A little birdy told me

@Lickedspoon on Twitter
Hard at work, on that Twitter

Today, Twitter is 10 years old. To celebrate I’m baking the little birdy a cake. Not really. But I have such affection for the real-time microblogging site, I feel like I should mark the occasion in some way. Perhaps during Anniversary Monday I will attempt to speak only in sentences of 140 characters or fewer, like this one, as a special tribute?

I love Twitter. This seems this is an increasingly unfashionable point of view. If you listen to various media reports (and my dad), you’d think that to tap into Twitter is to ensure the wrath of the mighty – or at least the sweaty, typing away in dusty, unaired bedrooms, possibly in their pants – will fall upon your head. 

That’s certainly true for some. If you are famous, especially famous while female, have an opinion, or have made a mistake, said something strong or perhaps a bit silly, friendly interaction can be drowned out by an avalanche of grimness, bile, appalling spelling and unresolved mummy issues.

But for the rest of us, it’s still possible for Twitter to open up the world in a rather wonderful way. As a journalist working from home, the only thing I miss about office life is the cosy, helpful, sometimes scandalous chat each day. 

My cat is a very poor substitute. Dixie has few opinions on the Real Housewives of New York. She cares not if a certain chef does or doesn’t have a gastric band, or whether the roadworks at Old Street roundabout will be completed in our lifetimes. She doesn’t know if the Sugar Tax will make any difference, who might win the Man Booker Prize, the possibility of Spurs ending the season higher than Arsenal in the League, or which mascara is absolutely, positively waterproof. 

Twitter can be like the most useful and friendly drinks party, one where no one cares that you haven’t brushed your hair or changed out of yesterday’s ancient top. My Twitter pals provide me with a constantly evolving list of books, plays and exhibitions I must fit into my life, advise me on how to prune my roses or what malevolent creature is eating my gooseberries (sawfly), where to find a new dog groomer or a person brave enough to come and clean my oven. If I want to discover why that helicopter has been hovering over my house for two hours, Twitter’s the first place I turn. And wherever I am in the world, I use Twitter to find out where to stay or to eat from people who live there. It’s like TripAdvisor without the latent psychopathy.

At its best, Twitter has the power to bring out people’s fundamental need to be kind. On many occasions, it has figuratively and literally helped me with my shopping. I even got a book deal out of it, when a gardening writer I know only from Twitter put me in touch with her publisher who was looking for someone who could write about both cooking and gardening. So thank you for that, @alexmitchelleg

I’m fascinated by the way it demonstrates human complexity. I love how Irish novelist Marian Keyes, (@MarianKeyes) follows her traditional greeting of ‘Lads!’ with everything from nail varnish, to Strictly, Irish Tayto crisps, her Mammy and unflinching honesty about her depression. That actor Sam West (@exitthelemming) tweets beautifully about birds and nature, that Ian Martin (@IanMartin), Emmy-award winning writer on Veep and The Thick of It, is so knowledgeable about architecture. 

In a world which seems increasingly to want to pigeon hole people, to allow them only to be one thing – often not of their own choosing – it’s a useful reminder that you can be interested in Syria and lipstick, Beowulf and Happy Valley, restaurants and kayaking. 

It’s wrong to assume that all keen tweeters are eschewing the real world for a cosy or combative virtual one. For me, the opposite is true. I flip through my diary and see that half a dozen or so of the people I’m seeing this week are some of those I first met in communications limited to 140 characters. Now we sometimes talk for hours, share stories, laughs, drinks and problems, give each other career tips and romantic advice. Just like proper friends because we have become proper friends. 

For me, communicating with people I would never have got to know in a life before Twitter, has been unequivocally life enhancing. It’s egalitarian and fun, the easiest way to find your faraway tribe, wherever you are and whoever you are. Whether you’re interested in rare breed sheep or mediaeval manuscripts, or just want someone to listen along to #TheArchers with, you just have to find the right @s for you. And for that, we all owe a friendly debt to the little blue bird.

I tweet as @lickedspoon. Come and help me procrastinate.

PEOPLE WHO ARE SURPRISINGLY GOOD AT TWITTER

Kathy Burke @KathyBurke Upliftingly sweary and funny. Passionate supporter of the NHS. Kind and consistent retweeter of lost people and dogs. 

Carrie Fischer @carrieffisher I want whatever she and her French bulldog Gary are having. Gives great emoticon.

Cher @Cher Hard to know what she’s going on about sometimes, but you wouldn’t want to miss it. You know when she’s awake. Loves capital letters.

Reverend Richard Coles @RevRichardColes Presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live, former Communard, priest of the parish of Finedon. Follow him for his wry look at the world and excellent pictures of dachshunds. 

Joanne Harris @Joannechocolat Award-winning author of Chocolat and many other novels, short stories and cookbooks. Generous with advice to writers; admirably, patiently ruthless with sexists and any other form of bigot. 

Jeremy Lee @JLQuoVadis Lively tweets from the charismatic chef at London’s Quo Vadis; part food, part flowers, part flirt. Generous and heartwarming stuff with edge of wickedness.

Gary Linekar @garylinekar Come for the football, stay for the Piers Morgan put downs and self-deprecating funnies.

Alison Moyet @AlisonMoyet Engaging, chatty, funny and kind. Essentially you want her to be your best pal in a total FanGirl way.

Nigella @Nigella Warm, informative and responsive to her followers, unlike some. Good on recipe tips and pointers to the latest cookbooks. 

Richard Osman @richardosman The co-presenter of quiz show Pointless, or ‘You know, that guy from that thing,’ as his Twitter biography would have it. Prolific, funny and generous.

It’s For The Birds


I remember my grandmother making four things: delicious cottage pies, terrible, watery scrambled eggs, fudge and, every winter, fat balls for the birds.

Barbara wasn’t a cosy granny. She liked watching snooker and football on her tiny black and white television, Embassy Regal, ferocious, improvisational knitting, railing against Arthur Scargill, reciting Shakespeare and reading at least three Mills & Boon library books every week. (‘Get me the juicy ones, love.’)

Her favourite phrase, on observing in her grandchildren any signs of vanity was, ‘She needs a good floor to scrub’. So this small act of kindness towards the sparrows and tits which visited her little garden was made all the more tender in her strong, impatient hands.

It’s supposed to get cold again, possibly snow. This morning I refilled the birdfeeders and made some fat balls. Barbara packed hers into old Ski yoghurt pots. I made mine in old teacups. I can only imagine what she would think about that. I should probably go and scrub a floor.

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Getting the ingredients together. To the seeds, add other things which you may already have in your cupboards, such as nuts, oats and dried fruit.

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I used twigs to make the perches, but small lengths of dowel work just as well.

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The finished feeders. They took about 10 minutes to put together. It’s an easy project to do with children and a finished one would make a nice present for a bird-loving friend.


How To Make Teacup Bird Feeders

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I saw this idea when I was trawling the internet late one night and I’m afraid I can’t remember its source, so many apologies to the person whose idea it is for not crediting them.

If you don’t want to use teacups, you can make the bird feeders in empty coconut shells, plastic cups or small yoghurt cartons. Or simply turn them out onto the bird feeder when they’re set. I can’t do that because of our cats, so I hang them as far up as I can reach in the cherry tree, far enough so the cats can’t get near them. No doubt this is how I will die.

You will need:

A mixture of birdy treats: nuts, seeds, dry porridge oats, dried fruit
Lard
Teacups
Twigs or bits of dowel
String

Weigh the dried food and put it in a bowl. You need about half that weight in lard. I used 400g dried food to 200g lard, which was enough for three teacups.

Melt the lard and pour most of it into the bowl – reserve about a tablespoon’s worth per cup you want to fill. Give it a good stir so that everything’s well coated and spoon the mixture into the cups. Make a perch by poking a twig or bit of dowel into the middle of each teacup while the mixture is still warm and gently press down with the back of a teaspoon to ensure it’s all nicely packed in. Pour a little more lard over the top of each cup, like sealing a nice rillettes. Place them in the fridge until they’re set.

Tie some string around the handles and hang from trees, fences, anywhere that’s out of the reach of cats.

Updated…..

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Other diners also appreciate high tea en plein air.

Scents of Christmas

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The sight of the tree glittering in the dining room window, twinkling fairy lights twining up the banisters and streams of cards dangling from ribbons stapled into the top of the sitting room doors lifts my heart at Christmas. But more than that, more than that, I love the way the house smells.

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The wreath on the front door, covered in oranges and lemons studded with cloves, sprigs of bay, bundles of cinnamon and dried orange slices, smells as good as it looks. The oven, with some assistance from me, churns out cookies and cakes, hams and sausage rolls, filling the house with delicious aromas. Pots of hyacinths and jasmine, vases of eucalyptus and off-cut pine branches from the tree, are crammed on every mantel, side table and desk.

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Along the sitting room mantel, I place candles stuck into old terracotta pots filled with damp sand (you could also use florists’ oasis). I cram them with clippings of myrtle, rosemary, Christmas box and bay from the garden. It takes minutes and smells wonderful. On Christmas Day, I’ll steal the candles from the sitting room and use them to decorate the dining table.

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Candle pots, decorated with myrtle, Christmas box, rosemary and bay from the garden.


I dry dozens of orange slices in December (see method, below). It’s easy and cheap and I use them in so many different ways – on the wreath, tied in bundles on the tree and in quick Christmas pot pourri.

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As well as making ooh-la-la pot pourri, I also just fling leftover citrus peels into the fireplace, where they dry and turn into very good, sweet-smelling firelighters.


For this, I mix the orange slices in a bowl with whatever I can grab from my spice drawer: cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, cardamom pods and cassia bark (available very cheaply in big bags from Indian supermarkets). To this base mixture, I add fresh bay leaves and rosemary from the garden so I can enjoy their sweet, spicy, piney scents as they dry. I also stud a few oranges and lemons with cloves and toss these in the bowl too. The base mixture, with perhaps just a few drops of essential oil (sweet orange, frankincense, cedar, scotch pine and clove are all good, alone or in combination) to intensify the scent, bagged up and tied with a pretty ribbon, make a very good, inexpensive present.
What scents say ‘Christmas’ to you?

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Use a darning needle to make a hole in the peel before pressing in the clove – it’s a lot easier on your hands.

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Christmas pot pourri.

How to Dry Orange Slices:

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Preheat the oven to 130C/250F/Gas mark ½ .

Trim the ends off the orange and then slice thinly, about 3mm thick, with a sharp knife. Place sheets of baking parchment on metal cake cooling racks and arrange the orange slices on top. Place them in the oven. After 15 minutes, turn the temperature down to 110C/225F/Gas mark ¼ . After an hour or so, turn the slices over and return them to the oven. Keep an eye on them, turning from time to time. When they’re almost dry, turn the oven off and leave the orange slices in the oven until cold. The idea is to get them thoroughly dry but not to over ‘cook’ them as you want to keep the colour as vibrant as possible, so keep an eye on them and adjust the timings to suit your oven.

Cheap and Easy Bit of Skirt

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Since the dog chewed our felt Christmas  tree skirt, or wee’d on it, or did something or other to make it unusable, each time December rolls around I think I really should make a new one. But then of course this is the busiest of months and I don’t have time to run up a decorative bit of tree couture to camouflage the ugly green plastic tree stand.

Yesterday I fished out a couple of metres of rough hessian left over from a shoot and thought I’d just drape it around the bottom of the tree. This would have looked fine. But I was in the craft shop and spied some cans of spray paint. I LOVE spraying things. Instant gratification plus the gentle high of the paint fumes, that’s my kind of crafting.

This is so quick and cheap to make. It looks pretty. I’m enjoying it in its naked state, though soon, with any luck , it will vanish under a mountain of presents.

No-Sew 40-Minute Christmas Tree Skirt

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You’ll need:
Some cardboard
A craft knife
About 2-3m hessian or other plain fabric
2 cans acrylic spray paint in different colours
Newspaper


Either draw some star templates or print them out – varying sizes look best. I used these.

Glue the templates to some pieces of card. Leave plenty of space around the shapes so that the card shields the fabric from stray paint spray. Protect the table with a spare bit of card and cut out the templates with a craft knife.

Cover a table with several layers of newspaper and lay the fabric on top of that.

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Open a window (health and safety announcement) and give the cans a really good shake. Use the templates to spray stars over the surface of the fabric, varying the sizes and colours to make an attractive pattern. Remember to give the cans a lively shake from time to time to ensure an even flow of paint. Don’t worry about getting a dense layer of colour – I think it looks better if some of them are a bit soft and uneven.
Drape around the base of the tree. Try to stop the dog weeing on it. That’s it.

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