Hidden promise

 

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I’m really bad at delayed gratification. This serves me well in my career as a cook: think of a cake, bake a cake, eat a cake. Repeat as desired. This impatience, however, is a very poor quality indeed in a gardener. So much preparing and tilling and sowing, tending and pruning and nurturing and waiting. Endless sun-scorched, rain-lashed waiting. Gardening is optimism in action.

Fortunately, to keep us cheerful, some of the most glamorous flowers of all sprout quickly and undemandingly, going about the business of turning themselves into objects of beauty and wonder with precious little intervention from us.

Each autumn I go through the Blom’s Bulbs catalogue, seduced by its loving descriptions of colour, form and scent. Soon the catalogue is more Post-it note than paper. I find the descriptions as soothing as a cup of warm milk at bedtime: ‘Extremely strong and free flowering …Showy and weather resistant …Many small lilac flowers in the shape of stars…Lemon yellow cups becoming milk white with age.’

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My order just arrived – a pleasingly heavy box filled with brown paper bags labelled with gaudy photographs, the number of bulbs carefully hand written in the top-right-hand corner. It’s astonishing to think that in a few months, these fat, papery bulbs will push through the cold spring soil in a bobbing tide of yellow, orange, purple, pink and white.

It’s easy to understand the tulipomania that engulfed Holland in the 1630s, so beautifully evoked in Deborah Moggach’s luscious novel, Tulip Fever.  And as I squint at the greedily long list on my delivery note, I draw a little comfort from the thought that in 1637, a single tulip bulb cost more than ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. How very lucky we are.

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This year’s list.

Gives good face

 

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One of the things I enjoyed most about writing Gifts from the Garden was devising all of the beauty creams, lotions and balms. It made me feel a teeny bit witchy, which I like, but it was also enormously thrifty, which I love.

Most of the projects are made with things from the garden or kitchen cupboards, but some of the ingredients (such as the benzoin tincture used here) required a trip to Baldwins. Even now, with the book deadline a distant memory, I think of excuses to visit. It’s London’s oldest herbalist and has operated on Walworth Road since 1844. Go if you can, to enjoy the sight of shelves filled with jars of dried herbs and flowers and bottles of essential oils. They also have an excellent mail order service if you live further afield and their staff are enormously knowledgeable, patient and helpful. They also stock supplies for soap- and candle-making. I think if I was locked in there for, oh, three or four years, I would be perfectly content.

Fennel & honey face mask

Fennel is a natural astringent. It cleanses the skin and reduces puffiness. In India, gram or chickpea flour is used in many natural beauty treatments as it helps draw impurities out of the skin and is a gentle exfoliant. You can buy it from Asian stores and some supermarkets.

Makes approx. 170g, enough for 4–5 applications.

3 tablespoons fennel seeds, roughly crushed in a pestle and mortar
100g gram or chickpea flour
4 tablespoons runny honey
½ teaspoon benzoin tincture (a natural preservative)

1 jar or pot

Place the fennel seeds in a small pan with 80ml water. Bring to a simmer and immediately remove from the heat. Let the mixture cool and infuse, then strain through a fine sieve. Whisk together with the gram flour, honey and benzoin tincture until you have a thick paste. Spoon into the cold, sterilised jar or pot and seal.

The face mask should be smoothed onto a clean face and neck, left for 15 minutes, rubbed gently into the skin, then wiped off with a facecloth soaked in warm water. Rinse the skin in tepid water and pat dry with a fluffy towel before moisturising.

The face mask will keep in the fridge for 2 weeks.

packaging idea Tuck a soft, pretty facecloth into the package with the jar or pot for a simple, inexpensive but nonetheless thoughtful gift. Include a card with instructions for how to use the face mask too.

Growing Fennel

Airy fronds of fennel swaying in the breeze are such a pretty sight, and undoubtedly earn Foeniculum vulgare a place in the flower border, let alone the herb bed. Fennel can grow up to 1.5m tall and prefers rich, well-drained soil in a sunny site, though it will tolerate less-than-perfect conditions with fairly good heart. During the summer, keep picking at the fronds to encourage lots of sweet, young leaves. F. v. ‘Purpureum’, or bronze fennel, is less vigorous and has a milder flavour but is equally beautiful. The ripening seeds take on a yellowish shade.

Gifts from the Garden by Debora Robertson (Kyle Books, £16.99) Photography: Yuki Sugiura

That’ll do micely

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Prune plays with a catnip mouse 

Two old bachelors were living in one house;
One caught a muffin, the other caught a mouse.

The Two Old Bachelors, by Edward Lear, 1894

I have two cats who barely require artificial stimulation to behave like crazed hellions, perching cosily on the cooker hood, slinking along shelves and mantle pieces, dive-bombing guests from the tops of doors and wardrobes and brazenly eating the dog’s dinner while he looks on mournfully.

So providing them voluntarily with catnip (other than the free-range stuff they shred and roll on outside) is a perilous activity. But for the purpose of the book, I briefly became their pusher. Yuki, our patient and lovely photographer, managed to capture Prune’s eyes-closed-in-ecstasy, holding-on-with-claws-of-steel pose, before the poor little mouse was shredded to death. An interesting point: the dog was just as interested in the mouse as the cats were, though he ignores the catnip growing outside.

If you don’t grow catnip, do give it a go. It will certainly bring all the cats to your yard, but it’s terribly undemanding and pretty. Its soft purple flowers and silvery green leaves fill in many a blank space in my garden, and they’re great as underplanting for roses where they cover up the boring sticky bits wonderfully. It also makes a very good, calming tisane. Someone should tell the cats.

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Catmint mice

Scraps of strong cotton fabric, corduroy or tweed
String or ribbon, for the tails
Hollow fill fibre toy stuffing, available from craft suppliers
2 teaspoons dried catmint for each mouse
Scraps of felt for the ears
Embroidery thread, for the eyes
Pins
Needle and thread or sewing machine

For each mouse, cut a heart-shaped paper template, approximately 18cm at its widest point. Pin this to your fabric and cut round it. Cut the fabric heart in half along the central point so that you have two pieces. Place the right sides of the fabric together and tuck the tail in position so that you catch it as you sew around the mouse. Pin together and stitch, leaving a gap of about 3cm in the base of the mouse. Turn the mouse right-side out and press.

Fill the mouse with the hollow fill fibre and a couple of teaspoons of dried catmint, then sew up the hole in the base securely. Cut small triangles of felt for the ears and stitch them on. Embroider small crosses for eyes. The catmint mouse’s scent will remain strong for several months.

Growing Catmint

Hardy perennial catmint, Nepeta, gets its common name from the near-narcotic effect it has on cats, but it makes a very attractive border plant in its own right. Plant in well-drained soil in sun or light shade and when the first flowers have faded, cut right back to within a few centimetres of the soil line to encourage lush growth and a second crop of flowers. if you are cultivating it for your cat, you’ll need to protect it. Cats will roll around on the plants in a state of ecstasy and gnaw the foliage down to the stems. Poking some twigs or sticks into the ground around the plant and tying some garden twine in a web between the sticks can help stop the worst of the damage.

Gifts from the Garden by Debora Robertson (Kyle Books, £16.99) Photography: Yuki Sugiura

A bit from my book

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Courgette muffins sitting on the wall,
courgette muffins sitting on the wall,
and if one courgette muffin should accidentally fall (into my mouth),
there’ll still be plenty left for later.

Unknown, 2012

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share a little taster of my book, Gifts from the Garden, and post a few of the hundred or so projects here. I thought I’d start with the courgette and ricotta muffins because they vanished quicker than you can say ‘free food’ at my book party.  And also because it’s probably the most familiar territory for us all. It’s a recipe. It’s food. I warn you, in the weeks to come there will be sewing and a face mask. There will also be gardening. Don’t panic. We’ll all get through it together.

Courgette and ricotta muffins

A basket of muffins is always a welcome gift. These light and tender savoury ones are a delicious way of using up a plentiful crop of courgettes in summer. Alternatively, use grated carrot instead of courgettes and Cheddar in place of the Parmesan.

Makes 12.

240g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon salt
A few grinds of black pepper
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano or marjoram
120g Parmesan, coarsely grated
2 free-range eggs, lightly beaten
200g ricotta
100ml olive oil
200g courgettes, coarsely grated
5 spring onions, finely chopped

Paper cases
Muffin tin

Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6 and line a muffin tin with 12 paper cases.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Whisk in the salt, pepper, oregano or marjoram and 80g of the Parmesan.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, ricotta and olive oil. Fold this into the flour with a spatula until just combined – be careful not to overmix as it will make the muffins tough. Fold in the courgettes and spring onions.

Spoon the batter into the paper cases and sprinkle over the rest of the Parmesan. Bake for 18–20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean.

These muffins are best eaten on the day of baking, though they freeze quite well.

Growing courgettes

Courgettes, Cucurbita pepa, are possibly the easiest of all vegetables to grow. Sow seeds singly in small pots indoors in spring and harden them off by placing them outside in a sheltered spot during the day and then bringing them in at night for about a week. Only plant them out once all threat of frost has passed. Plant them in the ground about 1m apart, or grow them in pots at least 40cm in diameter. Keep courgettes well watered and pick them when they’re no larger than 10cm long for the best flavour. One of the benefits of growing your own courgettes is that you get to harvest the beautiful yellow flowers. You can eat them fresh or stuff them with soft goat’s cheese, dip them in a light tempura batter and deep-fry them until golden.

Gifts from the Garden by Debora Robertson (Kyle Books, £16.99) Photography: Yuki Sugiura

Hello autumn, my old friend

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Chinese lanterns, chrysanthemums, crocosmia, raggy purple dahlias, hypericum berries, bells of Ireland


Shape and shadow are candied citron
as lanterns turn bitter yellow. Autumn
is a red fox, a goblet filled with dark wine,
a hot chilli pepper with smoky eyes.

Autumn by Mary Hamrick, 2009

A morning in the flower market and the bunting-bright shades of summer have given way to fat berries, fiery chrysanthemums and boxes of papery-skinned bulbs. Trays of summer bedding are replaced by pots of sweet cyclamen, winter pansies and blowsy mums.

I’ve bought thick socks and pulled cosy scarves from the drawer, brushed last year’s dried mud from my boots and paired up a tangle of gloves and mittens. I’m ready.

Book party

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Lump in throat time.

Last Thursday evening, I was almost sick in my handbag. Despite being quite grown up, with the crow’s feet, RHS membership and drawer full of useful bits of string to prove it, I have managed so far to avoid doing the thing I most fear: speaking in public.

But I could avoid it no longer. Last Thursday, my book Gifts from the Garden,  was published and Jo, the owner of my lovely local bookshop, offered to host a party for me. ‘Just do a little talk, perhaps demonstrate a couple of the projects,’ she said gaily. ‘Yes, that’s a great idea!’ I said, hoping I could stave off the dry heaves until I hit the pavement.

I asked my pal, grower of delicious things, writer and all-around good egg, Mark Diacono  for tips. He’s done loads of personal appearances, and if his career as a Bradley Wiggins lookalike takes off I dare say he’ll do a lot more. ‘Give them something to eat, something to drink and get a joke in fast,’ he said. As this is the philosophy I’ve adhered to all of my life, I started to think perhaps I could do this.

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Courgette muffins

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Carrot Cake

So I pitched up at the bookshop with a boot full of platters, snacks and drinks, ingredients for my demonstration and, tucked into my handbag, hastily typed notes for a speech. People came. Quite a lot of them. They drank, they ate, they laughed. They also bought a huge stack of books and I got to sign them in a slightly demented scrawl.

I didn’t throw up. I loved every minute and couldn’t sleep until 2am from the sheer exhilaration of it all. Now I know how rock stars feel. Hit me if I become unbearable.

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My friend James and I. I post this picture not just because he bought the first book, but also because he’s so damn handsome.

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A great crowd at Stoke Newington Bookshop

Publication day

 

So it’s been a busy old time. My book is out today.

It’s called Gifts from the Garden and is the reason I seldom left my kitchen and garden for the first few months of the year, my hands either muddy or floury depending on the day. It was a dirty, fragrant, delicious form of house arrest.

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Cooks and gardeners are generous people. (Or that might just be bossy.) You seldom leave their homes without a few tips, advice, some seeds, a hastily-scrawled recipe, a slice of cake or a piece of pie. Taking what you’ve grown and transforming it into a present takes that generous (bossy) instinct and wraps it in all up in a big bow.

In pursuit of great gifts, I spent the winter and spring scrabbling around for out-of-season pinks and cherry tomato plants, marigolds and blackcurrants and crossing everything for sunny days to shoot the jams and jellies, liqueurs and chutneys, face creams and room sprays that make up the projects in the book.

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And somehow it all came together on some of the calmest shoot days I’ve ever known. This might have been due to the presence of lavender in many of the projects. But it was also most certainly due to the presence of Yuki Sugiura, who took the beautiful pictures, my pal and super-stylist Tabitha Hawkins, ace editor, queen of lists and living embodiment of patience, Sophie Allen, and designer Helen Bratby, the font-and-woodcut wizard.

That bit of making the book was great fun – a whole gang of us standing around a bowl of sugar and collectively deciding to move a spoon a tad to the left while the dog snuffled around our feet and the cats got tangled in the box (many boxes) of ribbon.

But then when the book comes out, it’s sort of just you, blinking in the sunlight, checking your nails for mud. Tonight at 8pm at my local bookshop, it’ll be just me, attempting to talk and make things at the same time and serving drinks and food from the book. If you’re local and free, do come. It would be lovely to meet you.

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Stoke Newington Bookshop
159 Stoke Newington High Street
London N16 ONY
020 7249 2808

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I spent some time in the past few weeks stitching hessian bags for catnip mouse kits (one of the projects in the book) to go out with advance copies to journalists.