, and once it’s in the oven mix a big spoonful of sugar into the lemon’s squeezed juice and leave it to sit so that it turns itself into a slightly crystally syrup to pour over the just-baked top of the cake. Once you’ve got the feel for how gloopy your basic mix should be you can swap one of your eggs for some yoghurt, to make it smooth-textured and velvety. Or you can swap some of the sugar for honey to change the type of sweetness. And on, and on.
There must be many other ways to alter the texture of the cake. I’m only just beginning. I know not every cake sticks so rigidly to this ‘equal weights’ thing and I’d love to really get a grip on the difference. But that’s advanced improvisation and I’ll come to that. For now this works, and each and every cake I bake is very slightly different.
I won an award last week. I am now Practical Journalist of the Year, as awarded by the Garden Media Guild, for pieces I wrote in the Guardian. ‘Practical’ journalist is a bit of a funny one. It implies I’ve been writing particularly clear step-by-step instructions on how to dig a hole, when actually I’ve been writing about my ideas for environmentally friendly lawns, the unconventional ways I recycle waste in my garden, and the crops I produce on my veranda. As I now have my new whizzy website you can see the three features for which I received the award here, under ‘The Guardian’, should you be so inclined. Not a hole among them, see? SEE?
I was properly unprepared speech-wise, but remembered to thank Jane Perrone, who edits the gardening section of the Guardian Weekend mag. It was only after that I realised I should have given a mention to the lovely Joel Redman who always takes the pictures. Weekend’s standard request is for him to produce ‘graphic’ images, which makes everyone blush a little and start talking about the weather. In fact he has never once asked me to loosen my top button, but does manage to conjure clean space and strong lines and render my chaotic garden Weekend-Mag-friendly.
GMG awards time is always a little odd. I know well the disappointment of not being shortlisted, and how random the judging can seem if you don’t get a whiff, how spot on if you do. I think I even got a little told off last time I won one for running around twitter going on about how great I was. So I will just say that it feels good, and that when you earn your living from doing this it is a particularly big deal. Other than that I will confine myself to a little Mona Lisa smile every now and then, and I definitely wont assemble a gospel choir, climb into a boxing ring and do this:
No, almost certainly not.