Make yourself a merry little Christmas…

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Join me at my house for a cup of tea, a glass of wine, a slice of cake and a little light crafting and cooking. I’ll show you how to make some simple and irresistible Christmas presents, such as marigold soap and rose milk bath, scented sugars, pine cone firelighters, seedy crackers and chilli vodka. I’ll also demonstrate some easy decorations like dried orange and pine cone garlands, so your home smells as good as it looks this Christmas.

WHEN? NOVEMBER 9  – Sold Out
      or NOVEMBER 30 – Sold Out  
      2.30-4.30pm

HOW MUCH? £30, includes refreshments and a copy of my book, Gifts from the Garden: 100 Gorgeous Homegrown Presents
You can book from the PayPal link in the right hand column, or email me for further details.

Things to say and do

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In the next few days, I’ll be making projects from my book, Gifts from the Garden, at various points across north and east London and I’d love it if you would join me. If you don’t it’ll just be me, weeping into my dried lavender over what might have been, like a demented, sherry-swigging old fool. And none of us want that.

So, tomorrow night do come to the verdant and lovely N1 Garden Centre at 6.30pm – not only can we get to know one another a little better, there’ll be that added delight of running about a shop when it’s closed.

If you can’t make that, I am running two events at my house this weekend as part of the fabulous StokeyLitFest. Come and sit in my kitchen, walk around my garden, eat nice things, come out smelling fragrant and wonderful. All that for four quid. That’s Saturday or Sunday at 3pm. I hope to see you then.

I’ve Seen the Future, and It’s Bouffant

 

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Chilli wreaths and courgette muffins at Divertimenti.

Yesterday, as part of the Chelsea Fringe, I demonstrated some of the projects from Gifts from the Garden at Divertimenti, the kitchenware shop of dreams on the Brompton Road.

My friend Julia came to help. Her presence is so soothing I always feel nothing bad could ever happen when I’m with her. And if it does, it’ll transform itself into an anecdote we’ll laugh about when we’re old ladies, sipping cold and alcoholic somethings on a porch. She’s from Chattanooga, which for some reason means I always picture us on a porch swing in the cool shade a clapboard house, even though in our ten years of friendship we’ve never even been south of the river together, let alone to Tennessee.

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Julia and I, side by side, trying out the rose petal and sugar body scrub.


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Pouring marigold and honey soap.


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Making chive pesto.

The extent of my lofty aims for any public appearance is that people come, they take away something vaguely interesting, useful or edible, and I remember not to swear. Over the course of the morning, a chain of delightful Pamelas and Barbaras, Alexandras and Elizabeths, Emilys and Katies came through the door and ate courgette and ricotta muffins, crostini with chive and lemon pesto, watched me thread chillies onto wire to make edible wreaths and plant up colanders with herbs you could scatter on or in a pizza. They got me to sign books for their sisters, their mums, their best friends.

And then my future walked through the door. Or at least the future I aspire to in my wildest imaginings. A tiny old lady appeared at the demonstration table, her lips determinedly lipstick’d and her eyelashes enthusiastically mascara’d. A nimbus of backcombed hair quite doubled the size of her head. Her magnificent black coat was richly embroidered with flowers and leaves. She watched for a little while. She ate a spoonful of pesto. Then she fixed her clear blue eyes on me and said, ‘I have a cook. I am going to go home and ask my cook if she would like your book’. In that moment, it felt like the Brompton Road equivalent of a Pulitzer.

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Planting up a pizza hanging basket in a colander

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Making a chilli garland.

I Went South of the River and I Liked It

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Making pesto: I pour the olive oil, Rachel mixes.

A couple of months ago, food writer Rachel de Thample emailed me to ask if I’d like to come and demonstrate a few of the projects from Gifts from the Garden to some like-minded souls in Crystal Palace. Rachel is so full of quietly determined Texas charm, it’s impossible to say no to her. Even though speaking in public is pretty new to me and fills me with proper white-knuckle fear.

Stupid, isn’t it? I’m ridiculously old still to be holding onto such terror so I’ve decided to say ‘Yes!’ to everything until I get over it like a proper grown up. My mum, who is undeniably the wisest person on the planet, sounded only mildly irritated when she said to me, ‘Oh for god’s sake, you love telling people what to do’. True.

So I went to Crystal Palace, the car rattling with mixing bowls, graters and knives and smelling deliciously of lavender and lemons. People were kind, no one threw things at my head, they asked interesting questions and nibbled happily on bits of bread topped with spoonfuls of chive and lemon pesto.

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Grating ginger into the bathtime ‘tea’, which you infuse in your bathwater.

 

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A relaxing tisane planter.

 

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Making bundles of dried herb and flower tisanes.

 

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Jars of rose and lavender body scrub.

I liked Crystal Palace. It has a busy high street with bakeries, delis and cafés, a good bookshop, and coffee shops where intense and Amishly-bearded young men discuss the optimum water temperature for making the perfect cup (SE19’s Amish say 93.4°C). In fact, it’s so like my dear, beloved Stoke Newington that I think we should have some sort of North-South-of-the-Thames twinning scheme.

That very weekend some of the people who came to my class were afterwards going off to publicise their brand new food market, which was inspired in part by N16’s award-winning Growing Communities. If you live locally, do check it out. It’s every Saturday, 10am to 3pm at Hayes Lane, SE19 3AP, crystalpalacefoodmarket.co.uk.

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Joe, dressed as a carrot, to publicise Crystal Palace’s new Saturday food market.

 

Chive and Lemon Pesto

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This recipe is from Gifts from the Garden. Do use its measurements as a template and experiment with other nuts, hard cheeses and herbs.

40g pine nuts
A generous bunch of chives, about 50g, finely chopped
60g Parmesan cheese, finely grated
Grated zest of 1 small lemon
1 small garlic clove, minced
4-6 tbsp olive oil, plus a little more for bottling
Salt and pepper

1x190g jar

Warm a dry frying pan over a medium heat and gently toast the pine nuts until just golden and fragrant, rattling the pan frequently to ensure they don’t burn. Cool and bash thoroughly in a pestle and mortar, or pulse a couple of times in a food processor. Combine with the chives, cheese, lemon zest, garlic and just enough oil to get the texture you like. Taste and season if necessary with salt and pepper.

Spoon the pesto into the cold, sterilised jar, pressing down with the back of a spoon to get rid of any air pockets. Ensure that the pesto is completely covered with a thin layer of oil before sealing. Refrigerated, the pesto will keep for 2-3 days.

Thank You Salad Burnet, You’ve Been Wonderful

 

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Someone put out the bunting. It seems we are finally allowed to wave goodbye to winter.

I am sitting in the garden writing this. In the time it takes me to lift a teacup to my lips, leaves unfurl, buds fatten, ferns slowly straighten and bees dart in and out of the rosemary flowers. Apple- and cherry blossom froth about. Greenfly descend on soft, new rose leaves like OAPs with vouchers for the earlybird special.

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Magnolia stellata and grape hyacinths, growing cheerfully together in a big pot.

At this point, I feel I have to say a small thank you to salad burnet, which stood by me through the cold, dark months, appearing regularly in salads and sandwiches or scattered on soups and casseroles when other, more robust-looking herbs, gave up the ghost.

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Pretty salad burnet, cucumber’s happy companion.

Salad burnet is delicate, with prettily serrated leaves and at first glance you think it might be a bit of a prima donna. It’s not. It’ll grow in pots or in any reasonably well-drained soil. It will tolerate full sun and put up with a bit of shade. You can dig up established plants in early spring or autumn and divide them to create new plants, or simply leave a few flowers to self seed at the end of the season. Just keep snipping at it to encourage tasty young growth – and given its versatility in the kitchen, that won’t be a hardship.

When Lola and Jane came to tea, we had to have cucumber sandwiches. That’s the Number One byelaw of afternoon tea: cucumber sandwiches must be served. Whenever I make them for my friends, I always wonder why I never make them to enjoy by myself, when polishing off the whole plate wouldn’t be such an embarrassment.

I’m not one for messing things about much. To me there’s no more chilling phrase on a menu or in a recipe introduction than ‘With a twist’. Just stop it. But here I am, breaking my own rules. To the glorious triumvirate of white bread, unsalted butter and cucumbers I add some salad burnet. In my defence, I will say that salad burnet tastes of cucumber, so it makes it taste more of itself.

If you’re not in the market for a cucumber sandwich (who are you and what are you doing here?), salad burnet is very good in potato salads, with boiled eggs or steamed carrots. In summer, it’s delicious with tomatoes or in lemonade. You don’t really want to cook it. Use it in cold things or fling it on hot dishes at the last minute so you can enjoy its colour, shape and flavour at its fullest.

And an invitation…

If I haven’t put you off too much with my love letter to a herb,
and you live in or near Crystal Palace,
and you are free this Saturday, May 4…

Between 11.30-12.30, I’ll be demonstrating some projects from my book, Gifts from the Garden, at Westow Park Edible Garden. The park is opposite The Secret Garden Centre, Coxwell Road, off Westow Street, Upper Norwood, London, SE19 3AF

And between 1-2pm, I’ll be at Bookseller Crow, 50 Westow Street, London SE19 3AF, signing copies of Gifts from the Garden.

Do come and say hello. It’d be lovely to see you and I might give you a biscuit.

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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