A potager of dreams

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The Renaissance Man and I are looking at moving house, and one of the things we are looking for (along with an exquisite eighteenth century mansion with room for a stable of horses… *wistful sigh*) is somewhere with a bigger garden. Les Petites want a bigger trampoline, but I have started dreaming of planting a potager, that fabulously crackers eighteenth century amalgam of vegetable plot and formal garden. So far, I have only one firm requirement – it must be a potager with box hedging, not the kind of potager with wooden edging. Wooden edging reminds me of my grandfather’s vegetable patch which – while full of yummy things – does not convey eighteenth century elegance at all. But disappointingly box is not very tasty, so I was wondering whether my hedging had to be box, or whether it could be something more edible like neatly clipped blueberry bushes? Would love to hear from anyone who’s tried creating blueberry topiary – or any other edible alternatives…

In my potager-related meanderings, I came across this blog where I stumbled on the wonderful idea that every gardener should have a signature plant – rather like a signature perfume or lipstick, something that encapsulates what makes you garden, something you love, that makes a garden yours. I haven’t decided what mine is yet – the only plant I can think of that I’ve always grown is sage! I’ll have to give the matter more thought…

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Glorious bacon

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Bacon is, I think, one of the staple foods of mankind. Is there anyone in the world who can resist the smell of sizzling bacon? I know people who are vegetarian… Except for bacon. People who gave up being vegetarian… For bacon. An alien from outer space might wonder why – in the era of freezers and food flown to us in airplanes – we would possibly resort to the ancient preservatives of salt and sugar, but surely one bite and they would understand?

This makes it more surprising that I’ve never tried to make it myself. But, when a friend handed me a pot of sodium nitrite and said I wouldn’t look back, I decided to give it a go. I’ve had a large slab of pork belly curing in my fridge for the last week, and we unwrapped it and had some for breakfast this morning. I can honestly say it was the best bacon I’d ever eaten – better by far than the stuff from the local butcher or the farmers market, never mind the pallid, slimy wafer thin slivers that the supermarket calls bacon. It was so good that I ate every bit and completely forgot to take any post-cooking photos! So, to make up for it, I hot smoked a good chunk of it to be sliced into lardons and eaten in a salad, of which I do have some pictures. It was a real hardship….

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My Love is like… A Green Green Cabbage?

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Last Sunday we had a big family meal at the Methuen Arms in Corsham, and it was hands down the best roast dinner I’ve had in….well….a very long time! All of the food was lovely, but the dish that really stood out was – of all things – the cabbage! They’d somehow managed to create cabbage that was meltingly tender, really full flavoured and savoury (without even a whisper of the dreaded sulphurous tang of overcooked cabbage) and deep deep green. It had hints of garlic, and had obviously been tossed in butter before it was served….. Even the Renaissance Man liked it!

Ever since, I’ve been trying to work out how they got the cabbage so tender without overcooking. Here is my first attempt…. Continue reading

Auction feature: Edwardian and Art Nouveau jewellery

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I’ve never really been a Tiffany sort of girl – waiting patiently for my one true love to give me diamond solitaires and bland little metal hearts. I buy my own jewellery, and I prefer things with a bit more age and character, handcrafted with care, not stamped out of a machine.

It’s a tough contest, but I think my favourite era for jewellery is the early 20th Century. There are two competing styles from that period, and try as I might, I can’t decide which is the most beautiful. In the blue corner is the classically inspired garland style – the advent of platinum jewellery (much stronger than gold) led the way to a much lighter and airier style. Garland jewellery is classically Edwardian – symmetrical, graceful and refined. The peridot pendant on the right below is a lovely example – the two pendants together are up for auction on the 15th of March, with an estimate of £70-£100.
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In the red corner is the Art Nouveau style – inspired by medieval craftsmen and the orient. It tends to be asymmetrical, heavily inspired by nature – all elegant whiplash curves – and handcrafted from much more offbeat materials. The brooch below is a good example, made by Liberty and Co. from silver, enamel and mother of pearl, it has been a bit bashed over the years but it still looks lovely. It’s up for auction on the 12th of March with an estimate of £60-90.
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Luckily for me, a lot of jewellery designers drew inspiration from both styles – these next two examples are light, symmetrical and made of conventional gemstones, but you can see the rebellious art nouveau influence in their whiplash curves…
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These are both coming up in an auction on the 15th. The lovely amethyst pendant is estimated at £300-£400, while the diamond and pearl one is up for £700-£900. I do wonder if the diamonds are set in low grade platinum – it was cheaper than gold at the time, and usually not hallmarked.

Images kindly provided by Fellows & Sons.

Chocolate and Sour Cherry Cookies

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It’s been one of those weeks, so I thought I’d share the recipe for one of my favourite comfort foods. These cookies aren’t for the faint hearted – gooey on the inside and crisp at the edge, they’re as dark and rich and chocolatey as I could possibly make them. The inspiration came from a favourite cookbook of mine – Ratioby Michael Ruhlman. A wonderful book this – it gives you the tools to take almost any recipe and tweak it to be exactly the way you want it. It’s especially good for baking.

These cookies are really simple – 200g each of brown sugar and butter, 150g self raising flour and 50g of cocoa powder creamed together with an egg. Add about 75g good dark chocolate broken into big chunks, and 50g or so of dried sour cherries. Mix and chill until firm. The egg and the self raising flour add a little lightness – otherwise these can be overpowering!

Cut off pieces about the size of a table tennis ball, pop on a baking tray spaced ten cm apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes at 180 degrees, until they have spread a bit and crisped around the edges.

Let them cool a little or they’ll crumble when you try to take them off the tray, and enjoy! They’re nice cold too, but they probably won’t last that long….

A Cheesy Valentine

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The Renaissance Man is a troublesome creature – he most inconveniently has his birthday between Christmas and Valentines day, so by the time we get there I’ve usually run out of present ideas. This year I managed to surprise him though… He’s a big cheese fan, so rather than the usual chocolates or flowers I got him a box of lovely cheeses from the Fine Cheese Company. Here they are after we’d been attacking them for a while:

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On the top left is the Vacherin Mont d’Or, a really gorgeous, unctuous cheese wrapped in spruce bark. You can really taste the resin in the cheese around the edge, but the middle is much creamier which makes a lovely contrast. To the right is the Shropshire Blue – really intense and earthy, but with none of the harshness that blue cheese can have. Oddly, it goes really well with cinnamon biscuits. On the bottom left is the Crottin de Chavignol, probably my least favourite of the selection. It’s a nice, hard, well flavoured goats cheese, but the rind has a mushroomy flavour which doesn’t really work for me. The last one is my favourite – the cave aged Premier Cru Gruyère Von Mühlenen. It’s a fabulously intense and savoury flavour, but with a slightly nutty sweetness too. Complex and glorious – I can see why it’s been named world champion cheese three times!

Wrapping presents

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I’ve spent the last few hours wrapping presents – it’s the Renaissance Man’s birthday soon. I’ve been scouring the shops for the right kind of wrapping paper but to no avail – it all seems to be sparkly and a bit tawdry in the run up to valentines day – so I’ve had to improvise!

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I’ve gone for brown paper and silk ribbon, vintage lace and some old ribbon roses I cut off a dress a long time ago.

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Added bonus – since the brown paper was packaging that amazon sent me, I now have a smug feeling of environmental friendliness!

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Leda’s Coiffure

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No prizes for guessing the inspiration behind my latest sketch – it is of course the enchanting Study for Leda’s Coiffure by Leonardo Da Vinci. I really enjoyed drawing this – it’s just a simple chalk on paper, but the complexity of the hairstyle made it really satisfying. Here’s the original:

20120204-235123.jpgIsn’t it just stunning? Would love to hear recommendations and suggested techniques from anyone else who’s had a go at this sort of thing….

Florence and Giles by James Harding

Now and then I come across a book so wonderful and enchanting that I feel obliged to recommend it to everyone I know. Florence and Gilesis my latest addition to the list – it was a particularly spiffing suggestion from the Renaissance Man.

It is narrated by the eponymous Florence, a highly intelligent child of perhaps 12 or so. She idolises Shakespeare and, noticing that he made up a great many words, she resolves to “Shakespeare” some words of her own. This produces wonderful turns of phrase like opening a book in a disused library producing “a great sneezery of dust”. This idiosyncratic style is used throughout the book, and proves unexpectedly readable!

Florence lives a rather lonely and unusual life with her brother Giles, and the bleak and very gothic plot clearly references both The Turn of the Screw and MacBeth. I won’t say any more here for fear of spoiling the plot – if you haven’t read the book please do read it first, as what is below the line will spoil all the suspense and joy of puzzling out what happens for yourself!

****************** Warning – spoilers ahead! ********************

Florence and Giles explains most things, but not everything which is always a good trait in a book I think. So here is my theory of what really happened – I would love to hear what other people think…

At the end of the book based on the photograph I think it is fair to say that Miss Taylor is Giles’s mother and Florence’s father’s second wife, and she clearly did not die in a boating accident. So proceeding on that assumption…

My theory is that there is no uncle. The man that Florence believes is her uncle is in fact her father, who cannot bear to see his children, so painful are his memories of the past – hence the uncanny resemblance between his portrait and the photographs. His first wife died giving birth to Florence, and his second wife went to college, ran away with someone else, and tried to take Giles with her. However, the young Florence woke up at the critical moment, and thwarted the attempted abduction, hence her persistent dreams and sleepwalking, her father/uncle’s hatred of educated women, and Miss Taylor’s dislike of Florence. So there never was a boating accident, and the father / uncle replaces all of the servants with ones who are not acquainted with his shame (so none of the servants predate Florence’s fourth birthday). Years later, Florence kills the first governess (perhaps hitting her on the head with an oar) when the governess threatens to take away the only thing keeping the miserable Florence sane (her reading) Florence is consumed by guilt and blocks the horrible memory from her mind. The guilt begins to torment her when the new governess, Miss Taylor arrives, and she convinces herself the Miss Taylor is in fact Miss Whittaker’s ghost. She realises that Miss Taylor wants to take Giles away, and finds her reading to Giles at night just like she used to do before the first abduction attempt… Florence begins to hallucinate a little and, well, the rest is in the book!

Other possibilities include that Miss Taylor really is a ghost – just the ghost of Giles’s mother, but she seems a little to corporeal for that. Why would a ghost need boat tickets? And surely a ghost can’t be killed by being knocked into an abandoned well? Alternatively, perhaps she was drugging Florence to prevent her interfering – that might explain her refusal to eat, and Florence becoming so sleepy and hallucinating after eating the picnic in the garden… But there isn’t much other evidence for that.

If anyone else has any theories I would love to hear them….

Perfume Review – Yves St. Laurent’s Opium

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I struggle with winter perfumes. Summer is easy – something light and green and fresh usually suits (Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert is my current favourite), but in winter that feels too austere and pale. I want something warm and spicy and rich, but also elegant and not too sweet. Since almost any floral notes seem to become overpowering and sickly sweet on my skin that’s quite an ask! I was passing through duty free today on my way to Austria, and as part of my ongoing quest for the perfect winter perfume I sampled one of the most famous (or infamous) perfumes of all time – Opium.

The creation of Jean Amic and Jean-Louis Sieuzac of Roure, Opium was released in 1977, and almost immediately became the signature scent of the era. Some people love it, others hate it, but it certainly can’t be accused of being boring. I wasn’t around in 1977 to witness Opium’s launch and the ensuing frenzy, and as for the controversial adverts – well – they can’t exactly be described as subtle or elegant! They never really appealed, so I hadn’t tried Opium before; and to me this had the air of trying on one of my (very glamourous) aunt’s designer dresses from 30 years ago.

The first thing that hit me was the slightly numbing scent of cloves and a rich, sweet amber note. Within about ten minutes, lilies and a whisper of jasmine had taken over, but they quickly faded into patchouli and cinnamon. It was opulent, spicy, warm and lovely, but after an hour or so it blended strangely into aldehydes and floral notes, and I was startled to find myself smelling like carnation soap! Thankfully the florals faded after a while, and it slowly turned from soap through resin to a rich, sweet, shadowy accord of amber, sandalwood and incense, which lasted the rest of the day. It’s very potent stuff – even after a long shower a whisper of the scent still lingered on my skin – so you only need a drop or two.

The Renaissance Man likes it, but I’m not totally convinced – I really didn’t enjoy the hour I spent smelling like soap from a cheap hotel! (The things I do in the name of research….) On the other hand, the rest of the time it was wonderfully warm and opulent and complex and spicy, without ever veering into the danger zones of powderiness or over-sweetness. It has a lot more personality than most modern perfumes too, which I like.

I guess Opium is a bit like those 1950’s “new look” dresses – they’re unmistakably of a certain era, and they don’t suit everyone, but they are undeniably glamorous! It’s getting close to my perfect winter perfume, but it’s not quite there…